Tag Archives: Billy Connolly

Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, was a very vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and a supporter of the Stop The War Coalition.

She is performing Accidentally Muslim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

She trained as an actress, became a journalist and converted to Islam in 2010.

Her father was actor Tony Boothwho became famous as the Left Wing son-in-law of Alf Garnett in BBC TV’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

“Your mother’s maiden name was Pamela Cohen”

Accidentally Muslim is a dramatisation of her 2016 memoir Finding Peace in the Holy Land.


JOHN: Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Tony Blair?

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: So you are persona grata…

LAUREN: Ehhh… Well, I think there’s a lot of love in the family.

JOHN: Your mother was Susie Riley née Pamela Cohen. That’s a Jewish name.

LAUREN: Yeah. Her father, my grandfather, was Jewish.

JOHN: Was her mother Jewish?

LAUREN: No.

JOHN: So she’s technically not Jewish.

LAUREN: That’s right.

JOHN: There’s a lot of stuff at the moment about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Can someone be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish?

LAUREN: I’m not going to go into that, because that’s not in my show.

JOHN: So…?

LAUREN: It’s not the same at all.

JOHN: Why not?

Lauren in Iran with an anti-Zionist Rabbi and Christian priest

LAUREN: Because you can be against a political regime without wishing harm on people who follow a faith. There are Zionists who are not Jewish and it’s the political ideas that people protest against.

JOHN: Why are you an ‘accidental’ Muslim?

LAUREN: Because things kept happening to me that pushed me in one direction until, one day, I pretty much woke up and went: Whaaaaat?? – Oh! OK! Right!

Some people will go and read and study for six years. Other people will just accept a faith. But I was resisting. I was like: Nice food, but no thankyou. And… it just happened.

JOHN: You saw a report on TV in 2000 of a boy who got shot in the Gaza Strip and then you accidentally found yourself in his village.

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: Are you Sunni or Shiite?

LAUREN: I just say I am Muslim.

JOHN: Can you be?

LAUREN: You can, because everything is between our hearts and the Creator. I just think it’s really disingenuous and unhelpful to get involved in sectarianism.

JOHN: Don’t people say: “You have to be with us or them”?

LAUREN: Yes, unfortunately that happens and that’s why I don’t go into it.

JOHN: How do you spell the faith? Moslem or Muslim?

LAUREN: Muslim. Like the word mosque. You know the origin? Apparently the colonial troops in India described the people flocking to their religious building as mosquitos – that eeeee sound. There were thousands of them and you didn’t want them, so that’s why it’s ‘mosque’. Most Muslims refer to it as ‘masjid’.

Young Sarah Jane later Lauren Booth

JOHN: You were born Sarah Jane Booth. So where did ‘Lauren’ come from?

LAUREN: It’s an Equity name. There was already an actress called Sarah Jane Booth, my height, brown hair, brown eyes, born the same year.

JOHN: That is rather creepy. You have a doppelgänger!

(LAUREN HUMS THE THEME TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE)

LAUREN: I just plucked ‘Lauren’ out of the air.

JOHN: Accidentally Muslim is billed as a play in the Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Is it a play or a monologue?

LAUREN: A monologue.

JOHN: So is it a monologue about how we should all become Muslims?

LAUREN: Absolutely not.

JOHN: But it’s going to be a terribly serious talk about death, destruction and…

LAUREN: Well, I’ve just come out of rehearsals for it and we’ve been roaring with laughter for 30 minutes. It has some real light and shade in it.

JOHN: You have a director for the show. You started as an actress, then became a journalist. You can write and you can act. Why do you need a director?

LAUREN: It would have been such an act of arrogance to have come back after 26 years of not being on the stage as an actor and say: “I can do this on my own!”… It would have been a catastrophe. I wanted to dramatise the story and make it ‘live’. It has a soundscape and visuals and lighting cues and I play twelve characters. So it’s very much not a lecture.

JOHN: So it’s not a monologue: it IS more of a play.

LAUREN: Is it a one woman dramatisation? Does that work? One of the characters I play is Billy Connolly.

One of the 12 characters Lauren will play (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

JOHN: If you have to cover your head for religious reasons and you don’t have a beard, how are you going to do that?

LAUREN: You’ll have to see the play to find out.

JOHN: Good PR!… So the play is a coming-together of your skills as an actress, journalist, world traveller…?

LAUREN: You know, going through these rehearsals, it’s a story of somebody who’s by chance at certain pivotal moments in history and has certain realisations along the way. It covers 40 years, 12 characters, 2 faiths and 2 or 3 continents.

JOHN: Which continent is the Middle East in?

LAUREN: It’s a totally Orientalist term. The Orientalists said Britain is the middle of the world and everything else (beyond the English Channel) is East, so it is the Middle of the East.

JOHN: It’s certainly not Africa; it’s certainly not Europe; it’s not Asia.

LAUREN: What about calling it Middle Earth?

JOHN: We would have to worry about the Nazgûl coming in. Talking of which, among others, you wrote for the New Statesman AND for the Mail on Sunday. There’s a – eh – mixture of politics in there.

LAUREN: Well, my politics was always the same. I like to tell myself that the Right Wing paid for my Left Wing pretensions. But I don’t know if ethically, looking back, that really works. Can you take quite so much money off Associated Newspapers and still be Left Wing? That’s up for debate. But I wrote what I wanted. They did give me free rein and I did get some good stories that I wanted in because I used to stand-in for Suzanne Moore: hardly a bastion of the Right.

I described doing that kind of job as being an aquifer for hatred for Middle England.

JOHN: …and at the New Statesman? The type of stuff you were writing was…?

LAUREN: I would call myself  “a chronicler of London society” at that time.

The Daily Mail’s photo of Lauren with her dad Tony Booth

JOHN: Someone said, when you converted, you had moved “from hedonism to hajj”. Your dad, actor Tony Booth, was very Bohemian.

LAUREN: Well, we are all products of our childhood and my dad taught me an awful lot. He taught me how to roll a spliff that would look like a cigarette.

JOHN: Remembered fondly.

LAUREN: Absolutely.

JOHN: You’ve worked for Press TV AND Al Jazeera. Press TV? That’s pure propaganda…

LAUREN: It was the only place to get out some really good information about Palestine.

JOHN: You spend a lot of time in the Middle East?

LAUREN: I haven’t been for five years. I’m hoping to go back to Qatar. I can’t really get into Gaza at the moment. The last time I went through Israel was 2009. The problem with getting into Gaza is you can’t get in through Egypt. You have to go in through Israel.

JOHN: Do you personally, specifically have problems getting into Israel?

LAUREN: I haven’t so far.

JOHN: You were on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2006. Why did you do that?

LAUREN: Because it was adventure. The only thing that scared me was bungee jumping and I did three… Three!

JOHN: The viewers voted that you had to?

LAUREN: Yeah.

JOHN: You are always going to be tarred with Tony Blair… but the good side is you will always get coverage out of it.

LAUREN: It’s not about coverage. I have no issue with it having been a door-opener. At certain times, you have to say: That door was absolutely opened because of it. What you do when you get inside, though, is what defines you. So I am very grateful for that and I hope I’ve used it for good and made some points that needed to be made and told stories for people who don’t normally get their stories told.

JOHN: I was going to say it’s a cross you have to bear. But I suppose it’s a crescent you have to bear.

LAUREN: Can I have that for the play?

JOHN: It’s yours.

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Filed under Islam, Palestine, Politics, Religion

How a non-comedy fan got turned on to UK comedy by one man and a TV show

Sandra Smith outside soho Theatre yesterday

Sandra Smith – not originally a comedy fan

I was first aware of Sandra Smith when she turned up every day at a week of chat shows which I chaired at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Since then, she has been turning up at all sorts of comedy shows. Yesterday I said to her:

“You told me you ‘discovered’ comedy two or three years ago. How can you suddenly have discovered comedy?”

“When I was growing up,” she told me, “I didn’t like comedy at all, because I grew up in a time when everyone wanted to tell you a joke and I found it excruciating. I just wished they wouldn’t.”

“Why was people telling you a joke excruciating?”

“Because I felt I would have to ‘get’ it and I would have to laugh, because they’d be embarrassed if I didn’t. It was just a nightmare. I didn’t like comedy and, even today, I’d prefer a drama over a comedy film.

“So I didn’t engage with people like – I guess they were stand-up comedians – Bob Monkhouse and Bob Hope and all that sort of thing. I just thought: What are they doing?

“So,” I asked, “how did you start to get interested in comedy?”

“It was after I had been with a friend to see Paul O’Grady recording a TV show on the South Bank and Pat Monahan was doing the warm-up. I didn’t know anything about warm-ups, but I thought Pat was really good with the people.

“I was not going to go again, because it wasn’t particularly my cup of tea, but then I was told Jo Brand was going to be hosting the Paul O’Grady show, so I went along again. Then I watched a Graham Norton Show being recorded.

Show Me The Funny with Pat Monahan second from left

ITV Show Me The Funny with Pat Monahan second from left

“And then I saw Show Me The Funny on ITV, which I liked. I think I am the only person in the world who did.”

“Why on earth,” I asked, “did you like it?”

“Because it was all very new to me and I thought: Oh! There’s that bloke from Paul O’Grady (Patrick Monahan) on it. Comedians were starting to come into my awareness a bit.”

Show Me The Funny,” I said, “was a terrible dog’s dinner of a format.”

“I couldn’t care less,” Sandra told me. “I was seeing all these comedians and I thought they were all new. I thought Pat was new. I hadn’t got a clue. I would have loved it more if there had been more stand-up instead of all the chitter-chatter, but I liked the exchanges between the comedians. I enjoyed it.”

“You say you wanted more stand-up in it,” I pointed out, “yet you said you hated jokes.”

“Yes, but it was different, somehow. I was getting to like it, because it’s not really just jokes nowadays, is it? It’s more observational stuff. It’s different.

Billy Connolly with Janey Godley

Scots Billy Connolly and Janey Godley

“Before that, I had seen Billy Connolly and I hadn’t realised that he was a stand-up. I thought he was just a great storyteller and I thought: How does he do that? I loved that.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re the perfect audience for modern comedy, because it used to be short gags but now it’s mostly storytelling… So you were getting to like it…”

“Yes,” explained Sandra. “And then Pat Monahan came to Brighton where I live and, because it was someone I knew of, I went with a friend to see him at the Komedia. I hadn’t been there before. It was great.

“Then I was up in London one day and saw that Pat was on at the 99 Club and it was quite a big deal for me to walk into a comedy club by myself. And from then on, I started to like comedy and saw more. It was like opening a door and seeing this different world.

“I like performance – I always have. In my early years, my mum used to take me to the Theatre Royal in Brighton and we’d sit in the gods. I wasn’t particularly engaged with that; I just went along; I went to the cinema a lot; and a friend would take me up to London for ballet and music and her mum was in the theatre as a dancer. But not comedy before I saw Pat.”

“And then you went up to the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes. I went up for two weeks in 2013. I just loved it. I had a fabulous time. I went to your show that year (John Fleming’s Comedy Blog Chat Show) because I had been reading your blog.”

“How had you stumbled on my blog?”

“I can’t remember, but I started reading it and it just seemed interesting. Then I saw you were doing a show and, as is my wont, I just booked a ticket for every day.”

Kate Copstick co-hosted that show most days,” I said. “Did you know of Copstick?”

Moi, Arthur Smith and Kate Copstick chatted on Monday

Arthur Smith and Kate Copstick at my 2013 Fringe chat show

“Yes. Because she was a judge on Show Me The Funny. But I went to your show because there were going to be people there I had never seen before. I had never heard of Arthur Smith.”

“How on earth had you avoided Arthur Smith?” I asked. “He’s ubiquitous.”

“By not watching comedy. My daughter knew about him because she’d heard him on the radio.”

“And you like him now because…?”

“Because he’s just an engaging bloke. I saw him singing Leonard Cohen. And I saw Sol Bernstein a few weeks ago. I loved him.”

“Did you think he was really an American comedian?” I asked.

“I wasn’t sure.”

I told Sandra: “I saw him play a Monkey Business show a few weeks ago and I think about 80% of the audience thought he was real.”

“I did,” admitted Sandra, “watching it. I wasn’t sure. Then I thought: Perhaps he’s not. It was just delightful at the time.”

“Do you think Lewis Schaffer is a character act?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to make of him. I’ve only seen him twice. Is he really as insecure as he seems? Or is that put on?”

I answered her, but let us not go yet again into the psychology and/or performance art of Lewis Schaffer.

Sandra said of Lewis Schaffer: “I thought maybe he was a totally different person away from the stage. I will have to see him again. I can’t get a handle on his act. I think it’s probably different every time. Somebody walked out of the first show I saw him in. That was great. It was wonderful. I think it was the Madeleine McCann joke she objected to. She had given a sort-of warning sound Ooooaarghh! and then it was Oh! This is too much! and she stamped out. It was funny, because she walked out and, somehow, her jacket got caught on the door and landed on the floor and she didn’t come back for it: one of the staff did.”

“Who else do you like now?” I asked.

“I liked seeing Dr Brown because watching it was exciting because I didn’t know what he would do next – It was like Red Bastard, who I’ve seen three times. And I like the fellah who stands upside down on his head – Terry Alderton.”

“So you like a bit of bizarre,” I said.

Sandra Smith - fan of the bizarre

Sandra Smith – fan of the bizarre – at Soho Theatre yesterday

“Yes. Oh yes. And I like Luisa Omielan. She’s just funny and uplifting. And Janey Godley. Every time I go into one of her shows, I feel very welcome – it’s a real rush of Oh! I feel welcome! But, at the same time, she can be a tartar.”

“Have you read her autobiography?”

“Yes. Oh yes. It’s not the sort of book I would normally read, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s amazing. She’s a natural storyteller. I like storytelling.”

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What comedian Alex Frackleton learned from Billy Connolly 24 years afterwards

Alex Frackleton, back in 1989

Alex Frackleton, poet, back in 1989

In December, 1989, Alex Frackleton attended a surprise 50th birthday party for Scots folksinger Danny Kyle in the small town of Strathaven, outside Glasgow. About thirty people were hanging around in the bar downstairs while Danny Kyle performed upstairs.

Alex is now a comedian. Back in 1989, he was a poet.

“Why are we waiting?” Alex asked.

“Billy is coming,” came the reply. “We need to wait.”

“Of course,” Alex told me yesterday, “the penny hadn’t even gone into the slot and I had no idea who he meant, so I just stood there with my pint waiting for this guy called Billy, who was quite obviously fucking late, to turn up. A few minutes later the bar door opens and in walks Billy Connolly with his banjo case.”

Alex continues the story…

* * *

I’m introduced to Billy as a poet and we talk about the poets we like and our conversation takes us to William Topaz McGonagall, whom I love because he is so bad that he’s just brilliant – a comic genius without ever realizing it.

The ‘great’ poet William_McGonagall

The late ‘great’ Scottish poet William McGonagall

“I’d love to do something on old Topaz,” says Billy.

“Like a routine?” I ask.

“Naw,” says Billy. “Naw. I’d like to do something that honours him.”

“Perform one of his poems?”

“Naw, I could never perform one of his poems. Not on stage. It wouldn’t fit in with what I do live.”

“But,” I asked Billy, “if you were to perform one of his poems which one would you do?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” says Billy. “The Tay Bridge Disaster!”

“A classic!” I said.

“Indeed!” said Billy.

It’s time for Danny’s surprise, so we all troop upstairs and burst through the doors just as the applause for his last song begins to fade; then we all start singing Happy Birthday to You.

Danny, always the showman, introduces all of us to the audience of about two hundred, because all the surprise guests are talented musicians and singers, except me: I can’t sing to save to myself, let alone play a musical instrument.

He then introduces Billy – who goes up and does about twenty minutes of then-unheard comedy material about the G-spot. People are falling off their seats laughing and I am mesmerized because, while I had heard him on LP record, I had never seen the man perform before. This is a master craftsman at work. Billy finishes to thunderous applause and Danny comes back on stage and says:

“Thank you, Billy. Thank you very much indeed. Now, ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is a young man whom I’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last half-dozen years mature into a fine poet and performer…”

I look at him and I think: You utter bastard! Putting me on after Connolly, you cunt!

“Will you please welcome on stage the Very Poet, Alex Frackleton…”

I have to go up there. I don’t want to but I must because this is now my job and it’s my friend’s 50th birthday. As I pass Danny on the stage, we have eye contact and I’m sure he sees my fear, confusion, betrayal, bewilderment, not to mention the fucking panic in my eyes – but he just smiles and gives me a big, matey wink, as if to say: Aye, I’ve landed you right in the shit here – Deal with it.

I perform my poem How To Be An Individual.

There are a number of gags throughout Individual but the best one comes about two thirds of the way in. I turn my head left of stage and Connolly is pissing himself laughing.

Nothing will ever take that memory away from me. It means that much to me.

I finish to rapturous applause and I exit the stage.

Billy tells me: “That was fucking fabulous, Alex!”

“Thank you.”

Alex at the Hradec Festival, 2010

Alex at the Hradec Festival, 2010

“Naw,” says Billy. “That really was superb! You should perform The Tay Bridge Disaster! You’d bring it to life!”

“I’ll think about it.”

I never did get around to doing it.

I’ve been performing as a comedian here in the Czech Republic for the last four years and, while my comedy has been received well-enough for me to have repeat bookings at the European Theatre Festival… maybe I should take Billy’s advice and bring The Tay Bridge Disaster to life. Looking back and telling you about that 1989 event today, I have realised I am far, far more comfortable as a performance poet than as a comedian.

Billy did eventually perform The Tay Bridge Disaster in the 1994 BBC TV series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland.

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Janey Godley’s daughter Ashley returns to comedy & tells of lugs, bear & gangrel

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Ashley Storrie in Edinburgh's Waverley station yesterday

Ashley Storrie at Edinburgh’s Waverley station yesterday

Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s daughter Ashley Storrie has decided to take up comedy again, after a gap of about 11 years (depending on how you calculate it).

Ashley got her first acting part at the age of three as ‘the wee girl in the metal tea urn’ in the movie Alabama.

At five, she was playing the lead child in a TV ad for Fairy Liquid soap powder – directed by Ken Loach.

In 1996, aged ten, she was cast in the lead role of the independent film Wednesday’s Child, which received enthusiastic reviews when screened in the British pavilion at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

Aged eleven, she performed her first ever stand-up comedy routine at the International Women’s Day celebrations in Glasgow and went on to do stand-up in London supporting, among others, Omid Djallili.

Ashley's Edinburgh Fringe show when she was 13

Ashley’s Edinburgh comedy show, aged 13

In 1999, still only thirteen, she wrote, produced and performed her own show What Were You Doing When You Were 13? at the Edinburgh Fringe, becoming the youngest ever stand up in the history of the Festival. She was also offered a chance to appear in the Jay Leno chat show on US TV but decided she preferred instead to go on a school trip to the Lake District in England.

She lost interest in performing live comedy when she was around fifteen.

She did appear in a sketch show Square Street with her mother at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe and in an another sketch show Alchemy, staged by Brown Eyed Boy at the 2011 Fringe. And she records a weekly podcast with her mother. But, as I understood it, she had lost her appetite for live comedy performing.

She once told me: “I can smell a comedy promoter from a mile off: they smell of cocaine, alcohol and self-doubt.”

“So why have you got an enthusiasm for performing again?” I asked her when we met in Edinburgh yesterday.

“Well,” she said, “I enjoy making people laugh. I think the reason I stopped was mainly because of fear, but you come to a point where you decide you’ll either be scared your entire life or just do it and stop being a pussy.”

“But you weren’t scared when you were thirteen,” I said.

“You’re not scared of anything when you’re thirteen,” she told me. “I was fearless.”

“But you did get a bit worried when you were fourteen?” I asked.

“I did a bit.” she said. “That’s when puberty struck and I started to worry about  a lot of stuff. When puberty hit, I grew out of my comedy material and it stopped being fun and all I started to do was worry about boobs and the like. I had more important things to worry about, John, like menstruation and breasts.”

“I worried about the same things around the same age,” I told her.

Poster for The Stockholm Syndrome

Glasgow poster for Stockholm Syndrome

“I’m part of a sketch group now,” Ashley continued, “called The Stockholm Syndrome. I started working with some of them a couple of years ago in Alchemy at the Fringe and we just got together after that and they got me more stage time and the more time I spent with them the more I think I did get Stockholm Syndrome. And I started to think I’m going to do this properly.”

“So you’re performing with them at the Glasgow Comedy Festival…”

“Yes, at The Garage on 23rd March. We’ve done The Garage a few times and there’s a comedy collective type of thing where sketch groups get together. It’s called Lip Service or Tongue Service or something. We do bits there. But a lot of it’s really surreal and I don’t get it. So I bring to the table a level-headedness…”

“You?” I asked. “But you are surreal.”

“I don’t think I’m surreal. I think I’m mainstream.”

“But you’re always doing bizarre characters,” I insisted.

“I don’t think they’re surreal,” said Ashley, “I think they… I… I did the Russian gypsy lady who thinks everybody’s got a tiny vagina.”

“You’re always going into character voices,” I said.

“Well, this is a tip,” Ashley told me. “When you get cold calls trying to sell you things, just pick up on a character and see how long you can get these people to engage with you… I had a man on the phone from India asking me if I had a whirlpool washing machine and he asked me how old it was.

“I told him (Ashley adopts an old woman’s voice) Oh! I’ll have to cut it open and count the rings… and this went on for ages and I think I ended up singing him a song. It went on for about half an hour and he eventually hung up the phone on me. He cottoned-on that I was just being annoying.

“And then sometimes I do scary (she adopts a rasping, throaty voice) Hell-oh!… Hell-oh! and I just do that over and over again until they hang up. And sometimes I do ‘crying baby’ and that really freaks them out. And once I did (she makes harsh, screeching sounds like a demented seagull) for ages and the man asked Are you singing or are you laughing? I just kept doing it until he hung up. I think they just phone me to wind me up.”

“I think,” I suggested, “that maybe your fame has gone round the Indian call centres and they’ve heard you’re entertaining to phone up.”

“You think I’m huge in Indian call centres?” laughed Ashley.

“But not yet in the UK,” I said. “Why aren’t you doing the Edinburgh Fringe this year, you idiot?”

“I think the Fringe is over-rated now,” said Ashley. “Too many big name acts coming and doing their big shows with just the same shite they do on their DVDs and people only want to see what they’ve seen on the telly. We’ve become a frivolous race of people who don’t want to try new things. The Fringe is wasteful.

“I spent my youth doing other people’s shows. Working for PR at the Underbelly and working for mum. I have no interest putting myself through that for myself. I’ve seen it first-hand and… och!”

“But now you are going back on stage again,” I said.

“I do like being back on stage,” said Ashley, “I just don’t want to do the Edinburgh Fringe, unless somebody else is going to produce me and I don’t have to worry about it. Maybe if one of those cunty big management/promoter companies put me on somewhere I’d do it. Then I wouldn’t have to flyer.”

“You could flyer in a bear costume,” I suggested, “and no-one would know.”

“When I was researching Glasgow history for the comedy bus tour I did with mum at the Merchant City Festival,” said Ashley, “I found out that, in the Trongate, there’s been two notable incidents of bear attacks.”

“Bear attacks?” I asked. “When?”

“Oh, the 1800s,” said Ashley. “One of them was a dancing bear from Russia who attacked a man and was put on trial and was killed on the gallows and the people of Glasgow felt so bad for his owner, who wept over the bear’s corpse, that they let this man carry his dead bear’s corpse over his shoulders like a giant rug through the streets in silence… Which was really rare, because hangings were very popular in Glasgow… They had to stop the hangings because people were skipping work to go to these hangings and to go to the lug-pinnings.”

“Lug-pinnings?” I asked.

“That was when they nailed people’s ears to the walls,” she explained.

“Why?” I asked.

“It was a punishment for annoying people,” said Ashley matter-of-factly. “There was a nasty, gossipy bitch who lived in the East End of Glasgow and they grabbed her tongue and dragged her by the tongue through the town to teach her a lesson about not being a gossipy bitch.”

“How long did people have their lugs pinned back for?” I asked.

“A day,” said Ashley. “They just pinned your lugs to the Tron. You got your lugs pinned to the door. They had to stop doing it, though. They didn’t stop doing it because it was inhumane. They stopped doing it because people would skip work to come and throw shit at these people.

“On the days of hangings or lug-pinnings, the bosses would come in to work and none of the weavers would be there, because they’d all be down at the gallows or at the lug-pinning to go and mock.

Hawkie's autobiography

Hawkie’s autobiography of a gangrel

“One of the biggest selling-points was an old man called Hawkie… He was a book hawker. He used to tell the stories of the criminals written about in the little books he sold. And this guy became famous because his stories were always more interesting than what was in the books. He was like the original Billy Connolly. He would have hundreds of people gathered round him as he told the woeful tale of some Irish settler or whoever had come in and been hung. And people would buy the book and it was nowhere near as interesting as this old guy had made it out to be.

“During hangings, there was a lot of tension because Irish immigrants were being hung and there was a lot of tension between the Irish immigrants and the Glasgow Justices of the Peace.”

“Because of religion?” I asked.

“No, just because they were tinkers,” said Ashley. “And Hawkie would make jokes and defuse the situation and make everybody laugh at times when tensions were rising. This old, smelly book-hawker would stand up and say something inappropriate to the hangman and get everyone laughing and everything would be fine.”

“Just like a stand-up comedian,” I said.

“He was Billy Connolly before Billy Connolly existed,” said Ashley. “You should look up Hawkie. He wrote an autobiography. (Hawkie: The Autobiography of a Gangrel, 1888) He was one of the first paupers to write a book.”

“Did he make money out of it?” I asked.

“No, because it got published posthumously.”

“There’s no money in books,” I said. “Except for your mother’s, of course. You should write a surreal one.”

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When Scots comedians Billy Connolly and Janey Godley met in New Zealand

When Billy Met Janey in New Zealand

Scottish comedienne/writer/actress Janey Godley is possibly the best all-round creative I have ever encountered.

There’s a lot of bullshit in the wonderful world of comedy. But she genuinely is a multi-award-winning comedian. She genuinely is a best-selling author. She genuinely is a force of nature, mentally and visually fluent – yes, she can even paint on the rare occasion she actually pulls her bloody finger out. She promised me a picture in 2005. I still haven’t had it.

Like many others, I first became aware of her in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe, when I saw her comedy show Caught In The Act of Being Myself and then two days later, her straight one-woman play The Point Of Yes about heroin. Both told basically the same overlapping autobiographical story but in two dramatically different styles. One got belly laughs for tragic subjects that were in themselves not funny; the other told a straight dramatic story but had glimpses of humour.

It was the breadth of her performance ability which was impressive.

In 2004, the Financial Times wrote that seeing her breakthrough comedy show Good Godley! was “not unlike the sensation of shock and delight, thirty years ago, of seeing very early Billy Connolly” and, since then, she has repeatedly been referred to as “the female Billy Connolly”, probably because critics can’t think of another Scots comedian – but also because they both share an easy-going anecdotal style – though there is a difference.

As the Glasgow Evening Times wrote: “Like most professional comics, Janey gets her raw material by throwing an empty bucket down the well of experience. But her personal well is far deeper than most – and considerably darker”. The London Evening Standard wrote that hers was “the kind of gig that sends a chill through you even as you are laughing” and could “have the room in a mix of giggles and incredulous gasps.”

As a result of seeing her at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe, I recommended her to an editor at publisher Random House’s imprint Ebury Press and, rather to my surprise (because she was almost totally unknown both in England AND in Scotland at the time), they virtually tore her arm off in their rush to sign up her autobiography… and they had only heard just the bare outline of her extraordinary life story.

I allegedly edited the book though, once she got the hang of it, there was little need to edit anything apart from occasional punctuation and spelling (a much-over-rated thing, as I have mentioned in this blog before). And we did have a long initial talk about the extent to which the dialogue could or should reflect Glaswegian dialect.

It is (and I own no percentage) an extraordinarily gripping read. To me, it seems like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe, Jilly Cooper and Last Exit To Brooklyn. It was a top ten bestseller in both hardback and paperback.

Which brings us to Billy Connolly and New Zealand.

Janey has always admired Billy Connolly. In her autobiography, she wrote:

“The one good thing about having Charlie in our house was that he brought along his Philips stereo record player and I was in awe of his music collection. The Stylistics, Abba, all the best new disco hits and LPs by cutting-edge Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly. Wow! I’d think, He can tell a story that isn’t funny but the way he tells it makes it funny! I would rush back from school before Charlie got home from his work as an apprentice electrician and play the vinyl records on his big rubber-matted turntable through his big loudspeakers.”

Janey has been to the New Zealand Comedy Festival four times, winning prizes on each trip.

At the moment, she is there again and the impossible (therefore, in the real world, the inevitable) coincidence happened this week. She ended up in the same hotel as Billy Connolly.

As she tells it in her blog today:

________

“The Big Man is in town and was staying in the same hotel as me and (daughter) Ashley. To make matters worse, the hotel slip under every door every day a note about the weather and about comedy shows at the festival. So they slipped under his door: Come see Janey Godley at the International Comedy festival and see why the press call her the female Billy Connolly. I was horrified to know this! He would read that shit!

“I had small dreamy moments, we would meet in the lobby and by some miracle we would be pals for life meeting up again!

“I certainly had to stem the overwhelming desire to stalk every corridor and hunt him down, so I eventually gave the reception a copy of my autobiography Handstands in the Dark with a short note to be sent to his room. The fact he may ever read my book would have been enough for me, I am not joking – it was that or I started hacking into the reception computer to find his room.

“So, there was me and Ashley sitting having a cup of tea in the most beautiful hotel room we have ever been in and my phone rang.

Hello, Billy Connolly here, the Scottish voice boomed out.”

________

The rest of what happened is in Janey’s blog today.

But the point of the story as far as I am concerned is this…

I have seen how some people react to Janey.

Comedian Boothby Graffoe once said: “She is brilliant; she is also terrifying.”

The (Glasgow) Herald called her Good Godley! show “frequently hilarious, frequently frightening” and called Janey herself “a little intimidating and exceptionally funny”.

The Edinburgh Guide said: “The thing about wee Janey is she’s a wee bit scary, OK? A wee bit scary and a big bit talented…”

She once told me when I interviewed her for a magazine: “I have the confidence to get up on stage because after the life I’ve led – all the madness and the pub and the gangsters and the abuse – there is nothing frightens me any more. So, if I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

She genuinely is a multi-award-winning comedian. She genuinely is a best-selling author. She genuinely is a force of nature. And people are often intimidated by that and by her personality.

But she, too, has heroes.

Because she, too, is only a frail, creative human being with all the insecurities which that entails.

People are only people.

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Why people listened to Billy Connolly

Mad inventor John Ward, of whom it has often been said, told me a true tale today about fans of Billy Connolly.

“When I lived in Northamptonshire,” he tells me, “my neighbours used to sit in the garden during the summer with their Billy Connolly LPs on at full blast in the house with their windows open to ‘hear’ him better.

“As time grew on, I asked them if they ever got bored with hearing him, as I felt sure that I had heard some of the stuff a lot more than once. Their reply was: Well, we don’t understand most of what he says but, as the audience seem to be enjoying it, we like to listen in case we eventually get the gist of it.

They were serious.

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Racism and sexism in television and in comedy

On Thursday, I went to Bethnal Green to see the multi-racial comedy sketch group the United Colours of Comedy at the Oxford House venue. Three were very talented.

On Friday, I met a man who almost appeared on Mastermind on BBC1.

The man told me his specialist subject had been ‘Cricket before 1914’. He had gone through all the preliminary applications and tests and got to the final full-scale dry-run tryout. He triumphed, got the highest points and won it. The tryout, that is. A few days later, he received a phone call which told him he would not be on the actual televised Mastermind show because he mumbled. This sounds like a bad TV producer to me: you can direct people so they don’t mumble.

But the point is that a few months later this failed Mastermind contestant was talking to a lawyer friend he knows in Birmingham. The lawyer had handled the case of another potential Mastermind contestant who had been similarly rejected. She, too, had won her dry-run tryout. She had been very nervous and had been rejected – she was told – because, in her nervousness, she had waved her hands about a lot and been overly ‘twitchy’, which was very visually distracting. However, this failed contestant was black and she believed she had been rejected because of racial discrimination by the BBC. She unsuccessfully searched around  for a lawyer to handle her case. All refused until, eventually, she found this one in Birmingham. The claims and lawyers’ letters dragged on for months and, as my chum later heard it, in order to avoid a public court case, the BBC paid the woman a “substantial” out-of-court settlement.

I don’t believe it was racial discrimination. The real truth, in my experience, is that usually TV companies and producers fall over themselves to try to get non-white faces on screen.

I remember a production meeting for the Birmingham-based ITV children’s series Tiswas in which the then producer Glyn Edwards said he was uncomfortable because every Saturday morning – and this is in a city in the West Midlands, an area with a wide ethnic mix – the studio audience was a sea of totally white faces. I was delegated to get non-white children to apply to be in the audience, which I did by approaching regional and national ethnic newspapers and groups; but it was a fairly slow process.

Later, I worked on the long-forgotten BBC TV series Joker in the Pack in which the absolutely wonderful Marti Caine, at the time in remission from the cancer which later killed her, was dragged round the country to listen to groups of ‘ordinary’ people telling jokes in their workplace and in social groups. At the start of pre-production, I asked the producer if he wanted to specifically approach ethnic groups to get a mix of white/black/Asian faces on screen. He said, “Oh, it’ll happen naturally.”

“No it won’t,” I told him and it didn’t. Halfway through recording the series he suddenly asked for non-white faces on-screen and it was not something that could be arranged quickly, because non-white faces then as now tend not to apply to appear on TV shows; you have to find them and/or publicise in the ethnic media – both of which take time. The potential punters don’t see many non-white faces as TV contestants nor in on-screen audiences, so they don’t automatically apply.

The same thing seems to happen in comedy clubs, certainly in London. The audiences are mostly 100% white faces. Why? Presumably because anyone who goes to comedy clubs sees almost 100% white audiences and that non-racial-mix is self-regenerating.

Small comedy clubs can do little about this although they should perhaps try. On TV shows however, in my experience, producers do actively want non-white faces which reflect the UK population (although they are often too lazy or too tardy to do anything about it). And this can also be a problem where women are concerned. There are, for example, not enough female comedians on TV. But thereby hangs the potemtial problem of being too desperate.

And that brings us to Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1, which records in different cities around the UK and has very few women and very few non-white comics appearing on it. Which is where good intentions have turned into bad practice.

One black female comic bombed so badly during the recording for an edition of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in one city that the producers had to drop her from the televised show but allowed her to perform again in a subsequent recording in a second city so that she could be transmitted in the series. Whether this was because she was black or a woman or both I don’t know. I suspect it was because she was a black woman. But I have also been told two other English female comics who initially bombed during recordings for Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow were also re-recorded in a second city a second time (one was even booked to record a third time in a third city) to try to capture any acceptably successful comedy performance. This is not something I have heard being done for white male comics.

It says several things to me, one of which is that you can take PC too far – if they can’t be funny the first time, drop ‘em – and the other is that the producers of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow have, in the past, been choosing the wrong female comics to appear. There are good female comics working out there.

For another view on what it’s like to be a female comic, read Janey Godley’s blog “A weird thing happened at the gig” about performing at a comedy club in Glasgow last Friday. The Daily Telegraph has quite rightly called Janey “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain… The most ribald and refreshing comedy talent to have risen from the slums of Glasgow since Billy Connolly”. Inevitably, she has never been asked to appear on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.

Life.

Tell me about it.

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