Category Archives: Writing

Angelo Marcos on why comics are like lawyers and jokes are like whodunnits

Angelo Marcos is a stand-up comedian and actor. He has written two short story collections and two novels. His fifth book, the crime thriller Victim Mentality, is out now.


JOHN: So what’s it about?

ANGELO: Well, I’ve written other psychological thrillers and they were quite dark, so this one was meant to be a lighter book, but (LAUGHS) it didn’t turn out that way. 

JOHN: Part of it is written in the First Person and part of it in the Third Person. 

ANGELO: Yes. The First Person is from the point-of-view of a stand-up comedian. 

JOHN: Everyone says a first novel tends to be autobiographical but, with you, the fifth book is autobiographical?

ANGELO: This is the most personal book I’ve written.

JOHN: You did Law and Psychology at university.

Angelo Marcos (Photo copyright Remy Hunter)

ANGELO: Yes, I studied Law and while I did that, I was also performing stand-up and doing acting, but then I found I didn’t have any money. So then I worked a bit – various things – a bank, offices, a supermarket. I worked for a market research company which was basically just other actors, with everyone sitting around trying to do as little work as possible, waiting for their agent to phone.

Then I re-trained – basically a Post-Graduate three-year Psychology course in one-and-a-half years. And I was writing during that time as well.

JOHN: So originally you wanted to be a lawyer, which is a very level-headed thing to aspire to… but you also had this mad stand-up comedy gene?

ANGELO: I went to university because everyone was going and I thought – Well – Law – OK. But, from the beginning, I was also doing stand-up. I was at the University of London, so it was easy enough to find gigs. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the degree that thought: OK, I DEFINITELY not only do not want to be a lawyer and I don’t want to work in Law. Let’s just get famous instead!

JOHN: Why didn’t you want to be in Law?

ANGELO: I found the analytical side of it fascinating, but I liked the kind-of absurd analytical side of it. I liked the fact you could pretty-much make words mean whatever you wanted them to mean.

I love stories. In criminal law, the cases were fascinating. So I elected to do subjects like Moral Philosophy, Law & Terrorism and other things kind-of affiliated with law, but not the core subject. I dunno. I just found Law itself a bit dry. It’s a really good degree to have. It’s a really good set of skills to have. But I prefer using them in other ways.

Lawyers and comics have much in common

JOHN: Barristers and comedians have in common the fact they both stand up and tell lies to create an effect on an audience.

ANGELO: That’s very true. Although lawyers get paid more, until you get to Michael McIntyre. But there IS that element of performance. 

When you are heckled as a stand-up, there are no holds barred. You HAVE to win. And I guess it’s similar in a court situation. If you are a barrister and someone questions one of your points or if you have a witness who is particularly hostile, I imagine the switch that goes on in the brain is the same: I have to win now!… In the same way that, as a stand-up, you don’t want to lose credibility, you don’t want to ‘lose’ the audience.

JOHN: And you have to persuade the audience that your story is credible and real, even if it might be a lie.

ANGELO: That’s true. You are saying: This is a scenario you need to buy into. This is what happened that night. Whether it’s true or not is a different thing. You have to sell that to the jury or the audience… I’m not saying that all lawyers do this. I’m not saying that no lawyers are interested in truth.

JOHN: I am. They are interested in winning and getting paid though, of course, they get paid whether they win or lose.

ANGELO: What I am saying is that, in my experience, it is entirely possible to be a successful lawyer and not be interested in truth.

JOHN: Being a lawyer in court and being a stand-up comedian are both about telling a story, which is what being a writer is also about…

ANGELO: Yeah. Absolutely. I do a lot of different things – stand-up, acting, writing – and I think the link is they all involve stories.

JOHN: And an interest in structure where the story has to build up to an interesting climax…

ANGELO: I think with the build-up to the punchline of a joke… the mechanism of that is the same when you are writing the twist in a novel crime thriller or a short story. In all three, you are giving the audience or the reader only the information you want them to have. Enough to follow you, but not enough to work out what the twist or what the joke is going o be.

Whether it’s a surprise punchline or the revelation that: “It was the babysitter all along!” – it’s a similar mechanism. I loved The Usual Suspects because it’s so clever and it totally tricked me.

JOHN: Like an optical illusion.

ANGELO: When I was doing Psychology, one of the lecturers explained the mechanism behind optical illusions and he was saying no matter how much you know about how they work, as a human being, every time you look at these pictures you will see the illusion first.

That’s where I got the premise for Victim Mentality: that it doesn’t matter how much you know, we are all wired in a certain way and that makes us all victims. You can try and look at the picture and not see the illusion, but you always WILL see the illusion.

“…the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book”

I suppose a lot of the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book. That sense of going to a gig that’s just not set up for comedy. There are a lot of hostile environments that you walk into at the open mic level, which is where the comedian in my book is.

He has been doing it for a while, struggling, and he’s also trying to get into acting. At the start of the story, his agent books an interview with him and an incarcerated criminal so he can get into character for the role. When they meet, it becomes obvious there’s quite a lot of similarities between them.

The premise of the book is that we are all victims of our own minds. The guy in jail is saying: “You are looking at me as if I am some kind of special case. You are trying to understand why I would do the things I do. But, essentially, we are all wired in certain ways; we all have certain life experiences that cause us to act the way we do.”

There is tragedy in the comedian’s past and in the criminal’s past.

I don’t go so far as to question Free Will, but it’s a case of Are you doing this because you are wired to do it or because it’s fun or whatever? Are you a victim of your own brain just like everyone else?

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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Legal system, Psychology, Writing

How to write a successful Edinburgh Fringe comedy show… Four ideas…

What comedy shows go down best at the annual Edinburgh Fringe?

Well, serious self-analysis always goes down well with the Awards judges.

My last blog here was about a conversation I had with a chum at St Pancras station in London.

I also started pontificating to her about how to write a one-hour comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I think she glazed over internally but disguised it well. After all, she is a performer.

I am not a performer. So what do I know?

Ignore what follows if you have better ideas.

And, like all generalities, there are exceptions.

But – hey! – this is my blog and, just for the helluvit, this is what I think…

Go write your own blog if you disagree.

The only near-certainty if you follow any advice of mine or any advice of any kind or no advice of any kind is that you will probably lose money at the Fringe…


Expanding a good 20-minute stage act where you meander from one anecdote to another via cleverly obscuring the fact that none of the bits really fit together but you have ‘seamlessly’ Sellotaped over the gaps with clever links… That doesn’t work in a 55-ish minute show at the Edinburgh Fringe (or anywhere else).

You have to write a single unitary show.

BIT OF ADVICE 1

I think all Edinburgh shows need a single relentless theme and 100% should be about that one single theme with a single developing narrative strand.

People talk about the ‘dead dad’ story you should drop in about 35-40 minutes into the duration of a 55-ish minute show. 

The theory of the Dead Dad is that a show can have wonderfully funny stories but, after about 30-35 mins, the audience settles into the rhythm of the performance and they still laugh but ‘sameness’ fatigue sets in, even though they’re still laughing.

An unexpected shock at around 35/40 minutes into a 55 min narrative show pulls the carpet from under the audience’s expectations and shocks them into being 100% attentive again. If you can suddenly mention that your dad died last week, that should do it. But anything unexpected and different.

They are shocked – when it’s successful – into total silence. Of course, in a comedy show, you then have to be a good enough performer to get them back in the last 10 minutes to finish with a climactic laughter fest/orgasm. Then they go out happy and smiling having been on the thrill of a rollercoaster.

BIT OF ADVICE 2

Write an elevator pitch for your own show. For your eyes only. Eight words saying what your show is specifically about. Not generally. No generality. One specific subject.

Anything that doesn’t fit that succinct 8-word description, chuck it out.

It doesn’t matter how clever or funny it is. If it doesn’t fit the description, chuck it out. You can use it in a future show but NOT this show. However funny, however clever, however well-written it is… if it doesn’t fit into your 8-word description of your own show’s specific subject, it will interrupt the flow of the single narrative thread and it will be a distraction to the audience’s attention/involvement in your narrative. 

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include.

There used to be an ad on television, the selling line of which was:

“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best”

Follow the fish principle!

But without the smell.

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include, even more than what you include.

BIT OF ADVICE 3

Ask yourself why you alone can do this specific show and no-one else can.

If you can do a show on a general subject, then so can I – so can anyone else.

If you can’t be original, at least be personal. 

Why can you alone do this specific show and no-one else can?

Make it personal.

No-one reads autobiographies for facts.

They want to be voyeurs on another person’s life. Either because they think: That’s just like me. Or they want to experience something they have never and will never experience.

People want to hear about people not ideas.

Or they want to hear about ideas via a narrative involving people whose lives and minds they can become involved with.

No-one except an academic reads books or watches movies or watches comedy shows for abstract facts. That ain’t a show, it’s a lecture. Go perform at Speaker’s Corner in London, not on a comedy stage in Edinburgh.

If you talk about facts illustrated by specific human stories – ideally your own – people will be interested. 

Pretty much the same events happen to everyone. But how the events interact with a specific person is unique.

Ordinary people read books/watch shows for emotional and psychological voyeurism. They want to identify with other people.

BIT OF ADVICE 4

This goes back to concentrating the audience’s minds with a single narrative plot.

The ‘one’ plot is allegedly… A hero (or heroine) sets out on a quest to find something. Things happen along the way. The hero (or heroine) finds the thing (good or bad) – it may be a truth or a revelation.

It is a search for a specific Holy Grail.

In the case of a one hour Fringe show, everything along the way has to progress the journey. No jolly side anecdotes unrelated to the quest. Everything must be relevant to your 8-word definition of the quest.

The Grail – the climax of the show – is a single specific thing.

When you start writing the show, you have to know what the very end is. Otherwise you will inevitably waffle. 

What is the last paragraph, the last sentence of the show?

Anyone can do a show about the quest for an idea. 

What is the specific show only you can write and perform about that quest that I or 2,000 other people cannot do?

Personal.

People.

One single strand.

Keep on the bloody subject!

And now all you have to do is make it funny!!!!!! 

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Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Performance, Writing

I mistook someone else for me in comic Janet Bettesworth’s pre-novel ‘doodles’

She studied Fine Art & Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

Everyone inevitably makes instant judgments on people’s characters at first sight: solely on their looks. But we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

Comedian, art connoisseur and Grouchy Club regular Janet Bettesworth recently announced: “I’m going to write a novel by doodling the characters first.” She studied Fine Art and Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

She is currently posting drawings – she calls them ‘doodles’ – on her Facebook page and asks three questions for Facebook Friends to answer about each unknown person sketched. For example:

  • What is his name?
  • The love of his life?
  • His taste in furniture?

I recognised the 25th sketch was of fellow Grouchy Club regular Peter Stanford. Janet’s questions were:

Peter Stanford – airlifted to safety after a farming incident?

  • What’s his name?
  • His most recent airborne experience?
  • Way of organising a picnic?

Answers included:

  • His name is Nils, he was airlifted to safety after a farming incident. Picnics for him are rye bread & herring & fermented ale.
  • He used to get gigs as a Brian Blessed looky-like until he accidentally boarded an EasyJet to Finland, where he found a lot more work playing Santa to tourists, and now he drinks mulled wine all year round.

And, from Peter Stanford himself:

  • Definitely one of the gods in your novel. Cranach looks down at the mortals giving the Deserving pieces of good luck and mugs of tea. He is rarely airborne as he can transport himself between the godly and earthly realms instantaneously. His worshippers organise ‘Picnics’ (feasts held indoors in the colder months and only outside in high summer) for the poor and homeless – and anyone else – in his honour as part of their devotions, instead of building temples. When he was appearing on earth, he drank mugs of tea, which he shared with other people. “Don’t build any temples”, he told them. “Just organise picnics and tea.” The cult is always in danger of dying out.

A few days later, Peter pointed out to me that No 30 in Janet’s series looked a lot like me, though with different-shaped spectacles. I had a look and thought: Well, bugger me, that does look like it’s me!

The three questions Janet asked of her Facebook Friends were:

Is this me? – or Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge?

  • What is his name?
  • His opinion of Boris Johnson?
  • His chances of winning the Lottery?

The answers seemed to reflect more on the personality of the commentator rather than on me and tended to reflect British people’s somewhat unhealthy continuing obsession with Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Glenn Thoresby. What he really thinks of Boris Johnson is unprintable here; enough to say he believes that the British people have been lied to mercilessly by this entitled upper-class toff who doesn’t give a monkey’s: a feckless, narcissistic, utterly irresponsible public school product, a marionette of Dominic-whom-nobody-voted-for-Cummings. Glenn’s chances of winning the Lottery are nil as he doesn’t buy the tickets. He believes they are an exploitative tax on the poor who, (like Brexit voters) think they have a chance to turn their fates around on a million to one statistical odds. This doesn’t stop him from buying raffle tickets occasionally, though, especially when the prize is a good bottle of plonk and/or the beneficiaries’ cause is a good one.
  • This is a cracking picture. I think his name is Peter Egg and he’s a foodie: a London restaurant critic who is zealous about plant-based foods to the extent that the smell of animal products cooking now makes him gag. Restaurants where he dines now have to put him in a separate room and block the doorframe with towels and wet loo paper to stop the offending molecules reaching his nose. He thinks Boris is an execrable pig or walking pork roast. He has no chance of winning the Lottery as he never enters. It only penetrates his consciousness when he goes to the theatre and sees its logo at the bottom of programmes for plays it has funded.

Janet Bettesworth – Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

  • Dimitri Dennis Zabaroski. He won’t win. He doesn’t do Lottery. Hates the foreign man who won up the road… they should fuck off back home. (Both parents immigrated to Luton in the ’50s.) He works at car plant locally and knows a lot of foreign people abuse the system. Likes Prince Andrew and his confidence. Likes Borris and wants to have a flag pole outside his house with Farage and Union flag. Council refused planning application. All foreign.
  • This is Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge, known to his closest friends as 3Pee. He is a second cousin, once removed to Boris. He is immensely proud and fond of his childhood pal, with whom he roasted chestnuts and netted little jars of frogspawn when the families got together for camping trips. They frequently got their shorts mixed up, being almost identical in size and shape. They still swap Christmas jumpers, particularly the ones gifted by Rachel as she seems to find the ones with the rudest slogans… Piggott has enjoyed a varied career, which includes a brief spell as a fluffer in a Hollywood porn production company (he was sacked for making badly edited and shaky copies on his secret camera which discreetly attached to his paisley patterned cravat). He also worked as a rickshaw driver in Hong Kong, normally stationed outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon but few tourists engaged his services due to his extremely eccentric hats and comedy Chinese moustaches… He eventually made his fortune writing haiku messages predicting the purchasers’ marriage prospects onto extremely dark and gloomy canvases which sell for many dollars all over the USA. In his own way, therefore, he has already won the lottery so has no need to buy tickets on the weekly National Lottery, which he disdains with a passion – matched only by that of his antipathy to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission.

I contacted Janet, because I thought it would make an interesting blog to run her drawing of me with strangers’ character assessments of what this unknown person might be like.

But there was a snag…

She told me it was NOT a sketch of me at all: in fact, it was a sketch of her husband! She said he found the comments amusing – He does despise Boris Johnson, but he does do the Lottery.

Now Janet HAS included a sketch of me. Sadly with less interesting comments/suggestions. 

Does this Jewish man appreciate a good, well-shaped calf?

Her questions were:

  • What is his name?
  • His over-riding passion in life?
  • Way of dealing with problems? 

The responses include:

  • Manny Silverman. Loves small investments. Still dining out on making £35,000 on ‘Britcoin’ a couple of years ago. Cigars and coffee are how he copes with life’s complexities. Don’t mention the time he passed on Apple shares, though.
  • Godfrey was a prostate specialist and his hands could reach parts that others… but now volunteers at his local city farm delivering calves – His approach to life? He always gets stuck in and is happy to get his hands dirty
  • This is Howard Silver. He’s a nice East End Jewish boy now living in Southgate. He’s a life-long socialist and lives in a rented housing association flat that he got through Rachel, one of his cousins who works there. He doesn’t own anything, aside from the clothes on his back and a few sticks of furniture, all the books on Communism he’s read were borrowed never bought. He’s lifelong Labour, red through and through but was recently upset by the growing anti-Semitism in the party so he voted green for the first time ever in protest. He’s what Yiddish speakers would term a poor old nebbish.
  • His name is Frank Gibbins. He thinks that the world has become strange, impersonal and unnecessarily complicated… He seeks solace in the simplicity of nature and its instinctive laws, eg. the way that the ducklings follow the mother duck, the unquestioned authority of the silverback gorilla in setting the direction of his troop and keeping it in order… He likes to sit in the park for hours, observing the behaviour of humans as they centre themselves in selfies against the backdrop of the beautiful autumnal leaves or wander around oblivious to the creatures of the forest…Sometimes he’ll draw them in his book and imagine their thoughts.
  • Constantine Gras – because he looks the spit of a friend of mine called Constantine Gras. Well, what he’d look like in about 30 years. He’s tall – maybe 6’2. He’s an artist/filmmaker.
  • Who are these people? (Photograph: Jez Timms via UnSplash)

    Clive Earnshaw. Son of a bookkeeper and an apiarist, he has inherited a calm demeanour in all kinds of crisis situations, which served him well in his job as an emergency medical technician. His overriding passions in life are his sibling’s children, for whom he would do anything. His search for meaning led him to a retreat in the North African desert and he converted to the Sufic branch of Islam. His way of dealing with problems (apart from whirling) is to quote soothing aphorisms such as: This too will pass. He is deeply peaceful.

The trite lesson to be learned from all this?

People see totally different characters and backgrounds in exactly the same faces. Initial assumptions about people can – and very often are – wrong.

Peter Stanford’s view my sketch was:

  • This is Derek Milchman, a friend of No 30: that one which looks like him. They sometimes swap glasses and pretend to be each other. If this is a humorous book, with hilarious results; if a grim book, this leads to a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.

Janet replied: “I am not entirely in agreement. For students of phrenology and physiognomy, it may be observed that No. 30 has a receding jawline, whereas No. 39 has a protruding one. I do like the idea of a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.”

Comedy critic Kate Copstick, recognised me: “This is John Fleming!!!” And Peter Stanford asked Janet: “So what role are you going to give him in the novel?”

A “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait

She replied: “If you’re referring to the author of the Malcolm Hardee biography, the hands are too big and seem to be coated with some kind of white substance.”

Janet also told me that she had included a “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait – No 31 in the bunch.

And below are three more of her drawings.

Janet tells me: “I do two types of doodles – one where I’m basing it on a real person, and the other where I do random scribbles with my eyes closed, then a face gradually emerges out of the chaos, like seeing faces in the fire – that way is by far my favourite…”

One final comment and query from one of Janet’s Facebook Friends sums it all up, though: “I keep wondering why you’re writing a novel when you’re so ‘geniusly’ good at drawing – Or are you even better at writing?”

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Psychology, Writing

Comic Njambi McGrath’s autobiography

I had a chat with comedy performer Njambi McGrath at the Museum of Comedy in London. Her autobiographical memoir Through the Leopard’s Gaze is published today in print and as an audio book. The blurb reads:

“Beaten to pulp and left for dead, 13 year old Njambi found the courage to escape, fearing her assailant would return to finish her. She walked all night risking wild animals, robbers and murderers in the Kenyan countryside, before being picked up by two shabbily dressed men. She spent her life burying memories of that fateful day and night…”


JOHN: So you’ve written your autobiography and it’s all about your appalling family life back in Kenya.

NJAMBI: Basically, it’s a journey back into my life, triggered by the death of my father in 2014. A few things had happened before that. My brother was getting married just before, which threw things into chaos.

JOHN: In Kenya.

NJAMBI: Yes. My father and I had been estranged for a very long time. The last time I had seen him was when he beat me and left me to die… Fast forward… My brother was getting married and my father was invited and I went into complete meltdown. All I could think about was everything that happened to me when I was 13 years old.

“…and then it ended up opening a whole Pandora’s Box…”

So I wanted to talk to my father about it before the wedding, because I felt like I was going to explode – and that meeting was disastrous because he brought his entire family and I wasn’t able to speak to him.

Then, after the wedding – It had brought up all the trauma in me – I rang him and we organised a meeting. But he didn’t turn up to that meeting because he died.

I completely lost my mind. So I decided to write a book. It started off as a journey to tell the world what a horrible man my father was and then it ended up opening a whole Pandora’s Box: all the evils of the world.

So it is a journey back into my childhood and into my parents’ childhood, to try and discover why they were so messed up. And it seems like History plays a major role.

JOHN: Blame the British?

NJAMBI: I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. That is an important point, because my parents grew up at a horrible, horrible time: they grew up during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. 

They were children then. So you can imagine my father, as a young boy, seeing women brutalised every single day of their lives… You would grow up thinking that was normal. They had grown up at a horrible time. But I didn’t know that.

When people are traumatised by a major event, once they are free from it, they tend to want to forget about it. They don’t pass it on to their children but maybe not realising they have been traumatised and can’t face up to it and, if it’s not addressed, their children will be traumatised. It’s called Generational Trauma.

JOHN: Your book is called Through the Leopard’s Gaze. Why that title?

NJAMBI: Because, when I was a child, we lived in a beautiful area called The White Highlands. When the British arrived, they took it for themselves. They kicked out my tribe – the Kikuyu farmers – and took the land for themselves. They put the Kikuyu people in ‘reservations’.

JOHN: When did you come to Britain?

NJAMBI: When I was just coming up to 19.

JOHN: I only spent the first 8 years of my life in Scotland; the rest mostly in London. But I feel Scottish not English. You spent the first 18 years of your life in Kenya…

NJAMBI: We are so confused! My husband is English. My two daughters are British. I have two sisters and two brothers. We all came over, but my brothers moved back to Kenya.

JOHN: And your mother is…

NJAMBI: She died just over a month ago – in December – on Friday the 13th. 

JOHN: Your book will also be your Edinburgh Fringe show in August?

“At least you’re not black black”

NJAMBI: The show will be called Black Black because, the night before I got married, my husband’s mother said: “When I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black.”

My mother was very black; my grandmother was very black. So it is a show where I am paying homage to the blackest people I know. It is a comparison between me and my life now and my grandmother. She lived through the Nazi era. She and I were put into institutions. I went to boarding school in Kenya; my grandmother was put in a British ‘concentration’ camp in Kenya. We were both controlled by the British.

JOHN: This is going to be billed as Comedy in Edinburgh?

NJAMBI: (LAUGHING) Yes. You can talk about something serious, but find the funny in it. In a comedy show, I would like to make people think as well as laugh. 

JOHN: Politics as well?

NJAMBI: Like I said, I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. It has led some people to say I’m racist. But how can I be racist if everything is affected by everything that the British did to us? My education. I speak English. Everything. The land that we lived in. The coffee that was introduced by the British. I cannot not talk about the British.

JOHN: Anything else on the horizon?

NJAMBI: I wrote a sitcom – I have a writing partner. We finished writing it just before the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It’s with a production house. Someone once said to me: “Write about what you know.” Well, I’m an immigrant and there are issues surrounding immigration… And we are currently writing a feature film – well, you gotta try! In it, I am a black African woman with an Austrian lesbian and a Jamaican woman.

JOHN: You are busy…

NJAMBI: And I’m writing my first novel. I’m past halfway. And, out of this one, I think I could write a children’s book – using an element of it.

JOHN: Very busy!

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Filed under Africa, Kenya, Psychology, Racism, Writing

A blog written by predictive text

I thought I would see what a 7-paragraph blog would be like if I let predictive text take over and only start it off… So, with absolutely no editing by me…


The number of unknown unknowns is unknown

What I want to tell you today is gonna be a great night.

The first thing you did there is to be in the bed. The first time is a bit harsh.

The only way you could do that this app was for the iPad and it is very good for you and the free was a great way too.

The only way was a way to make it happen to you.

The first time is a bit harsh but it was the best.

You can never use Facebook for chat or later chat with a few people.

You have been an awesome person for me and you are both in a way of telling the story about the two days you were going through the door to the answer.


Having read that – written entirely by predictive text… It could almost be a Presidential statement.

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Filed under Language, Politics, 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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