British comedians in lockdown: ‘They’re in Amazon warehouses and Sainsbury’s vans’

Kiri Pritchard-McLean, compère of an online gig night, talks about keeping Britain laughing and how the Government has shunned the North

Kiri Pritchard-McLean says the second lockdown has been 'devastating'
Kiri Pritchard-McLean says the second lockdown has been 'devastating' Credit: Kayla Wren

Few stand-up comedians are laughing these days, with Covid-19 decimating their industry. So raise a glass to Kiri Pritchard-McLean, who has been providing much-needed gigs for her fellow comics, and raising thousands for charity, via her online “pub”, The Covid Arms.

Wales-based Pritchard-McLean is the landlady and host of these digital comedy club nights. They began in March during the first lockdown. “My friends Jess and Jake Lea-Wilson – who I went to primary school with – started running a Zoom pub with their mates, and asked if I fancied doing a gig,” she explains.

After comedians Rosie Jones, Stephen Bailey and Rachel Fairburn joined the line-up, they decided to charge for tickets, thinking an audience of 30 or 40 might appear. “Instead, 3,000 people came!” Pritchard-McLean says. “That’s enough to fill the Hammersmith Apollo. It showed the appetite for live comedy. Plus we raised £13,000 for charity. 

“So we kept going. We did a show every week for 14 weeks during lockdown, then went monthly. It gave me back a sense of routine – I’d have a wash and put on some fake eyelashes on a Saturday night. With all my work gone, my self-esteem had plummeted. It was nice to have a sense of purpose.”

The shows have raised an impressive £113,000 to date. Half goes to the Trussell Trust, a food-bank charity, the rest to the performers. “They’ve had their livelihoods torn away,” Pritchard-McLean says. “We’ve put around £50,000 in the pockets of comics.”

That support is desperately needed. The Live Comedy Association conducted an industry survey in June, and their findings were alarming: 77.8 per cent of comedy venues feared closure within the next year; over three-quarters of performers earned less than 5 per cent of their pre-pandemic income; and more than 45 per cent of respondents were giving serious thought to leaving comedy altogether, with just under 60 per cent predicting they’d need to leave before February 2021 unless live performances resumed.

“Usually,” says Pritchard-McLean, “one of the good things about being a comedian is you have a packed diary – you know you’ll be in Loughborough at 8pm in a year’s time.

“Worse, it’s those who aren’t doing regular TV or radio work or writing who’ve been hit hardest. British comedy is so brilliant because of all the people who play the circuit around the country – but that was the first to close because of Covid, and it’ll be the last to open. People see comedians on the telly, and think it’s all fine – they don’t realise how many are grafting away.”

Plus, she adds, those on screen tend to skew middle-class. Live comedy “is probably the most accessible art form. You don’t need to go to Rada. Just find a pub with a microphone.”

Now, she knows of headline acts who are “driving vans for Sainsburys or working in an Amazon warehouse. They’ve been making a living from comedy for 15 years, but now they have a mortgage and bills to pay, and no gigs. Things have opened up and closed again, which is devastating, like with this second lockdown. One friend told me he’d just lost £600 in two emails. Many people fronted money for the Edinburgh Festival, which can [cost] you £10,000.”

The live-streams have proved immensely popular Credit: Covid Arms

The shows at The Covid Arms feature big, ticket-selling names – like Mark Watson, Tom Allen, Nish Kumar, Aisling Bea, Ross Noble, Russell Howard and Sara Pascoe – alongside “stalwarts from the comedy circuit. Now, thousands of people get to see [the latter] and be blown away. You’ll never get someone more match-fit – they’re absolutely bullet-proof.”

What’s it like doing comedy into a computer camera? “You never know if anyone’s laughing – you have to arrogantly assume they are, which I do anyway!” Pritchard-McLean quips. The Covid Arms format does allow for some interaction: audience members can either pay £2 minimum for a livestream ticket, or £10 for a Zoom “front row” ticket, which means the host and comedians can talk to you.

“I love chatting to people – I used to get that gigging several times a week,” she adds. “Now, I get to judge people’s interior design choices too. It’s a shared experience: we run competitions, like a fancy-dress one for Hallowe’en with prizes from Beavertown Beer.” The front row is global: “We have everywhere from Edinburgh and Suffolk to a summer camp in America.”

As for the performers, “some choose a format. Rhod Gilbert did a live Would I Lie To You. Some are nervous and want me to stay on with them, and some just want to crack on and do it down the barrel, checking their material still works. I love live comedy and I miss it, so I’m happy to be the laughter track.”

Are we getting Covid jokes – or anything but? It’s a mix, says Pritchard-McLean. “The pandemic has given us a global reference point: we all know about hand sanitiser and face masks. And there’s a certain catharsis in processing it together. Russell Kane did a fantastic 20 minutes on lockdown.

“We’ve also had key workers watching the show – like our lovely recurring guests Mel and Jez, who are NHS doctors. Mark Watson asked how they felt about the clapping, and they said it really does mean something to feel that appreciation. I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that what I do, comparatively, is useless! But if we can give people like them a night of fun, that’s something.”

The gigs, Pritchard-McLean says, are also a vital resource “for those who are shielding or on their own, and just miss having that social interaction. It’s opened up live comedy to those who might not normally access it, too. I hope we keep that digital provision in the future.”

Pritchard-McLean cites Russell Kane (pictured) as an example of a great Covid Arms performer Credit: Getty

It was “a no-brainer” picking the Trussell Trust as their charity. “No one should go hungry in this country. In April, the demand for their emergency food parcels went up 108 per cent – in the North-East, it was 300 per cent. My mum is a mental-health advocate and I’ve done some outreach work, so I know how much these charities do and how privileged the rest of us are, if we’ve never had to worry about essentials like food – the horror of that. It’s sad that the Trust has to exist, but we’re so happy to support them.”

Pritchard-McLean is also concerned about well-known institutions such as the Manchester comedy club The Frog and Bucket. “It’s an outrage that they were overlooked by the Government’s rescue package. People bang on about outreach – well, you won’t find anywhere that’s started more working-class comics’ careers.” Additionally, lots of venues “are happy to host comedians’ touring shows in the good times, because we just need a mic and we’re profitable [for them] – but they’re not offering support now.”

Pritchard-McLean is working with the Welsh Government on long-term strategies to support the creative industries. “It’s not just about a chunk of money, but having creative-led plans – because we know what we need. If we’re entering the age of pandemics, then [let’s] help train people to go online, or find alternatives to international touring.”

In the meantime, there’s the next visit to The Covid Arms on November 21, featuring James Acaster, Sophie Duker, Ivo Graham and Kate McCabe. There’s also “a Christmas extravaganza” in the works, possibly with a live audience as well as the virtual one – restrictions permitting. 

“I can understand why everyone is focused on Christmas,” Pritchard-McLean says. “We’ve all had a year of this – can’t we just have a nice thing to look forward to?” Still, lockdown or no, The Covid Arms will be open.