On Friday, comedian Barry Ferns cooked me a baked potato at his home in Maida Vale, London. If this comedy lark does not work out for him, he could always re-start his career in catering.
“I always wanted to be a stand-up,” he told me. “One of my earliest memories is one Christmas when I got a radio/tape player that you could record things on and I got one of those really tall, giant joke books – 1001 Jokes – and I read jokes out of that into the tape recorder under the duvet, because my parents used to put me to bed really early, at about 5.00pm.
“When I was at school, I was always the class wannabe clown. I remember one time I made a silly joke and the whole class, as one, just went Oh, Barry! and Mr Powell, my history teacher, just looked at me with sadness in his eyes and said: Why do you do it to yourself, Barry?… Which is maybe what the comedy industry’s been trying to tell me for the last 17 years.
“It’s funny the career paths you fall into. You never quite know where you’re going to end up. I started in comedy as a cleaner at the Gilded Balloon during the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I think class has got a lot to do with the jobs I ended up doing.
“I’ve got 32 cousins. My dad’s got 5 brothers and my dad’s got 5 sisters. My dad’s a printer. My brother cleans cars. I went to university, but no-one else in my direct family had ever gone to university. I think because of that, I didn’t expect to go into a good job. So I finished university and went to work in a pork pie factory for a year. I ended up in Burger King and various other things, then I started to realise Oh, I could get that job or that job.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve learned how to make films, purely because I want to make my own pilot of a show that Carlton TV wanted to pick up. I had a script, it was optioned, but it didn’t happen and Carlton TV was taken over. Somebody else tried to make it with David Sant directing. But it didn’t get made; didn’t get made; didn’t get made. Then, after I went bankrupt – performing at the Edinburgh Fringe made me bankrupt in 2007, the year I changed my name to Lionel Richie – in 2008 I thought Right. I’m going to learn how to make it myself, so I spent two years learning how to make film, editing, those kind of skills and that’s how I earn money now.”
Barry’s 5-minute film Testing Mrs Patterson was screened at the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival in 2012.
“It seems like any industry’s about connections and people you know,” Barry suggested to me.
“I think,” I said, “people tend to approach things from the wrong viewpoint. Performers think How can little old me push my career by approaching this Big important media person? But that seemingly big person sees himself or herself as a small cog in a larger machine and is trying to push his or her own career. So you have to approach them from the viewpoint of What can I do to help this media person develop his or her career?”
“That’s the way I think of agents,” replied Barry. “How can I help them to earn money? Likewise, it’s why a lot of people won’t take risks nowadays; they don’t want to jeopardise their own career.”
“Risk-taking is complicated,” I said, “because everyone assumes TV and radio people won’t risk doing original ideas. But that’s only half true. They won’t take too much risk. But they don’t want to be seen to be doing what’s been done before either, because that doesn’t help their career. So they want to be seen to be making new, cutting-edge stuff because, if they produce the next new wave thing, they will get kudos and a better, higher job. But, at the same time and utterly in conflict with that, they don’t want to risk making something totally original which might turn out to be a disaster.”
Barry and I were eating baked potatoes at his home, because he wanted to talk to me about my memories of the Edinburgh Fringe. Unfortunately for him, I can barely remember what I did last week.
Last year, he created a downloadable Audio Tour of Edinburgh with Fringe stories about various locations. This year, he will be doing the same, but there will also be similar segments in Arthur Smith’s BBC Radio 4 Extra show – which is why, in the past few weeks, he has been gathering stories from the like of me, comedian Simon Munnery and critic Kate Copstick.
I suspect he will also use some of the stories in his three Edinburgh Fringe shows this year – Barry On Arthur’s Seat (he is foolishly going to climb to the top of Edinburgh’s extinct volcano every day to perform this show)… Tales From The Fringe (another daily show)… and This Arthur’s Seat Gala Belongs to Lionel Richie (a one-off show on 17th August atop the aforementioned extinct volcano). Last year, his shows were well-reviewed.
“The best thing for a show in Edinburgh,” I said, “is to get a 1-star review AND a 5-star review. That has to mean it is interesting.”
“Well, in 2001,” Barry told me, “I took a show up to Edinburgh called Doreen and it got every star in reviews – 1-2-3-4-and-5. Some people absolutely loved it. But so many people walked out. It was at the Gilded Balloon. We had a sign on the door – HATE THE SHOW? WHY NOT TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS HOW MUCH YOU DISLIKED IT.
“Somebody who ended up being a really well-known producer and director came three times. And Count Arthur Strong came three times as well. He absolutely loved it. But other people absolutely hated it. The show ended as the audience filed out with us with our trousers round our ankles, apologising to them for being pathetic human beings… We’re so sorry… We’re so sorry…. with our hands covering our crotches.”
“You should bring it back,” I said. “I would go see it.”
Barry certainly gets 5 stars from me for his baked potato. But I hope he does not have to fall back on catering.
I have a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, though, that I will have to climb Arthur’s Seat this year.