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Comedy club owner Martin Besserman: from sexually-frustrated middle-aged women to increasing monkey business

MartinBesserman1

Martin Besserman last night: “They were bewildered”

I thought Martin Besserman must have been running comedy clubs in London for the last 25 years. He seems to have been around forever.

I was wrong, as I found out when I talked to him last night.

He currently runs two Monkey Business comedy venues in north west London – in Belsize Park/Hampstead and in Kentish Town – the first for higher profile acts; the latter mostly for newer acts.

“Initially,” said Martin Besserman, “I ran a club in Kentish Town at a bar called O’Reilly’s which, when you go in, it looks like everyone’s done something bad in their life.”

“And they probably have,” I said. “It’s your ideal comedy audience.”

“I was upstairs there for about a year,” continued Martin, “and then their former manager recommended me to the Sir Richard Steele pub in Hampstead. And they were very impressed because, within the first month, I had acts like Harry Hill and Omid Djalili and they were bewildered and really impressed that I managed to build it up so quickly. I’ve been there eight years now.”

“I’m still bewildered,” I said “that people like Harry Hill try out new material at Monkey Business.”

“He did four shows with me last year,” said Martin.”He’s a very nice man and he remembers his roots. If they’ve had a good time at your club, then they remember you. People sometimes take a chance on you and, if you form some sort of bond… I mean, we do come from different backgrounds.

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London: net curtains & frustrated women

“My background was doing what my father did – selling net curtains at East Street market in the Elephant & Castle to sexually-frustrated middle-aged women. In fact, I worked next to Jade Goody at one time. She got sacked for nicking a quid about one year before she became famous on Big Brother.”

“Monkey Business,” I said, “is a very well-known club now.”

“I think because I’ve been running it for such a long time,” said Martin. “People have said there’s no other promoter like me, that I have a certain style and I don’t try to  copy any other club. So maybe there’s a uniqueness, because the philosophy of the MC and the person organising the club is certainly significant.”

“What’s your philosophy?”

“It’s all about individuality,” explained Martin. “People go to expensive workshops and think that they can learn to perform. I’m sure sometimes it can help them develop whatever potential they might have but, at the end of the day, you just have to have natural funny bones. There has to be something about you that is special.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that workshops give people who have ability the confidence to do what they could do anyway. And, if you have no ability, you will still have no ability at the end.”

“I think so,” said Martin. “I did go to Tony Allen’s workshop in the late 1980s which was good but, before then, I was a public orator at Speakers’ Corner.”

“You still do that?”

“Yes, in the summer. I occasionally drag performers there – I dragged Reg D.Hunter there. For all the black guys at Speakers’ Corner, he was the new Obama, although Reg wouldn’t get up until I bought him a bottle of vodka.”

“And you go there in the summer because it’s sunny?” I asked.

“I prefer it when it’s warm,” agreed Martin.

“Has it changed?” I asked.

“It has lost,” said Martin. “a lot of great orators like Lord Soper (a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist at the end of the last century) and lots of interesting eccentrics. But, for me, it’s still important because it’s a symbol of our democracy: the fact one can go there and express what one feels to be fundamentally right or wrong with Society.’

“So what’s your soapbox schtick?” I asked.

“I learnt from Lord Soper when I was 16 that, if you want to convey a message, you should always do it with humour. There IS a serious point I’m trying to make there: Make Love, Not War, though you would have to listen to me for a long time to work that one out.

“It’s difficult because I’m Jewish and there are a lot of Moslem people at Speakers’ Corner – you’ve got Edgware Road close by, which is mainly Arabic – so Jewish speakers tend to have a fairly hard time – they’re heckled fiercely. There are some people there – not all – who are quite radical in their opinions and you have to address that. So, for me to convey a message which is not about taking sides but about uniting… it really amounts to me trying to get them to laugh with me – to buy in to my humour.

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

“I started my first comedy club in Edgware Road at a bar called the Hanging Tree. In those days, you got a lot of support from people like the Evening Standard and Time Out. I got 250 people turn up for the first gig.”

“Did you always want to be a club owner, as opposed to a jobbing comedian?”

“No,” Martin replied. “It happened by mistake. I used to enjoy comedy at the King’s Head, Crouch End. I knew that I liked it. I knew I wanted to be part of entertainment. I was in a band. It happened because I split up with a girlfriend and I wanted to impress her, so I started a comedy club. I thought there was more to me than just being a market trader.

“I had no idea that, eleven years later, I would still be running a comedy club which is one of the more well-known clubs.”

“At the moment,” I said, “the economic climate is very bad for comedy clubs. They’re closing down all over London and all over the country and you’ve just decided to open one in the heart of the West End of London. Have you gone mad?”

“It’s out of necessity,” explains Martin. “Eventually, they will be turning the Sir Richard Steele pub into flats and my time there is limited. It could be in a few months or a few years – getting the planning permission, the builders and all that – but it is going to happen.

“I’m a survivor. I’ve got a taste for the business. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to leave a club. I’ve had all sorts of things – I’ve had managers trying to hijack my club, I’ve been replaced with karaoke. It’s very difficult when you have to start a new club and have to build up your reputation all over again. But I feel confident in the West End.

MonkeyBusiness_logo“There are two venues in question. One is Leicester Square – that’s only a 65-capacity venue, one minute from the tube station. Because it’s not a very large room, it would be quite easy to fill up.

“The other possible venue is above a very beautiful Turkish restaurant in Covent Garden – Sofra in Tavistock Street – two of the chefs there used to cook for the Royal Family – and they are going to let me do a trial show on New Year’s Eve. The room accommodates 100 people.”

“So,” I asked, “if that works well, you would be running a Leicester Square club AND a Covent Garden club?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I have operated two clubs on a Saturday night before. It’s difficult. You have to trust the staff at the other venue. You can’t be at both.”

“Being a compere at a comedy club,” I said. “…People seem to think it’s easy, but it is very, very, very difficult. I have seen very good comedians try to MC and it can be a disaster – if they just tell gags – because it’s not about telling jokes between other people’s jokes.”

“Well,” said Martin, “there’s no rules about being a good MC. The testimony is if the audience have a good time. Sometimes I’m on form; sometimes I’m not. The MC can make or break a show. The job is not to hog the stage. An MC should have a minimum amount of time on stage, unless you’re Michael McIntyre. The job is to relax the audience. If the MC doesn’t deliver, all the acts he introduces will have a harder task, no matter how good they are.”

“When you compere,” I said, “you don’t really perform, you schmooze; you chat to the audience.”

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“You’ve got to know the boundaries,” said Martin last night

“The audience should be your friends for the evening,” explained Martin. “You should act familiar with them, but you’ve got to know the boundaries of how far you can go. I have seen other people compere and they can be crude.

“Sometimes you can be crude but not if it doesn’t suit your personality: if it all seems out of place. I’m not saying I’m crude, but it’s tongue-in-cheek humour and I would like to think it’s not offensive.”

“All comedians manipulate the audience,” I suggested, “but the compere more than anyone is manipulating the atmosphere for the other acts.”

“It’s like boyfriend/girlfriend,” said Martin. “The relationship has to be that you have to feel comfortable in that other person’s company.”

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David McGillivray: from cheap sex films to horror movies, art and panto scripts

David McGillivray accosted yesterday by Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray (left) yesterday with a Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray is only a few years old than me, but I first became aware of him when I was in my late teens or early twenties and he was writing excellent film reviews for the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin.

He quickly got involved in the 1970s British sex film industry, writing such epics as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and The Hot Girls, then shifting into horror scripts for quickie film directors Norman J.Warren and Pete Walker and, later still, writing and producing his own films.

“I used to love being scared when I was a child,” he told me yesterday – Halloween – in Soho, “and I greatly enjoy frightening other people. I’ve only really ever been interested in sensation.”

“What was your best film?”

“Shorts or long?”

“Both.”

“Of the shorts, I’m very fond of one called Mrs Davenport’s Throat, which I made in Lisbon in 2005. It’s got a surprise ending that I don’t think anyone’s ever guessed.”

“You wrote and produced that?”

“Yes. It was inspired by those people at airports who stand holding cards with people’s names on. In my film, the eponymous Mrs Davenport goes up to a chauffeur who is holding a sign saying MRS DAVENPORT and goes off with him and we find out what happens to her. It’s not a pretty sight.”

“You said that with a smile.”

“It’s good fun.”

“And your favourite feature film?”

Exactly the sort of film young David wanted to write

Exactly the sort of film young David McGillivray had always wanted to write

“I never watch any of my films apart from House of Whipcord. That was my first big one for Pete Walker. I saw it again at a horror festival in Edinburgh about two years ago and thought it stood up quite well.

“I was a very young writer – I was 25. I read an outline of the story and it was exactly the sort of film I had always wanted to write and Pete Walker got together a marvellous cast. It was terrifically exciting for me. Suddenly here I was part of the film business that I’d always been so fond of.

“I think House of Whipcord is Pete Walker’s best film, though some people prefer Frightmare.”

“He seemed to suddenly disappear off the radar,” I said.

“He just decided to stop working,” explained David, “and nobody really knows why. He had the money to continue and he could have gone on making films. He didn’t completely disappear: he ran a chain of provincial cinemas called Picturedrome for a while but now, as far as I know, he really is completely retired. I haven’t seen him since 1992.”

“Is he worthy of rediscovery?” I asked. “Or are his films just tacky?”

“I have said,” David told me, “that he was Britain’s most talented exploitation director. As soon as a Pete Walker film starts, you know instantly it’s his. He had a very distinct style. He was a talented storyteller. He knew how to include the exploitation elements. I think it’s a great shame he isn’t still working. He just decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t need to make money; he was very rich.”

“Rich from the films?” I asked,. “Or rich independently?”

“Rich from property,” said David. “He made a lot of money from his early films: little 8mm ‘glamour’ loops sold either by mail order or in newsagents, often under-the-counter.”

“Soft-core?” I asked.

Not as successful as the sex films

Not as successful as Pete Walker’s sex films?

“Oh yes, all very soft core. They were basically striptease films. He made a lot of money from those and then his early full-length sex films made money. There were several people in the same market – Harrison Marks and Stanley Long were two rivals. Pete’s early sex films were very successful. Then he started making his so-called ‘terror’ films, which were less popular. All of those people made a fair amount of money out of nudie and sex films.”

“When you were young,” I asked, “did you want to make art films?”

“No,” said David firmly. “I never wanted to do anything arty and I never have done. I’ve got no ability, I’ve got no taste, no style. I’m a hack.”

David’s current film production company is called Pathetique Films. It uses the slogan Curiouser and Curiouser.

“But you appreciate arty movies, so you have taste,” I told him.

“I’ve got no ability. I really haven’t,” he replied.

“But,” I said, “you can write and you’ve seen enough movies to know what images need to be edited together to have an effect, so you can work backwards and know what material has to be shot to create the end result you want.”

“This is like a conversation I was having yesterday, about the difference between art and design,” David said, holding up a teaspoon. “What is this? It has been designed to look good, but is it art or is it just design?… It is design.

“My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”

“But what you’re describing,” I argued, “is a Shakespeare play – a commercial product that’s aimed at a specific audience – almost lowest-common-denominator. Shakespeare was creating something to give the plebs in the pit a laugh. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to give people a laugh in Hamlet; there’s blood all over the place in Macbeth; there are things flying around and thunderstorms and a shipwreck (or is it two?) in The Tempest. I’m sure if I went in a time machine and watched Shakespeare plays as seen by the original audience, it would be like watching a down-market farce or an exploitation movie.”

“Well, yes,” David agreed. “Shakespeare’s plays were aimed at ‘the ordinary folk’ and wouldn’t have been considered Art in their day. Maybe one day, long after we’re dead and gone, the public will decide that my films are Art.”

“But the public didn’t decide Shakespeare is art,” I said, “It was people who wrote books about him. Critics decide. Critics would say The Tempest is art and the movie Forbidden Planet is a commercial Hollywood science fiction product, but the film is based on the play.”

“Well,” said David, “I would call Forbidden Planet art, because it’s a wonderful creation and it works and it scared the living daylights out of me when I was 7 or 8. When the footprints appear in the sand, made by the invisible monster, I was so frightened I remember distinctly I couldn’t look at the screen and I hid my face in my school cap. That film had an enormous effect on me and it’s a very artistic endeavour indeed.”

“But looked at objectively,” I said, “Shakespeare  is basically lowest common denominator sex, violence and comedy – much like The Bible in that respect. Reviewers thought Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgivably down-market, repulsive and sadistic when it was released, yet people would probably think Psycho was a work of art now.”

“Definitely,” agreed David, “Well, any film by Hitchcock.”

“Or Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom,” I said. “It was said at the time to be obscenely sadistic and it destroyed his entire career. But now it’s Art. I avoided seeing it for years because Time Out said it was a simile for the voyeurism of the cinema-going experience – It sounded unbearably arty and a load of wank. But, when I saw it, it IS a great film and, arguably, Time Out was right.”

“It’s not bad, is it…” said David.

“You must want to write Art,” I told him, “You want to create things and you want to create the best possible thing you can and that is Art and, if it has a big effect on a big audience like Harry Potter, then all the better, surely?”

“This is a very vexed issue,” replied David, “and goes back to what is and isn’t Art. I’ve really only ever wanted to create something that is going to have some sort of an effect on people. I don’t want to create something that’s going to be ignored, that’s going to sit on a shelf and not be seen. I don’t particularly mind what the critics say. I don’t care if they hate my stuff – and a lot of them do. All I want in years to come is for people to watch my films and enjoy them in the same way I enjoy the most rubbishy, churned-out second features. If I can create anything like Night of the Demon or, indeed, Night of the Eagle, I’d be very, very happy.”

“Well,” I said, “everyone’s making B films now – the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies. They’re all basically making crappy low-budget B films on a big budget – Crap becoming Art.”

“Yes,” agreed David, “they’re making wheat out of chaff.”

“They’ve making wheat out of chaff for chavs,” I suggested. “What are you making next?”

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London - He suggested the bin

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London’s West End  – He suggested the bin

“It’s panto time,” said David. “It’s a very busy time. This year I’ve contributed to four. I don’t write them, I only re-write them depending on who’s in them. My regular employer is Julian Clary – I’ve re-written his pantos for several years and, through him, I’ve met other people like Nigel Havers. I’m just finishing re-writing Robin Hood, which is in Plymouth this year. And I’ve re-written part of Snow White for Gok Wan in Birmingham. I love panto. I think that’s my true forte.”

“You knew Julian Clary before the pantos?”

“Yes, I’ve worked with him for 31 years. I’ve never written an entire show. He’s known for his improvisation. He Julianises what I put together as, indeed, do other comedians I’ve worked for.”

“Such as?”

“Paul O’Grady, Greg Proops, Angus Deayton…”

At this point, a man dressed in a white Halloween costume and wearing a Scream movie mask came into the restaurant where we were sitting.

“That is an example of the opposite of what we were talking about,” said David. “That is Art turned into crap… Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream now turned into one of the worst franchises in horror movie history…”

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The night comedian Julian Clary joked that he had “fisted” politician Norman Lamont at the British Comedy Awards

DAVID JOHNSON, ON WHOSE ANECDOTE THIS PARTICULAR BLOG WAS ORIGINALLY CENTRED HAS ASKED ME TO DELETE THE BLOG, WHICH I HAVE REFUSED TO DO – I THINK IT IS A FASCINATING INSIGHT INTO A VIVIDLY REMEMBERED INCIDENT. HE TELLS ME HE HAS ALSO WITHDRAWN PERMISSION FOR ME TO USE HIS DIRECT WORDS – ALTHOUGH, AS HE POSTED THEM ON FACEBOOK, I THINK THEY ARE IN THE PULIC DOMAIN… STILL, ANYTHING FOR A QUIET LIFE, EH?… SO WHAT HE WROTE HAS BEEN PARAPHRASED BY ME… NOW READ ON…

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Piers Morgan’s TV guest was unexpected

Piers Morgan’s two faces: sympathetic TV ear + tabloid teeth

Last weekend in Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, he interviewed Julian Clary, whose TV career faltered in 1993 – well, in effect, it stopped for two years – when Julian appeared on the televised British Comedy Awards show and came on stage joking that he had been “fisting” the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.

The incident is on YouTube:

Jonathan Ross’ scripted introduction says: “To crown the King or Queen of Comedy, who better than the man never known to go for a single entendre when a good solid double would do? Please welcome Julian Clary…” – so the viewing public was warned (in the unlikely event that they did not already know), that Julian Clary was known for making sexual references during his act.

The result of Julian’s unscripted “fisting” reference, however, was ‘public outrage’ – or was it?

The illuminating memory below was posted last week by theatre producer David Johnson on his Facebook page (SINCE DELETED). David’s productions this year have included shows and tours by Fascinating Aida, Stewart Lee, Piff The Magic Dragon, Rubberbandits, Alexei Sayle and Sandy Toksvig.

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David wrote that he had watched the ITV1 Life Stories interview of Julian Clary by Piers Morgan.

He said he found it difficult to watch because of Piers Morgan’s  own personal involvement in what had happened at the 1993 Comedy Awards. He said Piers Morgan – who was Showbiz Editor of the Sun at the time – was responsible for the ‘public outrage’ that started in the following day’s issue of the Sun.

David had been in the press room of the London Studios on the night of the British Comedy Awards.

He was sitting next to Piers Morgan in the room. The ITV Duty Log (of viewer’s complaints) was being relayed to a small adjoining room.

To put what happened into context, David pointed out that Norman Lamont had actually been booed by the Comedy Awards audience when he had gone on stage to present an award.

When Julian Clary made the “fisting” reference, everyone in the room laughed and, according to David,  Piers Morgan observed that most viewers – particularly Sun readers – would not actually know what the word “fisting” meant.

Some complaints did come in from viewers – but about a joke over (David thought he remembered) a puppy. No viewers complained about the audience booing Lamont nor about the actual Julian Clary “fisting” joke.

However, near the end of the Awards show, comedian Michael Barrymore (who, at that time was at the height of his popularity) mentioned Julian Clary’s joke and accompanied it with a fisting mime.

“We’ll have to run it now!” David remembers Piers Morgan saying and Piers rushed off to phone the Sun newsroom.

The next morning, remembered David, the Julian Clary story was spread over the front page of the Sun.

Several months later, Piers Morgan was promoted to become the News Of The World’s youngest ever editor.

Now, here on ITV in 2013, was the person who had caused Julian Clary’s misery – Piers Morgan – appearing to sympathise with his victim.

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Julian Clary in 2008

Julian Clary knew nothing of it

When I read what David Johnson had written, I thought to myself: Why on earth did Julian Clary agree to go on the Piers Morgan show – even though all this happened 20 years ago?

Comedy writer Jim Miller asked that very question on David Johnson’s Facebook page. He posted:

“Well, Julian must have known that it was Morgan who ‘hounded him and made him miserable and suicidal’. Yet he chose to do the interview with Morgan. I don’t get your point, other than that everything is for sale in pursuit of a little telly exposure?”

In response Julian’s friend, writer, producer and film critic David McGillivray posted:

“Actually he didn’t. He found out when I emailed him David’s revelation yesterday.”

* * * *

THAT WAS THE ORIGINAL BLOG, AS POSTED. BUT THEN THERE WAS A FOLLOW-UP MESSAGE FROM DAVID JOHNSON WHICH WAS ADDED SEVERAL HOURS LATER…

In this additional piece, David Johnson said it was the Sun’s thuggish writer Garry Bushell who actually wrote the piece which was published the next morning. Bushell’s piece argued that Julian Clary should be banned from live TV. David said this started off a homophobic campaign against artists including Julian Clary and Graham Norton and that it lasted for as long as Garry Bushell was writing for the tabloids.

He said that Garry Bushell’s defence of himself in 2005 – “This isn’t about homophobia. It’s about a fair deal for fellas. We watch telly too” was only to be expected and that he was glad to realise it was Garry Bushell himself – not Julian Clary – who ultimately lost out and became unemployable because of his material. David said Garry Bushell had barely worked since 2007 and was an active UKIP member.

MORE EXPLANATION ABOUT THE CHANGES TO THIS BLOG IN THE FOLLOWING DAY’S BLOG HERE

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British Lieutenant Colonel writes comedy novel about Sierra Leone war

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

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind his novel

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind novel

It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.

When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”

“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.

“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.

“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”

At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.

“It was always going to be a comic book.”

“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”

“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.

“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”

“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”

“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”

“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”

“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”

“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”

“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”

“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the war

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the civil war

“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”

“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”

“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.

“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.

“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”

“Ultimately, you won,” I said.

The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.

“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive. 

“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems.  So what chance have you got of peace?

“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”

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Who do the rising generation of British teenagers look up to as role models? Two unlikely alternative comedians?

So who do the rising generation of British teenagers look up to as role models?

Mother Theresa? David Beckham? Justin Bieber?

Last week, I got an e-mail from 16-year-old Lyle Russell in Glasgow:

Lyle Russell with his blown-up poster

Lyle Russell with his blown-up poster

“I am a big fan of the late great Malcolm Hardee,” it said. Malcolm’s book I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake is my favourite book of all time. It’s wonderful and a work of art.”

Lyle had got a photograph of one of the Malcolm Hardee Award Show posters, then got it developed and enlarged at his local Tesco photo department. He normally has it displayed on the wall by his piano.

The idea that a 16-year-old Glaswegian would be a big fan of Malcolm Hardee intrigued me, as I was not aware Malcolm was known by anyone under about 35 in Glasgow. So I asked Lyle how he had heard of the late great man.

“I first heard of Malcolm when Jo Brand mentioned him on television,” he told me.

“The story Jo told was very funny, so I researched Malcolm.

“I read a few articles on him. He seemed a fantastic character and was very interesting. I watched a few YouTube videos of him performing and thought he was brilliant! I then bought his book I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake – Best book I’ve ever read. Full of great stories.

“I’ve chosen Malcolm as one of my favourite comics as he has the power to capture an audience’s attention. He controls the show. His stories do not drag on. There is no-one just like him. He’s a one-off genius.

“I’ve never been to one of his shows (as I was fairly young when he passed away). My dad’s a big comedy fan as well. He remembers Malcolm’s famous balloon dance, but never really got into his work.

“None of my friends or the rest of my family had heard of Malcolm.”

Some people, I suggested, might think Malcolm was a bit risqué for a 16 year-old.

“Yeah!” Lyle told me. “Some of Malcolm’s stuff can be a bit sordid. However Malcolm is different from lots of other comedians. He uses his material appropriately, at the right times, in the right places.”

I must admit this came as a bit of a surprise for me.

I Stole Freddie Mercy’sBirthday Cake

“A wonderful work of art,” says Lyle

“For instance,” Lyle told me, “a comedian such as Frankie Boyle would come on stage or come on TV and swear, be racist, mock the disabled etc. But Malcolm’s performing skills and material is something much more than that.”

I certainly wanted to hear more.

“He would charm his audience,” Lyle told me, “be rude, but in a humorous manner.

“Other greats such as Dick Emery, Rik Mayall and Bob Monkhouse could be rude but warm on stage. So Malcolm’s not so different in that sense.

“My top comic list would probably contain: Malcolm Hardee, Rik Mayall, Jerry Sadowitz, Dermot Morgan, Dawn French, Brian Limond (Limmy), David Croft, Harry Enfield, Kathy Burke, Larry David, Steve Coogan, Sam Bain, Mitchell & Webb, Eric Chappell, David Nobbs, and Derren Litten. A mixed bunch!

Jerry Sadowitz’s album Gobshite

Gobshite was recorded when Malcolm Hardee managed Jerry

“I’ve got Jerry Sadowitz’s LP Gobshite,” Lyle told me. “I love his shows as well, The Pall Bearer’s Revue and The People vs Jerry Sadowitz. Seen every episode of them.

“I’ve got another live show on CD that he did at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s also an incredibly talented magician. I can do a few of his card tricks.”

So there we have it. The role models for at least one of the rising generation of British teenagers… Mother Theresa? David Beckham? Justin Bieber?

No.

Malcolm Hardee and Jerry Sadowitz.

“Are you interested doing comic things yourself?” I asked Lyle.

“I’d like to write a sitcom or sketch show,” he told me. “I have many ideas I’d like to try out. Comedy’s something I’ve always been attached too; it’s something I’d love to do… I am thinking of setting up my own blog. I thought it would be a good idea, since I am a huge comedy fan, nosey and love talking to people.”

Oh good grief! I thought. Competition!

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Exquisite bad taste gets UK comedian Diane Spencer into trouble in Bahrain

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
(NOTE: I have changed the names of the people in Bahrain)

Diane Spencer’s DVD recording next week

Diane Spencer’s DVD recording next week

Next Wednesday, Diane Spencer is recording a live DVD of her Exquisite Bad Taste comedy show.

“What is your image?” I asked her yesterday via Skype. “I guess it’s fresh-faced, clean-cut English rose who shocks by saying rude things?”

“I prefer ‘edgy’ instead of ‘rude’,” she told me. “I have never told a joke to offend anyone. The first time I was called ‘shocking’, I was surprised. I thought Am I? And the first time I got called ‘crude’. I was really surprised. I’ve never aimed to be crude. When people call me ‘foul-mouthed’ I think OK, well I understand. I think I just have an in-the-pub sense of humour.”

“So that promoter booking you in Bahrain recently was surprising,” I suggested.

“When they initially booked me to go to Bahrain,”said Diane, “I actually asked them: Are you sure about this? You’ve seen my act. And they told me: You’re exactly what they want in Bahrain. They’ll love it. Don’t censor your act. They have people going over there censoring their acts and that’s not what they want at all. They want you to do what you do.

“There were two gigs: one at a local comedy club and one in the hotel where we were staying.

“I was nervous about the whole trip , but I talked to my friends who had been there and they said: As long as you’re polite and you observe the customs...

“Well, I don’t walk around in short skirts and sleeveless tops anyway. I’m ginger. I don’t do very well in the sun. I wore a headscarf. I was trying to be respectful of other people’s culture.

“I went over there with Joe Lycett and Jarleth Regan and Joe was already slightly nervous. He told me: I keep asking them about the gay thing.

The Gulf Daily News promotes the fateful show

The Gulf Daily News publicised the fateful show in Bahrain

“I told him: Well, you’re a gay guy. I’m an outspoken ginger woman. So I think they’ve sent us on purpose. I think it’s going to be fine, otherwise they wouldn’t have made this particular weird selection.

“So we fly into Bahrain and meet Peter, who has organised everything, He says to me: I saw your show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I really enjoyed it.

I say, relieved: So you’ve already seen my act! 

“Yeah yeah yeah! he says. It’s gonna be fantastic!

“So we arrive at the comedy club that night and they’re mainly British people. There were not many people wearing the headscarf.

“We sat backstage and there was an exit to the outside where there was this massive wall at least eight feet high. Then we met the guy who was organising the gig.

Hi! My name’s Muhammad! he tells us. I’m in telecommunications! I’m a bum! I don’t do anything! And you just know he’s like a billionaire. I don’t do anything! he says. What do I do? I do nothing! I just bum around! I just get comedians in! 

So everything’s OK and the woman who books the comedy – Susan – comes in and she’s lovely. She’s enthusiastic: Oh, I’m so excited about this! she says. I’m so excited!

“So Joe and I think: This is all going to be good.

Muhammad tells us: Just do it! Just unleash! Just do it! I don’t care what happens! If they don’t like it, who gives a shit? It’s comedy! You guys are hilarious! Go for it! Whatever they say, I’ll take it!

And I thought: Well, that’s lovely. How nice. He’s giving me creative freedom.

So the gig starts and Jarleth gets up on stage and does his act and everybody loves it.

“Then Joe gets up. They LOVE Joe. He keeps saying Salam in such a camp way they find him absolutely hilarious.”

“And he mentions being gay?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” said Diane. “No problem. But then I get up…

Sunset at King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain/Saudi Arabia

Sunset at King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain/Saudi Arabia

“I walk on stage and there’s two tables of women who fold their arms and glare at me. They are the Any other woman is a threat kind of women.

“I start off gently and it’s going well and it’s building and then I hit… erm…

“Well we WERE given censorship rules. Two rules…

“First rule: Do not mention politics or the local situation or the recent troubles. One of the boys did touch on it, but very lightly.

“The other rule: Nothing about the Bahrain Royal Family. 

“Now, being called Diane Spencer, I had pointed out to Susan beforehand: Look, I do have jokes about the Royal Family, but it’s the British Royal Family – Is this OK? 

“And she said: Oh, God, yes!

“So I start off gently and it builds and builds and builds… and then I get into my Prince Harry jokes which then lead on to my Princess Diana jokes, which I have only ever written to make people laugh. And I underline that.

“When people laugh, it’s really great. Sometimes they don’t laugh and I do try and say to them: Look, it did happen in 1997 – Diana’s death – so I think it’s OK if we laugh about it now.

“But, in Bahrain, I start to lose half the crowd. The people who are enjoying me are getting quiet. The people who are not enjoying me are getting vocal.

Diane Soencer performing at Soho Theatre yesterday

Diane performing recently at Soho Theatre

“So then what happens is I fall back to my super-clean, completely non-offensive material about my eyesight, my tooth, my ginger hair. I start to win them back and then I realise I haven’t got many options left now in my immediate mind. I have got options. But I can’t remember them. I can only really remember my British comedy club set. So I do my club set.

“And the reaction is incredibly mixed.

“At the end, when I say Well thankyou very much, half the crowd cheer and applaud. Twenty people have walked out. And the other half of the remaining crowd seem to be in a kind of weird shock.

“I walk offstage and… well, I don’t just walk offstage, I walk out of the building to this place with the high wall and I just stare up at the sky feeling a million miles from my culture.

“Joe comes out to say Hi and he can see I’ve got tears in my eyes and he’s telling me: No, no. Just relax, relax. 

“Then Susan comes out and Peter and Muhammad come out. Susan is panicky and stands about two inches away from my face and says: I’m going to be taken down to the police station! They say it was public obscenity!

“She’s now shitting herself and repeating: I just think you went too far! I just think you went too far! I mean, you did some clean material, but then I think you went too far! I think you went too far! They’re talking about taking me down to the police station!

“She is talking very, very fast and Peter is trying to calm her down while saying at the same time to me: No, that’s OK. You did… I love what you did and I… and everybody is kinda really confused. And what happens eventually is that Peter sweeps Susan and Joe away, leaving me and Muhammad outside.

“I’m one side of this eight-feet wall and I think maybe if I go outside I’m going to have stones thrown at me… by British people!

“But Muhammad says to me: This comedy club! This thing! Oh, I lose thousands on it! And then he tells me this story about when the troubles were happening a couple of years ago and they took him into custody for two weeks – He told me what happened – And then he says: 36 million? Gone! 

I say What?

“He says: $36 million. Gone! And I’m never going to get that back. That’s fine. Whatever.

They seized his assets.

“$36 million.

So then I thought: Well, my problems really are nothing. My bad gig is not an issue.

Diane remembers the Bahrain gig, talking on Skype yesterday

Diane remembers the Bahrain gig, talking on Skype yesterday

The next day, I sat by the pool at the hotel and restructured my set. I know people say Oh, you should just do what you do but, no, it’s about the crowd.

“I played Tetris in my mind with all my old material.

“That night, we re-arranged the second gig, which was in the hotel. Jarleth went last, Joe went first and I went in the middle. The hotel had drawn a bigger crowd, because people had heard what had happened at the comedy club the night before and were coming to see this cataclysm.

“Joe went on first. They loved him. Then I went on and I knocked it out of the fucking park. It built up, built up, built up and it was just lovely.

“In the break, people were coming up to me saying: We thought you were fantastic! You should START with the filthy stuff! Those people last night! What’s their problem? That was great!

“I also found out that the manager of the local comedy club had actually run into the dressing room the night before, after the gig, to try and find me and tell me that he loved it and to say he didn’t know what was wrong with the twenty people who walked out. He said I loved it!

“But, because of me, they’re now putting a disclaimer on the local club’s leaflets stating that they do not control any of the comedians.”

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Strippers and stand-up comics in the early days of British alternative comedy

Anna Smith in her Vancouver hospital

Anna Smith in her Vancouver hospital after the operation

Stripping and stand-up comedy have often gone hand-in-hand in London.

The Windmill Theatre was a famed training ground for post-War British comics and, in the 1980s, the original Comedy Store was above a strip club and was co-founded by strip club owner Don Ward.

The So It Goes blog’s occasional Canadian comedy correspondent Anna Smith is, I’m glad to say, recovering well from her St Valentine’s Day operation in Vancouver to get a Dacron patch sewn onto her aorta. She tells me:

“My scar is looking less like one made by an attack with a ravioli cutting wheel and more like I’ve been flayed between the breasts by an accurate whip enthusiast.”

Anna was around in the early days of British Alternative Comedy in the early 1980s. She knew both the strip club and comedy club worlds. She tells me:

“Me trying to be funny in the UK  started in about 1981 and ended in about 1986… interspersed with exotic comedy/dance stints in Belgium, France, Finland and Australia.

“By the time I arrived in London, I had already worked as a striptease artist in Canada for about five years at places ranging from the infamous Penthouse Club in Vancouver to Newfoundland. I was the first person to perform in Newfoundland following a period of ‘prohibition of erotic dance’ that had lasted twenty years. Needless to say I was very popular in St. John’s for so doing – I was costumed somewhat like Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind and received a standing ovation from nine pregnant women at the bar.

“I was often called an exotic dancer; sometimes I felt more like an exhausted dancer. When I was working in London, I was running up and down stairs in Wardour Street and Old Compton Street and even strayed as far as Mayfair to dance at a ‘hostess club’ where, as far as I could tell from what was going on in the toilet, the poor beautiful young hostesses were making a lot of money vomiting for a living.

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

Poster for the Gargoyle and Nell Gwynne club

“The Nell Gwynne/Gargoyle was the best though, because  most of the other clubs only offered one ‘spot’ per night.  At the Gargoyle, the pay per show was less, but we did three shows and could leave our costumes there in the freezing gloomy dressing room. There was also theatre style seating and a real stage and a choice of backdrops (crescent moon and stars, English garden, Arabesque) and an appreciative audience of the trench coat type.”

Anna also frequented the original Comedy Store, which started life above the Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne club.

“I remember Joe, the elevator operator, and Peter Rosengard, the Guinness record holder for insurance sales (who started the Comedy Store with Don Ward), gliding about behind the scenes. Don and Peter had figured out there was a need for comedy entertainment but they really didn’t have a clue how or why it was happening… It was like a couple of kids playing with a chemistry set and all of a sudden the whole thing went BOOOF! But, even then, they still didn’t understand it and were still keeping a lot of bad acts and sacking talented people like myself (and Vivienne Soan).

“It could become confusing with half the people changing stage names on a regular basis. Sometimes we did that to find a name which would look more memorable on the playbill; at other times, we just did it to harass one another. I used to love irritating Sir Gideon Vein (aka Tony Green) by referring to Bob Boyton as ‘Bob Boynton’.

“Sir Gideon would rage: It’s Boyton! – Boyton, I tell you! but I would then call him Bob Boinkton.

Tony Allen was frequently the compere for the Comedy Store Gong Show. He was a great compere. Some of the others would say something demeaning as an introduction – not very encouraging at all – but Tony Allen gave us a fair intro, reducing the chance that the drunken audience would hurl their shoes at us.

Tony Green was Sir Gideon Vein

In the 1980s, Anna remembers Tony Green as Sir Gideon Vein

“He also encouraged me personally and gave me practical suggestions about how to improve my act. When I recently ordered his book Attitude – The Secret of Stand-Up Comedy because I wanted to read about Sir Gideon Vein , Ian Hinchliffe and others, I was shocked to find that he had written a sentence about me in it. I’m in the index as Annie Smith, somewhere after Richard Pryor. What an honour that he remembered me – although it was in the context of comics removing their clothing.

“But so what…as you mentioned in a recent blog this WAS during the time of The Romans In Britain.

“One act I particularly remember was a great voluptuous Canadian dancer from Winnipeg, named Karen. Her shows were completely unique. She danced solely to classical music and wore long pastel gowns and hats which had her resembling a Georgian shepherdess – a stark contrast to the rest of the acts who were sheathed in skin-tight leather, ripped stockings, and other rough punky styles popular in the 1980s.

“Karen was a lovely person to work with. She told us she’d had to flee Canada because she had been a young school teacher in Winnipeg and some incriminating letters between herself and an amorous seventeen-year-old boy were discovered. In those days, seventeen-year-old boys were not permitted to have such thoughts about their busty young teachers. So Karen fled to London where she found immediate employment at the Nell Gwynn Club… and many new admirers.

“One was an older, moustached employee of British Telecom who was so besotted with Karen that he followed her to our weekly Sunday afternoon sherry parties on Royal College Street. The telecom man seemed out of place because everyone else there was a performer: Randolph the Remarkable, Sir Gideon Vein, John Hegley. Ben Elton and Peter Elliot (ape expert to the film industry).

“We would sit in a large circle on the floor of a friend’s bedroom drinking sherry and pass round an enormous spliff….and then decide what children’s games to play, Sardines was a favourite, as it was a four storey townhouse with plenty of hiding spots.

“I think  the man from British Telecom was having a rough time in his marriage and was soothed by sleeping with the insatiable Karen and playing rowdy children’s games with a horde of comedians sloshing around scantily-dressed young strippers… It was a delight beyond his previous imaginings.

“I don’t have any photographs of Karen or even know her real surname – Oh, the tragedy of using fake names! – but I would really like to locate her.

“It’s an irony I have no photos of her, because Karen was a highly skilled photographer who took excellent portraits of the dancers sitting in the dressing room of the Nell Gwynne/Gargoyle Club. This was a cavernous windowless room with four lengths of plumbing pipe rattling with empty coat hangers, from the days when there really were floor shows and spectacular shows. Tattered bits of old costumes used to flutter from the plumbing pipes and, on the floor of the closet in the corner of the room, lay a crumpled iridescent mermaid tail, dusty and abandoned….as if the mermaid had eloped decades ago and moved permanently to St Johns Wood.

“The odd thing is that this vast, chilly dressing room was for the exclusive use of four or five exotic dancers. We even had a ‘secret staircase’ to ascend and then, through a doorway, we could watch the acts performing at The Comedy Store. The comics had no dressing room. They just wandered back and forth in a narrow hallway beside the kitchen clutching scraps of paper, nervously talking to themselves and sometimes juggling things or trying on noses or wigs….

“The mysterious Karen was last seen in London, but has probably travelled widely since then. I know she took some great photos of me and the other dancers in that dressing room. I would love to see them, because they were works of art… and to add to my portfolio which is surprisingly sparse, considering I spent more than fifteen years on stage.

“I suppose I ought to contact Randolph the Remarkable as he was friends with her and I see he is still active, tango dancing and posing in photographs as The Little Mermaid.

“Sometimes I fear I will have to spend the second half of my life researching just exactly what I was doing for the first half.

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