Jongleurs chain founders leave stage £7m richer

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The Independent Culture

Have you heard the one about the woman who used a bicycle as collateral on a £300 loan to put on a comedy night above a former roller disco, and who has now sold a chain of clubsfor at least £7m?

Have you heard the one about the woman who used a bicycle as collateral on a £300 loan to put on a comedy night above a former roller disco, and who has now sold a chain of clubsfor at least £7m?

It's no joke. Maria Kempinska and her husband, John Davy, who founded the Jongleurs chain of comedy clubs, have sold their holding stake in the business. The final deal could net them £8.5m.

Ms Kempinska set up the first Jongleurs club in Battersea, south London, in 1983, with a loan obtained by using her bicycle as security, the bank manager apparently seeing the funny side. She put on the event, booking the acts herself, in a room above a pub that had been used as a roller disco. It was an instant success. "This was in 1983, just at the time that alternative comedy was really kicking off," said Nigel Pitman, commercial director for Jongleurs Battersea, a new company which will retain the "intellectual property rights" to the brand.

"The first regular compere at the club was a young man called Paul Martin. He went on to change his name to Paul Merton and now everyone knows of him. But there were very few comedians who went on to make it who didn't come through Jongleurs, or else the Comedy Store."

The names of the comedians who began their trade on the circuit that developed as Jongleurs and the Comedy Store took off reads like a cast list of current celebrities, including Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Jack Dee and Ruby Wax.

"This was happening as a backlash against the Tarby type of comedian," Mr Pitman said. "It was the start of a new scene." But even in those heady days it was hard to break with the past. The husband-and-wife team considered it a big step forward when they organised their first bill that did not contain a juggler. The pair have sold their 51 per cent share in the chain to Regent Inns, a pub company with whom they have been doing business since 1997, for £7m. Further performance-related payments could earn the couple another £1.5m.

Regent Inns has acquired full ownership of the eight Jongleurs clubs, four in London and others in Nottingham, Leicester, Southampton and Oxford. It intends to open up to 15 more clubs in the course of the next two years.

The company's chief executive, Stephen Haupt, said: "We already have one or two sites that we are looking at. This is an excellent investment."

Mr Davy and Ms Kempinska, a former drama teacher, will continue to book the acts, - a decision they have insisted upon to ensure the "quality control" of the acts associated with the brand - and provide box office support and marketing services. The pair were unavailable for comment yesterday, having left for a holiday in Las Vegas.

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