Comics on the white powder...

Bruce Dessau reports from Altitude 2010

It was a case of third time lucky for the Altitude Festival in Meribel, in the French Alps. The world's only ski resort comedy festival finally found its feet after two slippery years. There had certainly been great nights in the past, such as Lee Mack and John Bishop doing brilliant intimate sets, but for co-founder Marcus Brigstocke there was the minor matter of losing his shirt on his labour of love.

This year, however, new backers were on board and as well as some storming gigs there was even, whisper it, talk of the week breaking even.

The live comedy boom has clearly spread to the Alps, although things got off to a shaky start. Jonathan Ross's house band 4 Poofs and a Piano cancelled their opening show due to low ticket sales. The omens were not good. Then, as if by magic, the festival suddenly gained momentum after a couple of days and Altitude was flying. Not so much the Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards as the Franz Klammer of festivals.

There was, however, one act who was never going to have difficulties shifting tickets. The last time I saw the Pub Landlord it was at the O2 Arena. This time it was in Meribel's modest theatre which holds around 250 people. Al Murray could not lose at Altitude. Drawing mainly on old material his banter with the audience was boosted ten-fold by them being within lager-spittle distance. And with this well-heeled crowd it didn't take long to come across someone from the banking world, prompting Murray’s sublime credit crunch analysis, which culminated in him throttling said financier while demanding to know, ‘Where's the fucking money?’

He was having such an enjoyable time he even appeared unannounced at Jacks Bar's anarchic Peaking Late sessions – Altitude's answer to Edinburgh's Late 'n' Live – on a couple of nights. Jacks is the place where comedy gets brilliantly back to basics. The stage is an inch off the ground, the glass door has black plastic stuck on it to block out the light and the pool table is used for extra seating. On one occasion Murray was slightly worse for wear, but was still able to do his famous routine in which fans shout out names of obscure countries and he says when and where England – unbeaten at war in the 20th Century – defeated them.

Upping the ante further, Murray even took part in Brigstocke's Franglais soiree, doing the same gags in French. It would have been nice for Murray to revive the Landlord's back story – about his wife running off with a Frenchman and taking their son with, which suggests the bar steward’s Francophobia is not merely bigotry – but instead he was having too much fun explaining how it must be hard for our Gallic chums to think in English – which, he explained, everyone does – but then speak in French.

While Murray dipped in and out of pidgin French, Nick Doody did a set which seemed pretty fluent to these grade B French O-level ears. It was interesting how one could pick up the punchlines even when one only recognised half of the words, thanks to a bit of second-guessing when it came to jokes about annoying yoofs playing ‘la musique’ on their phones. A few obvious jokes, but mostly smart humour from someone regularly overlooked by award panels in Edinburgh. Maybe if Perrier launched a French competition – which would be appropriate – he’d have better luck entering that.

One of the other big hits wasn't even supposed to be on the bill, but Altitude curator Andrew Maxwell knows a crowd-pleasing act when he sees one. He booked Irish improvising rappers Abandoman when Rich Hall cancelled and there were few complaints. In fact Abandoman would have stayed longer but had to return to London for the Musical Comedy Awards, which they promptly won.

As the week progressed, attendances grew, due to a mix of word of mouth and fortuitous timing. When Rufus Hound was booked he was known in comedy circles as a fine compere. By the time he arrived in Meribel – a resort packed with telly-watching English tourists – he was a household face thanks to winning Sport Relief's Let's Dance with his Cheryl Cole impression.

This might have explained the sell-out crowds at the improv shows, but anyone who came for Hound was more than entertained by Stephen Frost, Marcus Brigstocke, Ian Coppinger, Andy Smart and Dave Johns. The games are the same as ever – if I hear one more audience member suggesting a team do something in the style of silent movies I'll eat my Chaplin DVD boxed set – but improv virgins in the stalls lapped it up. As they left you could hear them convinced that it was secretly scripted.

Other hits included chilled out American Tony Woods. His cool, calm manner inevitably drew comparisons with Reg Hunter, but after a while Woods' own personality emerged as he bantered about being a black comedian travelling around the world. Woods is a little old-school in his attitude to women – wondering why polygamists would want four wives, meaning four times the nagging – but he had enough charm to get away with it.

Phil Kay initially looked liked another festival winner, but after a storming gig at Jacks on Wednesday, which he performed mainly standing on stools in the audience, the following night he returned and died in front of a crowd that simply didn’t get him. But that’s the unpredictable alchemy of live stand-up in general and a hgh-risk genius like Kay in particular. Every gig is like chucking chemicals into a test tube. Change the balance slightly and instead of comedy gold you get burnt.

South London’s Micky Flanagan was on safer ground with his well-polished patter about going from fish porter to yuppie. I was slightly anxious that his middle-aged shtick about Eighties dating rituals might struggle with a crowd barely born back then, but his painfully honest tales of slipping into his seduction kimono struck a timeless chord. If Michael McIntyre is a Route One observational comedian, Flanagan takes conversational B roads. Not exactly a sidesplitter-a-second, but always a more enjoyable journey.

And so by the end of Friday Altitude was over. Honourable mentions should also go to the musicians – Newton Faulkner did a full gig, KT Tunstall did an ad hoc set by the pool. Andrew Maxwell was a terrific compere despite some seriously committed partying. Let’s hope he’s recovered in time for his national tour which starts, appropriately, on April Fool’s Day.

Al Murray was saying that he would like to return for more snow-based fun next year. With Altitude's profile rising he can expect some rival big names to be challenging him for the title of King of the Piste Artistes.

Click here to see a photo gallery from the festival.

Published: 29 Mar 2010

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