How did Birmingham Comedy Festival start?

A rare copy of the 2001 Birmingham Comedy Festival brochure. The debut festival ran from May 5 to May 13, 2001.
Birmingham Comedy Festival 2001 brochure cover — the first and final year the festival used Comic Sans for a logo.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Birmingham Comedy Festival, making the annual arts festival the second longest-running comedy festivals in the UK, and one of the longest running multi-site independent arts festivals in the West Midlands.

Here, we quiz the festival’s founder, Dave Freak, to get the lowdown on how it all started …

A photo of the festival’s 2001 brochure featuring Australian comedy/ musical duo, Supergirly.
A photo of the festival’s 2001 brochure featuring Australian comedy/ musical duo, Supergirly.
Among the acts who appeared at the debut festival were Aussie duo Supergirly, who appeared at The Glee Club Birmingham on the final night. (Image taken from the 2001 festival brochure).

How did the festival start? What’s the origin story?

It was back in 2000. I was aware that there were a fair few small, grassroots comedy clubs dotted all around the city, and they regularly booked acts you’d recognise from the TV and Radio 4. But unless you lived in the area, there was a fair chance you wouldn’t know who they had on as they didn’t have big marketing budgets, and the internet was really only just starting to break into the mainstream. A festival seemed like a good way to highlight what was going on in the city at that time. So I approached some of the local clubs — Richard Batsford at The Gag Club, James Cook at The Comedy Kav, Simon Lipscomb at That’s The Badger, as well as Barbara Nice, John Simmit/Up Front — and they thought it was a no-brainer. Within a very short period, they were all on-board, as were The Glee Club, Birmingham Rep, several cinemas, Midlands Arts Centre … it was remarkable, everyone was so enthusiastic and supportive. It took a fair bit of planning, but we were aiming for spring 2001.

What was the first festival like?

Amazing! Seriously. Sean Lock, Frankie Boyle and Aussie duo Supergirly (who had a BBC TV series at the time) where at The Glee; Peter Kay joined Barbara Nice at The Station pub in Kings Heath, Reg D Hunter and Natalie Haynes, who both lived in Brum at the time, did a couple of shows; Sandi Toksvig was at the MAC with a new book and Jon Ronson was at Waterstones; and Out In The Open, directed by Kathy Burke and written by Jonathan Harvey, was at The Rep. We had a big photographic exhibition at Central Library, sketch groups, workshops, classic comedy films, improv, music, plays, cabaret…

And what was the response like? How did people react to the festival?

The response was really great — from audiences and the venues. We had great media coverage too. Stand-up comedy wasn’t as popular as it is today, you didn’t see it all over the TV like you do now, and there was no social media. It really succeeded in highlighting the vibrancy of the city’s comedy scene.

A photo of the festival’s 2001 brochure featuring a picture of a young Sean Lock.
A photo of the festival’s 2001 brochure featuring a picture of a young Sean Lock.
Another 2001 festival headliner was Sean Lock — another visitor to The Glee Club.

What happened next?

Well, as I say, the response was incredible, so we definitely had to do it again. Which is what we did. We moved it to the autumn, and our second Birmingham Comedy Festival was in October 2002.

Was that as big and as successful?

I’d say more so. Our headliner that year was The Fast Show -Live at The National Indoor Area. Peter Kay was back, this time at The Hippodrome, and we had Ed Byrne, Daniel Kitson, a celebration of 100 years of Ealing films, Ross Noble, John Bishop, and Miranda Hart was booked too. And the following year, 2003, we had Alan Carr, Jimmy Carr, Alexei Sayle, Al Murray, Ken Campbell, Stomp, Tom Stade, Milton Jones, Barry Cryer … and we’re still at it!

A montage of Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award winners. Several are holding their trophy.
A montage of Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award winners. Several are holding their trophy.
Birmingham Comedy Festival Breaking Talent Award winners. These include Andrew McBurney, Celya AB, Harv Hawkins and Laura Monmouth (pictured), and Josh Pugh (not pictured).

What are some of the things you’ve been most proud of over the years?

Well that first festival was phenomenal. Getting that off the ground, and the enthusiasm of everyone involved, was amazing. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of arts ‘festivals’ in Birmingham, but then, there were only a few by comparison - jazz, books, a film festival, ArtsFest … then us.

Winning several What’s On Readers’ Awards for Best Festival has been nice — especially when you consider how many huge, funded, tooled-up festivals there are nowadays. The comedy festival has none of those resources; it receives no funding, it’s volunteer-led.

We’re also proud of the Breaking Talent Award, which offers a platform for emerging talent from the West Midlands, and getting a few touring stage productions out on the road — selling out the British Library, in London, was very special. And we also love seeing acts move up, over the years, from doing 5–10 minutes to a bit longer the following year, and eventually develop a full hour show.

The festival has earned several awards over the years including, most recently, two What’s On Readers’ Awards 2020 for Best Arts Festival in the West Midlands and Best Arts Festival in Birmingham).

Is the West Midlands comedy scene strong?

Yes. It’s always been strong, there’s always been loads happening and loads of great acts, but I think the last few years have seen it growing in confidence. Josh Pugh, Celya AB, Good Kids, Danny Clives are all doing great things, and just look what Gary Powndland has achieved! There’s a generation of acts who’ve seen what Joe Lycett, Guz Khan and Gary Delaney have done, and — encouraged and supported by people like Barbara Nice and James Cook, who are arguably the cornerstones of the scene — are going for it.

Any tips for budding would-be comics?

Start small — do 5min open spots and build up your confidence and material, find out what works. Find your voice — who are you, what’s your story? Be prepared to fail. Everyone has died on stage. The secret is learning why and building on that. And listen — to other acts and to the audience.

What’s next for the festival?

We’re just working on the 2021 festival at the moment. This year was going to be a big one for us — we had a mini-festival in the spring, to coincide with our birthday in May, a touring show, and then a big autumn festival all planned. Sadly, the pandemic meant we had to park the spring festival and a few other projects. But we’re glad to be back in October. We had to scrap 2020’s ‘live’ festival, due to Covid restrictions — it just became impossible to co-ordinate — so we marked the occasion with some online activities, which went really really well: streamed shows, pods and radio stuff, a music commission. But being back ‘in the room’, with a live audience, is always the best.

Finally, tell us a joke.

Do I look like a comedian? [laughs]. Don’t answer that …

Award-winning arts festival. Making Britain’s Second City laugh since 2001.