Comedy's debt to the Wide boys

Comedy is everywhere. And where it isn't, impresarios like Adam Wide are leading it. Jim White on comedy's new markets
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The Independent Culture
Up on the stage of the Whitehall Theatre, Tommy Tit and Billy Bottom, a newly forged double-act, were hacking through their audition piece: an Abbott and Costello sketch so old you could smell the formaldehyde. Tommy, or possibly Billy, wore a co medy hat. Billy, or possibly Tommy, didn't. As their sketch echoed around the empty theatre, Adam Wide, down in the auditorium to analyse their merit, snorted supportive splutters of laughter.

After the audition was over, in the backstage bar, Tommy and Billy rapidly changed from their stage wear into their jeans, ready to catch the train to Brighton for another chance to impress another impresario.

"I think it went very well, that," said Tommy, or possibly Billy, who by day is a postman but is determined to make the grade as a professional comic. "You heard him laughing. It'd be a great break for us, this. I think we're very confident, aren't we?"

And Billy, or possibly Tommy, agreed they were.

Meanwhile, back in the auditorium, a comedian in a dinner jacket with spangly lapels had propped his elbow on the microphone stand and was telling a gag about the menu at a Chinese restaurant: " `What's Chicken Ding?' I says to the waiter. And he says: `You put chicken in microwave and when it ready, oven go ding.' "

Though chortling, Adam Wide wasn't watching. He was completing the audition score-sheet he had perched on his knees. On a scale of one to 10 for star quality, he had awarded Tit and Bottom zero. In the box marked "Brief description" he had written: "defies description".

If it seems a tough life being an aspirant comic, ferreting from audition to open-mike spot, from false hope to humiliation, spare a thought for "one of the biggest purchasers of comedy in Britain", as Adam Wide describes himself. Dozens of afternoons every year he spends in the company of would-be funnymen, hearing the same gag about Gary Glitter's balls, convinced he will never find the 50 or so comics he needs to book up every season. On the days he is not looking for comedians, he is l o oking for singers, dancers, magicians, or people who do unexpected things with razor blades. And on the days he isn't doing that, he is writing scripts, co-ordinating choreography, running an empire of 15 permanent staff and more than 100 seasonal worker s. The funny thing is, five years ago Adam Wide was one of those up on the stage seeking work, a bit-part actor known mainly for his work on the Rumbelows ads or as man-in-gay-bar on the Harry Enfield Show. Until, that is, he invented a whole new comedy market; a market so successful that five years on he has an office with a sweeping view of Oxford Street to which he drives in a brand new Lexus.

"Like it?" he said, proudly opening the door to the room in his headquarters where a team of writers was hammering at computers. "It's too, too fab."

Comedy is now everywhere, and where it isn't, impresarios like Adam Wide are leading it. This summer, he will be providing the entertainment for holidaymakers at 17 hotels run by Thomson Holidays. Also Mediterranean cruises operated by Thomson's rivals,

Airtours, will swing to his comedy productions. If negotiations are successful a country house hotel chain will, later this year, be chortling to his comedy blueprint. And Wide isn't the only one: Jeremy Lee, for instance, has created whole new avenues in corporate entertainment, successfully feeding comedians from the London circuit into an after-dinner world traditionally inhabited by sportsmen and Bob Monkhouse.

"In terms of earning and sizes of audience the corporate market that we are dealing with is not a tangential part of a comic's career," said Jeremy Lee. "It is now absolutely central."

The empires of Wide and Lee are both products of recession.

"It was not fashionable in the depth of the cycle to be seen spending too much money," said Lee. "What we did was offer the companies a chance to entertain without being seen to be ostentatious. It was a way of keeping the market alive in difficult times." Openwide International began five years ago, when Thomson Holidays were looking for a new approach to sell holidays in the toughest environment the company had ever known. They thought of upgrading the entertainment holidaymakers received abroad and approached Wide, who at the time was working for the Jongleurs organisation, to act as consultant on a programme they called Thomson Sun.

"I saw the opportunity for re-defining the market," Wide remembered. "Everyone in the travel business was working to the model established by Billy Butlin - the Red Coats, the spangly cabaret. I just thought it could do with updating."

So what he did was transcribe the London cabaret circuit into the hotels, booking the comics from the Comedy Store into the Coma Gran, Majorca, for the season (Arthur Smith's play A Night with Gary Lineker, incidentally, is based on the evening a bunch of Wide's boys spent watching the 1990 World Cup in a hotel in Majorca). Wide was evangelical about it: he wanted to replace end-of-pier ribaldry with the kind of non-sexist, non-racist comedy favoured in the smoky upstairs rooms of the capital's pubs. Inhis first year, the experiment was only a partial success.

"What I found," he said, "was that the London circuit is very cloistered, cliquey, preaching to the converted. When it came to entertaining the very people these comics were supposed to be championing, some couldn't do it. They didn't have the stage-craft to win over an audience not immediately on their side."

Fortunately, Wide's other entertainment concepts - the reps' shows, the quizzes, the pool-side aerobics - were so successful he was asked to do the same thing a second year. So this time he spread his net wider, recruiting comics from any school. It wor k ed brilliantly, the Sun programme is now Thomson's most popular, and other holiday companies are beating a path to Wide's palatial door.

One of the most intriguing ideas is the unique contract he makes his hundreds of entertainers sign: no sexism, no racism and no "negative tourism material". "We were dealing with a family audience, and if just one person was offended, then we had failed," he said. "But also I thought it was a great opportunity to wean the great British public away from blonde hair and big tits or silly poof gags."

Jeremy Lee, too, discovered that his new market was not the place for experimentation. "We are not in the game of pushing back the comedy envelope," said Lee. "We are into reassurance. I cannot allow a comic to jeopardise the whole operation."

And do comics follow the strictures? Or have any slipped into the gutter and taken the impresario with them?

"One bloke told a gag about masturbating a goat," said Wide. "I said to him afterwards, do you think that was a good idea for a family audience? He just couldn't see it was a problem."

Mostly, though, comedians are prepared to suffer a bit of censorship in return for a steady summer income. So far, for instance, only one act has refused to sign Adam Wide's contract on principle. And he believes the holidaymakers of Britain have managedto enjoy their Thomson breaks without being entertained by Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies.