H&E North speaks to Dean Blonde to discover how his lockdown-inspired comedy agency, Garden Gigs invented a new breed of event space to help a struggling industry stand up to COVID.

In the first week of March, Event Director Dean Blonde was preparing to book his flights to Switzerland to host Altitude Festival in Mayrhofen on behalf of international comedy agency, Get Comedy.

All 12 of the agency’s acts were regularly performing, the company was turning record-profits, then at the click of a finger, the entire industry came to a standstill: “Our forte is working with other clubs and venues around the country and getting our acts on stage. But overnight, that was it, nearly every club in the world shut down, and within a three-week period, everyone was out of work and we were forced to get creative.”

As Dean watched the crisis unfold in Italy, he started producing online comedy in preparation for the imminent UK lockdown: “By the time the venues were being shut down – we were furiously editing online material to prepare our acts for what we believed would be a virtual revolution.”

But material which started off receiving 5,000-plus daily views, fizzled out in a matter of weeks: “Within a fortnight, every other comedian was putting material out and the online market simply became oversaturated. Even Jason Manford, who was preparing for a £50-a-ticket UK-wide tour was putting out material for free.”

That’s when Dean realised they had to get back to live events, whatever the cost. The moment restrictions were relaxed, they delivered a new brand of impromptu comedy directly to the doors of comedy fans. In a UK-first, gigs were being hosted in front gardens across the UK: “Where I’m from in Nottingham, the local community wasn’t that strong, but all of a sudden the pandemic had us talking to our neighbours, checking up on them and getting involved in all kinds of Whatsapp groups. Many were starved of live entertainment and decided collectively to have it brought to them – and we made it happen.

“We ensured we were covered with each local Safety Advisory Group to make sure we weren’t breaking any illegal rave laws – we couldn’t just have 10,000 people turn up in a field! – and we just got on with it.

“At the time, virtually the only two comedians working in the entire world were our guys, Damien Clark and Danny O’Brien. Now comedians are setting up their own gigs in the same way, but that’s what it’s all for: to spark an idea, and let others run with it. We don’t own it – we just wanted to show the industry what could be done.”

Back in August, the newly-formed Garden Gigs had already filled its diaries until October, but as venues began to reopen, Dean witnessed a new problem emerging: “While it was a great thing event spaces had the chance to open their doors, many are still operating at a far reduced capacity.

“They’re often paying more staff, but making less money, which is simply not sustainable. As a result, entertainment fees have been dropping and with many event industry performers receiving little help from the government, we had to do something.”

Enter Thomas Henry, an emerging Leeds comic, whose family who owned a farm in the North Leeds countryside: “Thomas and his folks have been absolute legends – when he heard about Garden Gigs, he approached us to throw an event on this beautiful piece of land with a fantastic barn.”

Following the gig, Dean and the Henrys made plans to transform the barn into a semi-permanent event space. But there was just one problem. During the week it was a working barn, complete with horse muck and hay bales, playing home to the family’s riding school: “We have to rebuild this space every week for the weekend – but we love it! A lot of our crew are used to supplying festivals on a regular basis, but haven’t worked for so long that when I turned round and said: ‘guys, we might have to do this every week for god knows how long’, they jumped at the chance! It just goes to show, the industry simply wants to work.”

The capacity of the barn pre-COVID was 275, but to meet guidelines, Dean had to cut that down to 100: “The government are extremely concerned about ventilation in event spaces; that is their main angle when they’re assessing. With older buildings, all you can do is keep the doors open, but new-build venues which have really good ventilation are allowed larger capacities.

“But 100 people was the most many comedians had performed to in eight months – and not only did it give us the chance to pay them a decent wage, but helped us support the Leeds event suppliers and technicians who were out of work.”

When Dean approached Leeds Safety Advisory Group with his plans, they graded the event space ‘one’, the assessor’s most COVID-secure rating: “Because it’s a covered barn with a 35ft roof, an open side plus wooden slats that can let air through – the ventilation specs were exactly what they were looking for.”

A stage has been built, lighting invested in, and great pains taken to host a licenced bar on-site – and much of the time, Dean is using materials from around the farm to construct this novel space: “It’s like going to a club before COVID – a little bit colder I’ll admit – but we want to make this work. With winter approaching, we want to incorporate things like heaters, but first and foremost, we’ve ensured everyone can attend safely.”

The company has stocked up on temperature guns, hand sanitising stations and has shortened the usual three hour shows to minimise guests standing up, walking around and gathering: “I’m very aware that although it hasn’t deterred some, a high percentage of people want to go out but just don’t feel safe, and we have to accommodate that if we want to see venues filling up again.”

The space is being launched as a comedy venue, but the barn door is quite literally open to anybody wanting to put on an event: “We’re trying to build something from nothing to create an experience for everybody. If others can come and use it, whether that’s for comedy, theatrical productions or anything else, then even better. I’m making phone calls to venues 200 miles away that I know cannot afford to open their doors, to offer them a monthly night at the barn, so they can keep their business afloat. This is a time when everyone should be scratching each other’s backs.”

Conscious of Leeds being uncharted territory for the agency, he was careful to approach the situation in the most political way possible: “What we didn’t want to do is just plant our flag in their turf. We knocked on doors and said: ‘listen, if you want to jump on board, let’s all work together on this.’ As long as the ticket sales continue, we’ll carry on. But I’ve told every venue in the area, that once comedy is back up and running, we’d ratchet down our activity so we’re not taking their bread and butter.”

Dean has teamed up with local promoters, employed local people and stocked local produce at the bar. For venues wanting to use the space, the ticket split falls in their favour with Garden Gigs only taking what is needed to cover wages and setup, with zero profit being made: “The Henry family own the licenced bar, so they’re getting a drink, we’re getting acts on stage and local people are getting business, so everyone’s winning.”

“We’ve been lucky enough to have Adam Rowe open for us back in September, Mick Ferry last month and we’re looking at bringing a whole host of established Netflix and HBO comedians, as well as upcoming talent, so we can hopefully continue to give everyone a little bit of work.”

The acreage of the land the Henrys have generously made available has encouraged Dean to approach local businesses, such as street food stalls and retailers, in a bid to restore the fortunes of struggling local businesses: “What we have to do right now is follow the guidance, which is not easy at the moment. But in time, businesses will want to rebuild and if we can get footfall here every week, then there’s opportunity for everyone in the community.”