Category Archives: Books

What sort of creative creature is comic Dominic Holland, father of Spider-man?

What is Dominic Holland? 

A writer of books? A stand-up comedian? The father of Spider-man?

Yes to all three.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, an anthology of original writing by comedians which I compiled and edited with Malcolm Hardee. That’s the self-promotion over.

I thought I would talk to Dominic about his latest novel without ever mentioning his son Tom Holland – the current Marvel (soon to be Sony) movies’ Spider-man.

I failed.



“You encounter a homeless person and…”

JOHN: So, you have written five novels… and the latest, I, Gabriel, published a month ago, is about what?

DOMINIC: I have always been very exercised by homelessness. I have lived in London all my life. I used to do the Comedy Store and walk down Charing Cross Road and down The Strand and see homeless people and would give them money.

But I have a thing about hygiene. If I shake a homeless person’s hand, I start to panic. I would rather not touch them. I’m not ashamed of that. That’s just how I am. If you have no washing facilities, you’ve probably got excrement and all sorts of detritus all over your hands.

I thought: What happens if you encounter a homeless person, you shake their hand and they insist on sharing a meal with you. You don’t want to eat their sandwich, but you have to and you contract a food poisoning and it keeps you off a doomed air flight. Wouldn’t that be a great starting point for a drama? That idea has been in my head for 20 years and that’s the kernel of the story. Then I designed a character who had everything and I wanted him to have an epiphany.

The epiphany for Gabriel is that he is a man of vast success and vast wealth but actually has nothing.

It’s a 3-act book. The First Act is fleshing out his character. He is an unpleasant man. He is a very highly-paid, successful surgeon. A very rarified man, very bright. But he is lost to greed. Then he has this epiphany. He realises his life has been a sham, really. And then something rather extraordinary happens in the Third Act.

Where I am most happy abiout is that nobody – but nobody – has seen the ending coming.

JOHN: You are a Christian.

DOMINIC: Habitually. All my life I’ve been a Catholic. Big Catholic family. I have four aunts who are nuns, two uncles who are priests. My whole tradition growing up was going to mass. My boys were brought up Catholic and I like belonging to a Church. I like a feeling of belonging. I belong to the comedy circuit; I belong to the Catholic Church. But my faith, I’m afraid, is not terribly… erm… vivid. I like the punctuation of mass. I go to mass two Sundays in four. I use it as a chance to just sit there and reflect on my good fortune and what I hope to do for the rest of my little time on this mortal coil.

JOHN: Your boys were brought up Catholic…

DOMINIC: Yes. Four boys.

JOHN: What does your wife do?

DOMINIC: She’s a photographer, but she’s now giving that up to run a charity we started: The Brothers Trust. 

It has been going about 18 months/two years. We didn’t want to call it The Tom Holland Foundation. He has the platform to attract money, but we thought it might seem a little bit narcissistic and narrow because Tom’s brothers are involved.

The Brothers Trust family – The brothers Holland (left-right) Sam, Tom, Paddy and Harry with parents Dominic & Nikki

Using Tom’s cachet, we put events on and all the money we get in – less the transactional costs and the charitable costs in America – you have to employ American firms to administer them – all the money WE get, we then distribute to various charities. Our own remit is to give money to charities that struggle to be heard. Not to the big charities. To small charities and charities without the big administrative costs. We don’t personally want to support charities that have got vast numbers of people flying all over the world.

For example, we have built a hostel in India through The John Foundation, who basically take off the streets girls who have been trafficked and this very virtuous doctor and his wife house the girls and train them to become beauticians or overlockers. They get security and a skill and they’re also now making our Brothers Trust T-shirts which we are planning to sell and money from that will go to other causes we want to support.

We also support a charity in Kibera, Kenya, called Lunchbowl – they feed kids every day; we have bought them two 40-seater buses to take kids from the slums to-and-from school.

We support a charity in Britain called Debra which looks after kids with EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa), a pernicious disease where your skin is effectively like tissue paper – there’s 5,000 people in the UK with it. It’s the same number of people with cystic fibrosis, but no-one’s ever heard of it

JOHN: You have also written a book about Tom: EclipsedWhat’s the elevator pitch for that?

“For me, the story was perfectly-formed…”

DOMINIC: It’s the story of how a young boy is spotted inadvertently, finds himself dancing on the West End stage whilst his dad is doing comedy gigs in village halls… That kid goes on to become a movie star and his old man is still playing the same clubs he was 20 years ago.

JOHN: “Spotted inadvertently”? 

DOMINIC: Tom was spotted at a local YMCA disco dancing class and he ended up playing the lead in Billy Eliot in the West End… As I say in Eclipsed, it’s a fluke. The whole thing has been a fluke. A happy fluke.

JOHN: You say ‘village halls’, but you did play places like the Comedy Store in London.

DOMINIC: Yes but, John, you know and I know that, back in the day, I was mooted as one of the ‘Next Big Things’ – and it didn’t happen. And there’s no rancour on my part. I performed at the Comedy Store last weekend and I’m proud to be on that stage because a lot of my mates from my generation aren’t doing it any more. The fact that I’m still being booked to go on last at The Comedy Store means you’ve got chops. I would love to have made it. I didn’t. But, for the book, it’s a perfect juxtaposition. For me, the story was perfectly-formed.

My first novel Only in America was spawned from selling a screenplay. I did a gig in 1995 in Cleethorpes. Didn’t get paid. Long way. I was on the train coming home to London, cold. I had already won the Perrier Award as Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993, I had been on television, I was becoming well-known. So I thought: This is rubbish! I can’t keep going to Cleethorpes for no money. I’m going to write a film.

So I wrote a film and sold it to Norma Heyman, who is the mother of David Heyman – He produced all the Harry Potter films. Norma Heyman’s husband John was a big-shot producer. 

Norma Hayman said to me: “You are the new Frank Capra.”

JOHN: Wow!

DOMINIC: I didn’t even know who Frank Capra was. I had to look him up. But I had these very exciting meetings in Soho and, over the next two or two-and-a-half years, I sold that script two or three times and then it fell over. But that story inspired my first novel Only in America.

Dominic Holland in Soho, London, last week

I then sold Only in America to the BBC and to Hollywood film producers. I went to Los Angeles and had meetings with Big Time agents who said: “This is great! We’re gonna make your movie! Frank Oz was going to direct; Bette Midler was going to be in it… And then it fell over.

So, when Tom started on his journey in the West End, it was a funny story in my head… When he was cast in his first movie (The Impossible, 2012) and was long-listed for an Oscar… THAT for me was a perfect story, because I had tried and failed and Tom was succeeding.

So I end the story on a Los Angeles red carpet with Tom being long-listed for an Oscar and I thought: Well, that’s a hilarious story. I had been spending all this energy trying to make it as a writer and become a new Richard Curtis and, with no problem at all, my boy was going: Dad! Watch! Over here! and making it…!

I finished the book when he was 16 and, since then, he has become a proper movie star.

I didn’t get films made. It’s a small nut to crack and most people don’t crack it and I am one of that ‘most’. But, being one of the ‘most’ and having failed, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of storytelling. Here’s my failed efforts to make it in Hollywood and then here’s my bloody son, with no efforts, BOOM!… and I’m thrilled.

People say to me: “Are you jealous?” and I think: Well, if you think that, you don’t know who I am.”

JOHN: Fuck me, well I’m jealous but, then, he’s not my son…

(BELOW, TOM HOLLAND, PROMOTING SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME IN BALI, AS VIDEOED BY HIS BROTHER HARRY HOLLAND)

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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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Peculiar – Comic Jo Burke disappeared for 3 years, found true love and a show

The last time performer/writer Jo Burke appeared in this blog was in September 2015. There is a reason for that gap of over three years.


Three years absent and three books published

JOHN: So you have three children’s books here which you wrote. There is Standing on Custard

JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tail is a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.

JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?

JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.

JOHN: Eh?

JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.

JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.

JO: My talented husband Philip Price.

JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.

JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating. 

“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”

That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful. 

I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.

Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!

JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.

JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had a  mortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did. 

What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?” 

So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.

JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!

JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.

JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?

JO: It’s me again.

Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative

JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?

JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.

JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.

JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.

JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?

JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.

So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.

“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”

JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?

JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.

JOHN: So observational comedy.

JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.

JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.

JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it. 

JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!

Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all around and I prefer doing my own shows. 

I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.

JOHN: The lure of the applause?

JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.

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How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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Maggy Whitehouse, comic and vicar: “Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley”

“I was at the end of my rope with Christianity…”

Yesterday’s blog was a chat with Maggy Whitehouse, stand-up comedian and freelance vicar/priest.

It was intended to be about her comedy, but strayed into religion… Here it continues…


JOHN: So, at home, you have an Isis and Mary altar? Isis the Egyptian god, not the Islamic fundamentalists.

MAGGY: Yes, Isis and Mary represent the Great Mother, because it’s all one Great Mother and one Great Father. The idea is she stuck her husband’s body back together after he was all carved up and she managed to conceive a child from it.

I studied New Testament Greek and really got into it and then I met a Jewish guy and he was at the end of his rope with Judaism and I was at the end of my rope with Christianity and my teacher of healing sent us off to this guy in London who was teaching Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. So I started studying that.

JOHN: The Madonna stuff?

MAGGY: No. There are two sorts of Kabbalah. Hers is based in the 16th century and takes the theory that, when God created the Universe, he made a mistake. 

Mine is based in Biblical times, which is that, when God created the Universe, it was all perfect and we screwed up. Well, not even that, because Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, so how could Jesus?

Independent Maggy marries a Sikh man & a Christian woman

Anyway, there I was, doing this New Age stuff, doing funerals and my now-husband’s best friend was murdered in London and he and I were members of the same Kabbalah group. He asked me to do the funeral for Jon and my (Christian) bishop was in the congregation and phoned me up the following week and said: “OK, God told me we need you and you need us.”

I told him: “You must be out of your mind.”

But he was a guy after my own mind who was saying: Christianity has lost EVERYTHING. It’s all meant to be about love, inclusivity, kindness, simplicity. So I decided I would train. And I did.

JOHN: The Old Testament and the New Testament appear to me to have totally different gods. The Old Testament teaches “an eye for an eye”… The New Testament teaches “turn the other cheek”.

MAGGY: One thing is we only have one Hebrew testament. There used to be dozens and dozens and dozens of versions of it. But they pulled it all together into one after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. So we don’t know what the original text was.

We DO know that there are an awful lot of edits. And also, in ancient days, they read the text on four levels: the literal, the allegorical, the metaphysical and the mystical. If you take the texts out of the literal sense, they’re all about the psychological development of the soul. 

JOHN: You don’t sound especially Christian to me; just generically religious.

MAGGY: I am a very passionate follower of the teachings of Jesus… But he never once asked us to worship him. He said: “Follow me.”

JOHN: Buddha tried that. It didn’t work. I am not a god. I am not a religion. Do NOT worship me. But now loads of people clearly worship him as an idol.

“90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley”

MAGGY: Of course it doesn’t work. The thing about faith is… If you like the look of it, you’ve got to go on the journey, go through all these Road to Damascus moments.

Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley. If you are a proper seeker, you travel to Finchley. But 90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley, so they will find somebody who HAS been to Finchley and worship them. And, if they can’t find someone who has been to Finchley, they will worship the signpost… And that is what religion is.

I was Church of England, but now I am an Independent. We have been associated with part of the liberal Catholic Church, but I am actually ‘an independent’.

JOHN: If you don’t follow the rules of a specific recognised branch of Christianity, surely you are a heretic?

MAGGY: Of COURSE I am a heretic. The Methodists in West Devon use me – I’ve got two services this Sunday – 11.00am and 6.30pm – which is very decent of them. They heard me on BBC Radio Devon: I did a year there as a presenter. But my local rector, who runs the Anglican area can’t use me, because he would get lynched. 

JOHN: Not literally.

MAGGY: Not literally.

JOHN: So you are only really recognised as a proper person by the Methodists?

MAGGY: I’m not really recognised by them, because I can’t do communion for them. I just showed up, lay on my face on the floor in my white robe and got my hands and brow anointed.

JOHN: Ooh! A white robe. Sounds kinda Druidy.

MAGGY: I COULD be Druidy. The wonderful thing is, if you do this mysticism, this direct experience of what you perceive to be the divine, you can converse with anyone of any faith and none – And that’s what it’s about.

Maggy’s first book – about a different type of journey

JOHN: You have written seventeen books, mostly about religion and spirituality.

MAGGY: I’m writing a new book at the moment: Kabbalah and Healing. I have to deliver it to the publisher by the end of September; published the beginning of next year.

JOHN: I suppose we should mention you doing stand-up comedy as, supposedly, that is the bloody reason why we are sitting here chatting in the first place. How did you get into comedy?

MAGGY: I do spiritual workshops and events and things like that to make a living. People kept saying to me: “You’re very funny; you should do comedy.”

There was a comedy course in Birmingham half a mile from me that cost £50. I went along and I was the oldest person by 35 years. At the end, there was a showcase and, a week later, I was asked to back Hal Cruttenden on an Edinburgh Fringe preview at Kings Heath in Birmingham.

I started doing unpaid gigs after that. But then I moved to Devon. Six months later, I got cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That was a massive Road to Damascus healing journey too.

JOHN: Edinburgh Fringe?

MAGGY: I did one Edinburgh run in 2014 when I had only been performing comedy for 18 months and I had the cancer at the time. I went to Edinburgh as a bucket list thing. I had to rest all day, do my hour at night, then go back and rest. So I didn’t really get the Edinburgh experience at all.

JOHN: Will you go again?

MAGGY: At the moment, I am trying to get together four priests including me to go to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 – There’s Ravi Holy, a rector in Canterbury; Kate Bruce, who’s chaplain to the RAF at Brize Norton; and Mark Townsend, who’s an ex-Anglican but still a vicar who is a magician.

Maggy performed at the Monkey Business comedy club in London earlier this month

JOHN: So where else do you go from here? Another Road to Damascus?

MAGGY: I have no idea where I go from here. I basically thought: I will give the comedy five years and see what happens. That is almost up now.

I don’t know where I’m going.

I am writing the book; I am doing spiritual workshops; I am pottering along quite happily in comedy.

And I am happy.

I am incredibly happy. 

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This $15 million woman can teach you to punctuate English sentences correctly

Susan Feehan has written a book about punctuation.

Called Make Punctuation Your Bitch: Punctuation Wrangling Without The Fuss.

The paperback is already on Amazon and the e-book comes out on Friday.

I talked to her. This is what happened.

Any punctuation mistakes are mine, not her’s… erm… hers.


JOHN: So you won’t be a fan of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses… Does punctuation matter? I don’t think spelling was uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary, was it? Before that, all that mattered was that other people understood what you meant. Same with punctuation, isn’t it?

“Not a book for GrammerNazis. They would take offence”

SUSAN: It’s not a book for GrammarNazis. They would take offence at the levity. I’ve done a couple of opening sections about Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Tribe 1 are the GrammarNazis and Tribe 2 are the rest of us.

JOHN: So who is going to buy the book? The GrammarNazis are not going to buy it because they think they know everything and the illiterates won’t buy it because they can’t read.

SUSAN: It’s for people who just need a quick answer. I wrote it because, as a tutor, doing training courses, I have always wanted to look for examples.

JOHN: Examples of… ?

SUSAN: Say, for instance, brackets. You don’t want to wade through a whole load which has everything you DON’T want to know about brackets but one thing you do. So I have split everything into sections. It is quick and easy.

If it takes two minutes to look something up, you will do it.

If it takes ten minutes, you will blag your way through.

JOHN: You are a tutor. Whom do you tute?

SUSAN: I did have a stint at university mentoring students in newspaper production and, well, there’s publishers’ staff. People who just need a bit of a refresher. When they’re editing. Grammar, punctuation, whatever.

JOHN: Surely sub-editors should not need tutoring? If they don’t know it, they shouldn’t be employed.

SUSAN: Well, the thing is, sub-editing is now an entry job. When I was first training on newspapers, you started as an editorial assistant or a junior reporter – you started as a junior writer in any form, served your time – your apprenticeship, so to speak, of about three years – and then they considered you expert enough to be paid full wage. After that, you could segue into subbing.

But, once it all became digital, the software became the prerequisite – It became Must be Quark friendly or, now, it’s Must be InDesign friendly. The software became the reason you were getting employed and the language skills became secondary.

Often, now, people are taking or are given a job as a sub-editor so they can do a hop-over into the writing side. It doesn’t make any sense to me – or anyone else I know. You’ve got juniors put in the position of changing the work of writers who are presumably more experienced. And they now do need to know more than they once would have done. In the past, the sub-editors would have been much more experienced.

JOHN: So we have all these illiterate sub-editors?

SUSAN: I wouldn’t call them illiterate.

JOHN: Different publications have different house styles, so punctuation rules don’t really mean anything, do they? For example… Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?

SUSAN: Well, some of that is house style but often, in the UK, we would generally use single quotes first, then doubles within singles. The Americans would do singles within doubles.

JOHN: Oh… I always do the American way, alas.

SUSAN: And how do you introduce a quote? With a colon or a comma? A colon is very journalistic.

JOHN: I do whatever looks better in a particular sentence.

SUSAN: Ah…

JOHN: You started off as a…?

SUSAN: A lowly junior reporter on a magazine called Display International and another one called Do It Yourself Retailing.

JOHN: You did that because you wanted to be a great writer?

SUSAN: Well, I found out very quickly that I wanted to be a sub-editor. On a newspaper or magazine, if you find a subject you are prepared to write about for the next 30 years – medical, cinema, crime, whatever – then you are fixed. If you can’t find that subject, then you are better off being a sub-editor, because there your joy is in the process and the language not the subject. You can do your job on any subject and still love the process of writing.

JOHN: You wanted to be a sub for the rest of your life?

SUSAN: I certainly did for a hefty while. Then I thought: Aaah! Perhaps I should write something myself. And that’s when I started doing the screenplay thing. There was The Kiss, a romantic comedy.

JOHN: Was that filmed?

SUSAN: We raised the money for it about four years ago – all $15 million of it – but the trouble was it all came from one investor and the trouble comes when one investor thinks he’s been hanging around too long and he takes the money elsewhere.

JOHN: You have written five screenplays.

SUSAN: I have, but I am turning them into novels. One I am going to do as a play.

JOHN: Three are already award-winning and they have not even been made.

SUSAN: You can win lots of screenplay awards without them getting made.

JOHN: Make Punctuation Your Bitch is not your first book.

“Canadians in particular loved it…”

SUSAN: No. There was How To Write Well When You Don’t Know Where To Start. That was three years ago. For some reason the Canadians in particular loved it. It was in the Top Ten in the entire Kindle Store in Canada, not just in its niche.

JOHN: Is it on Amazon?

SUSAN: It was, but I’ve taken it down because I’m going to update it.

JOHN: Are there punctuation differences between the British and Americans?

SUSAN: Yes. And there are Canadian and Australian differences as well. Sometimes they side with the Americans and sometimes they follow us. I have some in the book. The Americans put time at 3:30 with a colon and we do 3.30 with a dot; but now we are starting to take on the colon.

JOHN: In lists, I was always taught that, if you have A, B, C and D, you should never have a comma between the last two – A, B, C, and D – because the commas are standing-in for the word ‘and’. So, by adding a comma, you are actually saying “A and B and C and and D”

SUSAN: That’s not quite true, because it’s ‘The Oxford Comma’… Called that because it was created by Oxford University Press.

The example given in my book is: “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela”. That actually means – without the second comma – that his parents are the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

But, if you put a comma after the Dalai Lama – “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela” – you have differentiated between them.

JOHN: But one comma isn’t worth losing sleep over, is it?

SUSAN: I have a story at the front of my book about the Five Million Dollar Oxford Comma.

There was a dairy in Maine where they had a contract that did not have an Oxford Comma in it. Their drivers sued them about what the contract actually meant and the drivers won $5 million in back-overtime.

There was another case between two telephone companies where there was a comma in dispute and, again it cost one company $2 million.

JOHN: So correct punctuation is here to stay.

SUSAN: I think, in 30 years time, apostrophes won’t exist.

JOHN: Oooh!

SUSAN: But I think the smart money is on semi-colons dying out first.

JOHN: You will have to constantly update your books. Your next one is…?

SUSAN: There might be a Make Structure Your Bitch book.

JOHN: What is structure?

SUSAN: Structure in writing. So the inverted pyramid thing will come in there. And structuring sentences and paragraphs and how to keep the reader hooked.

JOHN: What is the worst crime in punctuation?

SUSAN: Ultimately, it is inconsistency.

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Political comic Joe Wells doesn’t know what he thinks, but The End is Nigh…

Comedian Joe Wells has just released two CDs – of his two latest Edinburgh Fringe shows – 10 Things I Hate about UKIP and I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative.

When I met him at the Soho Theatre Bar in London, he showed me his arm.

Tattooed on it were the words SO IT GOES.

This, alas, was not because he is an obsessive fan of this blog but because, like me, he is an admirer of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five in which the repeated refrain So it goes appears 106 times, usually linked to death, dying and mortality.

“Why Vonnegut?” I asked.

“I sort of,” Joe replied, “fell into doing a literature degree at Portsmouth University and, when you read people like Vonnegut and James Joyce, you think: Oh! I didn’t realise you could do that.”

“Are you an aspiring novelist?”

“Well, I wrote a book when I was basically a child. I wrote a book about OCD when I was 15.”

“A non-fiction book?”

“Yes, about growing up with OCD.”

“You went to Portsmouth University, but you addressed the Cambridge Union last year,” I said, “proposing a motion that The end is nigh.”

“They just saw something on YouTube and asked me,” said Joe.

“So when are you going to become Prime Minister?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m going to be Prime Minister,” said Joe, “because I don’t think I know what I’m doing and I don’t think I know what I believe.”

“Surely that is a pre-requisite for the job?” I suggested.

“If you listen to the CDs,” said Joe, “a lot of it is about me not really knowing what I’m talking about. But, even though I don’t know what I think, the shows themselves have a viewpoint. Those two shows have quite clear messages.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“The 2016 show 10 Things I Hate about UKIP was not really about UKIP. It was saying that the only hope for the world is the political Left but the political Left are useless, so there is no hope. For a long time, I felt like a good person because I was Left Wing and that is one way to make yourself feel good about yourself. It was about having a crisis of belief.

“And the show this year – I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative – is spelled out quite explicitly at the end. It is about how we sneer at young people for being naive but what we need in the world is naive hopefulness and what is holding us back is older people thinking: We should just give up. It doesn’t matter. It really was about me feeling completely… It kind of came about when I was writing lots of bits of material that contradicted themselves politically and had very different tones.

“Some were saying: I think we should change things and make a better world. And other stuff was: Everything is fucked and it’s awful and we should give up. And then other bits were… not Right Wing but I suppose more critical of the Left. The premise of the show is it starts as a children’s story, getting older as I go through. So I can put the more hopeful bits at the beginning and, as I get older, I can more and more sell out and become more Right Wing.”

“You imply,” I said to Joe, “that you are deeply cynical and say you don’t know what you are talking about. So you really should be in politics proper.”

“I’m from a relatively middle class background. My father was a Probation Officer. I wasn’t growing up in poverty. But you go to the Cambridge Union and I’m aware of every bit of my accent and aware of everything I say differently and it’s a very elitist thing there; a kind of feeling you get: Oh, I don’t belong here at all.

“Why are you doing political shows if you’re not really that interested in being a politician?”

“I think my aims in comedy when I started were very different to what they are now. When I started, I was very much someone who wanted to bring about a Socialist world and I saw comedy as way to rally the troops.

“Now I don’t know. I feel very uncertain about where I stand on things. I suppose I want to make people feel less entrenched and make them question things. Often people say that and what they are actually saying is Be more sympathetic to very very Right Wing racists or whatever. I am NOT saying that. I don’t think that. I just don’t understand how people are not as confused and uncertain as I am. I think people can’t really be as sure about things.

“I think it is all about values. The reason why I’m still broadly on the Left is because my core values are that I think we should be nice to people, we should share things, forgive people if they make mistakes. But I think often the Left doesn’t value competence.”

“This is going to be quoted,” I said. “Is that OK?”

“Yeah. Yeah. The values of what the Left are trying to achieve I really support. I want a world where people share things and we don’t have people who are homeless. But often the Left doesn’t seem to think through how these things are going to work. The practicalities of how to bring it about.”

“So are you,” I asked, “now stuck in a comedic cul-de-sac where you have to ‘do’ politics? You can’t suddenly start doing surreal comedy routines about giraffes mating with albatrosses.”

“I think my next show may be going away from politics completely.”

“Towards?” I asked.

“I found out recently that, when I was a teenager, there was talk about me being autistic and I’m looking into that more. I didn’t know about it. So I’m doing a show about that in 2019. I am going to take a year off from the Edinburgh Fringe so I can be lazy about writing it. I want to write a good show about being an outsider.

Touch and Go Joe, about OCD, written by Joe when he was 15

“As a teenager, I loved Marilyn Manson in a very obsessive way. I think I saw him as an outsider and that’s what I felt like at school. Growing up, I had OCD and I was a very big music fan but the OCD made it very difficult for me to go to CD shops and flick through all the CDs.”

“Why?” I asked.

“My OCD was around tapping things in sequence. So, if I touched a new thing, I had to tap it in a long sequence. It’s hard to flip through CDs because you touch loads of things. There is a complicated thought process behind it, but it made sense to the OCD.”

“Have you embraced MP4s?” I asked.

“I have got Spotify because it makes train journeys go easier, but I just like CDs. I like having the sleeve notes and the pictures…”

“Have you had interest in your comedy work from TV and radio?”

“I’ve done bits and pieces. I did some writing for Have I Got News For You. A producer came to see my show last year. and liked it But I find writing jokey-jokes for other people sometimes a bit tricky. My own stuff I always start with an opinion on something and work up from that and that doesn’t always lead on to neat jokes.”

“And you opened for Frankie Boyle,” I said.

“Yes, he contacted me through Twitter. I think he heard me on a podcast. I did a couple of shows with him at Leicester Square two years ago and then last year a longer run at the Pleasance in Islington and a few dates in the Spring. It means a lot when it’s a comic that you like.”

“Have you a 5-year game plan?” I asked.

“No,” said Joe. “Not at all.”

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