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Is London’s uniquely decorated comedy venue – The Poodle Club – barking?

Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was a physician recognised as a founder of clinical medicine and epidemiology who discovered Sydenham’s Chorea aka St Vitus Dance

What did he suggest caused illnesses?  Humoural imbalance.

South East London’s Sydenham area is named after him and humour has been restored there, at least.

(That is an example of why I am not a comedian.)

Betsy, the club’s meeter-and-greeter…

The Poodle Club has re-opened for comedy in Sydenham. The club first opened in 2017 but, of course, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, had to close in 2020. 

It’s run by indefatigable dog-lover Karen O Novak and her husband Darren Ball.

Unusually for UK comedy clubs, it’s not just some room in a pub; they own the lease and it was purpose-built as a comedy venue.

“Why call it The Poodle Club?” I asked Karen.

“Betsy, of course,” she told me.

Betsy is a tiny poodle: a very enthusiastic and much-loved meeter-and-greeter of audiences at the club.  

My last blog was a chat with stand-up performer David Mills backstage at the sold-out grand post-pandemic re-opening of The Poodle Club.

In it, I used the word “unique” about the club. Because it is.

Karen O Novak and David Mills back in 2014

You can choose to share a toilet with Liberace…

The revitalised post-pandemic Poodle Club has a new state-of-the-art ventilation system which delivers 500 litres of fresh air per second.

It also aims to have an equal number of male and female comedians and to promote LGBTQ+ and non-white comics in order, says Karen, “to raise up voices that are sometimes lost in the traditionally straight, male-dominated comedy scene”.

The policy, she claims, has drawn an audience that is 70% female.

The club’s decor – like Betsy the Poodle – shows signs of quirky character.

…or visit Bloo Hawaii in the other poodle loo

There are two unisex toilets in the club: one lavishly decorated as a tribute to Liberace and one equally lavishly dedicated to Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii

Despite being clearly marked as unisex, Darren tells me that, overwhelmingly – and for no known reason – men tend to go into the Liberace WC and women into the Elvis WC.

The audiences on the sold-out opening weekend came into the club beaming with joy – partly because of the warm welcome from Betsy, partly because of the club-wide OTT decor which greeted them and partly, I imagine, just because they were able to go to local comedy again.

There’s a plethora of poodle ornaments and ‘kooky’ knick-knacks crowding behind the bar…

“How,” I asked Karen, “did the good people of Sydenham react during the club’s pandemic closure?”

“There were,” she told me, “non-stop emails, weeping, people throwing themselves under buses.”

“Normal for Sydenham, then,” I said. “Has Betsy greeted audiences since the start in 2017?”

Poodle pooches are all over the place in this lovingly-decorated oasis of the comedy arts…

“Before Betsy,” said Karen, “there was Snoopadoo. She used to hold court here at the bar, but she was an elderly lady poodle and passed away at 19 years old.”

“Were Betsy and Snoopadoo related?”

“Sadly no.”

The poodle obsession runs deep, though. In the backstage dressing room, even the signs on the wall board are held up with little pink poodle pins.

The club has performances every Friday and Saturday – during most other days it lies fallow.

But, ever-enterprising, Karen and Darren are running the First Annual ‘Sydenham Comedy Festival’ at the Poodle Club for a whole week this year – 10th-18th June.

The Festival will feature 20 one-hour shows – a series of Edinburgh Fringe previews by the likes of Arthur Smith, Paul Foot, Tony Law and Shazia Mirza..

The Poodle Club in Sydenham is far from Barking…

Like I said, I’m no comedian, but I know what I like.

I like originality. And The Poodle Club certainly has that.

The never-less-than-extravagantly costumed Ada Campe performing on stage at The Poodle Club

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Steve Best: The photographer comedian

Comedian Steve Best is going to publish his third book of photographs this summer. His two previous books – Comedy Snapshot in 2014 and Joker Face in 2017 – comprised photographs of comedians plus brief anecdotes/jokes. 

The new book – Comedians – is a big departure.


“It’s an expensive book to create because it’s fine art…”

STEVE: I’ve been meaning to do this book for bloody years. It’s not cheap – it’s £50 to buy. It’s an expensive book to create because it’s fine art. It’s a lot of money to raise. I was thinking of going the crowdfunding route via a publishing site that specialises in that, but they take a management fee and ask for all my contacts. So I thought: I might as well do it myself.

So I’ve kind of done crowdfunding on my website by asking people to pre-buy it. I’ve nearly broken even. If I could pre-sell another 100 or so then, when it comes out, we can do a good old PR/publicity thing with the comedians.

JOHN: You previously published the two smaller paperback books.

STEVE: They were very much of the snapshot portraits type. With this one, I’m trying to ‘sell’ it to the Art world as well as to comedy fans.

I think you’ve gotta put your stall out and say This is what it is, because I don’t want to confuse people.

JOHN: You’ve already had photographic exhibitions in arty places…

STEVE: Yeah. There’s still an exhibition of my photos at the Observatory Photography Gallery in London.

JOHN: Which lasts for how long?

STEVE: Indefinitely at the moment.

JOHN: And Joe Bor is making a documentary about you: Clowntographer.

STEVE: Yes. He wanted to do a film about photographers who take pictures of comedians.

JOHN: A limited area…

STEVE: There are a few, obviously. But, as we were setting it up, I said: “Why don’t you do it about me? I’m a comedian who’s a photographer who takes photographs of comedians. It’s a nicer narrative, a better story.”

So we interview Don Ward at the Comedy Store about the pictures on the wall and there are lots of live shoots. It’s more-or-less all filmed. Joe’s editing it now. We’re going to try and get it ready for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

JOHN: Although it’s about British circuit comedians, I guess it will be of interest internationally. And, because both Joe and you are comics, you presumably got great backstage access.

STEVE: There are very few people who have had relaxed access backstage. Some of the most interesting photographs I’ve done are backstage.

The idea with this book is to position myself in the art/photography world so I could actually go to clients and say: “Look, I can document something else for you…” I’ve done a few corporate things. The way to get on in any profession in the arts is to keep developing.

Steve explores the fine art of photography and the fine heart of comedy in his Comedians book…

The idea is to step up the game on the arty side of photography. No-one is really doing this. People like David Bailey and Annie Leibovitz have done backstage photo stuff on music, but no-one’s really done it with comedy.

JOHN: So are you a comedian with a sideline in photography or a photographer with a sideline in comedy?

STEVE: It has changed. I think I was a comedian with a sideline in photography. Now it’s very much reversed. But there’s always a risk in pigeonholing someone. I think you can be a performer AND be an artist. You don’t have to be a comedian only.

JOHN: What’s the difference between creating comedy and creating photographs?

STEVE: In the comedy world, you write your stuff and you try it out and it’s very immediate: it either works or it doesn’t work. In some of the other arts, you do it and there’s a delayed response from critics and the art public.

JOHN: In fine art – or  even when writing comedy – you can pore over the details endlessly. But, in photography, sometimes it’s just a matter of luck, isn’t it? Capturing that one split second.

STEVE: You can teach someone how to write and perform comedy but whether they are really funny is another thing. In a way, it’s the same with photography. You can teach somebody the technical aspects of shutter speed and aperture but whether they have the eye for it is another matter.

JOHN: Surely there’s a limit to the number of ways you can photograph comedians standing at the microphone or doing their make-up in front of a mirror?

Steve takes great Carr with his backstage photography…

STEVE: Well, backstage, I’m always looking for the little bits and pieces that haven’t been done. And onstage I have found some very nice angles – shooting up into the light, from behind the curtains…

JOHN: Physical AND psychological angles? A normal photographer, won’t understand what the comedian is actually thinking. But you – because you are a performer…

STEVE: Well, I can know when the punchline is coming and I can anticipate stuff that might happen…

JOHN: And, with you, they will be more relaxed than with someone who’s just a photographer.

STEVE: Yes, they think of me as a comedian with a camera, rather than as a ‘Photographer’.

JOHN: How long have you been taking photographs of comedians?

STEVE: Comedy Snapshot came out in 2014, so I started maybe 5 or 6 years before that.

JOHN: And you began performing comedy…

STEVE: …28 years ago. I started very young. Haven’t really done anything else. At school, I became involved in magic and got to the final of Young Magician of the Year, then I started doing my ‘A’ Levels at school and then started doing theatre and kids’ parties and then went into the entertainment world. I learned how to juggle, how to unicycle, did lots of circusy stuff. Never did street performing.

JOHN: Does the misdirection inherently involved in magic link into being original in photography? The way people perceive images…?

STEVE: I think you can look into stuff too deeply, John…

Steve in the forthcoming Clowntographer documentary

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Never cancel a live comedy show even if not a single person has booked to see it

(Photograph by Tyler Callahan via UnSplash)

This morning, I was told that an act had cancelled a show at the current Leicester Comedy Festival.

No-one should ever cancel any comedy show because of low or no pre-bookings – unless, perhaps, they are playing the O2 arena and only one person has booked. In that case, perhaps the person should consider their career or their agent.

Apparently – unknown to the act – the Leicester Comedy Festival show that was cancelled was going to be reviewed.

One year at the Edinburgh Fringe, a comedy show was cancelled without notice because no-one had booked in advance and previous shows had had low or no audiences. The act had gone back to London in despair.

In fact, two people did turn up for the show that night and had to be turned away by the embarrassed venue.

One was me, working as an ITV researcher looking for acts and general talent. The other – entirely separately – was a BBC TV producer.

Another year at the Fringe, I turned up for a three-hander comedy show and the acts were there to explain that, as I was the only audience member, there was no point them doing the show. I did not point out to them that (again) I was a TV researcher up there to find talent. There was no point me telling them because they were clearly not dependable pros.

I’ve heard the argument that doing a comedy show to one or two people is not a true representation of the act.

Well, if you can’t perform the comedy act to one person, your act does not work. The rule of thumb on TV is that you should perform in your mind to one person – the one person sitting at home (perhaps in a family group, but still sitting alone) on a sofa.

The performer may want a reaction from a massed audience. But each individual is watching the show alone, inside his or her head, even if others react with them. If you can’t perform the comedy act to one person, your act does not work.

I remember The Scotsman once gave a 5-star review to a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe. The reviewer was the only audience member. If the act works, it works. If the reviewer knows what he/she is doing, they review the show and the performance not the audience reaction.

I once helped an act at the Fringe. It was his first trip up there and he was unknown.

He got very very low audiences and was thinking of giving up and going back home to England. I told him that he should stay and play even if there was only one person in the audience because he had no idea who that person might be.

Even if no-one turns up, still perform the show to an empty venue and treat it as a tough rehearsal. If someone turns up after 15 minutes, keep performing and they will get a private performance which they will adore.

One day when I had to go back to London myself for the night, that particular act played to four people.

Two of them, it turned out, were TV producers looking for an act to appear in a brand new Channel 4 TV show. They had not booked in advance.

As a result of his performance that night, the act got booked for the whole new and successful Channel 4 series, which led to two subsequent BBC TV series.

Never cancel a live comedy show even if no-one has booked to see it.

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He has a simultaneous one-year run in London’s West End AND on Broadway

Katsura Sunshine after two days in quarantine

Back in September 2017, I blogged about Katsura Sunshinethe unique Canadian purveyor of the traditional Japanese storytelling genre Rakugo.

He flew into London from New York last Thursday, sat out his two-day Covid isolation in a hotel, performed his show at the Leicester Square Theatre on Sunday, then flew out to Tokyo yesterday (Tuesday). I chatted to him before he left.


JOHN: When are you coming back again?

KATSURA: I’m going to be performing my show Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo at the Leicester Square Theatre every month for the next year. Dates are on their website.

It’s going to be my one-year run in the West End. It’s only once-a-month on a Sunday, but it’s a one-year-run… And, starting next month, I also have my weekly run in New York for a year, every Thursday.

JOHN: On Broadway?

KATSURA: The theatre’s on-Broadway; the size is off-Broadway.

JOHN: So you will be performing a one-year run of your show in London’s West End AND simultaneously be performing a one-year run of your show on Broadway in New York…

Reuters christened him the King of Kimono Comedy…

KATSURA: Yes. So once a month on a Friday I will fly to London to perform at Leicester Square on the Sunday.

It doesn’t make any economic sense.

However, the thought was – pending Covid etc – I can be here once a month for a week with a base at the Leicester Square Theatre and do other shows in the UK and Paris and around Europe. That would make more economic sense.

I could play New York on the Thursday; fly to London on Friday; play Paris on Saturday; London on Sunday; and New York the following Thursday.

JOHN: And, the rest of each month, when you are performing weekly in New York…

KATSURA: I would be living in New York.

JOHN: With visits to Tokyo?

KATSURA: The current (Covid) quarantine restrictions in Tokyo are tight. A two-week quarantine.

JOHN: Will you be doing roughly the same show in New York and London?

KATSURA: Yeah. When I was performing before – twice-a-week for six months in New York – Thursdays and Saturdays – it was a different show every month. Meaning different stories in the show every month… and I started to get a lot of ‘repeaters’. Quite a few people would come back monthly. Which is kind of the way it’s performed in Japan too.

JOHN: So, over the next year, you could hopefully build up repeat London audiences in the same way…

KATSURA: Hopefully.

JOHN: What’s your New York venue?

The New World Stages 5-venue theater in New York City

KATSURA: It’s called New World Stages and it’s built like a movie theater in that, when you come in, there’s five different theaters. Two 500-seaters, two 350-seaters and a smaller one. I’m in one of the 350-seaters. The way I am able to do it is there’s a children’s show that has been in there for maybe three or four days a week for 13 years; on a Saturday, they do 3 or 4 shows. When you get to Christmas, they’re doing 10, maybe 12 shows a week.

JOHN: For 13 years! Jesus!

KATSURA: It’s called The Gazillion Bubble Show – they blow bubbles. It’s for small children and they don’t use the theater in the evening, so I was able to piggy-back off it. That’s the way I can do one-day-a-week in a Broadway theater, which is kind-of unheard-of.

JOHN: You should do the Edinburgh Fringe next August. (LAUGHS) Fit it into your busy international schedule. Do your weekly show in New York, your monthly show in London and fly up to do a one-off Edinburgh show the same weekend as London.

KATSURA: That’s a great idea!

JOHN: I was joking… But think of the publicity! New York on Thursday; Edinburgh on Saturday; London on Sunday…

KATSURA: (LAUGHS) It’s a great idea!

JOHN: So how is your career of taking original traditional Japanese storytelling around the world going?

KATSURA: Step by step. Being interrupted by Covid was not so good; but six months on Broadway was not bad before that; and the theater’s waiting for me there. I’m really lucky I can start again. I started the show in September 2019 and the theaters got closed down in March 2020.

JOHN: So, like all performers, Covid stopped your career for 18 months.

Katsura Sunshine in his shiny denim lamé kimono

KATSURA: I started a denim kimono fashion line.

JOHN: You seem to be wearing some sort of super-denim kimono.

KATSURA: Yeah, it’s kind-of lamé fabric, got a silver coating to it. But I also sell normal denim. And haori.

JOHN: Haori?

KATSURA: You wear them over the kimono and they come down to your knees. I’m spinning the kimonos off into a separate business: Katsura Sunshine Kimono.

JOHN: You’re a money-spinner. You sell kimonos to non-Japanese people?

KATSURA: Half-and-half. Right now, people email me for their size and it’s made-to-order.

JOHN: When you leave London now, you’re flying to Tokyo?

KATSURA: I hope… I have a lot of important performances over New Year.

JOHN: Important?

KATSURA: It’s a New Year family festival at a hotel. They’ve been doing it for like 50 years. The other performers are all extremely famous.

JOHN: New Year is big in Japan?

KATSURA: The 23rd/24th December is for dates and 31st December is for family.

JOHN: Dates?

KATSURA: Girls who don’t have a boyfriend try their best to get a boyfriend by Christmas. Everyone goes on dates then goes to a hotel.

JOHN: I’m shocked! 

KATSURA: (LAUGHS) I was shocked the first time. I thought they were making fun of me when they first told me that 20 years ago!

JOHN: That everyone goes to hotels?

KATSURA: Yes. You go to a restaurant and then you go to a ‘love hotel’. That’s at Christmas… Last Christmas I spent in (Covid) quarantine because I had just come back from New York to Tokyo… and this Christmas I will be in quarantine too.

JOHN: Eating turkey…

KATSURA: In the West we eat turkey at Christmas but, in Japan, the thing is to eat chicken.

JOHN: Not just chicken, it seems.

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Ross Smith on his book about the reality of working in the creative industries…

Amazon.co.uk divides its books into various categories. At the weekend, I got an email from writer Ross Smith telling me that, just four days after publication, his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz was in the Number 1 position in the ‘Hot New Releases’ of two of those categories – Playwriting and Screenwriting. It is now on sale on every Amazon site in 190 countries worldwide. I obviously chatted to Ross in – not-so-obviously – St James’s Park in London. We chatted in early November. I have only just pulled my finger out. Look, I’ve had plumbing problems…


“The first interview I’ve done in 25 years”

ROSS: This is the first interview I’ve done in 25 years. The last one was with Time Out. I used to write a BBC Radio 2 show called Steve Wright at the Movies. My producer Barry Littlechild was very forceful; you didn’t argue with Barry and he forced me into doing that interview.

JOHN: Why the 25-year gap?

ROSS: I stopped doing interviews after the movie Revenge of BillyThe Kid because I had a couple of bad experiences.

JOHN: But you have interviewed people yourself.

ROSS: I did nearly 300 interviews back in the day.

JOHN: At college, I studied radio, TV, journalism and advertising. The one that was most satisfying was radio, because you have total control over the result. But I went into television  because there’s no money in radio.

ROSS: Radio is notoriously badly-paid. I used to write for Radio 4’s Week Ending; for a while as a staff writer.

JOHN: You’ve done it all.

ROSS: (LAUGHS) Everyone’s written for Week Ending. This is what the book is about. I could make myself sound like Steven Spielberg but to do that I’d have to cut out all the heartache and all the projects that didn’t happen and all the debt I got into. All the awful experiences I had just to get to the next one.

There were gazillions of things that didn’t happen and I had to pay my bills at the end of the month. A couple of times I failed and I had to get kicked out of my home.

An exposé of life in the Arts end of showbiz

JOHN: The book originally had a different sub-title.

ROSS: Yes. The original sub-title was Memoirs From the Fag End of Showbiz…

We know what ‘Fag End’ means in Britain, but our American friends have got a different meaning. So I thought: OK, how about Life at the Arse End of Showbiz? And now I prefer Life at the Arse End of Showbiz. It sounds more funny, more resigned, whereas Memoirs From the Fag End sounds more like I’m really bitter, which I’m not.

I didn’t want to write a book about me per se, because I’m a nobody, although I’ve got a few credits. 

JOHN: More than a few!

ROSS: Yeah, but I’ve never been able to monetise my career… Indeed, that’s one of the key things about the book. I am in the area where 95-99% freelance creative people are.

You can be creative and go work for the BBC and have a job for life, going from project to project. But 95-99% of us are in this area where we’re not necessarily hugely successful and earning loads of money but we’re not complete arseholes. We’re stuck in the middle and that voice never gets heard. 

The only people who get interviewed by the broadsheets and the Graham Nortons of this world are people who are ‘successful’. And that gives a one-dimensional view of the Arts – acting, writing, whatever. As a result, the punters – the public – think Oh! Everyone in showbiz is earning a fortune! And it’s just not true.

My book is about the sort of guy who plays the waiter in one scene in a film. Looking at his career. 

That is the career, frankly, that most young creative people are going to have. They are not going to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch. They are going to be that waiter and try to make a living.

It is not a How To book per se; it’s more. It’s basically about all the shite that young people who have aspirations to be creative do not want to hear but need to hear if they want to monetise their talent and – far more important than that – maintain the monetisation of their talent.

It is all about the importance of agents, the importance of hustling, the importance of just keeping the fuck going.

This is a spade (Photograph via Pixabay)

There’s no bullshit in my book. I call a spade a spade. If you really wanna know how difficult it is – and all the pitfalls – read this book, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to establish and maintain a freelance career. It goes a long way to explaining why so many freelance creative people haven’t got a pot to piss in.

JOHN: You wrote the movie Revenge of Billy The Kid under the pen name Richard Mathews. It has built a big cult following over the years.

ROSS: It’s un-fucking-blievable that film. We had never made a film before and no-one in the British film industry would give us a break and, in those days…

JOHN: When?

ROSS: 1988. It’s all in the book. The only wannabe movies that got made then would be like Privileged which was produced by students, but it was executive produced by John Schlesinger – an icon of British cinema – he godfathered the project and made sure ‘the kids’ did a good job. We had nothing like that.

Director Jim Groom, his business partner Tim Tennison and I wrote four scripts together. One was turned into a movie; the rest just didn’t happen. In the book, I talk about the ones that did NOT happen as much as the one that did. The one that did was Revenge of BillyThe Kid.

“Old MacDonald had a farm… and on that farm he HAD a goat…” – Ooh, missus!

Jim had lots of experience in editing commercials and trailers. Tim had been a First Assistant Director on many films – Little Shop of Horrors, Wetherby, Dance With a Stranger. I had written comedy sketches for TV and stuff like that. But no-one would give us a break.

It was a very anarchic production every step of the way. About 20 of us worked on the film and our average age was about 24. We went away for four weeks to Wales and Cornwall to shoot.

It’s something people love or hate. If you go to IMDB and scroll down the headlines of the reviews, it will go from ‘The Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen’ to ‘Utter Dogshit’. There is nothing in the middle. Which is what we wanted.

The News of the World gave it its first ever No Stars review.

I suppose I turned my back on the film industry in the mid-Noughties. I gave up because of all the shit, although I had a very good production rate. I wrote 30 scripts and got 4 movies made out of it. My fourth film came out – The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby – in 2006. It took sixteen years to get made. (Ross again used the pen name Richard Mathews.)

Invasion of the Cathode Rays, in which Ross played a robot

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yes. In 1995, my friends and I took a midnight show to the Edinburgh Fringe Invasion of the Cathode Rays. It was set in the 1950s and was a parody of public health warnings, TV commercials. We were getting about 20 people a night in the audience. It was great fun, a great show, but we didn’t find our audiences. Fair enough. Classic Fringe story.

My second Fringe show – a two-person sort-of family show called One Small Step (written under the pen name David Hastings) – was the story of two people in an attic who discover all this ephemera from the 1960s and they start telling the story of the space race.

They hold a beach ball up and say: “Sputnik!” It’s that sort of play. The on-stage budget – costumes, sets, props – was £136.

One Small Step – 2 actors, 60 characters and 35,000 people.

The two actors played about 60 characters, including Laika the dog.

We were on at the Assembly Rooms at 5.00pm in the afternoon and got about 20-40 people daily for the first week. We had websites and fanzines writing wonderful things, but the mainstream press didn’t give a shit about us. Unless a show has ‘someone off the telly’, they’re not interested. That’s not a reflection on journalists; it’s a reflection on their readers.

But one day a guy called Malcolm Jack, a critic for The Scotsman, came to see it. There were 8 people in the audience that day. He wrote a 5-star review. The review was published on a Saturday morning. By 3.00pm in the afternoon, even the actors’ friends couldn’t get tickets. On the Sunday, it sold out again.

His review ended with the line: ”It’s hard to imagine a play fuelled by a more profound and spellbinding sense of sheer wonder”… Remember this is a play with two guys walking around on a stage with buckets on their head pretending they’re spacemen! It’s just two actors sitting around with junk on a stage; they play Also Spruce Zarathustra, the 2001 theme, on a stylophone!

Next thing we know…

The Sunday Times – 5-star review. 

Daily Telegraph: “One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

The whole run sells out.

It gets a 10-week UK tour the next year. 

At the next year’s Fringe, the Assembly Rooms puts it in a bigger venue. The whole run sells out.

The British Council come on board: “We want to take you on a world tour starting in Sydney, Australia, for three weeks. It’ll take 11 months and end up in China.”

It was the world’s most-toured British play of 2010 – 22 countries in 11 months.

And all that started from that one review.

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yup. It has been seen now by around 35,000 people worldwide – it toured America in 2019.

JOHN: So you made pots of money…

ROSS: Over-all, over the whole journey of all those shows over about two-and-a-half years, I only made £5,500. But the point is – as William Goldman famously wrote -“Nobody knows anything”.

Nobody KNOWS what is going to work and what isn’t.

You might think: Oh, come on, Ross! It’s been seen by 35,000 people! You’re getting your royalties and being flown all over the world!

No. This is the REAL reality. I went to see it in Washington, but I had to pay £600 for my flight and my own accommodation.

This is the world where most of us are. And that’s what this book is about. Readers who want to get into the Arts may not want to hear this, but it’s going to be the world they may (if they are lucky) enter.

They are NOT going to be the next Michael Caine. They might be the next Ross Smith. (LAUGHS) And, if so, good luck to you!

(CONTINUED HERE…)

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Twonkey’s Greatest Twitch, Princess Margaret and the Pub Quiz Mafia…

Paul Vickers with clock sans cuckoo spoke on FaceTime

Twonkey aka Paul Vickers is back at London’s Soho Theatre on Tuesday with a new show. 

Well, sort of.

I talked to him on FaceTime. He lives in Edinburgh.


JOHN: You didn’t play the much-cut-back  Edinburgh Fringe this year.

PAUL: No, because it kept wavering. I was due be doing it at Dragonfly again, but then that got closed for two weeks because of a Covid outbreak.

JOHN: You’re coming down south for your Soho Theatre show: Twonkey’s Greatest Twitch. Didn’t you have a Twitch show before?

PAUL: Yes, there was Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch. This one is more like a ‘Best of Twonkey’ show.

The difficulty is selecting what the best is. I’ve just chosen what I think the best bits are and hope people will agree with me. I mean, really, Twonkey started as a joke and just got out of hand. 

It was something I did off the cuff. I didn’t think: Oh, I’ll be doing this for over ten years. I just thought: I’ll do one Edinburgh Fringe and see what happens. But then you get addicted; you get on the treadmill of doing it.

I am feeling a bit like James Bond, in the sense that I’ve created a franchise and I feel like I’m getting to the point where I’d like to pass it on to someone else.

JOHN: Who else could do a Twonkey show though?

PAUL: Princess Anne was on the list.

JOHN: Have you asked her? It’s worth asking because you’re likely to get a reply from some official which you could quote… Who else?

PAUL: Peter Crouch, the footballer. John Craven was mentioned.

Twonkey’s greatest latest seen soon in Soho

JOHN: Why would Princess Anne be ideal to do a Twonkey show?

PAUL: It was thought she might give it a bit of dignity. But Princess Margaret was the fun one. She used to get stoned with the Incredible String Band, apparently.

JOHN: And now it’s too late…

PAUL: Yes. But I feel like Roger Moore gearing up for Octopussy. It won’t feel like that once I get going again. At the moment I’m in that nervous period.

It will be like Diamonds Are Forever when I get going.

JOHN: You haven’t performed as Twonkey for a while, because of the lockdowns…

PAUL: Yeah. I’ve been more into band stuff. (More on his band Paul Vickers and The Leg in my blog of February this year)

JOHN: Are you going to do less Twonkey and more music?

PAUL: I think it might be a bit like that, yeah. We were gonna try and incorporate a band thing in the new show, but we’re not really ready: it’s such a long process with the band.

JOHN: Your shows tend to have music in them, but you mean the band could actually be part of a Twonkey show?

PAUL: That could happen. I’ve always wanted to do that. The main thing that stops me is expense and all the Edinburgh Fringe venues are basically just like a plug in the wall. It would have to be a big enough venue to fit six people with equipment on the stage.

JOHN: Anything planned after the Soho Theatre and before next year’s Edinburgh Fringe?

A cultural dessert – the Custard Club

PAUL: Well, I did write another show that I had been going to do in 2020: Twonkey’s Custard Club. I had an elaborate idea involving custard as currency and where desserts had become the main meal.

JOHN: That works for me.

PAUL: I was all geared-up to do it at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2020, but then all the lockdowns happened and I couldn’t do anything for almost two years.

JOHN: So why are you not doing Twonkey’s Custard Club as your Soho Theatre show?

PAUL: Well, I kept opening the Word document and I thought: I don’t know how I feel about that now… There had been enough time for doubts to creep in. Previously, there had never been enough time for doubts to creep in because, every year, I barely had enough time to get a coherent show together for the Fringe.

I think everyone’s gone through this thing where you had a structured life and, during the pandemic, it wasn’t there any more. And then you start thinking: Do I really need to do that any more? Is that important? Do I LIKE doing that? It’s quite stressful.

Paul Vickers and The Leg – all six members of the band…

All those things came into the equation, so I became a bit more serious. The new band album is quite serious. I got quite into that during the pandemic – crafting a really good album.

JOHN: What was Twonkey’s Custard Club like?

PAUL: There was a book that had 100 pages with the same picture on every page. It was a tankard and a sleepy/romantic Alpine scene. There was a whole bit about if that book did exist, how would you interpret it? You would probably automatically think there might be a slight difference between the pictures and start looking for it. But there was no difference.

JOHN: Was any custard involved?

PAUL: In that bit, no. It was not custardy that bit. It wasn’t ALL custardy.

There will be a couple of custard songs in the Soho Theatre show – the ‘Best of’ show – despite the fact they’ve never been heard by anyone before.

JOHN: Seems reasonable.

PAUL: If the gig at the Soho Theatre goes well, that’ll help me make my decision on what to do.

If everyone’s like You can’t stop doing that! That’s great, Paul! that’s one thing. But, if it ends with people booing and asking for refunds, then… (LAUGHS)

Twitch bound… the Wobbly Waiter from Twonkey’s Custard Club…

There are some amazing puppets that Grant’s made for the show. The Wobbly Waiter of the Custard Club has got leg braces and everything. It was going to have custard and wobbly things on the plate. You bomb about and create absolute chaos with him because it’s very heavy and impossible to control. So it’s the perfect foil for comedy activity. 

JOHN: You haven’t done Twonkey at all during the pandemic?

PAUL: Well I did a pub quiz as Twonkey in a little pub called The Hoppy in Edinburgh and that went really well. That was the first time I’d done Twonkey in ages.

JOHN: How does Twonkey do a pub quiz? Surreal questions?

PAUL: Well, there’s a lot of things I do that make it not work.

JOHN: Is that the basis of Twonkey? Making it not work.

PAUL: Essentially. For example, at the pub quiz, I was forgetting to read out all the answers and no-one had any idea who was winning, not even me because I had forgotten to count it up.

JOHN: What happened at the end?

PAUL: My brother tried to make sense of it all and we did crown a winner.

Woodland Creatures bar, home of an unconventional pub quiz

JOHN: You had hosted pub quizzes before?

PAUL: When I did it on Leith Walk, I used to do it at a place called Woodland Creatures. But the trouble with pub quizzes is that people take them very seriously and the Edinburgh Pub Quiz Mafia came round. I was like the new kid on the block.

JOHN: Who are the Edinburgh Pub Quiz Mafia?

PAUL: Well, there’s a few of them that do the pub quiz circuit. Some of them do five or six pubs. I used to think the host for a pub quiz was probably a local schoolteacher with a bit of knowledge and time on his hands but – nah – it’s much more cynical than that.

The Pub Quiz Mafia were like: What’s this guy up to? Because I was going against the conventions of pub quizzes…

JOHN: … like giving the answers…

PAUL: …erm… yes. It was controversial at first. I had one round where I showed a clip from a film and people watched it really carefully, thinking the questions were going to be about that clip… but then I’d ask questions about a completely different film.

Paul Vickers aka Twonkey – unconventional is now standard

At the start, it was quite popular. I had a dominatrix doing the score cards. She was in latex and stuff.

She was like Carol Vorderman from Countdown. She was the brain and the discipline of the quiz and I was like Richard Whiteley, sitting there not having a clue what was going on, but being charming in a way I suppose. If I messed up, the dominatrix would keep me in line.

JOHN: She would whip you into shape?

PAUL: (LAUGHS) There was no whipping involved, but she made it known she was displeased. And she got angry with people who weren’t behaving in the crowd. After she stopped helping out, I was just sort of floating because I forgot I was doing a pub quiz. And it turned out that really frustrates people.

JOHN: What were you thinking if you forgot it was a pub quiz?

PAUL: Well, I start off thinking: Oh, this will be fun. And then I lose interest because it’s a pub quiz. I suppose I’ve made it my own. You could say it’s just a bad pub quiz.

JOHN: You should do a bad pub quiz at the Edinburgh Fringe. People would flock to it.

PAUL: Maybe… I will send you a link to my new video: Everyone Loves Custard. It will be in the Soho show.


And he did…
 

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A DIY guide to getting and making an Edinburgh Fringe comedy award…

This morning, a month after this year’s cut-down-by-Covid Edinburgh Fringe finished, the 2021 Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award winner was announced. Yes, a month after it finished. 

The late Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home

Alas no attempt was made to link the fact that the Award and the dead-but-impossible-to-forget comic Malcolm Hardee himself are both late.

Normally, there are three Malcolm Hardee Awards but, with no Fringe last year, with Covid still stalking the land and with staggeringly fewer shows at the Fringe this year, it’s a miracle there was any award at all.

As for the lesser Fringe awards… There were no Edinburgh Comedy (aka Perrier) Awards at all this year. And the eponymous TV channel did not attempt to award any prize for ‘DAVE’s Best Joke of the Fringe 2021’.

Fittingly, then, the winner of the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award this year was Will Mars, who announced his own ‘(Some Guy Called) DAVE Joke of the Fringe 2021’.

A cunning stunt indeed.

The TV channel’s annual prize is awarded after multiple allegedly top comedy industry professionals assiduously scout for jokes to nominate a shortlist and the final winner is decided by an allegedly carefully supervised public vote. 

This year, Will Mars just got together a few gags from people’s shows and then wandered up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh trying to find anyone called Dave who would pick a winner from the bunch.

Surprisingly, finding someone called Dave turned out to be almost as difficult as picking a winner.

The chosen winning joke was Masai Graham’s:

“I thought the word ‘Caesarean’ began with the letter ‘S’ but, when I looked in the dictionary, it was in the ‘C’ section.”

The shortlist of other jokes – inexplicably Caesar-centric – which Will had got together included:

Adele Cliff: “The Roman emperor’s wife hates playing hide and seek because wherever she goes Julius Caesar.” 

Ben Clover: “Getting a caesarian is dangerous in Russia. If they open you up and find a little girl, they open her up to see if there’s another.”

Ivor Dembina: “My therapist told me, ‘A problem shared, is a hundred quid’.”

Sameer Katz: “I think Chewbacca is French because he understands English but refuses to speak it.”

Leo Kearse: “Marvin Gaye used to keep a sheep in my vineyard. He’d herd it through the grapevine.”

Will Mars’ own: “My grandparents were married for forty years, but everything took longer back then.”

Tom Mayhew: “Me and my ex were into role play. I’d pretend to be James Bond and she’d pretend she still loved me.”

Rich Pulsford: “I don’t know what you call a small spillage from a pen but I have an inkling.”

The trophy for the one-off 2021 Award itself was designed and crafted by mad inventor John Ward, who has designed and made all the previous trophies.

But you can’t just knock-off a Malcolm Hardee Award in a minute or two. Oh no. Oh my dear me, no. Quality counts.

You need raw materials and then you have to decide what the fuck to do with them…

Once you have ’em, you have to shape ’em and craft ’em…

Then, if you’re talented like John Ward, you have to tart ’em up into a final trophy…

John Ward (he’s the one on the right) with the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award 2021

John Ward told me: “It’s basically Malcolm’s bonce, with real imitation hair, plus the specs mounted on an ‘H’ shaped base for Hardee.

“I used a BAFTA type theme but tried to take the piss out of it with the silver (on the right) symbolising the bland year and half it’s been with Covid and the golden ray of laughter (on the left) is pure (if that’s a suitable word) Malcolm with a hearty grin.”

“With real imitation hair?” I asked. “From where?”

“From a fabric shop I patronise for such things…”

“Such things?” I asked.

“I use it to make wigs and I buy it by the yard as you never know when you might run out of the hairy stuff…” replied John.

Here is a reminder of John Ward.

Here is Will Mars’ typically non-promotional speech accepting the 2021 Cunning Stunt Award…

 
And here is the base of John Ward’s trophy…

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Njambi McGrath: “I’ve discovered I can do things I never thought I could do…”

Njambi’s book Through The Leopard’s Gaze

JOHN: So, Njambi McGrath, you are very busy at the moment. 

NJAMBI:  Well, lockdown gave me the space to write.

Before that, I was travelling loads to do comedy gigs but all the way through lockdown I didn’t have to travel anywhere so I could literally write all day.

When my first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze was published I had done so much research I didn’t want the richness of what I discovered to be wasted.

So I decided to write my second book last year as fiction and use the research in that. 

I wrote that new book last year and I’m writing another one this year.

Both novels are set in Kenya. I wanted both of them to reflect everything.  The chaos and how people tried to make sense of life before independence and everything.

Njambi at a book signing, with many more still to come…

Last year’s novel is called The Residence of the Ministry of Works. It’s about people living in a compound in Kenya. No-one even knows how they found their way there. Is it a Ministry? No. It was something the British created and, when they left, it… it is like a slum.

When they arrived, the British found systems that were intact and it’s like Lego. If you kick it, then it goes in all directions. The British kicked the existing system and caused chaos.

JOHN: And the new book this year is…?

NJAMBI: Rinsing Mukami’s Soul – it’s more focussed. I think I’m on the final draft now. The ‘Rinsing’ is because of all the things she does and encounters; her soul needs rinsing.

JOHN: So, with the long-drawn-out lockdown, the enforced isolation and the book-writing, have you lost your urge to go on stage and do live stand-up?

NJAMBI: No. It’s like a drug. Every time I’m on stage I am: Oooh! I wanna do this again! I performed at The Comedy Store a couple of weeks ago and a couple of other venues this week. I’ve done enough gigs since lockdown finished to forget how many I’ve done.

JOHN: And you went up to the whittled-down Edinburgh Fringe in August…

NJAMBI: Yes, I was invited to Edinburgh and offered a 98-seater at the Pleasance to do a 3-day run of my show Accidental Coconut, the show I did in 2019. 

JOHN: What was Edinburgh like this year?

NJAMBI: I had very good, full-house audiences. People were hungry to laugh after the lockdown.

The week before that, I had been up to Edinburgh to record my radio show over two nights. The audiences were the same then – amazing. What a way to come out of lockdown hibernation!

The Sunday Times loved Njambi’s new radio show.

JOHN: Your radio show… That’s your BBC Radio 4 series of four, which starts this week?

NJAMBI: Yes, it’s based on Accidental Coconut but it’s called Njambi McGrath: Becoming Njambi. It starts this Wednesday, the 22nd of September, for four weeks at 11.00pm on Wednesdays.

JOHN: Why is it not called Accidental Coconut?

NJAMBI: Because Radio 4 said: “If you use that term on radio, referring to yourself, other people may think it’s OK to use that derogatory term.”

JOHN: Why was it called Accidental Coconut in the first place?

NJAMBI: Because when I had been doing an Edinburgh show in a previous year – African in New York – I said that, when I got to America, I hadn’t been aware of the Black issues there because I was an ‘accidental coconut’ – because, obviously, we don’t learn that history in Kenya.

And then I thought: Oh my God! That’s a really great title! – It reflects exactly what we are. We are not taught about our history.

JOHN: How did black New Yorkers react when you opened your mouth and they realised you were British?

NJAMBI: The first time I was in a lecture hall, I put my hand up and spoke and everybody went: Whooaaaa! How come you’re not speaking with the black people’s accent in America?

JOHN: Did they think either (a) she’s just a foreigner or (b) she’s English so she must be posh? She must know the Queen?

NJAMBI: Well, they were even more confused because I said: “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan”.

JOHN: And their reaction was…?

NJAMBI: Well, after my university days, when Barack Obama was still President, I was in Florida and said, “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan,” and their reaction was “Where is Kenya?”

JOHN: Whaaat?

“I hadn’t been aware of the Black issues there because…”

NJAMBI: I said: “That is where your President is from. And one woman asked: “George W Bush?” 

Everyone around the world was talking about this new American President and she hadn’t even noticed they had got a new president and he was black. If she hadn’t looked so confused, I would have thought it was a joke.

JOHN: You are also performing Accidental Coconut at Soho Theatre in London next month. (4th-9th October) 

NJAMBI: Yes, it actually overlaps with the radio series.

JOHN: And what comes after your Soho Theatre run?

NJAMBI: I’ll be finishing my new book Rinsing Mukami’s Soul and I have a new stage show as well. I was working on a draft of it in early 2020 and was going to take it to Edinburgh that August, but then the pandemic happened and the Fringe didn’t. So it will now be my 2022 show.

JOHN: Titled…?

NJAMBI: Black Black.

JOHN: Why?

NJAMBI: Because, the night before I got married, my mother-in-law came to me and I thought she was going to say something like: “Welcome to my family”. But she whispered to me: “The day I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black…”

JOHN: So books, live stage stuff, radio… and a TV series of your first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze…?

NJAMBI: Well, we are waiting on that. You know how long these things take. It was optioned during lockdown.

Njambi and I chatted at London’s Soho Theatre

I have got to a point in my life where I’ve discovered I can do things I never thought I could do.

For a long time, I didn’t think I had the skill. 

I was working in IT; I didn’t think I was good at it. I couldn’t sing. There were so many things I couldn’t do, so I thought I was useless.

Then I discovered I can make people laugh.

Then I discovered I could write.

Oh my God!

Now I’m like a ferret on a treadmill because I want to write as many shows as possible because I discovered I can actually do something when I thought I could do nothing. So I have been doing all these things as well as co-writing a TV sitcom and I’ve been writing some drama as well…

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This year’s Edinburgh Fringe in the very personal opinion of ex-Sir Gideon Vein

The Edinburgh Fringe – or what passes for the Fringe in this let’s-hope-it’s-almost-over-Covid-pandemic netherworld – finishes this coming weekend. It started on 6th August.

The former Sir Gideon Vein with a very personal look…

I have not been up there but, when I chatted to performer Tony Green aka Sir Gideon Vein for a blog posted a fortnight ago, I mentioned that he might like to give his view of what it is like this year. He lives in Edinburgh for a lot of the year.

I have just received his highly-personal account…

I say ‘highly-personal’… That is exactly what I asked him for but, in other words, if you are an act who is mentioned, don’t send the hit-men to shoot ME…


The Duke of Wellington had developed a pointed head

A couple of weeks ago, ‘The Duke of Wellington’ had a cone placed upon his head. It seemed to herald the beginning of The Fringe (albeit a severely pared-down version). Although Queen Victoria’s statue at the top end of Leith Walk where the down and outs invariably assemble is frequently treated to a cone.

Anyway, as I mentioned to you, there has been practically no-one flyering up here – only the occasional one around the St Giles area giving out flyers for their own shows. 

I went to see Walshy’s (formerly a homeless geezer whose face tells the story) show (A Number of Stand-Ups) in Niddry Street.

It turned out to be in the back annexe of a basement. No distancing and about sixty people (a capacity audience) crammed into one small oblong room about 20ft by 9ft with some wearing masks, some not. 

There was no way I felt I could go in especially with a partner (not actually with me) who is totally vulnerable as regards this bloody virus. 

So I walked along to The Canons’ Gait in the Canongate to see PBH’s Show (I’ve known him for years)… It turned out to be his night off. The compere was a woman called Kate Smurthwaite who opened with a stream of extraneous expletives.

I see the objective here but personally don’t feel it is necessary. 

Kate Smurthswaite’s own one-woman show

Not that she actually said this but it could just as well have been something like:  “Right, so Jack and Jill went up the fucking hill to fetch a fucking pail of water…” 

I certainly have no objection to so-called ‘bad language’ – far from it – just the way it is used… e.g. When Malcolm Hardee used the ‘Fuck’ it was necessary AND funny in a lighthearted way – but this is a different arena. 

Then there was a bit about about her ‘bush’ and pubic hair removal, then onto asking the audience intrusive questions (par for the course these days it would seem) e.g. “And what do you do for a living…?” 

I was not asked – a pity perhaps. 

Although the Oxbridge-educated Kate, who was formerly an investment banker in London and Japan, is a deeply politically-motivated comic as well as an activist and teacher, she didn’t touch on politics in her opener. Perhaps she was saving the political stuff for her midnight chat show. 

I later saw her on the internet clashing with Laurence Fox – this was a TV link-up. 

So the Chat Show would indeed have the potential for an explosive midnight hour and it is, by the way, the only midnight show at the Fringe.  

The first comic on was a very young Norwegian bloke called Thor. He was alright, I suppose, and not unlikeable but nothing there really for someone like me  – also asking the audience personal questions and explaining the problems he’d encountered regarding his ethnicity. 

His English was actually better than many English people’s. Early days for him though. 

It started to look a bit packed and there were no precautions or any distancing so I left early which may have been a pity. 

Critic Kate Copstick went there last week and gave the night she went a 5-star review and later I believe Kate Smurthwaite’s own show was also highly commended. 

A couple of days ago I saw a bloke – ‘Edinburgh Fringe Favourite’ Robert Inston – doing a one-man show about Jack the Ripper – a subject I know a fair bit about. 

He attempted to portray five characters all of whom were closely associated with the Whitechapel Murders. This was in the large basement (so it was possible to sit far back) called Maggie’s Chamber at The Three Sisters in the Cowgate. 

I appreciated his effort but, as he said, he is used to performing as women. 

The trouble was (for me) ALL of the characters were portrayed in an overtly camp manner (fair enough with Queen Victoria) and his depiction of Walter Sickert (about whom crime writer Patricia Cornwell has a definite bee in her bonnet) as a nasty homosexual bitch hardly tied up with what is actually known about the man who was allegedly born with a malformed penis but who was married a couple of times (to women).

‘Leather Apron’ (John Pizer) was depicted as a fey gay (or that was the impression given).

An opportunity missed I thought. 

Some people put as little as a penny in the collection bucket. The audience nevertheless were very well behaved throughout. My partner fell asleep (a large area and we were able to sit at the back). 

Few posters at the Fringe in 2021

It sort of reminded me of a production of Dorian Gray (merit-wise) that I saw up here a few years ago. Oscar Wilde would have taken out a lawsuit – to call it lacking in subtlety would be a gross understatement. 

The board with the posters at the end of the Cowgate is virtually the same board ALL over town. I haven’t seen Daniel Sloss or Craig Hill and somehow can’t imagine I ever will. The former I know got good reviews up here a few years ago.

In Hill Square (Hill Place), off Nicholson Street, there is a marquee with a raised platform. The venue is called The Space. On stage there were about six or seven young English girls by the sound of them singing pop songs a cappella, often with interpolation. It was Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive I heard. No disrespect to them, but hardly my bag. They had a reasonable audience.

It is a pity I couldn’t have said something nice about a show. The Free Fringe is hit and miss as expected. And this year there was not exactly a great deal to choose from…

The a cappella girls got a reasonable audience in Hill Square…

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Filed under Comedy, Critics, Edinburgh

North Korea, President Obonjo and me on “If Comedians Ruled The World…”

Here’s a chat I had last night with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer President Obonjo aka Benjamin Bankole Bello for his podcast If Comedians Ruled The World.

In the chat, I mention the Zircon satellite, which is incorrect. I think the satellite I should have mentioned was probably an ECHELON one.

I also mention the Pakistan Ambassador in Pyongyang and I think I mean the Indian Ambassador. It was a long time ago and I have a legendarily shit memory.

Anyway, we got through comedy, North Korea, Donald Trump, politics, dictators, propaganda, the US electoral system, the media and the Edinburgh Fringe, all in 45 minutes of fun, frivolity and totalitarian talk.

After viewing it, Sandra Smith – comedy industry uber-fan and observer of such details – commented: “Very active head action while speaking to the President.” She listed…

14 ear touches

9 spectacles

4 mouth

9 head

2 forehead

1 neck

3 eyes

2 nose

I wish she hadn’t mentioned all those. I’m a bit touchy…

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Filed under Comedy, North Korea, Podcasts, Politics