Not even Jonathan Ross and Jack Whitehall can make the British Comedy Awards 2014 funny

In its 25th year, and with enough big name comedians to fill the bill at the Edinburgh Fringe present, the television awards show fell a bit flat

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The Independent Culture

The British Comedy Awards turned 25 this week. Twenty five years of gongs, gaffes and riotous, lightly embittered backslapping.

A pre-show montage showed a glorious quarter of a century of victors – Dee, Izzard, Coogan, French, Gervais & Merchant, Lucas & Walliams, Norton, Baron Cohen, both Brands, Mack, Millican and Miranda, to name only a few. Here was a parade of discombobulated speeches and debauchery, a bleary Chris Evans picking up his award in a tracksuit and Julian Clary talking about fisting Norman Lamont.

This year, by contrast, the most controversial moment was when Brendan O’Carroll, creator of Mrs Brown’s Boys won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award. You can’t argue with 12 million viewers, even if the silence on the night was icy. Other than that, shocks were confined to one winner (Best Breakthrough Artist, Nick Helm) being a bit rude about another (Best Comedy Drama, Rev) and the event sponsors LIDL handing out Orangina, not pinot grigio on arrival.

The British Comedy Awards is an institution, the moment in the year when the industry gets together, looks back and celebrates 12 months of funny television. It’s the Baftas for laughs and for all its jester stage-set and larks, it is a serious business. I sat on the jury this year, with a wide-ranging group of journalists, producers, writers, commissioners and comedians, and was struck by the quality of and care taken over the debates.

I was even more impressed by the breadth and quality of the shows and films I had to judge. Every category was crammed with worthy winners. Chris O’Dowd’s lovely Moone Boy (highly recommended for a Christmas box-set) won Best Sitcom in the stellar field of Toast of London, The Trip to Italy and House of Fools. Zesty newcomer Aisling Bea took the crown for best female television comic, with Nina Conti, Bridget Christie and Isy Suttie the impressive trio of runners-up.

The talent was there in abundance, but this year the awards fell a bit flat. It was pre-recorded rather than live, which removed some of the frisson, and it did not help that of the 18 winners, around half were not present. Four of Monty Python didn’t even make it to the video link to pick up their Lifetime Achievement Award. Not lucrative enough, perhaps. Jonathan Ross’ shock-by-numbers opening monologue barely raised a giggle. The various celebrity guests – Tulisa, Dynamo, Gogglebox’s Steph and Dom – fared little better. The best presenters, unsurprisingly, were the stand-ups, who know how to make audiences laugh without an autocue.

There will always be quibbling over the winners – I was sorry to see the relentlessly innovative Inside No 9 go unrewarded - that's part of the bittersweet pleasure of awards shows. Regular podium-botherers like Jack Whitehall, Graham Norton and Lee Mack will always draw bile but the shortlists were bursting with variety and newcomers; a new award for “Best Internet Comedy Short” this year suggests a scene that is changing with the times.

Nevertheless, Ross warned the crowd on Tuesday night that “there might not be a next year.” Channel 4 are rumoured to be dropping the awards next year so unless they return to ITV, they could disappear from terrestrial for good. Sky might pick them up, given the cash it is currently pouring into television comedy, but a satellite-only awards would be a shame for this most mainstream of art-forms. The British Comedy Awards illustrates how much talent there is to celebrate, it now needs a showcase that makes people laugh and that it can be proud of, for the next 25 years.

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