Who knew when Birmingham Comedy Festival launched way back in 2001 it would go on to celebrate 20 years – becoming the UK’s second longest-running laugh-in – and welcome a veritable who’s-who of comic legends over the two decades…
Have you heard the one about Birmingham Comedy Festival? What started out as one man’s dream to bring together the city’s small grassroots comedy clubs and provide a mega-showcase for the best comics in the country is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
Running from Friday 1 to Sunday 10 October this year’s ‘post-pandemic’ festival features more than 40 shows across a number of venues, including Symphony Hall, Town Hall, the Glee Club and the Old Rep, with an awesome mix of big-name acts such as Russel Brand, Chris Ramsey and Jenny Éclair coming to town, along with a host of emerging newcomers. After being forced to an online-only format last year due to the pandemic, the festival’s founder Dave Freak said: “It’s great to be back – you just can’t beat seeing comedy with a roaring audience. The laughter is infectious!”
Two decades ago, Dave couldn’t have imagined that his idea to put Birmingham firmly on the comedy map would result in the second longest running comedy festival in the UK which has seen all the big stars come to the city over the years. The arts consultant and project manager who works across the creative, culture, heritage and media sectors, said: “Back in 2000, I was aware that there were a fair few small, grassroots comedy clubs dotted all around the city, and they regularly booked acts you’d recognise from the TV and Radio 4. But unless you lived in the area, there was a fair chance you wouldn’t know who they had on as they didn’t have big marketing budgets, and the Internet was really only just starting to break into the mainstream.
“A festival seemed like a good way to highlight what was going on in the city. So, I approached some of the local clubs and they thought it was a no-brainer. Everyone was so enthusiastic and supportive. When we held that first festival the response from audiences and the venues was incredible, so we had to do it again, and again…”
The inaugural star billing featured Peter Kay and Sean Lock. Alongside a vast range of new local acts, the festival has welcomed such A-list heavy-hitters as Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, the cast of The Fast Show, Ross Noble, John Bishop, Miranda Hart, Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Al Murray The Pub Landlord, Sarah Millican, Jack Whitehall, Stephen Merchant, Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe, Harry Hill, Greg Davies – and Brum heroes Joe Lycett, Lenny Henry and Jasper Carrott. Phew!! It has even included performances from legendary Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley and the late Ken Dodd.
“Stand-up comedy wasn’t as popular as it is today, you didn’t see it all over the TV like you do now, and there was no social media,” said Dave. “The festival really succeeded in highlighting the vibrancy of the city’s comedy scene. That first festival was phenomenal. Getting that off the ground, and the enthusiasm of everyone involved, was amazing. Today, there are hundreds of arts festivals in Birmingham, but then there were only a few by comparison – jazz, books, a film festival, ArtsFest … then us.”
While stand-up comedy forms the core of the festival, there’s also a range of other activities, such as theatre, cabaret, burlesque, improv’, sketch comedy, folk, classical music, DJ/ club nights, pub quizzes, puppet shows and film screenings. Right from the outset, the festival has been unfunded and volunteer-led. “It is not run to make money, but to simply celebrate comedy,” said Dave.
“The festival’s a firm and well-established fixture in the region’s events calendar now, but we’re always looking to see how we can improve and tweak it,” he said. “Looking ahead, we were busily working on several projects we had for 2020 and early 2021 which we had to postpone, due to the pandemic. So, once the festival’s done this month, we’re aiming to go back and revisit those and see what’s still possible in the current climate. And next year we hope to bring back our Breaking Talent Award for emerging artists from the West Midlands – that’s something we see as central to the festival, as it really sums up our regional ethos.”
Every festival has had its highlights. The largest in terms of audience was 86,000 in 2009, thanks to a run of arena shows by Michael McIntyre. The largest in terms of number of events was 2012, when the festival had well over 100 performances .“The first festival was remarkable and we’re very proud of the Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award and enjoy our Free Half-Dayers, which include back-to-back shows in (nearly) adjacent city centre venues,” said Dave.
SPIKE, THE GOONS & HANCOCK
“Personally, being the first professional company to adapt radio series The Goon Show for the stage was amazing – Spike Milligan’s estate had consistently declined the rights, so to do that not once, but twice was remarkable. Also selling out the British Library with The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot – a lost BBC Tony Hancock script – was something special, too.
“The Charlie Chaplin soundtrack last year for our online edition, our first such commission, was also great … as the pandemic hit, we were tempted to take a year off, but were glad we pushed through, and the response from people was really positive and encouraging. Hard work, but glad we marked the occasion, and didn’t let 2020 slip by.”
As for any budding would-be comedians out there, Dave has some tips: “Start small. Do five-minute open spots and build up your confidence and material. Find out what works. Find your voice, who are you, what’s your story? Be prepared to fail. Everyone has died on stage. The secret is learning why and building on that. And listen — to other acts and to the audience.”