No laughing matter... Leicester Square comedy clubs’ fight for survival is bit by a ban on flyers
Published: 25 June 2010
by JAMIE WELHAM
THE West End’s reputation as the world’s leading stand-up comedy destination could be in jeopardy after a clampdown on venues handing out flyers.
Westminster Council have imposed a blanket ban on flyers being distributed in and around Leicester Square because it says visitors feel “harassed”, and that “overzealous promotion” is spoiling the area.
Three popular club nights have gone under in the past six weeks and promoters fear they will have little choice but to leave the square – ending its 40 years as the home of British stand-up – unless the ban is lifted.
The central London comedy circuit is made up of around 20 clubs in the Leicester Square area – the Comedy Store being the most well known – and is credited with launching the careers of Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand, Al Murray, Michael McIntyre and Omid Djalili.
David Mulholland, who runs the Soho Comedy Club, described the ban as a “life or death” issue for grassroots comedy, which relies on flyers for survival, adding that it would seriously damage the calibre of the next generation of comics. Dozens of club owners, fans and comics themselves have signed a petition for the ban to be lifted.
Mr Mulholland said: “Already we have lost three shows, takings are down and staff are being laid off. I’ve already had to sack people.
“Leicester Square has had a comedy heritage dating back to the 1970s. It literally invented alternative comedy right in the middle of Westminster Council’s patch – surely this is something worth fighting for.
“For my shows in the summer I’d say 60 per cent of the punters come because of flyering. It’s our life blood. Leicester Square is probably the only place in London where people come looking for something to do.”
Leicester Square is on the frontline of the council’s drive to clean up the West End ahead of the London Olympics in 2012. The clampdown marks the final push in an £18million makeover. Critics of the revamp suspect purging the comics is “collateral damage” in a bid to overhaul the square for the cinemas and casinos that have contributed towards the cost.
Another promoter, Brendan Naughton, whose Funny Ha Ha club folded last month, said: “It’s literally killing the scene as we speak. There’s no argument about London being the capital of the world for comedy. It is.”
Steve Bennett, editor of the UK’s leading comedy website, Chortle, joined the rallying cry. He said: “It’s very hard to start up in comedy, and these are the people being affected by this blanket ban. Flyering is very important to the business.
“Alternative comedy has its roots in Leicester Square with the Comedy Store setting up, and while New York might have invented it, there is no doubt that London is the best in the world. It’s the only place where comics can make a living.”
The Boom Boom Comedy Club at Oxygen, Funny Ha Ha at the Roundtable and the West End Comedy Club have all been forced to close. The council has conceded it does not have legal powers to stop people handing out flyers but a City of Westminster Act that would extend powers to outlaw flyering is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords. Some premises, it says, have conditions placed on their licences that prohibits it.
Andy Ralph, licensing manager for Westminster City Council, said: “We frequently receive many complaints from residents and visitors who are upset about harassed by overzealous promoters, and we have approached all businesses to comply with this request.”
When asked about threats made to licensees a Westminster Council spokeswoman said: “Premises with licences that have it as a condition are in breach of their licence and therefore face formal action for that breach under the Licensing Act 2003. Even if it is not a specific condition they are required to promote the licensing objective and if they are not they face action under the Licensing Act 2003.”