MARTIN Witts began working at York Theatre Royal at the same time as Mark Addy, both off stage in the carpentry department.

Addy has gone on to international fame, via The Full Monty, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and myriad subsequent roles.

What of Witts, who once did "probably the worst audition ever for York's Yorkshire Youth Theatre"? Well, this York resident is the artistic director of London's Leicester Square Theatre and last year he opened the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury Way, Tommy Cooper props and all, to add to his London portfolio.

In 2008, his silver tongue and sense of adventure had enticed New York's queen of comedy, Joan Rivers, to the Edinburgh Fringe. Now, the visionary impresario with Wit in his surname is putting his comedy eggs in one big York basket for the inaugural Great Yorkshire Fringe, featuring a certain Mark Addy in conversation on Yorkshire Day among the 122 shows from today until August 2.

For ten days, Parliament Street will be transformed into Tykes Green, a village green a quarter of a mile in length with three venues for comedy, cabaret, theatre and music in the city's biggest arts festival since Jude Kelly directed the 1988 York Festival.

"We've knocked on the door for a while, initially through the York Museums Trust to do it in the Museum Gardens, but no-one would commit to it in the long run; we were also offered Hungate and Rowntree Park two years ago, but that's for the future maybe," says Martin. "What we've done instead is commit ourselves for three years to Parliament Street, with agreement in place for two more years."

Martin, who first moved to York at the age of 18, is running the festival independently with no council or corporate funding, supported instead by private funding from ten backers, eight of them from Yorkshire, plenty from York.

In a festival of the "weird, wise and wonderful", Martin and his festival team will present "a Pub Landlord called Al; a comedy ambassador from Germany [Henning Wehn]; a Stick Man to delight families; a swinging barge [the Arts Barge Project]; a One Man Breaking Bad; three days of Japanese techno kings SIRO-A and a trio of gorgeous singing drag queens, The Supreme Fabulettes".

Then add "soul man Reginald D Hunter; Paul Merton and Impro Chums; a Golden Pudding Award for new comics; The Amazing Bubble Man, on his first trip to York; a feast of Coquette burlesque; West End Magic; Thinking Drinkers' Guide to the Legends of Liquor; John Hewer's Tommy Cooper tribute; Margaret Thatcher as a drag cabaret superstar; a Free Fringe with 20 comedy shows and a Poetry slam with York's Say Owt Slam".

The festival will be spread between the 400-capacity White Rose Rotunda, at the Pavement end of Parliament Street; The Tea Pot, by the disused fountain, and The Turn Pot on its tod on St Sampson's Square, with the Fringe benefits of Yorkshire food and drink in the Barn Pot Bar area beyond that forlorn fountain.

York Press:  

Cheers! Al Murray raises a glass to the Great Yorkshire Fringe

"The biggest location is a 1910 spiegeltent, the Moulin Rouge tent where Marlene Dietrich first sang, with stained glass windows and mirrored walls," says Martin. "As a design, it gives you an advantage straightaway as you have height for the rigging."

Among its diverse highlights, the White Rose Rotunda will become the pop-up gaff of publican Al Murray for no fewer than four shows with special guests in The Pub Landlord's Saloon and will host Ronnie Scott's All Stars Quintet in The Ronnie Scott's Story. Look out too for The Great Yorkshire Fringe Yorkshire Day Podcast with Tim Brooke-Taylor, one of the original Four Yorkshiremen from the infamous 1967 sketch on the At Last The 1948 Show. Brooke-Taylor will be among those re-enacting this venerable vignette with an impromptu star cast as a hightlight of the Yorkshire celebrations.

The 300-seat Turn Pot is a second, smaller spiegeltent that will house such shows as Matsuri's festival of music inspired by Japan; Moulin Ouse with York burlesque troupe Coquette; James Campbell's Comedy 4 Kids; and previews by nonsense maker Tony Law and serial innovator Simon Munnery.

The Tea Pot is a newly commissioned performance space with a capacity of just under 100, where the Free Fringe will run each night from 8.45pm. "We'll have tea pots hanging up and lights leading to it so it'll feel like a Moroccan garden," says Martin.

The Great Yorkshire Fringe New Comedian of the Year heats will run there from 5.30pm nightly with more than 100 participants. "It will culminate in a fantastic final on the last day, when the winner will receive the coveted Golden Pudding Award and £500 cash and will be booked to perform at Leicester Square Theatre in the West End," says Martin.

The Great Yorkshire Fringe may not be on the scale of the Edinburgh Fringe's month of shows by thousands of performers, "but we'll have shows each day from 10.15am to last shows starting at 9.30pm, with an extension to 11pm", says Martin. "You could see eight shows in a day."

Prices will range from free to £25.50 for Al Murray with family tickets available too. "I think there's good value in our prices, if you think of pricing aimed directly at families on a destination day out, or if you think of the fact you'll be seeing performers close-up in small venues when normally you'd have to pay to see them in a 1,500-seat venue," says Martin.

Looking ahead to next summer's second festival, he has plans to bring north a new show about comedy writer, actor and comedian Marty Feldman, directed by Monty Python's Terry Jones, and he hopes the Arts Barge, on the River Ouse, will be a "natural space" for expansion too.