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What the Frock! Comedy Jane Duffus

Written by Jane Duffus

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Tiffany Stevenson at the first What the Frock! event which Bristol Ideas helped launch (Reuban Freeman)

One of the roles that Bristol Ideas played was to help other initiatives and projects develop. It helped with advice, bids, marketing support, ideas and sometimes funding. Jane Duffus looks here at What the Frock! Comedy and the role Bristol Ideas played in starting this project that challenged the sexism of the comedy industry. Duffus is a writer whose subsequent books on the historical women of Bristol have not only brought to public attention women in the city but also helped fill gaps in Bristol Ideas’ work and knowledge.

After moving from London to Bristol in 2008, I was floundering around trying to find my feet. Watershed quickly drew me in and, among its charms, was a regularly updated stash of leaflets advertising events that appealed to the sort of people who went to Watershed. Among them were booklets for the Festival of Ideas: a programme of conversational events that I quickly came to look forward to. The Festival of Ideas offered me many things over the following 15 years, but the most significant was the initial backing for my idea for an all-female comedy project: What The Frock! Comedy.

I’m a writer with, at that time, little interest in comedy or events promotion. But I was frustrated at the lack of women being booked by the traditional comedy clubs both in Bristol and elsewhere. The promoters I spoke with told me two things: there weren’t many funny women or, if they did book a woman, nobody came. Nonsense!

With the backing of the Festival of Ideas, we hired Arnolfini and programmed a night with four wonderful comedians for April 2012. Even though they weren’t household names, the event quickly sold out and generated glowing reviews… And then, before the first event had happened, the third one had been booked. The fourth What The Frock! was at the Southbank Centre in London, in front of an audience of 1,000.

Scenes from the first What the Frock! event which Bristol Ideas helped launch: Dana Alexander and Kate Smurthwaite (Reuban Freeman)

Over the next six years, I organised almost 80 What The Frock! Comedy events in seven UK towns and cities, booked around 150 female comedians, launched an annual award to promote emerging female comedy talent and published a book celebrating the long history of funny women. What The Frock! generated a lot of national publicity for the fact the comedy industry was knowingly overlooking women, and one highlight was appearing on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, who broadcast from a show in Bristol. We also raised around £5,000 for the Bristolbased women’s charity One25. There was a lot to be proud of, and it all got off the ground thanks to the Festival of Ideas giving me the backing for that first event in Arnolfini.

Although What The Frock! Comedy has been resting since 2018, that’s not due to a lack of demand for the events or for a lack of female comedy talent. It was simply that demand for my books started to take off and writing is where my heart truly lies.

Bristol Ideas will leave a huge hole in the city. The team could be relied upon to bring a varied selection of speakers to the city and take a refreshing attitude to free speech; admirable at a time when so many others are giving in to noxious cancel culture. I thank the Festival of Ideas team for the 15 years of cultural enlightenment that I was able to experience at their hands. And I thank them for pushing me out of my comfort zone to try something new and extraordinary.

Jane Duffus has worked as a journalist, editor and public speaker since 2000. She founded and ran the What The Frock! Comedy project between 2012 and 2018 and is the author of six books including two (soon to be three) in the popular The Women Who Built Bristol series.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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