Behind the scenes of British comedy, two hard men fix the funny money

AVALON, THE comedy company at the centre of the storm when Frank Skinner fell out with the BBC this week, admitted yesterday that it is "ruthless and will stop at nothing" in pursuing its clients' best interests.

"As a management agent that is our job," said a company spokesman. "Our competitors in the industry say we drive a hard bargain but that is what our job involves - looking after the careers of our clients and nothing else." On Wednesdaythe BBC said Avalon was demanding pounds 20m for a five- year contract for Skinner to keep his chat show on BBC1.

Avalon was embroiled in a dispute at the Edinburgh Festival when another client, Al Murray, was excluded from the Perrier Prize shortlist because he was too well known. His agency protested and he was reinstated. Not only is Mr Murray, the eventual winner of the prize, a client, so too were two more of the six finalists.

Avalon was founded in 1988 by a former president of the Cambridge footlights, Jon Thoday. His first foray into showbusiness was promoting the West End show Nightclub Confidential. He lost pounds 400,000. To make money he then drifted into comedy, acting as an agent for a Spitting Image writer.

He was joined in the early Nineties by Richard Allen-Turner, a former entertainment manager at Middlesex Polytechnic, and the two decided on a strategy of promoting the shows that many of their clients appear in. They now run Britain's biggest live comedy promotions company, one of its biggest talent management agencies and a television production company.

This year Avalon Promotions will run close to 2,000 nights of live comedy, including the Carlsberg Ice Comedy Network, which operates in 40 venues around the country.

It was Avalon that took live comedy into the rock'n'roll age, promoting the Newman and Baddiel concert at Wembley Arena in 1994 and putting on Frank Skinner at Battersea power station in 1998.

The people on Avalon Management's books tend to be at a relatively formative stage of their career. As well as Skinner and Baddiel, clients include Harry Hill, Jenny Eclair, Stuart Lee, Richard Herring and Simon Munnery. It dominates the Edinburgh Fringe, while a rival agency such as PBJ Management, which handles the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, has a stronger grip on more established talent. Avalon Television's big hits have been the Fantasy Football League on both BBC and ITV and Frank Skinner's chat show, which was getting a 40 per cent audience share by the end of its last run.

Despite all the headlines referring to Skinner's demands, there are some in the industry who believe the BBC's highly public falling out with Avalon was done to pre-empt the corporation attracting flak for losing another big star.

Television comedy costs about pounds 200,000-plus per show to produce and the pounds 20m Avalon was asking for included the cost of making the show - it was not all Skinner's fee. As such it was not much more than many other BBC stars receive.

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