Impoverished comedians grasp at floating food skydropped in Australia

Juliette promoting her When I Grow Up show

Juliette has always taken an interest in aerial transportation

Juliette Burton ended her run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival last night.

This morning – early evening to her – we talked via Skype

“We have an end-of-Festival party this evening,” she told me. “It’s a Tarantino-themed fancy dress party. I have two costumes and I can’t decide, so I’m going to go in a yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill style AND as Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction with the black bob haircut.

Not Juliette Burton

Not to be confused with Juliette Burton

“I’m planning to make a fool of myself in one outfit, then make a quick getaway, change, then come back and make a fool of myself in the other outfit.

“Sounds like a fully-formed Edinburgh Fringe show,” I said.

“A few days ago, you blogged about the lovely Lili La Scala in London,” Juliette said. “And the other day in Melbourne Sam Wills (Lili’s husband) phoned me up and asked Do you want to take part in a Jaffle-shoot contest - Do you know what that is?

“Shooting Jaffa Cakes?” I guessed.

A jaffle - as parachuted-in to comedians in Melbourne.

A jaffle – as parachuted-in to comedians in Melbourne.

“Well,” explained Juliette, “jaffles are toasties – toasted sandwiches. Two slices of bread with cheese in the middle and you press them in a sandwich toaster. Over here they call them jaffles and it’s not a jaffle-shoot as in shooting jaffles with a gun…  it’s like in parachutes – jafflechutes. They come down from the sky with little parachutes attached.

“So, basically, Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face arranged for a group of comics to get together at a certain place at a certain time and we had to follow some arrows on the ground to X-Marks-The-Spot and that’s where the jafflechute was going to happen.

“When we got there, we looked up at every plane or helicopter that went over because we thought there might be some Third World country sending jaffles down by parachute to us poor impoverished comics. But, suddenly, this mysterious figure appeared on the top of a building and started dropping toasted sandwiches attached to small parachutes.”

“Was he dressed as Spiderman?” I asked.

“No. In fact, everyone was dressed very casually.”

“Strange for such a formal occasion,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Juliette, “Frankie Lowe, my musical director, and I are currently editing together a video of what happened which we’re going to put on YouTube. As soon as I finish talking to you, I’m going to go and record a voice-over. It was really awesome fun.”

“Did you just say the word awesone?” I asked.

Juliette (left) with Felicity Ward and (behind) Squid Boy

Juliette (left) in Oz with Felicity Ward and (behind) Squid Boy

“Yes,” said Juliette, “and, while we keep talking, I’ll send you a photo of me with Felicity Ward… Oh, Celia Pacquola was there too and Trygve – who does Squid Boy and Kraken - and, of course, Sam who is The Boy With Tape On His Face and Alexis who performs as Marcel Lucont…”

“It sounds like an upcoming Marvel superhero movie,” I said.

“…and we were all leaping about,” Juliette continued, “trying to catch melted cheese that was airborne… We were grabbing at floating food… So we’re going to post that video on YouTube soon. But now I have to go do the voice-over and then dress up as Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction for the party.”

Juliette is flying back to Britain tomorrow with stopovers in Bali and Dubai.

Tomorrow I might go to Watford with a green-eyed monster.

In the meantime, there is timelapse video on YouTube which shows Juliette being prepared for a photoshoot promoting her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Look At Me which is about the relationship between people’s external appearances and what they really are. She is co-writing it with comedienne Janey Godley.

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Comedian and self-promoter Bob Slayer – Talking Cock and Sex With Children at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe

A ‘selfie’ taken by Bob Slayer at the Soho Theatre

A ‘selfie’ by Bob Slayer at the Soho Theatre

Comedian/manager/promoter/former rock band manager Bob Slayer has his fingers in many artistic pies. I was going to say he has his fingers in many artists, but Bob thought this might be mis-read in 20 years time and he might get a knock on the door from the police.

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, he is going to be running two venues: The Hive and his Bookshop (co-hosting it with Miss Behave in a different location from last year).

So, we were sitting in the bar of the Soho Theatre in London…

“In Scotland,” he told me, “this year is all about 2014: The Year of Independence. Last year, it was all about women at the Fringe. This year the Fringe is going to be all about the independent promoter, the independent artist - The Year of Independents at the Fringe.”

There was much more in this vein and about 10 minutes of ranting about the big Fringe venues from which I will save you, dear reader. I kept trying to get him to tell me eccentric anecdotes about his interesting travels. He kept trying to get me to print a long list of the shows on at his Edinburgh venues.

Eventually, I got him round to his recent visit to Japan for a friend’s wedding. He used to manage the Japanese rock band Electric Eel Shock.

Bob Slayer managed Electric Eel Shock

Electric Eel Shock managed by Bob Slayer

“I’d been to Japan a bunch of times with Electric Eel Shock,” he told me, “but this was the first time I could go just for fun. And I met up with all the members of Electric Eel Shock and I’ve booked a tour for them, which is the first time I’ve done anything with them for a while. They start in Holland at the end of this month. Then London on 2nd May.

“I pretty much worked on Electric Eel Shock 24/7 for about six years. We were doing 250-300 shows a year round the world.”

“Hellfire,” I said. “That’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” said Bob. “When newspapers interviewed them, the Number One question was How do you cope with all the touring? and their answer was: That’s what we do. We cope by being absolutely ecstatic that we’re doing what we want to do. “

“300 shows a year is still going it some,” I said.

“But,” Bob pointed out, “if you look at the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s British Music Hall scene, some acts might do 500 or 600 shows a year, because they would have matinée and evening performances… You know, don’t you, that I was the first Westerner to be Karaoke Champion of Japan?”

“Is this true?” I asked.

“Of course it is,” said Bob. “Google it. It’s on a lot of websites.”

“Yes,” I said. “But I know the Wigan Evening Post and the Chortle comedy news website printed that you’re the great-nephew of George Formby.”

“Yes. It’s all true. The thing about the Big Four at the Fringe…” he started to say.

“Have you got Chris Dangerfield at the Hive during the Fringe?” I asked, trying to veer him away from The Big Four.

“Yes,” said Bob. “And the Big Four venues would never…”

Chris Dangerfield photographed in Thailand last month

Chris Dangerfield in Thailand last month

“Are you certain you have Chris Dangerfield?” I asked.

“Well,” said Bob, “you know what his show’s about…”

“His show is OK,” I said, “It’s just a case of will he be physically capable of doing it?”

“Did you say his show’s OK??” Bob almost spluttered. “What? Sex With Children is OK?”

“He might still be in a brothel in Thailand come August,” I said. “That might be a logistical problem.”

“Oh yeah yeah yeah,” agreed Bob. “But some people might think it’s a plus he might not make it to Edinburgh with a show title like that.”

“As far as I’m aware,” I said, “it’s about his own abuse as a child.”

“Yes, you asked him the question I never actually asked him,” said Bob. “He told me Right, the title is Sex With Children and I just went Erm…Right… OK and I thought Right, I’m not going to do him the dis-service of asking him if this is the right direction…”

“…for his career?” I asked.

“No, not for his career,” explained Bob. “I didn’t want to ask Are you the perpetrator or the victim? … I didn’t exactly want to HOPE he was the victim, but then I really really didn’t want to hope he was the perpetrator.”

“I almost fear what he’s going to say on stage on the first night of the show,” I said.

“There is an element of…” said Bob. “He came to me with that title… and I thought…”

“As a venue owner,” I suggested, “you can’t really say No to a title like that.”

“Well,” Bob replied, “you could if you thought it was going to be horrible bit of hate speech or… I would not not book it on the grounds that I wouldn’t like it myself; and I wouldn’t not book it on the grounds I don’t think that should be a title. Though people WILL say: That shouldn’t be a title! But he has got a responsibility in what he does with the creative freedom. And I trust him to use that responsibility well.”

Chris Dangerfield’s 2014 Edinburgh Fringe show

Chris Dangerfield’s threatened 2014 Edinburgh Fringe show

“You are a foolish person,” I said.

“I am possibly very foolish,” said Bob.

“The Fringe have not batted an eyelid about printing the title?” I asked.

“No,” said Bob. “I think it’s a very valid subject.”

“There’s nothing objectionable as such in the title,” I said. “It could be a show about the history of sex education in schools.”

“Also the Fringe,” said Bob, “in the last couple of years has been a bit battered by being stupid. I mean, insisting on putting an exclamation mark in PR!CK instead of an ‘I’ or putting an asterisk in Richard Herring’s TALKING C*CK.”

“Especially as they had printed TALKING COCK in a previous year,” I said, “and the actual phrase itself doesn’t have a sexual origin.”

“At the end of the day,” said Bob, “the Fringe are a conservative body. They like to think they’re all liberal thinkers, but there’s a clash between doing artistic things and getting sponsors. They’re not creatively free. It’s like the Big Four, who…”

At this point, we were mercifully interrupted by a man who is going to walk to the Edinburgh Fringe from London but who has not yet planned his route.

There is a 13 second video of Chris Dangerfield on YouTube.

… and also on YouTube there is a 4’18” video of Electric Eel Shock singing My Favourite No 9.

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How German Polly Trope went from Britain into a US mental home and wrote her autobio-novel “Cured Meat”

Yesterday, I talked to writer Polly Trope in Berlin via Skype about her book Cured Meat – Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway. It is dedicated:

To those I left behind

She crowdfunded the book. The pitch is still on YouTube.

“Is it a novel or an autobiography?” I asked.

“I always find it amazing that some people actually manage to make up stuff,” she told me. “The things that are interesting in the book are the things that happened rather than the person. But some of them didn’t happen. What I really wanted to do with my book was to characterise lots of people I’ve met. I wanted to write about many many people, not just myself. And, even when I was writing about myself, I was trying to write about how things happened rather than myself. I was interested in capturing what happened like it was some sort of movie: an outside description of things. Some people say an autobiography has to be about the person writing it, but it’s also about lots of other people. Obviously some things are not completely accurate. I’ve tried to pick out things I heard about or happened which I thought were worth writing about.”

“Why didn’t you want to publish a straight autobiography?” I asked.

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“People only want to read the autobiographies of celebrities,” said Polly. “I am not famous.”

“How did you decide on the nom de plume Polly Trope?” I asked.

“Brainstorming names. Greek mythological characters whose names could be turned into English. Polytropos was an adjective Homer applied to Odysseus. So Polly Trope.”

Polytropos actually means “having many forms” i.e. having different personalities – or “twisting and turning” i.e. versatile and capable of manoeuvring through a stormy sea.

“The whole book is based on The Odyssey a little bit,” explained Polly, “because that’s what I did for my degree – Ancient Greek & Latin Literature at King’s College, London. I went to London when I was 18.”

“And then you went on to get a PhD in Classics?” I asked.

“I started one,” said Polly. “I didn’t finish it. I went to America to do it.”

“And I know you checked into a mental hospital just two months after arriving,” I said. “Did something happen?”

“No,” said Polly. “I was already a bit depressed when I went there and I expected it would be really exciting to go to America and I would be magically happier when I got there.”

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“Was this New York?”

“Connecticut.”

“So was it just depression?” I asked.

“Pretty much. I just felt really out of place; I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anyone there. I tried the therapist and that was a really bad idea because then I went to the mental hospital and then it just really got very difficult.”

“Did they drug you up?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Polly. “It just blew everything out of proportion. It became almost unthinkable to stop.”

“I was in a mental hospital when I was 18,” I said. “The first thing they do, of course, is just give you drugs.”

“All the time,” said Polly. “All the time. All the time.”

On YouTube, there is a song Numb Enough written by Polly (with a video shot by her). Her lyrics include the lines:

And are you numb enough, and is your life on hold,
And did you feel the shock when it all fell apart?

“You were in and out of mental hospital for three years,” I said.

“Yes,” said Polly. “I constantly told my psychiatrist I wanted to stop taking the drugs and he would always say: Well, if you can’t understand how much you need them, then I must put you into the hospital so you know how to take your drugs. That’s a simplified version of what happened, but it was me trying to stop taking tablets and the guy telling me: You must.”

“You were still doing your academic stuff through all this?” I asked.

“I was trying to,” said Polly. “I had to go on leave of absence after a couple of years. Eventually I left for six months, then another six months and, at that point, I didn’t want to see psychiatrists any more and, after that, I just went back to Europe.”

Polly Trope: "It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

Polly Trope: “It started with psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

“When you became addicted to drugs,” I asked, “was that medicinal drugs or heroin or…?”

“Both,” said Polly. “One after the other. It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.

“I was prescribed sleeping tablets and benzedrines and those are also sometimes used as recreational drugs and I had those on prescription and then it just kind of moved from there into prescription painkillers and then to completely illegal opium stuff and heroin and… Yeah… And then, at the same time, I moved from America back to London and… Yeah… That was the transition. We’re talking about 2009 here.”

“And then,” I said, “as far as I understand it, you met a guy in a London casino one night. He was involved with brothels; he took you to one, asked you if you wanted to work there and you said Yes.”

“I had really big money problems,” said Polly.

“Did you do it out of desperation or interest or…”

“Both,” said Polly. “Interest not so much. I was never particularly against prostitution. I don’t think I was especially interested in trying it. But it wasn’t something I was particularly scared of or that I thought could be the worst thing that could happen to someone.”

“Were you still supporting a drug habit at that point?”

“Not quite. But it was very fragile. I had only been clean for about a couple of weeks or so. Everything was quite new. I was feeling quite good, but I was also broke. In a house. I had many many problems. It was difficult.”

“So you were sort-of on an up,” I said. “But this would have taken you down?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yes. That’s right.”

“How long did you do the prostitution for?”

Polly Trope

Polly in London: “Then I thought it would be good if…” (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“April to December of one year. At first, he took all my money. After about three weeks. I kicked him out of the way. He was terrible. I’d been ripped off. I needed the money even more. Many of the women I met didn’t want to do it in the first place then, later, they got organised and stayed in the job because they were already there and it is quite a lot of money. It was a bit like that with me as well, although I didn’t feel I wanted to stay there longer than necessary. I was not trying to make lots of money. I just wanted to fix a few financial problems.”

“I was once told by an ex-criminal,” I said, “that most robbers have no financial target they want to reach, therefore they don’t know at what point they have reached a place they can stop doing it. So it ends badly. Maybe prostitution is like that?”

“And also,” said Polly, “people get used to more money and they increase their standards. I just had a bit of debt which I wanted to pay off.”

“So is that why you came out of it?” I asked. “You paid the debt and that was it?”

“It was only about £3,000,” said Polly. “But that was the beginning. Then I thought it would be good if I could save up for a deposit and some rent and, once you start paying rent, you have to do it every month, so… Then I thought I’m gonna start looking for a job immediately and, as soon as I find a new job I will take it... And that dragged on forever.”

“What sort of job were you looking for?” I asked.

“Stuff to do with writing and books. Things like editorial work or proofreading or translation. I didn’t realise it was not the right thing to look for. I had a degree but not much work experience. Nobody wanted to employ me. I eventually got a job through the Job Centre. I worked in a call centre for about a year and then I came back to Berlin.”

“In your dreams, when you were 14,” I asked, “did you want to be a writer?”

“Yeah,” said Polly. “I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was a real job; I thought it was something you did on the side and still had to earn money some other way.”

“Sadly, you might be right,” I said. “And now you are…?”

Polly Trope reads her book Cured Meat

Polly: short stories which turned into a novel

“I’m writing little projects,” said Polly. “But I’m not sure yet. Probably something similar. Short stories which turn into a novel if you read them one after the other.”

“Basically,” I said, “your book is a series of chapters which are self-contained short stories but, when you read them one after another, they become a novel.”

“Pretty much that,” said Polly. “I’ve always been really keen on this idea that you could even read it backwards or you could read it in any order. I was really keen on the book being like that. The plot is just the way things happened. Some readers find it reassuring to know one thing comes before another and another thing comes later and they can remember it all. But some readers just want to know what’s going on now.”

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“I have to get X-rays,” said Polly. “I have a very bad knee which may be broken.”

On YouTube, there is a song Fucking Princess written by Polly (with a video shot and edited by her).

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Filed under Books, Drugs, Mental health, Sex

Cabaret performer Lili La Scala gets emotional over Nick Cave & a dead cat

Lilli with Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

Lili La Scala + Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

I talked to cabaret performer Lili La Scala at a famous members club in London this week. It seemed suitably suave and sophisticated. (She is a member. They not unreasonably rejected me several years ago.)

Lili is married to performer Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face. They had a son last year They named him Rafferty Basil Danger Wills.

“Why those names?” I asked.

“Rafferty because we just liked it,” explained Lili. “And Basil was my grandfather’s name.”

“And Danger?” I asked.

“Because I just love the idea he can truthfully say: Danger is my middle name.

“And you named yourself after the Italian word for staircase?” I asked.

“I trained as an opera singer,” explained Lili, “so I named myself after La Scala opera house in Milan – or the picture house in Glasgow, whichever you prefer.”

“Why are you not an opera singer now?” I asked.

“Because I fell into the dark, dirty world of burlesque and cabaret. Well, actually, I fell into street performing first.”

“As what?” I asked.

“As an opera singer on the street. They called me The Songbird of Trafalgar Square.

“Who did?”

The Songbird of Trafalgar Square on Flickr

Songbird of Trafalgar Square attracted a following on Flickr

“One day on Flickr, I stumbled on a group dedicated to me… it was a compliment but also slightly freaky. There were about 200 pictures of me – I looked a bit unusual, with dark hair and a Fifties dress singing opera. They didn’t know what my name was, so they just put Songbird of Trafalgar Square.”

“Didn’t your voice get lost in the vast open space of Trafalgar Square?” I asked.

“The low notes did,” said Lili, “but the high notes carried because they were a higher frequency than the traffic: it was when Trafalgar Square was still a roundabout. I sang with my back to the National Gallery. I was a Swing dancer for a long time, too. My mother trained as a ballet dancer but now she’s a physio who works with performers.”

“Did you dance in Trafalgar Square?”

“No,” replied Lili. “You get sent home for dancing in Trafalgar Square.”

“And singing?” I asked.

“Yes. That too. They sent two policemen and a police car. But they just told me to go away. It would have looked ridiculous for them to arrest a girl who was much smaller than them and wearing a 1950s-looking dress.”

“Why do you dress in 1950s costumes?” I asked.

“When I was about 21,” explained Lili, “I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.”

if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.

“I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should.”

“But then,” I said, “you went into burlesque. Why?”

“A friend of mine said one day: Have you ever thought of putting together opera and burlesque? Don’t you think it would go really well? And I thought Ooh! So I tried it and it was really good. I have a huge soft spot for the burlesque world anyway.”

“You are saying Burlesque not Cabaret,” I pointed out. “Isn’t cabaret more respectable?”

“I think burlesque is pretty respectable at the moment,” said Lili.

“I would have said you were cabaret,” I told her. “You’re Monte Carlo 1963. What’s the difference between burlesque and cabaret anyway?”

“Burlesque has more tits,” said Lili. “There was more stripping originally. American burlesque evolved into what is now big sparkly showgirl stuff whereas the English Music Hall style was much more of a send-up, making it funny, taking the piss out of stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I adore the showgirl stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m too kookie and too clumsy.”

“The last couple of years at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “a lot of the funniest stuff has not been in the Comedy section but the Cabaret section. I loved your show last year Another Fucking Variety Show. You’re a very good compere.”

There are, inevitably, clips on YouTube.

“It’s really funny,” said Lili. “Everyone thinks I’m this cool, in-command person.”

“Well,” I said, “Lili La Scala couldn’t do a really emotional show, could she?”

Lilli La Scala created emotional War Notes

Lili La Scala created emotional War Notes

“Rubbish!” said Lili. “When I decided I wanted to stop doing street performing, the first solo show I created was about my first love: vintage songs, because I grew up watching movie musicals. So I created a show called War Notes – songs from World War One and Two, but I wanted to make them more relevant. So I found letters from servicemen in current conflicts. This was 2010, so the wars were Afghanistan and Iraq. The letters were the ones that said: If you are reading this, I’ve been killed.

“I found them on Google and wrote to a member of the family of the service personnel. It was fairly gut-wrenching researching them but I found a lot of the sentiment in the letters was really similar to the sentiment in the songs, even though they were sometimes separated by almost a full century in time.

“I had friends and knew boyfriends of friends who were serving in Afghanistan. I performed the whole month of Edinburgh and it was a really emotional show – to listen to those letters every night.”

“What did you do immediately after the show?” I asked.

“I went out and got very drunk.”

“And the next show after that?” I asked.

“After that, I created Songs To Make You Smile which was just an hour of comedy songs from 1920-1950, real British variety. That has toured ever since – Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and all over the place.”

Lilli’s new show - not in Edinburgh until 2015

The new show – not in Edinburgh until 2015

“My new solo show Siren is on 21st June at the London Wonderground – the closest thing London has to a cabaret festival. I just did it in Adelaide and it was very well-received there. I attempt to sing stuff I’ve never sung before, which is wonderfully challenging for me.”

“But you’ve sung 1930s standards and opera and music hall songs,” I said. “there’s nothing much left.”

“Well, there’s some Tom Waits,” said Lili. “All the songs in the show are about the sea and journeys and travelling and some are really emotional for me.

“There’s one – Nick Cave’s Ship Song…

“I got very emotional when I sang it, because it reminded me a lot about a love affair I had when I was very young which went horrifically wrong and it had left me utterly broken-hearted. He said I could be his girl in London but he wanted to have an open relationship and I’m not really an open relationship kind of girl. I attempted it because I really, really loved him, but I ended up giving him an ultimatum saying: Look, we have heaps of fun together, but I can’t do this. We can either be together – just us – or not… And he chose Not.

“I thought I’d dealt with it back then but it turned out I’d just buried it under the patio. To find out it was still festering was an emotional shock for me.

“Then he turned up in town and we bumped into each other because – of course – we have the same circle of friends. We hadn’t spoken for eight years, so it was awkward. He said he was having an open relationship with his girlfriend. He said: If I could have been with just one someone, it would have been you… or maybe the girl I dated the year after you… He said he couldn’t even own a refrigerator. Too much commitment.”

“It’s alright for a spoken word performer to well-up emotionally,” I said, “but, if you’re singing and genuinely well-up, your voice won’t recover from that for – what? – 10 seconds?”

“Really,” explained Lili, “what you’re aiming for is several glistening tears rolling down your cheek. I was genuinely very tearful when I sang it. Then he came to the show and it gave me that moment to say all the stuff I wanted to say to him without him having any way of going But… but… but… By the end of it, I was Oh. I’m done now. It’s over. That’s fine. we’re done.”

“So what happened the next time you sang the song?” I asked.

“I then had to find some other way of creating that emotion in me that affects the audience because, obviously, I like the way it emotionally affects the audience.”

This bemused creature has a dog’s life

This beloved bemused creature has a dog’s life

“So how did you find that?”

“I thought about my dead cat.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“How many cats do you have?”

“Five cats and two dogs. The dogs are utterly cowed, though the dachshund is like a little dictator, perhaps because he’s German.”

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Filed under Cabaret, Comedy, Music

The death of Tony Gray of The Alberts, who linked BBC2’s awful opening to The Goons, the Bonzo Dogs & Monty Python

Tony Gray

Tony Gray was billed for the opening of BBC2

Fifty years ago this Sunday – 20th April 1964 – the BBC2 television channel was due to start with a special programme The Albert’s Channel Too by anarchic comedy duo The Alberts.

It was billed as coming “direct from the Alberts’ Television Centre” featuring (according to Radio Times) Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.

Instead, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, separately, there was a fault in a 60,000 volt cable at Iver in Buckinghamshire which cut power in West London, including BBC Television Centre.

The opening of BBC2 was a shambles.

The Alberts performed the following night, so BBC2 had two consecutive opening nights, both utterly anarchic.

Last Saturday, I sent a message to Albion Gray, the son of Tony Gray, one of The Alberts:

Tony Gray (left), Douglas Gray (right) and Bruce Lacey (top)

The Alberts – Tony Gray (left) and Douglas Gray (right) – with Bruce Lacey (top) and dog (bottom)

I trekked out to Norfolk to chat to them in the 1980s when I was a researcher on, I guess, Game For a Laugh

Possibly Malcolm Hardee mentioned them to me. They were wonderful people. I don’t suppose they’d be up for a blog chat would they?

He replied:

My dad Tony is a bit too frail to be interviewed but Douglas is in better shape. Let me find out and get back to you.

Yesterday, I got another message from Albion. It started:

Unfortunately my father passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 86. 

By last night, there was an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website headlined

Tony Gray was a co-founder of a musical comedy act whose brand of anarchic slapstick inspired Monty Python

The Alberts were brothers Tony and Douglas Gray. The Daily Telegraph obituary is rather low-key in saying “their specialities included bubble-blowing automata and exploding camels”.

A Show Called Fred (from left). Top row: Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers. Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

A Show Called Fred (from left)… Top row: Graham Stark, unknown dummy, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers… Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

In 1956, in an attempt to transfer the radio success of The Goon Show to TV, Associated-Rediffusion made the series A Show Called Fred in which The Alberts featured. It was broadcast only in the London region, was written by Spike Milligan, starred Peter Sellers and was produced & directed by Dick Lester (who went on to direct cult short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Bruce Lacey in 1960 and later The Beatles’ feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

There is an entire 25-minute episode of A Show Called Fred on YouTube. The Alberts first appear 20 seconds into the pre-credit sequence carrying musical instruments. Douglas enters first.

If you want to know what The Alberts were like – both on AND off stage and screen, think The Goons on the way to Monty Python with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stirred in.

Satirist John Wells famously described one of The Alberts’ 1960s performances thus:

“Moth-eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage; there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllabic political speech; a musician in grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”

There is a 4-minute video on YouTube of The Flying Alberts – Tony & Douglas with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in the 1960s.

In 1962, Peter Cook booked The Alberts for a residency at his seminal London comedy club The Establishment. They performed a Dada-inspired quiz show in which Bruce Lacey asked the questions. A description of one show said Lacey asked a question, the competitor got a bucket of whitewash poured over his head and then said: “Could you repeat the question, please?”

American comic Lenny Bruce saw The Alberts perform at The Establishment and booked them for an American tour. They crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary liner, reportedly either entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Lenny Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity but The Alberts’ show was a success in New York. Somewhat oddly, it reportedly bombed in San Francisco which, you would think, would have been more open to their eccentricities.

The Alberts - purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

The Alberts – purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

Back in London, their West End show An Evening of British Rubbish ran for almost a year in 1963 (Princess Margaret went to see it twice) and they later toured the show in Belgium and France, under the title Crazy Show de British Rubbish.

An Evening of British Rubbish was released as an LP in 1963, produced by George Martin whose work with The Alberts was rather overshadowed that year by his work with The Beatles. George Martin also produced a single for The Alberts (with Bruce Lacey) featuring The Morse Code Melody on one side and Sleepy Valley on the other.

The Alberts – always very musical – are often cited as a big influence on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzos said: “If there was any influence at all, it would be The Alberts or the Commedia dell’arte.”

According to their oft-times collaborator Bruce Lacey, The Temperance Seven band was originally formed by the Alberts but they were later ejected for ‘musical incompatibility’. I know no more.

The fake accounts and AGM of Albert, Lacey & Albert 1960-1961

The fake accounts and AGM of entertainment experts Albert, Lacey & Albert Ltd, 1960-1961

Around 1971, EMI issued a musical compilation album simply titled: The Alberts/The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band/The Temperance Seven and there was a later 1999 album called By Jingo, It’s British Rubbish with tracks by The Alberts, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Temperance Seven, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

It was almost 30 years ago – in the mid 1980s – when I went up to meet Tony and Douglas Gray at home in Norfolk. I can remember very little except that it was an ex-vicarage and I liked both of the brothers immediately and immensely. I do remember Douglas played bagpipes indoors (a commendably eccentric thing to do, though never a good idea to experience) and Tony was dressed in full cricketing outfit… Neither did either of these things for any discernible reason.

Producer Danny Greenstone, who was with me on the visit, told me this morning: “I remember the bagpipe playing, but it didn’t stop at bagpipes. We were also treated to the tuba, a ukulele and other bizarre instruments. We wanted them for Game For a Laugh (of course) but I can’t remember what it was we wanted them to do. It MUST have been some kind of musical act and I think we DID get them to do it, but the details have faded. I also remember that you got a flat tyre on the way back.”

Memories fade. I only remember the bagpipes, Tony’s clothes and their personalities. I think there is a slight possibility that Douglas wore a kilt and a sporran. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

At the time Danny and I met them, they were both working for the Sunday Telegraph and, I think other Fleet Street newspapers by driving delivery vans. This was before Rupert Murdoch fully broke the power of the newspaper unions and I have some vague memory of them telling me that they performed part of their journalistic duties by signing in (or having other people sign in for them) as M.Mouse in London while staying in Norfolk and not actually doing anything. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

Brothers Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

The Alberts had a varied and influential career which deserves to be remembered. They appeared in several Ken Russell films and in the 1965 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium and, in 1966, they appeared in their own show The Three Musketeers Ride Again both at the Arts Theatre and the Royal Court theatre in London.

On YouTube, there is a song – sung by Tony Gray this century – which was written for The Alberts’ 1966 production of The Three Musketeers Ride Again. It is called When I Was Seventeen.

RIP Tony Gray 1927-2014

So it goes.

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I meet my namesake Amanda Fleming, an LA actress who found her rock band father after 16 Sudden years in Rochdale

Last Wednesday, I got an e-mail. It read:

Hi John

I have a film, Titans of Newark. Being a fellow Fleming, I was wondering if you could do me the honour and help with creating a buzz about it. I play the goddess Hera and it is on at the Short Film Corner during the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Amanda Fleming

Amanda Fleming in the award-winning Titans of Newark

Amanda Fleming in award-winning short Titans of Newark

I looked at the film trailer on YouTube and I met Amanda at the National Film Theatre yesterday, but we barely talked about the film.

“My mum was very young when she had me,” said Amanda. “She was just turned 18. I was conceived in the summer of 1969. What can I say? He was in a band. She was a bit of a hippie. Apparently my father was in his early 20s and in a rock band which had a one-hit wonder. About four years later, my mother ended up marrying someone else. I was brought up by my grandparents in Rochdale; they legally adopted me, so my aunties became my sisters.

“By the time I was 16, I was sick and tired of asking my mother who my real father was. I think, at various times, she told me his name was Bob, James and lots of other names and eventually I said: I’m not speaking to you ever again unless you tell me the truth. She told me he was called Ian but not his surname and she told me: He’s red-haired like you.

“So, one day, I decided Right! I’m going to find out who he is. I set off at five in the morning. I knew he was called Ian, had red hair, looked a bit like me and lived somewhere in Sudden, which is an area of Rochdale.

“I was only 16. I didn’t realise how big Sudden was. I got there about six in the morning. There are about 150 streets. I started on one side of Sudden and the first street I came to was called (Amanda told me the name of the street).

“I knocked on a door and, by this time, it was seven in the morning. It was a young couple. Luckily they were getting up for work. I said I’m looking for my real father and I told them He’s called Ian, he’s got red hair, he was in a band and he lives somewhere in Sudden.

“They said: Sorry. He’s not here. We haven’t been here very long in this street. So I spent the entire day knocking on ten doors in every street.

“By about 6.30 at night, I was distraught. I thought: I’m never going to find him. What am I doing? What am I thinking of? I started crying. I was about to give up and there was an Old People’s Home that’s shut down since and I saw there was a small pathway to another street and I thought: I wonder if I’ve been on that street? And it was the street I’d first gone to. But it was the other end of that street and I was about to give up but I thought I’ll try one more time and I knocked on a door and an old couple opened it.

“I was crying.

“They said: Hello. You alright, then?

“I said: I’ve spent all day - cry, cry – Nobody knows who he is - cry. cry – My father.

Oh sweetheart, they said. What’s his last name?

“I said: I don’t know. All I know is he was in a band, he’s got red hair, he’s called Ian and…

Oh, that’s Ian and his brother Alan, they said. They’re not living there any more, but his parents are still there at No 16.

“So I ran to No 16, banged on the door and this old lady came out. She looked right at me and said: You’re Amanda, aren’t you?

“Apparently my aunts had taken me at 18 months old to say: Hey! You need to tell your son he has a daughter. He was away on a three-year tour with his band in Europe. He was doing really well and so he didn’t know anything about it and they wanted to keep it quiet because they didn’t want it to interfere with his life. But they’d matured since then and they were a lot more laid back and relaxed, so they said: Come on in.

“I was really shocked. I thought: I’ve actually found them!

“They got on the phone to my dad and he came down and I think he must have asked me about 25 times: So, how are you? That’s all he seemed to ask me.

Amanda at the NFT in London yesterday

Amanda at the National Film Theatre in London yesterday

“And, when I found my dad, that was my excuse to go fully into entertainment. He was an entertainer. So I went to Oldham Theatre Workshop and went to drama school. After that, I did a lot of theatre, a lot of Rep, worked for the Cambridge Shakespeare Company and a lot of other things.

“Independent film was just starting to pick up in the early 1990s so I did that and I also did corporates and bits on TV and radio and worked for a company called Absolute Murder that did improv theatre murder mysteries. Then I started up my own theatre company DeProfundis Productions.”

“Why DeProfundis?” I asked.

“I thought it was a good name for a company which is new writing, semi-Gothic productions with maybe a bit of sci-fi mixed in there. I grew up loving Hammer House of Horror and I loved the idea of bringing Gothic theatre to the public. So I wrote an hour-long semi-Gothic interpretation of Elizabeth Báthory‘s story.”

“She’s the one who bathed in virgins’ blood…” I said.

“Yes,” said Amanda, “she was reputed to have murdered 650 people over 30 years.”

“So you learned about improvising murders,” I said, “and then you wrote about a woman mass murderer. That’s rather scary.”

“Yes,” laughed Amanda, “but I also used to do touring pantomimes all the time. I loved it. It’s the meat-and-potatoes of theatre training. And then someone said: Have thou ever thought of doing comedy adult pantos? So, in 2005, I set up Carry-on-Antics Pantomimes.

Amanda - Oh yes it is! - in a saucy panto

Amanda – Oh yes it is! – in a saucy Carry On type UK panto

“My dad said he was proud of me for doing that but he didn’t come to see any of the shows because he said: I don’t want to see you in that way. There was no nudity. It was just tongue-in-cheek, very slapstick, very Carry On. It wasn’t that rude. I arranged a six-week tour; five shows a week. We did Big Dick Whittington with his pussy and, the next year, Little Red Romping Hood and Hot Cinders. It was pure comedy.”

Amanda went to Los Angeles in 2007.

Amanda with red hair in 2011

Amanda with red hair in 2011

“I got a three-year visa and I was only going to use it to go over for the pilot season, which is January 10th to round about April – three months of intense auditions for episodes in up-and-coming productions and for new characters in already-running productions.

“Then I was going to come back to the UK, because I was supposed to be getting booked to arrange a third year of pantos – a 10-week tour. But that year – 2007 – the recession hit and only three of the venues re-booked. So I stayed in the US and signed with a US agent and, for the first six months, it was mostly getting my face known.”

“What’s your pitch?” I asked. “I’m the new Helen Mirren?”

Amanda with blonde hair in 2009

Amanda with blonde hair in 2009

“Someone did say,” laughed Amanda, “that I’m a younger Helen Mirren mixed with Meryl Streep… but then someone also said I was like Bette Midler!”

“This Titans of Newark film,” I said, “which we haven’t talked about. It  was filmed in 2012?”

“The latter end, yes,” said Amanda. “It was edited up to the beginning of 2013, then went round all the festivals. The budget on Titans of Newark was quite low – it was done as a student project – but it’s been winning awards at lots of film festivals. And now I’m going over to Cannes in May to plug it even more.”

“As a kid, did you want to perform or be famous?” I asked. “They’re different.”

Not bad for a young girl from Rochdale

Not bad for a young girl from Rochdale…

“When you first leave drama school,” said Amanda. “you’re all Ooh! I’m going to be famous! but it doesn’t work like that. It’s a lot of hard work and plugging yourself. You gotta do a lot of PR and get your face in as many places as possible. Now I’d rather people come to me and say I really respect you as an actor and as a business person and entrepreneur. I’d rather have that sort of pat on the back than celebrity. Though, of course, if opportunity knocks – Great!”

The 26-minute Titans of Newark movie is viewable online.

Always a pleasure to meet a Fleming.

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My three golden rules of life

NUMBER 1

Never trust anyone. Even someone with your best interests at heart can unintentionally do something which will end up killing you.

NUMBER 2

Never let the bastards see they have hurt you.

NUMBER 3

Give people leeway.

The first time, it could be a mistake.

The second time, it could be coincidence.

The third time, it is enemy action and you are entitled to rip their throats out.

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Filed under Philosophy