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The Cambridge Footlights: First steps in comedy

Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, it’s produced generations of British comedy stars, yet being part of the gang is no laughing matter, says Ben Miller

I joined the Footlights pretty much by accident. By then, I’d been a student at Cambridge for more than four years; I’d finished my first degree, in natural sciences, and had begun a PhD in experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in the Semiconductor Physics Group. As an undergraduate, I felt I’d frittered away a lot of my free time, first as a DJ with The Rhythm Method, otherwise known as the St Catharine’s College mobile disco, and then as college entertainments officer, which largely involved booking myself. So by the time I started my PhD I was hungry for some more “challenging” extra-curricular action.

For me, that meant serious drama. And for Cambridge students in the late Eighties, serious drama meant a play of pretty much any quality written before about 1650. After unsuccessful attempts to join the casts’ numerous dodgy revenge tragedies and hitherto unperformed Jacobean “classics”, I finally struck gold with Othello. The part of Cassio, Iago’s fall guy, was mine. This was it. I was a serious actor.

My joy was short-lived. Cassio is not a part that’s long on laughs. In fact, Othello as a whole is not noted for its ribald set-pieces. But after playing the Moor’s hapless lieutenant with what I felt to be admirable gravitas night after night to fits of giggles and occasional gales of laughter, I began to wonder whether my skills lay elsewhere.I went with the flow, and convinced some of my fellow cast members to help me write a spoof Shakespeare play that we played deliberately for laughs. Norman Thane of Spain ran for a week at the main student theatre, the ADC. In a masterstroke of shameless self-promotion I played Norman, which is to say I pretty much reprised my part in Othello, only now with the legitimate excuse that the audience were meant to be laughing. And someone from Footlights must have seen it, because at the beginning of the next academic year I was invited to join their committee.

I was hugely flattered and terrified in equal measure. Footlights were one of those numinous Oxbridge delights that I’d assumed weren’t really meant for oiks like me and were best left to the public-school kids, along with rowing, ballroom dancing, and wearing black tie to Sainsbury’s. But I had always loved comedy, and I knew enough to know they had been the breeding ground for many of my favourite British comedians, and in particular, the two I regarded as incontestable geniuses: Graham Chapman and John Cleese. So one bleak, wind-driven afternoon in October, I set off to meet my destiny.Initially it was a disappointment. In the winter of 1989, the Footlights seemed to be at rather a low ebb. There was no bar in the Club Room as in days of yore, when Peter Cook would spend long evenings swilling mint juleps and conversing with an imaginary bee. In fact, there was no longer really a proper Club Room, just a dank, pine-clad hovel in the Union Society’s bowels.

It was a depressing place. There was nothing to suggest any connection with the Footlights Club of legend. There were no lovingly curated links with a glorious past, no knick-knacks handed down from the greats, no comedic runes fastidiously tooled in stone tablets; just a few fading photographs of a curiously hirsute Clive James and a torn poster for The Cellar Tapes that looked like it might have been rescued from a fire. All that was left, it seemed, was the name. Well, I say there was the name; actually, that had gone, too. Some student had done a sponsorship deal with the devil, and the Cambridge Footlights had been rebranded as “The Holsten Pils Cambridge Footlights”. I could barely contain my self-righteous, proto-socialist disgust, though I did enjoy the free beer.

There was nothing much to recommend the ambience, but all the same I took to my new club like a baby to its mother’s milk. Whereas Cambridge drama was all about cliques and cabals, Cambridge comedy was democratic to a fault. Here it seemed if you could actually make people laugh, there was a fair chance of getting your opportunity in the spotlight. Every fortnight, there would be open auditions for a try-out night, or Smoker, as it was called, and there would be endless votes, auditions and audience appraisals to determine which performers and sketches then made it into the end-of-term Revue.

Even more impressive were the huge audiences that would turn up for any kind of Footlights show. Cheesy as it sounds, for the first time I had a sense of being part of a wider community, a university, rather than the tea-cosy-like confines of my beloved but comparatively tiny college. This was a place to spread your wings and experiment. Within a few short weeks I was hooked. This was the career I wanted to follow, if I could. I had found my people.I worked like a dervish all year, and by the summer, after countless auditions, votes, re-counts, and secret ballots, I managed to get myself into the cast of the Summer Tour, Absurd Persons Plural. That was when things started to turn a bit sour.

The Tour began auspiciously enough, playing to huge crowds at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. As a physicist, I was thrilled one night to see Stephen Hawking in the enthusiastic audience. It was after we left Cambridge that we began to run into trouble.

In the real world, it turned out, everyone had it in for Footlights. Some audiences seemed to tolerate them, some even to enjoy them, but local critics were unanimously scathing concerning our fall from grace, often singling out cast members for what can only |be described as personal abuse. Where were the comedic greats of tomorrow? Not here. By the time we reached the Edinburgh Fringe, morale was at rock-bottom.

I don’t know who found the review that turned our ship around. I do remember we devoured it backstage. It was written, I think, about the 1961 tour, Double Take. It consisted of a scathing treatise on how Footlights today weren’t a patch on their former glory, and singled out two cast members for personal abuse: Chapman and Cleese.

And that was the moment, I think, that I took my first step away from comedy novice towards comedy initiate. Footlights are, and were, dire. They are meant to be dire. They have no respect for their past; nor should they, because their past is nearly always ignominious. They are a place, simply, to take your first steps, whether they be the steps of an enthusiast, a journeyman or a genius. They are a place to fail. Long may they continue to be so.

Cambridge Footlights: From students to stars

Peter Cook

President of Footlights by 1960, Cook created the West End show 'One over the Eight' for Kenneth Williams before co-writing and starring in the stage comedy revue 'Beyond the Fringe'.

John Cleese

Cleese began his acting career in the Footlights cast of 1962 in 'Double Take'. He contributed material to their 1961 revue 'I Thought I Saw It Move'.

Hugh Laurie

Laurie became president of Footlights in 1981. His then girlfriend, Emma Thompson, introduced him to Stephen Fry, sparking a comedy partnership that would lead to their double act.

Emma Thompson

Thompson joined Footlights at the request of the then president, Martin Bergman. In 1980, she co-directed and performed in 'Woman's Hour', Cambridge's first all-female revue.

Stephen Fry

Fry's television career began with Footlights, when 'The Cellar Tapes' was aired in 1982. He went on to star in 'There's Nothing to Worry About!'