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Save the date: John Simmit is still on comedy's front line

BIG IN THE GAME: John Simmit performing at Hoxton Hall

HE’S THE Birmingham-born stand-up credited with putting black British comedy on the map, while also being a TV global icon for under-fives the world over.

Take a bow John Simmit, who this year celebrates two showbiz milestones – the 25th anniversary of starting Upfront Comedy, where he has been the brains behind showcasing some of the UK’s most talented black comics since 1992.

And it’s also the 20th anniversary of Simmit playing the role of the ever-lovable Dipsy in the BBC TV international phenomenon Teletubbies, alongside Po, Laa Laa, and Tinky Winky. In a way, Simmit has acquired for himself the best kind of worldwide fame since few people realise he is the figure behind Dipsy, created as “a furry, funky Jamaican toddler,” enabling him to carry on with a relatively normal life.

However, with social media many Teletubbies fans can reach him and he still has loads of fan mail from twenty somethings who continue to thank him for making their childhoods so enjoyable and fun with his Dipsy dancing and love of tubby custard.

The series, which was broadcast in more than 120 countries in 45 different languages, could have eclipsed Simmit's humility, but being grounded has always been the key to his success.

Although he works a lot in London, his home town of Birmingham – “the greatest city in the world,” according to Simmit – is under two hours away and he likes nothing better than coming back home after gigs and shows. In fact he calls himself a Cuban Jamaican Brummie with a nod to his Cuban dad and Jamaican mother.

It’s hard to take in that Upfront Comedy began as a one-off show at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre a quarter of a century ago with names such as Angie Le Mar and Leo Chester, who appeared alongside Simmit in The Real McCoy.

Since then Upfront has produced regular comedy series in all the UK’s major cities and helped to give mainstream spotlight to many famous black international comedians such as Russell Peters, JB Smoove and Gina Yashere. The latter trio of artists share another Simmit accolade – having all slept at one time or another on the sofa at his flat in Hamstead Road, Handsworth.

Simmit told The Voice:

“When I started Upfront, most alternative comedy shows were being held in pub function rooms, so I decided to aim for proper theatres and cut out the pub gig part all together, where often black comics were not so welcome.”

It worked and soon arts centres and mainstream theatres across the country were signing up his acts. Simmit’s former marketing and press officer background also meant he was more switched-on to what was needed publicity wise. He knew how to acquire proper media coverage. He is now regularly staging Upfront at Croydon’s Tricycle Theatre and the mac in Birmingham.

Over the past 25 years, he’s also managed to star in The Real McCoy, often seen as a launching pad for many black comedians. Other TV credits include The Gadget Show, Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz, and Club Class, a 13-part series for Channel 5, not to mention his global role of Dipsy.

Saturday 6 May marks the 25th anniversary event of Upfront at Birmingham mac (Midland Arts Centre|) where the line-up will include comedy’s don Curtis Walker, bad girl Thanyia Moore and Nigerian jokester Lateef Lovejoy (the face of the ITV Hub).

“It promises to be an excellent night,” added Simmit, who also still enjoys DJ-ing. “I’ve got quite a few uncredited surprises up my sleeve.”

For details, click here.

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