We’ve got bleddy birthday fever this month. Just The Tonic, Nottingham’s prime comedy promoters, have been bringing the funnies to the city for 25 years. From Johnny Vegas to Ross Noble, Darrell Martin has booked some right belly-twisting boggers, so we asked him to take a look back at his time over the years as the don of stand-up around these parts...
I’ve been told to sift through the drunken memories, the lows and highs. I guess the opening night would be a high, but it was so long ago that I’d be lying if I claimed to remember much. I think booking Phil Kay in the spring of 1995, and actually making some money, was good.
That summer, I bumped into Jo Brand at the Edinburgh Festival and said: “You don’t know me, but I run a crappy little comedy club in Nottingham where I underpay all the acts. Do you want to do it?” She agreed. She was selling out the Concert Hall at the time, and when I asked her how much she wanted, she refused to take more than a “normal act” fee. It was my first taste of the generosity in the world of comedy, and we rammed it full that night.
If I had to pick a favourite memory, it’d have to be the time Johnny Vegas came to do a Christmas Special in the downstairs room at The Old Vic (now Das Kino); he was stopping off in Nottingham while moving from London back to St Helens. On the way, his van set alight, and all his possessions were burnt out. I talked him into doing the gig anyway, and he came on stage in a Santa outfit to tell everyone about it. The audience thought it was an act, but the whole thing was true.
Then there was the time Ross Noble was compering, which ended up in a haircut competition with two members of the audience. Ross was being quite careful with his participant, but I was slightly worse for wear and hacked away at the guy’s barnet. Although he did walk away with a fistful of cash, I’d probably get sued nowadays.
Successful satirist and Beeston native Matt Forde recently told me that him and his mates used to get into Just the Tonic when they were just fifteen. What? It wasn’t my licence, I just took the door money. Plus, it makes me smile to know that those nights helped him get into comedy.
Ricky Gervais did his first stand-up ever at Just the Tonic. I bumped into him in London when I was compering a gig and, after a night on the town, I talked him into giving it a go in Nottingham with the promise of “I won’t tell anyone you’re on, it’ll be anonymous.” I told everyone, and it was heaving.
In 2006, after a successful New Year’s Eve event, the owner of Cabaret (previously the Old Vic) acted like he was up for giving us Saturday nights. Next thing, he announced he was flogging the business. We were looking homeless, so I asked for a few backers, and Ricky Gervais was one of them. He offered to do a fundraiser, which ended up with two mixed-bill nights at The Dominion and The Lyceum in London with people like Ricky, Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Sean Lock, Stewart Lee, and Tim Vine. They all gave their time for nothing to help Just The Tonic out.
Once the events had happened, the owner of the venue must have thought I was rolling in it, and stuck a stupid premium on the sale. It turned out the venue was tied to a very inflexible brewery and the whole thing was, financially, a non-starter. We started a management company and took over a venue in Leicester instead. That was quite a moment.
It's all great fun. The club has allowed me to run events all over the country, and even in Shanghai, where I booked myself and got away with it. I’ve blagged my way into festivals, run bars, compered strange events, toured with Ed Byrne, Rich Hall and Johnny Vegas, booked and managed comedians, visited LA, and died on my arse before driving home feeling like the biggest idiot in the world.
It’s quite unbelievable that it all started out as a shambolic Sunday night in Nottingham in 1994 while I was living in a rented room in Sherwood. We’ve now got a massive presence at the Edinburgh Fringe, and have just come back from doing almost 150 shows a day for 24 days, in fifteen venues, two of which were our own bars.
Back in Nottingham, Just the Tonic now run Fridays in Bunkers Hill and Saturdays in The Masonic Lodge. We have a nice office in Hockley, and also have clubs in Leicester, Reading, Birmingham, Watford, Camden and Edinburgh. It was quite nice nicking four venues from the last remains of Jongleurs before they ceased to exist.
It all adds up to a good thing, and I love it. Thanks to Just the Tonic for letting me get away with it for 25 years, and thanks to Nottingham for helping to make it possible.
Nottingham’s longest-running comedy club Just the Tonic is back with a brand new residency at Metronome. To celebrate, we’ve delved deep into the LeftLion archives to let owner Darrell Martin know what some of Britain’s most famous comedians really think of him and his club...