Category Archives: Writing

Dreaming the start of a novel – not

Two or three days ago, I woke up at about 5 o’clock in the morning with the idea of a novel which was basically four or five real-life stories cobbled together into a narrative.

I thought about getting up and writing down the ideas but, instead, turned over on the floor and went back to sleep.

I was sleeping on the floor because I buggered my back about four weeks ago.

This morning, again at around 5 o’clock, I woke up with the same opening idea in my mind, minus the other stories.

I thought I had better write it down this time, so I did. 

I doubt if I will add to it because I’m useless without a deadline.

I don’t need a person from Porlock and I ain’t no Coleridge.

I don’t fancy the opium.

Especially as I had a blood test yesterday and that nurse sure needs more practice in how to stick a needle in someone’s arm.


CHAPTER 1

So there was this Irishman, a Dalek and four Scotsmen.

The Irishman was called Michael Julian Andrew Hardwick Bantam Smith. He was married with a younger wife, five children and a parakeet called Charlie.

He – Michael, not the parakeet – had been pushing the Dalek round the Scene Dock, a circular covered roadway that ran round the outside of the studios at BBC Television Centre in West London. He was clutching his stomach and standing half bent over, about to fall, because he had just been shot in the stomach.

The Dalek was a prop. Writer Terry Nation had described it, roughly, as a pepper pot with a sink plunger sticking out the front. BBC designer Raymond Cusick had refined the look and the Daleks became iconic villains in the Doctor Who TV series which, at that time, was fading in popularity. It would later be revived. Unlike Michael the Irishman.

One of the four Scotsman was called Jimmy the Joker. That was not his real name. The four Scotsmen had just robbed the cash office at BBC Television Centre. This was back in the day when people got paid weekly in cash. Jimmy the Joker had just shot Michael the Irishman by mistake. 

Out of the corner of his left eye, he had seen a Dalek suddenly appear into the Scene Dock through one of the open studio doors and some inexplicable reflex action had made his brain fire the Walther PPK hand gun at the human being beside it. It’s a Dalek! was all his brain had thought. Jimmy carried a Walther PPK because that was the gun James Bond used in the books and movies.

Michael the Irishman would die in an ambulance on the way to hospital twelve minutes later. His last words would be whispered urgently but inaudibly. When he was dead, the elder ambulance man would look at the younger ambulance man, shrug and start filling in a form.

Three of the Scotsmen running in Television Centre – including Jimmy the Joker – were dressed as policemen. Two were carrying large canvas mail bags filled with banknotes. Jimmy was carrying a gun. The fourth was dressed in ‘civvies’, carrying a lightweight video camera, apparently filming the other two. All four men wore clown masks.

They ran out of the scene dock and through the car park at the front of the building. People just looked at them with mild interest, thinking it was part of some new TV show. 

The uniformed security men at the front gate looked a little bemused, thought the same thing and stood aside to let the three policemen wearing clown masks – one carrying a gun – and the clown-masked man with the camera out into Wood Lane, the main road which ran past the studios. That was when the trouble really started.

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What sort of creative creature is comic Dominic Holland, father of Spider-man?

What is Dominic Holland? 

A writer of books? A stand-up comedian? The father of Spider-man?

Yes to all three.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, an anthology of original writing by comedians which I compiled and edited with Malcolm Hardee. That’s the self-promotion over.

I thought I would talk to Dominic about his latest novel without ever mentioning his son Tom Holland – the current Marvel (soon to be Sony) movies’ Spider-man.

I failed.



“You encounter a homeless person and…”

JOHN: So, you have written five novels… and the latest, I, Gabriel, published a month ago, is about what?

DOMINIC: I have always been very exercised by homelessness. I have lived in London all my life. I used to do the Comedy Store and walk down Charing Cross Road and down The Strand and see homeless people and would give them money.

But I have a thing about hygiene. If I shake a homeless person’s hand, I start to panic. I would rather not touch them. I’m not ashamed of that. That’s just how I am. If you have no washing facilities, you’ve probably got excrement and all sorts of detritus all over your hands.

I thought: What happens if you encounter a homeless person, you shake their hand and they insist on sharing a meal with you. You don’t want to eat their sandwich, but you have to and you contract a food poisoning and it keeps you off a doomed air flight. Wouldn’t that be a great starting point for a drama? That idea has been in my head for 20 years and that’s the kernel of the story. Then I designed a character who had everything and I wanted him to have an epiphany.

The epiphany for Gabriel is that he is a man of vast success and vast wealth but actually has nothing.

It’s a 3-act book. The First Act is fleshing out his character. He is an unpleasant man. He is a very highly-paid, successful surgeon. A very rarified man, very bright. But he is lost to greed. Then he has this epiphany. He realises his life has been a sham, really. And then something rather extraordinary happens in the Third Act.

Where I am most happy abiout is that nobody – but nobody – has seen the ending coming.

JOHN: You are a Christian.

DOMINIC: Habitually. All my life I’ve been a Catholic. Big Catholic family. I have four aunts who are nuns, two uncles who are priests. My whole tradition growing up was going to mass. My boys were brought up Catholic and I like belonging to a Church. I like a feeling of belonging. I belong to the comedy circuit; I belong to the Catholic Church. But my faith, I’m afraid, is not terribly… erm… vivid. I like the punctuation of mass. I go to mass two Sundays in four. I use it as a chance to just sit there and reflect on my good fortune and what I hope to do for the rest of my little time on this mortal coil.

JOHN: Your boys were brought up Catholic…

DOMINIC: Yes. Four boys.

JOHN: What does your wife do?

DOMINIC: She’s a photographer, but she’s now giving that up to run a charity we started: The Brothers Trust. 

It has been going about 18 months/two years. We didn’t want to call it The Tom Holland Foundation. He has the platform to attract money, but we thought it might seem a little bit narcissistic and narrow because Tom’s brothers are involved.

The Brothers Trust family – The brothers Holland (left-right) Sam, Tom, Paddy and Harry with parents Dominic & Nikki

Using Tom’s cachet, we put events on and all the money we get in – less the transactional costs and the charitable costs in America – you have to employ American firms to administer them – all the money WE get, we then distribute to various charities. Our own remit is to give money to charities that struggle to be heard. Not to the big charities. To small charities and charities without the big administrative costs. We don’t personally want to support charities that have got vast numbers of people flying all over the world.

For example, we have built a hostel in India through The John Foundation, who basically take off the streets girls who have been trafficked and this very virtuous doctor and his wife house the girls and train them to become beauticians or overlockers. They get security and a skill and they’re also now making our Brothers Trust T-shirts which we are planning to sell and money from that will go to other causes we want to support.

We also support a charity in Kibera, Kenya, called Lunchbowl – they feed kids every day; we have bought them two 40-seater buses to take kids from the slums to-and-from school.

We support a charity in Britain called Debra which looks after kids with EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa), a pernicious disease where your skin is effectively like tissue paper – there’s 5,000 people in the UK with it. It’s the same number of people with cystic fibrosis, but no-one’s ever heard of it

JOHN: You have also written a book about Tom: EclipsedWhat’s the elevator pitch for that?

“For me, the story was perfectly-formed…”

DOMINIC: It’s the story of how a young boy is spotted inadvertently, finds himself dancing on the West End stage whilst his dad is doing comedy gigs in village halls… That kid goes on to become a movie star and his old man is still playing the same clubs he was 20 years ago.

JOHN: “Spotted inadvertently”? 

DOMINIC: Tom was spotted at a local YMCA disco dancing class and he ended up playing the lead in Billy Eliot in the West End… As I say in Eclipsed, it’s a fluke. The whole thing has been a fluke. A happy fluke.

JOHN: You say ‘village halls’, but you did play places like the Comedy Store in London.

DOMINIC: Yes but, John, you know and I know that, back in the day, I was mooted as one of the ‘Next Big Things’ – and it didn’t happen. And there’s no rancour on my part. I performed at the Comedy Store last weekend and I’m proud to be on that stage because a lot of my mates from my generation aren’t doing it any more. The fact that I’m still being booked to go on last at The Comedy Store means you’ve got chops. I would love to have made it. I didn’t. But, for the book, it’s a perfect juxtaposition. For me, the story was perfectly-formed.

My first novel Only in America was spawned from selling a screenplay. I did a gig in 1995 in Cleethorpes. Didn’t get paid. Long way. I was on the train coming home to London, cold. I had already won the Perrier Award as Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993, I had been on television, I was becoming well-known. So I thought: This is rubbish! I can’t keep going to Cleethorpes for no money. I’m going to write a film.

So I wrote a film and sold it to Norma Heyman, who is the mother of David Heyman – He produced all the Harry Potter films. Norma Heyman’s husband John was a big-shot producer. 

Norma Hayman said to me: “You are the new Frank Capra.”

JOHN: Wow!

DOMINIC: I didn’t even know who Frank Capra was. I had to look him up. But I had these very exciting meetings in Soho and, over the next two or two-and-a-half years, I sold that script two or three times and then it fell over. But that story inspired my first novel Only in America.

Dominic Holland in Soho, London, last week

I then sold Only in America to the BBC and to Hollywood film producers. I went to Los Angeles and had meetings with Big Time agents who said: “This is great! We’re gonna make your movie! Frank Oz was going to direct; Bette Midler was going to be in it… And then it fell over.

So, when Tom started on his journey in the West End, it was a funny story in my head… When he was cast in his first movie (The Impossible, 2012) and was long-listed for an Oscar… THAT for me was a perfect story, because I had tried and failed and Tom was succeeding.

So I end the story on a Los Angeles red carpet with Tom being long-listed for an Oscar and I thought: Well, that’s a hilarious story. I had been spending all this energy trying to make it as a writer and become a new Richard Curtis and, with no problem at all, my boy was going: Dad! Watch! Over here! and making it…!

I finished the book when he was 16 and, since then, he has become a proper movie star.

I didn’t get films made. It’s a small nut to crack and most people don’t crack it and I am one of that ‘most’. But, being one of the ‘most’ and having failed, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of storytelling. Here’s my failed efforts to make it in Hollywood and then here’s my bloody son, with no efforts, BOOM!… and I’m thrilled.

People say to me: “Are you jealous?” and I think: Well, if you think that, you don’t know who I am.”

JOHN: Fuck me, well I’m jealous but, then, he’s not my son…

(BELOW, TOM HOLLAND, PROMOTING SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME IN BALI, AS VIDEOED BY HIS BROTHER HARRY HOLLAND)

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do not have to have seen Blake’s 7

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


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

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

JOHN: Casablanca is over-rated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Children are very perceptive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he said: “No, we’re going to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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David McGillivray’s pitch for a new and sexually shocking Maugham feature film

My previous blog here was about writer-producer-hyphenate David McGillivray’s upcoming autobiography Little Did You Know.

At the end, he mentioned that he had optioned movie rights to Robin Maugham’s scandalous novel The Wrong People, which he is pitching to prospective financiers.

Non-producers/financiers seldom see actual pitches. They only see the finished product if it ever gets made.

So I thought it would be interesting to print the text – with his permission – of McG’s sales pitch for The Wrong People. Here it is. The photos in the pitch were taken in the 1970s by actor Sal Mineo.


SECRETLY PUBLISHED

FORGOTTEN FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS

ROBIN MAUGHAM’S SCANDALOUS NOVEL
IS ABOUT TO SHOCK A NEW GENERATION

From award-winners David McGillivray and Peccadillo Pictures

Robin Maugham’s

THE WRONG PEOPLE

Set in the UK and Morocco in 1967, The Wrong People follows the torments of English schoolmaster Arnold Turner, who has the misfortune while on holiday in Tangier to be seduced into the dangerous world of Clarence Baird. A rich and unscrupulous expatriate, Baird entraps Turner into bringing him one of his most troubled pupils, Dan Gedge, so that he can be groomed. The monstrous plan, involving a dead-of-night kidnapping and a secret passage to Marseille, has a shockingly unexpected conclusion

Robert Cecil Romer Maugham, 2nd Viscount Maugham, and author of The Servant, took the advice of his famous uncle Somerset when he wrote The Wrong People.

The book’s theme – a sexual predator living in Morocco tries to persuade an English schoolmaster to procure him a boy he can groom – was too shocking even for the “swinging” Sixties. Maugham published the book under a pseudonym. But the revised 1970 edition, under his own name, was well received. “Grippingly told,” said the Sunday Times. “A gripping thriller,” agreed the Sunday Express.

The book was discovered by former Hollywood star Sal Mineo, the kid who adored James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Mineo wanted to direct his first feature and in 1971 came to London with his partner Courtney Burr to begin pre-production. Nobody wanted to be associated with this hot property.

A succession of writers, among them Peter Shaffer, David Sherwin and Edna O’Brien refused to write the screenplay. Actors including Martin Potter, Leonard Whiting and John Moulder-Brown wouldn’t even meet Mineo. Eventually, a script was written by Murray Smith, known for cheap exploitation pictures made for independent producer-director Pete Walker. Mineo went to Morocco to scout locations. But the authorities wouldn’t allow him to film there. Mineo returned to the US without a deal in 1974.

Two years later he was stabbed to death.

40 years later writer-producer David McGillivray read a new biography of Sal Mineo, which includes a long chapter on The Wrong People. McGillivray had been aware of Mineo’s attempts to film the book since 1973 when, like Murray Smith, he worked for Pete Walker. McGillivray’s screenplays for Walker include the cult classics House of Whipcord and Frightmare. Later, McGillivray produced a gay horror film, In the Place of the Dead, in Morocco and the erotic fantasy Trouser Bar, which premiered at BFI Southbank in March 2016 and caused a furore. Both films received awards internationally.

After re-reading The Wrong People, McGillivray was convinced the time had come for a film of Maugham’s gripping thriller. In 2017 he secured the screen rights and wrote a new screenplay, which has received the blessing of both Courtney Burr – “I enjoyed your script very much. I found the characters clear, distinctive and true to my memory of the book” – and Robin Maugham’s former partner William Lawrence.

Robin Maugham wrote The Wrong People based on his own experiences, both in the UK and Morocco.

Robin Maugham in 1974 (Photo by Allan Warren)

Robin Maugham

Robin Maugham (1916-1981) is known throughout the world for his novel The Servant (1948). In 1963 it was adapted into a celebrated British film, directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter, and later included in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British Films. A stage version premiered in 1958 and is still on tour throughout Europe.

Maugham wrote several other novels, some of which were also filmed. When he showed the manuscript of The Wrong People to his uncle, Somerset Maugham, the great man declared “that it was the first novel for years that he had been obliged to read straight through at one sitting.” Many subsequent readers, including producer-writer David McGillivray, also have found it impossible to put the book down.

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Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

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Peculiar – Comic Jo Burke disappeared for 3 years, found true love and a show

The last time performer/writer Jo Burke appeared in this blog was in September 2015. There is a reason for that gap of over three years.


Three years absent and three books published

JOHN: So you have three children’s books here which you wrote. There is Standing on Custard

JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tail is a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.

JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?

JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.

JOHN: Eh?

JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.

JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.

JO: My talented husband Philip Price.

JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.

JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating. 

“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”

That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful. 

I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.

Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!

JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.

JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had a  mortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did. 

What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?” 

So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.

JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!

JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.

JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?

JO: It’s me again.

Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative

JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?

JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.

JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.

JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.

JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?

JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.

So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.

“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”

JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?

JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.

JOHN: So observational comedy.

JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.

JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.

JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it. 

JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!

Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all around and I prefer doing my own shows. 

I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.

JOHN: The lure of the applause?

JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.

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How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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