Edinburgh Fringe: 10 celebrities who got their break in Edinburgh - including Paul O’Grady and Billy Connolly

Globally renowned, the Edinburgh Fringe is the world's largest arts and culture festival – so it’s hardly surprising some of the biggest names in showbusiness got their big break in the Capital.

Here are just some of the actors and comedians who made their name in Edinburgh early in their career.

Billy Connolly

Glasgow’s finest co-wrote and starred in The Great Northern Welly Boot Show in 1972, a parody of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders in which workers try to takeover a welly boot-factory. Actor Bill Paterson, who also starred in the show, told The Telegraph how Billy Connolly stepped in and saved the day when lighting issues hampered the show: “Billy went on with his guitar and banjo to fill the time. Nobody will ever forget it. He did everything – improvised, played a tune, told a story – and the audience were delighted.”

Clockwise from left, Paul O'Grady, as Lily Savage,  Billy Connolly and Russel Brand.Clockwise from left, Paul O'Grady, as Lily Savage,  Billy Connolly and Russel Brand.
Clockwise from left, Paul O'Grady, as Lily Savage, Billy Connolly and Russel Brand.

Alan Rickman

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Long before he was Hans Gruber, the late Alan Rickman took to the stage of Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms. Rickman starred as Friar Peter in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Wittipol in The Devil is an Ass, describing his appearance in the latter as his first major acting role. Speaking to The Scotsman, Rickman had this to say about the festival: “It just defines the word theatre when you come to the Festival, I’ve had amazing times here.”

Rowan Atkinson

Before Not The Nine O’Clock News and a long time before Mr Bean, Rowan Atkinson was taking his first steps into the world of showbusiness, performing in a straight role with the Oxford Theatre Group in 1973 and then returning two years later with The Dundee University Theatre Group. In an interview with author Michael Dale, Atkinson talked about his earliest memories of the Fringe: “I remember the Fringe reception, with people wandering around in white masks holding spoons in front of them trying to attract the media’s attention, and I thought, I hope I never have to do that.”

John Thomson and Steve Coogan

The future Alan Partridge made his Edinburgh Fringe debut in 1990, starring alongside Frank Skinner, but it wasn’t until 1992 that he and John Thompson appeared in Steve Coogan in character with John Thomson, subsequently winning the Perrier Award. By all accounts this was a tough period for Coogan, with his well-documented drug abuse leading to him being hospitalised in the city after a night of drug taking. Thomson went on to star in The Fast Show and ITV’s Cold Feet.

The League of Gentleman

Though Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson have gone on to carve out impressive careers individually – look out for Gatiss in the BBC’s Sherlock and Shearsmith & Pemberton in the peerless Inside Number 9 – it was as The League of Gentlemen that they were better known way back in 1996. The show brought them to the attention of the BBC who gave them a radio show, and in 1997 they returned to the Fringe to scoop the Perrier Award.

The Mighty Boosh

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Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt took The Mighty Boosh to the Fringe in 1998, picking up the Best Newcomer award and securing a radio series soon after. They returned in 1999 with The Arctic Boosh and were nominated for the Perrier, only to lose out to Al Murray’s pub landlord.

Russell Brand

Even the best struggle at the Fringe, just ask Russell Brand, who was chucked out of the Gilded Balloon for throwing a microphone stand at a particularly tough crowd. However the comedian-come-social activist returned to the stage in 2004 opening up about his drug addiction and won favourable reviews.

Sacha Baron-Cohen

As part of Da Ali G Show in 2000, Borat headed to Edinburgh to find the worlds best performers to bring back to his homeland Kazakhstan. Cohen’s character interviewed aspiring comedians Ubersausage with hilarious results.

Paul ‘OGrady

In 1991, going by the name of Lily Savage, Paul O’Grady performed at the Fringe. His larger-than-life cabaret persona went down an absolute storm, and, by the end of the festival, she had made the shortlist for the Perrier award. By this point, O'Grady had been honing his drag act for more than a decade – but it was Edinburgh that set him on the path to superstardom, leading to The Big Breakfast, Blankety Blank and more. On Wednesday, it was announced tht O’Grady has died at the age of 67. The much-loved star died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening.

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