For the last twenty two years, Geoff Rowe has organised the Leicester Comedy Festival. Organising a comedy festival doesn’t get old – after twenty two years he still finds the job exciting. The nerves are gone now though, perhaps that’s because he thinks this is one of the best festivals that he and The Big Difference Company have put together. Geoff says that he’s ‘really chuffed with the range of venues and events we’ve got. It’s easily the biggest festival we’ve ever done.’
The festival includes comedians of every level, from eager up-and-comers to bona fide comedy legends. At past festivals, tribute has been paid to Monty Python, Paul Merton and many others. Last year Ken Dodd was presented with the festival’s ‘Legend of Comedy’ award and Geoff is particularly happy with the Norman Wisdom Exhibition which will feature this year.
Geoff explained why the late Wisdom was especially important to the festival; ‘Norman Wisdom was a patron. When we set it up we were a bunch of students from De Montfort University and no industry people had heard of us before’. Wisdom’s support, along with that of fellow comedian Tony Slattery, helped the festival enormously when it first began in 1994. The exhibition features sixty original framed exhibits – old posters, original scripts and his original cap and suit. ‘His son has put it together for us, it’ll be at De Montfort Hall for the whole festival, it’s free and I think it’s fantastic.’
Thanks to Wisdom’s support, Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival is now the longest running independent arts festival in the UK. It’s not run by a local authority or a venue, ‘which means we can just focus on the festival, if you’re a venue you’ve got to think about running the venue for the other 49 weeks of the year and if you’re a local authority you have a political environment to work in. If you’re a university you run it from an academic point of view or a research point of view. We don’t have those direct influences on us. I think we can be freer to pick and choose what we do and I think that’s a positive thing.’
The festival is also heavily involved in supporting local talent. ‘In recent years there’s been an explosion – there are a lot of locally based comedians.’ As a result of conversations with these comedians, The Leicester Fridge was born. This new initiative, which is making its debut at this year’s festival, gives local acts the opportunity to perform together under the banner of the ‘Leicester Fridge’. Geoff said that ‘the festival can play a role in helping aspiring comedians. We’ve always done quite a lot of workshops and courses for people who want to do stand –up, so I guess this is the next step.’
Geoff has previously said that he had always wanted to be a music promoter. When I ask if this is a dream he still wants to pursue, he tells me that he much prefers promoting comedy; ‘Comedy is a million times easier than promoting music because there’s generally one person on stage, rather than five or six, and you don’t have to do sound checks as much or lighting cues or any of that.’ He explains that ‘the comedy industry is really quite small so the number of agents you need to talk to and the amount of acts you need to talk to, is relatively small compared with music.’ Both the music industry and the comedy industry have changed hugely in the twenty two years since the festival began. Geoff thinks that the comedy industry has grown up; ‘When we started in the 90s there was still this idea of alternative comedy, so it’s not that long that mainstream comedy would have been working men’s clubs’ comedy.’ With the advent of arena gigs and television stand-up shows, what was once considered ‘alternative comedy’ is now far more mainstream. Despite this, Geoff says that ‘It’s not fully matured yet, there’s still room for growth, but it’s much better now than it was twenty years ago. ‘
Film, art and photography have always played a role in the festival, but Geoff isn’t interested in developing this to the point where the festival becomes an all encompassing arts festival like the Edinburgh Fringe. He says that they’ve talked about the idea many times, and says; ‘I’ve never run an arts festival, I might really enjoy running an arts festival.’ He can’t quite explain why, but he likes the fact that the festival is just about comedy. I suggest that this might be due to the purity of it. Geoff says that this sounds too pompous.
The Big Difference Company also put on their own shows during the festival, including The UK Pun Championship and Comedy in the Dark. Comedy in the Dark was inspired by a season at the Battersea Arts Centre which was geared towards people who are blind and visually impaired. The season, which was promoted by a brochure which was half in Braille, featured a gig, a play and various other performances which were all in the dark. For years after receiving the brochure, Comedy in the Dark fermented in the back of Geoff Rowe’s mind. Finally, six years ago, an opportunity to realise it presented itself. The Big Difference Company were approached by The Big Switch Off (now ‘Earth Hour’) an organisation encouraging people to switch off their lights to save electricity. The Big Switch Off wanted to promote their event in Leicester and asked if Geoff and company had any ideas. ‘So I thought , in the back of my head I had this idea about doing a comedy show in the dark, maybe we could do that.’ Geoff is keen to assure me that this isn’t the future of stand-up; ‘I’m not on a campaign to make all comedy shows forever in the dark, it’s a silly concept and it seemed to work relatively well so we’ve done it ever since.’ It’s amazing what a Big Difference turning the lights off makes; ‘the comedian can’t read anything from the audience. At a normal comedy show, even if you aren’t laughing out loud and are just smiling, the comedian can see that you’re enjoying it, but in Comedy in the Dark you don’t have that.’ Not all the acts have enjoyed this challenge, telling Geoff that it’s a ridiculous concept which doesn’t work and that the best way to see comedy is with the lights on. To which Geoff’s answer is; ‘yeah, you’re probably right, the best way to see comedy is with the lights on, but it’s just a silly idea.’
There are many more, silly or otherwise, ideas lurking in Geoff Rowe’s brain; ‘there’s a number of comedians I’ve approached for twenty two years to do see if they’ll do the festival and every year they’ve said no, but I will ask them again next year and the year after and the year after and at some point they’ll say yes and that’ll be fantastic.’ This of course begged the question, who are these comedians? ‘I ‘d love Stephen Fry to do the festival. There’s a whole list. He’s my top one. I couldn’t come up with two and three because then there’s also four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.’ He explains that, although the comedy industry may be relatively small, ‘it’s not as simple as just ringing up Victoria Wood and saying here’s a load of money will you come?’ He admits that he may have inadvertently revealed his ‘number two’ with this statement.
When I told Geoff that Bob Slayer has made me the Vice Chancellor of DMU, he begged me for my continued support; ‘we work really closely with DMU, they’ve supported the festival forever and I know a lot of people there, I like DMU, I like what the university’s trying to do very much and it’s a very dynamic organisation.’ As the festival was first founded by Geoff and his colleagues when they were all students at De Montfort, I tell him that I will carry on supporting his festival as long as I can continue to interview whoever I like.
Of course, for me to continue interviewing comedians, the comedians need to continue coming to the festival, and for comedians to continue coming to the festival, they need an audience. Here is what Geoff Rowe has to say to anyone who has never seen live comedy before: ‘They should give it a go. Unless they’re the most miserable person in the world, they must laugh at something. I think it’s reasonably accessible and it’s reasonably cheap, a lot of events are free. The worst that can happen is that they sit there and not enjoy it for an hour, and the best thing that can happen is that they laugh loads and have a great night out. If a film comes out people will naturally go and see a film. You might come out and say that film was rubbish, but that won’t stop you going to the cinema again. It just means you didn’t like that film. Comedy’s generally the same thing. Just take a punt. They’re generally not as long as films and you might really enjoy it.