The Man Behind the Fringe: Martin Witts

By Vicky Parry | 6th July 2015

Martin Witts

Martin Witts

By now you should be more than aware of The Great Yorkshire Fringe, a ten-day event which will see Parliament Street astro-turfed and home to two huge and historic Spiegeltents (one of which – Le Moulin Rouge – infamously housed Marlene Dietrich and now doubles up as The White Rose Rotunda). We decided to peek behind the curtain and see who was responsible for this huge cultural feat.

York resident Martin Witts is an unassuming character, down to earth but with a life peppered by famous faces and stories to make your hair curl (ask him about Nina Simone – I dare you). Martin is a London boy by birth, whose parents one a happily adopted refugee and one a Geordie Seaman fell in love at Margate Butlin’s.

Education brought him North and in the 80s he took a place at York St John University. He never looked back. Although education wasn’t really for him (a "short but enjoyable time"), Martin had fallen in love and taken a job as a carpenter at York Theatre Royal in 1981. At this point, his colleague Mark Addy (Game of Thrones) was also working back stage at the Theatre. Martin’s big break came when he went on tour with a showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: gaining a taste for the open road, he worked his way up to be Master Carpenter at The Glyndebourne Opera House.

Martin has worked with some all-time greats from Norman Wisdom to Tommy Cooper, all the way to his latest project with Terry Jones.

This foray into the entertainment business, although at this point on a very practical level, was something that never left him. Martin’s life as a Producer began with him working in Jazz (something which he still does to this day), with clients such as Roberta Flack, Ray Charles and Nina Simone: a real baptism of fire which taught him a strong lesson in keeping people happy.

Since then, his career has snowballed and he now owns The Leicester Square Theatre, a venue infamous for its opening gambit with the late Joan Rivers, who ended up playing a big part in the venue’s history, feeling that the working title of ‘Leicester Square Working Man’s Club’ really wasn’t her scene (darling). Martin is an associate and founder of the Raindance Film Festival and has been involved for over 20 years.

In light of such a colourful career, it comes as no surprise that Martin’s prolific passion is comedy. After years of entertainment (including Production managing Lily Savage, someone whom he speaks of with a warmth and affection that surpasses any professional bond, and enables you to see his warmth for those who have been a part of his journey – something which I will come back to later when discussing the Fringe) Martin has worked with some all-time greats from Norman Wisdom to Tommy Cooper, all the way to his latest project with Terry Jones. This love led him to collecting comedy artifacts, including the bear from Steptoe and Son, Ronnie Barker’s scripts and many of Tommy Cooper’s props. Indeed, the collection is so extensive that it is now a museum in London: The Museum of Comedy.

Martin’s life as a Producer saw him working in the Jazz world, with clients such as Roberta Flack, Ray Charles and Nina Simone.

This love affair with comedy is also what took Martin as a consultant at the Edinburgh Fringe – and it is all of this that bore the idea of bringing it home and The Great Yorkshire Fringe was born. Martin has been formulating this plan for years and wanted to play to York’s intimate city centre: hence the country fete inspiration was born.

Martin’s decades of producing have also made it no problem attracting big names and his close-knit community of employees, many of which are old friends and even some are Godparents to his son. The Great Yorkshire Fringe is the first production he has been a part of in his home town since the 1988 Mystery Plays, since when he has reached out to many local companies to make his vision a reality. His dream for the festival was to employ local people across the board and have some impact on the local economy.

Martin has seen how Edinburgh has progressed to the size it has and how the Yorkshire Fringe can potentially support the economy, by bringing vendors from out of town: Martin has worked with John Drysdale’s Ebor Street Feast team on a very York-led, inspired food court.

Martin reminds me that “in order to become commercial you first need a passion for business” and this is fundamentally what has driven him. He doesn’t want York to compete with itself, he wants it to be organic and feed into the local economy. He calls it “a festival about York FOR York” and wants to bring people from far and wide to stay here, fall in love with the place and recognise York for the cultural hub it has become.

The Great Yorkshire Fringe takes place from 24 July until 2 August and boasts top comedians Al Murray, Paul Merton, Henning When, Edinburgh Fringe staple Mitch Benn and York’s Mark Addy in conversation on Britain’s most popular podcast traditionally associated with Richard Herring. With magic, music, food and drink, the streets of York will be awash with laughter, class acts and taste sensations to rival any other fringe festival.

Great Yorkshire Fringe
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