Phill Jupitus sings the praises of Leeds' City Varieties

PUBLISHED: 16:31 12 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:54 20 February 2013

Phil Moody, Jude Abbott, Phill Jupitus, Neil Ferguson, Boff Whalley and Lisa Howard will play at the newly refurbished City Varieties in Leeds

Phil Moody, Jude Abbott, Phill Jupitus, Neil Ferguson, Boff Whalley and Lisa Howard will play at the newly refurbished City Varieties in Leeds

Multi-talented comedian Phill Jupitus sings the praises of Leeds' City Varieties, as Jo Haywood reports Photographs by Tim Smith and Phil Moody

Phill Jupitus should be incredibly annoying. Hes an accomplished comedian, theatre performer, writer, broadcaster and poet.

He probably juggles to A-level standard and has a degree in witty comebacks too. But hes not an irritating over-achiever, hes an enthusiast. And his enthusiasm is infectious. By the time we have finished talking about Leeds City Varieties and his undiluted passion for this small but precious theatrical gem, Im ready to march into the box office and book a season ticket.

Traditional theatres were incredibly well designed, but the City Varieties is simply outstanding, said Phill, while out for a stroll and struggling to keep his dog Chester from tying his lead into a knot. Its intimate and grand all at the same time.

I saw it on the telly (in The Good Old Days) when I was a kid and thought it was amazing. Id be like wow, look at the size of that place. I eventually played it in 1996 and couldnt get over how small it was. But that level of intimacy in a theatre is priceless, and its what makes this a truly extraordinary venue.

Phill is coming to Leeds this month to play George Lightfeather in Big Society!, a show created by and featuring Chumbawamba about the rambunctious world of Edwardian music hall. It strongly echoes the current political, economic and social climate with its references to a corrupt and moralistic newspaper (The Double Standard), elitist, public-schooled politicians, and performers struggling to hold on to their jobs.

But much as he admires Chumbawamba and their play, it was not the chance to perform with them that drew Phill to this unusual project. It was the chance to get back on the City Varieties stage.

I dont want to show any disrespect to Chumbawamba, but it was the mention of the City Varieties that really made my ears prick up, he said.
As someone whose career has always had more than a hint of variety about it, perhaps its not entirely surprising that Im drawn to traditional music hall, where you might find a singer and some acrobats and maybe even a dog act thrown in for good measure.

This was entertainment for the masses. Not everyone was going to like the singer, but they might like the dog. Variety was a social force; a place for sedition, in a cheeky, underhand way. And that has always appealed to me.

Phill wont have time for a grand tour of the county when he comes to Leeds as he has a tight rehearsal schedule and a short two-week run, but hes looking forward to getting to know more about West Yorkshires first city through its theatre. The City Varieties is an integral part of the city, he said. It reflects the atmosphere in Leeds and is one with the city it belongs to. I love those sorts of theatres, where you know where you are and where you can feel the city pulsating through the walls.

Modern theatres are fantastically well designed and are very practical workspaces, but they all tend to be much of a muchness when it comes to atmosphere and character. They dont have that embedded human touch you feel in a theatre like the City Varieties.

His enthusiasm for intimate, characterful venues is reflected in his stand-up tours which, he insists, will never include the giant O2 arena.
Lee Evans is the only comedian who can fill an arena, he said.
Others can sell tickets, but they cant fill those huge spaces with their performance and their energy like he can. Personally, I admire the way Stewart Lee does things.

He filmed his DVD in a venue that only holds 250 people. Thats the way it should be done.

Phill is the embodiment of the phrase find a job you love and youll never work a day in your life.

Hes been an illustrator, poet, stand-up, broadcaster and has even sung and danced his way into the West End, but is pleased to say none has been a proper job.

When I did my first tour with Billy Bragg in 1985 it was the first time Id ever been to Scotland, he said.

But now Ive travelled all over the world. Yes, I have to put the hours in, but its not like working for a living, is it?

Big Society!, starring Phill Jupitus and Chumbawamba, will be at
Leeds City Varieties from January 18th to February 4th. Tickets, priced 10-40, are available at

Phill Jupitus

Phillip Christopher Swan was born in Newport on the Isle of Wight in 1962. He took his stepfathers surname, Jupitus, when he was 16.

After dropping out of college, he became a civil servant in a Jobcentre.

Using the name Porky the Poet, Phill became a performance poet associated with Anti-Fascist Action, touring student venues with Billy Bragg, The Style Council and Housemartins.

He began hosting his own show on BBC GLR in 1995 before embarking on his first stand-up tour of the UK with Jedi, Steady, Go, a Star Wars-inspired show.

He has been a team captain on the popular music quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks since it started in 1996 and regularly appears as a guest on other panel shows like QI and Radio 4s Im Sorry I Havent A Clue.

His was the first voice heard on BBC 6 Music when it launched in 2002. He was the breakfast show host until 2007 and has made brief returns since, sitting in for Stephen Merchant and Liz Kershaw.

Phill performed with The Blockheads on their 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and has continued to take to the stage with them sporadically since the death of frontman Ian Dury.

He joined the West End cast of Hairspray in 2009, playing the role of Edna Turnblad and, in 2011, toured as King Arthur in Spamalot.

Palace of variety

Leeds City Varieties was built in 1865 and has played host to many of the worlds greatest entertainers, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Houdini, Mickey Rooney and Lilly Langtry

It was home to The Good Old Days, a much-loved BBC variety show, for 30 years and played a key role in the careers of Frankie Vaughan, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, Barry Cryer and last but certainly not least The Chuckle Brothers.

The Varieties was closed in 2009 for a 9.9m refurbishment, which saw the complete demolition and reconstruction of the backstage areas, painstaking ceiling and plasterwork, new carpeting and seating throughout the auditorium and major subterranean excavations to re-establish the ancient cellar network.

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