Tag Archives: british

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 HE TELLS ME HE HAS ALSO WITHDRAWN PERMISSION FOR ME TO USE HIS DIRECT WORDS – ALTHOUGH, AS HE POSTED THEM ON FACEBOOK, I THINK THEY ARE IN THE PULIC DOMAIN… STILL, ANYTHING FOR A QUIET LIFE,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.”

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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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Filed under Africa, Books, Comedy, Military, Sierra Leone, war

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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Steve Bennett, editor of Chortle UK comedy website, says his criticism is fair

Steve Bennett, owner and editor of Chortle website

Steve Bennett thought about a music or movie site

The annual Chortle Awards are held tomorrow night at the Café de Paris in London’s West End.

The Chortle comedy website has been running since 2000.

I asked Chortle’s originator and editor Steve Bennett about the first Awards ceremony.

“It was basically just a piss-up in the Comedy Cafe’s bar,” he told me, “and I’d home-made them with the Chortle logo spectacles just nailed to a bit of wood.”

“And now they are…?”

“Better,” said Steve. “And the Chortle Awards are the only ones that cover live comedy nationally, really. The British Comedy Awards used to have a stand-up category but don’t any more.”

“When you started Chortle, you were a sub-editor for the Mail On Sunday...” I said.

“No,” he corrected me. “I was a local newspaper editor for the Informer free group in Surrey and West London. There was the Informer group and various other titles. We had the Surrey Herald for a bit.

“So I thought The internet is the way forward but the company weren’t that interested in websites. So then I thought What am I interested in? and I liked music and comedy and films and there were already music sites and IMDB and Empire but there was no site dedicated to comedy.”

“That was very smart of you,” I said, “That was about five years before other people twigged print was really dead.”

The Chortle website homepage this morning

The Chortle homepage today

“After I’d been going a couple of months,” Steve explained, “I got signed up by a ‘proper’ dotcom company – they had seed capital and all that – so I gave up my newspaper job and went to work for them in a trendy brewery in Brick Lane. They lasted two months. They took me to Edinburgh in August 2000 and then they went bust in September. They pissed away a lot of money because they had all these grand ambitions. They wanted to do everything; it was towards the end of the dotcom bubble.”

“But you carried on with comedy because…?”

“Because, if you looked in the Comedy section of Time Out, you just saw a list of names with odd adjectives, but it didn’t really tell you what they were like; there wasn’t enough space. On a website, you could click on a link and get more information.”

“And also,” I suggested, “you can get comedy advertising from clubs, TV, video companies, movie releases, festivals, management, agents… it’s more than just one advertising stream.”

“I didn’t think that through at the time,” said Steve. “I wasn’t that commercially-minded at all.”

“It was presumably not financially viable from the start?” I asked. “It took – what? – three years?”

“No, a lot longer. Obviously, that was the advantage of being a journalist: you could pick up freelance work. So when the dotcom went bust, I was picking up freelance work at the Mirror and the Mail On Sunday.”

“And journalists have pretty thick skins.” I said. “People must slag you off over bad reviews on Chortle.”

“Not to my face so much,” explained Steve. “I know it goes on, but what can you do? The thing I get all the time is Oh, he’s a failed performer! They think everyone wants to do what they do, but I don’t.”

“You’ve never performed comedy?”

The Chortle Awards at the Cafe de Paris, London

Chortle Awards are tomorrow at the Cafe de Paris, London

“No. It would be a horrible car crash. I don’t really like it. I have to present Chortle Award winners at the end of the student heats, but I just look awkward and uncomfortable and it’s not my skillset. I do what I do. I get to work in comedy, I get to play to my strengths. Why put myself through it? And also the more you know about comedy, the more you know you can’t do it. If I thought I had an aptitude – which I don’t – it would still take four years before I could stand on stage and be OK. I like comedy, but I don’t like being in the spotlight.”

“So you must like to be hated for giving bad reviews?”

“It’s probably not very nice to be written about, especially if you get one star. But there’s no answer to that. You can’t go round being nice to everybody and giving them all 4-star reviews. You have to be honest about it and hope that, over 13 years, people know that I’m trying to give an honest reaction.

“I’m also quite happy that I’m not just a reviewer. The website is used as a resource and has news on it. That’s mine. I made that. I’m proud of that. It would be weirder if my whole job was just being a critic.”

“So you’re proud of being an editor rather than just a critic?”

“Yeah. I think I have created something.”

“So who reads Chortle? Just comedians?”

“It’s not just comics and the comedy industry. If they all used it, that would just be about 5%-10% of my audience. It’s comedy geeks as well. Just as the NME is read by all the up-and-coming musicians but also by all the people who are interested in up-and-coming and established musicians… so are we. We are the comedy industry’s version of the NME.”

“I’ve written film and comedy reviews in the past,” I told Steve. “But I tended to write features and interviews, not reviews, because then I didn’t have to say some things are shit.”

“The difference between writing film reviews and comedy reviews,” said Steve, “is that you’re not going to see Tom Cruise in the bar afterwards whereas, in comedy, you’re immersed in it. People are around the whole time and I’m on the circuit three or four times a week; you bump into people.”

“Have you had people attack you?”

Comedy critics face fragile egos and non-comedic reaction

Comedy critics face fragile egos and non-comedic reactions…

“Not for a while. A long time ago there were a couple of people. Verbally. But they tended to be people who were, for want of a better word, a Jongleurs act. They’re very good at crowd control; they’re very good at doing that specific comedy job, but they may be treading water. Especially when I first started, people would say Who’s this guy? Why’s he saying this isn’t very good? I’ve been doing comedy for twenty years!

“All I can write is whether I enjoyed it or not and explain to the best of my ability why I felt that way.”

“So when you write about an act, you don’t try to criticise it but to be constructively objective?”

“Ye-e-e-es…,” said Steve. “There are probably about 3% or 4% of shows I see that are just awful and appalling and I can’t think of a good word to say. But mostly you try and say… Well, it’s like being a director, I suppose. If you asked me my advice, this is what I would tell you, right or wrong.”

“So writing a review is not like being a heckler,” I suggested. “It’s like giving Director’s Notes to an actor… Objective insight into a performance after it has happened.”

“I would hope so,” replied Steve. “But you give the notes very publicly and everyone sees them. You also want to write entertainingly and write for a general audience.”

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Toilet seats and the difference in the collapse of British & Russian empires

A bottom-shaped toilet seat as it was meant to be

A toilet seat as it was meant to be…

I flew to Kiev yesterday. I went to the toilet first.

They have tried hard at London’s Gatwick Airport.

There is a new ‘super-loo’.

The holes in the toilet seats are rectangular.

I checked my bottom before and after using one. My bottom is not rectangular. I was unable to check other people’s bottoms. But I suspect the design of these new ‘super’ toilet seats is a triumph of design over practicality.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

Some seats in the Departure Lounge at Gatwick have little flat surfaces next to them with plug sockets and USB ports so you can use and charge your computers and mobile phones.

All the sockets and USB ports had been switched off.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

Ukraine International Airlines were very attentive on the flight to Kiev. All the pilot and cabin announcements were, of course, in both Ukrainian… and in English as, I think, the rules say they have to be. At least, I think they were in English.

But the English was around 97% totally incomprehensible. It was like audio origami. I basically only knew it was English because of the polite addition of clear Thankyous at the end of sentences.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

A street in Kiev at 9.40am this morning

A central street in Kiev – or Kyiv –  at 9.40am this morning

So now I am in Kiev.

In an enlightening conversation last night, a local was telling me how the corruption system works.

It is a triumph of actual effectiveness over good intentions.

I say I am in Kiev… but actually I am in Kyiv. Because ‘Kiev’ was the Russian-approved Western spelling used in the Soviet era. Now Ukraine is independent. So now it is written as ‘Kyiv’.

As with all ex-Soviet states, there was and is a problem with the Russians.

I remember a historian (not British born) telling me in the 1990s what he thought was the difference between the collapse of the British Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

I do not know if he is right or wrong, but it is an interesting viewpoint.

The way he saw it, the British had conquered an empire but had, by-and-large, not fully integrated themselves within the local community, particularly in India.

In the Raj, they tended to live in British communities, go to British clubs and continue living their British lives separate from the local communities. Britain was always seen as their home country. They lived consciously as ex-pats.

With the Soviet Empire, the Russians, to a greater extent, colonised each country and moved their families and lives lock, stock and family barrel into them because they, perhaps, felt that all these other countries really were part of one great Socialist country.

When India got independence, by and large, most British families simply upped-sticks and left, mostly going back to their ‘home’ country – the UK.

But, when the Soviet Empire collapsed and satellite countries got independence, the Russian populations within those countries had psychologically, economically and physically integrated their families’ lives within the communities. They had no actual close family ties back in Russia. They were not expats living away from mother Russia. They were Russians who felt fully part of the satellite countries.

For example, in Uzbekistan, they were not Uzbeks yet, in Russia, they were not ‘real’ Russians. They had nowhere to ‘go home’ to. These were Russians who had been in Uzbekistan for generations and were now left stranded in what had been their home country and was now a foreign country.

Same thing in the Ukraine… exacerbated by a history of invasions over the centuries.

There is a heavy Russian presence in the east and in the south of modern, independent Ukraine. According to a 2001 census, 67.5 percent of the population declared Ukrainian as their ‘native’ language and 29.6 percent declared Russian.

They considered Russian their ‘native’ language.

Almost 30% of the country.

Almost all in the east and south.

This is not good.

Some people talk of splitting the country.

Mostly the Russians in the Ukraine. And the Russians in the Kremlin.

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The golden age of British TV shows included a woman dusting things

In the imagined golden olden days of British independent television, ITV was actually a loosely-linked collection of regional companies with some programmes transmitted locally, some fully-networked and some partly-networked.

As a result, there were some occasionally odd programmes on air.

Keith Martin presenting at Anglia TV

Keith Martin presenting at Anglia TV

Yesterday, I was talking to Keith Martin who worked, it seemed, almost everywhere as a freelance announcer and presenter. He worked on pirate ship Radio Caroline, for the BBC Forces’ broadcaster and for, among many other ITV stations, ABC, Anglia, ATV, HTV, LWT and Thames.

“I remember,” I told him, “writing introductions for Houseparty in, I guess, the 1970s. That was just housewives sitting around randomly talking with no script.”

“Well,” said Keith, “that was a Southern Television production and was a forerunner and far more entertaining than the current Loose Women on ITV, which is done in a stationary way with a row of delightful ladies just gossiping.”

Houeparty - just women chatting

Houseparty from Southern TV – women chatting randomly

“I seem to remember,” I said, “in Houseparty, there would be a ding-dong on the door bell and someone would come into a living room which had been built in the studio.”

“It had this vast kitchen,” remembered Keith. “I suppose you could have called it a farmhouse kitchen. The programme wasn’t networked to all the ITV regions, but Anglia TV certainly took it – it was probably cheap.”

“How did you introduce Houseparty at Anglia?” I asked, “Because you never had any idea what they were going to be chatting about.”

“Most of the opening station idents in front of the programmes,” Keith reminded me, “had noises – little bits of music which someone got paid repeat fees on – but this particular programme had a silent ident, probably because Southern never thought it was worthy of even a harp being plucked. The ident used to come in silently, just like the Granada symbol.” (Granada allegedly had a silent logo to avoid paying for music.)

“When I was at Anglia,” said Keith, “I always made a point of talking over the opening logo because the programme always opened up with these women gossiping about something or other. So I would just say something like Oh, that’s not true! It can’t possibly be true! and then the sound would mix into their gossip and, a lot of the time, it made sense and it was hysterical. The engineers out the back would yell: Perfect! Perfect!”

In the 1960s, this was a TV star

A UK star with its own TV show in the 1960s…

“Who broadcast the feather duster?” I asked him.

“Oh, that was an ABC Television series,” he told me. “I don’t think it lasted very long because I suspect (the ITV regulatory body) the ITA didn’t think it was meaningful enough.

“It was just popular records playing with this woman talking occasionally to camera and she would do the housework while the record was playing. She was doing feather dustering around the house. And this was on television! I’m surprised it’s not been brought back.”

“This programme lasted half an hour?” I asked.

“Oh, at least half an hour,” said Keith. “And it was live.”

“What sort of year was this?” I asked.

“Some time in the 1960s,” said Keith. “The thing was you could tune into these programmes, switch them on and you could hear ‘popular records’ being played on television. Associated-Rediffusion did something very similar with Kent Walton (who went on to be a wrestling commentator). That was dancing and prancing. It was an excuse to play ‘gramophone records’ and the visuals were young people dancing and prancing around in the studio. Cool For Cats, it was called.

“It was all carefully rehearsed as, I’m sure, the dusting programme itself was so that, by the time the music finished, you would only have got to a particular point in the dusting, otherwise you would be dusting the same doorknob again.”

“What did the woman with the duster say?” I asked.

“Please!” replied Keith. “I’m old, but I’m not that old. I saw it as a child. How I saw it I don’t know. It would have been networked to the Midlands and the whole of the North of England.”

Ah! The golden days of television, before everything was dumbed down.

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How has British comedy changed in the last twenty years? One interesting view.

What has changed? Maybe mouths have got bigger.

How has comedy changed? Have mouths just got bigger?

On Saturday 9th February, I’m going to be on the panel of a Leicester Comedy Festival event at De Montfort University called Oh How We Laughed! Also on the panel will be the London Comedy Store’s owner Don Ward and doyenne of UK comedy critics Kate Copstick. Allegedly, we will be discussing the changes in UK comedy over the last twenty years.

I was asked to give a quote about the Leicester Comedy Festival.

I tried:

I am glad to say that, although it has been going for 20 years – unlike Leicester cheese – it has never matured.

The Leicester Comedy Festival is even older than some of the jokes I hear in endless TV panel shows.

And, about comedy in general:

There were more odd variety acts 20 years ago and I think they may be staging a comeback now. Maybe the era of the pure stand-up is ending.

It’s about time the ‘alternative’ was put back into alternative comedy

The excitement of 20 years ago has changed into reliability. This is not a good thing.

I could not get any of those quotes quite right, so I thought I would ask an acquaintance who likes comedy on TV and in clubs but is not obsessed by it and who, more importantly, is not part of the comedy business. In other words, this person is that legendary, seldom-quoted figure: an ‘ordinary’ person.

I thought there might be some mention of the taming of alternative comedy, of the Michael McIntyre factor making comedy less rebellious. After all, next month Malcolm Hardee will have been dead for eight years.

That was not what was said.

This is what I was told had changed in UK comedy over the last twenty years:

“It’s got nastier in the last twenty years. Ruder. More unpleasant. It’s now got that Fuck off! What are you staring at? kind of attitude. Kicking people when they’re down. Trying to outdo each other by being as crude as possible.”

There speaks an ordinary British comedy-goer who has seen comedy over the last twenty years.

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How not to become a millionaire by creating an original new product

John Ward told me he had had another crap idea

So near and yet so far from becoming a millionaire…

I got an e-mail this morning from mad inventor John Ward.

He has come up with a new idea – the James Bond personalised bog roll holder with incorporated gun rack. He has created it in a hand-carved cherry wood finish with gilt inlay numerals.

Like many of his ideas, there is the twinkle of a marketable commodity here.

I fondly remember his bicycle for window cleaners – the frame of the bike itself became a ladder.

As TV presenter Chris Tarrant once said: “Brilliant, but not quite all there.”

It was not clear if he meant John’s idea or John himself.

Much like writing a daily blog, John Ward has carved out a niche in an area where it is difficult to, in our American cousins’ phrase, ‘monetise the product’.

I am sure there is a market for personalised, hand-carved toilet roll holders, but where you would start to exploit it is another matter. Certainly, with gun included, there must be a market in certain parts of South East London.

As Chris Tarrant implied, John Ward’s ideas are usually brilliant but not yet quite in the Dyson millionaire-making class.

His mobile church font drew some interest from his local vicar… His musical frying pan (hum along while you fry) got some interest… And his bra-warmer received a lot of press attention.

John Ward with the main Malcolm Hardee Award

Marking time until the millions flow in, he designed and built the three annual and increasingly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards… and he once designed a bullshit-detecting machine for me.

Unfortunately, there was so much of it in the air, the machine could not detect a single specific source.

John Ward still needs that one big breakthrough product or an offer to become prop maker to the stars.

All suggestions gratefully received.

Here is an Australian TV report:

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Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Inventions