Impish Irishman Andrew Maxwell has a dream. He wants to take stand-up comedy all around the world, with festivals in the unlikeliest of places. "Everywhere. In the Middle East. Up mountains." He has certainly made a good start with the mountains, helping to launch the Altitude Festival, which has been bringing top-quality stand-up to the ski slopes of Europe since 2008. After three eventful years in the French resort of Meribel the festival moved to Mayrhofen in Austria in 2011 and returns there for the third time later this month.
The latest line-up is bigger and more spectacular than ever. It has just been announced that globe-straddling stand-up and all-round great bloke Eddie Izzard will be headlining Altitude 2013, joining another big hitter, John Bishop. There are surely few better ways to see comedy than at Altitude up close and personal. In Meribel in 2010 I saw John Bishop joking about about his tiresome teenage sons in a tiny bar where the audience was so close we could see the sunburn on his nose. In England tickets for Bishop would cost three times the price and he would be a tiny dot in the distance.
Al Murray appeared at Altitude in 2010 and loved it. It was a unique opportunity to see him doing his mock-xenophobic Pub Landlord character in front of a crowd containing continental as well as UK fans. Murray even attempted to mark the occasion by doing a gig in French for the first time: "I tried to dust off what I could remember of my French O level 25 years ago." He also tried skiing for the first time at Altitude. "Going downhill in a straight line was easy. It was stopping that was the problem."
The concept of Altitude came about thanks to Andrew Maxwell and fellow stand-up Marcus Brigstocke, who both return this year. They are both obsessive snowboarders and used to do pocket-sized "taking the piste" tours in Meribel and Chamonix in return for free travel, accommodation and ski passes. With some of the most comprehensive contact books in the business they started inviting their friends down and, hey presto, a Festival was born. All they needed was the name: "I'd been to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk and the name of Altitude just occurred to me," recalls Brigstocke.
Over the years some of TV's biggest names have tried their luck on the slopes for the first time. Primetime regular Micky Flanagan made his debut three years ago: "I was a bit worried about breaking a bone at my age, but I survived," he smiles. Perrier Award winner Jenny Eclair flew the flag for female comedy at this Edinburgh Fringe-on-Ice, but took a precaution, putting on bright pink nail polish as well as plenty of warm designer clothing: "So that if I got stuck in the snow at least the St Bernards would be able to see my hand."
The growth of the Festival coincides with the exponential explosion of the stand-up comedy scene. Comedians are everywhere, from panel games to rock venues. And while there is a risk that seeing a comedian in London can start to feel the same as seeing them at home on DVD there is no chance of that at Altitude, where the atmosphere is absolutely unique. "It certainly beats Romford on a Saturday night," says London circuit regular Ian Stone, who appeared at Altitude in 2011 and 2012.
Offstage there is an informal mood, with comedians and fans mingling over hot chocolate and beer. And as well as seeing the performers onstage in the evening or afterwards in the bar comparing bruises, there is every chance of bumping into them on the slopes, though with 639 km of piste in Mayrhofen for all standards there is plenty of snow to go round. The organisers have thought of everything, with package tours coming complete with show tickets.
Further highlights this year will be Phill Jupitus, Howard Marks, Daniel Sloss, English-speaking German stand-up superstar Michael Mittermeier and storytelling mountain man Craig Campbell. Pack the aftersun and rest assured that the only avalanche will be an avalanche of laughter. And who knows, maybe Izzard in a blizzard?
The Altitude Festival runs from 18 - 22 March. Information/booking at www.altitudefestival.com