Interview: Udderbelly founder Ed Bartlam

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Eunice Tsang checks out what’s happening inside the UK’s funniest cow as Udderbelly Festival visits Hong Kong for the first time

A giant purple cow with legs skyward has landed at Central Harbourfront. Fear not, it’s not an alien abduction experiment gone wrong - Violet is the name of the bubbly bovine and she’s home to the Udderbelly Festival, one of Britain’s best entertainment festivals. 

Originating from Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2006, the purple cow has travelled all the way from Cowgate (now you get it!) to London’s Southbank and now, for the first time ever, Hong Kong.

Ed Bartlam, who has been named in The Stage 100 list – a power ranking of individuals involved with British theatre – not fewer than three times, is the festival’s founder. The precursor was an event named Underbelly, begun when Bartlam was a first-year student at the University of Edinburgh. “It was a completely organic experience,” he smiles. “There was no grand vision that one day I was going to own a large purple cow. I’d only been to the Fringe Festival and acted in school for a few years.” 

In 2000, in an attempt to find an unusual location to perform his theatre shows, he found disused bank vaults that had been used for shows 10 years ago but were then abandoned. “It was completely ramshackle,” he grins. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was a 19-year-old who’d never run a venue... but it generated a buzz and an interest in the shows.” 

Underbelly grew in Udderbelly and went from producing three shows a day, to 141 shows a day at 16 different venues, one of which is Violet the purple cow. “We asked a designer to help us create a logo for our brand,” says Bartlam of the iconic cow’s design. “Our original venue in Edinburgh was on a road called Cowgate, so I think the designer thought, ‘Cowgate... Cow… Under... Upside down’ and made it purple. Random ideas usually turn out to have the most comedic effect.” 

“Hong Kong was definitely our first choice to launch overseas,” Bartlam explains. “I sometimes like to describe Udderbelly festival as a metropolitan live entertainment festival. It needs to be in the heart of a really vibrant and exciting city, so Hong Kong was an obvious place for us to launch overseas.”

For the next two months, visit Violet and enjoy the live music, comedy, pantomime and even circus shows on offer. The happenings feature performers from Hong Kong and all over the world. To prepare you, Time Out has cherry-picked a range of events ranging from stand up comedy to sexy burlesque!

Udderbelly Until Feb 14, Central Harbourfront. Tickets: hkticketing.comticketflap.com.

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