Don't mock the pasties!: Inside Cornwall's standup scene

·5-min read

A cliff edge, an old bakery or the space next to the tea-hatch in a village hall aren’t standard spots for a comedy show. Unless you’re in Cornwall. In the UK’s most south-westerly county, there isn’t a single city-based commercial comedy scene, but a bubbling collection of shows in even the most remote villages.

One name stands out: “A lot of people in Cornwall will go: ‘Oh, you do comedy? Do you like Jethro?’” says comedian Harriet Dyer, who grew up in Truro. Jethro, the local comic and former mine-worker who once made a pasty on the Generation Game, announced his retirement in February after 50 years of storytelling standup. With Jethro retired, focus can switch to the growing array of local talent.

Edward Rowe, from Roche in mid-Cornwall, “accidentally” became a comedian when, 11 years ago, the videos he posted online as the Kernow King started gaining fans. Kernow King offered fresh takes on the quirks of his home county, and when Rowe began live performances a year later, helped by Cornish comic Anna Keirle, his following ballooned.

“Ed sells out absolutely everything,” says standup Graham Wilkes, who also runs comedy nights in towns across Cornwall. Yet, rather than the traditional route of open mics and mixed bills, Rowe carved out his own circuit.

Last year Rowe starred in Bafta-nominated film Bait, but he can still be found performing comedy in Cornish theatres such as the cliffside Minack (“probably one of the best venues in the world”) and loves taking to the stage in village halls. “That’s the most joyous thing about my job,” he says. “Village halls all look a little bit like chapels and the smell is a mixture of history, damp, wood and panto. The best thing about them is how wonderful the women are that run them – there’ll always be a lady serving a drink through a hatch. It makes me so happy.”

Rowe embraces everything Cornish while highlighting “the ridiculousness of being proud of where you’re from, because you play no part in that … It’s a celebratory but wry look at our dialect, customs, people, songs, history and heritage.”

Dyer adds material about, for example, her old teachers: “Cornish audiences love anything about them … Anything that celebrates Cornwall.”

Tamsyn Kelly, who grew up around Penzance, agrees: “A lot of the humour comes from the fact that Cornish tropes are so well known. Everyone knows exactly where you’re talking about, down to the square inch.”

Cornish pride is famously strong, and that has shaped the humour too, says Rowe: “We think we live in the best place in the world and because of that we’re the best people in the world, so we’ve got confidence to laugh at ourselves.”

But audiences will defend Cornwall from outsiders. Dyer recalls one gig in Truro when a comic from elsewhere foolishly mocked a pasty: “Someone had made homemade pasties – he slagged them off. Everyone was like: ‘Absolutely not!’ He was a headline act who would smash any other gig, but that one pasty move and he nailed his own coffin shut!”

Rowe, like Wilkes and Johnny Cowling, is among the few Cornish comics living in the county full-time. Difficulty travelling between gigs (Dyer once missed a show because she hadn’t realised the train she needed only came once a week) plus the scarcity of regular professional nights means many head “up country”. Sam Lake, Colin Leggo, Matt Price and Ruby Martin are based in London, but most return to gig at home. Dyer is in Manchester, but previously ran a comedy night in Truro and still performs when she’s back.

Kelly now lives in London but returned to the Minack in her home town to play Margaret Thatcher in The Rise and Fall of Magbeth, a comedic take on Shakespeare by local writer Michael Sagar-Fenton. “I did character comedy before standup so that was a real dream. No experience compares to the Minack – the moon is in the sky, it’s really eerie. It’s so special.”

Her 2019 standup show Petroc explored her childhood on a Cornish council estate: “The show is about having two relationships with this place – one that keeps tugging at me to go back, and the other feeling of being trapped and isolated.”

Kelly dreams of hosting a monthly comedy night in Penzance: “Thinking about the art and comedy scene in Cornwall and what might happen makes me excited.”

If you had to pick a comedy centre in Cornwall, it might be Falmouth. Dawn French is chancellor of Falmouth University, which runs a master’s in comedy writing, and there’s a growing number of open mics – the first step into standup for aspiring local performers.

Wilkes put on his first comedy night nine years ago. He found there was demand from people wanting to try standup and from venues looking to host nights. Now he runs shows in a handful of towns – in Falmouth, there’s Comedy Jam at Toast for newer acts and Live at the Pavilion that brings in pro performers such as Jen Brister.

Yarns are a very Cornish thing – but now we've got more political voices too

“When I started, a lot of people were doing yarns – that’s a very Cornish thing – but now we’ve got more political voices too,” Wilkes says. Local acts including Melanie Drew and Tom Rodgers are “fantastic”, Wilkes says: “With the quality we’ve got coming up, the future is going to be good. In Cornwall we’re always 20 years behind, but comedy is starting to take off!”

Meanwhile, comedy has always seeped into other artforms. “There are theatre-makers and writers in Cornwall who are incredibly funny,” Rowe says. “In Cornwall, tragedy and comedy are really close. The character I play in Bait, Martin, his life is so tragic, but there’s also so much humour.”

Rowe recently took a break from comedy, but last month marked the return of Kernow King: “I’ve come back to it after more than a year and I want to talk about being Cornish, the state of the world and Cornwall’s place in the world more than ever.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting