Category Archives: Television

Rest in Peace: British showbiz legend Nicholas Parsons and other gentle men

Nicholas Parsons – much loved by generations of Brits

I was at a crematorium in Hampshire today. For a celebration of the life of my cousin’s husband, Michael. He was that seemingly rare thing: a kind, decent and gentle man. My cousin chose well marrying him.

When I left, within less than a minute of me switching on my phone again, there was a BBC newsflash that Nicholas Parsons had died, aged. 96.

And it started to rain.

Truly.

I grew up watching Nicholas Parsons on TV. He played the upper-class and slightly up-himself ‘posh’ foil/neighbour to Arthur Haynes’ working class character/tramp in a ratings-topping ITV comedy show The Arthur Haynes Show, written by Johnny Speight (before he created Till Death Us Do Part).

So, as a child, I suppose I thought of Nicholas Parsons as the character he played – a bit of a posh bloke thinking a bit too much of himself. Sort of a cliché actor type, if you see what I mean.

Later, when I was living in a bedsit in Hampstead, I guess in the early 1970s, there was a story in the local Hampstead & Highgate Express about some girl who had been sexually attacked on Hampstead Heath and afterwards she went to the nearest house she found which, as it happened, was Nicholas Parsons’ home.

My memory is that she was effusive about how wonderful and helpful, how kind and considerate, caring and efficient he was, helping her with the police and so on.

I always thought much more of him after that – he was not just some posh sitcom actor/foil on a television show but a good person – a human being.

A few years later, I was working in the on-screen promotion department at Anglia TV in Norwich, where he fronted their big ITV ratings-getter Sale of the Century. (It was getting over 21 million viewers weekly.)

One way to rate TV ‘stars’ I always found was that, if they ate in the canteen with the plebs and the canteen ladies liked them, then they were OK as human beings. The canteen ladies at Anglia TV always liked Nicholas Parsons. (A parallel was Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, early in their careers, in the Granada TV  canteen in Manchester.)

His TV gameshow was getting over 21 million viewers weekly

One day, Nicholas Parsons came into the promotion office at Anglia TV and, for the life of me, I can’t remember why – I think maybe he was asking advice or plugging some travel project he had – but he – the big Anglia and ITV Network star – was, as ever, amiable, modest and charming – not in a schmaltzy showbiz promotional way but in a genuinely normal person-to-person way.

His image was, I suppose, of a constantly-smiling, slightly cheesy, always ‘on’ old style showbiz star.

But, on the two occasions I briefly met him in the flesh, he was anything but that. He was, if I have to choose a naff but exactly true term, a ‘real’ person. It was impossible not to like him.

An unlikely meeting of minds in 2007…

The second time I briefly met him was when he was a guest on Janey Godley’s Chat Show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. I met him on the steep stone steps behind what had been the old Gilded Balloon, was at that time The Green Room venue and has since gone through various names.

He was, again, a charming, keen-to-please and keen-to-be-helpful, slightly frail gentle man. (He was 83 at the time and I thought to myself: He is going to pop his clogs soon… That was 13 years ago and he was still going strong last year!)

As a result of being a guest on that show, he – the seemingly definitive comfortable ‘Home Counties’ man – and Janey – the definitive tough wee East End Glaswegian – seemed to bond because, as I understand it, his parents had sent him to do manual work in the Glasgow shipyards in his youth to ‘toughen him up’. As a result, despite his image as ‘Home Counties Man’, I think he felt an affinity with working class Glaswegians.

Janey turned up multiple times later both on his own Edinburgh Fringe chat shows and on his long-running BBC Radio 4 show Just a Minute. The BBC tried the format on TV in 1999, but it didn’t catch on there. It has been running on radio since 1967.

On her Facebook page this afternoon, Janey posted this tribute to him:


Just a Minute – Paul Merton, Janey Godley and Nicholas

#NicholasParsons was one of the very few old school iconic comedians/presenters who was very much invested in new and young comics at Edinburgh – he came to see our shows and spent time getting to know us – he was one of “us” he loved stand up.

The sheer delight knowing that Nicholas was in your audience was something that “lifted” our spirits at the Fringe – despite his age and workload he came to see HEAPS of comedy shows and sat and chatted with us afterwards – nobody else that famous did that for us.

He took time with new and emerging comics and always was generous with his time. We were used to famous faces at the Fringe but Nicholas was that guy who sat in a tiny hot room and laughed and cheered you on. And for that I will always love him


That is Janey’s opinion.

TV chat show host Graham Norton Tweeted this afternoon: “Nicholas Parsons was truly the kindest and most generous person I’ve ever worked with. His continued delight at being a part of show business should be an inspiration to us all!”

I can’t say, personally, that I have ever warmed to men as a species. I’m more of a cat person. Cats have a nobility and (if you feed them) an amiability that is usually sorely lacking in men.

So it is a very great loss when genuinely decent gentle men die.

Nicholas Parsons had three wildly successful, long-running, overlapping showbiz peaks – The Arthur Haynes Show, Sale of the Century and Just a Minute – and, quite rightly, memories of him are splattered all over TV and radio news, in print and on the internet.

My cousin’s husband Michael – whose memorial celebration was packed to standing room only in a small Hampshire town today – tried to follow the philosophy of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”

Michael lived his life to the full and added to it the other key ingredient: kindness. I think he and Nicholas Parsons shared that.

At the end of the celebration of Michael’s life today, the poem One At Rest by that prolific writer Anon was read out. It ends:

And in my fleeting lifespan,
as time went rushing by
I found some time to hesitate,
to laugh, to love, to cry.
Matters it now if time began
if time will ever cease?
I was here, I used it all
and I am now at peace.

RIP Michael and Nicholas.

Or, as the Tralfamadorians would say:

So it goes.

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President Obonjo announces his chat show and starts his Brexit coup de force

Copstick & the seldom-seen real Benjamin Bankole Bello

As previously mentioned here, 

BBC Studios and E4 (part of Channel 4) have ripped-off Benjamin Bankole Bello’s well-established comedy character President Obonjo for their reprehensible non-broadcast comedy chat show pilot which looks remarkably like a wildly offensive piece of racism which could have come straight out of the 1930s or 1950s.

‘President Obonjo’, though, is not a former African strongman for nothing, even if ousted from his ‘Lafta Republic’.

In the last couple of days, a fight-back has been organised and, next Sunday, a (probably 25-minute) President Obonjo show will be recorded for unleashing on the internet. As both BBC Studios and E4 have said in writing that they believe there is room for two former African dictators in the comedy firmament (one original; one their own rip-off) no doubt they will both be rushing to take on President Obonjo. After all, surely no-one could believe there is any two-faced bullshitting going on by either. 

Part of the Mama Biashara shop in London’s Shepherd’s Bush

So I talked to comedy critic/judge (Scotsman newspaper, Perrier Awards, Malcolm Hardee Awards) and TV producer (Eurotrash and sundry sport and sex documentaries) Kate Copstick and ‘President Obonjo’ about their plans for next Sunday’s recording in Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush, London.


JOHN: So what is it?

COPSTICK: It’s a President Obonjo chat show with interview guests. It’s not a TV pilot. It’s hopefully a mind-boggling world wide viral video.

JOHN: And the basic idea is…?

COPSTICK: The conceit is that the President is not a stupid man and he realises, as I think many of us have, that Britain is falling apart, from the Mother of Parliaments downwards. Never has the time been better for a coup – a power-grab – and President Obonjo has got a bit of previous in this area.

OBONJO: Now is my time.

JOHN: Where is the Lafta Republic?

OBONJO: Close to Wakanda.

JOHN: How long were you a dictator there?

OBONJO: Well over ten years.

JOHN: Why did you get thrown out?

President Obonjo knows a lot about coup d’états

OBONJO: I didn’t get thrown out!… Just over ten years ago. I came on a state visit to Britain to meet your Queen and discovered comedy. My people in Africa found out I was no longer on a state visit, there was a coup détat and I have been here ever since – President Obonjo has been performing comedy for ten years.

JOHN: Who took over in control of the Lafta Republic?

OBONJO: No-one.

JOHN: So it is much like Britain.

OBONJO: Precisely. There is a gap in the leadership in Britain and I am the man to fill it.

JOHN: Parliamentary democracy clearly is not working. We need a strongman.

OBONJO: Change we can believe in. Now is my time.

COPSTICK: Also, this is the 21st century and we could be doing with a black man in charge.

JOHN: Are we allowed to say President Obama was not really black?

OBONJO: He was brown.

JOHN: And only half-Kenyan – his dad. Whereas President Obonjo is all Lafta.

David Lammy made an inspirational speech

OBONJO: David Lammy, when he became a British MP, was so inspirational in his speech about how he never thought he was going to be in Parliament and everyone kept rooting for him to be the first black Prime Minister… That was good, but it has not happened.

COPSTICK: Prime Minister, Shrime Minister. We wanna cut through all that because democracy self-evidently is not working. Boris Johnson has had a very good stab at being a dictator… 

OBONJO:… and it has not worked.

JOHN: And, clearly, one-man rule CAN work in Britain because our absolute monarchs succeeded – Henry V took over France. Henry VIII did us proud and took us out of a European religious union. Elizabeth I, though not altogether a man, created an English Empire. It proves that absolute power in the hands of one person works in Britain. Let’s not mention the Germans.

COPSTICK: It absolutely works and President Obonjo has an absolute groundswell of support from the live comedy industry.

JOHN: You can create the Lafta Republic right here in Britain.

OBONJO: Change we can believe in. Yes we can.

COPSTICK: This show which we are recording next Sunday is a chat show, but it is also a show of force with the guests representing large special interest groups within the UK. It will be a tour-de-force.

OBONJO: It will be a coup-de-force.

#JusticeForObonjo !

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BBC Studios and Channel 4 risk court case by ripping-off President Obonjo…

#JusticeForObonjo !

BBC TV has a track record for simply stealing ideas.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of UK comedy critics agrees: “They do have a bit of a rep for being sticky-fingered.”

I mentioned one case in passing in a 2013 blog in which the Beeb tried to rip-off an idea the late Malcolm Hardee and I had. 

Which brings us to the current great rip-off scandal involving BBC Studios.

Monday 12th August sees a one-off event at the Edinburgh FringeAn Audience with President Obonjo: in effect, a fake press conference by the original African comedy dictator. This should be quite an event. Fur will fly.

Everyone on the UK comedy scene seems fairly gobsmacked at the utterly blatant rip-off of Benjamin Bankole Bello’s widely-known, much admired and increasingly prestigious character President Obonjo – an African military dictator adrift in the UK – which he has been building on the UK comedy circuit for the last ten years…  

The BBC have sold a non-broadcast pilot idea to E4 (part of Channel 4) featuring an African military dictator adrift in the UK but in what – on the basis of a trailer promoting it – appears to be a wildly racist lowest-common-denominator pile of steaming crap.

I am, perhaps, being too generous.

The general perception of the BBC (and, guilty by association) Channel 4 is that they are either 

  1. blatant thieves or 
  2. an amateurish shambles who don’t know anything about the live comedy industry…

When news of this rip-off first surfaced a few weeks ago, it seemed obvious that it was, indeed, a rip-off. But, as I blogged at the time, there was and is another – perhaps worse – possibility:

The (as it turned out) ironically-titled 2015 Fringe show

“If the BBC Studios Comedy team are not thieves, they are so utterly ignorant of their own area of entertainment that they should be sacked for utter laziness and for being incompetent wankers.”

When this scandal – for scandal it is – blew up, the BBC producer associated with the apparent rip-off, Ben Caudell, contacted Benjamin Bello for a meeting on 22nd July… presumably to try to smother criticism. 

He was apparently a tad surprised when Benjamin turned up with the aforementioned Kate Copstick, the most revered and arguably most fearsome comedy critic in the UK. It is not irrelevant that Copstick trained as a lawyer.

So let us be generous and presume that the BBC did not wantonly steal the idea from Benjamin. Let us assume that they are simply incompetent.

At the meeting with Benjamin Bankole Bello (remember that exact name) and Copstick – speaking in his capacity as a member of the BBC Studios Comedy team – Ben Caudell claimed never to have known about the widely-known President Obonjo character before the scandal blew up – although ‘President Obonjo’ had been performing on the live circuit over the last ten years, had staged two well-reviewed Edinburgh Fringe shows and had had multiple contacts with the BBC over a period of years. 

Ben Caudell also detailed how the BBC’s character of an African military dictator adrift in the UK had been developed separately from any knowledge of the existence of ‘President Obonjo’, an African military dictator adrift in the UK.

Interestingly, Copstick was later told by another BBC production person an entirely different story of how the BBC ‘innocently’ developed the entirely original character of an African military dictator adrift in the UK. 

A load of bull (Photo by Christian Wiediger via UnSplash)

The cynical might observe that, if you are going to tell potential porkies, at least agree beforehand on the same story. At least one (or more) of these conflicting stories has to be bollocks.

Anyway… Ben Caudell said, in his own defence, at the meeting with Copstick and Benjamin Bello (ie in front of witnesses), that “I don’t have much to do with live comedy… They’re not nearly as important as they think they are”.

This might go some way to explain how a BBC producer or a bunch of BBC producers (I believe the collective noun is ‘a bullshit’ of BBC producers) could be totally and utterly ignorant of an act which had been playing the London and UK circuit for ten years – widely known – AND had staged two well-reviewed (4-star) Edinburgh Fringe shows AND had multiple contacts with BBC TV over several years specifically about the President Obonjo character (the BBC response at that time had been: “We like what you do”).

Let us be clear that the BBC rip-off character was (allegedly) thought-up by BBC producers, progressed after discussion and development with others to the top of BBC Studios Comedy tree without anyone realising there was a President Obonjo act. Allegedly.

President Obonjo had been twice in the BBC New Comedy Awards competition with videos submitted in 2012 and 2014. The character was considered for the BBC’s own Caroline Aherne Bursary Scheme in 2018 and President Obonjo sketches were submitted to BBC3 earlier this year.

Bear in mind that the BBC’s ‘Colonel Banjoko’ character was (allegedly) created by people who had never heard of Benjamin Bankolo Bello’s original character President Obonjo. There is a striking similarity in names going on there.

I had thought Ben Caudell might have gone for the My Sweet Lord defence in which George Harrison copied I think note-for-note Ronnie Mack’s country & western song He’s So Fine but said he had not consciously copied the song: it must have got into his subconscious after hearing it.

The increasingly prestigious President at the 2017 Fringe

But, no, Ben Caudell, speaking on behalf of BBC Studios, was not saying he or anyone else had seen or heard of Benjamin Bankolo Bello’s President Obonjo character when creating their Colonel Banjoko character.

They could have said they didn’t like ‘President Obonjo’ and had been inspired to create a ‘better’ and different character.

But no. The claim was that no-one at all at any point in the development and commissioning process had ever heard of or seen the President Obonjo character… (Reminder: the previous BBC response to viewing the President Obonjo character: “We like what you do”)

So Ben Caudell suggested:

“As a gesture of goodwill, we will use best endeavours to feature President Obonjo in some way in an episode of a potential future series. This would of course be subject to broadcaster and commissioner approval.”

So no real offer of anything.

As Copstick wisely says: “As soon as they say best endeavours, they’re really not interested.”

When pushed further, Ben Caudell suggested: “How about this: to demonstrate that we really do want to acknowledge President Obonjo, why don’t we – with your permission – do a video version of your poster idea in our pilot? We’re thinking of doing a VT explaining Colonel Banjoko’s rise and fall. A photo of President Obonjo could feature in that, as the Colonel’s predecessor. How does that sound?”

Worth remembering here that it is a non-broadcast pilot which would not be screened on-air.

Last week, Kate Copstick got in touch with Karl Warner, Controller of E4, pointing out that the proposed BBC/E4 series “with its curiously, closely similar spoof African dictator will destroy (Benjamin Bello’s) act, his career and his livelihood. We met with Ben Caudell, who is producing the pilot. He gave one version of how the character came to be, since when we have been assured by someone else of another version (completely different) of how the character came to be. He (Benjamin Bello) is looking at a ten year career disappearing. Should this show be allowed to go ahead he will have nowhere to go with his character… his career… his creation.”

Karl Warner replied: “We’re satisfied that there’s been no infringement of intellectual property by BBC Studios in this case.”

Note that Channel 4’s statutory public service remit includes that it should “be innovative and distinctive.” 

I think a hollow laugh might be in order at this point.

Obviously, Copstick, I and Benjamin Bello have discussed the problem. This part of our discussion might be interesting, remembering that Copstick and I have a TV production background and Copstick trained as a lawyer:


President Obonjo and Copstick in Edinburgh

COPSTICK: Ben Caudell talked vaguely about the people upstairs. But, basically, anyone who has any power at the BBC doesn’t want to have anything to do with this and they’re just going to carry on. He can do nothing. 

The men in suits will not react, because they are so sure they are more powerful than anybody and can just wait until it all goes away. Or they will mumble something about “best endeavours”. 

There was a chance when we met him that he was actually vaguely decent and was thinking Well, maybe there’s something we can do that will keep everybody happy. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think he was just sent in there like a canary in the mine. They think it’s all going to go away.

I contacted a very prominent QC who specialises in Intellectual Property who says we have a reasonable case on several fronts. I asked to what extent could sections of the Universal Declaration of  Human Rights, as taken on by the EU’s Human Rights legislation, be used in an Intellectual Property case where the victim has kind-of shot himself in the foot because he has previously sent off ideas to a company. And, as we know, ideas are not copyrightable. 

JOHN: That’s the massive get-out clause for all broadcasters ripping-off people’s ideas.

COPSTICK: Yes. The fucker is that Benjamin sent the BBC ideas and one of them was not a chat show but, from what I’ve read of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, your rights in your own Intellectual Property are your human rights, because your Intellectual Property is seen as an extension of yourself – especially where it’s something like a character. So, even though you are fucked under UK statute law, because you sent them ideas, there is the Human Rights angle.

JOHN: What did the QC say?

COPSTICK: He said: “That’s interesting”… Given than Benjamin has been doing this character and only this character for ten years, you could argue that it is his business… It is a business he has created and a business in which there is a lot of goodwill. It is a ‘brand’ and there is a lot of goodwill. So, by doing what BBC Studios and Channel 4 are doing, they are infringing the goodwill of the brand. Which is (a) true and (b) very monetisable.

JOHN: Well, I’m not worried about a court case. I would welcome the publicity!

COPSTICK: We will fight if necessary and the embarrassment factor for them would be at absolute maximum.

JOHN: And the QC would work pro bono…

COPSTICK: Yes.

JOHN: My angle is that, even if they didn’t rip it off intentionally – which stretches credulity a bit – the only alternative explanation is that they are incompetent idiots.

COPSTICK: They are worse than incompetent idiots. They are dangerous and damaging. 

JOHN: …because they are knowingly going to destroy a career built-up over ten years…

COPSTICK: Yes. They are going to destroy a career AND… they don’t care!

JOHN: And, given that Ben Caudell is married to an actress, Diane Morgan, it’s shocking that he doesn’t care more about performers’ careers.

COPSTICK: They really don’t care and also, even if everything they say is true, then what does that say about the attitude of BBC Television Comedy to live comedy? Live comedy is only important to them as a place where they go to steal ideas.

Although Benjamin did not send them a format with the President in a talk show format, by putting AN Other President in the talk show, they have more or less stolen the character as long as there’s enough similarity between the two presidents. What they will do is change his back story.

BENJAMIN: I talked to an Intellectual Property lawyer too and one of the things that President Obonjo does is he is very prominent on social media including YouTube videos and he is talking in character. 

JOHN: You are so prominent all over the place that it is inconceivable – unless the producers at the BBC are utterly incompetent and simply not even remotely doing their job properly – that they didn’t know you existed. The only way in which they could not know you existed was if they were totally inept.

If they claim that nobody developing or commissioning comedy at BBC TV or at Channel 4 had ever heard of you, it implies nobody at BBC TV Comedy or at Channel 4 Comedy knows or cares anything about live comedy over the last couple of years, let alone the last ten years.


#JusticeForObonjo !

President Obonjo’s 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show

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Comic Laura Lexx – a comedian/writer who could be on the cusp of success…

The last time comic writer and performer Laura Lexx was in this blog was back in July 2015 when she was about to stage her first solo Edinburgh Fringe show.

Laura Lexx, when last espied in this blog in 2015…

This week, she will be starting the run of her fourth solo Fringe show Knee Jerk at the Gilded Balloon venue.

I think her career turned an important corner with her appearance on BBC TV’s Live at the Apollo show last Christmas. So I asked her about it.


“London is probably the place I gig least” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

JOHN: Success is strange in comedy…

LAURA: Yes, it’s weird. You look at someone and think: Well, they seem to be doing very well, yet no-one’s ever heard of them. But they’re doing a 110-date UK tour, so people HAVE heard of them, yet TV isn’t… it isn’t doing… Well we still have TV held up as ‘the thing’ and actually maybe it isn’t ‘the thing’ any more.

JOHN: People say the live comedy ‘circuit’ is dying.

LAURA: Shut up! No it isn’t! I gig six nights a week quite happily all round the country – there are loads of gigs everywhere; there just aren’t the big chains of gigs (like Jongleurs) any more. You have to know lots of individuals and get on with it. London is probably the place I gig least.

JOHN: Really? Why?

LAURA: It pays absolute dogshit. Apart from the Comedy Store, I don’t think I know a single other London club that pays more than £200 a night.

JOHN: Whereas, if you play, say, up North…?

LAURA: Yeah… £250, £240, £220.

JOHN: With accommodation?

LAURA: Sometimes, yeah.

JOHN: Transport?

LAURA: Not usually.

JOHN: Your Live at the Apollo appearance must have got you loads of online hits and a higher profile.

LAURA: Kinda. It did. But I got way more general public interest and followers from doing Ouch on BBC Sounds because of my set on mental health.

JOHN: Why?

LAURA: I think because all the stuff I did on mental health and more niche topics at the Apollo recording got edited-out of the final cut. You do 20 minutes and they edit it down to around 8. What was left was a funny but mainstream thing which didn’t have much shareable viability online.

Whereas the stuff I did on Ouch about not having children and climate change and eco-anxiety did have shareability online and I picked up thousands of followers from that.

JOHN: So a niche subject actually got you greater hits than a mainstream TV show.

LAURA: Yeah. I guess cos there’s less of it and you’re maybe saying something people haven’t heard before.

JOHN: And, of course, on the Apollo show, all the niche stuff was quite reasonably edited out. It’s a mainstream show and…

Live at the Apollo – the Christmas Special show, 2018, with (L-R) Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Laura Lexx and Ahir Shah

LAURA: Why reasonably, though? It was just as funny as the other stuff. It just happened to be on the night Ahir Shah also had a joke about anti-depressants and you couldn’t really have two comedians on (LAUGHS) the Christmas Special going on about anti-depressants. Which is OK. That’s up to the producers. It was not like they were censoring talk on mental health. We just both happened to cover it.

JOHN: It’s a very mainstream programme.

LAURA: But depression is mainstream. Lots of people have depression, so why not talk about it?

JOHN: It’s a bit depressing.

LAURA: Not if you’re doing it in comedy.

JOHN: I think you are maybe at a turning point in your career.

LAURA: Well, most of the general public have no idea who I am, so I can turn up at a comedy club at a weekend and be ‘surprisingly’ good. But now people in the industry know who I am, so I can do the things I want to do more easily and get booked in the gigs I want to be booked on. And pitching ideas is much easier now… And I think I’ve learned to be cleverer with that.

JOHN: How does one get to be a successful pitcher?

LAURA: Well, I haven’t had any success yet but I think what I’ve learned is to go to the Edinburgh Fringe already having written the stuff that people are going to want off the back of my show.

“Feminism, innit, John. It’s huge” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

Every time you do an Edinburgh Fringe show in August, you sit down in meetings in September and they say: “Oh, we liked that theme. We would like an outline for a thing on that theme”… and, by the time you have written that outline, they have changed jobs and gone somewhere else.

JOHN: Whereas, this year…?

LAURA: I have a big set-piece about netball and I have already written a show about netball.

JOHN: Why netball?

LAURA: Feminism, innit, John… It’s huge at the moment.

JOHN: Is it?

LAURA: Yes. The Netball World Cup.

JOHN: How do you make a netball show funny?

LAURA: Anything can be funny. You just need a vehicle to add funny characters to. So why not a netball team?

JOHN: So you have that eternal ambition of comics: to eventually write a sitcom?

LAURA: I’ve already done it. I’ve written one; I’m starting my second one; and I’m pitching a couple of… I have one entertainment magazine show project that I think might be on the verge of being optioned. And another idea I’m really only at the research end of, which is… (DETAILS CENSORED IN CASE SOMEONE STEALS THE IDEA!). I also have an idea for a podcast…

JOHN: There’s no money in them…

LAURA: No, but they’re really good for exposure and then you sell off the back of it. Podcasts are a massive way to boost your popularity. My idea is… (IDEA CENSORED AGAIN, TO PROTECT IT!)

JOHN: There’s a lot of politics around at the moment: Brexit and all. You told me your new Fringe show Knee Jerk is a bit political.

Knee Jerk – Laura road-tested her new comedy show before its Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon

LAURA: I’m not trying to be political like the ins-and-outs of politicians; I’m trying to be political in terms of people’s behaviour to each other, which is what I’m interested in. The general premise of the show is I want to deal with climate change and I feel climate change should be our priority as a species and as a nation and it feels like we are at what is hopefully more a death rattle than a resurgence of a lot of divisive stuff between the general public.

JOHN: Doesn’t everyone agree climate change is a bad thing?

LAURA: But who’s dealing with it properly? If a human army was invading, we would have a million measures in place. Here, we’re vaguely going: “Oh, we’ve asked this company to maybe try and do this by 2028… if they can…” And then we fail on all the targets.

JOHN: You are odd in that you’re a good stand-up AND a good MC. They are often different mindsets.

LAURA: Well, I think they’re two different jobs and I quite like them both.

JOHN: There is that cliché of a punter saying to an MC after the gig has finished: “You should try doing stand-up comedy yourself.”

LAURA: Oh God! That happened all the time! That’s why I stopped MCing as much as I was. For a while, I was MCing for maybe 80% of my gigs. I just maybe got a bit frustrated by not being able to do my act. I had all these new bits of material I wanted to get out of the box and play with and, as an MC, I couldn’t really. So I pared it back a bit and now I’m a lot happier and I think I’m a better MC for not doing it all the time.

I like gigging and writing stuff. I’m a club comic that has smashed Edinburgh too. (LAUGHS) So give me my own television show, already!… I might have a sandwich now. Do you want a sandwich?

…Laura’s new 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show…

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BBC TV stole this character comic’s identity, making Channel 4 complicit

The one, the original – President Obonjo – cajoles, intimidates and for sure entertains his audience

In the last four days, within the cyber bubble of the UK comedy industry, there has been a shitstorm on Twitter and Facebook about BBC Studios apparently ripping off a character comedian’s long-running on-stage persona and selling a series pilot based on it to E4 (part of Channel 4).

So obviously, yesterday, I had a chat with the wronged ‘President Obonjo aka comedian Benjamin Bankole Bello (remember that exact name).

There is a certain element in this rip-off by the BBC of life imitating art.

President Obonjo Stole My Identity – at Edinburgh in 2015

In 2015, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Benjamin performed a show: President Obonjo Stole My Identity. 

“Remind me what it was about?” I asked him yesterday.

“It was about the fact I had created this character – President Obonjo – and people had forgotten about me, Benjamin Bello. Everybody just wanted President Obonjo. Even when people saw me without the uniform, they always called me President Obonjo. So the whole idea was that President Obonjo had stolen my identity.”

“And you performed that around the London circuit…”

“Yes. And around the country. And for two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. It got a 5-star review from Fringe Guru and 4-stars from The Wee Review.”

In an August 2015 blog from the Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote about Benjamin performing President Obonjo Stole My Identity: “He has great audience control. The character was immediately taken-to-heart by the audience. And then he takes the uniform off, becomes Benjamin Bello and analyses the nature of character comedy, wonders why the character he writes and performs is funnier than he himself is on stage… and then puts the uniform back on and becomes the character again. Loud, loud laughter.”

I myself had first blogged about the President Obonjo character when I met Benjamin at a radio show recording in Streatham in September 2014.

In November 2016, I interviewed him about his appearance in the final of the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian of the Year competition.

In that year, he had reached the finals of seven comedy competitions and won two of them. It “has helped my profile” he told me then. 

Obonjo’s 2017 Fringe show – The Rise of a Comedy Dictator

In August 2017 I blogged, again from the Edinburgh Fringe, that his “African dictator character dominates any room and he had a “full-to-the-brim audience eating out of his hand… a tribute to his skill.”

Bear all this in mind, dear reader, in what follows. Remember almost ten years on the comedy circuit, the Edinburgh Fringe shows, the 5-star-reviews.

Last Wednesday (17th July) the Chortle comedy website reported that E4 had announced  that “Famalam and Sliced star Samson Kayo is to play a fictional African dictator” called Colonel Banjoko in a new spoof talk show.

By the next day, Chortle had contacted Benjamin Bankole Bello about the rip-off fake Africal military dictator Colonel Banjoko character (note, too, the similarity in names) because the President Obonjo character is so widely known by people in the comedy industry and is the only fake African military dictator on the comedy circuit. When reviewing President Obonjo over the years, Chortle had previously written: “It’s a great comic construct.”

The Londonist had reviewed Obonjo as having “the potential of that high-status, comedy bomb-proof kind of character.”

Fringe Guru, giving President Obonjo Stole My Identity a 5-star review, wrote: “On the face of it, it works as a well-crafted political comedy… But it’s the layers of context that really make this a fascinating, bewildering and painfully funny experience.”

When Chortle talked to Benjamin Bello last week, he told them: “E4 and BBC Studios have stolen my act… I have been developing the character President Obonjo on the comedy circuit for nearly ten years. I have carefully crafted the comedic personality of an African military dictator adrift in the UK and the similarities to the E4 pilot announced yesterday are deeply worrying… This is stealing 10 years of work.”

BBC Studios claimed their character (an African military dictator adrift in the UK) was the idea of “the BBC Studios Comedy team”.

But this is not what people in the comedy industry thought. 

President Obonjo in Streatham back in 2014

Comedian Dane Baptiste, a personal friend of actor Samson Kayo, said: “This is clearly a rip off of @realObonjo, a character that we on the circuit know and love. And we know nobody there came up with it because, well, you know…”

Comic Ignacio Lopez posted: “I saw a story about @E4Tweets’s new ‘African Dictator’ show & was about to congratulate @realObonjo, then I read it & realised it’s someone else. I find it hard to believe nobody flagged up the blatant similarities at any point during the development.”

The Wee Review website wrote of the announced E4 show: “A mad African dictator terrorising his audience for laughs? Count us in. Sounds like a great concept. In fact, we know it’s a great concept because someone’s successfully been entertaining Fringe audiences with it for years. And his name is President Obonjo… Comedy is a small world and it defies credibility that someone in a position to make or commission a TV comedy was not aware that a circuit act had been performing a very similar act for a decade. The assumption has to be they knew. And they knew they could get away with it.”

I agree. Either “the BBC Studios Comedy team” blatantly and intentionally stole the President Obonjo character thinking that they could wantonly and without consequence fuck-over a hard-working comic who does not (yet) have an agent… or “the BBC Studios Comedy team” had never heard of a widely-admired, widely-known, well-reviewed, award-winning comedy act which had been successfully playing the circuit for ten years and had appeared multiple times in full-length shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

If “the BBC Studios Comedy team” are not thieves, they are so utterly ignorant of their own area of entertainment that they should be sacked for utter laziness and for being incompetent wankers.

It is not as if the President Obonjo act was unknown to the BBC.

He was twice in the BBC New Comedy Awards competition – “I submitted my videos to them: I think it was 2012 and 2014,” Benjamin told me yesterday.

President welcomed me in London yesterday

“So they saw you in uniform in character in the videos?” I asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “And they acknowledged. They said: Yes, we like what you do. I also applied for the Caroline Aherne Bursary Scheme at the BBC in 2018 and I submitted sketches to BBC3 this year.”

(BBC3 is the channel which produced and transmitted Famalam, the series in which Samson Kayo starred – the same Samson Kayo who was announced as starring in the BBC Studios Obanjo rip-off series for E4.)

“The sketches you suggested to BBC3 specifically featured the President Obonjo character?” I asked.

“Yes. They just said: Come up with ideas. If you’ve got any sketch ideas, submit them to us. So I submitted ideas for the President Obonjo character.”

Given that E4 has commissioned a potentially career-destroying rip-off copy of President Obonjo’s 10-year-running character, it is worth remembering that parent company Channel 4’s statutory remit is “to deliver high-quality, innovative, alternative content”… Call me pedantic, but I do not see this statutory – I repeat statutory – remit to deliver innovative content as being the same thing as ripping-off existing, hard-working performers.

To look on the bright side of this utter shitstorm, we are one week away from the start of the Edinburgh Fringe, at which ‘President Obonjo’ unveils a new hour-long show: Goodbye Mr President… You could pay thousands to a PR guru to get publicity like this. 

I saw a work-in-progress preview of the new show two months ago and posted that the preview of Goodbye Mr President “was extraordinary and should be even more astonishing by the time it reaches Edinburgh. A tragic, true, single story which elicits natural laughs. It feels like the ideal Fringe show. Serious points being made about comedy, comedians, friendship and life. Laughs, tears, a gripping narrative and serious thoughts to take away from the venue.”

To continue looking for a twinkle of daylight among the BBC bullshit, this story of the BBC stealing President Obonjo’s identity and selling it to E4 could form the basis of a fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show by Benjamin Bello in 2020.

… MORE DETAILS OF THIS STORY IN A LATER BLOG HERE

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Paul Darrow on cult SciFi show “Blake’s 7” – its fans, scripts and BBC cutbacks

In the third, concluding extract from my 1980 chat with actor Paul Darrow, who died earlier this week, he talks about starring in Terry Nation’s TV series Blake’s 7, fans, writing and….


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Blake’s 7 is vividly remembered by many possibly, in part, because of – after four series – its jaw-dropping final scenes

JOHN: Because Blake’s 7 is ‘science fiction’, people may not treat it as seriously as other drama. The “Oh, it’s only kids’ stuff” attitude.

PAUL: They originally called it a ‘kidult’ series.

JOHN: Usually the problem with science fiction is that it’s weighted towards plot and ideas at the expense of psychology.

PAUL: Well, this is where Blake’s 7 was probably successful and this is perhaps why the characters are as popular as they seem to be. The emphasis on character – whether it came from the writers or the actors themselves – was such that it created a deeper interest. People care about the characters and that’s important. 

When I get fan letters, okay, some of them are admiring, some silly, some charming, but the majority are fairly reasonable and intelligent and say I care about this character. Now that’s marvellous for an actor, marvellous, because it means you’ve achieved something. The fact that it’s in science fiction doesn’t mean it’s any less good than if it were in Shakespeare. I’ve seen some pretty bad performances of Shakespeare that we wouldn’t have had in Blake’s 7.

JOHN: You seem to have some loyal fans.

PAUL: They make you what you are. I loathe some people’s attitude. There are one or two people, who shall be nameless, that I know very well who ignore letters and despise people who write in and I feel like thumping actors who say: “No, I don’t bother: I throw them straight in the wastepaper basket.”

I think if people take the trouble to write, you should reply. Without them, you’re not going to get anywhere. I just wish some of the fans knew which people these were so that they didn’t support them any more and they wouldn’t get the work. I feel very strongly about the relationship you have with the people who watch you. That’s why I go to science fiction conventions: because that’s part of my job.

JOHN: You won a Starburst Award last year. It’s hardly an Oscar, though, is it?

PAUL: Alright, it isn’t Hollywood and it isn’t an Academy Award, but it is an award and somebody somewhere has gone to a lot of trouble to think about it and a lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble – if you count the stamps at 10p or 12p each – to write in and say who they like, so I can stand up there on the day and be feted and given an award. That means a lot; it means more than I’ve been able to convey in what I’ve just said.

And that Starburst Award I won has pride-of-place in my home. That’s the reward, the contact with the audience, which you don’t get on television. In the theatre you get it because you get the applause at the end. And it’s marvellous and I love it.

JOHN: Especially from children?

PAUL: A nine-year-old sent me a script. It was very funny, because it said:

SCENE ONE: Avon and Blake and Villa teleport down on the planet.

SCENE TWO: They arrive on the planet. Avon says: “I don’t like the look of this place.” Blake says: “Neither do I – Let’s go back.”

That was the end of the script. I thought that was hilarious. What a great idea for a gag!

JOHN: Is writing something you would like to get into yourself?

PAUL: Yes, I would. If an actor does a particular character for any length of time, he gets to know that character better than anybody else. You get to know how that character reacts with other characters and consequently you know more about the other characters than perhaps a lot of people.

JOHN: So maybe you should write a Blake’s 7 episode…

Paul Darrow wrote a Blake’s 7 novel

PAUL: I wouldn’t mind, actually. The only trouble is that, if you write for yourself, everybody says: “Oh dear me! He’s just writing so that he looks that much better!” So that’s a dodgy thing.

I’d probably have to write it for another character, so they wouldn’t be able to say that. But then you defeat the object of the exercise because your character’s the one you know about, so… A lot depends on the writers, actually.

Chris Boucher (the script editor on Blake’s 7) was very much on the right wavelength for this kind of thing. Terry Nation’s original idea was a good one. And then they got in one or two other interesting writers.

JOHN: Like Tanith Lee. As well as writing for Blake’s 7, she wrote the radio play The Silver Sky which you starred in.

PAUL: I did that because she wrote it. I didn’t even read the script before accepting because I didn’t need to. She writes well and it was a marvellous part; I think it calls out to be televised. It’s a love story set in a time warp. And those two people, who come from two different areas of time, meet and fall in love and then are destroyed. She is destroyed physically; he is destroyed as far as his personality is concerned, because he suddenly realises everything’s worthless.

JOHN: You haven’t done much radio.

PAUL: No.

JOHN: But, during the breaks in Blake’s 7, you’ve done stage plays.

PAUL: Yes. It’s to keep my hand in, really, because they’re different techniques.

JOHN: What’s the difference?

PAUL: Well, projection (of the voice) for one. With a microphone, you can be very quiet; in the theatre, you’ve got to convey a quiet emotion loudly. So it’s a different technique. Also a live audience means sustaining a performance with a beginning, a middle and an end. In television, of course, it’s all shot out of continuity.

Blake’s 7 was scheduled in peaktime on BBC1

JOHN: …but the money’s better in television.

PAUL: (LAUGHS) Well, I was about to say money’s not important but, of course, it is… As long as you get a fair whack, as long as it’s a reasonable amount to live on. But the BBC, you see, is faced with all sorts of cutbacks…

Actually, I must put in a plug for the special effects boys. Having mentioned money and cutbacks, that’s the kind of department that is faced with them and what those boys do with limited resources is amazing. It is staggering. They come in and they say: “We’ve made this gun for you” or “this bomb for you”. And it’s a working model! It works! They’re marvellous.

JOHN: Ian Scones used to do the Blake’s 7 effects and now he’s off to do the House of Hammer series for ITC.

PAUL: Yes, I’m in one of those. All about vestal virgins being sacrificed on the altar, so I’m going to spend most of my days sitting among a group of beautiful girls – it’s going to be terribly difficult, isn’t it?

JOHN: Keeping up your image.

PAUL: (LAUGHS) What image? Avon never got the girl. I’d quite like it if he did once in a while, but then I don’t think they’d cast Raquel Welch would they?

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Life on a cult TV show – Paul Darrow on “Blake’s 7” scripts, squabbles and laughs

Yesterday’s blog was the first part of a 1980 interview with actor Paul Darrow, whose death was announced this week. 

In August 1980, I interviewed him for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine. He was then known for starring as Avon in Terry Nation’s peaktime BBC TV science fantasy series Blake’s 7. 

Yesterday, he talked about how an actor can turn a villain into a hero.

In this second extract, he talks about movies, fans, scripts, other members of the cast and the then-planned fourth series. 

Blake’s 7 was notable for killing off central characters – rebel leader Blake himself disappeared in Series Two and jaw-droppingly – SPOILER ALERT – at the end of the fourth series, all the remaining rebels with whom the audience had identified were killed off; in effect, the baddies won and the heroes lost.

You do not have to have seen Blake’s 7

Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow relax between filming scenes for an episode of Blake’s 7


JOHN: A lot of people I interview say they were brought up in the front row of the cinema.

PAUL: I can do the whole of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. 

JOHN: Casablanca is over-rated.

PAUL: (PUTTING ON A HUMPHREY BOGART VOICE) Casablana’sh a grate movie… And there are lines like

  • “Rick, why did you come to Casablanca?”
  • “I came four de watersh.”

And Claude Rains says: “But we’re in the middle of the desert!”

There’s a slight pause and Bogie says: “I wash mishinformed.”

That’s a very witty line and it was written the year I was born.

In fact, Chris Boucher (script editor on Blake’s 7) and I are both mad on films, so I used to say: “Listen, I’ve remembered a great quote from a great movie – Can you slip it in somewhere?” And occasionally he slipped one in.

There was one that was a pinch from Butch Cassidy where Redford turns to Newman and says: “Stick to thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” And Chris put that in an episode for me, so I actually turned round to Blake and said it. You’d be surprised the people who pick it up, too. 

Tanith Lee wrote some wonderful lines. Steven Pacey (who plays Tarrant) had a great long speech to me saying: “I’m better than you, I’m faster than you, I’m younger than you, I’m harder than you; you didn’t reckon you’d have any trouble with me but you’re gonna have trouble with me!” and so on and so on. And, at the end of all that, I had one line which was pure Humphrey Bogart: “You talk too much!”

JOHN: Do you get a lot of male fan letters?

PAUL: A fair amount, but more from women. The men who write, I suppose, would like to be this sort of person and I can understand because so would I. I don’t think I am quite him, but it’s what I quite admire. 

If you actually look at the people in films today that do capture the imagination, they are the strong men. And, as I say, I was brought up on them: my favourite actors are people like Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood… You know where you stand with people like that. John Wayne: no-one knocked over his glass of milk and got away with it.

Whatever you think of John Wayne, when you went in to see one of his pictures, you knew exactly what you were going to get. That, I think, is the most important thing: you must never disappoint.

When we get a Blake’s 7 script where I don’t think the character is treated properly, then I’ll complain. Not because I’m trying to be difficult or give myself a better part – you can cut the part out if you want to – but don’t give the people what they don’t expect, because they’re far more intelligent than they’re given credit for.

Terry Nation created Doctor Who‘s Daleks as well as Blake’s 7 – He had overall say, but only wrote a few of the Blake scripts

That’s a fault with writers: they think they have to hit everything over the head with a sledgehammer to explain. Actors are stupid and the audience is stupid: that’s the theory. They’re not.

In fact, the audience tends to know more than the actors – not about a character, but about what’s going on. I often get letters saying that, when I said such-and-such a thing, it actually isn’t possible. And that’s from children.

JOHN: Children are very perceptive.

PAUL: You can’t fool them for a minute. There are two little boys who live over the road – 9 and 11 they are – and one day they said: “What episode are you working on at the moment?” And I was working on the one where the girlfriend rolled-up. 

And the little one turned to me and said: “Oh no-o-o! You don’t kiss her, do you?” (LAUGHS) And then his eyes widened and he said: “I bet I know what you do! You kill her, don’t you? You would!” That redeemed me in his eyes. And, of course, that’s exactly what Avon did.

We had this one episode where Avon met his only friend in the Universe. And David Maloney (the producer) said: “Don’t worry – You kill him on the last page!” 

So I’ve killed my only friend in the Universe and I’ve also killed my only love in the Universe. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Where’s he going to go?

JOHN: The new producer is Vere Lorimer. Are you going to be in the next series?

PAUL: As far as I know. What’s happened at the moment is that Vere’s rung us all up personally to say: “We are thinking of a fourth series and would you be interested in doing it?”

Then it’s a question of what’s going to happen in it – Where’s it going to go? I think it has to develop and that’s part of its appeal. We’ve lost four of the Seven – five if you count the Liberator (the space ship).

We’ve lost the Liberator, Zen, Blake, Jenna and Gan. That’s quite a change, really. Now we’ve got a situation where really Avon is in charge, isn’t he?

JOHN: Yes, what do you think Avon felt about old softie-liberal Blake?

Avon and Blake had a fraught relationship in the Blake series.

PAUL: I think he really admired the commitment – we were talking about commitment earlier on – and that’s why he stuck with Blake to a certain extent. Also, he had nowhere else to go. As he made clear halfway through the second series, Blake could have what he wanted but what Avon wanted was the Liberator and eventually he got it. 

JOHN: It was really a case of “This spaceship isn’t big enough for both of us”.

PAUL: Yes. what happened at the end of the second series – we discussed this quite carefully – was that, as far as the personalities were concerned, one of those characters had to go: Blake or Avon.

I used to expect an episode to arrive on my desk entitled Showdown or Gunfight at Jupiter Junction or something and it would be Blake and Avon saying: “I’ve had enough – This is where you get yours!” Gareth (Thomas, who played Blake) expected that too.

But, in fact, what happened was that Gareth got a good offer to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company  and he said: “I don’t want to go on playing the straight up-and-down hero”. He was – I think you can quote that… I don’t think he was happy. I think he’d agree.

JOHN: It was a boring part – having to play the man in the white hat.

PAUL: And it wasn’t his fault. He’s actually quite good, you know. But the character had to be ‘morally sound’ all the way through.

When the third series started, David Maloney said to me: “What we’re going to do is introduce a streak of morality into Avon.”

I said: “Oh no, no, you mustn’t do that!”

But he said: “No, we’re going to.”

And I thought, well, if they introduce a streak of morality in him, I can play it in such a way that he looks as though he’s amoral. So I left it at that. An actor can do all sorts of things. You can say the phrase “I love you” in 9,000 different ways. What was good about the series was that there was a marvellous balance between everybody and we all got on well. 

The Blake’s 7 cast minus Blake etc; Josette Simon is on the left

There was very little hassle among the actors. Once or twice we obviously got a bit annoyed but, generally speaking, it was pretty good. 

Josette Simon (Dayne) was straight out of drama school. I saw her recently and she’d been to do an episode in another TV series, which must be nameless, and she said: “I had the most horrendous time. I thought everything was going to be like Blake’s 7, but it isn’t. It was awful! They didn’t speak to me, they were rude when they did speak and it was dreadful.”

She hated it – It was so unlike Blake’s 7.

(Left-Right) Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow and Michael Keating relax between takes on Blakes 7

… CONTINUED HERE

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