Tag Archives: Charles Hawtrey

An Edinburgh Fringe show: PR Mark Borkowski on meeting “bonkers people”

The last time Mark Borkowski – legendary UK PR guru and master of the publicity stunt – appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe as a performer was 15 years ago with his Sons of Barnum show. This year, he’s back for five days (17th-21st August at Assembly, George Square) with an autobiographical show: False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy.

So I talked to him via Zoom at his home in Gloucestershire.


JOHN: What is the “inner crazy”?

MARK: It’s about not suppressing the idea that something is a totally loopy thing to do. We are told now there are so many rules you can’t break that we don’t even start looking at really disruptive thoughts which might change our lives.

JOHN: Why are you crazily taking another show to Edinburgh?

MARK: It’s 40 years of the Assembly and it was really important to me. Back then, it was about building a network. I slept on a journalist’s floor – Nigel Reynolds. And it was because everybody went to the Fringe. Every arts journalist of any repute went there and I saw the importance of making a network. That’s what my show this year is about, really. It has lessons for people to think about serendipity and adventure.

We don’t talk enough about how important it is to connect. Everything is promoted through technology now. Zoom. WhatsApp.

In this show I felt I could remind people about the importance of the physical moment of bumping into somebody in Edinburgh and making a relationship.

I will NEVER have a bad word to say about Edinburgh because Edinburgh is different. We are all this inner chimp inside of us: the caveman. We are all fired-up by feeding, fucking and fighting that Steve Peters, in The Chimp Paradox, wrote about. We’ve gotta make the effort.

So I thought Forty years! It would be an interesting point to juxtapose 40 years ago when I publicised and produced a show and lost a lot of money and saw failure… and learning from all that failure.

JOHN: So it’s good to fail at the Edinburgh Fringe?

MARK: Learning from failure in Edinburgh is a fantastic lesson. You learn about money; you learn about what’s good and bad; you see other things that are good; you learn from other people; and it’s a massive classroom. If you allow it to be. Reminding people about the elemental power of Edinburgh is partly why I wanted to go again.

I’ve been stuck, because of Covid, not enjoying culture for two years. So I wanna get that huge fix again. I want to be reminded that there are lunatics in Edinburgh. There are crazy people doing stuff – and I don’t mean the over-promoted stuff. The big arena/massive venue stuff is not the real Edinburgh Fringe.

JOHN: What is?

MARK: Some sweaty, horrible place that probably doesn’t quite pass fire or safety regulations but you’ll probably see something bonkers there. The act might not become Michael McIntyre or find its way onto Britain’s Got Talent – well, maybe it will as a freak – but it’s something to remind ourselves and re-plug-in.

In many ways, I see this as an experiment. My last show 15 years ago – Sons of Barnum – was an experiment to see if I had a book, maybe inspired by you a bit. And this time I want to see if there’s room for an autobiography of lunatics or ‘disruptors’ I’ve met.

If people buy into that, then maybe I will set about writing a book about it as well.

Let’s see if a younger audience – and it WILL be a younger audience in Edinburgh this year – will they buy into my mantra. If they do buy into my mantra, then there’s a hope I can do more. I am using Edinburgh as an experiment and that is what the Fringe used to be about.

JOHN: Surely An Autobiography About a Bunch of Showbiz Lunatics must be a commercial book?

MARK: Well, you have to strike the right balance. Publishers want the juicy stuff and I wouldn’t ever give away stuff that was entrusted to me. There would be stuff they would want me to focus on that I’m not interested in talking about.

JOHN: You can’t libel dead people.

MARK: Yeah, but their families are still there and, if their families don’t know the stories, what right have I got to tell the story of someone who didn’t want it to be told? There’s responsibility in memory which you have as a professional. You were paid; you had a trusted relationship. Some people I fell out with, but that’s no reason to do anything. If you seek revenge, prepare to dig two graves.

JOHN: You could write a real tell-all book that’s only published after your death. You’ll be dead and all the relevant people will be dead.

MARK: But your motivation when you’re alive should remain when you’re in your grave.

JOHN: When you are running a successful PR company, presumably to make money you have to have boring clients despite the fact your passion is to have mad clients.

MARK: It’s a balance. I always had and always will have an ear open to somebody with a mad idea.

JOHN: Have you ever actually turned down a client because they were going to be too boring? 

MARK: Oh, loads. In the early days, I did turn down half a million quid. I just felt it would dry me up. 

JOHN: It says here you’re “the last of the old school publicists”. How are the new publicists different?

MARK: Influencers. Influencer relations. It’s more using tech. Young people just won’t pick up the phone.

  • “Well, I texted him”…
  • “Well, pick up the fucking phone and talk to them!” 

People THINK they want to be a publicist, want to be a storyteller… but they just don’t pick up the phone! 

JOHN: Surely they can FaceTime rather than pick up the audio phone?

MARK: Same difference. I’m talking about the fact they would rather deal with an issue in a 3-line text. That is bizarre to me.

The other day, a tech journalist said to me that he could never get to meet people but finally he met this PR person for coffee and, afterwards, she called him up and said:

“I really enjoyed that. Can I ask a favour?… Would you say you met two of my friends?… Our boss is pushing us to go out all the time to meet people. We don’t really want to do that. So, if you could just say you ‘met’ them, my boss will be off their backs.”

I thought how terribly sad that was. To have a metric, a box ticked. I’m not anti-tech, but I just think we’re losing something.

I’m sick and tired of people who rely on everything from apps. To be guided around a city, to date, to shag. They probably even use WhatsApp to get their drugs.

I think there is something important about the connection of meeting people.

JOHN: We are talking on Zoom. You are in the West Country; I am in London. Does this count as meeting me?

MARK: Yes and no. It’s the best thing we can do until we get back to the idea of me coming back to London five days a week… No, it’s not the same… But, if you can’t have a ten minute conversation about an issue, hearing the tone of voice and so on, what’s the point? What do you KNOW about that person from a text?

JOHN: PR is just advertising face-to-face…?

MARK: There was a horrible time in the 2000s where ad agencies did see PR as an extension of advertising.

JOHN: Isn’t it?

MARK: It’s a communication practice to be sure, but… PR is a many-headed hydra. You cut one off and there’s another one that grows on in a different way. PR is a subtler craft of using influencers and social media and building content and a network.

JOHN: What’s the point of paying for PR at the Edinburgh Fringe? Acts can do it themselves.

MARK: Well some people go up and have a punt and they’re not very professional. They don’t understand the story or how to run a stunt, so it just becomes a bit of a noise.

JOHN: Your show False Teeth in a Pork Pie is only on for five days…

MARK: A five-day experiment.

JOHN: And after that?

MARK: I genuinely don’t know. I’m following my own mantra: Just see what happens. If it works, maybe I’ll travel it around, come to London with it. There’s a smattering of names in it. The Marlon Brando moment with Tony Kaye… My madness in Swindon… How I escaped being arrested… Stuff about Charles Hawtrey when I had to look after him… and just the joy of bonkers people, really.

They think differently; they look at things differently. I would never have met them if I hadn’t started my venture partly in Edinburgh and trusted in getting lost.

Serendipity is that event or that person you just bump into. That’s the joy of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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How Charlie Chuck got into showbiz and what’s next at the Edinburgh Fringe

Next week, I am organising – if that is the word – Malcolm Hardee Week at the Edinburgh Fringe – five events over five days to celebrate the memory of the late great godfather of British alternative comedy. Things seem to becoming together fairly well.

Yesterday morning, Paul Provenza agreed to take part in the first Malcolm Hardee Debate on Monday 22nd on the proposition that “Comedians are Psychopathic Masochists with a Death Wish”. I will be chairing the debate which will, in theory, be serious but, with luck, include lots of laughs.

Paul will be flying in from Los Angeles this Thursday in time for next Monday’s debate. He is perhaps most famous on this side of the pond for directing The Aristocrats movie. Also on the panel for the Malcolm Hardee Debate will be “the godmother of Scottish comedy” Janey Godley and Show Me the Funny judge and doyenne of Fringe comedy critics Kate Copstick. There will also be a forth, hopefully jaw-dropping panelist who cannot be confirmed nor named until later this week.

I think it’s quite an interesting line-up, especially if I get that fourth surprise and surprising guest. It starts Malcolm Hardee Week on an interesting level and the week ends with the likes of Puppetry of the Penis, Frank Sanazi and Charlie Chuck in the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on Friday 26th.

Which I why I went to have tea and two fried eggs with Charlie Chuck yesterday lunchtime.

He is living in a flat in Dalry House near Haymarket in Edinburgh. In the late 1600s, a rich bloke called John Chiesley owned the house. In 1688, he divorced his wife who wanted a lot of his money in settlement and the local magistrate Sir George Lockhart told John Chiesley he should pay it. He didn’t take this news well. He shot the magistrate dead the next year. They arrested him, chopped off the arm he shot the gun with and hung him. The ghost of ‘Johnny One Arm’ was said to haunt Dalry House until 1965 when a body was found in the garden – a 300-year-old one-armed corpse. The hauntings stopped.

“I suppose,” Charlie Chuck suggested, “after he were dug up, he figured I can’t be bothered any more.”

But Charlie Chuck had other problems when he moved into the house for the Fringe.

He told me: “The woman upstairs seen me going in and out of the building with long hair and a bicycle I’d borrowed and a balaclava hat on me head because of the rain and she called the police. They came and talked to me and they went upstairs and they told the woman:

It’s Charlie Chuck. He got a four star review in The Scotsman.

“The woman felt awkward about this, so she comes down knocking on my door with a pink cake she’s baked to say sorry. She had looked on my website and seen all about Cakey Pig and One-Eyed Dog and she’d made me a big pink cake shaped like a pig’s head and she said it were Cakey Pig.

“I were a bit apprehensive at first and thought Oh, I hope she’s not put nowt dodgy in it, but she’s a lovely lass and she’s from Texas. I said to her At least it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I got on great with her and she might be coming to see the show tonight.”

Charlie Chuck – or, rather, Dave Kear – the man who is Chuck – covers an extraordinary range of British showbiz history in music and comedy, from meeting Bill Haley and the Comets through playing as a drummer in a soul and a hippie band to performing at US air bases in Germany for US troops going off to Vietnam, many of whom never returned… to being part of a highly successful German Oompah band and performing on the mainstream British holiday camp circuit before turning to alternative comedy, Malcolm Hardee, fame on the James Whale TV shows and The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer.

Charlie Chuck’s career mirrors enormous social changes in Britain over the last 50 years.

At one time in the mid 1960s – well before his TV fame in the early 1990s – he owned six houses and became a horse race tipster – he was banned from three betting offices for being too successful. He had inside information: he knew someone who was married to a multi-millionaire who sold meat to Morrison’s supermarkets:

“She knew by looking at a horse if it were fit,” he told me.

“My dad were a coal miner for thirty year. I had a rough upbringing in Leeds. I remember one old woman was found half-eaten by a rat. What changed me life were sitting down and having dinner with the team from the Carry On films.

“I used to be a dustbin man but I strained myself and they put me on road sweeping – picking dead dogs up. I had two dustbins, a flask on one side and a radio on the other. I was also playing part-time as a drummer in a band called Mama’s Little Children. We had an agent called Eddie who also managed The Troggs, but they weren’t famous then.

“Round about 1961 or 1962, Eddie got us booked into Battersea Park in London. It were a three-day event for the News of the World. Roger Moore was there because, at the time, he were famous as The Saint on TV and Sean Connery because he were James Bond and there were Cheyenne off the TV and the cast of BonanzaDan Blocker and all that lot – and James Mason. Then there were lots of bands who were famous at the time: The Fourmost, The Merseybeats, The Swinging Blue Jeans.

“So, on Friday night I were a road sweeper… then Saturday I’m in Battersea Park at this mega-event held in three compounds… When I went out of the compound, I were mobbed. People were mobbing me thinking I were maybe one of the Swinging Blue Jeans cos I had long hair. There were that many celebs and bands they didn’t know who I were, really, but they thought I might be famous. And I thought Well, this is fantastic!

“When I went back in the compound, away from the public, of course, I were a nobody. Mama’s Little Children and The Troggs were doing the gig for free – cos we weren’t famous. But I met all these people and we sat down for dinner – big long table – and I were sat next to The Pretty Things and Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films.

“On Sunday night, I came back home from this exhilarating experience and I were picking me dustbins up on Monday morning in Seacroft in Leeds. I thought Bloody hell! I don’t want this!

“That was in the August. In November, me and two of the lads who worked at Burtons the tailor and another who were a taxi driver – we all turned professional and all went to Germany. We were out there playing gigs until January. My wages as a dustbin man were £11 a week; but in Germany, I got £53 a week and we toured with Tony Sheridan who the Beatles had played with.

“It were great. That were how it all started.”

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