Last month, I was interviewed by Dr Maria Kempinska, founder of the Jongleurs comedy club circuit, who was awarded an MBE for her contribution to British comedy. She is now a psychotherapist. I talked to her for Your Mind Matters, her series of hour-long chats on the Women’s Radio Station. This is a brief extract of what I said.
… Performing comedy is a bit like performing magic. It’s all to do with misdirection. In magic, you’re looking at the wrong place when, suddenly, something happens somewhere where you are not looking.
In comedy, you have the audience going along a storyline – even if it’s just a short storyline for a gag.
You have the audience going along a storyline for a gag. They’re looking in one direction. They know what’s coming next… they know what’s coming next… they know what’s coming next… and then suddenly, out of left field, from nowhere, comes the punchline… and they react to that in shock.
It’s like a big AAAAARRRRGGGHHHHH!!! But, instead of gasping, they go: “Ahahahahaha!” and laughter is a sort of release of tension. It’s a reaction to something unexpected that happens…
The real cover of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Programme
“It’s such a shame I’ve got sod all to promote off the back of these videos,” Stu told me yesterday. “I have no show at the Fringe. I’m just going to be up there for a week doing open spots.”
“So why do the videos?” I asked.
“Just for fun,” he told me. “I just fancied doing the videos for a laugh. I had the Hitler video at home, just sitting waiting for something suitable and, when Cowgatehead kicked off, I thought: Perfect!”
“You are only doing open spots in Edinburgh?” I asked. “Why? Remind me who you’ve worked with.”
“The acts all got 30 seconds. For weeks and weeks, we rehearsed one of our big illusions, which normally took several minutes, down to 30 seconds and then we were told we couldn’t do it: Oh no: you’ve got to walk up and do a quick visual gag. You can’t do an illusion. We were a magic act! So we did a quick visual gag and the person who won played the piano. We were quite cross. We were not allowed to do an illusion because it had to be a visual gag, but this person could play the piano! We weren’t happy.”
“Was the magic act you and a lovely assistant?” I asked.
“We were a male double act. We did mainly comedy.”
“So why are you doing open spots in Edinburgh?” I asked.
Stu Turner: back in not quite the old routine
“I’m sort-of starting again. The double act was quite a while ago – some years ago. We almost went full-time pro. We did a bit of TV. We did shows round the country and it got quite big. We had girls – dancers, assistants – on bigger shows. We did illusions, magic, juggling unicycling, fire-eating, all sorts of stuff. We did it for a few years and it just kind of petered-out after a while. Stopped it. I got a day job.
“So I had a few years’ break, but I missed performing, got back into it three or four years ago and have sort of got back into it as a solo stand-up act and it’s very different. Rather than touring with illusions and big stuff, it’s now just me and a bag of props. Back then we were doing cabaret and theatre and big stuff; now it’s all comedy clubs. Very different to back then.
“You have to start again. You can’t go round saying: I worked with Bob Monkhouse. At the moment, I’m doing open spots on pro nights, headlining smaller nights – doing half hour closing spots on some of the smaller out-of-town clubs. There’s no rush. I’m enjoying it. Doing it for fun and working towards an hour-long show at some point. Because of the magic background, instead of just comedy clubs, I can do cabaret, theatre, burlesque, the whole range of…”
“Burlesque shows?” I asked.
“Yes. They have a variety of acts.”
“Being a magician is almost a vocation,” I said.
“It was never serious,” said Stu. “I always did it with a comedy angle. I never did the cards and the doves and the rabbits. We once almost set fire to the studio on Bob Says Opportunity Knocks.”
“This is what the public wants,” I said.
“We had,” explained Stu, “a trick which involved a box which ‘accidentally’ caught fire. We would put the fire out and produce whatever out of the box. But, for Bob Monkhouse, we thought: Let’s make this a big one… So on went the lighter fluid, a bit more, a bit more, bit more. The box catches fire. We try to put it out and the lighter fluid goes everywhere.
Jester Stu has put magic behind him
“They had just put down an expensive new studio floor and the burning lighter fluid went all round the studio floor. Luckily, they thought it was part of the act. Everyone laughed. Almost a nasty disaster. We didn’t get through.”
“What is next on the video front?” I asked. “You have done two. Rule of Three. You have to do another one.”
“I think I need to do a video after the Fringe,” said Stu. “I’m going up the middle week. I need to see how it pans out.”
The Downfall Cowgatehead parody which Stu made is on YouTube.
This week’s Edinburgh Fringe cover parody is also on YouTube.
The original, rather over-arty poem on the front of the real Edinburgh Fringe Programme reads:
This may contain material that may shock or offend,
it’s not a stunt or some attempt at a trend.
There are no rules only exceptions,
and exceptional acts challenging perceptions.
Stand-ups standing up for what they believe,
uppercuts to the upper classes, quick jabs at the masses.
Shows without boundaries or even a stage,
crossing lines, becoming headlines on the front page.
The audience can become the cast of a show,
basking unexpectedly below a spotlight’s glow.
A song may have no words or even no rhythm,
nothing is certain, nothing’s a given.
Here anything goes, anything can happen,
the greatest show on earth, entertainment heaven,
the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, defying the norm since 1947.
Stu Turner’s parody words are arguably an improvement and even more realistic:
This may contain humour that may shock or may jar,
it’s not a stunt or some attempt at PR.
There is no compromise only pure frustration,
& pissed off acts challenging no concession.
Stand-ups standing up for what they booked,
spending a fortune to attend, and now they are fooked.
Shows without venues, rooms, or even a stage,
broken promises becoming headlines, they’re all full of rage.
The audience cannot find the advertised show,
seeking unexpectedly when the venue says no.
A show may have no room nor any address,
nothing is certain, it’s all a complete mess.
Here nothing’s allowed, nothing can happen,
the greatest fool on earth, entertainment hell.
The PBH Free Fringe, being totally draconian since, well…
I was once interviewed for a researcher job on Have I Got News For You. I had been hit by a truck a short time before the interview. I was still concussed. During the interview, I accidentally hit the back of my head on the wall as I sat down. The interview did not go well. I think I may have talked gibberish. I did not get the job. I was, however, a researcher on ITV show Game For a Laugh.
“I worked with your son Martin P.Daniels when he was presenting Game For a Laugh,” I told Paul Daniels this week.
There is a YouTube clip of Martin appearing on Paul’s iconic BBC TV magic show.
“He had to be Martin P.Daniels,” Paul told me, “because there was a very old gay actor who hadn’t worked forever but he still paid his Equity subscription and, as a performer, you weren’t allowed to have the same name as someone else.”
“I notice Martin is now billed as Martin Daniels without the P,” I said. “I presume the old guy died?”
Honest Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1979
“No,” said Paul. “Equity died. They made some major mistakes. I can remember an actress suing a production company because she had got a job as one of the vestal virgins and, when she turned up to do the play, she was eight months pregnant. The director said I can’t use you and Equity went to court on her behalf. That is when I stopped paying my Equity subs. I thought: You’re just getting union silly now. I remember I once did a show for (the then Prime Minister Jim) Callaghan…”
“For why?” I asked.
“For money,” said Paul. “Why does anybody work in this business? We were in an ante-room and he asked me How’s it going? and I said Well, it’s going better for me than it is for you – It was his ‘Winter of Discontent’ – and he said Well, that’s because my government has given in to every union demand.”
“That was very honest of him,” I said, surprised.
Great orator: Margaret Thatcher
“Very honest,” agreed Paul. “But why didn’t he tell the nation? He told me: We’ve priced ourselves out of the world market. When Maggie Thatcher came along and famously stood up to the miners and unions in general, it was really easy. I admired her at the time. She was a great orator and a great controller of the crowd. She was as good as you get in showbusiness. But I was well aware that she wasn’t being The Iron Lady. We had no money, so you could demand all you liked, but nobody could give you any money because we didn’t have it. That was what broke the unions. The unions broke themselves. It happened in showbusiness with the Musicians Union. They priced themselves out of the market with silly rules. It was insanity.”
“Magic is strange…” I started to say.
“It’s supposed to be,” said Paul.
“But the strange thing,” I said, “is deciding you want to be a magician… because that means deciding you want to con people as a profession. You want to have power over people by having them misunderstand reality.”
“No, no. You don’t,” said Paul. “Magic in its proper sense is the defiance of all natural laws. What we do is not magic; it’s conjuring. We are actors playing the part of fabulous magicians: creatures of fable.”
“What is conjuring, then?” I asked. “Just fake magic?”
Paul Daniels, aged 14, three years into his magic stage career
“Yeah. Yeah. It’s magic for muggles. Why did I want to do it? Because… Well, first of all I was eleven years old when I started and I was very shy. I was VERY shy until I was 32. I was performing but, offstage I was… What is it?… It’s an awareness that you hold secrets, data that they don’t have and that you can, for moments, take them into a wonderful world where anything is possible.”
“But,” I said, “if you are a very shy 15 or 25 year old, is it also a way of being in control of a world that would otherwise control you?”
“You can do magic on yourself,” said Paul. “Of course you can. But the best fun of magic is when you’re doing it to/for/with someone else. it’s the look on their faces. Magicians’ applause is the moment of silence when the trick’s finished and the audience thinks: Wha-a-a-a-t-t?”
“So comedians,” I said, “get a kick out of audience laughter and magicians get a kick out of silence and astonished faces?”
“Yeah,” said Paul. “It’s a weird thing now. At the Balham Comedy Festival next Tuesday, I’m doing stuff with which I’m not too familiar. Some of it is new; some of it I haven’t done for a very long time and…”
“Before I started recording this chat,” I said, “you said your act in Balham involves sitting on a toilet in some way.”
“There’s an element of that involved,” said Paul.
“You said you were shy until 32?” I asked. “That is a very specific age. What happened?”
Paul & Debbie’s publicity for the Balham Comedy Festival
“I did a hen party in Essex. A man walked on dressed as a Viking and, after about ten minutes, all he had on were his furry boots and horns on his head and he’s waving his willy around and, like some people become Born Again Christians, I became a Born Again Extrovert. At that moment, I realised no matter how tall, short, fat, thin, bald or whatever I became, I could never look as bloody stupid as he did. And that was it for me. No point in being shy.”
“So you gained your self-confidence overnight?” I asked.
“Yes. I was already good at my job. But that released me. I just went for it after that.”
“Are horns and a willy-warmer going to be part of your act in Balham?” I asked.
“I can do that,” said Paul. “A friend, in fact, gave me a willy-warmer reputedly knitted by his Auntie Maureen and it had no end on it because she couldn’t quite remember how long it was supposed to be.”
“Cock of the North,” explained Paul, “was my first real award and I think that says it all,”
“What’s the greatest magic trick?” I asked.
“Well,” said Paul, “if I’m in the audience, I like to watch levitation, because it’s artistic, it’s beautiful and we’ve all dreamt about flying. But I don’t think there is one greatest of anything. Magic is like singing. It’s down to the singer. It’s down to the presenting every time. I can give you a violin and say There’s the stick and you pull it across the strings and that’s how it works. But that’s not music. I can show you how a magic trick works, but that’s not magic.”
On YouTube, there is a clip of Paul Daniels taking a leaf out of Edgar Allan Poe’s book and cutting his wife, the lovely Debbie McGee, in half with a pendulum.
Paul Daniels and the lovely Debbie McGee live by the Thames
Magician Paul Daniels performs at the Balham Comedy Festival next Tuesday. It is billed as “a show full of magic, comedy and amazement” with Paul and his wife – the lovely Debbie McGee.
“So your Balham thing involves a toilet?” I asked when we met this week.
“Oh, I’ll just wander on and have a chat,” he told me. “If I’m going to do an after dinner speech, for example, Debbie won’t let me write it, because I ad-lib better. I float free. I’m kind of a jazz comedian, a jazz magician. I don’t have a set route. I have this belief that, whatever happens, I’ll get out the other end.
“I have a sort of routine with the magic – it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. But, with the beginning and middle, I can kinda drift into stuff and I don’t mind if I’m distracted or the audience wants to know something. I’ll wander off what I’m saying, but I’ll find a way back.
“In the early days, when I played the working men’s clubs, I was winning comedy awards which is long-forgotten because, when you get to the BBC, it’s all: Oh no, you’re the magician. Jokes must be edited out.
“Of course, you always over-record a show. Louis Theroux came to interview us and stayed three months. You over-record and then edit it down. We used to over-record my TV show by about 10 minutes. But, I mean, Have I Got News For You is like a…”
“Oh God!” I said. “Don’t! I sat through one recording. It was endless. I think it took over three hours.”
“Yes. Just to find 30 minutes of something funny,” said Paul. “Which is weird, because they’ve got it all written down anyway. I mean, Punch magazine published the script once.”
“Why did you go on it?” I asked.
“Because I couldn’t figure out,” explained Paul, “why my very funny friends weren’t funny when they were on it.
“I went on and I told a good gag about Bush and Blair and the War – about having ‘wargasms’ – I said they weren’t allowed to have sex any more because of Clinton, so they had wargasms instead.
“My longest, oldest friend was sitting in the front during the recording and, when he saw the show go out, he told me: You don’t do any gags! You did loads of gags when we were there. Where were they? He was going to write and complain. He’s like that.
“I said: Oh! It’s alright… But one week later, my wargasm joke was in the show told by the presenter (Angus Deayton).”
In 1942, screenwriter and science fiction author Leigh Brackettwrote that what seems witchcraft to the ignorant is simple science to the learned. In 1962, this was re-phrased by science fiction author Arthur C Clarkeinto his Third Law of Prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
The Chinese ambassador’s wife (left) and Professor Ke (right)
A couple of nights ago, I went along to the official opening by the Chinese ambassador’s wife Madame Pinghua Hu of the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site in Highgate, north London.
In 1991, I was hit by the sharp edge of an articulated truck while standing on a pavement in Borehamwood. I blogged about it in 2011.
I was thrown backwards with a slight spin and the back of my head hit the sharp edge of a low brick wall maybe nine inches above the ground. What I did not know until much later was that my spine had been twisted and jerked when my head hit the wall. It took about nine or ten months to get over the concussion. I still have trouble reading. I still have a slight line in my head where it hit the edge of the wall. The discs at the bottom of my spine are still slightly mis-aligned and occasionally cause me extreme pain if I twist my back at certain angles. It took about eighteen months to (mostly) sort out the pain in my shoulder.
My shoulder in 1991 – the bone was pulverised in two places
In 1991/1992, I was in extreme pain from my shoulder for about 80% of my waking hours. My GP asked me what drugs I wanted for the rest of my life. Instead, I went to a Chinese doctor, knowing that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is slow because, whereas Western medicine tries to cure the symptoms, Chinese medicine tries to cure the cause.
The Chinese doctor gave me some Die Da Wan Hua Oil to rub on my shoulder and, within two weeks, my shoulder pain was gone. It has never recurred unless I put extreme pressure on the shoulder – and, even then, it is discomfort rather than pain.
The ‘miracle’ cure for my shoulder pain cannot have been psychological because it never entered my head that TCM could have a quick effect. I had thought, if it did work, it might take many months or maybe a year.
I have no idea how it worked and, surprisingly, when Madame Pinghua Hu officially opened the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site this week, she too said she had no idea how TCM worked.
Anything sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated and this ’thing’ is several thousand years old.
Professor Ke at his new Asante building in Highgate this week
The Asante is run by the Chinese doctor who helped me – Dr (now Professor) Song Xuan Ke. He started to learn his skills when, aged 13, he was apprenticed to three herbal masters in his home province of Hubei in China. He qualified in both Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine at university in Canton in 1982.
I found him in 1991 because he tended to be interviewed on ITN TV news reports whenever they referred to Chinese medicine – and because he was listed as an advisor for an Observer newspaper series on alternative medicine.
Since then, among other things, he has been providing an acupuncture service in NHS hospitals including London’s Royal Free, Whittington and North Middlesex, has been involved in TCM research programmes with various London hospitals and became president of the British Society of Chinese Medicine and vice president of Pan European Federation of TCM Societies. He is actively involved with the UK Department of Health in the process of statutory regulation of professional practice and he was a member of its Regulating Working Group.
But the reason for writing this blog is not because of the near-magical-seeming effects of some traditional Chinese medicine but because, as part of the opening of the Asante centre this week, Professor Ke booked a man called Hou De Zhang who did a face-changing (bian lian) dance as performed in traditional Sichuan Opera.
Sichuan Opera face-changing this week (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)
It seemed as magical as some Chinese medicine.
The dancer wears a face-hugging silk mask which can be changed in a split second into a totally different face-hugging silk mask. I have seen a video in which a photographer says he set his shutter speed to 1/200th of a second and could not capture the mask-changing moment.
The dancer twirls with his hands visible – or, for literally a split second, obscures his face with a fan or with the briefest of head-spins (without touching his face) and the mask changes.
At one point, Hou De Zhang shook me by the hand while his other hand was visible and, with a head shake, his face mask changed, but I did not see the point at which it changed.
Hou De Zhang performing at the new Asante
There is some sort of trigger mechanism which, I understand, can be hidden almost anywhere on the body. I reckoned it was in his hat. But it is impossible to see the point of transformation and how it can change one face-hugging silk mask into another is beyond my weak ken.
At another point in the dance, a moustache suddenly appeared on his face and then disappeared. My eternally-un-named friend (who does a neat line in Monk-like thinking) suggested it might have been inside his mouth. I suppose that must be right, but it was impossible to see. The moustache just appeared.
The dance was arguably the best variety act I have ever seen because it seemed to be actual magic. Perhaps Jerry Sadowitz’ close-up magic equals it, but it is a close-run thing.
I mentioned at the start of this blog Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction.
His First Law is: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
His Second Law states: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
I am all for that… in everything.
There is a video of Sichuan Opera face-changing on YouTube.
(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
Sporting my sexy new Silvio Berlusconi hairstyle yesterday
In my blog yesterday morning, I wrote about the tragedy of my forehead and slaphead – both burned at the World Egg Throwing Championships last Sunday and, by yesterday, flaking skin like a politician sheds promises after an election.
Yesterday, my eternally-un-named friend decided she had the cure and covered the top of my head with Rhassoul Mud.
This remained on my head, slowly drying for an hour, so I looked like I shared Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi’s dodgy hairstyle.
In my blog three days ago, I mentioned that Malcolm Hardee had abandoned the idea of a stunt linked to American entertainer David Blaine‘s ‘sittting in a glass box suspended by the River Thames for days on end’ stunt.
I wrote that Malcolm lost interest after several plans fell through and the final nail-in-the-coffin was when “an intrepid British magician whom Malcolm knew (not Jerry Sadowitz) phoned him up wanting to borrow Malcolm’s boat because he wanted to kidnap Blaine (financed by a national paper) on 28th September 2003”
This detail – like a few of Malcolm’s other stories (but not the ones in his autobiography) – appears to have grown in the telling.
The UK magician I did not name three days ago was Paul Zenon and, when I asked him about the 2003 David Blaine kidnap plot yesterday, he told me:
“That wasn’t quite the plan. Originally, I was going to borrow Malcolm’s boat and hire in some giant inflatable (bouncy castle-style) food – burgers, sausage and chips, etc.
Paul Z in 2003 – thinking outside the box
“Then I was going to moor as close as we could get to David Blaine’s box, with me sat on a toilet in the middle of it, reading a newspaper – and with a scantily-clad girl band playing live.
“In other words, we would remind David Blaine of all the stuff he was abstaining from with his vainglorious stunt. We had interest from an alcohol company and a newspaper for sponsorship but sadly neither bit.”
Oh well… It’s still a good story.
When in doubt, I always say print the legend.
You read it first here.
THERE WAS A 2003 PLOT TO KIDNAP DAVID BLAINE USING SCANTILY-CLAD GIRLS AND SAUSAGES…
It may not be true. But it brightens up Britain without hurting anyone or risking sunburn.
An extraordinarily good London Varieties show every month
I went to see multi-talented Mat Ricardo’s monthly London Varieties at the Leicester Square Theatre last night – a show so good it could transfer straight to TV.
Every month, amid the hula-hoop acts, the cabaret singers, the juggling and the indescribably odd acts, Mat does a sit-down interview.
On previous shows, he talked in depth to Omid Djalili and Al Murray.
Last night it was magician Paul Daniels who told, among other things, how he got his first big break on British TV. People remember his Paul Daniels Magic Show which ran for 16 years on BBC TV, but his big break actually came on ITV.
The rule-of-thumb for acts on this show (and on television in general) was/is that they should run three minutes, but more was often recorded so that the producer/director could edit the best bits fast and tight.
Paul Daniels performed three magic tricks for the cameras but…
– During the first trick, he mentioned what would be in the second and third tricks.
– During the second trick, he referred back to the first trick and referred forward to the next trick.
– During the third trick, he mentioned the first two tricks.
Afterwards, Johnny Hamp came up to him and said: “I don’t know if you’re stupid or lucky… but I can’t edit that.”
As a result, instead of a 3-minute spot, Paul Daniels got a full 12 minutes on the networked peak time show.
The way Paul Daniels told it last night, he was invited back on the show and did fifteen minutes, becoming an overnight star.
Johnnie Hamp realised Paul was neither stupid nor lucky: he was very shrewd.
The extraordinarily good show I saw last night – the third of Mat Ricardo’s London Varieties’ monthly shows – will be on Vimeo in a couple of weeks. The two previous shows are already online HERE and HERE.
When she read this, a friend of mine who worked for LWT at the time and whom I shall call Anne O’Nimus, told me:
“I was there in the theatre that night, standing at the back of the Circle.”
She told me: “Bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s is a small theatre, I had a good view but wasn’t close or behind the curtains. I never found Tommy Cooper amusing – I never ‘got’ his act – so I wasn’t laughing and, perhaps because of that, as soon as I saw him collapse, I thought he was ill.
Tommy Cooper at Her Majesty’s on the night of 15 April 1984
“I remember him falling back, clutching at the curtains and falling through them until I could just see his legs twitching and the audience continued to laugh not knowing that he was dying as his legs twitched through the curtain. I think he was either dragged fully back through the curtains or the curtains were arranged in front of him. I mainly remember the twitching legs and realising immediately that the man was ill whilst people around me were laughing and thinking it was part of the act.”
“I was working for the Presentation Department at BBC Television Centre that night, actually running transmission in Pres B, so – as you can imagine – all TV screens were tuned to either BBC 1 or BBC 2. I remember being frustrated that everybody else seemed to have been watching the show live whereas I was cueing up a trail for something like The Two Ronnies.
“In the 1990s, however, I remember talking to Alasdair Macmillan about that night – he had been directing the show. Alasdair said it was one of the worst nights of his life. He knew instantly that something was wrong because Tommy had collapsed mid-act, so they cut to the commercial break early.”
In my blog a couple of days ago, Jeff Stevenson told me:
“The curtains closed and Jimmy Tarbuck, who was the compere, had to stand on stage in front of the curtains filling-in to the audience. He told me later that, as he was talking, he could hear them hitting Tommy’s chest behind the curtain, trying to revive him – and Tommy was one of Jimmy’s heroes. Terrible, terrible.”
Nigel Crowle says: “Then – and this is where in retrospect they should never have returned to the show during live transmission – they made Les Dennis go on with Dustin Gee and do their Mavis and Vera (characters from Coronation Street) routine in front of the curtain, whilst attempts were made behind them to revive Tommy.
“Les Dennis later told me that, as Jimmy Tarbuck told Jeff, it was a harrowing experience because, as he and Dustin were trying to get laughs, (having been told to go on-stage despite knowing that Tommy was in real trouble), they could hear a groaning noise and the sound of people thumping Tommy’s chest a few feet behind them.”
My friend Anne O’Nimus thinks Tommy Cooper died on the stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre that night. She tells me:
“Afterwards, the press kept chasing the story that he died on camera and LWT stuck to their story that he died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
“Oddly, I read notices of a book recently, purportedly from LWT crew on duty that night, who were also sticking to the company line that Tommy Cooper died later in the ambulance. I think his son stuck to that line as well, so maybe I am wrong.
“But, if so, David Bell (LWT’s Head of Entertainment at the time) and his cohorts were behaving mighty oddly. Everyone clammed-up whenever I asked about it, which was unusual enough. I never knew whether it was because they were afraid that it would put the kibosh on live productions or whether the company might be found to be negligent in some way – which was unlikely, given it was a heart attack. There was no public discussion about it in my presence, even at editorials.
“I felt that they were lying,” my friend Anne O’Nimus told me yesterday, “and I was horrified that anyone would lie about someone’s death – but, then, they said LWT’s Director of Programmes Cyril Bennett fell from that window didn’t they?”
Cyril Bennett was a hugely popular man at LWT and in the television industry. In November 1976, it was said, he was leaning out of the window of his flat in Dolphin Square to see whether his car was there and fell to his death. The verdict was accidental death.
“Ah,” Paul said. “He phoned me up recently because he says he’s going to be doing more work in Europe and he wants some props for a tour that’s coming up.
“Years ago, I made some props for him because I wanted to have the credit as Charlie Chuck’s magic consultant. He phoned me up because he was doing a four-month theatre tour with Vic and Bob – Reeves & Mortimer – and he wanted some bigger visuals to play the theatres.
“Years before that, I’d been doing kids’ TV and had some props left. One of them was a big megaphone-trumpet.
“It involved a whole routine with a giant birthday card, where you sing Happy Birthday, you show the card, you sing through the funnel, put the funnel on top of the card and then, for the reveal, a big three-tier cake appears underneath the funnel – like a wedding cake, but it’s a birthday cake.
“Nothing can go wrong…
“So I trained Charlie to do this, spent a couple of hours rehearsing it and he did it very well. It fitted his style. Just a daft thing. Singing a song.
“So, the first night of the four-month tour, it comes to that part of the show… He sings Happy Birthday, he shows the card, sings through the funnel, reveals the cake… Big round of applause… And then he twats the cake with a big lump of wood and destroys it and that was the end of the £300 prop on the first night of the tour.”
“That’s Charlie Chuck,” I laughed. “He loves a plank of wood. What did he say afterwards?”
“He didn’t mention it and neither did I,” replied Paul. “I don’t think we’ve mentioned it to this day.”
“And now he wants more props for European shows?” I asked.
“Yes,” Paul said. “So I’m thinking of anything else I can get rid of out of my cupboard, because it’ll just get trashed anyway. He says he’s making the act more visual to move into other territories. Maybe that’s,” Paul laughed, “cos of Health & Safety issues in the UK getting stricter – He has to go elsewhere to swing big bits of wood round near audiences. I think the act’s genius. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen.”
“Do you want to appear on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Edinburgh?” Miss Behave asked.
Mystery man of comedy Ray Presto on stage at Up The Arts
“The first time I met Ray was in 2004 at a Linda Trayers gig in Kilburn where Russell Brand headlined and only three people turned up,” Paul Ricketts told me yesterday.
“The gig was pulled but, Russell Brand still demanded his money (£100), leaving Linda Trayers in tears. Straightaway, Ray saw his opportunity to console Linda whilst at the same time continually asking for a gig.
“If he fancied and wanted to impress any lady or promoter he would do his ‘£5 of my own money’ trick which did have overtone of bribery when he paid over his ‘Bank Of Presto’ note with his own face printed on it.”
As well as being an excellent comedian, Paul Ricketts runs the Up The Arts comedy club in London (with Verity Welch) and booked Ray Presto regularly. I asked Paul about Ray Presto because, when he died aged 74 last week, Ray was said in an obituary to be a “stalwart of the London open mic circuit” and “a regular at clubs including Pear Shaped and, most notably, the Comedy Store‘s King Gong show, where he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences… He returned time after time to the show – until 2009, when he was asked to stop, after a new booker took over.”
This intrigued me, because I had never seen his act and the phrase “he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences” sounded interesting. Especially when Fix comedy entrepreneur Harry Deansway wrote in the obituary: “Famed for his strange but smart appearance, unique delivery of out-of-date jokes and magic tricks, Ray Presto often left audiences baffled. Was this a well thought-out character act, or a delusional Seventies throwback? Was he in on the joke? ”
Paul Ricketts told me:
“Ray was the last of the line of strange acts that I saw during the mid to late naughties – which included Phil Zimmerman, Joel Elnaugh, Linda Trayers, Persephone Lewin and Bry Nylon. Some of these acts were knowingly playing with the conventions of stand-up, while others could be seen as deluded in their ambitions.”
“Ray,” Paul told me, “stood apart because he did take himself very seriously. Because of his previous incarnation as a magician he felt he had the experience and stagecraft to make it as a comic. Right from the start he aggressively sold himself as a comedy performer.
“He became a monthly fixture at the Comedy Store Gong Show, cleverly realising that his Happy Days Are Here Again intro music took up at least one minute of the five minutes he needed to survive. His material was made up of inoffensive old jokes – the sort you’d find in Christmas crackers – delivered at a pace that would make Stewart Lee sound like fast-talking Adam Bloom. It was this slow, deliberate delivery which made him distinctive and generated much of the laughter.
“But his self-belief meant that he didn’t like to take advice from anyone. Don Ward of the Comedy Store liked Ray, gave him several 10 minutes spots and wanted him to develop his act from old jokes mixed with magic tricks to include more observations about his life and age. Ray, however, was wary of moving in this direction as he didn’t want to reveal too much about himself. Instead he tried to add more ‘racy’ material – notably a joke about underage sex – which led to him being immediately ‘gonged off’ at the Comedy Store.”
Anthony Miller of Pear Shaped remembers that Ray “became so successful at the Comedy Store that they had to ban him from the gong as he was undermining the object of the Gong Show – to be cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. He told me he didn’t understand why they stopped him doing the gong and seemed a bit put out by it and so I suggested to him that probably someone like him making it ‘human’ was undermining it a bit and that he shouldn’t let that undermine any relationship he had built up with them if they still gave him gigs. To which he replied That is very deep.”
Paul Ricketts tells me Ray was very ambitious, but would hand out publicity photos of himself with the corner torn off, presumably because they were old photographs and had his real name printed on them.
“He was as impatient as any younger comic about his progression in stand-up,” Paul says, “He would badger people for gigs and hand out leaflets and photos to any and everyone. Once he’d been on or turned up at a gig hoping to get on, Ray would heckle some acts by falling asleep in the front two rows. Not only would this disconcert those on stage, it would disconcert the audience who would be scared to wake him up as they weren’t sure if Ray was dead or alive. In any event ‘falling asleep’ would ensure that Ray became the centre of attention.
“Despite me asking Ray many times,” Paul told me, “he wasn’t forthcoming about his past – all he ever said was that he was a magician from Hull.”
Harry Deansway reveals that Ray moved from Hull to London in 2002 “with the aim of getting more work as a writer, but struggled to get published. Off stage, he was a committed atheist and hedonist, having published a book in 1972 called Choose Your Pleasure, a collection of essays on the pros and cons of hedonism and self-indulgence. Off the back of this he got regular writing work as a columnist in Penthouse magazine, which he contributed to under his real name David Shaw… Although he will be remembered by many on the circuit, it will not be for what he wanted to be remembered for – as a serious writer.”
Paul Ricketts adds: “I had some political conversations with him and he was a libertarian in the way that he instinctively distrusted Government, especially the tax authorities. This could explain the occasion when he asked to perform his magic act at a children’s centre but changed his mind when he was asked to give his bank account details and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.
“On another occasion, he asked me how he could open a bank account under his stage name so he could avoid paying tax.
“All I really knew about Ray was that he had an eye for the ladies, he was ambitious to do well in stand-up and he seemed to have enough money to annually spend the winter months in Thailand and showed me pictures of himself strolling through Thai food markets wearing Bermuda shorts.”