Winner of the 2004 Leicester Mercury comedian of the year competiiton
Old Comedian Of The Year final
Think of your favourite British comedians of all-time, and chances are you’re thinking of someone who is – or acts as if – they are at least middle-aged. From Eric Morecambe to Tony Hancock, Les Dawson to Tommy Cooper, our comic heritage is not built on youth… though you might be hard-pressed to know that from the prejudices of TV bookers, always looking for hot young stand-ups to fill their panels.
So a welcome cheer then for the UK’s second competition for older comics, as the Leicester Square Theatre follows in the Zimmer-frame tracks of the Leicester Comedy Festival in showcasing acts beyond the ‘spring chicken’ stage… although the bar to entry here is worryingly low. You are officially eligible to be an ‘old’ comic at just 35.
Compere Arthur Smith - who else? – has plenty of jibes about the embittered, world-weary views these coffin-dodgers would be spouting, but life experience, and maybe a little hard-learned cynicism, can’t be a bad thing for inspiring stand-up material.
The opening act of the final, Matt Hollins, certainly had the demeanour of a man whose ambitions had been crushed by harsh reality. From the East Midlands, dour and unfashionable, he is the original Leicester square. He didn’t carry himself like a comedian, but more like the modest biscuit-packer he once was, a style which cuts both ways. At times he feels a little too much like a bloke holding forth over a pint without much concern for punchlines – but when they do come, they creep up by surprise. It’s not a set that zings, but his low-key sincerity proves an endearing attitude.
At 81, Lynne Ruth Miller embraced the night’s ‘old’ theme with a pacy, wisecracking routine, full of sharp and efficient ‘I’m so old…’ gags that would have done compatriot Joan Rivers proud. Talking dirty is another central plank of her act, although in these cases the jokes tend to be less assured, relying more the simple juxtaposition of a cheery old lady getting grubby for their impact rather then the smart imagery of her best lines. But she packs the gags into a slick set straight out of the Catskills, and could easily have been placed on another night. But not this time.
Tony Cowards’s set is probably best described as five minutes of dad jokes – torturous wordplay delivered with a knowing acknowledgment of just how cheesy they are. One or two are rather good, although they are outnumbered by those whose punchlines you could possibly fill in for yourself. He gets his biggest laugh for self-deprecatingly acknowledge the shoddy quality of his work – in which respect he’s closest to Tim Vine than any other peddler of one-liners – but overall there’s not too much extra in the performance that you wouldn’t get simply from following him on Twitter.
Deadpan Jo Ogden, one of the least experienced acts on the bill but one of the best-supported among the audience, took a tricky path, wallowing in her misery, especially in the relationship stakes. There’s a small selection of strong lines – a particular stand-out precisely nailing how her 39th birthday was a matter of mourning not celebration – but overall the awkward routine seemed a little flat and directionless, certainly needing more polish.
Linda Larkin is a great character, a whimsical, slightly nervous East London housewife type who’s one bad day from being totally away with the fairies. Her quirky observations seem fresh, while asides that give insights into her peculiar personality can only hint at what’s really going on in that preoccupied mind. The creation of Sam Savage, this is the sort of believable oddball around which sitcoms are built, so expect to see more as the engaging character develops, hopefully boosted by her third placing tonight.
Like opening act Hollins, Vahid Jahangard sounded less like a comedian and more like the accountant he is. He certainly has an encylopaedic knowledge of auditing best practice. His set was a bit of a jumble – and probably weakened by too many cheap knob gags – but there was some nice lines, even a different take on the 72 virgins supposedly awaiting jihadists in paradise, an idea that’s so often mocked. With an Iranian Muslim background, that’s the tip of some bold piss-taking of Islam that more timid (and more white) comics might pussyfoot around. He needs a few more gig-miles, but an interesting and different voice could emerge from this.
The second half was even stronger than the first, kicked off in style by the classy Tony Dunn, who brought a political edge to his witty exposé of white male privilege, by way of explaining how the historic bias has benefitted him. With a single routine capable of swerving from conversational small-talk to the atrocities of Joseph Stalin, Dunn’s writing has an impressive scope and compelling sense of purpose, delivered smartly. Perhaps the most straightforward stand-up of the night, he’s a comic with plenty to say.
Steve Jameson’s unapologetically old-school alter-ego Sol Bernstein received one of the best audience reactions of the night, as he machine-gunned his way through his insulting, attitude-laden one-liners. In many ways this affectionate adoption of a classic Jewish shtick allows him to have his lekach and eat it, getting away with some defiantly un-PC material through the ironic veneer of a character. So he gets laughs from calling women hookers, purely because of his towering chutzpah, where it’d be hard to make that fly if done as himself. And the jabs keep coming, making the audience punchdrunk.
Yet another character next, with the intriguing Ms Samantha Mann, the creation of Charles Adrian Gillott and a genteel, well-spoken poet who probably thinks Radio 4 has got a bit too racy since it stopped being the Home Service. She’s put off whenever the audience laughs at her oh-so serious musings, so making it forbidden and all the more potent. And since there’s plenty of wry, off-the-wall wit in the writing, there are plenty of giggles to be stifled during this classy, different act.
Gerry Howell is part Mitch Hedberg and part Eddie Izzard – a comparison that’s been made ever since he emerged on to the open mic scene half a dozen years ago. But he never manages to emerge out of either of those mighty shadows to make the distracted, stoner philosophy his own. It’s a shame, as he has some great jokes and the distracted, flibbertigibbet style works for him to a large degree. If he could make the evolutionary leap in his delivery so he doesn’t appear so obviously derivative, good things could await. But such a leap is taking a long time to materialise.
Tim Shishodia is reminiscent of other comics too – but so many that out of the blender of inspiration comes something that feels vibrant and fresh. There’s Milton Jones’s shirts, a dash of Harry Hill’s non sequiturs, Tim Vine’s cheesy showmanship, Norman Wisdom’s haplessness, Tony Law’s ‘what the hell am I doing?’ sideways glances to audiences… and more than anything else, Tommy Cooper’s inherent, undefinable sense of funny. Shishodia has that rare gift,which he exploits with a lively, unpredictable delivery and deliciously daft punchlines. A great ball of energy so late in the show, he proved the No 1 choice of the judges (myself included) and a good chunk of the audience.
Second place went to circuit stalwart Dr George Ryegold (or Toby Williams), who closed the show with his magnificent flaunting of medical ethics. A large part of his set was meticulously observed first-hand comedy about snorting coke, before moving on to glory holes and a particularly graphic description of female anatomy as his payoff. The rich, gothic elegance of his language, in stark contrast to the base situations he describes, is Ryegold’s unique selling point – and such strangely directed comic eloquence marked him out as another strong act on a night full of them.
On tonight’s evidence, the over-35s can certainly show the young whippersnappers a thing or two…