Everywhere you turn in the North there’s a comedy festival. Take a wrong turning down a country lane and at the end is a big top with some comedian stood in the middle, microphone in hand… friesian cows looking on.
Seriously though, given the richness of the comedy circuit across the North of England it’s no surprise there are several full scale festivals where acts and punters get together to celebrate mirth.
In the summer there was Jesterval in Gateshead and both Barnard Castle and Leeds launched inaugural festivals looking to make them bigger and better next year. Then there was a break so that all could head up to that little comedy festival in August north of the border. Following that the Liverpool Comedy Festival kicked off its Autumn season in September.
Run by the Comedy Trust, set up in 2002 specifically to run the festival as part of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture bid for 2008, the Liverpool Comedy Festival is a community and education programme which works with young people. It now incorporates work focusing on mental health. Sam Avery joined the trust in 2006 and last year was his first as artistic director of the festival.
Avery is particularly excited by 2015’s success. “This year was our biggest yet – more shows and loads of press coverage and our biggest audiences since 2012 [when John Bishop did seven nights at the Echo Arena]. I was particularly proud of the Withnail & I screening and the Q&A with Paul McGann at the Odeon Liverpool ONE. People were actually crying at the event because of how important that film is to people.”
Just as the Liverpool Comedy Festival drew to close, the Last Laugh Comedy Festival (the festival formerly known as Sheffield) took up the gauntlet with the likes of Alan Carr and Bill Bailey performing. Southport Comedy Festival began last week as did the Women in Comedy festival. That last Manchester-based event is a bit different because, as the title suggests, it’s an all women affair.
The festival was launched three years ago by Hazel O’Keefe who founded and has run the female comedy club Laughing Cows since 1998. She was provoked into action by a well-established comedy promoter who confessed that he “wouldn’t take the risk” of putting two women on the same bill.
O’Keefe says: “Running female-dominated line-ups was my natural feminist response, proving the point that a comedy night with more than one female could be successful. Laughing Cows comedy shows now run all over the UK and the shows are always well attended.”
The festival has been a natural progression. “My passion for the Women in Comedy festival arose from the need to evidence the vast number of females involved in the comedy scene and to encourage promoters and agents to attend the festival and scout for talent. It’s been something I have wanted to do for several years so it was a matter of timing. Over the past couple of years I feel that the comedy scene has changed for the better. I used to be able to confidently name most of the female acts in the UK. That’s not the case now. I probably only know 20 per cent of the artists. I wanted to create something which encourages development and networking, but ultimately a festival in the UK to showcase and that celebrates like this was inevitable.”
Next month sees the launch of The Greater Manchester Comedy festival. For many years the Manchester Comedy Festival was run by the Comedy Store. After that ended the guys at the Kings Arms decided to launch their own festival (they’d already been the hub of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival).
“It’s a scaled back version of our July festival, with seven venues instead of 32 and just featuring comedy,” says one of the organisers, Lisa Connor. The shows are a mixture of performances. “Some are preparing for next year’s Edinburgh Fringe and others are bringing their successful Ed fringe shows back for one last hurrah. We have several plays, sketch shows, stand up and music.”
So it’s onwards and upwards for comedy events in the North. Avery is certainly looking to the future with his relatively new post. “I’ve said since I took over that I wanted to connect with as many people as possible and we’re certainly on the right track. Next year will be bigger and better and we’ve already got our eyes on who we want to bring to the city.”