Thankfully, for comedian Darren Harriott, gigs got the better of gangs – and now the TV star is headlining at Hockley Social Club
If Darren Harriott was American, Disney would have snapped up his life story a long time ago. The boy from the Black Country ran with gangs in his teenage years and – as he admits in this candid chat – life could have turned out very differently. The 34-year-old then juggled security work with stand-up comedy, often finishing a gig only to start a night shift. A big break came thanks to BBC staple Live At The Apollo, with Darren performing at the iconic Hammersmith venue where he’d previously worked as a bouncer, to make for that delicious Hollywood moment. Darren is now a huge TV star, fronting, co-hosting or captaining the likes of Love Island Aftersun, Guessable, Britain's Top Takeaways and much more. He headlines Close-Up Comedy at Hockley Social Club on September 29 in what will prove both a homecoming and – as he reveals – another stepping stone to permanently returning to the Second City…
Straight off the bat – why is there not more live comedy in Birmingham?
It always bugs me! Birmingham is so big – more than a million people. There’s a comedy festival, but barely anyone hears about it. Brummies need to come together a bit more. Look at Leicester: it’s smaller than Birmingham, but look how well respected and well-funded their festival is. There’s also not as many gigs in Birmingham as there should be. It could all change quite easily – imagine if Joe Lycett promoted a comedy festival in Birmingham. Even that would make a massive difference.
It's odd, especially when so many Birmingham comedians spring to mind: Joe, yourself, Frank Skinner, Jasper Carrott…
What often happens with comedians is that they have to leave Birmingham in order to make it in comedy, which is sad. Given Birmingham’s location – in the centre – it should be perfect. Really, you have to move to London or Manchester. If you want to make it, you have to leave and then come back. Joe Lycett went to Manchester, then London and is now back in Birmingham. I want to go back to Birmingham now because I feel I can do the two. Let alone Birmingham, the Midlands scene isn’t good enough.
If this new Hockley gig can become a success, at least that’s a welcome addition?
The room looks great and is in a very fun and upbeat area of Birmingham; Hockley is really on the way up. It could be a really fun gig. Comedians will gig anywhere. Show me a room with an interesting stage? I am there! We’re easy people. I’m really looking forward to it and the line-up is great.
You’re now the face of Birmingham thanks to various campaigns – what is that like?
I’ve done a lot of stuff for Birmingham this year. I did the Peaky Blinders videos for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, I’ve done voiceovers for Birmingham and other campaigns, which is great. People then think I hate Birmingham – I love Birmingham! Everything that has ever meant anything to me all started in Birmingham. My first job, comedy gig and my first pals – all in Birmingham. I’m glad that more filming is now happening there, although it’s also quite sad; the only reason they’re doing it is because it’s cheaper than London. I’m excited to move back and become a better entertainer and a comedian – I’ll have a garden! It takes you away from things and feels like home. London never felt like home.
You escaped gangs and have become such a success – do you get asked to give talks at schools in Birmingham?
We did arrange a talk at a school and they cancelled twice. But I definitely would. I feel I could talk to kids, especially at ‘rough’ schools where there are gangs. I wouldn’t even tell kids that school is everything; it can put so much pressure on them. You need to be more prepared for life outside school. I got my results and thought: “What am I going to do?!” And then that feeling becomes a distant memory. I could have gone down a very bad route; I could have been stabbed, I could have stabbed someone, I could have been killed, I could have been in prison. There’s a lot of kids from all over who are teetering on that. Sometimes it’s just down to who you’re hanging out with.
Is it true that you worked as a bouncer at the Hammersmith Apollo, and then did Live At The Apollo?
Yes! It was pretty crazy. I knew with the money from the Apollo that I could go full-time as a comedian. So I left working as a bouncer there, and left another company where I worked nights (as a security guard). I’d always kept it quiet that I did comedy. I never wanted to tell anyone I was part-time, or else I’d lose work. I remember turning up to record Live At The Apollo and I knew everyone who worked there. I actually ended up saying that on stage, but hadn’t planned to. To do that show was amazing and I’ll never forget it. I also used to work at the Roundhouse (in Camden) and then returned there to make Backstage With Katherine Ryan for Amazon. I also remember auditioning for Stand Up Central with Russell Howard, and I was wearing my security uniform because I was then going on to do a shift. A while later, I was doing a shift at a university and Comedy Central came on the TV. My Stand Up Central set was about to come on and I had to quickly turn the TV off. The last thing I needed was a bunch of students seeing that and saying: “What on earth is going on?!” I didn’t need that in my life.
You must have had an offer for your life story from TV?
We’ve had a few chats and I’m writing something for the BBC at the moment. It’s early days. It’s set in Birmingham and the Black Country. I want to bring something that feels true to me and the people of the area.
Is the move back to Birmingham signed, sealed and delivered?
I’m filming a big show through the winter and then once I’m finished doing that – and Love Island – the plan is to move summer or autumn next year. It’s definitely on the cards. I’ll get a house, drive and garden and rep Birmingham from there. It’ll be nice to have a garden – and quiet neighbours.
Darren plays Hockley Social Club on September 29. Tickets
ATELIER: FIRST LOOK
I place the ice lolly in my mouth and slurp. Autumn. The crazy b*stard has made a drink with an ice lolly that tastes like Autumn. It tastes like a John Constable landscape, a reference I probably wouldn't be making were it not called Dedham Vale. Earthy, herby hits are tumbling, lifted to the roof of my mouth by apple, an unrecognisable spirit and sparks of ice. I look up to catch Robert Wood's eye because, through the many years I've been drinking his drinks now, I know that there are few things he likes more than to see his guests agog. By now though, he's moved on to another cocktail, stood behind no less than four bottles containing liquids of differing shades and flavours, he's weighing them out — not measuring, his colourless rimmed glasses merely adding to the professorial look. He, and his fiancée and co-host Kyndra Vorster, are at home now, the lounge-like feel of Atelier, their Jewellery Quarter two-year labour of love the final destination on a hell of a journey.
Rob's been in the business for 20 years but it was in 2016 he launched his first venture, Smultronstalle, hidden behind an innocuous doorway and buried deep beneath City Arcade. Bookings were taken weeks in advance, a text message on the morning of your reservation telling you how to find them. What followed in 2018 was 18/81, without doubt one of the finest venues to ever grace Birmingham's bar scene but one that very much felt like a temporary endeavour, sharing as it did Meat Shack's upper floor after closing. But here, in a restored factory in Newhall Square — a pocket of Birmingham I'd venture many of us don't even know is there — they seem very much at rest, thanks in no small part to the help of business partner and chef director at The Wilderness, Alex Claridge.
The building is something else — a Grade II listed it dates back to 1838, it formed part of the Elkington Mason & Co electro-gilding and plating works, one of the most important factories in the JQ. The interior has influence from turn-of-the-century and ‘60s Scandinavian design. There's every colour you could possibly want in here as long as its beige, an approach that runs in direct contrast to the wildly wonderful 12-drink menu, all under-pinned with commitment to the native pantry of the British Isles, but countering and oscillating in flavours. Deep cherry numbers punctuated by lively and light gooseberry or tart, almost silky lingonberry concoctions. Yoghurts, butters, roots, ants, blossoms the ingredients being used list like the last things you'd ever want to be tasked with turning into heaven, but turn them Rob and Kyndra do. If you want to hear about just how committed these two are to terroir just ask about the lengths they go to to impart sweetness while avoiding importing sugar.
Their are influences from Japanese fine-dining too, much of the glassware and receptacles coming from over yonder, embodying Far East minimalism. They're not serving food yet, but it is on the way. Open for just a few nights a week with 26 seats there are three experiences — a seven-course cocktail taster, a four courser and an a la carte at £12 a drink — all centred around one communal and buzzing bar area.
In some ways it's the things that Atelier doesn't do that stand out. There's no back wall made up of countless bottles of booze, everything is hidden away. There's no ice-shaking, no cocktail mixers slung in sinks, no banging soundtrack or six deep queue at the bar. But, ultimately, it's what they have done that prevails — Rob, Kyndra and Alex have created something utterly unique. A place you don’t go to for a drink, a place you go to for the experience of drinking. In pursuit of flavour.
--- Atelier try to accommodate walk-ins but booking is highly recommended.
(Photos: interiors by Tom Bird, drinks by Pixel Pro Media)
THE PRIDE OF YOUR LIFE?
Need a huge injection of fun and frolics this weekend? Birmingham gets its own silver jubilee, as Birmingham Pride celebrates its 25th anniversary: a quarter of a century of pride and protest in Brum. Beginning with the biggest Pride march in its history, the festival kicks off with the vibrant parade starting from Centenary Square on Saturday September 24, and the weekend is set to be a bona fide banger.
Fans of the joyous Smithfield site this summer will be glad to know it’s back in action again, hosting around 20,000 revellers as the main hub of the festival, smackbang next to the Gay Quarter. The beloved main stage, even bigger for 2022, offers a whopping great line-up of international, national and local artists, with headliners including reality TV faves Becky Hill and Ella Henderson, and Sunday smashing out a nostalgia trip back to Pride’s decade of infancy, with the likes of Steps, Livin Joy, Mel C, Phats and Small and N Trance.
The legendary Conrad Guest Cabaret Marquee will showcase big name cabaret and some of the best Drag talent in the UK– I’ve no idea about half of the acts, but their names alone have me sold – while the circus big top tent of the Dance Arena also offers huge retro and contemporary names in dance and garage. Around Hurst Street, the Birmingham Pride Village Street Party offers slightly cheaper tickets (£22) to the Smithfield Live site (subsidised by Birmingham Pride) and ticks off all the favourite LGBTQ+ bars and clubs, who’ll be hosting individual events including cabaret, live entertainment and more, over the festival weekend. Also part of the street party, the Future stage will showcase new and emerging artists.
If you’re looking for a quieter, family friendly and accessible area within the heart of the Pride Village, the community Village green is free to all on Friday at Smithfield, offering speakers, performances and a candlelit vigil. Tickets are available for each day (from £53.35 for Saturday and £46.75 for Sunday), full weekend, or just the street party (£22) and over 65s and children under 12 go free. This weekend
Starting Saturday (September 24) and running until February 10, Winterbourne House, a bona fide Birmingham hidden gem, will host an exhibition from Syrian/Iraqi artist Dina Razin, who is inspired by her Middle Eastern heritage and by the natural world. This exhibition features her fabulous illustrations of artists’ muses, from Manet’s black model Laure to 21st-century icon Beyoncé (pictured) all of which featured in Birmingham art historian, critic and author Ruth Millington's book, Muse. More
An extraordinary free exhibition has opened in Snowhill Square featuring 21 self-portraits made in collaboration with people experiencing homelessness in Brum. CONSTRUCT is a project from artist Anthony Luvera with Sifa Fireside and GRAIN projects. Over four years Luvera trained the participants to use digital medium format camera equipment with a tripod, handheld flash, cable shutter release, and laptop, to take and produce photos of themselves in places that mean something to them. More
It's always the creatives that help us sort out the mess. Environmental arts charity, Julie’s Bicycle is holding a whole day summit on creative climate action, at Birmingham Rep on 13 October. Just 300 in-person tickets available, so snap ‘em up. —
If you're not Peakied out yet Peaky Blinders nights return to the Black Country Living Museum. —
Independent Leeds-based brewery North Brewing Co will team up with Little Bao Boy to open in Snowhill, where Bar Opus once stood. More —
New craft beer and cider bottle shop HAUL has opened in the Great Western Arcade, opposite Habanero. —
Today is the last day you can see The Raging Bull in Centenary Square. If he doesn't re-emerge elsewhere we riot.
WORDS: James Gill, Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins
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