Covent Garden acts fear 400 years of street theatre at risk from council clampdown

From the fire-eaters to high-wire walkers and knife-jugglers, the street performers of Covent Garden in central London have been drawing rapt crowds for centuries. The magicians, daredevils and illusionists are now attempting their most challenging trick yet: avoiding police enforcement of council regulations that they say could bring an end to the traditional fun at the historic market square by Christmas.

In April 2021, Westminster council introduced a fee-based licensing system for buskers and street performers. The council said it was reacting to complaints of noise pollution from businesses and residents, particularly around Leicester Square.

More than 100 members of the Covent Garden Street Performers Association have refused to engage and apply for licences, insisting that self-regulation has worked well for decades and the new restrictions on pitch sizes, noise and dangerous props, will put them out of business.

A black and white image of a man in a crumpled hat and suit emerging from a waste bin with a briefcase propped against it.
Melvyn Altwarg clowning in Covent Garden in the 1980s. Photograph: Alex Dandridge/Covent Garden Street Performers Association

Attempts by city inspectors to shut down unlicensed acts performing on Covent Garden’s piazzas over the last year triggered angry reactions from hundreds of spectators who had been enjoying the shows, prompting a hasty withdrawal. The police had other priorities, the council conceded.

With noncompliance making a mockery of the scheme, councillors are expected to vote on 4 December on whether to fund further enforcement efforts, including a formal partnership with the police, through to raising the licence fees, which range from a monthly payment of £5 for a student to £40 every six months for someone selling CDs and other products.

Other options in front of councillors will include abandoning the scheme altogether or restricting its scope, raising performers’ hopes that they may live to swallow knives, breathe fire and walk a tight rope another day.

Pete Kolofsky, 40, who juggles knives on Covent Garden’s West Piazza, where the comedian and actor Eddie Izzard performed in the early years of his career, said the area’s rich history and successful record of self-regulation should exempt it from the licensing scheme.

“I think it should all go, as it is anathema to me that people can be criminalised for throwing little balls in the air, but we are asking for Covent Garden to be exempted from the licensing scheme,” he said.

Pete Kolofsky holding a clutch of juggling knives next to a bed of nails
Pete Kolofsky’s act includes knife juggling and beds of nails. Photograph: Stephen Beard/Covent Garden Street Performers Association

“It is about the only place in the city of London that has space for large-scale, circus-style acts and, as much as I hate to use the word brand, it is a brand recognised around the world for street performance. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1662 that he had watched a Punch puppet show in Covent Garden.”

The council’s licensing scheme seeks to restrict the pitches of acts on Covent Garden’s Market Square and James Street to 1.5 metres in diameter while “amplification, brass, wind percussion and percussive instruments are not permitted”. A pitch of 2 metres is allowed outside the Royal Opera House but there are similar restrictions on noise. There is a general licensing prohibition of “naked flames, pyrotechnics, fireworks, knives, sharp objects or similar”, although there is a possibility of a waiver for certain acts.

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Kolofsky, who has been performing at Covent Garden for 15 years, and whose act includes a bull whip and a feature called “the sandwich of death” where he lies between two beds of nails and asks an audience member to stand on top, said the restrictions would make his work impossible, as it would for most of the 30 people who were regularly performing at any given time around the market place.

He said: “Our association has been operating for 40 years and there has not been a single injury to a member of the public in all that time and our members have to sign up to £10m public liability insurance.”

The council concedes that of the 5,070 complaints between April 2021 and May 2023, only 5% were made about the buskers and street performs at Covent Garden. The performers association said staff at 99% of the shops around the square, including Paul Smith, Holland & Barrett, Dr Martens, had signed a petition calling for an exemption.

The council has made one successful prosecution against a street performer over two counts of unlicensed busking and street entertainment under section 42 of the London Local Authorities Act 2000. The defendant pleaded guilty to the two offences at the City of London magistrates court in March. He received a fine of £40 for each of the offences and was ordered to pay the council’s costs of £500 and a victim’s surcharge of £34, totalling £614.

Westminster council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Guardian

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