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05 December 2012 11:44 AM

The British Comedy Awards 2012 – Form Guide and Betting Tips

Sky must be over the moon about the British Comedy Awards nominations announced the week. Particularly when it comes to Best New Comedy Programme. Three of the four nominees, alongside E4's Cardinal Burns, come from the Sky stable – the return of Steve Coogan's hapless, hopeless DJ in Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life, Julia Davis' dark costume comedy Hunderby and Chris O'Dowd's winsome coming-of-age sitcom, Moone Boy. On reflection maybe that opening sentence should read "over the Moone".

ImgresThese nominations are a clear vindication of Sky Comedy Head Lucy Lumsden's war chest investment. Last year I was on the BCA judging panel and Darren Boyd won Best TV Comedy Actor for Spy, so one could sense that a shift was in the air, but scooping 75% of a category is astonishing. The winner when the results are announced on C4 on 12 December? I'd have to say Hunderby, because who doesn't love Julia Davis? Though there is a name missing here. The great Greg Davies sitcom Cuckoo surely started in time to be eligible yet, is nowhere to be seen. Did BBC3 forget to enter it?

The other most noteworthy category is Best TV Actress where, if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Olivia Colman, who is nominated for both Rev and Twenty Twelve and is up against Jessica Hynes (Twenty Twelve) and Rebecca Front (The Thick of It). Hynes' airhead PR is priceless and Front's ministerial meltdown was compelling comedy but Colman's rise is positively inexorable. She is about to be seen as the late Queen Mother opposite Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson, but let's hope she doesn't leave TV comedy behind for Hollywood.

Other categories are too close to call, with new talent jostling with establishment icons. I hope TV Burp wins Best Comedy Entertainment Programme but I'd be happy for Chatty Man or The Graham Norton Show to collect – anything but the sub-Shooting Stars Celebrity Juice. Best Sketch Show should go to Cardinal Burns over Facejacker, Very Important People and Horrible Histories, for their Office Flirt character alone. Best sitcom? Twenty Twelve may have lost some momentum when the Olympics actually turned out to be anything but the gold medal cock-up the series predicted, but it should still edge out Hunderby, The Thick of It and Rev.

Best Entertainment Personality throws Charlie Brooker, Graham Norton, Harry Hill and
Stephen Fry into the pot. Ubiquitous National Treasure Fry can have that bauble, while Hugh Bonneville should pick up the Best Actor gong for Twenty Twelve that he should have won last year. Though fellow 2012 nominees Tom Hollander (Rev) Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge) may all fancy their chances. Best Breakthrough Artist? David Rawle, the young star with the imaginary friend in Moone Boy.

The two other high profile awards pitch some big guns head-to-head. Best Male TV Comic? Give it to David Mitchell as a belated wedding present, though Harry Hill, Lee Mack and Sean Lock would all be equally deserving. Best Female TV comic? My heart says Jo Brand, my head says Sarah Millican, my outside bet says Nina Conti, so it'll probably be Sue Perkins, bizarrely nominated for her occasional hosting of Have I Got News for You.

And finally King or Queen of Comedy, which is voted for by the public. Sarah Millican won this last year and this year is up against Alan Carr, David Mitchell, Graham Norton, Jack Whitehall and Lee Mack. This is the chance to rectify the one big omission on the list – BBC3's laugh-out-loud classroom comedy Bad Education. Having shown his acting chops on Fresh Meat as well as in this teacher feature, the 2012 King of Comedy should be Jack Whitehall.

Follow Bruce Dessau on Twitter here

30 August 2012 2:40 PM

Comedy's Best Kept Secret?

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I've always wondered what stand-up comedians do during the day when they don't have gigs. I thought maybe they were all in bed sleeping off their hangovers, but now I think I have the answer. Most of them are clearly busy honing their golf swing on the driving range. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last week I took part in the annual Comedians V Industry match, supported by Visit Scotland, at the lovely Duddingston Golf Club in the shadow of Arthur's Seat. We all know about Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck hitting balls down the fairway but the new generation of gagsmiths can certainly give them a run for their money.

I went out in the first match alongside The Sun's Tommy Holgate who is a very useful golfer too (and has done a bit of stand-up in his time) but we were no match for Alistair Barrie and John Robins, who both fired balls down the fairway with terrifying consistency. Other golfers who took part included Chris Martin, Alan Francis and Carl Donnelly (featured in front row of the picture alongside Alistair Barrie, who is second from right. Robins is far right, back row). Hannah Gadsby and Fred Macaulay also took part, but may have been enjoying a bacon roll when the picture was taken at breakfast-time.

There seems to be an innate connection between stand-up and golf. Obviously people who do their work mainly in the evening have a lot of time to kill during the day and golf is a much healthier way of passing the pre-gig time than drink and drugs. It can only be a matter of time before Russell Brand dons a pair of checked trousers. But maybe there is a deeper connection. Perhaps the poise, rhythm and timing that one needs to deliver a decent punchline on stage translates into the poise, rhythm and timing one needs to get a ball into a hole. And performers certainly know how to deliver in front of an audience, whereas I was barely able to pull a club out of my bag with the rest of my team watching me on the first tee.

Despite some inspired shots from Tommy we lost our match as the rain started to come down, but the industry staged a valiant comeback during the day and ended up winning by four shots, which maybe suggests that the comedy industry has even more time on its hands to practice than the stand-up fraternity after all. Maybe, on reflection, those stand-ups need to spend less time sleeping off their hangovers and more time on the driving range after all. Or maybe they just let us win in the hope of getting better reviews.

21 March 2012 11:02 AM

What? No Michael McIntyre? The Chortle Awards 2012

The comedy website Chortle announced its annual award winners last night at a glittering, clown-studded London event and I have to admit I couldn't have chosen better myself. But then actually I was involved in the choosing, as part of the panel who whittled the massive comedy scene down to a shortlist which readers could then vote for online.

Chortle's winners, voted for by over 13,000 fans, were predominantly not the kind of stand-ups one is used to seeing on panel games or Live at the Apollo. The big names were the kind of comedians who crop up on BBC2, C4  and E4 late at night if on TV at all. In particular Stewart Lee, who won Best DVD Prize and Charlie Brooker, who won his TV Award for his work on 10 O'Clock Live, Screenwipe and Black Mirror. The Chortle Awards is more about comedy dissidents, people who go intelligently against the grain, than people who pack out the O2 Arena.

There is definitely a place for that kind of crowd-pleasing stand-up – and I do also love some of those comedians, I was a big champion of Michael McIntyre in his early days and still enjoy him – but it is clearly not the Chortle Awards. Call it the Comedy Snobs Awards if you like, but if you do think you prefer Peter Kay or Lee Evans check out some of the names below. You might find you also rather like them. Besides, Chortle is not always as pretentious and elitist as me – it nominated Jerry Seinfeld's O2 Arena gig in the Best Tour category and gave its Outstanding Contribution To Comedy Award to John Lloyd, the producer behind QI, Not The Nine O'Clock News and one of the most popular sitcoms of all-time, Blackadder. Who knows, maybe in a few decades one of the obscure names on this list will be the recipient of that prestigious award. Catch them now and show off to your friends that you have your ear to the ground. Of course, you know what happens to people with their ear to the ground? They get run over.

Postcript: As the editor of Chortle Steve Bennett has been generous enough to link to this piece on his website, I should add a final thought. I am, of course, one of the stand-up snobs who devised the shortlist that the public was able to vote for. Who knows? Maybe if we had shortlisted Michael McIntyre he might have been picking up a Chortle Award on Tuesday night rather than Stewart Lee.

Here are the results in full: 

BEST NEWCOMER: Patrick Cahill
 Nominees: Mark Cooper-Jones, Mark Stephenson, Matt Rees

BREAKTHROUGH ACT: Tony Law 
Nominees: Adam Riches, Humphrey Ker, Sam Simmons

CLUB COMIC: Alun Cochrane
 Nominees: Adam Bloom, Dana Alexander, Hal Cruttenden, Michael Fabbri

COMPERE: Susan Calman
 Nominees: Jimmy McGhie, Ray Peacock, Toby Hadoke

CHARACTER OR SKETCH ACT: Idiots of Ants
 Nominees: Adam Riches, Beta Males, Humphrey Ker

VARIETY AND MUSIC AWARD: The Rubberbandits 
Nominees: Kunt & The Gang, La Soiree, New Art Club

BEST SHOW: Tim Key: Masterslut
 Nominees: Bring Me The Head Of Adam Riches, Doug Stanhope, Sam Simmons: Meanwhile

BEST TOUR: Dylan Moran: Yeah, Yeah 
Nominees: Dave Gorman's Powerpoint Presentation, Jerry Seinfeld European tour, Mark Thomas: Walking The Wall, Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies

TV AWARD: Charlie Brooker
 Nominees: Fresh Meat, Sorry I've Got No Head, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

RADIO AWARD: Infinite Monkey Cage 
Nominees: Danny Baker, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Party

INTERNET AWARD:Richard Herring 
Nominees: Business Mouse, Do The Right Thing podcast, Fast Show (Fosters revival)

BEST STAND-UP DVD: Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle Series 2
 Nominees: Dylan Moran: Yeah, Yeah, Greg Davies: Firing Cheeseballs At A Dog, Tim Minchin And The Heritage Orchestra Live At The Albert Hall

VENUE AWARDS:
Comedy Store (London, purpose-built); 99 Club Leicester Square (London club); Komedia Brighton (The South); Komedia Bath (Wales and the West); Glee Birmingham (Midlands and the East); XS Malarkey (The North); The Pleasance (Scotland)

AWARD FOR INNOVATION: Simon Munnery for La Concepta
 Nominees: Sanderson Jones for comedysale.com, Set List, The Wrestling

OFFSTAGE CONTRIBUTION: Mick Perrin

OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO COMEDY: John Lloyd

For more comedy news and gossip follow me on Twitter @brucedes

13 March 2012 9:23 AM

Boothby Graffoe – He Really Should Be More Famous

I went to see Boothby Graffoe last night. He was doing a gig in a school theatre about two minutes from my house so it would have seemed rude not to. Not only that, of course, but Graffoe has always been one of the more interesting clowns on the circuit. He really ought to be more famous. Back in the 1990s he picked up a Perrier Award nomination for a brilliantly inventive show in which he co-starred onstage which a collapsing kitchen. He even had interest from American television, but back then he was maybe a little too, as they say, "out there" for the mainstream. At times he would go so comedically off-piste he made Spike Milligan's surreal flights of fancy seem like Michael McIntyre's man drawer riffs.

In the last few years Graffoe has put straight headlinging stand-up slightly on the back burner to tour with rock band The Barenaked Ladies and to write for Omid Djalili, who he recently supported on his major UK trek. Graffoe now has a new CD out, Bang! Is This Your Vehicle Sir? Wp3d6ce31a_05_06
complete with a gushing press release written by superfan Stewart Lee. Hence this rather more modest UK jaunt in his own right. I might not be quite as influential as Stewart Lee but I also urge any lovers of quirky, intelligent, rug-pulling comedy to catch Graffoe. He has now mellowed a little and tamed the wilder fringes of his humour and is highly recommended. Did I mention that he really ought to be more famous?

Where Billy Connolly went from musician to comedian as the banter in his act grew, it is typical of Graffoe's upside-down approach that he has gone in the other direction. There is still plenty of comedy banter, but it is the strong darkly comic songs that dominate his set. He sings about making meals consisting of dead bodies. He has a lullaby as skewed as Tim Minchin's equally oddball ode to his offspring. To reveal more would spoil the surprise. Comedy songs that work as both comedy and songs are a tough trick to pull off, but Graffoe does it time and time again.

In his mid-gig chats Graffoe has belatedly become political, bemoaning the state of the nation and wondering what the 999 emergency services would be like if they were privatised like everything else – "If you are being attacked press one...". He has some pertinent thoughts about the Olympics too, noting that an East London newspaper genuinely carried a headline about a "much-needed velodrome" being built, as if that will solve the economic problems of Stratford. But it is the songs that make up the bulk of his current shows. Sometimes slow burn, sometimes sharp, all consistently clever.

It is also worth mentioning that Graffoe is an exquisitely subtle guitarist and is joined onstage by the equally excellent musician Nick Pynn. Double acts come in all shapes and sizes and this one is definitely worth catching. Graffoe's laid back style can seem throwaway, but pay attention, there are hidden gems here. Buy the CD or see him on tour even if he is more than a short walk away. It really would be rude not to.

Boothby Graffoe is on tour until 5 May. Details here

Follow Bruce Dessau on Twitter @brucedes

23 February 2012 8:37 AM

Frank Carson Remembered – The Comedian Who Could Not Be Gagged

I interviewed Frank Carson, who has just died, aged 85, backstage at the Blackpool Opera House in the summer of 2008. He was compering a Best of British Variety show featuring the likes of Paul Daniels, the Krankies and Cannon and Ball. Carson was 82 then and not in the best of health due to a heart condition, but still seemed a good decade younger, constantly cracking jokes for me, the other performers or anyone who happened to be passing. Even his health was fair game for a very traditional type of politically unreconstructed humour: "I've just had a pacemaker fitted. Now every morning when I go out there's a Nigerian that runs in front of me.”

It was fascinating to meet this genuine legend who became a household name in the 1970s when he appeared on the ITV series The Comedians. He came up with his catchphrase "It's the way I tell 'em" and it struck a chord because it was true. His fast-paced gag-rate was phenomenonal and he really never stopped.

Some comedians go into their shell offstage, the Belfast banter merchant was the kind of stand-up who was always "on". He could truly joke for Ireland. He had not just kissed the Blarney Stone and been blessed with the gift of the gab, he had taken it home with him. And as he chatted to me he gleefully acknowledged it, quoting a Spike Milligan joke: “What’s the difference between Frank Carson and the M1? You can turn off the M1”

One did not really chat to Frank Carson, one was chatted at. Ask one question and you got his punchline-packed life story, from the tale of starting out in showbiz as a blacked-up 9-year-old minstrel (“do that today and you'd be arrested”) to meeting the Pope. He explained that his favourite modern stand-up was Jack Dee: “But I hate them all because they are young.” After 58 years of marriage his wife was his biggest inspiration: “I gave her a kiss this morning. She jumped out of bed and did a lap of honour.”

There is a story that he once passed Bob Monkhouse on an escalator and in the time Bob said "Hello" Carson had told eight jokes. Meeting him on that sunny afternoon in Blackpool it was easy to believe. In a rare moment of seriousness he told me that “Laughter is an addiction. There is no retirement age for comedians.” He said that he would go on making pacemaker jokes until his pacemaker packed up: “When I fart the garage door opens”.

Follow me on Twitter @brucedes

14 February 2012 12:43 PM

Leicester Is More – The Leicester Comedy Festival

Just back from the Leicester Comedy Festival. It may not have quite the cachet of the Edinburgh Fringe, but it does have one thing in its favour. The train from St Pancras takes barely an hour so Londoners really could have an evening in glamorous Leicester and still be home by midnight. Actually the Leicester Comedy Festival, which started in 1994, has lots going for it. With over 400 shows in just over a fortnight in some great venues it is no surprise there is something for everyone. 2012 highlights have already included Sarah Millican, Greg Davies and Rhod Gilbert among others. Tasty offerings still to come include Chris Addison on Wednesday and Foster's Award nominee Nick Helm on Thursday and Saturday.

My weekend in Leicester was a comedically hectic one. It started out in the Firebug Bar with Paul Sinha, who was doing his acclaimed 2011 Edinburgh show, Looking at the Stars. Sinha is a brilliantly skilled comedian who really ought to be more famous. In fact his show is all about fame and involves various anecdotes concerning James Corden, cricketer Stuart Broad and centres on an unlikely encounter with Jim Davidson. The self-deprecating ex-GP jokes that his greatest claim to fame at the moment is being the UK's 23rd best quizzer. He is a pretty impressive stand-up too.

From there I walked across the city – which took about ten minutes – to visit The Phoenix Square cinema where Comedy in the Dark was taking place. As the title suggests this is stand-up with the lights off. Compere David Morgan playfully suggested that it was basically like listening to comedy on the radio, but it was actually much better than that. There was a thrill when Bournemouth banter merchant Gareth Richards nearly toppled off the blacked-out stage and a tense moment when chatty Irishman Keith Farnan almost kicked over his pint. You don't get that on Radio 4. The gags were good too.

The night was rounded off at Dave's Curry House – named after the Festival sponsors Dave TV. Rob Rouse did a fine job waxing lyrical on the nature of Brazilians and vajazzles between introducing three terrific acts. Germany's comedy ambassador Henning Wehn essayed a wonderful satire on his country's legendary efficiency, timing his set with a stopwatch. Josh Widdicombe's observational gags about life's irritations and the tyranny of tea bag saucers confirmed that he is well on the way to mainstream success. But the surprise hit of the night – and the Festival – was Pat Cahill. This quirky performer has true star quality and bags of originality, mixing physical humour, gimmicks, wordplay and comedy songs. Imagine a cross between Sean Lock and Eddie Izzard and you might be getting somewhere, but nowhere close.

After the consistency of Saturday night, Sunday was interesting but in a different way. The two main shows I saw featured comedians trying out new material. By its very nature they were hit and miss, but it was fun to watch them crash and burn – even if it was painful for the performers themselves. James Dowdeswell, at the Kayal Restaurant, got his audience warmed up with some winning old material based around his geeky, beardy, bespectacled appearance that means he often gets mistaken for a computer expert. He then tried some new material which worked less well, which was a worry to him, as he was planning to do the new stuff at a club in London that night. He promptly announced that he had decided to write some new material on his journey south. I hope he wasn't driving.

Later that evening at the Belmont Hotel Fergus Craig explained that he was not going to to do last year's Edinburgh show or try out new material for this year's Edinburgh. It was not surprising then that his material was on the patchy ad hoc side. But he is great at accents – joking that the Northern Irish accent can sound menacing even when it is being friendly – and did get some laughs out of reading excerpts from the autobiographies of Gazza and Jason Donovan. It was certainly an interesting gig which had an unexpected edge to it when Craig spotted an old drama school contemporary in the crowd who he seemed to have some "history" with. Not the slickest of sets but not dull either.

After that the evening closed with The History Girls, a trio of unashamedly middle class women doing sketches featuring figures from the past. There are a lot of well-spoken sketch groups like this on the Edinburgh Fringe, but here they really stood out. The idea of a rapping Boudicca might not be that original but it was certainly delivered with total commitment. There was also a Napoleon/Nelson sketch involving a megaphone and a lot of awkward handshakes that had an unexpected Marx Brothers slapstick spirit. Some great knockabout humour from a threesome who aren't afraid to make fools of themselves. Perhaps a little too much Miranda Hart influence, but that may work to their advantage. And best of all, I was given a free croissant  – that was my snack for the train back to London sorted.

Follow me on Twitter @brucedes

The Leicester Comedy Festival runs until 19th February.

24 January 2012 10:18 AM

Audience Participation: When the fan gets in on the act...

I couldn't help smiling when I heard that the former editor of The Evening Standard, Sir Max Hastings, was made to take part in a spot of audience participation during a recent performance of One Man, Two Guvnors. Hastings, seated in the front row, was plucked out and asked to help to lift a heavy trunk, all the while being mocked by the star James Corden. Great fun for Corden, great fun for the rest of the audience, but Hastings hated every second of the experience.

One of the reasons I smiled, of course, was out of relief that it was someone else and not me. At comedy gigs being selected for verbal and sometimes even physical mockery, is an occupational hazard. Critics are traditionally given aisle seats, a throwback to when they all had to leave promptly to file their overnight copy (the Standard is one of the few papers that still does this) but if I think there is a chance of being pounced upon I always opt for a safer seat in the middle of the row.

If I was on a psychiatrist's couch I might suggest this all goes back to one incident about fifteen years ago when Armando Iannucci and David Schneider were doing a gig and got me up onstage to join them spinning some plates. Except there were no plates and I had to mime the action, swivelling my hips with my hands above my head. Others were asked to do the same thing and seemed to enjoy the attention, I, like Mr Hastings, squirmed through every second of it. I guess that is why I'm a critic and not a performer.

Other punters, however, have suffered even worse fates. Confrontational clown Dr Brown has been known to throw things at fans, steal their food and drink and, in one show, get a (male) fan to take their shirt off so that he could smear suntan lotion all over his torso. Al Murray's Pub Landlord regularly tips lager over his front row. On reflection maybe I had a lucky escape.

This phenomenon seems to be a trend. Three of the shows nominated for the Foster's Comedy Award in Edinburgh last summer involved contributions from ticket-buyers. On the night I saw him, Aussie surrealist Sam Simmons tried to eject a fan from his show just for fun, while Nick Helm spent a portion of his brilliant show spooning a (male) fan on the floor. It is interesting to note that it tends to be men who get selected. In the above examples the mood might have been very different if a woman was the subject of the performer's attentions.

As for Adam Riches, who won the 2011 Fosters Award and transfers to the Soho Theatre next month, there is a school of thought that suggests he should share his prize money with the amateur participants variously kissed, pushed around and embarrassed, and who helped to make the show such a hit. Of course, if you weren't picked out it was a fantastic experience, but it was still a nervous one, as you spent the hour laughing but avoiding eye contact with Riches. This is the true meaning of schadenfreude – taking pleasure at the failure of others to avoid being made a figure of fun.

Audience participation is clearly here to stay. And it also looks as if fear of it runs in my family. Whenever my daughter comes to stand up shows with me her first question is always "will there be AP?" I'm afraid it looks like there will be a lot more AP in the future. And judging from the kind of AP one gets in stand-up comedy Sir Max Hastings actually had a lucky excape.

Follow me on twitter @brucedes

28 August 2011 12:47 PM

The Fringe on the Green – Edinburgh Golf

As the Edinburgh Fringe Festival draws to a close I've been thinking about my highlights here. One of the best days involved comedy but also high drama as a team of comedians took on a team of Industry bods and critics in the second Comedians v Industry Golf Tournament. One of the participants the last time this took place in 2007 was MacKenzie Taylor, who sadly died last year, so the tournament was played as a tribute to him.

We all assembled at Linlithgow's immaculate Kingsfield Golf Club first thing last Tuesday morning. The draw was made and I was paired with Sun writer Tommy Holgate against stand-ups Carl Donnelly and Chris Martin. The likes of Fred MacAulay, Alex Horne, Tom Price and Stewart Francis followed, against industry bigwigs including promoters/producers Mick Perrin and Tim Payne.

The rain did us a favour and stayed away, while the club did everything to accommodate us. I was lent a bag of shiny Taylor Made clubs which put my rubbish set back in London in the shade. The nine-hole course was in perfect condition. The fairways were smoother than some of the greens I've putted on in the capital over the years.

But it was also an exciting, challenging course, perfect for aggressive match play. To keep things interesting everyone would drive off the tee and then each team would alternate strokes on the best drive. Tommy Holgate had been a team captain in Nottingham in his teens and as he whacked his first drive out of sight it was easy to see why. The hole was duly conceded without us even having to putt.

This was surely going to be a doddle for the industry. But that was not taking into account my feeble iron shots. I came a particularly cropper on the fifth hole, which involved driving over a burn not once, but twice. When it came to my  attempt I totally fluffed it. Luckily my iron was so bad it did not even reach the water. Tommy Holgate then channelled his inner Ballesteros and played a miracle shot, hitting the water, skimming off it and onto the edge of the green.

Carl Donnelly was very good too – he says he played a lot as a teenager until he discovered fags, booze and women – and Chris Martin was also useful. Our game swung backwards and forwards until we got to two holes before the end and the comedians were two up with two to play. Somehow, thanks to the quality clubs and a bit of luck, I managed to land my team's ball on the penultimate green in two, while Donnelly and Martin were stuck in the rough. It was back to one up with one to play as we reached the last hole.

I'd like to say I halved the game with an inspired putt across the length of the green but to be honest the pressure was off by then, as Chris and Carl had got firmly lodged in a bunker. By the time they were out I could have hit my putt all the way to Leith and we would have probably won the hole thanks to Tommy's brilliance, so our match was halved.

As the rest of the games concluded the final result could have gone either way too. But I hate to say it, the comedians came out on top, winning two of the four matches. Organiser Richard Bucknall added up the strokes too (I suspect to see if he could swing a victory for the industry that way instead) but the comedians finished ahead on strokes too, 177 to 182,

It was all great fun though. Like the best golf tournaments played competitively but in good spirits. Thanks to Richard for organising what should now become an annual event. And thanks to Kingsfield for allowing a bunch of jokers to invade your lovely course. It may turn out to have been an expensive day for me though. After borrowing those pristine clubs which helped me to play the game of my life I think I'm going to have to invest in a new set for myself.

24 August 2011 3:00 PM

The Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award Shortlist



Not a lot of surprises on this year's Foster's Comedy Award shortlist of – this is the order of the names popping into my head right now – Andrew Maxwell, Josie Long, Nick Helm, Adam Riches, Chris Ramsey and Sam Simmons. But it is a very strong list in a year that is consistently great if not classic. Shame there was no Bo Burnham or Daniel Kitson, but as Arthur Askey once said, every generation throws up a few geniuses and a lot of crap.

I guess the only wildcard there is Australia's Sam Simmons. And he really is a wildcard, a comedian who uses his performances as a kind of primal therapy, laying his personal life, thoughts and feelings bare onstage. Chris Ramsey would have also been a surprise if I hadn't seen his show on Sunday night. He's a new name to me, but the 25-year-old from South Shields has the comedic chops of someone much older. His influences are a little too apparent – Russells Kane and Howard in particular – but if you are going to be influenced why not choose the best influences?

Nick Helm and Adam Riches were the two acts I'd been expecting to do well this year. I haven't heard a bad word said about them all Festival. One person said they preferred Helm's debut last year, but then they thought that was the best show they'd ever seen, so it was always going to take some beating. It's interesting that both of those shows are very full-on when it comes to audience participation. I usually advise shy retiring types to lurk in the back row, but I'm not even sure you are safe in the back row when Helm and Riches are on the rampage.

On the night I saw Riches he got a man up onstage and then sent him outside on the pretext collecting a bottle of wine. Once he was gone Riches wrenched the man's wife's arm so hard to get her onstage I thought it was going to come out of its socket. Helm, meanwhile, doesn't invite people onto the stage either, he terrorises them into joining him. It takes a certain skill to get people to chip in and I've often wondered what would happen if Helm or Riches tried their technique on someone who didn't want to play ball. But they both have such an instinctive feel for the right person that I guess it rarely happens. i also wonder whether their full-on, turbo-thruster style would work in a big theatre – never mind the O2 Arena – but let's cross that bridge later. In their tiny whites-of-the-eyeballs Edinburgh venues they are mesmerising.

Until last night I'd have said that Helm was the favourite for the award by a whisker, but then I saw Josie Long and Andrew Maxwell back-to-back. Both have been nominated before, both have gone through periods of disillusionment with the Fringe and both have come back stronger. And most interestingly, both have delivered highly charged political shows. Josie Long's tirade against the Tories is not a massive surprise as last year's show was all about her belated political awakening, but in this show there is much more focus to her anger.

The book-loving, countryside-loving comedian seems to have taken the cuts personally as she has seen libraries closed and trees privatiesed ("How do you privatise a tree?" she asks, which suddenly sounds like a fair question). Long is furious, but furious with a smile. It's a great show and very focussed on current affairs, where last year still drifted into eccentric whimsy and photographs of Americans obsessed with their breakfasts. I think she really had a good chance of winning the award this year.

But then so does Andrew Maxwell. Having been on the panel myself I know that there is always a wariness about nominating someone for a second time. There's always a danger of it feeling like a long service medal. Maxwell came very close to being nominated a number of times and then picked up his first nomination in 2007.

Maxwell has always been good, but this year's show is a bit of a minor revelation. There is less ageing stoner humour, more considered gagsmithery about the state of the nation. He has become his very own rapid-response answer to the riots, commenting on the possibility that the government might send in the troops by reminding the audience what happened when the government sent the troops into Ireland. "That's just what we need now, a black IRA." Sure, he can be over the top at times, but he does it with style and grace, taking occasional sips out of something from an onstage drinks cabinet that looks like a gypsy caravan.

So who will the winner be? Your guess is as good as mine, but here I go. Maxwell deserves it for doing his best and most relevant show yet, Long deserves it for her sheer passion and belief. Helm deserves it for simply being the freshest new talent to emerge in recent years. Riches deserves it for being a sheer force of nature – and because he was in the running a few years ago until he broke his leg by slipping on some probiotic yoghurt. Simmons deserves it for being different to everybody else and Ramsey deserves it for delivering one of the most heartwarming endings to a Fringe show in years.

So, my verdict? You couldn't get a cigarette paper between them. Although I'd love to be on the panel this year I also don't envy the judges when they convene on Saturday morning to do the final countdown. All are deserving winners. They might as well toss a coin. Or can we call it a six-way draw please?

21 August 2011 5:36 PM

The Edinburgh Fringe – The Rest of the Best of the Fest

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Two weeks into the Fringe and I've got a large pile of used tickets and a blister. I've also got a large pile of notes written on separate pieces of paper. I know journalists are supposed to carry notebooks wherever they go, but let me explain. I used to be one of those journalists who carried a notebook wherever they went, but a couple of years ago I left an almost full notebook in the Pleasance Courtyard. Like a nervous spy I was terrified it would fall into enemy hands. Richard Herring might finally find out what I really thought of him. Amazingly I went to the box office the following day and it had been handed in. Someone had clearly read it because a note was stuck on the front: "Looks like some kind of journalist." If I ever write my autobiography that would make a good title. Some kind of journalist.

Anyway, there is not enough room in the paper to review all the shows I've seen so I wanted to do a whirlwind write-up of the rest. Some deserve more space, of course, and, hopefully when they transfer to London I will expand on what I've written. Some, however, I may not mention. Please don't take it personally. It probably either means you don't follow me on Twitter so I'm sulking, have forgotten I saw you (let me know if this is the case and I'll try to rectify the situation) or I left my notes in the theatre. In fact I saw a great show at the Underbelly yesterday afternoon, John Osborne's John Peel's Shed, and did just that. By a bizarre coincidence I found myself booked into the same room at the end of the evening to see a double act, Dregs, and when I arrived there was only one seat left. It was the same seat I'd sat in earlier and sure enough my notes were still there on the floor. Coincidences like that do tend to happen on the Fringe. I heartily recommend John Peel's Shed. It is a gentle tale of one man's passion for obscure music and the radio which has been compared to the work of Daniel Kitson (who was in the audience for the same performance, checking out the competition). It is not as good as Kitson, but then few storytellers are. As for Dregs, they are asking for trouble with a name like that, but they were nowhere near as bad as expected. They've got a weird older guy who looks like Kevin Eldon's dad as their stooge and they've got a pretty rib-tickling oddball finish. Catch them in a few years and the rest of the show might be pretty rib-tickling too.

Another show left its mark for the wrong reason. On a horrible wet day I went to see Josh Howie at The Stand. There were seven people in the audience and only two had paid. Howie noticed me and I thought of offering to move to the very back of the room so that he couldn't see me scribbling, but I thought that might make things worse. They got worse anyway. The two people who had paid were a Scottish long-term married couple who did not get Howie's north London neurotic schtick. The concept of the show was Howie trying to establish that he might be a dick but at least he wasn't an arsehole. The theory was promptly torpedoed by Mrs Scottish when she said that dick was worse than arsehole. Howie never quite recovered from this, though it might be harsh to criticise him for being self-obsessed as that comes with the stand-up comedy job description. There were a few droll lines, but the show seemed to rely too much on his obsession with posteriors. A little too bottom-heavy.

Just browsing through my ticket stubs there are lots of shows that have had their moments, but didn't quite have that Fringe X Factor. When I first saw Henry Paker a few years ago he reminded me of Leonard Rossiter. Then he seemed to be developing a surreal side and turning into Harry Hill. Now he has found his voice. Well, actually he has found another voice. In Cabin Fever Paker seems to be turning into Eddie Izzard, complete with ums, aahs and lengthy digressions. When I came out of the gig I was standing by the wall saying this to a friend and when I turned the corner Paker was there having a crafty fag, so he probably knows what I think already. He has a lot of promise and I shall definitely be seeing him again next year. Mainly to see if he has morphed into Ross Noble.

Of the big shows I've enjoyed, Tim Vine's Chat Show stood out. The master of the one-liner has always needed something to break up the sheer relentless of his belly laughs and he has found the perfect method here – intersperse them with bits that aren't funny. I'm not saying this show is low budget, but the guests are members of the audience who have paid to be there. On the day I was in a couple of punters were actually amusing while one had such a thick Scottish accent he may have been funnier than Tim Vine but I couldn't tell. I'd also highly recommend Dave Gorman, who is back to doing what he does best – powerpoint presentations. There is no overarching high concept or quest this year, just wall-to-wall jokes. I'll be saying more about Gorman when he hauls his video screen to London in the autumn.

Oh look, here's a theatre ticket. Blind Summit do great things with puppets but their latest show, The Table, is definitely not for children. It is not particularly rude, it just deals with adult issues of existentialism and the abyss of nothingness that we all face in the end. Not exactly Peppa Pig. But as I said, it is very funny and the main puppet, with his big head,  hesitations and deliberations made me thing of Tommy Cooper. The puppeteers also do a great trick with picture frames and tell an entire movie in a few minutes with the aid of pictures on card. Still on the puppet front another piece of inspired lunacy came from Australia's Sammy J. His shows are always great and Rickett's Lane has already won an Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Sammy J stars alongside a purple puppet called Randy and despite the fact that Randy has no features apart from eyes and a mouth the puppetry is so slick and quick – respect to Heath McIvor under the table – you almost forget he is not human. Even when Sammy J squashes his face together so that it is the size of a cricket ball. One of the most side-splitting hours of uncomplicated fun on the Fringe.

Another show that was great but wasn't exactly comedy was the immensely amiable beatboxing maestro Shlomo's Mouthtronica. This is a man that can do things with his mouth that defy logic. Computer samples and loops help, but give this man a microphone and he could put whole bands on the dole. It was also a perverse pleasure to see middle-aged men standing up and dancing to his D-I-Y dubstep. Not me, of course, I was the coolest guy in the room, hiding at the back taking my notes while Shlomo rattled off his notes onstage.

I also loved Isy Suttie's show Pearl and Dave, a tale of two soulmates rediscovering each other years later via Facebook, juxtaposed with Suttie's musing on her own relationship history. It's a lovely, warm, intimate show but with its songs and narrative it feels a little like a work-in-progress for a musical she would like to write. I've said it before and other critics are saying it now, wit her quirky songs and penchant for the eccentric underdog, Suttie is like a young Victoria Wood, which is no bad thing at all. She used to do a very good routine featuring Amy Winehouse stuck down a well. Not tasteless, just odd, but she probably won't be doing that one in the future.

To be continued.....

Part Two...

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Alex Horne always sets himself huge challenges when he does an Edinburgh show and he has surpassed himself this year by cramming an entire lifetime into an hour for 7 Years in the Bathroom. In fact it is may be too much of a challenge. He has to cram so many ideas in – apparently we spend 7 years of our life doing what the title says, for instance – that some gags get lost in the mix. But along the way he strips off (close your eyes), has his portrait painted and gets married. And he also cooks and eats an entire microwaved Rustler burger in front of a live audience. Now that really is an achievement. By the way, Horne's old mucker Tim Key, who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2009, also has a brilliant new show in the same room later in the evening. I'll be saying more about Masterslut later in the week and when it comes to London later in the year. Needless to say it's a hot ticket. The spoof poet with knobs on is easily making one of this year's biggest splashes.

Another comedian who is partial to a highish concept is Richard Herring. His latest show, What Is Love Anyway? explores the nature of love and was prompted by a remark suggesting that a belief in love is just as irrational as a belief in God. Like Alex Horne but without the gimmicks or burgers, Herring also squeezes a lot into his hour. So much so that he sometimes gets breathless and can make it hard for the audience to keep up. But it is worth the effort. There are some inspired callbacks here and proceedings build to a climax that is comic, moving and, for me, surprising (being a fan of his daily blog I could see some gags coming, but not all of them). If this isn't Herring's best show yet that's only because his show a couple of years ago was magnificent and set a very high benchmark. But as that one isn't on go and see What Is Love Anyway? Don't be put off by the rather naff heart surgery poster – I presume it's ironic but I'm not absolutely sure...

Herring has beeen coming to Edinburgh for well over two decades now, but he is no showbiz veteran compared to Paul Daniels, who is doing a show in a lecture theatre at the Assembly Rooms. It feels like a bit of an odd career move for the former TV superstar, but maybe it is a canny attempt to get some credibility and a younger following and it is certainly a jolly show that should appeal to all ages. As one would expect the magic tricks are excellent, but I have to add that Daniels was the first performer I saw who made a topical gag about the riots, commenting than in American cop shows veteran police officers say "have you been in 'Nam?" Maybe soon they will be doing it in English crime dramas too – "Have you been in 'Nam? Tottenham?"

Terry Alderton is another veteran, albeit not of the same vintage as Paul Daniels. Alderton was nominated for a Perrier Award in the nineties, landed a mainstream job presenting the Lottery Show then disappeared back into the clubs. In recent years he has re-emerged with a distinctive act which involves turning his back on his audience and talking to his invisible alter ego. It can be disturbing, scary and inventive, but on the night I was in it did not quite come alive. And most of his act did not seem that different from his nineties set. No Chris Eubank impression, maybe, but his rave dancing felt familiar and a lot of his audience interaction would have worked as well on a stag night as a Fringe show. His miming to an old Hazel O'Connor hit – you can probably guess the one  – was a little too similar to Lee Evans' Bohemian Rhapsody routine for me, but the audience loved it. A true crowdpleaser, but in a full-length show not quite as reinvented as I'd hoped.

Sometimes comedy is simply subjective. You love something while others hate it. I suspect Shooting Stars scorer Angelos Epithemiou divides the nation, but his fans at the Pleasance could not get enough of him. I don't know which came first, Angelos having a Vic & Bob sensibility and thus landing the job or landing the job and developing a Vic & Bob sensibility, but his show was very much in their spirt, from the cheap props to the beyond surreal humour. I can't say what's waggish about the priceless way he hits the bongos or does his DJ interlude, it is just stupidly waggish. And as for the end in which he mimes to an old Sweet hit, it is everything that Terry Alderton's Hazel O'Connor send-up isn't – disturbing and hilarious at precisely the same time.

Another occasionally disturbing act that has divided the critics is female duo Toby. They are real-life sisters with an onstage rivalry that maybe has its seed in a genuine sibling clash (particularly judging by the home movie footage towards the end). One wants to be a star and plays an egomaniacal character who is clearly unstable, the other plays the more balanced half of the act pushed into the shadows. The sketches aren't always great and the very dark ending does not quite work, but there's a creative energy and inventive spirit here that suggests great things. I also have a soft spot for them because when I arrived at the venue I wasn't sure if I was in the right place and I was able to say to the usher "Toby or not Toby? That is the question."

The sketch shows this year are definitely a mixed bag. Bad Bread, for instance, are three men who are so young they resemble a sperm and two embryos. They've got bags of gusto but not quite as many new ideas. One sketch in which they play three characters of varying ages talking about their respective lives was clever but to me was very derivative of the old John Cleese/Ronnie Barker/Ronnie Corbett "I know my place" sketch. As I wondered if they'd ever seen this they did another sketch which literally was an update/homage to the Cleese/Barker/Corbett classic. Nice to see they know their comedy past, now they have to work out their comedy future.

Fringe regulars Pappy's are absent this year, but bearded Matthew Crosby – forget my quote he is using on the poster that compares him to Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, these days he looks more like a boyish Rolf Harris – is making his solo debut with a cuddly little set, Adventure Party, that is both similar in style to Pappy's and very different. At one early point I feared that it was going to consist of sketches that maybe Pappy's had rejected, but then it quickly got very good indeed as Crosby discussed growing up in Bromley, showed us some hideous old photos of himself and explored the differences between being a nerd and a geek. He also made great use of visuals and had a great quick-witted rapport with his audience. He also had a lovely Nando's story, but blotted his copy book a little for me by admitting that the story didn't have a strong pay-off.  A memorable solo debut that shows that he's either the McCartney or Lennon of Pappy's – probably McCartney, given his innate niceness – and certainly not Ringo. Incidentally Holly Walsh – super show, will hopefully say more later this week – also has a Nando's gag and her set, Hollycopter in the same Pleasance Cellar. Maybe they should rename it The Nando's Room.

I expected great things from Brett Goldstein Grew Up in a Strip Club and was impressed, but also a bit disappointed. This is the true story of how the 21-year-old Goldstein found himself running a strip club in Marbella bought by his dad and a friend when they were having a midlife crisis. For a nice lad who had studied feminism this all came as a bit of a shock and when criminals appeared on the scene it was even more shocking. Early in the show he says this experience was going to be his Stand By Me rite of passage, but it soon started to resemble a scene from Scarface. I'd been told the show was powerful, but I actually think he pulled his punches. Some lovely turns of phrase, but somehow you could see how things were going to progress. It needed more of a twist. Maybe his dad coming on at the end as Des Bishop's dad did in last year's show.

Meryl O'Rourke's show is called Bad Mother and I assumed she was describing herself, but she was also describing her own mum, who arrived as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. There aren't a huge number of giggles in this show but it is a fascinating story. Particularly the way her mother was hideously over-protective and controlling and dragged her teenage daughter on celebrity-spotting trips. The result of this was a meeting with actor Neil Pearson that has a curious echo of a story Richard Herring tells about Julia Sawalha in his show. O'Rourke's show started slowly – 2.45pm is probably not the best slot for Holocaust gags – but by the time it ended I could have done with some more. Not for anyone expecting a Michael McIntyre gagfest, but a journey worth sticking with.

Stuart Goldsmith is currently on ITV1's stand-up search Show Me The Funny and if he survives this week's show he makes it onto the final. You only see small clips of him on ITV1 so his one hour set gives a much better sense of his potential. As a comedian with  good looks, slick delivery and an affable, self-mocking OCD-ish persona he sure has plenty of potential. Like O'Rourke's set Goldsmith's show is also about neurosis, in this case how he is paranoid about being involved in a crisis and what he would do if he was in one. There is a nice arc to his story and lots of llustrative detail and banter with the audience. He talks at length about being a compulsive worrier – he recalls one dilemma about buying a mallet that actually reduced him to tears – but with his talent I don't know what he has to worry about.

With so many character comedians, sketch groups and downright weird, in-yer-face shows (my two top tips are the utterly full-on Nick Helm and Adam Riches) Josh Widdecombe's straightforward stand-up show on life's little – and big – irritations felt like a veritable palate-cleansing sorbet. Good, smart, clean fun, plus a witty Laser Quest routine.

And so there is a round-up of nearly all the shows I've seen that haven't been reviewed in their own right. I'll be mopping up the rest by the end of this week. It's a funny Fringe indeed and one that is full of coincidences. Two of the shows I saw today – from Meryl O'Rourke and the hotly-tipped uber-slick sketch group Idiots of Ants – referred to genital blood blisters. Typical. You wait ages for a gag about genital blood blisters and then two come along on the same day...

My blister that I mentioned at the start, in case you'd forgotten, is on my foot.

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