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Comic Lynn Ruth Miller on Amsterdam, Harrogate, Utrecht and cross-dressing

“Monroe would have been just a few years older…”

Yesterday in this blog, London-based American comic and occasional 85-year-old burlesque stripper Lynn Ruth Miller wrote about her trip to Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Bangkok.

This is what she did when she got back to the UK…


Last August, when I performed in North Berwick, I met a lovely woman, Paula Stott, who told me that she was absolutely sure Harrogate would love my work. She ran events for the film society there and said she was going to find a way to get me to perform before one of their events. Did I know Marilyn Monroe would have been just a few years older than I, had she lived?

I did not know that.

Several months passed before I got a note from Paula asking if I would do a comedy performance before a screening of Marilyn Monroe’s comedy Some Like It Hot. I said of course and so the trip to Harrogate became a reality.  

The timing was a bit tight, because I came home from Bangkok two days before and Paula wanted me to go to Harrogate one day early to have a reunion of all the women who had seen me that evening in North Berwick.

So I got home to London, unpacked, did laundry, ran to see Funny Turns, a play the wonderful David Forest was in and, the next morning, packed a smaller case for Harrogate – and Holland – and off I went to see one of the most charming towns in the North of England.  

Harrogate is a lovely place: a far cry from the land of ornate temples, beautiful men dressed as women, loose cotton clothing and face masks to keep out pollution.

One of its highlights is Betty’s, a 100 year old café that features lovely afternoon teas and beautiful pastries. Everyone in Harrogate loves Betty’s but no one knows who Betty actually was.

In Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe typifies the kind of sexiness that all we girls tried to emulate: sweet, kind and innocent but hot as a firecracker, out to marry money for our security and hope that love comes along with it.  

Joe E Brown (left) and Jack Lemmon – together at last – both perfectly legendary in the final scene of Some Like It Hot

For me, the interesting part of the movie is that Joe E Brown, the secondary lead, is from Toledo, Ohio, where I was born.

His favorite restaurant was my family’s favorite one as well: Naftalin’s 

Joe E Brown is a local hero in Toledo and they even have a park named after him there. I remember him in person on stage when he played the lead in Harvey, a play about a man with an imaginary 6 foot tall rabbit.

In Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis cross-dress and, at the time the film was made, it was very common for men to dress as women for comic effect. My own uncle danced in a show called The Matzo Ball Revue in a flimsy skirt with a bangle glittering in his belly button and no-one thought twice about his sexuality. Nor did either of his wives or any of his children doubt his testosterone levels. They thought he was very funny. 

Times change and now cross-dressing can often be a statement of gender identity. In those days it was a comic gesture.

At the Harrogate screening, I was preceded by The Ukulele Ladies, a group of women of a certain age singing ukulele favorites of yesteryear.  

Then I performed my comedy about what it feels like to be 85… to a lot of people who were 85 and all I could think was: Why don’t THEY tell ME how THEY feel.

Then I flew from Manchester Airport to Amsterdam and was driven to my gig in Utrecht at Comedyhuis.

“…a lovely city filled with bright lights and no parking…”

Utrecht is a lovely city filled with bright lights and no parking.

The comedy gig was run by comedians and they present very low cost shows for students to enjoy since Utrecht is a university town. The set-up reminds me very much of Angel Comedy in Islington, London. The audience was similar as well: young, eager to laugh and very welcoming.  

The most interesting thing about the gig was that the line up was all women except for one man. 

One of the girls was from Detroit, Michigan, which is 30 miles from my hometown of Toledo.

Detroit is the only place I can think of that is worse to live in than Toleldo.

She, like I, had got the hell out.

The next night was Mezrab comedy in Amsterdam. It is always well attended. The last two months it has been sold out.

When I do another comedy club in Amsterdam. I have trouble getting laughs because English is the second language of most of the audience. At Mezrab, there is no problem and although the audience is hugely diverse – Romanians, Russians, Bulgarians, many Dutch people – they are eager to laugh and very supportive.  

The evening was a huge success.

Once again I headlined because one of the other comedians backed out.

And, once again, I was up at 7.30am, dashed to the airport and the plane was an hour late.  

As soon as I got home to London, my body rebelled and I now have the cold to end all colds.  

However, the show must go on.

At least I think it must.

There is a video on YouTube of Lynn Ruth Miller in her other creative hat, performing at Burlesque Baubles in Cardiff in 2017

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Lynn Ruth in Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Bangkok… and on Israel

Lynn Ruth now has a taste for the Far East

Lynn Ruth Miller, the irrepressible 85-year-old American comic and occasional burlesque stripper based in London, has been off on her professional travels again.

Here is an edited version of her whistle-stop diary of the trip.


SINGAPORE

This is the first time I have flown directly to Singapore from London. It is a very long flight: about 17 hours. I could have paid twice as much and gotten there two hours earlier but I am Jewish.

I do not waste money.

I have been thinking about why comedians travel as far as we all do to stand in front of a lot of strangers for as little as ten minutes or as long as an hour talking about ourselves. For me, living alone as I do, it is worth the travel and the personal inconvenience to have those few moments when I am in the spotlight making a lot of people love me – because, in that moment, they do.

But it is more than that.  

We are, after all, social animals and interaction feeds our souls. As I get older (and I sure hope I keep doing it) I realize that the impetus to keep doing this is far more than those moments on stage. It is that amazing connection with different people from different backgrounds and the jolt of surprise when I realize how similar our values are and how alike our mutual vision of what makes the good life.

This is the third time I have been to Singapore.

This time, Naomi from Jakarta alerted the Jewish population of Singapore (which is far larger than I thought) to come to the show, so the place was packed. When I do comedy here, the audiences want to laugh and want to support us. They make us all feel like stars.

After the shows in Singapore, we all stay to have a drink and get to know one another as people. This is in contrast to the London experience, where the headliner usually comes in just before it is time to do his set and the rest of the comedians leave the show when they are done performing.  

Lynn Ruth has found she has many fans in the Far East

Here in Singapore, you realize you are all working together to create a good experience for the audience and it reduces that sense of competition that I always get in London. No one person is better than another because each performance presents a unique viewpoint.

And that is what makes stand up comedy so satisfying. The audience gets a glimpse of another perspective on the life we are all trying to live.

HO CHI MINH CITY (formerly Saigon)

Compared to Singapore, which is spacious. modern and richly beautiful, the streets in Ho Chi Minh City are narrow and the buildings retain the flavor of  the pre-war city. It has preserved some of its original character and yet it is filled with bright lights and glittering signs that give it a Las Vegas feel.

I featured for Jojo Smith who is an established comedian who has been doing this kind of thing for about 25 years or more. It is always an honor for me to be on the bill with women who have broken down barriers I still have yet to smash.  

We both did very well but the interesting thing was that I thought the evening was a huge success and I do not think Jojo agreed. The audience was smaller than she expected and the ambience of the room was not what she had hoped. I have decided that my expectations must be very low because I thought it was a gem of an evening.

Jojo and I were on the same plane to Hanoi the next morning.

HANOI

When we got here, Dan Dockery picked us up and, like the reliable rock that he is, he got us back to the very lavish Intercontinental Hotel that sponsors his events.

Jojo was not feeling well so she went up to her room which was the size of a three storey mansion and I toddled over to one of the several cafes each one fit to serve tea to Queen Elizabeth.  

When I returned to my room – so spacious I am amazed I managed to find the bed without a divining rod – I napped until show time. Poor Jojo had digestive problems and, like the understudies in West End shows, she gave me my big moment. She stayed in bed and I headlined.  

“Every joke worked. I was walking on air when I left the stage”

I did fifty minutes of comedy and every joke worked. I was walking on air when I left the stage then, after I drank the bottle of wine one of the audience members bought for me, I was floating on a cloud so high my feet didn’t touch the ground.

I think that is what keeps me in this business. The thrill of a successful gig has not worn off for me. It is never just another night.  

I vaguely remember the night I lost my virginity on plastic sheets in a grim motel in Indiana and I have to say that supposedly cosmic moment did not compare to standing on stage in Hanoi talking dirty to a bunch of expats in a hot little room overlooking the river.

It was my kind of magic.

The next morning, Dan’s driver took me to the airport and he was telling me how life has changed since the war. He said the entire place has been rebuilt and now there are more motor bikes than there are people on the roads and also a huge gap between rich and poor. Hanoi though – even more than Ho Chi Minh City – has retained its rustic flavor while always sparkling with colorful lights.

In Bangkok, “Everyone loves funny old ladies.”

BANGKOK

Chris Wegoda runs Comedy Club Bangkok, the most successful English-speaking comedy club in Bangkok. I headlined there.   

Chris, who is unbelievably reliable, sent a man named Sheldon – a swimmer, former surfer and LA guy – to pick me up and off we went to the show. 

The show was fast-paced and the audience anxious to laugh. I did my set and I did well.

Then we all went down to the bar to drink and Liam and Kordelia, whom I had met at the airport, said I must come to Mojacar Playa to do a show. I said I would.

They said: “Everyone there loves funny old ladies.”

I said: “I hope so.”

The next morning, my darling buddy Jonathan Samson sent a Thai guy to fetch me to his club in another neighborhood of the city. Jonathan does comedy in a youth hostel and keeps the prices low, which I support.

After our show that night, Jonathan bought a pan, a hot plate and a lot of ingredients for me to make my signature dish: blintzes (Jewish crepes.) Six members of the audience stayed after to help with the mixing, the beating and the frying and, by God, we made blintzes so authentic that Moses descended for a taste.

The next day I met Matthew Wharf for lunch. He is originally from Melbourne and runs a club in Bangkok but, this time around, he could not fit me into his line-up. He took me and a wonderful American man he called Wine for lunch. It turned out the man was from New Jersey and his name is Wayne. We talked shop for a couple of hours because ‘Wine’ wants to do stand up and I have the sense he is going to be great at it.  

Lynn Ruth heard about Tel Aviv at Bangkok’s Comedy Den

Then I played a club on the outskirts of the city called Comedy Den Pakkret. The line up was excellent.  

Tristan, one of the comedians there, had married an Israeli. He was telling me how modern and exciting Tel Aviv has become. He also talked a great deal about how biased the foreign press is against Israel, partly because of Netanyahu‘s belligerent policies and partly because so much of the press is anti-Zionist.  

It was a revealing discussion because, even though I personally do not like Israel’s practices toward the people in Gaza, I had never realized that there are so many extenuating circumstances.  

The one observation I made to justify what goes on there is that, after the Holocaust, the Jewish people never want to be in a situation where they are not the majority.  One can hardly blame them for that.

The next day, I met Aidan Killian and Trevor Lock for lunch. Aidan has managed to put on large shows once a month in Bangkok that feature major names like Shazia Mirza. Trevor has lived in Bangkok for several years doing comedy throughout Southeast Asia. He only returns to Britain for short periods of time to do shows in Edinburgh and London.  

It was an interesting lunch because again we talked shop.

It turns out that Bangkok has a very small audience base so it is almost impossible to earn a living doing comedy there. And yet we all agreed stand up comedy is the last place left where you can say what you really think without fear of being banned… though I have to say that is not as true as it once was.  

I still hold to the theory that any topic works if you can make it funny. The idea is to make people laugh.

Isn’t it?

Home to London now, to freeze and get ready for trips to Harrogate and Amsterdam.  

It is a good life.

… LYNN RUTH’s TRIPS CONTINUE HERE

Online, there is a clip of Lynn Ruth on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014.

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The very interesting Thom Tuck sings The Mountain Goats and I’m convinced.

On Friday this week, there is a show at the Vault Festival in London titled THOM TUCK SINGS THE MOUNTAIN GOATS.

The billing for the show reads:

“A barely known comedian (“increasingly melancholy” The Guardian) sings the songs of a band you probably don’t listen to. A phenomenally stupid idea. Total sellout Edinburgh Fringe 2017.”

Thom Tuck is a very interesting man so, obviously I had to ask him several questions. As is my wont, I tended to meander a bit. Well, OK, a lot.


JOHN: So why are you doing this show?

THOM: I fell into a hole by getting into The Mountain Goats – the best band you’ve never listened to. They are so good.

JOHN: Do they sing jolly, feel good songs?

THOM: They’ve got two styles of songs: sad and very sad. Well, three types: sad, weird and angry. New Chevrolet in Flames is about a couple who take a car for a test drive, park it behind a school and set it alight.

JOHN: So the attraction of The Mountain Goats is…?

THOM: John Darnielle is just a brilliant storyteller. The first few albums are just him with a guitar and a Panasonic boombox and they’re all first or second takes. Phenomenal stories. And then, when he decided to write about his own life it got even better. There was a concept album about loads of druggies living together in a house… then an album about his abusive stepfather.

They released a single last week. It is sort-of about a dragon.

The last record was about Goths getting old and it includes a song about The Sisters of Mercy and their lead singer – It’s called Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds.

JOHN: And you yourself were born in…

THOM: Leeds.

JOHN: And you feel Yorkshire…

THOM: Yes. There’s a Bill Bryson quote: You never feel so much a part of your own culture as when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t.

JOHN: You were brought up in…

THOM: Egypt, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

JOHN: How did Denmark get in there?

THOM: My (English) dad worked for Danish firms – Krüger, an engineering firm, and DANIDA, the Danish international development agency.

“Well, it had an effect. I don’t know about ‘screwed-up your brain’”

JOHN: Did being brought up in all those countries screw-up your brain about who you are and where you’re from?

THOM: Well, it had an effect. I don’t know about ‘screwed-up your brain’… That was just the way it was. I wasn’t anywhere longer than 18 months before Bangladesh. I was in Bangladesh for six years – aged 10-16.

JOHN: The formative years.

THOM: Yes. I made friends pretty quickly, because I had to. I’m quite good at that first bit,

JOHN: Do The Mountain Goats know you are doing this show?

THOM: Well, I did it before, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, for Mark Watson’s Festival of Bad Ideas and John Darnielle knew about that one.

JOHN: Are you taking it back up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?

THOM: Probably. I did it sort-of unofficially last year – about 17 shows. I just put on Instagram: I’M GOING TO DO IT NOW! and went to Bob’s Blundabus and started playing in the shed.

JOHN: And you have formed a band to do this show.

THOM: Yes. The Hospital Bombers – named after a line in the Mountain Goats’ song The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton:

The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Never settled on a name
But the top three contenders after weeks of debate
Were Satan’s Fingers and The Killers and The Hospital Bombers 

And all the band except one are obsessives about The Mountain Goats as well.

Thom and The Hospital Bombers’ possible set list for the show

JOHN: So this could be the start of a new career for you: singing.

THOM: Possibly.

JOHN: But you’re a serious actor, really.

THOM: Well, the last big job I did was in the play Brexit.

JOHN: And you did Death of a Salesman.

THOM: Yes, two years ago. That was a torrid time. The lead actor died in tech rehearsal (three days before the play was due to open). Tim Pigott-Smith. So the first three weeks were cancelled.

JOHN: Had you wanted to be an actor originally?

THOM: I think so. But I always got cast as the comedy part in plays at school.

JOHN: I always think you went to university at Oxbridge, but you didn’t.

THOM: No. I went to Edinburgh University.

JOHN: Why?

THOM: Because, when I was 17, I went to the Edinburgh Festival and thought: Oh! I’ll come to university here, please!

JOHN: You studied…

THOM: Philosophy. I’m very glad I did it: I think I’m a better thinker because of it.

JOHN: But that’s no help in comedy, is it?

“Philosophical about things over which you have no control”

THOM: Well, just in life. Being able to remain philosophical about things over which you have no control and seeing logical flaws in things and fallacies in arguments.

JOHN: Seeing through bullshit.

THOM: Yes. I started doing Philosophy and Economics and that’s a bad pairing because, if you do them together, you realise Economics is false. It’s based on myriad assumptions and, time after time, these assumptions are not held up. Economists think they’re scientists and they’re fucking not.

JOHN: What are they?

THOM: They’re social scientists. They consider themselves on a par with mathematicians and they’re just not.

JOHN: You are very literate. You should be writing novels.

THOM: I’ve started a couple, but I’m not good enough yet. Jess Fortescue and I are trying to write a TV sitcom at the moment.

JOHN: So you’re busy. The Penny Dreadfuls have been commissioned to do another BBC Radio show and you run the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society live shows. 

THOM: Yes, it has been going about 7 or 8 years now. We have one next week – Tuesday 12th February – at The Albany in Central London.

One of Thom’s individually hand-drawn flyers for the show

JOHN: Your publicity for Thom Tuck Sings The Mountain Goats says you can’t sing.

THOM: I’m not a singer. That’s what I said.

JOHN: What’s the difference?

THOM: I have a nice voice, but I’m not very good at hitting the notes.

JOHN: So you sing all the right notes, but…

THOM: …not necessarily in the right order. Yes. If I was to sing in a cappella without any backing, it would sound great but, unfortunately, this is with a band.

JOHN: The Hospital Bombers.

THOM: Yes.

JOHN: And, when you did it in Edinburgh in 2017, it sold out.

THOM: Yes. When we did it for Mark Watson’s shows, it sold out because it was Mark Watson.

JOHN: It still sounds good to me. Do you see the show going further?

THOM: Possibly.

JOHN: Any more singing ahead?

THOM: Long-term, I want to do a particular musical, but I don’t know how good I am. It’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the story of an East German transsexual rock singer. The film is exceptional and the stage version is just a rock concert with a monologue in-between.

JOHN: More singing for you, though… I’m convinced.

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Mr Twonkey tries to plug his show but gets sidetracked by cheese and fast food

I had a very fuzzy talk with Mr Twonkey

I had a video chat with comedy performer Mr Twonkey (Paul Vickers) on FaceTime but I could only see him as a frozen, fuzzy presence.


PAUL: That’s just the way I look.

JOHN: Where are you? Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes, on the shore at Leith in my windmill.

JOHN: Your windmill in Edinburgh.

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: You wanted to talk to me to wantonly plug your show at the Bill Murray comedy club in Islington next Thursday (7th February).

PAUL: And I’m at the Leicester Comedy Festival the weekend after that – Saturday 9th.

JOHN: The same show?

PAUL: Yes. Well, the same show with a different title.

JOHN: The last time I talked to you, there seemed to be a planned, linear progression to your shows. I was quite shocked.

PAUL: Well, to me there’s a plan, but people just think they’re… well, just… well… mental… But to me there’s a plan.

JOHN: So what’s this new show about?

PAUL: A conspiracy theory. The idea that all the weather we currently experience is generated in one small factory in the Dordogne in France. And the ‘front’ for it is a cake decorating shop. Behind the scenes, they are making weather, but it is mal-functioning. So I go to investigate. That’s the central crux… There are connections with Leonardo da Vinci.

JOHN: Which are?

PAUL: Apparently he had plans to re-invent the weather.

JOHN: Title of the show?

Mr Twonkey’s new show is coming to Islington

PAUL: My original title was Twonkey Turns The Umbrella of History, Meets Leonardo da Vinci and Explains Climate Change but, when I told my PR, the phone went silent. Now it’s called Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch. She didn’t like Whizz, Weathercock, Whizz! either. Next Thursday will be the first time I’ve performed it. The other night, we wrote a new song for it because we were watching Neil Diamond videos and became inspired. So now there’s a new bit in the show about a temporary exhibition of Neil Diamond stage costumes at Luton Airport.

JOHN: Separate from this show, you have a new music album coming out…

PAUL: Yes. There’s a new Paul Vickers and The Leg album called Jump! There have been some problems on that with label changes, but I think what is going to happen is… Well, I don’t know what is going to happen at all. The main thing we’re focussed on is getting it finished. We’re mixing it at the moment. It takes a long time to finish a record because, when you get five grumpy men in a room, it takes a while.

JOHN: Are you going to tour with the band?

PAUL: Hopefully. But it’s a case of time and money. There’s a lot of things I would like to do. My play about David Lynch is ready, but it’s too expensive for me to do at the moment.

JOHN: Why expensive?

PAUL: I need actors and actors cost money. The last time I did a play – Jennifer’s Robot Arm – it cost me a fortune. The trouble with plays is the cost escalates. It’s like digging a hole and just throwing loads of money into it. Whereas, with a Twonkey show, there’s a limit to how much the cost can escalate because it’s basically just me and what I buy in junk shops.

JOHN: How is your good lady? Is she still making props for you?

“Somebody had a go at it with a screwdriver. Sounds strange”

PAUL: Yes. And buying me things. The other day, she bought me a xylophone that plays by itself, but I think it’s broken. It sounds wrong and wobbles a lot.

JOHN: But, then, so do I… Is it having creative differences with itself?

PAUL: It appears so. It’s quite rusty as well. Somebody had a go at it with a screwdriver but it sounds very strange now.

JOHN: It plays itself?

PAUL: Because it’s from the early 1970s, the way you program it is with a coil. It’s kinda like an auto-piano that you would get in a Wild West saloon. It’s very old and broken.

JOHN: But, then, so am I and, if you tweaked me with a screwdriver…. What else have you been doing?

PAUL: I made a little video in the western town in Morningside

JOHN: Western town? Morningside??? The very posh part of Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes. Behind the library, there’s a street that’s like the Wild West.

JOHN: What?

PAUL: It was built for some advertising thing. There’s a saloon and a canteen. It’s like a proper little Wild West street. It used to be a dance hall; now it’s a street.

JOHN: What is the video about?

Mr Twonkey inside his windmill, holding quite a large cheese

PAUL: Cheese. How America lacks high quality cheese… American cheese is kinda plastic cheese. Was there ever a point where they tried to introduce European or exotic cheeses into America? I had the idea there was a time in the Wild West where cheese was more valuable than gold. So I’m trying to smuggle cheese and I steal the sheriff’s cheese and he tries to win it back. It’s very simple.

JOHN: What triggered you into thinking about the low quality of cheese in the USA?

PAUL: I just couldn’t think of any high-quality American cheese. In this country, every different region has its own cheese. And I thought: That surely must be the case in America; they must be making some kind of local cheese… but they’re not. Why not? But they love cheese. 

JOHN: Their showbiz can be quite cheesy. There’s Brie Larson.

PAUL: But does she generate genuine cheese?

JOHN: I don’t know her that well.

PAUL: There is no great American cheese. It is such poor quality that it can’t officially be classed as cheese.

JOHN: Who says?

Mr Twonkey – a man, a myth, a large sombrero

PAUL: The cheesemongers of the world. The Cheese Police. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: Is there some official supervisory cheese body?

PAUL: There must be. You can’t get away with just knocking out anything and calling it cheese. There must be someone who says: “Hang on a minute… That’s not proper cheese!”

JOHN: Is all this because American cows are below par?

PAUL: The thing about America is it’s massive. They’ve got snake farms. There are places out in the woods where they’re making things in a DIY homemade manner. You would think somewhere out there someone would be making high quality cheese…

You would think maybe someone with French ancestry would be thinking: I want to make a really smelly, runny cheese. But I don’t think there’s anyone in America doing that. I have Googled extensively online and the best I could come up with was Vermont Cheddar which, if you put it on a plate in France, they would say: “Well, that is… average.”

I have never been to Vermont. All I know is the Captain Beefheart song Moonlight on Vermont.

JOHN: Does Moonlight on Vermont include any reference to cheese?

PAUL: I don’t think he mentions cheese.

JOHN: I seem to remember cheese being a motif in previous shows of yours.

PAUL: It is. It’s one of the things I focus on. Certain things keep coming back: cheese, World War Two, escapology, engineering and witchcraft. But you Google American cheese. You’d be amazed.

JOHN: I don’t doubt it.

PAUL: The country that invented the cheeseburger doesn’t have decent cheese.

JOHN: Did they invent the cheeseburger?

PAUL: Well, they invented fast food. Have you seen that film The Founder?

JOHN: About Colonel Sanders?

PAUL: No, about the guy who started McDonald’s. Except he didn’t start McDonald’s. He went into business with the McDonald brothers and their original intention was high-quality fast food.

Michael Keaton’s movie as The Founder

The way they did it was they didn’t open a restaurant first; they booked a tennis court, got a piece of chalk and divided the tennis court into different areas for preparing different types of food, then employed staff who came to the tennis court and they mapped-out a kitchen and they were directing people round this tennis court to see who could make the quickest high-quality cheeseburger. Then they built a restaurant to the exact specifications of the tennis court.

JOHN: Didn’t the net get in the way?”

PAUL: I think they maybe took down the net. We have gone off-track…

JOHN: I feel there is a rock opera to be written about cheese and you are the man to do it.

PAUL: The Americans invented jazz and fast food… And that’s it… We are going off-track.

JOHN: So you are performing at the Bill Murray in London on Thursday.

PAUL: Yes. Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch.

Twonkey… Another gig. The same show. Another title… A fez

JOHN: And then at the Leicester Comedy Festival on Saturday 9th February..

PAUL: Yes. Twonkey Turns The Umbrella of History, Meets Leonardo da Vinci and Explains Climate Change.

JOHN: Which is the same show, but with a different title.

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: And, at the Edinburgh Fringe, it will be called Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: That seems reasonable.

… Mr TWONKEY’s MORNINGSIDE VIDEO IS ON YOUTUBE …

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The art and psychology of heckling comics and throwing objects at them

Malcolm Hardee – known for running notorious comedy clubs

Exactly 14 years ago tonight, comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock in the Rotherhithe peninsula, London.

He maintained his principles, even in death.

When his body was raised from the dock several days later, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

Malcolm was famed for spotting and helping talented comedians at the start of their careers. He was also known for running and hosting the Tunnel Palladium club night – a Sunday evening show with good professional acts but also an ‘open spot’ section so dangerous for new acts to perform in that aspiring comics would sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see if they could survive an audience known and feared for its razor-sharp heckling.

After the club was raided and closed by the police for drugs offences (NOT on one of Malcolm’s nights – he only did Sundays) he opened Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich where, initially, the hecklers continued their trade.

Here, I chat to one of the Tunnel’s most effective hecklers – Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin.


Gordon Breslin – a taste for heckling

JOHN: You got a taste for heckling at the Tunnel club…

BRES: Well, before that, me and a friend used to go to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday afternoon and absorb some of the heckling of speakers that was going on. I remember heckling the Reverend Donald Soper on occasion, when he was preaching there. That’s where we cut out teeth.

JOHN: Did Lord Soper take it well?

BRES: He did indeed. He was a very nice gentleman. After that, though, we discovered the Tunnel club.

JOHN: You were regulars.

BRES: Yes. And the heckling was quite good fun. To start with, it was limited to the open mic spots.

JOHN: But all heckling is surely cruel and nasty.

BRES: Sometimes it is cruel and nasty but sometimes an act just needs to go if they’re not very good.

JOHN: But these poor, sensitive people have spent months refining their act…

BRES: Well, being heckled is how they know it needs more refining. If an act is really bad, something should be done apart from walking out. I think audiences have become too tolerant of bad acts these days. Back in the Tunnel days, it could be quite rude – “Get off! You’re shit!” This was 1984 to 1989.

But word got out about the heckling there and it got progressively more ermmm… ‘aggressive’ I guess is the word.

JOHN: Well, I guess throwing beer glasses at the acts is aggressive.

BRES: Yes, but people like Simon Munnery were cutting their teeth there and he didn’t mind a bit of heckling. There used to be a very good heckler at The Tunnel called The Pirate…

JOHN: I think Malcolm told me The Pirate was a stockbroker who retired early to Spain with lots of money.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

BRES: His great one was… A comic would make his best joke of the night and The Pirate’s voice would be heard saying “Oh larf… Oh larf… Oh larf,” which would just floor the comedian. Some of the heckling was very very funny.

JOHN: And the best heckles are…?

BRES: I think the art of the heckle is… A heckler wants to make a funny gag and make the audience laugh and perhaps even get the biggest laugh of the night and – not necessarily make the comic feel small, but – make the comic appreciate the heckler’s one one-liner as well.

JOHN: Surely it is just solely to make the comic feel small.

BRES: Well, in a way. But the comic has the right of reply, so he can make the heckler feel even smaller. A lot of people don’t want to sit in the front rows because they don’t want to be picked-on by the comic. Let’s get it into perspective. For me comedians, if they are any good, will always pick on the front row. So they have more than ample opportunity to get their retaliation in first.

JOHN: So heckling is the audience picking on the comedian, not the comedian picking on the audience.

BRES: Exactly. That’s the one. As long as it’s fair and just. At The Tunnel, some of the comedians would come on looking nervous and, before they’d even said a word, the first thing shouted out was: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then someone else would take up the cry: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then the whole audience would end up shouting “Maaallcolm!!!” and, before the comedian had even said a word, it was not unknown for the act to walk off without even doing a joke.

JOHN: And the audience would sometimes call out for a taxi…

BRES: Yes. “Cab for (the comedian’s name)!” Those were the regular heckles. But then it got a bit overtaken by… Well, a bit violent, I should say – Throwing things and it… it got… erm… too bad. There was an incident where Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton)… I think it was a beer crate or something like that was thrown at them – something quite chunky…

JOHN: Malcolm told me he wasn’t the compere that night. I think he was maybe at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Malcolm made a mistake in giving a copy of this letter to each member of the Tunnel club audience

BRES: I think she sustained a cut – Joy Pickles. So, the following week, there was a letter to the audience from Tunnel Arts – which was Malcolm – asking all members of the audience to “refrain from throwing anything at the stage… The Tunnel Club is noted for its witty heckling and appreciation of a good act. Let’s not spoil it by behaving as animals. It is coming to a point where a lot of good acts are thinking twice about performing here (quite rightly so) and this means that your enjoyment will be impaired.”

A copy of this letter was put on every seat in the Tunnel club and, of course, when Malcolm came on stage, he got bombarded by people throwing screwed-up letters and paper aeroplanes at him. So the letter became a surreal heckle.

JOHN: My memory is that, sometimes, they didn’t just throw beer glasses at the acts; they sometimes threw half-full glasses so there was beer all over the place too.

BRES: Well, it was probably quite watered-down beer. 

JOHN: The heckling-off of acts was quite effective.

BRES: Yes. Sometimes self-defeating. Sometimes you might have seven or eight acts and the show would be over in half an hour because everyone had been heckled off – sometimes even the good ones.

Jools Holland (left) with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel club in 1985 (Photo by Bill Alford)

JOHN: Malcolm told me that, after the trouble with Clarence & Joy Pickles, he had to make it a members-only club and he then discovered lots of the audience were not local. They were coming through the Blackwall Tunnel from north of the Thames and a lot were very highly-paid, highly-educated City workers, which was why the heckling was of such a high standard. I think someone was once heckled off in Latin and looked a bit surprised.

BRES: Yeah.

JOHN: What was your job at that point?

BRES: (LAUGHS) I was a Lloyds underwriter, working in the City.

JOHN: So basically it was up-market scum causing the problems.

BRES: Exactly. (LAUGHS) But I am from humble beginnings. I guess the Tunnel club had a timely demise and we were then a bit bereft of anywhere to go. We tried out Jongleurs club in Clapham, but the comedy was never great there and we weren’t allowed to heckle. We were physically told-off by bouncers. Luckily, Malcolm then set-up Up The Creek in Greenwich, which didn’t have the same notoriety as the Tunnel.

JOHN: I think the brothers who co-owned it with Malcolm told him after a few weeks that he couldn’t allow heckling and throwing things. Though I do remember some open spot act who got up on stage and started reading poetry. He was a bald man and you could see the blood trickling down his forehead after something was thrown and hit him.

BRES: I was there when Eddie Shit was performing. He came on dressed as Freddie Mercury and was singing songs by Queen with all the lyrics changed to refer to shit. I was sitting down the front and we were getting things passed to us from the back – including glass ashtrays – to throw at him. Which, obviously, we never did.

There was one occasion when an act which really was shit had been using a real frozen chicken and they ended up throwing this frozen chicken at the audience. The audience kept it then, slowly but surely, it made its way down the front. It came to me and I remember getting up on stage and offering it to Malcolm and I think I started up the chant “Shag the chicken! Shag the chicken!” which the whole audience took up.

So Malcolm got his knob out and duly obliged. 

That was quite amusing.

JOHN: Did you make friends with the other hecklers?

BRES: Yes. And some of the acts as well. It wasn’t all animosity. Simon Munnery, Martin Soan, Boothby Graffoe, Rich Hall. We would leave the good acts alone and they would leave us alone.

JOHN: Mostly, I thought the hecklers at Malcolm’s clubs were firm but fair.

BRES: I would like to think that.

JOHN: Part of the training process for new comedians. You don’t get much heckling nowadays.

BRES: The demise of heckling is down to the extra tolerance we have nowadays, even for bad acts. There are hidden boundaries these days. There’s too much respect for comics these days. Performers don’t know how to give a riposte and, as a heckler, you don’t want to show them up. It would just stump them.

JOHN: Isn’t that the point?

BRES: Not always. The next generation should learn what “Maaallcolm!!!” means.

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Comedy performer Becky Fury in Berlin with the man who had had too much fun

Becky Fury… And this is the way the conversation went…

My last blog, a week ago,  was about What happened when award-winning performer Becky Fury went to Berlin for a week to create art but she only stayed for a day. 

It was not exactly clear why her stay was so short. And several readers of this blog have asked me (yes indeed they really have) why.

The only explanation in the previous blog was: “the guy that invited me to Berlin, who has taken way too much acid… didn’t really think about the logistics of inviting people to make art there. So I decided to get a plane back to London after I went into Berlin itself on a psycho-geographic ramble.”

So, obviously, a couple of days ago, I sat down and had a cup of tea with Becky (we are, after all, British) and asked her to be more specific. 

And this is the way the conversation went…


BECKY: The guy read your blog, contacted me and said he had been wondering what happened to me.

JOHN: He didn’t realise you had left Berlin?

BECKY: No. I hadn’t told him.

JOHN: You left over a week ago.

BECKY: Well, there were a few things he didn’t notice and the fact that I had left Berlin was one of those things. 

JOHN: He had done too much…

BECKY: He had done too much… of something. He had had… erm… He had had way too much ‘fun’. That’s a nice way of explaining it.

JOHN: But he never noticed you had gone? Did you leave a stuffed dummy of a human body under your bedclothes?

BECKY: This was the thing. I didn’t have a bed to sleep in. That was mainly the reason I left. Because I was given a couch in a freezing cold warehouse in East Berlin in January. 

JOHN: We couldn’t afford couches in my day…

BECKY: Maybe I should have considered myself lucky… And I had a dirty sleeping bag to sleep under.

JOHN: Sounds ideal. This is the stuff of award-winning Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows.

BECKY: I know… I… err… I don’t want to get distracted by what you’re saying.

JOHN: Few people do.

BECKY: Basically, I went to Berlin to do some art. We had had this really, really interesting conversation, this guy and me. I had met him when I first started to do squatting and alternative politics in 2002. It was a really interesting thing to catch up with him and have a conversation about all the things that had happened since 2002. And he told me we could do a film in his ‘green screen room’ in Berlin. I knew that, over the previous 17 years, he had been taking a lot of… having a lot of ‘fun’.

“I can’t work in this space and I can’t work with you.”

When I got to Berlin, he took me up to see the green screen room and it was the size of… well, basically, you couldn’t stand up in it. Which is a bit of a problem for a green screen room. And he had a tent in the green screen room and he was sleeping in there.

I looked at him and he looked at me and he said: “Oh, no, no, well, we could do it like a rocket. We could film it like we were in a rocket ship in here.” 

And I was thinking: No, we couldn’t. We could only film it in here like we were two tramps living in a tent in a green screen room. There’s nothing else you can do in this space. You ARE actually like a tramp living in this tent in a room that you have green screened and this is fucking insane. I can’t work in this space and I clearly can’t work with you.

And he kinda knew there was something wrong, but this is the thing about people having too much… who have had too much ‘fun’. It is like you’re tripping all the time.

I wasn’t angry with him at all. He was in his dream and he wasn’t really seeing why there was a problem. In his dream, it was fine. We would absolutely make an amazing film with us in a tent flying through space.

He told me this guy from (a well-known cabaret music group) was coming down. And he did. But the date he had given the guy was totally wrong: it was like four days afterwards. I mean, you really can’t get people to fucking come from other countries to meet up and the two people who are meant to be doing the project together arrive four days apart!

He had not done the logistics and I was meant to stay on this freezing cold couch under a dirty sleeping bag for four days. He told me that is what everyone in Berlin does.

So I wandered off. 

There was also inter-personal politics with people in the house.

Basically, they had set up an art space in an enormous warehouse space.

There was the original Tacheles squat after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the squatters got evicted and it was turned into luxury flats. And these were the same (squatter) people who had moved and set up a new Tacheles.

That’s what he told me and it is, but there were two sets of agendas going on.

He has sort-of ‘arted’ all over the warehouse – like he has pissed all over the place, but with art. Art everywhere. So the people upstairs have to deal with him: this guy who is ‘arting’ all over their place.

JOHN: Is this not good? Whatever happened to the joy of anarchy?

“Like I had seen The Ghost of Anarchy Past and had to leave. and run away very fast.”

BECKY: Well, the thing about anarchy is it needs some level of organisation for it to function, otherwise it’s just chaos and a big mess. Which is fun. And it was interesting to go and visit it. But I think that might be why, in the picture you put in the last blog, I look like I’d seen a ghost: that I had seen The Ghost of Anarchy Past and had to leave and run away very fast.

JOHN: So, basically, you just left because you were a bit cold…

BECKY: (LAUGHING) Basically, that’s it! I could have waited to find out if the guy turned up from the (well-known cabaret music group) – which he did.

JOHN: So, at what point did this bloke who enticed you over to do art discover you had left Berlin? Only when he read my blog?

BECKY: No. When the other guy turned up four days later and I wasn’t there.

JOHN: How had you left?

BECKY: I said: “I’m going to go for a walk.”

JOHN: To the guy who had had too much fun?

BECKY: No. To the other guys upstairs. They said to me: “We don’t really know what you’re doing here.”

And I was thinking: I don’t really know what I’m doing here either.

I could have won them over with my natural wit and charm and – obviously – the opportunity to be mentioned in your blog. But I thought: I don’t really want to be here and I’ve got other shit to be getting on with. So I said I was going for a walk and was thinking I’d get an AirBnB or something but, by the time I had left and got a bit of food and was near the station – I hadn’t eaten since I got there because the guy didn’t have any food…

JOHN: You had only been there for like half a day! That’s hardly hardship…

BECKY: (LAUGHS)

JOHN: So you said you were going off for a walk like Captain Oates?

BECKY: Yeah. “I might be some time” and they never saw me again. I did my Captain Oates bit and bowed out disgracefully.

JOHN: Though, unlike Captain Oates, you went to a warmer place.

BECKY: Though we don’t know what happened to Captain Oates, do we?

JOHN: No we don’t. But you left because…

BECKY: I had thought it was going to be a really functional space with loads of people. Not just three cold and very irritable hippies and a man who had taken too much fun.

Although, to be honest, that is a better audience than I’ve sometimes had at the Edinburgh Fringe…

So I came back to London and learnt the script for Political, my show at the Leicester Comedy Festival on 22nd February.

JOHN: Well promoted.

BECKY: I try.

JOHN: And you’ve succeeded.

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“I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake” by Malcolm Hardee – an extract

Following on from the last five days of blogs, which quoted what people’s reactions were when legendary comedian Malcolm Hardee died in 2005, here is an extract from his out-of-print 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake

All you need to know as background is that, before he entered the show business, Malcolm was not the comedy Messiah.

He was a very naughty boy…


I came out of Exeter three days after Jubilee Day 1977. Unless you’re young enough to be a footballer, there are only two things you can do when you come out of prison and you want immediate employment. You can either be a minicab driver or you can go into showbusiness. I did both. 

Alan Curry, who later joined The Greatest Show on Legs, had been looking for a flat and had just gone knocking on doors. He’d found a massive Victorian house in Micheldever Road in Lee Green, half a mile from Lewisham. A woman called Sally Niblett lived there. Her husband was disabled and was quite a famous doctor and he’d taken himself, his wheelchair and their five boys off to Papua New Guinea. She was left in this massive house on her own. So Alan Curry moved in. 

Alan told Wizo about the house, Wizo told me and I moved in. At this point, Wizo was a lifeguard at a local swimming pool despite the fact he couldn’t swim. Not what you would call swimming in the traditional sense. 

After that, my mate Martin Potter moved in and, over the years, Sally had maybe 70-odd different tenants in that house. My sister lived there for a time. Nearly everyone I know has lived there.

The house next door was owned by a man called Michael, who was clinically mad. He used to come along in the morning, cut the hedge and then stick the leaves back on with glue and Sellotape.

There were the maddest goings-on in the world at Sally Niblett’s house. There was a bloke called Vic, who thought he was practical but he wasn’t. He constantly had a car engine in his bedroom that he was repairing but it never worked. Once I was in bed with a girlfriend and he tried to come into the room, but there was a wooden beam across the door and he hit his head on it. He went running downstairs, got a chainsaw out, ran back up and started sawing through the wood.

Another bloke who lived there was Dave. He bought an old taxi, took the body off it and decided to make a car completely out of wood, because he was a bit of a chippie. Eventually, after about two years making this car, he decided to take it for a test run. He came out of the drive where he’d been making it, turned left and, after about 100 yards, got stopped by the police. They said: 

“You can’t have this. It’s illegal. You’ve got no M.O.T. certificate”. 

So he put it back in the drive and it stayed there for fifteen years until it rotted away.

Sally Niblett used to be a nurse and she had a series of affairs and eventually ended up moving into the basement because there were so many people in this house. Everyone paid her £5 per week. Didn’t matter which room: £5 per week. It was just the maddest house you could ever imagine. It made the house in BBC TV’s The Young Ones look like a palace. 

Once, I wanted to have a chicken-run in the garden, so I came back with two chickens and didn’t have anywhere to put them, so I put them in the oven while I built the chicken-run. Sally Niblett came home and switched the oven on. She never noticed.

Another time, we moved a sofa from a house round the corner. We didn’t have any van to put it in, but I had an old Austin Cambridge car. So I towed it behind the car, with Vic sitting on the sofa as we towed it round the streets. I came round a corner, the rope snapped and he just carried on sitting on the sofa as it hurtled straight into the Manor Lane Cafe. 

It was at this house in Micheldever Road that I became a minicab-driver when I met this bloke called ‘Alec The Greek’, who wasn’t a Greek. He lent me £65 to buy a car and I bought the cheapest possible four-door car I could: a Renault 4 saloon.

At the same time, I saw a notice in the local paper saying: 

WANTED FOR THEATRE GROUP

ACTORS

I thought I’ll have a go at that! 

This was the 1970s so, basically, being in a Theatre Group meant somebody gave you a Grant and you went round and scared kids for about an hour. 

I went to this audition and they were all standing in a circle going: 

“Taaaaall as a tree!……Smaaaall as a mouse!” 

Then they went: 

“Ooooooooh!……Eeeeeeeh!” 

And I thought What the fuck’s going on here? 

But I thought I’d have a go at it. 

I had a boxer dog I was looking after at the time and as I tried doing Taaaall as a tree! the boxer dog was trying to shag my leg. They were all taking it seriously but, over the other side of the room, was a bloke called Martin Soan and he looked at me and he looked at the boxer dog and I looked at him and we knew, from that moment, we were going to get on. And we did.

I was also minicabbing with the boxer dog in the car. There was a girl in this Theatre Group who was very big. Well, let’s be honest, she was fat. 

She fancied me. I don’t know why, but she did.

I went to the minicab office one night at 1.00am and this girl was there, waiting for me. She said: 

“Can you take me home to Peckham, Malcolm?” 

“Alright,” I said. 

Just as she was getting in the car, the minicab boss shouted out: 

“Oy! I’ve got another fare for Peckham, round the corner! Can you take him?” 

“Yes,” I said. “No problem.”

So I drove round the corner to the address and the fare was on the 14th floor of a tower block. 

I went in. The lift didn’t work. I ran up the stairs. Knocked on the door. Shouted out: 

“Anyone cab for Peckham?” 

This bloke came to the door a bit drunk and said: 

“Can you take five?” 

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think I can take five. I’ve got a dog in the car”. I didn’t mention the fat girl. 

So this bloke called out: 

“Mavis! Oi, Mavis! We like dogs, don’t we?” 

“Yeah,” she called back: “We love dogs!”  

So I capitulated because he said he’d pay double.

 “Alright,” I said, “I’ll take five”. 

I ran all the way down the stairs and shouted to the fat girl: 

“Get in the boot!” 

Full credit to her, she did. 

The boot in my Renault was at the front. So she got into the boot and the family came down. They were luckily quite small people. I put three of them in the back with the dog over their laps and the bloke and his wife in the front. I started the engine up and the fat girl must have panicked because the boot lid came slowly up and her face rose in front of the windscreen. The bloke asked the not unreasonable question: 

“Who’s that?” 

“Dunno,” I said.

The lid of the boot went down and we drove off to Peckham. The bloke never mentioned it again. Nor did I. 

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