An inside history of live comedy in Crouch End
You may have noticed the recent refurbishment of the King’s Head, but did you
know that Downstairs houses one of the friendliest little live venues in London?
Founded in 1981 Huw Thomas (a lecturer in Drama at Middlesex University) and
Peter Grahame (a musician/composer) both living in Crouch End at the time, the
ethos of the club remains the same to this day. Then, the “alternative comedy”
circuit was young, and a few of the emerging clubs were bear pits, with
audiences encouraged to bait acts. We wanted to create an atmosphere that
supported and celebrated all performance styles, and to ensure that audiences
were made to feel welcome and part of the event.
Early shows were on Sunday nights and, over a period of about 18 months, grew to
capacity. Then, as now, the emphasis was on a variety of entertainment and value
for money, and you would have seen early performances by Julian Clary, John
Hegley, Paul Merton, Alexei Sayle, Robbie Coltrane….in fact there are very few
comics who haven’t played Downstairs at the King’s Head.
After a major refurbishment in 1986, shows increased to eight a week to include a
broader range of programming from music to poetry, magic to world music, jazz to
dance. The first Crouch End Comedy Festival took place in October of that year,
jointly programmed with Ivor Dembina of the Red Rose Comedy Club, and placed
Crouch End firmly on the comedy map.
In the early 1990s a sister venue, The Great Northern Theatre, was set up to
provide a space for professional theatre and larger scale comedy productions.
Although critically successful, a change in brewery ownership forced a closure
after only 18 months operation. Peter then went to Jacksons Lane as Artistic
Programmer for a year and continued to bring in some big comedy guns to
Haringey, often previewing national tours.
But the heart of Crouch End comedy remains in Downstairs at the King’s Head. We
actively nurture and encourage developing talent through our weekly Try Out
Nights where you can expect to see around 15 acts doing about 5 minutes each.
There are many shows throughout London that offer “open mike” slots, but we
differ in providing a clear through-line to paid performances on the
professional weekend shows. As such, you may be lucky to spot the stars of
tomorrow on these nights (past “graduates” have included Eddie Izzard, Mark
Lamarr and many others). There is often talk of the comedy bubble bursting in
London as it did in the USA 15 years ago, but there is a waiting list of about
10 weeks to get on to these shows. As long as the base of the comedy pyramid is
continually being built, then there will always be a healthy injection of new
blood into the circuit. We are pleased to be part of the process that ensures
Over the years the audiences have changed, as has Crouch End itself. In the early
days, Sundays were the most popular night – but then few in the area had
mortgages and work on a Monday morning! CrouchEnders have always been
intelligent and knowledgeable people and Downstairs is often quoted as a
favourite gig by performers. Comics frequently note that they can stretch their
material and take more comedic risks with Crouch End audiences. As a result of
this (and a slightly rose-tinted fondness for usually having started their
careers with us), it is not unusual to find some very big names dropping in
unannounced to warm up for TV or national tours.
Of course there’s a lot more to Downstairs than just comedy. This month you could
take in a Magic and Illusion night, or Pete Long’s extraordinary 19 piece be-bop
orchestra Gillespiana, but the club’s heart is in fun and entertainment. As I
write, last night comes to mind as a good example of why the club remains
A wet and miserable Thursday night, first Try Out Night after the new year.
Thirteen new acts booked to try out five minutes and a warm and attentive
audience giving lots of support and encouragement to their early outings. As
ever, there are a few established acts dropping in to run through new bits of
stuff in a friendly atmosphere. So last night the first half closed with sets
from Danny Bhoy (Royal Variety Performance 2003) & Lee Mack (ITVs The Sketch
Show); and the second half closed by Ed Byrne and Jimmy Carr (both of whom seem
to be doing everything at the moment!). Anywhere else, and this might have
created an awkward chasm between the various abilities and status of the
performers. But not Downstairs; everyone had a good gig, the learning was
symbiotic, performers and audience went home happy…and all for £4!
Long may comedy thrive in Crouch End...