Tag Archives: Boothby Graffoe

The art and psychology of heckling comics and throwing objects at them

Malcolm Hardee – known for running notorious comedy clubs

Exactly 14 years ago tonight, comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock in the Rotherhithe peninsula, London.

He maintained his principles, even in death.

When his body was raised from the dock several days later, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

Malcolm was famed for spotting and helping talented comedians at the start of their careers. He was also known for running and hosting the Tunnel Palladium club night – a Sunday evening show with good professional acts but also an ‘open spot’ section so dangerous for new acts to perform in that aspiring comics would sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see if they could survive an audience known and feared for its razor-sharp heckling.

After the club was raided and closed by the police for drugs offences (NOT on one of Malcolm’s nights – he only did Sundays) he opened Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich where, initially, the hecklers continued their trade.

Here, I chat to one of the Tunnel’s most effective hecklers – Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin.


Gordon Breslin – a taste for heckling

JOHN: You got a taste for heckling at the Tunnel club…

BRES: Well, before that, me and a friend used to go to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday afternoon and absorb some of the heckling of speakers that was going on. I remember heckling the Reverend Donald Soper on occasion, when he was preaching there. That’s where we cut out teeth.

JOHN: Did Lord Soper take it well?

BRES: He did indeed. He was a very nice gentleman. After that, though, we discovered the Tunnel club.

JOHN: You were regulars.

BRES: Yes. And the heckling was quite good fun. To start with, it was limited to the open mic spots.

JOHN: But all heckling is surely cruel and nasty.

BRES: Sometimes it is cruel and nasty but sometimes an act just needs to go if they’re not very good.

JOHN: But these poor, sensitive people have spent months refining their act…

BRES: Well, being heckled is how they know it needs more refining. If an act is really bad, something should be done apart from walking out. I think audiences have become too tolerant of bad acts these days. Back in the Tunnel days, it could be quite rude – “Get off! You’re shit!” This was 1984 to 1989.

But word got out about the heckling there and it got progressively more ermmm… ‘aggressive’ I guess is the word.

JOHN: Well, I guess throwing beer glasses at the acts is aggressive.

BRES: Yes, but people like Simon Munnery were cutting their teeth there and he didn’t mind a bit of heckling. There used to be a very good heckler at The Tunnel called The Pirate…

JOHN: I think Malcolm told me The Pirate was a stockbroker who retired early to Spain with lots of money.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

BRES: His great one was… A comic would make his best joke of the night and The Pirate’s voice would be heard saying “Oh larf… Oh larf… Oh larf,” which would just floor the comedian. Some of the heckling was very very funny.

JOHN: And the best heckles are…?

BRES: I think the art of the heckle is… A heckler wants to make a funny gag and make the audience laugh and perhaps even get the biggest laugh of the night and – not necessarily make the comic feel small, but – make the comic appreciate the heckler’s one one-liner as well.

JOHN: Surely it is just solely to make the comic feel small.

BRES: Well, in a way. But the comic has the right of reply, so he can make the heckler feel even smaller. A lot of people don’t want to sit in the front rows because they don’t want to be picked-on by the comic. Let’s get it into perspective. For me comedians, if they are any good, will always pick on the front row. So they have more than ample opportunity to get their retaliation in first.

JOHN: So heckling is the audience picking on the comedian, not the comedian picking on the audience.

BRES: Exactly. That’s the one. As long as it’s fair and just. At The Tunnel, some of the comedians would come on looking nervous and, before they’d even said a word, the first thing shouted out was: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then someone else would take up the cry: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then the whole audience would end up shouting “Maaallcolm!!!” and, before the comedian had even said a word, it was not unknown for the act to walk off without even doing a joke.

JOHN: And the audience would sometimes call out for a taxi…

BRES: Yes. “Cab for (the comedian’s name)!” Those were the regular heckles. But then it got a bit overtaken by… Well, a bit violent, I should say – Throwing things and it… it got… erm… too bad. There was an incident where Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton)… I think it was a beer crate or something like that was thrown at them – something quite chunky…

JOHN: Malcolm told me he wasn’t the compere that night. I think he was maybe at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Malcolm made a mistake in giving a copy of this letter to each member of the Tunnel club audience

BRES: I think she sustained a cut – Joy Pickles. So, the following week, there was a letter to the audience from Tunnel Arts – which was Malcolm – asking all members of the audience to “refrain from throwing anything at the stage… The Tunnel Club is noted for its witty heckling and appreciation of a good act. Let’s not spoil it by behaving as animals. It is coming to a point where a lot of good acts are thinking twice about performing here (quite rightly so) and this means that your enjoyment will be impaired.”

A copy of this letter was put on every seat in the Tunnel club and, of course, when Malcolm came on stage, he got bombarded by people throwing screwed-up letters and paper aeroplanes at him. So the letter became a surreal heckle.

JOHN: My memory is that, sometimes, they didn’t just throw beer glasses at the acts; they sometimes threw half-full glasses so there was beer all over the place too.

BRES: Well, it was probably quite watered-down beer. 

JOHN: The heckling-off of acts was quite effective.

BRES: Yes. Sometimes self-defeating. Sometimes you might have seven or eight acts and the show would be over in half an hour because everyone had been heckled off – sometimes even the good ones.

Jools Holland (left) with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel club in 1985 (Photo by Bill Alford)

JOHN: Malcolm told me that, after the trouble with Clarence & Joy Pickles, he had to make it a members-only club and he then discovered lots of the audience were not local. They were coming through the Blackwall Tunnel from north of the Thames and a lot were very highly-paid, highly-educated City workers, which was why the heckling was of such a high standard. I think someone was once heckled off in Latin and looked a bit surprised.

BRES: Yeah.

JOHN: What was your job at that point?

BRES: (LAUGHS) I was a Lloyds underwriter, working in the City.

JOHN: So basically it was up-market scum causing the problems.

BRES: Exactly. (LAUGHS) But I am from humble beginnings. I guess the Tunnel club had a timely demise and we were then a bit bereft of anywhere to go. We tried out Jongleurs club in Clapham, but the comedy was never great there and we weren’t allowed to heckle. We were physically told-off by bouncers. Luckily, Malcolm then set-up Up The Creek in Greenwich, which didn’t have the same notoriety as the Tunnel.

JOHN: I think the brothers who co-owned it with Malcolm told him after a few weeks that he couldn’t allow heckling and throwing things. Though I do remember some open spot act who got up on stage and started reading poetry. He was a bald man and you could see the blood trickling down his forehead after something was thrown and hit him.

BRES: I was there when Eddie Shit was performing. He came on dressed as Freddie Mercury and was singing songs by Queen with all the lyrics changed to refer to shit. I was sitting down the front and we were getting things passed to us from the back – including glass ashtrays – to throw at him. Which, obviously, we never did.

There was one occasion when an act which really was shit had been using a real frozen chicken and they ended up throwing this frozen chicken at the audience. The audience kept it then, slowly but surely, it made its way down the front. It came to me and I remember getting up on stage and offering it to Malcolm and I think I started up the chant “Shag the chicken! Shag the chicken!” which the whole audience took up.

So Malcolm got his knob out and duly obliged. 

That was quite amusing.

JOHN: Did you make friends with the other hecklers?

BRES: Yes. And some of the acts as well. It wasn’t all animosity. Simon Munnery, Martin Soan, Boothby Graffoe, Rich Hall. We would leave the good acts alone and they would leave us alone.

JOHN: Mostly, I thought the hecklers at Malcolm’s clubs were firm but fair.

BRES: I would like to think that.

JOHN: Part of the training process for new comedians. You don’t get much heckling nowadays.

BRES: The demise of heckling is down to the extra tolerance we have nowadays, even for bad acts. There are hidden boundaries these days. There’s too much respect for comics these days. Performers don’t know how to give a riposte and, as a heckler, you don’t want to show them up. It would just stump them.

JOHN: Isn’t that the point?

BRES: Not always. The next generation should learn what “Maaallcolm!!!” means.

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My Comedy Taste. Part 1: Improvisation good and bad but not Michael McIntyre

The late Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe

I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017. 

To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? 

So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.

Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.

But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of that  June 2017 chat.


LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?

JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.

LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?

JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.

But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.

LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?

JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!

LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.

Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like

JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.

What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them. 

Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.

People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.

In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.

LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?

JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.

LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.

JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.

LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?

JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.

LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?

Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected

JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.

There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.

If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.

LOUISETTE:  Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.

JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.

If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.

If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.

I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.

LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?

JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.

LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?

“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”

JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.

Very good. Very interesting.

But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.

Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…

LOUISETTE: …formats?

JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust. 

Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.

LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.

JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Life on the periphery of the godfather of alternative comedy Malcolm Hardee

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in Up The Creek office

Malcolm in the office at Up The Creek (note torn shoulder) (Photograph by M-E-U-F)

It is a Sunday today.

Now-dead Malcolm Hardee used to stage his comedy shows at his Up The Creek club on a Sunday. That was, of course, before he was dead.

There was one Sunday, fourteen years ago, in October 2000.

I went to Up The Creek to see Johnny Vegas perform.

Malcolm’s estranged wife Jane was there, looking very happy and younger, with all her teenage children. Just before the show started, Malcolm came in with his (female) friend Xxxx – whom I had not seen for years.

In the interval, I said hello to Malcolm who took me aside in the bar to tell me that present in the club were FMH the Former Mrs Hardee (Jane), FMH the Future Mrs Hardee, TMH the Temporary Mrs Hardee and OMH the one-time Mrs Hardee.

It transpired that a woman with a rather masculine face looking like Sixties softcore porn star Fiona Richmond was the object of his lust and they intended to spend the night together if they could get round the problem that FMH the Former Mrs Hardee was there.

I went to chat to Xxxx.

“I haven’t seen you for years,” I said.

“I just got out of the loony bin,” she explained.

It transpired she had actually come out two or three years ago, was living in a flat opposite Up The Creek found for her by the hospital but seldom went out. Malcolm had tried to get her a job with the three Brothers who owned Up The Creek, but one vetoed the idea saying: “She’s mad”.

There was some incident involving her setting fire to Malcolm’s tie, which I did not fully understand. She told me she always associated me with a performing snake. I could only think this was connected with an excellent act I had liked when Malcolm and I worked together at Noel Gay Television. The act was called Dolores & The Snake but did not involve any snake.

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig after Malcolm died

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig to Malcolm Hardee in 2006

Johnny Vegas, with no apparent script, did a roughly 90 minute act simply talking at various members of the audience and ending, shirt off, his ample figure bouncing, arm-wrestling a member of the audience on stage – He won.

Martin Potter, the sound man at Up The Creek, played Fat Boy Slim’s Funk Soul Brother full volume. Johnny danced to it, stomach and rolls of fat bouncing, and the audience rose, roaring in applause.

Afterwards, I talked to comedian Boothby Graffoe, Malcolm’s current flatmate, who said he (Boothby) was keeping a diary. I said this was a good idea because, over time, you forget details.

“Not with Malcolm,” Boothby said, “Everything’s vividly engrained in your mind.”

Boothby had not heard until this week that female ventriloquist Terri Rogers had died the previous year. He remembered staying with her, Malcolm, Charlie Chuck and another performer at the Edinburgh Fringe and, each night, the other performer would return with a new way of killing Terri, whom he vehemently disliked.

This surprised me, as she/he had always seemed very amiable. I say she/he because it was uncertain if Terri had, at one time, been a man. Or not.

After she died, it turned out she/he had been. A man. Before she became a woman. Her name had been Ivan Southgate.

There is a video on YouTube of Terri Rogers paying tribute to Malcolm for a long-forgotten one-off TV show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB called Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness.

Terri Rogers (left) pays tribute to Malcolm Hardee

Terri Rogers (left) recording a tribute for Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness in 1990.

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The dead ITV variety show, the revived Greatest Show on Legs and grave laughs

The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance – original and still best (from left to right: Malcolm Hardee, ‘Sir Ralph’, Martin Soan)

Last night, ITV tried and failed to revive legendary, classic and once classy variety show Sunday Night at The London Palladium under the inexplicably shortened title Sunday Night at The Palladium.

If Simon Cowell had produced it, the show could have retained some class. Instead, ITV transformed class into crass and the result was somewhere between a reality show produced by Endemol on an off night and Saturday Night at Butlins for Essex Man.

Stephen Mulhern presented it like an edition of Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and it came complete with what looked very much like an audience plant towards the start of the show.

To compound the felony of failing to revive an old classic rather than thinking up a new idea – and rather than have highly original variety acts – they went for Cirque du Soleil performers Les Beaux Freres who nicked the idea of the Greatest Show On Legs’ classic 1982 Naked Balloon Dance and replaced the balloons with towels.

They performed perfectly serviceably and at least, unlike many acts, they changed the music and the objects. But original it most certainly was not.

Sunday Night at The London Palladium used to go out live. It did not last night. It went out dead.

By coincidence last night, the latest incarnation of the Greatest Show On Legs were performing live in Leipzig for a second consecutive night.

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the show

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the Saturday night show

On Saturday, the new Legs line-up (Martin Soan, Matt Roper and Adam Taffler) had performed together for the first ever time at the Pull The Other One show at Feinkost in Leipzig.

“It’s this big old East German canning factory,” Adam told me via Skype this morning, “which is now a communal arts hub.”

“It’s a huge Hof,” added Martin, “covered in glass. It was probably where all the lorries loaded up the cans and I managed to get a set up, but our stage curtains got totally soaked.”

“How?” I asked.

“We made a mess in the crowd games.”

“Crowd games?” I asked.

“There were two sections to the show. There was Vivienne (Martin’s wife) doing her laughter yoga to warm them up. And then we played some games – egg tossing and stuff like that.”

“Without,” I asked in some shock, “supervision by the increasingly prestigious World Egg Throwing Federation?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “Then we got on with the main Pull The Other One comedy show. But we had made a mess in the crowd games and the Germans, with their efficiency, immediately sloshed disinfectant all over the floor and started scrubbing the concrete. Our curtains got wet at the bottom.”

“Steve Rawlings,” I said, “remembers being told about you and Boothby Graffoe being in Germany years ago. You were running around naked in the audience spraying them with a fire extinguisher and Boothby told Steve it was around this point he thought: They’re just not ready for us yet.

Martin Soan on Saturday – This time the Germans were ready

Martin on Saturday – The Germans were ready

“That was a number of years ago,” remembered Martin. “We did a freeform existentialist theatre piece. The climax of it was me climbing up the central marquee pole bullock naked with a John Major mask on – so that time dates it a bit. Boothby and I did two shows at that festival. The first one was absolutely brilliant. We did a tribute to Christo who wrapped the Reichstag in polypropylene.

“There must have been a thousand people at that first show and they adored Boothby and me.

“Then we were booked to do a second show in a marquee very late at night. There were 800 people when we started and 4 people when we finished. We scared them all off. But the four people who stayed came up afterwards and said: That was just the best piece of existentialist theatre we’ve ever seen.”

“Define existentialist,” I said.

“I dunno,” said Martin. “I didn’t understand it, really. But, once we saw them leaving in groups of twenties and thirties, me and Boothby started really, really experimenting. It was great, great fun. Steve Best was there too and he performed with Boothby while I improvised with props and my body.”

“Improvised with your body?” I asked, suspiciously.

“Yeah. Doing a bit of modern dance around people, dressed-up as John Major. Posing every now and again. I hid from the audience in various places and just picked up various objects and improvised with them. Nothing sexual; I was naked, that was all.”

“But this time,” I said, “the Germans were ready for you?”

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler on Skype this morning

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler talked to me via Skype from Leipzig this morning

“I think they really, really enjoyed it,” replied Martin.

“They really did enjoy it,” agreed Adam. “They want so much to open up and we opened them a bit. They’re ready for a lot more of this type of style of humour.”

”What type of humour is that?” I asked. “Surrealist anarchy? When they saw Candy Gigi perform at Pull The Other One in Leipzig, they enjoyed it but mostly reacted with open-mouthed amazement: they hadn’t seen anything like her.”

“I think,” laughed Martin, “that it’s the supreme professionalism we bring to it that gobsmacks them.”

“What is it like now with Adam and Matt as the other two members of the Legs?” I asked.

New Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan use sanitised rubber bands

The new Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan now use sanitised rubber bands in their Thriller routine

“Well,” said Martin, “my two new members have got a thing about personal hygiene which I’ve never experienced with other Legs members before. They don’t want the balloons being in other people’s mouths. Nor their rubber bands. They sanitised their rubber bands before they went on. They were also rehearsing a bit too much for my liking. They may be a bit too polished for Legs purposes; but I will persist with them.”

“Saturday was our first show together,” said Adam.

“But not the last?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “Absolutely not the last.”

At this point, Vivienne Soan arrived on Skype.

“I’ve been in the bath with a mud pack on,” she said.

“What is next?” I asked.

On 4th October,” said Adam, “an irreverent variety night in a secret Victorian cemetery in London… with Stewart Lee, shadow puppetry and the British Humanist Choir.”

Soiree in a Cemetery

Soiree in a Cemetery – the location is kept secret until the day

“What happens if it rains?” I asked.

“People will bring umbrellas,” said Adam. “And we’ll have covered areas.”

“Like tombs?” I asked.

“Like awnings,” said Adam. “It will be cosy.”

The Greatest Show on Legs’ 1982 Balloon Dance is on YouTube.

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A Fool and his comedy crown are soon parted in a world of murderous animals

Muncaster Castle - lovely, if isolated

Muncaster Castle – lovely, slightly eccentric and a bit isolated (Perhaps like the psychological make-up of many performers)

Yesterday I was in the Lake District in north west England. It is a lovely area but not for me. Cumbria is one vast hilly area widely bereft of WiFi or even mobile phone signals.

If the choice is between having WiFi, mobile phone signals and 24-hour supermarkets in a city… or living 20 miles from the nearest chocolate shop in idyllic countryside surrounded by the agonised howls and screams of cuddly woodland creatures ripping each others throats out every night, give me the city every time.

Cumbria is very pretty except for Barrow-in-Furness.

As an ITV researcher on Surprise! Surprise!, I once had to go there to talk to a blind man who wanted us to make his dream come true by helping him make a parachute jump. I saw Barrow-in-Furness in heavy drizzle. He was lucky to be blind.

We were going to arrange a (perfectly safe) parachute jump for him but, about a week after I met him, BBC TV managed to kill a contestant on Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show and we decided to abort anything which sounded even potentially dangerous.

Abi Collins aka Katinka - Muncaster’s first female Fool

Abi Collins aka Katinka – the first female Fool

Anyway, I was in Cumbria yesterday to see Martin Soan end his year-long reign as Fool of Muncaster Castle and hand the title on to the new Fool – chosen by a panel of experts.

Abi Collins aka Katinka won it – the first female Fool in the contest’s short history.

“What did you have to do all year?” I asked Martin.

“Absolutely nothing,” he told me.

“Wasn’t there something about beer?” I asked.

“The prize was free alcohol for the year,” said Martin, “but you had to be in Muncaster Castle to get your free beer and I live in London.”

Yesterday, he rushed back down to London after the day-long Muncaster Castlle event, to set up tonight’s Pull The Other One monthly comedy show in Nunhead.

“And then you’re off to do Pull The Other One in Leipzig?” I asked.

“Yes, on Sunday,” he replied. “… No! I leave for Leipzig on Monday! On Sunday, I’m writing a new show with Boothby Graffoe.”

Martin Soan yesterday with ceramic cigarette end in hat

Martin Soan yesterday with ceramic cigarette-end in his hat

“For the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“For this year?”

“No. Next year.”

“What is it?”

“It’s taking all the tiny little elements I’ve been working on for years and years that I’ve made part successful and I now want to thread them all together into a beautiful tapestry of well-choreographed nonsense, madness and chaotic, sublime comedy.”

“Ye Gods,” I said, “You’ve already written the PR blurb, then?”

I relax in the grounds of Muncaster Castle yesterday (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

I try to feel at home in the rural grounds of Muncaster Castle (Idyllic photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

“It wasn’t bad, was it?” laughed Martin, “but that’s exactly what I want to do.”

“Why with Boothby?” I asked.

“Because it’s a huge jigsaw puzzle, he knows me inside-out, it’s difficult to be objective and he’s very good at turning rubbish into sparkling gems.”

“I know the feeling,” I said.

I sometimes wonder if the blind man ever made his parachute jump.

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A UK comic with a building reputation and a collapsing Edinburgh Fringe show

Martin Soan - stimulated by decorating

Martin Soan – stimulated by home decorating

“I don’t mind admitting what I find stimulating,” said Martin Soan over breakfast this morning.

Pull The Other One comedy club runner Martin Soan is decorating my hall, stairs and landing this week.

It might seem odd having a man decorate your house who is best known for creating a naked balloon dance.

But Martin has more than a bit of previous, as prop-maker to comedy performers (of which I am not one).

“There was that Edinburgh Fringe show in 1995 where you created a kitchen for Boothby Graffoe,” I said.

“Did you ever see it?” Martin asked.

“No, I missed it,” I said. “But just getting the set in and out of the room must have been a nightmare.”

“For the first 20 minutes,” Martin explained, “Boothby did stand-up in front of a curtain while we erected the set behind the curtain. But, after the third day, I’d ironed-out all the problems and we could erect it in about 8 minutes. There was a table, oven, sink, bookcases, walls, doors and lots of little sight gags round the place.”

“And it was nominated for the Perrier Award,” I said, “but legend has it Boothby didn’t get the award because he wouldn’t be photographed drinking from a Perrier bottle.”

A photograph of a Perrier bottle without Boothby Graffoe

A Perrier bottle without any Boothby Graffoe

“He didn’t like playing up for the cameras” admitted Martin. “I was perfectly ready to prostitute myself. But, to be honest, we weren’t going to win, because it was about time a woman won it.”

“That was Jenny Eclair’s year?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Martin.

“Well, at least it was a chum of yours,” I said.

“And good luck to her,” said Martin, “But Boothby didn’t behave for the Perrier publicity and  Avalon (Boothby Graffoe’s agent at the time) didn’t want to put the show on tour because they couldn’t see any profit in it. Insane.

“Such a pity, because there were some brilliant gags in it. The concept was there were sight gags all round the kitchen and, five minutes before the end of the show, Boothby said: I’ve gotta just put some washing in the washing machine. Then he said Look after it and left the stage.

“Then there was just an empty kitchen with the washing machine in the middle going Brrrrrrr…. There was a great big pause and silence, then giggles from the audience. Then it goes into spin mode and I’d taken some of the ballast out of the washing machine so it really started shaking and that started vibrating the whole of the set and gradually, bit by bit, everything started falling down.

“The oven walked out and exploded – I had a stick and the top would come down and I’d weighted the top so, when it hit the back of the thing, it lifted everything up in the air….

“The Welsh Dresser’s shelves fell down alternately, either side, and the plates would run down like some sort of pinball machine…

“There was just lots and lots of stuff. We had great big lumps of cornice at the top which were knocked off and the wall was strips of lino so it looked like a solid wall but, of course, when the set fell apart, it used to curl up and fall to the floor…

“The table legs used to jump up in the air and the table would collapse.

“The door was fantastic – a floating door – so there were sight gags with that, where you would open the door one way, close it, then open it the other way and it used to spin on its axis.

“Boothby did this sketch about No 10 Downing Street. The door would spin round. It was black and had No 10 on it. He put on a policeman’s outfit and pretended to be the copper outside No 10, looking around. Then he’d open up the letterbox and shout in You wanker! Then the door would open and I’d stand there bollock naked wearing a John Major face mask.

“There were three of us putting up the set every day, then packing it away and putting it into a Portakabin. There was me and Suzie the stagehand and a guy called Adam. It was a massive show which packed down into almost a zen thing.”

“How long did it take to design and build the set?” I asked.

“About 9 months to make it,” replied Martin.

“And at Edinburgh?” I asked.

In lieu of any photos of a collapsing kitchen, Marton Soan in my hall this afternoon

In the absence of photographs of a collapsing kitchen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1995, Martin Soan in my hallway today…

“I used to get there around five hours before the show,” explained Martin, “and I’d be fixing stuff because things got damaged every day. About 2 hours before the show, I’d start arranging the gear in a specific order for a massive get-in real quick when the show started.”

“And this was outside?” I asked.

“We had the Portakabin,” explained Martin, “and I stuck up tarpaulins outside in case it started raining.”

“You got full houses at the Edinburgh Fringe, didn’t you?” I asked.

“The first day, people were really, really worried we could pull it off,” said Martin. “Then there were respectable-sized audiences the first three days and the show was sold out from Day 4 for the rest of the run.”

“So you and Boothby made lots of money out of it?” I asked.

“There were £33,000 of tickets sold, “said Martin, “and we got a £400 cheque nine months later, after loads and loads of hassling.”

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British comedians seem to be turning to electronic book publishing – maybe

I have blogged before about the galloping-blindly-towards-an-unknown-destination changes in book publishing.

In 2003, the late Malcolm Hardee and I put together Sit-Down Comedy for Random House. It was an anthology of original writing (some of it very dark) by comedians Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Malcolm Hardee, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavare, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.

Sit-Down Comedy has just been issued in both iBook (for iPads) and Kindle downloadable electronic editions.

Apparently, in the US market, electronic books now account for 20% of total book sales. In the UK, it is still only 5%, but it is expected to double in the next year.

In the last week, two of the contributors to Sit-Down Comedy have mentioned to me that they are thinking of publishing electronic books, probably via lulu.com, the same print-on-demand (not to be confused with self-publishing) company which comedy writer Mark Kelly has used to publish his books Pleased as Punch, This Is Why We Are Going to Die and (free to download) Every Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? Comic Shelley Cooper told me she is also looking into print-on-demand publishing.

A highly relevant factor is that print-on-demand publishers may take 20% of your book’s earnings to arrange print and electronic versions… while conventional print publishers doing the same thing normally give the author royalties of only 7.5% of paperback sales. With print-on-demand  you have to market the book yourself, but you also have to factor in that significant difference between getting 80% or getting the conventional 7.5%.

I have blogged before that am thinking of re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (probably revised back to its original version) as an e-book… but that is only if I can actually pull my finger out – always a major factor in the production of any book.

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