Did cultural snobbery and a bias against northern comedy underpin a decision not to award the Frog and Bucket comedy club in Manchester money from the Culture Recovery Fund, leaving it fighting for its life?
It’s a month since the oldest comedy club outside London – which was set up in 1994 - learned that it would not receive a penny of support from the £1.57bn pot, during a funding round that benefited 1,385 venues. Jessica Toomey, its general manager, is still stumped and a bit suspicious. “I keep wondering about it.”
The list of Frog alumni rivals the roster of big finds attributed to its older, better known counterpart in London, The Comedy Store. It was where Peter Kay did his first gig, while a student at Salford university. Johnny Vegas started out there as well. Toomey remembers a seminal-surreal moment of vocational discovery: “John Bishop walked in as a customer and asked why some people were getting free beer. We explained they were the acts and he said, ‘Can I have a go?’ He never looked back”.
Other major names who honed their craft there include Jason Manford and Sarah Millican. Caroline Aherne put the place on the map with regular attendances and on one notorious night in the early 2000s performed a 60-minute version of The Wizard of Oz with accompaniment from New Order. Initially a converted pub, it relocated nearby to Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter in 1997. Oasis were in their pomp; the Frog and Bucket was helping make comedy the new rock ‘n’ roll.
But is it the northern identity of the place – affirmed by the above names – that has been held against it? Toomey – the daughter of the Frog’s founder Dave Perkin – went public with her dismay in October. The wording of the rejection letter, alluding to “whether your organisation is culturally significant and /or contributing to provide cultural opportunity in England” was, she said, “a real kick in the teeth”. “It’s two fingers up at the northern comedy again,” she was quoted as saying.
There were expressions of dismay in the local press and comedians from across the UK rallied, from Matt Forde (“This is a terrible decision") and Isy Suttie (“unbelievable”) to Ross Noble (“This is total bullsh-t. Every comic worth their salt in the last 30 years has played there”); Mark Steel put out the salient snarky Tweet: “Verdi was an entertainer for the masses, he'd have done 20 minutes at Manchester’s @frogandbucket”.
Toomey says she has since been reassured by the Arts Council that this was a standard-issue response and not the rationale for the rejected bid: “They talked about the very strict criteria the government had given them on the finances, and that we weren’t as competitive as others”.
Is there some degree to which unconscious cultural, class or social bias might have had a role, though? Brick Lane Music Hall was also an unsuccessful applicant – noting on its website: “The reasons stated are the lack of evidence of cultural significance and cultural diversity.” Earlier this month Ally Wolf general manager of the Clapham Grand, south London – which puts on music and comedy events – told the Telegraph: “It’s the kind of entertainment that doesn’t come with hugely high cultural value, it’s seen as more disposable.”
“Historically I’ve thought that the Arts Council had a snobbery towards comedy,” Toomey says. “But other comedy clubs in England that applied for it got the money.” One striking example is the Comedy Store, which opened a branch in Manchester at the start of the millennium and received more than £960,000. Compared to that figure the Frog and Bucket’s requested £60,000 was a mere drop in the bucket. But is it possible the Store was seen as more upmarket? “It could be that,” Toomey agrees. “Maybe we were seen as more down to earth”. And northern?
“Perhaps. The northern comedy scene is very special to the UK and the comedy output from Manchester is higher than anywhere else and that hasn’t been recognised. The comedy clubs that did get the grant are not involved in or don’t have the same output of northern humour. So much comedy comes out of the North West – and we’ve been paramount in that. So they’ve dismissed that.” Is northern comedy seen as a throwback, or lacking a sufficiently progressive edge? “Maybe there’s something in that.”
“There’s probably a lack of black comedians in the North West,” she continues. “But we do a lot for women in comedy – we run the women in comedy festival and have a regular female showcase. With four questions and a short word-count, it was impossible to get across everything we do and show how diverse we are.”
There was no means to appeal the decision. “The £60k would have kept us in a positive cash-flow until April and we demonstrated that by next October we would be back to where we were pre-Covid. The way I see it, it’s value for money – given the jobs and thousands of freelancers we support.”
The dismissal was all the more galling because the Frog and Bucket had helped the DCMS render venues Covid-secure. “The government needed a pilot comedy show and we had an all-female line-up for the first indoor gig in the UK on July 29.” There was no financial recompense for that trial and then came a sting in the tale. The go-ahead for phase four (socially distanced indoor performances) in England was initially given for August 1 (in fact delayed) but Manchester then went into local lockdown.
Just before they were allowed to reopen in September, with the capacity reduced from 230 to 90 – “They changed the rules and said ‘Only single household bookings’. We had to refund the bookings, which put us back again. Then they introduced the curfew – so we had to retime all our shows. Then they brought in Tier 2, then Tier 3. We had five weeks reopen before the new lockdown.” It’s an intensification of the rolling struggle since March, when, after being unable to get a business interruption loan, they secured a £50k bounce-back loan. “The stress has been unbelievable. Having to get up every day and battle – making no money but never working so hard.”
She’s heartened by the support from the public and much of the comedy community – a crowd-funder has so far raised more than £21k, which she's hopeful can achieve matching support from the Lottery – “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Jack Whitehall – who started at the club – and Richard Herring are among those who’ve generously chipped into the fund-raising bucket. Multi-millionaire Kay? “We’ve not heard from him for years.”
With her 18 staff on furlough – the extension of the scheme has clearly helped – the venue isn’t facing the imminent threat of croaking but she sketches out the uncertainty of the coming weeks. “We don’t know if we’re coming out of lockdown and going into Tier 2 or 3 and if there will be curfews – what will happen to New Year’s Eve in that case? The other thought is how much has customer confidence been knocked? Every time there’s another restriction, you’re cutting off another chunk of your audience. When the students arrived in Manchester they were locked into their halls of residence, so we’ve had very few. We might only be able to accept bookings from couples living together but they’ve been stuck with each other for six months.”
Though her talk sounds despondent, there’s a resolve and cheer in Toomey’s voice. And she enthuses about the promise of a vaccine – “That’s the best news we’ve had this year, we’ve been waiting for it and I don’t think we’ll be back at normality until there is one.” Her big hope is to get the Frog “back in full swing” by her 40th birthday in May.
Having helped her dad in the early days as a teenager – when she got pocket money for clearing up – every setback, she says, “doubles my resolve to fight harder”. Is it banally possible the club’s fringe-y quirky name itself had a deterrent effect on those holding the purse-strings? “I do sometimes wonder if the name explains why we have been singled out. I don’t think it helps us. But we’re sticking with it!”
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