Ariane Sherine on why she gave up comedy and turned to Beautiful Filth

Ariane Sherine yesterday

Ariane Sherine was at Soho Theatre yesterday

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an online piece by Ariane Sherine, one of their regular writers. It was headlined:

I’D BEEN UNEMPLOYED FOR A YEAR… SO I FORMED A BAND, OF COURSE

and the subtitle was:

What’s a 34-year-old single mum on benefits meant to do when all else fails? Pursue the most unrealistic career path imaginable!

So, of course, yesterday I had a chat with Ariane.

“I did nine months on the comedy circuit in 2002/2003,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just the most amazing thing to make a crowd of people laugh,” she told me. “I always think comedy is the truest art form because people can’t fake laughter. Anybody can clap after a performance out of politeness, but people don’t tend to laugh out of politeness. Not real, proper belly laughs. It feels wonderful and it feels like a validation of your own personality. If you think something’s funny and other people think it’s funny too, then they identify with you and it’s amazing, it’s wonderful and I loved it.”

“It’s like being hugged on stage?” I asked.

“I don’t know about a hug. It’s certainly warm.”

“But you stopped,” I said.

Arine Sheine was worried by a website

Ariane Sherine: worried by website

“I stopped comedy because I was so scared Steve Bennett might give me a terrible review on his Chortle website. I gave it up because I was scriptwriting and thought I don’t want producers to Google me, find this hypothetical Chortle review and think: Oh, she’s not funny.

“I still wanted that validation through my writing. I started writing for sitcoms. I wrote for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and My Family and material for Countdown. But you don’t really get credit for that: it’s never really your own because, on sitcoms, you have script editors who may ask you to do eight re-writes based on their notes and, by the end of it, it’s not your script any more. I have no particular wish to go back into scriptwriting, but I do really miss comedy.”

“So why not go back to it again?”

“Because the circuit is a harsh, cruel place,” Ariane laughed.

“So you’ve been sitting around doing nothing…” I said.

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric - do not try this at home

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric – smutty, maybe nutty

“I’m looking after my three-year-old daughter half the time,” replied Ariane, “and, the rest of the time, I’m always working on projects. I’ve been working on this album since January.

“Ah yes!” I said. “It’s you and a friend, you call yourself The Lovely Electric and the album is called Beautiful Filth. Out today.”

“And it’s available on iTunes and from Spotify,” said Ariane. “I wanted to do comedy songs because I missed doing stand-up.”

Tracks on her Beautiful Filth album include:

Don’t Have Sex With a Goat
Thank You For Not Smelling of Fish
I Think His Penis Died

The opening lyrics to the track Cum Face are:

You are so beautiful
I’d watch you at the IMAX
I love the way you look
Except for when you climax
You flare your nostrils out
And, for what it’s worth
You scrunch your cheeks up
Like a hamster giving birth

I don’t want to see your cum face
I don’t want to watch you come
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum
I don’t want to see your cum face
I’d rather watch my mum
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum

There is a video for the song Hitler Moustache on YouTube.

“My politics are very left-leaning,” Ariane told me, “and I think a lot of people I like might not like the album, because it’s very smutty.”

“So,” I said, “you decided to record a pop album whose lyrics are untransmittable on radio. Why? That’s no way to make money.”

“Well, you never know,” said Ariane. “Tim Minchin is pretty successful. But it is true Beautiful Filth is an album about sex. We don’t have any clean songs on it.”

“But why,” I asked,” write an album about sex in such a way that it can’t be widely disseminated?”

“Because it’s funny and the humour I enjoy is really rude. Think of Monty Python – The Penis Song. (There is a version on YouTube.)

Charlie Brooker reacts to Ariane’s Hitler Moustache

Charlie Brooker reacts to the Hitler Moustache

“How come Charlie Brooker is in your Hitler Moustache music video?” I asked.

“I met him when I was working in telly,” explained Ariane, “He’s the loveliest bloke. He has just helped me so much. He gave me my start in journalism because the Guardian asked him: Do you know any good comedy writers who could add a bit of levity to the comment pages? and he suggested me. So he’s basically responsible for my whole journalistic career. Then he gave me a quote for my last book, he gave me a quote for this album, he wrote for The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which was a book I edited, got me a job on Big Brother – writing the website stuff.”

“So why do you want to be a singer-songwriter now?”

“Because it’s fun and because I did a music degree. It culminated in work experience at the NME.”

“And you started writing at the NME?”

“Yes. Then I was runner-up in the BBC New Sitcom Writers Award. I started writing for Children’s BBC and other places. I’ve always been a writer in one form or another. But then I had a nervous breakdown in 2010.”

Ariane wrote about her feelings

The Guardian piece

“That,” I said, “was well before your daughter – who is now three – was born.”

“Yeah. I wrote a Guardian piece about it. Basically a load of really horrible things happened. I had had a very violent, disturbed childhood, so I got depressed in my teens – started cutting myself and became anorexic – and was put on a load of anti-depressants that didn’t help.

“I was pregnant when I was 24 and my boyfriend turned violent and hit me in the face and caused by ear to bleed and then he suffocated me and it was horrible. So that happened and then I kind of picked myself up from that after about a year but was still very depressed. I was 24.”

“You’re 34 now.”

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

“Yes. I was 24 and carried on writing for telly and then the Atheist Bus Campaign came out of a piece I had written for the Guardian. I got lots of threats when I did that. Random strangers. Religious people who didn’t like the campaign. I really, genuinely felt a bit… and I couldn’t work for… I didn’t feel able to do anything in public for over three years. My Guardian pieces stopped in August 2010 and it was only in December 2013 that I started writing again. It was a big chunk of time to lose, but…”

“What made you start again?” I asked.

“I was put on some anti-depressants that were Tricyclics, so they were different from the SSRIs that I was taking before.”

“SSRIs?” I asked.

“Things like Prozac and Seroxat. But now I’m on this amazing one. It’s amazing and it has just made life worth living again.”

“There was,” I said, “an act I knew called the Amazing Mr Smith who was given Seroxat. Last year, he took it for two nights and then killed himself by jumping off a cliff.”

“Sometimes they can make you a lot worse before they make you better,” said Ariane. “When you read the leaflet and you read This medication might induce suicidal thoughts you think Well why am I taking it?”

“But you’re OK now?” I asked.

“Well, I’m on three different medications now: anti-psychotic ones, anti-convulsant and anti-depressant.”

“Anti-psychotic is different from anti-depressant,” I said.

“It’s a horrible thing,” said Ariane. “I was convinced people were trying to kill me. I was convinced the government and MI5 were out to kill me.”

“As you were working for the Guardian,” I said, “maybe they were.”

“I remember the caretaker in my block of flats,” said Ariane, “was scrubbing the walls outside and I was convinced he was doing it to spy on me. When you get to that state that you’re convinced everybody’s out to get you, you can’t walk down the road because you’re scared and I desperately needed help and I got put on these anti-psychotics, but they alone didn’t make everything better.

“Then I got pregnant and I couldn’t be put on anything else. So I spent my pregnancy planning my suicide.”

“How were you going to kill yourself?”

“Helium.”

“You were going to laugh yourself to death?” I asked.

“I’m glad I can laugh about it now,” said Ariane.

“I’m interested in comedians,” I said, “because they’re all mad as hatters.”

“Well,” said Ariane, “for years I was so terrified of letting people know I was struggling with mental illness but, as soon as I did, there were all these journalists and comedians who told me: I’ve had the same thing. It was amazing,

“I think these pills I’m on have actually given me courage I would not have had ordinarily. So I don’t see it as brave to come out as mentally ill – it’s just these pills I’m on. There’s no way I would ever have been able to do it without the pills.”

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Memories of Tiswas, Frankie Howerd’s wandering hands and Norman Collier

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and associate producer David McKellar

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and David McKellar

So yesterday I drove up to Birmingham for a reunion of people who worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas. It turned out there were 100 fans there too.

Everyone I knew years ago seem to have grown white hair and beards or both apart from presenter Sally James and you can never be too sure of anything nowadays.

I got chatting with David McKellar, who was Associate Producer/Script Associate on Tiswas when I was there. He was a wildly experienced gag writer. I remember being impressed when I realised he had written one of the few jokes I ever remembered, a fake news headline:

“Bad news for three-foot dwarfs… four feet snow drifts.”

I think David Frost delivered the gag in one of his TV series, probably The Frost Report.

David McKellar remembered Tiswas yesterday

David at the Tiswas gathering in Birmingham yesterday

David McKellar wrote for various David Frost shows as well as Ken Dodd, Frankie Howard, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, The Two Ronnies, Celebrity Squares… you name it…

He told me that, taking a look at Lenny Henry’s website recently, he noticed that Lenny had credited him with changing his career path.

“I had no idea,” David told me.

“How did you change his career?” I asked.

“He used to do gags as himself and I suggested he did characters. When he went on This Is Your Life, he mentioned my name. It’s good to be remembered.”

“It is nice,” I said, “to change someone’s life when you didn’t even realise it. Who did you write your first joke for?”

Max Miller

Max Miller paid David £1 in the street

Max Miller. He lived in Brighton. I lived in Brighton. I met him in the street, told him this joke and he gave me £1.”

“What was the joke?” I asked.

“I wish I could remember,” laughed David. “The thing about him was he never used  a dirty word on stage and he was the dirtiest comedian. It was the audience who were thinking the dirt in the act. Comics nowadays will say ‘wanking’ for no reason.”

“You wrote for Frankie Howerd, didn’t you?” I asked. “That was all innuendo.”

“You never went into a room alone with him,” said David.

“Jonathan Ross,” I said, “advised me never to get in a lift alone with Frankie Howerd.”

“He’s remembered,” I said, but people like Norman Collier are not and he was a great comedian.”

Norman Collier

The great Norman Collier – gone but not forgotten by some

“I remember,” said David, “he took me into a restaurant one night in Birmingham – on the Friday night before the Tiswas show (which was on Saturday morning) and he came in with a ten-foot ventriloquist’s dummy. He put it on the chair next to me and the waiter came along and gave us three menus. The dummy ordered a whole meal, then Norman got hold of a popadom, held it under the table and there was a Woof! Woof! sound. They threw him out because they didn’t allow dogs in the restaurant. But he had no dog. He left me sitting in there with a ten foot dummy.

“I was with him in Toronto and he had two dolls and vented them singing I’ll Be Loving You.… Two people bought singing dolls off him and they weren’t singing dolls.

“I was with him in Gibraltar… Barbary apes… He goes over and feeds them so their lips start moving and he starts talking to them and venting them talking to him. An hour and a half we were there. There was this couple from Alabama and they left thinking the apes talked. Norman stayed there until they were convinced and had left. They would have been telling everyone back in Alabama about the talking apes in Gibraltar.”

There is a clip of Norman Collier’s act on YouTube.

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

At this point, Tiswas presenter and ex Darts performer Den Hegarty came over, with two paper plates covered in ‘custard pie’ (actually white shaving foam) sticking to his face.

“Just like the old days,” said David.

“It’s not the stuff we used to use,” said Den. “We always used Erasmic. But this stuff stings the eyes. Though I didn’t used to get pies. I tended to get baked beans poured over me. Then people wrote in and complained we were wasting food and all the starving people in Africa could be fed with out baked beans. So then we had to make fake baked beans and they were poured over me.”

“The glamour of television.” I said.

The ending of the final episode of Tiswas is on YouTube.

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Life on the periphery of the godfather of alternative comedy Malcolm Hardee

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in Up The Creek office

Malcolm in the office at Up The Creek (note torn shoulder) (Photograph by M-E-U-F)

It is a Sunday today.

Now-dead Malcolm Hardee used to stage his comedy shows at his Up The Creek club on a Sunday. That was, of course, before he was dead.

There was one Sunday, fourteen years ago, in October 2000.

I went to Up The Creek to see Johnny Vegas perform.

Malcolm’s estranged wife Jane was there, looking very happy and younger, with all her teenage children. Just before the show started, Malcolm came in with his (female) friend Xxxx – whom I had not seen for years.

In the interval, I said hello to Malcolm who took me aside in the bar to tell me that present in the club were FMH the Former Mrs Hardee (Jane), FMH the Future Mrs Hardee, TMH the Temporary Mrs Hardee and OMH the one-time Mrs Hardee.

It transpired that a woman with a rather masculine face looking like Sixties softcore porn star Fiona Richmond was the object of his lust and they intended to spend the night together if they could get round the problem that FMH the Former Mrs Hardee was there.

I went to chat to Xxxx.

“I haven’t seen you for years,” I said.

“I just got out of the loony bin,” she explained.

It transpired she had actually come out two or three years ago, was living in a flat opposite Up The Creek found for her by the hospital but seldom went out. Malcolm had tried to get her a job with the three Brothers who owned Up The Creek, but one vetoed the idea saying: “She’s mad”.

There was some incident involving her setting fire to Malcolm’s tie, which I did not fully understand. She told me she always associated me with a performing snake. I could only think this was connected with an excellent act I had liked when Malcolm and I worked together at Noel Gay Television. The act was called Dolores & The Snake but did not involve any snake.

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig after Malcolm died

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig to Malcolm Hardee in 2006

Johnny Vegas, with no apparent script, did a roughly 90 minute act simply talking at various members of the audience and ending, shirt off, his ample figure bouncing, arm-wrestling a member of the audience on stage – He won.

Martin Potter, the sound man at Up The Creek, played Fat Boy Slim’s Funk Soul Brother full volume. Johnny danced to it, stomach and rolls of fat bouncing, and the audience rose, roaring in applause.

Afterwards, I talked to comedian Boothby Graffoe, Malcolm’s current flatmate, who said he (Boothby) was keeping a diary. I said this was a good idea because, over time, you forget details.

“Not with Malcolm,” Boothby said, “Everything’s vividly engrained in your mind.”

Boothby had not heard until this week that female ventriloquist Terri Rogers had died the previous year. He remembered staying with her, Malcolm, Charlie Chuck and another performer at the Edinburgh Fringe and, each night, the other performer would return with a new way of killing Terri, whom he vehemently disliked.

This surprised me, as she/he had always seemed very amiable. I say she/he because it was uncertain if Terri had, at one time, been a man. Or not.

After she died, it turned out she/he had been. A man. Before she became a woman. Her name had been Ivan Southgate.

There is a video on YouTube of Terri Rogers paying tribute to Malcolm for a long-forgotten one-off TV show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB called Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness.

Terri Rogers (left) pays tribute to Malcolm Hardee

Terri Rogers (left) recording a tribute for Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness in 1990.

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I have no subject for my blog today but, in East London last night, I saw a very successful comedy show with no jokes.

(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo & Chris Dangerfield at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo and Chris Dangerfield outside their Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012

In general, I do not review shows – I preview them – because, in my experience, reviewing shows just results in a performer calling you a cunt when they bump into you five years later. I also prefer to blog about performers and their lives rather than shows. In general, this blog is about people, people, people.

But that is not what today’s blog is about.

Every year I go to the Edinburgh Fringe and I have a problem.

I know a fair number of comedians to varying degrees and each of them expects me to go to his or her new hour-long show which they have sweated blood to create. Some get a bit miffed if I do not see their shows but, frankly, I do not want to see their shows.

As comedians, I know they are good. I know their schtick. I do not want to see acts I have seen before, however good. And I can, by and large, see them any time in London.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I want to see bizarre new acts who may get nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award. And, for my own enjoyment, I want to see acts I have never seen before – ideally comedians and performers I have never even heard of.

To quote the late Malcolm Hardee, they “might be shit, might be good. Dunno.” That is the risk you take but it is worth it.

This year, I did not see comedian Trevor Lock’s show. But I should have done. He usually does what I might call “intelligent surreal verbal comedy”. Last night he was performing a show called Not Joking which had, on the poster:

WARNING: THIS SHOW DOES NOT CONTAIN JOKES, ROUTINES, STAND UP COMEDY OR BANANAS

The poster for last night’s show promoted by Poppy Hillstead

The poster for last night’s unusual show

People go to comedy clubs to laugh and to be given happiness.

A joke is a constructed sentence or two designed to elicit one major burst of laughter at the end and, with luck, maybe some minor titter-making points along the way. The problem a comic has in a one hour show is that each traditionally constructed joke with punchline will only last, at heart, perhaps one minute. In the hands of a highly-experienced and talented performer, this can be stretched to several minutes. But the show is an hour long.

A joke is structured Set-Up / Detail / Climactic Laughter.

As comic Lewis Schaffer might – and possibly will – say, a joke is a bit like sex.

It is:

Foreplay / Build-up / Climax.

After the climax of the joke, a comedian, however skilled, has to start at ground zero again to build-up the next joke to its climax. To make this constant stopping and re-starting invisibly smooth takes both talent and a lot of experience but, at heart, it is arguably not as smooth as the warm-up to a show.

Most comedians start their gag-based shows with a series of Hello. Where are you from? What do you do? questions to individuals sitting in different parts of the audience to try to warm-up little sections and, by warming-up these isolated little sections, to warm up the audience over-all. They try to make the audience feel warm, cuddly, happy and, most of all, involved in the show.

Then the show proper starts – a series of (hopefully disguised) joke-based stops and starts. The best Edinburgh Fringe shows now often avoid telling traditionally-structured stop-start jokes by using one unifying story and the audience’s enjoyment comes as much from the well-told story as from the laugh points.

This idea of telling stories rather than gags has now filtered down to comedy club level where, often, the best comics are telling longer stories with laughs rather than just a series of unrelated shorter gags strung together. And this has begat pure storytelling shows and clubs, as I blogged about four days ago in piece rather niftily titled: If alternative comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, is storytelling the new comedy?

Trevor Lock’s show last night was slightly different.

Trevor Lock performed in front of a blank white wall

Trevor performed in front of a blank white wall to a full house

My heart sank when I heard it was intentionally going to have no jokes.

This is usually something inexperienced comics say when they (a) cannot tell jokes (b) have no performance skills and (c) are either bullshitting desperately or have possibly cocaine-induced delusions of their own genius.

Trevor Lock fits none of these three categories. He is funny, talented and as level-headed as any comedian (given that all comedians are, in their heart and soul, barking mad).

The nearest I can describe last night’s show was that it was a one-hour warm-up of the audience by a skilled performer who made something very difficult look very easy.

That makes it sound less than it was.

Basically, Trevor bonded the three-sided audience at the start in a very clever way (involving eye-contact) which I won’t describe. He then involved members of the audience in a basically non-structured show. (I noticed a couple of set-ups.)

Usually picking on audience members is awkward, even from a skilled performer – you are either going to get people who do not want to be picked-on and who have to be coaxed, which takes care and time unrelated to the basic show, or you get barely-controllable people who want to be the centre of attention and who have to be controlled and dampened-down.

Trevor avoided this by turning the show into what I think seemed to the audience to be something akin to a chat show with Trevor actually controlling what happened without seeming to be dominating. The consequence was a very very happy, constantly-bubbling-with-various-levels-of-laughter audience.

Remember that the object of going to see a comedy show is to laugh and to be given  happiness. Not necessarily to laugh in a near-mathematically-structured way at a pre-structured series of prepared jokes told in an order decided before the performer has actually encountered that specific audience.

Last night Trevor was, in effect, riding and guiding the emotions of the audience, rather than performing a pre-ordained show.

That is not easy for over an hour.

He managed it and, at the end, when they show was over, there was a loud, rising WHOOOOSHH! of clapping and cheers from a totally satisfied audience. Lots of smiling and chatter on the way out.

A highly intelligent, highly talented comedy performer at the top of his game.

If you can perform comedy without jokes and create an hour’s worth of constant laughter and happiness, then you must be doing something right.

Trevor Lock (left) & Chris Dangerfield, by Poppy Hillstead

Trevor Lock (left) and Chris Dangerfield – artwork courtesy of Poppy Hillstead, the promoter of Trevor’s show last night

This has not been a review, it has been an observation.

I would mostly be happy talking to performers about themselves and not seeing their shows. Last night was different. And it was interesting that, in the audience, were (I suppose I would describe them as) highly original performers Chris Dangerfield and Karl Schultz and rising promoter of the unusual Adam Taffler.

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The men I dreamed about last night…

ThoughtBubbleI seldom remember my dreams – which is rather sad – and usually only if I get woken up during one. This morning at seven o’clock, I woke up and had been in mid-dream.

I was in a two-storey suburban house with stairs and an unseen mezzanine floor on which unseen film director Peter Jackson was adding a voice-over narration to a cartoon version of his Lord of the Rings which strangely involved the legend of Beowulf.

I knew the unseen Peter Jackson was doing this, because there was a large flat screen television screen on the wall of the upstairs hall where I could see the images of the cartoon adventure and occasionally hear Peter Jackson’s voice filling-in gaps in the narrative.

He was speaking in a rich, stentorian, deeply-growling mock-heroic English accent, which was strange given that Peter Jackson is a New Zealander.

David Don’t did... appear in my dream last night

David Don’t did… appear in my dream last night… oddly

Meanwhile, next to the upstairs hall, in a room into which I occasionally wandered, David Don’t, the magician husband of British comic Charmian Hughes was taking out of a dusty grey tin box some torn and tattered pieces of old grey parchment on which were hand-written indecipherable words in black ink. David Don’t works in a bank in the City of London and the torn and tattered centuries-old pieces of parchment had something to do with the bank.

I remember a teacher at my school told us that one theory of why dreams exist is the brain is like a filing cabinet and, in dreams, we are filing away new information and cross-referencing it with old information.

Last night I was watching Part One of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent eight-part 2003 TV series The Adventure of English which largely dealt with Old English – Beowulf and the like. Coincidentally, my blog of two days ago had been about rich-voiced comedy performer John Henry Falle’s interest in Beowulf and Old English sagas.

The Adventure of English is, at least for the moment, on YouTube.

Last night, I also stumbled on the second half of a BBC4 TV series on How The Wild West Was One With Ray Mears which dealt with the Great Plains and included at least one dusty grey old house and earth-brick-built homes which were called sod houses. I do not remember any musty, dusty grey boxes appearing, but maybe one did.

Comedy stage performer John Henry Falle was also talking to me in my blog two days ago about wizards while David Don’t is a comedy stage magician. So maybe everything in the dream WAS connecting with everything else and all the elements in the dream had happened in the last few days.

But, then, the human brain can find a connection between anything and anything as many a conspiracy theorist proves.

Perhaps I should start taking drugs or cheese to improve my dreams.

Last night’s How The Wild West Was One With Ray Mears is – apparently legitimately – also on YouTube.

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My LA-based namesake from Rochdale double-cross-dresses with a drag queen

Amanda Fleming at Soho Theatre this week

Amanda Fleming at Soho Theatre this week

When I last chatted to L.A. based but Rochdale-brought-up actress Amanda Fleming (no relation) it was as an actress in the 26-minute short Titans of Newark. Now she has produced and directed her own short film.

“It’s called What a Drag,” she told me at London’s Soho Theatre this week.

“How did it start off?” I asked.

“David Carlisle, a friend of mine, does a lot of personal dressing for people.”

“Personal dressing?”

“He’s a stylist.”

“Ah.”

“But he also has this pseudonym Candy Floss – a drag queen character – I’ve seen him go out as Candy Floss and…”

“You mean he performs as Candy Floss?” I asked. “He doesn’t meander the streets in drag?”

“Well, he dresses up and he gets paid to make an appearance every now and then. We used to talk about Oh, let’s do a webisode – some banter between a drag queen and a drag king – a female dressing up as a man.”

“So you were going to dress up as Burlington Bertie or whatever?”

“I was originally. But another friend of mine, Cherry Blossom, is a drag queen.”

At this point, if I were capable of raising a Roger Moore eyebrow, I would have done.

“I know,” laughed Amanda, “my whole life is full of drag queens. But they both came down to London from Manchester in drag to see me for Gay Pride and…”

“They came down in drag?” I asked.

A still from the final version of the short film What A Drag

A still from the final version of the short film What A Drag

“Yes. When they came down, I thought we should do a short 10-minute film, documentary-style, about these two characters. But then I thought Do you know what would be really great? If it was a proper 25-minute documentary – but a comedy version – a mocku-docu-drama. You know how you get these reality TV shows now where they’re supposed to be real but aren’t?

“So we discussed doing a spoof documentary where they are asked about their lives, but there are flashbacks to their past – little drama clips in between – that shows the reality was the complete opposite of what they’re actually saying.”

“With you directing?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Amanda. “I like Mike Leigh films. He and Quentin Tarantino are two of the directors I really like.”

“That’s a bit of a…” I started to say.

“I am a bit eclectic,” Amanda explained.

“If they did each other’s films,” I suggested, “that would be very interesting. I would pay to see Mike Leigh’s Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino’s Abigail’s Party.

“Yes,” said Amanda, trying to get back to the subject. “Mike Leigh gets actors to improvise scenes from basic bullet-points…”

“Perhaps Mike Leigh should create Queens With Machine Guns,” I suggested.

The very feminine Amanda - she had to double cross dress

The very feminine Amanda – she had to double cross dress

“So,” said Amanda, forcing the conversation back on track, “I got together the basic outline – the beginning, the middle and the end – and then the important thing was to get the right questions which would provoke outrageous answers and good improvised scenes. We did all that and then, right at the last minute, the guy who was playing Cherry Blossom got taken into hospital. So I had to stand in for him.”

“As a drag act?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “But it changed from being two drag queens to being a drag queen and a cross dresser.”

“So,” I checked, “you were a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?”

The double cross dresser and the drag queen

Spot the woman: the double cross dresser and the drag queen

“Yes,” said Amanda. “We did one scene and played it back and we were pissing ourselves laughing because it looked so wrong. When you watch it, you don’t really know it’s me. It’s really dodgy.”

“Dodgy in what way?” I asked.

“Dodgy as in funny. Quirky. The thing is that one of the characters is oblivious to a lot of the insults which the other character is throwing at her and it’s not until towards the end you suddenly realise it has started to sink in and they end up in this massive…”

“Has it got a twist at the end?” I asked.

"It could turn into a full-length feature or TV comedy series,”

“It could turn into a full-length feature or TV comedy series,”

“Of a type,” said Amanda. “Some people we showed it to loved it; some people didn’t. We are going to do a mini-screening in Manchester and then hit the international film festivals with it. We are going to try to get it into Cannes next year. I got Titans of Newark in there last year, so I know some of the organisers.”

“It is a very good elevator pitch,” I said. “A drag queen improvises with a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.”

“It could turn into a full-length feature or a TV comedy series,” said Amanda.

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Comic performer John Henry Falle on being an alien and an aspiring wizard

The Beta Males with John Henry Falle (left) (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

The Beta Males comedy troupe with John Henry Falle (left) (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Yesterday, my blog was about the rise of storytelling nights in the UK – I was talking to comedians Matt Price/Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre in London. About two minutes after they left, John Henry Falle wandered past. He is a quarter of The Beta Males comedy group and 100% of The Story Beast.

My first words were:

“We should have a chat.”

And then:

“You are always taking your clothes off.”

“That did come up in your blog at some point.” said John Henry and then, apparently jokingly, “It’s possibly a way of… eh… dealing with any body dysmorphia I might ever have had.”

“The Beta Males are still going strong,” I said.

“Yes, we’re all doing little bits and pieces. We did half an hour each at the Edinburgh Fringe and I was doing my character The Story Beast, which is modern-day bardolatry. I tell the old stories in new ways and new stories in old ways. I want it to be three things. A cross between Ziggy Stardust, Tom Baker as Doctor Who and John Hurt as The Storyteller. They were all big influences on me.”

“I was talking earlier,” I said, “to Matt Price and Michael Kossew about their evenings at the Camden Head.”

“That’s where I first got naked,” said John Henry. “Well, in public.”

“They do storytelling,” I said.

“It’s the oldest art form,” said John Henry, “and it does appear to be having a bit of a resurgence at the moment. There are fewer gag merchants around and more storytellers.”

“The Story Beast tells new stories in old ways?” I asked.

“At the moment,” said John Henry, “I’m writing a load of poems about internet memes and YouTube videos, but in a heightened mock-heroic style.”

“And,” I asked, “you tell old stories in new ways?”

Beowulf is all told in gibberish.”

“Well,” I said. No change there.”

“But,” added John Henry, “there are references to Ray Winstone and the Beowulf film.

“I think,” I said, “I saw you at Jorik Mol’s Comedian’s Bookshelf evening doing… was it Beowulf?”

John Henry as The Story Beast

John Henry is The Story Beast but not the Son of Beowulf

“That’s my showpiece at the moment for The Story Beast,” said John Henry. “I failed Beowulf and, indeed, the whole of Old English as a language in my first year at university, but I always loved the story of Beowulf, even if I didn’t have a hang of the language.”

“You have a good voice for telling heroic sagas,” I suggested.

“It’s all about the resonance,” explained John Henry. “My dad was a… you call it a barrister here. He is an advocate in Jersey. So he taught me to project my voice.”

“Heavens!” I told him, relieved. “When you said ‘you call it a barrister here’ I thought you were going to reveal you were an alien from Mars.”

“That’s the way I do see myself as a Jerseyman,” replied John Henry. “I’m very much an alien in this country.”

“Years ago,” I told him, “I interviewed Nigel Kneale, who wrote Quatermass. He was from the Isle of Man and he thought it had made him a better writer, because he was ‘British’ but, at the same time, was not British, so he could view things simultaneously as an outsider and an insider.”

John Henry perked up at talk of Nigel Neale.

“In the three Quatermasses,” he said, “Nigel Kneale wrote the three basic types of science fiction… We go to them… They come to us… and They’ve been here all along. You can almost pop every sci-fi story into that.”

“You like sci-fi?” I asked.

“Science fiction and fantasy. I was a big Doctor Who fan.”

“Who was your Doctor?” I asked.

JohnHenryFalle2

John Henry, suspiciously alien-like, at Soho Theatre this week

“I was in the dead space,” said John Henry. “It wasn’t on TV.

“Someone who must have hated me gave me, when I was seven, a Doctor Who video – Time and The Rani, which is a terrible story.

“It’s the one where Sylvester McCoy regenerates after falling off an exercise bike. It’s really bad, but I fell unconditionally in love with it.”

“You must like the superhero films,” I suggested.

“Oh the Marvel films, certainly,” said John Henry, “once they became this on-going serial.”

“So you sat in Jersey…” I prompted.

“… believing I was some sort of wizard,” said John Henry. “Growing up with Harry Potter.”

“You could still become a wizard even now,” I said. “You have a beard.”

“Some. It was my girlfriend’s birthday recently and I decided I would cut off most of my beard and most of my hair and try to look a bit presentable for her dad.”

“What does she do?”

“She teaches English Literature.”

Beowulf and Old English?”

“No. She did her PhD on English travel literature from EM Forster to the present. Stories about Britishness abroad. Ideas of the Englishman as an alien.”

“More aliens,” I said. “But your beard still says ‘wizard’ to me.”

Alan Moore: a man with a fine beard and stick

Alan Moore: a man with a fine beard and staff

“I’m a big Alan Moore fan,” admitted John Henry, “and he walks around with a giant snake-headed staff, worshipping a snake god called Glycon who was revealed to be a sock puppet in the 6th century. The idea is you know magic is all nonsense, but you go after it and you try and make it happen.”

“So,” I said, “when you were a kid in Jersey, did you ever want to be a comedy performer?”

“I wanted to be a Time Lord wizard superhero.”

“With power over people?”

“I was terribly bullied. I don’t know if that fits this profile of the loner child who is in love with science fiction, but… I think kids nowadays are quite lucky in that things like Harry Potter and Doctor Who are in the mainstream. I don’t know what lonely children are like now particularly, but there’s enough room for them on the internet and the culture at large to provide them with something.

“I used to love The Hulk, who was so angry and repressed that he would become this immense creature and I always felt an affinity with him. And I think my dad quite liked him too because my dad was a body builder when he was younger.”

“And then he became a barrister,” I said. “Is there much connection between being a barrister and a wizard?”

“There is a legal spell in Jersey.,” said John Henry. “The Clameur de Haro. If someone is encroaching on your property or on common land, you say to them in front of witnesses: Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort. which means Hear me! Hear me! Hear me! Help me, Duke Rollo! Wrong is being done unto me. And then you recite the Lord’s Prayer in Jersey-Norman French and they have to stop what they’re doing or they go to prison. That’s an interesting spell. A bit of ancient Norman custom which is still there as part of the legal system in Jersey. My dad has brought three of those cases in the past 20 years.”

“What do they speak in Jersey?” I asked. “A sort on Norman-French-Scandinavian? Where were the Normans from anyway? They’re not French.”

“They had close connections to the kings of Norway,” John Henry told me. “So around 1066, when Jersey conquered England, there was a Harold Hardrada who was King of Norway who was also trying to get his greasy mitts on England, but only William had the proper claim and a mass of army. I’m intensely proud of Jersey. I love it deeply.”

“It’s an interesting thing,” I suggested, “like Nigel Kneale having an outsider’s insider view of Britain.”

John Henry or the Pret a Manger cup: which is more alien

John Henry and a Pret a Manger coffee cup sit in the Soho Theatre Bar: which is more alien?

“I do feel a certain alien-ness as a Jewish Jerseyman,” said John Henry. “I’m too Jewish for Jersey and too Jersey to be here and too odd an atheist around my Jewish family in North London.”

John Henry’s mother is Jewish from North London. His father is a Jerseyman.

“But maybe it’s a cultivated alien-ness,” said John Henry. “You choose who you are and I’ve decided to be an alien in London and in Jersey too. Or, looking at it another way, I can choose to be accepted in three communities and can pass for whatever I want to be within those communities. That’s a pleasure.”

“So,” I said, “whither John Henry now?”

“The Story Beast. I’m starting to do some proper YouTube videos and have one already – All The Kings and Queens of England. And I’m in a new Horrible Histories film – shot it in March, coming out next February. It’s called Bill and is a comedy about William Shakespeare. I’m a Spanish assassin: one of a load of Spanish assassins trying to kill Queen Elizabeth. I got a fight sequence with Damian Lewis; I was supposed to get a head butt from him.”

“And after that?” I asked.

“I don’t know what The Story Beast will do. Either I will become incredibly successful or I will go out onto a moor or a barrow somewhere and just freeze to death and be buried with my various accoutrements – my swords and wands.”

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