Tag Archives: Chaucer

The newish comic most likely to become successful? I get sidetracked by Chaucer

Archie at Soho Theatre this week

Archie at the Soho Theatre in London this week

You can never tell who is going to succeed. Some extremely talented performers crash and burn. Some with minimal talent strike it lucky. (See vast swathes of BBC3.)

So who do I guess is the current reasonably-new comedian most likely to succeed…?

Archie Maddocks.

Maybe as a comedian.

Maybe as something else.

I blogged about him back in October last year.

I saw him recently in the Amused Moose Laugh Off Awards semi-finals. He got through to the final at the Edinburgh Fringe on 3rd August.

And I was one of the judges at the English Comedian of The Year a couple of weeks ago. Archie was competing but was not in the first three.

“What about talent contests?” I asked him when we met at Soho Theatre this week.

“I completely understand why they’re there,” he told me. “But I really don’t like them. The judging panel could love someone on one night then see them another night and think they’re shit. There’s so many different things go into that one night.

“My ideal way to do it would be to have a final every night for a week and put the comedians in different places on the bill, then take an average score. That would make sense for me in terms of comedy.”

“You’re at the Edinburgh Fringe this year,” I said, “but not in a solo show.”

Edinburgh Fringe show 2014

Maddocks’ & Oliphant’s Fringe show 2014

“I’m not going to do a solo show,” said Archie, “until 2016 at the earliest. At the Fringe this year, I’m one of the acts in Just The Tonic’s Big Value Showcase. And I’m doing a free show called Cookies & Cream with Jamie Oliphant who, surprisingly, doesn’t have a joke about his name. And I’m doing lots of other little things. But not a solo show. I’m not ready.”

“What’s your Unique Selling Proposition?” I asked.

“Probably confidence,” said Archie. “Everyone seems to say I’m stupidly confident for my position. But I’m very at home on stage. Some people have said that to me as a criticism, but how can that be a criticism?”

“I guess,” I said, “you feel comfortable because you grew up in a theatrical family where it was not abnormal to stand up in front of people and do strange things. Do you get stage fright?””

“No, but you can tell I’m nervous if I speak faster. I used to do this pacing thing just cos I wasn’t comfortable standing still and talking. But now I am. I only move when it makes sense to move. Coming to stand-up from an acting background is weird. I think there’s more recognition for acting. When an audience watches an actor, they recognise what that person’s job is. Whereas, with comedy, they’re not quite clear what job the comic is doing.”

“If you’re an actor,” I suggested, “the audience knows you have artificially created that atmosphere in the room but, with a good comic, it feels like they are just chatting to you in a non-artificial way so it feels like they are not performing, just being themselves.”

“I guess,” said Archie.

“You’ve probably,” I joked, “written 15 plays since the last time I chatted to you.”

Archie’s Compulsion at the Fringe

Fringe Compulsion: self-punishment & flagellation

“I’ve written a few plays,” laughed Archie. “One is going to be at the Fringe. It’s my first Edinburgh play. It’s called Compulsion and it’s about self-punishment and self-flagellation.”

“Sounds like comedians,” I said.

“Sort of,” laughed Archie. “It’s set in the minds of this one man and it’s him compulsively going over whether or not he has been a good person, looking back at memories of when he found himself being ashamed of something. It’s about him kind of descending into insanity.”

“You’re not performing in that?”

“No. I’ve written and directed it.”

“And a ‘serious’ actor plays the part of the man?”

“There’s several of them.”

“Different facets of the mind?”

“Exactly. They are called The Facets. Four of them altogether; one playing the same character throughout; the other three switching between facets and memories.”

“Directing is dead easy, isn’t it?” I said. “You just tell ‘em to stand over there and put more emphasis on a couple of words.”

Archie at the Comedy Cafe Theatre

Archie straddling comedy and theatre at the Shoreditch venue

“It is much harder work than I anticipated,” replied Archie. “It’s the first time I’ve directed a proper production; I’ve directed youth theatre before, but that’s very different. I think it’s something I’d like to do more of later on. It’s interesting to be so much more immersed into a text – moreso than when you are just acting. I feel I am the eyes of the audience and I’m conducting how I want them to see it.”

“It’s like writing,” I suggested. “The way to write is not to think of yourself as the writer but to go round 180% and look on what you are writing as if you are the reader, seeing the words for the first time as they appear on the page.”

“Exactly,” said Archie.

“As a director,” I asked, “did you change any of the pearls of wisdom you wrote as a writer?”

“Yes. Cut words. Cut entire scenes. Added in new scenes.”

“Was that,” I asked, “because you changed your mind or because the actors played it differently to the way you had imagined?”

“A combination of things,” explained Archie. “And we have no budget, so there were some scenes I thought we would be able to pull them off and we couldn’t.”

“Because of scenery and effects?” I asked.

“Scenery and time constraints, because it’s only a 50-minute play. There was originally a scene where they were going to be talking in metaphor about how a man has to use his tools in order to be a good craftsman and how that translates into actually being a good man. It was a nice scene but, in the whole dynamic and rhetoric of the play, it didn’t add anything. I would have had to dress them up in high-visibility building gear. That’s an expense we don’t need. We would have had to build a soundscape for the builders’ yard. So I threw that out. Now we have people in parks, people in showers. Very easy to do just with subtle lighting changes.

Archie Maddocks

Archie – stories not words are precious

“Obviously I found it hard directing my own writing because I’m so close to it – It’s hard to cut certain things and, if the actors dropped a line, at first I would get a bit precious. Oh no – I wrote that for a reason! But, if rhythmically the actors are not getting what I saw and it’s coming out not as I thought it would come out, then I’ll change it around to make it make sense. The exact words are not that important. The story is still being told.”

“It’s like spelling,” I said. “Correct spelling is much over-rated. Shakespeare couldn’t even spell his own name.”

“And he made up words,” said Archie, “No-one complained about that.”

“Did he?” I asked.

“I think he made up the word ‘swagger’ and made up the phrase ‘heart on your sleeve’. Something like 500 words and phrases have been attributed to Shakespeare.”

“I think Roald Dahl invented the word ‘gremlin’,” I said. “You could die happy if you got a new word in the Oxford English Dictionary.”

“This is why,” said Archie, “I get really annoyed with people who don’t like kids who talk in slang. It’s their own language. You can’t be annoyed at that. If you don’t understand it, don’t say You must talk like I talk.”

“Chaucer is unintelligible,” I said. “Have you read Chaucer?”

“Yeah. I love Chaucer. But it’s hard to get through.”

“I couldn’t cope with Chaucer,” I said. “Shakespeare’s within bounds, but Middle English is another language.”

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

Seer Gahwayn and Te Green Kennihte or however it was pronounced in the far-off Middle English days

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” said Archie. “Great story, but its readability… phwoah!

“I remember,” I said, “reading some Edgar Wallace novel which was written maybe around the 1910s or 1920s and thinking it was written in a slightly different language from the 1960s and 1970s.”

“Yeah,” said Archie, “Language evolves and people should accept the evolution of it, rather than try to kill it.”

“Presumably,” I said, “English will develop into the world language, but there will be Indian English and Chinese English as well as American English. I mean, Yorkshire English and Glasgow English and Kerry English are all slightly different.”

“There will,” said Archie, “be just be loads of different versions of pidgin English.”

“Which is why it’s a great language,” I said.

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Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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The woman who has stayed in a bedroom cupboard for over two years

Last night I had a somewhat over-priced snack in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a very pleasant place to be with subtle up-lighters to the vaulted brick ceiling and tastefully up-dated modernity out in the corridor plus a very emotionally satisfying circular glass lift up to ground level. It is a very relaxing place to sit and chat although, because this is the crypt of a church built in 1542 and re-built in 1726, the chairs and tables and kitchens stand on headstones and ancient bones including, I think, those of Nell Gwyn.

I sat wondering what Samuel Pepys would have made of this future world if he could see it. Pepys had a nude picture of Nell Gwyn hanging above his desk.

“What am I going to do with my mother?” my friend interrupted.

“What?” I asked, distracted.

“My mother. I don’t know what to do with her. She’ll have to go somewhere.”

“Where is she?” I asked.

“In the bedroom cupboard at home. She’s been there for over two years.”

“I know,” I said, trying to be sympathetic. “I had my father in the kitchen for about 18 months. I didn’t like to bring up the subject with my mother in case it upset her. Is there anywhere your mother liked that had a special place in her heart?”

My friend pondered this long and hard.

Dickens & Jones,” she eventually mused. “She adored Dickens & Jones.”

“They might think it was bad for business,” I said, trying to be practical while remaining sympathetic. “And department stores tend to clean the floors an awful lot. They’d vacuum her up.”

“It’s what she would have wanted,” my friend said quietly. “She was always at her happiest in Dickens & Jones. But it doesn’t exist any more. So, realistically, I would have to scatter her ashes inside John Lewis in Oxford Street. She liked shopping there too.”

“How about St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey?” I suggested.

My friend looked unconvinced.

“She would be among the great and the good of the country,” I re-assured her. “Nelson, Wellington, Chaucer, Charles Dickens, people like that… You could just go in and drop her surreptitiously in a corner when no-one’s looking. It’s all grey stone. They’d never notice and they must only sweep the corners and dust the edges of the floors by the walls every couple of centuries. I’m sure someone must have done it before.”

My friend still looked unconvinced.

“It would be like The Great Escape,” I suggested, trying to get her enthusiasm going. “When they drop the earth from the tunnel down the inside of their trouser legs.”

“Sounds a bit messy,” my friend said.

And that was that.

But I am still convinced it is good idea and deserves further consideration. We live in occasionally surreal times and have to think laterally to keep pace with reality.

Who would have thought a man would try to blow up a plane using a shoe bomb, that MPs would be going to prison for fiddling their expenses and that the European Court’s advisors would reckon it is against basic Human Rights to ban people imprisoned for murder, rape and terrorist offences from voting in an election.

Later, as I was walking through St Pancras station, my eyes accidentally strayed to the Eurostar arrivals board. The next three trains were from Paris, Brussels and Disneyland. I half expected to see Mickey Mouse get off a train hand-in-hand with Pinnochio.

Twenty feet further on, I passed an overweight man in his 40s sitting at a table. He had receding hair at the front of his head and a bald patch at the back. He was eating a croissant and was dressed as a schoolboy. No-one looked at him because no-one thought it odd.

In my train home, a middle-aged woman was talking to a stuffed meerkat. Neither the woman nor the meerkat appeared to have a mobile phone.

What would Samuel Pepys have made of this future world?

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