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Why her grandma might have had to kill the actress/producer Cassandra Hodges

Cassandra Hodges is an actress who works with multi-Oscared movie producer Norma Heyman, is resident producer at the Hope Theatre in Islington and is involved in two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in August: the Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show at the Pleasance and the Big Bite-Size Lunch Hour at the Assembly

As if that were not enough, in a couple of weeks, she tells me:

Cruising for trouble on the high seas

Cruising for trouble on the high seas with Fred Olsen

“I’m also doing a murder mystery cruise for Fred Olsen. If that goes well, it will go round Europe next year. Different people die every night and there are seven of us players. It was the Duchess of Northumberland who set it up, because she’s obsessed with poison gardens and fascinated by poison as a concept. All the food and drink on the cruise will be poison related. It should be another mad experience of doing something new. I’m also developing a couple of films with friends.”

“So you have been at it a while?” I asked.

“I left drama school six years ago. I sort-of started doing producing when I came out of drama school because I wanted to be in something and the phone wasn’t ringing, so I started making my own work. I come from an acting family, but not my mum or dad – my cousin is the actress Julia Foster, so that’s were the thespian bit comes from; she’s now doing the new Dad’s Army film. My mum is a fashion designer; my dad’s a historian.”

“What was his speciality?” I asked.

The Bayeux Tapestry and that period. As a child, I was always being taken to castles, which was great, but maybe it made me a bit of a dreamer. Interested in history. Reading novels and my dad’s books rather than watching television. My dad was always playing classical music when I was younger and I did ballet as a kid with the Royal Academy of Dance. On the other hand, I grew up on the Carry Ons and Dad’s Army and all that.

“I wasn’t very academic at school but I went to Sussex University and did English with Drama and wrote my dissertation on Jane Austen, whom I’m obsessed with, and Shakespeare.”

“You write as well?” I asked.

Cassandra Hodges chatted at the Soho Theatre

Cassandra Hodges chatted at the Soho Theatre

“No, I’m not really a writer, but I did have a psychic reading the other day and he told me I should not rule out being a writer.”

“Oh,” I told her, “I had a psychic reading in Battersea Park when I was seventeen. I was wearing orange-coloured cord Levi jeans and the fortune teller said I would go to the US and work in banking. I was not impressed.”

“This guy was good,” said Cassandra. “Anthony Lewis Churchill.

He said a lot of things which he could not have known about my family – like how my dad was born in Wales, which is not anywhere on the internet because my dad is really private.

“And once I auditioned for something that I really shouldn’t have auditioned for, because I would never have got it, and Anthony Lewis Churchill said to me: Someone’s telling me to tell you not to bother auditioning for things you’re not going to get like The Lion King. And I had never told anyone about that.”

“He knew you were an actress, though?” I asked.

“Yes, but I’d never told anyone that fact and he knew it exactly, so that was a bit weird. He does aura and life coaching and he has a TV show he’s about to launch in America: him and a fashion designer. They go into someone’s house and take a dress out of their cupboard and he analyses the history of the dress. The UK wasn’t interested in it, but America was.

“The US has become my favourite country. I went over in April to do an Industry Hollywood course. They’re more direct out there. They’re very Yes-or-No, but at least you get an answer. Here I often get: Oh, we’ve already got a blonde in her twenties and I think You obviously haven’t bothered to watch my showreel because there’s comedy stuff on there; it’s not just boring leading lady. That’s not my casting.”

“So you went went out to the US on this course…?” I prompted.

“Yes. A couple of friends of mine went out for the week too. One of them wasn’t doing the course. He got himself an agent and got married within a week. Someone I introduced him to. They went off to Las Vegas. He had only known her for four days. They’re going out to live there now. Somebody from Comedy Central told me: Oh my god! You’re the new Emma Thompson! You need to come out here!”

“So you’ll have to get a visa,” I said.

“I’d like to get an O-1 visa,” Cassandra told me.

“That lasts three years?”

“Yup. then, after five years, you can apply for a Green Card.”

“What can you do on an O-1?”

“There’s one that’s just for acting. But there’s a performance one, where you can do singing-dancing-acting. I’ve done a bit of opera and I do musicals. I’ve done Sweeney Todd – I was the beggar woman – and I’d really like to do more Sondheim. I do flute, ukulele, piano. So that’s the one for me. I had heard horror stories about America for women but I actually found it to be not horrific.”

“You mean casting couches?”

“Yes. And also I’d heard you couldn’t succeed as a woman unless you were stick-thin or fat. You couldn’t be middle-sized like me.”

Following in the footsteps of Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascall?

Cassandra: following in the footsteps of Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascall?

Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascal made it,” I said. “But maybe you can only run a studio, not be an actress. Presumably it helps that you have what they will call the ‘cute little English accent’.”

“I do the posh thing, yes. That’s what I always get cast as: posh or comedy roles.”

“I suppose the accent is quite posh,” I said. “Stephen Merchant said, in this country, people hear his accent and think he’s a West Country yokel but, in the US, they think he’s speaking like a member of the Royal Family.”

“It was interesting going out there,” said Cassandra. “They put us in front of a lot of casting people and I also got a 3-hour accent coaching session. I met a couple of people who used to direct Star Trek and they were lovely.”

“What sort of parts do you want?”

“I’m looking at what Miranda Hart is doing. I think Big Bang Theory was a big turning point. I think you’re starting to see more real people on sitcoms. I feel comedy is changing and it’s a good time for Brits to be out in the US. They seem to like us, even if a lot of people thought I was Australian when I was in the US. British actors have usually changed to go to the US, but I think people are starting to go out there and be themselves – like you were saying about Stephen Merchant. I’m going out in September with the Borat hope of getting some work by meeting up with some of those fabulous contacts I made.”

“And, in the meantime,” I said, “the poison cruise and Edinburgh?”

“In Edinburgh,” said Cassandra, “I’m playing Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice.”

“And,” I asked, “you’re also involved off-stage in Bite-Size plays in Edinburgh?”

“One is called Quack, about a man who falls in love with a duck and takes her to work with him, then realises she is a duck and has to explain to her that she can’t wear trainers. It’s quite sad. It’s a real mixture. There are some touching plays in among the comedy.

Alan Turing and bear coming to the West End

Alan Turing & his bear coming to the West End in November

“And I have a play which is transferring to the West End in November. It’s a play by Snoo Wilson called Love Song of the Electric Bear about Alan Turing. I produced it at the Hope Theatre for three weeks in February. We got the play published by Methuen and, on the last show, Simon Callow and Alan Rickman came to see it, which was great. The play is basically Alan Turing’s life told through his teddy bear. I think my grandma might have worked at Bletchley Park.”

“But,” I suggested, “if she had told you she would have had to kill you.”

“Maybe,” said Cassandra.

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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At the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, two comedy debates, two bizarre live events and a two-hour variety show

Forgive me while I amiably meander in almost – but not quite – the same way as preparations for the Edinburgh Fringe meander – well, OK, they meander increasingly manically as the year progresses. Preparations for the annual August adrenaline fest normally start around December or January…

As background for what is coming, remember that, in the wonderful world of showbiz, TV shows always take precedence over live stage shows. One year, not so long ago, well after the Edinburgh Fringe Programme deadline had passed, comedian John Oliver was offered a regular spot on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the US so, quite rightly, he decamped Stateside. He had been due to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe in his show with Andy Zaltzman in the August and was billed in the printed Programme to appear but Andy successfully carried it off as a solo show. So it all turned out well.

Pity the poor Edinburgh Fringe staff at this time of year, though – indeed, pity them at any time of year.

The Fringe this year does not start until the first week in August, but the deadline for entry into the Fringe Programme was nine days ago and yesterday afternoon at 5.00pm was the final deadline for making changes to any of the entries. The Programme is published in June.

As we are talking of Fringe performers here, chaos must have reigned all over the UK yesterday. I got phone calls from two comedians changing their show titles and wording and asking me what I thought. One of those calls was from American comedian Lewis Schaffer who, last year, managed to incorrectly bill his 7.00pm show in the Programme as a 17.00 show. What can you expect from a nation that calls mathematics “math” instead of “maths”?

Lewis reckons that it is Europe’s fault for confusingly listing 5 o’clock as 17 o’clock.

Last year, however, he miraculously managed to get a second timeslot at 7.00pm for part of his Fringe run to compensate and did two shows a day and then, when he lost the venue for the extra slot, he waited outside the venue at the appropriate time, picked up people who thought he was performing inside and dragged them off like some latter-day Pied Piper for a performance outside in another street.

Lewis is a New York Jew and he did those performance in a street opposite the main Edinburgh Mosque. I think he claimed to me at the time that this location was coincidental (and it was never referred to in his show) but I have never been too sure, as he is that rare thing: an American with a hyper-active sense of irony.

Anyway, this year it was me who had to change one show I’m putting on.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards for Comedy have been around since 2005 and, in varying ways, there have been stage shows since then in London or Edinburgh.

This year, there is going to be a two-hour Awards show – well, maybe ten minutes of actually awarding Awards in the middle of a two-hour comedy variety show – at the Edinburgh Fringe on Friday 26th August.

Until yesterday, it was going to be preceded by four nights of comedy debates – chaired by me on the Monday/Tuesday and by Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy critics, on the Wednesday/Thursday.

At the last minute, though, a TV show to which Kate was already committed switched its recording days so she now has to be in London on the Wednesday/Thursday (and possibly also the Tuesday). She can’t do her two Malcolm Hardee Debate shows and can’t switch her two dates with mine.

So, at the last minute yesterday, I changed the Wednesday/Thursday show and its venue (don’t ask about the venue change – private grief).

Now, in the final full week of the Fringe, 22nd-26th August 2011, there will be Malcolm Hardee debates on the Monday/Tuesday evenings at The Hive, a bizarre event which I have always wanted to stage on the Wednesday/Thursday evenings in the Grassmarket and a two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show on Friday night at The Counting House.

Alright, it means bugger all to you and I didn’t say what the bizarre event is.

But to me, this blog posting counts as a promotional pre-launch. You insert in people’s brains the vague idea that something is happening in the future, then say nothing about it for a while and then plug it increasingly nearer the time.

You have been warned.

More will follow.

Eventually.

Unless it all changes.

We are talking, here, after all, about the Edinburgh Fringe.

Kate Copstick should be appearing in the Malcolm Hardee Debate on Monday 22nd August. But who knows?

Any profits from the debates and from the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards show on Friday 26th August will certainly go to her Mama Biashara charity.

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