Meet the amazing man behind the Great Yorkshire Fringe

Showbusiness supremo Martin Witts. Photograph: Richard McDougall
27 Jul 2015 @ 5.28 pm
| Entertainment

This is the man who has transformed Parliament Street into a massive entertainment venue and brought some of the biggest names in comedy and entertainment to the heart of York.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that Martin Witts has done such an amazing thing. Because he’s an amazing man.

He runs the Leicester Square Theatre in London, which hosts stars of comedy and music.

He launched the Museum Of Comedy, where you can see everything from Tommy Cooper’s magic tricks to the original Sooty.

Starting his career as a drama student at York St John, Martin has gone on to represent some household names, worked on the Hamlet ads with Russ Abbot… and fallen in the Ouse more times than he cares to remember.

So here is the wit and wisdom of Martin Witts, on all sorts of topics…

Meet Martin Witts

Brought up in Broadstairs, Kent, he lived near to Dad’s Army actor John Le Mesurier and wife Hattie Jacques

He came to York as a St John’s drama, film and TV student

He worked with future actors Mark Addy and Blair Plant in the back stage crew of York Theatre Royal

Martin worked at Glyndebourne and with legendary theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont


The Great Yorkshire Fringe is on till Sun, Aug 2. For shows and tickets, see the website

On York pubs in his student years

Riverside favourite the King's Arms. Photograph © Adam Bruderer on Flickr
Riverside favourite the King’s Arms. Photograph © Adam Bruderer on Flickr

You’d go to the Spread Eagle, and then you do the Micklegate Run which was a half pint in every pub all the way down. You always used to end up in the King’s Arms.

Then there was the Blue Bell. The landlady was 92 when she retired, and we had Russ Abbot’s 50th birthday there.

And the front bar at that time was still a male-only bar. It was where the York male voice choir used to meet. That’s only 17 years ago.

At the King’s Arms, Sam Smith’s was 36p. They used to have a DJ there in the back bar called Mr Melody’s Music Night with speakers outside on the riverbank. People danced off.

It was before they had the fencing. There used to be a load of boats moored there so if you fell off you always landed on a boat.

I did fall in once with a duvet wrapped round my shoulder and I couldn’t work out why I was sinking so fast – it was soaking up the water.

On the old approach to river safety

At the time the river safety thing didn’t exist.

They used to have an annual pizza and a pint, where you drank a pint, swam across the river, had a pizza in Sweeney Todd’s, swam back, had another pint. Whoever did it six times the fastest was the winner.

It’s just ridiculous. I did it three years running. Never won. But I got royally p*ssed. It was a big thing at the time.

But then at that time the dredgers were outside Sweeney Todd’s. Sweeney Todd’s was that big warehouse, it was a huge pizza rear and cocktail bar.

On working at York Theatre Royal

I went travelling for a year and came back on my 21st birthday and got a job at York Theatre Royal as assistant designer and carpenter.

It was absolutely fantastic. Probably the best mix of people I’ve ever had because there was a lot of railway workers working part-time, a lot of chocolate workers. Just very very funny people, the backstage crew.

They had a bar there at York Theatre Royal, which is now the members club, which was a crew only pub. I think it was 25p a pint and you could drink all way way through the show.

The main reason a lot of people worked there was, if you didn’t have many scene changes, it was just a big social evening. A lot of them work from me now.

On comedy in the old days

It’s very different now in the comedy world. When I first started it was Tommy Cooper, Norman Wisdom, Jim Davidson, Canon and Ball, Little and Large… I was working for all them as prop maker and production manager.

Tommy was lovely chap, Les Dawson was a lovely guy.

On Blackpool variety

I had 26,000 seats at night to programme in Blackpool. So I had things like Oasis on in the tower, Blur on in the Emperor’s Ballroom, Danny La Rue on south pier, Chubby Brown on central pier and Russ Abbot on north pier.

It was a fantastic time but unfortunately sadly gone.

On Leicester Square Theatre

It wasn’t called the Leicester Square Theatre. It was originally the Cavern In The Town where the Beatles had been.

I’d been there in 76 to see the Sex Pistols when Sid Vicious first played for them. In fact I’ve got a photo up on the wall in the theatre of me in the background.

On royal visitors

Prince Harry’s been into the theatre probably a dozen times, but he remembers nearly all the front of house staff’s names, which is very rare.

On the Museum of Comedy

The Four Candles sketch from the Two Ronnies. Photograph: YouTube
The Four Candles sketch from the Two Ronnies. Photograph: YouTube

I’ve got a huge collection of music hall songs and memorabilia. Little Titchy’s shoes and Nesta Tilley’s hat, and quite a few of Tommy Cooper’s home-made props because he was a carpenter and made a lot of the props himself.

We’re just about to display the Four Candles script, the classic Two Ronnies’ sketch, three pages in red Biro with all Ronnie Barker’s annotations.

On the ‘big con’, Britain’s Got Talent

Britain’s Got Talent is the biggest con in the world, because they send agents to come and see people who are already performing.

Did you see Siro-A the Japanese clowns this year? Siro-A are coming to York, absolutely brilliant group of performance.

They’ve been playing with us in London for three years. They won the London Cabaret awards this year and they were approached by Britain’s Got Talent to come on. Which is very weird.

I did a sideshow thing about ten years ago, which was stripping Thalidomides and tap-dancing dwarves. And the BGT producers always asked for free tickets to come and pick and choose a sort of freak element of the television show.

It’s like anything else, there is no such thing as truth in television when it comes to a variety show.

On how to be a successful comedian

I think it’s very rare that there’s a natural comic. There’s a few that you could say, like Marty Feldman, People who have got genuinely funny bones like Lee Evans.

Some are great comedians because they’ve got a great team of writers, like Morecambe and Wise.

It’s good writers, naturally funny, or just hard work. Very few of them make money in the first five years.

Martin rates the comedians

Joan Rivers. Photograph © Underbelly Limited on Wikimedia Commons
Joan Rivers. Photograph © Underbelly Limited on Wikimedia Commons

Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers opened Leicester Square Theatre for me. She was nice, and an absolutely magnificent comic. But she was always very nervous that it was going to be last gig.

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey is probably the most accomplished poet songwriter that I’ve ever come across. Some of the stuff he comes up with, using all sorts influences from My Old Man to reggae.

Michael McIntyre

Professionally, I just think he hit it at the right time. He had a very good manager who has sadly passed away. He had that engine of a very successful management.

The Pythons

We run John Cleese’s fan club from the museum. Nice chap. In fact, they’re all nice. There’s not a bad Python. Especially Michael Palin.

Freddie Starr

Freddie thinks that any stage that’s above two foot high will give him vertigo. He cancels a gig because of his vertigo. But he’s completely nuts.

John Bishop
John Bishop

John Bishop

John Bishop did his first gig with us, in the Lounge – the 60-seater downstairs. He told all his mates, ‘I’m playing the Leicester Square Theatre!’ And he sold six tickets, five of them to his mates! He’s a nice bloke.

Frank Skinner

Frank Skinner did four weeks with us. He’s a very serious Catholic, and does a lot of charity work. He has done some good stuff, especially live.

Jerry Sadowitz

Absolutely bonkers. We always say we keep a straight jacket in the dressing room for him. But out all the comics I’ve ever seen he is undoubtedly the best. As a social commentator, with no holds barred. Absolutely no fear of anything or anyone.

Matt Lucas & David Walliams

Matt’s a lovely bloke. David Walliams is a bit bonkers. But Matt Lucas is such a nice, genuine geezer. He remembers everybody.

On his previous York festival

I did the York Festival with the Mystery Plays in ’88 with Jude Kelly when I was production manager in the gardens.

I was the licensee for the De Grey Rooms, and we had the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and the World Dance Championships in the Minster. We had an old circus tent on the eye of York.

There was a lot of music, a lot of comedy. That was the first time I was involved in festival in York. Since about ’98 I’ve been looking [to stage another festival in York], trying to get through the mist that is working with any local council.

On the York comedy scene

There is quite a good comedy scene in York now. It’s a shame that the Barbican is just not the ideal place for comedy.

Stewart Lee was going to do the festival and his tour booked him into the Barbican which was a shame as I think he would have much preferred to have played a much smaller venue.

I think there’s some very good York comics, look at Dustin Gee. Les Dennis – the luckiest man in showbiz they call him. Still hasn’t bought me a pint…

On ‘classless’ York

When I came to York, going to the working men’s clubs was the way you got to know what York was about. And actually realised that there’s no class divide in York whatsoever. It’s a big rarity. South Shields is the same.

It’s in danger of changing. When you’ve got a local theatre which is a repertory theatre, it has to be a very varied programme. Otherwise it becomes a sort of private members club for people that can afford it.

I’m shocked at how expensive some of the tickets are in a local theatre.

On some of the Yorkshire Fringe highlights

It’s a kids, cabaret, music and comedy festival.

The one-man show Breaking Bad In An Hour I saw last year in Edinburgh. It’s a fantastic piece.

I love Stick Man, Stick Man’s great because it has a reggae soundtrack, sort of ska-reggae for kids.

We’re doing Moulin Ouse, which is local burlesque. They wrote to us. That came through and you can’t beat that. They’re a good bunch and they’re doing Yorkshire Day on August 1.

We’ve got the final of the New Yorkshire Comedian Award, Rob Beckett’s doing a gig afterwards. And Ronnie Scott’s All Stars on the final evening.

On the Parliament Street takeover

How the fringe has transformed Parliament Street in York. Photograph: YorkMix
How the fringe has transformed Parliament Street in York. Photograph: YorkMix

It’s nearly a quarter of a mile long, the whole thing, and the widest point is about 80ft which is just big enough for the Moulin Rouge tent, which is the oldest one we’re bringing.

The whole site is an experience.

A bit like going to the Pleasance or the Underbelly at Edinburgh – a place that everyone moves towards because there’s always something weird going on, like a Japanese clown and a beautifully-rounded burlesque dancer walking past.

It makes it a place where you can sit and watch things happening.

You don’t necessarily have to spend money. Except on the bar of course. Beer is our Arts Council subsidy.

On the Fringe returning to York each year

That’s the intention. It all hinges on the first year.

I’ve committed to three years or up to five. It depends on how it goes and how it evolves.

Certainly the indications are that next year we’ll have several accredited venues, like Edinburgh does, but make sure the programming is still curated.