Started by a group of university students 19 years ago, the LEICESTER COMEDY FESTIVAL has since become the longest-running event of its kind in the whole of Europe. Game for a laugh features writer MEERA MAJITHIA finds out more.
Back in 1994, Leicester’s very own comedy festival kicked-off. There were 40 events programmed at 23 venues over seven days, attracting an audience of 5,000. Last year the numbers rocketed to 370 shows split across 50 city venues and 17 days, entertaining a staggering 60,000 people.
Festival founder and director, Geoff Rowe, told me how a group of students from De Montfort University studying arts management decided to run a comedy festival as part of their final year project.
He said: “Lots of people have been involved from the very beginning and it’s fantastic to think that something which started in such a small and modest way is now the longest running comedy festival in Europe, and is one of the most significant ones in the UK and on the international comedy scene. It is great for us and the city of Leicester and is something that really helps put us on the map.”
Over the years a number of top names have made Leicester laugh, including Jo Brand, Alan Davies, Simon Day, Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand and Dara O’Briain. In the first year, for example, there were performances from Harry Hill and Matt Lucas, who was still a fledgling funny-man at the time, but has since gone on to enjoy huge fame as one-half of Little Britain.
Leicester-born comedy writer and performer, Elaine Pantling, who was in the line up in 2002 sings the praises of the annual event.
She said: “This is a great place to see not only established acts, but new talent. It is a place where you are bound to have a wonderful time, as there is something to suit everyone. It is so important to keep live theatre and comedy alive. The festival provides a place for communal
laughter and the much-needed happy bug that is infectious and will spread rapidly. This comedy epidemic is crucial to the general wellbeing of all people in
Leicester and beyond.”
Running from February 3 to February 19, this year sees the festival team up with UKTV’s home of witty banter, the comedy channel Dave. This is the second year the organisers have worked with them, but the first that they are the official sponsors of every show.
Geoff Rowe added: “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us, I think, and will give us a much greater national profile, while at the same time enable us to do more here locally in Leicester – and that’s the important bit.”
At the time of writing, the organisers were still in talks about whether any of the shows will be broadcast on air, despite the television tie-up being in the bag.
Leicester Comedy Festival organisers have also made a conscious effort to encourage more families to come along in 2012.
Geoff said: “There was a time when comedy was perceived to be inappropriate for younger people or the older audience because of the language. But we’ve always tried to have shows that appeal to the wider audience. So, yes, there is stand-up comedy and late night shows, but there is also a lot of variety for the family audience and we are lining up programmes during the day that families can enjoy.”
“This comedy epidemic is crucial to the general wellbeing of all people in Leicester and beyond.”
Like any comedy fest worthy of our giggles, Leicester’s festival has a habit of showing off the wall, one-off events. We’ve seen Stewart Lee taking part in a debate about Jerry Springer the Opera in Leicester Cathedral, and John Ryan performing his Hurt Until it Laughs show in two Leicestershire prisons.
Remember the special event held to honour writer and Leicester-lad Joe Orton, featuring Sue Townsend, Joe’s two sisters and Simon Fanshawe? Not forgetting Comedy in the Dark, which proved you can turn the lights off, have fun and save the planet at the same time.
For Geoff and the other organisers, the Leicester Comedy Festival has always been a long-term project. There is no immediate plan for the future, apart from ensuring it lasts another 20 to 30 years! They described the 2012 festival as more of the same with a few surprises thrown in.
When asked to describe the most satisfying thing about putting on such a large event,
Geoff replied: “It’s the way so many organisations, charities, faith and community groups, schools as well as the comedians and venues, all get together to focus on something. In the past it has been quite challenging to get that kind of buzz going, but it really happens now. One of the most satisfying things is to just walk around the city and see that buzz.”
Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Show helps us start the New Year with a smile at De Montfort Hall, on January 13 from 7.30pm. Call 0116 233 3111 or visit www.demontforthall.co.uk for tickets.
The 2012 festival runs February 3 to February 19 with appearances from stars including Alistair McGowan, Pam Ayres, Chris Addison, Josie Long and Sarah Millican. For dates and ticket details visit www.comedy-festival.co.uk.