Category Archives: Books

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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The Edinburgh Fringe, Indonesian film, children’s book and crime quadrilogy…

Dyslexic but hectic writer: the four Cook books

Despite the imminent start of the Edinburgh Fringe, non-comic creative endeavours continue in Edinburgh and elsewhere.

I have blogged about Jason Cook before. If he were turned into a pill, cocaine and speed would seem like sleeping tablets.

Despite being dyslexic, his fourth crime novel is about to be published. He has a new children’s book out. Pre-production goes ahead on a feature film. And he is involved in another feature film which is currently shooting in Scotland.

“You are an Associate Producer on this film that’s shooting in Edinburgh,” I said.

“Yes it’s not my film but I am supporting them. They’re an Indonesian film company. I’ve worked closely with the producer on other projects before in Oxford and London. This one is a love story about an Indonesian man and woman who fall in love in Scotland. We’re shooting iconic places around Edinburgh now – the first week of the Fringe – with a crew of 21 from Indonesia.”

“And you have a fourth novel coming out.”

“Yes. On August 12th. Cocaine: The Devil’s Dandruff, the fourth and final instalment of my quadrilogy about The Cookster, – a young boy gets sucked into the underworld and gets pushed around like a chess piece in an international smuggling ring.”

“The title of the film of the first book was going to be The Devil’s Dandruff,” I said.

“Yes. The first film will have a different name now. The working title is The Devil’s Dandruff.”

Jason’s children’s book – Rats In Space

“My head hurts,” I said. “Your children’s book Rats in Space. That’s a planned film, too.”

“Yes. We’ve just had an animatic done for the Rats in Space film – first draft drawings of the scenes. We’re working with King Bee Animations at Elstree Studios.”

“Are you appearing in the Indonesian film?” I asked.

“I auditioned for the part of a pervert, so maybe. Did anything come of your appearance in Ariane Sheine’s music video?”

“No,” I laughed, “It was rather overtaken by political events at the General Election. I had hoped that it might be my entrée into the glamorous world of well-paid porn – perhaps granddad porn – but sadly not. I am not an actor. Any tips?”

“When I was young,” he told me, “I fancied being an actor. I was at a nightclub and I was approached by an agent who told me: You’ve got the look we’re looking for. Would you mind coming down for an audition? I thought it would be interesting to be an actor.

“I went down to a dress rehearsal in Camden Town so the director could meet me and take some trial shots. I went through reception and into the office studio.

Jason – Could he have had a big ginger part in Hollywood?

OK Jason, I was told, take your clothes off and we’ll get things ready for you. There was lots of clothing lying around. I wondered which costume I would be in. So I took my clothes off down to my pants and I was given a dressing gown. The director came through, shook my hand and said: Thanks for coming down. Come through and meet the crew and actresses.

“I thought: OK. Great. This is all good.

You can take your robe off now, he told me, and your pants.

“I said: Sorry??

“We walked through curtains and there was a set with three naked girls on a bed and all the crew were there, including a woman spraying water on the girls.

“The director said: OK, you can get on the bed. 

“To be honest, I was a bit nervous. I said: What sort of film is this?

It’s a porn film, of course, said the director.

“I said: I didn’t know it was a porn film. I thought I was going to be an actor.

Determined Jason Cook did make it into the film industry

You WILL be an actor, he said. You’re going to be the first ginger porn star and you’re going to be in Hollywood. It’s called Ginger Cocks Does Blondielocks. You will be the first ginger porn star and you’ll be absolutely massive in America. It’s the ginger porn version of Goldilocks & The Three Bears – Ginger Cocks Does Blondielocks.

I came out thinking: Hang on, I want to be in the film industry, but not that way!”

“Indonesia is the future,” I said.

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How to mess up an Edinburgh Fringe comedy script and lose one review star

The Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published tomorrow – almost two months before the world’s biggest arts festival actually starts.

So here is my two happence on why some comedy shows will fail or will lose at least one star in reviews.

Performers have to think up their show title in around February, usually well before they have written the show and often before they have developed any ideas they have.

During the much-later writing process, they then discover what their show is actually about. This is often barely relevant to the show title.

And, even if they think they know what their show is about when they start writing, it may turn into something totally different by the time they are finished – and even further-removed from the title which they are now (because of unnecessarily-early Fringe Office deadlines) stuck with.

If they are sensible, they will preview the show a good few times in front of genuine audiences (ie NOT their friends) to see where the laughs really are. These laughter-points may be totally different to what they assumed. And the audience may be uninterested or extremely interested in parts of the show unforeseen by the performer.

This is good. Dry runs of the show are good. But there is a danger.

The comedy performer will often, perhaps usually, have written the show themselves. This is good.

If they are wonderfully creative, they will have had hundreds of ideas and sidetracks swirling through their brain as they constructed the show. This is good.

They test-run the show in front of audiences to see where the laughs are so that they can adjust the structure. This is good.

But they are comedy performers. They crave laughs. They feel in their heart, mind, body and soul that, if the audience is not laughing, they are failing as performers.

Or, more to the point, they are not having their egos boosted as they constantly require.

So, after each dry-run performance, they will tweak the structure of the show so they keep in the laughy bits and cut out the non-laughy bits. In theory this is good.

But there is that fine cliché saying: You can’t see the wood for the trees.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, people choose to go to a live stage show.

The live stage show has a title. If it is a literally attractive and very specific title, it will have drawn the audience in.

If the title bears little or no relation to the content of the show, there is a high risk of confusing or alienating the audience during the performance or, at least, distracting them.

They are sitting there thinking (even if only subconsciously):

This show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA and there has been no mention of fishing or Guatemala so far. When is he/she going to mention it? Is all this stuff I am sitting through heading towards a story about a fish-based tourist trip which will pull all these funny but unconnected jokes/stories together?

The other danger is that, during the writing process, the performer has bunged-in and kept-in everything funny they can think of to get laughs. And, during the previews, he/she has kept in everything that gets laughs while removing everything that doesn’t get laughs. Including the linear narrative that holds the bleedin’ show together.

So, even if there was originally a single unifying idea to the show, it is now a mishmash of funny but unconnected and disconnecting 2-or-3 minute items swirling around uncontrolled within a 55 minute show.

If it is a pure ‘gag’ show a la Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine or Milton Jones, that works. Especially with those three, because they are brilliant, highly-experienced performers with total control of their content, linking and pacing.

But, if it is a show that supposedly has a subject and/or a show with a title that implies a subject but the subject is not constantly holding the show together or propelling it forward, then, dear performer, you are fucked with a very sharp stick indeed.

You will lose the audience’s concentration and you will lose – at the very least – one star in reviews.

Even at a late stage, though – like tomorrow, when the Fringe Programme is published – not all may be lost.

In 2005, the Scots comic Janey Godley wrote her autobiography, which I edited. She wrote every word. It was a single flowing narrative which could happily have had no division into chapters but, for ease of reading, it was broken into chapters.

I gave Janey advice and wrote the chapter titles. She wrote 100% of the text of the book.

We had both suggested titles for the book to the publishers. Some were random thoughts which might lead to other thoughts.

One of these was Handstands in the Dark because, during her very very dark childhood, Janey would do handstands, sometimes without the room light on.

The publisher liked the counterpoint of the happy handstands and the darkness of her life and insisted on Handstands in the Dark as the title. I personally think the publisher also liked it because it sounded classy and publishers are partly in business to boost their egos when they talk about their books to wanker friends at Islington dinner parties.

When, while writing the book,  Janey prepared her next Edinburgh Fringe show – which would be used partly to publicise the book and covered the same autobiographical subjects – she chose the much more commercial Good Godley! as her show title. The publisher could have used this title but had brain-freeze on Handstands in the Dark.

So, when structuring the book – which was not fully written when Handstands in the Dark was decided-on as the inevitable title – we had to bear in mind what the tenuously-relevant title of the book was.

One of my contributions as alleged editor was to get a reference to Janey doing handstands on the first page with a brief mention of why. She wrote:

“I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside-down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling…  Sometimes I would only talk upside-down. Sometimes I would talk in a code only I knew. Sometimes out in the street I would kneel down and scoop water from puddles with my hands coz I was thirsty but too scared to go home and face what was there…”

The book has 27 chapters.

The first chapter is titled THE WORLD UPSIDE-DOWN.

The penultimate chapter is titled THE HANDSTAND, implying that the book builds towards a particular handstand and there is a relevant handstand theme important to the structure and (that terrible publishers’ term) ‘story-arc’ of the book.

But the importance of the concept of handstands in a dark world is something added on top of the book. It is not what the book is about.

The book has its own terrifically strong structure of throat-gripping hook-after-hook-after-hook (all Janey’s doing, not mine), leading up to an unforeseen end.

When published, Handstands in the Dark was a top-five hardback bestseller in Scotland and a top-ten paperback bestseller in the UK. It is still in print and selling 12 years later because it is an extraordinarily well-written book (and I did not write a word of the text).

My point is that the content of the book itself is actually not defined by the title. It grew organically and brilliantly as Janey wrote it. The addition of the penultimate chapter title and the inclusion of the first-page reference were to make the irrelevant title seem relevant.

So my advice to anyone with an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show stuck with an irrelevant title is this…

Bung in a reference to the title of the show at least three, ideally five times, scattered throughout the show. This will make it seem like the title defines the show.

If your comedy stage show meanders all over the bloody place, then you are probably dead in the water, but…

In your own mind, define in one single short sentence exactly what the show actually IS supposed to be about (which may well have changed since you first thought you knew what you were going to write). And make sure that everything – EVERYTHING – in the show relates to that short single sentence concept.

It does not matter if one 2-minute section gets big laughs. If it is irrelevant, cut it. You can use it in another show.

An audience can be carried along on laughs and an idea.

But, if you have laughs and no single central idea which is developed through the show and builds to a logical, relevant climax, then (unless you really are as technically brilliant as Jimmy Carr) you are going to have a show with laughs but no actual audience involvement – you will lose the audience’s attention and emotional involvement and you will probably lose at least one less star in any review.

If your show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA then, for fucksake, at least mention fish and Guatemala.

(My apologies to anyone who actually HAS written a comedy show titled and fascinatingly about fishing in Guatemala.)

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My night with Becky Fury a few feet from where Malcolm Hardee drowned

beckyfury_grainyThere is a famous quote from Steve Jobs of Apple. He said: “Good artists copy, Great artists steal.”

Ironically, he probably actually stole this quote from T.S.Eliot, who wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Although apparently Steve Jobs thought he stole the quote from Pablo Picasso.

All this is to add intellectual credibility a.k.a. bullshit disguise to what follows.

Last Saturday night, I went to see an unadvertised comedy/music gig at the Wibbley Wobbley, a (still just about) floating former Rhine cruiser now moored at Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, by the River Thames in London.

Regular readers of this blog will realise this was where comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in January 2005 and that the Wibbley Wobbley was his floating pub/club.

I was vaguely thinking I should write a brief blog about my Saturday night visit but then, yesterday, up-standing comic Becky Fury wrote one. 

Becky won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. So I think it is only fitting I should simply steal her words. 

And here they are:

beckyfury_wibbleywobbley_nov2016

John Fleming and I went to the Wibbley Wobbley on Saturday night.

It was Malcolm Hardee’s old boat and has been squatted by an art collective. John said Malcolm only nicked cars and they’ve nicked a whole boat and that Malcolm would have approved.

The squatters had hung protest banners outside, so we took our own banner which said KNOB OUT! (one of Malcolm’s catchphrases) and hung it with the others.

The tribute banner’s initial position...

The tribute banner’s initial position aloft…

Which is the equivalent of putting flowers on your mate’s grave.

I had spray painted KNOB OUT! earlier in the day on an old bed sheet on my own boat and hung it to dry by the busy tow path in Camden.

A lot of people ushered their children past very quickly.

Those that didn’t spoke approvingly about it as a protest against Donald Trump.

Context is everything.

Back on the Wibbley Wobbley, John presented me with a copy of Malcolm’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake

The angelic Malcolm’s autobiography

It has a picture of Malcolm as a cherub or angel on the cover.

Greenland Dock is where Malcolm died. He fell in the dock and drowned – as the story goes – weighed down by pound coins ‘stolen’ from his own fruit machine and, when his body was dredged from the dock, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

So the mythos goes.

Given this back story, I thought it was a very poetic and appropriate place to be handed a copy of Malcolm’s autobiography. Especially as the front cover has a Malcolm as an angel.

John gave the squatters a copy of the book too.

I tried to stop him but he was insistent.

Becky Fury performs an adequate turn

Becky performs an adequate turn inside the Wibbley Wobbley

I performed an adequate turn. Quantities of pirate juice 1 and 2 – a dubious home brew distinguishable only by colour – were consumed and a band played some music. Me and John recorded a Grouchy Club podcast.

But the most interesting part of the night was spent. So we left to catch the last tube.

On the way to the station I needed a piss, so I popped in a nearby Weatherspoons pub.

Weatherspoons likes to commemorate local characters.

There was a picture of Malcolm with the birthday cake story underneath.

Local boy Malcolm Hardee stole Freddie Mercury’s £40,000 birthday cake. When the police raided, there was no evidence of the cake because it had been donated to a local old people’s home. 

Becky Fury with her ‘new’ Malcolm Hardee award

Becky Fury with a photo of Malcolm Hardee and a pirate flag

I told John: “There’s a picture of Malcolm Hardee on the wall. With the story about stealing Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake.”

“In the women’s toilet? he asked. “That’s appropriate.”

I spoke to my friend the street artist Stik and told him about my evening and that Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake was stolen by Malcolm Hardee.

“Can you get me a copy of the autobiography?” he asked. “And I’ll send it to Brian May. I’m sure he’d love to finally know what happened to his mate’s cake.”


I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake – the picaresque autobiography of Malcolm Hardee – is out of print but available from Amazon whose online description has, for several years, been of a completely different book. It currently continues to describe I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake thus: 

“For successful classroom teaching, your students need to be engaged and active learners. In this book, there is practical advice that is grounded in the realities of teaching in today’s classrooms on how to be an inspirational teacher and produce highly motivated students. This book contains 220 positive, practical teaching ideas that are relevant to both new and experienced classroom teachers.”

I have never attempted to correct this mis-description because, in its full, irrelevant, surreal glory, I think Malcolm would have approved.

wibbleywobbley_banner2

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The Krays’ associate Micky Fawcett has advice on how to stay healthy & fit.

Jason Cook’s movie The Devil’s Dandruff

Jason Cook’s movie – The Devil’s Dandruff

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, author and former criminal Jason Cook’s plans to film his three semi-autobiographical novels. The first in the planned trilogy – The Devil’s Dandruff – is based on his first book There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus.

The selling line of the movie is:

ONE LINE IS NEVER ENOUGH
…A THOUSAND IS TOO MANY

I had a chat this week with former Kray Twins associate Micky Fawcett. He has written arguably the definitive insight on life with the Kray Twins – Krayzy Days – but it involves much, much more than the Krays.

“So Jason sent an email asking if I would play a cameo role in his film,” he told me.

“As yourself?” I asked.

“Yeah. He sent me a couple of options – One was I could have a non-speaking part. The other was him and me sitting playing chess and I look up and see Mr Adams…”

“Mr Adams?” I said, surprised.

“That’s the words.”

“That’s not a good idea,” I suggested.

“Mr Adams might be the name of the screw,” said Micky. “I dunno. I look up and say: Looks like the game’s up, Jason.”

“Well,” I said, “it might well be.”

Then we talked about the uncertainty of film financing and other more general financing and how to recover debts.

Micky Fawcett outside the May Fair Hotel in London

Micky Fawcett outside the May Fair Hotel, London, last week

“Well, the first thing you gotta do,” said Micky, “is make sure they’ve got the money. Otherwise you’re banging your head on the wall.”

“So how did you persuade them of the error of their ways within the letter of the law?” I asked.

“Well…” said Micky.

“People will have told you their theories,” I suggested.

“Someone once told me,” said Micky, “that you can soften them up and your solicitor points out to them that they should get a solicitor. Then that other person’s solicitor gives it to your solicitor who passes it on to you. You don’t take the money direct. You would not want to be guilty of demanding money with menaces.”

“But, if you did something naughty and, coincidentally, money was transferred…”

“Well,” said Micky, “it wouldn’t be you who did anything naughty either, would it?”

“It would be an act of God, probably,” I said.

“Exactly.”

Micky is, to be honest, knocking on a bit.

“But you must still be very healthy,” I said to him, “because of all the exercise you did in your boxing days and before.”

“I used to do a lot,” Micky told me. “My exercising is very restricted now but, if I don’t do it, I start fretting. Valentine’s Park in Ilford has got all the equipment in it. I’m a big fan of walking as well.”

“I never owned a car until quite late on,” I said, “and I don’t have one now.”

“I am,” said Micky, “pleased with the fact I was disqualified from driving a few times. I used to just walk everywhere. I have had motor cars and I also like driving but now I don’t drive if I can help it.”

“When I was a student,” I said, “I used to live in a bedsit in Hampstead and sometimes walk down to the college in Regent Street – it was lovely – about 45 minutes walk. Swiss Cottage, Primrose Hill, Regents Park. A nice walk. Now I’m trying to slim. But I put on 5 lbs last week.”

“Walking is good,” agreed Micky.

“How are film plans going for your own Krayzy Days?” I asked.

“That’s another story,” said Micky.

Krayzy Days – remembered as they were

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Plot structure in movies and novels

cropped-pencil2.jpgI was talking to someone about plot structure this morning.

You are right. What do I know?

But that has never stopped me before.

Years ago, I read an excellent description of that awful phrase ‘the story arc’ for a movie. Which was that, at the start, there is an unresolved problem. The climax of the film is the resolution of that problem. And the core of the film is the unravelling or further complication of the problem.

Novels which sell well would, obviously share that basic structure though, with what is called ‘literary fiction’, it can be replaced by an immense amount of waffling around with polysyllabic words not getting anywhere except possibly a Booker Prize nomination.

DieHard_posterThe other thing I have heard which is, I think, valuable is that the best movies set up the central characters and the main plot elements within the first two minutes.

The best example I have ever seen of that is the original Die Hard movie where, under the opening credits, all the main characters and their back stories are set up as well as the unresolved marital problem and the elements for the main action plot.

But, as I say, what do I know?

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Comedy legend John Dowie: changed by Spike Milligan’s Bed-Sitting Room

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie is difficult to describe. Wikipedia’s current attempt is: “a British comedian, musician and writer. He began performing stand-up comedy in 1969.”

His own website describes him as: “Not working. Not writing. Not performing. Not Twittering. Not on Facebook. Not on Radio. Not on TV. Not doing game shows, chat shows, list shows, grumpy-old whatever shows. Not doing quiz shows. Not doing adverts. Not doing voice-overs for insurance companies/banks/supermarkets/dodgy yogurts.”

The synopsis of his up-coming autobiography starts: “If you’re thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian (and who isn’t?) then here’s some advice: don’t start doing it in 1972. I did, and it was a mistake.”

I know John Dowie because he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the 2003 anthology of comedians’ (often dark) short stories which I edited with the late Malcolm Hardee.

The book that was not suspended

A foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb

John’s was the story of a Northern comedian who has a foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb. The Daily Mirror called it: “a wrist-slashingly brutal account of a Bernard Manning-esque comic who plans blood-thirsty revenge. Disturbing? Very.” The Chortle website called it a “breathlessly entertaining yarn”.

Now he is crowdfunding his new book The Freewheeling John Dowie.

“How long are you crowdfunding for?” I asked him.

“They reckon the average book takes about six weeks or two months.”

“Have you started writing it?”

“I’ve already written it!”

“So the crowdfunding is just for the physical creation of it?”

“Yes, you have to reach a funding target for the printing process to begin.”

“So what have you been doing,” I asked, “since the triumph that was Sit-Down Comedy?”

“I have been riding my bicycle.”

“Where?”

“France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Ireland which is horrible, Wales, up and down England.”

“I like Ireland,” I said.

“Bad roads,” said John Dowie.

“And you are publishing your autobiography by crowdfunding…?”

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunder

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunding and bicycling

“Well, it’s not actually an autobiography,” John corrected me. “It’s like an autobiography, but with the boring bits cut out. There is no stuff like Birmingham is an industrial town in the heart of the Midlands. It’s got autobiographical elements. But, if you are a nobody such as I, then the only way you can tell a story about yourself is if it is a story that stands in its own right.”

“So how do you want The Freewheeling John Dowie described?” I asked. “A bicycling autobiography?”

“Yeah,” said John. “Well, if you ride a bike and you’re in a quiet piece of the world, what do you do? Your mind is free to wander and, as it wanders, you find yourself going from place to place in your mind that you were not expecting to go.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to write your autobiography now?”

“I’m 65 and I’ve been retired for 15 years,” explained John. “And, if you’re 65, you’re fucked. So I thought: If I’m fucked, I’d better spend my time working because I’m of more use as a fucked-up performer than I am as a fucked-up retiree.”

“You were born in 1950?” I asked.

“Yes. Just in time to miss Elvis Presley and just in time to get the Beatles.”

“Did you approach a ‘proper’ publisher for the book?” I asked.

“No… Well, I think Unbound are more proper than publishers, because they care about the things they make. A friend of mine has a client who’s a comedian who went to a voice-over studio to record her book and was regaled by the engineers with all the comedians who came in to read the books they ‘wrote’ but had never even read yet – and finding mistakes in their own books – Ooh! My mother isn’t called Dorothy! Those are books done by ‘proper’ publishers.”

John Dowie - a living legend from the early alternate days

John Dowie – a living legend from the early alternate days

“Is there what they call a ‘narrative arc’ in your cycling autobiography?” I asked.

“Well, it begins and ends with a Spike Milligan story.”

“I met him once,” I said. “I think he must have got out of the wrong side of the bed that day.”

“I think,” John said, “that he got more crotchety as he got older. When I met him, he was very decent to me. I was hanging around backstage after one of his shows. He was touring a play which he wrote with John AntrobusThe Bed-Sitting Room. People talk about taking LSD for the first time and how it changed their life. Watching The Bed-Sitting Room changed my life. It was like a door had opened.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I had not experienced anything like it before. Live comedy. I was 15 or 16.”

“So you didn’t know what you wanted to be?”

“No.”

“And you decided to be Spike Milligan?”

“Yeah. That’s more or less it, yeah. I became Spike Milligan for a period. Apart from the talented bits, obviously.”

“What happened when you stopped being Spike Milligan?”

“I got my friends back.”

“Why? Because you were rude as Spike Milligan?”

“No. Just not funny.”

An early John Dowie album by the young tearaway

Naked Noolies and I Don’t Want To Be Your Amputee

“And then, I said, “you became one of the living legends of the original Alternative Comedy circuit.”

“Well,” said John, “I’m living. That’s halfway there.”

“But you are,” I said, “one of the originators of Alternative Comedy.”

“I don’t think so,” said John. “I don’t think I’m one of them and it’s not as if it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there. I was coincidental more than anything. It wasn’t as if anybody saw me and thought: Oh, let’s start a movement. I considered myself to be in the same field as Ivor Cutler and Ron Geesin.”

“Wow!” I said. “Ron Geesin! I had forgotten him!”

“Yes,” said John. “He was great. He was a John Peel discovery. Ron played Mother’s Club in Birmingham where John Peel’s Birmingham audience used to go religiously to see the acts John Peel played on the radio. Ron Geesin came on and did his first number on the piano and the place went fucking barmy and Ron Geesin said to the audience: Listen, nobody is THAT good.”

Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

AOK Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

At this point, farteur Mr Methane, who was sitting with us, piped up: “Weren’t you involved with Tony Wilson years ago?” he asked. “On Factory Records.”

“Yeah,” said John. “The first one. The first Factory Records release. FAC- 2… FAC- 1 was the poster. I was on the same record as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and the Durutti Column. It was a double EP.”

“Ah!” I said.

Then he said to me: “It’s all very good if you know everything about comedy, John, but, if you don’t know about pop music…”

“Why should people crowdfund your autobiography?” I asked.

“Because I’m fuckin’ fantastic,” he replied.

I tend to agree.

If you want to crowd fund the book: https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-freewheeling-john-dowie

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