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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Cambridge Footlights: Living with a legacy
Some famous Cambridge Footlighters
The world's most famous student revue company is preparing for its 40th anniversary in the uncomfortable knowledge that it might not have gone on but for a donation from British American Tobacco. Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at why it's facing leaner times.

The benefits of being a member of Cambridge University's Footlights Dramatic Club are as enticing as ever. Ignoring any intellectual appeal to the academic elite, it offers prospective members free entry to the annual May garden party, "where you can get completely drunk for free, and maybe even snog someone who will be famous in about ten years".

The Footlights has come a long way since it was founded in 1883, a tiny gathering of extrovert students which offered popular vaudeville to the people of Cambridgeshire. But at the start of the 20th century, it began to imitate the hit London shows of the day and the Footlights revue was born.

Punting on the Cam
Punting: A famous alternative Cambridge pastime
Now and again one of the cast would go on to enjoy showbusiness fame, such as the top hat and tails song-and-dance man, Jack Hulbert, or two of the favourites of post-war radio, Jimmy "Whacko" Edwards, and Richard "Stinker" Murdoch, of Much Binding in the Marsh, who trod the Footlights boards in 1926.

Murdoch played a woman, as did several members of the cast, because no females were admitted to the Club. "It was horrible", said actress Miriam Margolyes, who nevertheless confessed that she felt privileged to be allowed on stage in 1962.

But in the mid 1950s, there was a radical change in the status of the Footlights, when three successive annual revues transferred to the West End of London.

The Footlights was entering its heyday. By 1964, it was performing its May Week revue not just at the Cambridge Arts Theatre but also at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Beyond the Fringe, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, which began as a Footlights idea, went on to Broadway acclaim.

Footlights plaque
The most famous university revue company
David Frost found fame through That Was The Week That Was, John Cleese through the anarchic Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor became household names with another BBC Television series, The Goodies.

But Cook, Cleese and Co. were to bequeath a legacy to future Footlighters that became something of a millstone around their necks. Even Cleese acknowledged that Cook, "the most original, funny man of the whole wave", was a difficult act to follow, influencing productions for years to come.

The '70s proved a difficult era. In the words of Footlights' own website, it "became troubled seriously by comparison with its now famous ex-members".

Despite a cast that included Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson, the 1974 revue lost money when it transferred to the West End and the Club nearly died in 1976.

Peter Cook
Peter Cook: the most influential Footlighter
But a revitalised Footlights won the Perrier Award for Comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 with a show featuring Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson.

During the 1980s, the Footlights suffered in the face of competition from touring "alternative" comedians, with higher media profiles and trendier images.

Again in Footlights' own words, "the shows became stale and unimaginative and ultimately not really very funny". And the attacks from some quarters that the Club was "elitist" continued unabated.

But the Club bounced back once more at the end of the millennium, with its tour show, "Sensible Haircut", winning rave reviews, only to enter the 21st century needing 25,000 of British and American Tobacco's money.

Tony Slattery acting at the Footlights in 1985
Tony Slattery acting at the Footlights in 1985
Bill Oddie does not find that surprising, given that "there's a stand-up in every pub" and nothing is outrageous any more because "anything goes".

There may or may not be another comic genius waiting in the wings of this summer's revue, "Far Too Happy", but Oddie feels there is a place in the market for a group like Footlights, offering a change and relief from "in your face" stand-ups. "It just has to be funny", he warns.

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John Cleese talks about his days with the Footlights revue

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