New campaign warns Scottish comedy scene is facing 'extinction' without cash help

Scotland’s comedy industry is at risk of being completely wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new campaign aimed at ensuring performers, clubs and events are not “forgotten” when rescue packages for the arts are decided on.

Gilded Balloon, one of the biggest operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is one of the key players in the campaign.

The Scottish Government and funding body Creative Scotland have been warned that the country’s grassroots scene will be “facing extinction” if it is excluded from any public funding support.

They are being asked to explain to the comedy sector how £107m of funding aimed at helping arts companies and venues avoid insolvency will be allocated and ensure “comedy is not forgotten at this crucial moment.”

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New research published by the UK-wide Live Comedy Association warns that more than three quarters of country’s comedy clubs will close within the next year with a public funding bail-out.

The Stand Comedy Club has staged weekly fundraisers during the pandemic shutdown to help keep its venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow afloat.

Around 55 per cent of Scots working in the industry who have surveyed in recent weeks say they have already lost more half of their expected income this year. Nearly two thirds said they had seriously considered giving up working in comedy, while three quarters said their mental health had been affected by the pandemic and uncertainty over the future of the industry.

The new campaign set up north of the border wants to see Creative Scotland “finally recognise comedy officially as an art form,” warning it is in danger of “falling down the cracks” of funding aimed at preventing businesses from going under.

Key players including Gilded Balloon, the long-running Fringe producers and promoters, The Stand, who run venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Monkey Barrel in Edinburgh, the Rotund in Glasgow, the organisers of the Scottish Comedy Awards and the Glasgow Comedy Festival.

Performers involved include Scott Agnew, Susan Morrison, Jojo Sutherland, Jay Lafferty, Vladimir McTavish, Liam Withnail and Ray Bradshaw.

The campaign claims the “disappearance” of Scotland’s comedy scene would damage efforts to ensure that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has a successful return next year.

It is angry that the comedy sector has been frozen out of a new culture taskforce set up by the Scottish Government, which includes representatives from the theatre, classical music, film, literature, publishing and health sectors.

And it is also demanding that the Scottish Government provided a detailed “timeline” for when they expect venues to operate without social distancing, adding: “We recognise that this will be subject to review, but the industry needs a precise, timed roadmap to work towards.”

The comedy campaign has been launched days after the Scottish Government announced a £10 million “lifeline fund” for performing arts venues, but said it was still considering support for the grassroots music industry. Scotland is also expected to get a £97 million share of a £1.57 billion rescue package for the UK-wide arts sector, which was unveiled on Sunday.

Bathgate comic Fern Brady, one of the rising stars of the Scottish scene, said: “Stand up has long been dismissed and ignored by arts funding bodies despite being

one of the most engaging, exciting and popular forms of live theatre we have.”

Fife comic Daniel Sloss, who has gone from playing Fringe shows as a teenager to having his own Netflix series in just over a decade, said: “‘I'm a live stand-up comic. My career has been created by gigging on the circuit, in clubs, in theatres and now in giant car parks.

“I've travelled up and down the UK since I was a teenager getting on stage and making people laugh. It's the most important thing to save about this industry. It's how people get good and find their voice and their audience.”

The Association of Scottish Comedic Arts, which has been formed to ensure the industry has a proper voice during the Covid-19 crisis, wants the industry “recognised as a key part of the cultural sector and an art form struggling to survive through the global pandemic.”

A spokesman said: “The comedy industry in Scotland is in danger of falling down the cracks between the available emergency financial packages for not entirely fitting the criteria for either the hospitality industry or the arts and culture money announced this week.

“Creative Scotland, who are likely to administer the vast bulk of the £97m have for many years refused to acknowledge comedy as an art form. This locks our industry out of cash meant to keep the lights on for a viable and vibrant sector which for decades has been self funding, commercially successful and a huge part of Scottish life both in a live setting and on our radios and TVs.

“Scotland has seven dedicated and established comedy venues as well as pop up clubs, monthly regional gigs and grass roots nights that are facing extinction if they are excluded from this round of emergency money. It would be a scandal if there were no Scottish owned and run comedy venues included at next year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where 40 per cent of its shows are comedy.

“We want an industry that has fostered and nurtured some of Scotland’s biggest exports and brightest stars, from Billy Connolly, Daniel Sloss and Kevin Bridges to Frankie Boyle, Janey Godley and Craig Ferguson, to finally be recognised as an art form and unlock the vault of money available to other arts such as ballet, opera, jazz, classical music, theatre and storytelling.

“It seems as an industry comedy is being punished for being popular and abandoned at our time of greatest need. We are not used to having the begging bowl out and normally we laugh in the face of adversity and at the darkest of times.

“But now Scotland’s comedy community is deadly serious, we are fighting for our lives and we need Scotland’s arbiters of art and culture to recognise not only our artistic merit and cultural worth but acknowledge the huge economic benefit we bring year round, year in and year out.

An open letter from the new group to both the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland states: “We are writing to you to ensure that the comedy industry in Scotland is recognised and fully considered in the allocation of these funds, as well as any other financial support that may become available in the future.

“Scotland has seven dedicated and established comedy venues as well as pop-up events in clubs, monthly regional gigs and grass roots nights that are facing extinction if they are excluded from this round of emergency funding.

“This year-round infrastructure is also one of the cornerstones of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe economy and its disappearance would undermine the chances of a successful bounce back of the summer festivals in 2021.

“Comedy stands alongside live theatre, dance, storytelling, music and all other aspects of the performing arts in calling on the Scottish Government to ensure we all survive through this difficult period.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We do not underestimate the devastating impact this pandemic has had on Scotland’s diverse culture sector, particularly those who rely on audiences and live performances.

“At the outset of the pandemic the Scottish Government worked quickly to provide a wide range of significant financial support, including grants for self-employed people.

“We welcome the UK Government’s response to our calls for funding for the sector. Once we have clarity on how the grants and loans will work, the Scottish Government will establish the best means to provide additional support to those devastated by Covid-19.

“Culture is vital to individuals, communities and our country, and although this this is clearly a substantial amount of funding, significant financial support is needed to help the sector survive.

“The membership of the new National Partnership for Culture aims to be as representative of the sector as possible while remaining a manageable size, however the partnership will also be able to invite non-members to participate in themed discussions or establish thematic sub-groups to take forward specific actions.”

A spokeswoman for Creative Scotland said: “We note the letter and are continuing discussions with them as regards opportunities for support.

“We are working with the Scottish Government to establish the details of the recently announced funding and further information will be available shortly.”

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