Yesterday, on his way back home to London from Leicestershire, where he had been writing scripts with comedian Boothby Graffoe, surrealist comic Martin Soan stopped off for a meal with me and my eternally-un-named friend at my home in Borehamwood.
“What was that kitchen set you built for Boothby at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago?” I asked.
“You know what it was,” Martin said.
“I never saw it,” I replied.
“That was my biggest prop ever!” Martin said. “The idea was that it was a whole kitchen including a Welsh dresser with plates, a washing machine, fridge, double freezer, table, pictures on the wall and bookshelves.
“Boothby did a load of sight gags around the kitchen and, at the penultimate moment of the show, he put some washing in the washing machine – a real one – and says, Look after it and he goes through the door and the washing machine is left alone on stage.
“The washing machine goes whiiiirrrr… Silence… Then whiiiirrrr… Silence… Just the washing machine on stage doing this… and I had programmed it so that, on the third one, it goes into this spin… Whiiiirrrrrrrrrr… and I had upset the balancing of the machine so it gets a lot of vibration and wobble on it and the whole kitchen set starts vibrating and, slowly, things start falling off: the oven walks out and explodes, the fridge falls down in bits, the Welsh dresser’s shelves all drop at a special angle so the plates run off like a pinball machine and it all falls apart in a spectacular and stylistic way.”
“And what were you writing with Boothby yesterday and today?” I asked.
“Basically, the return of The Greatest Show on Legs to the Edinburgh Fringe in August with their new show,” he replied, “which is a deconstruction of the Legs, basically.”
“What’s a deconstruction?” I asked.
“Deconstruction means taking it apart and building it up again,” explained Martin.
“And how are you going to do that?”
“We don’t do it. It’s just what we tell people. Then we do the same old shit and everyone thinks we’ve re-invented ourselves.”
“You do other writing work with Boothby, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yup,” Martin said. “He’s a great gag/punchline man and I’m good at creating scenarios and situations. What a lot of people don’t realise about Boothby is he’s a great physical actor: a great clown, great at being stupid. Most people think of him as being a rather cerebral comic on the surreal/intellectual side of things. They don’t realise he’s a great prat-faller and he does that for me and I think he really enjoys it. When I’m writing with him, I’m falling about laughing, because he’s a genius.”
“And you’re a bird watcher,” I said.
“A lot of comedians are ‘twitchers’,” Martin replied. “When I was a kid, I studied my Observer Book of Birds every night before I went to bed. When I was eight years old, I became a member of the XYZ Club.”
“The XYZ Club?” I asked.
“Exceptional Young Zoologists,” Martin explained. “It involved taking a keen interest in animals and birds and their welfare and, when I was eight years old, I was involved in the ecological side of the balance of nature. For my efforts, I received a monthly periodical called Animals and twelve free tickets to the London Zoo which, even in those days, was well worth getting.”
“What’s your favourite bird?” I asked.
“Probably the mistletoe thrush.”
“Why would that be?”
“Because,” he said, “I have a great fondness of them, being a London EastEnder. It was probably the most exotic type bird that I regularly saw.”
“You saw it in Forest Gate?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “Surely it was all sparrows in the East End?”
“I was tremendously fond of sparrows and starlings and skylarks,” he said, “And thrushes, bullfinches and tits – They were all common in the East End at that time.
“Lots of tits in the East End?” I asked.
“Lots of tits in the East End, yeah. We used to get coal tits but no marsh tits and no long-tailed tits.”
“Cold tits?” I asked.
“There are about six tits,” said Martin. “There’s a blue tit, great tit, marsh tit, coal tit and long-tailed tit. I think there might be a bearded tit, too, but I might be getting mixed up with a circus act.”
“You were telling me that,” I said, “this time of year, you get depressed because you have to build all sorts of sexual props for other acts.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “stand-up comedians going up to the Edinburgh Fringe want to do a new show and sometimes they either think of slide shows or some sort of sexually-orientated genitalia props – usually mammoth-sized. In the past, I have had to make a woman’s genitalia six-feet high – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing… it actually talked. I built it so it talked like a mouth. I looked at millions of women’s genitalia to get it anatomically correct, but I decided there were no two anywhere that were similar.”
“This was research you had to do?” my eternally-un-named friend asked, “on the internet? Or you actually had to go and find…”
“No I did not,” Martin interrupted. “I did not go round asking people like you: Can I have a look at your cervix for someone else’s comedy show?”
“Which internet pages did you look at?” I asked. “I think we should see.”
“No,” said Martin, “I don’t want to look again because, in the end, they all start to look like aliens. You start having dreams about them.”
“I know,” I said. “Are you doing any of those sort of props this year?”
“Yes,” said Martin. “I’m doing one for an act that I really do like: Bridget Christie. I’m making a birth canal for her.”
“But you’re not using any for your own Greatest Show on Legs performances at the Fringe…”
“Oh, well,” he replied, “I’m using loads of proper ‘prop’ props. I’m going to have Bob Slayer come on with an enormous pair of maracas and, of course, one of them explodes.”
“Of course,” I said supportively.
“And I’m going to have a proper hospital drip,” Martin continued, “on wheels so we can move it around.”
“Why do people approach you to make props for them?” I asked.
“Because I’m so cheap!” said Martin. “And because I specialise in low-tech props.”
“Innovative,” my eternally-un-named friend interjected,” with materials that are easily acquired.”
“Yeah,” said Martin. “So, if it goes wrong, they can very easily…”
“Like the Red Sparrows on sticks,” my eternally-un-named friend interrupted.
“Yeah,” said Martin. “You got it. And I’m beginning to familiarise myself again with latex.”
Martin paused and looked at me.
“When you write this as a blog, John I expect you to use a little grace,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” I replied.
“At least modify my foul mouth,” he replied. “There was one blog you wrote about me where I was saying Oh, for fuck’s sake fucksake, John, don’t you fuckin… ‘ave you fucking ‘eard of… I mean,” he said, turning to my eternally-un-named friend, “I’m drunk and telling a mate a story and he copies it all down and leaves all the fucks in! He could have quoted me as saying, My goodness, my good man, why I do believe it once happened that... But some of your blogs are funny, John. That one about the mice and Lewis Schaffer…”
There was a suspiciously long pause and then Martin looked me in the eye and said: “You known I had a relationship with a mouse?”
“You see,” I told him. “Lines like that, Martin, are ideal for blogs.”
“It was driving me mad,” he continued, “and I was very cruel to this mouse.”
“You were?” I asked.
“I was,” he replied, “and then I felt sorry for it.”
“How were you cruel to the mouse?” I asked.
“It had made an actual mouse hole,” he explained, “like a Tom & Jerry mouse hole. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a hole and it was very Tom & Jerry and it was in the wainscoting.
“So I set up this very elaborate little crossbow pointing at the mouse hole, triggered by a hair. And, when the mouse came out to get this little bit of cheese, it set off this hair-triggered crossbow which was rubber band powered. The ‘arrow’ was a match with a little pin stuck in the end and it just shot it towards the mouse hole.
“I fucking pinned the mouse! I got it! I killed the fucking mouse! I was so shocked I was immediately full of remorse. But I skewered him. I pinned him. I got the mouse. I killed the bloody mouse. And it made me feel really guilty.”
“Imagine how the mouse felt,” I said.
“I killed a mouse!” said Martin, looking simultaneously glum and triumphant.