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 this.

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 popular.

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...