On Amazon, that 2011 book is currently on sale for anything from £56 to £121.
At the risk of getting my ass sued for copyright infringement (my defence is that I am publicising the book), below are three extracts I have myself extracted from the Camden New Journal‘sadaptation.
Throughout the 1970s, Ken Russell and Barbra Streisand reportedly planned a Sarah Bernhardt biopic. But, alas, it was Reader’s Digest who produced a rather pedestrian 1976 movie The Incredible Sarah with Glenda Jackson directed by the solid and dependable Richard Fleischer. Surely such an OTT character deserves a much better modern OTT movie about her life?
Sarah played many acclaimed roles and reportedly travelled with a silk-lined coffin (centre) in which she slept, studied for some of her roles and entertained her lovers (presumably individually).
Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish Parisian courtesan whose clients included the cream of French society. In her younger days when acting failed to cover the bills, Sarah herself followed her mother’s profession and acquired a police file due to these activities. However, once established and wealthy, it was she who chose her numerous partners.
Proclaiming herself “one of the great lovers of my century” Sarah was reputed to have seduced every European head of state, including Pope Leo.
Although she only occasionally indulged in lesbian affairs, she had a virile edge that many women found attractive; the writer Robert de Montesquiou saw her as the epitome of the bisexual 1890s. To confound stereotyping even further, she was a very happily unmarried mother.
When a friend said to her at a party: “I’ve thought of your epitaph. All you’ll need on your tomb is: Resting at last,” Sarah shook her head and, indicating a nearby group of lovers, replied: “Not exactly. It would be better to inscribe: They can rest at last.”
Her acting achieved extraordinary heights of acclaim. The psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote: “After the first words of her vibrant, lovely voice, I felt I had known her for years.” Mark Twain added: “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.
Her audiences reacted even more ecstatically. After one triumphant evening, two one-armed men in the front stalls were so enthused that they were seen to be clapping their remaining hands together.
She treated some of her less sophisticated audiences with disdain. As her performances were given in French, the vast majority had no idea what was being said. In Youngstown, Ohio, her curtain call speech was greeted with tumultuous applause in spite of the fact that she had just told them that they were morons.
She made numerous tours by train across the States, becoming known as “The Muse of the Railroads”. On one journey, the train driver refused to cross the bridge at St Louis as it was threatened by floodwater. Impatient as usual, Sarah bribed him $500 to keep going. They managed to reach the other bank, but the bridge collapsed behind them as they did so. The rest of her company was not amused.
Although still looking uncannily youthful, Sarah’s health began to fail after she was forced to have a leg amputated in 1915. After her leg had been amputated, an impresario offered her $100,000 for permission to exhibit it. Sarah sent a telegram in reply: “Which leg?”
When she died in 1923, her funeral in Paris was the largest since that of Victor Hugo in 1885.
The only thing I really knew about Sarah Bernhardt before reading the Camden New Journal article was that, after having her left amputated in 1915, she continued acting on stage (and in short films) for the next eight years, until her death in 1923.
She was clearly much, much more than just a simple theatrical leg-end.
The late Michael Dickinson, circa 2014, as he appeared in the Camden New Journal this week…
Yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Camden New Journaland was sad to read about the death of Michael Dickinson.
You’ve never heard of him? Neither had I until May last year, when I was in Camden Town and saw a man walking backwards. Not just for a couple of seconds or a minute. He walked backwards the whole time.
I posted two videos of him on YouTube. This was the first:
Obviously, I looked him up online and found out he had been doing this for years and was former actor Michael Dickinson.
He had been born in either Durham or Yorkshire, depending on which legend you believe, and he studied at the Manchester School of Theatre from 1969 alongside future actors Julie Walters and Richard Griffiths.
Michael Dickinson (right) with Simon Callow in Passing By – Gay Sweatshop production at the Almost Free Theatre, 1975.
In the 1970s, he became an actor himself. In 1975, he kissed Simon Callow in Passing By, a ‘groundbreaking’ two-man show about a gay romance.
Rather miscast as Jesus in another play, he eventually mostly gave up acting and took up collage art.
In 1982, he held an exhibition in Primrose Hill and a review in esteemed local paper the Hampstead & Highgate Express (the Ham & High), said he was “wickedly adept at exposing the two-faced tendencies and follies of our leaders”.
In an interview in the Camden New Journalon 25th May 2017,he claimed that he could no longer walk forwards and had self-diagnosed his condition as ‘retropulsion’.
He said: “It could be psychological, or I heard somebody say it could be a disease, but I don’t feel unwell apart from that. If I didn’t feel this retropulsion I would much prefer to be walking forwards. When it first started happening it was bewildering, to say the least.
“Occasionally people in cars blow horns at me, which is dangerous because I turn to look at them rather than where I’m going.
“I don’t really want to see a doctor, I feel they’ll just put me on some sort of medication and I would rather not be. I can deal with it and there is no law against it. I’m careful that I had never hurt anybody, although I did hurt myself the other day when I tripped over a branch as I walked through the woods.”
From the mid-1980s for almost three decades – before he started walking backwards – he had lived in Turkey, working as a teacher and artist, sometimes telling fortunes to pay his rent.
…with one of his less insulting Turkish collages in 2014… (Photograph by Polly Hancock for the Ham & High)
He somewhat annoyed the Turkish authorities in 2006 by creating a collage which depicted leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a dog receiving a rosette from American President George W. Bush in a pet show. The resultant court case stretched over four years.
In 2008, he was prosecuted for insulting Erdogan by creating the collage. He was initially cleared, but the verdict was overturned in 2010 and then, after shouting a political slogan at police in a separate incident in 2013, he was deported.
Back in London between the two incidents, in 2011, he was arrested in Parliament Square (where he was living in a tent) after shouting “No more war!” during a Remembrance Day silence. He was charged with a public order offence, but the case was eventually dropped.
Permanently in London after his deportation from Turkey, he slept in the streets around Camden Town. While living in a cardboard box next to the Sainsbury’s supermarket there, some people who were squatting in the former police station in Hampstead met him at a soup kitchen and invited him to join their squat.
While there, he ate food discarded by shops and cafés and chucked-away in recycling bins. He made some money by telling fortunes on the street.
It was possibly not too rough an existence as it was a Grade II listed building and they had a wide-screen television set.
He was very grateful to the squatters.
He told the Ham & High: “I would still be in that box were it not for them.”
Squatters are evicted from the former Hampstead police station in 2014 with their belongings, including wide screen TV
Eventually, on the afternoon of 2nd May 2014, the police evicted the squatters in the former Hampstead police station and he took to sleeping in a tent in a Hampstead cementery, though he eventually ended up in a legitimate Highgate flat by 2017.
When and why exactly did he start to walk backwards?
Leonie Scott-Matthews of Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead told the Camden New Journal this week: “I remember when he started walking backwards. He was in a play here; he got off the stage and just started walking backwards. It was just after he had got back from Turkey.”
His friend Charles Thomson says: “It was clearly symbolic I felt. He enjoyed being in Turkey and he couldn’t go back. He was walking backwards when I last saw him.”
His friend Kay Bayliss added: “He emailed me around Christmas saying he was having phlegm problems that persisted. He was still suffering this when he emailed me on April 11 and now had serious-sounding gut problems… Michael had a very interesting life. At school all the girls loved him. He was so good looking and very complimentary even in more recent times.”
Michael Dickinson died “from peritonitis resulting from a gut obstruction”, in his Highgate bedsit, aged 70, on 2nd July 2020.
ANGELO: Well, I’ve written other psychological thrillers and they were quite dark, so this one was meant to be a lighter book, but (LAUGHS) it didn’t turn out that way.
JOHN: Part of it is written in the First Person and part of it in the Third Person.
ANGELO: Yes. The First Person is from the point-of-view of a stand-up comedian.
JOHN: Everyone says a first novel tends to be autobiographical but, with you, the fifth book is autobiographical?
ANGELO: This is the most personal book I’ve written.
JOHN: You did Law and Psychology at university.
Angelo Marcos (Photo copyright Remy Hunter)
ANGELO: Yes, I studied Law and while I did that, I was also performing stand-up and doing acting, but then I found I didn’t have any money. So then I worked a bit – various things – a bank, offices, a supermarket. I worked for a market research company which was basically just other actors, with everyone sitting around trying to do as little work as possible, waiting for their agent to phone.
Then I re-trained – basically a Post-Graduate three-year Psychology course in one-and-a-half years. And I was writing during that time as well.
JOHN: So originally you wanted to be a lawyer, which is a very level-headed thing to aspire to… but you also had this mad stand-up comedy gene?
ANGELO: I went to university because everyone was going and I thought – Well – Law – OK. But, from the beginning, I was also doing stand-up. I was at the University of London, so it was easy enough to find gigs. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the degree that thought: OK, I DEFINITELY not only do not want to be a lawyer and I don’t want to work in Law. Let’s just get famous instead!
JOHN: Why didn’t you want to be in Law?
ANGELO: I found the analytical side of it fascinating, but I liked the kind-of absurd analytical side of it. I liked the fact you could pretty-much make words mean whatever you wanted them to mean.
I love stories. In criminal law, the cases were fascinating. So I elected to do subjects like Moral Philosophy, Law & Terrorism and other things kind-of affiliated with law, but not the core subject. I dunno. I just found Law itself a bit dry. It’s a really good degree to have. It’s a really good set of skills to have. But I prefer using them in other ways.
Lawyers and comics have much in common
JOHN: Barristers and comedians have in common the fact they both stand up and tell lies to create an effect on an audience.
ANGELO: That’s very true. Although lawyers get paid more, until you get to Michael McIntyre. But there IS that element of performance.
When you are heckled as a stand-up, there are no holds barred. You HAVE to win. And I guess it’s similar in a court situation. If you are a barrister and someone questions one of your points or if you have a witness who is particularly hostile, I imagine the switch that goes on in the brain is the same: I have to win now!… In the same way that, as a stand-up, you don’t want to lose credibility, you don’t want to ‘lose’ the audience.
JOHN: And you have to persuade the audience that your story is credible and real, even if it might be a lie.
ANGELO: That’s true. You are saying: This is a scenario you need to buy into. This is what happened that night. Whether it’s true or not is a different thing. You have to sell that to the jury or the audience… I’m not saying that all lawyers do this. I’m not saying that no lawyers are interested in truth.
JOHN: I am. They are interested in winning and getting paid though, of course, they get paid whether they win or lose.
ANGELO: What I am saying is that, in my experience, it is entirely possible to be a successful lawyer and not be interested in truth.
JOHN: Being a lawyer in court and being a stand-up comedian are both about telling a story, which is what being a writer is also about…
ANGELO: Yeah. Absolutely. I do a lot of different things – stand-up, acting, writing – and I think the link is they all involve stories.
JOHN: And an interest in structure where the story has to build up to an interesting climax…
ANGELO: I think with the build-up to the punchline of a joke… the mechanism of that is the same when you are writing the twist in a novel crime thriller or a short story. In all three, you are giving the audience or the reader only the information you want them to have. Enough to follow you, but not enough to work out what the twist or what the joke is going o be.
Whether it’s a surprise punchline or the revelation that: “It was the babysitter all along!” – it’s a similar mechanism. I loved The Usual Suspects because it’s so clever and it totally tricked me.
JOHN: Like an optical illusion.
ANGELO: When I was doing Psychology, one of the lecturers explained the mechanism behind optical illusions and he was saying no matter how much you know about how they work, as a human being, every time you look at these pictures you will see the illusion first.
That’s where I got the premise for Victim Mentality: that it doesn’t matter how much you know, we are all wired in a certain way and that makes us all victims. You can try and look at the picture and not see the illusion, but you always WILL see the illusion.
“…the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book”
I suppose a lot of the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book. That sense of going to a gig that’s just not set up for comedy. There are a lot of hostile environments that you walk into at the open mic level, which is where the comedian in my book is.
He has been doing it for a while, struggling, and he’s also trying to get into acting. At the start of the story, his agent books an interview with him and an incarcerated criminal so he can get into character for the role. When they meet, it becomes obvious there’s quite a lot of similarities between them.
The premise of the book is that we are all victims of our own minds. The guy in jail is saying: “You are looking at me as if I am some kind of special case. You are trying to understand why I would do the things I do. But, essentially, we are all wired in certain ways; we all have certain life experiences that cause us to act the way we do.”
There is tragedy in the comedian’s past and in the criminal’s past.
I don’t go so far as to question Free Will, but it’s a case of Are you doing this because you are wired to do it or because it’s fun or whatever? Are you a victim of your own brain just like everyone else?
He usually plays Peter Cook but, because of his Edinburgh commitment can’t on this occasion.
JOHN: So you can’t be in the Pete & Dud show in London…
JONATHAN: No. but I’m thrilled because Kev Orkian, who plays Dudley Moore, has taken the reins of producer, which is lovely, because it’s a play I dearly love.
JOHN: You’re getting typed as an interpreter of comedy icons – Peter Cook AND John Cleese.
JONATHAN: How I got interested in the world of entertainment all came from seeing John Cleese and Peter Cook on a park bench doing the ‘interesting facts’ sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.
I was a little boy and I saw Peter just reeling out this stuff and I thought: That’s what I want to do! Instead of asking for an Action Man that Christmas, I wanted a book of scripts.
JOHN: You co-wrote Goodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore.
JONATHAN: Yes. Some young reviewer wrote: “Fans of Cook and Moore will enjoy hearing the classic lines re-deployed…” Well, we wrote the whole fucking thing. Every bloody line in that is ours.
JONATHAN: Yes. I got stuck on about Page 30. I didn’t know where I was going with it. It didn’t seem to have a structure. Then I re-met Clive Greenwood at a party. He has this incredible knowledge of post-War comedy and he came on board and started to write it with me. He was the more logical one and I was typically like Cook, totally rambling and going off into spirals of imagination.
JOHN: It is set when Pete and Dud are dead.
JONATHAN: Yes. The whole thing is NOT a series of Pete n Dud sketches. Not one. It’s our interpretation of how they are forced to become their characters after they’re dead by a Divine Force that is ‘judging’ them for their Derek & Clive routines. Peter has had to wait seven years for Dudley to turn up and he is running a bar in the afterlife
JOHN: Why did you think: I wanna do a play about two dead comics after they have died?
JONATHAN: My father had died and I no longer had a father figure. Peter became a sort of father figure to me, because I loved his humour so much. I had this idea about all these comics kept in a Prisoner of War camp in heaven in the afterlife.
I can’t be Peter this time because I’m in Edinburgh doing the Fawlty Towers dinners at the Carlton Hilton on the North Bridge twice daily – 48 shows throughout the Fringe. That ends on 27th August and the last two performances of The (After) Life are on the 30th and 31st August, so I’m going back to London to watch those – and very proudly so.
‘”The only one that does the original scripts.”
Our ‘official’ Fawlty Towers show – sanctioned by John Cleese – is the only one that does the original scripts – so, for the first time in 40 years, people can hear those live.
JOHN: As an actor, you must be frustrated at having to copy someone else’s interpretation so closely?
JONATHAN: No, I’m not, actually. When John Cleese put the Australian show together, he said he didn’t want a carbon copy of himself; so I have a very Cleesian performance, but with my own twist on it.
JOHN: Which is?
JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) I’m not absolutely sure! There’s a lot of improvisation involved, because it’s a dinner show.
JOHN: With the audience sitting as if they are in the Fawlty Towers dining room…?
JONATHAN: Yes. We have to improvise round the tables with my own words and we put the script on top of that.
JOHN: What else do you have in the pipeline?
JONATHAN: One of the biggest things is an initiative I helped set up (with Andrew Eborn) called Canned Laughter. A lot of comedians and people who drink have this false laughter or they play games so we don’t know what lies behind. So I opened up an initiative with Equity with the slogan
IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK
The nervous energy which performers have is anxiety – and that’s where the problems start… Depression and all those things that lurk underneath and I’ve been through them all and, coming out the other side of booze, you start to realise where you have been and what you’ve come to and what you have to do to stop other people going down the same path.
Jonathan’s drinking days are behind him…
JOHN: How long have you been off the booze?
JONATHAN: 5½ years. And off sugars. I used to be: I’ll do every pill in the world! I’ll do every cigarette in the world! I’d do every drug in the world! I’d go to every club in the world!
JOHN: And now you have taken up knitting cardigans?
JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) No! My revolution and my rebellion comes in my writing, I think.
JOHN: You are writing other things?
JONATHAN: I am writing, but I am terrified. I am going to eventually do an hour’s stand-up on anxiety and about my childhood. I don’t give a fuck if people know now. I was abused. That’s why I wear blue chakra round my neck – because I was orally abused twice. at different times, I was in a school which had a paedophile headmaster and…
JOHN: What’s a blue chakra for?
Jonathan’s blue chakra with its healing sodalite stones…
JONATHAN: The blue chakra is the throat chakra, which is about the art of communication. This is a stone called sodalite and it actually gives… whether you believe it or not; a lot of people don’t and that’s fine… but I need something to believe in because of my past so I can’t help but believe in it and I’m happy to believe in it. As mad as it gets, that’s what I have to believe in, because they tried to hang me twice… Once when I was in my prep school and once in my senior school.
JOHN: Who tried to hang you?
JONATHAN: The kids. Y’know. Just brutal kids. Really brutal kids. There is a huge court case going on about my old school and paedophilia. There were boys who had it far worse than me.
There was one guy who forced me orally to do what I had to do. I think he was probably being abused himself. I think the kids who were being abused were picking on other kids who weren’t being abused. It was horrendous. Just horrible, horrible, horrible.
That’s another reason why I’ve done Canned Laughter.
JOHN: Peter Cook drank a lot.
JONATHAN: A director once said to me – after I got sober: “The reason why you can play Peter so well is because you were both on similar paths of self-destruction.”
Peter Cook (left) and Jonathan Hansler: very parallel people
We are very parallel. Very parallel people. That sense of loneliness. I was sent away to a boarding school at 9 years old like Peter. My parents went to the Middle East; his parents were in Gibraltar. He had asthma and, in those days, they didn’t have inhalers, so he was injected with ephedrine which sent you to the ceiling. He must have been floating around on the ceiling every night. No wonder his mind became the mind it did because he was being given these strange drugs to stop his asthma.
JOHN: Presumably talking about what happened to you at school is, to an extent, cathartic.
JONATHAN: I’ve got to a point where I don’t give a shit. I also want to explain why I’ve been maybe so awkward over previous years.
“…the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty…”
Why is it – and it’s a stigma – that people say: “Performers are difficult to work with”? Have they ever asked why? God knows what happened to them earlier in life. And they still have to keep their teeth smiling and their tits up in this industry and bow down and cow down to all these people who… Y’know?… It’s wrong. People should know each other more and understand each other more and, by understanding each other, we grow together and we become real.
JOHN: I know comedians rather than actors but, to an extent, it IS true that all comedians are mad. You wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. There has to be something in you that needs the fulfilment of applause and acceptance.
JONATHAN: People say: “Oh, you’re so lucky to be playing Basil Fawlty…” But do you know the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty?”
In the third, concluding extract from my 1980 chat with actor Paul Darrow, who died earlier this week, he talks about starring in Terry Nation’s TV series Blake’s 7, fans, writing and….
Blake’s 7 is vividly remembered by many possibly, in part, because of – after four series – its jaw-dropping final scenes
JOHN: Because Blake’s 7 is ‘science fiction’, people may not treat it as seriously as other drama. The “Oh, it’s only kids’ stuff” attitude.
PAUL: They originally called it a ‘kidult’ series.
JOHN: Usually the problem with science fiction is that it’s weighted towards plot and ideas at the expense of psychology.
PAUL: Well, this is where Blake’s 7 was probably successful and this is perhaps why the characters are as popular as they seem to be. The emphasis on character – whether it came from the writers or the actors themselves – was such that it created a deeper interest. People care about the characters and that’s important.
When I get fan letters, okay, some of them are admiring, some silly, some charming, but the majority are fairly reasonable and intelligent and say I care about this character. Now that’s marvellous for an actor, marvellous, because it means you’ve achieved something. The fact that it’s in science fiction doesn’t mean it’s any less good than if it were in Shakespeare. I’ve seen some pretty bad performances of Shakespeare that we wouldn’t have had in Blake’s 7.
JOHN: You seem to have some loyal fans.
PAUL: They make you what you are. I loathe some people’s attitude. There are one or two people, who shall be nameless, that I know very well who ignore letters and despise people who write in and I feel like thumping actors who say: “No, I don’t bother: I throw them straight in the wastepaper basket.”
I think if people take the trouble to write, you should reply. Without them, you’re not going to get anywhere. I just wish some of the fans knew which people these were so that they didn’t support them any more and they wouldn’t get the work. I feel very strongly about the relationship you have with the people who watch you. That’s why I go to science fiction conventions: because that’s part of my job.
JOHN: You won a Starburst Award last year. It’s hardly an Oscar, though, is it?
PAUL: Alright, it isn’t Hollywood and it isn’t an Academy Award, but it is an award and somebody somewhere has gone to a lot of trouble to think about it and a lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble – if you count the stamps at 10p or 12p each – to write in and say who they like, so I can stand up there on the day and be feted and given an award. That means a lot; it means more than I’ve been able to convey in what I’ve just said.
And that Starburst Award I won has pride-of-place in my home. That’s the reward, the contact with the audience, which you don’t get on television. In the theatre you get it because you get the applause at the end. And it’s marvellous and I love it.
JOHN: Especially from children?
PAUL: A nine-year-old sent me a script. It was very funny, because it said:
SCENE ONE: Avon and Blake and Villa teleport down on the planet.
SCENE TWO: They arrive on the planet. Avon says: “I don’t like the look of this place.” Blake says: “Neither do I – Let’s go back.”
That was the end of the script. I thought that was hilarious. What a great idea for a gag!
JOHN: Is writing something you would like to get into yourself?
PAUL: Yes, I would. If an actor does a particular character for any length of time, he gets to know that character better than anybody else. You get to know how that character reacts with other characters and consequently you know more about the other characters than perhaps a lot of people.
JOHN: So maybe you should write a Blake’s 7 episode…
Paul Darrow wrote a Blake’s 7 novel
PAUL: I wouldn’t mind, actually. The only trouble is that, if you write for yourself, everybody says: “Oh dear me! He’s just writing so that he looks that much better!” So that’s a dodgy thing.
I’d probably have to write it for another character, so they wouldn’t be able to say that. But then you defeat the object of the exercise because your character’s the one you know about, so… A lot depends on the writers, actually.
Chris Boucher (the script editor on Blake’s 7) was very much on the right wavelength for this kind of thing. Terry Nation’s original idea was a good one. And then they got in one or two other interesting writers.
JOHN: Like Tanith Lee. As well as writing for Blake’s 7, she wrote the radio play The Silver Sky which you starred in.
PAUL: I did that because she wrote it. I didn’t even read the script before accepting because I didn’t need to. She writes well and it was a marvellous part; I think it calls out to be televised. It’s a love story set in a time warp. And those two people, who come from two different areas of time, meet and fall in love and then are destroyed. She is destroyed physically; he is destroyed as far as his personality is concerned, because he suddenly realises everything’s worthless.
JOHN: You haven’t done much radio.
JOHN: But, during the breaks in Blake’s 7, you’ve done stage plays.
PAUL: Yes. It’s to keep my hand in, really, because they’re different techniques.
JOHN: What’s the difference?
PAUL: Well, projection (of the voice) for one. With a microphone, you can be very quiet; in the theatre, you’ve got to convey a quiet emotion loudly. So it’s a different technique. Also a live audience means sustaining a performance with a beginning, a middle and an end. In television, of course, it’s all shot out of continuity.
Blake’s 7 was scheduled in peaktime on BBC1
JOHN: …but the money’s better in television.
PAUL: (LAUGHS) Well, I was about to say money’s not important but, of course, it is… As long as you get a fair whack, as long as it’s a reasonable amount to live on. But the BBC, you see, is faced with all sorts of cutbacks…
Actually, I must put in a plug for the special effects boys. Having mentioned money and cutbacks, that’s the kind of department that is faced with them and what those boys do with limited resources is amazing. It is staggering. They come in and they say: “We’ve made this gun for you” or “this bomb for you”. And it’s a working model! It works! They’re marvellous.
JOHN: Ian Scones used to do the Blake’s 7 effects and now he’s off to do the House of Hammer series for ITC.
PAUL: Yes, I’m in one of those. All about vestal virgins being sacrificed on the altar, so I’m going to spend most of my days sitting among a group of beautiful girls – it’s going to be terribly difficult, isn’t it?
JOHN: Keeping up your image.
PAUL: (LAUGHS) What image? Avon never got the girl. I’d quite like it if he did once in a while, but then I don’t think they’d cast Raquel Welch would they?
Actor Paul Darrow’s death was announced yesterday. In August 1980, I interviewed him for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine. He was then starring as Avon in Terry Nation’s BBC TV science fantasy series Blake’s 7.
When, in a 1978 interview,I had asked Terry Nation about the character of Avon, he told me Paul Darrow “took hold of the part and made it his own. It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took hold of it and gave it much better dimensions than I’d ever put on paper. He is an enormously popular character. He is incredibly popular – and rightly so. He’s a good actor. I think he’s terrific.”
In a December 1980 interview, co-star Jacqueline Pearce, who played Servalan in Blake’s 7,told me: “Paul always knows what he’s doing in front of a camera; technically, he’s quite brilliant”.
In this first extract from my 1980 interview with Paul Darrow, he talks about how an actor can play “a bastard” sympathetically and, by talking about Avon, perhaps also reveals a lot of his own thoughts.
You do not have to have seen Blake’s 7…
This is the 1980 article, starting with its introduction…
Paul Darrow was born in Surrey. As a child, he wanted to be a sugar planter because “it seemed terribly romantic”. He thinks, perhaps, he saw a film about sugar planting. He used to go to the cinema a lot and eventually decided he wanted to be involved in the film industry in one way or another. The best way to go about that seemed to be to become an actor. So, after education at Haberdashers’ Aske’s public school, he went to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London.
After graduating, he worked with repertory companies in this country, went to Canada with a play and toured the Netherlands for six weeks, playing one-night stands as Jimmy Porter, the working class rebel in Look Back in Anger.
Darrow appeared in small parts in cinema movies The Raging Moon (1970) and Mister Jericho (1970) and starred as a James Bond figure in the television movie Port of Secrets (1974) for Norway’s NRK. More recently, he starred in the tele-movie Drake’s Venture (1980) for Westward Television. But he is best-known as Avon in BBC TV’s Blake’s 7 series, a part he has played in 38 episodes over three series.
JOHN: The obvious question is are you too strongly identified with Avon?
PAUL: No. Someone else asked me if I wasn’t typecast as a villain. But, take Shakespeare. That means I could play Cassius, Iago – you name it – I wouldn’t call that typecast. I happen to like playing that type of character and also I was able to develop Avon.
JOHN: You said you like playing “that type” of character. What type?
PAUL: The type of character that I’m able to develop on my own – the loner, if you like. I can really go anywhere with him, can’t I?
JOHN: Why did you develop him the way you did?
PAUL: The Blake character was very much the straight up-and-down hero, the man in the white hat, and I thought: Well, life isn’t like that. It isn’t like it now; it’s certainly not going to be like that in 300 years’ time or whenever. So I thought: What is the series about? It’s really about survival and, if you look at the Federation as Nazi Germany, then we’re heroes; if you look on the Federation as Britain, we’re the IRA, so we’re villains. It’s a matter of whatever point of view you happen to have.
From Servalan’s point of view, we’re terrorists.
So I thought: If you’re a terrorist, you must behave like one and you must have some kind of commitment. Whether you agree with it or not doesn’t matter; you’ve got to admire the commitment. So I thought: If he’s going to kill somebody, he’s going to kill somebody. It doesn’t matter if he shoots them in the back or if they’re unarmed – it doesn’t matter – he MUST do it. So I thought I’d play him like that.
JOHN: He’s an untrustworthy egotist, isn’t he?
PAUL: No, he’s not untrustworthy. If he gives his word, he’ll stick by it. It’s getting him to give it that’s difficult. And I admire that.
JOHN: Is that why viewers admire him?
PAUL: I think you know where you stand with him. If he does give his word, then he’ll back you, as he always did with Blake. He never backed down at the crucial moment. Blake actually had a line: “If we get into a tricky situation, Avon may go, may run”. Well, no, he wouldn’t. In that very episode, Avon was the one who pulled them all out of it. The reason he, the character, didn’t get on with Blake was because Blake was a woolly-minded liberal.
Blake didn’t know what he wanted.
“I want to finish the Federation,” he says.
And Avon says: “And then what?”
Who cares? You’re never going to stop corruption. You’re just going to replace one Federation with another. What I like about Avon is that I am able to keep back quite a lot and let him come out every now and then because the basic storyline is an adventure story.
JOHN: What do you mean “keep back quite a lot”?
PAUL: Keeping back a lot of his personality.
JOHN: Isn’t that a bad thing? The audience doesn’t know what’s going on if you keep him too enigmatic.
PAUL: No, because occasionally he does reveal something else. For example, when his girlfriend rolled up, I don’t think there was any doubt that he loved her. But what I liked about it was that, however much he loved her, she betrayed him, therefore – BANG! He killed her. Very painful, very nasty but very necessary. He’s the supreme pragmatist, isn’t he?
JOHN: Sounds emotionless, though.
PAUL: No, that’s not emotionless, because he loved her. But he’s not going to share the pain with anybody else. That’s private; that’s his business.
JOHN: And the audience finds this attractive…
PAUL: As an audience, you’re objective and you look at the man and say He is feeling the pain and, every now and then, when he’s on his own and The Look comes, you can think Oh dear! Poor fellow! And he is a poor fellow. It’s a sad situation in which he finds himself but that’s tough, that’s show business and he’s got to fight and he’s got to continue and go the way he thinks is right.
One of the guest artists said to me: “I love this series because it’s the only series that has the courage to have a right bastard as the hero”.
And I made the point to him as I did to you that he isn’t a bastard; he’s a wonderful, warm human being. (LAUGHS) Because, you see he doesn’t think he is a bastard. That’s the secret of playing somebody who is apparently unpleasant: that he doesn’t think he is.
JOHN: What does he think he is?
PAUL: He thinks he’s just realistic, sensible and, above all, going to come through. He’s going to win. They’re all playing a game and he’s going to win the game. If he can’t win the game, he doesn’t play.
JOHN: What’s his background, do you think?
“What’s his background, do you think?”
PAUL: I did discuss this with Chris Boucher (script editor of the series) and I said: “It’s all very well saying we’re Earthmen, but where from? It does make a difference what school you go to and all that sort of thing.”
And the one remarkable thing I noticed was that the class system still prevails in the future. Avon, if anything, certainly feels himself an elitist and I would imagine, if you look at him in a cliché way, he was probably a Prussian or a South African or very, very aristocratic English.
He obviously went to a very good school. He doesn’t like people en masse and I personally (LAUGHS) find them a bit frightening, so that wasn’t too difficult to play.
JOHN: Away from work, you’re interested in military history and particularly the Napoleonic era. Why Napoleon?
PAUL: He’s my kind of man. One of the Blake’s 7 fans wore to me – it’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve been paid – and said: “There’s something distinctly Napoleonic about the way you play Avon”. That was a compliment.
JOHN: Why is he your kind of man?
PAUL: Because he was a realist. He was able to combine romantic idealism with realism. Somebody once said to him: “We can attack in flank on the Austrian Army, but it will mean going through these rather beautiful gardens and destroying them.”
Napoleon said: “How long will it take you to do it?”
And he said something like: “Forty minutes, preserving the gardens.”
And Napoleon says: “How long will it take not preserving the gardens?”
And he says: “Twenty minutes”. Half the time.
So Napoleon says: “Go through the gardens. Win. We can always rebuild the gardens.”
Which is sensible.
JOHN: Very Avonesque.
PAUL: Yes. He wouldn’t think twice. The actor Audie Murphy, in his book To Hell and Back, wrote about when he was in the American Army in Sicily and they suddenly came across two Italian officers riding two magnificent white horses.
They were armed; they came round the corner and the American officer and all his men froze. Murphy went down on one knee and gunned down the Italians and the horses. He had no choice and that was the professional in him. When everybody else froze, those Italians could have blown them to smithereens.
Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan with Paul Darrow as Avon…
So the kind of realism that allows a man to do something like that instinctively – sad though it is to kill beautiful horses – appeals to me. He was the most decorated hero of World War II; he was fascinating.
You see, being brought up in the cinema, those are the sort of people I admire. I was brought up on Humphrey Bogart and a situation where men were men and women were women. Now, alright, that’s a cliché, but I like that. I don’t like all this unisex stuff.
So I am well-placed to tell stand-up comics when they are annoying the audience and destroying their own act.
Lighting is vitally important in a comedy club.
New/inexperienced stand-up comedians understandably want to see the faces and the facial reactions of their audience.
But performers can be dazzled by the light or lights aimed at their faces, so the inexperienced tend to move their eyes – and thus part or all of their heads – out of the centre of the light.
This means they can see the audience slightly better but it also means the audience inevitably see the performer’s face less sharply lit.
Communication is all about people.
People are interested in people.
If you are writing an autobiography or a biography or a novel, it is almost always not the facts which are gripping; it is the people involved, their thoughts and their emotions.
This next bit actually IS relevant.
If you wrote about the physical causes and facts of an avalanche on a mountainside, it would not be especially interesting to a general readership. If you write about what happened when two people were caught in an avalanche, it IS interesting.
People are interested in people.
This next bit is relevant too…
Years ago, I read some research on violence in movies. The researchers were able to pinpoint where on the screen a viewer’s eyes were focussed.
In an action sequence, you might assume the audience would be watching the action.
They are not. They are watching the RE-action.
If someone is punched or shot, the viewer’s eyes are not watching the punch land or the bullet hit… The viewer is watching the face of the victim.
There may be special effects blood spurting out from the bullet impact; the victim may be throwing his arms up in the air; but the audience are not looking at that. The audience are watching the face of the victim.
They are not watching the action. They are watching the RE-action.
When it gets down to basics, people are interested in people and people’s emotions.
It is exactly the same in comedy performance.
Being told a joke by a stand-up comic on-stage is, of course, about the greater or lesser effect of the material and the delivery. But, by-and-large, stand-ups do what the name suggests. They stand up, tell a joke and that is it.
What are the audience looking at?
They are not looking at the stage backcloth; they are not looking at the comic’s costume; they are not looking at the comic’s hands, though they may be aware of them peripherally. They are looking at the face of the comedian telling the joke. They are looking at the performer’s face and at the eyes.
If the performer is moving around in-and-out of the main light, the constantly-changing visual information – or lack of it in dimly-lit shadows – starts to distract from and overwhelm the spoken words. One vivid picture IS worth a thousand words.
The audience, by and large, HAS to see the performer’s face clearly. Which means a bright light shining directly at the performer’s face.
The reverse of that is… If the performer can see the audience clearly, he or she is standing in the wrong place and being badly lit.
If the audience can’t see the stand-up comic’s face clearly, he or she might as well play a tape recording on an empty stage. The audience have not paid to come and see a chair or a curtain or a bit of wall while listening to disembodied words coming out of the gloom.
They have come to see a stand-up comic delivering lines.
They have come to see a person.
The clue is in the word SEE.
My advice to new stand-up comics is…
The more YOU can see the audience, the less THEY are probably seeing of you.
If you are dazzled, you will be dazzling. If you are in the gloom, you are dim.
But there is more to him than merely being an actor. Now read on…
JOHN: You were saying your father, after he stopped being a comedian on the music halls, got in involved in all sorts of businesses…
DERREN: Yes, we had a huge house in Avenue Road, NW London. And a Rolls Royce. My father just wanted one. He couldn’t drive. I used to drive. I had learned to drive on a Mini Minor. Julian Glover once told me: “We could never understand you arriving at RADA in a Rolls Royce.”
Derren Nesbitt as Major von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare
JOHN: You built your own career, though. Famously, you were a very nasty Nazi in the Clint Eastwood/Richard Burton movie Where Eagles Dare and there was an accident…
DERREN: Yes. I was supposed to be ‘shot’ twice: once in the head and once in the chest.
JOHN: Which one went wrong?
DERREN: The chest. I was always wary of the special effects man, because he had a finger missing!
They put two condoms full of blood on my chest with a metal plate (to protect the skin). We had five jackets for five takes and eight loads of condoms had exploded and splattered blood over the first four. So we got to Take 5… I was very cautious by this time… and when the explosion went off, it went KAPOW! and it looked like I had been hit by a bazooka. It went in my eyes and they took me to Denham Hospital, trailing blood, with a perfect bullet hole in my forehead and said: “He’s had an accident.”
JOHN: You must have had your chin and your nose damaged.
DERREN: No, I moved back, anticipating catastrophe but my eyes got burnt and bits got in them. It was not very pleasant. I was blind for two weeks.
When I could see again, Clint Eastwood sent me a Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a bottle of Optrex eye wash in the middle.
JOHN: Sounds like a nice man.
DERREN: Yes. I did a film with Frank Sinatra – The Naked Runner. He was a lovely man.
DERREN: Yes, really. He was the biggest star in the world then. Absolutely. One of the tabloid newspapers asked me to write a story for £20,000 or £30,000 about working with the biggest star in the world. But I thought that was tacky. I didn’t want to do that.
He must have heard that this English actor didn’t take the money. And he was absolutely wonderful. So nice.
We had been going to film in Copenhagen.
He said: “Have you ever been to Copenhagen?”
I told him: “No, never have.”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” he said
Anyway, they changed it and they shot my stuff in Welwyn Garden City instead.
“You’re not going to Copenhagen?” he said. “Well go and have a holiday there on me.”
So we flew there in his private jet and, when we arrived, there was this stretch limousine and a man in a grey suit who said: “Mr Sinatra welcomes you to Copenhagen,” and he handed me a manilla envelope with a LOT of money in it. I counted it up and said to my wife: “We will never manage to spend all this in ten days.” And I have been known to spend money!
There was an amazing apartment for us with the kitchen full. We went out that night; came back at four in the morning; and in the apartment waiting for us was this young man who says: “Mr Sinatra hopes you had a lovely evening,” and he handed me another manilla envelope with – again – LOTS of money in it.
The money was not to cover us for ten days – it was PER DAY. I had money stuffed everywhere: in suitcases and…
Derren Nesbitt and Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner
When I came back to London, I told him: “That was very very kind of you.”
“Oh no no no,” he said. “It’s no problem.”
He was so kind to me – he called me and invited me to the Festival Hall when he did the concert; I had to be at his table to have dinner with him at Claridges. And I met him after the show and he asked me – this little English actor – “What did you think of the show?”
Now that shows an amazing humility that you don’t associate with him.
“What did you think?” – He said that to me – a little, insignificant English actor.
I said: “By the way, you didn’t sing the song I like!”
“To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
And he sang me the refrain and all I could think of was: Not many people have had Mr Sinatra sing the refrain of a song for them.
He was a very nice man.
Two takes. That’s what he did on films. Only two takes, which I loved. Go for it. Shoot the rehearsal. The magic happens at the beginning. You are not quite sure what’s gonna happen, but magic happens. If you keep on replaying, you lose that magic. Tony Curtis was exactly the same. Instantaneous. That is really what you’ve got to do. You never quite know what’s gonna happen and every take is different, but the REAL magic happens at the beginning.
Derren was promoting Tucked in London earlier this week
JOHN: Sinatra acted and sang. Have you any musical ambitions yourself?
DERREN: No. But I did once write a song for my father as a joke. My father was in music publishing and god knows what else. I never really knew him at all – and one Sunday – because he was always working – he said to me over dinner: “What do you think of this song?”
I was so amazed that (a) he spoke to me and (be) he knew my name that I said: “It’s rubbish,” just to get a laugh.
He said: “Do you think you could write something better?”
I said: “Yes.”
As a joke.
I told my brother Gary: “I’m going to write the worst song ever – as a joke.”
I wrote it in 20 minutes, rolling on the floor, and handed it to my father and thought he would laugh. But nothing. No reaction. Absolutely nothing.
Anyway, there was a young singer called Adam Faith and his first record was What Do You Want If You Don’t Want Money? It sold a million copies. My song was on the ‘B’ side. From Now Until Forever.
And you got paid the same money as the ‘A’ side.
JOHN: Was that your only brush with the music business?
DERREN: No. I started a company many years ago, in 1971, with my little brother Gary called Our Price Records.
I said to Gary: “We’ve got to start like a supermarket for records. So there was a tiny little tobacconist’s kiosk at the side of Finchley Road tube station in NW London and he was going to retire, so we bought that and I arranged how the records should be sold – which everybody has copied – and it started from there. And expanded.
The 300th Our Price record store in Brixton, south London
JOHN: I remember shops in Oxford Street and all over.
DERREN: Yes. Eventually, we sold the business to WH Smith. They wanted to buy it and I said to my brother: “Sell it, because the days for record shops are over. Sell it.” So we sold it for £43 million in 1986 and WH Smith lost everything. Ridiculous! Why? Why?
JOHN: So what’s next now?
DERREN: I have no idea. People now seem to be asking me to do work again.
JOHN: I’m not surprised, on the basis of your performance in Tucked.
DERREN: I also run one of the biggest drama awarding bodies in the country: New Era Academy. That keeps me out of trouble. We are in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, France… and Spain is coming now.
The British movie Tuckedis released in the UK today. It has already won, among a clutch of other awards, the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Naples International Film Festival and both a Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at Outfest in Los Angeles.
“Like a jewel (and) Derren Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle…”
In the UK, the Guardian calls it a “touching, unexpectedly funny end-of-life drama with a terrific performance by 83-year-old Derren Nesbitt.”
It has pretty accurately been called “a slice of life smeared with glitter, laughter and tears” and the Hollywood Reporter singled out the “two splendid performances” at the heart of it. In London, the Financial Times writes: “Tucked is small but bright and multi-faceted: like a jewel. Nesbitt is its biggest sparkle”.
The official synopsis says it is:
A raw and tender drama about an ageing 80 year old drag queen who forms an unlikely friendship with a younger queen, both struggling with their own issues of gender identity and mortality. As they discover more about each other, they realise how to truly be themselves.
Nesbitt stars with 27-year-old Jordan Stephens, one half of successful British hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks.
Comedian Steve Oramturns up as a drug dealer and comedian Brendon Burnswrote some of the on-stage gags and appears briefly as a club MC.
But the movie centres on Derren Nesbitt’s extraordinarily sensitive performance as the grumpy, foul-mouthed drag artist Jackie, diagnosed with terminal cancer, with only six or seven weeks left to live and his performance is an award-deserving revelation.
IMDB currently describes Derren as:
A rather intriguing British actor who first appeared on UK cinema & TV screens in the late 1950s, and quickly found steady work as a rather unpleasant or untrustworthy individual. His cold, yet cunning features had him appearing in guest roles on many UK TV series.
Derren Nesbitt seemed to be all over TV
It seemed like he was in everything you ever saw in the 1960sand 1970s, on TV and in movies.
His father was Harry Nesbitt, a comedian and music hall artist who came from South Africa with his brother Max and they performed as a duo on stage.
Derren’s mother was also in the music halls as a chorus girl.
Derren was trained at RADA where he won the prestigious Forbes-Robertson Shakespearian Acting award.
From there, he joined Peter Hall’s repertory company.
I met him a couple of days ago in London.
JOHN: So the casting for Tucked… Here is a film with a rather grumpy, foul-mouthed transvestite. Who is the first person I would think of to play that role? Suave, 4-times-married Derren Nesbitt? Erm. No. Not an obvious choice.
DERREN: (LAUGHS) Exactly, because I usually kill people. Jamie Patterson the writer/director and I became vaguely friendly and I thought: He’s very talented. Then he asked me: “Do you want to play a drag queen and a trans-crosser?” So I said: “This script I gotta read!” I read it and I thought: Absolutely! This is really good!
And I’m glad I’ve been proved right on two points.
One: Jamie has now been signed-up to one of the biggest agents in Hollywood.
Two: the film has done magnificently well in Los Angeles.
JOHN: Great acting. Emotion with your eyes.
DERREN: Well, you can never be anybody else. So what you have got is me as a drag queen in those circumstances. What would I be in those circumstances? And that’s what you try and do.
JOHN: He’s a grumpy old bloke, but he’s sympathetic.
DERREN: Well, he’s a human being. The hardest thing in the world is to present true reality on the screen, but that’s the name of the game.
DERREN: Well no, not really. Everybody seems to thing you’ve gotta do an awful lot of research. But not in this particular case, because my family were very famous music hall stars. I was in theatres from the age of 5 and, later on, was seeing drag queens and all the rest. So it didn’t take very much for me to ‘become’ a drag queen.
JOHN: Your father was a comedian and your mother was a dancer.
DERREN: She was a chorus girl, but my father and his brother were the biggest stars in London in 1928. They only retired in the mid-1950s.
JOHN: You were you born in London.
DERREN: I was born at the Finsbury Park Empire. Actually born in the theatre.
JOHN: So you were bound to end up an actor…
DERREN: Well, I was very fortunate. I left RADA and I’d won everything there…
JOHN: …and then you worked for Peter Hall.
DERREN: Yes. He chose me to go to the Oxford Playhouse. But he only did one play there and moved on and then I was very fortunate. I think the movie Victim was the turning point. And I have never done an audition.
JOHN: You’ve still never done an audition?
DERREN: No. Never. People have seen me in other things and thought: He’s the one.
A film very much of its time – 1975
JOHN: You must, at some time, have wanted to be more than an actor because there was The Amorous Milkman in 1975, which you wrote, produced and directed.
DERREN: Yes, I did and, afterwards, I thought: Well, I’ve done it and that’s good enough. I wrote the novel, then wrote the screenplay from the novel. But then, afterwards, I felt: I’ve done it. So why do it again?
JOHN: Any further writing ambitions?
DERREN: So many people have asked me to write my autobiography…
JOHN: You should.
DERREN: I did. I finished it about two months ago. I thought: Who would want to read it? But I wrote it more as a cathartic thing. Whether or not anyone wants to publish it, I have no idea.
I was in the War in London. I was in the Blitz, right in the middle of it. My first memory is seeing a baby’s head in the gutter. I saw the dead bodies and god knows what else. So I start from then.
Well, in fact, the first thing I ever really remember was my mother throwing me in a bush as a German Messerschmitt came over. (LAUGHS) I never quite trusted her after that!
It is really less of an autobiography and more of a book that happens to be true.
JOHN: What’s the difference between a book and an autobiography?
DERREN: I don’t know. I think an autobiography is a little… a little bit… self…
DERREN: Yeah… Yeah… And I’m more interested in knowing the person. I’ve read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and I want to know the person.
JOHN: People are not interested in facts as such; they’re interested in other people.
DERREN: Yes. It’s boring (if it is just facts).
Funnily enough, years and years ago, Richard Harris – an old friend of mine who was a great drunk – was asked by someone to do an autobiography and he took an advert in The Times saying: :”If anybody could remind me what I was doing between…” (LAUGHS)
JOHN: You said your father retired in the 1950s… After that, he did nothing?
“Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother”
DERREN: He did everything. He was involved in so many different things. Including the Grade Organisation. Lew Gradewas a great, great friend of his. In fact, Lew Grade had a huge affair with my mother and told her: “If he doesn’t marry you, I will marry you and adopt him (Derren).” (LAUGHS) Maybe the biggest tragedy of my life!
Years and years later, I went to the South of France where my mother used to live – she had by then married someone richer than my father – and she asked me: ”How is Lew?”
I told her, “it’s LORD Grade now.”
“Oh,” she said, “many years ago, he asked your father to put some money into some new company he had.”
I said: “Pardon?”
“You know,” she said. “Television. You know, you sell beans and things on television.”
And I said: “Ah!… What happened?”
She said: “Well, your father wouldn’t take Lew seriously. If Leslie Grade had asked him, he would have put money in.”
The Edinburgh Fringe splintered from the Edinburgh Festival 70 years ago and, like Christianity, has been splintering ever since.
The official International Festival and the official Fringe end on Monday; the Free Fringe ended today (Saturday); and the Free Festival and Bob Slayer’s Heroes venues close tomorrow (Sunday).
So today I saw shows for which mentions in this blog will, alas, not get any extra bums-on-seats. But, then, I think mentions in this blog only add to ‘profile’ not to bums. So apologies to them, but just think of the increasing prestige.
I always try not to ‘review’ shows or acts. I think I may have failed today. When I do this, it never ends well for me.
Cassie Atkinson (centre), a real character
I have a tendency not to like character comedy if the characters are too close to reality; I don’t mind more cartoon-caricature-like or wildly OTT character comedy. Which makes it odd that I like Cassie Atkinson. I think it must be that the character comedy I hate is the stuff that feels like acting students doing an end-of term performance to their drama school mates. And I guess Cassie is a better actress than most! Or maybe she adds a tiny pinch of herself into even the characters least like her, so I buy into them more. I have no idea.
She does occasionally show a taste for the genuinely surreal – never a bad thing in my eyes though, alas, TV producers have no taste for the actual genuinely surreal. But now she seems to have linked up, more often than not in a blonde wig, with Kat Butterfield and Charlotte Pearson to perform sketches as Northern Power Blouse who, with luck, should be more attention-grabbing for TV producers – not that she really needs them with National Theatre work in her CV.
Lovely Lucy Hopkins – part light-fantastic
The genuinely lovely Lucy Hopkins is probably too good for British TV as her show Powerful Women Are About is said to be inspired by Mohammed Taleb’s Witches, Eco-Feminists, The Adventurers of the Soul of the World and is correctly described on the flyer as “part electro-ritual, part theremin-experiment, part light-fantastic. Ultra-conscious comedy by award-winning, internationally-touring, terribly present clown.” In other words, it is totally un-categorisable – awkward for commissioners scared about the security of their jobs who think in terms of safe elevator pitches.
No great loss, though, as Lucy’s work is very specifically for live theatre.
Becky Brunning is interesting because she can bill herself as being an actor in the popular Broadchurch TV series – which will certainly help her in elevator pitches and may be why her room was literally full to overflowing with punters – some people couldn’t get in. Beaming is/was her debut solo show at the Fringe and, I have to say, was/is weird.
Becky Brunning suddenly pulled out a twist with a call-back
In Beaming, she establishes herself as a likeable, ordinary, modest girl-next-door then progresses to fairly standard, well-structured, low-key observational comedy – driving tests, shopping, crisps (I think she may have lost the audience on the long crisps section of the show) and she even, unless my ears had an audio hallucination, actually delivered the straight non-post-modernist line: “Does anybody in the room like food?”…
But then, in the last 10 minutes or so, she suddenly brings in a totally different and fascinating autobiographical strand about sexuality which would and perhaps should have been an entire show in itself. This strand did not come out of nowhere – it was a call-back to a tiny fact which had been mentioned in passing earlier in the show, but she suddenly pulled out a twist on this earlier comment.
Most of her show was standard and very general observational comedy. When she suddenly switched to very specific, unique personal stuff, something happened. I hate to say she is “one to watch” – far be it from me to be cliché. But I am certainly going to see her next show.
Luca Cupani even appeals to Hungarians
Then I went to see the wonderful Luca Cupani who, at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards last night added to his glittering collection of awards the title Scottish National Russian Egg Roulette Champion 2017.
I thought I had seen his show – It’s Me! – at a preview in London, which is why I went to see it so late in its run here, but he has developed it beyond recognition and, of course, was superb. I can never quite get my head round why he is so good.
In theory, his Italian accent and what objectively is a rather dithery, broken-up delivery should interfere with the flow of the comedy but, for some reason – perhaps because it requires a slight bit of extra attention from the listener (but not too much), he is consistently fascinating. And he knows how to structure a story.
Interestingly, the room today contained Scottish, English, Siberian punters and a lady sporting a T-shirt saying: I SPEAK HUNGARIAN. She was Hungarian. They all enjoyed it. I was watching the Hungarian lady a lot – her English was not too strong and she loved the show.
Becky backstage at Malcolm Hardee Awards
Next stop was Becky Fury, who had hosted the wildly chaotic Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show last night. The chaos was not of her making – acts not turning up, acts turning up late, acts not saying in advance what they were going to do. And she handled it all masterfully, if that’s the right word, making up most of it on the spot – including swallowing a 3ft long balloon and doing a gameshow based on the health warnings on cigarette packets. Literally honking her breasts, of course, is always a crowd pleaser. And so it was tonight in her Molotov Cocktail show, ending with her successful rollercoaster of a Calais Jungle story. She dropped the political sections of the show and it still worked.
I am still waiting for the autobiographical street anarchist show which she has in her: if she ever does it, that will be a unique, perhaps literally fiery Fringe show.
If she does not get arrested.
Or even if she does.
A man conducts himself well
Rounding off the evening for me was a show called Brain Rinse – Puppetry of The Audience which threatened in its publicity to be “immersive” (almost always a horrifying idea).
In fact, it was superbly entertaining for the same reason that Herbie Treehead worked so well at last night’s Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show. Both Herbie and Brain Rinse’s Mike Raffone (say it out loud) have long experience in street performance, so their audience control is second-to-none. A well-structured show; the ability to ad-lib on the hoof; top notch audience psychology. All hail!
That was my day.
Last night, at the repeatedly aforementioned Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards, Russian Egg Roulette competitor Samantha Pressdee could not stop herself taking her top off. She has a lot of ‘previous’ in this.
Samantha Pressdee – a woman never knowingly overdressed
And, while I was roaming round the hot and sticky comedy rooms of Edinburgh today, she was out in the fresh air and I do mean ‘out’.
Apparently this was the 10th International ‘Go Topless’ Day and there was a rally in Edinburgh. The stated rules included:
NO-ONE IS IN CHARGE.
AS ALWAYS THE RALLY IS ESSENTIALLY ANARCHIC AS NO-ONE HAS AUTHORITY OVER ANOTHER PERSON’S BODY OR VOICE.
Samantha sent me a ‘report’ on what had happened:
The annual Edinburgh Free The Nipple rally for International Go Topless Day and Women’s Equality Day has been a success.
Members of the public joined in with regular campaigners and an open mic was held as a platform to oppose the censorship of opinion as well as nipples.
Only one member of the public got offended, shouting at protesters: “Shame on you! You’re flaunting yourselves! I can’t bring my daughter in to this space!”
I chased the lady whilst shimming my tits shouting: “Breasts feed children!”
The hysterical woman responded: “I know! My daughter has seen my tits loads of times!” before telling a photographer to “Fuck off!”
I wrote FREE LOVE on my chest in protest of the threatened extradition of alleged hacker Lauri Love.
He is appealing in the High Courts this November on the grounds that, because of his Aspergers and severe depression, he would be unable to cope in the US prison system and would commit suicide.