Have you ever been in a chorus of 5,000 people singing the words of an Indian takeaway menu to the tune of Nessun Dorma? Well, courtesy of Kit and the Widow, Susan Bullock and the BBC Comedy Prom, I now have. Of course, the delight of the Proms audience is that not only did everyone know the tune, but a large majority were able to sing it quite competently: it really sounded more than decent. And you'd be amazed at how well you can fit the words "Chicken Tikka Masala" and "Twenty pints of lager" into Puccini's music, not to mention the closing climax of "Vindaloo" to the tune for "vincerò".

This was the first ever "comedy prom", so there wasn't a tried and tested formula to use in creating the programme. The BBC opted for safety in numbers, going for an array of different acts from various corners of the comedy world and a select number of "real" musicians, backed by a full orchestra. The comedy acts were mostly (but not entirely) chosen for musical cred, with the whole lot compèred by Australian comedian Tim Minchin, an excellent pianist who has musical cred by the bucketload.

Tim Minchin © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Tim Minchin
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Minchin is a huge draw in himself: his flowing locks and trademark eye shadow frame a dazzling smile and a child-like delight in everything he does. The opportunity to play the Royal Albert Hall organ was too good to be passed up and he grabbed it with huge delight - one of the unintended amusements of the day was watching the Royal Albert Hall man checking it over anxiously to make sure he hadn't broken anything. His comedy is soft-spoken, understated and highly intelligent. He's also quite capable of competing with star pianists in jazz, Elton John style rock or his own style which seems to be standard singer-songwriter with a large helping of twentieth century classical. His song F sharp, a competition between his voice wanting to sing in F sharp and his fingers wanting to play in F, is a party trick of genius.

The longest slot was given to the cabaret duo Kit and the Widow, who produced the most risqué number of the evening in the shape of Somebody Else, their enumeration of Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes noting their, er, similarity to great works by other composers. We had a rapper (Doc Brown), a puppet show (The Mongrels) contributions from soprano Susan Bullock and Maestro winner Sue Perkins, plus my favourite, the beatboxer/tape looper Beardyman: if you've never heard beatboxing, check him out on Youtube to discover quite how much sound and how many different musical instruments a single person can produce when armed only with a microphone and a digital tape loop. Pianist Danny Driver (aided by conductor Andrew Litton) gave us Reizenstein's 1956 Concerto popolare, based on the gag that the orchestra and pianist have come to the stage expecting to play different concerti (bits of the orchestra also keep going off on other tangents such as Rhapsody in Blue and Pop goes the weasel). Most improbably, we also had a mime artist (as Minchin pointed out, not sure what the folks on Radio 3 are going to make of that one), Simon Wills, a.k.a The Boy With Tape On His Face, who did a superb act in which he mimed both halves of a slow-dancing couple.

It was all good, fun stuff, but somehow, the whole added up to less than the sum of its parts. I can think of two main reasons. The first was the sound system: people in different places in the hall agreed that a lot of the time, they were struggling to hear the words, which is pretty fatal for comedy. With an orchestra playing at full whack, you need to mix spoken word very loud to be heard distinctly, and whether from poor mixing or skimping on the cost of loudspeakers, the BBC didn't do it. The second is that it was quite obvious that everyone had been told to keep their acts clean. Jokes about the middle classness of the audience were fine, but anything likely seriously offend anyone was off limits (an exemption was presumably made for Lord Lloyd Webber - I guess the BBC rang his lawyers first). The result was that most of the acts were pleasant but lacking edge - Minchin's usual act contains an awful lot of far punchier numbers than he gave us last night, and Beardyman ended a his strongest number - a foray into his "dubstep" genre - after a few seconds on the grounds that it was too heavy for this audience.

But the sellout crowd were pretty rapturous, any concert which gets 5000 people singing Flanders and Swann's Hippopotamus Song gets my vote, and this one was good enough that I'm sure there will be more in future. And perhaps the Proms powers that be will let their hair down a bit more, hire a bigger PA and allow the comedians to take a few more risks. It'll only get better from here.

***11