In search of the New Ronnies: is there a Barker in the house?

Eye witness: Where are the new acts who can hold a candle (or four) to the late comic genius?
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The Independent Online

Tributes are being paid on television, his finest moments are being replayed, and his friends have had to abandon a moment's silence because they're too busy laughing. But in the basement of a pub in North London the young men and women who long to be the new Ronnies are trying to make people even snigger at their own stuff. It's not as easy as he made it look.

"When somebody like that goes, we all move up one," says Brian Luff, the compère of Sketch Club at the King's Head in Crouch End. But Brian is kidding himself. Attempting to start tonight's show with a jolly, old-fashioned musical number, he has just died on his arse (to use a technical term).

"You're not into it, are you?" he growls at the 60 or so people in the audience, and they're not. They know their comedy, this crowd. Half work in the media and the other half is waiting to perform. There are no stand-up comedians among them, though, because just telling jokes is out. Characters and sketches are back in again, thanks in part to the huge success of The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain.

Radio and television producers are on a search for new stars at the Edinburgh Festival and places such as Sketch Club, which is among a small but rapidly growing number of venues that offer writers and actors the chance to test their skills on a live audience.

And wow them, if they are Fat Tongue, a trio making its debut tonight. The crowd is loving the one about the right-on couple at the dodgy adoption agency. "We'd like to start with a brown one, then move on to get the whole set," says Sophie Black, in character, flicking through a Dulux colour chart. "We're thinking Benetton."

Sophie is 29. After the applause, during the bar break, she says: "Our generation is used to getting its comedy through television and radio shows that are sketch-based. Sketches are easier to perform if you're an actor too. You feel less lonely." That was Ronnie Barker's feeling too. The great character actor so loathed the idea of being himself on stage that he turned down awards if they meant a speech.

Next on stage is Blue Pepper. Liam J Stratton and Miles Eadyn, aged 25 and 26, have been performing together since March. They are fondly old-school, as demonstrated when they dress up in silk scarves and white gloves and dance to 1920s music for a song called "The Binge-Drinking Rag". It's a big production number without the production: no singers, no chorus girls, no orchestra, just a backing tape in a dark room with a low ceiling and a lot of energy. "That's the sort of stuff we grew up with," Miles says afterwards, then remembers that young comedians have to be seen to be dangerous. "But you wouldn't get The Two Ronnies doing a song about binge drinking and getting in a car and killing someone."

Wouldn't you? Ronnie Barker told jokes about bacon slicers in nudist camps and put Diana Dors in a PVC catsuit for a spoof sci-fi serial that still haunts the memory of those who were adolescent boys at the time. Porridge got laughs out of prison life and had openly gay characters and a catchphrase - naff - lifted from Polari. He wasn't always Mary Whitehouse's favourite turn, that's for sure. And The Two Ronnies might have to be even more daring if they were trying to get a break now. The biggest sponsor of new comedy is BBC3, which has used shows such as Nighty Night and The Mighty Boosh to establish itself as a risk-taker.

Radio 1 and BBC7 are looking for new talent now but the usual career path remains a late-night spot on Radio 4, then an evening series and a move to digital television. Get under the nation's skin with a catchphrase, as Catherine Tate did with "Am I bovvered?", and a star is born. It's as easy as winning the lottery.

"There is not enough opportunity for all the talent that is out there," says Brian Luff, which is why his company, Pepperstock, has started placing podcasts of its shows on iTunes. So far, 60,000 people have downloaded Sketch Club material, making it the third most popular podcast in Britain.

"Commissioning editors are afraid to take risks," says Luff, and as a producer for Channel 4, among others, he should know. "They would rather keep running an old show and repeating it, because they know people will laugh."

And we do. Even people who have seen The Two Ronnies' "four candles" sketch a dozen times saw it again on the news and laughed out loud. Old comedians don't die, their repeat fees just go to someone else. Their air-time doesn't. As the young performers carry their props out of the empty King's Head, each dreaming of being the new Ronnie Barker, it will probably be "goodnight" from all but the luckiest and most talented of them, but it will never really be "goodnight" from him.

DOUBLE ACTS TO WATCH FOR

MITCHELL & WEBB

These Cambridge Footlights chums make fine use of their square/cool dynamic in Peep Show, Channel 4's underrated sitcom. Robert Webb acts in The Smoking Room and David Mitchell has held his own on Have I Got News For You.

GAVIN & GAVIN

Sharon and Loretta Gavin are sisters. Like Ronnie Barker, these fringe comics have the acting skills to submerge themselves in a wide range of accents and characters, but they are not so comfortable when performing as themselves.

LAURENCE & GUS

Laurence Howarth and Gus Brown have created their own brand of meticulously worded 10-minute sketches. Despite their literary cleverness, they have an uncynical jollity inclusive enough for the mainstream. Howarth has also written a popular Radio 4 sitcom, Rigor Mortis.

Nicholas Barber

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