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John’s UK Coronavirus Diary – No 14 – hopeless eyes in the Tuol Sleng photos

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 13

WEDNESDAY 13th MAY

Performer and academic Giacinto Palmieri found this online:

When I woke up or maybe when I was half-awake/semi-conscious overnight – it’s difficult to tell the difference at the moment – I had a slight but definite sore throat and sickly feeling at the bottom of my throat. The slight soreness moved down into my chest. And then into my stomach – but that was maybe connected to constipation. Perhaps too much information there. It lasted maybe an hour or 90 minutes.

I did not take paracetamol. I have always been overly-affected by a line in the movie Rosemary’s Baby when Rosemary – pregnant with the Devil’s child – is told by a friend: “Pain is a sign that something is wrong, Rosemary.”

If my body is telling my brain there is a problem somewhere, I want to know exactly where and exactly how strong that pain is, though it is unlikely I will ever be impregnated by Satan.

I reported my very slight symptoms one day earlier this week to the COVID-19 Sympton Tracer app run by King’s College London, Guy’s & St Thames’ Hospitals and others. They are sending me a home test kit. With a car I could have gone to a test centre. I was surprised they are sending me a test because my possible symptoms are very mild. Maybe they responded because, although I am not in a vital group 0r over 70, I am knocking-on a bit and count as a tad old.

I slept almost all of the day.

I went out to buy food at Aldis – a total of 16 minutes.

I was OK but, carrying two heavy bags back, I was slightly wobbly on my feet.

In the last 24 hours, coronavirus-related deaths in the UK have risen by 627, bringing the total to 32,692.

THURSDAY 14th MAY

Very tired. I just wanted to sleep in bed all day and had a totally dry mouth when there.

Romanian entertainer Dragos Mostenescu, on the other hand, was just going mad with boredom, his musical children and active animals in self-isolation…

In the evening, I had a FaceTime chat with the singular Kunt and the Gang. Always a cleansing of the mind.

FRIDAY 15th MAY

I slept most of the day and had a totally bone dry mouth when in bed. Needed to drink and wee a lot. A strange and possibly not pleasant to envisage combination.

I got a call mid-afternoon when I was stone cold fast asleep. There then followed a 14-minute monologue with me occasionally mumbling a “Yes” and a “Mmm…” of encouragement.

The next time I woke up, several hours later, for totally inexplicable reasons, I was thinking vividly about Bergen Belsen, The Killing Fields and  Rutger Hauer’s final death speech in Bladerunner.

When I was about 10 or 11, I saw on television the film taken of the liberation of Belsen which, I hope, is the worst thing I will ever see in my life.

As the camera moved along a path there was, on the right, a large pile of skeletons… Just the bones… And then one of the skeletons slowly got up and staggered to its feet; a skeleton with almost nothing between its bones, somehow still alive. The camera kept moving and the shuffling, staggering skeleton went out of view as the camera progressed to other horrors.

The killing fields at Choeung Ek – not as horrific as the hopeless eyes in the photographs at S21’s Tuol Sleng

When I went to The Killing Fields years later, outside Phnom Penh, in 1989, they were not as horrific. What was horrific in Phnom Penh itself was going to the S21 Interrogation Centre at Tuol Sleng. Before the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, the building had been the Girls’ High School.

The entrance room had a map of Kampuchea made of human skulls. But what was really horrifying was that (I think) three walls of one room were totally covered from ceiling to floor with B&W passport-type headshots of people who had been interrogated… and they all had that same empty look in their blankly-staring eyes. They all knew they would soon be taken on trucks to the killing fields outside Phnom Penh and there they would be slaughtered, one-by-one, with hits on the back of the skull by farming implements – a spade, a fork, whatever.

After thinking of Belsen and Rutger Hauer’s final death speech and the faces at Tuol Sleng and a bit of crying, I went back to sleep.

I woke up to read a Tweet posted by Ariane Sherine. She had given her 9-year-old daughter a fairly complicated maths question. Ariane wrote:

After a moment of confusion, she’s done it and done it correctly, though while concurrently yelling ‘I HATE MATHS!’ 🤣

I commented: I’m with the kid! 

It had just struck me that maths is a dull chore to Ariane’s daughter (and to me) because the correct result is always correct and always pre-exists. It is a chore finding the route to a pre-existent end… With writing or drawing (both of which the daughter is very, very good at), her newly-9-year-old creative imagination creates a unique end result. She is creating her own unique result.

Then I had an iMessage with my friend in Central London whose friend is in an Intensive Care Unit with serious coronavirus:


SHE: I haven’t tasted anything for 7 weeks. Yes still. No taste.

ME: I am forcing myself to get up. I have to wash clothes, bedclothes, bathe myself, shave… but all I really want to do is sleep,

The COVID-19 Symptom Study app

Do you report daily to the COVID-19 app?

The COVID-19 app bloke from Kings College was on BBC News earlier saying they had figured out 14 symptoms (not just the government’s) 3 and that included the taste/smell from their 3million+ app users

SHE: I doubt I still have active virus, John. I lost my smell and had 2 weeks of fever mid-March. My friend tested positive on April 3 when he went into hospital. But is now negative. So I would be too. I’m still shit scared of getting it again though – There’s no guarantee one can’t.

The test they are sending you for whether you have the virus doesn’t identify antibodies. Antibodies are not made fully until 28 days after infection. Roche has developed an antibody test which has been in the news the last few days and will be rolled out in the UK. But it is not the same as the test you will be sent to ascertain whether you have the active virus.

ME: When I donated blood the other week, they specifically said they tested for antibodies but not the virus itself. The blood I donated has been used but no feedback on antibodies.


In the last 24 hours, an extra 384 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK. Total now 33,998 death.

SATURDAY 16th MAY

Exhausted… dry mouth

UK deaths up 468 in last 24 hours; now 34,466.

I went to sleep around 1930 last night and woke up round 2130. When I stood up, my sense of balance was all-over-the-place.

I lay down for about 20 minutes. When I stood up again, I was fine.

No idea why. It was like watching myself in an abstract way, from a distance.

Apparently, the average heart rate is between 60-100 bpm but, according to my Apple Watch, I am normally (in resting mode) around the 51/53/53 region.

Today I am around 47 bpm. 

No idea why.

… CONTINUED HERE

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John’s UK Coronavirus Diary – No 13 – I feel dizzy and there is a comedy death

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 12

(Photograph by Engin Akyurt via UnSplash)

SUNDAY 10th MAY

A message from my friend in Central London, whose friend has been in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit with severe coronavirus since 4th April:


He is now awake and nodding/shaking his head to questions. He’s comfortable. 

Doctors this morning decided that taking him off the ventilator for long periods tires him out too much – I was wondering about this too  – because, when he’s had some hours off it, it seems the next day he’s so exhausted he just sleeps. So they’ve set a regime of twice a day (morning and afternoon) for shorter periods, with just supplemental oxygen mask. His oxygen requirement a the moment is down to 35%. 

This new regime could mean that finding time for a video call from me is difficult because there’s more to sort out with him during course of the day. So I sent our love and hugs and they will pass it on. The nurse said they tell him whenever I call, which I didn’t realise, so that’s lovely to know. 

Further encouraging news is that he’s still off the kidney machine, and managing, even without diuretic medication. They’re keeping a close eye, but even if he has to go back on the machine for a bit, it’s surely a sign that his kidneys are starting to function?


MONDAY 11th MAY

My friend Lynn’s husband Frank points out to me that, last night, the Prime Minister said in his  TV address that, if possible, we should travel to places of exercise not by public transport, but “use the car”.

Not A car but THE car.

Where is this car kept? And do we need to fill in a form to get access to it? Or will Rishi, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – in a further display of generosity – buy us all a car to stimulate the economy?

Frank rightly thinks we should be told.

Frank and Lynn are taking ro risks, even at home…

…Frank and Lynn in coronavirus face masks, possibly auditioning for a future series of Narcos


My friend in Central London updated me on her friend:


I have just had my daily chat with the ICU nurse, Angela, who is looking after him. Luckily the ICU is becoming quieter as we are past the peak. 

At the end of the call, she said: “We’re telling families please don’t listen to Boris Johnson. Please stay at home and tell all your friends to stay home… R below One doesn’t mean no new cases! We on the front line don’t want to go back to where we were a month ago. Our patients are here for between 2 weeks and 3 months to date – Those that make it. We can’t risk a second spike. Please don’t listen to Boris.”


Poor old Boris! I think he was saying all that in his most recent TV speech. I thought he did OK. He’s damned if he loosens lockdown too fast. He’s damned if he loosens lockdown too slow.

He was basically saying what she says. I understand his speech meant that even when we have a useable vaccine (which could be July next year) with an R of 0.01, there will still be infections and some deaths. 

Russia, the BBC reported, now has the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world, overtaking the UK and Italy.  (I understood the US was up there) If  Russia is admitting this, the statistics must be way way higher.

A couple of weeks ago there was a report of 9-mile queues of ambulances waiting to get into hospitals in (I think it was) St Petersburg. There was footage from a camera in a car of a seemingly endless queue of static  ambulances on the other side of the road.

Of course, deaths per population is the important statistic. The UK government is only regularly releasing total numbers, not deaths as a percentage relation to head of population.  

On one day, they did. On the first graph for total deaths, the US was way way ahead of the quoted European countries (who have lower populations).  On the next per head of population graph, the US was middling but, way WAY ahead of everyone else was Belgium! As deaths per head of population, they were spectacularly ahead.

There really are lies, damned lies and statistics.

The government has now decided to “advise” but not tell us to wear facemasks if in shops where social distance cannot be ensured.

My Eternally un-Named Friend came round unexpectedly to my home circa 1730 to deliver a facemask to me. I had suggested she posted it. Very kind indeed. I had not been out for a couple of days – too sleepy and so on.

We had a walk around Borehamwood six feet apart. During the walk, she pointed out I was leaning forward slightly, staggering forward. She was right. I had not noticed I was leaning forward while walking. In fact, I was leaning forward, almost toppling over sometimes in the street. feeling slightly swirly-headed/lightheaded/dizzy. 

I have been sitting a lot on my sink-in-the-seat sofa. which is never good. My spine – injured when I got hit by a truck in 1991 while I was standing on a pavement – has never fully recovered.

My Eternally un-Named Friend thinks (and might be right) that I am also not eating properly, because I am trying to diet. She had to steady me with her hand three times

After she left and I was back home, sitting down on the sofa, I was OK.

I will probably sleep on the floor tonight. Nothing worrisome, just a glitch.

TUESDAY 12th MAY

I have only just got up, just before noon. I suspect I will be erasing emails for hours. I didn’t erase any yesterday; only read ones from real people I know; didn’t trash any from the acres of email lists I am on.

Shortly after going to bed (the floor) last night, I was very snotty – loads of globs of snot which I had to blow out of my nose. And bits of phlegm in my mouth.

A couple of hours later, I woke up with a sharp pain in my lower throat and had to take a Tyrozet to sooth it. Pain went down into my chest, then stomach; presumably making its way down a tube.

My throat was OK this morning, though. Slightly snotty and coughy still. And a tiny bit uncertain on my feet. My balance not 100% right.

At around 1000, performer Martin Soan woke me up with the news that Dave ‘Bagpiper’ Brooks had died, aged 72. I collected some info on him, then was so tired I had to go back to sleep.

Mid afternoon, around 1515 – I woke up to write a blog about Dave Brooks’ death. I had a sharp pinprick headache in my right temple. If I touched it, the pinprick pain was worse. And it also sometimes went round the back of my neck. It lasted about 2 hours.

… CONTINUED HERE

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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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John’s UK Coronavirus Diary – No 7 – The human effect on friends and family

… CONTINUED, REALLY, FROM DIARY No 5

EASTER SUNDAY 12th APRIL

The UK figures for deaths related to coronavirus are now over 10,000 – in fact, 10,612.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from hospital today, after being in an Intensive Care Unit.

My Central London friend, mentioned in previous blogs, who has a friend in an Intensive Care Unit with the virus, told me that, last night:

“A consultant phoned me after ICU rounds. He said my friend’s oxygen requirement remains high but was stable on maximum ventilation – but he is now needing 24/7 dialysis. His blood has shown a bacterial infection somewhere although they don’t know where, so they are treating that with broad spectrum antibiotics and it is improving. He has no fever. The swab from last week has confirmed he has COVID-19.

“The consultant said that they (and we) were hoping by now for a small sign of improvement because, after a week, most patients who make it out the other side are showing some reduction in ventilator dependence. They will keep giving him all the support they can, in the hope his body can take over some of the breathing. But the more and longer support they give – and the more organs involved – the more his survival is compromised. 

“The consultant was quite blunt and it was hard to hear and it is awful to write. I am beyond sad and distressed. Sort of numb, then tears, then numb. Yet I am getting a lot of support all round and a huge amount of loving messages for my friend. 

“I am so busy fielding questions and talking to his family and friends and answering so many texts coming through with good wishes. He has so much more living to do, such a zest for life; he is so generous and charitable, so fit and healthy and active at 59, always climbing up those hills near where he lives (his home is not in London). No pre-existing medical issues except for a bit of gout. He has helped so very many people with so many things – I had no idea, but I am receiving a wealth of heartwarming messages. 

“This is a nightmare for so many families, I cannot comprehend the enormity.” 

EASTER MONDAY 13th APRIL

British comedy performer Tim Brooke-Taylor died of coronavirus yesterday. Someone asked me if I had ever met him and, for the life of me, I could not remember. But, then, my friend Lynn told me she had had a dream last night in which she had been in the Green Room at London Weekend Television and disgraced film director Roman Polanski was sitting in a chair not talking to anyone. It was only when she woke up that she remembered she actually HAD encountered Roman Polanski in the Green Room at LWT years ago and he was sitting in a chair not talking to anyone. She had forgotten she had ever encountered him. He was, she said, extremely small.

I had a flash of a dream myself last night about having a dream about having a dream (it was one of those dreams!) about something I was told last century by an Italian archaeologist who was a sleeper agent for the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Strange but true. I have mentioned it before – years ago – in this blog. He told me:


One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman, the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearful eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. Afterwards, he becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.

“Of course!” says the great Khan. “Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!”

“So (he) takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army…”

So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, travels to the other city. When he arrives, he sees the same dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:

“I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so far away, I was worried that you would not make it here in time for your appointment.”

And the standard-bearer realises that Death is with him.


I got another message from my friend in Central London:

“I just spoke to the Senior Critical Care Nurse.

“My friend had a less good night, needing meds to support blood pressure. Today more stable although still needing dialysis. I asked whether it is possible for his kidneys to recover from acute renal failure and she said Yes. 

“The plan this afternoon is to try decreasing oxygen by a minuscule step to see if he can tolerate less ventilation. This is something they do every few days to see if there’s any improvement in lung function. 

“He is not absorbing feed well at the moment. 

“Overall, the nurse told me, they cannot predict the outcome, as he continues to be critically ill and has not yet turned a corner. However, she added that they continue to support him because, at this point, there is still a possibility of improvement.

“So we are not without hope. 

“It sort of depends who one talks to at the hospital. Some doctors are very blunt. The other day one said to me: ‘He’s not dead, so that’s a positive.’ Whereas the nursing staff are more compassionate but they may just be more skilled at delivering the info in a more palatable way… Who knows?” 

The UK figures for hospitals today are 717 dead in last 24 hours. Total 11,329

It was like finding the Ark of the Covenant…

TUESDAY 14th APRIL

The highlight of today was going into the local Iceland store and finding three plastic bottles of antibacterial handwash. I have not seen anything like these for maybe three weeks. I only bought one bottle, of course, as I am not a panic-buyer.

There were some face masks on sale in a small local shop last week – one-use only masks – at £5 each.

Online, I got some PVC gloves (£10 for 100, including postage) six days ago, kept forgetting to put them on the first three days and have worn them the last three days. 

But I can’t stop random scratching and touching bits of my cranial anatomy. Which, I suspect, makes wearing the gloves rather pointless. 

Romanian entertainer Dragos Mostenescu has put online another episode of his series about being in the London lockdown with his family:

Meanwhile, YouGov today reported that “With some public health experts warning that the government could face ‘an unforgiving reckoning’ for its early handling of the coronavirus crisis, we asked Britons how confident they are in the scientific advice that is being given to them by its health advisers.

“71% are either fairly (57%) or very (14%) confident in the advice being given.

“Only 21% are not very (16%) or not at all (4%) confident.”

Today’s government figures are that the number of coronavirus hospital deaths jumped by 778 in the last 24 hours to a total of 12,107.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Kunt: Why did the internet’s filthiest British singing sensation chuck it all in?

On 31st October this year, now retired Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning tunesmith Kunt and The Gang released some of his most entertaining and potentially offensive songs translated into French in an album Bite ô Ma Bite: Les Plus Grandes Teubs de Kunt and The Gang.

We agreed to have a blog chat about this.

That was over a month ago.

We eventually met up this week.

It is now late November and we had both forgotten why we were meeting up.


JOHN: Why are we meeting up? I have totally forgotten.

KUNT: I dunno. On the train in from Essex I was thinking: Why am I meeting John? I couldn’t remember.

JOHN: What are those tattoos on your fists? LOVE and HATE?

KUNT: No. SOUP DU JOUR. I wanted something that wouldn’t date.

JOHN: When did you get them done?

KUNT: The week after I’d finished doing Kunt and The Gang.

JOHN: Remind me when you retired from the show business?

KUNT: I packed it in in November 2016. I started in 2003, then gave my job up with the Council in 2008, then did it full-time till 2016. So I packed it in three years ago, but you can’t make a comeback within five, because…

JOHN: That means you’ll be back in two years time?

KUNT: No, though maybe in two years time my dwindling pot of cash will have fully dwindled.

JOHN: Why did you retire?

KUNT: Seemed like the right thing to do. I’d done everything I wanted to do. You keep painting the same picture over and over again; eventually, it drives you mental.

I did ten years or so of touring and, in that time, I was still playing some of the same venues, but for bigger crowds. It could only go so far, but that’s not why I packed it up. I was under no illusions – it was called Kunt and The Gang – it was never going to get on TV or radio; it was never going to get in the papers.

JOHN: It was a niche market.

Kunt looked up a goat in the City of London

KUNT: Yes, but what surprised me in my time doing it was the crossover appeal it had. Not like Shaggy or The Spice Girls, but a fairly diverse group of people came to see my shows. People in Heavy Metal T-shirts that you wouldn’t see at any other gig than a Metal gig. There would be metalheads, punks, old people, teenagers. You couldn’t second guess who was going to like it – in Edinburgh especially. The old couple in the front row you think Oh God! They’re gonna hate it! end up laughing like drains and the young couple next to them end up having an argument with one of them storming out.

JOHN: Well, if you give ‘em quality, it will cross all divides. And your stuff IS quality. You know what my view is: if you wrote mainstream, clean lyrics, you’d make a fortune. The tunes are wonderful and you are a very good lyricist.

KUNT: I never have any mainstream clean ideas, though. And, if you try and force it, it just doesn’t work. If you start to water it down, it just doesn’t work.

JOHN: I still think you could be big mainstream success…

KUNT: But you have to know people to get the ins and that’s always been my problem. I remember my Wikipedia entry saying: This is an orphaned article… which meant it had no links to anything else. Everyone networks on social media. But I was a social network orphan, really, because I didn’t collaborate or reach out to other people. I just did me own thing. That’s the way I like doing it, but also I stopped sending out promo copies of the CDs and didn’t send out press releases or promote things. It just went along by word-of-mouth.

JOHN: Are you still getting the same number of online hits as before?

KUNT: It’s ticking over. I truly never really look at the stats. It’s more interesting doing stuff than looking at stats, but I notice the Jimmy Savile and The Sexy Kids video has gone over half a million, which surprised me. The trouble with doing topical things is they normally tend to have a very short shelf-life… but not Jimmy Savile. 

JOHN: So what are you doing at the moment for work?

KUNT: Painting and decorating and tiling.

JOHN: Is that satisfying?

KUNT: D’you know what? It is. But it’s not that financially rewarding and it makes you realise that mincing around on stage singing electro-cock songs is probably the best career option even if the songs you’ve sung 2,000 times become a bit soul-destroying. It seems like not a bad idea when you’re up at 7 o’clock in the morning on the North Circular road.

JOHN: Did you say Electro-Cock?

KUNT: Yes.

JOHN: Just checking… So are you frustrated? Though painting and decorating is creative. You create something.

KUNT: Well, it’s the most creative mundane thing you can do. Before I was Kunt, I had a job at Calor Gas. You did a different job every quarter of the day. You’d be loading bottles on and off, then you’d be on the production line. The most tedious job was sitting there watching the bottles go underwater to see if any bubbles came out.

You’d been out at a gig the night before, you’d had three hours sleep and you were watching these bottles go round and round. The most interesting thing that could happen was if a spider was on one of the bottles and it would go under the water, then pop up to the top, scrabbling for life.

Them mundane times are the times you have more ideas, because your brain goes into like a state of trance. I always got lots of ideas when I was doing really mundane things. I used to drive a mini-bus for the County Council and I remember pulling over in a lay-by and writing Wanking Over a Pornographic Polaroid of an Ex-Girlfriend Who Died from start to finish.

JOHN: What happens when you’re painting and decorating? Do you still get ideas for songs while doing that?

KUNT: Recently… Greta Thunberg’s Fanny…

JOHN: Don’t you miss performing? I’m not a performer, but you must have got a kick out of performing.

KUNT: Yeah. But it wasn’t my favourite thing. My favourite thing is the creative process: sitting there at a computer writing a song. I would do that every day if I could and some days I do.

JOHN: You must have a backlog of new songs on your computer.

KUNT: Yeah. 

JOHN: The tunes are great. If you removed the lyrics, you could sell the tunes mainstream.

KUNT: Yeah, I’ve got 125 catchy, early-80s-sounding instrumentals from songs I’ve done but, if you get commissioned to do the theme tune for a kids’ TV show, sooner-or-later someone finds out it was previously a song about raping a paper boy!

JOHN: Is it enough just to create new songs or do they need to be let loose into the world for total satisfaction?

KUNT: You have to let them loose into the world because otherwise you just keep fiddling with them. They’re like your children. You let them out into the world cos otherwise you would just keep fiddling with them at home.

JOHN: Was that prepared?

KUNT: No.

JOHN: I’m impressed. Excellent structure.

KUNT: I do a lot of off-the-cuff stuff.

The children’s book, credited as “by Mr Gels and Kay Mann”

JOHN: You are a tragic loss to showbiz. How much stuff have you produced since you ‘retired’ in 2016? You wrote a children’s book, of all things… Bumface Poohands.

KUNT: And I wrote that book about my time…

JOHN: i, Kunt.

KUNT: Yes.

JOHN: You should have tried to get sponsorship from Apple.

KUNT: I don’t think they’re that keen on people appropriating their brand, not generally. I had an album in 2014 called Jap’s iTunes (ie Jap’s Eye Tunes) and I had to change the name of it on iTunes – I mean, putting it up on iTunes then taking it down then changing the title and putting it back up would just not have been worth all the aggro.

JOHN: Any new albums on the horizon?

KUNT: I’ve just released a French album.

JOHN: Called?

Kunt came clean in his autobiography

KUNT: Bite ô Ma Bite: Les Plus Grandes Teubs de Kunt and The Gang.

JOHN: Which means?

KUNT: Cock. Oh My Cock: The Great Big Cocks of Kunt and The Gang.

JOHN: So it’s a Best of… album?

KUNT: Yeah. I had a very keen fan who translated a load of my songs into French for me. 

JOHN: A genuine translation?

KUNT: Yeah, down to the reference points and everything. I looked all his references up on Wikipedia. In one of the songs, I mention the English murderer Ian Huntley and he translated that into the name of a real French caretaker wrong un.

JOHN: When was the album released?

KUNT: Last month.

JOHN: We should have arranged to meet up to talk about that.

KUNT: Yeah. Pity we didn’t.

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Lynn Ruth Miller says Amsterdam is not all about marijuana and prostitution…

Lynn Ruth Miller arrives at Schiphol Airport

Lynn Ruth Miller (86 years old physically; in her twenties mentally and creatively) is an American comic and burlesque performer living very happily in London. But she has been off on her travels again, performing in Amsterdam. 

Here she tells all…


Everyone thinks Amsterdam is all about marijuana and prostitution, but that isn’t the way it is for me these days. It could be because my estrogen has flown the coop or I am so small they don’t notice me but my Amsterdam experience is like a warm, fluffy blanket. I always feel like I have just flown into a cozy cloud of senior love even before I land in Schiphol.

While I was waiting for my plane, I met Fred, a man from the south of the Netherlands who does publicity for theatres. He offered to charge my phone but I am a very proper lady and I do not plug into strangers until I am confident I won’t get a shock.  

However, we did have a spirited conversation about Dutch theatre and love. Fred told me why he married his second wife. I asked him why they couldn’t just live together until one or the other of them got bored and he said: “When you love a beautiful woman, (I realized immediately that I was out of the running… but I was still curious) you are so proud that she loves you back that you want to show her off to all your friends and say You see? This gorgeous creature wants only me!

I have to say that was how it was with my father and mother.  

My daddy was a very homely man – short, and stocky with a bad complexion and horn-rimmed glasses. My mama was exquisite. She was a tiny redhead with sparkling blue eyes and she was built like a brick shit-house.  

When my father took her out to a movie or to someone’s home for dinner, he wore my mother like a jewel.

Listening to Fred’s defence of marriage clarified why my two husbands left me so quickly. Obviously, if you are stuck with a dreamy idealist who is flat chested and clomps around the place in sensible shoes, you want to hide her under the carpet as soon as possible.

But I digress.

On the plane, I chatted with Emma who is from Paris, studying economics at UCL in London. She and I bonded over our cream cheese and spinach (that is what the label SAID was in that little sandwich; although it tasted like nothing at all to me) because Emma has a dog named Balthus, a beautiful Jack Russell mix. I am confident that I will be occupying her Parisian guest room in the spring. Oui, in effet.

I understand her bathroom is equipped with a luxury bidet and a hot tub big enough for two. I am thinking Balthus and me, of course… not that I would refuse her father. French men are quite an experience, so I hear.

Amsterdam: “I felt like a miniature Lilliputian among a horde of blonde giants.” (Photograph by Sávio Félix via Unsplash)

As soon as I disembarked from the plane, I felt like a miniature Lilliputian among a horde of blond giants. The average height of a Dutch gentleman is well over 6 feet and the women are all about 5’7”.  

I am now 4’10” and I spend all my time in Amsterdam staring at belt buckles while I make scintillating conversation (in English of course).  

If I am particularly witty (which is all the time) I am often aware of a visible male reaction… and THAT is surprisingly rewarding for me.

I got a cab to take me to my lodging. And that was when I met Mustafa.  

Mustafa’s father escaped from Afghanistan when he was a little tyke of eight years old. His daddy hid out in another country, but he sent Mustafa, his sister and his mother to Amsterdam and followed a couple years later.

Everyone always thinks people who are granted asylum are hysterically grateful for being granted a safe haven in a benevolent foreign land, but we are wrong. Mustafa told he how terrified he was moving to a city filled with tall, blond people he couldn’t understand, who made fun of little brown boys. His mother couldn’t find the foods that comforted him because she had no way of communicating what they were to the local grocer.  

And the weather was abysmal.  

In January, the weather in Holland is a wet, rainy 36 degrees Fahrenheit while in Mustafa’s hometown in Afghanistan it was always a sunny 44.

I was staying in Edo Berger’s guest house this trip.

Nina, Edo’s beautiful wife, met me at the door with Doris, their 14-month-old daughter. The two decided to name their daughter Doris because they wanted her to be able to spell her name. They wanted to keep it simple – only 5 letters. After all, one never knows how intelligent one’s offspring will be.   

They need not have worried about Doris, however. At 14 months, she carries on an only slightly unintelligible conversation, expresses her opinions vociferously and crawls with great energy into toilets, cupboards and under tables.

Nina is an abortion doctor and we discussed the strict limiting laws against abortion in some of the American states.

She explained abortion is not an issue in Holland because anyone can have one whenever they please. However, she recalled when her clinic had to close for a couple months and she read about a woman who had hanged herself.  

“I am pretty sure she was one of my patients,” Nina said.

It was Anna Quinlan who said: “When men legislate for women’s bodies, the coat hangers come out.”  

So do the ropes.  

Take heed all you men who think you know best about a woman’s right to give birth.

That night I was booked to headline at Mezrab, a wonderfully vibrant club in Amsterdam and Mustafa drove me there. He even walked me to the door and, as we made our way together, I thought: Here we two are, a Muslim and a Jew, who just love to be together sharing stories. 

Listen up, Israel and Palestine.

International comedy line-up at the Mezrab club, Amsterdam

Mezrab is a crowded, exciting place to perform comedy.

Their line up is always diverse.  

This time, they had Aidan Killian from Dublin, Henrik Elmer from Sweden, Raul Kohli from Manchester (a foreign country to me) and Jia Yuan from China, now living in Amsterdam.   

On Sunday afternoon, I met Mikaelia a comedian who is originally from Detroit. I was born a mere 40 miles away in Toledo, Ohio, a town that borders a dead great lake, Lake Erie. The town fathers there were so upset to have this polluted dead body of water on their shore that in 2018 they passed a law creating a Bill of Rights for the lake. They agreed that their residents were deliberately dumping garbage into the dead lake and letting objectionable creatures pollute it.

Would that they would pass a similar law for their politics.

Ohio was one of the states that gave the world Donald Trump, a man one of my friends refers to as That Orange Turd.

Mikaelia and I went to the Amsterdam Affordable Art Fair and I was shocked at how different the art was there from the same fair in London.  

Although the London Affordable Art Fair is always very original and interesting, the one in Amsterdam had a completely different definition of what visual art can be.

There were many three dimensional pieces, many that used unusual optical illusions, a great deal of photography combined with paint and collage. It was a spectacular exhibition.

Comedy Cafe, Amsterdam: “always filled with tourists…”

But, in Amsterdam, the frosting on the cake for me is always my gigs at The Comedy Café run by Tim van’t Hul, a very capable comedian in his own right. He will be coming to London to make everyone here laugh at the beginning of January.  

His shows are always filled with tourists, which means I can do the same set over and over without boring anyone but myself. Sunday was especially good with a packed house and a lot of funny men on stage. Sadly no women in the line up except me and, at my age, I think I am more neutral.

My plane left on Monday and Mustafa drove me to the airport for my good-bye gift.  It was both beautiful and touching to share life experiences with this very young man who had endured far more trauma in his life that I have yet to see, yet is so generous with his time and so kind to old ladies.  

In many ways, our friendship should be an example of what can happen in this angry turbulent world of ours to make it a more comfortable place to live. Recycling isn’t the only way to make our lives better.

The plane was an hour late. Evidently, KLM has a problem with timetables. I am guessing their schedule is Jewish.

I did arrive home in London in time to have two very lovely men cook me a vegetarian dinner.

I now have two blissful weeks in London basking in the autumn downpours and debilitating winds, until I hurry off to sunshine and political unrest in Southeast Asia.  

The bug spray has been purchased and I am so ready to sweat.

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What the Dutch are really like – by a London-based American comic…

London-based American globetrotting comedy and burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller, 85, has briefly returned to the UK from Amsterdam where, below, she found time to jot down a few generalisations.

Don’t blame me!

Lynn Ruth in Amsterdam (Photograph by Neil Robinson)


I believe women in the UK are the most advanced thinkers in the world: liberal, open-minded, ambitious and proud of who they are.

But they cannot hold a candle to Dutch women.

The girls in Amsterdam do not take shit from anyone. They ride their bicycles in their fancy dresses and their sensible shoes (no helmets). They pay their own way and do not consider it polite for you to offer to treat them: they call that patronizing.

They are gorgeous, tall, blonde and independent. They tell you exactly what they think. They are NEVER wrong. AND they are loyal to each other. Do not ever try to criticize someone’s friend here; you will be ground to dust. I find that comforting. I am always sticking my foot in my mouth or stumbling into the wrong opinion but I know my buddies here will protect me and stand behind me, even though they might call me later to tell me what an idiot I am.

My generation – fools that we were – believed women’s work is to cook, clean and pick up after men and children. Not the girls in Amsterdam. You cook for yourself here and take responsibility for your own mess… no-one else’s. What a freedom!!!

The Dutch respect individuals’ right to make decisions about their own bodies in this country. My darling friend Nina is an abortion doctor. If you forgot the morning-after pill or the condom broke, she will help you set things right. Euthanasia is legal here as well. It is a comfort to me to know that, if I start getting loopy, one of my friends can ship me over to Amsterdam and, with a little heroin and a lot of wine, I can cross over to the other side. Just like that.  

No lingering around, helpless and drooling, for me.  

Amsterdam is a delightful city, vibrant and filled with interesting things to see and do, but the local food is execrable. These people love fries drenched in mayonnaise and greasy frikandel, a hot dog filled with greasy chicken, pork and veal, deep-fried and smothered in curry ketchup or applesauce. Everyone here loves pancakes with lots of sugar and anything not sweetened is deep-fried. If that isn’t horrifying enough, the Dutch love candy sprinkles on toast for breakfast. No wonder the incidence of diabetes has spiked here and so has obesity.

Dutch parents are known to take their children to an abandoned place like a forest, give them a sandwich and a bottle of water and let them find their own way home. They call this “Dropping” and it is a beloved tradition here. One Dutch woman put it this way: “You are literally dropping your kids into the world. Of course, you make sure they won’t die, but other than that, they have to find their own way.”

I personally have been trying to find my own way for 85 years 11 months now. No luck so far.

Lynn Ruth’s venue for five nights in Amsterdam…

I was in Amsterdam to perform at its famous Comedy Café, where I was to headline for four days and feature for one. On the way there, on my first night, I passed several coffee shops where the smell of pot almost literally knocked me off my feet and, when I looked inside, I realized that the only people there were tourists. The Dutch do not smoke weed. They prefer something stronger like cocaine or meth.

And they aren’t very fond of tourists either. Last year alone there were more tourists in Amsterdam than there are people in all of Holland. They clog the streets and pee in flower boxes. They also spend billions on trinkets and nonsense that boosts the economy and the Dutch love money. The only thing they hate about the Euro is spending it.

My first night was a Tuesday and the audience was sparse and a bit of a challenge. They were from everywhere in the world, but very few had English as their first language. Getting a laugh is not easy when your audience is processing what you say and translating it back into their own tongue. What I do in that situation is talk slowly and pause after my punch lines. Amy Schumer gave me that advice at least twelve years ago: “When you say something funny, WAIT. Then, they will figure out that they are supposed to laugh.”

And, in Amsterdam at least, she has proven right.

The lovely thing about returning here so many times (this is my fifth visit) is that I see the same comedians and each time I see how they have sharpened their jokes and improved their timing. I also hear comedians that have not changed their set in years and I have heard them say the same thing so much I can chime in on their punch lines.

I get the problem. It is really difficult to carve out a never-fail joke and, when you finally get one and get the timing just right, you are loathe to let it go. It is exactly the same philosophy as allowing your child to make his own mistakes. He will often make a bit of a mess at first but eventually he figures it all out.  

A new joke needs understanding, love and persistence. You have to prune it and rearrange the words. You have to figure out the pauses and the emphases. But for most of us the agony of a silent audience, if we don’t get it right, is too painful. We are terrified to take a chance. So we stick to the winners for years and years and years.

Dutch audiences are very forgiving and very kind. They do not follow a particular comedian unless is he is wildly famous and I do not play in those big name expensive clubs that feature TV stars. In the places I perform, the audience come to have an affordable night out and a good laugh. The line-up means nothing to them and they rarely remember you from one show to another.

Next week, I am in Farfa, Italy, where I will stay in a monastery and show the nuns what they are missing.


(NOTE: Euthanasia is currently only legal in Holland in cases of “hopeless and unbearable” suffering.)

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Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Are To Return To The Edinburgh Fringe

For those of you who read the previous blog posted here earlier today… It looks like performer Becky Fury is going to get the needle and have a new tattoo engraved on her arm in Edinburgh…

Below is the text of a press release just issued by the British Comedy Guide…

Given the Legend that is Malcolm, I feel obliged to point out there is no money involved in this… Not for me; not for them; not for anyone…


It was announced today (Tuesday 6th August 2019) that the Hardees – the defunct Malcolm Hardee Awards – are being revived.

Presenting three prizes (Comic Originality, Cunning Stunt and Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid), the not-quite-annual, occasionally shambolic awards are presented at the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, in memory of Malcolm Hardee. He was a comedian, promoter, venue proprietor and “godfather to a generation of comic talent” who “maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences” throughout his life.

Last held in 2017, the awards were founded by John Fleming, a long-time friend of and professional collaborator with the anarchic “patron sinner of alternative comedy”, aiming to continue celebrating the vein of no-holds-barred, anarchic comedy spirit that he was known for.

Started in 2005, the year of Hardee’s death, Fleming now hands control of the awards over to British Comedy Guide (comedy.co.uk), with the full involvement and blessing of Hardee’s family.

British Comedy Guide – which runs the most comprehensive listings of the annual Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival anywhere – is also the organiser of the Comedians’ Choice Awards (formerly the Barry Awards (UK)), and media sponsor of the Comedy Poster Awards.

This year’s Hardees judges are Marissa Burgess, Claire Smith, Kate Copstick, Bruce Dessau, Jay Richardson; and British Comedy Guide’s Ian Wolf.

The 2019 award ceremony will take place at The Counting House in Edinburgh on Friday 23rd August, beginning at midnight and running into the early hours of Saturday 24th.

A shortlist for each prize will be announced on Wednesday 21st August. Nominations are accepted via email at hardees@comedy.co.uk

Additional information can be found at the Hardees’ website: https://www.comedy.co.uk/hardees/

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My Comedy Taste. Part 4: There was a Scots woman, a Jew and a dead writer

Here is the final part of my conversation with comedy festival judge and linguist Louisette Stodel which took place in London’s Soho Theatre Bar one afternoon back in 2017.

I think Louisette was impressed by and appreciative of the insights I shared with her…


JOHN: Janey Godley is interesting… You know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

JOHN: The Perrier Award judges individually went to see her show and it was not until they sat down together to discuss possible nominees that they realised they had all seen her perform totally different shows because she was making it up every night. Stories from her life. Very very funny. But different hour-long shows every night.

There was a big discussion about whether she was eligible for the Award. Some people were keen to nominate her but the rules were that you were nominated for performing ‘a show’ and what she was doing was not the same, single show every night. She was, it could be and was argued, simply chatting to the audience.

She was making up a different hour-long show every night for maybe 28 nights on the trot. Utterly brilliant and much more impressive than doing the same show every night. But, because it was NOT the same basic show every night, eventually, it was decided she was ineligible and she was not nominated for the Perrier.

LOUISETTE:  That’s exactly what you were talking about earlier, in a sense.

Janey Godley in Glasgow at Children In Need Rocks Scotland

JOHN: Yes. And, as far as I know, to this day, years later, Janey has never scripted a Fringe comedy show in her life. You get roughly the same show each year now – a different show every year – but she plays it by ear.

I remember once in London walking up Dean Street with her to the Soho Theatre for a supposed ‘preview’ of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show and she told me not only did she not know exactly which stories would be in the show; she did not know what her opening line would be.

She maybe had twelve or fifteen or eighteen basic unscripted stories and could fit maybe five or six into an hour-long show, but there was no script and no pre-decided running order. And the show was brilliantly funny. Now THAT is talent. THAT I admire.

LOUISETTE: How does she end her shows on time?

JOHN: Well, I know one year she did have one climactic prepared story and it lasted exactly nine minutes. It wasn’t scripted, but it was structured tightly. So she had the sound technician at the back of the audience flash a torch exactly ten minutes from the end of her scheduled time and, whatever she was saying at that point, she would get seamlessly into the start of the final story and, every night, she would finish to within about 30 seconds of her scheduled end-time – every night. Brilliant.

LOUISETTE: So what excites you is seeing unique shows.

JOHN: Well yes. I like Lewis Schaffer shows, of course. The ultimate in unpredictable rollercoaster shows.

LOUISETTE: You prefer the uneven acts.

JOHN: Yes. Well, sort of. Janey’s shows are not uneven – they are uniformly funny and smooth, but they are not tightly pre-planned. She’s just a great, great storyteller.

LOUISETTE: Slick?

JOHN: Smooth. She has great audience control. But, in general – Janey is an exception – I prefer rollercoaster acts. And maybe, for that reason, I prefer newer acts. 

LOUISETTE: Lewis Schaffer is not a new act.

JOHN: OK. I prefer newer acts OR wildly unpredictable acts.

LOUISETTE: And Lewis Schaffer is dependably unpredictable.

“He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could… become a TV success” (Photograph by Garry Platt)

JOHN: To say the least. Sometimes he will, from nowhere, just go off on a complete tangent and come up with wonderful original stuff.

I like seeing unexpected, brilliant stuff coming from nowhere.

Lewis Schaffer is never going to get success as a TV comic. Not as a stand-up. He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could, like and unlike Johnny Vegas, become a TV success through personality.

In his case, I think he would be a good presenter of documentaries because he has all these bizarre angles. He has a Wikipedia mind: he knows a little about a lot.

LOUISETTE: He’s also very funny on his Facebook page. But what is it about Lewis Schaffer specifically on stage? OK, he’s unpredictable; he’s up-and-down; he has great ideas…

JOHN: If you see him once, you might think it’s a shambles but, if you see him five times in a row, you get addicted.

LOUISETTE: The first time I saw him, his show was brilliant.

JOHN: Is this the My girlfriend had a penis show?

LOUISETTE: Yes.

JOHN: Now that WAS a show!

LOUISETTE: Friends of mine who recommended him told me: “See this guy. You never know what’s going to happen…”

JOHN: Yeah.

LOUISETTE: …and it wasn’t like that.

JOHN: Not that show. It actually had a structure. I nearly fell off my seat with shock because it was a ‘real’ structured show.

Certainly, with Lewis Schaffer, you see the real person. You can’t bloody avoid it. With him, the attraction is the unpredictability and the flashes of genuine left-field insight. He’s the definitive rollercoaster.

LOUISETTE: …which excites you because you don’t know what’s going to happen?

JOHN: Yes.

Not relevant: L’Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme by Max Ernst, 1937;

LOUISETTE: You like amazing stuff coming from nowhere. I had been going to ask you if it is the writing, the performance or the delivery that gets you excited, but it’s actually none of those things.

JOHN: Well, ‘writing’ is maybe not the right word. It can be. But it’s something coming from the laterally-thinking recesses of the brain.

LOUISETTE: So with someone like Ross Noble, where you know it’s going to be a little bit unpredictable but you also know that he’s probably going to make it all come good, does that make it less interesting because it’s less dangerous?

JOHN: No. You can make something become good through talent.

LOUISETTE: So it’s the creation ‘in the moment’. You like seeing things happen ‘in the moment;’.

JOHN: Probably, yes. I like to be surprised by where something goes. It’s like a good twist in a film.

LOUISETTE: The unexpected. We are back to that. Tales of the Unexpected.

JOHN: Yes. The unexpected. Someone said the other day that I look like Roald Dahl. I don’t think this is a compliment. Do I look like Roald Dahl?

I sign some random books for a few of my appreciative blog readers in Amsterdam, in October 1988.
(Photograph by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo)

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Romanian musical comic Dragos aka Titus and a theory of universal comedy

I blogged about Dragoş Moştenescu almost exactly a year ago – around four weeks after he arrived in the UK from Romania.

In Romania, he was a TV star, appearing in his own hit TV sitcom La Bloc for seven years and more than 700 episodes.

This coming weekend, he will be starring in his almost two-hour show All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.


JOHN: You have been in the UK for almost a year now…

DRAGOS: Yes. I came to London because – first – the language. And second because – no matter what your field of work – if your performance is good, then they will accept you here. Britain – especially London – is already a mix of cultures. I like it. I have decided to move here for good, with my wife and kids, maybe next year – my son and twin daughters – non-identical. One is blonde; one is brown-haired.

JOHN: The Leicester Square Theatre event on Saturday is a one-man show?

DRAGOS: Not quite. The Romanian comedian Radu Isac is opening for me… and Luca Cupani from Italy, who won the So You Think You’re Funny contest a couple of years ago.

JOHN: Why do you bill yourself as Titus and not Dragos?

DRAGOS: Titus is my middle name and I think, when British people see a poster, Titus is easier to pronounce and keep in mind and Dragos is more East European so I think is not so appropriate whether or not Brexit happens.

JOHN: I can’t think of any big-name Romanian musical comedians in Britain. So I guess that’s your Unique Selling Proposition.

TITUS: I would try to put being Romanian to one side. I doubt that being Romanian is a selling point.

JOHN: Well, it makes you stand out from the opposition.

TITUS: I am not really trying to compete with very well-known and very talented stand-up comedians in the UK. I do not do stand-up comedy. What I do is more of a one-man show where music is involved and live piano and non-verbal moments. Like a pantomime, more-or-less. Musical comedy and non-verbal.

JOHN: So your act can appeal to anyone…

Titus/Elton as you won’t be seeing him on Saturday – possibly

TITUS: Yes, this is why I keep everything on the stage to general topics – family, kids, money, iPhones or technical things which have taken over our lives lately. I speak about Count Dracula, who is an international icon.

JOHN: And you do some songs as Elton John, who is known internationally.

TITUS: I won’t be doing Elton John on Saturday. Well, maybe as an encore. But I am trying to show people how I can combine music and comedy more generally. If I am only known for doing Elton John, I will never make a name for myself properly. Elvis Presley impersonators only get known as Elvis Presley impersonators; people do not even remember the name of the performer.

JOHN: Your Leicester Square Theatre show is an attempt to get seen by influential people.

TITUS: Yes. My next step has to be to try to get an agent, which would ease things for me. You cannot thrive by yourself.

JOHN: I heard about one agent who said they would not represent a 26-year-old performer because she was too old. Agents tend to want young, inexperienced people so they can mould them and take credit for their success.

TITUS: Being older than 26 has its downsides and upsides. My 20 years of television and performance experience means I don’t need to build up my performance or act in the same way a 26 year-old has to.

JOHN: Do you own La Bloc, the Romanian TV sitcom?

TITUS: Yes. I was not only the producer and an actor in it, but I created it. I created it from a blank page to what it became. It ran daily Monday-Thursday for roughly seven months a year over seven years – over 700 episodes.

JOHN: That’s a lot of sevens and a lot of plot lines.

TITUS: Yes. I developed a team of about ten writers.

JOHN: Not seven?

TITUS: No.

JOHN: How does British comedy differ from Romanian comedy?

TITUS: What we do not have in the Balkans so intensely or so consistently is one-liners. Here in the UK there are a lot of one-liner comedians: punchline after punchline after punchline. Short jokes one after the other.

JOHN: At the Edinburgh Fringe, the successful shows in the last ten years or more have tended to be story-based. The comics have to fill an hour and that is very difficult with just gags, unless you are Jimmy Carr or Milton Jones or Tim Vine. 

TITUS: Yes. I went up to Edinburgh this year to see shows and there were several shows like this. They were doing a type of storytelling where you do not necessarily have to laugh every two or three minutes. They build you up a little bit, then there is a good section of laughs and they end with an idea.

JOHN: And they love a bit of autobiographical tragedy in comedy shows at the Fringe. There is the ‘dead dad’ moment…

TITUS: Dead dad moment?

JOHN: The audience tends to lose concentration after about 40 minutes, so you suddenly throw in some unexpected tragedy like your father died of cancer – it has to be true – and the audience is grabbed by the throat and pay attention again. Their emotions fall off a cliff and then you build them up again to an uplifting, happy ending.

Titus: “Comedy equals Truth plus Pain”

TITUS: Yes. Comedy equals Truth plus Pain.

JOHN: Truth plus Time?

TITUS: Truth plus Pain. What is Pain? It’s Truth and, if you can extract comedy from this, that is genuine, pristine comedy.

JOHN: I suppose the classic cliché comedy gag is someone slipping on a banana skin although, in the real world, that is not funny; it’s tragedy. So you are laughing at someone else’s troubles, from relief they are not yours.

TITUS: Exactly. In Henri Bergson’s book Laughter, he breaks the mechanism down to the basics and he explains how and why people laugh. He states there that punishment or accidents apply on human subjects and…

JOHN: I guess one reason why people laugh is the unexpected. A release of tension. Even if it is tragic, like slipping on a banana skin, they will laugh because it is unexpected. People laugh at one-liners for the same reason: because the punchline is unexpected.

TITUS: Yes, the book How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not is interesting. It mentions the Rule of Three.  

JOHN: And it does always tend to be better with three. Two or four don’t work. It’s all in the…

TITUS: …timing. 

JOHN: That is universal. But if, in Romania, there was no tradition of punchline-punchline-punchline comedy, what was.… In Italy, they had Commedia dell’arte… What was the tradition in Romania or the Balkans in general? Storytelling?

TITUS: More-or-less, yes. Monologues. Not necessarily told from your own perspective, which British and American stand-up routines are. In our monologues, you can talk about something that happened to another guy or it can be pure imagination and fiction.

JOHN: We had that sort of tradition in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls and in the 1930s – Stanley Holloway and others. There are storytelling nights cropping up in London now – Spark, Natural Born Storytellers and others. Have you seen any of those?

TITUS: No. But this is what I do in my show. A sort of storytelling. I come up with a kind of a theme, make a statement, a premise, build it up a little bit, then turn to music.

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