In all probability the most famous student comedy club in the world... ever.
The Footlights was founded in 1883; and is the only University Club owing its initial inspiration to a mental hospital. A game of cricket between undergraduates and the staff of Fulbourn occasioned a return match in the form of a concert - which developed into a May Week1 show.
So wrote Harry Porter, one-time Cambridge history don, former Footlights Senior Treasurer, current Senior Archivist and longest-serving Footlights stalwart, in 1969.
The success of Footlights started with the conquest of the West End and Broadway by ex-Footlights Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe; continued with David Frost and Timothy Birdsall in That Was The Week That Was; saw future Goodies and John Cleese in I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again on BBC Radio; and finished with three former club members in Monty Python's Flying Circus.
So The Footlights is What, Exactly?
Well, The Cambridge Footlights is the comedy club for students at Cambridge University - a club which just happens to have had some of the best comedians, writers, actors and producers over the past 50 years and more. You come across these people all the time. James Bond films? Leslie Bricusse wrote the lyrics to Goldfinger. Everyday conversation? Eric Idle's the one who came up with the phrase 'Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more' which has crept into everyday parlance. See a musical? Richard Stilgoe wrote most of the lyrics in Cats. And the name Douglas Adams might just be familiar...
Okay, let's get it over with. Chances are you'll have heard of, been a fan of or worshiped at the altar of several of the following ex-Footlights.
Douglas Adams, Clive Anderson, David Baddiel, John Bird, Leslie Bricusse, Eleanor Bron, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Hugh Dennis, John Fortune, David Frost, Stephen Fry, Graeme Garden, Bamber Gascoigne, Mel Giedroyc, Germaine Greer, Nick Hancock, Eric Idle, Clive James, Hugh Laurie, John Lloyd, Miriam Margolyes, Rory McGrath, Bill Oddie, Sue Perkins, Steve Punt, Griff Rhys Jones, Tony Slattery, Richard Stilgoe, Emma Thompson, Sandi Toksvig...
With grovelling apologies to any dizzyingly famous celebrities who have been left out.
Back to the Plot...
The Footlights are always up against it, always having to overcome the preconceptions of audiences either prejudiced against student comedy (particularly Oxbridge2 students - one article about the club was titled 'These Toffs just can't hack it', following the general misconception that Cambridge is full of aristocrats), or expecting to see the next great comic star. Throughout the academic year, these undergraduates - lead by their committee - produce a pantomime (or at least a twisted take on one), a spring revue and a show which, beginning at Cambridge in June, tours England and plays at the Edinburgh Fringe3. Aside from these, there are one-night performances at amateur and professional locations, in Cambridge mainly, but also in Oxford and recently Durham too.
Many past members have come to Cambridge primarily to get involved in the Footlights as the club is one of the 'names' fairly well guaranteed to draw an audience. Queues have, on occasion, done a Star Wars and stretched around the block. Within the University's dramatic circles it can be looked down upon, since it is comedy rather than straight drama, and people tend to take themselves a little too seriously. Often so-called serious actors will ally themselves with the club if only to put this in their portfolio.
Of course, given the impetus Footlights can give to a career in entertainment, comedians are not above using it to their own nefarious purposes too...
A Chance to be Funny
Every other year the club has to start almost from scratch. A lot of its best writers and performers, the 'stars' of their time, will have graduated, and those left must carefully seek out the best of the new blood. These will, through trial and error, through the terrible silence of an unappreciative audience4 and working with other like-minded young hopefuls, learn to write and perform comedy; the club really is unique in this opportunity it presents students. They will perform perhaps every week, certainly every month; writing more and more and gaining in both confidence and technique.
Due to this regular turnover, it would be unwise to pin the club down to a particular style You can bet on a wide range of approaches featuring parody and satire, but not overmuch in recent years. One thing that tends to happen every few years is a conscious effort to get away from the style of the previous era in the club - the new regime can often turn against the old. At the very least, this ensures a relatively high level of originality and safeguards the club against copying others.
For people who, one would presume, have a reasonable level of intelligence, the club members can come up with a lot of silly ideas. Witness Peter Cook's improvised monologue, starting off with the words, 'In this matchbox...is the Holy Bee of Ephesus.'
Run jointly with the local Amateur Dramatic Club, this is often a mickey-take of the genre itself - expect a mix of traditional panto, Shakespeare, film parody and pop culture references.
The Spring Revue
This show has long suffered from being perceived as the 'poorer brother' of the summer show, coming as it does in the middle of the academic year. However, it is extremely useful in giving new members an opportunity to be part of a show which has a run of more than one night; and allows older members to keep their hand in.
The Summer Revue
This used to be known as the May Week Revue, but recent generations will know it as the Tour Show, given that it travels the nation, making an appearance on the way at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is the highlight of the Footlights year, and the most prestigious of the shows. In recent years, the Tour Show has become something almost completely separate from the rest of the club's activities.
The titles vary, ranging from plays on existing titles or phrases - Paradise Mislaid, Premises, Premises, Whoops! Utopia - through the dramatic - Fools Rush In, Electric Voodoo, Out of the Blue - to the plain mad - A Clump of Plinths, The Barracuda Jazz Option, Was it the Lobster?, Pop Goes Mrs Jessop.
There are really two types of members. Any student at the University can join; it is five pounds for a year's membership and ten pounds for life (which really means your University life). Membership entitles you to discounts, newsletters and invitations to cabaret evenings, the garden party and annual dinner. It also means you can audition for the shows. Of course, many members choose to become writing and performing members, for the various shows that are going on all the time.
Despite all these famous alumni, Footlights seem to have always struggled to please. True, the 1980 summer revue The Cellar Tapes, featuring Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson won the first ever much-coveted Edinburgh Fringe Perrier Award, but on the whole, critical opinion has been against them - often amusingly, given hindsight. For example:
Jonathan Miller5 wants to be a chemist and not a theatrical cult. I back his judgement.
The modern Footlights... should be reminded they are here to entertain.
- Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron's year
John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who are responsible for a lot of the poorer material.
Have they got a new Jonathan Miller among them? I may as well get the answer over right away. No.
- John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie's year
Recommended only to the parents and friends of those taking part. Very fond parents, very close friends only.
- Germaine Greer, Eric Idle and Graeme Garden's year
If only they knew.