This confidence turned to despair as she read the outcome of the decision two weeks ago: “Your organisation has not been successful in its application. We considered whether your organisation is culturally significant and/ or contributing to providing cultural opportunity in England,” the email stated. It was decided, however, that this did not apply to the Frog and Bucket.
The rejection of their bid stung. But questioning the comedy club’s cultural significance seemed harsh. Almost cruel.
“It’s been a tough six months, and this was the carrot that kept me fighting every day for the survival of the business, so it felt like it could have been the end of the road for us,” Toomey said.
The Culture Recovery Fund was the Arts Council England’s response to a sector in crisis. A fund to offer financial support for cultural organisations that were financially stable before COVID-19 but were at imminent risk of collapse.
The Recovery Fund amounts to £1.57bn, of which £14.6m has been distributed to 62 successful applicants in Manchester, including The Whitworth art gallery and The Edge theatre. Almost a third of funding went to London-based organisations including museums, theatres, and art galleries. Successful comedy clubs were few – ironic when comedy and laughter are probably needed more than ever.
Questioning the comedy club’s cultural significance seemed harsh
The Frog and Bucket Comedy Club, a family business, was set up by Toomey’s father David Perkin in 1994. Toomey has worked there for 16 years, and took over management six years ago: “The place is like my spiritual home, the walls seeped with memories.”
Residing on Oldham street, the club has always prided itself on nurturing local talent. It is the perfect stage for northern acts to transition from amateurs, to find that mic drop moment of becoming a professional comedian.
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John Bishop, Peter Kay, Johnny Vegas, and Jack Whitehall are a few of the names who forged their careers at the club.
Towersey Festival in Oxfordshire, which has run since 1965 and ‘contributes around £250,000 back into the local economy every year’, was also deemed culturally insignificant.
Whilst the email was most likely a generic template sent to all unsuccessful applicants, care should have been taken with its wording – especially when institutions like the Frog and Bucket are already struggling with the emotional impact of lockdown.
Since the pandemic hit, the Club has suffered financially. Revenue stopped for six months, and on top of that, they’ve had to refund customers for tickets to cancelled shows. With the painful reality that COVID-19 is sticking around, the Frog and Bucket is continuing to issue refunds for shows being cancelled and postponed into Spring 2021. “It was also costly re-opening, having to make adaptions to the venue, and how we operate,” she said.
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Toomey misses the sound of laughter. Before Manchester went into Tier 3 restrictions, the Club was working at 40 per cent capacity. Events went online: “We have all lived quite solitary lonely existences during the lockdown and even with Zoom you can’t capture the contagiousness of laughter and the atmosphere,” she said.
People in the venue walk around masking their facial expressions when they aren’t seated. A wall is starting to restrict our interactions, even in environments where people would go to socialise, we have forgotten how to do so.
The Frog and Bucket is continuing to issue refunds for shows being cancelled and postponed into Spring 2021
There is a fear of intimacy, of interacting and it’s impacting the business. “My biggest fear is how long social distancing will last, I also fear about behavioural changes in audiences the longer this goes on and what damage is being done to audience confidence to attend events,” Toomey said.
When their funding was rejected Toomey started a GoFundMe page, which reached its target within a week. A definite confidence boost when the Club’s credibility as an arts provider has been questioned.
For now, there’s a temporary sense of security from the generous donations of those who recognise the comedy clubs’ significance. Still, a Friday night’s barrel of laughs has become an evening of organised fun overcast by a fear of the future and the Club’s ability to operate.
After being turned down by the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund last year, the Frog and Bucket has now been able to raise enough money to put on new online shows.
The Club, which was deemed ‘not culturally significant’ enough for funding, received donations from fans and comedians such as Jack Whitehall, Richard Herring and Adam Hills.
Ahisha Ghafoor is a journalist and writer for Salt Magazine. She is a polyglot and speaks five languages, breaking down barriers of communication, and building trust and an understanding of things in an authentic and colourful way. Follow her at @AhishaGhafoor.