Tag Archives: british

Phartman, Mr Methane and the 2018 World Fart Championships in Finland 

(artwork by Timo Kokkila)

My chum Mr Methane, the world’s only professional performing flatulist, flew off to Bratislava this morning to spread the fame of British farting. But, in July, an even more important trip beckons.

Saturday 7th July sees the World Fart Championships being held again at Utajärvi in Finland.

I blogged about the Championships back in July 2013.

Mr Methane does not compete, of course – he is a one-off. But he will be hosting the Championships with Finland’s own comic book superhero Phartman played by Esko Väyrynen.

So, obviously, I Skyped Esko Väyrynen to hear more about it.

Britain’s Mr Methane (left) and Finland’s Phartman at the World Fart Championships back in 2013


Phartman performer Esko talked to me via Skype from Finland

JOHN: Your English is very good.

ESKO: I like to watch English police series like Inspector Morse and Lewis and Blackadder and that kind of thing. Strange British comedies are very popular in Finland like Jeeves and Wooster. I like British humour. I don’t know why. Dry humour. With Finnish people, lots of us like British humour.

JOHN: Clearly – because you like farting.

ESKO: Yes. But I do not fart when I eat food or I am eating at the table. It is not civilised behaviour. You have to hold the line somewhere. My mother told me: “Do not fart at the kitchen table or when you are making meals. You have to do it some other time.”

JOHN: Is your mother proud of you appearing as Phartman?

ESKO: I don’t think so. I don’t live for publicity, but I am not ashamed to be farting in public. It is fun for me. But I am lucky. I have two dogs. At home, I can always blame one of the dogs.

JOHN: How many times have the Fart Championships been held?

ESKO: This is only the third time. Five years ago – 2013 – was the first World Championships. One year earlier, in 2012, there was a Finnish Championships. I think this year will be the last time, though. 

JOHN: Why?

Utajärvi is a small town with a big superhero (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

ESKO: It takes lots of time and resources and all of us are volunteers, doing it for fun. None of us get paid and it is a very small town, Utajärvi – 3,000 people. We don’t have resources enough – manpower, womanpower or money. Any money we get goes to the local junior soccer club. Even though it is humour, it is humour for good.

JOHN: How many people came to see the event last time?

ESKO: Maybe 500 local people. There was also another event – mud soccer at the same time – a Finnish Championship. Maybe 200 or 300 came to see mud soccer five years ago. We played soccer in mud. That is why maybe 500 people saw the Fart Championships – maybe. And maybe there were 20 people farting; just one woman, though.

JOHN: Was there anyone from abroad?

ESKO: The winners were from Russia. And there was one family from Australia. I don’t know if they came just for the contest; maybe they were in Finland already. I did not ask.

JOHN: Are you Phartman only during the Championships or you do other things as the character during the year?

ESKO: Only at the Championships. Phartman – Peräsmies – is a comic book hero. I am just playing Phartman at these events.

JOHN: Is Phartman like a Marvel superhero?

The original underground Phartman comic (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

ESKO: He is a different type of superhero. He is a former alcoholic and when he was walking there was some type of explosion when pea soup tins spread all over the place and Phartman got hit by one pea soup tin that was radioactive and he ate it and, after he ate it, he got a souperpower for farts and he uses his farts to save the world.

He is not a common superhero like Spider-Man or Iron Man. Of course, he is against crime and criminals but, most times, he helps people accidentally.

He does not know how to use his powers. Almost every time it is an accident.

Son of Fartman is now aimed at school kids (artwork by Timo Kokkila)

Timo Kokkila created Phartman and the comic strip appeared in Pahkasika – it means Warthog in English – a very popular underground magazine, from 1983 to 2000. It was very rare humour in that time. (Phartman was killed-off in the comic strip but) Phartman had a son who has appeared since 2003 in the Koululainen monthly magazine for pupils in school.

JOHN: Do you have a daytime ‘real’ job?

ESKO: I work as a nurse at a hospital.

JOHN: What sort of hospital?

ESKO: I think it is not a surprise that I am a psychiatric nurse in a psychiatric ward – maybe that is one reason for my odd humour.

JOHN: You must be interested in the way people think differently.

ESKO: Maybe. Humans’ thinking is a very difficult thing. It is very hard work and maybe it is one reason I am interested in farting.

JOHN: Escapism, maybe?… In Britain, it seems that a surprising number of comedians have been doctors or trained as doctors. Maybe it releases the pressure?

ESKO: Yes, maybe… Also, always when you meet someone from Britain, you have to ask: What kind of weather is there? Is it raining?

JOHN: Surprisingly not. There is a bright blue sky with small white fluffy clouds. Hot and humid. Have you been to Britain?

ESKO: No. I do not fly, but it has always been my daydream to go by ship to Scotland and see soccer clubs – Rangers versus Celtic – or a Scottish pub. That is my daydream.

JOHN: Ah.

(artwork by Timo Kokkila)

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Filed under Comedy, farting, Finland, Humor, Humour

Who are the British? Or are they at all?

Nigel Farage (left), comic Al Murray (centre) & Thanet South winner, Conservative Craig Mackinley

Nigel Farage (left), comic Al Murray (centre) & Thanet South winner, Conservative Craig Mackinley

During last night’s General Election coverage – with the Scottish National Party effectively wiping out the other three parties in Scotland, Labour just-about holding the North of England and the Conservatives (except in London) dominating the South – someone on BBC TV talked about a three-colour layered cake of a nation. Yellow at the top, red in the middle and blue at the bottom.

The line between red and blue is somewhat skewed by Wales being red, but it is a fairly good image.

The result of the 2015 Election

The constituency result of the 2015 Election

I think to people outside the UK – particularly to people who have always referred to the UK as “England” – the extent to which the UK is and always has been a hotchpotch has never been realised.

My blog yesterday headed Maybe the Scottish Nationalists should move the border south into England? was about nationality.

Five years ago – in November 2010 – I wrote a blog headed The British have always been a violent race 

That was about what the people on the island of Britain – England, Scotland, Wales – were arguably like, not about the individual nations.

There were a couple of interesting comments about that November 2010 blog – one made in June 2013 and one made in October 2014 – and, yesterday, an unknown (to me) person called Dean replied to both of those comments. Below I reprint the comments and Dean’s responses as an interesting insight into some people’s thinking, which is perhaps relevant in view of the strong support the UK Independence Party got in yesterday’s election.

I have to say I think some of Dean’s facts are a tad suspect – and I think he confuses “British” with “English” – but his views are interesting.

The Union flag without the Scottish St Andrew element in it

The Union flag without the Scottish St Andrew element in it


COMMENT BY RONNIE (June 2013)

I think all Germanic countries are more violent than Southern European countries. It’s strange because they tend to be richer and more successful than the Southern European countries. There is a big drinking culture and that only makes things worse. England is worse than other Germanic countries like Germany and Holland when it comes to violent behaviour. There is a big difference here between working class and middle class people. The working classes are often undereducated and this leads to poverty, child pregnancy, unemployment which in turn leads to frustration and violence.

RESPONSE TO THAT COMMENT BY DEAN (May 2015)

England is not a Germanic country in the very least… England is a pre-Celtic origin country. Germanic invaders had little impact there unlike the myth usually tell us… Germanics like Dutch or German are cold with the outsider but gregarious with their family and close friends…They are direct, can appear rude as being too direct but are in reality very honest and civilized people, who rarely will fight. They have respect for human beings and love to discuss like civilized humans.

Britons like to cheat… They are polite, which means they always will show you fake acceptance… but they do nothing else but backstab you… The Brits are not direct people… and that can grow a big bad enviroment… People don’t really know how to communicate in England… so every frustration comes in form of physical aggression. Brits love to fight and have no sense of human aesthetics or style.

Dutch, Germans, Swedish, Danish, Norwegians, etc – true Germanic people – are very civilized people. They can be colder but once you get to know them well they will accept you and they will be honest to you; they have sense of human aesthetics; they like to appreciate human life and love to look good.

Britons are animals. They don’t care about people but only about their own instincts.


COMMENT BY ALAN (October 2014)

Britain is made up of 3 countries: England, Scotland and Wales. The Scottish and Welsh are Celtic and the English are Germanic. The Welsh are the native Britons, the Scottish are Gaels and Picts from Ireland and the English are Anglo-Saxons. Britain has always been a violent place, its culture is based on violence.

RESPONSE TO THAT COMMENT BY DEAN (May 2015)

English origins aren’t Germanic. English look the same as Irish or Scottish. The Anglo-Saxon impact in England was tiny. Most English roots (as much as 80%) come from pre-Germanic/pre-Celtic inhabitants, which were of neolithic origin.

That’s why there are so few natural blonde and Nordic/Germanic looking people in England or the UK compared to Scandinavia, Holland or Germany. Most Brits have dark hair, pale skin and hazel eyes and their stature is mediocre at best.

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Why “Peep Show” led one American in Los Angeles to love British comedy

The current image on Naomi’s Twitter page

The current public  image displayed on Naomi’s Twitter page

I have had a Twitter account – @thejohnfleming – since March 2009 but, honestly, I have never got the hang of it. Nonetheless, people follow me – only 2,026 at the moment, but every little helps.

Naomi Rohatyn started to follow me last week. Her profile says: “Wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in LA. Aspiring to become wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in London.”

I thought this was fairly interesting as most comedy writers in London seem to aspire to be writers in Los Angeles.

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

But just as interesting was the fact she runs a Tumblr website called Pun Dumpster.

It is just a series of pictures of PhotoShopped graffiti on large waste containers.

So, obviously, I FaceTimed her in Los Angeles this morning.

“You like British comedy?” I asked.

Naomi via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

Naomi spoke via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

“I think the real obsession for me,” she explained, “started a couple of years ago with Peep Show. I think people of my generation in America grew up watching Monty Python… AbFab was on in the 1990s and even The Young Ones played here I think on Comedy Central in the 1990s.

“A couple of years ago I was just tootling around on Hulu and found Peep Show and now I’m obssesed. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it. So then I became obsessed by everything David Mitchell and Robert Webb did and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have ever done and followed the threads. I could follow David Mitchell round all day and listen to his brilliance.”

“You know he’s taken now?” I asked. “He married Victoria Coren.”

“Yes. I hadn’t really been aware of her before. The only panel shows I’d watched were a fair amount of QI because, of course, Stephen Fry is brilliant, but then I sought out Victoria Coren’s panel show and she’s very funny and witty and… this is so embarrassing… I wanna pretend I have fine taste, but.. I was watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and she had this great riff on Goldfinger. David Mitchell and Victoria Coren are perfect for each other.”

There is a clip of Peep Show on YouTube.

“Where do you see all this stuff?” I asked. “On PBS?”

“All on my computer,” said Naomi. “On YouTube or Hulu or Netflix. All the panel shows have been on YouTube.”

“Have you got BBC America?” I asked.

“I don’t have cable. I just watch everything online.”

“Why UK stuff?” I asked.

“Part of why I love British comedy so much,” explained Naomi, “is what I perceive as bleakness in the British soul; a way of looking at the world with a knowing smirk. So much of British comedy starts from the premise that life is basically a series of humiliations and disappointments – whereas American humour is perhaps still uplifting at its core – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t have the same gaping ennui, which is something I just love about British comedy.

Naomi Rohatyn

Naomi insists Americans hold no sole patent on stupidity

“I think we do political satire and social satire really well, but there’s still something missing – a different approach to the human experience. In scripted shows, we still tend to default to things that are ultimately uplifting or protagonists that are either utterly likeable or a a clear anti-hero – they’re not just flawed fuck-ups.

“There is also that stereotype – for a good reason – that British humour is wittier and more intelligent than some American stuff. That has a foundation in truth, though it’s not because Americans hold the sole patent on stupidity and ignorance. But I do think there’s a strange cultural rejection here for anything perceived as intellectual.

“Even if you look at something like (the British TV show) The Thick of It and (its US re-make) Veep. I feel Veep is smooth peanut butter as opposed to the chunky original.”

There is a BBC trailer for The Thick of It on YouTube.

“We do have this weird proto-populist rejection of anything that is too intelligent. In The Big Bang Theory – even though they’re supposed to be super-intelligent – it’s low-brow humour.

“When I watch Peep Show it is so grim and vérité, but then they make allusions to Stalingrad and I feel that would come off as somehow so elitist here or people simply wouldn’t get the references. It’s not part of discourse here except in academia. And there’s not such a culture of self-deprecation here as there is in Britain.”

“You’re a writer or stand-up or both?” I asked.

“I would say 90% writer and 10% performer. What I mostly am is a dork.”

“And you write for…?” I asked.

“Yeaahhh…” said Naomi. “We are still working on that.”

“What did you study at college?” I asked.

“Critical Social Thought,” replied Naomi. “Probably the subject least applicable to any actual career. It was the liberaliest arts degree one could get. Our joke was it made you even less employable than an English Major.

Naomi Rohatyn_selfie2

When she moved to LA, Naomi worked on the devil’s testicles

“When I first moved to Los Angeles (from San Diego) I started at the very bottom rung of the entertainment industry, production assisting on many horrible TV reality shows which are woven of the devil’s testicles. I did a lot of random crewing – art department, sound department, post production stuff. Then the 14-hour days started getting to me and I wasn’t writing enough, so I took a day job at a law school for a couple of years and I’ve gone in a straight downward trajectory and now I walk dogs for cash in hand to support my writing habit.

“I feel like now I have goodish contacts here in LA: a lot of friends many of whom do have representation and are legitimate, functioning, employable human beings.”

“What are you writing at the moment?” I asked.

“I’m working on a satirical travel book. A satirical guide to Britain for American travellers. All utterly worthless information – a satire on those Rough Guides.”

“Have far back does your British comedy knowledge go?” I asked. “Do you know British acts like Morecambe and Wise?”

“Yes. This was why Peep Show was such a great gateway drug because it got me into the history of the double act. That’s something we don’t have as much of.”

“Off the top of my head,” I said, “I have to think back to Burns & Allen.”

There is a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen on YouTube.

“We had Nichols & May,” said Naomi.

“But, in the UK,” I said, “they were not really known as a double act. They were a film director and a writer and, in fact, sadly, Elaine May was not much known here.”

“That’s too bad,” said Naomi.

“Indeed it is,” I said.

“There’s Key & Peele today,” said Naomi, “but double acts seem more of a tradition in British comedy.”

There is a clip of Key & Peele on YouTube.

“I suppose there is a British tradition,” I said. “Reeves & Mortimer, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball… Do you know Tommy Cooper who, in Britain, is really the comedians’ comedian?”

“I don’t know him.”

“You wouldn’t want to live in Britain, though,” I said. “Living in Los Angeles has some advantages. For example, there is sunshine.”

“It is wasted on me,” said Naomi. “I don’t care about the weather, I don’t care about the beach. I can’t swim very well, I don’t surf, I don’t need sunshine. To me, rainy, cold, foggy miserable, dark, damp, grey Britain is perfect because it gives me an excuse to hate everyone and be in a coffee shop writing.”

“You should move to Glasgow,” I said. “You will love the weather and the fact you hate humanity will be much appreciated. If you go round being aggressive, you will fit in perfectly. In fact, if you like bleakness in the British soul… I think Scottish humour is much more dark and dour and straight-faced than English humour – Scotch & Wry or Rikki Fulton or Rab C.Nesbitt.”

“I’ve seen Frankie Boyle on the panel shows,” said Naomi, “but most of my concept of Scottish comedy – or Scottish life in general – is English comedians slagging it off – drug addicts and reprobates and fried Mars bars.”

“That is not comedy,” I said. “That is social realism and reportage.”

There is a clip from Rab C.Nesbitt on YouTube.

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Black-white-not-quite-Pakistani-but-Zimbabwean-Scots comedian Sean Reid

The monthly Africa Comedy Show last night

Last night’s monthly African Comedy Show

Last night I went to the monthly African Comedy Night at the Golders Green Hippodrome in London. Well, it used to be the Hippodrome. Now it is the El Shaddai International Christian Centre.

I have the dimmest of memories of being bussed there as a schoolboy to see some Boy Scout ‘Gang Show’ (I was not a Boy Scout). Between then and the evangelical church, it was home to the BBC Concert Orchestra. I presume it is the evangelical church who have painted the wildly ornate interior blue and white. It is slightly odd.

The African Comedy Night has been running monthly for the last five years (though only two months in Golders Green). It gets an audience of around 400-500.

On the bill last night was Zimbabwean Glaswegian Sean Reid.

His father is from Glasgow; his mother is from Zimbabwe; he was born in Zimbabwe but left when he was six; then they moved to Mauritius, Nigeria and then to Glasgow when he was aged 12. His dad is a contractor for BP.

Sean is 32 now. I talked to him when he came offstage last night.

“Zimbabwe-Mauritius-Nigeria,” I said. “You were brought up as a British ex-pat.”

“Me and my friend have a term for it,” said Sean. “We call ourselves Afro-pean. But I think as long as you have enough time to get part of the culture, it’ll never leave you as such. I can still understand Shona though I understand more than I can speak, because I don’t get to speak it that often.

“I spent just as much time in Zimbabwe as I did in Nigeria and I feel just as influenced by Nigeria as Zimbabwe, if not a little bit more, because I was more aware.”

“And in Scotland?” I asked. Sean has a pure Scots accent.

“People think I’m Pakistani,” he told me. “because we’re not that culturally aware in Scotland.”

“Is there an African scene in Glasgow?” I asked.

Sean Reid performs at last night’s London show

Sean Reid on stage at yesterday’s comedy show in London

“There is a minor one,” said Sean. “It happens every now-and-again. The turn-out is quite good because there’s a lot more black people up there now.

“This year I’m putting on a gig for Black History Month in October, just to bring things a bit together, because black comedians aren’t really coming up to Scotland and it’s a shame because there IS a market for it but no-one’s really capitalising on it.”

“Is that market just in Glasgow though?” I asked.

“No,” replied Sean.

“There is an unexplained outbreak of Russians in rural Perthshire,” I said.

“It’s weird for us,” said Sean. “because there’s a lot of Poles and Ukranians about – Where the hell are all these white people coming from?”

“Edinburgh is unsettlingly white,” I said.

“Edinburgh is English,” said Sean. “they don’t speak anything that sounds like Scottish at all. If you go to Africa, everyone’s elocution is 20 times better than anyone here in the UK. I was in Zimbabwe last year. All ex-British Colonial places still have the grammar systems in place from when the Colonials left… so when they come here and hear the way people speak here now, they go: This is not English!”

“You were in Zimbabwe last year?” I asked. “Many comedy clubs in Zimbabwe?”

“It’s growing.,” said Sean, surprising me. “I missed it when I was there. I discovered (South African comedian) Trevor Noah this year and I’ve been speaking to some Zimbabwean comics and in September, when I’ve got two weeks off, I’m thinking of maybe going and doing a couple of things down there, just to see what the difference is. It’s just a buzz.

“Trevor Noah,” I pointed out, “is a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner.”

“He’s found the universal funny,” said Sean. “Trevor Noah: he’s my dude. Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Trevor Noah.”

Sean Reid, ex-rapper, relaxing in Glasgow

Sean Reid, ex-rapper, more into singing, relaxing in Glasgow

“You used to rap,” I said.

“I’ve stopped rapping and do more singing now,” explained Sean. “It’s got more universal appeal.”

“What’s the difference between music and comedy?” I asked.

“Comedy gives a different buzz. Music is like cocaine and comedy is like ketamine: they give you such different buzzes. I’m not saying I’ve ever done either. I’m just saying music and comedy are both fruit, but they are like different sorts of fruit.

“There’s something very empowering about telling a joke and people understanding where you’re coming from. There’s something totally different about singing a song and someone understanding where the lyric is coming from and having that story behind that line taking you all these different places.”

“You write your own songs?”

“Yes. I was a spoken word artist before everything. I like to play with words. I like to mess around with words.”

“That was why you were a rapper?”

“Yeah. Well, not such a good one, so that’s why I started singing. I was rapping and doing the comedy at the same time. It all kinda evolved at the same time. I’ve done (big Scottish rock festival) T In the Park on the T Break Stage – 3,000 applied and I was one of 16 who made it through in 2009.”

“Your music is online?”

“Yes, on Soundcloud. The best think to do, though, is find me on YouTube. Just hashtag Glitterballs. I’m a bit of a Richard Branson type. I’ve got dreams too. I’m going to be a multi-billionaire. I’ve got a couple of products. I’m going to tap into the Ann Summers market first: I’ve got Glitterballs and SmegFresh.”

“Smeg Fresh?” I asked.

“It’s like FemFresh but it’s for guys. I think a lot of ladies will buy it for the guys – ‘for the cheesiness of the penis’…”

There is an Infomercial on YouTube

“And then there’s GlitterBalls,” said Sean. “They’re just glittery balls. If you hashtag Glitterballs and see what happened when I went around Glasgow… some very interesting results.”

“Which were?”

“I dunno what you guys call ‘em. We call ‘em Jakies – a person who maybe likes too much booze, takes a bit o’ drugs. This one came and whacked his balls out – twice – on cue – because we missed it the first time – and showed us his arse. He’d just shaved his balls the night before.”

“You come down to London much?” I asked.

“This is my first time in two years, but I’m looking to do a lot more stuff because, now I’m single, I’ve got a lot more free time. I’m spending much of my time masturbating, but it chafes after a while so I’m looking for new advances in my enjoyment.

“For me, I just wanna get better at my craft and I want to get that universal laugh. Without that, you’ll crutch on things you know you’re comfortable with.”

“You can’t be seen as being a black comedian,” I said, “because then you’re too ghettoised and typecast.”

“Well, then I’ll be a Pakistani comedian,” laughed Sean.

Sean Reid in the Hippodrome last night

Sean Reid last night – everything except a one-legged lesbian

“You could be a black-white-Pakistani-Scots comedian,” I suggested. “If you could be a one-legged lesbian too, you would have the full set.”

“I’m only a lesbian when I have pussy in my mouth,” said Sean. “…No but I… Yeah, no… I’m sorry; you totally threw me with the lesbian comment… Eh…”

“Do people in England have any trouble understanding your Scottish accent?” I asked. “It seems totally clear to me.”

“No problem. But it’s really weird. A lot of people don’t seem to know there’s black people in Scotland and they’re really shocked when they hear a Scottish accent come out of my mouth. I don’t know people expect from me – which is an added bonus.

“I suppose it’s great for me in that I’m mixed-race and because I look in so many different ways, I can really take the piss out of anybody and people will allow me that little pleasure, especially if it’s something they can relate to… If it’s just straight racist, then a lynching might occur.”

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Filed under Africa, Comedy, Racism, Scotland, Zimbabwe

Atrocities in Kenya – a good starting point for Edinburgh Fringe comedy

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Comedian Njambi McGrath (pronounced Jambi McGrah) is thinking about writing a non-humorous book. Given that most of the UK publishing industry is currently running scared of anything not written by or about a famous TV name, I suggested she might make her idea into a comedy show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because that would encourage her to do the necessary additional research for the book and also potentially give the idea some publicity which might impress publishers.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a particular bee in my bonnet about the fact that the best comedies are often about tragic situations.

“It was finding out about your parents which got you interested, wasn’t it?” I asked Njambi yesterday, while she was preparing for her weekly Heavenly Comedy Club in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. “You thought they were boring and had never done anything very interesting.”

“Yes,” said Njambi. “I always wondered why my parents were so poor as children. I was not brought up poor in Kenya, but my parents had been poor to a degree I could not understand. And I didn’t understand why my parents never talked about their childhood.

“Then I found out my mum was 8 years old when they moved her to this camp in the mid-1950s. Her sisters were 13 and 14 and were considered grown-ups, so they were included in all the women who were going to dig the trenches.

“They would wake up at six o’clock in the morning and spend all day digging trenches. They were given no money and no food. So basically they relied on handouts. They were given flour by the Red Cross and made porridge.

“What the British would do was turn up at a village and burn it down and then the villagers would be herded onto lorries and taken to a patch of ground and they would sleep under the sky until they built their own houses and then they lived in these ‘special’ villages which had trenches round them to ‘protect’ them from the Mau Mau.

“They would start by building one person’s house and all sleep there and then they would build another house and do the same until they had built the whole village.

“The people in these ‘special’ villages were mostly women, because the men were taken to detention camps. The British assumed all the Kikuyu men were Mau Mau. The women had to dig trenches to surround the new villages and surround them with barbed wire and, when they finished that, they would work all day clearing the forests so the Mau Mau couldn’t hide there.”

“And the Mau Mau were…?” I asked.

“The Kikuyu tribe,” explained Njambi, “were basically farmers and we lived in the most fertile land in Kenya with bright red soils, so the British moved us away from there and put us into special reserves and taxed us – hut tax and poll tax – but we had no money. The Kikuyu used to make money from their land but they no longer had that, so they were forced to work for the white settlers, the majority of whom had come from South Africa and were very right wing.

“The conditions imposed on the Africans were that they had to pay these taxes and wear a big ID hanging round the neck – basically like a bull. They used to call it a ‘bull bell’.

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

“People were very disgruntled and the Mau Mau were men like Jomo Kenyatta (later President of Kenya) who went to the British and said We’re not happy with our rights. We want land rights. They weren’t taken seriously, so a branch of them decided it was going to have to be armed resistance rather than talking.

“They were based in the forests and their tactics were to go and either kill a settler or to kill a sympathiser of the settlers, because the British had chiefs who were Africans and they were as cruel if not worse. So the Mau Mau would kill people and caused a lot of terror because nobody knew where they were. They were all Kikuyu men or the vast majority were.”

“Why were they called Mau Mau?” I asked.

“No-one knows for sure,” said Njambi. “They think it’s because ‘mzungu’ means ‘white man’ and it’s an abbreviation of that and ‘go home’.”

(One theory is that Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru roughly means If the foreigner goes back to Europe, the African may get freedom)

“The women were put into villages separate from the men,” explained Njambi, “so they could give information about the men. Some of them, like my grandmother, were single mothers. She had no man, but they didn’t believe her. A single Kikuyu woman in Kenya was seen as a suspicious woman. People like that were tortured so they would give information about their husbands… but they had no husbands.

“The Mau Mau would come at night and harass the women in the special villages to give them food. But they had none. They were given flour by the British Red Cross. My mother ate flour from the age of 8 to 14. When they wanted to make it exciting, they put salt in the flour. Many of my mother’s friends died because they were mal-nourished. It was a double whammy for the women. They were harassed by the Mau Mau and by the British.

“If women did not co-operate or they were too weak to dig – if they were ill or injured from all the digging – they were assaulted to co-operate and coerced to work.

Idi Amin addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1975

Idi Amin addresses UN General Assembly in New York, 1975

“The people persuading the women to co-operate were people like Idi Amin (later President of Uganda, but then in the British Army). His job was to coerce people into giving information about the rebels. He was promoted year on year on year because he brought in results. He found ways of making women talk. He found new ways of breaking women. The British re-defined rape, using bottles, broken glass, hot boiled eggs and barbed wire. It didn’t matter if you were 13 or 14. You were considered a woman.

“My mother stayed in the village from the age of 8 to 14. When I found that out, I knew why she was so poor as a child and why she didn’t want to talk about her childhood.

“My father was a different story. His mother was killed in one of the raids.”

“By the British or by the Mau Mau?” I asked.

“Nobody really knows,” said Njambi. “She was found dead with her baby son – my father – suckling on her breast. My father had an older sister who was 5 years old and they moved into the streets of Nairobi and she looked after him. She used to beg and my father lived in the streets until he met my mother.

“Because of all the years he lived in the streets, my father became very ingenious. He used to beg, get money, go buy sweets and sell them at the bus stop. Slowly, slowly, he made enough money to buy more stock and more stock. Eventually he met my mother in a train. She was 14 and she was going to look for a job. My father proposed on the train. They started working as  team. Every day selling sweets. He was living in a hut. He was no longer living on the streets. They worked hard and they earned enough money to buy a farm and they had children and they put us in good schools. I was put in a boarding school. Education was very important for my father. He was all about bettering himself. He bettered himself. He taught himself karate, became a black belt and represented the country. He spoke five languages. And, one day, I came home and told him: Mum, Dad, I’m in love with a British boy.

“I fell in love with a British boy. What can you do?”

“And you want to turn this story into a book,” I said.

“Yes.”

“And a comedy show,” I said.

“I’m challenged by how I’m going to make it funny,” said Njambi.

As I said at the start, I believe that the best comedies are often about tragic situations – and you can do that without diminishing the horror of the situations. The most important thing is a meaningful story and people the audience cares about.

Njambi has a good starting point here.

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Comedian Jenny Eclair, born in Kuala Lumpur, gets annoyed about Christians

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen on her website

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen, on her website www.jennyeclair.com

I chatted to Jenny Eclair at her home last week. In the first blog that came out of that, she talked about parts of her very varied career. In the second blog, she talked about iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee and that led on, obviously and easily, to his drinking.

“Towards the end, the last couple of years before he died,” I said, “I thought all those years of drinking were taking their toll and were showing.”

“But,” said Jenny, “brains do dry out as well. I have a friend who basically flooded his brain with alcohol but, because he now doesn’t live in London, he’s drying out. It’s like an old carpet. It’s gone a bit but it is repairing.”

“I have a smoker’s cough, but I don’t smoke,” I said. “I have a beer gut but I don’t drink. Sometimes I think I would be in better condition if I had taken heroin. Keith Richards can fall out of a tree with no problem and Dennis Hopper was perfectly lucid in his latter years.”

“Heroin’s better for your skin and it doesn’t make you fat,” suggested Jenny. “But the trouble with coming off heroin is you normally go to something else. Once an addict, always an addict.”

“I suppose someone could come off heroin and get addicted to the Salvation Army or something worse,” I mused.

“They’re just at the bottom of the road,” said Jenny. “The most beautiful building.”

“Yes,” I said, “I saw it coming out of Denmark Hill station.”

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

“The Salvation Army are actually quite good,” Jenny added, “because once Geoff (Jenny’s partner) was choking – he had been greedy over a sausage – and I was trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre but, because he was too fat, I couldn’t get both my arms round him. I was really struggling and he was about to die and there were two Salvation Army people walking past and they came in and they Heimliched him between them and saved his life. They also come and play Christmas carols round the corner, which is nice.”

“Well,” I said, “Christians, by and large, are OK.”

“They get a lot of stick these days,” said Jenny. “You’re not allowed to slag off any other religion. But you can slag off Christians. That pisses me off. There are too many smart-alecky people around in the media who wouldn’t dare slag off Moslems, who wouldn’t dream of slagging off Jews, but they give Christians a right old kicking and you just think: Hold on! Hold on here!

“I can’t bear the hypocrisy. It really does piss me off. Those people who do all the science stuff and find Christianity an easy target. They show an intolerance about Christians that isn’t allowed about anything else.”

“There’s nothing wrong with religion,” I suggested. “Just organised religion.”

“Or people talking about it to you,” said Jenny. “On the bus.”

“That’s people trying to convert you,” I said.

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

“No. That’s because I live too close to the Maudsley Hospital. Nutters. A lot of religious nutters… Ooh, look at the weather. It’s horrible…” The rain had started battering on her back windows.

“I’ve got to go to Greenwich to deliver some Ladybird books to my eternally-un-named friend,” I said.

“I love Ladybird books,” said Jenny.

“My eternally-un-named friend,” I said, “was brought up in the RAF and you were an Army child, so you have that in common. You were in…?”

“Kuala Lumpur and Berlin and then Barnard Castle in County Durham,” Jenny replied. “Barnard Castle was tough. I went to a very tough school there.”

“People whose parents wear uniforms – police or armed forces or whatever – sometimes rebel, don’t they?” I asked. “You became a punk poet and comedian. Was that rebelling?”

Jenny Eclair performing at The Tunnel club, London, in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Jenny performing at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“No. My dad was an Army major, but he wasn’t ‘an army major’, if you see what I mean. He’s very funny. And my mum didn’t work – she was an Army wife – but she was very, very clever. In fact, she should have worked. She was a wasted opportunity.”

“I suppose,” I said, “all that generation of women were wasted.”

“Yeah,” said Jenny. “also, she was a cripple in an old-fashioned sense of the word. She had polio.”

“My mother was born without a left hand,” I said.

“Did she have a hook?” asked Jenny, perking up.

“Just a rounded stump at the end,” I said. “Why did you perk up at the thought of a hook?”

“I do love a hook,” said Jenny. “A hook and a glass eye.”

“You could get them if you wanted,” I suggested, “through the wonders of modern surgery.”

“I don’t want my own,” said Jenny, “but I am very drawn to that sort of thing.”

“Have you done Peter Pan in panto?” I asked.

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in Peter Pan c 1906

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in a production of  Peter Pan c 1906

“No,” Jenny replied, “but I do like the look of a pirate.”

“What’s the glass eye got to do with it?” I asked.

“Anything that’s a bit wrong,” Jenny explained, “I’m quite attracted to anything that’s a bit wrong.”

“Was your mother in a wheelchair?” I asked.

“No, Full-length calliper. It’s only one leg. She is really magnificent.”

“My mother only had one hand,” I said, “but she didn’t let it affect her. She seemed to be knitting all the time in my childhood. She used to play tennis when she was younger, which is actually quite difficult – You have to hold the racquet in one hand and have to throw the ball up in the air.”

“My mother was a tennis player,” said Jenny.

“My mother,” I said, “mostly hid the end of her left arm – because her parents had told her she shouldn’t show it.”

“Yes,” said Jenny. “It was slightly shameful. My mother told me that, after she got polio, her father assumed she would never marry.”

“I don’t think my mother expected to marry,” I said, “because she thought Who would marry a one-handed woman?

“And with my mother,” said Jenny, “it was Who would marry somebody with a great big leg iron?

“A pirate, perhaps?” I suggested.

“My dad,” said Jenny. “It was the only romantic thing he ever did. He was abroad when he heard it had happened. He got Compassionate Leave and hitch-hiked his way back from Aden or somewhere like that. She had been his girlfriend and then they’d fallen out. He was in the Army and went off to Aden. She went to a cinema in Blackpool and caught polio there. He heard about it and made his way back to Britain and to Blackpool Infirmary.

“My grandmother was there and said: Derek, you can’t go in and he said Yes, I must and he saw my mother. She said I’ll never walk again and he said Yes you will – when you walk down the aisle to marry me.

“Aaaaaahhhhh…..” I said.

An example of a modern egg poacher

Example of a modern egg poacher, seldom seen as romantic

“I know,” said Jenny. “But he’d used all his romance up in that one sentence. In terms of romance, never anything again. He once bought her an egg-poaching pan for her birthday and said: Go on, June. I’d love some eggs…” They’re both very gung-ho and Northern and good fun. Both from Blackpool.”

“So you feel Blackpudlian?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Jenny.

“The place I feel most at home,” I said, “is Edinburgh, but I’ve never had a home there. I always had relatives there until recently, so I was visiting there every year as a child, probably since I was an embryo.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny, “I think it’s more to do with the sense of humour than anything else, I understand that quite graphic, broad, seaside postcardy humour.”

“Blackpool is seasidey,” I said. “Not like Manchester.”

“No,” agreed Jenny. “I went to drama school in Manchester. And Liverpool’s different again. But I wouldn’t leave London now.”

“I met your daughter with you,” I said, “at Glastonbury about… It must have been…”

“Nine years ago,” Jenny told me. “When she was 15. She’s 24 now. She’s a playwright. She’s got the writing gene. She’s working at the Royal Court Theatre at the moment. Then she’s got a play on at Theatre 503 on Monday (that’s tomorrow if you read this blog on the day it’s posted) in a thing of new writing, then she’s got a residency at the old BBC building in Maida Vale… or it might be in Marylebone. It starts with an M anyway.”

“And you?” I asked.

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Grumpy Old Women – touring the UK April to June 2014

Grumpy Old Women on stage,” said Jenny. “We go into rehearsal in March; we tour in April, May, June. And I’m writing a Radio 4 series at the moment for broadcast later this year: six 15-minute monologues. They’re all set in real time.”

“Will you be starring?”

“No. The producer thought we should get better actresses and she’s right, because I’m quite limited and I always sound like me.”

“That’s the sign of star,” I said.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere other than London now” Jenny said again.

“It’s where everything happens,” I said.

“It is,” said Jenny. “I like it when things happen.”

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Weirdos comedy duo explain to me the importance of chickens in war – and how not to get their asses sued off

AdamLarter_MatthewHighton

Adam Larter (left) & Matthew Highton look normal this week

I got an e-mail from Adam Larter of Weirdos Comedy. It said:

“Over at Weirdos’ Towers, we are gearing up for our big Christmas charity show – last year’s raised over £4,000. I haven’t started any publicity for this year’s show yet. Would you like to do something about it in your blog?”

So I met Adam Larter this week, with his co-writer and co-director Matthew Highton.

“It’s a Christmas pantomime…” I started.

“Oh no it’s not,” said Adam. “It’s at Christmas and it’s a play, but it follows none of the traditions of pantomime.”

“Do you dress up as a woman?” I asked.

“No,” said Adam.

“I’ve lost interest already,” I told him.

“There’s very little dressing up as women this year,” he told me. “Only one small scene.”

“Pity,” I said.

“But we do have actual women in our play,” added Matthew.

“You’ve gone one better than Shakespeare, then,” I said, perking up, but then I remembered: “You did a pantomime last year – Hook – which I saw you preview at Pull The Other One and it was… it was… it was… ermmm… interesting.”

“Oooh!” said Matthew with a tinge of despair in his voice, “you saw that one.”

“You saw the drunken rehearsal,” said Adam. “Would like to apologise for that one, Matthew?”

“Why me?” replied Matthew.

“That,” I said. “was what I thought when I saw it. Why me?… So, this year, what’s the subject?”

“The Colonel,” answered Adam. “It’s based on the life of a famous chicken proprietor. Some people have drawn similarities between him and some famous branches of a certain fast food restaurant chain.”

“And are there any line drawings of this Colonel’s face visible in the production?” I asked.

“No,” replied Adam, “ because that would be a logo.”

“But a live representation of this famous Colonel does appear in your show?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Matthew, “there is a famous Colonel appearing. We’re going to have a big sign at the beginning to say that any likeness is coincidental.”

“Any likeness to whom?” I asked.

“To anyone,” said Adam.

“It’s a war epic,” said Matthew. “A war epic about love and chicken.”

“Lots of chicken,” added Adam.

“Fried chicken,” explained Matthew.

“Lots of it,” emphasised Adam. “And finding out about a certain secret recipe. How it came about and what it is… It’s an underdog story.”

“Any musical numbers?” I asked.

“A few,” admitted Adam.

“Adam has a penchant for adding songs to his shows,” Matthew told me.

“It keeps the pace up,” argued Adam.

“And it fills time,” said Matthew.

“That too,” said Adam.

“This is a scripted and plotted narrative production?” I asked warily.

“Yes,” replied Adam.

“But,” I pointed out to him, “you’re a mad, surreal, kick-over-the-traces, throw-away-the-rulebook kinda comedian.”

“Yeah,” said Adam. “But this is where Matthew and I work well together. I believe in complete and utter madness and Matthew believes in this horrible word called structure. He insists we have plot and characters and development and I insist that, every now and then we have something completely insane.”

“In my defence,” said Matthew, “we do have those rules, but they’re hard to recognise at times.”

“How do you write together?” I asked.

“My whole process when Adam had done a bit of the script,” explained Matthew, “was to go back through and try to piece together what bits were missing. Adam has a real talent for writing a very good bit but not linking it to the bit that came before.”

“It has worked out,” said Adam.

“When is this extravaganza being staged?” I asked.

“It’s at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club,” Adam told me.

“December 16th to the 20th,” said Matthew, “with the 19th off, because we couldn’t get it. “In February, we’re taking it to the Leicester Comedy Festival. We don’t want it to just die after Christmas. It’s not Christmas themed.”

“Just feelgood,” said Adam.

“Why stage it in Bethnal Green?” I asked.

“It’s the nearest venue to my house,” explained Adam. “The main Weirdos nights are based in Stoke Newington, but the room in Bethnal Green has a giant lit-up heart in the background. And there’s more space.”

“Essentially,” said Matthew, “Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club has the space of a theatre though the chairs of a social club. The people we have in the show are extremely talented oddballs – Ben Target, John Kearns, Pat Cahill, Ali Brice.”

“How many people are in it?” I asked.

“About twelve,” said Adam. “Or fifteen. Or something like that.”

“And there are southern American accents in it,” added Matthew.

“A lot of accents,” agreed Adam. “Though not necessarily the ones you expect. By December, they’ll be completely different. I think it’s fun to bring a big group together. You don’t know what going to happen. There’s a couple of drama students between us, but we’re not from that background.”

“Twelve or fifteen sounds a bit vague,” I said. “Any women?” I asked.

“Yes,” they both said simultaneously.

“Name a few?” I asked.

“Beth Vyse, Marny Godden,” said Adam.

“A black person?” I asked.

“Ermmm, no,” said Matthew.

“A crippled person?” I asked.

“We don’t see race or colour,” said Matthew.

“Crippled person?” I asked again.

“We only see Weird or non-Weird,” said Adam.

“Though usually,” admitted Matthew, “someone does get injured during the production process.”

“Last year,” explained Adam, “someone got beaten and pelted with eggs.”

“Audience reaction doesn’t count,” I said.

“Marc Burrows had his hat broken last year,” said Adam.

“His hat?” I asked.

“His hat,” repeated Adam. “There were some quite intense fight scenes. One thing we did not really rehearse last year were the fight scenes.”

“I got whopped over and over with a sword,” said Matthew. “I was raw.”

“There you go,” said Adam triumphantly.

“Any fight scenes this year?” I asked.

“It’s a war epic,” Matthew reminded me.

“It might feel a bit like Saving Private Ryan,” said Adam.

“In Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club,” I said, “with a giant lit-up heart in the background.”

“Yes,” said Adam.

“This is WW2?” I asked.

“We do all the WWs,” replied Matthew.

“We’ve gone for the pair,” said Adam. “Some people said it would be too ambitious to fit two World Wars into one play. But we’re asking the questions that everyone else is afraid to ask.”

“Which are?” I asked.

Where was chicken in this war?” replied Adam. “Where ARE the chickens?

“Historical accuracy.” added Matthew, “was the key for us. Months of research.”

“Are you sponsored by any chicken retailer?” I asked.

“Not as such,” said Adam, “but we’re raising money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. “Interview over. Thanks very much.”

“That’s good,” said Adam. “I have props to make: I have to go paint some lemons.”

Adam Larter with Weirdos

Adam Larter with friends (from the Weirdos Facebook page)

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Filed under Comedy, Surreal, Theatre