Edinburgh comedy prize loses its sponsor

Search begins for new sponsor of Britain's premier live comedy award

The award which helped launch the careers of many of Britain's best loved comics is looking for a new sponsor after its last one became a victim of the recession.

The Edinburgh comedy award is the UK's oldest and has been staged every year since the start of the alternative comedy boom in 1981. It was known for years as the Perrier award, then became the if.comedy award after Intelligent Finance took over in 2006, contributing a reputed £150,000 a year to the event and paying for the winner to go on a national tour.

Now another change of name is in prospect, because the new sponsors cannot continue. Intelligent Finance is the internet and telephone banking arm of HBOS, which was taken over by Lloyds and has been given £17bn by the Government.

The first winners of the award, 28 years ago, were a group of Cambridge students who had put together the Footlights review, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, Rob Newman and Emma Thompson. Among the later winners were Jeremy Hardy, Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Al Murray and the League of Gentlemen. Nominees who did not quite make it include Paul Merton, Jo Brand and Alan Davies.

There is also a "best newcomer" award for the best act to make a debut appearance in Edinburgh, which Harry Hill won in 1992. Last year, the main award was won by David O'Doherty, with Sarah Millican being picked as best newcomer. "It would be a huge sadness if it didn't get any sponsorship, because it is by far and away the most effective, rigorous and well-judged award," the 1989 winner, Simon Fanshawe, said yesterday. "It's a bit lily-livered of Intelligent Finance to dip their toe in and run. Their trouble is that it worked fantastically well with the Perrier award. People still call it the Perrier award, and I think Intelligent Finance never really got over that."

The awards have become a fixture of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival since they were founded, and have been run since 1984 by the theatre director Nica Burns. She said yesterday: "When Intelligent Finance's sponsorship of the awards was revealed in 2006, after a 25-year association with Perrier, we were both looking forward to a long relationship. We entered into a three-year contract, which ends in April of this year.

"At that time, nobody could have predicted where the world's economy would be and the difficult times we all find ourselves in. Intelligent Finance will not be renewing their contract, but the awards will definitely be going ahead. We're in advanced negotiations over a new partner and we will be making a full announcement about the awards in May."

The awards have occasionally run into controversy. They have been criticised for not promoting enough female comics. The only women to win the main award as solo artists were Jenny Éclair in 1995 and Laura Solon in 2005.

Wit and wisdom: Some winners' jokes

*Jeremy Hardy, 1988: Last week's programme gave the impression the world was being taken over by invaders from Mars. I should point out this was a lie intended to cause mass panic and we hope it didn't inconvenience you too much.

*Jenny Éclair, 1995: I've had my nipples pierced. Why? Because I was sick of losing my car keys.

*Dylan Moran, 1996: Women see things men don't see, like when they say, "I knew she was depressed when she didn't finish her tea." Men need more. You know, "Oh, I knew he was a bit off: his head was on fire."

*Laura Solon, 2005: The first tattoo I had was just to annoy my father. But then it did say, "Rod off Dad you big gayer" right across my forehead.

*David O'Doherty, 2008: What did Jay-Z say when his ice-cream van ran out of chocolate flakes? I've got 99 problems.