Pukaar Magazine caught up with Geoff Rowe, a self-made businessman, community activist and Leicester’s figure of comedy to hear how he made laughter the fuel to building England’s largest comedy festival.
Although Geoff may be steering clear of a stage performance any time soon, he is a central figure in the city’s festival as the co founder of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival.
An idea which was sparked between course mates in 1993, the festival became a reality in 1994 and enters it’s 23rd year in 2016 bigger and better than ever as it stretches it’s reach to 65 venues with 780 events and near to 700 comedians attending and performing.
To think that this festival began as an idea among eight university course friends who had to create a practical piece for the final year project is baffling.
Picturing the eight individuals at De Montfort University’s students union discussing the concept over a pint is an amusing image in itself and it is what makes the festival incredibly rich in its nature and what sets it aside from any other – it’s passionate.
When I asked Geoff how it all began he was incredibly humble as he told its progressive tale: “It was when we saw within the magazine NME the saying ‘comedy is the new rock n roll’, that somebody within the eight of us, and no it wasn’t me, suggested that we put on a comedy festival, and in a classic student manner we just all shrugged and went ‘alright’.”
It was Geoff however that jeopardised his summer holidays between second and third year to stay in Leicester and build the foundations for the festival.
The student visited potential venues, spoke to local radio stations and began addressing possible patrons that he says resulted in a rather unexpected breakthrough, “I was out one day and I got a call at my student home, my house mate took a message for me and then rang me straight away saying ‘I think Tony Slattery just rang asking for you mate’ – that was weirdly wonderful.”
Shortly after the idea became a reality and it’s success carried on after the eight students graduated that same year.
It grew with each year and the partnership and support of TV channel Dave allowed the now Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival to expand beyond anything the Buckinghamshire born boy imagined.
Geoff said that the following 23 years have been completely unintended: “It was all a bit of an accident! We never expected it to go on for this long, but it is incredibly fun and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
It was out of the success of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival that Geoff formed the charity company Big Difference Company.
This Leicester based organisation runs and manages a handful of projects all over the country that focus on improving a community’s awareness of health, wellbeing and development of life skills all through the use of comedy.
It is through the innocence of humour that the company tackles harrowing subjects through life changing schemes.
Comedy is very much a popular culture within Great Britain and with so many events held across the country we asked Geoff what he felt made the festival stand out from so many others: “There are lots of comedy festivals all over the UK and Europe, we are the best obviously (laughs) but I am hugely biased of course.
“I think what makes us stand out is the scale of our festival and there is a kind of vibe that you don’t necessarily get at a smaller festival.”
The festival has seen performances from thousands of fantastically talented comedians big and small, and has been hosted in venues across Leicestershire.
It has witnessed hundreds of thousands of giggles, chuckles and snorts. But what makes this Leicester based comedy festival so unique and timeless?
We asked Geoff this exact question: “I made a decision very early on that I wanted the festival to be festive.
“I wanted to make our events special; we do stupid ideas in silly venues that may or may not work, we have launches, we have parties, and this all makes an atmosphere of which is needed.
“Festivals need to be celebratory and exciting, dull festivals are dreadful so I am pleased that we have managed to sustain a buzz over such a long period of time.
“If I ever feel like the festival is becoming repetitive, or god forbid very boring, then I would stop.”
The directing team at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival have been lucky to have always attracted famous comedians along with the developing of newer acts, and those who have come from the festival and are now established artists: for example Sarah Millican and Jonny Vegas who began doing tiny gigs to tiny audiences – now look at how they have grown!
Although Geoff may not be a comedian himself he certainly appreciates the marvellous adaptive nature of its genre.
A man who you may believe would brush away competition welcomes it with open arms, “The more the merrier. The more people that want to go and see live comedy the better for us all!”
The 19 days of comedy places Leicester within the spotlight and it is during these times of stardom that Geoff believes truly reflects Leicester’s potential: “I think Leicester is a great festival town and I don’t think we exploit this as much as we could.
“The festival brings over £3million to the community each year, that’s nothing to do with ticket sales, it is an accumulation of profits from bars, hotels, taxis – all the extra expenditure made by individuals.
“People tell me that it is part of the fabric of Leicester.
“Take into consideration that people who were ten years old when we began back in 1994 will now be 33; they have grown up with the festival in Leicester every February and so it is now somewhat part of the DNA of Leicester as such, I am proud to have been a part of that.”
By Imogen Harry