Monday, 23 October 2017

Comedy still rocks hard for festival mastermind

Comedy still rocks hard for festival mastermind

IT’S been some time since comedy was first hailed as the new rock and roll — but it’s a phrase that is ringing increasingly true of the Henley Festival.

The five-day riverside extravaganza — which this year runs from Wednesday, July 5, to Sunday, July 9 — has long been renowned for the quality and diversity of its musical offering.

Last year’s event was especially big on big names, with the likes of Elton John, Elvis Costello, Will Young and Dame Shirley Bassey gracing the Floating Stage.

This year’s headliners are Jess Glynne, the Pet Shop Boys, Goldie, Chaka Khan and All Saints.

But fans of the festival will also be scanning the list of comedy giants lined up to appear as they decide how to spend their time on site.

Top acts to choose from include Russell Kane, Sara Pascoe, Seann Walsh, Stephen K Amos and Andy Parsons — plus the return of the long-running Radio 4 sitcom Radio Active featuring original members Angus Deayton, Philip Pope, Michael Fenton Stevens and Helen Atkinson-Wood.

Festivalgoers should be thoroughly spoiled for choice — which is exactly what artistic director Stewart Collins is aiming for.

The 59-year-old, who turns 60 later this month, said: “This will be my 26th festival, which is a fantastic statistic and one that gives me great surprise at how quickly time has gone — as well as happiness that I’ve had such an amazing job for so long.

“Comedy has been part of the festival from pretty much the word go, but what changed very significantly last year was that we decided to set up an entirely standalone comedy programme in a dedicated area.

“In the past, we tended to put lots of different types of entertainment across the various venues, so you’d have comedy sharing the stage with world music and other performances.

“When we expanded the programme more generally last year, we recognised that there was a lot of support and appreciation for the comedy acts we’d been bringing in over the years and it deserved to run all night, every night of the festival.

“Over the five or six years beforehand, we’d always closed the festival with a big name on the Sunday night — people like Jo Brand, Rich Hall and Jasper Carrott. They had all been really, really succesful and left the audience with a real feelgood glow.

“Having built up those connections in the comedy world and seen the impact a good comedy show could have, there was a real impetus to offer something more.”

As Stewart explains, this year’s festival will see three comedy show taking place every night. The Salon Comedy Club will host two full-length shows from headliners, followed by a late-night comedy triple bill.

The cream of the UK’s comedy talent will be present, with favourite veteran comedians performing alongside some of the most exciting up and coming names.

“The reason we’re doing it in a similar format this year is because 2016 was such a huge success,” adds Stewart.

“By bringing in big names throughout the evening instead of having one big late-night show, we were trying something new and couldn’t be sure how it would go.

“However, we found some audiences were turning up to see the comedy in preference to the main acts on the Floating Stage, which we were really pleased with as it means our appeal has diversified.”

Two comedians performing at the festival for the first time this year are Kiri Pritchard-McClean and Glenn Moore, both of whom are appearing on Thursday, July 6.

Kiri, an award-winning writer and director whose hit show at last year’s Edinburgh Festival used genetics and psychology to bust open myths that women aren’t as funny as men, said: “I’m very excited about coming to Henley.

“It’s going to be very different just because of the festival setting and everything else that’s going around the site. There’s going to be a lovely atmosphere — it’s always good when a festival brings in lots of people from the community where it takes place. It’s nice to know that people living nearby actually want it and support it.

“I’ve only ever been to Henley once and I was blown away by how nice it was, especially along the riverside.

“It might sound weird but I was in town to pick up a new toilet. I live in Manchester but I was buying a very specific old-fashioned cistern toilet with a pull chain from a specialist supplier in the area! That’s the nice thing about gigging, or even collecting toilets — you get to go to all these wonderful places you’d never visit otherwise.

“I can’t wait for the festival and I’m going to get there early to soak it all up before the show.”

For his part, London-based Glenn Moore was in Henley as recently as last Friday, when he joined fellow comics Tom Goodliffe and Adam Hess in launching the first in a series of “Comedy at the Kenton” nights at the New Street Theatre. Glenn, who can be heard alongside Vernon Kay, Johnny Vaughan and Ricky Wilson as a newsreader on Radio X, also enjoyed success at Edinburgh in 2016.

A prolific and critically-acclaimed stand-up, writer, and sketch comedian, his first stand-up show, Glengarry Glen Glenn, was one of the best-reviewed debut shows on the Fringe.

He is also known for his silly, offbeat one-liners on Twitter — where his handle is @TheNewsAtGlenn — which have seen him build a huge following. He said: “Twitter really helps people to get noticed. When I did my first Edinburgh Fringe gig last year my Twitter reputation attracted a few better-known comics who followed me but hadn’t seen me in real life before. I don’t think that would have happened before Twitter existed.

“It doesn’t necessarily change your confidence as a performer because you may be tweeting to 10,000 people but they’re not right in front of you, so there’s no real pressure. However, it can give you the confidence to write more and I’ve landed a few jobs off the back of it.

“It’s changed the scope of comedy, especially topical comedy, because the challenge for any writer is that most of the jokes have been made and widely circulated within hours of a story breaking.

“When I think of a joke, I always search to make sure no one else has thought of it — and it’s very frustrating when they have! On the other hand, I’d rather know than be accused of stealing someone else’s idea. That would be really horrible.”

• For more on this year’s festival and to book, visit www.henley-festival.co.uk

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