Just one stand-up comedian was shortlisted for the Perrier, Britain's most prestigious comedy award, yesterday, amid bitter divisions over the quality of humour at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The sole stand-up, 24-year-old Daniel Kitson, is regarded as a frontrunner for the £5,000 prize – to be awarded on Saturday night – alongside a surreal theatrical act, Garth Marenghi. The rest of the shortlist is made up by the former Perrier nominee Dan Antopolski, Jason Byrne and the Australian fringe veteran Adam Hills.
With a comic's wariness of official commendation, Kitson was diffident as he welcomed his nomination. "It's lovely but if I didn't prick holes in it I wouldn't think I was doing my job as a comedian. As comedians, I think we all have problems with people in self-appointed positions of knowledge and power."
The shortlist features some of the youngest and least well-known comedy acts to have been nominated for some time, in contrast to last year when the eventual winner, Rich Hall, was a well-established name.
But it provided few surprises, bar the disappointment of no nomination for Cyderdelic, an anti-globalism, anti-capitalist group (which might have been an intriguing presence at the sponsors' winners' party) and Boom Chicago's show Pickups and Hiccups. The apparent dearth of new talent precipitated some strong debate. Promoters blamed the press for failing to dig out the best of the new talent – but critics will insist the festival has been widely regarded as short on startling new arrivals.
The award itself continues to be overshadowed by a threatened boycott, backed by the actress Emma Thompson, a former Perrier winner, and the comic Mark Thomas, over the sale of baby milk substitute in the developing world by Perrier's parent company, Nestlé. An alternative to the Perrier award, the Tap Water, featuring about 15 acts, will take place at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh tonight to raise awareness of the Nestlé-Perrier connection.
Announcing the Perrier shortlist yesterday, Nica Burns, its director, said she believed the overall standard had been very high this year among the 185 shows seen by the judging panel. "If good is seeing people laughing all the way through then there are lots of shows that have been good," she said.
"The shortlisted acts are all quite different in style, but they all have an awful lot of laughs a minute. There is quite a lot of joy this year, which is unusual. Daniel Kitson and Adam Hills are very upbeat and Jason Byrne is very, very happy. There isn't a huge amount of cynicism and sarcasm." Ticket sales for the festival were higher than last year, with the festival expected to pass the one million mark this weekend and comedy promoters reporting sales significantly ahead of target, she said. But with critics reporting a lack of new stars of the ilk of Garth Marenghi, an instant hit on their debut last year, promoters blamed the reviewers for failing to review newcomers.
Andrew Collier, of Fat Bloke Productions which has 15 shows on the fringe, said: "Getting press for new talent this year has been like pulling teeth." And Ed Smith, who promotes Johnny Vegas and Tommy Tiernan among others, said although there were very good ticket sales for established acts, it had been much harder for younger performers such as Oram and Meeten, Big and Daft and Dominic Frisby, all of whom he claimed had been denied the attention they deserved.
"Although the established names are doing the best they have ever done, the journalists are only reviewing what they already know about." In particular, The Scotsman, which has a tradition of reviewing many of the festival's shows, has cut back the amount of space dedicated to critics, he said.Reuse content