On Thursday this week, Dan Kelly starts the Edinburgh Fringe ‘run’ of his show How I Came Third in the North Korean Marathon. So obviously I was interested and went to see his preview show at the Museum of Comedy in London.
And we talked…
JOHN: Your show is very well presented, very entertaining and funny but it’s difficult to find much about you online… You are a man of mystery.
DAN: You won’t find out much online.
JOHN: Have you performed on stage before?
DAN: Not particularly. I’ve done a few bits of improv just to experiment and see what it’s like to be on a stage.
I went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, the same year I went to North Korea, just to see what it was like to perform there and I did a 40-minute free show – a character show – for two weeks. Dan Kelly’s Madras Years.
I was a chat show host who had had a curry with every celebrity in the world and I would take audience suggestions and describe the meal I had with the celebrity they chose.
I know Edinburgh really well: I went to university there – I studied French and history. I would go to the Fringe every year and work in a coffee van in George Square. I just wondered what it was like to perform there and it was brilliant.
It was two weeks in a karaoke booth in the City Cafe which held 30 people. I worked out that, if I performed every day maybe I could get 15 people a day. After two weeks, I thought: How did I get away with that?
JOHN: You’re back again. So, after this, will there be a third show…?
DAN: I think the next show, if there is one, would be about my job and its travels – wandering round an Iranian supermarket looking for frozen lamb and so on.
JOHN: Your job is…?
DAN: I work as a data collector. I collect data on the cost of living around the world. Basically, I travel to countries all over the world and go round supermarkets with a dictaphone, recording the prices.
JOHN: You looked at prices in North Korea?
DAN: No. I went with colleagues – five of us – in 2018 as part of a larger group.
JOHN: An athletics group?
DAN: No, the five of us were just friends.
There was no reason to go there work-wise but we thought: This is a place we don’t cover at work, so how can we get there?
The idea of an organised tour came up, but it didn’t quite appeal.
Then the marathon randomly appeared and that felt like a reasonable way of doing it.
DAN: With the marathon, the course is set and there are marshalls on the course, but you are free to just run. You have to keep to the route, but it was one of the few ways we could see a lot of Pyongyang on foot. It’s probably one of the easiest, safest places we’ve ever been.
JOHN: And the local spectators don’t speak English so they can’t talk to you.
DAN: The only dangerous thing was the amount of alcohol available. Almost encouraged. We were told: This is part of North Korean lifestyle! From the moment we got the train into North Korea from Dandong in China, first thing… trolley down the train… “Who’d like a beer?”
We had two Korean tour guides and two Western guides and it was: “We’re gonna be having a beer. You guys having a beer?”
It was a kinda nice welcome, but then it was, “Right, we’re gonna have ANOTHER beer” and “Who wants to try some local drink?” And the amount of drink available was endless. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger except for the fact that, when everyone gets super-drunk, that’s when people start daring people and saying: “Let’s see what we can find! Let’s go to the floors that they told us not to go to.”
JOHN: They were presumably trying to loosen your tongues?
DAN: That is what we couldn’t work out.
On the day of the marathon, we did a tour during the day and were given loads of beer with our dinner and there was the post-race euphoria and I remember clocking ourselves in the bar and thinking: This is where the dangerous stuff happens. Late at night. The guides are having a drink at a table over there and we’ve been allowed to drink as much as we want. It was 1.00am. This is dangerous. Don’t mess around!
JOHN: The hierarchy of the guides in North Korea is interesting.
DAN: As I say, we had two Western guides and two Korean guides. One of the Korean guides did not speak English and one did.
DAN: Someone said: “They have to have two so they can check on each other.” Whether that’s true or not, who knows?
JOHN: When I went in 2012, we had two North Korean guides – one young, one older; and a driver. Someone in our group spotted that the driver wore a Party lapel badge but the two guides didn’t, which presumably meant he was superior to the two guides. And the tendency was not to pay much attention to the driver because he allegedly didn’t speak or understand English. Allegedly. So you were more likely to be unguarded in what you said to each other in front of the driver. And there was some thought that the younger female guide was more senior that the older male guide. What was your first impression of Pyongyang?
DAN: The skyline there was… interesting… That was where you got that first hit: This is a bit different! It’s like if you went somewhere with indigenous plants. They look like plants, but I’ve never seen things like this before!
JOHN: I remember on BBC TV once, they read out the description of the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 and showed that giant unused pyramid hotel. And it was pretty much the same as the description of the Ministry of Truth.
DAN: You went there in 1985.
JOHN: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012.
DAN: We were only there for four days.
It was billed as the 28th Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in 2018 but, since 2014, they’ve also run a marathon for international amateurs. It’s a way of bringing in tourists.
JOHN: Presumably it’s also a way of showing North Koreans how North Koreans are superior.
DAN: The North Korean professionals run their own race and, in 2018, they invited two or three African runners at, we guessed, the level at which the African runners would challenge but not beat the North Koreans.
The Africans were staying with us in the same hotel and told us they did it for a small fee: We can’t win, but we gotta run them close. Their personal best times were just outside the personal bests of the North Koreans running.
They did the same for the women’s race and we saw female African athletes being blocked-off from water stations where North Korean athletes were welcomed in. Little things like that.
JOHN: In your show, there is video footage of the race and you in North Korea…
DAN: The first day we were there, they told us, “We do a video for all tourist groups. So, if you see a guy with a camera, don’t be alarmed.”
After three days, they played us two minutes of some of the footage – the film ended up an hour in total – and they said: “This will be available on DVD (for around £20). It had North Korean music and looked like a film out of the 1960s. I thought: YES PLEASE!!!
So I got this DVD and then, when I showed the footage to people back in Britain, I saw their faces and thought: This feels like a story worth telling… So the Edinburgh show all came via that.
JOHN: And you took photos…
DAN: Yes. We were told, if we took any photos of statues, we were not allowed to cut off any part of the statue on the photo. Don’t quite know why. Our cameras, phones and lenses were scrutinised quite a lot.
JOHN: Any foreigners watching the race?
DAN: Not so much watching, but there were about 1,000 foreigners entered that year.
You finish in the national stadium and they pack it out with thousands and, if you get in the top three, you get to stand on the podium.
I scraped into the top three and got a medal and a certificate and a little bouquet.
JOHN: …and a fascinating and very entertaining Edinburgh show.
DAN: I hope so.
JOHN: Where are your next work trips?
DAN: Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco. And then maybe Gabon.
JOHN: How were the shop prices in North Korea?
DAN: Who knows? In one of the restaurants we found a drinks cabinet with Western spirits in it and they had some prices on, so we took a photo of it. I think we only brought back four prices from North Korea.
JOHN: Maybe next time…
(THERE IS CURRENTLY A TRAILER FOR THE SHOW ON YOUTUBE…)