Opinion: Who Knows Best, Critics or The Public?

Jonny Pelham

Who knows best, critics or the public? This is a question that usually comes up with big stars. Mrs Brown's Boys regularly gets a critical hammering despite being hugely popular. Peter Kay has his knockers despite being a consistent crowdpleaser. Elsewhere critics adore Stewart Lee while the general public can be divided between those who get him and those who don't.

But this week I noticed a schism at the other end of the scale. At the Comedy Store on Monday night I was in the audience at the BBC Radio New Comedy Awards. The standard among the six finalists was incredibly high and after the acts had finished I quickly wrote my review before the public votes had been counted and put it up on the website here.

For me there was a clear winner – the first act, Jonny Pelham (pictured). As I finished the review I looked on Twitter to update it with the result and saw that the act that had received the most votes was the final act, Steve Bugeja. I thought he was great but the standard was so high I'd have put him joint third.

This is not the first time the public and I have been at odds. Every year, like most critics, I receive at least one complaint from a diehard fan asking if I had actually been at the gig that I had actually reviewed because my response was so different to the rest of the audience. I don't want to come out with a sob story but there have been occasions where I've felt like the only person in a room of 16,000 not worrying that my sides are about to be rent asunder by some snappy observational gags.

Oh well, I thought, lucky I didn't stake my house on Pelham, my judgement was a bit out for a change. The next morning however I received communications from two people in the comedy business who both agreed with my verdict. OK, fair enough, two people is hardly a nation divided. Then Steve Bennett's review appeared on Chortle. Steve was a judge alongside Rhod Gilbert and BBC Radio Comedy supremo Jane Berthoud and he let it slip that Pelham was their favourite too. The judges had no vote and were there purely in a "ceremonial" capacity, but it was interesting to discover that there was clearly an industry groundswell of support for Pelham at odds with the listeners at home.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that there is anything fishy about the vote. I asked the BBC if they could tell me the voting numbers so that I could see whether it was close and they got back to me to say that they don't reveal the votes, they only announce the winner and that the vote was independently verified.  

I'm perfectly happy to accept that Bugeja got the most votes and I have no issues with him winning. I guess the public just liked him more than they liked Jonny Pelham. Maybe he came across better on the radio than in the flesh. Who knows, if the public were right and the critics were wrong then Bugeja will be playing the O2 Arena in a few years. Or maybe we are both right - maybe he'll be doing a double header at the O2 with Pelham.

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