Comic History

The comic history of Cambridge, the university town in East Anglia, is unrivalled - even by Oxford. Cambridge University has nurtured the comic talents of people such as John Cleese, Douglas Adams, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, David Frost and Eric Idle. And those are just the highlights.

When you tour Cambridge, whose university history dates back to 1209, you are walking in the footsteps of people like John Maynard Keynes, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. In addition to these notable names, though, the city has also produced some of Britain's best comedians and comic actors.

Cambridge Comic History: The Footlights

The focus for most Cambridge comics was the famous Footlights, the University’s Dramatic Club. In the late 1950s it produced Beyond the Fringe. This satirical show transformed comedy in Britain when it transferred to London’s West End and then to Broadway, teaming Cambridge’s Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller with Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett from Oxford. Soon ex-Cambridge students were involved in successful TV shows such as Monty Python, The Goodies and Fawlty Towers.

Visitors today might be lucky and catch a Footlights show, or a visiting ex-Cambridge comic performing at one of the city’s two main theatres, the Arts Theatre and the ADC. If not quite as ancient as some of the university colleges, they both have a fascinating history of their own.

Cambridge Comic History: The ADC

The ADC Theatre (it stands for Amateur Dramatic Club) in Park Street is the oldest university playhouse in Britain. It was founded in 1854 in what was then the Hoop Hotel, very much against the wishes of the stuffy senior Dons. It burnt down in 1933 and a new building was erected within 18 months. It was the start of a new era, too, as women were allowed on stage for the first time. Since then the ADC has continued to flourish, and directors of the calibre of Sir Peter Hall and Sam ‘American Beauty’ Mendes have been ADC members, as have actors including Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Emma Thompson.

The Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Cambridge Arts Theatre was founded by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1936, and today is a bright and modern theatre. Trevor Nunn did his first productions at the Arts, while comic writer/performers who made their stage debuts here include Douglas Adams, Eric Idle, Clive James and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

The ADC and the Arts Theatre have productions all year round, so have a night out here and you may be seeing the next John Cleese or Emma Thompson treading the boards. And the right comedy show might just prove that Cambridge is not only historical but also hysterical too. 

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