Tales of British Council performer Ian Hinchliffe: blood, bites and beer glasses

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Sir Gideon Vein (Tony Green)

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Tony Green, in London in 1990

Performance artist Ian Hinchliffe drowned while fishing on a lake in Arkansas on 3rd December 2010.

So it goes.

In a blog earlier this month, I chatted to writer/performer Mark Kelly. We were both surprised that the British Council used to send the almost-always-utterly-drunk Hinchliffe abroad as an example of British culture.

That reminded Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, about Ian Hichcliffe’s visit to Toronto around 1985/1986.

“It was a show by The Matchbox Purveyors (in this case Ian Hinchliffe and Kevin O’Connor),” Anna remembers. “It was at The Rivoli on Queen Street and was what the British Council was fuelling… a fascinating display of filth and abuse.

“For the set, Ian had strung a clothesline across the stage and hung LP records from it which he lit with a blue light – he was very particular about his lighting.

“The show opened with Kevin O’Connor (who was also a painter) tied to a chair, holding a full egg carton, with a sack over his head. Hinchliffe came out cheerful, dressed in light trousers, a red and blue vest, black spectacles, a white bowler hat, pushing an archaic pram… greeting and shaking hands with audience members. Of course, before long, he was undressing and staggering around smeared with egg and mud, a fur stole tied horribly around his waist.

Ian Hinchliffe (left) and Kevin O’Connor in Toronto c 1985 (Photograph by Anna Smith)

Ian Hinchliffe and Kevin O’Connor in Toronto (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“The show had not been properly advertised, so the audience was a small collection of British jazz musicians and a group of artsy cinema-loving intellectuals.

“Earlier that night, I had been out on Queen Street, imploring passers-by not to miss the show. Nobody was interested. They said: We don’t care. We don’t need British comedy. We have our own Canadian comedians. And I thought: You idiots! You don’t have this. Nobody has this.

“Hinchliffe had his own language and it was often impossible to follow. The guy who bought London Bridge and put it in Arizona tried to hire Ian as a permanent fixture in the pub that they put beside it. They offered him a ton of money. I asked: Why didn’t you do it? He answered What would I have done… there… in a desert….? and, of course, he was right.

“He often mentioned ‘Tut Morris’ which I assumed was a car. He would say things like I left Tut Morris in a field… or I owe Tut Morris a payment… and I’ve got to get back to me Morris. Then I realized he was referring to a woman.

“He had been a laminator. Glue and alcohol. He was a jazz pianist. An amazing player.”

When I mentioned this to Ian’s old comedy friend Tony Green, he said:

“I wouldn’t have called him an amazing player. He could play a bit. But the problem with Ian was he had tiny hands and, when he spread his fingers for an octave span, the skin between the fingers would crack and there would usually be blood all over the keys.

“On one occasion, he was playing a white piano in a pub and there was blood all over the keys, pouring down the piano. You’ve never seen anything like it. Like something out of a horror film. When he did an octave span, the skin would just crack open and start bleeding.”

“And,” I said, “he had a habit of bleeding from his mouth when he ate glass.”

IanHinchliffe_1980s

Ian Hinchliffe in the 1980s (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“Oh yes,” said Tony, “he was always eating glass, wasn’t he? Mind you, he came a cropper at one of Malcolm Hardee’s gig when he tried it. He actually did two gigs for Malcolm. The first one was OK and Malcolm thought it was weird enough to book him again. The second one didn’t work too well. When he was good, he could be inspiring, but that was maybe only one in twenty gigs because he got so pissed.

“He had to end his act by eating a beer glass – obviously. So he’s on stage trying to bite the edge off the pint glass and Malcolm said to me: He can’t fuckin’ do it. Has he got new false teeth or something? I said: Give him a few more minutes.

“Eventually Malcolm goes on stage: Here we are, then. Ian Hinchliffe. And Ian’s still on stage trying to bite a chunk out of the beer glass.

“He came off stage and told me: I couldn’t fookin’ do it! They must’ve fookin’ reinforced the fookin glasses! It’s never happened before, Tony! It’s never fookin’ happened before!

“I told him: That’s it, Ian. Your career’s had it. What are you going to do now?

“I had seen him do it lots of times before. On one occasion, he was being heckled, munched the glass down to the handle and said to the bloke: You finish the fookin’ ‘andle!

“God knows what his insides must have been like.

“He put a glass in his own face. You know that, don’t you?”

“No,” I said. “So he smashed a glass on the edge of a table and then…”

“Stabbed it into his own face. Yes. He had a little scar. He told me: I didn’t twist it, like, so it was no big thing.

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How to publicise a new comedy club & write an Edinburgh Fringe press release

Sybil Soan, in hat, plays ping pong with Edwardian animal impersonator Vincent Figgins

Sybil Soan, in hat, with Edwardian animal impersonator Vincent Figgins

At the weekend, I went to see Pull The Other One club owners Martin and Vivienne Soan. Their daughters appeared to be wearing lampshades. This sounds rather odd but actually looked rather trendy.

More to the point, there was a man who shall be nameless who is thinking of starting a new comedy magazine – in print, not online. This is interesting, if foolhardy. Comedy magazines in print have come and gone – Mustard, The Fix, Heckler.

At the weekend, Martin had a February 1992 edition of Heckler.

There was a piece about him inside.

At the slim risk of getting sued for copyright infringement by the long-dead magazine, this is what it says:


THE GHOST CLUB

The cover in 1992 - note Stephen Fry, top left

The cover in 1992 – note Stephen Fry, top left

From Thursday February 6th the planes will align in an Aspect and House that has never before been witnessed by Mankind. This is the reason that Time Out Award-Winner Martin Soan has decided to open a brand new club which will run for eight weeks on Thursday evenings. Mr Soan assures us that for this period the aforementioned cosmic alliance favours great spiritual and paranormal activity. The chosen venue for this venture is The Comedy Cafe which it just so happens is on the very site where two lay lines cross: one from Mecca to Glastonbury and the other from the Holy Isle to the Lost City of Atlantis.

The whole venue is to be given over to the power of the supernatural with no limit to the amount of ghostliness and weird occurrences that will take place. Soan’s previous ventures have always been highly innovative and genuinely original in concept and practice. This has the makings of continuing that tradition with features like ‘This Is Your Plant’ – a spoof of This Is Your Life where the life of the house plant is examined. Also to be included is the Mind Fantasies Machine, The Incredible Floating Head and The Worst Double Act In The World.

This is highly recommended before it has begun because Soan’s ingenuity is well worth an evening of anyone’s time.


They don’t write publicity like that any more…

…or do they?

Below are Lewis Schaffer’s (so far) two press releases for his upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Success Is Not An Option.


PRESS RELEASE ONE

Lewis Schaffer’s poster for his Edinburgh Fringe show

The ever-optimistic British-based American

My Edinburgh Festival Fringe show for 2014 is called “Success Is Not An Option”. My show will not be a success because:

1. I’m using the same business model as last year, which didn’t work.

Under the Heroes of the Fringe “Pay What You Want” model, punters can pay £5 for tickets in advance or come in free at the door which makes absolutely no sense. As of today, I have sold nine tickets. Nine.

2. Most reviewers don’t like to go to free shows because they cannot be guaranteed a seat, and that can mess up their viewing schedule. And they don’t get something that regular people are paying for for nothing, which is the whole point of being a reviewer.

3. This is my seventh consecutive year at the Fringe and I have gained zero traction. 22 years in comedy and I am still doing these poncy shows in dingy subterranean bars.

4. There is always some American comic nobody has ever heard of riding into town, selling out every night and then leaving the country once the festival is over. Leaving is always sexy. My ex used to tell me “You used to chase me!” and I’d say, “You used to run.” I’ve stopped running. I’m not leaving the UK. I am stuck here with a knackered act, two kids, and nobody chasing me.

5. You could have seen me in London where I do a weekly show at the Leicester Square Theatre and two free shows a week at The Rancho Grill at any point over the past five years, but you haven’t, and I know you haven’t, so you’re not going to make me a success in Edinburgh either.

6. If my show is a success, I will have been a failure in predicting its failure. If my show is a failure, I will have just been a failure. So no matter what happens, I’ll have been a failure.

7. I have waited until three weeks before the festival to send out a press release, and have no promotional budget to pay a PR to tell me that this level of self-flagellation in a press release is a terrible idea.

Be prepared. Lewis Schaffer isn’t. 
An hour of your life you’ll never get back. A lifetime of his completely wasted.

PRESS RELEASE TWO

The frolic-filled functor that is Lewis Schaffer

The frolic-filled funster success factory that is Lewis Schaffer

My last press release was “nothing short of genius” according to Simmy Richman in the Independent on Sunday. Read his piece here.

Here are four more reasons why my show “Success Is Not An Option” will not be a success.

9. Most people, upon having a piece of publicity material described as “genius” by a national newspaper, would then try to follow it up with something bigger, better and totally fresh.

I’m just rehashing the same thing and hoping that those of you that ignored me last time will pay attention to me. Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’m not insane, because I know that this is going to fail; you people never pay attention to me. I’m just desperate. Please pay attention to me.

10. My poster doesn’t have any quotes or stars from reviewers.

You, from the The Times, The Guardian, and The Telegraph, have never reviewed any of my shows.

My biggest supporter in the press, Kate Copstick of The Scotsman, has only ever given me four stars even though we had the closest thing to a sexual interaction that I, as a crumbling 57-year-old man, am capable of having with another human being. You can read about that on John Fleming’s blog here and then give me five stars to save yourself from the same fate.

11. I decided against using Stewart Lee’s quote about me – “Naked hostility and self-loathing” – or Daniel Kitson’s – “The logical conclusion of all stand-up comedy” – or Marc Maron’s – “Very bitter and weird” and “Not that good” – because name-dropping is the lowest form of self-promotion and I value my integrity.

12. The Relatives wrote a song about my going to Edinburgh and said the Number One reason I would fall at the Fringe was that I was “jerk”. They performed the song on my radio show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer, broadcast on Resonance 104.4FM. Watch here – it is brilliant.

Here are the lyrics to sing along with:

Success is not an option.

Lewis was writing his Edinburgh show
Knew in his heart no one would go
Hasn’t got a bob for publicity, no
Only got five quid to blow
Success is not an option

Success is not an option
Success is not an option
He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe

He’s written a list why it won’t work
But he missed the number one
“He’s a jerk”
The other comedians are going to smirk
Looks like he’s going to have to learn to twerk
Success is not an option

Success is not an option
Success is not an option
He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe

Well, what’s gonna happen to his radio show?
Its been five years but nobody knows
The team of five are ready to go
But does he ever listen?
The answer’s “no”
Success is not an option

Success is not an option
Success is not an option
He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe

Success is not an option
Success is not an option
He’s gonna bomb at the Edinburgh Fringe

Thank you for reading this far.  If you tell me you have read to the end I will buy you drink up in Edinburgh. If you are alcoholic, I will spend five minutes commiserating with you over how long the Ramadan fast is this year.

Let the love flow,

Lewis Schaffer

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Singing Hitler act Frank Sanazi now to perform as gay dictator Vladimir Putin

Frank Sanazi performs at yesterday’s party

Pete at yesterday’s non-Communist party

Yesterday afternoon, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to the annual charity garden party thrown in Bromley by Frank Sanazi’s mother.

Frank Sanazi (real name Pete) sings like Frank Sinatra, but looks and acts like Adolf Hitler.

There were songs at the garden party from Elvis Presley impersonator Pete Storm and by our Pete (he has multiple surnames) – out-of-character as himself – singing straight Frank Sinatra songs.

Pete Perke aka Pete Sinclair aka Pete Cunningham aka Tom Moans aka Frank Sanazi etc etc told me: “I’ve been looking for a new character, because I’ve been doing Frank Sanazi for twelve years now.”

“That’s longer than the original Hitler,” I said.

Vladimir Putin - macho man incarnate

Vladimir Putin - a man who should be able to afford a shirt

“Just about,” said Pete, “I kept seeing photos of Vladimir Putin with his chest bare or coming out of the sea with a spear in his hand like he’s just caught a massive fish and he looks a little bit camp, to say the least.”

Vladimir, with a love of horses worthy of the wild Wild West

Vladimir, with a love of horses worthy of the wild Wild West

I said: “Putin’s forever riding stallions in forests with his shirt off.”

“So I thought,” said Pete, “after the whole furore about him being – excuse the phrase – hard on the gays and lesbians and his persecution of Pussy Riot, I thought I wanted to do a send-up of Putin because he obviously bats for the other side.

Headline on  today’s Daily Mirror

Headline on today’s Daily Mirror

“So I got this idea where I come on in a lovely suit as the iron man of Russia and deliver this speech in Russian and have it translated into English.

“And it’s welcoming Ukraine back into the old Soviet motherland and It’s going to be so nice now, because we are going to outlaw homosexuals and it will be a crime for them to be on the street and we will lock them all up. There will be a law against them, so we will have no lesbians or gays in Russia at all…

“And then the music starts playing It’s Raining Men and I start singing…

Tensions are rising
Gas supplies running low
According to my sources
Kiev’s the place to go
Tonight for the first time
Just about half past ten
For the first and the last time in history
It’s gonna start raining men

Ukrainian men!
Hallelujah!
Ukrainian men!
Ah, men!

Nazi but nice - Frank last night

Frank Sanazi rallies his audiences

…and I rip my shirt off and I have two tit-tassels underneath and I start swinging them around as I sing. I haven’t got a six-pack, but I bought a six-pack to go over the top of my normal chest and I bought these pants which have a bum added in the back and I’ve put a hammer & sickle there so, when I drop my pants…”

“You seem,” I said, “to be getting overly-excited telling us about the pants.”

“Yes,” agreed Pete, “because I didn’t think you could buy pants like that with a fake arse actually built into the bum. They were only £4.”

“What about your hairline?” I asked.

“I’ll put a load of talcum powder on my head and flatten my hair down and my face can look a little like Putin. I tested it out for the first time at Cabaret Roulette in Madame JoJo’s in Soho – Vivacity Bliss runs it – and it seemed to go down a storm, so Putin will be with Frank Sanazi as part of my new Dictators of The World show.”

Pete sniffs a 4711 face wipe

Pete sniffs a 4711 face wipe yesterday

At this point, my eternally-un-named friend said I admire Putin and gave Pete a packet containing a 4711 facial wipe.

“Think of it as a 9/11 wipe,” I suggested. “Keep calm and carry on. What’s your Edinburgh Fringe show this year?”

Das Vegas Night 3 – Zis Time We Win!. It’s all about if the Germans had won the Second World War and what would Las Vegas have been like? I’ve got Baghdad’s Got Talent coming to join us in their burkhas and they’re going to do some magic for us and a bit of puppetry with a little doll – that’s got a burkha on as well. It’s perfect for Das Vegas, because it’s wrong… but it’s right… and I’ve got Gay Jesus coming to finish the show.”

“Oh, he’s great!” I said. “Does he still live in Glasgow?”

“Yeah,” said Pete. “I have to go now. I have to sort Elvis out.”

And off he went.

Later, on the way home, my eternally-un-named friend said: “Do you think you should warn him It’s Raining Men might be in bad taste because of the plane exploding and all the bodies falling out of the sky onto the Ukraine?”

“Well,” I said, “Frank Sanazi sings Sinatra’s Witchcraft as Auschwitz-craft. So the body parts of men, women and children raining down onto fields and farms in the Ukraine won’t be a problem.”

You can see Frank Sanazi singing Third Reich on YouTube.

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Comic Leo Kearse: dancing with David Icke and giving intelligence to the police

Leo Kearse at the Soho Theatre

Leo Kearse at the Soho Theatre last week

“My biggest gig to date was at Wembley Arena,” Scots comedian Leo Kearse told me. “David Icke was doing an 11-hour conspiracy theory lecture. He was saying what we perceive as reality is a hologram controlled by electro-magnetic waves of information being beamed from Saturn…”

“And you were supporting him?” I asked.

“He just wanted dancers for his stage show,” explained Leo, “because he broke up his conspiracy theory lecture with dancing. I was the first one on stage. I ran on at 10.00am and everybody in Wembley Arena is sitting there wearing jackets and I am prancing around like Hey! Stay away from the brown acid! It was well weird.”

“Did you actually meet him?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s a very nice bloke. I think it’s good to have someone out there prodding at things and making people look at things in different ways. But it was weird being backstage with other dancers who were total David Icke acolytes – Ickelites. (Leo likes a pun.) It was like I was the mad person in the room because I didn’t believe that people are shape-shifting lizards. I started to question my own sanity after a while.”

Leo had asked me if I wanted to have a chat with him because he will be the only act at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe “to have lost part of his body in a shark attack and one of the few to have been rimmed by a hungry farm animal.”

Leo and I met at Soho Theatre, but I never got round to asking about the the shark attack or the animal rimming.

The publicity image for Leo’s Mangina Funalogs

The publicity image for Leo’s Mangina Funalogs

His first solo Edinburgh Fringe show is called The Mangina Funalogs. He is also appearing in a second show – Atella The Pun – with UK Pun Champion Darren Walsh. Leo does like a pun. He is also appearing in a third Fringe show – Hate ’n’ Live – with Darius Davies: a show where comedians do improvised rants about topics suggested by the audience and drawn from a hat at random. He should, perhaps have called that one The Upset List.

His parents moved from London’s Notting Hill to Dumfries in the early 1970s.

“Why?” I asked.

“My dad’s a gunsmith,” explained Leo, “and they had a knitwear business. My mum used to do clothes for Lulu. So they moved to Dumfries for lower costs, but they couldn’t compete with China.”

“With a background like that,” I said, “it’s not surprising you ended up in comedy.”

“My dad can build a gun from scratch,” added Leo. “He knows all the different grades of steel and can make springs out of blocks of steel.”

“You performed at the Adelaide, Melbourne and Singapore festivals this year,” I said.

“Yes,” said Leo. “On the way back, around April time,  I was in Patong and bumped into Chris Dangerfield.”

“Was he horizontal or vertical?“ I asked.

“Vertical,” said Leo. “He’s really interesting. You know his lock picking business? I used to work for the police. Now I work in consulting for the government and national security and stuff. Chris Dangerfield’s biggest customers are MI5, MI6 and the police. It’s just so funny.”

“You worked for the police?” I asked.

The face of a criminal intelligence analyst

The comedic face of criminal intelligence

“Yeah. For years,” said Leo. “I wasn’t a policeman. I was a criminal intelligence analyst and I managed the Criminal Intelligence Unit for a bit as well. For the last three or four years, I’ve been consulting in the private sector. Still sometimes consulting for the police. Also national security overseas like in the Middle East and stuff. At the moment, I’m doing a fairly boring government thing up in Coventry.”

“What is a criminal intelligence analyst?” I asked.

“Identifying emerging trends. Say there’s a new spate of burglaries and they’re using a particular method to break in… They could be using Chris Dangerfield’s lockpicks…”

“So you don’t,” I said, “investigate murders.”

“No, that’s detective work. We’ve got dashboards that follow reported crimes and 999 calls and look at things like hospital admissions. If there’s gang violence and they stab each other, they don’t report it to the police but they will go to hospital. So we look at A&E admissions, ambulance call-outs and I specialised in problem solving intelligence, which is bringing all partner agencies together, looking across a really wide spread of intelligence and using joined-up, co-ordinated resources to deal with it. Because the police tend to just treat crime problems as a crime issue and they deal with that by arresting people and chucking men in yellow jackets into the area.

“But night-time disorder can be tackled by arranging better transport links to get people out of an area quickly so they’re not milling around fighting. It’s looking at the core root of the problem.”

“That,” I said, “seems unusually intelligent of the police.”

“Oh, they don’t do it any more,” said Leo. “As soon as the Tories got in, we all got laid-off.”

“And,” I prompted, “you said you did national security abroad…”

“Yes. I worked on stuff for the Middle East. I can’t really talk about it.”

“For GCHQ?” I asked.

“For foreign governments,” said Leo. “I work for a big international company. I’m in their intelligence wing.”

“Am I allowed to say that?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. We do all kinds of analysis…”

“Dodgy stuff…” I said.

“We do a lot of good stuff,” said Leo. “We work with CEOPs (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre). When we see a good application of our skills that isn’t being evil, we do that.”

“So what sort of mind,” I asked, “is interested in analysing crime trends AND making people laugh at puns in a room above a pub?”

“I don’t think there is a link,” said Leo. “I mean, Darren Walsh does Flash development and his comedy’s really different from computer programming.”

“Puns are about manipulating and moving existing things around laterally,” I suggested, “and your jobs…”

“Spotting patterns,” said Leo. “Maybe. I’ve been told that comedy is all about gags. But I don’t think it is. It’s about getting the momentum, the atmosphere going. It’s almost like music. You build it up and really nail it to a crescendo. It’s building up tension and releasing it like the Pixies or Nirvana or something like that.”

“Your Edinburgh show has a thread?” I asked.

Manly Leo (left) poses wit Darren Walsh for their upcoming Atilla The Pun show

Leo (left) and Darren Walsh strike a manly pose for their upcoming Fringe show Atella The Pun. Both tell tall tales.

“Yeah. It’s about how hard it is being a man. Which is bullshit: it’s dead easy being a man. I’m so glad I’m a man. We’re built for all the horrible stuff. We’re bullies. We’re good at throwing stuff really far. Hunting. Fighting. We never get to do those things in everyday life. Now it’s all sitting at a computer and doing boring stuff like that. Male masculine skills are not appreciated any more. There’s so much bullshit around.

“I remember teachers at school saying Oh, bullies are like that because they were bullied themselves and they’re just sad and that’s why they’re doing it and they’re upset and… That’s bullshit… Most bullies do it because it’s really funny to sit on another kid and make it eat grass until it cries. I’m trying to debunk a lot of these myths.”

“Did you do that at school?” I asked.

“No,” said Leo. “But, for the purposes of my show I did. I’ve got a bit about me being bullied and how it turned me from English to Scottish. In Scotland, you can say anything as long as it’s funny. It can be as cruel as you like – as long as it’s funny. When I moved down eleven years ago, I had to adjust to England. People would say That’s horrible instead of saying That’s horrible, but it’s funny and laugh like they did in Scotland.”

“And the aim of all this is to get your own radio or television show?” I asked.

“Well, a company called Forefront Media has made a 27-minute documentary about me called Stand-Up London: the pilot for a series. It was going to be for the London Live TV channel, but no-one’s watching that, so they’re pitching it to Sky Arts.

“I’m also going to be on Dinner Date on ITV in September or October. I was one of the men cooking. I got picked by the girl.”

“A good calling card,” I said.

There is a video of Leo’s puns on YouTube.

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Amused Moose promoter and producer Hils Jago on talent spotting comedians

A strangely reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

An unusually reticent Hils Jago yesterday at Soho Theatre

“Why Amused Moose?”

“I wanted a word beginning with the letter A because, back in the day, everything in Time Out was listed alphabetically. I chose ‘Amused’ and then had to find something that rhymed with it. I thought of ‘Moose’ two weeks later, when I was in the bath drinking red wine… and then comic Mark Watson told me it was a bad rhyme.”

Yesterday, I had tea at Soho Theatre with Amused Moose Comedy boss/promoter/producer Hils Jago. As well as the upcoming Amused Moose Comedy Awards, she runs Amused Moose clubs, tours acts and stages shows.

“Everything’s going through change at the moment,” Hils told me, “so I’m thinking How can I change? This will be our 15th year – before that we did previews and things. I learned my trade by helping run comedy at Sohoho for about five years.”

“I suppose,” I told her, “I should ask you about the fact people are talking about the death of comedy clubs…”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m not even talking about that. The death of comedy clubs is people not having any vision and taking too much money out of the business. You have to reinvest and you have to be creative and inventive. I’m making lots of changes to my business over the next six months. A few people have said Oh, production line comedy! about small comedy clubs. Which I always used to say about the two big comedy chains. I’m fearful that I could be seen quite soon as being part of that production line comedy. I need to re-invent what I do and how I do it.”

“Money,” I said, “seems to be tight all round at the moment.”

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

Al Lubel, winner of the 2013 Amused Moose Laughter Award

“Yes” said Hils. “We do two awards. The Amused Moose Laugh Off and the Amused Moose Laughter Awards which come under the umbrella of the Amused Moose Comedy Awards. Unfortunately, the support we’ve had from BBC Worldwide for four years is finishing this year, so I am looking for new sponsors for next year. We could do it much more on a shoestring, but that would show, so I’m looking for sponsors to get us up to the same level we got to with the BBC. The BBC also did a £5,000 prize and that’s one of the things that will obviously have to go if we don’t get sponsorship next year.

“What we need is to find people who are either philanthropic or who see us as a good way of doing their scouting for them… which we have been doing, because we did find Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican and people like that.”

“How do you spot talent?” I asked. “For large-scale success, what you’re actually looking for is bland, middle-of-the-road, unoriginal acts…”

Amused Moose winner Sarah Millican

One of the Amused Moose ‘finds’ Sarah Millican

“No you’re not,” said Hils. “I’m looking for people who have some style and pizzazz about them and can write a decent line or two. I knew within 15 seconds when Jack Whitehall walked on stage. I probably had a pretty good idea before he even walked on the stage. How he carried himself as a person. Same with Sarah Millican. It was obvious she was head and shoulders above the other people in her heat.”

“Years ago,” I said, “I heard you say to someone – it might even have been me – that, if you’re a manager/agent, it takes three years to launch a comedian.”

“Oh, it does,” said Hils. “And normally, from when someone starts, it takes seven years to get a DVD out – to be ‘DVD famous’ enough to be ready to sell a million. DVD companies want to sell a lot; they can’t just send out tasters, like you can with YouTube.

“This whole thing that’s happening now which Louis CK kicked off three Christmases ago by putting his stuff online for $5 – people were sending them as Christmas cards to people! – I can’t believe that no-one else has actually commercially got this model going.”

“Are the winners of your competitions tied to you, like Simon Cowell?”

“No. I don’t like managing people. I don’t like being responsible for other people’s livelihoods. I hate it.”

“But you have managed acts in the past.”

Jerry Sadowitz on a holiday with Richard Wagner

Jerry Sadowitz - immense talent but could you manage him?

“Yes. I managed Jerry Sadowitz for 15 months.”

“Bloody hell! That must have aged you.”

“It taught me a lot. I’ve managed a lot. I think you can spot talent. But it’s also actually finding people who’ve got the drive and determination to succeed and who have some sort of appreciation of how the business works, because it IS show BUSINESS. I don’t mean to say you have to do business, but you have to understand people need to make money and you’ve got to understand the constraints people are working under. If you look at Jimmy Carr, who was in our first final, he’s very aware of marketing.”

“Was he genuinely an oil executive,” I asked, “or is that PR bullshit?”

“Yes,” Hils told me. “He left with a racing green company car which they gave him with wire wheels – that’s how nice a car it was. Top of the range. And he was driving it round for about two years as an open spot, giving top comics lifts and they were saying: Where did you get this from? Leather seats, wooden dashboard, the whole thing. Superb.”

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

‘Moose’ rhymes with ‘Amused’? Opinion varies.

“The thing about comics,” I said, “is that they’re so phenomenally insecure and tend to be dithery and can’t manage themselves. Irresponsible by nature, which is what makes them good comics.”

“It’s just,” said Hils, “a matter of finding someone who’s got all the right character combinations. We all make allowances for comics, of course we do. The other problem is that, when you are a comedian – generally – you disclose a lot more about yourself than you would if you were a ‘real’ person. So everyone thinks they’re insecure and bonkers but, actually, they’re no more insecure and bonkers than the rest of us – but the rest of us can hide it.

“They show their insecurities and their vulnerabilities on stage. They have to, in order to charm an audience. Because that’s what makes them loveable. You can get someone who is a brilliant wordsmith and delivers very well, does all the tricks, but actually does not make it happen because they do not have any warmth about them. There has to be some warmth in there. Even if they’re a comic who does dark material, there has to be a twinkle in the eye.”

“Jimmy Carr ,” I said, “got terrible criticism for a joke about gypsy moths which I thought was unjustified. I never heard him tell it live but, in that cold cynical Jimmy Carr persona, he is able to deliver all sorts of potentially dodgy gags and they are fine.”

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

Jimmy Carr was a man with a car

“Well,” said Hils, “Jimmy developed that style. He started off doing just one-liners which were not acerbic. It took him two or three years and it wasn’t until he did his first Edinburgh Fringe show and he had to work out how to do an hour that he started changing how he delivered.”

“I do think, though,” I said, “that if you are looking for someone who will become genuinely successful across the board, you have to look for someone who is not totally original.”

“It depends,” said Hils, “They can be offbeat… if that’s the way the trend is going… It’s that thing about catching the wave at the beginning. If there is no wave there, then you are a bit buggered. At the moment there IS… I think, in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a new breed of people coming through. Even some of the people who only go out to comedy clubs on a Saturday night are beginning to say: Excuse me. This is comedy by rote.”

“So what is this new wave?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“The original alternative comedy,” I said, “was stand-up, jugglers, music, magicians, poets…”

“It was Variety,” agreed Hils, “I think that’s one of the things that may be coming in. There will always be stand-ups, but I think we might see a wider variety.”

“Did you ever try stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because?”

“I was a teacher and lecturer for six years and keeping a disinterested audience occupied for five hours was quite enough.”

“In what subject?” I asked.

“Business and IT. I trained for science but there weren’t any jobs. My degree was Earth Sciences.”

“I’ve never known what that means.”

“Geography and Geology and bits of stuff like that… You don’t want me going on for hours, because you’ve got to type it all up.”

“You are very shrewd,” I told Hils.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been a journalist. I’ve done all sorts of things. I’m old. I go back to rock ’n’ roll. I used to drink with Jimi Hendrix…”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I knew Jimmy Page when we were both at school.”

“Oh Lord,” I said. “I feel another blog coming on…”

… TO BE CONTINUED … MAYBE …

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Nudity on ITV, balloons & how Malcolm Hardee fell out with OTT Chris Tarrant

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee in Alternative Comedy’s early days with his protégée comedian Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

As I have very little time to write a blog today and as yesterday’s blog was about the ‘old’ ITV, here is an extract from comedy icon Malcolm Hardee’s increasingly prestigious autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It is about his participation in Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show On Legs and refers to OTT, the adult TV series produced by Chris Tarrant after his success with children’s series Tiswas.

At this time, I was working on the continuing Tiswas series.

Because ATV/Central messed-up and did not at first give the OTT team their own office, Tarrant squatted in our Tiswas office for around (if memory serves me) a month. I later worked on the LWT series Game For a Laugh, but not at this point.

This is Malcolm Hardee’s story…


The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

The Greatest Show on Legs perform the Balloon Dance (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Clarke, Martin Soan

The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on ITV.

Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks was supposed to be with The Greatest Show on Legs on the OTT pilot, but he’d buggered off to Cornwall. He’d had enough.

This was right in the middle of The Mad Show.

So, at about 6.30am one morning, I knocked-up Martin Potter who used to operate our tapes and he came out with us and did  the pilot for OTT and the audition for Game For a Laugh.

We needed someone permanent and Martin Potter wasn’t interested, so we recruited Martin Clarke from Brighton, who’d been in a theatre group called Cliffhanger. He had quite a posh voice and looked a bit like Tony Blackburn, so we called him ‘Sir Ralph’.

We were invited to do The Balloon Dance first on Game For a Laugh but, when we got to the LWT studios, the producer wouldn’t let us do it naked. He said the show was for family viewing.

“But that’s how we do it,” I said. “That’s the whole humour of it.”

He sent researchers out to get smaller and smaller items of underwear – even going into sex shops to get us jockstraps. But we held out and said:

“We’re not doing it with our pants on”.

We partly held out because we knew that OTT also wanted us on ITV in a month’s time and they would let us do it naked. In the end, we did the Scottish sword dance on Game For a Laugh. We used the show’s co-presenter Matthew Kelly as the crossed swords. He had a broken leg at the time. So we kept our clothes on but terrorised Matthew Kelly in exchange.

A month later, we finally got naked on TV when we performed The Balloon Dance on OTT. (The video is on YouTube) That was in January 1981. It was one of the first programmes made by Central, who had taken over from ATV as the Birmingham ITV station.

OTT was meant to be the all new, very daring adult version of Chris Tarrant’s anarchic children’s show Tiswas. Alexei Sayle performed on it every week and still no-one understood his humour. Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Helen Atkinson-Wood were the other OTT regulars.

On the first night we were there, the studio audience didn’t react very well to the over-all show but, when we came on, we set the place alight – figuratively speaking – and afterwards there was a furore in the press, which we wanted. Mary Whitehouse complained about it, which is always a good thing.

We got on very well with Chris Tarrant but, two or three years later, we did the Balloon Dance on another late-night TV show created by him (Saturday Stayback - there is a video not including Malcolm on YouTube). It was shot in a pub and he was desperate for ratings, because they hadn’t been very good. So he got us in to do the last show in the series.

Afterwards, there was a big end-of-series party for everyone and we weren’t invited to it. So our roadie saw a massive bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam – and nicked it. We were giving Helen Atkinson-Wood a lift because she also had to miss the party to get back to London. We all got in our Luton Transit and suddenly Chris Tarrant came running out, mad, shouting:

“You’ve had my champagne!”

“No we haven’t!” I lied.

“You have!” he yelled. “You’ll never work on TV again!”

At this, Helen Atkinson-Wood jumped out of the van because she didn’t want to be associated with us and the roadie drove us off back to London.

I have heard since that Chris Tarrant says this incident involved the pub having some silvery cutlery nicked which had sentimental value to the landlord. If anything else was nicked, it wasn’t us; we just nicked one bottle of champagne.

Anyway it all ended in tears. But our first appearance on OTT was our big breakthrough and afterwards it was all congratulations.

As a result of our TV success, we ended up with an agent, Louis Parker, who treated us like The Chippendales.

We went mainstream. We were doing hen nights and End of The Pier variety shows for two or three years – not the University shows that we had done before. Literally end-of-the-pier. Colwyn Bay and Blackpool we did. We were a novelty act doing a 15-20 minute show for what was then an enormous amount of money: about £500-£600 a show. But there were three of us to pay, plus a roadie.

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson, who clashed with the show’s BBC producer

While we were doing that, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson went on to TV success in The Young Ones.

Pete Richardson (who went on to direct The Comic Strip) was meant to have been in that: he was meant to have been the one that no-one knows. They wanted a macho-man figure as a counter-balance to the others and Pete was replaced by someone they recruited out of a casting agency.

The Young Ones garnered all the credit for being clever comedians, while we were literally performing a dumb show. Our success was short-term, lowbrow and mainstream.

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs doing the Balloon Dance in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dogs got booed off for being sexist: he was singing a song about a woman with tits and they didn’t like him. But they liked The Greatest Show on Legs naked with balloons. Except that we didn’t use balloons: we used photos of Mrs Thatcher to cover our genitalia and, after we turned round, our penises were sticking out of her mouth.

They loved it.

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What happens when TV companies get taken over? Here’s Granada TV & LWT

An on-screen ident for LWT in 1975

An LWT on-screen ident in 1975

Once upon a time in the UK, there was a network called ITV. Not a single company. A network of separate companies.

The network had been set up in 1955 so that it would provide regional and national competition to the BBC.

Under the Broadcasting Act of 1990, franchises to run the companies were now awarded to the highest bidder rather than purely on quality grounds. This meant, for example, that Central Independent Television paid only £2,000 for its unopposed franchise, but Yorkshire Television paid £37.7 million for its franchise, which was roughly the same size.

The 1990 Act also allowed ITV companies to take over other ITV companies.

In 1994, Granada TV took over London Weekend Television (LWT).

I worked freelance at LWT for two years. I worked freelance at Granada in Manchester over fifteen years.

A friend of mine worked at LWT at the time of the take-over by Granada. This is what they told me in an e-mail after they left:


“The day of the take-over, senior management – i.e. board members – no longer appeared in the building and destroyed cars, offices, equipment etc. This shook and upset me. The rest of the management turned up to find Granada cars in their spaces and Granada bodies in their offices. A few walked out and left it to their solicitors but most had to stay or risk losing their legal rights. That is what I had to do. For nearly a year, I had to turn up for work to protect my legal rights.

Billy Bunter

Billy Bunter

In fact, I had no job because the chap who took someone else’s job also took all of my role so I had to either stay or walk out and claim constructive dismissal but a little known fact is that, if you do this, any award made to you is taxable at 40% and you cannot put the award into your pension which is what I wanted to do.

So I had to fight every day to maintain my position.

I can’t remember the name of the chap who took over my role, only that he was nicknamed Billy as he resembled Billy Bunter.

My job at LWT had been to manage a department which was variously 50-100 staffers plus freelance.

After the take-over, I was excluded from all decisions and information. A few examples of how difficult this was are

  • I received no post as it was all redirected to Billy, I had no signing authority but continued to sign knowing they would be rejected.
  • I had to pay for my own flights to Manchester (Granada TV’s base) and take charge of the office there (such lovely people and well confused by all this) and also took charge of a little London Granada outpost which I closed and moved into my offices.
  • Ooh yes, they did move the woman in charge of another department into my office – a lovely lady with whom I got on well and very nicely moved her out again.

Obviously I was expected to have a nervous breakdown or walk out but was a big enough thorn in their side and knew employment law so I think that is why they gave me everything I asked for just before Christmas and just before my health did break down.

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