Fringeweb – where it began.


One morning in August 1994 I woke up in a large, airy flat somewhere in Edinburgh. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc were making breakfast, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were getting ready for another day of performing, and Danny O’Brien was almost certainly wrestling with his dialup connection so he could read email. At least, I’m pretty certain the others were there. You’ll have to check with Mr O’Brien. It was, as they say, a long time ago, as this contemporaneous article from the Independent makes abundantly clear..

I’d been crashed on the sofa after a night that had started with a performance of Danny’s genre-busting show ‘Caught in the Net’ in the upstairs room at the Pleasance and had ended with drinks. I was there because I had bankrolled the show, and wanted to see what I’d spent good money on.

Not my money, I hasten to ask. Twenty years ago I was working at PIPEX, the Cambridge-based ISP, while at the same time writing regularly for Computer Guardian, where Jack Schofield would commission me to write about the emerging online world, covering Telnet, FTP, Veronica, Jughead, Archie, WAIS, Gopher and – of course – the World Wide Web.

In my day job I was encouraging organisations to think about how they could use the internet in innovative ways, and I spent a lot of time hanging out with Tony Jewell and Bernard Jauregui from Cityscape and Simon Appleton from the New Media Factory.

So when Ed Smith, Danny’s manager, sent PIPEX a letter asking for money to sponsor Danny’s net-related show at the Fringe I persuaded Peter Dawe, PIPEX’s founder, to spend most of his online marketing budget on it.

In retrospect, it was one of the most significant decisions I ever made, and changed my life in many ways. Let me explain.

To go along with the show I asked Simon Appleton to make us a CITN Moo, with a virtual Pleasance where an algorithmic Danny would perform a text-only version of the show to anyone who cared to log in. I asked Tony and Bernard if we could set up a website for the Fringe, and they gave me some space on the Gold Net service which we called “fringeweb”. One of the Fringe administrators, sent me a CSV of the entire programme so we could put it online, and I persuaded Christopher Richardson to let us use the Pleasance courtyard for a pop-up cybercafe, with kit, staff and connectivity from PIPEX.

And, crucially, Danny was doing some work The Guardian at the time and he persuaded the head of the Product Development Unit there to let us publish the entirety of the Guardian/Observer’s coverage of the fringe. So each morning around 7am I’d receive an email with the entire text, dumped from the papers’ ATEX system into a single file.

For the week of Danny’s run we ran a daily cafe, and asked people to upload digial photos taken on a ‘borrowed’ Apple digital camera. We had a daily diary, reviews and comments from the audience and every piece of Guardian and Observer coverage.

I built it all as raw HTML, using vi and writing directly to the server files – this was long before CMS or database driven websites. As far as I can tell there’s no extant record, but if anyone reading this has the files or screenshots, let me know

A few months afer the Fringe Tony Ageh – the man at The Guardian – asked me to come and work for them and build them a website, and I started as Head of the New Media Lab in spring 1995. Which was when things changed.

Fifteen years later Tony Ageh called me again, this time to ask me to join him at the BBC and help sort out access to the archive. I’ve been there five years this month, far longer than I ever imagined I would be, but it’s a big job and rather a lot of fun.