First time unlucky...

Hartley Pool relives his brief experience with stand-up competitions

‘Bloody hell, I’m gonna be famous!’

That’s how it felt as I stared at the letter in my still shaking hand, trying to take in the words: ‘…pleased to confirm that your entry for the BBC New Act Competition has been successful…’

How on earth I’d managed that was anyone’s guess. I could vaguely recall the night several months before, when merry on wheat beer and Hungarian wine, I’d turned my loft apartment into a kind of ‘comedy recording studio’, and spent several hours putting together my submission. What I eventually came up with was a five-minute set of ‘avant garde’ poetry and one-liners like: ‘What did Salvador Dali used to eat for breakfast? Surreal’

This was my first experience of comedy, save a strangely well-received set at a local English speaking poetry and performing arts event. I assumed that I’d already done the difficult bit and that this letter from the BBC was my backstage pass to the world of celebrity.

I mentally prepared myself to become part of comedy history, booked myself in to the heat at Newcastle’s Hyena Café and made a list of witty retorts I could improvise if anyone in the audience somehow realized I was a witless wanker..

By the time I walked into the club I’d managed to both calm myself down and get my energy up for the gig by drinking a superbly strong Belgian beer and listening repeatedly to Robbie Williams and Maxi Jazz singing My Culture on my CD Walkman. So I was in a strangely hyped up, yet chilled out mood as I signed my name in the book and took my place at a side table with all the other acts.

‘John Cooper,’ a short, stodgy guy with comedy hair took my hand and made me feel a little better about things. ‘That’s Mat and Faron, they’re a musical act, over there is Dan Nightingale, and…’

‘All right,’ a scary-eyed man with very little hair and a paedophile’s smile stalked past me on the way to the toilet.’

‘… and that was Seymour Mace. He’s very good.’

‘Right,’ this was starting to feel a bit ominous. ‘So do you all know each other, then?’

‘Oh aye, we’ve met on the circuit – where have you gigged, then?’

‘Erm… the, er… the… No. Actually, I haven’t really gigged before.’

‘Oh well.’ He gave me a sympathetic pat. ‘You’ll be alright. The compere – Gavin Webster – he’s a good lad.’

‘You know him as well?’

‘Oh yeah, everyone knows everyone here. Well, you know…except you.’


I was backstage – well, side-stage really – feeling fairly confident. Dan Nightingale had done some reasonably amusing schtick about fighting people off with a banjo, John entertained with a story about being squashed up against old ladies breasts, and Seymour Mace hadn’t been on yet.

I felt what I had in my hand was probably of the same standard – though I was a little perturbed that they all seemed to have learnt their material, but that probably wasn’t too important. A Scottish bloke whose name I can’t remember left to some applause, and I started to get ready - making sure I had my script in my hand, trying to get my moustache sticky enough to stay on for the whole gig and secreting four different pairs of glasses in different pockets for various ‘sight’ gags.

Luckily I knew I had a some time to do this – compere Gavin Webster was on average taking four or five minutes to do some patter and introduce each act, talking about the last time he’d seen them, or how many gigs they’d done. Of course, I had forgotten that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about me.

‘And next on tonight ladies and gentlemen, erm – Hartley Pool! Here he is!’

Here I am? Shit

I stumbled on, half my props left behind, a moustache that felt suspiciously loose and a sudden urge to evacuate my innards.

‘Good evening,’ I managed, ‘I’m Edward Schmedward, and I’d like to read my first poem…’

There were groans, but the groans soon turned to laughter and before I knew it, my time was up, and Gavin was walking back onto the stage.

Later, during the break, a man at the bar said he thought I was ‘great’ and bought me a beer. Buoyed by not having been heckled on stage – which surely meant I was the next Richard Pryor – and his congratulations, I drank far too much, forgot how good Seymour Mace had been and started to plan what I would call my first television series.

A few months later, the competition over, I began to accept that my invitation to the next heat probably hadn’t been lost in the post. In all fairness, I decided, the verdict is now probably not going to be overturned when they realize what a horrific mistake they made. The actual winner was the ventriloquist Nina Conti, though for a long time I called her something else entirely.

Published: 17 Jun 2008

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