Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

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Advice to stand-up comedians on how not to utterly mess up their stage acts

I am not a performer.

I am an audience member.

So I am well-placed to tell stand-up comics when they are annoying the audience and destroying their own act.

Lighting is vitally important in a comedy club.

New/inexperienced stand-up comedians understandably want to see the faces and the facial reactions of their audience.

But performers can be dazzled by the light or lights aimed at their faces, so the inexperienced tend to move their eyes – and thus part or all of their heads – out of the centre of the light.

This means they can see the audience slightly better but it also means the audience inevitably see the performer’s face less sharply lit.

Communication is all about people.

People are interested in people.

If you are writing an autobiography or a biography or a novel, it is almost always not the facts which are gripping; it is the people involved, their thoughts and their emotions.

This next bit actually IS relevant.

If you wrote about the physical causes and facts of an avalanche on a mountainside, it would not be especially interesting to a general readership. If you write about what happened when two people were caught in an avalanche, it IS interesting.

People are interested in people.

This next bit is relevant too…

Years ago, I read some research on violence in movies. The researchers were able to pinpoint where on the screen a viewer’s eyes were focussed.

In an action sequence, you might assume the audience would be watching the action. 

They are not. They are watching the RE-action.

If someone is punched or shot, the viewer’s eyes are not watching the punch land or the bullet hit… The viewer is watching the face of the victim.

There may be special effects blood spurting out from the bullet impact; the victim may be throwing his arms up in the air; but the audience are not looking at that. The audience are watching the face of the victim.

They are not watching the action. They are watching the RE-action.

When it gets down to basics, people are interested in people and people’s emotions.

It is exactly the same in comedy performance.

Being told a joke by a stand-up comic on-stage is, of course, about the greater or lesser effect of the material and the delivery. But, by-and-large, stand-ups do what the name suggests. They stand up, tell a joke and that is it. 

What are the audience looking at?

They are not looking at the stage backcloth; they are not looking at the comic’s costume; they are not looking at the comic’s hands, though they may be aware of them peripherally. They are looking at the face of the comedian telling the joke. They are looking at the performer’s face and at the eyes.

If the performer is moving around in-and-out of the main light, the constantly-changing visual information – or lack of it in dimly-lit shadows – starts to distract from and overwhelm the spoken words. One vivid picture IS worth a thousand words.

The audience, by and large, HAS to see the performer’s face clearly. Which means a bright light shining directly at the performer’s face.

The reverse of that is… If the performer can see the audience clearly, he or she is standing in the wrong place and being badly lit.

If the audience can’t see the stand-up comic’s face clearly, he or she might as well play a tape recording on an empty stage. The audience have not paid to come and see a chair or a curtain or a bit of wall while listening to disembodied words coming out of the gloom.

They have come to see a stand-up comic delivering lines. 

They have come to see a person.

The clue is in the word SEE.

My advice to new stand-up comics is…

The more YOU can see the audience, the less THEY are probably seeing of you.

If you are dazzled, you will be dazzling. If you are in the gloom, you are dim.

STAND IN THE FUCKING SPOTLIGHT!

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Jamie Patterson has directed 3 movies since the one released two days ago

“The opening scene of the movie is one take for six minutes”

In the last couple of blogs, I chatted to Derren Nesbitt, star of the new film Tucked which was directed by Jamie Patterson. So, obviously, I had a chat with Jamie as well.


JOHN: Why Tucked as a title?

JAMIE: Originally the title was Jackie – the central character’s name – simple and it worked – but then that Jackie Kennedy movie came out with Natalie Portman. 

JOHN: Anything else that you hadn’t foreseen?

JAMIE: Some of the dresses Derren wore were so heavy. I think the dress he wears in the last scene… I’ve never felt something so heavy. I hadn’t even thought about that. And the wig was so heavy. The opening scene of the movie is one take for six minutes. He had to do the full-on stage act, singing, doing jokes, all the lights on him with the heavy dress, the heavy wig, the jewellery… But Derren would never complain.

JOHN: How many takes for that opening shot?

JAMIE: Three. The other two we didn’t use were not because of anything Derren did; we had focus issues because it was quite a tricky move on Steadicam

JOHN: You live in Brighton and Derren lives in Worthing, so you knew him personally before you cast him?

“He did a little bit – a day – on a film I did”

JAMIE: I used to date his step-daughter – she was make-up artist on another film I did. So I’ve known him for years and he did a little bit – a day – on a film I made called Home For Christmas. And I had always had this idea for Tucked and, honestly, as I was writing it, I couldn’t think of anyone else who would be so good in the central role…

The way Derren talks and his persona, his stories… Been in the industry for 50 years and worked with Sinatra and Burton and all these incredible people. He’s got that history and I just knew he would be perfect for it.

JOHN: You finished shooting Tucked in 2016 and finished editing it in 2018. Done anything since then?

JAMIE: Three films. 

JOHN: Heavens! How many films have you made in total?

JAMIE: Fifteen. A lot were Amazon, iTunes, VOD release, that sort of thing. Tucked is the first one to have a theatrical release in the UK. I have had theatrical release in America before – 15 cities – a movie called Caught. A terrible title. A horror film set in the 1970s. Horror is actually my favourite genre to watch, but I like character-driven horror. I’ve never liked gore tests. I like tone and atmosphere.

JOHN: Well, Val LewtonWhat you don’t see is more frightening than what you see.

JAMIE: Exactly.

JOHN: But three films directed since Tucked…!

JAMIE: Yes. A week after we finished filming it, I went off to start a very silly fun comedy called Tracks, an interrailing film all round Europe.

JOHN: A what?

“We did it proper guerrilla stuff to give it an authentic feel”

JAMIE: An interrailing comedy. It’s about a couple who go on trains all round Europe. We had a crew of six and shot in Paris, Nice, Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan. We cast all the supporting roles as we were going. We didn’t have any location secured. We did it proper guerrilla stuff to give it an authentic feel. We have just finished that one now. Very different from Tucked.

JOHN: The entire film was shot on trains?

JAMIE: On trains, in hostels, hotels. I shot in the middle of Venice.

JOHN: Filming sound on a train is dodgy.

JAMIE: I tried to write it so there weren’t many dialogue scenes on a train. The scenes which had dialogue, we shot back in the UK. We rented a train carriage which went from London to Heathrow and back twice.

JOHN: You saw West London passing by through the windows?

The energetic and indefatigable Jamie

JAMIE: (LAUGHS) We made sure we didn’t see too much out the window! Anyway, I did that one, then a movie called Justine, written by Jeff Murphy, who wrote for the TV show Hinterland; he has a musical, Denmark, coming out. A really good writer.

JOHN: And Justine is…?

JAMIE: …about two young girls who fall in love. A lovely little heartbreaking, beautiful, charming love story.

I did that and then I’ve just wrapped a movie called God’s Petting You, which is like a British True Romance. It’s about two addicts who fall in love and together plan on robbing the biggest porn star in Europe. It’s very slick, very colourful. I wanted to do something very different and ‘out there’. It’s inspired by American films in the visuals, but very very British in its content.

JOHN: About two addicts who plan to rob the biggest porn star in Europe… Based on a true story?

JAMIE: (LAUGHS) No…. Well, I know someone who’s like that.

JOHN: So you have made three films since you finished Tucked

JAMIE: Yes. And on July 1st I start my next one.

JOHN: Heavens! Which is…?

JAMIE: The Kindred, a psychological thriller, written by Christian J.Hearn, who wrote a movie I did called Fractured about five years ago now – a couple of films before Tucked.

JOHN: And, after that?

JAMIE: I’ve just signed with an American agency called Gersh, so I’m trying to write my first script to do out in America.

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Derren Nesbitt on Frank Sinatra, being blinded on a movie and £43 million

Derren Nesbitt as 80-year-old drag queen ‘Jackie’ in Tucked

Yesterday’s blog was the first part of a chat with Derren Nesbitt, star of the new movie Tucked, which was released in the UK yesterday.

But there is more to him than merely being an actor. Now read on…


JOHN: You were saying your father, after he stopped being a comedian on the music halls, got in involved in all sorts of businesses…

DERREN: Yes, we had a huge house in Avenue Road, NW London. And a Rolls Royce.  My father just wanted one. He couldn’t drive. I used to drive. I had learned to drive on a Mini Minor. Julian Glover once told me: “We could never understand you arriving at RADA in a Rolls Royce.”

Derren Nesbitt as Major von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare

JOHN: You built your own career, though. Famously, you were a very nasty Nazi in the Clint Eastwood/Richard Burton movie Where Eagles Dare and there was an accident…

DERREN: Yes. I was supposed to be ‘shot’ twice: once in the head and once in the chest.

JOHN: Which one went wrong?

DERREN: The chest. I was always wary of the special effects man, because he had a finger missing!

They put two condoms full of blood on my chest with a metal plate (to protect the skin). We had five jackets for five takes and eight loads of condoms had exploded and splattered blood over the first four. So we got to Take 5… I was very cautious by this time… and when the explosion went off, it went KAPOW! and it looked like I had been hit by a bazooka. It went in my eyes and they took me to Denham Hospital, trailing blood, with a perfect bullet hole in my forehead and said: “He’s had an accident.”

JOHN: You must have had your chin and your nose damaged.

DERREN: No, I moved back, anticipating catastrophe but my eyes got burnt and bits got in them. It was not very pleasant. I was blind for two weeks.

When I could see again, Clint Eastwood sent me a Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a bottle of Optrex eye wash in the middle.

JOHN: Sounds like a nice man.

DERREN: Yes. I did a film with Frank Sinatra – The Naked Runner. He was a lovely man.

JOHN: Really?

DERREN: Yes, really. He was the biggest star in the world then. Absolutely. One of the tabloid newspapers asked me to write a story for £20,000 or £30,000 about working with the biggest star in the world. But I thought that was tacky. I didn’t want to do that.

He must have heard that this English actor didn’t take the money. And he was absolutely wonderful. So nice. 

We had been going to film in Copenhagen.

He said: “Have you ever been to Copenhagen?”

I told him: “No, never have.”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” he said

Anyway, they changed it and they shot my stuff in Welwyn Garden City instead.

“You’re not going to Copenhagen?” he said. “Well go and have a holiday there on me.”

So we flew there in his private jet and, when we arrived, there was this stretch limousine and a man in a grey suit who said: “Mr Sinatra welcomes you to Copenhagen,” and he handed me a manilla envelope with a LOT of money in it. I counted it up and said to my wife: “We will never manage to spend all this in ten days.” And I have been known to spend money!

There was an amazing apartment for us with the kitchen full. We went out that night; came back at four in the morning; and in the apartment waiting for us was this young man who says: “Mr Sinatra hopes you had a lovely evening,” and he handed me another manilla envelope with – again – LOTS of money in it.

The money was not to cover us for ten days – it was PER DAY. I had money stuffed everywhere: in suitcases and…

Derren Nesbitt and Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner

When I came back to London, I told him: “That was very very kind of you.”

“Oh no no no,” he said. “It’s no problem.”

He was so kind to me – he called me and invited me to the Festival Hall when he did the concert; I had to be at his table to have dinner with him at Claridges. And I met him after the show and he asked me – this little English actor – “What did you think of the show?”

Now that shows an amazing humility that you don’t associate with him. 

“What did you think?” – He said that to me – a little, insignificant English actor.

I said: “By the way, you didn’t sing the song I like!”

“Which one?”

To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

And he sang me the refrain and all I could think of was: Not many people have had Mr Sinatra sing the refrain of a song for them.

He was a very nice man.

Two takes. That’s what he did on films. Only two takes, which I loved. Go for it. Shoot the rehearsal. The magic happens at the beginning. You are not quite sure what’s gonna happen, but magic happens. If you keep on replaying, you lose that magic. Tony Curtis was exactly the same. Instantaneous. That is really what you’ve got to do. You never quite know what’s gonna happen and every take is different, but the REAL magic happens at the beginning.

Derren was promoting Tucked in London earlier this week

JOHN: Sinatra acted and sang. Have you any musical ambitions yourself? 

DERREN: No. But I did once write a song for my father as a joke. My father was in music publishing and god knows what else. I never really knew him at all – and one Sunday – because he was always working – he said to me over dinner: “What do you think of this song?”

I was so amazed that (a) he spoke to me and (be) he knew my name that I said: “It’s rubbish,” just to get a laugh.

He said: “Do you think you could write something better?”

I said: “Yes.” 

As a joke.

I told my brother Gary: “I’m going to write the worst song ever – as a joke.”

I wrote it in 20 minutes, rolling on the floor, and handed it to my father and thought he would laugh. But nothing. No reaction. Absolutely nothing.

Anyway, there was a young singer called Adam Faith and his first record was What Do You Want If You Don’t Want Money? It sold a million copies. My song was on the ‘B’ side. From Now Until Forever. 

And you got paid the same money as the ‘A’ side.

JOHN: Was that your only brush with the music business?

DERREN: No. I started a company many years ago, in 1971, with my little brother Gary called Our Price Records.

I said to Gary: “We’ve got to start like a supermarket for records. So there was a tiny little tobacconist’s kiosk at the side of Finchley Road tube station in NW London and he was going to retire, so we bought that and I arranged how the records should be sold – which everybody has copied – and it started from there. And expanded.

The 300th Our Price record store in Brixton, south London

JOHN: I remember shops in Oxford Street and all over.

DERREN: Yes. Eventually, we sold the business to WH Smith. They wanted to buy it and I said to my brother: “Sell it, because the days for record shops are over. Sell it.” So we sold it for £43 million in 1986 and WH Smith lost everything. Ridiculous! Why? Why?

JOHN: So what’s next now?

DERREN: I have no idea. People now seem to be asking me to do work again.

JOHN: I’m not surprised, on the basis of your performance in Tucked.

DERREN: I also run one of the biggest drama awarding bodies in the country: New Era Academy. That keeps me out of trouble. We are in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, France… and Spain is coming now.

… I CHAT WITH THE DIRECTOR OF “TUCKED” HERE

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Derren Nesbitt: subtly sensitive as a loudmouthed transvestite in “Tucked”

The British movie Tucked is released in the UK today. It has already won, among a clutch of other awards, the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Naples International Film Festival and both a Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at Outfest in Los Angeles.

“Like a jewel (and) Derren Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle…”

In the UK, the Guardian calls it a “touching, unexpectedly funny end-of-life drama with a terrific performance by 83-year-old Derren Nesbitt.”

It has pretty accurately been called “a slice of life smeared with glitter, laughter and tears” and the Hollywood Reporter singled out the “two splendid performances” at the heart of it. In London, the Financial Times writes: “Tucked is small but bright and multi-faceted: like a jewel. Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle”.

The official synopsis says it is:

A raw and tender drama about an ageing 80 year old drag queen who forms an unlikely friendship with a younger queen, both struggling with their own issues of gender identity and mortality. As they discover more about each other, they realise how to truly be themselves.

Nesbitt stars with 27-year-old Jordan Stephens, one half of successful British hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks.

Comedian Steve Oram turns up as a drug dealer and comedian Brendon Burns wrote some of the on-stage gags and appears briefly as a club MC. 

But the movie centres on Derren Nesbitt’s extraordinarily sensitive performance as the grumpy, foul-mouthed drag artist Jackie, diagnosed with terminal cancer, with only six or seven weeks left to live and his performance is an award-deserving revelation.

IMDB currently describes Derren as: 

A rather intriguing British actor who first appeared on UK cinema & TV screens in the late 1950s, and quickly found steady work as a rather unpleasant or untrustworthy individual. His cold, yet cunning features had him appearing in guest roles on many UK TV series. 

Derren Nesbitt seemed to be all over TV

It seemed like he was in everything you ever saw in the 1960s  and 1970s, on TV and in movies.

His father was Harry Nesbitt, a comedian and music hall artist who came from South Africa with his brother Max and they performed as a duo on stage.

Derren’s mother was also in the music halls as a chorus girl.

Derren was trained at RADA where he won the prestigious Forbes-Robertson Shakespearian Acting award.

From there, he joined Peter Hall’s repertory company.

I met him a couple of days ago in London.


JOHN: So the casting for Tucked… Here is a film with a rather grumpy, foul-mouthed transvestite. Who is the first person I would think of to play that role? Suave, 4-times-married Derren Nesbitt? Erm. No. Not an obvious choice.

DERREN: (LAUGHS) Exactly, because I usually kill people. Jamie Patterson the writer/director and I became vaguely friendly and I thought: He’s very talented. Then he asked me: “Do you want to play a drag queen and a trans-crosser?” So I said: “This script I gotta read!” I read it and I thought: Absolutely! This is really good!

And I’m glad I’ve been proved right on two points.

One: Jamie has now been signed-up to one of the biggest agents in Hollywood.

Two: the film has done magnificently well in Los Angeles.

JOHN: Great acting. Emotion with your eyes.

DERREN: Well, you can never be anybody else. So what you have got is me as a drag queen in those circumstances. What would I be in those circumstances? And that’s what you try and do.

JOHN: He’s a grumpy old bloke, but he’s sympathetic.

DERREN: Well, he’s a human being. The hardest thing in the world is to present true reality on the screen, but that’s the name of the game.

JOHN: For your role as a nasty Nazi in the Clint Eastwood movie Where Eagles Dare, you reportedly talked to an ex-Gestapo man to get the feel for your screen character. 

Did you do any research for your role in Tucked?

DERREN: Well no, not really. Everybody seems to thing you’ve gotta do an awful lot of research. But not in this particular case, because my family were very famous music hall stars. I was in theatres from the age of 5 and, later on, was seeing drag queens and all the rest. So it didn’t take very much for me to ‘become’ a drag queen.

JOHN: Your father was a comedian and your mother was a dancer.

DERREN: She was a chorus girl, but my father and his brother were the biggest stars in London in 1928. They only retired in the mid-1950s.

JOHN: You were you born in London.

DERREN: I was born at the Finsbury Park Empire. Actually born in the theatre.

JOHN: So you were bound to end up an actor…

DERREN: Well, I was very fortunate. I left RADA and I’d won everything there… 

JOHN: …and then you worked for Peter Hall.

DERREN: Yes. He chose me to go to the Oxford Playhouse. But he only did one play there and moved on and then I was very fortunate. I think the movie Victim was the turning point. And I have never done an audition.

JOHN: You’ve still never done an audition?

DERREN: No. Never. People have seen me in other things and thought: He’s the one.

A film very much of its time – 1975

JOHN: You must, at some time, have wanted to be more than an actor because there was The Amorous Milkman in 1975, which you wrote, produced and directed.

DERREN: Yes, I did and, afterwards, I thought: Well, I’ve done it and that’s good enough. I wrote the novel, then wrote the screenplay from the novel. But then, afterwards, I felt: I’ve done it. So why do it again?

JOHN: Any further writing ambitions?

DERREN: So many people have asked me to write my autobiography…

JOHN: You should.

DERREN: I did. I finished it about two months ago. I thought: Who would want to read it? But I wrote it more as a cathartic thing. Whether or not anyone wants to publish it, I have no idea.

I was in the War in London. I was in the Blitz, right in the middle of it. My first memory is seeing a baby’s head in the gutter. I saw the dead bodies and god knows what else. So I start from then.

Well, in fact, the first thing I ever really remember was my mother throwing me in a bush as a German Messerschmitt came over. (LAUGHS) I never quite trusted her after that!

It is really less of an autobiography and more of a book that happens to be true.

JOHN: What’s the difference between a book and an autobiography?

DERREN: I don’t know. I think an autobiography is a little… a little bit… self… 

JOHN: Navel-gazing?

DERREN: Yeah… Yeah… And I’m more interested in knowing the person. I’ve read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and I want to know the person.

JOHN: People are not interested in facts as such; they’re interested in other people.

DERREN: Yes. It’s boring (if it is just facts).

Funnily enough, years and years ago, Richard Harris – an old friend of mine who was a great drunk – was asked by someone to do an autobiography and he took an advert in The Times saying: :”If anybody could remind me what I was doing between…” (LAUGHS)

JOHN: You said your father retired in the 1950s… After that, he did nothing?

“Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother”

DERREN: He did everything. He was involved in so many different things. Including the Grade Organisation. Lew Grade was a great, great friend of his. In fact, Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother and told her: “If he doesn’t marry you, I will marry you and adopt him (Derren).” (LAUGHS) Maybe the biggest tragedy of my life!

Years and years later, I went to the South of France where my mother used to live – she had by then married someone richer than my father – and she asked me: ”How is Lew?”

I told her, “it’s LORD Grade now.”

“Oh,” she said, “many years ago, he asked your father to put some money into some new company he had.”

I said: “Pardon?”

“You know,” she said. “Television. You know, you sell beans and things on television.”

And I said: “Ah!… What happened?”

She said: “Well, your father wouldn’t take Lew seriously. If Leslie Grade had asked him, he would have put money in.”

JOHN: And this company was ATV?

DERREN: Yes, my father could have put £10,000 in at the beginning and…”

JOHN: … and that would have been like putting money into MicroSoft when it started up.

DERREN: Mmmmm….

… CONTINUED HERE

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Salvador Dali’s Marx Brothers movie and an unmade Charlie Chaplin film

In 1937, surrealist Salvador Dali planned to make a movie with the Marx BrothersGiraffes on Horseback Salad (aka The Surrealist Woman) starring Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx with Susan Fleming (Harpo’s wife) plus “new music by Cole Porter”.

The plot involved a Spanish aristocrat named Jimmy (Harpo) in love with a beautiful woman whose face the audience never sees. Scenes included a horde of giraffes wearing burning gas masks, an exploding chicken and Harpo catching “the eighteen smallest dwarfs in the city” with a butterfly net. Groucho was rumoured to have said: “It won’t play,” 

Now flash forward to March 2019 when a graphic novel version of the planned Dali/Marx Brothers movie Giraffes on Horseback Salad was published.

On Thursday, I chatted to its jet-lagged American creator Josh Frank.

He had just flown in to London from Austin, Texas, was plugging the book at an event in the Barbican that night, going to Paris the next day for another event publicising the book and, tomorrow (Sunday), he is talking about it at JW3 in NW London.

Obviously, we chatted in a pub in Trafalgar Square with naval white ensign flags in the background.


JOHN: You’re almost the ultimate hyphenate. You’re a writer-producer-director-composer-playwright.

JOSH: I do a little bit of everything. What I’ve done in the last twenty years has led to me being able to do what I can do now. When I used to write and direct plays right out of college, that added to my toolbox of things that helped me be able to do what I just did with this Marx Brothers graphic novel.

JOHN: It sounds to me as if you are attracted to quirkiness. I mean: “I think I will do a stage play based on Werner Herzog’s 1977 movie Stroszek”… What the fuck?

“Try to think outside the box”

JOSH: I like to try to think outside the box, you know? If you want to accomplish anything in this day and age, you kinda have to come up with something that people are intrigued by but maybe they also don’t quite understand. Because then they can’t cancel it out.

I grew up a big Marx Brothers fan, but this was something I had not heard of. I came across it because, six or seven years ago, I had taken an interest in movie ideas by famous auteurs that never got made.

Movies are the one form where you will create a story and idea but, unless you can get it made as a movie, it might just disappear. 

What other art forms are there where an artist has an idea but it it not taken to completion because of outside elements? Painting, music, books, even plays: these are all things that, despite the odds, you can finish if you really want to and if it’s important to you.

I find it fascinating that someone like Coppola or Herzog can come up with an idea and write it and then, because there’s not $100 million to make it, it just ends up in a drawer. A movie script might be half-finished or fully-finished but, if it’s not made into a movie, no-one can ever see it.

JOHN: Salvador Dali wanted to write a Marx Brothers movie because he was a friend of Harpo Marx. 

Surrealist Salvador Dali (not pictured on the right) and silent Harpo Marx (not pictured on the left)

JOSH: Yes.

JOHN: Harpo is the most interesting of the Marx Brothers.

JOSH: I think so, in a lot of ways. And the most human and the most…

JOHN: …intelligent?

JOSH: Possibly…

JOHN: I mean, there’s the Algonquin Round Table.

(From top to bottom) The four Marx Brothers – Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo

JOSH:…It would probably be a tie between Harpo and Zeppo, because Zeppo was an inventor.

JOHN: Really??

JOSH: He invented… in a sense, invented the first Apple Watch. In the 1930s or 1940s, he invented a watch that could take your heart-rate. He invented one of the first heating blankets. Look it up. He had like all these patents.

JOHN: I think there were points in Salvador Dali’s screenplay for Giraffes on Horseback Salad where he just wrote: “insert Marx Brothers routine”

JOSH: Yes. So, for those bits, I went to comedian Tim Heidecker and we sat in a writers’ room at Burbank and filled-in those moments in the script.

JOHN: How unfinished was Dali’s script?

JOSH: Very unfinished. There were basically two hefty. useful things. One was the actual 12-page pitch proposal typed in English that I’m assuming was created from Dali’s original notes by a friend of Harpo’s in Hollywood for them to turn in to MGM.

JOHN: Giraffes on Horseback Salad was Dali’s original idea.

JOSH: Yes. The other thing was the 70 or 80 pages of handwritten notes from his papers that I found at the Pompidou in Paris. It was part of an archive they owned, which they had bought at auction about 30 years ago.

JOHN: So not a script as such.

JOSH: No. It was all handwritten ideas and notes. Each page had different paragraphs and I had to actually put them in order. Basically, the actual movie was technically written by Salvador Dali and me.

JOHN: If you have a not-totally assembled script idea from a surrealist, there’s surely no real certainty what order things would happen in. It could be like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction putting things in the wrong order.

JOSH: Well, I had to use my toolbox of understanding of screenwriting. I tackled it like you tackle any adaptation of a work into a movie. What is the through-line of the narrative? What is the character’s journey? What does each character want?

JOHN: Would there necessarily be a through-line in a Salvador Dali movie?

Irving Thalberg – boy wonder at MGM studios

JOSH: Yes. I was looking at this like it was going to be made in 1937 at MGM by Irving Thalberg. This is a Marx Brothers movie that would have been greenlit by Irving Thalberg – thus it needed to have a very clear storyline with a beginning, a middle and an end; it needed to have the lovers; it needed to have the songs. So that was how I made my decisions for what it would be.

JOHN: And Thalberg was strangely conservative. 

JOSH: Yes.

JOHN: He was not an experimentalist.

JOSH: No. But what he was was a friend to the Marx Brothers and to their antics. I think he would have appreciated the challenge.

JOHN: Presumably you would like to see the thing actually filmed. Is there an elevator pitch for turning your Giraffes graphic novel into a movie?

JOSH: Well, I finished it as much as I could so it would be sort of a no-brainer to the right film-maker. My idea was to present something that Marx Brothers and Dali fans and the world could enjoy now but that a film-maker – the right one with the right resources – could see was basically ready to cast. I hope that happens. 

JOHN: Maybe directed by David Lynch?

JOSH: Or I could see Tim Burton doing it. I could see Terry Gilliam.

JOHN: Luc Besson?… Or you could direct it yourself.

JOSH: No, because I think it would be quite expensive – $40 million or $50 million. There are the rights and you’re gonna want huge names. It just depends how mainstream it’s gonna be. The idea was to make it a sort of a mainstream movie.

JOHN: But currently you’re plugging the graphic novel.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad is illustrated by Manuela Pertega

JOSH: Well, my book tour for Giraffes on Horseback Salad goes on until the middle of June and also we’re finishing the soundtrack, which was a part of my vision and it’s turned into a whole other process which is almost done. An entire soundtrack to the un-made movie – and that’s gonna be released June 21st by a major record label, at first just digitally but, if it gets some attention, there will be a vinyl release too. 

That is almost like its own secondary project. Even though it’s very much a companion to the book, it’s also its own piece of art. It’s a full separate thing. So, really, I’m still very much in the middle of the Giraffe stuff, at least through this summer. 

After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got four or five ideas for maybe a next book. I think I want to do another graphic novel in the vein of Giraffes. I really loved how this was one-third illustrated biography and then two-thirds graphic novel of a lost movie. I really enjoyed that.

One idea that’s very intriguing to me is that I discovered a lost Charlie Chaplin movie. Unmade, but he wrote like 90 pages of it.

JOHN: That’s 90 minutes, then.

JOSH: Yeah. It would have been a feature film and it would have been his first talkie movie – before The Great Dictator. And it’s an interesting story. It was a time when he really thought his career was over because talking pictures were coming. So he took a sabbatical to Bali. He was going to stay a week and he ended up staying six months. This is Bali in the 1920s. I think it would make a really interesting graphic novel.

My agent and others tell me Charlie Chaplin is not as big a deal as the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dali. But… I dunno.

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Filed under Books, Movies, Surreal

It’s Trump country seen through the cataract-dimmed eyes of a comedian

She’s off on her travels again!

85-year-old London-based US storytelling comic and occasional burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller.

She has just returned from a week working in New York and having meetings in Washington DC.

I have just received this from her…


Here is my new view of Trump country seen through the cataract-dimmed eyes of the elderly…

I landed in J.F.Kennedy Airport where I was being picked up by Val, a Russian man whom I had never met.

Suddenly there he was: a zaftig Russian man with a bouquet of flowers waving at me. The trip to my hotel with him was not just eventful, it was a lesson in pessimistic politics.

Val evidently has been studying historic trends since he came to the United States thirty years ago and he alone has figured out the source of world’s problems. No one else in the universe knows the answer to all the unrest we are experiencing. But he does.

It is those damn Russians causing all the trouble.

No one dares admit this, but all these little countries that SAY they are independent, are not. They are ruled by Russia. In fact, it turns out that the Soviet Union still exists and controls us all. Every world power is in collusion with the KGB.

Angela Merkel? A Russian ally. Theresa May? A Soviet cipher.  Jeremy Corbyn? Trained by the KGB.  

“Have you seen what is happening in Venezuela?” said my omniscient driver. ”Well, thirty years ago, they swore they were a peaceful country, immune to Islamic forces and look what is happening there today. And what about Sri Lanka? Who do you think instigated that attack on that church there? Right! The KGB.”

Notre Dame? Syria? Islam itself? Even Israel! All Russian controlled.

And would I mind if he stopped and got his wife some tea?

By the time I got to my hotel I was so depressed, I thought I would have been better served to simply jump out of the moving cab and throw myself into the traffic. It is a matter of moments before the Russians invade Britain and confiscate the EU because who do you think instigated Brexit? Right. Those damn Russians. My mother would have commiserated with Val. It was back in 1957 when the Asian Flu swept American that my mother swore it was the Russians infecting us all. Nothing could convince her that the virus had no nationality.

I wandered around the streets of New York the next day trying to revive old memories of the time I lived here in 1965. I lived next door to the United Nations Building then and spent my time going to matinees in the afternoon and writing freelance stories no magazine wanted at night. The face of the city has changed since then. It is busier, louder, angrier, more crowded and far more impersonal than it was when I was here. People shove you and push you. They are on their way to somewhere important and evidently they are all late. My toes and shoulders were impediments they are determined to demolish.  

That night was my first comedy show at Dangerfield’s. The first thing I noticed when I arrived there was that everyone spoke with my accent. I now realize that I must stop blaming my inadequate hearing aids for squishing sound together into unintelligible speech. Evidently, I have not learned to decipher an English accent. It could be because there are at least twenty different dialects spoken in London, all purporting to be the King’s English, whatever that is.  

In New York, everyone talks just like I do and I understood every word. At Dangerfield’s, a man named Quentin hosted the show. I realized then how very different New York comedy is from what we do in London. First of all, the host chats with the audience in a very different way than our British MC’s do. He does not ask anyone’s name or what they do for a living.  

Instead, he asks random questions and riffs a bit before he goes into his own set. There were only three comedians besides me and the host and each had a fairly long set. Each one got up on stage and told involved stories with no set ups, no punches and very few big laughs. All three had a least ten years experience so they knew what they were doing and the audience responded to them, even though I did not.  

The format of the evening was very different from the shows I do in the UK.

There was no interval. They had a man named Joey doing a long set in the middle of the show and he was evidently the headliner because he had TV credits. His comedy reminded me a bit of Ken Dodd’s. It went on and on and on. He had lots to say about young men and the unpredictable and embarrassing reaction of their dicks. I found this fascinating. It is obviously a guy thing. I do not remember my vagina surprising me like that. Of course, now, the poor thing is dead. 

My set seemed like an encore for the show. I finished the evening with a ten minute set.  To my surprise, I did very well despite a sharp difference in my style of comedy compared to the others on the bill. Everyone stopped to chat with me and tell me how wonderful I am, which was very gratifying.  

The next evening, I was booked as the headliner at a Comedians Over Sixty event at Stand UP NY, one of the major clubs in the city. There were nine comedians on the bill, all experienced. Each one did 10+ minutes of the kind of comedy I was used to hearing when I did the clubs in California.  

They had short set-up-punchlines peppered with funny stories. Again, this MC was not anything like those in the UK. He was more in the style of the MCs at The Punchline in San Francisco. He did his own comedy set to warm us up and then reappeared throughout the show to introduce each new comedian. Once again, there was no interval and all I could think of was OMG, these people will not be drunk enough to laugh at nothing when I get up there. 

The comedians that night were sharp and funny. Most memorable for me was a guy named Joe who did brilliant comedy about his autistic son, Theo. He made us laugh and at the same time, he endeared himself to us all. I knew I could not possibly follow anything that professional and profound. Thank goodness there were three more comedians before it was my turn.  

I did about 25 minutes and got a standing ovation. Both managers have invited me back. The audience all wanted pictures with me and who am I to say no?  Sadly, I am so short I came up to everyone’s waistline so all you can see in those photos is the top of my head. You cannot have everything.  

I am writing a memoir,  so I went to Washington DC to discuss it.

Diane Nine, the agent, is from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan just outside Detroit. It felt very comfortable to be with someone who talks like I do and has a Midwestern background. 

Just as people in the UK from the north have a different mind-set from those in the south and London is unique in its attitudes, so it is in the United States.  

The Southern personality is directly opposed to the rushing, killer attitude in New York City. Midwesterners are very hospitable and kind. They will bring you a casserole if you move next door and will be there to help you find the right stores and supplies. They will invite you over for backyard barbecues and treat you like family… as long as you do not want an abortion, are not gay and you are the right color.  And should you knock on their door unexpectedly, you would be shot. Guns are standard household equipment.  

Diane Nine has been involved in politics all her life. She worked for Jimmy Carter in the White House and met both Clintons. She said that Hilary Clinton was a charming, gracious woman, not at all the bitch the press painted her to be and that Jimmy Carter used to take her to church with him when she was his intern. He was and still is a very religious man. The Obamas actually live in her neighborhood now that they have left The White House. Her mother’s best friend was Helen Thomas, the Washington correspondent who was banned from that press corps because of her offensive remarks about Israel and Jews. 

For lunch the next day we met Lora who works for the Department of Agriculture. She is part of a team that monitors plant imports and plant diseases.  She was saying that they work with the EU on imports and, when Britain leaves the EU, there will have to be a whole new set of standards for agricultural products shipped between the UK and US; just one more complication caused by our Brexit upheaval. 

Life never stops, does it?

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Filed under Comedy, Politics, Sociology, US