Twenty-five years after launching in Brum, Mark Tughan’s chain of Glee Clubs is the undisputed home of stand-up… and more
Making people laugh for 25 years sounds like a business we’d all love to be in. And for sure, running the Glee Club has had plenty of highs for founder and CEO, Mark Tughan. But it’s also had some tough times. Pardon the pun, but comedy can be a funny business.
Mark set up Glee Club in Birmingham after taking “the massive gamble” to quit his city of London investment banking job to strike out as an entrepreneur with a mission to deliver stand-up comedy to ‘the regions’. As a ‘massive fan’ of the Comedy Store, he believed there was a gap in the market for transferring the blueprint outside the capital.
He says he was warned by plenty of people that the comedy club format just wouldn’t work in places like Birmingham. “I thought that thinking was a myth,” he recalls. And as Glee celebrates its 25th birthday, Mark was proved right.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Birmingham Glee opened in 1994, with Cardiff following in 2001, Oxford and Nottingham in 2010 and Glasgow in February this year. (A sixth Glee Club is on the cards before too long in an as-yet undefined location.) The dates prove the progression in the business has been steady and carefully planned. As Mark says there are no prizes for going at it with all guns blazing, only to be firing a load of blanks.
“There is no doubt about it, there was a bit of luck involved in the Glee’s success along the way,” he adds. “We were definitely in the right place at the right time – in the late 90s the comedy circuit had really come about and developed, and today there now seems to be an incredible appetite to see comics live.”
Since becoming the UK’s first dedicated comedy club outside of London, Glee has hosted acts including Jack Whitehall, Jack Dee, Jimmy Carr, Katherine Ryan and Sarah Millican. Comedians who cut their teeth at Glee include Peter Kay and Lee Mack. The Birmingham venue has also played an invaluable role in supporting Midlands comics such as Joe Lycett, and Guz Khan.
Over the years, Glee has widened its brief to be as inclusive as possible of all genres of comedy and added live music to the mix. It has also played a growing role in comedy and music festivals in Birmingham and at its other venues.
Mark likes to describe the history of the business as ‘The Four Epochs of the Glee’. “The first was the pioneer years and learning on the job,” he explains. “The business was far from an instant success. It took years for Birmingham to get going.” The second epoch Mark labels ‘The Jongleurs Years’ when fierce competition from the rival chain drove him to “sit round for 10 years and think ‘that’s it!’” When Jongleurs collapsed in 2009, Mark picked up their clubs in Nottingham and Oxford.
Epoch three involved six years of litigation with Rupert Murdoch over Sky’s hugely successful Glee TV show. “The final fourth epoch was when we won the litigation and we opened the Glee Club in Glasgow this year,” said Mark. “It all feels a bit like the tortoise and the hare – it has ‘only’ taken 25 years to become the leading brand in the medium-size comedy market!” Mark is always on the look-out to keep Glee fresh, which is why he is involved with Birmingham Comedy Festival and its Breaking Talent Award and why he travels around the country and buys a ticket to see ‘some hot comedian I’ve been tipped off about’. And if there’s any rough, undiscovered comedian out there in the general public, Glee also gives them a shot at its Friday night ‘open mic’ slot. “We have a six-month waiting list,” said Mark.
GLEE FOR LIFE, MATE
He added: “I don’t know where the 25 years have gone. I’m just delighted I have made so many people laugh over the years, and hopefully, in my small way, made a contribution to both the local entertainment scene as well as the live comedy and music businesses”.
We’ll leave the last word on Glee to Guz Khan who said: “Just two years ago, Joe Lycett and the gang at the Glee Club in Birmingham invited me in to perform at a comedy club for the first time. I have now learned that I was lucky enough to start at the very best comedy club in the land. All other comedy clubs can suck their mums as far as I’m concerned. Glee Club Brum Town for life mate!”