In the summer of 2010, Julie Woods died after a short but intense fight with skin cancer. Julie wasn’t famous, but if you’re a comedy fan, you may have heard of her legacy. She didn’t know it as she got her house in order those last few weeks in hospital, but tragic as it was, her premature death gave birth to something amazing.
The Big Comedy Gala was staged for the first time during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, by Julie’s brother Barry Church-Woods and his friend Mhari Robinson, who lost both her parents to cancer. What was initially planned as a small comedy evening in a pub function room, to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, turned into one of the biggest comedy events of the Fringe, with a sell-out inaugural show at the EICC.
Host Ed Byrne and acts including Sarah Millican and Joe Lycett brought the roof down in the packed 1,200 seat space, and established the Big C as an annual event, raising over £50,000 for Macmillan so far, over three shows. After a hiatus in 2014, the Big Comedy Gala is back this year, with comedy punk duo and Fringe sensation Die Roten Punkte hosting. New for this year is the Big Cabaret Gala – a family-friendly daytime addition to the Big C portfolio, hosted by Lili la Scala.
So why comedy? An evening of stand up isn’t necessarily the most obvious way to deal with grief. Barry explains that for him, it was a way to turn the tremendous sense of hurt and loss into something constructive: “Needless to say, the time around Julie’s death was truly horrific. It all happened so quickly that after she passed I found myself struggling to process what had happened. My friend Mhari had gone through something similar with her parents and we ended up in a situation where we were sort of mourning communally. We’d get together and reminisce over a whisky or two and eventually we’d end up either laughing about how awful the situation was, or crying. One night we had an epiphany, realising that there were better ways to channel our feelings.”
“We’re both producers by trade, so staging a fundraiser for a cancer charity seemed like a natural fit, and we figured that laughter really is the best medicine. When your body is dealing with the shock and despair of the situation and your flight instinct is curtailed, you need an outlet. We laughed a lot with Julie when she was in the hospice. She laughed too. So comedy seemed like the perfect way to celebrate her life.”
Barry talks fondly of Julie’s personal comedy moments, and her “absolutely terrible” sense of humour. “She told dad jokes all the way, and our dad is the quintessential silly punster. My overriding memory of Julie’s humour is her laugh, though. It was a properly goofy one; snorts and all. It was deeply contagious. She also got a real kick out of deliberately answering rhetorical questions and then just staring at the person who asked it.”
When pressed about his favourite Big Comedy Gala highlight, Barry has to pause and think. And no wonder; with three sell-out shows under his belt and past acts including Roy Walker, Danny Bhoy, Caroline Rhea, Fred Macaulay, Chris Ramsey, Lee Nelson, Susan Calman, The Boy with Tape on his Face, Josie Long, Frisky & Mannish and EastEnd Cabaret, there’s bound to be plenty to choose from.
“As a producer you tend to focus on the audience experience. The trick to a successful show, after all, is entertaining the audience, which in turn, creates word of mouth. However, there was an off-stage moment a couple of years ago that changed my perspective on the whole event. I was heading to the green room during the gala, and found a very well known comedian in there, who wasn’t on the bill, asking to go on stage. He’d shown up with another artist who was set to perform and it’s fair to say he’d had quite a bit to drink.
“We didn’t let him on in the end, as he was too tipsy and it would have messed up the timings of the show, but that was the moment that I realised that we’d got to a level where artists respect and trust what we do, to the point that they want a piece of the action. It always thrills me that the performers have such a great time. The audiences really want them to succeed and there’s generally a brilliant mood in the room on the night.”
Given the success of the Big C, it’s perhaps no surprise that the show has spawned a cabaret sister gala, to be held on the same date – Friday the 28th of August – also at the EICC. As fans of La Clique can testify, cabaret is often associated with adult themes, but the Big Cabaret Gala has been deliberately programmed to appeal to kids as well as grownups.
“It’s about celebrating the diversity of incredible talent that’s in Edinburgh in August that might not normally find a platform on the comedy stage, and encouraging them to collaborate on some unique performances,” says Barry. “I was keen to trial a daytime, family-friendly show, so that anyone can support Macmillan, and hopefully raise even more cash for the charity. On a selfish note, it’s also about me getting to pretend to be a pop star during the tech rehearsal, and having an excuse to use a confetti canon.”
Jokes aside, there is a good reason for Barry decision to add cabaret to the Big C repertoire. “You can thank the brilliant Lili la Scala for that. She has been one of our biggest champions right from the start. I fell in love with her work at the Adelaide Fringe in 2010 and have been following her career ever since. We’ve been in the same rooms a lot over the last few years because of our jobs.”
“During the last Big Comedy Gala, Lili was in the green room as her husband, Sam Wills (aka The Boy with Tape on his Face), was that year’s host. At one point, she leaned over to me and said ‘Next time, the C should stand for Cabaret, and I’ll host it’. The fan-boy in me nearly passed out. We took last year off, but the idea has been slowly germinating into the reality of this year.”
The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest open access festival on the planet, and 2015 will see 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows from 49 countries in 313 venues, across the capital. Impressive stats by anyone’s standards, and it can be difficult even for diehard Fringe veterans to know what to see and how to fit it all in. When asked what he thinks makes the Big C stand out, Barry is quick to answer.
“I genuinely think it’s becoming a destination event during the festival because it’s programmed by taste and not through association with particular artists. We spend the best part of the year researching new acts, courting agents and managers and then convincing them to get on the stage. It’s not hard work. Most people we ask want to do it if they’re available. I like that there’s a good mix of household names with solid reputations, but I love that the Big C also gives great emerging acts the chance to make a name for themselves.”
So who would be Barry’s dream host for either or both events next year?
“I’d love to have someone who’s never done Edinburgh to come and host a Big C show as a one-off. Someone like Louis CK or Sarah Silverman would be great for the comedy gala. As far as the cabaret show goes, Lili is pretty much my dream fulfilled, but I’d love Ali McGregor or EastEnd Cabaret to host the next one. Kylie Minogue would do, too.”
He says that last bit with a wink, but reaching for the stars is not a bad idea. Barry has already proven just how much can be achieved with a great concept, decent arts industry connections and bit of ambition. The money that the Big C has raised so far is enough to run one of Macmillan’s information centres for eight months, or employ two Macmillan nurses for a year. Barry credits the achievement to everyone involved in the project, and the shows’ audiences.
“The EICC go a thousand extra miles to make the event special. Their staff is awesome and the technicians are some of the best I’ve ever worked with. The Big C event relies 100% on the goodwill of everyone involved. No one gets paid; everyone is in it for the charity. This show started off as an idea for a wee fundraiser in a pub back room, with some local talent, and in its first year it sold 1,200 tickets, with Ed Byrne as host. The fact that 6 hours of entertainment over a few events has raised over £50K so far gives me a very warm, fuzzy feeling. That, and the fact that people really love the show. It turns out charity really is quite sexy.”