It was meant to be a busy 2020 for comedian Will Duggan. “I was the tour support for Sofie Hagen, so I had all those gigs booked in, seven months of work, plus I was getting ready for the Edinburgh Festival.
“I remember we were in Sheffield in February and we were starting to be aware that Covid existed. Someone in the audience coughed and I said ‘Oh, you’d better not have it’ and everyone laughed. Then we talked about cancelling a couple of weeks at the end of March, thinking it would all blow over.”
Instead, everything was cancelled. “I’m mainly a circuit act – I’ve done a bit of radio and TV, otherwise this is a gig economy at the best of times. Still, this was a total shock,” says Duggan.
Crucially, all of his alternative means of employment were cut off too. “I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve been a supply teacher, and I take American high-school students on tours of Europe with Education First. But everything I had training and experience in went at once.”
Duggan did benefit from the Government’s Self Employment Support Scheme, but only to a certain extent, since it’s based on the average profits of the past three tax years. “I had a bad year personally in 2017 – I had a breakdown. I’m OK now, but that meant it brought the whole average down. I’ve not been this aware of my bank balance since I was 25.”
Four weeks into lockdown, Duggan took a job building ventilators at the Ford Dagenham plant. “They were contracted for 15,000 units. I was employed there for a month.” He also built ventilators at SDI in Basingstoke, but commuting from Walthamstow took hours.
There was a brief stint chauffeuring fellow comic Mark Watson, who was doing drive-in comedy gigs but couldn’t actually drive himself. “He lives round the corner from me, so that was easy.”
Duggan also had a bit of help from his parents. “But I’m 34 – they can’t bankroll me.” So he took a job at an Amazon delivery centre in Belvedere, south-east London. “Packages come from the distribution centre. I pick out the packages going on the same route, sort them, and then the drivers come and pick them up. I’m a ‘sortation associate’,” he quips.
“You tell them you’re available for a minimum of four days and then they let you know [which ones] each week. Some shifts are 5:45am to 2:30pm, but it’s all down to demand, so you might get a text at 2am saying you’re not needed that day. Having spent a long time getting to work on my own terms, it’s very different. I can’t ever turn the shift down.”
His fellow Amazon workers include “someone who used to manage a restaurant in Covent Garden, now shut down, another who was a high-end bar manager, and the French horn player from The Lion King in the West End.”
Is it sociable? “Not really. You’re mainly by yourself, doing your own thing.”
Duggan is quick to stress that he has “nothing against working for Amazon. The conditions are fine. But I’ve spent a decade of my life doing something else, something I love and I’m good at."
There have been times, he notes, where he has worked “somewhere else for a month to get by – that’s by choice. Now, I’m doing this for the foreseeable future. Who knows when comedy comes back in full? Is Edinburgh 2021 tenable?”
There was a TV panel show pilot for Dave, which Duggan says was filmed with social distancing. “But playing a comedy club with a quarter capacity – my wages probably half, and I’m still paying for travel. It’s gutting. I worked to make this dream a reality. Before this, I’d been a full-time comedian for five years, making a decent living."
Looking back, Duggan observes that “there was this push in the 1980s and 1990s towards self-starters and entrepreneurs. People like me did that and took the financial risk. I haven’t got a pension. And suddenly we’re branded ‘unviable’. Why? I pay my taxes on time. We were big business – you can’t move for comedy on TV.
“There’s a joke among some of my friends with PAYE jobs that comedians get up at midday and do nothing – that arts freelancers are dossers. That’s a dangerous view right now.”
It’s frustrating, says Duggan, that the self-employed “have to fight to get the same amount of help as everyone else, even though I’m a productive member of society. It’s already so stressful – now, I have to fight with the Government about whether I deserve to exist.”
Duggan says that his landlord has been “brilliant”. He explains: “He got in touch in March to say that he had a mortgage holiday, so my girlfriend and I could have a rent holiday. But that’s down to one person being kind. Not everyone is so lucky. I used to work in a restaurant in Manchester – that’s now in danger of closing down, because their landlord wanted 100 per cent pay for utilities even though it’s shut.”
Has this strange year furnished any good material? “Comedy comes from what you do. People won’t want to go out on a Saturday night and hear about me being stuck in lockdown – they’ve just lived it.”
For now, Duggan jokingly refers to himself as “a literal Santa’s elf” in his Amazon warehouse role. But, despite all the challenges, he still wants to get back to doing comedy – “no matter when that happens”.