Tag Archives: obscenity

A chat about a Christmas video turns to talk of comedians in court in the 1960s

Matt Roper - Christmas in Soho

Matt Roper spends a Happy Goddam Christmas in Soho

Comedian Matt Roper is flying to India on New Year’s Eve for two months. At least, that was what he intended to do.

“I think my new principle should be Don’t book flights when you’ve had two bottles of wine and a load of Guinness and a few tequilas,” he told me over pizza in London’s Soho.

“I’d had a heavy night out and woke up in the morning. My life most mornings, if I’m being honest is… Well, if you’ve ever seen a window with condensation on it and it slowly clears away… That’s my brain in the morning… I remembered doing something about a flight, so I went and checked my emails and the Confirmation was there… Flying out on 31st December, which is perfect for me because I don’t like New Year… and coming back on June 3rd…. What?… June 3rd?!!… but the most surprising thing was I’d managed to choose my seat and decide what sort of meal I was having.

“I’ve been many, many times to India. I love it out there, but I haven’t been for about six years. I’ll go to Goa and then hopefully write my Edinburgh Fringe show in some hill station. But my point is Never book a flight when you’re hammered.

“Maybe that should be your Fringe show title,” I suggested: “Never Book a Flight When You’re Pissed. But you shouldn’t go to India. You’re in the iTunes Comedy charts at the moment with Happy Goddam Christmas, this Christmas song of yours.”

“Well, it’s an anti-Christmas Christmassy song, really,” Matt corrected me, “like Fairytale of New York.”

“When that was released,” I said, “it was inconceivable it could become a standard festive song like White Christmas.”

“It’s a British thing,” suggested Matt. “We’re maybe not drawn to the natural sugary, positive ditties.”

“Is it the first song you’ve written?” I asked.

“No,” said Matt. “All the Wifredo stuff you hear at Edinburgh is all orginal songs, though I did one of those in collaberation with Pippa Evans.

“With Happy Goddam Christmas, I had the music for a long time – the basic structure of the song – it was about an ex I was feeling particularly, you know, bitter and jaded about. But the song isn’t iactually about me feeling bitter about an ex. I took it to Pippa Evans and she added a middle eight onto it and we worked together on the lyrics.”

Pippa Evans performs as her on-stage character Loretta Maine. Someone once described her as ‘Dolly Parton as seen through the lens of Mike Leigh’.

“Arthur Smith has a little cameo in the video,” Matt told me, “and we have Sanderson Jones and Imran Yusef – in the video, they’re in the band – Arthur’s in the toilet brandishing his Hammond organ.”

“So you wanted to make lots of money with a Christmas song?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Matt. “It was just about having a bit of fun. It’s easy to release whatever you want on iTunes. It’s quite incredible how the music industry’s changed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Edinburgh Fringe were along similar lines? If you could cut out all the middle people.”

“Well,” I said, “the Free Fringe and the Free Festival sort-of do that. Are you thinking of doing one of the two free festivals next year?”

“Possibly. I had a lot of fun with Just The Tonic this year. I would like to see the Fringe level out into an event where your established comics and TV names are on the ticketed Fringe and the less-established acts can realistically afford to do it and make at least a little bit of money by the end of it.”

Matt’s father, George Roper, was one of The Comedians on the seminal Granada TV comedy stand-up show of the 1970s.

It was a different era.

“There was a club called The New Luxor Club in Hulme, Manchester,” Matt told me.

I raised my eyebrow at the mention of a club in Hulme. I went to Hulme a few times when I worked at Granada TV in the 1980s. If you went to the Aaben Cinema there, when you came out, you might find three youths sitting on your car bonnet saying: “So how much are you gonna pay to get your car back?”

“In the 1960s,” Matt told me, “they would have ‘gentlemen’s evenings’ at some of the Manchester social clubs, working men’s clubs, cabaret clubs. It would not be uncommon to have six stand-up comics and six female strippers/exotic dancers on one bill. At this point in the 1960s, it was legal to be naked on-stage, but it was illegal to move.

“The police decided to bust The New Luxor Club and my father was one of the six comics performing there that night. The police raided the club and charged the comedians with aiding and abetting the club owner – a guy called Vincent Chilton – for running a disorderly house.

“The six strippers and the six comics were in the dock at Manchester Crown Court and the police had to stand up in the court and tell the jokes. I swear – no word of a lie.

“I don’t know the exact date, but the police had to get up and say something like On the 28th of June 1965, George Roper stood up on stage and said the following joke: ‘A policewoman and a policeman were walking ‘ome from t’station one night. Ooh, she said, I’ve left me knickers back at t’station. Ooh, don’t worry, said t’policeman. Hitch up yer skirt, let the dog ‘ave a sniff. Half an hour later, t’dog comes back with t’sergeant’s balls in its mouth’…

“Can you imagine? In the Crown Court? The public gallery had to be cleared because everyone was laughing so much.

“There was a guy called Jackie Carlton, who was the apotheosis of Manchester club comics at the time and all the younger comics like Frank Carson and Bernard Manning looked up to him. He was very camp, very flamboyant. When it was his turn in the dock, the judge asked: Was that one of your jokes? and he said, Yes, but I tell it much better than that. He was found guilty.

“My dad was the last comic up and, when it was his turn to stand in the dock, the judge asked Is that one of your stories? and he said Oh! Not heard that one before and, for some reason, he got off with it by playing the underdog, as he always did. The other five comics got fined, but my dad got off with it.

“I asked my uncle about it not long ago and he said people were queueing round the block to buy the Manchester Evening News to read the jokes that were told in court.”

* * *

Below, Jackie Carlton talks in the 1970s about camp comedy and obscenity…

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The Edinburgh Fringe now insists on artistic control of all shows’ promotion

Comedian Lewis Schaffer lost his shirt staging Fringe shows.

In 2009, I staged a show at the Edinburgh Fringe titled Aaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s Bollock Relief! – The Malcolm Hardee Award Show. No-one batted an eyelid. More’s the pity.

Not when the title appeared in full in the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Not when flyers were handed out in the street. Not when posters appeared in the refined streets of Edinburgh.

No-one cared about the word “bollock” back then.

But yesterday, in an online response to a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News about censorship in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme, comedian Jackson Voorhaar wrote:

A quote in my blurb was actually censored to “the b*st*rd offspring of Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding”. Surely in that context bastard is a perfectly legitimate and inoffensive term?

My last couple of blogs have been about the Edinburgh Fringe Programme’s new-found puritanism where, for example, Richard Herring’s show Talking Cock (which had no problem in 2002) now has to be printed as Talking C*ck in the Fringe Programme because it might offend someone – despite the fact that, in August 2012 (as was the case in August 2002), large posters will festoon the billboards of Edinburgh saying Talking Cock and random pedestrians will be given A5 flyers advertising Talking Cock.

Vivienne Soan of London’s Pull The Other One comedy club talked to me yesterday about the title of the Stuart Goldsmith show, which the Fringe has insisted cannot be listed as Prick but has to be listed as Pr!ck. Vivienne sensibly said: “I think that, at first sight, they look like the same word… but actually the latter is slightly funnier/cleverer. Therefore,” she added a tad mischievously, “the Fringe programme are also insisting on artistic contro!”

She raises an interesting point here.

As Richard Herring told me: “Underneath the silliness and twatdom it’s a very important issue.” And it is.

Last night Mervyn Stutter, who has been staging Fringe shows for 26 years, asked me about the Charlie Chuck listing which the Fringe this year objected to as being “ungrammatical”.

“Strangely,” Mervyn told me, “I find that more sinister because it will affect so many more people with perfectly safe show titles.”

The 40 word Fringe Programme entry is an advertisement for each performer’s Fringe show. It is an ad paid for by the performer. It costs almost £400. So, if you use all 40 words, it costs £10 per word. If you used only 20 words, it would cost £20 per word.

Mervyn Stutter says: “If we pay £400 then we should choose exactly the wording we want. If it doesn’t ‘make grammatical sense’ then what happens next? An angry letter to the Fringe from an audience member demanding better grammar or just that we – the performers who pay for it – lose some audience?”

This is the key point.

Does the Guardian tell Renault it has to change the wording for a new car ad because it does not conform with the Guardian’s own ‘house style’? Does Exchange & Mart or eBay tell advertisers their ads are ungrammatical or must be changed into an appropriate house style?

The Fringe Programme is perfectly entitled to have a house style for its own wording. But not for paid advertisements. Occasionally, in the past, the Royal Bank of Scotland has taken out ads in the Fringe Programme. Were these vetted by the Fringe for proper grammar and checked for adherence to the Fringe Programme’s own house style? Bollocks. They were not.

Part of the blurb for absurdist comedian Charlie Chuck’s new show Cirque du Charlie Chuck mentioned above (trying to make every £10 work count) was submitted as:

Charlie Chuck back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant.

The Fringe changed this to (the capitalisation is mine to show the changes):

“Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant.”

The Fringe insisted: “These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.”

Note they said “are required”. Not suggested. Required to be added.

When queried about this, Fringe Publications Manager Martin Chester confirmed that “as long as your copy… is grammatically correct… it can be run.”

His full explanation was:

“As long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.”

There are two points here…

  • What does it matter if it is ungrammatical? If an act were to pay the Fringe £400 to run a badly-written Fringe entry which made the show look bad, the performer seem illiterate and it persuaded punters NOT to come to the show, that is entirely the act’s problem. The Fringe officers – if they are hanging around and have loads of time on their hands – might kindly suggest the entry could be improved. But, if they are taking £400 simply to print the ad, then (provided the wording is legal and ‘decent’ by their standards) the English grammar contained within the ad is nothing to do with them. And…
  • Why do £400 paid-for ads come within the Fringe Programme’s house style at all?

A house style exists to homogenise the style of a publication created by a single entity.

It is reasonable that a document or publication written by the Fringe itself should have a house style.

It is unreasonable that a Programme listing hundreds of separate £400 paid-for ads in which individual performers are trying to uniquely distinguish their own show from the (literally) thousands of other shows should have all the £400 paid-for ads homogenised into a single style.

It is artistic nonsense. It is financial nonsense.

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that comedian Jody Kamali told me that the Fringe Office “said I couldn’t use three dollar signs in a row ‘$$$’ in my Fringe entry, as it didn’t fit their ‘house style’.”

Call me innocent, but to have $$$ in your show title is not going to offend any man, woman or child who reads it. I fail to believe it will psychologically damage or morally offend anyone. I am unaware of $$$ being any obscure sexual term and I somehow think the Fringe’s own imposed C*ck and Pr!ick are a tad more objectionable than $$$.

What insanity is ruling at the Fringe this year?

This all seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe Programme exists. It seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe exists, the opposite of what the ‘open to all’ nature of the Edinburgh Fringe itself is supposed to be.

Performers and acts are not invited to the Fringe. Anyone can perform anywhere. You just have to arrange it yourself. The Fringe as an entity (the Fringe Office) does not stage, produce or directly promote the shows.

It can cost, over-all, around £7,500 to stage a fairly average Fringe show – venue costs, accommodation, promotion (including £400 to write Fringe Programme’s 40 words) etc etc.

100% of this is paid for by the performers.

The Fringe does not pay for the shows. The Fringe does not pay for the £400 show listings within the Fringe Programme.

So why does the Fringe claim that the £400 small ads (because that is what they are) within the Fringe Programme have (in the words of the man in charge) to “adhere to the style guide” and be “grammatically correct”?

In the Edinburgh Evening News yesterday, Neil Mackinnon, Head of External Affairs for the Fringe, said:

“It is not for us to vet the content of anyone’s shows – that’s one of our principles”.

Well, he is talking bollocks. And they are not even disguised, Photoshopped bollocks.

The Fringe are vetting the content of the ads people pay £400 to run. And not just for what they now (but did not in previous years) regard as ‘rude’ words. According to the Fringe’s own Publications Manager, the paid-for £400 non-rude words are vetted because they have to conform with the “style guide” – no use of $$$ in a title, for example – and be “grammatical”. Why?

The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

In effect, the Edinburgh Fringe are now insisting on artistic control of the promotion of all Fringe shows. And charging performers £400 for the privilege not to have control of their own advertising.

The people who think of themselves as ‘good guys’ have turned into ‘rip-off’ merchants.

American comic Lewis Schaffer (who is staging two shows at this year’s Fringe – that means two Fringe Programme entries at £394 each) commented on a blog I wrote a couple of days ago:

“Next year I am not going to register my show with the Fringe and instead I will spend the money more effectively by paying the first 700 punters £1 each to come into my show. Or enrol everyone who comes to my show in a £700 lottery. Or spend £700 extra pounds buying drinks for the other acts bled dry by the Fringe Society.”

He may not be joking.

And he has a point.

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Filed under Ad industry, Censorship, Comedy, Marketing, PR, Theatre

“Killer Bitch” and the ‘F’ word and the ‘C’ word

I was once (well, twice actually) prosecuted in Norfolk in the mid-1990s for telling a solicitor that his client was a “fucking cunt”. I was prosecuted not for insulting his client but under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 on the basis I had told him with the sole purpose of causing him (the solicitor) “distress or anxiety”. Clearly he was a solicitor of rare sensitivity.

In his summing-up, the Appeal Court judge at Norwich Crown Court (yes I lost the case twice) said the word “cunt” was “clearly obscene” – although I had not been charged with using obscene language and a decision based on that would seem to overturn the decision in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960.

I am also old enough to remember someone getting arrested in the late 1970s for walking down Carnaby Street wearing a promotional teeshirt for Stiff Records with the printed slogan: IF IT AIN’T STIFF, IT AIN’T WORTH A FUCK.

So… I’ve always taken an interest in swearing and what may or may not be offensive.

Last night, I went to the event “A Celebration of Swearing and Profanity” at the British Library.

Six years ago, as a work of art, Morag Myerscough and Charlotte Rawlins created a pink neon sign with the question HAS ANYBODY SEEN MIKE HUNT? The British Library included this neon sign in an exhibition, but positioned it in an out-of-the-way spot at the top of the building for fear of offending passers-by. Today, six years later, the British Library feels no need to do that. What is considered offensive has changed and the word “cunt” is uttered on BBC Radio 4 at breakfast time without sackings or resignations following. It is said times have changed.

Yet, earlier this year, two supermarket chains refused to stock the movie I financed – Killer Bitch - unless the title was changed. They both found the title Killer Babe to be totally acceptable, but the title Killer Bitch to  be totally unacceptable – though it seems to me that “babe” is more sexist and more offensive than “bitch”. (It didn’t matter in the long run because, when they saw the movie itself, they found the content even more offensive and refused to stock it – as did others – so we reverted to the original Killer Bitch title.)

Anyway, if times have not yet changed, they may be in the process of changing.

BBC Director General Mark Thompson is said to have told an internal group with some pride that one transmitted episode of the sitcom The Thick Of It was only “four short of 100 fucks”.

An interesting idea from last night’s British Library event was that “fuck” and “cunt” and sexual swearing in general have lost their impact and that the taboo swear words of the future are likely to be racial and religious words.

Already, the word “cunt” is less unacceptable than it was only a few years ago, but the word “nigger” is now more unacceptable – though it was perfectly, innocently inoffensive as a pet dog’s name in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters.

Surely we should encourage more swearing and more creative descriptive use of the language?

Last night, I was particularly impressed by one Viz reader’s use of the phrase “bangers and mash” to describe the soggy, mingled mess of used toilet paper and human excrement left in the water of an unflushed toilet pan.

Which brings me back to that bloke I described as a “fucking cunt” in the mid-1990s…

He was and still is bangers and mash.

Just don’t describe him thus in Norfolk for fear of causing distress to the locals.

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