From leading comedy journalist William Cook's Cook's Tour on www.chortle.co.uk
Twenty two years after London's Comedy Store opened after hours in a Soho strip
club, club comedy has become a big corporate business. But in a basement bar
below a local pub in a north London suburb, there's a cosy club that keeps
alternative comedy's original spirit alive.
Downstairs At The King's Head began way back in autumn 1981. More than 20 years
later, it still retains that informal Alt Com atmosphere, where the boundary
between stage and stalls is pleasantly blurred, the punters and the performers
all seem like much of a muchness, and it feels as if anyone and everyone could
easily get up and have a go.
This convivial little club was started by Huw Thomas, a performing arts lecturer
at Middlesex University. Thomas tried out several times at the original Soho
Store, got gonged off by Alexei Sayle, subsequently sold Sayle a few sketches,
and decided to set up a comedy club of his own. After a couple of nights, he
handed over the running to Peter Grahame, a student on his college course.
Today, Grahame still runs the same club in the same cellar bar, and Thomas is
still resident compere.
'Most other promoters think I'm an idiot, because I pay rent to a brewery in
order to run a room that generates beer sales,' says Grahame. Yet it also means
he can guarantee the same quality of entertainment all week long, not only for
comedy, but poetry and music too. There are no strippers or karaoke, and despite
its word of mouth reputation with acts and audiences alike, it's preserved its
old friendly ambience. 'The stage isn't raised and it's a low ceiling,' he says.
'The fourth wall is down.'
White middle class male stand-ups dominate the modern comedy circuit but
Grahame's club remains true to alt com's variety roots. 'We don't have four
stand-ups in a row,' he says, 'and if it is four stand ups, they tend to be of
very differing styles or colour or gender.' He prefers small groups to large
block bookings, because then the room remains one unit, rather than breaking off
into different sections. Up and coming comics are especially welcome, with 16
new acts every Thursday.
'We have so many of the big American names come over,' he says. 'We get a lot of
people warming up for big shows, and they come to the King's Head unannounced.'
The mood is like a lock in at a speakeasy, not a public gig. 'They don't get
mobbed by people asking for autographs or chats or photos, and I see that
happening in other clubs.'