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A remarkable fire-eater talks about a death and British alternative comedy

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

In a blog a couple of weeks ago, the So It Goes blog’s occasional correspondent Anna Smith wondered what had happened to her acquaintance, an exotic dancer from Winnipeg called Karen, who was last heard-of in London.

Unfortunately, I can tell her.

I had a drink this week with Philip Herbert, best-known to me as fire-eating comedy act Randolph The Remarkable.

“Sadly Karen passed away,” Philip told me. “She got knocked off her bike in London. She was overtaking a lorry and a bus came towards her.”

“When was this? I asked.

“About 15 years ago,” Philip told me.

“The last time I saw her, she was on her bike and I shouted: Careful on that bike!

“That was the last thing I said to her. And, about a fortnight after that, she was dead.

“At the time, I was on a 12-week tour, doing A Tale of Two Cities at the Oxford Playhouse. So I couldn’t get to the funeral. Her parents thought she was working as an au pair and teaching; they had no idea she was working on the strip circuit. All her friends were freaks, were punks, were entertainers. Apparently the wake was weird because everyone was pretending they knew Karen through her teaching.

“She was going into comedy. She was beginning to speak and tell stories and do poetry.

“In the old days, there was a cross-over between stripping and comedy. 69 Dean Street was the Nell Gwynne strip club until about 11 o’clock and then it suddenly turned into The Comedy Store. When it got successful, they stopped doing the stripping on Friday and Saturday and they did two comedy shows – an 8 o’clock and a midnight.

“If you were on the circuit then, you’d do first act in the first house at the Comedy Store, then go off and do a pub in Stoke Newington or wherever, then rush back and do second or third on the bill in the second show at the Comedy Store. If you were good, you were working in more than one place. Everyone worked round each other and there was a cross-over between street acts and alternative acts”

Philip performed feats of skill as Randolph The Remarkable

Philip performed feats of skill as Randolph The Remarkable

“I must have first seen you in the 1980s,” I said, “when you were Randolph The Remarkable.”

“I still do Randolph The Remarkable: Fire-Eater Extraordinaire. Feats of Skill Involving Fire and a Blue Bowl of Lukewarm Water. The only trouble is now, because of Health & Safety, you have to have a Risk Assessment and Public Indemnity Insurance and a fireman standing in the wings who holds a bucket of sand. If you can do all that, then they’re prepared to book you. In the old days at the Comedy Store, you’d get £5 and a drink token and I used to work under a sprinkler and there couldn’t be anything more dangerous than that. I don’t suppose they’d allow that now.”

Philip (right) as Hugh Jelly with Julian Clary

Philip (right) often performed as Hugh Jelly with Julian Clary

“Back in the 1980s, it was much more risky and exciting and there was that cross-over from people who worked as street performers – I started off as Randolph at Covent Garden and Camden Lock… and people saw the act and said Oh, you must do the Comedy Store. Then people would see you at the Comedy Store above the Nell Gwynne strip club and say Oh, you must do the new variety Cast circuit.

“How did you get into fire-eating?” I asked.

“I was an actor in a community company,” explained Philip, “and we were asked if we wanted to learn how to fire-eat for a historical tour. We did Southampton and Portsmouth. We took people round different historical sites and pubs and re-enacted history – it was a pub crawl, really – and then, as the light faded, we stood on the city wall and did fire-eating and fire-blowing.

“Then I was out of work for months and I thought This is ridiculous. I’ve got this skill. So I did it at Covent Garden and, back then in the early 1980s, you could just turn up and do it. You didn’t need a licence; you didn’t need to audition. Now you have to go through this whole rigmarole and they don’t allow fire there any more because there was a silly accident where somebody spilled paraffin into the crowd.

“I still do Randolph at the Punch & Judy Festival at Covent Garden every year.

Philip as Drag Idol favourite Nora (photograph by John Tsangarides)

Philip as Drag Idol favourite Nora (photograph by John Tsangarides)

“And I did Gay Pride last year and I also do a drag act now called Nora Bone. I was a finalist in last year’s Drag Idol. I was in the last four out of 200-odd acts. I wear a red wig; I’ve been described as a bloated Geri Halliwell, because I wear a Union Jack dress. Not a mini – just below the knee. And white tights and very low heels, because I used to be on a higher heel and I fell. A lower heel is much more sensible for a lady of my age.”

“Are you an attractive woman?” I asked.

“Beautiful. I make the boys’ heads turn. I’m trying to do songs that other people don’t do. Not Life’s a Cabaret or I Did It My Way. I do I’m Too Sexy For My Skirt, Save All Your Kisses For Me, Madonna’s Holiday. The idea is that I’m an ex-recording artist that people don’t remember; an ex-supersize model; that I did a lot of ‘before’ photographs in diet magazines; and I’m a stand-in for Adele.”

“Do you regret not being a full-time actor?”

“Well, Nora is all acting. And doing circus, doing panto… a lot of straight actors knock panto. But I tell them To do panto well is as difficult as doing Shakespeare well – because it’s a set piece. You’ve got all the set stuff with the audience, the interaction. And you’ve got men playing women and women playing men.”

“You’re a character actor, really,” I suggested.

“Last year,” said Philip, “I was in a play about music hall legend Dan LenoThe Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp. When he was committed to what his wife thought was a care home but turned out to be an asylum, I played the warder.

Philip The Poet

…Philip The Poet…

“I also do a character called Philip The Poet. I’ve always written poetry. I met John Hegley on a bus on National Poetry Day and he said to me Why don’t you do a couple of poems? because he runs a regular night at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. He knew I wrote poems but I didn’t perform them. So I performed at John Hegley’s venue and I really enjoyed it, so I’m doing more and more of that.”

“Would you like to be a straight poet?” I asked.

“Straight-ish,” replied Philip. “With a comical kick at the end. I like my poetry. I comment on things I see. I can write a poem that isn’t a funny poem – that doesn’t need a smile at the end – but I think if you can say something that gets a sharp intake of breath that leads to a laugh… That’s as rewarding as a big guffaw. If you say something that’s quite shocking or meaningful and people gasp and then you undercut it with something that’s funny, then the gasp changes into a laugh and there’s a relief in the laughter. I do like my poetry, but there’s no money in it.

“I sometimes compere gigs as a character called Sebastian Cloy. He comes on in a big frilly shirt – old school compere but not gay – he tells jokes and does the odd song, if required.

“You’re always doing characters,” I said.

“If you create a character then you, in a way, hide behind that character. It’s like a mask. A clown nose. Basically, you put on the clown nose and that allows you to behave in a foolish way. I think it takes a lot of courage just to stand in front of people and say I’m now going to attempt to make you laugh or I’m now going to attempt to sing you a song which I hope will move you.”

“Do you ever actually perform as yourself?” I asked.

“Hardly ever,” said Philip. “though I’ve been doing a one-man show on-and-off for about three or four years. It’s called Naked Splendour. I’ve done life modelling for artists for as long as I’ve been an actor. When I started, the pay was £1.94p clothed and £1.98p naked – 4p difference.

His ongoing one-man show is Naked Splendour (photograph by John Tsangarides)

The man himself in his own Naked Splendour (photograph by John Tsangarides)

“I’ve performed Naked Splendour at the Hackney Empire, the Edinburgh Fringe, Soho Theatre and The Rosemary Branch.

“In it, I sit and pose. People can draw – they’re given materials as they come in. I start dressed, then I undress and I sit and pose and tell true stories. Funny stories. Not all funny. Stories like falling asleep. When you’re in a long pose lying down, you do nod off sometimes. And then, at the end, I get dressed and invite people to bring their work down. They put it on the floor and we have a mini-exhibition like a show-and-tell.

“The trouble is, being on your own, you end up doing four months promoting via the computer. For me to do it again, I’d need someone to take it on.”

“So in Naked Splendour,” I said, “you are yourself.”

“But,” came the reply, “I always cringe slightly if I’m introduced as Philip Herbert, because I’m not used to it. When people say Philip Herbert’s here, I look round and say Who? Whereas, if someone says Randolph The Remarkable or Hugh Jelly from Julian Clary’s show… then I know that’s me.”

YouTube has a video of Philip in bed with Julian Clary:

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Comedian Martin Soan breaks a rib in bicycle accident and loses his main act

Martin Soan yesterday with unexplained moustache

Martin Soan yesterday with moustache

Yesterday, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to spend Boxing Day at Martin & Vivienne Soan’s home. They run their Pull The Other One comedy club at two venues every month in South London.

I did not know that, four days before, Martin had broken a rib in a bicycle accident and also had a broken leg.

The broken leg was the leg of his spectacles.

The rib was his own. He was in a lot of pain and, since the accident, he has had to sleep overnight sitting upright in a chair because he cannot lie flat on a bed.

He also wore an unexplained false moustache.

“Have you had an X-ray?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“I will have one when I feel better,” he replied.

“Don’t you think there’s a logical flaw in that reasoning?” I asked.

“No,” he told me.

“But you have a broken rib,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.

“How did it happen?” I asked.

“I went arse-over-tit over the handlebars,” Martin explained. “I was on a lovely bike and was drifting from lane to lane at three o’clock in the morning, coming down to the north west corner of Peckham Rye Park.”

“You were coming down a steep road,” said Vivienne, “and I bet you had not had to push a pedal. I reckon you went down the hill and, because there was no traffic, you had a straight run and you would’ve been seeing how far you could get without pushing a pedal”

“Probably,” said Martin, “I went up a couple of pavements, just because I wanted to glide, and I went up this one and it had a nobbled surface for blind people…”

“And that’s what caused it?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin.

“There was a blind person and you ran over the blind person?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “I just carried straight on, but they had nobbled the piece of kerb. And they’d also cut into the kerb to give access for wheelchairs. The edge of the other kerb was about six inches straight up vertically. I went into it. Didn’t even see it. I went straight off. Projectile. The bike stayed where it was. I went straight over the handlebars. I landed on my front with the side of my head on the ground and I must have been knocked-out for a little bit.

“I was in a big puffer jacket and there was no-one else about and I could hear myself going: Ah! No no no no! Alright. OK OK. Aaaaaahhh! No. I remember doing all that nutty trauma talk. You’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be alright. Breathe breathe breathe. Where’s the cameras? Why am I talking about cameras? Help me help me help me.

“I managed to roll over and there were some railings. I pulled myself up and banged the side of my face. I had landed on my rib cage. I could hear myself say: I’m standing. I’m standing. The bike’s there. The bike’s there. You’re gonna be alright. But it’s going to be tough,” said Martin, “because I can’t do any lifting.”

“And you’ve got a Pull The Other One show this Friday…” I said.

“Me and Vivienne,” said Martin, “decided we’d spend these two days not talking about it.”

I looked on the wall where future Pull The Other One shows and acts were listed on a whiteboard.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, at least you’ve got Aaaaa Bbbbb on 11th January . He’s good.”

“He’s let us down,” Martin said.

“We don’t normally book people through agents,” explained Vivienne. “We do it through our contacts. But, after Eddie Izzard performed at Pull The Other One, we suddenly got loads of e-mails from agents saying Oooh! Maybe you’d like to book this comic or that comic. So we booked Ccccc Ddddd through an agent and he let us down after we’d done all the publicity.”

“Ccccc Ddddd let us down,” said Martin. “But who did we get to fill-in for him at the last moment? Omid Djalili. And he filled the whole club on word-of-mouth.”

“So that was great,” said Vivienne. “We got Omid. But Ccccc Ddddd letting us down was not funny, really. We managed to get Omid on the printed bill, but this time with Aaaaa Bbbbb it’s too close. The second time we booked a comedian through an agent was Aaaaa Bbbbb who has now let us down and we’re desperately looking round for somebody who can fill the club on a word-of-mouth on 11th January. We haven’t got the money to spend on reprinting the posters and flyers because we’ve already spent it on printing the posters and flyers which are now wrong.

“How can we ever trust an agent?” she continued. “If you go to an agent – as we did – and you say Here’s the publicity. Are there any glaring mistakes here before we go to print? and they say No, absolutely perfect. And we send another e-mail saying So Aaaaa Bbbbb is definitely booked for 11th January? And they tell us Yes. And then you send one more e-mail saying Are you sure? Because rumour has it he’s booked for another comedy gig…? And they reply No, no. He’s definitely on at your club. And then, because we do not want to be left at the last, last minute, we say Actually, we know he’s doing a specific gig we know about and the agent goes Oops! Yes. Sorry. So that’s an agent. So what’s the point? Aaaaa Bbbbb blames his agent; his agent blames him.”

“What can you expect?” said Martin. “The word ‘agent’ is a derogatory term – estate agent, publicity agent. Then there’s…”

“What about that story you refused to tell me a couple of weeks ago?” I asked Martin. “The one about the NHS. The Social Structure is Alive and Well in the NHS.”

“You’re never going to get it,” Martin said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re recording me. I won’t get it perfect if you record me and there’s no point if I don’t get it perfect.”

“It was about exploratory anal surgery, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“How is your moustache held on under your nose?” my eternally-un-named friend asked Martin. “Is it with Sellotape?”

“Double-sided tape,” he told her.

“So why won’t you tell me?” I asked Martin.

“Because being recorded is…” he said, “If I say it and it’s recorded, it’ll sound like I’ve made it up. But it’s true… It actually happened to me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You’re recording it…” said Martin.

“I was creasing up this morning,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “at John’s blog about how he likes to be depressed at Christmas and…”

“A mis-representation,” I interrupted.

“…then he turns his iPhone on because I’m laughing my head off at it…”

“It wasn’t meant to be funny!” I pleaded.

“…and then,” my eternally-un-named friend continued, “I couldn’t quite laugh as naturally as…”

“You were laughing like a comedy drain,” I told her.

“So what was your…” my eternally-un-named friend asked Martin. “I’ve forgotten what it was… It was a National Health story?”

“I was in a situation,” said Martin, “where they had to put us out. A general anaesthetic. You were taken off to the theatre and knocked out and came to and…”

“So how could you remember anything that happened,” asked my eternally-un-named friend, “if you were unconscious?”

“No,” said Martin, “it happened before.”

“What? What?” urged my eternally-un-named friend.

“There were three guys in there,” Martin explained. “One was a Jamaican. One was me. And the third one was a rather suave and well-to-do man… We were all in cubicles and had surgical gowns on…”

“And?” I asked.

“And I’m not going to tell you,” said Martin. “I am not going to tell you.”

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The future of UK comedy – and a comic threatens to sue me for defamation

There has been some reaction to my blog of yesterday about the comedy industry “crisis meeting” at the Monkey Business club two nights ago.

Bob Slayer (left) naked & drunk at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Bob Slayer took exception to the fact I said he sometimes pretended to be drunk on stage. He threatened to sue me for defamation and damage to his professional image over the use of the word “pretended”. He also told me soberly – or not – his view of the alleged comedy business crisis:

“The alchopop crowd that traditionally fill mainstream gigs are losing interest in live comedy. They can probably get all they want on TV. When they go out they will go see one of their TV stars at an arena and the only way to get them to go to a club is to heavily discount. Groupon!

“However, there are plenty of other audiences out there and it is a simple fact that comedy clubs which don’t adapt will struggle to find those audiences.”

Bob argues that those who survive will be those who “put something interesting on in interesting settings” like Pull The Other One, Knock2Bag, the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and his own Heroes of Fringe gigs. He tells me “gigs in breweries are doing really well” and “maybe the 99 Clubs can be added to that list, but James doesn’t book me so I don’t know his gigs!”

He adds: “It’s interesting to note that our current gold medal winning comedian Dr Brown rarely played clubs over the past few years – although he did do the ones mentioned above. He prefered to tour around Fringe festivals and now he can do a month at Soho Theatre. He is not the only one.

“Are traditional comedy club nights going to become less and less relevant or worthwhile for comedians? Maybe. Acts will find a way to keep busy and develop their own audience, running their own nights, free nights, cabaret and variety gigs, gigs in odd places and so on. There is not a crisis but there is a change… and now I’m off to another brewery to set up some gigs and drink a lot.”

I also got a reaction to yesterday’s blog from a regional comedy club promoter who prefers (I think wrongly) to remain anonymous.

“Here’s the problem as I see it,” he says, adding “and I book big names as well as newcomers…

“Firstly, talent oversupply. Acts are produced at an alarming rate by agencies/management companies. I see this as the main structural problem in the comedy market – Agencies have a stranglehold on both live comedy and TV and, as such, they rig it to their requirements and they have distorted the market with an oversupply of mediocre talent, ensuring that we have lots of identikit comedians and very little originality or individuality. I sometimes struggle to recognize acts who do my middle spots and opens because they all LOOK THE SAME. And, if I hear one more open spot use the words ‘paedo’ or ‘rapey’, my hamster eats lead…

“Along with talent oversupply, there are still acts playing the bigger clubs who were doing those clubs back in 1995 or 1996 and what you have is no movement at the top and a massive pressure build-up at the bottom. Comedy courses make the problem worse because they convey the impression to new entrants that there is a living to be had out there and that anyone can be a comedian. This is simply not true. Traditionally, this kind of economic impasse leads to protectionism of some sort, so don’t be surprised if someone suggest either a club owners confederation or a comedians ‘union’!”

Reacting to Lewis Schaffer’s comments quoted in my blog yesterday, this club owner continues:

Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.

“As a medium-sized promoter running a number of clubs outside London, it seems the most pertinent comment in this debate is that comedy is a business. Like any other, it works on business lines and conforms to the rules of economics.

“There is an oversupply of talent and there is an oversupply of clubs (in London) and a seeming decline in demand/less customers to go round. So the customer will seek a USP which makes them go out and spend their declining leisure dollar.

“In most businesses, that is price, quality or service or all three. There are clubs – no names no pack drill – who are charging £15 for a seriously average night in a back room of a pub with no decent compere, a crap mike and crap lights. These will be the first casualties in the coming comedy shakedown. If they want to save themselves, the answer is simple – Up your game, lower your price and vary your talent menu a bit more.

“One major creative step they could take is investing in pro MCs and having a few more women on their bill. The audience is 50% women, so why oh why oh why do some promoters fail to put on female acts?”

He also sees a problem with the comedy agencies.

“The main agencies,” he says, “seem to be picking up talent via competitions at a very early age and most of these acts are just simply incapable of creating anything spectacular, mainly because they are produced by agencies desperate to create identikit money-making machines.

“These kids are dumped onto the comedy market with no real experience of working a room or doing a consistent performance and with massively overblown expectations of what their ‘career’ will entail. Agencies are simply not chasing down real talent but going for those acts which look good or who are young enough to have an alternative career as a pop performer. I have seen too many acts punted my way by agencies who just don’t have the creative cojones to create anything worth watching over the longer term.

“Before I was in comedy, I worked in marketing and my advice to the industry would be this:

  • Lower your price and raise your game – offer things that other clubs do not offer and, if you can’t do this, offer better service.
  • Seek talent out and nurture it.
  • Avoid agencies. Like all middlemen, they add little value.
  • Make new talent tread the boards for a while and avoid competition winners. With a few exceptions, competitions do not a good stand up make.

“Lastly – and this is something beyond my control – TV comedy needs to change. TV producers are about 6-18 months behind the zeitgeist. They are booking acts and following trends that were happening on the circuit in 2009/2010 and TV puts NOTHING back into the circuit that it exploits. It’s about time that the TV people really started to engage with the live circuit… much like they used to do before alternative comedy.”

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I criticised the BBC shows first! Plus today’s other Edinburgh Fringe tales.

You read it first here (Photo by Kat Gollock)

This morning’s Scotsman newspaper carries an article saying that the pay-to-enter venues at the Edinburgh Fringe are having a bad time with ticket sales down anything from 7% to 30%. This is rather odd as, at the start of the Fringe, I seem to remember the same venues were saying sales were 70% up – a figure that always smelled of bullshit to me.

Interestingly, part of the blame for lower ticket sales is being put onto the BBC which, this year, has been staging a veritable cornucopia of free shows.

Coincidentally – remembering that self publicity is what keeps the Fringe going – the new issue of Three Weeks hits the streets today. That means I can publish on this here blog the column which I wrote in last week’s issue of Three Weeks, which was headlined Is Auntie Stealing Your Bums on Seats?

In it Mervyn Stutter, who has been staging his Pick of the Fringe shows for 21 years, criticised the BBC for putting on so many free Fringe shows this year. Remember, dear reader, that you get the news and views first by reading my columns and blogs! Among Mervyn’s comments last week were:

“Their (the BBC’s) shows are free. They have stars in. And you don’t have to pay. Why is the BBC doing so many shows here? It spreads the audience energy too wide. In the past, there have been only one or two BBC shows and there have been queues round the block. Performers think: ‘Oh, that would have been nice for an audience at my show’. But it’s free and it’s famous and it’s the BBC. It’s an attractive deal. I would go. Brilliant… if there were only a couple of shows. But this year there are acres of BBC shows. I’m sorry. It’s irritating. It’s the Fringe… It’s hard enough already. It’s a legitimate complaint. I’ve nothing against the BBC, but why are they here putting on so many shows?”

You can read what Mervyn said to me in full here.

But now back to yesterday and the genuine PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival shows.

I bumped into Paul B Edwards flyering in the street for his show Songs in the Key of Death outside the Banshee Labyrinth venue. He said he had not bothered to put a listing in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme this year because it was not worth forking out almost £400 to list a free show.

Not listing a show in the main Programme has the upside that you save almost £400 but the downside that you cannot expect to get reviewed. Paul does not care about that. But he shared with me an interesting idea about reviewers.

With Fringe shows often being reviewed by unpaid 20-year-olds, he suggested that starting-out reviewers should only, at first, be allowed to review 5 or 10 minute open spot acts. Then, like the acts themselves, reviewers with a bit of experience under their belts could progress to 20-minute acts. Then they could start to get paid to review longer acts or whole club shows and, after 5 or 6 years, once they knew what the were doing, they would be allowed to review 60-minute performances at the Fringe.

It is, indeed, odd that one publication this year is actually printing blurbs like: Cynthia Smyth-McTavish has written 4 reviews since joining our team in 2012.

Well, at least they are being honest that she has no experience!

Half an hour after bumping into Paul B Edwards, I walked into the Gilded Balloon to see Doug Segal’s How To Read Minds and Influence People.

After the show, I told him (I saw his show last year too): “It was a bloody amazing show, Doug. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful audience manipulation. Really jaw-droppingly impressive.”

So far, it has garnered two 5-star reviews and six 4-star reviews. I would have given it a 5-star last night.

Doug told me in all seriousness: “You came to the worst show of the run. I’m really sorry.”

What can you do with performers?

As I went in to see Doug’s show, I bumped into my chum Laura Lexx rushing between her two shows. She had just strutted her energetic stuff in the excellent comedy sketch show Maff Brown’s Parade of This at the Gilded Balloon – a very funny show in which she is oddly and erroneously teased for being a boy, something visibly untrue… She was rushing to get over to TheSpace @Surgeon’s Hall to appear in a serious drama show which shall remain nameless as the production company turned down my request for a free ticket. Petty? What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t be petty?

On the other hand, their show is inspired by Chekhov and I am getting free tickets under the banner of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. Perhaps they thought I wasn’t serious.

“I’ve only got 40 minutes between shows,” Laura told me, “and I just fell off my stool in a moth suit.”

“I might mention it in my blog,” I told her – my now automatic reaction to anything anyone tells me. But then I stopped and thought. “What?” I asked. “A moth suit? Why we’re you dressed as a moth? I don’t remember a moth sketch when I came to see the show.”

“A MORPH suit,” she said.

“A moth suit is funnier,” I said.

“Then say that,” she told me. “You can say I have a slightly broken leg if it helps!” and then she disappeared into the crowds.

Breaking a literal leg is the sort of thing Bob Slayer would do on a whim to get a single line of publicity. I have told him I am going to charge him rent for appearing in this blog.

In his latest attempt to get a plug, he told me:

“I have now come up with this new Fringe show concept mid-Fringe… My show Bob Slayer – He’s A Very Naughty Boy – at The Hive – has become a Trilogy! Each part is self-contained and can be seen in any order or in isolation…

“When I did some previews for my show, they ended up about two hours long, but I figured, if I removed the distractions and tangents, it would boil down to under an hour. Unfortunately, after my first week up here, I realised that I love a good tangent and distraction and I am simply unable to remove them! So, each night, I was failing to get beyond the first third of my story of getting banned and my other problems in Australia and beyond…

“And then the answer came to me when stepping out on stage and seeing a bunch of people return from the day before. Why not just start off where I left off yesterday? I did this the following night and it went a cracker! People bought tickets for the next part of the show on the way out of the venue, which is always a good sign! Mervyn Stutter’s scout signed me up for his Pick of the Fringe show and Bernard, the comedy editor of The Skinny who, earlier in the Fringe, had given me a generous one star review… took me out on the piss for the night…”

Still trying to assimilate all thus, I rushed across to the Pleasance Courtyard to see Jon Bennett’s Pretending Things Are a Cock which does what it says on the label but has an interesting amount of story depth to it. As I rushed past three men drinking outside a bar, I heard one say to the others (and I am not making this up):

Adam Smith, yes. David Hume, maybe. But Henry Dundas? You must be joking!”

I then proceeded to Pretending Things Are a Cock.

Edinburgh is an interesting city.

The latest issue of Three Weeks – in Edinburgh

My latest Three Weeks column is on the streets today. It is about publicity stunts. If you are not in Edinburgh – and why would you not be? – you can read it online here or download the whole Three Weeks issue as a PDF by clicking here.

I will be posting my column on this blog in a week’s time, once it has disappeared from the streets of Edinburgh like a used, discarded and doused fire-eating busker.

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What do street performers & comedians earn and why don’t they just give up?

Paolo Ferrari – reaching a spaghetti junction in his career?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

For decades, Covent Garden Piazza in London has had a pitch for street performers. One of the regulars there is Paolo Ferrari who also plays comedy clubs. I had a chat with him in Covent Garden yesterday afternoon.

“It’s all about guts,” he told me. “A performer had to have the guts to get into the business in the first place, but often they don’t have the guts to leave the business. They don’t know when to call it a day.

“I am not at all thinking of leaving the business myself but I am 35 and, when reach that age, you think OK. I can see myself doing this for another three, four, maybe five years, but what then?

“For me, street theatre has always been a stepping stone for comedy. When I perform in Covent Garden, I have to slightly change my act but, for me, it has always been an outlet to try things out so I can have an edge over my fellow comedians: the fact that I can play street theatre.

“What I was trying to say to you the other day was that I think I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that I will not become a mid-40s, goodish street act who is incredibly bitter because, for one reason or another, he or she hasn’t quite made it to the top.

“Ultimately, for me and lots of performers, street theatre is just an outlet to better yourself at what you do. In my case, it’s comedy. Street theatre is just a start and then you move on. But it’s not something you can do forever.

“With street theatre, when do you call it a day? Or comedy or performing in general. There must be an age when you should just give up and realise you are not going to get any further.

“A friend said to me last week: I’ve been doing it for years, Paolo. It pays the bills. Sure, I am 47, but I’m still fit. What else can I do? I can’t see myself doing anything else.

“This friend is scraping together a fairly good living, given the nature of the business. But what do you do when you have reached a certain stage… a certain age?

“I was at an audition recently. I was the oldest one there and I am 35. All the others were, I guess, between 19 and 23.

“What do you do when you’re 47? You can re-invent yourself provided you have acquired a certain status over the years but, if you’re just a street performer – perhaps even a sublime street performer… Well, maybe some of them don’t want to progress. Some just don’t have any other options. They know they can put food on their table with the money they currently make.

“What sort of money,” I asked, “can you make playing Covent Garden regularly?”

“I could tell you,” said Paolo, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

“It would be a blessed relief,” I said. “But people probably make more money than being a comedian on the London club circuit. I don’t know how much the average run-of-the-mill, top-of-the-bill gets now in a middle-of-the-road club. Maybe £120? And they can only get that two or maybe three days a week and with luck and that’s topping the bill.”

“I have a very good friend,” Paolo told me, “who’s a very talented performer. Been doing it since, maybe 2002 or 2003. He’s my age, predominately playing the Jongleurs circuit. He reckons he can make £400 to £600 a week.”

“I think they pay a bit more than most,” I said. “But it’s less for comedy clubs in the suburbs… and for street theatre?”

“I would say,” said Paolo, “a very hard-working performer willing to play the game… Obviously, you need to sell the right product, especially at places like Covent Garden… I would probably say you could take home, at the end of your year, £20,000? I’m talking about someone working, on average, six days a week for ten or eleven months.”

“And,” I suggested, “to reach that point, they’d probably have been doing it for six or seven years?”

“Yeah,” said Paolo. “My earnings reflect what I do. I don’t ride a tall uni-cycle. It’s just me, my jokes and a couple of silly gimmicks. Whereas, if you are really, really trying to enhance your earnings, then you have to have much more marketable skills like juggling, unicycling, fire-eating and all that malarkey – though you can’t do fire at Covent Garden. But the more daring your act is – or appears to be – the more you can get in theory.

“The problem is lots of people get trapped. They start making decent money. It’s easy, in that you don’t have to do anything if you’re not in the mood. You don’t have a contract. If you’re good and if your product sells, it’s very hard to give up.

“Even if you don’t make £20,000. Let’s say you make £17,000. How many people can survive on £17,000? You can survive on a lot less and, being able to make that amount of money by just performing whenever it takes your fancy, is quite an achievement. It’s a very enticing way of living.

“I think the average annual wage for ‘normal’ people is around £25,000 now?” I said.

“Yeah, in London, maybe around £25,000 to £28,000,” Paolo agreed.

“Well,” I said, “They’d be better off working behind the counter in a building society.”

“I think a lot of people just get trapped,” said Paolo. “I recently asked a friend: In five or six years time, what will you be doing? and he couldn’t answer. And I feel the same. I don’t know what I will be doing.

“It’s not like you say to yourself: The 4th of March 2015 or 2017 is going to be my D-Day, my traffic junction, my Spaghetti Junction.

“Some people get bitter, old, twisted, angry, frustrated, but they don’t have the guts to leave the industry. Which is sad, because they had the guts to get into the industry in the first place. And it does take guts.”

“I guess they hope,” I said, “that, tomorrow someone will see their act and change their lives.”

“I think it’s habit,” said Paolo. “Human beings are creatures of habit; they get used to things. A business psychologist friend of mine told me recently that a lot of people have had problems during the current recession when they lost their jobs. Not, as such, because they lost their £50,000-a-year job but because, all of a sudden, they got stripped of their own identities. The job had become their identity. And that’s the hardest thing to cope with. You identify yourself with your job. You pull strings week-in-week-out and, if someone says No more string… That’s a problem. John is the writer. Paulo is the buffoon.”

“That’s the title for your show,” I said.

Urban Buffoon,” Paolo laughed. “That’s it! We got the show! We’ve got an hour-long show!”

“But surely,” I asked, “the last thing a performer would want to do is leave the industry? Because he/she would be so frustrated for the rest of their lives. You have to keep playing every card. The thing is to be in the right place at the right time, so you need to put yourself in as many places as possible as often as possible.”

“Well,” said Paolo, “if you have fired all the bullets you have at your disposal, there may be a level of peace that you may be able to acquire. If you’ve done everything in your power to achieve your goal… If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

“You can never second-guess what may unexpectedly happen out of nowhere, though,” I said. “It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. And to keep trying because, if you don’t try, on your deathbed you will still be wondering What if?… That’s the ultimate lifelong frustration you would face eating away inside you: What if?… What if?

“There is no answer,” said Paolo.

“I don’t think there is,” I said. “Do you want to buy a Big Issue?”

“Are you selling one?” Paolo asked.

“Not at the moment,” I replied. “But I think maybe I should research the potential market.”

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Filed under Age, Comedy, Psychology, Retirement, Theatre

Magician Paul Zenon, comedian Charlie Chuck and Vic & Bob’s big birthday cake

Paul Zenon outside the cow yesterday.

So, yesterday evening, I was sitting on London’s South Bank with Miss Behave outside the giant upside-down purple cow – the Uddderbelly venue – discussing which acts to book for the two hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August. It is on the final Friday of the Fringe and Miss Behave is presenting it.

“Well,” I said, “we already have the Greatest Show on Legs doing the naked balloon dance…”

And then magician Paul Zenon passed by. He had a chat with Miss Behave.

“I’m seeing Charlie Chuck tomorrow,” I said to him.

“Ah,” Paul said. “He phoned me up recently because he says he’s going to be doing more work in Europe and he wants some props for a tour that’s coming up.

“Years ago, I made some props for him because I wanted to have the credit as Charlie Chuck’s magic consultant. He phoned me up because he was doing a four-month theatre tour with Vic and Bob – Reeves & Mortimer – and he wanted some bigger visuals to play the theatres.

“Years before that, I’d been doing kids’ TV and had some props left. One of them was a big megaphone-trumpet.

“It involved a whole routine with a giant birthday card, where you sing Happy Birthday, you show the card, you sing through the funnel, put the funnel on top of the card and then, for the reveal, a big three-tier cake appears underneath the funnel – like a wedding cake, but it’s a birthday cake.

“Nothing can go wrong…

“So I trained Charlie to do this, spent a couple of hours rehearsing it and he did it very well. It fitted his style. Just a daft thing. Singing a song.

“So, the first night of the four-month tour, it comes to that part of the show… He sings Happy Birthday, he shows the card, sings through the funnel, reveals the cake… Big round of applause… And then he twats the cake with a big lump of wood and destroys it and that was the end of the £300 prop on the first night of the tour.”

“That’s Charlie Chuck,” I laughed. “He loves a plank of wood. What did he say afterwards?”

“He didn’t mention it and neither did I,” replied Paul. “I don’t think we’ve mentioned it to this day.”

“And now he wants more props for European shows?” I asked.

“Yes,” Paul said. “So I’m thinking of anything else I can get rid of out of my cupboard, because it’ll just get trashed anyway. He says he’s making the act more visual to move into other territories. Maybe that’s,” Paul laughed, “cos of Health & Safety issues in the UK getting stricter – He has to go elsewhere to swing big bits of wood round near audiences. I think the act’s genius. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen.”

“Do you want to appear on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Edinburgh?” Miss Behave asked.

“OK,” said Paul.

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We may have mis-nominated an act for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards

So, eleven hours after starting the seven-hour drive from Edinburgh to London, I got home.

Don’t ask. Don’t intrude on private grief.

But I came down the M6 and went through Leicester.

Think about it, but don’t ask.

It was an English Bank Holiday Monday on the roads.

So this is the blog I wrote yesterday but did not post… I was too busy crying into my steering wheel.

________

Whenever Scots singer Andi Neate performs during the Edinburgh Fringe, I always try to see her show; a wonderful voice.

This year, in Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar, at least six people were recording the show on their mobile phones.

Welcome to the 21st century.

The relevance will become clear later.

This year, the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best stunt publicising an act or  show at the Edinburgh Fringe was jointly won by Kunt and the Gang and his publicist Bob Slayer.

I saw Kunt’s penultimate Fringe show in Edinburgh last week and afterwards I thought maybe, as well as the Cunning Stunt Award, we should have nominated him for the Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award.

Bob Slayer was very keen on Kunt last year.

He harassed me into seeing the act upstairs at the small and cramped Meadow Bar as part of the Free Festival. I remember I was very impressed by Kunt’s talent, but thought there was an inevitable potential professional cul-de-sac ahead.

If you are called Kunt and you sing very explicitly about sex – however amusingly – you just ain’t going (at this moment in time) to get on BBC Radio, let alone TV; and you are not going to get signed by any major record label in the current economic climate, if at all.

I suggested to Kunt last year that, parallel to his Kunt and the Gang act, he could start to develop a second songwriting career not involving explicitly sexual lyrics; I thought he could make a fortune writing equally clever lyrics to equally compulsive pop tunes – whereas, with Kunt and the Gang’s songs, he would only make a decent, if steady, living playing to Chav and Torremolinos type audiences and he would be limited forever to that niche market.

He was not convinced.

And now, well…

I think I was wrong.

Watching his penultimate show in Edinburgh this year changed my mind.

I remembered Kunt had genuinely clever lyrics but they really are wonderfully clever. Not just the lyrics, but the vast use of populist names. And the songs have wonderfully bopalong tunes. He tells me the tunes are highly-influenced by 1980s TV ads. Whatever their origin, I sat through an hour of songs and every one was a can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head top pop tune.

His show as part of the Free Festival this year, at The Hive, had no weak spots – the songs were fascinating, the presentation he managed to vary – and he unleashed some kitsch 80s pop video choreography which last year’s Meadow Bar show had been too physically restricted to show off.

It was a 5-star show; a 100% Heat magazine crowd pleaser.

And it was the audience which changed my mind about Kunt.

For one thing, the venue was overflowing; it was an amazingly over-full house.

Then there were the smatterings of people in the audience who were singing along with the lyrics. They knew the songs well and not just the choruses – they knew every word of the verses too. This was a real pop music gig. Kunt has a solid fan base.

They had clearly watched the videos (which oddly have less energy and impact than his live performances) and/or downloaded the albums (which equally oddly are on iTunes – a particular shock to me as iTunes surreally removed the Killer Bitch DVD within three days for being distastefully OTT).

A few years ago, Kunt and the Gang would have had very limited potential but now everything is changing fast.

People are recording Andi Neate gigs on their smartphones.

Sales of books, newspapers, magazines, CDs and DVDs appear to be in unstoppable free-fall because of internet viewing and downloads.

Most of Kunt’s songs may still be currently utterly untransmittable on radio or TV and he may never get a recording contract from a major record label, but who buys CDs any more? Increasingly fewer people. They go to iTunes instead.

Kunt is potentially a major cult internet download target for the World of Warcraft and iPod generation and word of mouth could turn Kunt and the Gang into a high-grossing name.

Maybe.

Who knows?

In the current maelstrom of rapidly-changing media, who really knows what is going on and what may happen? Not me.

In Kunt’s recent fake Edinburgh Fringe press release, he and Bob Slayer wrote:

I know who my audience is and they find us naturally through the internet or word of mouth. They are proper people like bricklayers, carpet fitters, shop workers, central heating engineers, students and drug dealers.”

There is a lot of truth in that and what is being described is a mass-market British audience.

There is the Daily Mail audience and there is the Chav audience.

Both are massive.

Guardian-readers? A tiny if vocal minority.

Forget them.

Never underestimate the Daily Mail readership.

Never underestimate Essex man and woman.

Kunt and the Gang is potentially massive with one of those two audiences.

Meanwhile, on a more domestic front, my MacBook Pro laptop does not work, my Hoover does not work and the kitchen has partially flooded one drip at a time during the four weeks I have been away in Edinburgh, despite the fact the water supply was turned off…

Don’t ask. Don’t intrude on private grief.

Real life? Don’t talk to me about real life.

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Filed under Comedy, Internet, Music