Comedy clubs get serious with funding warning

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“I don’t think there will be an industry to go back to,” says Kiri Pritchard-McLean

Comedy clubs have called for a slice of the government’s £1.5bn emergency arts funding, with a warning that hundreds face closure within the next year.

Comedy wasn’t mentioned when the government announced its bailout package for the arts on Sunday.

Half of the clubs that took part in a Live Comedy Association survey said they would definitely face permanent closure without financial support.

Chair Brid Kirby said small venues were “the bedrock of the entire industry”.

She told BBC News: “All of the household names will have started in those clubs. The risk of those clubs disappearing therefore poses a risk that we could lose a whole new generation of voices from the industry.”

The association surveyed more than 660 people working in comedy, from venue owners and stand-up performers to producers and publicists, about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It found:

  • 49.2% of venues think they will definitely face permanent closure without further funding or support
  • 45% of workers have given serious thought to leaving comedy
  • 24% have taken up work outside comedy
  • 28% have been ineligible for any government assistance, despite needing support
  • 73.5% have found their mental health negatively impacted by job uncertainty

There are 600 comedy clubs in the UK, according to the association. Kirby said: “We need live comedy to be included in the distribution of this £1.57bn.

“The concern currently is that as we have had a longstanding history of being overlooked as an art form [for funding], we’re really worried at not seeing comedy listed in the press release and not being able to get any clarity on whether we will be included once the details are announced.”

Kirby has met officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who told her there was no reason comedy would be actively excluded but that they were waiting for guidelines, she said.

A DCMS spokesperson told BBC News: “This week we announced the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture to help the industry through the coronavirus pandemic. This funding will provide targeted support to organisations and venues across a range of sectors and detailed eligibility criteria will be set out in the coming weeks.”

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, comedian Shazia Mirza said small clubs were vital for all performers who go on to play bigger venues or star on TV.

“We’ve been ignored because no money is being pumped into these small clubs,” she said.

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Mark Watson said Britain’s live comedy scene is “the best and most vibrant in the world”

Fellow stand-up Kiri Pritchard-McLean warned: “I don’t think there will be an industry to go back to. The people giving this money don’t understand how the industry works, least of all comedy.

“We have one of the best comedy circuits in the world because we have so many brilliant comedy clubs, which means you can gig several times a night and get really great at what you do.

“If those institutions aren’t being helped… then it disappears and we stop being world leaders in this.”

In a statement, comic Mark Watson said the British live comedy scene was “the best and most vibrant in the world” and “produces work on a fraction of the budgets enjoyed by theatre, opera, or anything else”.

He added: “Any rescue plan for the performing arts needs to include it.”

The government has said the grants and loans would be available to “the performing arts and theatres, heritage, historic palaces, museums, galleries, live music and independent cinema”.

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