High on comedy

Bruce Dessau visits the Altitude Festival

It's not every day that a man in a yeti suit attempts to sell you a comedy festival ticket, but the Altitude Comedy Festival is no ordinary comedy festival. OK, you might get the odd student in a bear costume in Edinburgh in August, but this is seriously different. Altitude takes place in the Alpine resort of Meribel. As the festival motto says, Skiing All Day, Comedy All Night.

This year's festival got off to a flying start with a couple of storming sets from Omid Djalili. Organisers Andrew Maxwell and Marcus Brigstocke lured the forthcoming Fagin by inviting his family over too. Djalili won some new fans and they all went home having learnt to ski, thanks to one of the few Iranian instructors in France.

The next big name to arrive was Ardal O'Hanlon, who headlined a Best Of Irish night in the town's theatre. As host Mark Walker put it, this was Irish in the loose Jack Charlton sense, with Liverpudlian John Bishop completing a bill that also featured Andrew Maxwell.

Any fears that the audience would sue under the Trade Descriptions Act were soon allayed when Bishop strolled out and proceeded to wow the crowd. I've never been a big fan of this mainstream Bez lookalike, but there is no denying that he can raise a laugh. His references are mundane – work, getting old, parenthood – but he sure can spin a yarn. His tale of the moment when he realised that his teenage son could beat him up is surely destined to become comedy classic.

Bishop was arguably more of a hit than Andrew Maxwell, who trotted out his always entertaining routines about doing gigs for Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and also in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison. Maxwell is undeniably a comic at the top of his game, but maybe he should spend less time on the slopes and more time writing new material. Here is a scoop though – apparently he is going to be dancing in his next Edinburgh show.

The less said about Mark Walker the better, but this crude hybrid of Maxwell and Jason Byrne would clearly do well at a stag night. It was left to O'Hanlon to raise the tone with a beautifully nuanced offbeat set that, like Bishop's, also considered the depressing travails of middle age. O'Hanlon revealed that he was completely bald, he now simply brushes his ever-expanding eyebrows over his pate.

Later that night Maxwell had more fun hosting a brilliantly raucous rammed bar gig featuring Phil Nichol, Bishop and pin-sharp American satirist Tom Rhodes, though I was distracted by the Yeti drinking lager in the corner. He had removed his headgear and turned out to be Paul Byrne, who is Ed Byrne's brother, Phil Nichol's occasional guitarist and full-time Johnny Depp lookalike.

The following evening the big gig was Stars Of Radio 4. Marcus Brigstocke, who apparently has to appear on R4 every night by law, was joined by Mitch Benn, Milton Jones and Fred MacAulay. The auditorium was suddenly full of well-bred Archers fans and their red-faced public school children. In fact, Brigstocke got everyone to sing the Archers theme at the start, which is a novel way of warming up your fans.

Despite being the kind of Pimm’s o'clock crowd not normally sighted at comedy gigs, this went well. Macaulay did a brilliant impression of a labrador and came across as a cleaner Frankie Boyle, Milton Jones delivered his trademark immaculately crafted one-liners and came across as a cleaner Jimmy Carr. If only these acts were filthier, they might be filling the Hammersmith Apollo too.

Mitch Benn chipped in with some great songs and some dull stories, and the night’s highlight was an ad hoc Just A Minute, with Andre Vincent doing an extraordinarily camp Nicholas Parsons impression. The best round involved discussing rude things the panellists would like to do to Altitude musical guest KT Tunstall. Which was particularly funny for me, because, unknown to them, KT Tunstall was sitting in front of me.

By Wednesday night my comedy bones were starting to ache as much as my mountain-weary calves. A month in Edinburgh is actually easier than this because in Scotland you can sleep in. Here one had to be on the slopes by 10am. Well, it wasn't compulsory, but skiing is all part of the Meribel madness.

Interestingly none of the acts that I saw did any Natasha Richardson material, but then they did very little topical material and sensibly kept things light. There was no mention of Jacqui Smith's porn-perusing hubby, which I'm sure is currently featuring heavily in London. What there were, however, were plenty of gags at the expense of snowboarders from the skiing comics and plenty of gags at the expense of skiers from the boarders.

The Comedy Store Players’ improvised gig was loose enough to incorporate a few new skiing gags. Caterpillar-eyebrowed Stephen Frost's mime with an imaginary pole went from pole-dancing to ski-pole to the effects of Viagra with consummate ease. The suggestion that the team do a sketch entitled Cheese Mountain (cheese is big out here) prompted an outbreak of mass mincing.

Generally though the comedians tended to take more risks on their boards than onstage, although there were some audacious attempts from the likes of Brigstocke to do some gags in French, which were cheered on by a supportive crowd not because he did them well but just because he did them.

By Thursday it was home-time. Having flown out via Geneva and a two-hour transfer I chose to take a slow trip on a fast train back to reality, travelling to Paris by super-punctual TGV and then on the Eurostar. So I missed Maxwell’s attempt at the world’s highest-ever gig, actually up a mountain. He’d already done a gig there last year, but was determined to beat his own record by standing on chair. Maybe next year he can beat that by sitting on a yeti’s shoulders.

Published: 7 Apr 2009

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