Going for a gong

If the Fringe is so alternative and anti-Establishment, how come there are so many awards on offer from big business? By John Crace
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LEGAL NOTE: Avalon complained: they did not threaten to withdraw their other acts nor do they make a small fortune from running the Telegraph awards

Yesterday's Scotsman Fringe First awards ceremony in Edinburgh Geraint Lewis

Blink and you might miss one. We all know there's nothing the creative ego likes more than a good award ceremony, but one can't help thinking that the darlings do get a wee bit carried away from time to time. At this year's Edinburgh Fringe there are no fewer than ten awards up for grabs. While the organisers and the artists may like to think this has something to do with the mass of talent on parade, the reality is more prosaic. Commercial organisations know a good thing when they see it, and forking out pounds 1,000 prize money and pounds 15.99 for a tacky figurine is a small price to pay for piggy-backing on the prestige of the festival.

Whatever the award, the bottom line is that there will always be someone pleased to win it. Not least because it deprives someone else of winning it. But not all awards are equal, so how is the ordinary punter supposed to differentiate between the good, the bad and the desperate?

Like it or not, the Perrier is the creme de la creme of the awards. It is the one that the comedians themselves care about, and it is the only one that anyone outside Edinburgh or central London is likely to have heard about. It has been running since 1981 and past winners include Frank Skinnner, Steve Coogan, Lee Evans and Jenny Eclair. Just what a difference the Perrier can make can be judged by the fact that the management of both the last two winners, Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan, said their clients were "too busy" to talk to me. Previously, they would have killed for publicity.

Scott Capurro, 1994 winner of the Perrier best newcomer and nominee for the main prize the next year, did talk. Normally noted for his indiscretion, Capurro was a PR person's dream. "The Perrier got me noticed," he said. "I immediately moved from 40 to 250 seater venues." Still brand loyal after all these years.

Mind you, the Perrier is equally famous for those who haven't won it - such as Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee. Al Murray is at least still in with a shout, after being barred and then reinstated by the Perrier committee. But what this undignified episode tells us is that however big Perrier may be, the promoters are bigger. Murray's represented by the strange black T-shirted men from Avalon who also manage other big names: the inside gossip is that they threatened to withdraw several other acts unless Perrier saw "sense".

The aptly named Edinburgh comedy club, The Stand, which for years has refused to have anything to do with the Perrier, believes that the Murray affair has cost the Perrier "what vestigial credibility it had". The club's owner, Tommy Sheppard, has called on Perrier to rethink the nature of its award, which he believes does more to kill talent than promote it. Don't hold your breath for any Perrier changes, though.

The Scotsman's Fringe Firsts are billed as prestigious awards given to new drama which has not had more than six performances, but actually no-one other than a few Arts Centre directors and wannabe thesps pays any notice to them at all. The Herald, a rival Scottish newspaper, also muscles in on the action with its Angels and Devils for "exciting work" but is often so half-hearted in its enthusiasm that it can't be bothered to trail them in the newspaper. The awards probably put a few more bums on seats for the duration of the festival, but most people treat them as a bit of a joke. Ross Noble, one of this year's winners, was delighted at his success, but was far keener to talk about the excitement of getting his statuette from that other statuette, Dannii Minogue.

That dear old stalwart, The Stage, that bows to no-one in the cheesiness of its reviews offers two awards for acting excellence. Their main function is to give TV producers a good laugh. The only people who should take them seriously are those looking for cruise-line work or a summer season at Butlins.

The prize for shameless self-promotion has to go to Mervyn Stutter for his Spirit of the Fringe awards. By day a French supply teacher, for the duration of the festival he puts on a ridiculous suit and draws in a Pebble Mill type audience to listen to his hopelessly out-of-date songs about BSE. His trick is to invite other performers - sorry award winners - to appear on his bill for nothing. This gives him credibility and the performers none. An award for both artists and audiences to avoid.

So You Think You're Funny is Channel 4's stand-up competition, and like the Perrier it does have credibility. Tommy Tiernan, Lee Mack and Dylan Moran have all won, but the highlight for the audience has to be finals night when agents cards are sprinkled like confetti at their desperation to sign up the winner and runner-up. Rumour has it that Jason Byrne was locked in a lavatory by one agent until he duly signed on the dotted line.

The Daily Telegraph's Open Mike award is a desperate attempt by a fusty newspaper to acquire yoof appeal. However, no-one ever remembers the winner and the only people who really benefit are Avalon who charge the Telegraph a small fortune for running it.

The BBC also tries to position itself as a happening organisation with its New Comedy Award. Marcus Brigstocke, last year's winner, has some kind words. "I went from earning nothing to earning something," he says, but the Beeb rather shoots itself in the foot by proudly announcing that the winner may get "a commission on the UK's only dedicated music and comedy channel, UK Play" - a channel most agents advise their clients to steer clear of.

The Granada - formerly the LWT - comedy writing award has some clout, but is often regarded as a consolation prize for those who didn't win the Perrier. Here is where the prizes get political as the rules concerning eligibility are somewhat vague. Many would regard Arctic Boosh as comedy theatre rather than straightforward comedy. However, because the Perrier is more prestigious, their management - step forward Avalon once again - is firmly branding them as stand-up. Last year's winner Stephen Powell is working on a TV show, while Ben Moor, one of the runner-ups secured himself an agent.

The final award - another which has undergone a name change, from Polygram to Universal Video Punters Comedy Award - primarily exists to cement Universal as the video outlet for comedy, but it does have a basis of democracy as the audience gets to decide the winner. Many have concluded that the poll is rigged by artists and management, but last year's winner Adam Bloom didn't even hand out any voting forms at his gigs - so perhaps sometimes talent will out.

All artists claim that winning an award has given their career a boost - if only because it gives them something to put on their CV - but there is an argument to suggest that these people were going to make it to the top anyway.

The one conundrum that nobody has ever been able to answer satisfactorily, though, is that, if the Perrier is so important, how come the booze always runs out after half an hour at their end-of-awards party?