The oldest comedy club in Britain: Downstairs at The King’s Head

We are very proud to have been working with Downstairs at The King’s Head – aka the oldest comedy club in Britain! – for over fifteen years. Not only is the club a part of our inaugural WeGotTickets Independent Comedy Festival, but there’s also a documentary coming out about the venue very soon.

With so much going on, we thought it was time to sit down with Peter Grahame, the man behind the club, and talk to him about how he got started in comedy, his thoughts on the the state of comedy industry and much more besides…

WeGotTickets: Hi Peter. You started Downstairs at The King’s Head in 1981 and it’s become one of London’s finest comedy clubs. What led to you setting up the night back then and how did you get started?
Peter Grahame: I had been a student at Middlesex Poly and one of my tutors, Huw Thomas, tried out a few times at the Comedy Store. He fell in love with this new form of comedy but didn’t like the aggressive feel of the shows at the time, so he looked for a venue in which he could set up a more friendly and inclusive club. He ran one night before realising he would need some help and asked if I could come in to assist. We did occasional shows for a couple of years and then, in 1983, started to do regular Sundays. In 1986 we began to programme full weeks of shows (including music, spoken word, magic, etc.).

WGT: Filmmaker Joe Bor has made a documentary about Downstairs at The King’s Head titled ‘The Oldest Comedy Club in Britain’, and it features the likes of Stewart Lee, Roisin Conaty and Nick Helm. How did the film come about? Have you seen it yet – are you excited? Nervous?
PG: The central conceit of the film is that we are the oldest comedy club in Britain because we have never moved from our original room. Joe is also a comic and, like many others, did his first gig Downstairs. The film documents the history of the club but moreover features stories and memories from some of the comedians who’ve played there over the years. Naturally, I find it very odd to watch for obvious reasons, but it’s had a lot of great feedback and it’s the first film that Joe has made that has gone straight to a cinema run.

WGT: You must have hundreds of great stories, but are there any real stand out special memories from the past forty years that you could share?
PG: Too many to mention really. I suppose one of the nicer aspects of the gig is when somebody very well-known pops in unannounced to do a short set. It’s a nice surprise for the audience and performers love the ambience of the room. We’ve had a hand in helping to launch the careers of many acts who have gone on to be very famous. Quite genuinely, it is a pleasure to develop and nurture new comedians.

WGT: You’re renowned for giving up and coming new comics an opportunity, as well as working with some of the best stand-ups on the scene. But is there anyone you haven’t had down to the club yet that you’d love to book?
PG: Loads! As a small club (and one that charges very little to get in) we don’t have big budgets. So, acts usually play here in their early years. The circuit has grown exponentially recently with a lot more talent coming from outside London, particularly in the North. Consequently, we don’t see so many of these acts before they become too expensive for us to book.

WGT: You’re a part of the first WeGotTickets Independent Comedy Festival, which celebrates UK comedy, and includes shows from 20 clubs all around the country. What do you think of the current state of the live comedy scene? Has it bounced back from the worst effects of the pandemic?
PG: We are very happy to be connected with the festival, and we have a long relationship with wegottickets, you being our first and only ticketing partner. Post COVID, the circuit has changed. On the downside, I’ve witnessed a lot more self-obsessed and self-entitled members of the audience which may be a result two years of staring into their own hugely important navels. Happily though, audiences have returned to previous levels and the circuit has started to diversify. There are fewer “chain” clubs and more independent nights popping up catering to niche audiences. This is healthy.

WGT: There will be people reading this who really want to get into comedy promotion themselves. Do you have any advice for them?
PG: There’s no real mystery to it. Just be practical and use your common sense. Make sure acts can be seen and heard. And point all the chairs in the right direction. Obviously, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I suppose the primary thing is to promote stuff that you like, stuff that makes you laugh. Don’t buy a painting as an investment, buy it because you love it.

WGT: And finally, you must have heard thousands – millions! – of jokes. Do you have a favourite?
PG: Millions definitely, but mostly in the playground before I started working In comedy. I’m very proud that Barry Cryer, God bless him, used to use me as a sounding board to check if any new ideas for jokes he was writing were already in circulation with the newer comics. He knew that I am cursed with remembering every joke I’ve been told. So, to save time, I number the jokes that I know and, currently, my favourites are: 22, 476 and 1029. I’m laughing as I type.

You can find out more about Downstairs at the King’s Head here, pick up tickets for their shows here, and browse the WeGotTickets Independent Comedy Festival listings here.

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