Comic Lynn Ruth’s Irish adventure, from passport control to birth control

Just over a week ago, Lynn Ruth Miller, the 84-year-old currently-globetrotting stand-up comic, blogged here about her trip to Prague. She is off to Berlin on Monday and has just returned from Dublin. Here she goes again…


Young chicken about to go out on the town…

So. I was in Dublin again. My trip ended in a blast of sunshine and alcohol. If my liver survives all this travel, I just might live to see 85.

My Irish adventure always begins with passport control. The last time I arrived in Dublin, the officer in charge looked at my passport and said, “You don’t LOOK 84,” and I said, “I would if I took off my clothes.”

The man who admitted me this time said he agreed with that officer and there was a spring to what is left of my step as I waltzed through that green door with nothing to declare except that I was a young chicken about to go out on Dublin town.

When I am in Dublin, I stay with an amazing family filled with geniuses who are actually fun. So it is that when I am there I get an education in how to cope with cyberspace.

Zak is the eldest of their three amazing boys, each of whom are going to remodel the world and bring peace and happiness to all of us on earth.

After two days with them, I had already learned how to create my own video blogs and set up a conversation on Reddit where I answered 36 questions and had 5.7k views and an 81 point rating just because I said nothing shocks me anymore. I did not add that this is because I don’t hear anything.

The matriarch of this gorgeous family is Lisa, a woman who really is not shocked by anything. That is her secret to bringing up three boisterous boys with amazingly perceptive and active minds and training a husband who is such an angel that he has to wear a larger suit jacket to hide his wings.

“Luca is now as tall as my first husband and far fonder of my crotch”

Lisa picked me up at the airport and I hurried to her home to change clothes and look glamorous. This is called comforting self-deception. I nurture it by never looking in a mirror. As soon as I entered the house, I was accosted by the family’s new puppy, Luca, who is now as tall as my first husband and far fonder of my crotch.

Three of the family – Lisa, Zak and Ken (the angel, remember?) – came to the show at Anseo, the wonderful comedy club where I headline each time I come into town.

The delightful thing about this show was that Jim Elliott from Washington DC had ASKED to host so he could see me again.

I made the audience laugh for about 45 minutes, which is an accomplishment in Dublin’s fair city because usually, after about 5 minutes, the audience is so drunk they are asleep or singing loudly in an off-colour manner. A dog loved the show and I got three barks and a tail wag from her.

On Thursday I began my run at The International, THE comedy place in Dublin for the past 16 years.

The interesting thing about this particular Thursday night audience was that there were only two couples from Dublin. Everyone else was from somewhere else and there was a preponderance of Americans: four from Lake Tahoe in California, three from Dallas, plus a group from Sweden and another couple from Vancouver.

That makes the comedy I do more challenging because I could not use either my Dublin or my London references because no-one would know what I was talking about. The funniest gaff was when headliner Damo Clark talked about putting a dummy in a baby’s mouth and the Americans thought he was stuffing in a stupid person into its mouth instead of a pacifier. God only knows what the Swedes thought.

I have also now learned how the Irish say goodbye. Evidently they do not. They just walk out as unobtrusively as they can. Very different from the Jews who stay at least an hour after they say good-bye explaining why they are leaving. (Lynn Ruth is Jewish.)

Lynn Ruth Miller sought romance on TV’s First Date series

Walking down George Street on the way to The International a woman stopped me and said, ”I KNOW you! First Date! – The nicest thing about dating at my age is that you don’t have to meet their parents.

I was in the Irish papers for appearing in that TV show.

My final night in Dublin was spent at The Comedy Crunch where we get free ice cream at the interval and by this time the weather was so warm that they probably got the last ice cream bars left in Ireland for the show.

The big issue that everyone was joking about and happy about was the Irish Abortion Referendum. Its passing did more than simply make it easier for women to terminate a pregnancy. It gave women renewed status.

All over Dublin, women’s comedy shows are springing up. Emily O’Callaghan has one series at The Meltdown Café that has an all-woman line-up and she said she got a lot of grief about that. Irish women are very, very funny. I heard several this trip and every one of them was top notch. For way too many years women have been totally left out of comedy line-ups. Perhaps now our time has come?

Next week, I will be performing in Berlin. I am hoping NOT to run into any swastikas or Jeremy Corbyn fans.

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Ireland

Phartman, Mr Methane and the 2018 World Fart Championships in Finland 

(artwork by Timo Kokkila)

My chum Mr Methane, the world’s only professional performing flatulist, flew off to Bratislava this morning to spread the fame of British farting. But, in July, an even more important trip beckons.

Saturday 7th July sees the World Fart Championships being held again at Utajärvi in Finland.

I blogged about the Championships back in July 2013.

Mr Methane does not compete, of course – he is a one-off. But he will be hosting the Championships with Finland’s own comic book superhero Phartman played by Esko Väyrynen.

So, obviously, I Skyped Esko Väyrynen to hear more about it.

Britain’s Mr Methane (left) and Finland’s Phartman at the World Fart Championships back in 2013


Phartman performer Esko talked to me via Skype from Finland

JOHN: Your English is very good.

ESKO: I like to watch English police series like Inspector Morse and Lewis and Blackadder and that kind of thing. Strange British comedies are very popular in Finland like Jeeves and Wooster. I like British humour. I don’t know why. Dry humour. With Finnish people, lots of us like British humour.

JOHN: Clearly – because you like farting.

ESKO: Yes. But I do not fart when I eat food or I am eating at the table. It is not civilised behaviour. You have to hold the line somewhere. My mother told me: “Do not fart at the kitchen table or when you are making meals. You have to do it some other time.”

JOHN: Is your mother proud of you appearing as Phartman?

ESKO: I don’t think so. I don’t live for publicity, but I am not ashamed to be farting in public. It is fun for me. But I am lucky. I have two dogs. At home, I can always blame one of the dogs.

JOHN: How many times have the Fart Championships been held?

ESKO: This is only the third time. Five years ago – 2013 – was the first World Championships. One year earlier, in 2012, there was a Finnish Championships. I think this year will be the last time, though. 

JOHN: Why?

Utajärvi is a small town with a big superhero (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

ESKO: It takes lots of time and resources and all of us are volunteers, doing it for fun. None of us get paid and it is a very small town, Utajärvi – 3,000 people. We don’t have resources enough – manpower, womanpower or money. Any money we get goes to the local junior soccer club. Even though it is humour, it is humour for good.

JOHN: How many people came to see the event last time?

ESKO: Maybe 500 local people. There was also another event – mud soccer at the same time – a Finnish Championship. Maybe 200 or 300 came to see mud soccer five years ago. We played soccer in mud. That is why maybe 500 people saw the Fart Championships – maybe. And maybe there were 20 people farting; just one woman, though.

JOHN: Was there anyone from abroad?

ESKO: The winners were from Russia. And there was one family from Australia. I don’t know if they came just for the contest; maybe they were in Finland already. I did not ask.

JOHN: Are you Phartman only during the Championships or you do other things as the character during the year?

ESKO: Only at the Championships. Phartman – Peräsmies – is a comic book hero. I am just playing Phartman at these events.

JOHN: Is Phartman like a Marvel superhero?

The original underground Phartman comic (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

ESKO: He is a different type of superhero. He is a former alcoholic and when he was walking there was some type of explosion when pea soup tins spread all over the place and Phartman got hit by one pea soup tin that was radioactive and he ate it and, after he ate it, he got a souperpower for farts and he uses his farts to save the world.

He is not a common superhero like Spider-Man or Iron Man. Of course, he is against crime and criminals but, most times, he helps people accidentally.

He does not know how to use his powers. Almost every time it is an accident.

Son of Fartman is now aimed at school kids (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

Timo Kokkila created Phartman and the comic strip appeared in Pahkasika – it means Warthog in English – a very popular underground magazine, from 1983 to 2000. It was very rare humour in that time. (Phartman was killed-off in the comic strip but) Phartman had a son who has appeared since 2003 in the Koululainen monthly magazine for pupils in school.

JOHN: Do you have a daytime ‘real’ job?

ESKO: I work as a nurse at a hospital.

JOHN: What sort of hospital?

ESKO: I think it is not a surprise that I am a psychiatric nurse in a psychiatric ward – maybe that is one reason for my odd humour.

JOHN: You must be interested in the way people think differently.

ESKO: Maybe. Humans’ thinking is a very difficult thing. It is very hard work and maybe it is one reason I am interested in farting.

JOHN: Escapism, maybe?… In Britain, it seems that a surprising number of comedians have been doctors or trained as doctors. Maybe it releases the pressure?

ESKO: Yes, maybe… Also, always when you meet someone from Britain, you have to ask: What kind of weather is there? Is it raining?

JOHN: Surprisingly not. There is a bright blue sky with small white fluffy clouds. Hot and humid. Have you been to Britain?

ESKO: No. I do not fly, but it has always been my daydream to go by ship to Scotland and see soccer clubs – Rangers versus Celtic – or a Scottish pub. That is my daydream.

JOHN: Ah.

(artwork by Timo Kokkila)

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There is much more to Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers than just surreal comedy

Having a hearty breakfast with Mr Twonkey

I met up with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey over breakfast to talk about his show Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein but, initially, we got sidetracked by the three gigs he recently played at the Prague Fringe – in the Museum of Alchemists.


JOHN: What is the museum like?

PAUL: It’s a lovely place. It’s got a lot of… not waxworks… fibreglass dummies of alchemists.

JOHN: I like Prague.

Mr Twonkey was a cover star at the Prague Fringe

PAUL: Oh, it’s a beautiful place. we always give money to the Infant Jesus of Prague. They change its clothes every day; it has different jackets and stuff. The more money we gave, the busier the show got. 

JOHN: Did he bleed more if you gave him more money?

PAUL: He doesn’t bleed, but he smiles. He is in a little glass box in a little church just over the Charles Bridge. He is small, but he has big fluffy coats and very flamboyant clothing. 

JOHN: It’s not a small statue of Liberace, is it?

PAUL: It does look like Liberace, but it’s Jesus. It’s one of those things like his eyes are following you round the room.

JOHN: His stigmata are following you round the room?

PAUL: Yeah. But the more money you give him, the more people come, you know?

JOHN: Anyway, you are performing your Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein at the Bill Murray venue in London next Thursday. Is that the same show you did in Brighton?

PAUL: Slightly but not totally different. It’s finding its feet. I have different terms for my shows now. The current show is an Arrival show. But I also do Gateway shows.

JOHN: What are they?

PAUL: A Gateway show is where you find a way in or a way out. With creative ideas, I find sometimes you get trapped. You get a formula for doing something and then, over time, that formula becomes stale, so you feel trapped by it. A Gateway show shows you don’t actually have to do it like that.

In another show, Mr Twonkey spent Christmas in the Jungle

You experiment with a new format and, if that works then, after that, you can have an Arrival show which I think is the most exciting type but it’s also potentially The End. In which case you need another Gateway show. Unless I have two Arrival shows, which is what I’m thinking.

I wonder if that’s possible.

JOHN: Maybe Liechtenstein will have a fire escape.

PAUL: Yeah. That would be great: if I could have two Arrival shows. 

JOHN: …and a fire escape show, like West Side Story.

PAUL: It makes sense in my head, but…

JOHN: So what you did before feels a bit stale to you now?

PAUL: Well, my first three shows – Twonkey’s Cottage, Twonkey’s Castle and Twonkey’s Kingdom – were like a trilogy and the idea was I was only going to do that. I was telling the story of the mythical character Twonkey. But the trouble was no-one understood what I was going on about; no-one was following the story. In some respects, you had to have seen the show before to fully understand the threads in the other show.

JOHN: What was the over-all narrative of the three shows?

PAUL: It was following the journey of Twonkey, who was an accountant… well, a dragon, really… Basically, a dragon who moved from a castle and got more and more powerful. He started off in a cottage, then had his own castle, then had his own kingdom. 

Mr Twonkey had a colourful and successful Blue Cadabra

Then I broke away. I killed Twonkey off after the third show. So the dragon died and I became Mr Twonkey. I became the essence of Twonkey. What I realised was that Twonkey was not a dragon but a state of mind. That freed it up. I had a Gateway show – Twonkey’s Blue Cadabra – which I had quite a bit of success with.

After that, I did a series of shows in that kind of formula…

JOHN: How many?

PAUL: Eh… How many were there?…Two?

JOHN: You’re not quite sure?

PAUL: No. I did Twonkey’s Private Restaurant, which was an extension of Cadabra. In Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop, there was a log flume park. Then Twonkey’s Mumbo Jumbo Hotel was the one I got the Malcolm Hardee Award for. That was a Gateway show, because that was the first time I introduced the idea of an interwoven narrative throughout the over-all piece. 

I have carried on with that since and the new show – Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein – probably has the most clear narrative I’ve had.

JOHN: And you are doing that at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: Are you playing Fringe By The Sea in North Berwick while you’re up in Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes, but not as Twonkey. I’m doing my band stuff. Paul Vickers and The Leg.

JOHN: Your band is active again?

PAUL: Yes. We are recording an album at the end of June.

Paul Vickers (right) and The Leg: part of a body parts boom

JOHN: Why are they called The Leg?

PAUL: There was a boom in Scotland of bands named after body parts. There was Wounded Knee; there was Withered Hand; and so there was The Leg. There was also Frightened Rabbit.

JOHN: That’s a body part?

PAUL: No. Not a body part. But it fits in somehow.

JOHN: Fringe By The Sea sounds good.

PAUL: Yes, an odd mix of acts. The Sugarhill Gang. Mica Paris. Lewis Schaffer, David Steel and Roy Hattersley.

JOHN: David Steel and Roy Hattersley? The politicians?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: They’re singing…?

PAUL: No. Sitting in chairs and speaking to people.

JOHN: Roy Hattersley should join your band.

PAUL: Well, he had the reputation of spitting a lot… on Spitting Image… My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: What?

PAUL: My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: As a prop for your Twonkey show?

PAUL: She says it is. Though I haven’t got anything with a seagull in my act at the moment. 

Paul/Twonkey has been known to use occasional props

JOHN: She makes your props.

PAUL: Some, yes. And Grant Pringle makes the bigger ones.

JOHN: Is he related to the Pringles crisp dynasty?

PAUL: No. I think he is related to Pringle The Slayer.

JOHN: Who?

PAUL: Pringle The Slayer was a Borders Reiver. He had people locked up in a tower near Galashiels. I wrote a piece about Pringle The Slayer for Border Life magazine. I used to write for that. We interviewed David Steel for that too. Local interest. I also did Border X-Files, which was about  aliens and ghosts.

JOHN: That was a separate magazine from the one David Steel was in?

PAUL: No. It was all local interest. There was a lot of going to manor houses and talking to rich old ladies and there were photos of horses and green fields. It was the most successful thing we did after the music magazine failed. When BritPop deflated, the music magazine went down and we went into local publishing. But then the band took off and we were alright.

JOHN: What was the music magazine called?

PAUL: Sun Zoom Spark, named after a Captain Beefheart song.

JOHN: Ah. How are you enjoying your baked beans?

PAUL: They’re very nice.

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In Prague, Lynn Ruth Miller, 84, re-evaluates why people become comics

Just over a month ago, I posted a blog about UK-based US comic Lynn Ruth Miller’s extraordinary up-coming world travels. Later this week, she is off for seven days work in Dublin.

She has just returned from nine days performing in the Czech Republic. This is (part of) what happened there.


I arrived in Prague and within minutes I had demolished a bottle of wine. It seems the city is fuelled on alcohol and dumplings… but who am I to judge?

My first comedy show was in Brno. 

Lynn Ruth Miller performed at the Velvet Comedy in Brno

I stayed the night in a huge apartment that automatically turned on lights whenever I stepped into the room and was filled with encouraging English sayings, like: You are what you want to beLife is for living… and Please do not put anything other than you know what in our toilets.

The city is filled with ex-pats who have come here to live because the cost of living is low, the people are friendly and the preponderance of alcohol soothes the ruffled mind. These people use beer to jump-start the day.

We returned to Prague the next day. I stayed in a very retro flat with all kinds of old-fashioned furniture and one ton of mosquitoes and spiders. I felt like a pin-cushion and scratched in very embarrassing places. 

The comedy show was at a hostel and the audience was thirsty for a laugh and Czech beer. The accepted routine is a large mug of local beer with a whisky chaser and two dumplings to line the tummy. The audience was from every corner of the globe including a former teacher from Boston who had taught in LA, Okinawa, then moved to Mexico, then Prague and now makes jewelry and does improv; a Japanese comedian from Tokyo; and a guy from Manchester who was the only one who got my jokes.

The next day I tried my hand at teaching a comedy workshop to five eager would-be comedians. I realized once again that people have to have a sense of funny and, if they do not, no matter what they say, it won’t get a laugh.

I learned a couple things about would-be comics however. They will fight to the finish to keep a bad joke. They cannot understand the concept of set-up > punch. It is more long diatribe and feeble ha-ha. And, if one friend laughed at one of their jokes once, they think it is sure to become a classic. I knocked off a bottle of wine and – believe me – I needed it.

After dinner, we went to a tapas place with the woman from LA who lived in Okinawa and Mexico and is now a Czech citizen. She has lived in Prague for 15 years and still cannot speak Czech. I am told it is the most difficult language in the world and it seems to ignore vowels. Another bottle of wine down the hatch and the evening was very sparkly… or what I remember of it.

An insight into the Czech sex psyche

We talked about the Czech attitude toward sex and equality. It seems women have always had to work and are on an equal basis with men when it comes to salary and promotion. The MeToo movement doesn’t really make sense to these people, mainly because Czech men do not come on to women.

I cannot figure out whether they do not make the first move because they are ashamed of their bodies or because they have no vowels.

Porn is a way of life here. It is their substitute for not getting any. They all watch it and that is why Czech people think they have excellent technique when in reality you have to be an accomplished gymnast to do what you see on film. I have given up the idea of finding a Czech lover. It is far too risky. I have osteoporosis.

My second comedy workshop was in a café. Four of my students showed up and I heard their attempts at a five minute set which was horrifying. We all worked together to try to help each other tighten up the diatribes they had created and I hope I am not deceiving myself when I say I think we made progress.

This has made me evaluate why people become stand-ups. I am convinced we are all misfits who have never been able to make ourselves heard in conventional areas of life. Humor is a great facilitators and when we manage to make our buddies laugh we think: “Well, I’ve fucked-up everything else, maybe my real talent is doing stand up.”

It never occurs to people that stand-up is an art and has to be continually revised and re-evaluated to be effective.

I suspect that is why so many people start off in this very challenging and demanding career like an atomic explosion and then peter-out when they realize that getting laughs involves work.

The reality is that finding venues to PUT those laughs in is a boring grind. I was talking to one very enthusiastic new comedian who said: “It is the journey I love, even more than the success.”

Hopefully she will not mind the pitfalls, roadblocks and road crashes. Those of us who stick to it are bruised, wounded warriors. For me, at least, it has been well worth it.

When I listened to my students in this second session, two of them got what I thought we were after. The other two were determined to pontificate about racism and sexual misdirection without giving us anything to even smile about. 

There is a lack of coq in Prague

I spent Sunday eating Belgian food (a coq au vin that was a lot more vin than coq) and drinking copiously as they do here and then going to The Jazz Club Reduta to listen to a lot of music I danced to in the forties in Toledo, Ohio.

That involved a few more bottles of wine, several beers (each one different of course and arriving in a different shaped glass) and a couple of whiskeys – so I cannot remember many details of the day, just a warm fuzzy feeling and muddled brain.

Czech Cafes are always especially charming with flowers on the table and very clean toilets. (Obviously, when you are my age, this is a determining factor.)

They eat a lot of pastry evidently and do not seem to gain weight… but the alcohol I consumed might have blurred my vision.

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Filed under Comedy, Czech Republic, Sex

Why Britain’s Got Talent finalist Robert White has such wide appeal

 In a blog here at the end of April, musical comedian and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Robert White explained why he had entered Britain’s Got Talent this year.

After winning most public votes from viewers in his semi-final appearance, he is now through to the live Sunday night final tomorrow on ITV1.

It seemed the right time to ask him why he seems to have such a wide appeal.

So I asked him…

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JOHN: After your song on the semi-final, your mother now definitely knows you are gay.

ROBERT: Yes and gay comedians have been my idols since I was young. There’s a sort of gay sense of humour you have if you’re camp or an outsider. I know Britain’s Got Talent has a massive gay following, a massive musical theatre following.

My song had a particular gay slant to it. We all have a particular relationship with our parents and I think it was maybe a song that other gay people found an empathy with.

JOHN: You said you had gay idols. For example…?

ROBERT: One of the people I looked up to and look up to is a guy called Mark Bunyan, who I think was the first openly gay performer at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you listen to the sort of songs he did then, they are about the same sort of level – or tamer – than the stuff I’ve done on Britain’s Got Talent.

JOHN: You write songs with intricate lyrics. But you are dyslexic. That must be a bit of a problem.

ROBERT: Well, since I was a kid, it has been easier to make stuff up than to read it. I can read and write music and lyrics but, by the time you’ve sat down and got the end of the line, you could have played most of it by ear anyway.

JOHN: Any creative genes in your family?

ROBERT: My granddad – Samuel Thomas – was from Wales and he was a massive part of my life. A lot of my comedy comes from him. He was from Bleinavon – he was eccentric and intelligent; he was self-taught; he was told he could have been a teacher but he wanted to go and spend time down the pits with his brothers. His father was a band leader and he himself played the euphonium and the cornet. All my music comes from him. He was this crazy, eccentric musical genius: a brilliant man.

I’m regularly in Neath: there’s a lovely comedy festival there. I do gigs in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, all over.

One thing I remember about doing my first gig in Wales was when I first got heckled. The words were nasty, but the accent itself just reminded me of my granddad. So I sort-of can’t be effectively heckled in Wales because it just reminds me of this lovely Welsh voice that used to tell me stories when I was a child.

JOHN: But now you’re a Londoner…

ROBERT: Well, I have adopted London. At the moment, I live in Mile End, but I’ve lived all over London – Brixton, Kilburn, Willesden Green, North, South, East, West. London has done for me what it has done for a lot of people. It has made me who I am. I was born in Sussex – born in Crawley, brought up in Horsham – but made in London..

I had a police escort when I was born. My dad was on his way to Crawley Hospital with my pregnant mother, could not find the entrance, stopped by the side of the road, was spotted by a policeman and I got a police escort to the hospital.

JOHN: That sounds a suitably bizarre entrance to the world for a gay, dyslexic, Aspergic, quarter-Welsh, web-toed performer.

ROBERT: Things which used to be classed as disabilities are now accepted and I think that’s very positive.

500-1,000 years ago, people who were left-handed were being called witches and branded as outcasts.

20 years ago, I was allowed to be dyslexic at primary school, but I was not allowed to be dyslexic at secondary school because they did not have the funding for it.

Now these things are accepted. By highlighting them, what I would like to do is make them be seen as normal. They are not exceptional; they are just different.

JOHN: Which brings us to the fact you have web toes…

ROBERT: When people ask me about my web toes, I try to ‘duck’ the question. My nan had webbed toes as well. Quite a lot of people have it. Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger and it may or may not have been webbed.

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Filed under autism, Comedy, dyslexia, Gay, Music, Talent, Wales

The nightmare effect of travelling on too many Thameslink trains – beetroot

I very rarely remember my dreams but I woke up during one this morning.

I was working, freelance, for a TV company and, during the lunch hour, I had to go to hospital where one of the treatments was to put beetroot on my stomach.

Next, I was scheduled to see the oncologist, but I could not remember the name of the person I was working for to phone and tell them I would not be back after lunch and someone had, as a joke, tattooed the bottom half of both my legs while I was asleep during the beetroot treatment.

This is what happens when you have to travel four times on a Sunday during a Bank Holiday weekend on the anarchic rail service Govia Thameslink – as I did yesterday – it turns your head into a gooey mess.

The beetroot was not even edible.

It was a nightmare.

The journeys not the dream.

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‪Happy Thameslink passengers enjoying the relaxed holiday atmosphere on one of the tranquil platforms at St Pancras station in London, untroubled by trains.‬

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Movie asks: Is the brutalist new town of Basildon an architectural/social utopia?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that film documentaries do not get audiences. That is not true.

Tonight’s screening of director Christopher Smith’s New Town Utopia at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London was sold out.

It is about the much-derided Essex new town of Basildon, just outside London. 

Why? 

I asked Christopher Smith.


JOHN: A documentary film about Basildon as an architectural utopia? Are you mad?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, that’s the reason I made it, really. That is what everyone said to me when I mooted the idea four years ago.

JOHN: Were you unfortunate enough to be brought up there?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m from Benfleet, next to Basildon.

JOHN: And the film is now released in cinemas.

CHRISTOPHER: It played at the Barbican for a week and got good reviews. One of the less good reviews was in Time Out – “It’s as far away as you can get from Avengers: Infinity War” – I might actually put that on the poster. It’s also available on Curzon Online at the moment.

JOHN: Why did you think anyone would be interested in a film about Basildon?

CHRISTOPHER: I was always convinced there was an audience for it. There are a lot of people interested in post-War British architecture and social history. There’s a real fetishisation and love of brutalist architecture and modernism. I like modernist art – the geometric stuff like Malevich and I think I like the architecture for that reason: it’s kind of ordered.

“You have all these people who love brutalist architecture…”

What interested me was that you have all these people who love brutalist architecture – most of whom are probably middle class and live in London – and then you have all the people who live in it. And they generally are not the same people.

Initially, the film was about exploring that and seeing where there was a cross-over in opinion or experience. But then it turned into someone more. It became a social history of the town, told through the memories, words and performances of artists and creatives from the town.

In doing that, it touches on the impact of globalisation, the impact of ‘Right To Buy’ and the loss of social housing, the impact of Margaret Thatcher and her influence on individualism v community, the importance of facilities for the arts – and art as a route to wellbeing, rather than just something you do.

It touches on all those things.

JOHN: Did you make the film for a political reason? As soon as I hear ‘Basildon’, I think ‘Basildon Man’ – a variation on ‘Essex Man’.

CHRISTOPHER: That was not the reason but it is definitely teased-out a lot in the film. My parents were not political, but my uncle was a Tory councillor.

JOHN: The phrases ‘Basildon Man’ and ‘Essex Man’ basically meant working class men with aspirations.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. East End Boy made good. And my parents were both from working class backgrounds. My dad started his own business, which became pretty successful.

JOHN: In?

CHRISTOPHER: Electronic office equipment. I guess my parents voted Tory, but they never brought politics into the home. I suppose I am a bit more of a tub-thumping liberal Leftie.

The film is definitely political. The people in it actively talk about the impact of Right To Buy, the loss of all the factories, the lack of investment in arts facilities. I guess, because most of them are artists and creatives, there is a kind of Leftie bent but I hope there is a balance.

One of the people in it – he’s an actor – says: “I’m from a Labour family. I am a Labour voter. But, actually, some of the incentives that Thatcher’s government brought out for small businesses in the 1980s are what helped me set up my theatre company.”

JOHN: And your background is…?

CHRISTOPHER: I used to do a lot of weird, dance music based films in my early-twenties for nightclubs and I used to perform with another guy at music festivals and arts festivals. I did the music; he did the visuals. 

JOHN: What was your band called?

CHRISTOPHER: Addictive TV. I used to play vinyl records as well as CDs and other stuff. 

JOHN: You were not a guitar combo?

CHRISTOPHER: No. We were all electronics.

I did that for a few years, then fell out with him and moved into advertising for over ten years. I ended up as a creative director at various ad agencies but got frustrated because I was not making things myself. You come up with the ideas for your client – for a terrible bank or a breakfast cereal – you can’t choose – but you don’t actually make things yourself. About five or six years ago, I was working 60 or 70 hour weeks and not enjoying it – fun at times but stressful and I jacked it all in to start making films.

JOHN: Risky…

CHRISTOPHER: To pay the bills, I now do direct. I have done a few ads – for some reason, a lot of healthcare ads – and videos for Facebook and things like that. 

Are the streets of filmic Basildon paved with potential gold?

JOHN: But this film is not going to make you vast amounts of money…?

CHRISTOPHER: No money.

JOHN: So what is it going to lead on to?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m not sure. There’s a writer I am possibly going to collaborate with on a new project.

I am not a writer. I have tried and I can. But I know there are a lot of other people out there better than me. I think I’m quite good at structuring things and I know where I want the audience’s emotions to be at certain times in a film, but dialogue is what I struggle with.

JOHN: And this new project is…?

CHRISTOPHER: The one that’s crystallising at the moment is about… Well, it’s about Epping Forest, but it’s also about a lot of other things. In the same way I used Basildon to explore issues that affect a lot of aspects of British society, I quite like the idea of using Epping Forest to give me a broader canvas. Basildon was set over a 70-year period. Epping Forest would be over tens of thousands of years.

Can Chris replicate Basildon Man as Epping Forest Man?

It would be factual. There are some very interesting existing real people now and back in history whose lives have crossed. There may be a really interesting way of looking at sanity and mental stability and the idea of the internal and the external with the forest and the outer spaces.

There is a building that used to be a big asylum sitting on one edge of Epping Forest. John Clare the poet was there and there were protest movements about the M11 motorway and forest conservation activism and anarchism.

Outside the mind is possibly where things are clearer and inside is where anything can happen.

The forest is an enclosure and I think there could be a way of looking on it as the mind.

I think there are interesting themes that can be explored, but it’s still quite early days.

JOHN: There’s still no money to be made from documentaries, though…

CHRISTOPHER: That’s not true. There’s no money to be made in MY documentaries. But Netflix has really opened the doors. HBO are doing quite ‘high end’ documentaries like the OJ Simpson trial and they’re getting people like Martin Scorsese to direct documentary series. So there IS money in documentaries at the moment… though not in arthouse documentaries.

If I had the right idea for them and they were interested, I would work with Netflix.

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