Latitude has often used the tag-line ‘more than just a music festival’ and with an extensive arts line-up that’s certainly true. The Suffolk festival has also grown into one of the largest comedy programmes on the circuit. The tents may now have been dismantled, but Fergus Morgan reflects back on a weekend’s mirth in the festival’s purple comedy arena.
If at times Latitude Festival’s music line-up felt decidedly below par – contrast 2014’s headliners (Lily Allen, Damon Albarn and The Black Keys) with 2016’s (The Maccabees, The National, New Order) – and it’s theatre programming slightly arbitrary – the theme of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ was entirely invisible – it’s comedy line-up was quite the opposite. Boasting a combination of big names, old hands, promising young talent, and experimental work, Henham Park’s big, purple comedy tent rarely disappointed.
Child-friendly TV-stars Russell Howard, Josh Widdicombe and Bill Bailey topped the bill and their hour-long sets were unequivocally well-received, even if you would have felt comfortable bringing your mother along to see them. All three have long-established, familiar styles – Howard’s is an observational chirpiness, Widdicombe’s a squeaky, domestic indignation, and Bailey’s a spaced-out surrealism with the odd song thrown in – and all three never strayed far from these tried and tested formulas. Bailey – for whom there was standing room only, such was the size of the crowd – impressed most. His quirky, experimental music brought the house down consistently; a symphonic reworking of the classic iPhone ringtone may well go down as one of his classic routines.
Elsewhere, up-and-comers James Acaster, Joe Lycett, and Rhys James provided confident, charismatic comedy, Acaster’s calm, casual takedown of a drunken heckler probably being the highlight of the whole weekend. Milton Jones provided some one-liners, Daniel Sloss was provocative, and David O’Doherty typically endearing with mini-keyboard balanced precariously on over-large knees. Character comedy came in the shape of Spencer Jones, whose uniquely clownish antics were hysterically bizarre. And there was a strong line-up of female comedians too, particularly on Friday when Sara Pascoe, Shazia Mirza and Katherine Ryan played one after the other.
And so to the elephant in the room: Brexit felt like the set-up and punchline to every joke. Why did the chicken cross the road? Brexit. Knock-knock, who’s there? Brexit. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. Brexit. Material on the referendum felt so ubiquitous at times that one wished David Cameron had never called for it, not to prevent economic meltdown, but just to avoid hearing one more Boris Johnson impersonation.
No polls were conducted, but one imagines that Latitude audiences would have overwhelmingly voted to remain. Lazy comedians seeking cheap cheers simply had to call Nigel Farage a four-letter word and the applause would come rolling predictably in. Nish Kumar, posing as an astute political satirist, in reality did little more than berate leave voters for half an hour, eliciting plenty of rousing growls but few laughs. More refreshing were those that actually sought to analyse, rather than simply express some outrage. And no-one was better here than Mark Steel, who utilised a deep understanding of Britain presumably earned through his nationwide In Town tours to make some salient and hilarious points about Britain’s divisions.
Whereas Latitude’s music is largely for smug 6 Music listeners, and its theatre for hard-core thespians, its comedy is eclectic and accessible. 2016 offered something for everyone, from predictably polished stuff from household names to unconventional, experimental material from relative unknowns. There was no shortage of young talent too, with Ireland’s Al Porter and Eton’s Ivo Graham both impressing (despite obvious nerves) and a Chortle Student Comedy Showcase reassuring that stand-up has a healthy future.
As many acts commented, there is nothing quite like Latitude for comedy. It combines the intensity of the Edinburgh Fringe with the carnival freedom of Glastonbury, the challenge of a competitive schedule with the luxury of a fairly intelligent crowd. If it is this uniqueness that attracts comics, then long may it remain so. For whereas Latitude’s music regularly lets you down and its theatre leaves you periodically uninspired, the quick-fire quality of the comedy tent always cheers you back up. Come for the music and the arts and the poetry, sure, but stay for the laughs.