Tag Archives: Big Difference

Sara Mason: How will she follow-up her banned “Beginner’s Guide to Bondage”?

Exactly one month ago, I posted a blog about how performer Sara Mason had lost her Leicester Comedy Festival venue next February because, after the programme had been printed, the venue owner decided he did not want her Beginner’s Guide to Bondage show to soil his floorboards.

I asked Sara this week about the effect of the blog.


SARA: It had a wonderful effect. First of all, I was interviewed in the Leicester Mercury. Then I got on BBC Radio Leicester. And then Big Difference managed to book me into Just The Tonic at The Shed for the same slot on the same night – Valentine’s Night at 9.30pm. Then another venue owner who had been ignoring all my emails rang me up and offered a venue – too late. So clearly notoriety in your blog had an effect. Meanwhile, this week, I am doing A Beginner’s Guide To Bondage at Kentish Town in London – this coming Friday and Sunday.

Sara’s show CAN be seen in Kentish Town in London on 14th and 16th December

JOHN: So people who don’t want to traipse to Leicester in February can see it in London this week.

SARA: Yes.

JOHN: Are you taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe again next August?

SARA: Yes.

JOHN: What are you doing with it between February in Leicester and August in Edinburgh?

SARA: I might do it again in Brighton in May. But I also have a new idea I would like to do.

JOHN: Oooh…

SARA: An Intermediate Guide to Bondage would be interesting, because then I could look at the oddities that people have, like mummification and the…

JOHN: Whoaa! What?

SARA: Mummification with cling film wrap. À chacun son goût.

JOHN: This is not for beginners?

SARA: Well, in A Beginner’s Guide, you would not really want to cover the more out-there fetishes. Even a Pony Boy or Pony Girl might be a bit too much.

JOHN: Whoaa! again.

SARA: A Pony Boy. You put a bridle on them and, hopefully, a butt-plug with a tail and then you ride around on them or make them pull your carriage.

JOHN: Why ‘hopefully’ a butt-plug?

SARA: Well, because not everyone wants a tail butt-plug. They have a bit in their teeth and they go Neeeiiiggghhh! Neeeiiiggghhh! You crack the whip as you ride them. Neeeiiiggghhh! Whinny! Whinny! all that sort of stuff. It’s hardcore. It’s a bit more than anything in The Beginner’s Guide to Bondage.

JOHN: If you are teaching people about bondage, should there be ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels? 

SARA: Possibly.

JOHN: Would there be a third show after A Beginner’s Guide and An Intermediate Guide?

SARA: An Advanced Guide? Well, some of these fetishes are more understandable and approachable than others. Some are more for the diehards. Mummification, I think, is quite funny. And then, of course, there are rubber fetishes.

Angelic Sara Mason at the Soho Theatre Bar

I told you about going to Torture Garden and a couple came in, both dressed up as frogmen or women. They were completely encased in rubber from head to toe. One was tall; one was short; but it was impossible to tell which was the man and which was the woman.

JOHN: With flippers?

SARA: Yes. And, after a moment, they opened a little zip in their crotch, mounted a stirrup table and began copulating. The noise was squeak-squeak squeak-squeak squeak-squeak squeak-squeak like a very squeaky bed. Not very frog-like. That would have been more…

JOHN: …riveting?

SARA: Yes. But the amazing thing was I still couldn’t tell which one was a boy. After a while, they climbed off and zipped themselves up. I had to stop and just laugh. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen.

JOHN: Why have you got a bit of rubber on your finger? Is that a fetish?

SARA: No.I have a poorly finger. It is kinesiology tape. It has a stretch to it and is good for inflammation but I think I have arthritis, which is neither sexy nor mistressy, though luckily it is my left hand.

JOHN: A big relief for us all. In A Beginners Guide, you play the role of Mistress Venetia. Are you developing that character?

SARA: I am thinking of making her an agony aunt because, at the end of my show in Edinburgh this year, I did suggest that, if anyone wanted private lessons, I could oblige. And quite a number of girls did approach me to say they would like private lessons in domination. They wanted to learn to be a bit more ‘dom’. So that was intriguing because I had put it in as a bit of a joke but, in fact, I did have a few takers. There probably is a niche market out there for ladies who want to learn the business.

JOHN: Any other offers to audience members?

SARA: I have offered free fistings to any Brexiteers in the audience.

JOHN: So what is Mistress Venetia’s character?

Sara as “lovably dotty” Mistress Venetia

SARA: She is a ‘dotty’ dominatrix.

JOHN: How dotty?

SARA: Well, she’s lovably dotty.

JOHN: She dots the eyes and crosses the tease?

SARA: She’s a bit dotty because some of her ideas are really quite ‘out there’.

JOHN: The show is billed as comedy. Is it comedy because you put in lots of jokes or because what you are talking about is not quite as serious as the customers think?

SARA: I think what they do IS quite funny. A lot of it is very funny.

JOHN: But, in the real world, the men being dominated presumably don’t think of it as being humorous.

SARA: There can be a lot of laughter in the dungeons. If you don’t like laughing, you wouldn’t enjoy a session of domination with me.

JOHN: …if you were a real dominatrix and not a performer.

SARA: …if I were a real dominatrix and not a performer. (LAUGHS) I think you use your own personality no matter what you do. Mistress Venetia is dotty and quite funny. If you approach domination and say this is a very frightening, traumatic, torturous thing then, OK, I am not gonna wanna play with you. You are not my type of playmate. My type of playmate wants excitement, joy and doesn’t mind if I take the piss out of him.

JOHN: Sometimes literally.

SARA: Exactly. In the show, Mistress Venetia says she doesn’t mind the occasional golden shower. It can be quite refreshing. But scat is a kink too far from me. I don’t judge anybody for whatever their fetish is. Everybody has the right to whatever sexual expression they want and, certainly, if you’ve never tried something, you have no right to judge about it.

There are certain things that are not my cup of tea but good luck to the people who want to do them. Scat is not for me.

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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.”

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