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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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Instead of a blog, a 48 second video…

In lieu of a blog, here’s a 48 second video which someone uploaded, without explanation, to YouTube ten years and one month ago…

I rather like it, in an abstract sort-of way…

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Movie asks: Is the brutalist new town of Basildon an architectural/social utopia?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that film documentaries do not get audiences. That is not true.

Tonight’s screening of director Christopher Smith’s New Town Utopia at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London was sold out.

It is about the much-derided Essex new town of Basildon, just outside London. 

Why? 

I asked Christopher Smith.


JOHN: A documentary film about Basildon as an architectural utopia? Are you mad?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, that’s the reason I made it, really. That is what everyone said to me when I mooted the idea four years ago.

JOHN: Were you unfortunate enough to be brought up there?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m from Benfleet, next to Basildon.

JOHN: And the film is now released in cinemas.

CHRISTOPHER: It played at the Barbican for a week and got good reviews. One of the less good reviews was in Time Out – “It’s as far away as you can get from Avengers: Infinity War” – I might actually put that on the poster. It’s also available on Curzon Online at the moment.

JOHN: Why did you think anyone would be interested in a film about Basildon?

CHRISTOPHER: I was always convinced there was an audience for it. There are a lot of people interested in post-War British architecture and social history. There’s a real fetishisation and love of brutalist architecture and modernism. I like modernist art – the geometric stuff like Malevich and I think I like the architecture for that reason: it’s kind of ordered.

“You have all these people who love brutalist architecture…”

What interested me was that you have all these people who love brutalist architecture – most of whom are probably middle class and live in London – and then you have all the people who live in it. And they generally are not the same people.

Initially, the film was about exploring that and seeing where there was a cross-over in opinion or experience. But then it turned into someone more. It became a social history of the town, told through the memories, words and performances of artists and creatives from the town.

In doing that, it touches on the impact of globalisation, the impact of ‘Right To Buy’ and the loss of social housing, the impact of Margaret Thatcher and her influence on individualism v community, the importance of facilities for the arts – and art as a route to wellbeing, rather than just something you do.

It touches on all those things.

JOHN: Did you make the film for a political reason? As soon as I hear ‘Basildon’, I think ‘Basildon Man’ – a variation on ‘Essex Man’.

CHRISTOPHER: That was not the reason but it is definitely teased-out a lot in the film. My parents were not political, but my uncle was a Tory councillor.

JOHN: The phrases ‘Basildon Man’ and ‘Essex Man’ basically meant working class men with aspirations.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. East End Boy made good. And my parents were both from working class backgrounds. My dad started his own business, which became pretty successful.

JOHN: In?

CHRISTOPHER: Electronic office equipment. I guess my parents voted Tory, but they never brought politics into the home. I suppose I am a bit more of a tub-thumping liberal Leftie.

The film is definitely political. The people in it actively talk about the impact of Right To Buy, the loss of all the factories, the lack of investment in arts facilities. I guess, because most of them are artists and creatives, there is a kind of Leftie bent but I hope there is a balance.

One of the people in it – he’s an actor – says: “I’m from a Labour family. I am a Labour voter. But, actually, some of the incentives that Thatcher’s government brought out for small businesses in the 1980s are what helped me set up my theatre company.”

JOHN: And your background is…?

CHRISTOPHER: I used to do a lot of weird, dance music based films in my early-twenties for nightclubs and I used to perform with another guy at music festivals and arts festivals. I did the music; he did the visuals. 

JOHN: What was your band called?

CHRISTOPHER: Addictive TV. I used to play vinyl records as well as CDs and other stuff. 

JOHN: You were not a guitar combo?

CHRISTOPHER: No. We were all electronics.

I did that for a few years, then fell out with him and moved into advertising for over ten years. I ended up as a creative director at various ad agencies but got frustrated because I was not making things myself. You come up with the ideas for your client – for a terrible bank or a breakfast cereal – you can’t choose – but you don’t actually make things yourself. About five or six years ago, I was working 60 or 70 hour weeks and not enjoying it – fun at times but stressful and I jacked it all in to start making films.

JOHN: Risky…

CHRISTOPHER: To pay the bills, I now do direct. I have done a few ads – for some reason, a lot of healthcare ads – and videos for Facebook and things like that. 

Are the streets of filmic Basildon paved with potential gold?

JOHN: But this film is not going to make you vast amounts of money…?

CHRISTOPHER: No money.

JOHN: So what is it going to lead on to?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m not sure. There’s a writer I am possibly going to collaborate with on a new project.

I am not a writer. I have tried and I can. But I know there are a lot of other people out there better than me. I think I’m quite good at structuring things and I know where I want the audience’s emotions to be at certain times in a film, but dialogue is what I struggle with.

JOHN: And this new project is…?

CHRISTOPHER: The one that’s crystallising at the moment is about… Well, it’s about Epping Forest, but it’s also about a lot of other things. In the same way I used Basildon to explore issues that affect a lot of aspects of British society, I quite like the idea of using Epping Forest to give me a broader canvas. Basildon was set over a 70-year period. Epping Forest would be over tens of thousands of years.

Can Chris replicate Basildon Man as Epping Forest Man?

It would be factual. There are some very interesting existing real people now and back in history whose lives have crossed. There may be a really interesting way of looking at sanity and mental stability and the idea of the internal and the external with the forest and the outer spaces.

There is a building that used to be a big asylum sitting on one edge of Epping Forest. John Clare the poet was there and there were protest movements about the M11 motorway and forest conservation activism and anarchism.

Outside the mind is possibly where things are clearer and inside is where anything can happen.

The forest is an enclosure and I think there could be a way of looking on it as the mind.

I think there are interesting themes that can be explored, but it’s still quite early days.

JOHN: There’s still no money to be made from documentaries, though…

CHRISTOPHER: That’s not true. There’s no money to be made in MY documentaries. But Netflix has really opened the doors. HBO are doing quite ‘high end’ documentaries like the OJ Simpson trial and they’re getting people like Martin Scorsese to direct documentary series. So there IS money in documentaries at the moment… though not in arthouse documentaries.

If I had the right idea for them and they were interested, I would work with Netflix.

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Is this an average Canadian family? Stripper, conservator, Reverend, shrink.

My occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith with two policemen in Toronto. I’ve no idea why

Anna Smith lives in Vancouver.

She is this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent.

Yesterday, I got an email from her. It read:


My Dad has started a blog and my sister the priest got arrested… again!


“Tell me more…” I asked.

Instead, I got this message from her father, Jaime Smith:


Hullo John Fleming –

I am the father of three daughters all born in Argentina where I was stateless, having renounced US nationality before we emigrated to Canada.

I was born in the US, but left because of conscription in the interval of ‘peace’  between the Korean & Vietnam wars. I renounced my US citizenship, changed my name, became a naturalized Argentine citizen, travelled back to university in the US as a ‘native-born foreign student’ then left a second time for Canada to teach astronomy & physics, became naturalized again as Canadian (but kept the Argentine passport just in case…). Then I went to medical school and specialty training in psychiatry. Some say I had a colourful life and encouraged me to write about it, hence the autobiography and bloggery.

I went to Argentina because I had a job offer there photographing faint blue stars at the Córdoba Astronomical Observatory. This was paid by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, so my emigration to Argentina was actually sponsored by the US military.

Anna, my eldest daughter, you know as she occasionally contributes to your blog. A retired stripper (London, Belgium, Finland, Malaysia) she lives on a boat on the Fraser River and does volunteer public health work with street ladies in Vancoocoo. That’s Vancouver.

I had a patient when I was working as a shrink in Vancouver who told me that he met Richard Bonynge (ex-impresario of Vancouver Opera) in Rome, who used the term Vancoocoo, being displeased with his being terminated there for mounting experimental and rare operas that didn’t bring in the punters and their money. After they fired him, the next season they went back to full house productions of La Traviata, La Bohème and Carmen – guaranteed old warhorses. I thought the term Vancoocoo appropriate.  That’s where I trained in psychiatry after medical school.

Kjerstin, my middle daughter, is a textile conservator at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. She has a PhD in mending from London – Hampton Court Palace etc. She is going to a conference on mummies in Tenerife later this month, where she will give talk on gopher hide robes covering frozen corpses.

In Canada, the New West Record reported Rev. Emilie Smith’s arrest earlier this week. She had joined other religious leaders to block a company’s gates in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples who object to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Expansion

Emilie, my youngest daughter, is the vicar of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in New Westminster, a Vancoocoo suburb. She is socially conscious to the extreme, gets arrested at demonstrations, went through three unsatisfactory husbands and is now getting married to her lesbian partner in July.

I also have 6.5 grandsons (the 0.5 is biologically female but currently growing a moustache and transitioning to male. Plays rugby football.)  I also have two great-grandchildren – one male and the other female.

Well, they are at this time anyway.

My daughters’ mum died in 2011 – we had been married 55 years. Now I have a gay younger Chinese boyfriend who inspired me to learn about his language.

I first trained in philosophy (BA), then astronomy (MS), then medicine (MD) and finally psychiatry (FRSM). I studied languages (Mandarin and Finnish) at the University of Victoria in British Columbia after I retired from practice.

I have become interested in non Indo-European languages and translated a Finnish detective story into English.

I studied Finnish because my maternal grandparents were from there in the late 19th century before it became an independent country in 1917. It had previously been known as the Grand Duchy of Finland and belonged to Russia. I already knew Latin and the Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian and a bit of Slavic languages and wanted to try something completely different. 

When I awaken early and desire to go back to sleep, I usually do mental arithmetic in a language other than English – like Spanish, German, Finnish or Mandarin Chinese. Should that not work I may get up and have a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie or just reflect on some activity or idea of particular interest to me.

The 2013 Gay Pride march in Helsinki (Image by Yle Uutiset)

They have great trams in Helsinki – I carried a Canadian flag in the gay pride parade there in 2013. I was leaving Helsinki the same day in July once as Mr Methane, the UK farteur you occasionally write about, but I smelled nothing in the airport.

I wrote a 68 page autobiography earlier this year – only the bare bones of 1933-2017, no more than one page per year and a few even more compressed. After that, I decided to continue writing and settled on the blogosphere after reading your postings. 

So this is your fault, but I am having fun with it. During my 30 year career as a clinical psychiatrist I wrote and published professional articles and book reviews in medical and other journals.

When in stateless exile in Argentina, in the mid 1950s, I worked as a journalist for United Press. I wrote articles on diverse issues such as international commerce and the quality of the race track as seen by Formula One driver Stirling Moss.

I have been churning out 500 words daily since I started my blog 10 days ago. The focus is loosely on books and other literary topics.

You can read my daily drivel, if you are interested, at https://karhunluola.com.

Karhu means bear in Finnish; ‘luola’ means cave, ‘karhunluola’ means ‘bear’s cave’.  Name of my flat.

Strictly speaking, the grammatically correct expression would  be ‘karhunluolasta’,  literally meaning ‘from the cave of the bear’.

Watch out for woozles.

 

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Other people’s lives – in the Ivory Coast

I was in Leytonstone, East London, yesterday.

It is not one of the most glamorous parts of London.

My friend Lynn and her husband Frank were in Côte d’Ivoire – the Ivory Coast as was.

A tad more glamorous.

Both Lynn and the Ivory Coast.

I have just received this from her:


“My highlight was our police escort…”

As a fan of film car chases you would have enjoyed yesterday, as my highlight was our police escort. 

What does it tell you about a country when the traffic ploughs off the motorway instantly as this cop gesticulates madly and has us following him the wrong way down the motorway?

Only one vehicle challenged him – a white van man flashed his lights as the mad  biker drove at him and zigzagged towards him to prove he wasn’t kidding. The van gave way.  

“We approached a traffic jam at a major crossroads in Abidjan…”

We approached a traffic jam at a major crossroads in Abidjan and he careered across the central reservation into the oncoming traffic and disappeared.

It was only when our three lanes of traffic magically started speeding through the crossroads that we found he had stopped three lanes of traffic in each of the other roads so that we could get through.

When he got back to us he stood up on the footrests and punched the air  as we cheered (whilst admittedly worrying about the chaos left behind us). 

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Critic Kate Copstick on radical feminists and small dogs making Nazi salutes

Copstick at Mama Biashara shop

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to comedy critic Kate Copstick about a fundraiser for her charity Mama Biashara

The back of the Mama Biashara shop in London has a performance space. It has been used for comedy shows and, monthly, is the venue for the comedy industry’s Grouchy Club.

Recently, Copstick was approached by Alfie Noakes of the We Are Funny project to stage an event titled Is Radical Feminism Killing Comedy? which had been scheduled at another venue but that venue cancelled the show because of objections by what Copstick yesterday called ‘The Ladies of the Left’… ‘The Sisters’.

“They objected I suppose,” she said, “to the mere idea that anyone might even debate let alone think such a transgressive idea…”

Now read on.


COPSTICK: Somehow they persuaded the owners of the venue to refuse to put it on. The gig was shot down in flames by, I assume, the radical feminists about whom it was going to be debated.

I don’t know how not allowing people to talk about something helps any situation. The only reason you would not want people to talk about something would be if you thought: Shit! We’re on a bit of a sticky wicket here and, if they talk about it, they will expose the fact that WE are talking shit.

Alfie Noakes defended himself in a Chortle.co.uk article

The ‘feminist sisterhood’, generally speaking, are smart, smart, smart women. They are some of the smartest women on the circuit. So I don’t see what they have to be afraid of in allowing other people – who are arguably considerably less smart than them – just to voice differing opinions. If you ARE going to sit on other people’s opinions like that, then where do you stop?

I am a person of strong opinions myself, but I would be up for anyone challenging or debating my strong opinions and saying: “Your strong opinions are rubbish!” We are ostensively living in a free state. We don’t have a Bill of Rights but it’s kind of a given that we have the right of free speech.

JOHN: Within the law.

COPSTICK: Yes.

JOHN: Although the British legal system is not the same as justice.

COPSTICK: Anyway, Alfie contacted me and I said: “This is dreadful… Free speech… Free speech… Blah blah blah…” and I said: “Look, if you need a space, you can have the space at the back of Mama Biashara. It’s not ideal but, if content is king, then have my throne room.

So he came down, saw the space and was obviously crushingly disappointed and I was knocked-back – not for the first time – and now the gig is going elsewhere – The Star of Kings at King’s Cross next Tuesday. It’s no longer called Is Radical Feminism Killing Comedy? It’s now called the Feminist Talking Points Comedy Show Fundraiser with Janet Bettesworth, Nathan Cassidy, Samantha Ruth Pressdee, Tony Marese and other people. But it is still kind of debating censorship and comedy with a variety of opinion.

JOHN: When it was going held at the back of the shop, all the money was going to be donated to Mama Biashara, wasn’t it?

The Louise Reay benefit show in London

COPSTICK: Yes. Half of it still is. The other half is going to Index on Censorship.

JOHN: Censorship is a hot topic at the moment. There’s the Louise Reay gig…

COPSTICK: Yes. With comics coming together to cover some of her legal costs, which is lovely.

But all censorship is basically the same thing. With Louise, it’s her husband saying she wasn’t allowed to say various things that he claims she said during her show. I saw the show and can’t remember anything horrible being said about her husband.

JOHN: And what do we think about the dog giving the Hitler salute?

COPSTICK: Oh! For God’s sake!

JOHN: The owner of the dog was found guilty in a Scottish court. I think he supposedly put the video on YouTube to amuse his girlfriend and for some reason left it online.

COPSTICK: He was found guilty and he could go to prison.

JOHN: I’m not quite sure what the crime is. There is a law in Scotland, isn’t there, which bans sectarian singing in football matches?

COPSTICK: But that IS an incitement to hatred.

JOHN: You were trained in Scottish law and you worked as a lawyer in Scotland…

COPSTICK: Yes. There are a lot of people saying online: “Well, the guy is a horrible guy.” That is as may be, but you can’t just think people are right because they’re nice people and wrong because they’re horrible guys. You have to be able to separate the singer from the song. You can’t be found guilty in a court of law of being a horrible guy.

JOHN: Oh, I think you can.

Defamed pug dog engrossed in watching film of a Nazi rally

COPSTICK: But this specific thing. Teaching a pug dog a Nazi salute. Surely it’s making fun of the Nazi salute? I can’t believe that, if Hitler and Goebbels are looking up from the Hell where they obviously are, that they are going: “Oh vot a marvellous idea! Ziss is ver good! Vy did ve not think of zis in ze Second World Var? If vee had had small pug dogs doing the Nazi salute, perhaps ve would have vun der Var!”

JOHN: It could be said to be defamation of the dog’s character.

COPSTICK: There are terrible things happening. There are hate crimes abounding. There are people beating up people from immigrant communities. All of that we should be getting angry about. We should all be focussing on getting these people behind bars. Not being outraged by a small cuddly animal making a Nazi salute.

JOHN: It’s a case of over-reaction.

EuroNews reports on criminalising wolf-whistling

COPSTICK: Yeah. To my horror… I nearly choked on my own tonsils… There is a female MP who is bringing forward a bill to make wolf-whistling ‘hate speech’. And my reaction is: “Fuck off, you stupid, blinkered woman!”. But, on the basis of free speech, she has got a perfect right to do that just as I should have a perfect right to say: “What the actual fuck are you thinking about?”

A wolf-whistle is a compliment. It’s not necessarily the kind of compliment everyone would want, though I would be THRILLED if anyone wolf-whistled at me now.

Terrible things are happening in the world. Terrible things are happening in Kenya beyond the imaginings of the feminist community here, I think. But terrible things are happening in this country. Wolf-whistling, quite simply, is not one of them.

Something appalling like eight people have been stabbed in London in the past two weeks. There are horrendous things happening: domestic violence. Awful, awful things. Female genital mutilation is happening in THIS country and, really, why waste the possible power you have as an MP to try and criminalise wolf-whistling? And don’t witter on about “it’s part of a continuum.” It is not part of a continuum from wolf-whistling to a young girl being held down and having her nether regions sliced to bits. No. It is NOT a continuum.

JOHN: Getting back to the Nazis – always a good subject – pug dogs have got little legs. They surely can’t do a proper Nazi salute. They can only do one of those little flappy-hand half-hearted salutes that Hitler himself did.

COPSTICK: Yes, that sort of limp-wristed… Oh, you probably can’t say limp-wristed now.

JOHN: Hitler? He was a brownshirt-lifter. We will get complaints.

COPSTICK: We’ve been very jolly about it, John, but it’s a serious subject.

JOHN: Oh dear.


Jonathan Pie made a YouTube video about the Nazi-saluting dog…

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“The Secret Service” – Sometimes even a Gerry Anderson series was too weird

Yesterday’s blog described some of the oddities of Gerry Anderson’s bizarre part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service starring both the real gobbledegook-talking Stanley Unwin and a puppet version of him, shot in 1968 and screened in 1969.

Here is the concluding part of the article which I wrote about it for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst in 1980.


With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special. Composer Barry Gray told me that Gerry Anderson was originally very keen to have a title song similar to the then-popular Swingle Singers style.

So Barry “dashed over to France and got a meeting with Ward Swingle and his agent, who both spoke very poor English — as bad as my poor French — and I got a financial quote from them which I hastily phoned through to Gerry and everything was all set. I was going to sign the thing on our company’s behalf when I said to (Swingle), “Now, this is the rights for the world – tout le monde?”

And he said, “OhI Non, non! Non! Angleterre seulement!” Only for the British Isles. And the price was (going to be) fantastic.

So we had to scrap that. On the plane coming back, I just got a little theme in the style of Bach and started to write and I’d near-enough written a three-part fugue by the time I’d got to Britain. Then I got The Mike Sammes Singers and they did a very good job on it.”

Barry Gray enjoyed what he saw of the series: “I liked it very much, because it was a tongue-in-cheek comedy. And you had a hell of a job to tell which was live-action and which was puppet. I liked the series. There was some reason why it was only shown on ATV in the Midlands. (In fact, it was also screened in the Granada and Southern ITV regions.) I think there was some trouble with the other (ITV) contractors. I don’t know the story.”

Shane Rimmer (the voice of Scott Tracey in Thunderbirds and a long-time Anderson associate) wrote one the the Secret Service episodes. He told me he thought maybe it was a bit too bizarre. There was the not-so-small matter of Stanley Unwin’s famous gobbledegook speech – Unwinese.

Ironically, that is what first attracted Gerry Anderson to the project.

Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios, 1979

“I chose Stanley Unwin,” Gerry told me in 1979, “because you are not supposed to understand Stanley Unwin, even if you’re British. I thought if the Americans don’t understand him either what’s the difference? But, once again, it was one of those things where the distributors killed the programme, not the audience.

“The audience might well have done – I wouldn’t pretend that it would have been a runaway success. But it was never given a chance. The American distributors saw the first couple of programmes and said, Ohhhh, my gawd! and – zonk – the whole thing was killed stone dead.”

Shane Rimmer says, “It was a bizarre idea. I don’t know if it really worked or not. I think the talking got everyone confused. I can’t understand what Stanley Unwin is saying when he’s talking straight!”

So how were the scripts written?

“Well,” Shane told me, “a lot of it you just had to leave to him. You have to give him a line of patter that’s going to work with what he does. At that time, they wanted a lot of olde English institutional things like old churchyards and pubs and Dartmoor inns and London Bridge and you just twisted the story into that. They were totally outlandish. I mean, they really were. They were (LAUGHS) very unbelievable a lot of the things. Because he was such a bizarre character, you felt you could really go all the way with him: you could practically do anything. But (LAUGHS) I think we went a bit too far.”

I asked Gerry Anderson why Lew Grade of ATV/ITC had backed such a strange concept as a series. “He did it because he trusted my judgement and I wanted to do it,” Anderson told me.

Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios in Stirling Road, Slough, in 1968. (Image from the first episode of The Secret Service)

When I asked art director Keith Wilson what the reaction to this strange format was among the staff at Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios, he told me: “We had a unique set-up when we were at Slough. It really was unique. We’d do one complete series and then we’d have a holiday and go straight on to the next series. We just went from one series to another. So, when it came to a series like that, it was just an extension (of what we’d done before).

“This was just another idea that Gerry and Sylvia had thought up. How are we going to do this one? You’re in that way of thinking anyway — you’re used to it. But The Secret Service, I think, (LAUGHS) did take a little longer to grasp.”

The Secret Service episode information file

I asked producer David Lane if the series was only supposed to run thirteen episodes or if it had been cancelled in mid-shoot. He told me he had never been  given a specific series length in advance.

“Basically,” he said, “the studio was going to close down anyway. The produce had got beyond its cost. There is a certain value which that kind of production has. Once it gets beyond that, they (TV companies) might as well buy something else.

“I know Lew Grade always wanted, really, to produce a show for £10,000. He did say to me once: Can you produce me a show for £10,000? to which I said No. Not the way the system was set up at Century 21. It wasn’t possible.

“Overheads were very heavy (there were about 200 people working at the Slough studios). I can’t remember what the programmes were costing towards the end, but it was something like £20,000 which was a lot of money for a half-hour children’s show at that time (1968-1969).”

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