Britain’s Got Talent has to appeal to a mainstream audience, but that doesn’t explain why they had to blandify ‘Dangerous Harpist’ Ursula Burns in the live Semi-Final last night. Most of her YouTube videos are currently blocked lest BGT viewers see them.
Alright, lyrics with four-letter words – well, seven – “I’m your fucking harpist” – might be out and Dry Your Eyes, Jesus might be a bit too controversial, but that is no reason not to allow her to simultaneously play a harp and a grand piano (except that someone sang a comic song with a piano the previous night).
When she was younger, she ran away to join the circus and can play a harp while walking on stilts! Instead, we got some horrendously manufactured twee story about her loving her harp so much she wanted to marry it.
And let’s not even mention minimising her harp-playing and minimising her ability with a song she didn’t write.
These type of TV programmes used to be called ‘real people shows’. Now they are over-produced with as many unreal people in them as a manufactured boy band.
As for Ursula Burns, this extract from a blog of mine written at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013 – the year she was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality – may be of interest.
She was born in the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1970 – not a good time or place to be born.
“Bombs, shooting, war. Miracle that I actually survived,” she tells her audience (several of whom have never heard of the Falls Road).
“Total and utter war zone,” she tells them in her Ulster accent. Then she switches to a Spanish accent to say: “Now I will sing my song for you: Being Born.”
Her aunts play the piano and sing; her grandfather was a fiddle player from Donegal; her dad “sings funny songs in bars”; and her mum plays the harp – which is why Ursula never wanted to play the harp while she was a child.
She sings comic songs while playing a very glamorous Paraguayan harp. Her songs include I’m Your Fucking Harpist and Get Divorced and Join The Circus.
When she was 14, she actually did run away from home to join the circus – “They were dark, dark times,” she told me – and, when the Fringe ends, she is going to France with the Irish Tumble Circus.
Ursula, circus-trained, plays her harp on stilts in Belfast
She cannot read music but she can stilt-walk and taught herself to play the harp only when she was an adult. She accidentally won an Irish music comedy award.
During her show, she says:
“People think, because I play the harp, that I’m actually cultured. They think I care about the history of the harp and how many strings it has. They think, because I play the Paraguayan harp, that I know stuff and I’m cultured. But, actually, I just do it for the money.”
Her show is called Ursula Burns: I Do It For the Money, which is true – because she has to support her 9-year-old son who is, she says, very successfully flyering for her in Edinburgh “because he is cute and everyone likes him on sight”.
After the show – in Fingers Piano Bar at 3.10pm daily (except Mondays) until 24th August – she told me:
“I had always written funny songs and I’ve always composed music, but I never associated what I was doing with ‘Comedy’. Then I accidentally won the Irish Music Comedy Awards last year.”
“Accidentally?” I asked.
“I uploaded a couple of videos to YouTube,” Ursula explained. “The Hospital Song and It Does Not Rock (aka I’m Your Fucking Harpist)
“People shared them round and a comedian in Belfast – Stephen Mullan – used it in his comedy night and he said You should forward your video to the IMCA Awards, which I’d never heard of.
“I tried, but the deadline was the next day – in March last year – and I couldn’t do it. But another guy had forwarded my details and just got in before the deadline.
“The IMCA people got in touch with me and asked me to come down to Dublin and play in the finals… and I won. I only had two funny songs at that point but, in the next month, I wrote the hour-long show.
“I had accidentally got on the comedy circuit and I found that really difficult because I was getting up there with a harp, sandwiched on the bill between two stand-up comics. I found the comedy world quite rough; I didn’t understand it; I was a fish out of water. They were all men and I’d turn up in a ball gown with a harp. I’d won this award and people were looking at me: Go on! Prove yourself! I need good sound and some of these gigs wouldn’t even have proper sound set-ups.
“The comedy scene doesn’t pay very well. I live off gigs; I live from gig to gig. There’s months where there’s nothing coming in and my life is expensive – I have a 9 year-old son. That’s why I wrote the song I Do It For The Money. I’ve been performing all my life. I’ve paid my dues. Everyone who was on the scene when I was learning my craft has either got famous or given up, but I’ve hung in there.
Ursula packs her gear into her van after the Piano Bar gig
“People said You’d go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe but, at a basic, bottom reality, I couldn’t afford to come here. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a grant and I only found out I was getting it at the very end of June (too late to be in the Fringe Programme) and I only got the money the week before I arrived. I couldn’t have come here without their help. Sustaining yourself as an artist with a child is hard and ends do not always meet.
“When I first started,” said Ursula, “I would write really violent lyrics and put them with beautiful melodies and I would be travelling round with bands in vans. I’ve played everywhere from the Albert Hall to tube stations.
“The thing for me about the harp is breaking down the boundaries and comedy is just another aspect where I can do that. I don’t imagine that I will stay in comedy. I need to explore all things in all directions.”
She is a stilt-walking harpist who won an Irish comedy award by accident…