Tag Archives: British Council

Tales of British Council performer Ian Hinchliffe: blood, bites and beer glasses

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Sir Gideon Vein (Tony Green)

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Tony Green, in London in 1990

Performance artist Ian Hinchliffe drowned while fishing on a lake in Arkansas on 3rd December 2010.

So it goes.

In a blog earlier this month, I chatted to writer/performer Mark Kelly. We were both surprised that the British Council used to send the almost-always-utterly-drunk Hinchliffe abroad as an example of British culture.

That reminded Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, about Ian Hichcliffe’s visit to Toronto around 1985/1986.

“It was a show by The Matchbox Purveyors (in this case Ian Hinchliffe and Kevin O’Connor),” Anna remembers. “It was at The Rivoli on Queen Street and was what the British Council was fuelling… a fascinating display of filth and abuse.

“For the set, Ian had strung a clothesline across the stage and hung LP records from it which he lit with a blue light – he was very particular about his lighting.

“The show opened with Kevin O’Connor (who was also a painter) tied to a chair, holding a full egg carton, with a sack over his head. Hinchliffe came out cheerful, dressed in light trousers, a red and blue vest, black spectacles, a white bowler hat, pushing an archaic pram… greeting and shaking hands with audience members. Of course, before long, he was undressing and staggering around smeared with egg and mud, a fur stole tied horribly around his waist.

Ian Hinchliffe (left) and Kevin O’Connor in Toronto c 1985 (Photograph by Anna Smith)

Ian Hinchliffe and Kevin O’Connor in Toronto (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“The show had not been properly advertised, so the audience was a small collection of British jazz musicians and a group of artsy cinema-loving intellectuals.

“Earlier that night, I had been out on Queen Street, imploring passers-by not to miss the show. Nobody was interested. They said: We don’t care. We don’t need British comedy. We have our own Canadian comedians. And I thought: You idiots! You don’t have this. Nobody has this.

“Hinchliffe had his own language and it was often impossible to follow. The guy who bought London Bridge and put it in Arizona tried to hire Ian as a permanent fixture in the pub that they put beside it. They offered him a ton of money. I asked: Why didn’t you do it? He answered What would I have done… there… in a desert….? and, of course, he was right.

“He often mentioned ‘Tut Morris’ which I assumed was a car. He would say things like I left Tut Morris in a field… or I owe Tut Morris a payment… and I’ve got to get back to me Morris. Then I realized he was referring to a woman.

“He had been a laminator. Glue and alcohol. He was a jazz pianist. An amazing player.”

When I mentioned this to Ian’s old comedy friend Tony Green, he said:

“I wouldn’t have called him an amazing player. He could play a bit. But the problem with Ian was he had tiny hands and, when he spread his fingers for an octave span, the skin between the fingers would crack and there would usually be blood all over the keys.

“On one occasion, he was playing a white piano in a pub and there was blood all over the keys, pouring down the piano. You’ve never seen anything like it. Like something out of a horror film. When he did an octave span, the skin would just crack open and start bleeding.”

“And,” I said, “he had a habit of bleeding from his mouth when he ate glass.”

IanHinchliffe_1980s

Ian Hinchliffe in the 1980s (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“Oh yes,” said Tony, “he was always eating glass, wasn’t he? Mind you, he came a cropper at one of Malcolm Hardee’s gigs when he tried it. He actually did two gigs for Malcolm. The first one was OK and Malcolm thought it was weird enough to book him again. The second one didn’t work too well. When he was good, he could be inspiring, but that was maybe only one in twenty gigs because he got so pissed.

“He had to end his act by eating a beer glass – obviously. So he’s on stage trying to bite the edge off the pint glass and Malcolm said to me: He can’t fuckin’ do it. Has he got new false teeth or something? I said: Give him a few more minutes.

“Eventually Malcolm goes on stage: Here we are, then. Ian Hinchliffe. And Ian’s still on stage trying to bite a chunk out of the beer glass.

“He came off stage and told me: I couldn’t fookin’ do it! They must’ve fookin’ reinforced the fookin glasses! It’s never happened before, Tony! It’s never fookin’ happened before!

“I told him: That’s it, Ian. Your career’s had it. What are you going to do now?

“I had seen him do it lots of times before. On one occasion, he was being heckled, munched the glass down to the handle and said to the bloke: You finish the fookin’ ‘andle!

“God knows what his insides must have been like.

“He put a glass in his own face. You know that, don’t you?”

“No,” I said. “So he smashed a glass on the edge of a table and then…”

“Stabbed it into his own face. Yes. He had a little scar. He told me: I didn’t twist it, like, so it was no big thing.

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A drunk comedian with blood coming out of his mouth = Great British culture

Tony Green after our tragic chat

Tony Green in London after our tragic chat

A couple of days ago, I had a chat with Tony Green who, I suppose, I have to describe as a comedy veteran.

In a tragic 21st century accident, I accidentally erased 59 minutes of the recording on my iPhone. The only snippet of an anecdote left is this one:

“…had this habit of going down to pick up the post with no clothes on and got locked out once. He said: Dave, could you phone up my girlfriend at work. She’s got a spare key. But Dave didn’t have a phone…”

With my bad memory I, of course, cannot remember how the story ended.

Yesterday, I had a chat with writer and occasional performer Mark Kelly.

I had not realised, until it came up in conversation with Tony Green, that Tony and Mark had known each other years ago but had fallen out. Tony told me why but, of course, I accidentally erased what he said.

So what follows is Mark’s version only…

“Tony and I were really good friends in the mid-1980s,” Mark told me, “and we fell out eventually over an act he started putting on which I thought was racist. The act claimed to be doing a parody of racism. But I found – particularly given the nature of the audiences Tony was encouraging…

Interrupting him, I asked: “What were the audiences like?”

Mark Kelly turns his back on the police state

Mark Kelly – never normally seen as Mr Light Entertainment

“Well,” explained Mark, “Tony was in love with East End lowlife culture so, at Tony’s gigs, there would be a mixture of arty Bohemians and East End criminals, some of whom were very right wing.

“It seemed very obvious to me that this particular act, whose name I genuinely can’t remember, was getting laughs for very mixed reasons and it was all very, very dodgy. And we fell out over that. Tony is a very interesting person.”

“He is indeed,” I said. “These shows were at his Open Heart Cabaret?”

“Yes. He ran it in various locations. He briefly ran it in Chiswick – not his usual territory. The pub had a function room at the back which was on stilts and once he was about to cancel the gig because there was hardly anyone there – three or four people – but then, for no apparent reason, a coach driver pulled in and everyone in the coach went into the gig. I think maybe the coach driver went off for a drink. The gig was saved in the sense of not being cancelled, but the coach party had no idea why they were there and they didn’t like any of the acts. It was terrible.”

“A lot of the acts he put on,” I said, “were… err… very experimental.”

“At Tony’s gigs,” agreed Mark, “even I felt like Mr Mainstream Light Entertainment. Tony was quite enamoured of an act called Ian Hinchliffe, an old performance artist who would usually take all his clothes off, eat glass – which he usually did quite badly – and get blind drunk.

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Sir Gideon Vein (Tony Green)

Ian Hinchliffe (right) with Tony Green (as Sir Gideon Vein)

“The last time I ever saw Hinchliffe, he was naked, had Sellotaped his genitals together and was, of course, blind drunk. The glass-eating had gone wrong so he was bleeding from the mouth and he knocked over a couple of tables including all the drinks, horrifying the innocent people who were sitting there. That is my abiding memory of him.”

“Hinchliffe,” I said, “was quite nice except when he got drunk, which he usually quickly did. He didn’t really become a befuddled drunk; he became an aggressive drunk. But I can see why Tony found him interesting.”

“What I did find interesting,” Mark told me, “was that, even towards the end, the British Council was still sending Hinchliffe abroad, representing Britain culturally.”

“That must,” I suggested, “have caused a major deterioration in international relations.”

“I presume,” said Mark, “that he was only bookable wherever there was a bar and a drinking culture.”

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Cutting edge camera technology reveals great open-sewered slums of the world

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

“You were thinking about making a 5-minute science fiction film called Avatar last time I saw you,” I reminded Danish director Nicolai Amter yesterday. “I never told you, but I thought it was a very uncommercial title.”

“Oh, that was ten years ago or more,” replied Nicolai. “Before the other Avatar or The Matrix or Minority Report came out.”

“So maybe we have not seen each other this century,“ I said.

“Maybe not,” agreed Nicolai.

He and I used to work together at Scandinavian TV channels TV3 and TV1000.

“My Avatar film was back when I still needed a DoP (Director of Photography),” mused Nicolai. “When I went out as a director, standing next to a DoP I often felt I knew as much as he did and I knew exactly the kind of lighting required, but I didn’t know all the camera gear required.

“I started out as a music photographer and then I got into music videos in Copenhagen and then I ended up in TV promotions and now I’m getting back into the whole photography thing because of the new Canon 5D camera – an amazing stills camera which also shoots amazing video.

“When it first came out and I saw a test, I sold all the video equipment I had and bought it and it changed the way I work. It liberated me from needing a DoP on a lot of projects: I can shoot everything myself.”

“So what are your plans now?” I asked.

“Getting some work in London for a change,” Nicolai told me. “It seems every time a job comes up, it’s always back in Africa – in Kenya or Nigeria or Ethiopia or Ghana or Tanzania. I’ve spent so much time in Africa over the last year….”

“Nigeria??!!??” I laughed. “Any views on Lagos?”

“It’s very intense,” replied Nicolai.

“Mmmm…,” I said.

“The people are very friendly,” said Nicolai. “There were a couple of experiences, but nothing that involved me. They were local misunderstandings between other people, I think. But it did mean I and the camera had to make a hasty retreat back to the car while it got sorted out.”

NicolaiAmter_

Nicolai yesterday, at the opening of his exhibition in London

Nicolai and I met again yesterday because I went to the opening day of an exhibition of his at Antenna Studios in London’s Crystal Palace: a series of photos he shot at the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. It runs until the end of the month.

“People can buy prints of the photographs,” Nicolai told me. And I also have a book.

Any money that comes out of it will go into projects for the people living in the slum.

Kibera is reportedly Africa’s largest urban slum. A census in 2009 found it housed 170,070 people. A railway line runs through the slum, which has its own railway station. The slum is contaminated with human and animal shit, due to the open sewers and what has been called “frequent use of ‘flying toilets’ – people shit in bags and throw them away on the ground. Obviously, Kibera is heavily polluted by this shit, garbage, soot, dust etc.

Somewhat bizarrely, the slum has its own newspaper – the Kibera Journal and its own radio station – Pamoja FM. It even has a film school.

One of Nicolai’s photos of conditions in Kibera

One of Nicolai’s photos of the Kibera slum

One recent report said: “The ground in much of Kibera is literally composed of refuse and rubbish. Dwellings are often constructed atop this unstable ground, and therefore many structures collapse whenever the slum experiences flooding, which it does regularly. This means that even well-constructed buildings are often damaged by the collapse of nearby poorly constructed ones.”

“Why were you in Kibera?” I asked Nicolai.

“My brother is based out in Nairobi,” Nicolai said, “working mainly for the BBC as a freelance journalist. I went out to help him on a film for the BBC Media Trust.

“We were filming there for the BBC and, because my brother had done reports from there before, he knew a guy who lived there who worked as a fixer for the BBC. So I could hook up with him and go back later and walk around.

“At one point, I was walking around with him and all my film gear and we saw these three young girls from some NGO coming towards us with three armed guards. And I thought: Wait a minute! You need three armed guards and I have several thousand pounds worth of equipment here and only one unarmed guy!

“I did ask him: Am I safe here? and he said, No problem at all.”

As for me, I have never seen African poverty; in fact, I have never been to Africa.

Children living alone in their ‘homes’ outside Puno, Peru, 1983

Children living alone in their ‘homes’ outside Puno, Peru, 1983

But when I was in Lima, Peru, in the early 1980s, it was clearly one of the armpits of the world.

I could understand why some people supported the extremist-bordering-on-psycho rebels, the Sendero Luminoso Maoist guerrillas.

In Lima, the local tour guide took me to what she called a ‘beautiful Spanish street’. It looked like it had been hit by an earthquake: the buildings were falling apart. That turned out to be because it had been hit by an earthquake.

I wondered why people were apparently flowing into Lima from the countryside to live in the slums. When I went into the countryside and saw the poverty there, I realised why.

Nicolai said to me yesterday: “It seems to me, in Nairobi, there are rich areas with slum areas not very far from them. All the help and all the maids and so on are living in the slums. A lot of the people walking out of the slums in the morning are going to their jobs as cooks or maids or whatever.”

“I remember,” I told Nicolai, “being in a yurt slum on the outskirts of Ulan Bator in Mongolia in 1985. There was mud and shit and open sewers everywhere but, in the morning, everyone was coming out of their yurts dressed in smart, spotlessly-clean clothes, crossing gnarled planks across the open sewers and going off to be secretaries and office workers or whatever in the Russian-style concrete blocks in the middle of town. Very surreal.”

“The craziest thing I saw in Kibera,” said Nicolai, “were open sewers with plastic pipes in them, carrying clean water. Just by using that clean water, you could avoid cholera and all sorts of diseases but, because it’s in the open sewer, it gets polluted by all the dirty water.”

“I presume,” I said, “that the young children are relatively happy, because they have known nothing different?”

One of Nicolai’s exhibited photos of Nairobi’s Kibera slum

“We’re not living; we’re just surviving” (Photo by Nicolai)

“It seemed to me,” said Nicolai, “that all the young kids were quite happy running around but, as they started to grow up, they started to feel downtrodden by the whole situation.

“People kept telling me: We’re not living; we’re just surviving. They’re stuck in a horrible situation. They get paid so little from the work they do that they just can’t afford to live any better. They will continue to work as maids and security people for the middle classes and upwards.”

“When I was in Lima in the 1980s,” I told Nicolai, “there were people living in abject poverty in the slums and, a short distance away, there were people driving Mercedes Benzes and playing in private tennis clubs and it seemed to me the problem was that there was no significant middle class. There was nothing for the people in the slums  to aspire to. People had no hope of climbing out of the slums. Not them. Not their children. Not their grandchildren. No hope.”

“There’s some hope in Kibera,” said Nicolai, “because Africa is starting to boom and there’s much more investment. It feels like a lot of the young people who went abroad – to MIT and so on – are starting to move back. In Nairobi, they have people doing web design and iPhone apps.”

“Are you going back to Kibera again?” I asked.

“Possibly,” replied Nicolai. “Last year I was in Africa five times filming for NGOs and so on. I came back a month ago from Ethiopia, where I did a job for the British Council: an English course they run up in north Ethiopia, teaching the kids using wind-up MP3/radio players with solar panels on them. They teach the kids English on those.

“I really like Ethiopia. It’s the most friendly and easy-going place I’ve been in Africa. They’re very proud because they never had any colonisation. They’ve always been independent. They did have the Italians, but they kicked them out. They have their own language, their own calendar and even have their own time. If the sun goes down at six, they basically say, OK. Six is midnight and seven is one o’clock and so on. Everybody else in the world has decided on a single unified time, but not in Ethiopia – We do it our way! – I like that.”

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