In my last blog, a man with no settled name talked about his life in music, comedy and surrealism. One of his names was/is Wavis O’Shave and he became/remains a cult figure from his appearances on Channel 4 TV’s The Tube.
This is the concluding part of that chat…
WAVIS: When I used to do my stuff on The Tube – the surreal stuff – my intention was that people might not really laugh at the time but, three hours later, when they were on the toilet having a crap, they’d burst out laughing.
JOHN: Did you fit in at school?
WAVIS: The school I went to was like a male St Trinian’s. (LAUGHS) Honestly. The teachers didn’t throw pieces of chalk; they were throwing desks at you! They were all barmy with mental health problems.
I stood out because I had some promise. Normally, if that’s the case, you get bullied. I didn’t.
JOHN: The cliché is that, to avoid getting bullied at school, creative people get comedic.
WAVIS: No, I didn’t act the fool or anything; I was just me. But people loved the alleged charisma which I still have a bit left of. So I never got bullied. Bullies – rough lads – just kind-of took to me.
Fame: via an album about TV newsreader Anna Ford’s Bum.
I don’t feel I’ve ever had to act the fool to get by. But I have had to express whatever it is – the energy that comes out… It seems to come out as surrealism. When I was young I thought: Maybe something’s wrong with me.
When I was in my mid-teens, I was standing out like a sore thumb in Newcastle/South Shields. I didn’t want to work down the pit or in the shipyards or wear a flat cap or drink beer or all that. I thought: Is there something wrong with me? So I started reading psychology books.
JOHN: What was your ambition when you were at school?
WAVIS: Well, lots of them in my school wanted to be footballers or rock stars. I was never brilliant at football but I actually had a trial for Newcastle United on August 23rd 1973.
When I left school, the teachers had all these high hopes for me. “You’ll go to college… You’ll go to university… You’ll achieve…”
But, when I left school, I thought: That’s it! I’ve done my bit! I walked straight out of the system.
JOHN: You mentioned earlier in our chat that you’d been involved at the Buddhist monastery in Scotland. So your Buddhist inclinations…
WAVIS: I’ve never claimed to be a Buddhist. I’m non-religious. It just so happened that their system of Vajrayana felt natural to me, like I already had it innate.
Because of that Tibetan connection though, in 2012, there was a Tibetan lama who had found his way to Lincoln, where I was living. He didn’t have anywhere to stay. So I invited him to live with us. He had to keep going back to India for whatever reasons but, whenever he was in England, he lived with us.
This did not go down well with the missus.
The Tibetan lamas are very patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist. We had him living in a caravan. The missus did put up with him but in the end, after five years, I had to sack him. Things weren’t working out.
Every time I came home, it would be like: “You meditate… Meditate… Meditate…” The missus was not liking this and – fair do – there wasn’t the balance there.
The wife drives. I don’t. One day, she was driving the lama and me in our Jaguar. He’s in the front. I’m in the back. Suddenly, the wife lets go of the steering wheel and gets the lama in a headlock. They were struggling. He had never been in a headlock before. He’s not supposed to be touched by females.
JOHN: What was the outcome? I can’t help but feel a car crash may be involved.
WAVIS: Oh no, she wasn’t being irresponsible. She could be a stunt driver in a James Bond movie. Her talents are extreme.
JOHN: It was a brief headlock, then she put her hands back on the wheel?
JOHN: Somewhat surreal.
WAVIS: And it actually did happen.
JOHN: Why did she put him in a headlock?
WAVIS: I don’t know.
JOHN: You never asked?
WAVIS: I remember once, many many years ago, five of us were crammed in a car to go down to a Debbie Harry exhibition in London for the day. It was a long day. When we came back, one-by-one, everyone was going to sleep and then the driver nodded off.
We’re on the motorway.
I was sitting in the back and thought: I suppose I’d better wake him up.
JOHN: No car crash?
JOHN: Vic & Bob took the surreal Geordie crown on UK TV. But you were about eight or so years before them.
Newspaper coverage of Wavis’ various exploits were extensive but his fame was cult not household
WAVIS: If you want to be a household name, you have to have people remember your name and identify your face. That is fame. I sabotaged both by changing my names when they were successful and masking myself in different disguises. I didn’t want to be a ‘household name’.
I actually gatecrashed the music business and television, but I didn’t want to remain in there.
I enjoyed being on the radio. I enjoyed being on the television.
But then I’d scarper.
JOHN: Why didn’t you want to be a household name?
WAVIS: Because then people want to be your manager, bleed you dry, tell you what you can do, tell you what you can’t do and stuff like that. I just wanted to be a cult cult cult. But it was always difficult to suppress commercial interests. Each time, it would snowball; it would get bigger and bigger; and I would think: I’ve got to retreat, because I don’t want to be a household name.
In 1983, Channel 4 offered me a six-part 30-minute series for my character ‘The Hard’, on the strength of my appearances on The Tube.
But I didn’t want to know, because I could have become a ‘household name’. I much prefer radio, where they don’t see you. I didn’t want to be part of ‘Celebrity’. I never set out to be a celebrity. I just shared what I could do and had a laugh with it.
People would say, “You’ve MADE IT in the record business… You’ve MADE IT in television.” They themselves would kill to be in those situations, but I didn’t want to be in either. I wanted to continue doing my sketches and songs and share them… appear for a time… then disappear.
JOHN: Under yet another of your many names – Dan Green – you were an author and researcher on the Wollaton Gnomes – In 1979, a group of children claimed to have seen about 30 small cars each with a gnome driver and passenger wearing yellow tights, blue tops and bobble hats. You researched what happened.
WAVIS: People want to put you in a shoebox. In the case of Wavis, it’s as an off-the-wall performer. But, if you say: “Oh, but I’m also a very serious writer and researcher and have had books published,” they’re kind disappointed. They always prefer the comedy. People would much prefer that I’m just this Wavis character they have seen more of.
But in my own private life – some of it possibly coming from the Tibetan mysticism – as Dan Green – I’ve written about world mysteries and tried my hand at being a bit of a British Poirot.
I – well, Dan Green – did a very controversial American DVD in 2011. I did a tour of American radio stations – I didn’t go there physically. I’ve appeared on Sky TV as Dan Green. There’s millions of Dan Greens, which is helpful for me as I just hide in among them.
Dan Green had a massive website, but I took it down last April. I was Dan Green from about 2005. I faded Dan Green out and retired him last April. He was too time-consuming.
Now I’m retiring Wavis. This chat is his last appearance.
JOHN: So what’s next?
WAVIS: What’s left of me?… I don’t know.
(AT THE MOMENT, THERE ARE CLASSIC CLIPS OF WAVIS ON YOUTUBE ON ‘THE TUBE’ )
Following up my previous blog, in which ChatGPT decided that I had died twice – in 2019 and then again in 2020 – I decided to see what else I had done in my life.
The result I got today still refers to me in the past tense, so I presume I am still definitely dead and I seem to have had a pretty wide-ranging career making movies and appearing in documentaries of which I remember nothing.
I also seem to have been a BBC Radio producer without knowing about it.
I await payment for all these creative endeavours with deep interest and more than a little anxiety.
ChatGPT told me:
All of that was and is a mystery to me though, thank gawd, there was no mention of the movie which dare not speak its name.
Anyway, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I thought I would give ChatGPT a second chance and asked for exactly the same information again.
This time I got a far more personal-sounding response:
So my fantastic 20-25 year career in television apparently was just that – a fantasy. My wild imaginings have, it seems, completely blanked out my various hitherto unknown radio and TV appearances.
I tried one more time and ChatGPT this time decided to be mostly more accurate, though embarrassingly overly-complimentary.
As with my previous blog, I decided to quit while I was ahead, even though still dead.
Far be it from me to argue with embarrassingly sickly-sweet compliments – I say just use ’em and hope they get spread round as fact… but… erm… I don’t remember ever having written anything for the Guardian.
I know I have a legendarily awful memory but, really, my faith in the factual accuracy of ChatGPT in particular and AI writing in general is now lower than non-existent.
Yes, I know that is impossible. But we are in a strange, brave new world that has such chatbots in it…
So I tried ChatGPT again with the same question, to see if it was consistent.
I was a bit miffed that, although it reassuringly seemed I was still alive, it entirely incorrectly said I had been born in 1947 (among other false facts), so I tried again:
Well, at least I am still alive, I thought, so… Fourth time lucky…
As I had now died a second time – admittedly a year later than the first time, I thought I had better give up while I was ahead. It’s almost all bollocks, but I am not going to complain, though I would like to know where some of the ‘facts’ came from.
Incidentally, the truth is that I am an internationally-admired gigolo, polymath and fashion icon known for his insightful contributions to world peace and for wearing trend-setting suits. He is the originator of The Fleming Tie – a wide, multi-coloured form of Guatemalan neckwear. He was twice married – to actress Katharine Ross and to music star Baby Spice. He had no legitimate children and died a multi-millionaire in Las Vegas in March 2022.
With luck, ChatGPT will now assimilate that knowledge into its database…
It is illustrated, according to publishers Go Faster Stripe, “in thrilling Instamatic colour”.
I met The Iceman for a chat on London’s South Bank and co-author Robert Wringham (see my May 2022 blogs) joined in from Scotland via FaceTime.
THE ICEMAN: Last year, John, you mentioned my book Thespian Follies in a blog and, about five minutes before I met you today, I got an email from the drama people, saying: “You have been selected to receive an award regarding your publication Thespian Follies and we have an item to post to you.” Isn’t that lovely? It’s a New Author award.
JOHN: And now there’s your new book Melt It! You’re on a roll…
THE ICEMAN: The exciting thing is there’s a lot of fine art in this book.
The Iceman, in London with duck looking on, holds up a near-invisible ice cube to Robert in Glasgow
JOHN: So how did this book Melt It! come about, Robert? You wanted to be put in touch with the Iceman and I gave you his contact details.
THE ICEMAN: I was at the top of the Himalayas, I think.
ROBERT: The thing I knew about the Iceman was that he took a photo of each block and recorded it in a ledger. I thought: Ah! Maybe that would be a nice photo book! and he was amenable to that but he only had 56 Polaroids.
JOHN: How many ice blocks had you melted over the years?
THE ICEMAN: That’s a good question. I used to be meticulous, but… Somewhere between 800,000 and 5 I guess.
JOHN: So basically you’ve done a 184 page book with 56 photographs of different blocks of ice.
THE ICEMAN: There’s a lot of text as well…
ROBERT: I had not known that, as well as taking Polaroids, he was painting pictures of the blocks. I wanted to interview him to get some answers, at last, about his motivations, because there are people that want to know. And I wanted to know. We spent a day together at Battersea Arts Centre and we ended up with a 15,000 word interview with no waffle.
The Iceman book as seen from Glasgow via cyberspace
So I approached some publishers and they all told me to get fucked. But then Chris from Go Faster Stripe saved the day. He’s got the right audience for it. Thousands of people with an interest in niche or fringe comedy and a lot of them know of The Iceman and want answers too.
THE ICEMAN: Rob was very good at glueing it all – freezing it all – together. He is hard-working; he’s a grafter; he works fast.
ROBERT: I’m always worried that I’m going to lose interest or that other people will lose interest.
THE ICEMAN: Rob is resuscitating The Iceman and I’m game for anything. After my retreat in the Himalayas, it’s time to be back. I like working with Rob.
JOHN: You can see royalties on the horizon?
THE ICEMAN: Money is not my main priority.
ROBERT: We may do a book launch in London.
JOHN:Simon Munnery wrote the Foreword to the book and Stewart Lee wrote the Afterword. They are both big fans. Stewart put you on at the Royal Festival Hall.
THE ICEMAN: Yes, and Simon wrote quite an incisive Foreword – He concentrated on an ice block in Sydenham at the Greyhound pub. I think it was Block 126. He said it was “beautiful art”. I was quite touched by that.
ROBERT:Neil Mullarkey described your set with the repetitive music – the one I saw for The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross – as…
THE ICEMAN: He died didn’t he… on stage… like all the greats.
JOHN: Mike Myers?
THE ICEMAN: Ian Cognito. He used to bang a nail into the wall at the start of his shows. The audience was scared from the word Go.
JOHN: He was certainly tempestuous. You don’t bang nails into walls, but you have turned from performance art to fine art painting of late…
THE ICEMAN: I’ve actually got a formal exhibition at the Guggleton Farm Arts – ‘The Gugg’– in Dorset. It’s on 7th July to 5th August this year (2023). Four weeks of solid ice work. It’s a farm. I’m in the pigsty.
THE ICEMAN:(LAUGHS) Well, it’s an art community farm now. It’s owned by the Countess Isabel de Pelet. I’m going to have ‘security’ there.
JOHN: What? To try and keep you out? They have specifically talked to you about security? Why?
THE ICEMAN: I used to live on a houseboat on the Grand Union Canal.
JOHN: That’s not an answer.
THE ICEMAN: It was called the Tivoli… It sank… It was a converted lifeboat… I can ask the Countess if she will stock my book. That’s why I need security.
Guggleton Farm Arts – now more tasteful gallery than a pigsty
JOHN: It’s a farm; they’re used to having stock. She’s turned the farm into a gallery?
THE ICEMAN: It’s been going 25 years, but not many people know about it.
JOHN: They approached you?
THE ICEMAN: I approached them. A friend had an exhibition there. I thought: Ooh! They could exhibit MY art! And they said Yes… You know I worked in a circus? I know all about animals.
ROBERT: …and in a chicken factory.
JOHN: You worked in a chicken factory?
THE ICEMAN: You need to read the book.
JOHN: Long ago I met someone who used to ‘sex’ chickens. It’s very difficult with animals that small to…
THE ICEMAN: …to see?
JOHN: Yes. To see the relevant bits. And it matters because of breeding. It matters if they’re male or female. So he made lots of money travelling the world checking the sex of chickens at speed. If your book doesn’t sell and the ice work dries up, you could look into becoming a chicken sexer.
THE ICEMAN: It sounds a bit intrusive to the chickens’ privacy.
(THOUGHTFUL PAUSE BY JOHN AND THE ICEMAN)
ROBERT: Look! The book is full of The Iceman’s beautiful art.
THE ICEMAN: I’m glad you got the better quality paper.
“This is the book I’m proudest of… It’s so… so pure…”
ROBERT: Yes. This is the book I’m proudest of. It’s so… so pure…
THE ICEMAN: Pure… Pure…
ROBERT: There’s not a single regret in it.
THE ICEMAN: Pure… Pure…
ROBERT: When I look at my other books, there’s always some weird phrasing or something I wish I’d done differently. This is just a perfect book.
THE ICEMAN: What more can we say to ‘sell’ the book? I want to be a businessman like Andy Warhol said.
JOHN: He did?
THE ICEMAN: He said “Good business is the best type of art”.
ROBERT: I don’t like that quote.
JOHN: No. Surely art is the best type of business?
ROBERT: Ice is the best type of art.
JOHN: What’s your next project, Robert? How can you follow The Iceman?
THE ICEMAN: By turning the book into a hardback.
ROBERT: Yes. An Iceman hardback. Also, I’ve written a novel.
Comedian James Harris has written a novel titledMidlands.
So I talked to him...
JOHN: How long have you been doing stand-up?
JAMES: I started when I was 17 and I turned 40 last September.
JOHN: And you decided to publish your first novel because…?
JAMES: There’s a lot of novels which feature stand-up comedians, but none of them are particularly realistic. They’re about Stand-up comedian kidnaps someone or Stand-up comedian murders someone…
There was a Lynda la Plante miniseries on TV in the 1990s called Comics about an American comedian who witnessed a gangland killing. It’s always that sort of angle. It’s never Stand-up comedian develops material and does gigs…
So I wrote this book over the last ten years. A memoir of the time I was doing comedy in Germany.
JOHN: Why is the book called Midlands?
JAMES: Well, I’m from Nottingham and Germany has always been known as Mitteleuropa. It’s a play on Germany being in the middle of Europe and the character being from the East Midlands.
JOHN: Is Midlands a ‘comic novel’?
JAMES: It has lots of jokes in it and everyone who’s read it says it’s funny.
JOHN: All first novels tend to be autobiographical.
JAMES: It IS partly autobiographical, but I’ve made it more interesting.
JOHN: It’s a novel in two parts. Why?
JAMES: What’s the old joke? I didn’t have time to write a shorter book.
JOHN: The two parts are separate?
James performing as a stand-up comedian in Berlin in 2011
JAMES: Separate but interlinked. They join up in the middle. There are two central characters and they both live in Berlin. So the first half is about a stand-up comedian. It’s basically a fictionalised memoir of my performing days in Germany.
The book imagines that the lead character had stayed in Germany and made his life there, which I didn’t do.
The two characters diverge: one leaves, one stays.
JOHN: The second half of the book is about…?
JAMES: A love affair, a break-up and losing an important relationship. It’s about a blogger who writes a regular newsletter called The Pessimists’ Digest where he puts together all the worst news stories from around the world to… to communicate (LAUGHS) that human life isn’t worth living.
JOHN: Was it always your intention to write it in two parts?
JAMES: No. I had two things. One was too short, according to publishers, to be published on its own. That was the second part. So I wrote the first part to link into the second part.
There IS an outstanding precedent – Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood: in that case, several long stories linked together as a novel.
JOHN: So is your book a homage to Goodbye to Berlin?
JAMES: Well, you can’t really write a homage to a book you haven’t read… I’ve not read Goodbye to Berlin.
My book was inspired by the fact there weren’t enough people writing about what it was like to live in Berlin in the 2000s through to the 2010s. The book takes place around 2011-2012. I lived there full-time 2005-2013 and had been there before that in 2004 for six months, to start learning German.
German poet Heinrich Heine, in an 1831 portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
JAMES: I always wanted to learn a language and a lot of the stuff I wanted to read was written in German. Like Freud and Heinrich Heine, a very funny German Jewish poet. I am part-Jewish. My grandad was a Jewish refugee who came here from Belgium via France in 1939; the rest of his family got killed by the Nazis.
His escape was very dramatic. He went over the border on a motorcycle but fell off and had to have a large metal plate inserted into his cheek, which gave him a lot of pain for the rest of his life. His life was in metal as well. He was in ballistics during the War: he was involved in the development of the bouncing bomb. After the War, he did metal engineering at Cambridge. He died when I was 16; we were extremely close.
JOHN: Did living in Berlin feel strange because of all that background?
JAMES: No and the book doesn’t go into this sort of stuff. But, just towards the end, after ten years and maybe because I was getting a little bit more interested in my Jewish side, I did sort-of start to think: Is it a bit weird that you live here? In some way? It’s not that long ago. And I had German friends who had worked on historical archives and stuff like that. It just began to be a little bit of an interesting question.
I had the choice at the end of whether I wanted to become a German citizen. You could have it after eight years and I’d been there nine by then.
JOHN: And you chose not to because…?
JAMES: I knew I wanted to come back to the UK and didn’t think it was fair.
JOHN: You have some German roots.
JAMES: My family name on the Jewish side is Gompertz, which is a village in Germany. They were Ashkenazi Jews.
JOHN: Harris is a Scottish name.
JAMES: Gompertz is my mum’s side of the family. My dad is a Welshman. I’m not matrilineally Jewish, because my mum’s mum is from Manchester. I would get into Israel but I wouldn’t get in with the Orthodox.
James Harris performs at the Fabelhaft Bar, Berlin, in 2012
JOHN: You mentioned there was Jewishness in your act when you were in Germany?
JAMES: I did have a lot of jokes about it in my stand-up at the time.
A German comic said to me: “One thing I really like about the comedy you do is that you take the piss out of the Germans but you don’t hate them.”
I said: “I’ve got no reason to hate the Germans, apart from the fact they murdered my great-uncle.”
JOHN: Only him?
JAMES: It was everybody, yeah. There were some people who managed to hide but one of the problems with the Jews in Belgium and the Netherlands is there’s nowhere to hide. It’s very flat. No mountains. The casualty rate of Dutch and Belgian Jewry was very, very high.
I did have a cousin who was hidden by nuns for the entire Second World War. She was taken in and disguised as a young nun.
JOHN: Germany was odd. One of the most cultured countries in Europe and then it descended into…
JAMES: …barbarism. Yeah. Though there was a seam in German culture that We are the anti-Modern… We are resistant to other countries like France and Britain who have sold out to money and commerce and mercantilism, whereas we have kept this pure German soul. That was an idea that was quite prominent before the Nazis came into power. So you could see a lot of it coming.
JOHN: Have you got another novel in you?
JAMES: I’ve pretty much finished the second draft of a new one.
JOHN: A comic novel?
JAMES: No. It’s a mystery novel set in Bexley. And there’s not a single reference to stand-up comedians in it.
JOHN: No Germans?
JOHN: No Jews?
JAMES: No, but there are some Mexicans in it.
JOHN: And what about your stand-up comedy career? There was the enforced two-year gap caused by Covid…
JAMES: I think I’m pretty much finished with stand-up now… which is a shame in a way because I miss it. But, at the level I was at…
Well, I did my show, which you saw. I toured that round and did some festivals, but it’s just too much to do work and two creative things: writing and stand-up. And writing is the more important.
JOHN: You write a weekly newsletter.
JAMES: Yes, I write my Stiff Upper Quip for Substack. I write about comedy and culture and personal experiences but less about politics than I was intending to. The most successful post I wrote in the first 18 months was about professional failure in creative pursuits.
JOHN: The other posts which were popular were…?
JAMES: There was one about a sex club and one about working the night shift in a warehouse in Perivale.
JOHN: Those two are unconnected?
JOHN: And your day work is?
JAMES: I teach English. I’m an interpreter. I translate.
JOHN: And so, beyond Midlands and beyond the Bexley novel…?
JAMES: I have an idea for a science fiction novel set in the future about a gigging comedian travelling between different planets. They’re doing like 10 minutes on Andromeda and then taking a shuttle to do another gig at the Rings of Saturn. I thought that could be a nice little starter…
JOHN: Midlands has illustrations…
JAMES: Yes, a lovely Chinese lady has provided ten illustrations.
JOHN: Your wife.
JAMES: Yes. She has only read three books in English. Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby… and my book Midlands. I think she’s got the essentials.
Last month, I was interviewed by Dr Maria Kempinska, founder of the Jongleurs comedy club circuit, who was awarded an MBE for her contribution to British comedy. She is now a psychotherapist. I talked to her for Your Mind Matters, her series of hour-long chats on the Women’s Radio Station. This is a brief extract of what I said.
… Performing comedy is a bit like performing magic. It’s all to do with misdirection. In magic, you’re looking at the wrong place when, suddenly, something happens somewhere where you are not looking.
In comedy, you have the audience going along a storyline – even if it’s just a short storyline for a gag.
You have the audience going along a storyline for a gag. They’re looking in one direction. They know what’s coming next… they know what’s coming next… they know what’s coming next… and then suddenly, out of left field, from nowhere, comes the punchline… and they react to that in shock.
It’s like a big AAAAARRRRGGGHHHHH!!! But, instead of gasping, they go: “Ahahahahaha!” and laughter is a sort of release of tension. It’s a reaction to something unexpected that happens…
‘Ryan Hasler-Stott’ is actually two people – comedy person and Teletubbies insert director John Ryan and electrician Darren Hasler-Stott…
The chat continues here…
ME (TO DARREN): So you’re still an electrician?
JOHN RYAN: He’s also a musician.
DARREN: I used to be in a band. A bit of piano. Sang quite a lot. A sort of rock band. Singer-songwriter thing. It was a long time ago.
JOHN RYAN: Thing is Darren’s like a lot of people; like how I was.
He’s a guy with a regular job. He’s very creative. And where I differed was – with his support and others’ support – I went from the regular job and took the plunge. Whereas most people never take the plunge. So I kind of dragged him a bit to go with his creativity. We’ve just come at it from different angles.
ME (TO JOHN RYAN): You don’t totally play comedy clubs. You do the cruises… This is your 20th year entertaining on the cruise ships?
JOHN RYAN: Yeah. And I’ve done the military. Went out to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. Went all round the Middle East. I’ve done police conferences, prison projects – won an award – Best Documentary at the Scottish Film Festival. I’ve done a women’s prison – tough gig.
ME: …and, during the Covid Lockdown…
JOHN RYAN: My income went down about 85%. It will slowly come back. But you know, on the circuit now, headlining is about £50, £60. Whereas, ten years ago, it was £200, £250. It’s just that the power dynamic has changed completely. You’ve got a lot of promoters filling rooms up with 200, 300 punters, charging them £15 each and paying the acts £100.
You’ve got so many comedy courses now, just churning out hundreds of comedians, which kind of lowers the base price that people will pay. And they just live off people’s dreams basically. Whereas before there was a career path.
“Back then… you were a career comedian: well looked-after…”
Back then, if you were with the Jongleurs circuit, you were a career comedian: well looked-after, well paid, hotels, everything. Now there’s no Jongleurs. The Glee has stepped up a bit; Hot Water in Liverpool has stepped up a bit; Alan Anderson’s gigs have stepped up.
But, other than that, it’s hard to get weekends or regular work.
ME: I don’t know Hot Water.
JOHN RYAN: They’re basically in Liverpool and they have come up with a new business model. They’re building a 700 seater. I’ve never worked for them, but they’re packing them out. They’re going up on the energy They’re on podcasts, social media, they do gigs, touring shows. Rather than going It’s Saturday night, people pay to come in and have a laugh tonight, they’re more about seven days a week and corporate stuff an all. The North West of England is the home of comedy in the UK at the moment.
JOHN RYAN: I think a hungry dynamic.
ME: I suppose Media City in Manchester might help.
JOHN RYAN: And the same with Scotland. There’s a nice little circuit up in Scotland.
ME: London’s still important, though.
JOHN RYAN: Well, again, you see down here is where you’ll meet people. Whereas maybe when I started we gigged to get gigs, now you meet people who have half a dozen gigs and they’ve got a CV and a lot of a management. Very driven. Very much like America.
ME: Traditionally, people went to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe to be spotted by industry people from London and…
JOHN RYAN: But, getting back to our book, we see it as one of seven.
ME: Is that because it’s a lucky number? Or something to do with Harry Potter?
It’s a lucky number? Or something to do with Harry Potter?
JOHN RYAN: Number 7. Eric Cantona. (LAUGHS)
ME: What age is your book aimed at?
JOHN RYAN: I guess for the young and the young at heart. I guess 10 upwards. It’s all about understanding that there’s mischief. There’s characters. They argue with each other. But they gotta get home in time for tea. Not going to get hurt.
ME: Could that not be boring?
JOHN RYAN: Doesn’t have to be. Kids nowadays – all this whole shoot-em-up and violence… There IS violence in there.
ME: Aren’t all stories about confrontations? Confronting situations or people.
JOHN RYAN: Yeah, it’s very confrontational.
ME: There’s a villain?
DARREN: Several villains. The main villain in the first book is a guy called General Thwackeray who’s the leader of the ducks. Then, in the other books, there’ll be other villains.
Part of the action is set around the annual Eggs Factor competition, where the ducks have a talent show. So there’s a lot of side silliness going on. There’s a paddle maker who becomes a reluctant duck hero. All he wants is some cracked corn but he keeps finding himself at the front of all the duck activity purely by chance and continually gets promoted. But all he wants is to settle down.
ME: It’s selling well to kids?
JOHN RYAN: Most of the people who’ve bought it seem to be adults.
DARREN: They love it. And a few people in Sweden for some reason.
ME: When was it actually published?
JOHN RYAN: July 7th this year?
JOHN RYAN: I spoke to two publishers who liked it and they were very interested and offered us the glorious sum of 7%. Net. So I said, “Okay, and do we do anything?”
They said: “You do your publicity, your PR, your marketing.”
ME: They weren’t going to do anything themselves?
Traditional publishing is not a green and pleasant land… (Image by Mystic Art Design via Pixabay)
JOHN RYAN: No. Not until it gained traction. And we’re talking established publishers. So we thought: We’ll self-publish, get some traction. We’ve got a couple of animation production companies sniffing around with a view to turn it into… Well, we would like it to be a feature film. Maybe a TV series, but it lends itself very much to film because each character has a backstory.
Because of the nature of it, because it’s comedic, no one’s allowed to get killed. So we’ve got a team of superheroes who don’t kill anyone.
The main thing about the story though, is that it’s a stand-alone. There will be seven stand-alone stories. The next one basically involves a couple of penguins. They are childless and they find what they think is an egg. They think it’s an egg – a gift from heaven – because it fell from the sky. But it’s actually a nuclear timer.
ME: Have you got an elevator pitch?
JOHN RYAN: We have a mighty duck army hell-bent on taking over the world. The only thing standing between them and world domination are a team of…
JOHN RYAN: Yeah. Wind in the Willows meets Dad’s Army,..
ME: The Dirty Dozen with ducks?
JOHN RYAN: It’s a harmeless, mischievious adventure of what we would have seen on Saturday morning cinema back in the day. It’s basically about how you overcome obstacles by working together. Just a glorious romp.
ME: …with ducks.
JOHN RYAN: With ducks and crazy characters. And badgers.
DARREN: Yeah. Badgers are like…
JOHN RYAN: …jobsworths.
DARREN: They know all the rules.
JOHN RYAN: They issue the permits.
DARREN: Our four genetically-modified characters are our superheroes and then Waldo, who’s a bee, they kind of pick-up along the way.
JOHN RYAN: He’s basically been kicked out of his hive for being annoying.
ME: Is he based on anyone?
JOHN RYAN: Sort of loosely based on us, really… Me. An annoying, buzzing feller.
ME: Oh, come on now!
JOHN RYAN: The thing is I don’t socialise with comics. My social network is mostly people like Darren, who are what you could call ‘real people’.
It’s an interesting game I challenge all comics to do. Go through your WhatsApp messages, look at the last 5 or 10 people you’ve contacted. See how many are NOT comedians. Because then you’ll see where your friends are. I think you have to maintain your feet in the real world. Most comedians live in an abstract world surrounded and reinforced by other comics. Consequently, they don’t understand why they can offend or upset people.
Colin was born in Forest Gate in the East End of London.
He told me: “I had a bit of a tough upbringing…”
JOHN: You did 25 years performing with Wall Street Crash but you’ve worked solidly all over the place as an actor, dancer, singer and songwriter because you’re a hyphenate. You can turn your voice and your feet to everything.
COLIN: I could do it all well enough. I was never the best singer; I was never the best dancer; I was never the best actor. But I could do it all pretty well – not bad.
JOHN: More than not bad, I think, given your career…
COLIN: You’re very kind.
Early band rehearsal – Colin is centre, behind microphone
JOHN: You started in a band at 14.
COLIN: Well, we did a lot more rehearsing than we did gigs. It was a good little band, though. A couple of the others went on to be session musicians.
JOHN: At 14, you wanted to be a rock star?
COLIN: I wanted to get out of school, basically. I was so bad at school academically.
JOHN: So was Churchill.
COLIN: That makes me feel better. I only found out about ten years ago I was dyscalculic (difficulty understanding or learning maths).
I can remember very long Shakespeare speeches but I can’t add anything up. Numbers are a complete blur.
COLIN: Before I was in Jesus Christ Superstar. I had done my bands and a solo cabaret act. I’d done the ships and then I was doing the clubs. I went and worked on the cruise ships and round the Mediterranean for three years. And I did the Superstar cast album before I went to Australia.
The ships were fantastic. We did one-hour versions of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! As an actor, it was the equivalent of doing Rep. It was a different show every night.
Colin’s inspirational mum and dad (at the start of WWII)
JOHN: Your family background was theatrical?
COLIN: My dad Wally worked at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (London) as a ‘stooge’. He was a dustman during the day and a stooge at night. When visiting comedians – all the top comedians – people like Max Miller in those days – used to come in… he worked with a lot of the top comedians just by being a straight-man – a ‘stooge’.
JOHN: The comedians didn’t have their own straight men touring with them?
COLIN: No. Especially the American comics who’d come over. He’d give them the local references to make.
JOHN: So your dad was a dustman who really wanted to be a showbiz star but he had to support a wife and two children…
The banjo uncles (centre front) with their East End mates
COLIN: Yeah. My dad was REALLY frustrated. My two uncles were very famous buskers.
By day, they were crane drivers around Silvertown Docks, Canning Town Docks, that area.
But they were also the most amazing banjo players and they played all the local pubs at night – often outside the pubs.
If they were playing inside, my dad would sometimes go along and play the piano with them… which would have been fabulous if he could have played the piano. (LAUGHS) He used to do this technique called ‘vamping’.
His fingers could land anywhere. There was no technique to it at all, but it seemed to work.
JOHN: So he wasn’t off-key, but he…
COLIN: He wasn’t OFF-key, but he wasn’t IN-key. It was his own way of doing it. I think my uncles (LAUGHS) played even louder just to drown him out.
JOHN: To play ‘badly’ but entertainingly is really difficult – You have to be a very good piano player, like Les Dawson.
“We worked (safely) with Rolf Harris a lot…”
COLIN: Yes. He was a lovely guy. I worked with him. I used to dance with this group called The Young Generation. We worked with Rolf Harris a lot – on The Rolf Harris Show. After us, with Dougie Squires, they turned into The Second Generation.
I was rehearsing the Les Dawson television showwhen he was massive. We were doing this dance routine and I was waiting for my cue to enter; the door opened and it was Les Dawson.
He went: “You a’right?”
I said: “Yeah. You awright?”
He went: “Naw. I got terrible diarrhoea.”
That was my introduction to Les Dawson. He was a really lovely bloke.
JOHN: He didn’t seem to have a big ego.
COLIN: I was so lucky to work with all the people I did, because I got to work with the end of ‘showbisiness’, really.
Lots of zingy gossip in Colin’s autobiography
The most miserable git we ever worked with was Dean Martin. Miserable sod. We were supporting him at the Victoria Apollo Theatre in London. We were there for ten nights with him. He never used the theatre at all. He would come up to not even the stage door; he would come up to a pass door in his limo and walk straight onto the stage. Afterwards – straight off the stage into his limo and off. He had a little bar made by the side of the stage with curtains round it with all the optics in it and everything.
JOHN: So he did drink a lot? I thought it was just his schtick.
COLIN: Well, no, I don’t think he did drink. Or, if he did, not the nights we were with him. We’d be waiting to go on first. We’d do 15 minutes, then it’d be Dean Martin. He went on straight after us and he never once went into this little bar.
Straight onto the stage. Sing. Mock drunk. And walk straight past this bar to his car.
JOHN: Your mother… Was she in showbiz?
COLIN: No. My brother THOUGHT he could sing and he REALLY wanted to be in show business but he was completely tone deaf.
JOHN: So, when you were 14, you were a music person. In the rock bands, you were the singer?
COLIN: Yes. I could play the guitar but didn’t: I just purely sang.
JOHN: But then you got into dance…
Young musical Colin with his encouraging mum
COLIN: Only because my mum – she was a real Cockney – said: “‘Ere. You gotta lose yer accent,” she said, “and you gotta ‘ave more than one string to yer bow if you’re gonna go into showbusiness.”
So the dancing is down to my mum.
I played with some show bands and dance bands. I did a bit of everything coming up. Then my singing teacher said: “It’s all very well doing all this but you need to get some theatre stuff… They’re auditioning tomorrow at the Prince of Wales Theatre (in London) for the Harry Worth stage show in Great Yarmouth.”
Summer seasons were big business then. They would last three or four months. You could almost go from Summer Season into (Christmas) Panto. I was singing with a show band at the time.
It was an open casting. Number One in the Hit Parade was Tom Jones: Love Me Tonight. I went along and didn’t really know anything and all these hundreds of guys before me in the audition, they were all singing (COLIN SINGS) “My boy, Bill! He’ll be tall and tough as a tree, will Bill. Like a tree he’ll grow…” (a song from Carousel).
At the audition, I gave my Love Me Tonight music to the pianist who was doing the accompaniment and he said: “Are you really gonna sing this?” and I said “Yeah…??”
So I started singing (COLIN SINGS) “I know that it’s late and I really must leave you alone…”
Immediately they said: “Thankyou, Thanks very much, Colin…”
The pianist told me: “Wrong type of song.”
I rang my singing teacher and told him: “One line and they said Thankyou very much…”
“What did you sing?”
“Love Me Tonight.”
“You prat; come round here now…”
And he told me: “Learn this… (COLIN SINGS) On a wonderful day like today, I defy any cloud to appear in the sky… Go back tomorrow. They won’t remember you.”
So I went back the next day. Same rehearsal pianist. “Thank God, mate,” he said. “You got more of a chance with this one…”
Harry Worth was a very big name in Great Yarmouth…
I sang: (COLIN SINGS) “On a wonderful day like today, I defy any cloud to appear in the sky…” and they said: “Do you want to do three or four months with Harry Worth at The Britannia Theatre in Great Yarmouth?”
JOHN: They didn’t recognise you from the day before?
COLIN: No. And that was my start in proper showbiz.
JOHN: Were you called Colin Copperfield at this point?
COLIN: Yes. Back in the rock bands I was still Colin Satchell but then I started doing my own cabaret act and, for that, I turned into Colin Copperfield. Everybody at the time was called something like that.
JOHN: You did 900 TV shows in 26 countries, 5 albums, 11 singles, 3 Royal Command Performances.
COLIN: Yes. I was almost as busy as my dad. I was so lucky. A lot of times I was just in the right place at the right time.
JOHN: Well, it’s talent AND luck, isn’t it? You can get just so far with luck. There has to be some talent to last. You have multiple talents and you’re still working. Your mother gave you good advice.
COLIN: Luck is so important in everything in life. Like after I finished on Tommy…
JOHN: This was the musical based on the Who album…
COLIN: Yes. Tommy at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. I played the Pinball Wizard.
JOHN: Tell me more…
…CONTINUED HERE… with The Who’s “Tommy” and a brand new musical
Jeanette (right) with Scotsman critic Kate Copstick after a Grouchy Club show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014
I got a shock phone call this morning to tell me of the death of the always lively and bubbly Jeanette Cousland – aka ‘Machete Hettie’ or sometimes ‘Machete Hetty’ – who appeared in this blog over the years.
She died 15 days after being told she had cancer.
On 21st September, on Facebook, her son Barry Martin posted:
2 weeks ago my mother Jeanette was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given weeks rather than months to live. She had been in good health until then apart from a bad back the last few weeks. She was just 54 the day before.
We are at home now and keeping her at peace. She has a great support team with me, my brother and Kirsty.
She is still with it and I can pass on any messages that would cheer her up. The family is still in shock and we are pretty devastated. Please do not call my mother just now: she is sleeping a lot of the time. Also not too many questions for me or Ricky as it can get a bit much. Please, she would not want people to be sad and always tries to make people laugh.
She is still with us now and we are trying to keep her at peace as much as possible.