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The award-winning comic who almost joined the French Foreign Legion

Luca Cupani (bottom left) at the Awards last night

Luca Cupani (bottom left) at the SYTYF Awards in Edinburgh

Luca Cupani won the already prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? contest at the recent Edinburgh Fringe.

This Saturday, he appears with fellow Puma Londinese Italians as part of the launch weekend for Bob Slayer’s Blundabus in Hackney.

Next July, Luca goes to the mega-prestigious Just for Laughs festival in Montreal.

“Part of the prize for winning So You Think You’re Funny?” Luca told me, “is to go to Montreal and appear in a showcase for British comedy and I will have the spot as the up-and-coming British comedian.”

“So you,” I said, “an Italian, are representing Britain.”

“Yes,” said Luca. “This year was really a UKIP comedy. The runner up in So You Think You’re Funny? was Yuriko Kotani, who is Japanese. What I like about the UK is that I manage to win a competition despite my accent and broken English. This would not happen in Italy.”

“Don’t let the Queen down,” I said.

“She’s the head of Canada,” replied Luca, “and she’s not Canadian. This year, America’s Got Talent was won by an English ventriloquist.”

“And my chum Mr Methane, the farteur,” I said, “was in the semi-finals of Germany’s Got Talent, despite having nothing to do with Germany.”

“Ah,” said Luca, “but he speaks an international language.”

“You were an actor in Italy,” I said to Luca, “before coming here to do comedy. Why did you become an actor?”

“I was not happy with my job.”

“What was your job?”

“I was a freelance editor at a publisher. Not a bad job, but it did not pay very well. I thought: I’m not going to do this forever. I was already 35 and still living at home with my parents. I loved my parents but my mother was very possessive. When you do something that is boring, you sit at a desk and work and get up and ten years have passed and you do not have any memory of this.

Luca cupani took a selfie in London this week

Luca Cupani took a selfie in London this week

“Since I left that job, I now remember almost every single day, because every day something new happens. Sometimes horrible things like my mother dying, my father dying. But also sometimes beautiful things. New people. So I was looking for a way to get out of my boring job. And I thought: Why not join the French Foreign Legion?”

“Errrrrrr,” I said, surprised.

“I would never have joined the Italian Army,” said Luca, “because I’m not particularly patriotic. To be honest, Italy should be ruled by someone else. But, in the French Foreign Legion, they don’t bother where you are from. So I thought: Why not? It seemed a safe place to hide.”

“Did you mention this to your mother?” I asked.

“I tried. I thought about running away, but my father was disabled and I could not leave him alone.”

“But,” I said, “if you had joined the French Foreign Legion…”

“I just had this idea,” said Luca, “that, if something went wrong, I would join the French Foreign Legion.”

“Perhaps you should still consider it,” I suggested. “There must be an Edinburgh Fringe show and a book in it…”

“You can join the French Foreign Legion until you are 40 or 50,” mused Luca. “The transition from being a freelance editor or proof reader behind a desk to becoming a comedian or an actor did not change things too much money-wise – and uncertainty about the future was pretty much the same – but now I feel more free.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide not to join the French Foreign Legion?”

“Because it is so boring. I checked the website and the entry pay was only something like 200 Euros more than I was earning – to stay in French Guinea in the jungle – and you had to learn French. That could have been good, because I would have learnt another language, but you also have to sing and I sing terribly.”

“They sing?” I asked.

“They sing a lot,” said Luca. “Even before dinner. I learned one of their songs: Adieu vieille Europe…”

“Is it,” I asked, “one of the strict rules of the French Foreign Legion? You have to sing?”

“Yes. And then you have to iron your own uniforms. It is a clash between being macho and being quite camp. Their uniform is unique, so they make a lot of effort into putting the pleat correctly in it when you do the ironing. You have to put a lot of effort into the ironing and then, maybe, you have to kill someone.”

“Kill someone?” I asked.

“You have to, maybe. I don’t know. My favourite group in the French Foreign Legion were the Pioneers – the people who make bridges.”

Sappers?” I asked.

French Foreign Legion Pioneer wearing off-the-shoulder buffalo leather apron

French Foreign Legion Pioneers wearing off-the-shoulder buffalo leather aprons

“Yes. There are very few of them.”

“I guess there are not many bridges in the desert,” I said.

“I don’t know,” said Luca. “Their symbol is an axe and an apron open on one side. I don’t know why it is open on one side. And a long beard.”

“A bird?” I asked.

“A beard. A very long beard. And they hold axes and wear aprons. They seem very proud of their aprons.

“I also decided not to join because a friend of mine knew someone who had been in the French Foreign Legion and he was not happy and he left before his contract ended because he was heavily bullied. Apparently they were ‘fond’ of him.”

“Fond of him?” I asked.

“They fancied him,” explained Luca. “And I know men can fancy me. And so I thought: Mmmm. If I am in the jungle in French Guinea and find I am the most attractive ‘girl’ in the battalion, they will never get my heart but still they can…

“…get your butt?” I suggested.

Luca nodded.

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Prime Minister enters pig and prize winning sex worker enters politics.

Yesterday's Daily Mail story online

Yesterday’s Daily Mail story online

Yesterday, the Daily Mail alleged that Prime Minister David Cameron, when at Oxford University, put his penis into a dead pig’s severed head as part of a Piers Gaveston Society initiation ceremony.

While trying to guess the source of this story, political blogger Guido Fawkes yesterday mentioned an allegation by the Cherwell student newspaper that Michael Gove (later Secretary of State for Education) participated in a “five-in-a-bed romp” while president of the Oxford Union debating society.

The connection between politicians and sex is long-established.

In June 2013, I blogged about Charlotte Rose when she had just won the Sex Worker of The Year title at the British Erotic Awards. Recently, she won another award – for Recognition to the Industry – from UKAP, the UK Adult Producers’ Network. So I Apple FaceTimed her yesterday.

“It all started last year,” Charlotte told me, “when I did the face-sitting protest. On 1st December, the government created amendments to the 2003 Communications Act so certain activities were now deemed illegal online and face-sitting was one of them. So, on 12th December, I got about 350 people outside Parliament singing Sit On My Face by Monty Python while sitting on people’s faces.”

“Fully clothed?” I asked.

“Fully clothed,” said Charlotte. “It was a cold day. And I did my William Wallace speech at the end: You can try and ban our liberties, but you can never take our sexual freedom. You can see the speeches on my YouTube channel.

We got support from lots of people. I’ve always had support from Lembit Öpik – and from Rupert Everett since I did the Channel 4 documentary Love for Sale with him.

“I did three porn protests. I did the face-sitting one in London; I did the spankathon in Manchester; and I did the whipathon in Brighton.

“I’ve got a new petition coming up which I’ve just started to allow two independent sex workers to be able to work together for safety in regards to brothel keeping. Brothel keeping is against the law. In 2010, Labour looked at allowing 3-4 sex workers to work together. 10,000 signatures would start the ball rolling. 100,000 signatures will hopefully get me a debate if I can get the right people on board with it.”

“You’ve run for Parliament in two by-elections, I said. “Did you decide to do that as a result of the face-sitting protest?”

“No. Clacton-on-Sea was in October last year. It was a great opportunity for me to really talk about sexual freedom of expression. Then, when the second by-election came up in Rochester & Strood in November, I thought Well, I may as well. I quite enjoy it. But that is when I actually realised it’s like standing on top of a mountain screaming what you know is right yet nobody is listening. Unless you’ve got a good wedge of money behind you, you’re nothing.”

Charlotte on FaeTime yesterday with her latest award

Charlotte seen via FaceTime yesterday with her latest award

“Did you meet Nigel Farage of UKIP?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s just like a guy you’d get pissed-up with in a pub. There aren’t many people where I find there’s something I dislike, but he just has such a smarmy way about him. You don’t know if he IS coming across genuine or if he’s just a people-pleaser. I think it’s his mouth. His mouth doesn’t portray honesty. You know how some people have a wiggling corner of their mouth sometimes when they lie? It’s like horses.

“I don’t like horses because their eyes have no iris, so you can’t see where they’re looking. I’m just so wary of a horse – it’s probably one of the only animals where you would never know if it’s going to turn on you. Because it’s got no iris, you can’t read it.”

“Nigel Farage,” I said, “comes across as the man next door, but he was a commodity broker, wasn’t he?”

“Then he’d make a perfect hotelier,” said Charlotte, “because normally anyone who has stocks or assets or is an accountant goes into hotels but they lack the charisma. They probably have the same level of charisma as a caterpillar.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “Nigel Farage could become the new Basil Fawlty.”

“Mmmm…” said Charlotte.

“How did you do in the elections?” I asked.

Charlotte made a promotional reel for her Rochester election bid.

“At Rochester & Strood,” Charlotte told me, “Britain First got 13 votes more than me. I can understand that Britain First has got some very patriotic points of view, but the majority of it was a racist, damaging stab and I thought: People would rather vote for racism than the choice of sexual expression.

“Whereas I believe, if people were having more sex, the serotonin levels in their body would be fantastic and everybody would be happy. We wouldn’t have time to be vindictive or have hatred towards people. We would be smiling more.

“Did you read that story about judges in the court system who got sacked for watching pornography at work? I would rather have my court judge watch pornography before my court case. If he’s just had a wank, I know he’s going to be level-headed, very happy and I’m not going to have a problem. I think I would specifically ask that, if I was up in court for anything, I want my judge to go and have a wank before he listens to my case.”

“Now there’s a project for you,” I said.

Charlotte & Erotic Award as Sex Worker of the Year

Charlotte with her 2013 Sex Worker of the Year award

“I’ve got a new project,” replied Charlotte, “called The Sex Avengers. That’s up-and-coming for January. I want to build an army of support – not a hierarchy – activists, then industry, then the public. A huge directory: a one-stop shop that people can go to.”

“If you are an Avenger,” I asked, “what’s your super-power?”

“I think to deliver strength and positivity in my speech. I’ve done a lot of speeches now and I love sharing what’s happening. But, rather than being a speech that moans, I build positivity, I build energy, I build unity. I think that’s my strength: to be able to share energy and build on positivity.”

“You have moved to London recently,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, I was already involved in The Sex Workers’ Opera and the travel time from the West Country…”

“Opera?” I interrupted.

“Yes,” said Charlotte. “The Sex Workers’ Opera. It’s an award-winning show. We’ve been running it since 2013. We put it on at the Arcola in Dalston last year and won the Pioneer Award at the Sexual Freedom Awards which used to be called the Erotic Awards. We are hopefully doing a documentary for Channel 4.”

“Do you perform in it?” I asked.

“Yes. You can see a video of me performing The Dom Song on YouTube. That was in the first ever production.”

“It’s a proper classical opera?” I asked.

“No. It’s more like a hip-hopera. It’s a bit more funky. Two hours. We’ve got scenes about prohibitionists, the Soho raids, the porn laws. It’s 50% sex workers and 50% allies.”

“Sex and music?” I asked.

“I’m also going to be putting on events to promote the Sex Avengers. Ben Dover is a good friend of mine and he plays the drums for a tribute band called Guns 2 Roses. It would be absolutely fantastic if I could find people in the sex industry who play an instrument and we actually form a rock band and go round all these events promoting sexual freedom through music. That would be great.”

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Performers to see at the Edinburgh Fringe plus the abduction of echidnas

Kate Copstick during the recording of the first Grouchy Club podcast

Kate Copstick – just not a comedy critic to mess with

Well, the energetic typhoon and bundle of occasional volcanic anger that is The Scotsman’s comedy critic – Kate Copstick – arrived yesterday and has been arranging tickets to see shows. Sometimes acts say they will not let critics in for the first two or three performances as their show will not be ready for appraisal. This can lose them a review either because critics’ schedules are so tight the show can’t be fitted in elsewhere or – as with Copstick – on principle.

I paraphrase, but her attitude is: “if the show is not ready to be seen by a critic, then they shouldn’t fucking be performing it and charging the fucking public money to see it”.

I do not paraphrase the swearing.

As of yesterday afternoon, one show will certainly not get her review because it was “not ready to be seen”.

George’s Fringe poster for Anarchist Cook

George’s Fringe poster for Anarchist Cook

Having rescheduled my yesterday to do other things by cancelling three shows (to be seen later), the only one I did see was George Egg’s Anarchist Cook – a cracking show a bizarre combination of comedy and cookery using items you can find in hotel rooms, including Bibles, irons and trouser presses.

Mixing cookery and comedy live on stage has been done before, but this version was so filled with comic originality that it took the audience around ten minutes to accept they really were seeing what they were seeing. After that, they were with him all the way. The word-of-mouth will be great.

Meanwhile, on the streets, flyerers have a tendency to look at me, think I am far too old to be interested in comedy and ignore me. Yesterday, among the flyerers doing this were ones touting a couple of shows I am actually going to go and see.

Al Porter strikes camp in Edinburgh

Irishman Al Porter strikes camp in Edinburgh

One who did grab me – because he recognised me – was Irish comic Al Porter, flyering for his own show Al Porter Is Yours. I don’t think he is likely yet to get the Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid’ Award, but he has the chutzpah it takes to get success on TV.

You could not call it subtle schmoozing, but it is the sort of full-throttle PR assault mixing OTT flattery with Irish charm which will go down well in the corridors of the BBC and ITV. He also has a good memory –

  1. my face
  2. that we met two years ago
  3. that I write a blog which is “wonderful” and which he “reads all the time”

Al Porter Is Yours was already on my list of shows to see, so the flattery and full-throttle schmoozing was unnecessary, but full marks for the in-yer-face promo assault.

In the evening, there was another assault on the senses of a different kind.

My chum Janey Godley performed at the Laughing Horse Free Festival launch show. It looked to me like most of the audience had not actually seen her perform before, so it was like watching a collection of cuddly toys facing the full force of an Apache attack helicopter with all weapons systems blazing. I would be amazed if less than half the audience did not leave last night with her at the top of their list of Shows To See.

Janey Godley live on Periscope last night

Janey Godley was live on Periscope last night

Janey has single-handedly made me think I should switch off my Periscope alerts as, every ten minutes, I get a mobile phone fanfare and the news that Janey is “live on the streets” or can be seen “in bed”. Just getting the alerts exhausts me. But it is effective publicity. She tells me there has been a surge in sales of her jaw-dropping autobiography Handstands in the Dark from people who have seen her on Periscope – despite the fact she has never mentioned the book on Periscope.

She also told me someone had suggested she put on an exhibition of her paintings and drawings in London – an excellent and overdue idea which I tried to encourage her to do though, I suspect, to no avail.

Janey Godley at the Fringe in 2007

Janey with her clown painting at Edinburgh Fringe in 2007

In 2007, her painting of a clown was sold for charity at an an Arthur Smith Arturart exhibition of comics’ paintings. If I had known it was for sale, I would have bought it myself, because I had seen her paint it – It started out as a planned portrait of comedian Malcolm Hardee then changed into a scary clown.

She recently painted a watercolour landscape for me as a gift. I was going to collect it when I got to Edinburgh, but she has now lost it. I am beginning to get paranoid.

Last night, I understand Malcolm Hardee Awards-stealer Juliette Burton (see yesterday’s blog) arrived in town but could not be found. I suspect she is in hiding in her dubious and by no means certain pursuit of a Cunning Stunt Award nomination.

All this and a tooth

All this and a bit of tooth falls out…

On a more personal note, a tiny slither of tooth seems to have come out of one of my molars, though there is no pain yet. And I have the Edinburgh sniffles – I think I may have the beginnings of a cold caught standing in the rain at last night’s Free Festival launch.

This morning I awoke to an email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She sent me a CBC news report about a man who had been charged with “fornicating the National War Memorial” in Ottawa.

She added: “At least we don’t have the echidna abductions that are racking Australia.”

No, I have no idea what she is talking about either.

But it is good, in a way, to know anarchy reigns worldwide, not just in Edinburgh during the Fringe.

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The increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards short list is announced at the Edinburgh Fringe

The short-list for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe has been decided amid a flurry of red noses and custard pie fights between the judges. In roughly alphabetical order…

Malcolm Hardee Show 2014

The three nominees for the main
MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD FOR COMIC ORIGINALITY
(which is awarded to performers not to shows)
are:

The Birdmann
in A Man Like No Man
4.00pm at Bob & Miss Behave’s Bookshop

Candy Gigi
in I’m Not Lonely
4.00pm at The Hive

The Human Loire
(aka Michael Brunström)
1.00pm at Cowgatehead


The three nominees for the
MALCOLM HARDEE CUNNING STUNT AWARD
for best (cunning) stunt promoting an Edinburgh Fringe act or show are:

Luke McQueen
for persuading people that comedian Frankie Boyle was playing a secret gig at the Pleasance, then revealing that the gig did not feature Frankie Boyle at all but was a Luke McQueen gig. There was reportedly an element of disgruntlement in the audience. A brief debate between the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judges seemed to decide that stupidity was possibly a bonus in being nominated for a Cunning Stunt Award. Irate audience members can find him at the Pleasance Courtyard at 8.00pm in a show called Now That’s What I Luke McQueen.

Mark Dean Quinn
for bringing originality to the vital yet under-rated art of flyering for two shows. To ‘sell’ Ben Target’s show, he handed out blank strips of paper to passers-by. If they asked why, he gave them a small card with show details. This meant the right audiences self-selected themselves for the show. He also flyered for the ACMS (Alternative Comedy Memorial Society) by standing with his head in a cardboard box full of flyers. People were inclined to take them. He also flyered last year for a non-existent Fringe show. If we had heard of this last year, I would have certainly nominated him for that. As I wrote re the previous nominee, stupidity is a plus point.

Christian Talbot
– another award for creative flyering – for getting his 12-year old daughter Kate to wander up to strangers in the street, looking sad and distraught, asking them “Have you seen my daddy?” then, if they say No, handing them a flyer with details of where they can see his show – which is called Hello Cruel World (8.20pm at the Underbelly, Bristo Square).


All this brings us to the increasingly contentious
ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD

Last year, we did not present this award because we did not think anyone deserved it.

However, the award had already been made, so – given that it is in the form of a £ sign with a bite taken out of it, we awarded it under the name THE POUND OF FLESH AWARD to Gareth Ellis, who was beaten up by his double act partner Rich Rose so that they could claim he was beaten up in the street by a punter irate at their Jimmy Savile: The Punch and Judy Show.

This year, we have decided to nominate two acts for this trophy and, depending on who wins it, we will call it by a different name.

The first nominee – for the ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD is the amazing crowd-pulling Luisa Omielan. Over the last year, she has been touring with What Would Beyonce Say? This year, her new Fringe show is Am I Right, Ladies? (10.15pm at The Counting House)

If the other nominee wins the trophy, it will be called the ACT LEAST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD. The nominee for that is Fringe legend Peter Buckley Hill, who created the Free Fringe and spawned all the other copies of the ‘free’ model in Edinburgh, London and elsewhere. Unlike most acts, Peter has heroically never aspired to make any money from the Fringe and has staunchly defended his free model. His unlisted-in-the-main-Fringe-Programme show Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians is 9.35pm at Canons’ Gait.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards, with ‘Million’ award in middle

The three awards for Comic Originality (left), Cunning Stunt (right) and the Million Quid Award

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Comedian Malcolm Hardee’s first ever appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe

A6MalcolmHardeeAwards2014

I woke up at 5.20am this morning to a text message from comedian Janey Godley at the Edinburgh Fringe. It read:

“I got a loan of a bike. It was too big and I banged my fanny on it – In Edinburgh 10 minutes and I cracked my vag.”

Fringe fever has started early this year.

The joys of modern life near Stafford

Joys of modern life at motorway service station near Stafford

I am driving up from London to Edinburgh today, so I am writing this blog at the Costa cafe in Stafford service station on the M6 motorway.

This year’s two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is being held on Friday 22nd August. The three awards are in memory of ‘the godfather of British alternative comedy’ who drowned in 2005. So it goes.

Below is an extract from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, published in 1996. Amazon.co.uk’s current listing retains their own humorous and extensive balls-up in which it describes the book as an aid to classroom teaching.

In this edited extract from the book itself, Malcolm talks about the first time he appeared with The Greatest Show On Legs at the Fringe.


Malcolm Hardee's autobiography

Not a standard aid to class teaching

We did our first Edinburgh Fringe in August 1982, before it became so commercial.

That year, we were playing in a venue called The Hole in The Ground which literally was just that: a hole in the ground.  An ‘organisation’ called Circuit had erected a 700-seat marquee on this piece of derelict wasteland.

Also performing in The Hole in The Ground was The Egg Man, who was Icelandic years before Björk. His show consisted of a two-hour monologue performed, completely in Icelandic, to an audience of one in cave which was one of the ‘natural features’ of The Hole in The Ground. He used to auction the ticket for each show and a reviewer from the Scotsman actually had to pay over £50 to watch a performance of this two-hour Icelandic monologue. He couldn’t understand a word but, in a way, it was Art.

Today, this just wouldn’t happen as the big Agencies use Edinburgh to hype-up future short-lived TV ‘stars’.

That first year, the Circuit tent in Edinburgh held about 700 people.

I had stupidly agreed we’d do it for a ‘wage’ of £500 a week. In the meantime, we’d been on (the TV show) OTT, we were popular and we were selling the tickets out at about £5 a ticket. So they were making about £3,500 a night and we were getting £500 per week between the three of us. So I felt bitter again.

There was another lot performing at The Hole in The Ground: a group of feminists. They were called Monstrous Regiment. They were doing a play about prisoners. About how it’s not the prisoners’ fault they’re in prison. It’s Society’s fault. It’s all of our faults. All of that nonsense.

We were really poor that first year. We were performing in The Tent in The Hole in The Ground and we were living in tents next to The Tent. Edinburgh is always cold and it was even colder that year: it snowed.

Also that year, a German opera show had a pig in it and I had my tent next to the place where they kept the pig.

So, I was feeling bitter and feeling bitter cold.

At, the end of the week, Circuit decided to have a Press Conference and they put another tent up. They loved a tent. A big marquee. Commissionaire outside. Posh. We turned up and they wouldn’t let us in even though we’d been there a week and sold out our shows and everything. Well, we were naked, which might have had something to do with it. And not entirely wholesome. So we went and got dressed and eventually they let us in. But I was still bitter.

We went to this restaurant in the marquee and it was a bit of a posh do. Wine and all that stuff going on. Monstrous Regiment were there but their feminist dungarees were off and their public school cocktail dresses were on.

Then one of the Monstrous Regiment women – one I particularly didn’t like – got her handbag nicked. And she went berserk.

“Catch him!” she yelled. “Get the police! I want that man put in prison!”

So I said to her:

“It’s not his fault. It’s Society’s fault. It’s all our faults”.

At the end of all this, they asked one person from each show to get up on the bar and give a speech to the assembled Press.

By now, the Monstrous Regiment woman had calmed down. She got up on the bar and said:

“We’re doing a play. It’s about prisoners. It’s all Society’s fault and it’s a scathing indictment of Society”.

Then she jumped off the bar and the German with the pig got up.

“We’re doing an opera with a pig,” he said.

So we were next and I stood up on the bar, having told Martin to tug my trousers at the appropriate moment.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Press,” I started saying: “We’re The Greatest Show on Legs and we have a bit of a comedy show in that tent over there, but this is no night for comedy because I’ve just read in the paper that the great Glenda Jackson has passed away and, in the spirit of the Fringe,” – I had a real tear came out of my eye at this point – “I’d like to ask for one minute’s silence for a great actress.”

And they did.

Silence.

A whole minute.

I looked at my watch and the whole minute went by.

A long time.

Then Martin tugged my trousers and handed up my newspaper to me. I looked at it:

“Oh!” I said. “Not Glenda Jackson. Wendy Jackson. A pensioner from Sydenham….. Doesn’t matter then, does it?”

The tent fell even more silent than during the Minute’s Silence.

After a pause, a thespian in the front just looked up at me and theatrically projected the words:

“Bad taste!”

The ironic thing was that he was wearing a pink and green shirt at the time.

This was the beginning – 1982 – of a beautiful, long-running relationship between the Edinburgh Fringe and me.

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The Edinburgh Freestival comedian whose relative pulled cunning stunts involving Virginia Woolf and bottoms

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Yesterday, my blog was about the new Freestival events at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Comedian Dan Adams was one of the four-headed hydra who explained to me what was planned but seemed to take a lot of interest in the highly coveted annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

It is for the best cunning stunt publicising a show or act at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Before we chatted, fellow Freestival hydra-head Sean Brightman had talked with me about the Cunning Stunt award too – and how funny it would be if the whole long genesis of the Freestival with its well-publicised bust-ups with the Free Fringe were simply the most complicated ever publicity stunt for a clutch of shows in an attempt to win the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Of course, the Freestival is not a cunning stunt.

It is real…

I think.

On the other hand, if I were trying to get a cheap blog out of this, I might bring up the interesting background of another of the Freestival’s hydra-heads, comedian Al Cowie.

“So you’re an aristocrat,” I said to him after my blog chat with the Freestival Four.

“No,” said Al. “I’m the smell left behind after the aristocrats have left the room. I have the accent but none of the cash.

Horace Cole was my grandmother’s cousin. He was the ultimate Cunning Stunter. He was peripheral to the Bloomsbury Set and he did the Dreadnought hoax. He hired a train to go down to HMS Dreadnought in Weymouth. He said he was a member of the Foreign Office and went there with other members of the Bloomsbury Set, all dressed up as Abyssinian royalty. Virginia Woolf was the Crown Prince of Abyssinia.”

The Abyssinians  - Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in beard

The Abyssinians – Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in a beard and Horace de Vere Cole is on the extreme right in a top hat

Cole went to Paddington station in London, claimed that he was ‘Herbert Cholmondeley’ of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth.

The stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.

In Weymouth, the Navy welcomed the Abyssinian princes with an honour guard but could not find an Abyssinian flag. So they flew the flag of Zanzibar and played Zanzibar’s national anthem.

The group inspected the fleet, had their own translator and talked in gibberish drawn from Latin and Greek.

“When the Navy found out…” said Al.

“How did they find out?” I asked.

“Because Horace Cole went and reported it to The Times, who would not print a photo, and the Daily Mirror, who did… When the Navy found out, they sent two young subalterns up to Cambridge to give him a good caning…”

“Literally?” I asked.

“Yeah. But they didn’t catch him. There’s been a book written about it: The Sultan of Zanzibar.”

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

“Did he do the party stunt with the bottoms?” I asked.

“Yes,” said. Al. “He organised a white-tie party and invited lots of people whose only connection with each other was that they had the word ‘bottom’ in their name and he had a man at the top of the stairs at the party announcing the arrivals as they walked down the stairs:

Mr and Mrs Bottomley… Mrs & Mrs Ramsbottom… and, because he didn’t have ‘bottom’ in his surname, he didn’t turn up.”

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t heard the bit about the announcing of the names. I read that all these people, none of whom knew each other, were invited to this party without any explanation of why and it was only after everyone started talking to each other that they eventually worked out it was a vast practical joke and why they had all been invited.”

“All of these stories.” said Al, “have been told to me and I don’t know which the accurate ones are. One of the best is that he bought out the entire first night – every seat – of a stage show in the West End of London and then gave the tickets out to various people with carefully allocated seating so that, when the lights went up, if you were looking down on the stalls from the circle, all the bald heads in the audience read out a rude word. But I’m not sure what the word was.”

“It must have cost a fortune,” I said.

“Yes,” said Al. “He wasted his entire fortune on practical jokes… He dug up Piccadilly. He got his mates dressed up in workmens’ clothing and they went and dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly. There was a policeman there, so they hauled him in to divert the traffic while they did it.

“When they had dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly, they went into The Ritz and just watched the chaos which ensued. It took London about four days to work out what on earth had gone wrong.

“Then, a few weeks later, he went up to a bunch of real workmen who were digging up the road and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as policemen and they’re going to try to stop you digging up the road.

“He then went up to a group of policemen and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as workmen and they’re digging up the road.

“And then he left them to it.

“He was a fascinating character,” said Al. “Winston Churchill described him as a man who was dangerous to have as a friend. His sister married Neville Chamberlain. But, when he died, no-one turned up to his funeral because they thought it was a practical joke.”

Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936) died in poverty in France.

So it goes.

The winner of the highly coveted 2014 Cunning Stunt Award will be announced during the Highly Coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 22nd August in Edinburgh.

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A revolution at the Edinburgh Fringe. New Freestival organisers explain what to expect from them and their sponsors

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe is a thing of Byzantine beauty organised by no-one and, within that non-organisation are lots of people organising things. 

I organise the annual highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Last year they were the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. This year, they are the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and my blog has taken over the mantle of being increasingly prestigious. Say it often enough and, with luck, people will start believing it.

If I were to attempt to simplify the organisation of the Edinburgh Fringe’s non-organisation, there are venues where you pay in advance (pay venues) and there are ‘free’ venues where you pay nothing to enter but, if you want, you can donate money on the way out (a bit like indoor busking).

There were, until this year, three free organisers:

PBH’s Free Fringe started it all, organised by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee Peter Buckley Hill.

Around ten years ago, there was then a split in the Free Fringe ranks and the Free Festival began, organised by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse, in one of whose venues I stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Emerging from the Free Festival in the last couple of years has been the Heroes of Fringe Pay What You Want venues run by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Bob Slayer. At his venues, you can either walk in for free or pay for a ticket in advance to guarantee a seat.

Then, back in December, I blogged about another rift in the Free Fringe which has now spawned the Freestival, organised by a hydra-headed committee of performers all of whom, I imagine, aspire to win a highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

If you need any more background, I suggest you either take counselling or settle down, take Valium and read the blog I wrote last December about the genesis of the new Freestival group.

On the Freestival website (soon to be re-designed) there are eleven members of “the current committee and helpers” listed.

Last night, four of them – Dan Adams, Sean Brightman, Al Cowie and Alex Marion – explained more to me.

Last night (from left): Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion, Al Cowie

Last night in London (from left) four elevenths of Freestival: Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion and Al Cowie

As they are part of a hydra-headed collective speaking collectively – and, frankly, because I can’t be bothered to differentiate between the four voices on my sound recording – I shall quote what the four of them individually said as coming from a mythical single beast called The Freestival.

“You had a big bust-up with Peter Buckley Hill,” I started. “You suggested ways in which you thought the Free Fringe could be improved.”

“An innocent mistake,” said the Freestival. “In hindsight, we should probably not have done that but, then, we would have ended up doing shows somewhere else.”

“So you would have broken away anyway?”

“We might have gone with Laughing Horse,” said the Freestival, “or Heroes of the Fringe without the hassle.

“With the Free Fringe, it’s PBH’s name on it and however much he’s set up committees in the past, it’s pretty well established it’s always him. With Laughing Horse, it’s Alex and he gets other people on board to help, but it’s him and he works very very hard. Bob Slayer, same thing: he’s keeping it very small – very wise – and he’s going great guns with it but, again, it’s just him.

“We set the Freestival up as a committee and the thing that differentiates us from any of the other free groups is we have an accountant. Plus, should any issues happen, we’ve got some flexibility in the system, because what we’ve done is looked round at who has the expertise in various different areas, so that we can call on them and genuinely use them. None of us knew about accountancy, so we’ve got in a fantastic accountant performer – Gemma Beagley.

“Essentially, we want to bring in the money from outside that will allow us to put on really good free Fringe sh…”

“You can’t use those two words together,” said the Freestival, interrupting itself.

“Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the Freestival, “apparently it’s illegal for us to use the two words together.

“It’s difficult to describe without using those words,” continued the Freestival. “But essentially what we want a festival full of acts we believe in so we can promote them to the public with genuine honesty. With all due respect, all of the other free organisations are pretty much open to anyone.”

Random visual plug for my Fringe show

A random plug for Bob Slayer

(Before I get a complaint from Big Bob Slayer, I should point out that, keeping things small, he is very choosy about the acts he allows to perform in his venues.)

“What we have,” continued the hydra-headed Freestival, “is the manpower to select the acts we really want to put on. It’s like running a comedy club where we put on the best acts available to us on the night. So, when people go to a Freestival show, they will know it’s going to be a good show in a good venue. We want all of our venues to be a pleasure to go to. In Edinburgh, for performers and audiences, that’s not always the case. There was one in a toilet last year.”

“There seemed to be some doubt,” I said, “that you had The Tron as one of your venues.”

“We do have The Tron,” said the Freestival. “And The Cowgatehead, which is opposite the Underbelly. Last year it was called The Cowshed.”

“They were both PBH venues last year,” I said.

“Yes. The reason they’re coming with us this year,” said the Freestival, “is that they are directly linked to our sponsor. We do have a sponsor – La Favorita, a chain of Pizza restaurants, a local Edinburgh business. They’re a restaurant group (the Vittoria Group) with a small chain of pizza delivery restaurants. They had a concession outside the Tron Church at last year’s Fringe.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

“How many venues have you got,” I asked, “and how many rooms within those venues?”

“We’re currently working on getting around twelve venues,” replied the Freestival.

“Each with multiple rooms?” I asked.

“There might be more spaces, but we’re working towards a 12-venue plan. We’ve got the Cowgatehead, the Tron, St James, which is a brand new venue near the Grassmarket. Inside that, we’ve got two floors with a main room for about 150 people and we’re going to put two rooms on the top floor, each of which will be 60-80. It’s going to be built to our spec.”

“Why are you different from the other free venue organisers?” I asked.

“We want people,” said the Freestival, “to be astounded by how good our venues are. And we want to publicise all of our shows. It’s not enough to just say They’re in our brochure, so that’s our responsibility to them discharged. If both the acts AND we publicise those shows, then all of us benefit.”

“Is that where the sponsor’s money is going?” I asked.

“The sponsor,” said the Freestival, “is paying for the brochures, the publicity costs, the new website and the setting-up of the venues. The acts are spending six months preparing the best show they can create and we don’t think they should have to set up the venue themselves.”

“So,” I asked, “will each of your venues have a venue manager and a sound person?”

“Yes,” said the Freestival, “though there might be a couple of venues that share sound people.”

“Are the sound people free?” I asked.

“There is a small up-front sub,” said the Freestival, “which is on our website. It is £80.”

“What was PBH charging last year?” I asked.

“£3 per each individual day’s performance,” said the Freestival, “and/or you had to organise as many benefits shows as you could for the Free Fringe. If anyone thinks they can find a venue in Edinburgh in August, fully set-up with publicity and technical support as part of the package, for less than £80 over three weeks, they’re welcome to go and take it. What the sponsor’s money allows us to provide is quality venues. And soundproofing wherever possible.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “the sponsor could soundproof the walls with pizzas. You could have the first edible Fringe venues.”

“How we have approached sponsorship,” explained the Freestival, “is How will it benefit what we want to do? NOT How will it benefit the sponsor? The sponsor gets concession stands selling pizzas at a couple of the venues and outside The Tron, exactly as they had last year. They want to get their name seen everywhere because they want to grow as a business and this does that for them.

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of ingredients

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of different ingredients

“Having an accountant and sponsor on board informs the decision-making process, but we have control over any artistic decision. There will be nothing about this does or does not fit the sponsor’s brand. None of that at all. What the sponsor wants is to be part of something which will be good. They have no control over the creative side of things. They are just a conduit to provide us with the ability to stage some really good shows.”

“What about the antagonism from PBH over the split?” I said.

“He wants to shout, he wants to scream at us,” said the Freestival, “but really we’re not here to undermine him. We’re just here because we think there’s another way of doing things that can achieve a better set of results.

“Every year, the Free Fringe grows, every year there’s more venues, more shows and inevitably what that means is that there’s less control over the quality of the venues. What we want to do is keep small, keep to a limited number of venues, keep to acts we believe in, that we can publicise with our whole heart, that we can inter-act with and put them in venues they are happy to play in and the public want to spend time in.

“We have made a conscious effort to make relationships with other parts of the Fringe and the comedy industry in general. Hils Jago of Amused Moose will be running Logan Murray’s comedy courses in our venues.

“Whilst we are another free entity up in Edinburgh,” said the Freestival, “I truly believe there’s room for many more free entities up there and many more different models. All of us really believe in our model but, if other people want to go with different models or to perform in our venues AND in other people’s venues, fantastic for them.”

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