Tag Archives: animation

The ‘lost’ Aardman Animations feature film and a new type of storytelling…

In yesterday’s blog animator and director Derek Hayes talked about his early career.

Here, he continues and updates… 


Derek Hayes talked to me from his West Country home via Skype during the coronavirus lockdown…

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do. 

I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.

JOHN: In 2000, you helped develop The Tortoise and The Hare at Aardman Animations. But The Tortoise and The Hare never happened because…?

DEREK: It disappeared when Dreamworks and Aardman separated. That had, I think, a 5-picture deal. Chicken Run was the first one, which did pretty well at the box office.

They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.

He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.

When we discussed the idea, there was nothing really except that it would be a cross between Creature Comforts and Brookside. 

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Run that Elevator Pitch past me again…

DEREK: A domestic story set in some normal city but with animals as the characters… and what came out of that was The Tortoise and The Hare.

The Tortoise and The Hare – Aardman’s ‘lost’ feature film

JOHN: The Greek fable?

DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.

The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.

No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.

But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”

JOHN: How had they solved the problem?

DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.

So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?

It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.

Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.

So we were just developing that… 

Chicken Run had done well at the box office, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-RabbitIt did really well around the world EXCEPT in America,

JOHN: Too British…

DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.

JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…

DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.

JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…

DEREK: Yeah.

JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website, you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?

DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.

JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?

DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.

You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.

So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies. 

They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.

You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.

JOHN: Copyright problems?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.

JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…

DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…


Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…

Skywhales (1983) is on YouTube… 

…and The Victor (1985) is on the BFI website

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-victor-1985-online

 

 

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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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Human pups, video nasties, stuffed rats, Dead Elvis and sex – with Tony Hickson

I bumped into Tony Hickson at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden and he asked me if I wanted to hear about Dogboy – his ‘dogumentary’ film – not a documentary, a DOGumentary – about human pups. So, a few days later, we met at the Soho Theatre Bar. The up-market glamour of my life never ends.

“Human pups?” I asked.

“You must know what they are, John.”

“There is,” I said, falteringly, “some sub-culture where people dress up in furry animal costumes and have sex.”

“No,” said Tony. “Those are Furries. The human puppy thing is mostly latex and a bit of bondage stuff and dog leads and that sort of thing. One of the people in the dogumentary used to be a Furry.”

Tony Hickson directed the new DOGumentary

“Why did he change?” I asked.

“He was drawn to the dog thing, dressing up with the mask and all that.”

“Do they dress up as specific dogs?” I asked. “Are there human chihuahuas and human King Charles spaniels?”

“Now you are just,” said Tony, “being silly.”

“No,” I said. “When you say ‘dress up as a dog’ do you actually mean fur and ears and …”

“More a PVC suit with a dog’s head,” said Tony. “PVC or leather. Not fur.”

“Rather un-dog-like, then,” I suggested. “More BDSM.”

“I did ask them,” said Tony, “whether it was sexual or not. They said it wasn’t. They said it was about being in the headspace of master and servant and roleplaying.”

“How did you stumble on this sub-culture?” I asked.

“I was driving along the seafront at Whitley Bay in Tyne and Wear and one of them was walking along and he was on a lead. So I stopped and asked: Can I make a documentary about you?”

“Was he on all fours?” I asked.

“No, just walking normally.”

“That’s not being a dog at all!” I complained.

“But,” explained Tony, “if you were on your knees, it would take you ages to walk along the seafront.”

Dogboy with his ‘handler’ shopping in Newcastle city centre

“How long is the Dogboy dogumantary?” I asked.

“22 minutes. I made it for Made Television in Newcastle and their slots are 22 minutes.”

“They screened it?”

“No. They didn’t like the subject matter though there’s no sex in it and it’s not dirty in any way.”

“Have they transmitted other stuff of yours?”

“Yes. A documentary about gurning. I won the South East England Gurning Championships.”

“In the DOGumentary,” I asked, “were the people OK with being identified?”

“One of them never takes his mask off, but his handler doesn’t wear a mask.”

“That’s the official name, is it?” I asked. “Handler?”

“Yeah.”

“What do they do? Just walk along seafronts?”

“They go to meet-ups with other pups.”

“Do they smell each other’s bottoms?”

“I never asked that.”

“Do they urinate on lamp posts?”

“I never asked that. You are going a bit Channel Five here, John.”

Dogboy plays with his bone and ball in Tony Hickson’s film

“I still can’t get my head round what they do. Do they just walk along seafronts and go to meet-ups where they bark at each other?”

“No,” Tony replied. “They play with their rubber bones and their balls.”

“Have you tried any of this yourself?” I asked.

“No. Personally, I can’t really see the point.”

“Do women get involved?”

Yes, but it’s mostly just men.”

“So not much bitching?”

“No.”

“Do they go dogging?”

“I never asked that.”

“So you have made documentaries on gurning and this human puppy thing. What else?”

“I normally make short cartoons. I did make a horror film called Nasty Splurty Brains in 1992 but didn’t start submitting it to festivals until about 2002. It was banned in Scarborough.”

“Banned in Scarborough?” I asked. “Surely not. Why?”

“In 2004 or 2005, there was going to be a film festival in Scarborough called Whitby Shorts and the Council were humming and hahing: Oh! You’ll need a licence and the films will need to be licensed! which was bullshit. So I thought: How can I turn this to my advantage? The BBFC have got a list of video nasties and there’s a copy on Wikipedia, so I added Nasty Splurty Brains at the bottom of the list. Then I wrote to the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association saying: It’s on the list of video nasties! and they got onto Scarborough Borough Council and it was banned because it was on the BBFC list.”

“That’s an interesting piece of alternative marketing,” I said.

Where’s Mary? – legally, Tony’s short film obviously can’t say.

“I also made a 10-minute puppet film called Where’s Mary?” said Tony.

“Who is Mary?”

Mary Bell.”

“Oh Jesus!” I said. “Let’s keep off that!”

“It did not get banned,” Tony continued, “but I got a lot of heat. A few death threats.”

“What was the basis of the film?” I asked.

“A child killing other children. A puppet film. Originally, it was going to be more esoteric and experimental, but then I shifted it to puppets. I sold it to the Horror Channel. They went bankrupt.”

“Your other films?” I asked.

I Suck Your Guts – full of movie moments we will never share

“I started making a feature film called I Suck Your Guts around 2012. It was about time-travelling Nazi zombies. But it never got finished, because I fell out with the writer.

“I studied TV and video production at college in Newcastle and worked in corporate video in the late 1980s.

“I stopped making films when I came to London in 1991 because I just ended up working in shoe shops and record shops. I got back into film-making in about 2005 because I started to enjoy it again. Shall I tell you about Dead Elvis?”

“Oh, go on, then.”

“I first started performing as Dead Elvis when I left the circus.”

Circus boy Tony on trapeze at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

“The circus?” I asked.

“Before I was an actor, I was in the circus. I trained as a trapeze artist and ended up doing knife-throwing and fire-eating for Zippo’s Circus and at a circus called The Foolhardy Folk up in Norfolk.

“I did about five years in the circus but then I got bored. The novelty wears off. Then I came up with a cabaret idea called Dead Elvis around 1998, based on a 1980s drag performer called Dead Marilyn. He did Marilyn Monroe… after she was dead.”

“Did you have much success as Dead Elvis?” I asked.

“I was in a programme on Channel Five.

Dead Elvis supported the 1998 Scottish football team

“And I was in the 1998 Scottish World Cup video as Elvis – not Dead Elvis, just normal Elvis.”

“Why did they have Elvis in the Scottish World Cup video?”

“Because it was filmed at Prestwick Airport, which is the only place in the UK that Elvis ever visited.”

“And Dead Elvis?” I prompted.

“When I did live events, people hated it. I used to sing Suspicious Minds and there’s a part where the lyrics say Dry the tears from your eyes and I had this plastic Madonna on stage which squirted water out of its eyes. And I would sit on a toilet and pull the chain and there was a pyrotechnic which exploded and blew glitter everywhere. But the audience just didn’t get it and I would get booed off stage and I thought: I’m wasting me time here.”

“Would you revive the Dead Elvis to perform it again today?”

“No. There’s lots of people doing it now. Even when I was doing it, there was the Lesbian Elvis, there was the little one – Elfis –  and there was Elephant Man Elvis. Then there was El-vez (the Mexican Elvis) and there was Harry Singh – he was the Sikh Elvis, back in the 1980s with Don’t Step on My Popadoms.”

Tony as Dead Elvis in Jesmond Graveyard on New Year’s Day 1997, shortly before getting thrown out for climbing on graves

“You seem to have had a few careers,” I observed.

“Round about 2008 or 2009 I was a paparazzo photographer in London. I did get Kate Moss once, when she came out of a taxi. I had thought it was going to be Jarvis Cocker but it was Kate Moss and Pete Doherty was with her and she had his guitar in her hand so it looked quite cool.

“As she walked by, I was pressing the button on my camera and the flash didn’t go off and she said: Yer flash is really shit and, for some reason I apologised to her – Oh, sorry.

“On my way home, I threw my flash over Waterloo Bridge into the water. Pete Doherty was always pissed, he always looked like a bag of shit so pictures of him were guaranteed to sell.”

“But I get the impression,” I said, “that you really want to make movies now.”

“In 2015,” Tony told me, “I did a Masters degree in screenwriting at the London College of Communication.”

“And you have made films since then?” I asked.

Ratty etc – such stuff as dreams are made on

“There was Captain Ratty: Intergalactic Space Crusader. I made it in 2015. It was screened at about five film festivals including one in China and at the Anča International Animation Festival in Slovakia.

“It uses rats. Proper rats. The rats are dead. One of my hobbies is taxidermy, so I just bought a rat, two mice and a gerbil from the local pet shop and stuffed them. They were dead before I stuffed them.”

“Do pet shops,” I asked, “sell dead rodents?”

“Yeah. For snake food. Captain Ratty: Intergalactic Space Crusader is good. It’s quality. People hated it though… Obviously.”

“Did the stuffed rat move?” I asked.

“Yes. I moved it with me hand. Like a puppet. There was a film festival in Brighton where they brought in kids from the local autistic school.”

“Please tell me you didn’t stuff them,” I said.

“No. But one of the kids saw Captain Ratty on the screen and he freaked out. He had to be taken from the hall. He didn’t like it. But it is a good film. Highly recommended.”

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Punny Darren Walsh’s Cheep Laughs

Not just puns, but drawings... Cheep Laughs

Not just puns, but Darren’s drawings

“You must be a nightmare to live with,” I told UK Pun Champion Darren Walsh yesterday.

“Yes,” he agreed. “My poor girlfriend. I wouldn’t want to be her. Being the girlfriend of a comedian is hard enough, but being the girlfriend of a comedian who relentlessly puns is worse. We’ll be eating bread and I’ll be trying to get a rise out of her: but that’s the yeast of her worries.”

“Other girls,” I said, “want their boyfriends to be more interesting. She would probably prefer to have one who’s duller. She probably wants to make you into a gardener or something.”

“Make me into a gardener? said Darren. “That’s a cheap dig. Soil you could think of?”

Today, Darren publishes a book entitled (appropriately for a pun champion) Cheep Laughs.

It is published by Century, part of Random House, the biggest publisher in the world.

Cheep Laughs: Darren Walsh’s book launch on the River Thames last night

Cheep Laughs: Darren Walsh’s book launch on the River Thames last night

Perhaps also appropriately for a pun champion, the book launch last night was on water – the River Thames.

“Why not a self-published book?” I asked Darren. “Random House is the Big Time.”

“Just luck, really,” Darren told me. “Tim Vine did a joke book which did incredibly well but he didn’t want to do another one and that paved the way a little bit because they were looking for something similar. I was going to self-publish my book and then Random House got in contact after they read about me winning the Pun Championship. They asked me if I wanted to make a book and I said: I’ve already made it. I walked into their office with an already-printed prototype and that was it.

“Because I’m such a geek, I had all my gags on a massive spreadsheet with a grading system from 1 to 5 – good to bad – everything categorised – for 2,000 jokes. So, when they said What are your best jokes? all I had to do was search by Top Quality ones and just give them that.”

“So it all went smoothly?” asked.

“Except that, when I signed the contract,” said Darren, “I posted it to them and they did not receive it. I had to send them another copy. Then I realised: Maybe it’s the address. I was sending it to Random House and maybe the postman just delivered it to a random house. That’s true. It went missing.”

“Do they just have European rights?” I asked.

Dyslexic Darren purveyor of pure puns

Dyslexic Darren purveyor of pure puns for public perusal

“I’m actually not very good at reading contracts,” said Darren. “I’m dyslexic, but I didn’t know until I did a test when I went to university. I was thrown out of university because I got drunk and impersonated the Course leader. Before that, I was just failing everything. I failed all my GCSEs. I can’t write anything. My friend Leo Kearse says if I write anything longer than a pun, it just reads like a retarded farm worker giving a witness statement. I’m no good at writing long things. The PR person at Random House has asked me to come up with ideas for features we can send to newspapers that I can write and had to say I can’t write properly.”

“Will you do a second book?” I asked.

“It depends how well this one does, but the second book is pretty much written because I’ve got over 2,200 jokes… 813 are in this first book along with about 300 drawings. The second book is already half-written jokes-wise. I just need to do more drawings.”

“What were you like at school?” I asked.

“I was always drawing and making loads of music; those were the two main things at school. I used to make lots of electronic music. I guess you could call it electronica.”

“That sounds,” I said, “like it comes from a different part of the brain.”

“Not really,” said Darren. “A lot of the people who like puns are musicians. The majority of people who come up to me after gigs and say I like that play the guitar or something like that. I think music and puns are not totally disassociated.”

“Supposedly music and mathematics are connected,” I said. “Maybe with music and puns you are connecting separate isolated notes and words and spotting some way they will connect.”

“I dunno,” said Darren. “But I would say there’s definitely a link between music and puns.”

“So you are a songsmith?” I asked.

“A lyricist? No. I don’t write songs; I make electronic music. People who are musicians and who like puns… That doesn’t come from the lyrics but from the music. I think composing must be a similar part of the brain.”

On YouTube, there is a video of Darren at the World Pun Championships

“So are you a frustrated muso?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’d say there’s quite a lot of frustrated musos on the comedy circuit. The puns are one thing, but the animations and video comedy elements are stuff I’d also like to get off the ground.”

“Your day job is working as a  a freelance animator,” I said.

“Yes,” said Darren. “A lot are online ads. And I’ve now got a lot of comedy videos on Vine and my own YouTube channel. I’m starting to hone my animation skills into my comedy now; I thought I might as well.”

“How do you write your puns?” I asked. “Do you sit down for an hour every day?”

“No,” said Darren. “If I sit down, nothing comes out. I’m constantly writing jokes. I just get my phone out and write them down. I’m constantly thinking them. They just come into my head. There’s no wiring process; I’m just always on. If I’m on my bike – which is where I get most of my ideas – I’ve got a clamp to attach the phone so that, if I get an idea, I can just type it in.”

“You’re a dangerous man,” I said.

“Yeah. What could go wrong while cycling round London?”

“Your full show at the Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t just verbal puns, though,” I said. “There was a lot of variation: visual puns, drawings and everything. But it only ran half an hour.”

Darren Walsh - not just words

Darren – not just words

“Even though I mix it up a lot,” explained Darren, “I think half an hour is enough. Listening to puns is a bit like sitting a maths test. Puns are basically just word puzzles. The brain of the person sitting in the audience has to figure out what the punchline is. If you have an hour of that, it’s very exhausting, no matter how good the puns are.

“I have an hour of material now, from doing two completely separate half hour shows. But, personally, I don’t think I’ve got an hour show. If you stuck the two together, all you’d have is an hour worth of gags, which is not what I want. I am going to do an hour show at the Fringe next year, I just need to work on it. Not just an hour of jokes. There will be a story or… It’s something I have to figure out before next August.”

“A lot of people break through with an autobiographical show,” I suggested, “but that’s quite difficult to do with puns.”

“Anything’s possible with puns,” said Darren.

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Is Labour Party leader Ed Miliband the junkie twin of Shrek with some unprintable birth defect?

We live in a world where computer animation can do almost anything and I saw a BBC News Channel report last night in which a disabled human being could control the movements of his own wheelchair by his thoughts alone. But I think Pixar and/or Disney and the scientists have gone a step too far in creating a deformed cartoon character and making him leader of the Labour Party in the UK.

What has happened to the Labour Party’s image-control and PR sense and why are the media not talking about how just plain ugly and/or weird Labour leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls are? With the Conservative Party’s new-found PR confidence, Labour is now on a hiding to nothing.

Ed Miliband looks like a slightly slimmer, emotionally-distraught version of Shrek, stumbling about what to him is the alien world of Planet Earth.

Young Ed seems barely out of short trousers and looks like the type of slightly-swottish and humourless schoolboy who gets remorselessly picked-on by bullies. His equally alien-looking brother, the politically-deceased ex-Foreign Secretary David Miliband, was odd enough. He looked like an unholy cross between an unblinking starey-eyed zombie and an automaton from some 1920s German silent movie. I always half expected the front of his face to fall off revealing a mechanical interior, like Yul Brynner in Westworld.

Neither Miliband brother has any visible warmth. But Ed Miliband looks worse.

Yesterday, the coalition government did a u-turn when it announced it was not going to privatise 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in England. I have no more idea than anyone else what a hectare is – it sounds like a small woodland creature with long sticky-up ears – but it also sounds quite large; I mean the land area, not the woodland creature.

The point is that the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, stood up in the House of Commons in a light beige jacket with a light pastel scarf round her neck and said in a gently serious voice: “I am sorry, we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people’s concerns”.

Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, always a surprisingly unsympathetic speaker on TV when you consider he used to write for the TV satire show That Was The Week That Was, tried to criticise this as a “humiliating climbdown”.

Caroline Spelman said: “It is only humiliating if you are afraid to say sorry. We teach our children to say sorry.”

This is PR gold dust. It’s a brilliant piece of pre-prepared PR writing.

I have never understood why admitting you are doing a u-turn on a policy has been a no-go for all political parties for so many years. If you phrase the u-turn as a caring, listening, party-of-the-people apology and get the tone right, the public will lap it up.

On the other hand, if you get not just the policy but the party leader wrong, you are dead in the water.

On TV last night, I watched Ed Miliband try to mouth off about the coalition government’s change of policy and, as usual, I could not pay any attention to what he was actually saying because I was utterly mesmerised by his mouth.

When Gordon Brown first became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I had trouble listening to him because he appeared to have been trained to talk in easily-assimilated short phrases and mini-sentences by sticking his tongue into the inside of his cheek when the pauses had to be made. He gave new meaning to the phrase ‘sound bite’. He got slightly less obvious about this by the time he became our unelected Prime Minister, but it was still there and still slightly distracting at the time of his political demise.

Ed Miliband has desperately emotionless fish eyes which stare like someone who has just seen his entire family die in an intense house fire and his lips have a strange rubbery-out-of-control mind of their own. Last night I had no idea what he was saying. His lips had taken on a mad, OTT cartoon life of their own, separate from the rest of his face, as if drawn by a cartoonist on a very strong and very demented acid trip. His upper and lower lips moved around independent of each other and independent of his face, sometimes leaping sideways, upwards or downwards, unrelated to the sounds coming out.

Has he had some terrible accident or did he have some awful birth defect the media are too polite to tell us about? It is like we are watching a man with a mouth being attacked by Pixar and eyes added on by CGI from the shark in Jaws.

And don’t mention Ed Balls.

Firstly, how can any political party seriously expect to get votes from the notably humour-loving British public when their Shadow Chancellor is called Balls. But then, to add another impossible layer to their chances, Ed Balls – who looks not unlike Fred Flintstone forced to wear a second-hand business suit –  appears on TV to be a charisma-free zone who, like the Miliband brothers, tries not blink on camera – it’s a trick I think some politicians may have learned from Hitler’s filmed speeches. Hitler was an exceptionally good public speaker who had trained himself not to blink on camera to create an even greater aura of self-confidence. I read that Tony Benn copied this media trick of Hitler’s, though not his policies.

Ed Balls (unlike Hitler) has an emotionless feel and, although there’s not much he can do about being bulky, he fails to overcome this when he tries to smile with his eyes: it merely makes him look like a ‘heavy’ enforcer for some dodgy East End protection racket – and it’s slightly reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s unfortunate and terrifying attempts to smile on camera.

Compare the dead-eyed Miliband brothers and Balls to the on-screen personas of Prime Minister David Cameron (slightly eager and well-meaning public school boy) and Chancellor George Osborne (a bit of a smug prefect from a family with no money worries, but probably efficient).

And add to all that the fact that the Conservatives landed on their feet when they had to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party.

The Conservatives faced a terrible future of having to make vastly unpopular financial cuts to basic services because of the state of the economy. But it turned out the coalition allowed them to deflect a large percentage of public anger onto the Lib-Dems

All three parties have problems, but the Conservatives have re-discovered their power over PR and image control. The Lib-Dems have a problem by seeming to go back on Election promises. But the Labour Party is in a worse position. It has lost its grip and has insurmountable problems until it dumps Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and finds some new acceptable face of socialism.

And, my dear, that gaunt look with the staring eyes! Heroin chic is just SO last century.

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How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”

This morning, someone asked me about scriptwrtiting. He asked:

“Am I correct in assuming that boy loses girl three quarters of the way though almost every movie?”

This sounds like one of those formulae I don’t believe from one of those people who charge $800 for seminars in which they say Casablanca is the perfect way to write a script – in which case, the perfect way to write a script is to not know the ending while you’re shooting, have a cast of completely flummoxed actors and to write the script virtually day-by-day-by-night as shooting progresses. I have also heard Alien held up as a perfect piece of movie-making and, having met several crew members, I can tell you shooting on that film was an unhappy utter nightmare. So creating a nightmare situation for cast and crew would be the best way to make a film… Not.

The classic story, allegedly, is a ‘three act’ screenplay and the classic story is “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl”, but I think those three stages can happen anywhere you feel like in percentage terms.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only two rules of thumb. One is something I was told ages ago…

In the standard US TV movie, the entire basis of the plot and all the central characters at the heart of that plot are introduced in the first three minutes.

The best example I’ve ever seen of this is actually the first Die Hard big-screen movie in which, by the end of the opening credits – before the movie even starts properly – you know that Bruce Willis is a New York cop who has come to LA to see his ex-wife whom he still has affection for and who works for a Japanese multinational company in a large building, it is Christmas and there is a party in the building and (if my memory serves me) you are also introduced to the lead villain who has a team of baddies heading towards the building. All this before the opening credits end. It is a brilliant piece of scriptwriting.

It is done very efficiently by Bruce Willis’ apparently insignificant chit-chat with a taxi driver (whose character also runs through the movie) and by simple intercutting.

Last night, I accidentally saw the beginning of the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles and the central characters, situation and tone of the movie are, just like Die Hard, introduced clearly and concisely before the opening credits. I was interrupted by a phone call so never saw the rest of the movie, but I could tell I wanted to know more and to see more. I was hooked at the very start of the film, which is a big thing…

Because the second movie structure rule-of-thumb is that there has to be a ‘hook’ at the very beginning. If there isn’t a hook at the start of a film, I am never involved either emotionally or intellectually.

Setting up the atmosphere/tone at the start sounds good but doesn’t work.

You have to set up the atmosphere/tone but ALSO introduce the central characters and situation very quickly and succinctly. Another great example of this is the opening of my favourite film The Wild Bunch – everything is set up during the opening credits with dramatic music which sets the atmosphere/tone – you are shown the central characters, the bounty hunters waiting, the start of the opening bank robbery, the physical set-up for an upcoming massacre of the innocents… it is a giant hook of expectation built-up by great music… and even the director’s movie-making philosophy is established.

As the final credit DIRECTED BY SAM PECKINPAH appears on screen, William Holden barks out: “If they move… kill ’em!”

To my mind, the best films and TV episodes and the best novels have this structure… They start with an unresolved problem and end with the resolution of that problem; the plot is the unravelling of the problem and, during the story, you cannot yourself see how it can possibly be resolved so you have to keep watching to find out.

In the case of Die Hard, the unresolved problem is actually that the central character’s marriage has fallen apart plus there is going to be an attack on the skyscraper in which the ex-wife is working/partying. Along the way, bit by bit, there are other little hooks, each of which have to be straightened out. A couple of them are when the wife’s identity is revealed to the ‘terrorists’ and another the point at which the Bruce Willis character (armed) comes face-to-face with the lead ‘terrorist’ (unarmed) who pretends to be a hostage. So the hook running through the movie is Can he save his wife? and Can he save his marriage? And, along the way, there are a succession of little hooks.

I think the best example of this structure of constant hooks throughout a narrative is surprisingly Scots comedian Janey Godley‘s terrifying autobiography Handstands in the Dark – an emotional rollercoaster which makes the Himalayas look like goose bumps – I edited the book but did not write it (she wrote it) and I was therefore the first to be emotionally traumatised by reading it.

At the very beginning, even on the first page, there is a hook; I defy anyone who reads the closing paragraphs of the first chapter not to read the second chapter. And this happens throughout the book. She constantly tells the reader not-quite-enough facts to be satisfied. They have to read on a little more to find the resolution of each particular hook and, by the time they understand what is going on and/or are satisfied with the resolution of that problem, another hook has been set up. The book is also full of page-turning “Jesus fucking Christ almighty!” moments. Thunderbolts come out of the blue without any warning at all. And she intercuts multiple narrative strands throughout – this was nothing to do with me; she did it. It is an extraordinary narrative.

It reminded me, oddly, of Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien separates the central characters, then intercuts between the narrative strands, leaving the story strands dangling so you have to keep reading to find out what happened. Janey doesn’t have separate plot strands in that sense, but she intercuts her narrative. And the ending simultaneously is the biggest cliff-hanger since the climax of  the original Italian Job and also satisfyingly emotionally rounded-off. A neat trick she pulled there.

So my three golden rules for writing a film script (the third one echoes the late Malcolm Hardee‘s Third Golden Rule of Comedy) are:

1) explain the set-up and central characters in the first three minutes
2) structure the narrative with constant unresolved hooks

3) if all else fails, clothes off and knob out!

I should, perhaps, point out I never read any part of the Killer Bitch script until after shooting had finished and have still never actually read the full script…!

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