Forbidden fruitiness THE KINGMAKERS OF COMEDY

End-of-the-pier comedy was dying. Then Peter Smith had a vision of filt hy lucre. By Jim White
The posters along the promenade at Blackpool read like an A-Z of the has-been: Jim Bowen at the Talk of the North, Bernard Manning at the Sandcastle, Jim Davidson at the South Pier, Cannon and Ball at the Grand and Roy Chubby Brown occupying much of the Central Pier. The names of Steve Coogan and Jack Dee, Frank Skinner and Jo Brand, David Baddiel and Lee Evans, the fashionable and the modern, are conspicuous by their absence. At first glance, these posters, flapping and damp in the January squa ll, look like the sad remnants of a spent season, perfect metaphors of a past-it career: Blackpool, gag Valhalla, where old jokes go to die.

Closer inspection, however, reveals a different truth. The posters are not for last season's shows but for the next, a season that does not begin for three months. Book now for Bernard Manning, yells one, and save up to £2 on a pair; another suggests youbeat the rush for Jim Davidson tickets; a third exhorts that you get in the queue for Roy Chubby Brown, because by July he could be sold out.

They're not wrong. Five years ago, the bawdy, vulgar, end-of-pier show was widely reckoned to be finished, a grim anachronism from the days when mothers-in-law, bosomy blondes and coloured folk were considered game for a punchline. But the 1995 Blackpoolsummer season promises to be stronger and more popular than ever, with real gold being made along the Golden Mile. And the artists mining it have plenty of time to perform live. After all, they will not be spending too long in the television studios, socomically unfashionable are they.

But in a sense their success, the re-vitalisation of this naughty tradition of live comedians that stretches back to Max Miller, has been thanks to their very absence from television. These old-timers have seen their paying-in books filled by a vast new market: the blue performance video, 90 minutes of filthy gags on tape.

"You can almost say that the product sells better if the artist is not a current TV star," said Polygram's Pete Smith, the man largely credited with inventing the adult comedy video market. "There is a sort of anti-PC, under-the-counter cachet about the tapes, a word-of-mouth. They are a `Hey lads, come round to my place and see what I've got' product."

Pete Smith knows what he is talking about. Last year Jingle Bollocks, the video he released of Roy Chubby Brown's stand-up routine, sold 350,000 units, the sixth biggest seller in Britain, just behind Snow White and Jurassic Park. Not far adrift was MikeRead, the former EastEnder, with his release Live and Uncensored, which, at £13.99 a time, made encouragingly large amounts of money for VCI, a production company based in Watford. And then there was Bernard Manning, whose grunt-and-groan Bangin g with Manning, a spoof sex advice tape, cleared over 150,000 units. Wet Wet Wet, meanwhile, were considered to have achieved good sales with their Greatest Hits video collection: it was bought by 50,000 people.

Pete Smith's box-office idea came to him in 1988, when he was working for Polydor's music division.

"All the record sales reps had bootleg audio cassettes in their cars of Manning, Blaster Bates, Chubby Brown, filthy stuff from their live acts," he remembered. "It occurred to me that a proper pukka production on video, with mainstream distribution, would be an absolute winner with the 18 to 35 male market."

The first Smith signing to attack the after-curry heartland was Jimmy Jones, a performer whose material would be considered a bit ripe at a rugby club stag night. In five weeks, all 40,000 videos were sold, mainly by word of mouth.

Smith quickly signed up other fruity acts, and the money began to roll in. Chubby Brown's video output presently nets about £5m a year, which puts him on a level with the Rolling Stones. He has never had a TV series.

"The Chubby phenomenon is extraordinary," said Smith. "By not being on television he develops a notorious reputation which is so important to his marketability."

Colin Lomax, of VCI, which has Mike Read and Michael Barrymore on the books, agrees. "What the market wants is jokes by established artists which they would not hear on television," he said. "People want to get their hands on forbidden fruit."

Oddly, however, the market does not work for everybody. "You would think that Steve Coogan would sell loads of videos," said Colin Lomax. "But he is not in the same league. These are people who have spent 25 years building up an act and a fan base that cannot be replicated by a quick bit of success on television."

Not every old boy has started to print money. Why should Bob Monkhouse, Jim Bowen, hero of students everywhere, and Frank Carson fare only moderately compared with Michael Barrymore or Bernard Manning? "If I knew who was going to sell and who wasn't," said Pete Smith, "I would be having this conversation by satellite phone from the West Indies."

No wonder marketing has become so intense. Nowadays, new adult comedy videos are pushed with the intensity of pop records: artists go on the publicity circuit, advertisements are bought and sales sites fought over. And the performer goes on a live showcase tour, several nights of which will be recorded for the next year's release.

Which is why the Blackpool end-of-pier market has seen such a spectacular revival. Driven by the video market, the live performances of the kings of adult comedy sell out within days. Jim Davidson plays more than five weeks along the prom every year, andeach live show represents a sales opportunity. At Jimmy Jones performances, for instance, there is a stall selling Jimmy merchandise in the foyer. After the show, the star emerges and spends a good few minutes signing the product; the queue is never short.

"For some people the chance to meet me in the flesh is the biggest moment of their lives," said Jones. "Bloody amazing isn't it?"

Comedy, the fashionable performers told us, was the new rock'n' roll. They were right. Just like the old rock'n'roll it is the creaking lags who are making the real money - those the new wave told us would be blown away: Jones, Manning and Chubby, the Rolling Stones, Genesis and Pink Floyd of mirth. And every night the lot of them must drink Pete Smith's health in champagne.