Tag Archives: Claire Dowie

John Dowie on Bowie, Bolan, bicycles, drinking, drugs, poetry, prose and book

John Dowie is not an easy man to describe even without a hat

I worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas with John Dowie’s sister Helga.

His other sister is writer/director/actor Claire Dowie.

John wrote an original short story for the Sit-Down Comedy book which I compiled/edited with late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

But John Dowie is not an easy man to describe. 

He is a man of many hats.

Wikipedia currently describes him as a “humourist” and says:

“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”

Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative. 

We had this blog chat to talk about his new book, The Freewheeling John Dowie, the Stewart Lee blurb quote for which reads:

“Great cycle of life and love and death”

“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”

Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”

Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…


DOWIE: This book my first prose work.

FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.

DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.

FLEMING: So why now?

DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.

FLEMING: Picaresque?

DOWIE: Is that the word?

FLEMING: I dunno.

DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.

FLEMING: How has the book done?

An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway

DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.

FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?

DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?

DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?

DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.

FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.

DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.

FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…

DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.

FLEMING: To distract them?

DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.

“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”

“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”

“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”

It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.

FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?

DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.

FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…

DOWIE: … doing mime… Supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex… I saw that too.

FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.

DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.

FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)

DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.

FLEMING: A great name, though.

DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.

FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.

DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.

FLEMING: Eh?

Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.

FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?

DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.

FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.

DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.

FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.

DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.

FLEMING: I don’t know that one.

DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”

FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?

William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea

DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.

FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?

DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.

FLEMING: On stage, though?

DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.

FLEMING: I think that might just be you.

DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.

FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.

FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?

DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.

FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?

John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August

DOWIE: No. But I’m doing Fringe By The Sea at North Berwick.

FLEMING: Ah! Claire Smith is organising that – It’s been going ten years but she’s been brought in to revitalise it this year. What are you doing? A one-off in a Spiegeltent?

DOWIE: Yeah. A 40-minute reading from my book and then a Question & Answer section.

FLEMING: What next for creative Dowie?

DOWIE: I’m waiting to see what happens with the book.

FLEMING: It’s autobiographical. Will there be a sequel?

DOWIE: Depends how long I live.

FLEMING: At your age, you’ll die soon.

DOWIE: I’m not going to die soon!

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The writer behind Stuart Leigh – the world’s No 1 Stewart Lee tribute act

Stewart Lee wins a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Yesterday, I had a meal with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly in Soho. He sniffled. I coughed. We both had colds.

Last week, I saw an invitation-only try-out of Mark’s hour-long show Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which he is in the process of writing.

He first tried it out in Claire Dowie’s Living Room Theatre then, a few days later, at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club – the performance I saw.

“What you saw last week,” Mark told me yesterday, “was a rough version of one of several series of texts. I’ve got nearly four hours to choose from. It was maybe 30% different from the first performance at Claire Dowie’s – and I performed it differently.”

Mark’s brief description of Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act is:

An all-night garage. 

A man attempts to make a purchase.

What could go wrong?

The monologue is delivered by a character who thinks of himself as The World’s No 1 Stewart Lee Tribute Act and who interacts with the man behind the counter, through the glass, at the garage.

“How did you describe the show to Stewart Lee?” I asked Mark.

“I haven’t particularly,” he replied. “I invited him to the gigs and he said he was worried, if he came, that people might be looking at him to see his reaction rather than looking at the piece. And he did not want to be seen as, in any way, approving or colluding because it would look wrong for both of us – he would look smug and it would undermine the idea of me as an outsider. I offered to send him a script – either a rough script or the finished script. He decided not to read it because, if there was anything in it he didn’t like or which would upset him, he would rather not know.”

The next try-out (possibly in July) may open with Vivienne Soan playing avant-garde saxophone in the style of Evan Parker, whom Stewart Lee likes: “There’s room in my piece to have a busker in the garage forecourt,” says Mark.

“My intention is to move it into a much more performance art type of thing. I’m probably going to make it a bit more poetic, with internal rhyming. Obviously, comics have scripts, but it’s disguised text; it’s written to be spoken as conversational monologue. I am going to make no attempt at all to disguise the fact my script is textual; I would highlight the fact it is.

“The next stage will probably involve an environmental soundtrack of late-night garage sounds treated to make them sound a bit dreamy and trippy – not intrusive, but they’d be there – probably some live music, a lot of visuals and the text broken up and done in a quite substantially different way. And the stage set will probably be projected – it’s a photograph of me at a garage in a hoodie with my back to the camera walking into a circle of light.

“I’m playing with the idea of having a disguised series of foot pedals linked to the microphone with different effects on and I can press the pedals. But I have to decide how funny I want it to be because I don’t think anyone’s ever performed treated voice comedy. And there’s a good reason for that. If you concentrate on jokes, you want the voice to be clear and audible. So the idea of doing jokes with echo and reverb is a bit alien.”

Reaction to the two try-outs has been varied, Mark tells me.

“There are a handful of people who think it’s absolutely brilliant. And there are a handful of people who absolutely hate it. I mean really really dislike it.

“My old double-act partner Paul Brightwell loathes it. We used to perform as Cheap and Nasty – I was Mr Nasty.

“Paul tends not to like anything I do and then gradually warms to it, though not always. He is one of two or three people who think it’s a complete waste of time in every sense, that there’s nothing happening, there’s nothing of interest, there’s a passable impression of Stewart Lee’s style, there are a few jokes about comedy which are amusing but there’s no substance to it, there’s nothing happening… What point is it I am trying to make? Why don’t I just fuck off? That kind of stuff.

“I’m quite happy that some people hate it, as long as some people really like it. Those people who said it was really boring said so in terms that implied they were really infuriated by it, which is quite good.

“Other people have actually got it, though one person who saw the show actually asked me: Why do you hate Stewart Lee? – I said: No! No! He’s a friend!

“When you perform, obviously, people assume the character speaks for you, which is not the case at all. My piece doesn’t have to be about Stewart Lee. It could be about a tribute act for a fictional act. It’s about identity, about someone who is alienated struggling to find some sense of identity and a way in the world. But it’s also about what, to me, is the nightmare of post-modernism, which I think we’ve already entered. It is very difficult to find an argument that galvanises any more, because everything is immediately presented with its opposite or is presented with a counter argument. It’s very, very difficult to find arguments out of any situation and everything repeats so, in a way, Stewart Lee is the comic de nos jours. Stewart Lee’s act is very, very useful.

“It seems to me it’s also about the solipsism of digital culture. I refer to the Chortle comedy website. The important bit about the Chortle reference is the line …and, through the medium of ill-informed comedy criticism, I have managed to gather together a network of like-minded individuals in low-paid jobs at all-night garages the length and breadth of Britain.

“That, to me, is the important image, because it is just true. Everywhere around Britain, there are these people on low-paid jobs, really bored out of their minds in all-night garages. The all-night garage is the symbol of a certain type of labour, a certain type of situation. To me, it just spells alienation in all sorts of ways. You are stuck behind this glass, often in a very small space, and the only people you talk to are very often stoned or drunk.”

“Watching your play,” I told Mark. “was very odd. I somehow lost all my critical faculties. I was listening to the writing and watching the delivery, which so mesmerised me I ended up having no opinion on what I was actually watching except that it was very densely and well written.”

“Well,” said Mark, “I know what I want the effect on the audience to be. I want it to be quite hypnotic and dreamlike and for the audience to enter a sort-of trance-like state. That again is why using Stewart Lee’s act is quite good, because he does all that repetition stuff anyway… So feeling ‘mesmerised’ is good.

“One thing I accidentally missed out when I performed it last week – and it really needs to be in – is that, at one point, the character says to the guy in the garage who is going to be his manager, So you see what I’m offering is an overview of Stewart Lee’s style done in the style of Stewart Lee and then there’s talk about the existentialism involved in it. Then he says: I’m not suffering from an identity crisis, I’m suffering from a lack of bookings.

“That’s kind of the heart of it.

“The idea for that line was lifted from a TV programme about a guy who has that collecting mania where you can’t throw anything out and he’s taken it to the most amazing extent imaginable. He inherited quite a large house and every single room is piled up to the lintels. He was actually having to crawl on top to get in. They brought in this psychiatrist to help him and you could see this psychiatrist gradually having to admit defeat. It was utterly dysfunctional. And eventually the guy tells the psychiatrist: My problem is not psychological. my problem is a lack of storage space.

“To me that was a moment of comedy and tragedy simultaneously. That’s one of the things that’s going on in my piece.”

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A dog called Dylan and the fickle finger of fame

Last night I went to South East London to see Charmian Hughes’ try-out of her upcoming Brighton Fringe/Edinburgh Fringe show The Ten Charmandments at the equally charming and fascinating Living Room Theatre which is, indeed, just what it says on the label.

It’s a living room theatre.

I suppose I should have counted, but I think the full room had an audience of twelve, sitting in a U-shape. That’s ten or eleven more than some Edinburgh Fringe shows I’ve been to.

The Living Room Theatre allows performers to preview and try-out shows in an amiable, low-key atmosphere and is run by writer-performer Claire Dowie and Colin Watkeys who, among his other accomplishments was apparently the late, much-lamented Ken Campbell’s manager. Now THAT must have been a job and a half.

But, oddly, it was the theatre dog’s name that leapt to mind this morning and the fickle nature of fame. Yes, the Living Room Theatre has a dog. Dylan the dog, though missing from the performance itself, was an amiable and attentive addition to the over-all theatrical event.

It was the name “Dylan” that got to me, though.

People want their name to be remembered, but how that name is remembered is sometimes not what they might have hoped for.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wanted to be remembered as a serious mathematician, logician and academic; instead, he was remembered first as children’s author Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and, more recently, as the taker of some rather dodgy photographs of young children; his reputation has started to transform into a sort-of Victorian wannabe Gary Glitter.

Thomas Crapper was a very admirable man whose hard work and professionalism changed the hygiene, health and social behaviour of the British nation – there are manhole covers with his company’s name proudly displayed in Westminster Abbey, scene of our recent glamorous Royal Wedding… but his surname has become synonymous with shit. He can’t be turning happily in his grave.

And pity poor Dylan Thomas, the verbose Welsh bard, who presumably wanted to be known for his literary art and womanising but people’s first thoughts of the name “Dylan” soon turned into a Jewish folk singer with incomprehensible lyrics and a terrible singing voice, then into an animated rabbit with acid-head drug fans in the Anglicised version of The Magic Roundabout and now, it seems, among cutting-edge theatre-goers in South East London, into a dog’s name. Though, admittedly, he is a very likeable dog. Probably more likeable than the verbose Welsh bard.

Oh – for the record – The Ten Charmandments is very well worth seeing, though God may disapprove of the name change.

I particularly recommend the sand dance.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Music, Theatre