Marcus Brigstocke brings us Altitude Festival
Tim Clark22 March 2009
Marcus Brigstocke isn’t the kind of guy you would think could land himself in trouble.
The stern talking team leader of the TV show Argumental manages to give off the allure of ultimate control while working in a genre which is known to thrive on highlighting people’s mishaps and shortcomings.
So to listen as Brigstocke describes how, dressed as a vampire, he caused a small domestic emergency with the fire brigade and a smoke machine on Halloween last year comes as a relief; he is human after all - despite the supernatural attire.
Halloween aside, I am in an restaurant in south London to talk about something which on paper looks equally ludicrous: comedy on mountains.
Brigstocke, along with fellow comedian Andrew Maxwell, will host what must be the world’s most ambitious comedy festival. From next Saturday the second Altitude Festival is set to kick off in the ski resort of Méribel, France.
Altitude will draw a host of the world’s most influential comedians to France to perform in Meribel’s multitude of cafés and bars, with performances in English and French, and a host of other odd activities to keep any comedically inclined skier more than adequately entertained.
But what is it like putting on a festival at the top of a mountain?
It is the first real question of the interview and yet possibly the hardest to give a straight answer to. A range of emotions cross the veteran comedian's face in a flurry before Brigstocke settles on what fits best: “It's terrifying,” he admits. ‘In short, we’ve created a monster.
“Last year was the most stressful, busy, hectic two weeks of my life and it was the best time I have ever had in the Alps,” Brigstocke adds. “That’s why we’re doing it again.”
One thing is for sure, Brigstocke doesn't do things by halves and if Altitude is a monster then Marcus is Dr Frankenstein – for the festival is a creature of this own making.
Brigstocke set up gigs in the Alps over a decade ago as a way of subsidising his snowboarding holidays. One call to a bar in Chamonix and the promise of a free gig later Brigstocke’s mountain career was born.
“I was told, ‘If you get yourself and two more acts here, it’s a deal’. We did, and my mate said, ‘This is fucking awesome’. So we came out again and within a few years we ended up doing every other week across the whole of the Alps.
“Soon we had comics ringing up begging to get on the bill, even people who have never skied before.”
The line-up speaks for itself. The Altitude website astutely notes that the comedy bill includes 7 Perrier/if winners and nominees (the highest award in stand-up), 4 Chortle award winners, 2 British Comedy Awards nominees, 2 Baftas, 1 Emmy and C4’s King of Comedy.
This year highlights include the highest gig in the world (a record which will be broken next year with the use of a table), knitting competitions and a fancy dress ski race through the piste.
“What brings people together is the shared experience of the day’s skiing,” says Brigstocke, visibly animated by the idea that he is a conduit for new material.
“The comedians and the public have done the same thing, slipped in the same shit and are now able to laugh about it. It makes for better comedy as the crowd can quickly form a bond with the comedian.”
“It can be gags as simple as ‘Did anyone go over near that patch of ice near the piste?’ - it’s the same level of identification that the great comics get when they do high level observational material but on a small scale.'
Whatever happens, the festival is expected to be one of the highlights of the skiing and comedy calendar for 2009. And, as this year’s festival will run for one week instead of two, there will be more intensity to the acts.
The interview goes off-piste as it were, into the realms of the festival’s green issues - Altitude is carbon neutral and KT Tunstall is performing a benefit concert in aid of the WWF during the week.
Not bad credentials for a festival, but Altitude comes across has having one element in it that most festivals in the 21st century tend to forget: the spirit of adventure.
Not many people can ask the cream of their profession to pack up and head to a bar hundreds of miles away to perform for free, which is precisely what Brigstocke has done, and get such an overwhelming response.
And almost any skier would delight at the prospect of comedy in the late season sunshine, something Brigstocke is well aware of. There is the hint of giddy excitement whenever the subject of skiing comes up.
"This year it is the best snow conditions I have ever seen," He says. "It is incredible up there."
"Last year we took Phill [Jupitus] up to the top in a bubble car. We promised we wouldn't make him ski (Jupitus has previously stated that if he skied he wouldn't stop until he reached Belgium) but just to look at the view. I pointed out'there's Italy, there's Switzerland and there's Austria', he was gobsmacked."
Brigstocke may not have set out to do it, but with Altitude he has invoked the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe from decades ago. “People are seeing really great acts who can sell out 1,500 capacity theatres in the back of a bar.” He says.
“So tape a bit of wood to your feet and go for it. Simple as that.”
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