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London’s comedy clubs on their fight for survival during Covid-19

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London’s comedy clubs on their fight for survival during Covid-19
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s the vaccination programme continues apace, London’s culture scene is cautiously looking forward to life after the pandemic. But for many venues across the city, that post-lockdown promised land still seems distant, with no shortage of hurdles to overcome first.

The capital’s grassroots comedy sector is no exception. Battered by the onslaught of the past 11 months, and with an ever-changing tranche of Covid-secure rules to contend with between lockdowns, the stand-up scene is a shadow of its former self.

Some help has been offered: despite early confusion, comedy clubs were made eligible for the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, which has handed out vital funds to a good number of venues across the country.

But, as has been the case across the arts, some places missed out — not, it seems, due to a perceived lack of cultural worth on behalf of the Arts Council, but instead because the structures of their businesses made them ineligible.

And even for clubs that did gratefully receive funding, the situation remains treacherous. The grants were designed to last until the end of March, and although a second round of funding is now in the application process, it’s a nervous wait for many cash-strapped venues.

We spoke to five comedy venues across London, offering a snapshot of the city’s wider scene. They each told us about the challenges of trying to stay afloat, the importance of comedy within the arts ecosystem and to the wider public good, how the Government can help, and what the future may hold. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Barry Ferns, co-founder Angel Comedy Club

Barry Ferns

/ Angel Comedy

Spread across two pub venues (The Bill Murray and the Camden Head, not to be confused with the other comedy boozer of the same name on Camden High Street), Angel Comedy Club raised £10,000 through crowdfunding, received £90,000 from the Culture Recovery Fund in October and also runs a Patreon. A new sitcom, Save The Bill Murray, featuring the likes of James Acaster and Adam Buxton, can be watched here.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare, because, well, I’m a comedian. I’m a comedian who ended up founding a comedy club because it kind of built up around me. I’m not really a comedy club runner, and certainly not somebody that applies for grants. Last week, we had to apply for a DCMS grant, and it was like writing a dissertation and having to know a whole new subject.

“The stress of knowing that if we don’t get that money, then the Patreon money doesn’t cover everything… when [lockdown] happened in March last year, we were six weeks from bankruptcy. It was as simple as that.

“I’ve struggled for 20 years to become a comedian that can pay his way from doing comedy, and then that’s it, gone, with no other option to do anything like it. It’s not like there was suddenly more TV writing work, and Zoom gigs aren’t really the same kind of income.

“Listen, anyone could stack shelves, and that’s true. But it’s not just as simple as getting a new job, and I don’t think, from a governmental perspective, they really take the human perspective in. You can’t take one from the other — if you’re a comedian stacking shelves, you’re still a comedian, stacking shelves. And trust me, I would not be good at that job, because I’m a f***ing comedian. The reason I’m a comedian is I’m leveraging the fact people are going to be laughing at me anyway, so I may as well try and make a career out of it.

“What would happen to the next generation of carpenters if there was no wood to carve? What would happen to the next generation of builders if concrete just evaporated? Comedy, or any art form, is constantly evolving and changing, and you need new people learning how to do it, and the more experienced people learning what works and what doesn’t — a small room is the perfect place to test that.

“Getting into the same room as people and seeing entertainment, affordably, is important. It’s just like, ‘Yeah, I’m on the same page as everybody else’. It’s valuable. We live in a very monetised world, and there should be access to things. It shouldn’t be dictated by whether you’re wealthy or not.

“We said [last year] that we were four weeks from bankruptcy, sent a mail out, and within four hours 1,000 people had joined our Patreon. It’s nuts. Before that happened, we’ve had phone calls from big acts saying, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’. I think a lot of people have been very touched by everybody else, in a real way, so I guess that’s the biggest positive.”

Tamara Cowan, programmer and promoter, Camden Comedy Club

Camden Comedy Club

Sat atop the (other) Camden Head pub, this venue didn’t apply for the first round of the Culture Recovery Fund — at that point, it had survived the first wave and managed to host in-person gigs between lockdowns — although it has applied for the second round. It is currently running a crowdfunding campaign, which you can donate to here.

“The grassroots are part of the whole ecosystem of the comedy industry. It’s training for comedians: you go and do horrible little gigs on a Monday night in front of some drunk students when you first start, and then you start getting 20 quid payments, and then you build up and get better and better and eventually, hopefully you are on Live at the Apollo. If you don’t have that, I think the quality in the comedy we’re watching on TV is going to be lessened.

“[The pandemic] has just been sad and frustrating. It’s one of those things, I think you don’t really know what you’ve got until it’s gone. You’ve got the online stuff, but if people are going to sit in their home and watch something, you’re a little Zoom gig filmed on laptops competing with the entire collection of Netflix, Disney+ and the new Apple thing. And although you get something out of it, watching at home, it’s just not the same. Never has been.

“Going back for those two months [of in-person gigs], it was amazing how happy everybody was. All the live comedy shows were overrunning by 40 minutes — obviously this was before curfew — because all the acts were so excited to be back on stage. It was like, ‘Just do 15 minutes’, and 40 minutes later they’ve done over half an Edinburgh hour.

“I think the Government has started to learn throwing around dates is not a very good idea. I think that if they give us dates, it creates false hope. What would be really good is a plan without any dates on it all. We know the schools will go back first, and we’ll be quite a long way down the line, but it would be interesting to know where we come in the pecking order.”

Ryan Taylor, head of comedy, The Pleasance

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The Pleasance — known for its Edinburgh Fringe operation and its all-year Islington theatre — received £415,000 in government and council grants. Last year, it generated more than £89,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. It hosted a handful of in-person gigs at the end of 2020 before the third national lockdown.

“It’s just been so challenging from a company point of view. There’s been so much anxiety and worrying about what’s going to happen, and just waiting to see what will happen. We spend all our time planning stuff and then cancelling it, then trying to plan for the future again, but then cancelling it again. We’re stuck in a limbo at the moment of not being able to do anything, when all we want to do is put shows on. I mean, that’s what we do. It’s been crippling in that way.

“In December, I was furious. We had designed this Covid-safe venue, we spent huge amounts of money on this, and [the Government] decided to shut us. At the same time, you looked at Oxford Street and the shops and all of that, and it was just rammed with people because they were still spending, spending, spending for Christmas. If it’s about money, we make a huge contribution in the entertainment industry in this country. I feel like we’re the easy target.

“These sweeping rules that apply to every single venue, there’s no nuance in it at all, whatsoever. It’s just, ‘Oh, you’re all this, so you need to shut up, and you’re all there, so you need to open’. There’s no kind of, ‘Oh, actually, you’re really safe and you have worked to the guidelines’. I feel like we have to make [a large] amount of noise just to be listened to.

“One of the real positives that came out this was all the venues working together. We were all helping each other out. We were all kind of going, ‘You need to apply for this funding’ or ‘How do you fill out this form?’. It’s been really nice in London, everyone’s helped each other, even with each other’s crowdfunders.

“I’ve worked at Pleasance for many years and I’ve never been so ecstatic [as when the venue hosted in-person gigs late last year]. The audiences were incredible. It really gave us that bit of optimism that when this is all over, people will go out like they have never gone out before.”

David Armitage, The Cavendish Arms

Cavendish Arms

This Stockwell pub hosts comedy nights as well as live music. During the pandemic, it has been running both live-streamed shows from its newly built studio and, when possible, in-person gigs. It raised £21,000 through a crowdfunder last summer, but has not received any money from the Culture Recovery Fund.

“We lease our building as a pub, and we’ve transformed half of it into a venue, but technically, our licence is that of a pub with a live entertainment element, and we’re not registered as a live music and comedy venue. It was all about that definition [when trying to apply for the Culture Recovery Fund] and we found that a struggle.

“Before lockdown, what we wanted to be was a place for people to start out with music, comedy, dance, whatever — a grassroots venue with no barriers to entry. If you want to perform, come and do it with us. That’s always been our thing. There’s no money to be made in doing that, it’s a ridiculous thing to do, because nobody pays to come and see people starting out in their careers — but it’s just something we believe in.

“When people were allowed out but weren’t travelling as far, we doubled the numbers of people coming to the pub for a drink, because local people started coming when they used to go up into the West End. I think maybe people have become more aware of this kind of smaller thing.

“Since the first lockdown, we’ve had so many incarnations [each time the Covid rules changed] and so many hoops to jump through each time. And we just said, ‘Right, let’s jump through that hoop. Where are you putting the hoops now? Alright, we’re jumping.’ We’ve had the support of the community of performers too, saying, ‘Yeah, come on, we’ll jump with you’.

“The opening and closing has done more damage than good. In the last reopening, which lasted about five weeks, we invested in a load of marquees, patio heaters and electrics so people could sit outside. That must have cost us about three grand, and three-and-a-half weeks later, we closed down again. And then we’re not opening again until May, so that was three grand that was spent but wasn’t necessary.

“Somebody said that this is the death of the arts, or the death of comedy. It’s not. It might be the death of some venues, which is awful, but it’s not the end of art, music and comedy. It’ll be going on somewhere. Someone will be doing it somewhere. Try stopping everyone.”

Nick Mills, owner, 2Northdown and 21Soho

2Northdown

/ Adam King

Nick Mills, who runs King’s Cross comedy spot 2Northdown, received the licence for his new venue 21Soho just days before the first national lockdown hit in March. A crowdfunder earlier this year raised more than £8,000, which was topped up by the Mayor of London’s Back To Business scheme, although neither venue has received money from the Culture Recovery Fund. 21Soho was able to host some in-person gigs between lockdowns, and both venues have broadened their offering to provide food and drink during the pandemic.

“21Soho was so new that, even though it was registered and open before the criteria, it seemed to fall through the cracks. After appeal, appeal, appeal, it was denied any funding until recently — only this time round were we able to get furlough for Lockdown Three. The only grant we got from a local authority was the one from Lockdown One, I think it was the £25k, which was announced in April, but we didn’t see the funds until July, I think.

“Supposedly, our insurance covers business interruption, and we have a line for infectious disease. But when we first went to go and claim, they said it has to be a named disease — SARS, smallpox, whatever. I was like, ‘You’re really gonna…? Cool.’ The Supreme Court [ruling from January favouring policyholders in Covid-19 business interruption claims] means that hopefully we might have some sort of claim.

“So much media attention has been on hospitality overall, not on theatre or events spaces. We were leaps ahead of any restaurant, pub or bar because of the amount of measures and risk assessments we had to put in: security doing temperature checks, socially distanced queueing outside, hand sanitiser, ushered to your seats, drinks ordered to your seats, social distancing with everyone facing the same direction, not like a restaurant where you’re sitting across from each other. The comedian was two or three metres away from the stage, minimum, and each comedian had their own microphone for the night, which was sanitised properly, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And yet the media gave it no attention. We just found it so frustrating.

“The shift in media to some form of Eat Out to Help Out for live entertainment I think is [important to] getting people back out. There is huge demand, I know, but just making it clear that we are safe, I think that’s the thing. You think of a venue and you’re going to go, ‘Oh no, that sweaty box where I used to go to my favourite gig’. Well, no actually, [the venues] are taking things seriously. They are safe places to go.

“We’ve got to be positive, right? We’re going to get through this. We’re going to get to the other side. People need comedy. It naturally brings so much laughter, and everyone needs a bit of joy and a laugh at the minute, so I want to get more people to see live comedy as soon as possible. It’s a needed industry.”

Entertainment

British Museum restores Nero’s track record in blockbuster exhibit

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British Museum restores Nero’s reputation in blockbuster show
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he final sufferer of Ancient Rome’s “cancel culture” will be rehabilitated in a blockbuster present at the British Museum following thirty day period.

Nero: The Man Guiding the Myth will analyze how Rome’s fifth emperor experienced his name wrecked right after his dying with all point out of him deleted from official information and statues bearing his likeness torn down.

Curator Thorsten Opper said the image handed down to us of a brutal tyrant who fiddled when Rome burned was created by historians writing after his death who utilized him as a scapegoat for the empire’s problems.

He claimed: “If you seem at the latest US election campaign we are weirdly entering a period of time all over again where news is not neutral, it’s very aggressive, it is incredibly partisan, so just imagine if you only have 50 percent of that information in long run generations to publish a record of our time period you could close up with a little something similar.

“Nero was in many methods a target but in order for them not to acknowledge that they experienced to establish him up into this monster.”

Among the the 200 exhibits collected from about the entire world for the exhibit are illustrations of avenue graffiti praising his rule that had been preserved when Pompeii was buried less than volcanic ash soon soon after his loss of life in 68Advert.

Most of the statues developed through his lifetime ended up ruined when his reign finished but the clearly show involves a bronze head of Nero discovered in a Suffolk river and an additional portrait that was recarved to glimpse like his successor Vespasian.

Mr Opper said: “You can see some traces in the marble surface area in which it is crystal clear it was recarved.

“Not like the Colston statue [of English slave trader Edward Colston] that they just set in the harbour in Bristol, this just one was recarved and turned into his successor. It was a Nero and they physically altered it so it then became Vespasian.”

The exhibition will also appear at the somewhat new “Wild West” Roman province of Britain which was conquered shortly prior to Nero arrived to energy.

It contains treasure hidden through the assault on Colchester by British tribes led by Boudica – regarded as the Fenwick Hoard it was uncovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a store on Colchester’s Higher Street.

It is considered the treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during the rebellion.

Amongst the goods are Roman cash, army armlets and fashionable jewellery equivalent to finds from Pompeii.

British Museum director Hartwig Fischer claimed the clearly show was “the to start with significant exhibition in the United kingdom to search outside of the generally held watch of Nero as the Emperor who fiddled even though Rome burned”.

He reported: “The exhibition’s representation of Nero is 1 that resonates with our instances, in a globe with deepening social and financial difficulties, contested info and the polarisation of impression.”

The museum strategies to reopen on May well 17 with the Nero exhibition opening 10 times later on and managing to Oct 24.

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