Tag Archives: Geoff Rowe

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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Comic John Ryan’s ‘childhood prank’

John Ryan chatted to me over tea in the Soho Theare Bar

John Ryan chatted to me over tea in the Soho Theatre Bar

In 2010, comedian John Ryan was an NHS Regional Health and Social Care award winner in the Mental Health and Well Being category. In the same year, he got a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation for contributions to the field of Arts and Health Equalities. And, in 2011, he was a Best Short Documentary Award winner at the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Film Festival for a film he made about a women’s prison.

This year, the Irish Post reported that he was “chuffed to bits” to have his first research paper on mental health published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

But John Ryan is not often mentioned by trendy comedy reviewers. Why?

“I think I’m a bit too laddish for them,” he told me. “A bit too working class. And I tend to play Jongleurs and the bigger clubs. I’ve done the Soho Theatre three or four times, but I earn my living doing this. I’ve not got aspirations to do a sitcom or Live at The Apollo on TV. I basically provide meat & two veg.

“I was a trade union chairman for ten years – UNISON, the public sector. I worked in a collective environment. And I worked in housing. I had three small kids under the age of 5 and worked 12-hour shifts. Two weeks of days; a week of nights. But I also used to write kids’ stories.

John directed inserts for Teletubbies

John directed Tubbie Inserts

“Someone said: If you do stand-up, you’ll get a performing CV and you’ll be able to sell your kids’ stories. So I did my first gig and got my first writing contract three months later. That was on Teletubbies. And they gave me a job as an insert director. I bluffed my way in. Bluffed it, blagged it.

“When that finished, I carried on with my day job and the TV producers were trying to re-vamp another show of theirs called Brum about a little kid’s toy car. They offered me a six months contract writing on that – equivalent to a year’s salary where I was working. So I took that and took my pay-off from my day job – so I basically had 18-months salary and carried on doing stand-up.

“I was a Hackney Empire New Act of the Year finalist in 2000 with Russell Brand. Shappi Khorsandi came second. Paul Hickman won it. Russell Brand went on and done about 15 minutes of piss-poor Bill Hicks type act. Cole Parker got told off for getting stoned in the dressing room.

“In 2001 I did Leicester New Act of the Year. I was the runner-up. It was won by Miles Jupp. The other runner-up was Jimmy Carr. And John Bishop was not placed.

“A couple of years later, in 2003, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show called John Ryan Isn’t Normal? My son had been in a school play. He was Joseph; a girl was Mary. He went to pick up the baby Jesus and, in a packed assembly hall, the girl says Give me the baby and my son says No, I’m giving him a cuddle. So the girl says Men don’t cuddle babies and by now the play has gone to pot. My boy says: Well, my dad’s a man and he cuddles me, and, in this full assembly hall, this little girl says, Well, your dad’s not normal.

John Ryan performs in a YouTube video

John performs a routine about the police in a YouTube video

“All the mums looked at me. It genuinely happened. So I wrote a whole hour show about it.

“I had an MA in Health & Social Policy. I had a degree in Social Administration. I had worked in Housing & Community Care. I had experience of working with vulnerable groups.

“When I did John Ryan Isn’t Normal? at the Edinburgh Fringe, a reviewer for Three Weeks magazine turned up pissed with his girlfriend, spent half the time snogging her and being an arse, so I told him to Fuck off out! and then wrote to Three Weeks saying: Look, don’t send idiots. I don’t think they like that.

“The following year, I did a show called Stupid Monkey, because I went to a party dressed as a monkey and got into an argument with a guy who was dressed as a carrot. We got into a physical fight and the ridiculousness of it – that me, a grown man with kids, was fighting a man dressed as a carrot – made me think Why aren’t we able to resolve our differences without fighting? So the show talked about Iraq, Israel, racism, homophobia and was called Stupid Monkey.”

“Had you got anything out of the John Ryan Isn’t Normal? show?I asked.

“Oh yes,” said John. “I picked up a little award from some independent magazine that then folded and Geoff Rowe from the Leicester Comedy Festival asked if I’d be interested in talking about health in non-conventional venues.

“I also got asked to write a column for the Irish Post, because I’m from the Irish community. In the Irish community, if you get in the Irish Post, you’re like a superstar. I thought it would be fun for my mum.

“So, from that first Edinburgh Fringe, I got myself a weekly column and got involved in doing health projects: Hurt Until It Laughs. Then I did a tour round working men’s clubs and prisons, young offenders’ institutions, gay/lesbian centres, Islamic centres, Afro-Caribbean centres.

"Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health"

“Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health because there was a charity”

“And Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health because there was a children’s charity called YoungMinds who were very keen to empower men to spend more time with their kids and to look at how kids behaved to see if there was any mental trouble there. So I wrote a show called Those Young Minds which allowed me to talk about my upbringing.

“My family were Scottish and Irish. I was a Cockney. My mum’s lot are from Coatbridge in Scotland. Her dad moved from Catholic Coatbridge to Longford in Ireland, where my mum was born. My dad’s family were all Travellers, from Longford. Middle of nowhere. Even Irish people don’t know where it is. Then my mum and dad moved to Hackney in London. So we went from the poorest part of Scotland to the poorest part of Ireland to Hackney. You can almost see a show writing itself, can’t you?

“I was always fighting and scrapping, cos that’s what we do.

“I came home from school one day, having been given the cane yet again and been told I was going to get expelled.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Pranks,” said John.

“What sort of pranks?” I asked.

“Well,” said John, “when I was eight, I hit a kid with a brick. He was called Paul Kennedy and we were the only two Irish families in the class.”

“He was a Protestant?” I asked.

“No, he was a Catholic, but he just thought he was better than me and we always used to fight. At school one day, he picked his nose, put it on me, we had a big argument, I threw a brick at him, knocked him out, blood came out of his nose and out of his ears.

“One of the girls in the class said: You’ve killed him! 

“I had never felt so great in my life. It was a really empowering feeling. In my head, I was thinking: I’ve got a list of people I’m going to take out now. 

“So I go to school the next day. He doesn’t come to school. None of the other kids will come near me in the playground – You killed Paul Kennedy! they tell me – and I went home and my sister said she was going to tell my mum and I was petrified.

“My mum came into my bedroom and said: I’m so ashamed. I’m really ashamed of what you done. 

“And I think: Hang on. I’m not getting slapped.

We are going to pray to Jesus, she tells me.

“I never liked the one on the cross. I always liked the little baby one. I was scared of the one on the cross. So I thought of little baby Jesus and we prayed.

“I go into school the next morning and Paul Kennedy isn’t there. Everyone tells me he is dead. I have killed him. I am still feeling alright.

“At playtime, he comes into class with a bandage on his head. This was a great, euphoric moment. I run up to give him a cuddle. He punches me in the face. I head-butt him. He goes back to hospital. I get suspended from school for the week.

“My mum says: What are we going to do with you? You’re going to go in to Daisy next door. 

Everyone in our block was either Irish or black. Except Daisy, who was this old white English woman. She didn’t have a TV. She made her own cheese in a handkerchief at the sink. She had long nails. She was really scary. She used to be a head teacher.

“So I went to her flat.

“First day. Go in. Go to the toilet. Sit down at the table. My sister had told me Daisy was going to kill me. But she gave me an apple and some milk. The wall was covered in books. She said: Pick a book, read it and not a peep out of you.

“I was petrified. I read the book. Then, after a couple of hours, I went home. This happened every day for a week.

“At the end of the week, Daisy came in to our kitchen. My mum asked: How’s he been? Daisy said: He’s been really quiet. He just reads. No trouble at all. Didn’t break anything. Didn’t steal anything. Not rude. 

“My mum told me: If you keep misbehaving, you’ll go back in there again.

“And I was really upset, because I wanted to go back in there.

“In the 2005 show I wrote – Those Young Minds – I was able to look at things like Why did my behaviour change in Daisy’s? Was it because I was getting attention? Was it because I was being given something to do? 

“I did that show in Edinburgh, but only for two days. I got a one-star review from Three Weeks.”

 … CONTINUED HERE

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