Harrogate’s been called a lot of things – well-heeled, pretty, sedate, even snooty – but it’s not often been described as “a laugh a minute”. And yet from this weekend for two glorious weeks, the town will throw off its straight-laced image to become the centre of the comedy world, writes John Grainger.
Fifty acts will perform across four venues in an orgy of humour known as the fourth annual Harrogate Comedy Festival. The big names include Jack Dee, Jon Richardson, Sandi Toksvig, Andi Osho and Jimmy Tarbuck.
Other, lesser-known acts include The Boy With Tape On His Face, who won this year’s Edinburgh Festival Panel Prize.
Although still a young festival, Harrogate is already making a name for itself, having attracted household names such as Julian Clary, John Bishop and Sean Hughes in its first year.
The festival was the brainchild of executive producer Kevin Jamieson, who has curated it from the very beginning.
“Among the industry press we’ve become really established with some of the big ones,” he says.
“Sheffield, Brighton and Leicester are some of the biggest comedy festivals outside Edinburgh, and we’re mentioned not far behind them.”
That an operation the size of Harrogate’s can keep going and still draw the top names seems almost incredible. After all, Manchester’s comedy festival was cancelled due to funding cuts, and even the mighty Edinburgh has drawn fire and lost punters due to perceived over-pricing.
Isn’t the Harrogate festival feeling the pinch at all? “If anything, quite the opposite, ” says Jamieson. “Ticket sales are way ahead of previous years, so this could be a record year.
“Audiences want to come and the acts want to perform. They love how we curate the festival – we look after them – they love the town, and they love the audiences, who are very warm.”
At least one performer who can expect a particularly warm reception from the Harrogate crowd is Sophie Walsh-Harrington. The 27-year-old, who performs under the name Damsel Sophie, is from Harrogate, and is looking forward to her turn at the festival – presumably not just because she gets to “stay in luxury at my parents and be taken out for a curry after”.
The former St John Fisher pupil describes her show, Hot, as a “one-woman comedy cabaret inspired by the myth of Narcissus that explores self-love gone mad.”
“Don’t be surprised if I impersonate an East European donkey in a unitard at some point during the show, ” she adds.
That may sound like niche material, but she comes with excellent credentials, having won the Best Cabaret Award at Australia’s Adelaide Fringe last year.
But while her experience may be international, her roots clearly play an important part in her act: “You have to have good banter if you live up North, that’s just the rules. You can’t get away with not being funny. So I reckon the Yorkshire sense of humour has definitely rubbed off on the writing and performance that I do.
“This is my first time playing the festival and I’m really excited. It’s great to perform in your home town in a line-up of amazingly funny and talented people. It’s going to be an amazing week for the town.”
It is newcomers like Damsel Sophie who are key to ensuring the success of festivals like Harrogate’s, says Jamieson, and in an effort to find some new ones, this year’s festival will see the inaugural Comedian of the Year award, contested by local hopefuls. Entries have already been flooding in from Harrogate, Leeds and beyond.
The “anchor” acts, though will remain the big names, and none is bigger than Julian Clary, who is clearly looking forward to his appearance.
“My friend Damien tells me the men are very hard up in Harrogate,” he says. “I only hope I’m not too late.”
l Harrogate Comedy Festival, October 7 to 20.
To book tickets call the box office on 01423 502116 or go to www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk.