'It's life or death for comedy clubs'

Flyering blitz hits London stand-up scene

London’s reputation as the most vibrant city for comedy in the world is being put at risk because of over-zealous council officials clamping down on flyering without any legal powers to do so, club promoters have claimed.

Venues around Leicester Square say they have been told their licences are at risk if they allow people to hand out leaflets to bring in the trade they need to survive – even though there are no laws or bylaws prohibiting the practice.

The council say they want to stop people being harassed by intimidating flyereres, but promoters also there is no transparency in the process, which they claim has hit those who hand out leaflets responsibly while allowing those who aggressively tout for business to operate unchecked.

David Mulholland (pictured), who runs the Soho Comedy Club, said: ‘It is a life and death issue for small clubs.

‘A prohibition on flyering will stop new clubs from starting in the West End. It means the next crop of comedians will be inferior to the current generation; it will put people out of work during a recession, both the flyerers themselves and the comedians who would have performed at the comedy shows that will no longer exist and it will make the West End less of a destination. Instead of being a hotbed of arts and performance, the cultural centre will either move to another part of the city or will simply die.

‘The Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles undertook nearly identical action to stop flyering in the late Eighties. It went from a very popular entertainment destination filled with small businesses and restaurants to an area dominated by large chains, falling custom and a serious crime problem.

‘It will damage the London comedy circuit over the course of a decade. Similar action killed the grassroots music scene in the UK about 20 years ago. The result is the UK is no longer a net exporter of music. The same can happen to comedy industry through something as simple as stopping new clubs from forming to nurture new talent.’

He added that business at his club has been down up to 60 per cent since the council got tough, leading to reduced fees for comics and the venue laying off two members of staff.

Andy Ralph, Westminster City Council’s licensing manager was unequivocal in his approach, saying: ‘No business or organisation should give out leaflets in Leicester Square.

‘We frequently receive many complaints from residents and visitors who are upset about being harassed by overzealous promoters, and we have approached all businesses to comply with this request.’

However, on further questioning the council conceded this was simply a request, rather than a legal requirement.

A clause in the ‘rules of management’ for entertainment venues in Westminster states: ‘No soliciting for custom, including the distribution of leaflets, shall take place from the premises, immediately outside the premises or in the vicinity of the premises.’

While it would be possible for venues to challenge any withdrawal on these grounds, the legal costs would be prohibitive, so owners are left with little choice but to comply.

However, some operators are thought to be challenging the council’s actions legally, while others are keen to lobby for clear rules that would allow responsible flyering, while banning aggressive touts.

One promoter described the council’s approach as ‘intimidating’ and ‘opaque’, saying officials were acting like a law unto themselves by clamping down on flyering, without a legal mandate.

A City Of Westminster Act, currently in the committee stage at the House Of Lords, would extend powers against flyering – but it is claimed officials jumped the gun with their clampdown, which began in February.

One promoter said licensing inspectors had laid down the law about what they expected, but would not commit anything to writing. He also claimed he was told not to encroach on the ‘territory’ of rival promoters in the area.

Another promoter, Darrell Martin from Just The Tonic, says the clampdown has hit the wrong people.

Martin, who runs respected weekend gigs in Leicester Square Theatre said: ‘Since the ban everyone seems to have stopped, except the London Comedy Club, which has a big team of flyerers who still carry on aggressively selling what is rubbish compared to other shows around the Square, who are obviously now finding it more difficult to get customers.’

The London Comedy Club, run by comedian Inkey Jones and clearly targeted at tourists, is based in a hotel, which is subject to different rules than comedy nights run in venues such as nightclubs. However, it is likely that any further clampdown could affect this club, too.

A spokeswoman for Westminster Council said that they would try not to take legal or licensing sanctions against people who did hand out leaflets in Leicester Square – but made it clear that venues were being advised not to allow flyering, and those who repeatedly ignored advice could face action.

She said: ‘We have had complaints about the harassment of passers-by and the sheer number of people handing out flyers at certain times.

‘We seek to work with businesses. Only in the most extreme circumstances where we have had multiple complaints from the public and our advice has been ignored on many occasions would the premises face prosecution or a review of their licence.’

Published: 8 Jun 2010

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