A year in the life of a BBC New Comedy Award winner
Well, it’s been almost a year since I won the BBC New Comedy Award and blimey what a year it's been.
(L-R Lewis Carnie, Radio 2 Head of Programming, Sarah Millican, Patrick Kielty, Angela Barnes, Stephen K. Amos and Jane Bethoud,Head of BBC Radio Comedy)
This time last year I was working full time and just doing as many open spots as I could, like any budding comedian does. I’d been gigging for just over a year on the open mic circuit and, (it’s a familiar story), travelling round the country doing 5 or 10 minutes of material in line-ups of 20 other comedians, for no money - sometimes not even a drink - and spending a fortune on train fares. As horrific as that may sound, anyone who has done it will tell you that they wouldn’t change it for the world; being an open spot on the new act circuit introduced me to some of my favourite people in the world. There’s an overwhelming sense of camaraderie, and 'we’re all in this togetherness', which, believe me, you need when faced with a room that can hold 50 people, but contains just three that have been dragged off the street and 15+ other acts. This is your apprenticeship as a comedian. It is thankless, hard work, time consuming and exhausting, but you love it and it makes you the comedian you become.
Then, pretty last minute and on a bit of a whim, I entered the BBC New Comedy Award and things started to change. The competition was one that I’d been very aware of in the 90s. I distinctly remember watching it on TV the night Dan Antopolski won it in 1998, and thinking then that stand-up was something I really wanted to do. (It took me a good 11 years to pluck up the courage to do my first gig though!) Comedy competitions can feel a bit counterintuitive. One of the things I loved most about being on the open mic circuit was the support of the other comics and the genuine will that everyone involved in a gig had a good time. To then put myself in a position where I was competing against those very supportive friends I had made felt at odds with what we were doing. However, with the ever growing number of people turning to comedy, there is that all important need to get your CV looking good if you want to make it to the next level, and competitions are part and parcel of getting to the next rung of the ladder. So, when a well-respected comedy promoter saw me at a gig and told me they thought I should enter the BBC New Comedy Award, I thought “why not?”, dutifully sent off my application and promptly forgot all about it.
I then got the call that I had made it to the heats; mine would be at Komedia, in my home town of Brighton. When I walked into the room that night and looked at the comics I was up against - people I gigged with regularly and respected - my first thought was "well, you might as well go home now". But I didn’t, I did my 5 minutes and had a lovely time. The heats are judged by a professional comedian (in my case Simon Evans), and industry experts. It was a blessed relief from those other competitions where the audience votes for their favourite comic, meaning that they are merely an exercise in who can bring most friends to the gig. I was runner up in my heat to the rather brilliant Adam Hess. I was well happy with that. I was already starting to see things I could pop on the old CV.
All the runners up from the ten heats were put into an online vote for the two wildcard places on the semi-finals. When I got the call from Lianne (producer) to say that I had made it through the vote and won one of the places on the Edinburgh semi-final, I was beside myself: I had what I wanted from the process, the chance to put 'BBC New Comedy Award Semi-Finalist' on my CV. I also started getting interest from agents at this stage – something that it hadn’t occurred to me would happen. I was made up. The semi in Edinburgh was a delight; a road-trip with some wonderful friends. The gig was fun, we had a ball doing it, and when the judges announced my name as one of the 3 going through to the finals, well, that was proper smashing.
As the final approached, the mix of nerves and excitement began to build. I had already achieved what I wanted, to be a finalist in this prestigious event. Job done. On the day of the final, I sat in my hotel room and tried to keep calm and remember to eat.
Then, the totally unexpected happened: I won. When Patrick said my name, I thought I had heard him wrong. No part of me thought I had what it takes to win, but there he was saying my name on Radio 2. Lordy. And what a night we had to celebrate. Most of it is a blur. I just have my treasured lump of Perspex (resplendent with chip out of corner where I drunkenly dropped it at the after show celebration).
Soon after the final, more agents started showing an interest, and I was being asked to do some dream gigs. I had some really good people around me helping me to make decisions and to make sense of everything that was going on. I really must do a shout out here and say a thank you to the wonderful Sarah Millican, who was there on the night of the final. She took me by the hand, lead me back to the dressing room and sat me down. We had a cup of tea and she let me get my breath back. She went over with me what would happen next and ever since that moment has been a brilliant support and mentor to me. She rocks.
Between then and now some truly amazing things have happened that I could only have dreamt about: performing at Latitude Festival, playing Eddie Izzard’s Laughs in the Park on BBC2, appearing on Weekend Wogan’s Children in Need Special (alongside Gary Barlow – I will never stop banging on about that), appearing on Russell Kane’s Whistlestop Tour for Radio 2, writing on Radio 4’s the News Quiz, developing my own series with BBC Radio Comedy and appearing on Russell Howard’s Good News (which will be aired this Fri 15 June, BBC Three, 22.00). Not to mention, of course, the increase in offers of circuit gigs and getting to play bigger live venues alongside my heroes of comedy.
So there we are. It happened. On that night last June, my little comedy hobby ended... and my comedy career began. Winning the Award put me on the first rung of a long, long ladder. Thanks to the BBC New Comedy Award, I am now a year into the career I have wanted for a long, long time. I have a long way to go and a LOT of hard work ahead of me, but having the validation of the public saying “Yes, we think you’re funny”, gave me the strength I needed to face the challenge. There will be highs and lows on this journey, but I’m ready for ‘em and am getting right stuck in. Winning the BBC New Comedy Award doesn’t mean you’ve made it. It means you’ve made the first step into the professional arena. It’s up to me now. And I intend to work my arse off to get there.
Fancy turning your comedy hobby into a career like Angela? Submit your BBC New Comedy Award 2012 entry here.