Fury over 'poached' venues

Promoters' fear Jongleurs is forcing them out

Furious comedy promoters fear Jongleurs has been trying to poach venues from them, in a move they say could seriously damage the stand-up circuit.

London company Big Night Out is the first to be hit by what they see as an aggressive policy of seeking established comedy nights to take over. They have been turfed out of one of the rooms they use in the capital after the bigger chain struck a deal with the bar’s owners.

However, Jongleurs owner Maria Kempinska, pictured, dismissed their fears, saying: ‘It’s the nature of the business.’

Big Night Out’s situation has prompted promoters across the country to come forward and say they, too, feel threatened by their larger rival. Smaller promoters say they will be less inclined to invest the time and money in building up audiences for regular gigs if the reward for success is to have the room taken away from them.

Big Night Out will cease to operate their regular nights in Covent Garden’s Sway bar – coincidentally the venue of the Chortle Awards this week – after owners Novus Leisure struck a deal with Jongleurs.

In an email going around the comedy industry, they said: ‘We brought comedy to Sway nearly three years ago. Through hard work, promotion and a genuine care for what we do, we created one of the most popular venues in London. The work we put in meant that both acts and audience enjoyed their time and in turn meant we consistently ran sellout shows.

‘As a community we all observed an ethical code regarding venue poaching, and, although unwritten, it has enabled the circuit to function without fear. Maria’s actions create a worrying precedent for promoters nationwide operating within non-owned premises.

‘We believe we have run our business with care and attention to both comics and audience, the situation we now find ourselves in puts our business in crisis and leaves us at a loss as to what can be done.’

However, Jongleurs say it was Novus who approached them about putting comedy in their venues, and that the discussions have been going back years. Kempinska said she was constantly in talks with venues up and down the country about staging comedy nights – instigated either by her company or by the theatres – and was usually not aware whether or not other promoters also used the sites.

‘What do you want me to do about it? It’s business,’ she told Chortle. ‘It’s not my intention to upset other people’s applecarts – bit also I don’t know their business and the contracts they have. I had no idea Big Night Out had a night in Sway. We were dealing with Nexus on a much higher level.’

And when told of the concerns of those who already programme comedy in theatres who had entered discussions with Jongleurs, she said: ‘I don’t get it. Theatres take on other promoters all the time, and that’s what we are. Some theatres approach us, and sometimes we approach them.’

Promoter Peter Vincent said Jongleurs made repeated overtures to the Hartlepool Theatre, where he runs gigs, even after being told their services were not required.

He told Chortle: ‘I've always felt that the comedy industry showed a strong underlying ethical code, with only a small minority of people willing to ignore this.

‘I realise that Jongleurs may not have been aware that we programmed comedy at the theatre but after hearing today what has happened with Big Night Out Comedy, it's obvious what their policy is going to be, which is a shame for the comedy industry as a whole.’

Chortle understands simialr approaches have been made across the country, to the dismay of smaller promoters. One sounded off passionately to Chortle about what they considered to be Jongleurs unfair practises – only to withdraw the comments some hours later.

Kempinska regained control of the Jongleurs brand name last year after the collapse of Regent Inns. The company had paid her and co-founder John Davy £8.5million each for the venues in a 2000 deal.

The old Jongleurs venues have now been rebranded Highlight, while Kempinska is determined to rebuild an empire of comedy clubs under the Jongleurs. Venues in Hammersmith, Notting Hill, Clacton and Bournemouth now run Jongleurs nights, while she has struck a franchise deal to open the first new custom-built Jongleurs in Nottingham later this year.

Nexus Leisure have not yet responded to a request for comment.

Published: 26 Mar 2010

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