Fringe frolics begin again with cast of new stars

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The first winners received no cash, but secured a week's engagement at the Latchmere, a small fringe theatre in London. This year's victor will take home £7,500, which might just about cover the almost ruinous costs of taking a show to the festival. More importantly, they get a headlining turn in the Perrier Comedy Award Shows in the West End and are extremely likely to secure a television deal.

It has not been without controversy. Protesters who object to the owners of Perrier, Nestlé, and its sales of baby milk formula in the Third World have picketed the prize with some celebrity support. Often there is a row over which acts qualify, with stand-up comedians particularly disappointed by the inclusion of acts which they consider theatre, such as last year's Epitaph, or the Théâtre de Complicité, which won in 1985.

And there are always choruses of surprise at the shortage of women and the dearth of black acts on the shortlist.

But the roll-call of talent first identified in a grimy back street in the Scottish capital one windswept August, but now earning small fortunes, is an impressive vote of confidence in judges who see hundreds of shows before they make their decision.

As Stephen Fry said: "I don't think the bitterest enemy of the Perrier Award could deny that it has spotted some real talent."

The Perrier hall of fame

Arnold Brown (Year won: 1987)

Career: Won with Barb Jungr and Michael Parker in an act called Brown Blues. People tend to refer to him as the comedians' comedian, but he likes to think he's the bank manager's comedian. A new book and a radio series about an insecure security guard are on the way.

The act: Included the gag: "I'm a comedian with a cult following. The cult following me at the moment is the Hare Krishnas and I wish they'd go away."

He says: "The secret of comedy is timing. I won it before stand-up started taking over ... People say I'm the link between the generations. I'm not old-fashioned, but I'm not cutting edge."

Jenny Eclair (Year won: 1995)

Career: Won the Perrier with a show called Prozac and Tantrums. She is writing the Grumpy Old Women stage show and her second novel, Having a Lovely Time, is just out.

The act: Gynaecological gags about farts and smear tests.

She says: "The next day I had the worst hangover I've ever had. I felt weepy and guilty and I wanted to give it back. I cried in front of a journalist from the Mail who suggested I needed medical help. I probably did - I'd worn a pair of shoes that had taken off the back of my heels. I was a guest on Des O'Connor's show - only he didn't think I was very good and made me come back to do it better."

Simon Fanshawe (Year won: 1989)

Career: He packed in stand-up comedy and is now a writer and broadcaster. His first book, The Done Thing - negotiating the minefield of modern manners - was published in June.

The act: It was a topical show. He would read the papers and ask the audience to suggest topics to work with. Breast-feeding in public was a big controversy at the time.

He says: "You never lose it. It's like a bit of loo paper on your heel. I don't mean that in a bad way - it just follows you wherever you go. My mum used to say, 'you've got a law degree, you can always use that.' But stand-up was fantastic training. It's a terrific grounding."

Stephen Fry (Year won: 1981)

Career: Won the very first Perrier award with Cambridge Footlights. The line-up also included Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson. Now a hugely successful actor and writer, he is about to complete a book about the art of writing poetry called The Ode Less Travelled.

The act: A Footlights revue called The Cellar Tapes - sketches, monologues and songs from the days before stand-up as we now know it.

He says: "It was the first so we were lucky to get it. I think the judges would have leant over backwards NOT to give it to a load of Oxbridge wankers born with silver spoons up their arses."

Demetri Martin (Year won: 2003)

Career: The New Jersey comedian heard about the Perrier award the year before he won it. Since then he's been writing for the Conan O'Brien show and painting his new album cover. He returns to Edinburgh with a show called These are Jokes.

The act: Included the joke: "Winning Employee of the Month is the only way you can be a winner and a loser at the same time."

He says: "I'd never done a word of comedy outside the States. It was a complete gamble. I was lucky to not know what I was getting into."

Steve Kearney (Year won: 1983)

Career: The Australians Steve Kearney and Neill Gladwin won with an act called Los Trios Ringbarkus. Steve now writes and produces films and commercials.

The act: Angst, anger and severe physical comedy. A lot of mess was made with beer, bananas and bread.

He says: "Beating the Poms was important. We came back home and did the same routines we'd done for the past few years except now we had the stamp of approval. The only sticking point was that Perrier didn't want to give it to us, but the judges prevailed."

Nick Wilton (Year won: 1982)

Career: Nick Wilton won with Writers Inc, a disparate group of writers who met at the BBC. Other members included Victoria Pile, the producer of Green Wing, and the children's author Jamie Rix.

The act: Traditional sketch show: punchline, blackout, next sketch. It started with the cast in the audience - radical in those days.

He says: "We didn't go up with any expectations. We won it on the Friday and left on the Saturday. It was very much a fringe. My dad was a bank manager and we borrowed a van from one of his clients. It's all a bit of a drunken haze."

Frank Skinner (Year won: 1991)

Career: Frank was already on TV when he won the award. A new series of his chat show airs in September and next year he might busk at Edinburgh.

The act: "There was one woman who took me to task over a joke I did. It was about asking a girl if I could lick her navel from the inside. I told those kinds of jokes in those days. I was very young."

He says: "I was thrilled to bits. I'd never won anything in my life before. I was shit at school sport and all that.I had sex on Arthur's Seat that night and I'm sure winning helped."