The British Comedy Awards

Saturday, December 15, 2001 by

December always brings a glut of televised award ceremonies, but this year it’s felt like the circus of acclamation and recrimination has hauled itself up a notch. Last weekend alone boasted the Record of the Year, The Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, The Turner Prize and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Add to that a few other recent gigs, including the European Film Awards and the Blue Peter Book Awards, plus Pop Idol which continues to trade on the emotional impact of the giving and the taking away of recognition. The amount of airtime handed over to people honouring one another is a reminder how award ceremonies really are the ultimate cheap and cheerful TV to fling out just before Christmas.

The British Comedy Awards, however, has always stood out from the rest. It’s got a fantastic history, of course: an inventory of drunken barracking, choice profanity, shameless media in-jokes and, courtesy of Julian Clary, media outrage. It has a credibility and prestige that far outweighs that of its individual prizes. Above all it’s a show that tries to pretend it’s some kind of “alternative” awards ceremony dressed up like a big grown-up affair, but ends up something different again. Consequently this year, as before, its arrival was a welcome addition to the pre-festive schedules.

Yet the evening did not get off to a promising start. Shots of celebrities arriving at LWT were set to a mostly inaudible narration from, of all people, “Mr Burns” from The Simpsons. Though it was a nice change to have a cartoon character do the usual routine namechecking, obscure references to showbiz stars of the 1930s were lost amongst the noise of chatter and unimaginative droning background music that would annoyingly surface all through the evening. Once this was out the way, however, action moved inside the studios where Jonathan Ross was in charge, as he has been for most of the show’s 12-year existence. Given how inept his BBC talk show has been in failing to iron out its many faults, it was ironic that Jonathan proceeded to give a consummate performance working for the opposition, thanks mostly to a cracking script from Jim Pullin and Fraser Steele.

His introductory monologue was once again the highlight of the entire evening. In front of a mostly accommodating, but never warm, audience of performers and industry folk, there were the usual gags about comedy being the self-important business that it is – we were live from “an airless room full of egos” – and unsubtle insults aimed at Steve Penk and Johnny Vaughan. Jonathan also informed everyone of how the building had been declared “free of Caroline Ahearne”. This was a reference to the woman’s inebriated ranting at the 2000 Comedy Awards, and actually won some boos from the crowd, though, as Jonathan pointed out, notable for being somewhat delayed in their arrival. “These awards cannot overrun as we’re being followed by The Premiership,” he continued, but for some it was kind of expected, even hoped, that events would run late, just to spite Des.

Though “The whole process is more carefully scrutinized than Barrymore’s pool filter,” the Awards this year were notable for being palpably less relaxed and, somewhat unfortunately, more disciplined than in previous years. This was arguably for two reasons. First, the fact that the running time was only 90 minutes and the whole show had been awkwardly squeezed into such a tight schedule; and secondly because it frankly wasn’t clear what the point of the whole awards ceremony was. The show failed to properly deal with the fact that 2001 has been one of the worst years for TV comedy for a long time. Indeed, as the categories unfolded and programmes like Cold Feet and Bob and Rose – both of which are technically drama series – cropped up time and again, everything began to seem rather bizarre. An uneasiness as to why everyone was here and whether anything really deserved to be honoured in this way fuelled, perhaps, an anxiety that was evident in both host and audience. It was also one that seemed to be tempering any feeling of excitement at watching proceedings on TV.

Maybe the programme could have acknowledged its built-in deficiencies and made an on-running joke out of the fact that, for this year at least, UK comedy has remained meagre compared to America. As it was Jonathan seemed at times all too conscious of this, only to then settle happily back into the role of cocky master of ceremonies, abusing reputations and puncturing inflated egos. While this gave him some good lines – Mel B was introduced as someone “who can still remember the day when it was vodka, not yoga, that got Geri’s ankles behind her ears”, while Lorretta Swit, appearing in The Vagina Monologues, was welcomed with the revelation, “Her biggest fear is presumably drying on the first night” – it quickly became difficult to muster much interest in the award winners or what they were saying.

Earlier in the evening over a million people had rung in to eliminate one of the 10 finalists in Pop Idol. Now the public were asked to pick up their phones a second time to vote for The People’s Choice Award. The options were the episode of The Royle Family shown last Christmas (and possibly the weakest one in that programme’s history); and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Cold Feet and So Graham Norton, none of which were comedies. The number of callers who did bother to ring in was never revealed, but there were reminders throughout the show; and again when Cold Feet won it didn’t feel like anything special had happened.

There were a couple of amusing in-jokes, both in the tradition of mentioning names that the majority of viewers probably would not have heard of. Last year’s Comedy Awards was marked by winners continually thanking Granada producer Andy Harries; so as soon as his name appeared this year, Jonathan was quick to alert everyone to “The earliest mention of Andy Harries’ name in the Comedy Awards!” This enthusiasm was somewhat undermined by the fact his name didn’t actually crop up again. Graham Norton, winning Best Comedy Entertainment Programme, also raised a cheer when he thanked Channel 4 and confessed “Kevin (Lygo) and Michael Jackson, they weren’t that great were they?”

Frank Skinner seemed unimpressed with his Best Comedy Entertainment Personality Award: “Wow – first the plane spotters home safely, now this,” he muttered. In fact the studio audience seemed to become very quickly distracted, refusing to laugh at all when Jonathan tempted winners of the Best TV Comedy Show with “the keys to the executive coke room”. The winner of this category – “one of the big ones,” assured Jonathan a bit desperately – was One Foot in the Grave, which ended over 12 months ago. But then it was up against Coupling and The Office. Even Jonathan had done his best to spoil the mood, announcing to anyone listening to his Saturday morning Radio 2 show that he hadn’t won either of the awards he was up for “because they’ve already told me”.

One area the ceremony seemed to score well in was the choice of guests to present the awards. There were either people willing to ridicule themselves – Huey Morgan and Debbie Harry – or be ridiculed by Jonathan. When Vic Reeves stepped out with Jordan, Jonathan inevitably greeted them with the line, “Well, here’s a pair I didn’t expect to be here at the Comedy Awards!” He and Vic then continued with the breast jokes for a minute or so, which was in its own way quite fun. Steve Coogan showed up as himself, and Jonathan explained how much he was enjoying Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible, even though “I know I may well be in the minority in this country.” Steve then started giving Jonathan the finger, and the camera hastily cut to some clips. A dose of expletives was long overdue; and fortunately this wasn’t the only swearing, as a clip from So Graham Norton featured a “fuck” (at 9.40pm), while later still everyone was treated to a full frontal shot of a naked man.

Despite these distractions, though maybe partly because of them, as the show neared its end it became difficult to concentrate on the award categories or who was winning them, and increasingly easier to focus just on Jonathan’s introductions and the response of his guests. A highlight came when the memorable combination of Charlotte Church (“We’re lucky to get her because it’s Christmas and there’s babysitting work out there to be had”) and Anne Widdecombe appeared to present the award for Best New TV Comedy. Strutting onto the stage to the sound of Afroman’s Because I Got High, Jonathan then engaged Anne in some rather incoherent joking about the Socialist Worker Party, before retreating looking shaken. But The Office won – “The one you wanted,” Anne mumbled to a somewhat terrified Charlotte.

By now the evening was overrunning, and there was a noticeable rush to get through the Writer of the Year (Russell T Davies) and Lifetime Achievement Award (David Jason). Yet given all that went on it was surprising the coverage only finished 10 minutes over time – a reflection, perhaps, of the straitjacket placed on the show which had helped render it one of the more lacklustre entries in the Comedy Awards canon. It’s just as well that this programme always manages to end up more than the sum of its constituent parts when the product it deals with can often, as was the case this year, stoop so low.

Still, Des looked furious at being pushed even later in the schedules, which was worth it.


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