THE country may be in the midst of a recession with job losses and budget cuts, while both Sheffield teams languish in the third tier of English football, but you’ve got to laugh.
That’s the defiant message from Grin Up North, the Sheffield comedy festival, which returns for its seventh year, running throughout the month of October.
“This year has been hard,” agrees Toby Foster. “Sale of tickets has been slower, although Sarah Millican has sold out, Reginald D Hunter and Dave Gorman have nearly done so. There’s also been a rush for tickets for The Boy with the Tape on His Face. But it’s a fact that people are spending less.
“You have to change and we’re doing stuff we haven’t before. And we’ve added the Greystones as a venue. This is what we are all about - a little room where we put on things that might not sell. Anyone can sell tickets for Sarah Millican. We are having to work hard.”
Nevertheless it helps to have some marquee names and Lee Evans and Alan Carr’s appearances at the Motorpoint Arena coincide with the festival. It’s the “I probably gave Alan one of his first gigs and you knew he was funny right from the off and would be playing in much bigger places before long and now he’s playing arenas. He probably thought he should be even then.”
He’s an example of the comedians who remain loyal to Grin Up North. New Zealand-born, now resident in Sweden, Al Pitcher pledged two years ago that he would do his award winning Picture Show - in which he builds his act around photos taken during the day around town - at every subsequent Grin Up North festival and so far has kept his word. “He could be doing the Memorial Hall but he likes the Lescar so he’s doing two nights there instead,” says Foster.
At the same time there are first Grin Up North appearances for some other big names such as Dave Gorman, Mark Steel, Tommy Tiernan and Freddie Starr.
Freddie Starr! What’s the notorious hamster eater doing in there? “The City Hall contacted us to say that Freddie Starr wanted to be in the festival and my reaction was ‘no, that’s not what we do’,” admits Foster. “To be honest I didn’t remember him and didn’t know much about him but I didn’t think he was offensive - he’s not Bernard Manning. So I thought we are supposed to be an inclusive festival and if he makes the people of Sheffield laugh, well why not? And tickets are selling all right.
“I do sometimes think there are areas of comedy we are missing out, like club comics and things on the mainstream circuit. You look at the posters and they’re all of alternative comedians and we are in danger of being a bit one-dimensional.
“I wish there were more women but there aren’t that many out there.” As well as Sarah Millican, the distaff side is represented by Tanyalee Davis, Sally-Anne Hayward, Shappi KhorsandiIsy Suttie, Zoe Lyons and Lady Garden
In fact there’s an evening devoted to the gendered nature of humour. In an event staged by the University of Sheffield, academics Cathy Shrank and Karen Harvey will give a talk, Women, Wine and Wit: 1500-1800, exploring whether as society become more “refined” it was possible for women to be witty.
Other events in the programme departing from the stand-up are contemporary dancers New Art Club’s Big Bag of Boom, actor Damian Williams performing at the Lyceum (where he’s best known as a panto dame) a one-man play about a stand-up comic, My Dog’s Got No Nose, and silent show The Boy with Tape on His Face,
And, of course, ukelele band The Everly Pregnant Brothers, of which Foster himself is a member, who have sold out the Lyceum Theatre. “It all started as an excuse to go to the pub but now we’ve sold 1,000 tickets on one night. It puts a bit of pressure on us,” he says.
Talking of pressure, there have been suggestions that Grin Up North will lose its council funding, putting in doubt next year’s event. “Nothing has been decided but we all know that the funding situation is getting more and more difficult,” admits Scott Barton, marketing and sponsorship director.
“We have always run on a limited budget and know we need to be creative and find different partnerships to make things happen. The city council is coming under even more pressure to save even the relatively modest amounts they are giving to people like us and in the changing world Grin Up North will carry on somehow.”
His partner is even more defiant. “The festival will be back next year whatever happens. Michael McIntyre is on at the Arena and I’ve already booked four acts,” says Foster. “If the city wasn’t bothered about us we wouldn’t be bothered about the city, but that’s not the case. We don’t want to let the city down.”
Grin Up North Sheffield Comedy Festival runs from October 1-31.