THREE SHORT ESSAYS:
1. MEMORIES OF THE EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL
I have been watching live comedy, theatre performance and music for nearly 50 years. I am not a critic or reviewer, just an enormously enthusiastic supporter and encouraging member of an audience. I just love to go, and I am very fortunate to do so. I have seen hundreds of comedians live in lots of different venues and in 2005 I went to my first Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I have been going every year ever since.
Planning what to see at the Festival every August is essential. The beginning of June every year is like the run up to Christmas for me. When I get a free copy of the new Fringe programme and then start to design a detailed spreadsheet of what delights are on offer that year, it is as good as opening the Christmas TV times and circling what I am going to watch over the festive period. If they are available, I would love to be able to view in print or on the website: www.edfringe.com, fringe programmes from years gone by. On average I see around 40 shows per year over the course of a week. By the time the Fringe is finished and after I have partied all night and have a constant hangover, combined with very little sleep and had my regular dose of the most wonderful atmosphere that the festival provides, I need another holiday when I get back home just to get over it all. The wonderful memories of the Fringe provide me with the adrenaline and excitement to plan for the next year. Most people go abroad or to the seaside in the summer, but this is my annual holiday and I always enjoy it to the full.
It was my first year at the Fringe. On my arrival at Edinburgh, I step off the train at Waverley Station knowing then that I would plan to return year after year. Edinburgh is the most beautiful city all year around, but in August it is transformed into the liveliest cultural capital city. Collecting my show tickets from the High Street Fringe shop, I encounter the Royal Mile for the first time and the most amazing atmosphere. Actors, singers and promoters are everywhere dressed in all manner of costumes, thrusting flyers into my hands trying their best to promote their shows. In 2005, the year’s best play is a revival of Neil Simon’s classic comedy ‘The Odd Couple’. I had been lucky enough to play one of the main leads in an amateur version and although exhausting, it was a great experience. The two professional comedians starring in the lead roles at the Fringe: Bill Bailey (as Oscar) and Alan Davies (as Felix) are effortlessly funny and made it look easy. The year was particularly memorable for an audience member (not me) being late for a comedian’s show and amazingly let in after 20 minutes for all to see. The comedian, Jason Byrne, then reversed the show including every action especially for the latecomer – it was one of the funniest things I ever see and I laugh loudly and uncontrollably. The comedian is so good and totally unexpectedly funny with an audience that I make a point of seeing his sell out show every year.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the start of seeing plays about great comedians and cultural figures. Over the years I have seen plays about: Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan, Laurel and Hardy, Tony Hancock, Groucho Marx and Bob Monkhouse. It’s a great idea because it gives the viewer an insight into the life of the working comedian. I regularly try and see one actor, Pip Utton, who appears every year at the Fringe taking on different famous figures. In 2005, he played Charlie Chaplin. Other years he has played Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher. The actor returns year after year to perform at the Fringe and he is a pleasure to see. Many performers act in more than one show in a day and at the end of it all they surely are exhausted. For example, one such comedian and actor, Tim Fitzhigham, has performed as one half of Flanders and Swann. The show was a great afternoon’s entertainment before Fitzhigham performed in two more comedy shows including a solo run. Another highlight was when I first saw the legendary Late ‘n’ Live show at the Gilded Balloon. The anarchic show starts at 1am in the morning with a comedy line-up and continues into the wee small hours (5am) with a band. I saw Michael McIntyre, who developed into a major comedy star play to audience of around 50 in a tiny attic – a perfect venue to see this master of visual comedy up close, and to this day, one of my favourite comedians. At the end of his show, another comedian, Justin Moorhouse, recommended the show next door to see. I had nothing better to do so I ambled over and took my seat. I witnessed another (now major) comedian, John Bishop, perform his first Edinburgh show to an audience of seven (I counted them). He now plays 7000 in arenas across Britain. I am delighted to be able to watch the rise of many great comedy acts year after year at the Fringe.
Every August when I visit the Fringe, I always try and go for the middle week when there may be chance of seeing more acts who are playing only for a limited time instead of the full run of 25 days. However, for a couple of years, I did go for the first week and the last week of the Fringe to see what it was like. As well as the Edinburgh Tattoo at the Castle, there are many festivals that take place every August at Edinburgh, among them are the Film Festival, the Book Festival and the Fringe. One year, I decided to become a Friend of the Fringe for the first time and as well as receiving discounted tickets for shows, I was invited to the Fringe launch party. We were collected at Waverley station and went by bus to the venue. Famous acts who were appearing were wandering around the crowd at the launch party giving out flyers. The evening was an array of different acts – musicians, acts, comedians, circus acts and the show was a wonderful start to the festival. I remember watching a comedian, Rob Deering, with a guitar and a rubbery face performing in a cave. I laughed so hard that my infamously loud laugh started to echo. I have seen the comedian’s very funny act many times since, but the initial site of his funny face and brilliantly executed songs coupled with my echo laugh remains a highlight. The Fringe is a great place to meet friends and new acquaintances. When I attended a show by a comic poet, John Hegley, he had a poem about his glasses, performed it as a song and wanted the front rows of the glasses-wearing audience to dance on stage with him whilst exchanging each other’s glasses. I duly obliged.
For me, there is nothing better than sitting on a bench in the front of the Pleasance Courtyard on a sunny morning during the Fringe with a Cappuccino and a Fringe programme reading the show reviews. I am usually surrounded by friends but if I am there on my own, normally after about five minutes someone will either recommend a show to see or someone will come and sit down next to me and ask if there are any shows I recommend them to see. I am more than happy to assist. I find it amazing the amount of shows that are performed at every Fringe and the number is increased every year. It seems that anyone can perform in a space and the city manages to accommodate all. Some of the main venues: The BBC on Potterow, the Assembly Rooms on George Street, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance Dome on Potterow and the Udderbelly on Bristo Square (featuring the famous upside down inflatable purple cow which is actually a theatre) are all really great venues to perform to the enthusiastic audiences, but one of my favourite places in Britain is the Pleasance Courtyard. The atmosphere of the place is something to behold. In 2009, Udderbelly celebrated 10 years at the Fringe and The Pleasance celebrated 25 years. I attended both showcases which hosted the cream of the crop of quality acts. Another showcase that I saw in 2009 was in honour of a legendary comedian, Malcolm Hardee who ran a comedy club, Up the Creek, in London and started the careers of many an act. The showcase bill featured a wild haired, scrunched up faced comic, Charlie Chuck, with a limited vocabulary who I found utterly hilarious. I laugh so hard that he started to lose control and laugh back at me.
I love puns – one-line jokes that feature heavily on word play. If they are performing, I regularly see at the Fringe four great pun comedians: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Stewart Francis and Darren Walsh. I have watched Walsh from the start of his career. From humble beginnings performing five minutes in London pubs to half hour previews, it has been a pleasure to watch this comedian get better and better every year and he has deservedly won the Best Joke at the Fringe award. There are a lot of acts I keep an eye on year after year. I often feel that many of them deserve so much more. There are a lot of Fringe legends, acts who seem happy to return year in year out and I am happy to support them. For the last 25 years, one such legend, Mervyn Stutter, has organised an iconic showcase that has become the longest running show at the Fringe. Every day at lunchtime, he warms the audience up with a comic song of two (a great act in his own right) and then introduces seven extracts from Fringe shows followed by a short interview. The extracts are from all media: theatre, dance, circus, comedy, song. The showcase is a great success because the audience can decide which shows to fully see from the extracts and is a great way to start a day at the Fringe. I have been watching the showcases (on average three every Fringe visit) for the last five years and will continue to do so.
I have also been a big fan of two female singers at the Fringe and have made a point of seeing their shows every year. One amazing singer, Camille O’Sullivan is Irish and her shows every year are an event. Playing the covers of Bowie, Cave and Cohen and the like, She makes the songs her own and has the ability to reduce me to tears with her extraordinary voice. After the show she likes to meet her audience and supply them with chocolate cake and hugs. The other great singer, Ali McGregor, is Australian and sings popular songs as Jazz standards and has the most beautiful voice. One year I was sitting in the front row watching this amazingly lady and she came down to me, sang to me and kissed me on the forehead in front of a sell-out audience. A very happy memory indeed.
These are just some memories of an extraordinary event. I wanted to conclude by saying a massive thank you to everybody – the organisers, venue staff, the acts and everyone else who every year make the Fringe what it is. It is the greatest arts festival in the world and really makes my summer. To date, I have seen an incredible 460 shows over 12 years of visiting the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the greatest things about the festival is that many of the acts I first saw at the Fringe, I have continued to see live on a regular basis and support through social media. The Fringe gives me an appetite to discover many more as well. In August 2017, the month of my birthday, the Fringe is 70 years and I turn 50. It will be a big year and I will continue to go to the Fringe for as long as I can. Happy 70th birthday edinburgh Fringe, see you next year and all the very best for the future.
2. THE RISE OF LONDON COMEDY CLUBS
I have spent half of my life living and working in London. Comedy venues in London range from tiny purpose-built comedy clubs to medium size theatres (for example, the Hammersmith Apollo, , home of TV’s Live At The Apollo or the Bloomsbury Theatre to large arenas – for example The O2. My first encounter of a comedy night was in 1988 at The Comedy Store in Leicester Square. The building was a purpose-built comedy club and I was intrigued and fascinated at the popularity of the place even back then. Starting in May 1979, above a Soho strip club in London with Alexei Sayle compering and Arnold Brown amongst others performing, The Comedy Store has been extremely influential in the development of comedy. In 1982 it moved to Leicester Square before settling on the corner of Coventry and Oxenden Street since 1993. To this day the club hosts superb showcases nearly every night of the week. Novice improvisers, The Comedy Store Players, featuring amongst others Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Neil Mullarkey and Lee Simpson perform every Wednesday and Sunday. The bills are still consistently excellent and the room itself is excellent for stand-up comedy, with a capacity of four hundred. The Comedy Store in Manchester which I have also been to, opened its doors at Deansgate in September 2000. When I first went back in the eighties, on the bill was John Maloney as compere, Hattie Hayridge, Phill Jupitus, Richard Morton and headlining was an American comedian called Charles Fleischer. I remember laughing uproariously at Fleischer’s mannerisms and comic delivery. I was very pleased to have seen him especially as he stopped performing comedy as much soon after and concentrated on acting and voice going on to voice Roger Rabbit no less in the 1988 smash hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
From that night on, I was hooked and would see as much comedy as I could in the capital. I have been living in London since 1992 and when I first arrived, I would regularly go to Jongleurs in either Camden or Battersea. One night at Battersea, the compere was Tim Clark who once mercilessly targeted me much to the delight of my mates on a birthday night out which was very funny. The sites at Battersea and Camden have since closed after many years and across the road from where Jongleurs used to be is the Batteresea Arts Centre. The Arts Centre stages plays, music and comedy all year round and some highlights I have seen in the main theatre are Russell Howard, Andy Zaltzman, Stewart Lee, Jimmy Carr and Mark Thomas.
I would frequently go to one of the oldest comedy clubs in the country: Downstairs at The Kings Head in Crouch End. I have many happy memories of his wonderful place hosted by resident compere Huw Thomas for many years. I can remember Harry Hill brushing past me being late for the gig climbing up onto the stage, or when Jeff Green performed and my friend I was with, could not stop laughing at him. In my fiftieth year and living South of the river, I made a point to return to the venue and went to see Ed Byrne and Carey Marx perform their warm-up Edinburgh shows. I was delighted to still see the place thriving after so long and regular shows presented to this day from Thursdays to Sundays with a very strong line up of comedians performing at the weekends.
Another club I ventured to a lot at the weekends was The Banana Cabaret at The Bedford Arms in Balham, South West London. The venue is a room inside the Bedford pub, and I have had many a happy night there watching the likes of Lee Mack, Tim Vine, Paul Tonkinson and many others. Every July, the venue hosts the Balham Comedy Festival and attracts many high-profile comedians.
Boat Show Comedy is based at The Tattershall Castle, a boat that is permanently moored at Victoria Embankment. I have seen some very enjoyable shows here over time and after the show, a DJ takes over with music until the early hours. It’s a unique place to experience a comedy performance.
In the centre of London, there is The Soho Theatre, 99 Club Comedy and the Leicester Square Theatre. The Soho Theatre in Dean Street is a great venue for comedians and plays. I have been going there for years and once the show has been seen in one of the three theatres, the bar is a great place to relax after the show. I have seen many comedians in the bar over the years winding down after their performances. The Leicester Square Theatre is also home to comedy nights as well as theatre. Lots of Edinburgh fringe preview and comedy tours stop off at the venue. There is a studio space and a main house with a capacity of four hundred. This is a favourite room among the big names. Stewart Lee and Bill Bailey are just two comedians have played long runs in the main theatre, and I have seen Chris Ramsay, Jarlath Regan and Stewart Francis perform very popular gigs in recent years. 99 Club Comedy have a number of venues in the capital, but their flagship space is at Storm nightclub in Leicester Square. I saw Patrick Monahan compere once and he recognised my laugh and gave me a hug. I remember watching Andrew Ryan there who gave me a thumbs up for laughing so loudly at his set, but it was when Hal Cruttenden played there that was most memorable. I went along with some friends of mine who were having a few days in London and confessed to me that they had never been to a comedy night before. We arrived at the venue late and the only seats available were on the front row. The venue is extremely cosy, and we were practically on stage with the acts. I thought my friends would not enjoy being on the front row in the sight of Cruttenden, but he was so funny that night that he mercilessly and hilariously kept commenting on my loud laugh. My friends loved this and came along and had another great time at my regular comedy night Always Be Comedy in Kennington.
I first went to Always Be Comedy in 2015. I was looking for a weekly comedy night and my friend suggested the club. I arrived with him and sat mid-way back. I had a good night and my friend suggested that the next time I go to sit on the front row. It took a while to go back but when I did the night was transformed. The room above the Tommyfield pub is a perfect place to capture live comedy and I have been going back week after week almost every Thursday since 2016. The atmosphere created by resident compere and founder James Gill (and his fellow organisers Paul Langton, Stuart Keeping and latterly Tim Lewis) is incredible with the amazing audience and the acts are second to none. I have seen many a rising star perform there over the years from Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Widdicombe, and Kerry Godliman to Nick Helm and Ivo Graham. It has become my favourite place to watch comedy and I will support it as long as it keeps going.
Other comedy clubs that are based south of the river have become very popular over the years. Every Friday and Saturday evening, Headliners in Chiswick has been situated in the Boston room through a courtyard from the George IV pub. The comedy club has been going with 2002 with brilliant line-ups to entertain the weekend crowd. Up The Creek Comedy Club is a purpose-built comedy club in Greenwich and was originally set up by the late, great Malcolm Hardee in the ’90s. It is a wonderful place for live comedy. The atmosphere can be raucous with lively hecklers, but the bills often feature star names testing new material.
More recently in 2017, 2Northdown in Kings Cross opened its doors. The one hundred-seater space played host to Alan Carr when I went who practiced his new material for a national tour. Also, in North London there is Angel Comedy. This is the first independent, crowd-funded comedy night which takes place in two venues: One is in The Camden Head Pub at Camden and the other is in the Bill Murray pub at Angel. I have seen the likes of Arthur Smith, Terry Alderton and Frank Skinner in both places. Nearby in Islington is Live at The Chapel, a music venue and sometime comedy night. I saw Harry Hill memorably deliver a comic sermon there once as well as other comedians delivering new material.
The Udderbelly on The Southbank plays hosts to a comedy festival during the summer months. The main theatre is designed like a giant upside-down purple cow and is a taster for what is to come when the inflatable theatre moves to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every August. I have seen many a great act in the Udderbelly including Isy Suttie and Stephen K Amos. I also regularly go to are The Ealing Comedy Festival which takes place every year in Walpole Park which attracts big comedy names such as Milton Jones and Alan Davies with very large audiences.
The Savoy Tap pub on the Strand has a special place in my comedy landscape. The upstairs room is home to Birdies Comedy which is a free comedy showcase organised by professional comedian and regular performer Jimmy Bird and compered by Brendan O’Donaghue. The showcases are every other Friday and many of the acts I have seen at the start of their comedy journeys have gone onto bigger things. It is a great place to survey the up and coming comedy talent.
I have just touched the surface of the number of places that are available in London to watch a stand-up comedy show. The places I have listed are just a few of the venues that I have been to on a regular basis and some I would like to go to are the Laugh Train Home at Clapham, 229 The Venue in Great Portland Street and Top Secret Comedy in Covent Garden, If a place has an empty space that can be turned into a stand-up comedy night, it will more than likely do so as is the ever-growing popularity of the art form. As long as I can go to places and see live comedy, I will support it for as long as I can.
3. SELECTED UK COMEDY CITIES
I have been to many places in the United Kingdom to watch comedians over the years. The impact of comedy spreading across the country has been immense and is growing every day. Regular comedy festivals are held in Bristol and Leicester and many major UK cities have purpose-built or pub-room designed comedy clubs. Other than Edinburgh and London, which are discussed in the other two separate essays, three of my favourite places I have witnessed comedy shows are as follows:
My home city has had some great comedy acts over the years. Local comedian Donald Scott was the star attraction in many a pantomime and solo show at the city’s local amateur dramatic West Walls Theatre, but it was at The Sands Centre on Newmarket Road, the city’s premier venue and I have seen many great comedians play there. I remember watching Ken Dodd with my friends who all thought the show was over at the interval which was 10pm. I also saw tours by Jason Manford, Alan Carr and Sarah Millican who all played to very warm and packed out receptions. The theatre was also a regular for Lee Evans who tried out material for his big arena tours. At the end of Evans’ show one year I raced to the front of the stage and along with many others shook the great man’s sweaty hand in appraisal of the performance.
The other successful venue in Carlisle is The Old Firestation on Peter Street. Lots of mainstream comedians play there and recently, I have seen the Noise Next Door play there on tour as well as Mark Thomas who unfortunately during his set, a member of the audience had to be rushed to hospital. After a break in performance, Thomas reassured the audience that the man was okay, and the show continued.
When I lived in Carlisle or London, any show that I missed during the late eighties and nineties, I would be informed by my mate in Manchester if I wanted to see the show. I would travel to the city on a regular basis to see so many great comedians.
I remember going to the Boddingtons sponsored Manchester Comedy Festival to see the likes of Jeff Green, Jack Dee, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring and many others. The city’s Apollo on Stockport Road has played host to me seeing the likes of Ruby Wax and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. I have watched major comic stars in the big theatres – The Opera House on Quay Street, The Palace Theatre on Oxford Street, The Royal Exchange in St Ann’s Square, The Bridgewater Hall in Lower Moseley Street and The Lowry in Salford Quays. Such acts I have seen are Bill Hicks, Peter Kay, Victoria Wood and Ed Byrne who have all tread the boards. Manchester is a thriving place for comedy and many comedy clubs exist for the acts to perform and develop their talent.
Every year in May as a warm-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, I always spend a day at The Brighton Fringe. This is a city-wide festival featuring musicians, theatre and comedians. To date, I have seen Camille O’Sullivan perform her music show to great effect at The Spiegeltent, and I have seen comedians Darren Walsh at the Hobgoblin on York Place, Paul Cox at the Arista Café and Art Gallery on Waterloo Street and Michael Fabbri introduce Fringe showcases at The Warren at St Peters Church also on York Place. I saw Josh Widdicombe on tour with Ivo Graham as support at The Brighton Dome and I have spent many a good night at the city’s Krater Comedy club at the Komedia on Gardner Street watching resident compere Stephen Grant introduce the likes of Gary Delaney, Tom Wrigglesworth, Nathon Caton and Andrew Bird. Brighton has provided many a happy comic memory over the last few years.
These are only three detailed places that I have watched comedy. The art form is extremely vibrant in Britain and looks set to continue to be for many years to come.