The Museum of Comedy is on Bloomsbury Way, minutes from the British Museum and Holborn underground station.
It’s an immersive, interactive museum dedicated to the history of British comedy. The museum, which celebrates the stars of silent film, comedy and theatre, is in the crypt below St George’s Church, which was designed in the 18th century by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The site was also used as the setting for the Bloomsbury Christening, one of the pieces in Sketches by Boz, a collection of short writings that Charles Dickens first published in newspapers and periodicals between 1833 and 1836. The Grade I-listed venue houses the Comedy Crypt (a 72-seat performance space), the Cooper Room (a theatrical space that seats 70 people), the Lesley Ackland Pilates Studio, and the bar area, which is used for quizzes and parties. The crypt originally contained 840 coffins and was later used as an air raid shelter during world war two. “When I took over nearly 10 years ago, it was just an empty crypt with 50 priests working down here,” says Martin Witts, the museum’s founder, director and curator. “I wanted a church property, as I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with developers.” Witts obtained a 99-year lease on the crypt in 2015.
1 April 2014.
The permanent exhibition features 30,000 artefacts including books, scripts, costumes and recordings. These have been collected by Witts during his 30-year career in the entertainment industry, including his current role as the chief executive officer of Leicester Square Theatre. “One of our oldest pieces is an oil painting, a 1799 bronze token of Joseph Shepherd Munden, the first comedian of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which was given by George III for ‘the dispensation of bile’,” says Witts. “We’ve also got 16,000 music hall sheets and show posters dating back to 1780.” Comedy props include Tommy Cooper’s handmade magic tricks, a stuffed bear from the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, and the modern comedian Bill Bailey’s six-neck guitar.
“The Monday Club allows comedians to try out new material,” says Witts. “It’s popular with students – they can reserve a seat for £1. Every year, we run the new comedian ‘sketch-off’ competition, host 40 comedy podcasts, and welcome regular comedians including Paul Merton and Frankie Boyle.”
Help at hand:
Witts and his wife, director Lesley Ackland, lead a team of 10 full-time managers, who assist with the day-to-day running of the museum and work across programming, marketing and the box office from the Vestry Hall in the courtyard. Two gardeners help with the repair and renewal of St George’s churchyard.
“It took us three years to get a licence to serve beer,” says Witts. “We got rejected twice; some former residents complained that we shouldn’t serve alcohol on the church grounds in the presence of children. But if we didn’t have the bar, the museum wouldn’t have survived.”
The museum doesn’t receive any government funding and the directors work voluntarily. Together with Leicester Square Theatre bar, the museum generates £11m a year from cabaret performances, comedy shows, workshops and corporate events. Admission to the museum is free.
“Keep your community informed and entertained,” says Witts. “Give them rewards and make them part of the decision-making process.”
35,000 visitors a year.
“The idea is to incorporate some of the museum collection with the Comedians’ Arms [bar] at Leicester Square Theatre,” says Witts. “Now that we’ve reached sustainability, we might also decide to do more pop-up festivals and podcasts.”
Lynsey Ford is a freelance writer