Mark Thomas and Jo Brand to Josie Long and Eddie Izzard: Six of the best from the British Comedy Archive

| 09 February 2016

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive was established at the University of Kent in 2013, inspired by two collections relating to stand-up comedy and comedians: The Linda Smith Collection and the John Pidgeon Collection

A photo of two cassette tapes with writing on it
© BSUCA. Photo: Matt Wilson/University of Kent
Since early 2015, the university has been actively collecting material relating to stand-up comedy in the UK. The archive now contains more than 24 collections, from performers like Alexei Sayle, Josie Long, Mark Thomas and Robin Ince to promoters, venues, comedy organisations such as Funny Women, radio producers and researchers collecting material as part of surveys of stand-up comedy.

Audio-visual recordings, set-lists, scripts, publicity material, photographs, press, correspondence and props all figure, giving Archivist Elspeth Millar plenty of material to work with.

A photo of a series of bookings books with ink writing within them
© BSUCA/Monika Bobinska/University of Kent

The Meccano Club bookings book

“This is a page from the bookings book kept by Monika Bobinska for the Meccano Club, a comedy club in Islington which she ran from 1986 until 1995.

I think the book is interesting from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it runs from 1987 through to 1995, so seven years of bookings for the club are kept in one A5-size notebook.

A black and white photo of a flyer for a comedy performance by mutiple comedians
© Monika Bobinska
Visually the notebook gets messier as the years go on, as more performers started doubling up gigs in one night, meaning many last-minute cancellations. The book also demonstrates how well-known comedians today began their careers on the circuit.

Comedians such as Alan Davies, Jo Brand (who used the stage name 'The Sea Monster' early in her career), Mark Steel (often spelt with an extra 'e'), Ivor Dembina, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, Jenny Eclair, Felix, Mark Lamarr, Phill Jupitus, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, Robin Ince and Jo Caulfield all performed regularly at the Meccano and feature regularly in the book.

The book also demonstrates how the club was run on the door-split basis, as many clubs were, with the comedians, promoters and compere all receiving an equal split of the door takings. “

A black and white photo of a flyer for a comedy performance by mutiple comedians
© Peter Grahame

Flyer for Stereo Graffiti's Alternative Cabaret, 1987

“Nick Toczek is a writer and performance poet. In the 1980s and 1990s he ran cabaret nights in Yorkshire, including Stereo Graffiti, Bradford Alternative Cabaret and Tumbling Hill Street Blues. Some of Nick's posters and flyers were included within the Linda Smith Collection, but we are lucky that Nick has deposited more flyers with the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive.

These flyers and posters demonstrate how varied the circuit was in the 1980s and show the variety of performers who performed together, as well as demonstrating the types of circuits that many well-known comedians began performing in.

A photo of a series of bookings books with ink writing within them
© BSUCA/Nick Toczek/University of Kent
This flyer, from 1987, shows solo comedians such as Steve Coogan, the Joan Collins Fan Club (Julian Clary), and Linda Smith, poets (such as Attila the Stockbroker, Henry Normal, Mark Miwurdz, Benjamin Zephaniah and John Cooper Clarke), comedy acts (The Chuffinelles) and musicians.

What I also like about this flyer is how it demonstrates the political undercurrents behind much of alternative comedy and cabaret in the late 1970s and 1980s. Nick's cabaret nights were run as not-for-profit with any funds left after running costs donated to the cause of that evening.” See more flyers from the club on Flickr.”

A photo of a printed version of a comedian's set-list
© Estate of Linda Smith / University of Kent

Linda Smith's set-list, 2001

“We have a number of set-lists from around 2001 – they are great at showing techniques comedians use when performing their routines, how each show will be tailored depending on the location of the gig or how well a routine worked previously.

We have received set-lists, stage notes and even spider diagrams for creating show overviews from comedians including Linda Smith, Robin Ince, Mark Thomas, and Josie Long.

This set-list is from Linda Smith, dated 2001, when she began to go back to stand-up comedy after focusing for a few years on radio work.”

A photo of a stuffed pinata showing a man's yellow head which has fallen off his body

Mark Thomas' Nick Clegg piñata

“Between May 2013 and May 2014 Mark Thomas set himself the task of committing 100 'minor acts of dissent'; if he failed to complete these 100 he pledged to donate £1,000 to UKIP.

Many of the acts were intended to galvanise people, and for the audience to take part outside of the space of a stand-up comedy show or theatre. Acts included staging an all-women remote control car race outside the Saudi Arabia embassy (to highlight the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia), subverting the shelf markers in Tesco (to state ‘2 for 4’, ‘CCTV Blind Spot’), and campaigning for the living wage for John Lewis cleaners.

A photo of a black and white cartoonish design for a comedy club
Original poster for Near The Knuckle presents The Crack Club, at the Cumberland Arms, Byker. Performers included Anvil Springstein, Big Fun Club, Ross Noble, and Royston Robertson, compered by Tony Mendoza© Royston Robertson
The Nick Clegg piñata was Act 95, made for an event in Sheffield’s Memorial Gardens which was to protest about broken promises made by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election.

Inside the piñata were slips of paper with the broken promises as well as a copy of the Coalition Agreement. Mark completed 104 Acts, and many of the props from the campaign were then used in an exhibition (#ArtOfDissent), which was staged at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield from May 21-28 2014.”

A photo of a set of notes for a comedy performance written in black ink
Stand-up notes by Linda Smith for her show at The Duchess in Leeds (1993)© BSUCA

The events collection

“We've been lucky that comedians have been willing to take part in events for the archive, both at the University of Kent and Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015. These events were all recorded and have been added to the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive, including interviews with Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand, Susan Calman, and Stephen K Amos.

We are also hosting an annual Linda Smith Lecture to celebrate Linda’s life and work, her interest in comedy and its use in and for political and social commentary, and also to promote the work of the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive.

A photo of a male comedian in a suit speaking to a crowd
Phill Jupitus in conversation at the university in September 2015© BSUCA/University of Kent
This year Andy Hamilton will be our guest speaker, but the inaugural Lecture in 2015 was given by Mark Thomas.

The entire recording is archived within the BSUCA, but we have some extracts available via our SoundCloud profile.”

A photo of two cassette tapes with writing on it
© BSUCA. Photo: Matt Wilson/University of Kent

The John Pidgeon collection

John Pidgeon began his career as a music journalist, writing for publications such as the NME and Let It Rock before becoming a radio producer, initially on music documentaries before working on music and comedy radio programmes.

During this time he produced programmes such as Laughing Matters, Talking Comedy and Chic Murray: The Comic's Comic, before he became Editor of BBC Radio Entertainment (1999-2005), where he championed programmes such as The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.

A black and white photo reel of a man and a woman pulling various comedy faces
A 1989 photo shoot with Mark Thomas and Linda Smith used to promote the Gift of the Gag tour (1990)© Steve Double, 1989
John deposited an amazing collection of unedited audio interviews recorded on Digital Audio Tape with the archive, mostly recorded for Laughing Matters and Talking Comedy, broadcast on BBC Radio 2.

These interviews with comedians, including Eddie Izzard, Harry Hill, Al Murray, Joan Rivers, and Ronni Ancona, are unique. They average between one and two hours in length, and feature comedians talking about who their comedy heroes are and who influences them.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to find comedy gold in

The Rik Mayall Bottom bench, London
Hammersmith Borough Council replaced this famous bench from the sweary sitcom, which Mayall had lamented the removal of, following his death in 2014.

Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, Exeter
Dedicated to the history of the moving image, including a research centre where items from the library and the reserve collections can be consulted.

Museum of Comedy, London
Founded by Leicester Square Theatre director Martin Witts, this interactive, immersive museum features iconic props and artefacts from comedic history.
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