From Bath’s best venues to the upside of using a city as a stage, Bath Comedy Festival is more than just a laugh.
One man’s daft situation is a stand-up comedian’s set list goldmine. This rule proves itself more and more each year, with new talent on display in cities like Edinburgh and Bath at their annual comedy-infused festivals, bringing the best of old and new talent to the front line.
Access speaks to Nick Steel, the director and all-round organiser of the Bath Comedy Festival, and, right off the bat, a question we’re keen to have answered is how he found himself in the comedy industry to begin with.
“I suppose after going to Edinburgh Fringe for many years,” he replies. “I was based up there when I was helping a mate of mine who had a small comedy club under his pub. I got to meet a lot of comedians, who are now famous but were just starting out at the time. Guys like Greg Davies and Jon Richardson, who were doing 10-minute slots for a little 20 quid here and 20 quid there.
“I decided I would try and bring some of them down to Bath. We didn’t have much live comedy going on at the time. I began to put on a bit of comedy and cabaret events. The festival was set up by another chap originally who did it for the first two years, and then gave it up, so I thought I could do better.”
Steel joined the festival in 2011 after accidently ending up in the comedy business. He was into music before all of this, playing progressive-rock with his band, although he admits they rarely get out these days. Steel describes himself as a man who wears many hats, confessing that he is also a web designer and a DJ.
The festival is running for an additional seven days this year, and with an estimate of 8,000 guests, the stakes are high.
“I never stop,” Steel admits. “It seems to be all year round, 24-hours a day. We’re getting so popular that I had to turn away so many acts this year; there are simply not enough hours in the day to put them all on. When I get back from Edinburgh each year, that is when I start planning, in my head at least. I book in shows for Bath Fringe and in July I do Edinburgh Fringe preview. So it’s expanding all the time, and not just in Bath. We’re going to Bedford-on-Avon, and I’ve been asked to program shows all over the country, as far as Northampton and Cambridge, so my empire is expanding.”
“This year is especially good. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you”
– Nick Steel, Bath Comedy Festival
Everyone knows everyone in the comedy business, so Steel tells us how he goes about uncovering new talent for Bath. “Edinburgh in any other business would be called a trade fair. Because the vast majority of the industry is there, and you get to meet not just the comedians, but all sorts of people from the industry. You get all the contacts you need up there, but unfortunately I have to have a beer in hand. It’s a tough life,” Steel chuckles. “A lot of the new talent comes from word of mouth. From fellow comedians and friends of mine who are comedians say, ‘Oh you must see so-and-so’. You just hear it on the grapevine.”
Due to the expanding industry, combing through the comedians within the industry is something that Steel arranges precisely when it comes to the line-up.
“My idea of the festival is to always give a chance to some new talent, and and others who are not so famous and put them in places to get them in front of an audience. You need to have a balance between the up-and-coming, new people and the old-timers who are more famous, and I think we have to have a bit of everything, as well as something for every age group,” Steel tells Access.
“To start the festival in the first week this year, with those extra days, we wanted to do something a little bit different, so we have the likes of Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden. Andy Kershaw is doing his one-man show in the first few days so that it doesn’t tread on the toes of any of the smaller gigs, because he’s a bit more likely to steal their audience.”
No time for tents
Bath Comedy Festival is unlike most festivals, at which you see tents and marquees covered in mud. Steel uses the city’s wide array of venues, including pubs, restaurants and even shopping malls to allocate stages to comedians. This year, Steel has assigned particular core venues to artists depending on their audience and the overall vibe of their content.
The Widcombe Social Club is named one of the three core venues for the festival this year. “It’s a fantastic venue for Bath. It really is wonderful, as it can be can turned it into a jazz gig. The second core venue, Ring O Bells, has a fantastic top room above a restaurant, which lends itself to comedy very well because of its low ceiling. It becomes intimate once I set up proper lights inside. It turns into a really good, Edinburgh-style comedy room. Then we have the Brew House, where we have the ‘pay what you feel is a affordable’ format. You can buy a ticket for a fiver, or go in on the day for free, and pay what you feel like in the bucket at the end. Those are my three core venues this year.”
With all the factors that go into deciding what the core venues are going to be, Steel had to plan strategically based on the audience, the capacity and how suited the comedians’ humour is to the venue itself.
“We are in 16 venues this year, and it’s great because I have two different capacities for the core venues. I’ve got 50-60 in Ring O Bells, and maybe up to 150-175 in The Social Club. I’d advise anyone else who wants to put on shows on the open-access part of the festival, to steer them towards appropriate places, pubs like St James Wine Vaults, or theatres like The Rondo.”
But they don’t just use established venues, no. They also use a double-decker bus as venue in a segment for the festival. “It’s called The Wine Arts Trail, or TWAT for short,” Steel laughs. “It’s a magical mystery tour on a bus. We go around five or six different mystery venues, and we will all have a glass of wine at each stop, and something funny happens.
We do two trips on Sunday during the festival, one of which is already sold out. It’s so popular as soon as it comes on sale; people snap up tickets. It’s an absolute hoot. I’ve already started thinking about the 10th anniversary year next spring. I have a route for the wine trail in fact. You’ll have to keep an eye out for that. But this year is especially good. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
Despite Steel’s threat, Access moves on to discuss the boundaries pushed within the industry, whether that be the good ole’ on-stage swearing, or the lessons learned in running a festival.
“I’m putting in a big TV name, and that is Paul Merton, who is coming to open the festival at Bath Forum, which is the first time I’ve ever used that venue. It’s never been allowed before. It’s right next to the church, but we’ve persuaded them now that Paul is not going to be blasphemous or anything like that.”
Bath Comedy Festival is particularly smart for two reasons when it comes to the choice regarding venue. The fact that the venues are already set up means no organisation of temporary structures to create the stages, but it also means that Steel has the joy of not having the additional hassle of booking power suppliers or the hire of kitchens and toilets.
Steel explains that, due to it being in Bath city centre, there is always lots of red tape to cut off district areas to secure the venues.
“Generally, the smaller venues don’t tend to need their own security. It’s only when you start to get up to large amounts of people and when it is later in the evenings, and people have been drinking. But it still has a very friendly atmosphere.”
Steel goes on to say that he believes the healthiest mixture for a good festival is curation and urban access. When the organisation gets all hot and heavy, balancing the pressure out with why the festival is desired will make it a success.
“The combination of curation to urban access is good, especially having it 50/50. With some of the unique events we have, like the wine trail, that singles us out from other festivals. And let’s face it, it is in Bath, which is an absolutely beautiful place. It happens at the time of year when the clocks have just changed, and people are smiling anyway,” says Steel. “You have light, and the sunshine is out so it gets warmer; it’s the perfect time of year to do it, around Easter time. What better place to come and have a laugh, than in this gorgeous city? The reason most people live in Bath is because it is so lovely, and it feels like a holiday every day when you’re here. The festival has gone from a handful of events to hundreds. I think that is a good enough reason to single us out.”
Bath Comedy Festival is currently taking place 1-17 April. For tickets, go to bathcomedy.com