When Edward Rowe steps on stage as Cornish comedy hero Kernow King, behind the scenes there’s a proper family affair going on. While he’s making the crowd holler with laughter, his dad Al is taking tickets on the door, his wife Jo can be found serving pints of local ale in the bar, and back at home either his mum Rosemary or mother-in-law Claudia will be babysitting his children – Nellie, nine and Percy, seven.
It’s his nearest and dearest, and his happy upbringing in a large close-knit clan, with Cornwall running deep in its veins for countless generations, that have fuelled his rise to fame as a tongue-in-cheek, but fiercely loyal, mouthpiece for the county’s everyday ordinary folk.
As a born and bred Cornishman, at the grand old age of nearly 35 he’s earned his right to put his countrymen and women’s quirks, customs and preoccupations under the microscope with impunity. Were the same jokes and observations to be voiced by a “foreigner”, the offenders would be frogmarched back across the Tamar.
His latest show Splann (it means splendid in Cornish language Kernewek) sees the down-to-earth King – champion of the county and the authentic pasty (whoever mentioned minced beef and carrots, wash your mouth out) concerning himself with the weighty question of how Cornish is Cornish? Is it enough to feel we belong, or do we need to produce a five-generation family tree? He tests how well the audience knows the county and its language in a mash-up of jokes, quizzes, film and sound effects, silliness and plenty of audience participation. It’s aimed at adults and there’s a touch of blue in the air, frequent mentions of “dogging” but it hits all the sweet spots for a communal laugh-fest.
“I do love banter; people want to join in and be part of it, and they tend to be quite gobby. Invariably someone will shout out something that takes us off on a tangent or I talk to a stony-faced older lady with her arms folded in the front row and she turns out to be the star of the show,” he says.
In the intervals he has been asking punters to write down the things that annoy or upset them most about Cornwall., mostly avoiding the overtly political. He may love the place, but he knows it’s far from perfect – just like anywhere else on our islands.
“The results are hilarious and I read some of them out – it’s very revealing about what is on people’s minds. One cited the closure of Totem Timber in St Austell – that’s been gone about four years! There are a lot of rants about potholes or emmets [literally “ants” – Cornish slang for holidaymakers], Prince Charles... er, bus stops that face the wrong way round.”
You might think that such Cornwall-centric humour could never translate over the border or, indeed, further up country, but his 2014 diary is proving otherwise with two sold-out two shows in London’s prestigious Leicester Square Theatre next month where a myriad national comedy stars like Bill Bailey cut their teeth.
“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Leaving Cornwall is always a challenge, but I can’t wait,” says Ed, who now lives in Falmouth. “That’s 200 people in London coming to see me – and I probably could have done a week’s run.”
He picked up a posse of fans at last year’s Kernow in the City, the annual mini-festival run by ex-pat Lenny George, which showcases the cream of the county’s artists in the capital. Previous performers have included The Fisherman’s Friends, and minstrels Ruarri Joseph, Louis Eliot and Crowns.
After that he’s heading up to test how the land lies in Manchester and Sheffield. “It’s the furthest north I’ve ever been in my life. I think these two might be a bit of a challenge,” admits Ed, who cites Tavistock Wharf, on the western fringes of Devon, as one of his favourite gigs. He’s also a bit of a hit in Exeter.
Most of the Cornish gigs are self-promoted – Ed books the venue and the family help to make it happen, with the aid of a sound, light and video team from St Merryn-based Evo Sound.
But the further afield shows are the brainchild of promoter Mark Shaw who dwells in the deep west of the county, but puts on acts all over the UK. He considers Ed to be the next great Cornish export, but is also behind this year’s homegrown biggie at the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno in May where Kernow King will present his original Wonders of the Cornish Universe show in the granite cliffside arena against an ocean backdrop – hopefully on a beautiful sunny day.
“It’s difficult to sell yourself,” observed Ed. “Mark can open doors that I can’t.”
So where did these shenanigans first begin? Well, actually it was on the Rowe family’s sofa in Roche, deep in Clay Country, with Mum (originally a Rodda), Dad, brother Stuart (13 months younger) and baby sister Livvy (ten years Ed’s junior) watching Norman Wisdom films.
“I just loved ‘em. I was watching one last night, actually,” he confesses.
The whole gang have a creative and musical streak.
“We weren’t any good at Maths or science but we all did well at arts, reading and writing.
Ed’s mum is a violinist and pianist; his dad plays the drums in a band, Stuart and Livvy play saxophone and flute; and now Nellie is following tradition and going great guns with her violin lessons. Wife Jo is a costume designer by trade, adds a fresh element to the mix as a gourmet chef, brilliant knitter and maker of stylish clothes and quilts.
They are all part of what used to be a “massive” family who needed no excuse to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. Ed has lovely memories of times when all his grandparents were still alive.
“They all had a great sense of humour. We would go round there and have tea parties with pasties, cold meat and crackers, and we would make up little shows for everyone. I was always a bit of a joker, acting the fool since I was a kid, but I never thought of becoming a comedian. I thought I was going to be an actor,” he says.
Kernow King began as an internet phenomenon created by Ed while he was earning his crust in marketing. Homegrown video of his, now legendary pasty diet challenge, living on nothing but pasties for a month – proper ones, mind – became a hit. More little videos followed, eventually leading to his leap into the live arena just three years ago. His early audiences were under 35s, but these days he attracts a much broader age spectrum.
“At Looe the other night I would say half the crowd were 50 plus, which is great; something shifted over the past year,” he says.
Understandably, there have been comparisons to Jethro – the only other Cornish stand-up to make his name in the national arena but, like Al Murray’ Pub Landlord, Kernow King is a fictional character and a very different one to his inventor. Ed went to drama school in the capital, you know.
Everything about Ed is a bit more subtle – especially the accent. He can crank it up to order, but it always retains its educated edge – Ed went to drama school in the capital, you know.
“I went to university at Swansea and then to Lapa (the London Academy of Performing Arts) which has since closed down. I loved the course, but as soon as it was finished I just wanted to come home.”
There’s plenty to keep him occupied here. When he’s not performing or writing show material, he’s turning his hand to some exciting new projects.
He has always made up bedtime stories for Nellie and Percy and now he’s turned one of their favourite into a book, with illustrations being done by brother Stuart, about a sea creature called Nos Dha (Good Night).
“It’s just a nice little story with a very subtle way of teaching kids a bit of Cornish,” he says.
Then there’s the sitcom based around the rise of the Kernow King character, and another show aimed at teenagers which he hopes will be educational and inspiring.
And for his next move, he has a hankering for taking the King even further afield in the footsteps of his Cornish forefathers.
“I’d like to do some gigs abroad,” he muses. “I’m thinking Australia...”