RIP, my lovely club

James Mullinger mourns the end of Upstairs At The Masons

Reading about Toby Hadoke’s problems with the wonderful XS Malarkey club filled me with great sadness. Everyone knows how tirelessly he worked to create the perfect atmosphere for comics to perform in.

I have some idea how sad he must be feeling right now. My club of five years, Upstairs at the Masons, was forced into closure earlier this year by an arrogant brewery that didn’t see comedy as part of their ‘plan’. I often walk past the pub on a Tuesday night and am saddened to see the location of so many happy nights devoid of drinkers and fun seekers.

Upstairs at the Masons opened in May 2005 in the upstairs function room of the Masons Arms on Maddox Street in Mayfair. It was devised by myself and three other graduates of the Amused Moose comedy course: Jules Tuddenham, Colin Owens and Verity Carter.

Like a lot of graduates of this course, we found it hard to get gigs due to the abundance of new acts, so thought we would set up our own club. Unlike most of these open mic clubs we didn’t want ours to be shit. The first night was free and featured the four of us, other acts from our course plus the fantastic Ed Petrie.

The room was packed and despite the rawness of most of the comedians, everyone had a great night. By the time of the second show, Owens and myself and gone on to be finalists in Jimmy Carr’s Comedy Idol and Carr was looking for clubs to try out new material. We told him about the Masons and he came down and ripped the roof off with some brand new jokes he wrote that day. I still feel an enormous sense of joy when I see those jokes appear on his DVD, knowing they began life in the Masons. Carr offered all the new acts on the bill tips on how to improve and kindly told us we had a great club.

Another judge on Comedy Idol was Iain Morris, creator of The Inbetweeners, who kindly came to the club to see how Owens and myself were doing. That night Greg Davies was headlining. Morris had never heard of him before, saw him storm it with material about his teaching days and later cast him in his show. The compere that night was none other than Michael McIntyre who was so good that every act he introduced, Davies excepted, died. No one could quite believe how McIntyre was that good yet not a household name. This was right before he made the move to the Off The Kerb agency and began his ascent to stardom.

Other momentous nights over the half-decade include Russell Brand playing one of his first sober gigs there, Stewart Lee doing his first warm up for 41st Best Stand Up (while it was still titled March Of The Mallards), Andi Osho doing her first proper gig, Simon Amstell finding his feet as a stand-up, Rhod Gilbert trying out new material to a tough crowd on the night Don Ward, Charlotte and Alex from The Comedy Store attended, Stephen Merchant and Iain Lee performing on the same bill for the first time since The 11 O’Clock Show. Other acts that regularly stormed it were Adam Bloom, Holly Walsh, Shazia Mirza, Richard Herring, Ali Cook, Reginald D Hunter, Dan Antopolski, Dan Clark, Jarred Christmas, Paul Foot, and Pete Firman.

Good times.

Most famously, the club was shut down briefly after a social worker complained to police that she had heard offensive material at the club. I won’t name the act in question but two officers (two!) arrived at the pub and quizzed the landlady on the supposed hate meetings being held upstairs. They requested to attend the following week’s show, which was due to be headlined by Stewart Lee, to see if there was any religious intolerance or suchlike.

This was post Springer-gate and asking Stew to tone down his set for the censors would be a bit like telling Frankie Boyle that there’s the mother of a child with Down’s syndrome was in the front row. The landlady was freaking out, screaming that in 20 years she’d never been visited by the police. We all felt terrible, so agreed to close the club. Thankfully it reopened when the new landlords came in – Dave and Maxine – who were huge supporters and lovers of live comedy.

Michael McIntyre did a surprise turn at the club to a delighted crowd in what was undoubtedly his smallest venue of 2009. In tribute to the police who shout the club down, the evening was joint headlined by Jason Rouse and Scott Capurro. A year later, the fifth birthday show was all booked when I was told the new brewery wanted nothing to do with me. I couldn’t bear to pull the show so we moved it to The Comedy Pub on Oxendon Street where Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and Thomas Craine celebrated five years of a club that encouraged thought-provoking material and was proud to do so.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved the club - it was my baby - and I began to hate other promoters who gave pub gigs a bad name. We always booked and paid for at least one top headline act and all the new acts were hand picked and the running order structured by what we knew would work. Often when flyering for my club, people would tell me that they hate stand-up comedy. When I asked why they would respond that they had spent a painful night in a room above a pub watching new act after new act die having been introduced by an amateur compere. And they paid £5 for the privilege. These clubs quite literally give stand up a bad name and keep punters away from good clubs.

These are the clubs that should be shut down by the comedy police. Not clubs like XS Malarkey that work tirelessly to bring top quality, intelligent stand up to the masses purely for the love of the craft.

Published: 19 Oct 2010

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