On Thursday 19th August, Crouch End will see the return of a major part of its cultural life. After a nearly eighteen month absence, Downstairs at the Kings Head, one of the oldest comedy clubs in the country, will reopen.
After the last performance on 16th March 2020, the doors were locked and acts postponed, bringing to a sudden halt a schedule of performances that had been ongoing since the mid 1980s.
The roots of the club are to be found in the alternative comedy scene of the early 1980s. This was the emergence of a different pool of comic performers who didn’t generally cut their teeth in working men’s clubs and whose material didn’t depend either on the traditional mother-in-law joke or the national and racial stereotypes that were starting to become less acceptable.
Downstairs at the Kings Head was one of the first clubs to open following on from the initial success of The Comedy Store which opened in Soho in 1979. The comedy circuit that then evolved went on to produce a new generation of comedians that became household names, from the surreal world of the Young Ones to the sharp political satire of Ben Elton. Most successful comedians over the last 35 years have appeared Downstairs and a lot of them started out there.
Founders Huw Thomas and Peter Grahame Walsingham met at Middlesex Polytechnic and both lived in Crouch End in the 1980s. Huw had performed at the Comedy Store and was interested in organising a club night that was less gladiatorial and more friendly and supportive.
In 1981 Huw approached Malcolm and Sue Wilson who were the landlords at the Kings Head at the time. The basement had had previous uses, including as a carvery but with the Wilsons’ agreement, the first ad hoc comedy nights took place in the Autumn of that year. The basement at the Kings Head, with its capacity of 100 and low ceiling, provided a smoky intimate atmosphere that proved ideal. The first regular shows were in 1983, with the Club occupying the room full time from 1986. Early performers included Alexei Sayle, Julian Clary, John Hegley, Robbie Coltrane, Ed Byrne, Lee Mack, Jimmy Carr and Paul Merton to name just a few.
Underplaying the role played by his own hilarious hosting, Huw says that the club really got going when Peter Grahame began managing it. Peter shared Huw’s vision of a less gladiatorial venue and his administration of the club together with his guidance of the acts contributed to a winning partnership.
The first try-out night was in 1986. Aspiring comedians were given five minute slots with the hope of being booked to come back on a paid basis on a Saturday or Sunday night, and up until the pandemic this was a weekly event. Peter sees this as having been the most important night of the week, giving him the chance to see new talent emerging and giving the acts an opportunity to have a go and possibly go on to forge hugely successful careers.
More than just a Club that provides entertainment, Downstairs is a kind of comedic repertory company where talent and skills are encouraged and nurtured. Once established, comedians at the top of their game can return to try out new material and enjoy the intimacy that their success now precludes. Downstairs from its home in the middle of Crouch End has played a major role in the development of British comedy. Long may it continue.
Grateful thanks to Peter Grahame and Huw Thomas for their generous help with this article.
The Kings Head, 2021 – Deirdre Dean; Downstairs at the Kings Head – Peter Grahame
Flyer March 1994 – British Stand-Up Comedy Archive – Peter Grahame Collection, University of Kent Special Collections & Archives