Edinburgh Festival 97 / You've got to laugh

At midnight on Saturday came the news all Edinburgh has been waiting for: the winner of the Perrier comedy award. James Rampton, one of the panellists, delivers his diary of a week in the life of a Perrier judge and his personal verdict on this year's winners

SATURDAY 16 AUGUST

This is the Diary of a Nobody who for one frantic week becomes a Somebody: a Perrier Judge. For seven long days you are transformed from a mere, derided critic into someone promoters, performers and punters actually take an interest in. Never before have you felt so suspicious about people offering to buy you drinks. And never before have you been in such danger of catching an incurable dose of The Bends, an irrational state of frenzy brought on by the banter, bull and booze of Edinburgh. You live in a Perrier bubble. Even Nick Hornby couldn't match this Fever Pitch.

Arriving at the panellists' flat, I am immediately uneasy as the first thing I clap eyes on is a pair of Stress Relief Candles perched on the mantelpiece. An award administrator hands me a list of four shows to see, starting in the next half an hour. I'm plunged into the deep end of the Perrier pool.

A fellow judge, already a battle-scarred veteran of a week's duration, claims to have got really fit after jogging to get to so many venues on time. Later, in a break between shows, I am surprised to find myself waiting at the bar next to a man dressed as a sheep. I haven't yet realised that normal Edinburgh rules apply.

SUNDAY 17 AUGUST

I nobly ignore the other option on offer at the Balmoral Hotel - the Danish Whisky Tour - and attend the first meeting of the Perrier panel. Diplomatically chaired by Kate Bassett from The Daily Telegraph, the jury also features James Christopher of The Times, the Evening Standard's Imogen Edwards-Jones, Myfanwy Moore from the Paramount Comedy Channel, the leading comedy producer Geoff Posner, film-maker Jon Ronson (who is also recording our deliberations for a Channel 4 documentary on the critics), and Rory Ford, Veronica Howe and Sarah Patterson, three highly knowledgeable competition winners from The List and Time Out magazines.

In a posh conference room festooned with Perrier balloons and flags - as if we'd forget who the sponsors are - Nica Burns, the award director for the past 15 years, swears us to secrecy and warns us against insider- dealing in information. William Hill has already been pestering Perrier officials for hot tips.

Some sterling panellists have been here for a week, panning for golden shows in the silt of the 200-odd eligible candidates on the Fringe. It has been their professional duty to sit through such acts as "Miss Itchy's Bastard Breakfast Show" and "The Nimmo Twins in Posh Spice Nude".

Looks of anguish pass across their faces as they are forced to summon up painful memories of the dross they have wasted an hour of their lives on. "This was the most harrowing experience I've had in 17 years on the Fringe," sighs one. "I'll fight to within an inch of my life to keep it off the shortlist." "He died a death," recalls another. "The poor guy went off for a costume change and never came back." Some pearls emerge from the dirt, however, and a list of 20 shows is compiled. The big surprise is that the early bookies' favourite, The Right Size's "Do You Come Here Often?", is excluded (amid doubts as to whether it was a comedy show or a stage play). A buzz starts to surround such dark horses as the previously unheard of potter-cum-comic Johnny Vegas and the subversive sketch-show, The League of Gentlemen.

On my way back from five further shows, I pass a top BBC exec muttering to himself. I know how he feels.

MONDAY 18 AUGUST

I'm showing the first signs of The Bends after sweltering through five shows again. The heat is such that Edinburgh urban myths are circulating about people fainting and being carried out of performances. My own wooziness is caused by the depressing sameyness of so many acts. A personal sin- bin of easy-target topics - the weather, critics, tourists - is filling up rapidly.

Walking home, I suddenly notice that Edinburgh Castle is bathed in eerie red light. Aliens have landed, I suppose, and I've been too wrapped up in the Festival to have noticed.

TUESDAY 19 AUGUST

I wake to the sound of two fellow panellists in the corridor outside my bedroom discussing the merits of the shows they saw last night. Like the Coca-Cola ad advises, we eat Eat, Sleep, Drink Perrier.

In his act, the comedian Arj Barker writes a letter to Perrier saying how much he likes the product. I'm beginning to get an idea of how much the award means to the industry. You cannot hang out in a bar for more than five minutes without a journalist, photographer, PR or promoter tapping you for insider gossip. This is just one reason why a friend in London accuses me of having contracted a bad case of The Bends and recommends that I go and lie down in a decompression chamber at once.

WEDNESDAY 20 AUGUST

Back to the Balmoral for a restorative cooked breakfast and the discussion of the shortlist. In a three-hour meeting, passions boil over as panellists fight against losing those they have loved. One feels so strongly about an act that he stands up and declaims like Henry Fonda making his jury- swaying speech in Twelve Angry Men. Another delivers a heartfelt plea for a sparsely attended show: "He was so good, he stormed an audience of two." Most people deplore the surfeit of spoof-failed showbiz types. A tad disappointingly, there are none of the legendary fist-fights of yore.

Arguments rage about political correctness, taste and even whether a sketch has been lifted from Star Trek. The only acid test in the end, however, proves to be: did it make me laugh out loud or was I incessantly clock-watching like a pupil in double physics?

The shortlist of Milton Jones, The League of Gentlemen, Al Murray, Graham Norton and Johnny Vegas is announced live on STV at midday, and reporters at the news conference hit the phones in a roar of "hold the Arts page". Administrators of the award set about the delicate task of soothing aggrieved promoters. One widely tipped performer who did not make the shortlist is later reported to have been knocking back brandies in a bar to stave off tears. The impact this award can have on people is slightly scary.

THURSDAY 21 & FRIDAY 22 AUGUST

Revisiting all the shortlisted shows, we have to come on like seasoned mafiosi and invoke omerta, the code of silence, in the face of promoters' pleadings for hints. As we reel out of our 30th show in six days, a fellow panellist laments having to swim daily through a sea of industry cant. "After all the people I've met this week," she complains, "I'm going to start my own comedy agency called Channel 4 Say They're Interested."

SATURDAY 23 AUGUST

The panel has its final meeting at a smart restaurant to decide the winner of the main award and the best newcomer (scooped by Arj Barker - which proves that flattery gets you everywhere). Feelings again run high as people see their personal favourites fall by the wayside. When one unhappy juror threatens "a prima-donna storm-out", his neighbour jokes, "nobody would notice".

Another panellist launches into an impassioned defence of a much-maligned act: "I'm going to use a very strong word now, and I hope no one is offended. But I think this man is a genius." His words, though, fall on stony ground with another juror: "With no disrespect to you, this is one of the worst things I've ever seen. I feel you're going to hit me, but this show is just crap."

When it is whittled down to the final two, one panellist characterises it as a battle between head and heart. "I'm persuaded to go for one because I'm a soulful person, then I think, `forget that, I'm a critic', and go for the other." Another asks if we're allowed to flip a coin to choose between them.

And then there is one. After four hours of debate, we settle on The League of Gentlemen, and totter off down Prince's Street to watch former winner Frank Skinner give them the award in front of a Spiegeltent crowd which could lig for Britain. "Didn't do me any harm," Skinner says as he hands the League the silver bottle. "Five hundred thousand this year - net."

Reflecting on my week through the bottom of a Perrier bottle, I am grateful for one thing. I only watched several shows a day. Fringe veteran Stephen Frost appeared in several shows a day.

Would I do it again if asked? Sure. They say being a Perrier panellist is like childbirth: when you look back, you forget the pain and only remember the good bits.

SUNDAY 24 AUGUST

Enter decompression chamber.

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