IN LESS than three weeks' time comedy's trade fair, the Edinburgh Festival, begins. Across the country hundreds of humorists are limbering up their gags and hosing down their punchlines in the hope of catching the ear of scores of radio producers, television executives, advertising commercial directors and the occasional passing member of the public.

In a pint-sized room above a west London pub, Kenneth Gray and Ardella Jones (stage name Ken and Ard) were honing a sketch about a Sloane couple, down on their luck and moving into Brixton.

'Don't get me wrong, I'm not prejudiced or nuffin',' said Ken, playing the Sloanes' neighbour in a black south London accent. 'But I'm sick of all these people movin' into the neighbourhood, bringing down the tone.'

'Know what I mean,' added Ard. 'The stink of their food, man, all that sun-dried tomato and seaweed.'

Among the sprinkling of household names, the Edinburgh Fringe programme will be made up almost exclusively of acts such as Ken and Ard: complete unknowns ('Not true, we once had a review in the Scottish Daily Express') dreaming that this festival could be the one.

It will mark the pair's second attempt at instant stardom: they were in Edinburgh last year. Despite having no agent, no manager and no publicist, their audiences often topped a handful.

'Everyone seemed reasonably encouraging,' Ard recalled. 'We had one or two agents come along; one guy said he was pleasantly surprised. You'd rather have people saying they absolutely widdled themselves, but it's a start.'

'I suppose it must seem brave just going up to Edinburgh and performing when no one has a clue who we are,' Ken added. 'But it appears that it's the only way to get on.'

Brave the pair certainly are, leaving settled jobs in their thirties to pursue the trickiest of professions. They met about 10 years ago ('In the gutter', according to Ard; 'At a friend's drinks party', according to Ken). They made each other laugh with tales of their jobs. Ardella was a part-time reggae correspondent for New Musical Express and a leisure services officer for Lambeth Council. One of her tasks was organising a mooted Gay Olympics. 'It never happened in the end,' she said. 'Too many problems over the leap-frog event. Ooh, no, I mustn't say that, we'll get pink-triangled.'

Ken was a special effects cameraman who worked on Aliens. He recruited Ardella to work on continuity for a film and, after shooting, the pair made a film of their own, which went down so well with friends that they decided to work together full time. So was born the only man/ woman, gay/ straight, well-cleavaged/ flat-chested double act on the circuit. Impeccably correct, but decidedly odd.

'We have a strange combination of knowledge,' said Ardella. 'I know Shabba Ranks's real name (Rexton Gordon, incidentally), and Ken's on first-name terms with Bertolucci's cameraman. We get some strange material out of it. For instance, we do this rap about painting styles based on NWA's lyrical masterpiece Fuck the Police:

Pointillism's a load of dots

Cubism's just square

We like flowers stuck in pots

And pre-Raphaelites with long


Fuck the post-moderns.

'So really,' said Ken, 'it means our humour appeals to a very specific, and on evidence so far, a very limited number of people.'

Twenty-eight people to be exact, shoehorned into the pub room, an audience that seemed delighted with an hour's worth of sketches. Talent-spotters would be well advised to make a note of Ken and Ard: they have cracking material, which they perform with something approaching aplomb, a depressingly unusual combination on the Edinburgh Fringe. Take the sketch about 'Sir Arthur Terence Conran's Sherlock Jones and the Case of the Appalling Taste in Furniture', or the cop show parody in which PC PeeCee corners a comedy script-writer: 'Your dabs are all over the punchline. Clean up your act or I'll fit you up with an Irish gag.'

Ken and Ard need a bit of a discovery. Like many comedians, their first two years have been a financial disaster. Judging by the way most of the audience greeted them afterwards like old friends ('Well, they are old friends') box-office receipts are minimal ('Well, you can't charge old friends').

'We earn less than nothing,' said Ard. 'But I can't see us giving up, whatever happens. We're virtually unemployable now. Working for Lambeth's like having the sign of the devil on you when you try to get a job in local government. Anyway, what would we put on our CV to explain the past two years? Failed comedian?'

Ken and Ard perform at the Hill Street Theatre, Edinburgh, 14 August to 4 September (031-226 5259).

(Photograph omitted)