Hot on the heels of last week’s existential crisis about going to the Edinburgh Fringe for 13 hours, this week’s column offers up another thrillingly itinerant broadcast from your temporarily resident “stand-up who after 18 months on Zoom is finally Back Doing Live”. Let me tell you about a boisterous Tuesday night in the City of Culture. I’m in the final weeks of my 26-30 railcard, and boy, am I hammering it.
Are you (dear reader who’s ploughed valiantly on to paragraph two) across this whole UK City of Culture business? Do you know where the first one was? (Derry, 2013: solid pub quiz question.) Are you already keeping tabs on the bidding for 2025? (Stirling! Wrexham! A joint bid between Great Yarmouth and East Suffolk!) And, crucially, could you even tell me who’s got it this year? Do the names Lady Godiva, Steve Ogrizovic and Panjabi MC mean nothing to you? The answer – and the place to which I was “sent” (a joke I valiantly resisted making until a particularly desperate barrel-scrape five minutes before the end) – was, of course, the second largest urban conurbation in the West Midlands (and until 1974 the largest in Warwickshire!). I’m talking, of course, about Coventry.
Having spent three days in Hull (the Doubletree, no less) courtesy of the Dave channel earlier this year, to quasi-comedically investigate the legacies of its own 2017 City of Culture-ing (and, for balance, chase Dean Windass across a pond in a pedalo), I’m no stranger to sucking the energy out of rooms with words like “economic regeneration” and “cross-sectoral engagement”. And you can be damn sure I wasn’t going to spend my hour in the Assembly Gardens’ “Piccolo” tent letting Coventry’s own tenure go unscrutinised.
This was a “work in progress” show, after all – a neat industry byword for “30 per cent audience chat”. This was then immediately expanded to 40-50 per cent on account of the fact that any pre-planned anecdotes were unfailingly drowned out, sometimes right on the cusp of one of their two punchlines, by a huge chorus (or post-chorus ovation) from the Choir Of Man, a clearly rollicking musical show in the much larger venue next door.
Worst of all – with the COM in the latter stages of an earth-scorching 11-week run in the gardens – most of my audience turned out to have watched that show at some point earlier in the summer and many were visibly listening out for its big numbers, the nostalgia for a superior (city of) cultural experience glazed across their distracted faces.
Nonetheless, on I pressed, desperately currying favour with tales of previous visits to Coventry, first my gig at the Showcase Cinemas in 2011 (“it’s practically on the M6!”), then two successive trips to what was then the Ricoh Arena in 2013 for a triumphant Swindon Town away day and an equally thrilling (and arguably less jammy) Bruce Springsteen show.
But that was Coventry then, and this was Coventry now, in the midst of a less than ideal City of Culture/pandemic double bill, the latter doing for the former what the Choir of Man was doing for me: aggressively pulling focus and simply refusing to stop.
“All the comedians must be asking about Coventry being City of Culture,” I apologised, as part of the “preamble” section of the show which had now been going on for approximately 25 minutes. Those who hadn’t by this point mentally or physically absented themselves from the Piccolo shook their heads, leading me back to the old dilemma of whether I am one of the Great Intrepid Chatters or merely a man with a pathological addiction to dead ends.
On this occasion it did certainly feel more like the latter, not because there isn’t a hive of activity and investment across the city (the Godiva festival starts today!), but because the surly man on the front row I’d elected as spokesperson was only able to volunteer that “they’ve done up the fountain”, a reference (Googling has since confirmed) to the Showstopper water feature in the Upper Precinct – a feature worthy of its name, certainly, but offered up quite half-heartedly on this occasion, and seized upon shamelessly by me as a lazy callback thereafter.
There was nothing for it, then, but to stop wasting these good people’s time and provide some showstoppers (citation very much needed) of my own, my current best hopes being, as with last week, some genial guff about go-karting and Pot Noodles. A drink in the Earl of Mercia afterwards might have allowed me to return to my investigations, but alas, by that point I’d already realised I was cutting it quite fine for my train.
Back at Euston by midnight, two Avantinnies to the good, and with my familiar sense that Melvyn Bragg hasn’t got too much to worry about from this end. Still, another CoC ticked off! I’ll see you chaps in Great Yarmouth.