Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Artists PUSH THE BOAT OUT in South London and talk about rock & toy cars

Tin Tin in Elephant & Castle painting by Harry

I usually tell people that appearing in this blog will not get them paying bums on seats to see their productions, but it may – or may not – get them noticed.

I was going to post this blog about a week ago, to basically plug a week-long London art show titled PUSH THE BOAT OUT – EIGHT SOUTH LONDON ARTISTS. It was previewed last Wednesday, opened on Thursday and runs until Monday this coming week.

Complications in my life plus my dead MacBook Pro laptop and, this week, a cowboy almost destroying my iMac desktop computer for several days intervened.

But the two people who set up the exhibition are so interesting in their own right that I think this blog is well worth a read. And, at the time of posting, the exhibition is still on. Just.

PUSH THE BOAT OUT is an exhibition of mostly-new work by four painters and four sculptors at the Art Academy in what used to be the library of the town hall at Elephant and Castle. The two people who organised it are Harry Pye and James Johnston and I met them in Harry’s studio in New Cross, South London.

Obviously, in what follows, I digressed.


Artists Harry Pye (left) and James Johnston

JOHN: So you live in New Cross…

HARRY: No. This is my studio. I live in Lewisham and work at Tate Britain. I’ve worked in the bookshop at Tate for 22 years – so half my lifetime. I like working there. Hearing people enthuse. It keeps me going.

Like you, I do a blog where I interview creative people. It’s like therapy for me. There are so many terrible things going on in the world that I find, if I pick out a few people and say “Tell me about your project,” it calms me down.

JOHN: I’m the opposite. I just get people to tell me all the terrible things that have ever happened to them. Very cathartic for me. But why organise an art show? Indeed, why bother painting or doing anything arty at all?

HARRY: I think, for a lot of artists, the answer to the question: “Why do you do things?” would be: “Because we’ve got rocks in our heads.” It really doesn’t make sense financially.

JOHN: Ah! Rock! James, you’re a musician. What’s your connection with art?

JAMES: Well, I’ve done touring for years and years and years.

JOHN: As a session musician?

JAMES: Just joining different bands.

JOHN: What instruments?

JAMES: Different stuff in different bands: organ, guitar, violin.

JOHN: Proper bands? Not pub bands but touring bands?

JAMES: All sorts of things really. I had my own band which I started in 1990 – Gallon Drunk, based in London. Then I did big tours with Nick Cave, the German band Faust and, recently, PJ Harvey.

JOHN: Faust? German heavy metal?

JAMES: No. They started in the 1960s as a German hippy band.

JOHN: Hippy?

JAMES: We would turn up at a venue and, to create the right atmosphere, we would all go out and have to pick up a load of stuff in the street and bring it into the venue in binliners to create ambience. We took a threshing machine on tour to blast a load of stuff out into the audience.

JOHN: Isn’t a threshing machine rather large?

JAMES: Massive. We were travelling round in this hopeless old van, sleeping underneath it at petrol stations. It was such a wild experience. One of the things that the bass player would use while we were playing was a chainsaw. I still have a huge great cut in my guitar from when he was waving it around. Mostly he would be carving things with it. Another interesting thing with them was when I went to stay on their farm.

JOHN: They have a farm?

JAMES: Yes. To focus before going on tour, it was suggested that we go around picking all the grass out from between the cobblestones. So we went round the farm on our knees pulling it all out by hand before we went in to rehearse.

JOHN: Because…?

JAMES: It got you into such a different mindset.

JOHN: I imagine it would.

HARRY: One of Faust’s biggest fans is Julian Cope. He said when you write the song it’s a brilliant buzz and then everything else is boring. So he started going into the recording studio naked and then the next time he got a giant tortoise shell just to try and make it exciting. In the same interview, he talked about collecting toy cars. He said if you have no control over your life then have that little hobby and you can say: “Well at least I can control my toy cars”.

I think art is a bit like that. If you have a life that is all compromise, then art allows you to be you – it allows you take a line for a walk.

JAMES: Art is like playing a song for the first time. Each time it’s totally new.

JOHN: But why put on an exhibition?

Harry has a message in one of his distinctive paintings

HARRY: We liked the idea of getting these particular people together. We could be completely wrong but, in our fantasy delusional heads, the show will be even bigger than the sum of its parts. I do feel, in order to make this show as good as it is, it did need all the different elements the eight people bring to it. We think we have the right combination to make it very interesting. We think with these south London artists we have enough differences and similarities to…

JOHN: Is South London particularly arty?

HARRY: Well, William Blake is very much a South Londoner. Lots of curious characters in South London. In the pub James goes to, there’s a Charlie Chaplin booth.

JOHN: What? Like Superman? You go into the booth, twirl round and turn into Charlie Chaplin?

JAMES: I think he was born round there and ran off when he was under ten to join a clog troupe.

HARRY: Nicola Hicks, one of the artists in the show, used to live in Fred Karno’s house. He was the one who got Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin to America. Did you know Vincent van Gogh was a South Londoner?

JOHN: What?

HARRY: He lived in Stockwell for a bit.

JOHN: Did he paint while he was here?

HARRY: He was trying to sell other people’s paintings.

JOHN: You could be the new Vincent van Gogh. Don’t you get frustrated being surrounded by other people’s art at Tate Britain?

HARRY: No. It’s inspiring. Even if you sometime see something you didn’t like, that can be inspiring because it makes you want to do the opposite.

JAMES: The last 2½  years I was involved in this enormous though very creatively rewarding music tour. But, on tours, there is an enormous amount of downtime – just sitting around in hotels and what not – and, during that time, I was admiring a friend’s art and, almost as a challenge, they said: “Why don’t you try doing a picture a day?”

I had no idea if I had any aptitude at all, really, because I hadn’t drawn since A-levels at school.

“Much more rewarding than being part of a rock machine”

So I just packed some art stuff and I had hours and hours of spare every day to do art. It turned into a daily practice and, when I got back, I thought: “This feels so much more rewarding in a way than being part of a big rock machine.” I do love that too but just going straight from that and locking yourself in a room and being insular about how you’re creating something is…

When I got back, I got a studio and I just spend all day every day in there and it has become a complete change of direction. Making a record has so much compromise and diplomacy in it. I quite like the idea of doing something and being totally responsible for everything, whether it’s a success or failure.

JOHN: So have you stopped being a musician?

JAMES: I have a few gigs booked for later in the year.

JOHN: Art is quieter than rock music.

JAMES: Yes, well apart from the raging tinnitus. That is pretty bad. I was on a plane taking off to go on tour and I thought: Christ I can even hear my tinnitus over this!

JOHN: Is that through being too close to big speakers a lot of the time?

JAMES: Yes. Rocking like a bitch.

JOHN: It’s interesting the changes people go through.

HARRY: I was at primary school with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. He was very quiet. He and I and another chap all had birthdays in August and our mothers got together and made us Mr Men cakes. I remember him bring a very gentle soul, so it was strange he tried to blow up a plane with a shoe. But, then, he wasn’t very good at being a shoe bomber. He is going to spend the rest of his life in an American prison, Which is a waste.

JOHN: It’s a shame to waste your life.

HARRY: Yes.

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The misconception about British music halls bred by the BBC’s “Good Old Days”

Last night, I went to the Cinema Museum in London to hear comic Roy Hudd talk with former News Huddlines writer Glenn Mitchell. It is on the site of the old Lambeth Workshop in which Charlie Chaplin lived in June 1896 for a few weeks, when his mother was an inmate. Roy Hudd was talking about the early British music hall stars and there were copious unique film clips.

Comic Roy Hudd (left) sings at the Cinema Museum last night (+ Glenn Mitchell)

Comic Roy Hudd (left) sings at the Cinema Museum last night

But, Glenn Mitchell, explained: “The common denominator of a lot of these early music hall artists is that they pre-date film, they pre-date records. All we have is the sheet music. Sometimes not even photographs: all we have is the artwork from the sheet music.”

Roy Hudd remembered: “Dan Leno once said: I wish I did something else. Artists leave their paintings, sculptors leave sculpture. What does a comedian leave? Only the memory of the last laugh. That was before we reached the point when we could film everything.”

“Even later on,” said Glenn, “there isn’t necessarily a record of what they did make. The films disappeared. The records became lost. This evening is not necessarily about the greatest artists; it has more to do with those who were captured on film. It’s the old gag about history not being about who is right but who is left. This place – the main Cinema Museum room – reminds me of the earliest music halls: the informal seating arrangement, the small platform for a stage, a bar at the side and, best of the lot, drinking in the auditorium.”

Roy Hudd performing on The Good Old Days

Roy Hudd performing on BBC TV’s series The Good Old Days

Roy agreed: “People’s vision of music halls is Leonard Sachs on The Good Old Days. But it grew totally out of the publicans’ interest in making as much money as they possibly could – selling as many drinks as they could. Some enterprising ones decided they’d put on a couple of turns (acts) in the evening and more people would come and see the show and drink their beer.

Charlie Chilton, who was a great expert on music halls, told me: Everyone thinks that, when the chairman bangs his gavel, he’s doing what the Speaker does in the House of Commons – trying to control a drunken mob. But not really. He was trying to flog the beer. When he banged his gavel and said Order, please! Order! he actually meant Order (your beer).”

“It is,” said Glenn, “a nice, sanitised myth, really, what they did on The Good Old Days. In the real old days, it was pretty rough stuff.”

“Not half,” agreed Roy. “I’ve been at Wilton’s Music Hall fairly recently and (in the old days) that was a most awful place. It really was a terrible, terrible place.”

“That place,” said Glenn, “closed down relatively early for a good reason.”

Wilton’s Music Hall still puts on shows

Wilton’s Music Hall in London still stages entertainments…

“Oh yes,” said Roy. “Lots of reasons. When I first went there, they had a little Catholic hospital almost next door and there was a priest who came in and talked to me and he said: It was such a rough old area. All the girls used to be in Wilton’s Music Hall selling their wares, get something terrible, then go into the little hospital round the corner where they’d be cured and then come straight back.”

“Who was the comic,” asked Glenn, “who took his son to a certain type of clinic and…”

Jimmy Wheeler,” said Roy. “His father was a comic with him – they were Wheeler & Wilson, an act in variety. Poor Jim was on a tour with lots of naughty girls and got some sort of ‘problem’ and his father went to the hospital with him in Soho and said: Good morning. We’ve called in answer to your advert in the gentlemen’s toilets on Leicester Square tube station.

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The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Thursday this week is the 8th anniversary of the death by drowning of British comedian Malcolm Hardee a man who, it seems to me, got away with a lot of dubious actions because of his personal charm: people (often including me) simply shrugged, laughed and thought Oh! It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm!

In yesterday’s blog, Malcolm’s sometime neighbour Nick Bernard said: “He could be really quite cruel, but it wasn’t like mean or deliberate. He saw the line of humour and the eventual laugh and he thought: I’ll just go for the humorous line and fuck it!

This got me talking about cruelty in comedy to my friend Louise yesterday.

“In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies. And, in Three Stooges movies, they stab two fingers in other people’s eyes. I never understood why that was supposed to be funny. Even as a kid, it seemed to me to be cruelty not comedy.”

“What about slipping on a banana skin and falling over?” asked Louise.

“That can be funny,” I admitted. “But that’s laughing at the unexpected.  Kicking someone’s bottom or stabbing their eyes out is something different.”

“It’s childish,” said Louise. “Being childish can be a good thing: innocent, curious, enjoying simple unexpected things. But it’s not realising consequences which is the downside. Not realising you’re going to cause damage to someone.

“When you talk about some of the things Malcolm did, the only people I know who would be doing those sort of things at the moment – really, genuinely – are three children I know, who are aged 4, 8 and 10. They think Oh! That’s funny! Let’s skid on that! or Oh, I’m going to throw this at that person and they don’t think it might blind the other person.”

“When Malcolm died,” I remembered “his obituary in The Times said Throughout his life, he maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences. That was written, I think, in admiration. Everyone wants to be free like that, to do whatever they want, to have no fear of consequences but, in reality, it’s a negative thing as well, isn’t it?”

“There’s a lot of cruelty in comedy,” said Louise. “People laugh at other people’s pain. On TV, there’s You’ve Been Framed.”

“It used to be funnier,” I said, “when Jeremy Beadle did it, because the clips were longer. You saw the build-up and you laughed at the unexpected pratfall. Now you just see people falling over or being hit with things edited tightly together with no build-up.

“It’s like editing the punchlines of jokes together without any build-up. It’s like saying To get to the other side… Terrible… She went of her own accord.” When you just edit together the bits where people always laugh and cut out the build-up sections where people never laugh, you lose what makes it funny.”

“And sometimes,” said Louise, “people are not laughing because it’s funny but as a nervous relief. A release of anxiety. Sometimes, when people laugh, they cry, because they are releasing tensions.”

“I think it’s all surprise,” I said. “You’re releasing your relief in a laugh. A lot of jokes are based on the fact you think you know what is going to happen and then, at the last moment, something unexpected happens… A pun… Someone slipping on a banana skin… Even observational comedy: there’s some situation you know well but the comedian shows you a sudden unexpected angle you hadn’t thought of… You laugh because you’re suddenly surprised by the unexpected.

“Malcolm,” I mused, “was a wonderful compere but not really a good stand-up comedian. He had about six jokes which he told for 20-odd years. People always said his comedy routine was his life, which is why there are endless stories about him. And, ironically, that’s why his fame may live on longer than more successful stand-up comedians. That and his autobiography.”

“And with all the stories about Malcolm,” Louise suggested, “people often laugh because he did something which you could never credit anyone would actually do. The element of surprise and shock.”

“Well,” I said, “you know my theory that all the best British sitcoms which last (apart from the ensemble ones like Dad’s Army) are actually tragedies – Steptoe & Son, Hancock, One Foot in The Grave. All terrible situations. They’re situation comedies but not, at heart, comic situations. What’s happening to the characters is not funny and they’re not ‘comic characters’ but you laugh with their difficulties. You laugh at the situations but they are not comic in themselves; it’s the way they are presented.”

“And Johnny Vegas when he started,” said Louise. “He would go on about how terrible this-and-that was and what a terrible life he had and, he said, You’ve all just come along to laugh at me!

“You know,” I said, “how I think Janey Godley is brilliant because she doesn’t say funny things, she says things funny. Her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Good Godley! which was a comic version of her autobiography Handstands in the Dark.

“The book (which I edited) is horrific. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe. It’s terrifying. Just horrific. But she told exactly the same stories on stage in Good Godley! and people were falling about with laughter.

“People who never saw the stage show but read the reviews thought it must be in bad taste because they thought she must be making jokes about rape and murder, but she wasn’t. She was telling the stories straight without comedy, but she was telling them in such a way that the audience were able to release their tension at the end of the stories – and during them – and they did that by laughing.

“People who admire her like me and Stewart Lee have said the same thing – that she doesn’t tell jokes. She tells non-funny stories in a funny way. There’s that YouTube clip from a show which I’ve blogged about before, where she tells the audience she was raped as a child by her uncle but, later, got her uncle killed. The audience laughs. She tells them it’s true. They laugh more. She tells them she got his cock cut off. They laugh even more. The more she tells them it’s true, the more they laugh. But she’s not saying anything that’s funny and, in this case, she’s not even saying it in a funny way. It’s working purely on her personality, her timing  and her ability to ride the laughs. Now that is great comedy. Amazing comedy. Big big laughs. But not funny in itself. It’s the comedian making some unfunny situation into something which gets laughs.”

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The Cinema Museum’s nostalgic smell is in Charlie Chaplin’s old workhouse

Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Cinefiler and collector Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Yesterday, I had a tour of the Cinema Museum in London with Ronald Grant of the separate but linked Ronald Grant Film Archive which has well over one million images from more than 50,000 movies.

Ronald was born near Aberdeen and brought up watching films in his local village hall three nights a week.

“I became enchanted with the cinema,” he said yesterday, clearly under-stating the case. “I liked to help the projectionist and got pieces of film and took them home and showed them on the wall with a magnifying glass and a torch.”

By the time he left school, he just wanted to be a projectionist and got a job with the four Donald brothers who ran 13 of the 15 cinemas in Aberdeen.

Eventually, in London in 1981, his extraordinarily wide-ranging collection of movie memorabilia formed the basis of the Cinema Museum, which is housed in The Master’s House of the old Lambeth Workhouse – the workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was partly brought up.

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum yesterday

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum in London  yesterday

As well as screening rare films, occasionally with producers/directors/actors there to talk about the production, the Cinema Museum has an almost eccentrically wide collection of film memorabilia from stills and posters to UK and UK books and fan magazines, original cinema projectors, signs from the inside and outside of old cinemas, staff uniforms, pieces of period carpet and even something I had never heard of – small tins of cinema fragrance sprays.

Ronald Grant told me:

“You have to remember that, in the 1920s and 1930s, many houses had no piped water. If you had no piped water, then there was a tap and there were lavatories outside and you shared them with the other tenants. If you wanted to have a bath, you had to go to the municipal baths, which cost money. Or you could have a tin bath which you put in front of your open fire. But this meant you had to go downstairs and bring up pails of water, fill the kettles, put the kettles on the range, heat the kettles, fill the bath…

“It was a whole lot of diddle-daddling and fiddling about, so children sometimes shared the water that other people had bathed in and, generally speaking, people didn’t bathe as regularly as they do now.

“In which case, if you had 1,500 to 2,000 of these people in a confined space like a cinema on a hot summer night…

“The other thing was that, before 1948 and the National Health Service, there were a lot of diseases and illnesses that might prove fatal. There was scarlet fever and diphtheria and there was a lot of tuberculosis around, which is a disease of the lungs. People would cough-cough-cough and spit on the floor. Tuberculosis is carried by moisture so, if you’re coughing – and with many people who had tuberculosis their lungs were bad so they would cough – the moist air could carry the tubercular infection.

“People were very nervous about going to crowded places and maybe catching something that might kill them or might involve a lot of attention from the doctor. Before 1948, you had to pay for the doctor. He was a professional like a lawyer and would charge a professional fee. Medicines would all have to be bought at full price.

“So poor families did not want to go anywhere and risk catching something that would create illness.

“And so cinema owners wanted you to think it was fresh and hygienic and they would spray this perfume.

“Here’s one you can smell. This is what was sprayed in the cinema. We have various flavours and scents. This one is Neuroma Spraying Essence – germicide, it says in brackets – Guaranteed to contain powerful germ-destroying properties blended with a delicate perfume.

The Cinema Museum - a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum – a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum has existed since 1981 and has never received any money from any funding body. It hopes to buy its current building which it leases from the NHS, but that could cost anything from £2 million to £5 million.

It would be tragedy to lose a unique collection of movie memorabilia.

Here is a 2000 tour of a small part of the Cinema Museum:

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Never perform comedy with intelligent dogs

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

The first rule of showbusiness is you never perform on the same bill as animals or children.

Last night, there was a very good line-up in the New Variety Lives! show at the Shaw Theatre in London. But what can you do when, also on the stage, unbilled, is ‘Sid Russell’, a small Jack Russell terrier who has bafflingly had over 1,730,000 hits on YouTube in a month – for just running up and down steps –

and who, last night, kept a blue balloon in the air by death-defying leaps upwards to bop it with his cute nose?

On any other night, top-of-the-bill US comedian David Mills, one of the smoothest new acts on the UK comedy circuit – indeed, he was New Act of the Year 2011 – would have been a difficult act to follow, but even a highly charismatic comedian is no competition for a leaping Jack Russell.

Compere Jo Brand, excellent new female comedian Tania Edwards, Nathaniel Tapley as cast-iron-TV-show-prospect ‘Sir Ian Bowler MP’ and New Zealand comic Javier Jarquin who had an excellent street-theatre-type act which I have never seen before and which built to a cracking climax – all those and more were trumped by an acrobatic Jack Russell terrier…

But then, earlier in the day, I had learned with others at the Fortean Times UnConvention all about the species superiority of Canine Intellectuals and Celebrated Talking Dogs.

Jan Bondeson was plugging his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities and, if his book is anything like his one-hour lecture, it must be a cracker.

We had tales of Rolf, the militaristically-inclined German dog who could discuss religion and philosophy but who, at the outbreak of World War One, demanded he should join the German Army despite the fact he was a Yorkshire terrier.

And we had Don, an alleged talking dog who was so intelligent he was earning 12,000 marks per month in German music halls even before he went to the US in July 1912 to perform at Oscar Hammerstein’s famous Roof Garden theatre in New York, where he shared the bill with a man with a 9-foot beard and a troupe of dancing midgets. Don was insured for $50,000, kept profitably touring the US until August 1914 and met Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Buster Keaton.

At my school, I never got taught any of this in history lessons.

Apparently Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, taught a dog to say, “How do you do, grandma?”

And even the Nazis took an interest in super-intelligent dogs. When they transported Jews, any ‘innocent’ pet dogs were given to ‘good’ Aryan families and there were even Nazi research institutes for educated dogs.

All this came as enough of a shock to me yesterday without It being topped by ‘Sid Russell’ and his acrobatic, balloon-bopping antics.

I think I need to lie down.

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Filed under Comedy, Dogs, Strange phenomena, Theatre