Does comedy really need a union? | Anthony Miller has his doubts

Does comedy really need a union?

Anthony Miller has his doubts

I'm not a fan of guilds or unions. Pointless talking shops full of self-aggrandising moral entrepreneurs and tiresome displays of relational aggression if you ask me. While Equity are convinced that we are all professional comrades I've always been a bit of a cynic as to the idea that we are. I'm old enough to remember their closed shop and I haven't forgiven them because if you read what many of their members think they still sound sentimental for it.

Part of me suspects that their entire reason for being is to keep the workers out of entertainment. For example the other day I got an email booking that said 'All parties to this agreement must hold public liability insurance'. Do they really want to make sure I have PLI so everybody's safe or is it a complicated backdoor way of the venue checking I'm not a scab?

That said, over the years I've started to come to realise that there are also problems with what we used to have: complete deregulation and non-unionisation.

For a start as a promoter there's the problem of being undercut by systematic fraudsters and con men. Promoting comedy is hard and even for those with business sense a long term game of risk… so it stands to reason that someone somewhere will find a way to cut corners. Pay-to-play gigs, bringers, 'we'll film you for £5 even if you don't want it' and the new classic: 'I need to crowdfund a venue because there aren't hundreds of pubs begging for free entertainment in London already…' It's difficult to keep up with the Inkey Joneses of the world who eventually progress on from conning acts to dishonest advertising. And a big shout out to 'professional' promoters who don't pay on time…

Pay-to-play gigs and bringers etc are obviously stupid and exploitative for acts but as promoters can make a few quid out of it there's never going to be a shortage of people telling other people to put their hand in the fire. If you disagree with that sentence feel free to stick your hand in the fire. I'm too old to care and explaining why what is so is so is so tedious. So maybe it's a good idea then that there are organisations somewhere who might faintly suggest this is not a good idea at irregular intervals.

The old system of people like me saying it had, I think, some issues. It made it all very personal. Whereas having a trade union makes it all impersonal. Any criticisms of business practices it pronounces on are considered collective opinion. They are based on accumulated wisdom. Or they are based on delusion. But at least they're based on something more than just 'Well, I think…'and then explaining why I think it from first principles over and over again.

In the brave new future it has thus been decided that no one like me will any longer speak their mind. Yes, according to the new Equity contract for comedians, 'the Hirer agrees to respect at all times the confidentiality of the business of all parties relating to engagements and will not engage in any public pronouncements that may be detrimental to the reputation of the artist' - even if they behave like a total cunt. So if you want a voice join Equity. Pear Shaped, the club I co-promote, is not allowed to speak unilaterally any more.

Still, better to have rules you can disagree with than no rules?

The biggest problem of there not being a trade body/union in the past has not been that it hasn't stopped promoters taking collective action against each other – it's that no one knows what the fuck is going on. So collective action still happened, it was just highly confusing and involved much duplication of effort.

For example several years ago someone launched a website against Inkey Jones and his London Comedy Club. It was very rude about him and eventually ended up in an Advertising Standards Authority ruling against him. However, there were problems with the campaign and the first one was simply this: no one knew who was running it? (It turned out to be promoter and comedian Pete Jonas). Thus instead of people spending time thinking about whether and how to support the campaign or not … we all wasted weeks on end simply trying to find out who the fuck's in charge.

As a result I thought it must all be a great secret. It was not. It just seemed like a silent conspiracy because no one ever met up to talk about it. So everybody knew they wanted to do something, some people were doing things and a load of other people thought something must be going on and didn't know what it was and I being paranoid thought it was all an incredibly devious plot. Whereas actually all there really was was disorganisation where there could have been some kind of organisation.

Which brings us to: Government.

Many professions that aren't unionised still have trade bodies of some kind to suggest good practice and lobby the government. Some of you may remember the legal dispute about flyering in Leicester Square involving Westminster Council. Would this have happened in the first place if we'd had an organised lobby group? While a group of comedians asking for an Arts Council bung in the middle of a slump sounds silly on one level; on another, it isn't. It's about respect. I'd point out too that the legal flyering issues such as caveated liquor licences were never really actually resolved, the council just bottled out of enforcement. So any day now they could…

So maybe unions and guilds aren't completely stupid but I still resent the direct debit.

• Anthony Miller wrote this as it's more fun than tackling the logistical issues involved in rushing to re-launch Pear Shaped.

Published: 9 Sep 2015

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