What is it with comedy people I know being Father Christmas in department stores this year?
Last month in my blog, it turned out Bob Slayer was being a Santa this year.
Just over a week ago, I mentioned comedy performer Dan March’s 40th birthday party in a blog. And, when I talked to him last week, it turned out he, too, was being a Santa this year – for Selfridge’s.
“Have you been a Santa before?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied. “I was Santa for Disney in their store on Oxford Street about ten years ago. I used to sit in the window and people would be brought in to me. It had its lovely moments and you get letters and they totally believe you.”
I met Dan in 2009, when he performed a one-man show called Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe about how, as a 17-year-old in 1991, he had won the TV gameshow Blockbusters.
“You haven’t done a solo show at the Fringe since Goldrunner in 2009?” I asked.
“No. It’s been the (comedy trio) Real McGuffins since then. We started five years ago, before Goldrunner.”
“Sketch groups have had their day, haven’t they?” I asked.
“There’s always room for sketch comedy,” said Dan. “We’re working with a producer at a production company at the moment. We pitched four ideas, they liked one of them , so now it’s early stages.”
“And you might be doing a solo Edinburgh show next year?”
“I still haven’t made the final decision. I think it’s more about having a story to tell and wanting to tell it and there’s a couple of things I’m interested in telling. One is quite dark, so it might be a straight theatre piece. Or I could go down the full comedy route. I’ll be writing some stuff over Christmas and see if it’s taking shape by the middle of January.”
“Dark works well in Edinburgh for comedy,” I said. “And you’re still a straight actor as well as a comedy actor.”
“I thought I was a very serious actor,” said Dan. “I was in Casualty and EastEnders – I sold the Queen Vic to Peggy Mitchell back in 2001. I played estate agent Mr Hammond; I was in it for about a month.”
“Did you get recognised in the street?”
“I got recognised at a friend’s wedding,” laughed Dan, “and I got recognised the other day, when I was compering a wine-tasting evening. I sold a pub in EastEnders, ran a pub in Casualty and advertised a Belgian beer: so who better to host a wine-tasting evening?
“I thought I was quite a serious straight actor and then I did News Revue at the Canal Cafe where I met Gareth Tunley, who’s now directing quite a few things – he directed Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe. I wrote a bit with him for Radio 4 for The News Huddlines and I started drifting in and out of comedy and it was only about six years ago I took the total plunge of having a comedy agent and writing shows and doing Edinburgh really full-on. But a lot of stand-ups now alternate and do some serious roles. Terry Alderton’s in EastEnders at the moment.”
“EastEnders should cast Janey Godley,” I said. “She ran a pub for years and she has the genuine dodgy gangster background. Producers should cast comedians more. Good comedians have perfect timing, which is the most important thing in acting too.”
“The last couple of years,” said Dan, “I feel the experience of doing comedy has fed into my acting. I’ve just filmed an episode of a BBC3 sitcom Pramface. I think having gigged a lot in the last five years has really helped my acting. Even when you’re going for pure reality and not gags, the timing is there. Maintaining energy and controlling the audience while keeping in mind where you have to end up.
“I did do a very serious play this year. I think all performers get itchy feet for certain aspects if you haven’t done it for a little while. If you’ve done a lot of television, you get itchy for theatre; if you’ve done a lot of theatre, you get itchy to do telly. It does exercise different muscles, but you really cannot beat live performances.”
“You miss the immediate audible audience response?” I suggested.
“I was in Miranda,” said Dan, “and it was genuinely a joy to work on that programme. She’s a workaholic; she works really hard and people really do love her. She is genuinely famous. She goes out in front of that audience of 400 and they rip the roof off. The live audience response is phenomenal.”
“So, in ten years time?” I asked.
“I’d like to be a regular in a sitcom,” Dan replied. “There’s nothing better than making someone laugh. No better feeling than witnessing that and – in a live studio sitcom – you get that. Though, equally, if you’re filming something and the rest of the crew are laughing and enjoying it, then you know you’re onto something good too.”
“But presumably,” I said, “a 50-year-old comedian has more of a career problem than a 50-year-old actor because the live comedy audience is maybe aged 20-35 and they won’t relate to you.”
“Well,” suggested Dan, “Lewis Schaffer seems to be doing alright. He’s on the up.”
“But can he keep it up at his age?” I asked. “Lewis Schaffer’s shows are like sex. Have you seen his shows?”
“No,” said Dan.
“You have to experience at least two in a row to get the full impact of the unpredictability,” I said.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” laughed Dan. “Whether you can keep it up. The older you get, I think the wiser you get about how you use your time. I’m trying to be more focussed.”
“Apparently,” I said, “there’s some famous saying that, if you have not reached where you want to reach by the time you are 40, you are not going to reach it… Sadly I read this when I was 42.”
“I think that’s harsh,” said Dan. “Was it Margaret Thatcher said that? I know she said if you are still travelling on a bus when you’re 40, you’re a loser.”
“Did you read that on a bus?” I asked.
“No,” laughed Dan, “but I’ve just read an interesting book called Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
“He was viewed as the successor to Freud in psychotherapy terms. He was put in Auschwitz (and other concentration camps) and survived, then wrote a book looking on his experiences as objectively as possible: Why did certain people survive and others just gave up?
“He looked at what we want from life and there are three main schools of thought. There’s the hedonistic lifestyle of living for immediate pleasure. There’s looking for power. with money as an offshoot of that. And then there’s looking for meaning – looking for the essence of life. There’s really profound stuff in this very short book.
“He said there was this one guy who had this dream in 1942/1943 in Auschwitz that the War would end on a certain date and that’s when they’d be liberated. So he was fine: probably one of the strongest guys in the camp. He made it all the way through and was getting really excited the last week before he thought Auschwitz was going to be liberated. And then it didn’t happen. They were not liberated and, within a week, he was dead. He just gave up.”
“When I was a kid growing up in Scotland,” I said, “the thing that was always drummed and drummed and drummed into your head was the story of Robert The Bruce and the spider. However impossible anything may seem, you just keep going. If you want to do it or if you think you right, you just keep going. Keep at it. If you want it, keep going. Keep trying to get that first thread across the gap that you can build the whole spider’s web from. Dogged relentless determination. Never give up.”
“Yes,” said Dan. “You have to find out what it is that keeps you going. For me, it’s about being the best performer I can possibly be. The best actor I can be. The best funny man I can be. If that means doing more acting or more comedy, I’ll do that. I enjoy making people laugh and if, in ten years time, I’m still doing comedy – great. If, in ten years, I’m doing straight drama, then I will be equally happy… I’m happy where I am at the moment.”
DAN MARCH’S SHOWREEL IS ON VIMEO