"How are you? Have you enjoyed yourself?" - "I've no idea." It sounds like either a joke response or a remarkable unwillingness to commit, but for me it's the truth. Over the past three and a half weeks, mostly on the Edinburgh Fringe (which ended yesterday) but including a handful of events in the International Festival (which continues until Saturday), I have seen over 120 shows. Often, at the end of a six- or seven-show day, I'd have to check my notes to remind myself what I had seen mere hours earlier. I'm fortunate that this regimen wasn't disrupted by anything inconvenient such as my having a life.
Most of this year's marathon some 70 shows has been due to my serving on the panel of the 2005 Perrier Comedy Awards. Between us, the ten panellists and a couple of scouts saw over 250 eligible offerings, with pretty much everyone checking out each show on the "longlist", and then re-viewing most of the entries on the final shortlist a second time for consistency of performance. This can lead to radical re-evaluation: on first viewing smart stand-up Chris Addison's show was my favourite, but second time around his appealing warmth seemed to me to be just a skilfully deployed mannerism, and he was so consistent and precise as to prove off-putting.
The judging process is mighty conscientious and assiduously planned. But that, of course, didn't stop the news stories when the award shortlists were announced last Wednesday. Once again, apparently, we were indulging an unrepresentative taste for sketch and character comedy and high-concept shows over straightforward stand-up. Well, tosh. The criteria applied were as follows: the best of the eligible shows we saw this year... and, as I say, we saw them all. Candidates who had figured strongly in media speculation, such as Andrew Maxwell or the sketch show Penny Spubb's Party, simply didn't make the cut on quality grounds. There was certainly no collective party line: voting took place after lengthy debate, by secret ballot in a process recommended (I'm not joking) by the Electoral Reform Society. I think many of us on the panel were ourselves surprised by the results of the shortlist votes, but undeniably they reflected our individual and collective judgements.
The shortlist for the main award included two newcomers (defined as performers doing their first full Fringe show in their own right), Mancunian banter merchant Jason Manford with a show about urban legends and character comedian Laura Solon with the bizarrely-titled Kopfraper's Syndrome, as well as Addison (for the second year running), playful sketch group the Dutch Elm Conservatoire and Justin Edwards' masterly creation, drunken children's entertainer Jeremy Lion. In the Best Newcomer category, the nominees were Australian stand-up Charlie Pickering, his piano-tinkling compatriot Tim Minchin, lugubrious Welsh surrealist Rhod Gilbert, faux-Welsh master of digression and audience rapport Mark Watson (who earlier this month had staged a world record-breaking 2005-minute-long show), and the mock-TV news sketch show of double act Toulson & Harvey. The lists were indeed unusual, but when one paper's comedy critic sniffed that out of the 30 comedy shows he had seen, only one had made it onto either shortlist, I couldn't help thinking that reflected less on our evaluation than on his culpably lightweight approach to Fringe comedy.
Spreading panel viewings over a number of performances is essential. Last Thursday night, for instance, a combination of nerves and an unhelpful audience meant that Watson's show flopped; the following night, perhaps with a gung-ho feeling of "one last push", he went down a storm. And in the judging panel's final debate, he ah, but of course I can't reveal any of that. It's like a conclave of cardinals... with the exception that at least the cardinals find out who it is that they've elected Pope. I swear that not even we knew the results of our Saturday evening votes until the announcement that midnight at the Perrier party: the award's indefatigable director Nica Burns, having totted up the votes, would announce, "We have a winner," and the meeting would move on. Obviously we had our hunches as the lists were winnowed down to two or three candidates, but the actual results were in that respect leakproof.
The panel also adheres to the doctrine of collective responsibility more strongly than any Cabinet of recent years: the convention is that one owns one's own opinion but takes a vow of omertà regarding others' and the panel as a whole. Therefore, I'm free to say that the winner of the Best Newcomer award, Tim Minchin, gets up my nose like a little finger, being a good audience-worker and an extremely skilful pianist but a sub-Richard Stilgoe writer of comedy ditties that veer more naturally towards the florid and sentimental than to the Darkside of his show's title. His future lies more in cabaret than comedy, as he well knows. Conversely, I'm delighted that the main award went to Laura Solon. Her show's impenetrable title is the legacy of a planned double-act which disintegrated after the Fringe programme had been printed, leaving Solon to come up with a solo show in a matter of weeks. That in itself was an achievement, but the award was decided on quality alone. Her series of character sketches (including an Australian woman who believes herself possessed by the spirit of Princess Diana, an Andrew Lloyd Webber anorak and an asocial Bristolian on a coach tour of Europe "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's Madrid") are sharp, filler-free and contain gorgeous depth-charges of bad taste.
This is the third year in a row that a newcomer has also taken the main Perrier award (Solon's predecessors were Will Adamsdale last year and Demetri Martin in 2003). Burns is keen to re-examine all aspects of the Perriers after this 25th year. Suggestions have included a "senior-level" award and a number of more specific categories. I'm against both: I don't think the "seniors" need the extra recognition, and too much compartmentalising would lead to awards which sound as absurd as that won by one of Solon's characters, a "Judith" rosette for planning the best celebrity or celebrity-attended themed wedding in the South Yorkshire area. I do, however, think that these live comedy awards could do with some panel representation from the live comedy sector: this year's judging committee was composed of two journalists, three informed and committed winners of public competitions, and five broadcasting executives.
And at the end of it all, two acts will hopefully go on to glory (deserved in at least one case), a handful of others will be given a fillip by dint of having been nominated, and I... have I enjoyed myself? How am I? I've no idea; ask me after I've spent several days lying down in a darkened room, instead of sitting in a succession of them.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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