We talked to MD Jessica Toomey about comedy’s fight for recognition

It was a day of relief for arts organisations across England last Monday, as the second major distribution of the government’s culture recovery was announced. Greater Manchester received £13.4 million of the £257 million share, with 67 recipients spanning Band on the Wall to The Whitworth and bluedot. 

Saturday saw a further round of support, with 588 candidates receiving a share of £76 million nationwide. 

But for comedy venue Frog and Bucket, which has helped launch the careers of everyone from Peter Kay to Sarah Millican, last week marked a bitter blow. Its funding application was rejected with an email that apparently deemed it ‘not culturally significant’ enough, an inference that MD Jessica Toomey felt was 'two fingers up' to the northern comedy scene.

The decision sparked uproar, with MP Lucy Powell writing she’d contest it ‘urgently’ and a phalanx of household names tweeting their dismay. Ross Noble wrote ‘this is total bullshit. Every comic worth their salt in the last 30 years has played there’ while Joe Lycett called it a ‘tragedy’ and Sue Perkins even offered to donate. 

After growing calls for a fundraiser, Toomey launched a £5000 appeal on Friday; this has since been upped to £15,000 after Frog fans immediately rallied round, raising almost £10,000 at the time of writing.   

Clearly the venue has a firm place in the community’s heart - so why it was it rejected for government funding?

2020 10 19 Frog Bucket Jessica Toomey
Jessica Toomey took over the Frog from her dad Dave Perkin, who founded it in 1994. She says COVID-19 could set the club’s financial health back ten years

As the dispute over Tier 3 restrictions continues, with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham opposing the region’s entry into the highest lockdown level without better financial support, an argument has emerged that financial decisions are unfairly biased towards the South of England; as Burnham’s own rhetoric suggests

The case of the Frog and Bucket, says Toomey, illustrates this is also the case with the arts.  

“London has had the lion’s share of arts funding and doesn’t acknowledge the huge contribution northerners have made to the UK’s comedy scene,” she said - also pointing out that the Frog, the nation’s longest running comedy club outside London, was chosen to host one of the government's first live audience pilot performances earlier this year (again for which it got no financial support). “If we were ‘culturally significant’ enough for that, why aren’t we for funding?”

2020 10 19 Jason Manford At Frog Bucket Credit Carla Speight
As well as a northern icon, the Frog is also considered a cradle of British comedy; supporting both regional and national talent from Jason Manford to Lucy Porter Carla Speight

Some other northern comedy institutions have received funding, however - including Liverpool’s Hot Water Comedy Club and The Comedy Store, which has branches in London and Manchester - meaning the debate doesn’t end at North versus South. 

The pitting of two comparable enterprises against each other, both in the same location and with similar offerings (in this case arguably The Comedy Store and Frog and Bucket) is amongst several criticisms that have led some to question whether the culture fund has been distributed fairly at all. Why should one succeed and the other fail - could the two not benefit from a share? After all, while some organisations are under greater financial strain than others, the pandemic means very few have no need for support. 

This is one of the many points raised by Jamie Hudson, CEO of Leeds’ Yeadon Town Hall; another cherished community venue whose bid was unsuccessful. In a revealing statement, he also suggests that mega grants for the likes of Manchester bar operator Mission Mars (which received £1 million, despite already benefitting from a £10 million investment from venture capitalist BGF group) have cost smaller concerns a lifeline. 

Toomey echoes his sentiment, pointing out that the Frog only asked for 0.4% of the regional pot at £60,000; yet whereas others received enormous support, it received nothing. 

2020 10 19 Comedy Store
The Comedy Store received £964,252 for its Manchester and London venues

The final nail in the proverbial coffin? The Arts Council England never acknowledged comedy as an art form before 2020, with the industry rarely qualifying for grants. Toomey is on the board of the Live Comedy Association, which lobbied for change after the pandemic hit, and the sector is now quite rightly considered eligible.

“It’s great that some comedy organisations have received funding,” she said, “but the Frog’s rejection suggests we (the comedy sector) still aren’t fully valued.” 

Nevertheless, Toomey says she’s been ‘humbled’ by the public’s support and is determined to stay open. The Frog was one of the first venues to resume business once rules allowed - despite operating at a loss due to current social distancing regulations and the absence of key audiences like students - and she intends to keep it open even if Manchester enters into Tier 3 should rules permit.

“We want to provide work for comedians,” she said. “(Like much of the arts), it’s not just about support for venues but also everyone else involved; comedians, PRs, producers…many are self-employed.”

This dedication to helping those in the industry has been a defining feature of the club since its launch in 1994: Johnny Vegas, Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Dave Gorman, Chris Addison, Ross Noble, Lucy Porter, Jason Manford…all have honed their stand-up skills on its stage, which continues to platform both emerging and established talent.

“We nurture performers. We’re not just a pitstop on a tour.”

As well as managing the Frog, Toomey also co-directs the Women in Comedy Festival (cancelled this year); which is dedicated to championing funny females in an industry that unfortunately still suffers from rampant sexism.

2019 09 02 Kiri Pritchard Mc Lean
Kiri Pritchard-McLean says she ‘owes her career in stand-up’ to the Frog and Bucket

Tragically, Toomey thinks that COVID-19 has put women in comedy back five years. “Promoters can have their pick of the acts at the moment because there are so little gigs, and most are still biased towards men. 

“That’s why, as with the festival, I try to help women comedians at the Frog. For the (aforementioned) government pilot, for example, I organised an all-female line-up.” 

Needless to say, denying the Frog’s cultural significance is a travesty - and that applies to the whole comedy industry as a whole. Accessible (Frog tickets start at just £6) and uplifting, it’s arguably needed now more than ever.

Want to show your support? See a show, sign the petition or donate to the fundraiser. Let’s give this community hero its deserved last laugh.

Main image: Johnny Vegas by Carla Speight

Read more: Manchester performing arts - what’s reopening when? 

From the 2018 archive: “Northerners are funny people” – Maxine Peake & Tony Pitts on their new film Funny Cow