Border Control Login

Udderbelly Festival has returned to the South Bank for its sixth London run. Emma Hudson talks to its co-director Ed Bartlam.

Muddy fields and mosh pits are all well and good – but for die-hard urbanites there’s only one essential festival, and it’s right in the heart of London.

I know summer is officially here as soon as I see the giant, upside-down purple cow looming over the Southbank Centre. Yes, Udderbelly Festival is back, celebrating its sixth edition this year.

“Our ambition is that you get a real festival atmosphere in the heart of London,” said Udderbelly’s co-director Ed Bartlam. “People find it quite weird – they sit there having a beer or go see a show and they look around. They can’t believe they can look up and see the London Eye and that Waterloo station is a five-minute walk away.”

The Underbelly-run festival started in 2000 at Edinburgh Fringe and quickly caught the attention of the Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly. Kelly, along with Bartlam and his fellow co-director Charlie Wood, orchestrated the move to London. Udderbelly Festival opened its purple gates for a seven-and-a-half-week run in 2009.

That run has ballooned to more than 12 weeks this year, with more than 200 individual shows, ranging from comedy to circus performances to kids’ acts. Last year, Udderbelly sold 50,000 tickets and hosted half a million people in its tent and garden – numbers the festival expects to replicate this year.

It should have no trouble garnering attention from Londoners and tourists alike with its trademark tent – the giant, upside-down purple cow. With its udder and legs pointing into the summer sky and its daft eyes looking out at visitors, it’s hard to miss.

“Everyone always asks where it came from!” Bartlam laughed when asked about the cow’s origins. “Our bricks and mortar home at Edinburgh is on a road called Cow Gate, and our favourite colour is purple. We began to use the wacky cow as our brand identity.”

A late-night drinking session with a group of comedians resulted in the idea for the giant cow. “One of them said, ‘If you’re going to build a tent, why not make it purple and put legs and a head on it?’ So that’s what we did,” Bartlam said.

Udderbelly is the first event to make use of what Bartlam calls “an empty coach park” – the area next to Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank. Its subversive personality permeates its programme and its site, creating a space in central London that feels wholly separate from the city.

In addition to the purple cow where all the performances take place, the site boasts several bars – including a beach cocktail hut – three different street food-style stalls and picnic benches. There are also plenty of whimsical nooks and crannies for visitors to make their own and the garden that greets guests as they walk in is littered with fairy lights and garden swings.

Making sure everything feels right for the festival is the greatest challenge, Bartlam said.

“You’ve gotta keep it fresh and exciting. That comes down to the programme and making sure you’re never complacent with site layout and always updating and refreshing things,” he said. “We’re always tinkering and changing and updating and making the site as good as possible.”

The purple cow decamps in July so that it can get to Edinburgh Fringe, leaving London Wonderground to keep the South Bank’s visitors entertained.

Wonderground, also organised by Underbelly, joined Udderbelly three years ago so that the South Bank space wouldn’t be left abandoned from July through September. Instead of being held in a purple cow, Wonderground’s performances take place under a Spiegeltent.
“It needed to be different from Udderbelly,” Bartlam said, “but with the same ideas behind it in terms of being an accessible, affordable and quirky pop-up.”

The team also focused on making sure that the shows and acts booked for Wonderground made sense for the traditionally burlesque and circus-centred Spiegeltent. It found its biggest hit last summer with LIMBO – a heady mix of circus acts, contortionists, illusions and music. LIMBO, which lured both Madonna and ex-husband Guy Ritchie – among others – to separate performances, returns this year as Wonderground’s headline show.

LIMBO is a perfect example of the bonkers kind of shows that both Udderbelly and Wonderground specialise in. Smashed, Udderbelly’s headliner this year from German circus company Gandini Juggling, is another. The tongue-in-cheek show takes the much-maligned skill of juggling and turns it into social commentary and – most surprisingly – art.

That element of surprise keeps Udderbelly and Wonderground unique and unusual. Big crowds may be lured in with the promise of comedy superstars like Ed Byrne, Nina Conti, Tony Law and Zoe Lyons, but they stay for the smaller acts – acts so weird and off-beat that audiences feel that they’ve discovered them for themselves.

“It’s about trying to get people to go and see new talent,” Bartlam said. “Coupled with that is the firm belief that we should try and make entertainment affordable. It encourages audiences to take risks on things they haven’t heard of before.”

Risk is the operative word in everything around Udderbelly. It was risky to open a alternative comedy festival on the South Bank; it was risky to make the tent out of a strange purple cow; and it was risky to charge audiences so little – just £10 to £15 – to see
so much.

But Bartlam, Wood and Udderbelly could never have made themselves feel so vital to the festival season by not taking those risks. And London summertime is all the better for it.

Udderbelly Festival runs through 13 July and London Wonderground is at the Southbank Centre until 28 September.


This was first published in the June issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson