Opinion: Banana v Bearcat

Robert Newman

The Balham Comedy Festival kicks off tonight with Robert Newman delivering his comedic-professorial Theory of Evolution show. Marcus Brigstocke is also on tonight and future attractions include Susan Calman, Tim Vine and Jeremy Hardy.

But talking of theories of evolution, I’ve also been interested in the evolution of the London comedy circuit. The Balham Comedy Festival ties in with the local Bedford pub's Banana Cabaret club celebrating its thirtieth birthday. After The Comedy Store and Jongleurs in Clapham, the Banana was one of the next wave of comedy clubs that helped to establish the capital’s comedy scene and gave early breaks to some of the acts appearing at the festival, such as Hardy and Kevin Day and former angry young accordionist John Moloney, who is the comic brains behind the BCF.

By a funny coincidence though I was also contacted this week by James of the Bearcat Club in Twickenham, who, it turns out, are also celebrating their 30th birthday this year  with special shows in July. They have three big gigs from club regulars who have gone on to greater things – Milton Jones (July 20), Stephen K Amos (July 21) and Harry Hill (July 23).

So which came first, the Bearcat or the Banana? James Bearcat filled me in on some background: “We were setting up Bearcat in October 1984, Jongleurs Battersea was the only SW London gig that was running as far as I know! (John Moloney no doubt will disagree!). The name Bearcat comes from an anagram of Cabaret."

“In the very 2nd week of Bearcat week had Pierre Hollins on the bill - who still plays the club. In the 3rd week, the great Felix Dexter appeared, alongside Dave Cohen and, I believe Ivor Dembina - not sure what happened to those two…”Bearcat

James also offered his thoughts on the state of stand-up: “The stand up standard has never been higher than today, though there are less quirky acts like Bernie Bennett - the tightrope comedian, The Ice Man  - with his melting block of ice - or Terri Rogers and her paper cutting - but we still love to put on those that dare like Raymond & Mr Timpkins, The Greatest Show on Legs (when will Martin Soan get a Lifetime Achievement Award?), Zerdin, Conti etc..”

But which club came first though? Dave Vickers, who runs the Banana chipped in with a strong case. “I don't know who came first, but it could be us as Jeremy Hardy insists that we are in fact 31 years old this year as he remembers playing the Banana in October 1983. Jeremy is probably right. I did say to him that I was sorry and not trying to alter history like some soviet negationist, but I am now stuck with 'lying about my age'. All I can do is correct it in 4 years when we're 35.”

It sounds like the Banana edges it, but nobody has actually categorically proved they came first. Maybe there is only one way to find out. Take a leaf out of the Bearcat’s special guest on July 23 and fight!

Footnote: After this story appeared comedian Nick Revell contacted me and gave me some interesting info on the Banana's history after someone asked on Facebook if he was involved in founding the club: "I did set up Banana in fact, with my flatmate Andy Waring, and local comics Jon Irwin, Paul Merton and Mark Steel. The Bedford was our local and one evening Andy stumbled into the room having taken a wrong turn back from the gents. (A good argument for occasionally drinking too much). He ran it, we all did gigs for free so we could pay a headliner. I suggested the name Bananas, Paul suggested shortening it to Banana. 1983." So I guess Banana edges it. No need for a fight. Andy Waring, incidentally, is the great-nephew of famed rugby commentator Eddie "Up and Under" Waring.

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