Mervyn Stutter: ‘If landlords stay greedy, they will kill the Edinburgh festival’

How did you get into performing?
In the 1960s, I slid into folk clubs and came across Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty when they were known as The Humblebums. Connolly chatted more and more in between the songs and soon the guitar got dropped. I thought: “Oh, you can do that can you?” But my biggest influence was Jeremy Taylor, an Englishman who went out to South Africa, got himself barred and banned and came back to the UK and performed in folk clubs. It was the Wilson government and Taylor was very political in his satire and worked with all sorts of people including Spike Milligan. I thought this was terrific so I also started doing comedy in folk clubs.

Can you recall a gig so bad, it’s now funny?
A friend of mine used to give me these corporate gigs and I loathed them. They paid well, of course. At the last one I did, all the youths were getting pissed, throwing bread rolls and cavorting with young women and no one was listening to me. On the mic I called across to my friend, “Shall we just stop?” but he said, “No, please don’t.” There was an awful pain in my belly, I’m sure lots of comics will understand that. I just wanted to go. Eventually, I said time-out. That’s it. The money may be good but I’m not putting myself through that stupid pain any more.

Your Edinburgh Pick of the Fringe show turns 30 this year. What have been some of the highlights?
It is a great pleasure to say that we found Ed Byrne doing his first Edinburgh and I also gave him the spirit of the fringe award in 1996. Another highlight that year was The League of Gentlemen. Yes, you see it on the television and it’s great, but when you see it live, the first year they did it, they just put rubber bands around their faces to contort them into the grotesque. That is so much more exciting, in the flesh, live theatre, than watching it on the TV when you know the makeup department have done a really good job. Last year, a highlight in a hugely emotional way was the Ballet Freedom from Kyiv, Ukraine. The wonderful producer Toby Gough had spent months gathering the members of the ballet company who had scattered to neighbouring countries. He wanted the original dancers so he had to do all of these visas. They came to Edinburgh and were truly sensational.

How has the Edinburgh fringe evolved over the years?
It has moved from being a fringe event to a more professional festival. Maybe some people would call it a trade fair. I think people are always looking for the touring possibilities afterwards and comedians are always looking for a TV show. In comedy terms, that can mean the sense of danger disappears because it’s better to play it safe to get on to television. Though some of them are brilliantly anarchic and wonderful, still.

I remember the legendary Malcolm Hardee was in a tent down in the gardens and the bloke in the tent next to him refused to turn his sound system down so Malcom hired a tractor and drove it through his tent. You don’t get that sort of thing now.

What advice do you have for performers at the fringe this summer?
On the money side I have no advice, it’s awful and it’s demanding. Check your bank balance? Crowdfund? I used to say that the three things you need at the fringe are waterproofs, vitamin C and talent.

With costs of performing and accommodation in Edinburgh rising, are you positive about the future of the fringe?
No, not really. If landlords stay greedy, they will kill the festival.

What are you currently excited for?
Getting rid of the Tory government. It is absolutely essential. We must nationalise the railways, obviously nationalise water, we don’t want sewage on the beaches and rivers. It is insane what is happening to the country through privatisation. We have had it for years and it doesn’t work. The NHS needs to be properly funded. There is no point announcing huge training programmes for doctors and nurses when what are you going to pay them? A complete change in this country is absolutely necessary. Rejoin the EU is another great one, let’s do that. I’m afraid the changes for me are all political, because once the political side is sorted out, my life gets better.

• Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe is at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until 26 August. Mervyn’s 30th Year Charity Gala is at Pleasance Courtyard on 21 August.