Category Archives: Creativity

Why you should always seek out and watch really bad live comedy shows

“Saw my first really terrible show yesterday. What a relief after so much brilliance.”

That is what Claire Smith, esteemed comedy critic and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge, posted on her Facebook page this morning.

She is at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As a result, I really want to see that show if it ever plays London.

You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

If you are interested in the creative process, which I am, then to see what does NOT work in a show is far more educational and interesting than to see something with no flaws which just flows.

I seldom seek out long-established, very successful acts because what is the point of being entertained by a well-oiled, flawless piece of work which can be – and is – repeated perfectly night after night, performance after performance?

Uniformity is the enemy of originality.

So I prefer to see newish acts (but with some experience) which are still developing as well as good acts which are very professional but are not yet famous in a general everyone-in-the-queue-at-the-bus-stop-knows-them way. 

When success hits, acts do not need to have gone for the lowest common denominator. But they need to have found some common denominator of some kind which will appeal to a mass audience.

So, to an extent, there is a smoothing-over, blandifying factor involved.

If you see a very good, solid, professional act who has NOT yet had mainstream success, there is probably some interesting edge which has not yet been knocked off. 

And acts with enough experience to be watchable but which can still be variable and unpredictable (because they are still trying out new ideas and approaches) will have multiple jagged edges some of which may or may not work or which may half-work.

Sometimes, a show is bad because a good performer has had the balls to try out something truly original which does not quite (yet) work.

If you watch a truly truly bad show (and they are as rare as a police station without corruption) you can learn.

I have no urge (and no ability) to be a comedy performer, but the creation of the on-stage character and the performance interests me and – to repeat in a sledgehammer way a previous sentence – You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

Don’t bother telling me that posting this blog was a mistake.

It is too obvious a punchline.

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People are hypnotised by complexity and they confuse novelty with creativity

Dave Trott

Dave Trott gave his lecture today at the LSE

Stealing ideas is not always necessarily wrong.

Well, not stealing exactly. More like borrowing.

While giving credit where credit is due.

Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Which is my lead-in to quoting part of the fascinating lecture I attended today at the London School of Economics.

The lecture was titled One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking and was given by advertising man Dave Trott, who co-founded three major ad agencies – Gold Greenlees Trott, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott and Walsh Trott Chick Smith.

He was part of the creative team behind the ads Allo Tosh, Got a Toshiba?… Holsten Pils refreshes the parts other beers can not reach… Ariston and on and on… and the Cadbury Flake ads.

I can do no better that quote his introduction to the lecture.


What I’m going to talk about is specifically creativity in advertising, but it’s creativity which works wherever you find it. Edward de Bono, the man who invented lateral thinking, said: There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.

Real creativity isn’t what you call creativity. Real creativity isn’t in art galleries. Real creativity isn’t in design museums or copywriters or what they call creative departments. Real creativity is a function of how you do your job in a surprising manner. Real creativity looks really obvious after you see it, but you couldn’t see it coming beforehand; you couldn’t get there logically.

As Edward De Bono said: Most people can’t tell the difference between style and creativity…

What’s happened to British creativity is it’s become hypnotised by complexity. Everybody’s confusing novelty with creativity.

If it’s new – if it’s a new app, if it’s a new piece of technology, a new piece of kit, a new way of doing animation – it must be creative. 

Well, no, usually it isn’t. That’s shopping, That’s fashion. That’s not creativity.

Creativity is looking at something everybody else has looked at and seeing something nobody else has seen. I saw it described as:

A talent can hit a target that everybody else can see. Genius can hit a target no-one else can see.


413FmdXiWtL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Dave Trott was giving the lecture to publicise his new book One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking.

I do not know Dave Trott.

I have not read his book.

But, on the basis of his lecture today, I suspect it is exceptional.

He also writes a blog.

There’s a lot of that about.

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Filed under Ad industry, Creativity

More advice to performers and other creative people and some plagiarism

SlaughterhouseFive-still

I stole the title of this blog: SO IT GOES.

Someone sent me a Facebook message this morning asking: “Is the origin of So It Goes down to Kurt Vonnegut? Or is it a reference to something wider?”

I told him it is solely down to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and my inherent nihilism.

He told me: “I read Slaughterhouse-Five recently and it just looked like something plugging your blog.”

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – the refrain So it goes appears 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five.

In yesterday’s blog, I stole another idea.

I wrote: Realise that no-one KNOWS anything.

This is actually a variation on William Goldman’s refrain “Nobody knows anything” – a refrain which Wikipedia correctly says “is repeated throughout” Goldman’s iconic book Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I often rattled on about it in much earlier previous blogs. It is often mis-emphasised as meaning everyone is ignorant – Nobody knows ANYTHING. But, in fact, it means Nobody KNOWS anything for sure in the creative process.

However experienced, intelligent and brilliant someone is, nobody knows for sure what will be a commercial – or even an ultimately critical – success.

When Michael Cimino was making his movie Heaven’s Gate, everyone assumed it would be a box-office success. It had all the ingredients for mega-success. But it was a disaster. It pretty much financially destroyed United Artists.

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – it cost $44 million to make and got back $3.5 million at the box office.

When Kevin Costner was making Dances With Wolves ten years later, it was nicknamed Kevin’s Gate in Hollywood, because it was clearly a vanity project with no hope of commercial success – it was, for godsake, mostly in the Native American Lakota language.

It was a big critical and box office success. It cost $22 million to create and took $424.2 million at the box office.

The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring with inexperienced actors, producers, writers and directors and was shot shoddily. It was a vast financial success. It cost $22,500 to make and took $248.6 million at the box office.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

It’s a Wonderful Life – now usually high up any Best Movie Ever Made list when voted for by the public – was pretty-much director Frank Capra’s only critical and box office failure.

J.K.Rowling hawked the idea for her Harry Potter books round every big-time publisher in London and was turned down by them all. Quite rightly. No modern teenage boy (and certainly no teenage girl) is ever going to buy one book – let alone seven – about some nerdy suburban boy going to a witches and wizards school. And, if you think any adult would buy even one copy, you are out of your mind.

My point being: Nobody KNOWS anything.

My point being: Creating a work of art is not a science. The clue is in the name. It is an art.

My point being: Nobody can know for sure what will be a success critically or commercially – Not now. Not in the future.

Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, because everyone thought his paintings were crap.

Of course, in his case, they were and are crap.

But that’s only my opinion.

Which, as you may have noticed, is my point.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

Because there are no rules. Only taste. Which is personal. And which can and does change from generation to generation.

My point being… exactly the same as it was in yesterday’s blog.

Do what you think is right.

And tell everyone else to fuck off.

If you take my advice, though, remember…

Nobody KNOWS anything.

That might include me.

It might include you.

You can’t be sure.

You just have to go with your gut instinct and keep calm and carry on.

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Mad inventor John Ward, creator of comedy awards + friend of hungry birds

John Ward’s sonic attack bottle

On my way back down from Scotland to London, I stopped off in Lincolnshire to see mad inventor John Ward, who designed and made the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards for me. We went into his back garden and there were two long bamboo canes sticking out of the grass, with large, upside-down plastic bottles on them.

“What on earth are the bottles for?” I asked.

“Moles,” he said starkly. “We had three moles digging up our lawn earlier this week. If you put a stick or a cane with an empty plastic pop bottle in the grass where the mole’s dug, then the wind rattles the bottle. Moles are blind, but their hearing is phenomenally sensitive, so it buggers up their ears. We had three moles earlier this week. I put those two bottles up the other night and we haven’t seen them again.

“You can buy expensive, sophisticated sonic devices to deter moles, but an empty plastic Coca Cola bottle stuck upside down on a garden cane is cheaper and just the same.”

We were really in John’s back garden, though, to see his new bird table, a large metal structure with holes in it.

“What’s it made from?” I asked.

John Ward’s bird table has radar and a Dalek sink plunger

“It’s the interior of a central heating oil tank,” John told me. “We couldn’t put oil in it any more because it had cracks and splits. It was going to be dumped, but I was in my re-cycling mode, so I looked at it and thought it would make a bird table.

“We’ve had schoolkids come along and sketch it for their art class because – well – it’s something different, I suppose. Drawing farmhouses, rivers and trees must pale after a while. And we had a couple come through on a tandem: I say, the man said, do you mind if we come through and take a photograph of your bird table? Then the Daily Mail came along to take a picture of it and then there was Rory, the man from the Discovery Channel.

“The first version I built was smaller scale and when the wind hit it, over it went. So this one has large holes in and instead of acting as a wind break it becomes, in effect, a sieve. The wind zaps through the holes and stabilises it.”

John used to call himself a “junkist” – because he makes things from junk.

“When people talk about re-cycling,” he explains, “they usually think of something ornamental – something you re-paint and stick in an art exhibition. I like to think of more practical things.”

Bird table with cat-scaring holes and interior restaurant area

“Do the birds like your bird table?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “we’ve had 18 birds in it pecking away at same time and, when that happened, there were about 7 or 8 others on top waiting to get inside.”

“And your cat?” I asked. “What does your cat think of the bird table?”

“Can’t get up to it,” he said. “It has smooth legs.”

“The cat?”

“The bird table. Nothing to grip on to. Our cat leaps up in the air but can’t get in. And, normally, in a rural area like this, rats would go up and in and help themselves to the food too. But, with this thing, underneath, it’s perfectly smooth and flat, so they have nothing to grip on to.”

“Why doesn’t the cat just leap in the air and jump onto the platform?” I asked.

“The holes put it off,” John told me. “The cat jumps up, its paw stretches out, but the birds fly off or just sit and look, laughing at the cat. It’s like Sylvester and Tweety. And the cat’s getting a bit old plus it’s heavier than what it was. It jumps up and plops down with a frustrated, slightly angry look on its face. You’ve not seen my World War Two landing strip, have you?”

John Ward’s World War Two bird landing strip (with bath)

“Not that I remember,” I said, “and I would probably have remembered if I had.”

“I’ll get the key and show you,” he said. “It’s in the shed.”

“I like cats,” I said.

“The cat’s not in the shed,” John said.

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Filed under Birds, Creativity, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Inventions, Lateral thinking

In Sohemia: God bless the onion-like layers of the English class system

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I once interviewed Nigel Kneale, author of the still extraordinarily excellent BBC TV series Quatermass and The Pit.

He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.

I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.

There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.

I exaggerate, of course.

But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.

This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.

Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.

Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?

And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.

Author Andrew Barrow was talking to the Sohemian Society (which is open to all – anyone can wander along) about his book Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story

It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.

In The QueueJonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.

Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.

Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.

When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”

The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.

The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.

That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.

Not your normal novel, then.

Though very English.

Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.

Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.

But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.

It can happen to anyone.

Ars longa. Vita brevis.

The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.

Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.

And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.

He admits he was awful.

But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.

He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.

He introduced the legendary Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Hugh Massingberd to Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

He has lived.

Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.

The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.

To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”

Amen.

God bless Englishness.

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