Tag Archives: It’s Got Bells On

Why audiences would rather pay than see free comedy shows in London

Martin Soan and Paul Vickers before a Pull The Other One

Martin and Vivienne Soan have been running Pull the Other One comedy nights in Nunhead, South London, for over ten years. The shows are monthly. You pay to enter; and, in my opinion, they are always value for money whoever is on the bill.

Relatively recently, they also started monthly sister shows – free to enter – called It’s Got Bells On.

These two monthly comedy shows mean Martin and Vivienne run shows roughly every fortnight.

Pull The Other One is at the Ivy House in Nunhead; It’s Got Bells On is at the Old Nun’s Head in – you guessed it – Nunhead.

Martin has always paid acts to perform at It’s Got Bells On, though entry has been free for audiences. From this Friday, though, Martin is going to charge £3 entry.

“Why?” I asked him a couple of weeks ago, before a Pull The Other One show.

Also sitting at the table, mute, was Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey.

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“So,” I said, turning back to Martin Soan, “why start charging entry?”

“Well,” said Martin, “I started It’s Got Bells On because I was getting a little tired of putting on stuff that sells. If I book a big name like Alan Davies or Omid Djalili or Stewart Lee at Pull The Other One, people will happily pay to come along.

Stewart Lee (left) behind-the-scenes with Martin Soan

“If I don’t have a big name, people won’t come along in such big numbers, Which is very frustrating because all the shows are always consistently good. (Martin tells the truth here.) It doesn’t matter who is on, the shows are worth the same ticket price. The fickle nature of the public, though, is that more will come along if they see a name they recognise. And, because the audience is paying, the acts feel they have to deliver risk-free performances.

“So I wanted to have a free-to-enter evening which would allow acts to be more anarchic and experiment more without worrying about the possibility of failing. I could also feed off It’s Got Bells On and transfer acts tried-out there into Pull The Other One.

“What happened was that the first few months of It’s Got Bells On were incredibly successful. I didn’t realise at the time why, but the (mostly South London) acts I was putting on were bringing along lots of friends. But then, when I started having acts on from North London, they didn’t bring friends and I had only 20-30 people coming in, which was disappointing.”

“Why,” I asked, “would charging get you bigger audiences?”

“People have been talking to me, saying: I didn’t want to come along because it was free so, obviously, it was not going to be very good. Which isn’t true, but that’s what they think. So I thought: Right, fuck it. We will charge the audience, but all the ticket money will go directly to the Clowns Without Borders charity. 

It’s Got Bells On – £3 this Friday in Nunhead

So the people who won’t come to free shows because they think they will be shit may come to this pay show because they assume it will be better. But we will keep the essential elements of It’s Got Bells On – freedom from having to do risk-free comedy and allowing people to experiment. And I will still (as before) pay everyone £20 to perform. So it’s good for the performers and hopefully now people will start taking it a bit more seriously because there’s an admission fee (which goes directly to Clowns Without Borders).

“I’m still gobsmacked by the attitude of audiences out there. People have got these boundaries of what they will allow themselves to experience. If the performers have been on television, then that’s OK. They will come. At Pull The Other One, invariably, when we have really big names on, we will put acts either side who are completely nuts and the audience will come out saying: I loved the Big Name but that guy who did the blah blah blah whatever – I REALLY, REALLY loved him!

“The whole idea of It’s Got Bells On was to be free so acts feel no pressure not to fail… but I have never known an act to fail there. Generally, if you get up and do something new, then your adrenaline and determination will carry the whole thing through.”

Martin smiled.

Martin Soan decided not to have bluetooth

“Why do you have a green tooth?” I asked. “That wasn’t there before.”

“I wanted bluetooth to communicate better but I got a green tooth instead.”

“Ah,” I said. I turned to Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey. “Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

Paul lives in Edinburgh but had come to London to appear in various shows.

“Are you staying with Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“No. I’m staying with Martin here. That means I won’t have to do the book.”

“Do the book?” I asked.

“You remember I told you about the book?” Paul told me. “I Can Teach You How To Read Properly by Lewis Schaffer.

“Ah,” I said. “Do you have any books at your place?” I asked Martin.

“I do have a pop-up Kama Sutra,” he replied.

“A pop-up Kama Sutra?” I repeated.

“Yes. You open the pages and figures pop up fucking each other and, if you move the pages correctly, you get the penis going in and out.”

“How much did that cost?” I asked.

“It was 15p from a charity shop in Peckham.”

“That must be an interesting charity shop,” I said.

“It was in the children’s section.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”

“Why?” I asked. “Just because it was a pop-up book and they assumed it was for children?”

“I suppose so,” said Martin. “I don’t think anyone had opened the book and looked inside.”

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“Ah,” I said.

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Jeremy Corbyn & my beard and the link to Martin Soan’s new free comedy club.

Jeremy Corbyn? Daniel Craig? John Fleming?

Jeremy Corbyn? Daniel Craig? John Fleming? A combination?

I am probably going to be Jeremy Corbyn. In a music video for Ariane Sherine’s Love Song For Jeremy Corbyn.

The London Evening Standard’s opinion is that this “steamy tribute” to the great man is “one of the most stirring”. But that “most of the verses are too graphic to be printed in a family newspaper”. The song includes the stirring lines:

One poke from the leader
And you’ll be in Labour

I was conned into saying I would appear in this video, to be shot in July, on the basis it would include “topless” scenes. Alas, these turned out to be not Ariane Sherine topless but the Jeremy Corbyn clone – me – and, because of this, I have been trying to slim down to something more approaching Jezza than Dumbo.

It has also meant I have kept my beard, which I had intended to shave off.

Now, though, the video shoot is going to be in September not July. So I was going to chop off my beard and re-grow it during the Edinburgh Fringe in August. (This has the added bonus I could get up later in the mornings).

Stephen Frost (left) attacks Martin Soan's hair

Stephen Frost (left) attacks Martin Soan’s hair on stage in 2013

My eternally un-named friend then suggested I should get Martin Soan to cut it off or, at least, cut one half of it – perhaps the left half – and half my shirt and possibly half my trousers.

Thus it is going to happen on the opening night of his new comedy club this Friday night. There is a bit of ‘previous’ here. In 2013, comedian Stephen Frost cut off half Martin Soan’s hair on stage at Pull The Other One.

For over ten years, Martin and his wife Vivienne have run the very successfully bizarre Pull The Other One monthly comedy club in Nunhead (Peckham to you and me, but don’t say that to the natives). Now they are also going to be running another monthly comedy night in Nunhead called It’s Got Bells On.

“So,” I asked him, “you’re going to do this new one monthly and carry on doing Pull The Other One monthly? What’s the difference going to be?”

“Well,” said Martin, “It’s Got Bells On is free and Pull The Other One is pay-to-enter.”

Martin Soan promoting new night It’s Got Bells On

Martin Soan promotes his new It’s Got Bells On

“Why is It’s Got Bells On free?” I asked.

“Because I’m very lucky. Someone who is really into comedy is sponsoring me. He wants to remain anonymous. He’s fronting the cash for it – not a lot of cash, but it means I can pay the acts and have a bit for myself as well. Basically, everyone will get expenses.”

I asked: “When you say ‘free’ it will have a bucket at the end for voluntary audience donations?”

“Yeah. But there will also be 30 tickets behind the bar which you can buy for £1 each in advance to guarantee a seat.”

“So it’s the Bob Slayer ‘Pay What You Want’ model from the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said. “Is there any difference in the type of act or the headliners at the two clubs?”

“I don’t know what you call headliners now. I’m moving against ‘celebrity’ because it muddies the water yet again. Comedy should be whether you like it or not – nothing to do with whether people have been on TV or not. But everything still hinges on whether they are ‘famous’ or not.”

“Your Pull The Other One shows,” I said, “are usually full up and the format, as I understand it, is that they are all variety acts plus one stand-up comedian who is usually a ‘Name’.”

“That’s the way it works out normally, “ said Martin, “but it’s not a rule. Variety is the key. I wanted to put on a free night and now I’ve had this glorious offer of it being funded by an anonymous sponsor.”

Dr Brown and an audience member at PTOO

“I want to edge the club back towards being far more anarchic” (Photo of Dr Brown at Pull The Other One)

“Why did free-to-enter shows attract you?” I asked.

“With it being free,” explained Martin, “we don’t have to fulfil any audience expectations. Acts can be more free with the type of material they do. I want to edge the club back towards being far more anarchic – as it used to be. I am going to feature a slot a bit like The Obnoxious Man (Tony Green). I have Brian Sewer to fulfil that role in the first week. He’s an art critic.”

“Ah,” I said, “a piss-take on Brian Sewell? Who is doing that?”

“Ed At Last.”

“So the idea with It’s Got Bells On,” I asked, “is that you would not have one big name?”

“Well,” said Martin, “if Stewart Lee wanted to try out 10 minutes of new material, he would be just the same as anyone else on the bill. He would get 10 minutes and his expenses.

Stewart Lee (left) behind-the-scenes with Martin Soan at Pull The Other One

Stewart Lee (left) and Martin Soan, backstage at P.T.O.O.

“I’ve got Stewart Lee booked on at Pull The Other One on the 9th September and I must be getting two e-mails a day saying Can I get tickets? Can I get tickets!

“I’m getting frustrated by this celebrity-bound comedy and the way comedy is being used yet again.”

“It seems now,” I suggested, “that people will pay to see an act they have seen on TV, but lots of venues are doing free shows with unknown acts who do not get paid to perform.”

“Yes,” agreed Martin. “It’s not that I disagree with free venues, but I think people need to get paid for what they do.

“Now venues are starting to refuse to pay artists, basically. We have gone backwards. I remember the days in the 1980s when bands used to have to pay to play. I was involved with bands through my wife Vivienne. There was one particular pub which was absolutely notorious. They charged all the bands something like £50 to use the PA.”

“In the 1980s?” I asked.

Vivienne and Martin Soan

Vivienne and Martin Soan – Campaigning comedy couple

“Yeah. And the band would get some percentage of any tickets. But, basically, very few people bought tickets. You were allowed two guests and the audience was just other bands. So the poor band that went on last played to no-one.

“I got quite political about it and helped start an organisation called Community Music and basically the practice was stamped out over a few years.

“Now with comedy, though, that seems to be happening again. Venues not paying the acts.

“There are very few venues where you have to pay to play but, nonetheless, considering it’s such a small business compared to bands – it’s just people coming along alone or with props – they just need a microphone and the overheads are cheaper – the venues are not passing the profits on to the performers. I know the overheads of venues are high. But, if they didn’t have this comedy going on in their pub, then they would be down on their takings. At one place I ran a comedy night, on my average night, the bar was taking maybe an extra £3,000.

Martin Soan (left): “I know the business from all sides now."

Martin Soan (left): “I know the business from all sides now.”

“I know the business from all sides now. The first guy who ran the Old Nun’s Head where Pull The Other One ran shows – Daniel – was very open about how he made his money and how much he needed to get. He was dead straightforward, put his cards on the table and I knew exactly where I was, which I appreciated. That enabled me to project a plan to make the club viable. And the new guy running the Old Nun’s Head is very straightforward too.”

“So you will be running monthly pay-to-enter Pull The Other One shows at the Ivy House in Nunhead… and monthly ‘free’ It’s Got Bells On at the Old Nun’s Head in Nunhead.”

“Yes.”

“Any more shows in Leipzig?” I asked.

“Yes, in November. Bartushka, who is from Berlin but you saw her in Leipzig, wants to work with us over there.”

“Remind me of her act?” I asked.

“She is…” Martin started. “She… It is very difficult to categorise her. She is cabaret-inspired, very charismatic…”

“Much like Pull The Other One,” I suggested. “And, I guess, It’s Got Bells On.”

I may revise my opinion after I get half my beard, hair, shirt and possibly trousers chopped off on Friday.

It’s Got Bells On - free comedy

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