Leicester Comedy festival will be celebrating its 24th outing in 2017. Ahead of the event, Great Central chatted with creator and organiser Geoff Rowe about how his baby has grown into a full-sized festival that attracts huge numbers of people to the city.
King Richard III and football have put Leicester on the map, but Leicester Comedy Festival has been slogging away at changing the world’s perception of our city for almost a quarter of a century. Each year it attracts more than 60,000 people from all over the globe to the East Midlands, but it didn’t start by aiming for such huge popularity, Geoff says. “There was never any idea that the festival would continue; certainly not in the first year.” During his Arts Administration studies at De Montfort University, Geoff started the festival as a student project. “We did it as part of our coursework. When I graduated, I had nothing else to do so decided to carry the festival on and that pattern repeated itself for the first five years or so. It was such good fun but I never thought it would become a ‘proper job’, or last this long.”
“There are very few independent festivals that last 24 years”
24 years later, De Montfort University – where it all started – is one of the festival’s biggest partners, and they’ve gained support from Leicester City Council after fnding from main sponsor Dave TV ended earlier in 2016. “Both Leicester City Council and De Montfort University are our main partners. We work really closely with both organisations and their support is really important. In this sort of situation, we can continue to make the case for why the festival is a good thing and hopefully folk will continue to support the event.”
This change won’t influence the 2017 event, explains Geoff. “Dave were always pretty hands off in terms of the acts that come and the shows we produce. They were hugely supportive in other ways but I hope no one really notices that they are no longer title sponsor. They are still involved as a sponsor but their name is no longer in the title of the festival. They are a great bunch and we love working with them.”
With special events such as The UK Pun Championships, Silver Stand Up and the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year contest, The Guardian rightfully named Leicester Comedy Festival ‘one of the top five comedy festivals around the world’ a couple of years ago, competing with big names including the Edinburgh Fringe. Geoff has his feet firmly on the ground though. “I think we are sometimes quoted in those sorts of lists because we have been going for such a long time. There are very few independent festivals that last 24 years and I’m really proud that we’ve managed to keep Leicester Comedy Festival going. Is it important to stay in the top five? I guess it is, but it’s not something that I think about that often to be honest.”
There’s no doubt the festival does a lot for Leicester. It started in 1994 with three headline names on the bill; Matt Lucas, Harry Hill and John Shuttleworth. In 2016 the festival managed to put on over 780 shows, spread over 65 venues in 19 days. For 2017 they aim to top last year’s record and even though the festival is expanding every year, a lot of effort is put into keeping the quality of the festival as high as possible. “We work with performers, promoters, agents and venues that we trust. The live comedy industry is still fairly small in the UK and we generally all know each other so word spreads quickly when there are good, new, emerging acts around. Much of the credit for the festival programme has to go to the promoters and venues as they put on the majority of the shows.”
Having a festival of such a size in Leicester gives an enormous opportunity to local comedians trying to get their work out to the public. Geoff is clearly passionate about this side of the event. “It’s great that there is now such a strong local scene and both acts and promoters who put on shows throughout the year and within the festival period. I think for a few years local acts felt a bit ignored so we worked with local promoters and comedians and established the Fridge, which is essentially a banner for them to work under, and get useful additional promotion. There are a few emerging Leicester legends in terms of comedians, people who perform every year and always try and put on something different.”
With about 800 acts on the schedule this year, it makes it ridiculously easy to find something you love, but makes picking a top five nearly impossible for Geoff. “I can’t possibly pick five acts, otherwise the other 795 will be really angry with me! The honest answer is that I try and see as many acts I’ve not seen before, as well as catching up with some friends who have performed in the festival for many years. My advice is to check out the full brochure and pick your own highlights.”
The 24th Leicester Comedy Festival will take place from 8th-26th February in venues all over Leicestershire. Make sure to check out the brochure and the Comedy Festival website to see which acts and special events tickle your fancy.