Tag Archives: Tony Slattery

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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With sketch shows, it is impossible to know who will be famous in the future.

With comedy sketch shows, it is almost impossible to know which, if any, of the performers may become successful – famous, even – in the future.

I am old enough to have been stumbling around in the primeval alternative comedy mists of the last century and seen the Edinburgh Fringe show by the Cambridge Footlights group which included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery. I was aware of their names because it got a lot of newspaper coverage afterwards – that’s one of the benefits of going to Oxbridge. But all I really remember, unless my memory fails me, is Stephen Fry sitting in a wing armchair wearing a smoking jacket and reading a very linguistically convoluted story from a book.

“Well,” I thought. “That’s very literate and he seems to aspire to being someone older than he is, but he’s not going to go very far with that as an act.”

I was also working at Granada TV when they made the long-forgotten sketch show Alfresco. I saw one being recorded in the studio. It starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane and Siobhan Redmond. The writing was a bit rough-and-ready and the cast made no impact on me at all, except I remember feeling Robbie Coltrane thought a bit too much of himself and Ben Elton thought he was cock of the walk. I am sure they have changed.

Which is all a pre-amble to the fact that I have seen three sketch shows in the last three days at the Edinburgh Fringe. They may have contained the big comedy and/or drama stars of the future, but who can know for sure? Certainly not me.

I went to see The Real McGuffins’ Skitsophrenic because I had met Dan March at a couple of previous Fringes, notably when he performed his Goldrunner show about being a contestant on the TV gameshow Blockbusters when he was a kid.

I saw The Real McGuffins perform at the Fringe last year and, while they were OK and energetic – a better version of the more-publicised Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club – they were, in truth, nothing special. This year, they are something special. The scripts are sharper, the performances are even sharper and the show zips along at a tremendous pace. They have also kept and improved on a scripted interaction between the three performers which adds a semi-narrative thread – always a good thing in sketch shows which, by their nature, can be very disjointed.

This unification of their comedy sketch show is something The Durham Revue’s 33rd Annual Surprise Party! does not have. They try to paper over the unavoidable gaps between separate sketches with extremely good and instantly recognisable rock music. But choosing such good music turns out to be a mistake as the extracts are so strong it distracts from rather than unifies the various sketches. I mentally opted-out of the live show to bop-along in my head to the music between sketches, then had to opt back in to the live show. Bland music, ironically, would have been better. Or some live running link to creatively Sellotape over the gaps.

At least one of the Durham Revue team appears to have the charisma necessary to get somewhere in showbusiness in the future but (see above) who can tell?

As for Casual Violence’s Choose Death, which I saw last night, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were a lot of tears, a lot of shouting, several characters’ deaths, Siamese twin assassins, a clown and a serial killer who looked like Daniel Craig on acid, but what exactly was going on or why was utterly beyond me. Nothing made much sense at all but the characters seemed to believe in what was happening within their own fictional world. Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’. There was certainly an awful lot of shouting which seemed to work rather well. But I have no idea why.

The six performers and keyboard accompanist were uniformly good and strangely realistic while being totally OTT in a script which was from another plane of reality on another planet. The important factor was that the script seemed to make logical sense to the characters within the show. And, while played straight and getting plentiful laughs from a near-full house, there was such an element of complete surreality permeating the whole thing that I warmed to it after about ten minutes and enjoyed it thoroughly throughout – without knowing what was going on over-all. The words made sense. The sentences made sense. But what was happening had more than one layer of insanity. It had the logic of a long-term inmate in a mental asylum.

The Real McGuffins were slick, smooth and ready for television and Dan March is a star in the making.

The Durham Revue performers need another year at the Fringe but showed promise.

Casual Violence’s Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description and, in a long-shot way, is the most interesting of the three. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

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