Obsessions: Stand and deliver: Helen Chown had an urge to play the fool in public. She found a course which gave fellow sufferers a warm welcome

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The Jacksons Lane Community Centre in Highgate, north London, has held a course for would-be stand-up comedians for nearly seven years. It is hugely popular, and has been the initial try-out ground for such names as Eddie Izzard, Nick Wilty and Jeff Green. Egged on after confessing my aspirations to friends, I signed up for the first course of 1994.

I must confess that I didn't really know what or who to expect at the class. My group consisted of a fairly even male to female ratio, with ages ranging from late teens to late sixties. One man announced proudly that he had come down from Leicester, while others had come from neighbouring counties. They ranged from salespeople and secretaries to unemployed people.

For a course in comedy, the first night was certainly serious business. None of us were prepared for the first (and, I hope, the last) shock of the course. Faces distinctively paled when it was announced that a crew from The Big E would be filming our tentative steps into comedy. The hardiest got up to perform. Some were funny, some died horrendously. The rest of us stayed seated and tried to pretend that there wasn't really a camera panning over us.

Classes are run by established comedians, who have included Jo Brand and Eddie Izzard. Our first two classes were held by Scottish comedian Geoff Boyz, who encouraged, enthused and then, in true Gordon Gecko fashion, launched into a mini-lecture on the three evils of comedy: Sexism, Racism and Homophobia are out, official. The words 'Chubby Brown' and 'playing to full houses' sprang to mind, but I let them pass.

The second week saw a marked difference. Half the previous week's group had disappeared. Many had lost their nerve or discovered that they were on the wrong course (its description as a cabaret course was a touch misleading - budding Sinatras, jugglers and magicians, be warned). The other noticeable difference was that everyone was so confident, and, darn it, funny. Most, however, did not realise this, and were quite clearly shaking after their turn. I had spent the week between classes rewriting and practising my material, hairbrush in hand, and was becoming increasingly keen to get up there and do my thing. My classmates were visibly bouncing in their seats when the immortal words 'Who's next?' were uttered. In the previous week's session, this would have been a sign to inspect one's shoes or pint, but this time nobody needed any further invitation. A few casualties were incurred in the name of comedy as people were knee-capped, headbutted and generally restrained in the fight to the mike. I came away from the evening without so much as a witticism having passed my lips, but at least I emerged bruiseless.

We are told that the film crew 'didn't quite get what they wanted' and that they will be returning at the end of the course, when we will be rewarded with our very first real gig. This will be at The Comedy Cafe, we learn. By this stage we should welcome television coverage. I don't know what cheap publicity tactics the rest of the group will employ to woo the cameras, but I will be ready, no doubt, with 'Helen Chown, seeking Representation . . .' emblazoned on my T-shirt.

The Cabaret Course is at Jacksons Lane Community Centre, 269a Archway Hoad, London, N6 5AA (Opposite Highgate Tube). Courses run at beginners' and intermediate levels. Next beginners' course begins 19th April. The course costs pounds 30.00 and runs for seven weeks. For further information contact: (081-340 5226)

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