BBC New Comedy Award Final 2005

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

The BBC might have downgraded its new comedy awards, as it slips down the channels from BBC 1 to digital radio station BBC7 alone this year, but it seems to have had no effect on the quality of the stand-ups it unearths.

The corporation’s kudos, and the £2,000 it puts up for its winner, has always attracted a fine quality of entrant, and the six who won through to the 2005 final, hosted by Dara OBriain, made for a strong and diverse line-up.

So strong, in fact, that the first contestant up, James Branch, couldn’t even manage to find a place – despite a blisteringly confident delivery and some fine jokes.

He owns the stage like a comic with five times his experience, and is skilled at illustrating his fluid set with little character sketches, be it sullen teenagers taking grown-up jobs, or Neil Armstrong’s bizarre speech impediment.

He employs his smart middle-class persona to good effect, and while one or two ideas slightly overstay their welcome, that’s most definitely the exception rather than the rule. It’s the delivery that’s dynamite, though, and his move to the professional circuit will surely be a baby step, rather than one giant leap.

Cambridge student Luke Roberts opened his set with something of an eccentric rant against critics, which I suppose is his way of getting his retaliation in first. An odd choice of subject, perhaps, for someone who’s probably never been reviewed until now – and indicating this is unlikely to be the most personal of performances.

Still, he has some clever and offbeat ideas which yield some neat lines. But the directions he spins these into don’t particularly lead anywhere, diluting the effect of the gags. In a way, he’s trying a bit too hard to be quirky, with deliberately flighty digressions – when the jokes at the core are quite strong enough not to need all this flannel.

Yet as the youngest finalist, he still has time to develop.

Sarah Millican, who has become a stalwart of this year’s new comedy finals, was next up with her routine inspired by her recent divorce. And it’s not the bitter rant against an evil ex that you might expect, rather a more honest, slightly touching, account of her feelings and the reactions of others, especially her accidentally cruel father.

With material like this, and her sweet Tyneside accent, she first appears vulnerable, easily winning the audience’s sympathy. But it turns out that veneer hides a very sharp tongue.

There is also some less interesting material on slogans for underwear, which we’ve mentioned in reviews of her before, but that, too, goes down very well.

In the end, she claimed a runners-up place, as she seems to do in most finals. Seems this divorcee is always the bridesmaid.

She was followed National Youth Theatre actor Tom Allen, just 22 but could pass for a lot older – and his thespian training certainly showed.

He has the sort of velvety, educated, slightly effete and always affronted tones that wouldn’t be out of place on the Fifties Light Service. Ideal, then, for BBC7, the home of vintage comedy.

And his stories wouldn’t be out of place on ITMA, either, full as they are of grand dames, brigadiers and pure indignity. His core tale is about how his efforts to be ‘the greatest maitre d’ Bexleyhill has ever seen’.

It’s a strong, clearly defined persona, and one who could clearly have a future beyond stand-up, which no doubt appealed to the BBC judges who awarded him first prize. Oh, and it’s funny, too, in a gossipy way.

Australian Aaron Counter was surely the most experienced of the six, although his delivery seemed underpowered compared to some of the strong performances on offer tonight.

He’s softly-spoken and subdued, not always the best attributes for a comedian, although he also demonstrates a quiet confidence and a quick wit, shown by his comeback to an early, if well-intentioned, heckle.

His is a conversational approach, chatting about his experiences and his travels. The choice of topics isn’t that inspired – reactions to him being from down under (even though being an Aussie is hardly unusual), troubles with his girlfriend and the fraught business of air travel.

There are a few nice lines, and he’s an engaging enough character, but struggles to stand out from the crowd.

That’s not a problem Ed Aczel has. He is definitely an unforgettable performer. He has no jokes, reads the topic titles from the back of his hand and has all the delivery skills of the chief accountant awkwardly making a staff announcement.

Yet his is brilliantly funny… and there’s absolutely no reason why he should be, other than the sheer subversion of the idea of a comedian being a confident, strong personality reeling off sharp jokes.

Instead he catalogues what he’s about to talk about, then offers vacuous, non-committal platitudes on each of them. Example: ‘What can you say about the SpanishArmada? I’m not 100 per cent sure.’

It’s impossible to explain, but reduced the room to hysterics - although it’s easy to envisage other situations when he would die a horrible, slow death.

His set is, however, unlike anything you have ever seen, and truly deserving of the other runners-up slot.

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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