The cutting edge of British comedy

The Perrier Awards will be announced this week. As the judges compile their shortlist, some of Britain's best comedy experts name their favourite new talent

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The Independent Culture


This year, according to the judges, the prestigious Perrier Award is one of the most open in the event's 24-year history with a wave of new and, as yet, undiscovered faces on the circuit.

The panel of 10 judges, who will announce the shortlist on Wednesday,have been impressed by the wealth of talent at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and say it promises to be one of its "most exciting" contests.

While there are some fresh faces whose originality has stood out - from the camp humour of Alan Carr to the quirky performances of Rhod Gilbert and Tim Minchin - there is no "hot favourite".

Speaking to The Independent, the judges denied suggestions they had branded the majority of acts at Edinburgh as "bland" and lacking in talent.

John Pidgeon, the panel's chair and Head of BBC Radio Entertainment, said new talent was always easier to judge in hindsight and that he had no doubt this year's festival contained stars in the making.

"I was on the panel in 1999 when the Mighty Boosh and Ross Noble were nominated and I didn't know that that was a vintage year. This year is exciting because it's so wide open. There's no obvious front runner," he said.

Graham Smith, the commissioning editor of comedy at Five, who is also sitting on the panel, was convinced it was one of the most exciting years of the prizes' history.

"2005 is one of the most exciting years of the Perrier because of the sheer range and variety of shows. This year will throw up a number of new stars."

Ruby Kuraishe, a judge and the editor of factual entertainment at Channel Four, said she had sat through some good, some bad, but many very funny shows and that the shortlist would be "a tough call".

The festival this year has seen several Muslim comedians on stage, as well as performers such as Andrew Maxwell who have basing entire sets around the 7 July bombings in London.

James Taylor, from Avalon management, which looks after previous Perrier award winners such as Frank Skinner, Jenny Eclair, Al Murray and Garth Marenghi, was convinced that there was just as much talent at the festival as any other year.

"I'm sure there are as much rubbish shows as there are every year but there are also a great number of brilliant shows," he said.

Mr Taylor felt that the award rewarded progressive rather than mainstream acts.

"The nature of the Perrier Award is that it looks for a certain sort of winner and a certain type of comedy show that is progressive and worthy and funny, probably in that order. This inevitably means there is a huge wealth of mainstream shows that are not perceived as cool enough to be considered for the shortlist. So they do not look at the whole, broad spectrum," he said.

He was critical of the "uneven" judging panel, half of which is comprised of senior broadcasting figures.

The prize was created by the sponsors in 1981, and it has become the most coveted of all comedy accolades. Awarded to the best comedy show on at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the winner has traditionally been courted by TV producers and it has frequently provided a springboard to national fame.

Previous Perrier Award winners who went on to become household names include Emma Thompson, Lee Evans and Steve Coogan.

Meanwhile, several of Scotland's comedy promoters have called for the award to be replaced by a series of bursaries, which will be designed to help amateur comedians enter the professional circuit. The promoters suggested that the accolade had "lost its fizz" and now only created divisiveness.

The Perrier Award 2005 winner will be announced on Saturday.

Ayesha Hazarika, Comedian: Winner of the Young Achiever Award 2005 at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2005 and semi-finalist in the BBC New Comedy Awards in 2003

I saw Daniel Kitson and I was completely blown away. I have seen him doing traditional stand-up and I've also seen him doing a more whimsical theatre-based story-telling show called Tales for the Wobbly Hearted. It's the best thing I've seen in the festival. It was gentle and poignant and I found parts so moving I wanted to cry but it was also really funny. The comedy scene is amazingly vibrant. The comedy is more political these days but different from the political comedy of the 1980s which was all about domestic issues such as unemployment and the miners' strike. The comedy we see now is more global in its politics. It's big-picture stuff.

Jeremy Hardy, Comedian

I like people that are a bit weird, and John Oliver fits the bill. I first saw him last year and he made me laugh a lot more than most other comedians do. John rambles through his act, covering a variety of topics including politics, sport and owls. Anyone who talks about owls gets my vote. Sometimes his audience is hooked, and sometimes they're confused, but I think he's something special. The funniest thing I've seen him do was when he was working for television. He was improvising on the theme of the sporting skills of different birds, but unfortunately this comedy gem was never broadcast. There is no great correlation between talent and success, but John deserves to be successful. I think British comedy seems in a healthy state and when I go to the Brixton Comedy Club, I'm always impressed by at least one act.

Karen Coren, Artistic director, the Gilded Balloon comedy venue, Edinburgh Fringe

The moment I saw Tim Minshin at the Melbourne comedy festival, I was hooked. He's the most exciting, talented and unique comedian for many, many years. I was so knocked out by his talent and charm that I had to bring him to this year's Fringe. Tim's an accomplished pianist and lyricist, and this results in a varied act that keeps the audience spellbound. He's been criticised for not being as funny off the piano as he is on it, but I think it's unjustified. It's a very healthy year at the Fringe, and there's a lot of fresh talent out there. We run the "So you think you're funny?" for new comedians and we've had record entries, which is a positive sign for the future.

William Burdett-Coutts, Artistic director, the Assembly Theatre comedy venue, Edinburgh Fringe

Alan Carr has got a terrific style, and lots of people are raving about him. He's very camp, and while he has his own definite identity, he does have similarities with Graham Norton. Carr's dad was a football manager, and his act tells the story of his childhood, growing up knowing he couldn't be what his parents wanted. It's his second time at Edinburgh and I'm sure he'll be a great success. The up-and-coming comedy scene is in a healthy state at the moment. I have a lot of contacts watching the new guys, and it's clear that there's an array of young people coming through.

Names such as Rhod Gilbert and Mark Watson are being heard more and more. It's nice to see a few new faces at the Fringe, but there's still a continuation of what's happened in previous years.

Rory Bremner, Comedian

Steve Hughes was about the best I saw at the Edinburgh Festival. He is tall and looks like a rock musician which I think he used to be. He was original and funny. The night I went to see him, all the lights at the theatre fused but he carried on with the act for another half-hour. I think someone put a cigarette lighter in front of him. He was simply very good and I had not come across him before that. Others I think are good are Andrew Maxwell, the double act John Oliver and Andy Zaltsman, and Dara O'Briain, who packs more words into one night than most people manage in a week. He is exceptionally quick-thinking with a fast delivery. He is warm and original as well as being funny.

Meera Syal, Comedian and writer

Omid Djalili has been quietly getting on with doing some remarkable stand-up. He's Iranian, and I like him because his comedy isn't confined to the box that ethnic minorities are often put into. He's a very rare comedian in that he's comfortable talking about his race. His act also contains sharp global political humour too. His satirical look at Blair, Bush and al-Qa'ida is very funny. There is a lot of silly nonsense going on when he's performing. He's a big bloke, but very nimble on his feet. His belly dancing is a great start to the act, and the imitation of his auntie and uncle dancing is hilarious. My favourite part, though, is his Godzilla impression. He is a unique person, not only because of his background, but also his performances, and he certainly has the potential to reach the very top.

Christopher Richardson, Director of the Pleasance, comedy venue, Edinburgh Fringe

I really like Lee Bannard's self-effacing, nervous look at his own life. I first saw him at the Pleasance in London and it had the "tingle" factor. A great feeling ran down my spine and I thought to myself: " This really is good."I knew he had great potential, and his performance reminded me of the first time I saw Rowan Atkinson.

I don't really like "in your face comedy", so Lee's style of laughing at his own inadequacies suits me. There are no props, just the simple formula of a small man talking about himself. By the end of his act he concludes that he's lucky to be where he is, and this is something I admire. The idea that stand-up is dead is rubbish. It's being refreshed, and it is refreshing. It's given a fantastic beginning to countless stars, and from what I can see now, it's not going to stop.

Shazia Mirza, Comedian, named the Hackney Empire Best New Act in 2003 and in 2002 won Metro Magazine's People's Choice Best Comic Award at the London Comedy Festival

I liked seeing Alan Carr because he is really funny and sometimes you need a good laugh. He is camp and gay and he's like the new Frankie Howerd. His humour is clever, too. It's all stand-up and he talks about his life and growing up and being bullied at school. You may think you've heard it all before but you have not heard it like Alan Carr tells it. As for the state of comedy, it changes all the time and it should constantly be doing so because we need different things to talk about. This is the second Fringe festival I've played and as a comedian you develop and find different things to talk about, whether that's from politics or not.

Richard Herring, Comedian

I like so many of the new comedians around, but if I had to choose one in particular, it would be Josie Long. There's a big stereotype that women comedians only talk about periods and sex, but Josie is a lot more interesting than that. Her act delves into the social lives of Paul McCartney and Axl Rose. What does Macca sing when he's bringing in dessert? It sounds like "Live and Let Die"... it's lemon meringue pie. Josie is the sort of comedian who is quite happy to make some of her audience laugh more than they've ever done before, rather than guarantee that everyone chuckles a little bit. She covers lots of unusual subjects, which sometimes bamboozles the audience. Not everyone will like what she does, but she has the courage to try different things. She is very brave, doing things I'd be too scared to try.

Ed Byrne, Comedian

Since winning the BBC New Comedian Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 Rhod Gilbert hasn't stopped impressing all of us. He has a look of misery and a feel for the absurd that somehow elevates mundane subjects to new heights. You've seen comics talk about having their luggage lost before but not while they stare wistfully at a dismembered suitcase handle. Another routine opens with Rhod talking about his girlfriend trying on a dress in a shop and asking if it makes her bum look bigger than the last one. It would be a bore in the hands off a lesser comic, but Gilbert takes this run of the mill premise and creates a beautifully original routine. I've seen Rhod win over audiences at comedy festivals in Kilkenny, Adelaide, Montreal and now Edinburgh, where it would be a travesty were he not to make the Perrier nominations list.

Helen Lederer, Comedian

I get very depressed when everyone starts to sound the same and talk about the same subjects. So what turns me on is a one-off person who does not need to draw on a certain genre but who is doing their own thing. I would single out Alan Carr for this. He is an individual and therein lies longevity. The funny instinct is something that lasts. There is a place for topical comedy - I believe satire is essential and I am an admirer - but from a personal view what I notice is someone who is just funny. I believe comedy is always moving forward and you can't ring-fence one genre and say it's better than another. You can't say the 1980s and 1990s had a better genre of comedy because all genres have meaning and today's comedy is relevant for now. You can't demand to go back to how it was.