How the longest-running comedy festival got started almost by accident

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff Rowe BEM with the 1994 and 2017 brochures

“So. It’s the longest running comedy festival in the world?” I asked.

“In Europe, is what we claim.”

“But almost certainly in the world?” I asked.

Geoff Rowe shrugged: “Probably.”

In 2013, he was awarded the British Empire Medal “for services to comedy”.

“So why did you start it when you were 22?” I asked.

“I came to Leicester to study for a degree in Arts Management at De Montfort University and, in our final year, we had to do a practical project. So, in the summer of 1993, our group sat around in the students’ union and we all read NME and, in 1993, NME put Newman and Baddiel on the front cover. I think that was the first time a non-musician had been on the front cover.”

“That was their Wembley concert?” I asked.

“Yes, their Wembley gigs,” said Geoff. “So somebody in our group – it wasn’t me – said: Why don’t we do a comedy festival? It sounded better than the other option: an Eastern European theatre festival.”

And that is how the Leicester Comedy Festival started in 1994.

“I had a house in Leicester,” Geoff explained, “to stay in over the summer and I knew two people who worked in comedy in London, rang them up and said: Tell me everything I need to know about comedy. I had seen comedy, but never booked it, never produced or promoted it. (He promoted his first concert, aged 13, in the local village hall.) Then, when my group came back from summer holidays, I had got the bones of the festival sorted. I had spoken to some agents and so on.

The first Festival programme with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

The very first Festival brochure in 1994 with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

“So we did the festival in 1994 and it worked quite well. Then I graduated and had no overwhelming desire to stay in Leicester but, equally, I didn’t move back to London again. So, with two university friends, I decided to do it again because it was great fun. There was quite a lot of support for it locally. Even in those days, the venues loved it.

“I kept doing it for about 7 or 8 years and it was the best fun I’ve ever had. It was great. There was no idea it would keep going but, every February, we invited comedians up, we messed around, we got drunk, had fun and it was fantastic.”

“Why February?” I asked. “Surely, after Christmas, no-one has any money?”

“Because we originally did it as part of our degree course and, afterwards, we had to write a report on what we had learned from the experience. So we worked back from the date we had to hand our report in and it was February. But, actually, it is a good time of year because, nationally, there is not much else happening for the media to notice. Also, venues earn loads of money in December and, if the end of your financial year is the end of March, which it mostly is, you get quite a lot of money in December and can then get another load in February.”

“I thought maybe the public had no money left in February,” I said.

“Well, we do sell 70% of our tickets after 25th January because no-one has any money until pay day in January. 100,000 people came last year, a third of them from outside Leicestershire. It’s worth £3 million to the local economy every year.”

“So lots of money to be made,” I suggested.

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff amid piles of new brochures ready for 2017

“People,” laughed Geoff, “used to describe it as my hobby, because I wasn’t earning any money out of it. I was earning money working in bars and in restaurants.”

“For around 7 or 8 years?” I asked.

“Yes. Then I thought: Maybe this is something that’s going to survive a bit longer and maybe there needs to be some proper organisation behind it. At that time, there was no regular staff, no regular office. Now Big Difference employs seven people all year round and then it needs more people to handle 800 shows in 19 days.”

“And no sponsorship,” I said, “until the TV channel Dave came on board.”

“We got some sponsorship locally.”

“Local restaurants?”

“That kind of thing. Nothing serious.”

“Sponsorship as in ads?”

“Yeah. And a bit of cash from the City Council. They’ve always been very supportive. For years, Leicester was never on the map. It has changed slightly because of Richard III and the football.”

“Has Richard III had an effect?” I asked.

“A huge effect on Leicester. That and the football,”

Richard III - a great promoter of comedy in Leicester

Richard III – a great local comedy promoter

In 2012, Richard III’s remains were found buried under a car park in Leicester and, in 2015, reburied with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral. Also in 2015, underdogs Leicester City Football Club (at one time the betting was 5,000 to 1) won the Premier League Championship.

“Leicester,” said Geoff, “was not seen as being groovy. Leeds, Brighton, Manchester were. We were under the radar for quite a long time. So getting sponsorship things was difficult for a long time. If we talked to national brands, they would say: No, if we want to do a campaign, we’ll go to Manchester or somewhere else. 

But then, five years ago, I met Steve North, the channel manager at Dave, and it was absolutely fantastic.”

“And now,” I said, “you have lost them as sponsors…”

“They’re still a sponsor of the festival,” Geoff corrected me, “but not a title sponsor. They’ve reduced their investment. When we started working with them, they did one or two shows each year. Now they are commissioning about 15 shows a year. So they need to spend their marketing money supporting their programmes.”

“And,” I asked, “you are looking for a more titley sponsor?”

“We are for 2018.”

“One of the Big Four Edinburgh Fringe venues – the Gilded Balloon,” I said, “tried Leicester but only for one year.”

“Yes,” said Geoff. “2011. That is one of the reasons why we now run for 19 days. When Karen Koren (who runs the Gilded Balloon) came, we were 10 days. There was really bad snow that year. So 50% of her programme – 5 days – were killed because the weather was atrocious. Karen said to me: If you want this to work and other people to come, you need to make the festival longer so if, in February, there is shit weather, if you have 19 days, it only knackers a third rather than half of your programme. So now we are 19 days. I was slightly nervous about making it so long, but it works better.”

“There are quite a few other comedy festivals around,” I prompted.

“But,” said Geoff, “the model for comedy festivals is often that either management companies or agents or club promoters start them. We don’t promote a regular club; we don’t manage or agent acts. And that makes us independent and we just focus on the festival.”

“And now Leicester has a bigger profile because of Richard III and the football?”

In the first Programme in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell Stewart Lee’s name

In the first brochure in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell comedian Stewart Lee’s name

“Yes. Leicester has changed massively and that has helped. People don’t ask where it is any more. When I started to book acts, at the very end of the conversation, people would say: Can you tell me – where exactly IS Leicester? Somebody told me the Brighton Comedy Festival would succeed and Leicester would fail because, they said: Brighton is just over an hour from London. And I pointed out: So is Leicester.”

“Why,” I asked, “have you lasted so long?”

The Leicester Comedy Festival brochure 2017

Next year’s 156-page Comedy Festival brochure

“Well,” said Geoff, “Big Difference Co Ltd is a registered charity and produces Leicester Comedy Festival. My motivation was never to make money. I want to create a really good festival: a vibrant, exciting festival that sustains itself. I’m serious. It sustains comedians; it helps develop them; it helps the local economy; it’s a good thing in itself, as opposed to some other festivals which are just purely about making money. Joking aside, we HAVE survived for 24 years and no other comedy festival in the UK has. Edinburgh is a general arts festival not a comedy festival. And I think we have survived because of the ethos we have had. If we were just going after money, I don’t think we would have survived so long.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Festivals

One response to “How the longest-running comedy festival got started almost by accident

  1. Owen Morgan

    My sister was at Cambridge with David Baddiel, I met him a couple of times and he was a really nice guy. Unfortunately I’ve since never forgiven him for making nasty remarks in one of his comedy books about Austin Allegro’s- I’m a proud owner of one, one of the last mk.2 estates to be built, and am devoted to it.
    Didn’t he participate in the radio comedy series ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience’ in the early ’90s?

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