From leading comedy journalist William Cook's Cook's Tour on

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.'