Monday, January 26, 2009

Try this for comedy: prison policy run by clowns

The arts are a valuable tool in prisoner rehabilitation. Jack Straw should know better than to fly into a panic and ban them

Heard the one about the Justice Secretary who got frightened by a newspaper? He took too many tabloids. Not laughing? Me neither.

The joke is sour. For back in November, thanks to some mischievous creep in the system, it was reported that Whitemoor Prison was offering a well-established comedy course and that one of those enrolled was the terrorist Zia ul-Haq.

OK, it was a good story, especially given that ul-Haq is a trained architect who advised al-Qaeda on bombing buildings, thus enabling gags about “bringing the house down”. Irresistible to tabloid sensibilities. And I, for one, do not object either to putting delusional terrorists in jail or to red-top ranting. Both are part of life.

The real damage occurred when Jack Straw panicked. Without a moment's thought (he is actually proud of this, he used the word “immediately”) he cancelled the course and said that comedy in prison is “totally unacceptable” because it is not a “constructive pursuit”. He continued: “There is a crucial test: can the recreational, social and educational classes paid for out of taxpayers' money or otherwise [italics mine] be

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justified to the community?”By which he means that if any knuckle-dragging, vindictive, opportunist media stirrer decides to stoke up ill-informed outrage, even if little or no tax money is involved, then it behoves a senior minister to roll over without a minute's reflection. Do you really want to be governed like this?

Anyway the whole group - not just the terrorist - went back to their cells and were never made to look at the world through the healing, balancing perspective of absurdity and the need to communicate benignly with fellow beings. Cut off, too, were other drama projects at Whitemoor, one by a company with 21 years' experience.

Indeed the track record of UK prison arts and theatre groups is stellar. From musical theatre to needlework, comedy to painting, organisations such as Pimlico Opera, Only Connect, Geese, the London Shakespeare Workout and Fine Cell Work provably change hearts and minds, giving point to incarceration. Some invite audiences, which has the double advantage of making the opera-going classes think about their responsibility for prisons while they queue at the barbed wire and hand in their mobile phones. “The arts,” concluded a government-backed report on 700 projects in 2003, “are associated with positive criminal justice outcomes.”

But the Whitemoor comedy panic was not enough to quench the burning indignation of Mr Straw. His office flung out a PSI - prison service instruction - which David Ramsbotham, former chief inspector, describes as “lunacy”. What the PSI says - I have it before me - is that all activities must “meet the public acceptability test”. It frets, not about what they are but how they “might be perceived by the public”. Moreover, “the type of prisoner” should limit what they may do.

Fear of media runs through it like a broad yellow streak. How on earth can you guarantee that any arts project - even the best - won't be hammered by some thoughtless git looking for a story? If in future years Karen Matthews gets a bit-part in Oklahoma, or a notorious thug is found to be enjoying needlework, it will just take one illicit mobile phone call, or one disgruntled officer to ring the papers, and a good scheme will be toast.

Many brave governors have stuck their necks out for the arts, seeing the benign results all through their prison, but now they must watch their backs and refer everything up. The new PSI gives brief lip-service to the value of art, but its net result has been to cancel or delay projects and to force others to adjust their titles to sound more educational. I suppose the comedy course might have fared better if it had badged itself a “perceptual incongruity workshop”.

But why should it? The poison of the PSI lies in that “public acceptability” concept and the timidity it enjoins: governors who know their prisons well are less trusted than pen-pushers at the Justice Ministry, who never met an inmate in their lives but who are scared of the press and the yob phone-ins. Unless the situation is clarified and reinterpreted, “fear of headlines will reduce prisons to human warehouses and staff to mere turnkeys”, as Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, put it.

Talks, meetings and pleadings are under way. Nobody in the prison arts world wants a dirty fight; and there is evidence further down the Whitehall food chain that below the level of the spontaneously combusting Mr Straw there is an awareness that the PSI goes too far. But departments take their tone from ministers, and if ministers take theirs from ranting hangers-and-floggers, God help us all.

Forgive some subjectivity here: but I have met and talked with men who, illiterate, learn Shakespeare lines off cassettes in their cells and say wonderingly: “That Leontes, what a plonker, I was just as stupid.” I have seen women who never had a chance to respect themselves until they danced in Chicago; watched a young man conduct the finale of Guys and Dolls while his mother sat in the audience, able to hope that he would change. I have talked over the years with inmates who certainly deserved their sentences but who then sewed, composed or performed their way clear of their narrow, angry hearts. I honour those who work with them.

One other line from the PSI. “Prisons,” it says sanctimoniously, “are places which are, rightly, under intense public scrutiny.” Rubbish. Prisons are under intermittent, sensationalist, vindictive, ignorant and shallow scrutiny. Most people have no idea how many inmates are illiterate, care leavers, mentally disturbed or minor recidivists whose crying need is for a doorway back into reasonable society. Most people don't know the figures on suicide, self-harm or the fact that 87 prisons are seriously overcrowded and that the constant “churn” of inmates sabotages rehabilitation. Intense scrutiny? Now that is a comedy line.

Prison reform is not seen as a vote-winner; talking tough is. Even at the expense of careful, proven, humanising work. But always hope, always fight for the right. I am happy to say that Wandsworth does West Side Story with Pimlico Opera next month. After agonising uncertainty, it got reprieved. My spare ticket is yours, Mr Straw, if you'll join me. Though I must warn you, Officer Strawpke - there's at least one funny song. Try to live with it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The prisoners receiving stand-up comedy lessons

Despite tabloid outrage, lessons in stand-up comedy for prisoners can yield rewards for society as a whole

Bruce Dessau
From The Times December 15, 2008

Zia ul-Haq is not a well-known name on the comedy circuit. And after recent news stories it is unlikely that he ever will be. Ul-Haq, a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist, was one of 18 inmates at Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire on a stand-up comedy course that was halted in November after tabloid outrage that £8,000 of taxpayers' money was being spent on convicts learning how to make people laugh.

“The whole thing is ridiculous,” says Keith Palmer, the genial fortysomething founder of the Comedy School, which has run prison courses such as this for a decade. Palmer was amazed that the matter made the headlines and that Jack Straw, the Justice Minister, issued a statement stating that the course was “totally unacceptable... Prisons should be a place of punishment and reform”.

Yet there are genuine objections. Money spent on criminals raises hackles. And when it is spent on comedy, which is perceived as trivial, the opposition - from relatives of 7/7 victims to politicians - is understandably vocal. As a result of the controversy a consultation is now taking place - with an announcement due imminently - looking, among other things, into which prison classes pass a “public acceptibility test”.

The Comedy School has plenty of high-profile supporters. Felix Dexter, who played Saffy's boyfriend in Absolutely Fabulous, performed at Whitemoor in October. It was equally an odd gig and a very normal one for this seasoned professional. “The governor warned me that there were murderers and people with disturbed personalities in the audience. That sounded like a typical Saturday night crowd.”

Any suggestion that prisons are holiday camps is quickly dismissed. Whitemoor is a maximum security prison and the inmates are constantly reminded of this. “You only have to hear the doors clanging behind you. The whole thing is very brutal,” Dexter says.

He saw that plenty of prisoners want to change their lives. “Why release them angry? Doing comedy releases them in a positive vein. It rescues them. It is better to do a positive thing to make them feel they have a stake in society than just let them rot. If you are involved in a collaborative scheme and use your creative skills, that's all part of personal development, giving them self-respect that they've been denied before.”

In some respects the Comedy School's very name contributed to this controversy. Palmer's work is not that different from traditional drama therapy, but calling it a comedy course helped to invoke the red-top controversy. No one could object to criminals learning about Shakespeare, but the stand-up tag makes it sound too much like fun. Yet Palmer's stand-up pitch also gives the course its unique selling point, a sexiness that helps with funding and raises its profile. The ethos, however, remains fiendishly simple: “If you think about how comedy works, if you are laughing then you are listening. If you are listening, that's really what all educators want.”

The organisation, which also gives public courses, usually spends about a week taking offenders through classes involving improvisation, scriptwriting, mask work and role play, culminating in a performance in front of fellow inmates. Teachers, including Rudi Lickwood, the star of The Real McCoy, treat every student the same, with the aim of getting even the toughest lifers to make themselves vulnerable by creating characters and finding the funny side of their lives.

Their jokes might not always be top rate - though Palmer points to a nice Grand Designs-type gag about a prisoner going to see the governor to apply to have an extension built on his cell - but the process is more of a transformative journey than appearing on The X Factor. It is about learning to empathise and communicate. Palmer points to numerous alumni who have become youth workers or given talks in schools. Performing has helped them to gain the confidence to speak publicly.

At the moment Palmer is concerned that, depending on what the Home Office consultation concludes, his and many other arts courses could be in jeopardy even though Straw supports “constructive pursuits”. Ultimately it comes down to the perennial debate about whether prison is about punishment or rehabilitation. “If you are interested in locking people up and not doing anything with them, then cut to the chase, bring back the death sentence and bring prison figures down. It would save on the paperwork,” Palmer says.

Alternatively, you could motivate convicts to turn their lives around and change negatives to positives. After all, surely it is better that ul-Haq comes out of prison making jokes rather than bombs?

Original article from The Times: entertainment.timesonline.co.uk

Stand up for comedy in prisons

Mark Fisher, Monday 24 November, Guardian.co.uk

They say Tony Blair was obsessed with how his government was perceived, but his legacy appears to live on: what else but tabloid headlines could justice secretary Jack Straw have had in mind when he pulled the plug on [The Comedy School's] standup comedy course at HMP Whitemoor last week?

Comedy classes have been on the go in high-security prisons since 1998 – presumably without dangerous outbreaks of levity – but in a knee-jerk reaction, Straw has asserted that "prisons should be places of punishment and reform". By suggesting that standup is incompatible with rehabilitation, he seems to misunderstand not only the nature of reform, but also the nature of comedy.

Last month, I visited Polmont young offenders' institution, where Edinburgh's Traverse theatre was running a playwriting workshop. Prison governor Derek McGill told me he supported music and theatre in all the prisons he had worked in. He believes participation in the arts triggers behavioural change among inmates and affects the mood of a whole establishment. These are surely the criteria by which such work should be judged, rather than Straw's undefined declaration that the courses "must be appropriate".

I'm reasonably certain the minister would not have deemed the five plays I heard in Polmont appropriate, reflecting as they did the inmates' experiences of knives, drugs and broken homes. However, the act of writing gave the young playwrights a moment of freedom and a sense that they could change their world. That experience is invaluable.

Even if it were vaguely possible, do we really want to forbid the UK's 90,000 inmates from laughing? A better suggestion is that Jack Straw takes a look at the Comedy School website, where he can find eminently sensible comments from inmates and prison education managers, describing how such courses foster cooperation, self-esteem and confidence. Or would he rather we had a prison system that damaged the inmates even further than they have been already?

Original article at www.guardian.co.uk

Writer Mark Fisher's website: markfisher.theatrescotland.com

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bernard Manning R.I.P.

“I do like to be beside the seaside…”
By Arnold Brown

In July 2006, I went with Keith Palmer, the Director of The Comedy School, up to Blackpool to see Bernard Manning at a club on the sea-front for a Channel 4 documentary to be screened after his death, “Bernard Manning R.I.P.”, a bizarre obituary…

As one of the founder-members of the right-on “p.c.” “Comedy Store” and “Comic Strip” in the early 1980’s, I obviously had conceived ideas about this particular performer and his racist, sexist ideas. Channel 4 wanted to find out my reactions after seeing this ‘alternative comedy’ bête noire live for the very first time.

The club itself was in a 50’s time-warp, run-down, slightly sleazy and packed with about 100 punters who definitely knew what they had come for: a great night out, lots of cheap laughs about foreigners and minorities, fuelled by a never-ending supply of booze. The audience was unashamedly working-class, men and women, a mixture of the middle-aged, a number in their twenties and thirties and a sprinkling of obviously regular elderly fans, some of whom Manning even seemed to know by first names.

He actually sat on a chair on stage (he’s now 76, seriously overweight and trying to cope with the ravages of diabetes) in front of a tacky old-fashioned aluminium-foil curtain, introduced by a toothy, grinning compere whose heyday had long since gone.

As indicated, Manning is quite frail now, obviously well past his “Comedians” TV prime, but he still managed to keep up a briskish pace throughout, albeit having to be bolstered up now and then by occasionally bursting into song (his early days were as a singer with the big show bands of the 1950’s). Shrewdly, he chose Scottish and Irish favourites with which the audience could even join in, clearly always pressing the right nationalistic buttons. Strangely enough, I found this aspect of working-class culture rather moving, but maybe I can put this down to my inherently middle-class patronising pre-assumptions about the dangers of patriotism…

To be fair, throughout the evening there were a few brilliant jokes (the one about the chicken crossing the road is a classic), his timing is still pretty good for his age and he managed to maintain a beatific, avuncular demeanour – always a benign, cheery glint in his eyes – even while spouting the most vicious of his jokes. Despite all this, it was a depressing thought that there is still an audience for such mostly misanthropic material.

Keith Palmer was the sole member of the African Caribbean community in the audience and within 10 minutes of the start of his act, he was brutally picked upon:

Bernard Manning: “I see we’ve got a black fella in tonight. Where are you from, son?”
Keith Palmer: “London.”
Bernard Manning: “Where are you from before that? I think he thinks he’s English.”

Then he went on to say:
“Just because a donkey’s born in a stable, it doesn’t make it a horse.”

Manning went on to suggest that he would pay for Keith to go to any country he might care to choose… The audience lapped it all up. This was their kind of comedy. Very, very racist.

The fact that the media – TV, radio etc. – have long since marginalised this brand of offensive “humour” is satisfying, but less comfortable is the knowledge that there will always be a hard-core minority who seek it out and relish it. Usually at the lower end of the social order, these are the ones who still need a scapegoat to blame their lack of economic success on, and who better a target than minorities – and all types of foreigners – with their different customs and life-style? Being of the Jewish persuasion, I can obviously understand where all this blatant demonisation can lead to… Or am I just being paranoid?

Throughout the evening, there was an obvious contradiction between the frequent exhortations by Manning that “we should all look after each other blah-blah-blah” and the hateful underbelly of his act.

As Keith explained at length on the train home, the tirade of abuse he was subjected to was so traumatic, he actually switched off for the rest of the act – and I can sympathise with this. In such a hostile environment where everyone else is applauding the most racist attitudes on stage, the person at the butt of the diatribe is humiliated, demeaned and insulted.

Sadly, it was all too predictable. In the safe knowledge that the whole club shared his obnoxious views, Bernard Manning was given carte blanche to say exactly what he knew the audience had come for: an evening of hate-filled bile.

Afterwards, when Channel 4 filmed Keith, myself and others challenging him on all these issues, time and time again Manning dismissed our criticisms with the allegation “It’s just a joke”. This was emphatically belied later by one of the cameramen telling us that on Manning’s mantelpiece at home is proudly displayed a bust of Enoch Powell. Remember him and his “rivers of blood” speech?

A final thought. When asked what limitations in terms of content or subject matter he imposes on himself, he pondered for a moment and said that he was disgusted with comedians like Jo Brand referring to tampons in their act. This seemed pathetic and misogynistic when compared to his choice of material, for example being quite at home making a gratuitous nasty crack about the holocaust. It’s a very strange world…

Friday, November 04, 2005

Congratulations Brian Wharton

Many congratulations to Brian Wharton who has reached the final of the Manchester heats of the Samsung Student Comedy Competition. Brian completed a stand-up course with The Comedy School earlier this year and is already going from strength to strength. Join us in supporting him by casting votes at www.samsungcomedylive.com - where you can see a clip of him in action.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Ham & High on "It's No Joke"

Cutting edge show teaches a valuable lesson
14 October 2005
Jonathan Marciano

THE problem of knife crime in Haringey schools is being tackled by a group that uses laughter to disarm students.

The Comedy School has begun a tour of every secondary school in the borough.

The team of actors and caseworkers perform a 45-minute show with sketches highlighting the dangers of youngsters carrying knives.

Pupils at Highgate Wood school, in Montenotte Road, saw the first performance of the show.

Following last Friday's performance, Richard Taylor, father of 10-year-old Damilola, who bled to death after being stabbed on a Peckham estate in 2000, spoke to pupils.

He said: "I do not want any parents to go through the experiences that I went through. It is important people take home the messages seen today."

Schools officer PC Kenneth Ebuniwe, based permanently at the school, said: "I thought the shows were brilliant. Pupils see me as someone who can arrest them but this shows a different light to the problems regarding knives.

"I think there is still a perception that carrying a knife is somehow cool and gives people credibility."

The Metropolitan Police and Association of London Government have funded the It's No Joke presentation, being shown to all 13 to 15-year-old pupils in Haringey.

It is part of the wider Operation Blunt, designed to stop the widespread carrying of knives.

In Haringey violent crime accounts for 14 per cent of all recorded crime and more than 5 per cent of all offences involves a knife. Haringey contributes 4.8 per cent to total London knife crime, with teens more likely to carry a knife than a gun.

Schools in Haringey have been rocked by violent crime among its students.

One 16-year-old pupil was stabbed outside the gates of Alexandra Park secondary, Bidwell Gardens, in February. He was taken to hospital, where he recovered.

In April 17-year-old Charles Oseibonsu, a student at Greig City Academy in High Street, Hornsey, was shot in his shoulder in Tottenham after a car pulled up alongside him.

Keith Palmer, director of the Primrose Hill-based Comedy School, said: "Comedy is good at laying bare people and issues. It is possible to engage people who are otherwise disempowered.

"Then afterwards there is support such as anger management or workshops."

Characters in the plays poke fun at pupils' street slang and the false credibility surrounding knives. The performance has a hip soundtrack and highlights the prison sentences that can be handed down to people caught with knives.

Jane Elson, who has a lead part in the show, said: "The schools in Haringey have been really great and got involved. Sixty per cent of people carrying a knife end up arming their attackers and getting hurt themselves.

"If this stops one person carrying a knife and getting hurt then it is worth it.

Friday, September 30, 2005

More About "It's No Joke"





The Comedy School ‘It’s No Joke’ is a FREE performance and workshop project which has been developed to address the issues of anti-social behaviour and weapons related crime among young people for Years 9 & 10 Students in Haringey Secondary Schools and Pupil Support Centres

The Metropolitan Police Service and Association of London Government have funded for all Secondary Schools and Pupil Support Centres in Haringey the Comedy School’s ‘It’s No Joke’ Project. This project links to ‘Operation Blunt’ – the Metropolitan Police Service’s response to the growing problem of knife crime in our local communities.

Nationally and locally over the years, young people have died in schools as a result of knives. Haringey Police are aware that young people are more likely to carry a knife as opposed to a gun and agencies, schools and other relevant professionals have identified that there is culture of knife carrying amongst groups of young people. This makes programmes that support education, debate and early intervention related to violent and offensive weapons related crime vital.

The Metropolitan Police Service have been working in partnership with ‘The Comedy School’ (thecomedyschool.com/young.shtml) to deliver a educational programme for all year 9 & 10 students in Haringey relating to the citizenship curriculum to address the issues of anti-social behaviour and weapons related crime among young people.

The Comedy School develops pioneering work with marginalized and disadvantaged groups in the UK including prisoners, young offenders and young people in the community. Their aims are to meet educational, rehabilitative and vocational needs, and to facilitate participation in-group activity through imaginatively conceived projects and educational work.

The Comedy School uses performance and drama techniques including comedy as tools to deliver these aims and regularly runs both arts and issue based projects with young people, in schools, youth centres, in association with Youth Inclusion Projects, Youth Offending Teams, and MPS Safer Schools Teams.

Over the last month the Comedy School has be developing ‘It’s No Joke!’ a thirty five minute performance relating to the issues of anti-social behaviour and weapons related crime for year 9 & 10 students across priority boroughs including Haringey. This project has been piloted in with a tried and tested formula that has been praised by schools (see Comedy School Website for schools feedback). The performance has been developed using material gathered from research workshops with young people. In addition to the performance schools are invited to take advantage of a participatory workshop delivered by the Comedy School to follow the production for a groups of between 25-30 students.

This project will continue with an ‘Arts Project’ in 2006. The Comedy School will launch a poster campaign across Haringey Secondary Schools asking young people who participated in ‘It’s No Joke’ to design posters relating to the issue of tackling anti-social behaviour and weapon related crime. These designs will be entered into a competition and an official high profile ceremony (possibly at Spurs Football Ground) will award the best designs with excellent prizes. Following this ceremony the designs will be displayed across Haringey in tube stations, at bus shelters, in schools, youth centres, library’s, etc.

This project is a two year project. Therefore the Comedy School will bring the same initiative to year 7 and 8 students in Haringey secondary schools in the next academic year.

More information on our Young People's Projects page

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Comedy School Featured in The Stage

The Comedy School's work in prisons was the subject of a positive article by Alistair Smith in The Stage on September 8th 2005.

A man walks into a prison…

The Comedy School

Alistair Smith

Established in 1998 by Keith Palmer, the Comedy School uses laughter making to educate prison inmates in communication skills. Alistair Smith discovers why the groundbreaking initiative has not been met with smiles from all quarters

Porridge excluded, prison and comedy have never had what one would term a particularly cosy relationship - even Oscar Wilde had his naturally witty disposition turned a shade or two darker by his trials in a certain Berkshire institution.

However, since 1998, a small group of professionals from within the comedy industry has been using humour to teach communication skills to UK inmates and perhaps provide them with the first steps in a career for when they are released.

The Comedy School, a not for profit organisation, originally envisaged as a training centre for members of the general public, has, for nearly a decade, been taking its courses and giving them a special twist for the criminal justice system. It runs drama and comedy workshops for the inmates, lasting up to a week, and sometimes culminating in a fully staged production in front of family and prison staff.

“If there’s anywhere that needs humour, it is prisons,” explains director Keith Palmer. “People have to use it as a defence mechanism. The course has got to the stage now that prisoners can get a qualification for the work they do with us. Although it’s a laugh, it’s still learning. If you think about how humour works - if they’re laughing, they’re listening and, if they’re listening, that’s when the education process can start.

“It can deal with people who are literate or completely illiterate,” he continues. “And the thing is, who doesn’t like to laugh? Sometimes you have the situation where officers at the facility have never seen certain prisoners enjoy themselves before and all of a sudden ‘axe man whoever’ is laughing. They don’t know how to react - it makes the prisoner seem more human.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Sections of the media have taken a predictably negative stance on what Palmer is trying to achieve and, with profit-making organisations beginning to get in on the act, he is worried that the public might misunderstand what the Comedy School is all about.

“If it’s just a profit thing and they aren’t delivering the service, then you have to question it,” he says. “If people are being used - like prisoners - that becomes negative and sends a negative message to prison governors. That doesn’t help other organisations doing it for the right reasons. That is why I want to distinguish what we’re doing from anyone else.”

Palmer came up with the idea for the training centre while he was working with the National Youth Theatre. He was trying to get stand-up work to subsidise his acting career when he realised that there was nowhere affordable for young comics to learn their trade.

“So,” he adds, “I met up with Tony Allen - the godfather of comedy - and we devised a bit of a programme around 1995. Then Rudi Lickwood got involved. He came up through the ranks and eventually started to help deliver the course. He now does a lot of work for the prison programme.”

The organisation settled on its name in 1998, creating a board with advisors from the comedy, theatre, education and legal communities.

As well as offering eight-week courses for the public, which have continued to this day, the school started its work in jails. Palmer had already done some work ‘inside’ with the NYT and decided that if the project could work with drama, it would be even more effective with comedy.

He ran one of the school’s first pilot initiatives in the late nineties at the Young Offenders Institute in Aylesbury. “I remember the governor saying to me, ‘If you can get that up and running here, you can have the keys to my prison’,” recalls Palmer. “So a few months later I got some keys to a prison. Since then, it’s just blossomed - we’ve been at the forefront of trying to use humour as an educational tool.”

Now housed just off Regent’s Park, the organisation has a series of open classes available during the rest of the year. It is continuing its prison work and is currently developing a community programme called ‘It’s No Joke’, which attempts to dissuade young people from carrying knives. Palmer believes it is projects such as these that convince high-profile comedians to give up their time and lend a hand to the organisation.

“There’s a whole load of goodwill that comes our way with all the pros giving up their time for the school - people like Rudi Lickwood, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Arthur Smith and Neil Mullarkey,” he concludes. “The strength is in the work - it has a life of its own and just keeps on growing. In fact, at some point I’d like to do a big comedy benefit event to feed the money back into the work for the criminal justice system.”

Tuesday 13 September 2005 10:25 AMPorridge excluded, prison and comedy have never had what one would term a particularly cosy relationship - even Oscar Wilde had his naturally witty disposition turned a shade or two darker by his trials in a certain Berkshire institution.

However, since 1998, a small group of professionals from within the comedy industry has been using humour to teach communication skills to UK inmates and perhaps provide them with the first steps in a career for when they are released.

The Comedy School, a not for profit organisation, originally envisaged as a training centre for members of the general public, has, for nearly a decade, been taking its courses and giving them a special twist for the criminal justice system. It runs drama and comedy workshops for the inmates, lasting up to a week, and sometimes culminating in a fully staged production in front of family and prison staff.

“If there’s anywhere that needs humour, it is prisons,” explains director Keith Palmer. “People have to use it as a defence mechanism. The course has got to the stage now that prisoners can get a qualification for the work they do with us. Although it’s a laugh, it’s still learning. If you think about how humour works - if they’re laughing, they’re listening and, if they’re listening, that’s when the education process can start.

“It can deal with people who are literate or completely illiterate,” he continues. “And the thing is, who doesn’t like to laugh? Sometimes you have the situation where officers at the facility have never seen certain prisoners enjoy themselves before and all of a sudden ‘axe man whoever’ is laughing. They don’t know how to react - it makes the prisoner seem more human.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Sections of the media have taken a predictably negative stance on what Palmer is trying to achieve and, with profit-making organisations beginning to get in on the act, he is worried that the public might misunderstand what the Comedy School is all about.

“If it’s just a profit thing and they aren’t delivering the service, then you have to question it,” he says. “If people are being used - like prisoners - that becomes negative and sends a negative message to prison governors. That doesn’t help other organisations doing it for the right reasons. That is why I want to distinguish what we’re doing from anyone else.”

Palmer came up with the idea for the training centre while he was working with the National Youth Theatre. He was trying to get stand-up work to subsidise his acting career when he realised that there was nowhere affordable for young comics to learn their trade.

“So,” he adds, “I met up with Tony Allen - the godfather of comedy - and we devised a bit of a programme around 1995. Then Rudi Lickwood got involved. He came up through the ranks and eventually started to help deliver the course. He now does a lot of work for the prison programme.”

The organisation settled on its name in 1998, creating a board with advisors from the comedy, theatre, education and legal communities.

As well as offering eight-week courses for the public, which have continued to this day, the school started its work in jails. Palmer had already done some work ‘inside’ with the NYT and decided that if the project could work with drama, it would be even more effective with comedy.

He ran one of the school’s first pilot initiatives in the late nineties at the Young Offenders Institute in Aylesbury. “I remember the governor saying to me, ‘If you can get that up and running here, you can have the keys to my prison’,” recalls Palmer. “So a few months later I got some keys to a prison. Since then, it’s just blossomed - we’ve been at the forefront of trying to use humour as an educational tool.”

Now housed just off Regent’s Park, the organisation has a series of open classes available during the rest of the year. It is continuing its prison work and is currently developing a community programme called ‘It’s No Joke’, which attempts to dissuade young people from carrying knives. Palmer believes it is projects such as these that convince high-profile comedians to give up their time and lend a hand to the organisation.

“There’s a whole load of goodwill that comes our way with all the pros giving up their time for the school - people like Rudi Lickwood, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Arthur Smith and Neil Mullarkey,” he concludes. “The strength is in the work - it has a life of its own and just keeps on growing. In fact, at some point I’d like to do a big comedy benefit event to feed the money back into the work for the criminal justice system.”

The Stage

It's No Joke! Goes Into Production

We are delighted to announce that the next phase of our project It's No Joke! is launched into production. Funded by the Association of London Government this will see a performance tour and workshops go out to schools, focussing on the issues surrounding weapons related crime and anti-social behaviour amongst young people. We are delighted to welcome the production team, which sees Charlie McGuire return as Director. The performers are Jane Elson, Dwayne Gumb and Ciaran O'Driscoll, who are all on their first venture with The Comedy School. The designer is Jacqueline Gunn, who brings a wealth of international teaching and design experience to the project. Our tour manager is the trusty Nick Hill. We look forward to an exciting tour with them over the coming weeks.

Welcome to The Comedy School Blog

Welcome to The Comedy School's newly improved web site and the beginning of our BLOG. We are grateful to the Arts Council for the support that has made this intiative possible - and equally to Henry Murray, our genius webmaster for all his work. We look forward to posting details of The Comedy School's many and varied projects as they happen, and hope you will join in with refelctions and suggestions too.
Best wishes,
Keith Palmer
Director