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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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The Olympic torch came to uncaring Greenwich this morning amid officials

A sign of things to come: ordinary roads blocked off by police

My eternally-un-named friend lives in Greenwich. She hates it. I understand why.

Last night, by the River Thames, there were food tents, comedy shows and a bandstand with music. A two minute walk away, we passed two men in their late 20s or early 30s standing on a street corner by Creek Road, near the Up The Creek comedy club. One was talking on his mobile phone:

Greenwich foreground; with a background in the Isle of Dogs

“The guy is testing the stuff and then he’s giving me the cash,” he said to the unseen person.

A little later, after dark, nearby, we passed by a children’s play area amid council blocks. Three boys in their late teens passed through quickly, one putting a white plastic bag at the top of the children’s slide, as if leaving it for someone to collect later.

Greenwich Council is notoriously uncaring unless you live in one of the elite streets. It is a bit like North Korea. It looks stylish on the outside but has been allowed to rot at its core by uncaring bureaucrats.

Sikhing good publicity by giving away free vegetable rolls

So I was interested to see the so-called Olympic Torch Relay pass through Greenwich early this morning. The small central one-way system in town was cordoned off with occasional single lines of partially-interested onlookers standing behind metal barriers.

The parade: policemen and officials

“It’s only three seconds of your life.” I heard one adult tell a child.

It was like a half-hearted small town parade where the people in official jackets outnumbered the onlookers and it was noticeable for occasionally smiling policemen. I was reminded of a line from the movie Get Carter:

“You were lucky. They also kill people.”

I guess the Metropolitan Police saw it as a welcome PR opportunity to try to distract from the more realistic image yesterday of the thuggish copper who killed an entirely random innocent man and got away with it despite a 12-year record of violence against ordinary people. It is rare that the left wing Daily Mirror and the right wing Daily Mail newspaper both run stories about endemic police brutality.

The Olympic shenanigans this morning were all about PR.

Forget athletics coaches: it’s all about Coca Cola coaches

There were the red Coca Cola frisbees, a gigantic red Coca Cola coach, small Marks & Spencer paper triangles with a union flag design on one side and, on the other, the slogan On Your Marks… for a Summer to remember.

People were taking photos with smart phones and iPads; the traffic was blocked by policemen on bikes.

A bemused Chinese interview beside the Cutty Sark

A man from some Chinese television company was interviewing a bemused woman beside the Cutty Sark, leaflets were being handed out for Greenwich’s Premier Gym & Health Club, a group of Sikhs were giving out free vegetable roti rolls promoting Langgar 2012 – “Sikhs serving langgar and embracing diversity”.

And, in among it all, barely glimpsed, was a small woman speeding along the road in a wheelchair holding aloft a golden Olympic torch and…

Glimpsed for a second – a man with an Olympic torch

…a minute later round the corner, there was a man in white running with the same Olympic torch. They seemed an unimportant afterthought.

Nearby, on the Thames, the looming grey warship with the attack helicopters on deck waited for any terrorist incident. Up the hill on Blackheath, the ground-to-air missile system was presumably being manned. And somewhere, atop various  South London blocks of flats, were other missile defence systems.

Shock! Amazement! Met Police killed non-one this morning

But, in Greenwich this morning, the Torch Relay seemed to be mostly an excuse for people to dress up in pink or green or red tops as wardens or volunteers or crowd-controllers and for the police to parade in yellow jackets on motor bikes.

People had come out in small numbers to see the spectacle of people organising things.

Attack helicopters and Yuppies by the Thames in Greenwich

For much the same reason, next Friday I will be watching the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony… To see how the highly-talented director Danny Boyle has spent his multi-million pound budget. And, like everyone else, just in case there is a spectacular terrorist attack live on television.

Last August I missed the English riots by being in Scotland. This year I will miss the English Olympics for the same reason.

I think the Edinburgh Fringe will have fewer sponsors and a few more laughs.

My eternally-un-named friend’s opinion?

“It’s just something else to put up with, like the weather. I don’t want to be here.”

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Comedian Lewis Schaffer’s strange offer of Edinburgh Fringe show sponsorship

In Soho - Peter Goddard - He’s a nice guy!

Yesterday, I blogged about problems over free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and quoted one of the most prominent free performers, London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

He crops up in quite a few of my blogs.

I like to have subsidiary characters and plot threads running through my blogs so that anyone regularly reading the blogs can – or, if I were to turn them into an annual e-book, anyone reading the chronological collected blogs could – follow these threads as they develop.

I recently encouraged Lewis Schaffer to start his own blog, which means he occasionally mentions me in his blog.

I aspire to being a subsidiary character myself.

Yesterday, in his blog, Lewis Schaffer wrote about his show the previous night (pay attention, dear reader): “My personal blogger John Fleming was there last night with the ‘un-named’ woman who makes his presence bearable – actually he is a welcome sight for anyone who wishes to be loved and accepted as an artist.”

I think this has the semi-unfortunate side-effect of making me seem a little creepy but – hey! – a little creepy gets you noticed.

The other slightly odd thing Lewis Schaffer wrote in his blog yesterday was: “Peter Goddard – the man whose hair I was stroking – he’s a nice guy – told me afterward that I had the audience laughing many times but stopped them as if I didn’t like them enjoying themselves.”

Stroking a man’s hair during a gig where the comedian tries to stop the audience laughing may seem odd enough but what, you might ponder, is with the odd sentence construction: “Peter Goddard – the man whose hair I was stroking – he’s a nice guy – told me…”??

Well, this goes back to two nights ago, when I saw Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing twice-weekly show Free Until Famous in London’s Soho.

There was a man there who laughed throughout. It turned out he was this Peter Goddard.

After the show, Peter Goddard, his female friend, Lewis Schaffer and my eternally-un-named friend had a meal in Soho and Peter Goddard decided he wanted to sponsor the publicity  costs of Lewis Schaffer’s Edinburgh Fringe show in August.

Peter Goddard had thought the whole idea through before he came to the gig.

The only thing he wanted in return was that a picture of his head and his hand giving a thumbs-up sign should appear in the corner of every flyer and every poster for Lewis Schaffer’s show with the slogan “PETER GODDARD – HE’S A NICE GUY!”

He had loved Lewis Schaffer’s show that night. So did Lewis Schaffer. They both loved the fact it had been ‘uncomfortable’.

“Being in your show tonight,” said Peter Goddard, “was like sitting INSIDE The Office as opposed to sitting at home, watching The Office on TV. If you watch The Office on TV, you can laugh. If you were actually sitting inside The Office itself for real, you wouldn’t laugh. It would be very uncomfortable. Imagine going to a comedy club and not being sure if the comedian was David Brent or Ricky Gervais.”

That was what Peter Goddard said. And that was why he had enjoyed Lewis Schaffer’s show so much.

Lewis Schaffer was – of course – this is Lewis Schaffer, after all – indecisive about the idea.

“What do you get out of it?” Lewis Schaffer asked Peter Goddard.

“Nothing,” Peter Goddard replied. “It’s just funny… and I’m a nice guy.”

“It would have to be a photo of you with a cheesy grin,” I suggested, “like you were recommending a hamburger or a washing machine in some naff 1950s ad.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Peter Goddard.

“I flyer for myself in Edinburgh,” Lewis Schaffer said. “People are going to ask me a thousand times – five thousand times – who you are and what you get out of it. It’ll drive me crazy talking about you and not talking about me. I hand out 5,000 flyers in Edinburgh.”

“You just say,” I suggested. “Peter Goddard – He’s a nice guy… That’s all I am contractually allowed to say.

“What do you do?” Lewis Schaffer asked Peter Goddard.

“I’m a project manager for banks,” Peter Goddard replied.

Lewis Schaffer looked at me. I looked at Lewis Schaffer.

“I think it’s a great idea,” I said.

Afterwards, I asked Lewis Schaffer, “How long have you known him?”

“I’ve met him twice but I only remember meeting him once. Maybe more. But I don’t remember. I don’t know why he chose me.”

I opened my mouth to say something.

“I don’t know,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“It’s a great idea,” I told him. “It will get you attention and get your posters and flyers talked about, like Cockgate. Well, not quite as much as that.”

“As what?”

“Cockgate.”

“Ah…”

Lewis Schaffer pondered this for a few long seconds.

“Do I want that?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I told him. “It’s at least worth two-inch pieces in three or four newspapers or magazines during the Fringe.”

“Ah,” he said.

We said nothing for a few long seconds.

“Even saying No comment to 5,000 people would drive me crazy,” he said. “I want to be talking to them about Lewis Schaffer.”

We said nothing for a few long seconds.

“Tomorrow I could contact MegaBus,” Lewis Schaffer eventually said, “They could be my tour sponsor. Peter Goddard could sponsor my Edinburgh Fringe publicity and MegaBus could sponsor my Free Until Famous tour…  £1 Until Famous.”

“But,” I suggested, “maybe you don’t get people with disposable incomes taking the MegaBus. Are they your target audience for comedy shows where you want people to give you as much money as they can at the end of the show?”

“You’re not going to see famous people take the coach,” said Lewis Schaffer “£1 Until Famous… In New York, I got free Oliver Peoples glasses for travelling by bus. They are the glasses of choice of American psychos.”

“Have you stopped drinking?” I asked Lewis Schaffer.

“I’ve stopped drinking,” replied Lewis Schaffer.

“What about Peter Goddard?” asked my eternally-un-named friend, as the three of us walked through Soho.

“He’s a nice guy,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“It’s a start,” I said.

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