The founder and Managing Director of The Glee: Mark Tughan, tells our Comedy Story.
In 1986 aged 18, I found myself working in London’s West End. I happened upon a place called the Comedy Store and I popped along a few times. It was really special. I saw acts like Jo Brand, Nick Hancock, Mark Thomas and Harry Enfield, (in his Stavros and later Loads-a-Money characters). Something stirred.
I kept visiting, and after I graduated and returned to London to work, comedy clubs like the Store were my regular weekend haunts. I once saw an unknown act called Eddie Izzard, then performing in a room above a pub comedy club that called itself Screaming Blue Murder. At this point, it’s true to say, I was hooked. This was around 1993. Comedy had changed and I thought a lot for the better. It was at this point that I sensed a gap.
Late one night chatting amongst friends after another night of laughs, the conversation turned to the question – ‘why was this new and alternative comedy mainly a London phenomenon?’
A bit of research established that outside the capital, there were early room above pub ventures staging the so called “alternative” comedy, but no larger, purpose built clubs so it was clear that the opportunity was there.
A room above a pub was quickly found, in Birmingham. I would keep my day job and become a weekend promoter. But out of the blue, came a call. One of the people I’d been chatting to was getting in touch to say he knew of a great spot in Birmingham that could be just right for a “proper” comedy club.
Fast forward to September 1994 and the first purpose built comedy club outside London opened, to considerable scepticism from friends, comics, and even locals in Birmingham. “It’s too cosmopolitan, alternative, sophisticated, and what about the so called regional senses of humour?”
And whilst my comedy experience amounted to years of being an audience member, my business experience amounted to finance, pulling pints at University, and washing dishes in holiday jobs.
The first year of The Glee was not a great success, but my backers (later bought out) kept faith, and, crucially, comics were not shy in offering support and advice. A comic and club owner whom we booked to perform - the late legend that was Malcolm Hardee - was particularly helpful, when we could get some sense out of him. Early audiences may remember Malcolm’s headlining Charles de Gaul impressions that involved his spectacles and yes, his unfeasibly large testicles, which always made an appearance, usually to hysterical laughter but occasional outrage!
As the months progressed, and the club implemented the necessary improvements, audiences grew. The format evolved into the club standard of a compere and three acts, with two intervals, the bar closing whilst the acts were on stage, and everyone facing the action. A comedy show is a wonderful, communal, shared experience and it is important that no one is isolated, left out or somehow separated off from the rest of the audience. A sense of theatre, but still a ‘club’ feel with respect for the laugh, the craft and the performers.
Over the years the little Glee stage has been graced by a who’s who of modern comedy. Early customers ringing to book often asked about Peter Kay – who was one of the first of the ‘new generation’ to hit the big time. He had already performed many times as a relative unknown. This was the start of the process of the new comedy circuit creating a new comedy royalty.
Some acts, such as Jack Dee and Lee Evans were already touring in Theatres around the country. But they needed to “road test” material before the main tour.
Jack Dee was the first to perform a series of residencies whose purpose was to perform in an intimate club space, with a closeness to the audience that really enabled him to develop new material in an enjoyable and productive way. Lee Evans soon followed suit, with his regular lengthy runs (and longer and longer sets!) with his visits becoming the key early preparation for all his subsequent arena tours.
Fast forward to 2001 and we opened in Cardiff. Cardiff was an instant hit, as we were able to channel seven years of experience and graft into a new outlet, in a city that was crying out for quality entertainment.
At around the same time as the Cardiff opening, a music promoter joined the team, initially on an experimental basis – the rest, as you can see from ‘Our Music Story’, is history! Markus is still with us all these years later and is still bringing some of the best biggest names in music to The Glee as well as a portfolio of special events.
Come 2007, Birmingham’s Christmas shows featured two relatively unknown comics who stormed the shows night after night – they were Michael McIntyre and John Bishop. Rhod Gilbert was an early stormer in Cardiff and we remember very well the early Friday night “open spots” by the likes of Sarah Millican!
Fast Forward two decades and The Glee’s portfolio now includes new material nights, breaking talent nights, Edinburgh Festival preview shows and now a new Thursday night show called Comedy Carousel, with resident compere’s, their ‘wingmen’, a big screen and live, topical fun and games.
As touring comedy entered the mainstream, The Glee became a touring destination alongside theatres, and we started offering comedy fans a chance to see their favourite comedians in one off shows. At these shows you can see future stars in an intimate environment as well as touring stalwarts with loyal fan bases serving their fans new shows on a regular basis. This makes us wonder what the attraction of huge arena comedy is, with their giant screens (and prices!) and terrible sound?
Gradually the word “alternative” when associated with the “new” comedy featured less and less. It was at this point that we knew comedy was entering a new era. At The Glee we made improvements by hiring full time chefs to improve our food and we started offering greater choice at our bars including cocktails and craft beers. In essence we have established a full night of entertainment and we are proud of the progress we have been able to implement which has brought comedy way beyond the ‘room above a pub’ scenario.
Our successful formula led to Nottingham and Oxford opening in 2010 that are now going from strength to strength and staging more and more shows.
The Glee Clubs are now one of the only independent groups of mid-sized venues that are hugely successful as both comedy and music venues, under one brand. One Trademarked brand :), but that’s for another day!
I am proud that we are in our third decade of business and I love that even now I get butterflies before a show starts.