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What it is like to be on the jury of a murder case at the Old Bailey in London

The Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey

The Central Criminal Court of England & Wales at the Old Bailey

A week ago, I posted a blog about a court case.

It was in a minor court.

I know someone else who, a few years ago, was a juror at the Old Bailey in London – the Central Criminal Court of England & Wales.

He kept a diary.

What follows is extracted from it.

Two weeks is the legal requirement for jury service but, as the selection of a jury is random and some cases may take longer than two weeks, sometimes thirty or more potential jurors can be selected by computer and taken to the court room.


JURY SELECTION

30 of us are led down to Court 16.

The judge tells us the case is likely to run a month and 20 names will be called at random. If our name is called we are to approach the bench and explain to him if we have a problem with the duration of the case.

First up the lively fellow I had chatted with outside. “My Lord,” he says, “I am a member of the bar. I have my own cases to prepare. I can serve 2 weeks but longer may be a problem.” The Judge says in not so many words that, as a member of the legal profession, he knows how the system works. His excuse is not accepted.

I am not chosen.

Afterwards, we prospective jurors have a coffee table discussion. Eventually we get round to ‘What do you do?‘. One of our number says he can’t tell us; it’s top secret and he has to keep handing notes to various judges who then mysteriously dismiss him. We play guess his occupation. He won’t play ball. (I think he may be a spy.)

Into Court 15.

M’Lud calls for anyone with a problem to come forward. From somewhere behind me appears the ‘spy’, clutching his note which he hands to a court clerk to take to His Honour. We all watch the Judge with interest as he reads the note.

“Yes,” he says, “I think I need to show the barristers this.” Up they step to read it. “I am satisfied that this gentleman should not be considered for this jury. Do you agree?” he says to the barristers. “Yes M’Lud.” The spy is dismissed and instructed to leave the court.

WEDNESDAY

It is impossible to be a juror and disengage your emotions. Ours is a tragic story and we all, without exception, have become increasingly subdued as the story unfolds and, in one or two cases, quite upset.

THURSDAY

I held a murder weapon wrapped in protective plastic, learned the difference between various spatters of blood and listened to the graphic details of the findings of the pathologist’s post mortem. CSI this isn’t.

One thing’s for sure, being on a jury is an education.

If one could forget that she was talking about an actual incident (which I couldn’t) the forensic scientist from the Home Office was fascinating. She explained just exactly what DNA is and how they can form their deductions from it. She then guided us through our file of photographs and explained each blood spatter. She can tell which is impact blood and which is expirated blood.

The detective came with the transcript of her first major interview after the defendant had been charged. She read her part out and the junior prosecution barrister read all the others. This was quite lengthy and took us up to lunch time. Quite frankly, I have never heard a script in a TV drama that has come anywhere close.

The afternoon was taken up with the rest of the police transcript and then came the Home Office pathologist. He gave a detailed description of the post mortem, referring us to our graphic drawings of the deceased and then explained his findings. It wasn’t pleasant.

His Honour called it a day after that. It had been heavy going and our mood was sombre. One of the younger jurors was in tears.

I badly needed a drink and I was due to meet two friends for dinner. I desperately wanted to ‘download’ the case but I knew this wasn’t allowed. On the other hand I didn’t want to just go home. So I head out for the evening and find I am not the best company.

FRIDAY

Two psychiatrists today. One for the prosecution and one for the defence. They have both been involved at different stages of the story and ultimately they both agree. We are stood down for a two hour lunch break – the two opposing barristers want to have legal discussion. We think there is something in the air.

Back in Jury Assembly we all avidly discuss the case amongst ourselves. This being Friday, with the week’s cases in full swing, there are groups of jurors sticking together everywhere in deep discussion.

Wander out for a breath of fresh air. Camera crews everywhere. Someone says ‘the shoe bomber’ is about to be sentenced. After lunch, the defence barrister begins his case. The second psychiatrist is called. He takes us up to 3.00pm and once again M’Lud calls it a day. He addresses the jury, telling us to have a nice weekend and reports that the weather is going to be sunny. He then asks us to put the case out of our minds until Monday.

Is he kidding?

TUESDAY

It’s all over. A strange feeling of deflation. My fellow jurors and I have lived this case for the last few days – someone else’s life, the minutiae of someone else’s tragedy. And, when it came to it, we weren’t prepared for the sudden turn of events.

10.30 and we’re back in court. The Judge addresses us. The gist is this:

“Members of the Jury,” he says, “the prosecution and defence and I have been speaking since we saw you last and they have both put it to me that this charge should be one of manslaughter. I agree with them and therefore I propose to change the charge. I understand that the defendant is prepared to plead guilty to the charge of manslaughter and, having heard the circumstances of the case, I am satisfied that this is the appropriate charge and plea.”

Or words to that effect. I can sense that we are all relieved. From day one we have wondered why ours is a case of murder.

Next the formality. The Clerk of Court stands and asks our defendant to rise. Our defendant is formally charged with manslaughter and is asked how he pleads.

“Guilty’.”

As we now have a changed charge and a guilty plea there is no need for us to deliberate. But we were set the task of trying the case and must agree with the events that have taken place. The Judge formally requests the juror in seat 1 to stand and asks if we agree with the charge and the plea. On behalf of all of us she whispers: “Yes”.

She knows we all feel the same – we’ve discussed it often enough in Jury Assembly.

And that is our duty done.

As the defence had not had a chance to conclude their case, His Honour gives the defence barrister the floor to speak. And my, how he does. An impassioned speech. Questioning how and why it had ever come to a charge of murder.

A veiled criticism of the Crown Prosecution Service that had refused to accept a guilty plea to manslaughter to begin with, which would have negated the need for a trial. No criticism of our prosecution counsel. He was just doing his job. It had become apparent to us from the way he presented the Crown’s case that he was sympathetic. No rottweiler here.

The judge listened and commented that, despite all the defence had said, the laying out of the tragedy before the court had led everyone to conclude that this was the right outcome. Perhaps this had been for the best.

And so to M’Lud’s summing up.

He talked of the tragic circumstances of the defendant’s life that had led him to take another’s. He spoke of the family who must bear some of the responsibility, the shame and the blame. But, he said, the fact remained that to take a life is unlawful and a custodial sentence was the appropriate punishment. He was incredibly fair.

Four years. With time already served in custody and time off for good behaviour, he will be out in 18 months. What happens to him then I do not know…

So here was our case. A case where one man was responsible for another man’s death. A fact he did not deny and had not run from. A charge of murder. A plea of Not Guilty.

Here is what I have learned. Behind every murder is someone’s story.

Here was a story of a family where violence was commonplace. Of a weaker member of the family who didn’t fight back. Then one day he did. And in one almost inevitable moment he stabbed his brother. He got 4 years. It could have been life. Whichever way you look at it, it’s still a life sentence.

I have never seen such human despair. What must it be like to relive the moments that lead up to that one mad moment that turns your life? And to relive it in front of your family, your friends and twelve silent strangers sitting in judgement. We all saw the tears that wouldn’t stop flowing, the hands that covered ears, the head permanently bowed. Violence breeds violence it is said. The irony is our man was raised in a violent family culture but he had not been an aggressor. Until now. And, in all of this, Philip Larkin’s poem was never far from my mind: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

After sentence is passed we file out. All of us subdued. Now, the mundane task of handing in our passes and papers. Time to say our goodbyes to eleven other people we hardly know, with whom we have shared an intensely emotional experience, and go back to our lives.

On the way out, two of us bump into our defence QC and his team. I ask him if he has become inured to tragedy – he must see it day after day. “No,” he said, “if you are human you don’t. And,” he said, “this was an unusual and particularly tragic case.”

“There’s nothing more real than real life,” says his junior barrister.

Indeed.

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Comedian Al Murray has a chat about his Pub Landlord character, TV satire and mentally sub-normal medieval fools

Guns ’n’ Moses were the new schlock ’n’ roll

Guns ’n’ Moses (from left) Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré

In yesterday’s blog, Al Murray talked about his interest in history, Britishness and World Wars.

“You were also a drummer in the group Guns ’n’ Moses with Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré,” I said when I met him last week. “But you’re not a frustrated drummer and a frustrated historian. You must be rolling in dosh. So you’re not thinking I should have taken a different career path?”

“No,” said Al. “I remember on a school report a very long time ago they called me a dilettante and I had to ask my dad what it meant. He said It means someone who dabbles in different things and doesn’t really specialise and I remember thinking That sounds brilliant! That sounds like a good job option.

“Polymath might sound better,” I suggested. “You’re in an ideal position now. I imagine you don’t desperately need to work.”

“Yes and no,” replied Al. “I really love doing the stand-up side. This is the 20th year I’ve been doing the Pub Landlord character. Each time I sit down to write a new show, which is what I’m doing right now, I always realise there’s a whole load of things I could do with it which I haven’t explored yet. The character is the same but, if you watch the shows, they’re all very different from each other, with different textures.”

“With Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part,” I said, “I thought maybe he was a role model for people who agreed with his bigoted views. I never believed he would change people’s views.”

“The problem is,” said Al, “if you go too far along that road, you start to argue against irony. The opposite of irony is everything being taken literally. If you’re going to be literal about everything, you’re gonna have to have figurative paintings; you can’t have Impressionism… The thing that’s happening in stand-up comedy at the moment is you’re supposed to be sincere. Why?”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s prescriptive,” said Al, “and art suffers when you get prescriptive. On stage, I don’t talk about me – ever – because I’m not interested and I’m not interested in anyone else being interested. I’d rather talk about the world or ideas. If people really do agree with what the Pub Landlord says then they’re mental, so there’s nothing I can do about them. And isn’t it like a cosmic prank? If people think he’s real, that’s fucking hilarious. I think our job as comics is to be pranksters. We’re not supposed to agree. We’re supposed to cause confusion.”

ITV publicity shot for Multiple Personality Disorder

ITV publicity for Al Murray’s Multiple Personality  Disorder

“In 2009,” I said, “you did do an ITV show Multiple Personality Disorder in which you played lots of different characters and I genuinely thought the range of characters was wonderful and…”

“ITV didn’t think that!” laughed Al. “Dealing with TV people! The guy who had been championing me went elsewhere, so we ended up with someone new as commissioner. I loved making that programme. The fun was doing different things and seeing if they’d work. But, for stand-up, the Pub Landlord is… I’ve got him… When people say Why don’t you do something else? I say Alright, I’ll do that when Jack Dee does his ‘I’m Not Grumpy Any More’ show or Harry Hill does observational comedy or Michael McIntyre talks about American foreign policy.”

“So,” I said, “your two big interests are, let’s say, history and comedy. And they come together in this book you’re writing about fools.”

Will Sommers, fool to the Tudor monarchs

Will Sommers, a fool to the Tudors

“Well, I’m trying to write it,” said Al. “I’m trying to draw the stuff together and see if I can make it cohere. I found out about Henry VIII’s fool Will Sommers. He survived as a fool through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and through to Elizabeth I. He survived all four reigns in court.

“The traditional reading of that period is it’s a roller coaster politically and religiously. So how did he survive? The answer is either he wasn’t saying anything dangerous at all OR that having him there saying awkward things at the right moment was SO important you could not get rid of him. The Tudor fools were the last of the classic old-fashioned fools.”

“You mean men with funny hats?” I asked.

“No,” said Al. “There’s fools and there’s jesters. Jesters are people pretending to be fools. Fools were – although it’s unpalatable for us – essentially people with behavioural and learning difficulties. In the medieval theology of the time, if that was your intellectual capacity, you were regarded as ‘innocent before God’ because you couldn’t understand theology. So you had a Get Out of Jail card. Literally.”

You’re an idiot, so we won’t burn you at the stake,” I said.

“Exactly,” agreed Al. “So you could say what you liked. Most of the fools were called ‘naturals’ and they fitted this mental category. Then, separately, you had jesters – ‘artificials’ – who were pretending to be like that and they’re the people who get in the shit because everyone knows they’re pretending – so, when they say the terrible thing that shouldn’t be said, the assumption is You knew what you were saying so you’re for the chop.

“A lot of what we think fools were comes at us through art and stage plays. So we think fools were like the fool in King Lear, but that’s Shakespeare’s dramatisation of what their function was. In fact, you had these people essentially gigging up and down the country and there was a circuit. If you were a man of status, you would have your own fool saying stupid things or juggling or farting. Farting was very big in the 12th century.”

Al Murray writing in Soho last week

Al Murray writing new ideas in Soho last week

“And there was a circuit?” I asked.

“And a career structure,” added Al. “This was an era when mentally ill people were not locked away. That didn’t happen until the 18th century. Before that, you had ‘village idiots’ and everyone knew who they were and what their problems were and they had a role. And they were innocent before God.

“In the Domesday Book, there’s a fool who was probably one of Edward The Confessor’s fools who has retired out to the Welsh Marches who has a big estate – so he’s really rich. But he’s been removed or exiled because he’s a previous king’s jester and we need a new one for the Normans.”

“Do you think fools were mentally sub-normal,” I asked, “or might they have been autistic, where there’s a mixture of high intelligence and social awkwardness?”

“That whole spectrum,” said Al. “Different people with different problems. I think we would now be incredibly uncomfortable about laughing at them. You only have to look at the response to Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek where he’s pretending to be someone who would have had a role as a fool… The response to that is super-uncomfortable for a lot of people.

“Fools were very important, because they spoke the truth. There are examples of them giving the king bad news because no-one else dared. The fool had a licence to speak truth to the powerful.”

“Nowadays,” I said, “I suppose we have satirists.”

“Well,” said Al, “there’s this preposterous idea that people in the 1960s invented satire. They did it on TV and what was unusual about them was they were people who could have been in the Establishment taking the piss out of the Establishment. The Goon Show was a satire of Britain in the 1950s, but Spike Milligan was blue collar, so he doesn’t get that elevation as a great satirist because he’s not from the Establishment. He had not rejected something in becoming a satirist.”

“Is he a satirist or a surrealist?” I asked.

“Well,” said Al. “The Goon Show had the absurdities of National Service, was about rationing, was about Class. It’s all in there, but Spike Milligan dressed it up as something else. The 1960s satire boom, though, was… It’s a bit like me… My grandfather (Sir Ralph Murray) was a diplomat, my dad worked in management at British Rail, so he was a sort of civil servant and that’s where I was heading – or a lawyer or something. To do comedy was a bit of a departure.”

“You’ve got no showbiz background?”

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

“My great uncle Stephen Murray was an actor. I never knew him. He was in The Navy Lark on radio when his serious actor career mis-fired a little. But that was always like Your great uncle Stephen’s an actor… Phoah! That’s really weird!”

“I remember Stephen Murray always played authority figures,” I said.

“Which is what his brother was,” said Al. “His brother was an ambassador.”

(Al did not mention to me that he is a great-great-great-great-great-grandson of John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl nor that his great-great-great-grandfather was author William Makepeace Thackeray.)

“Most satire,” I suggested, “is sort of elitist, whereas what you’re doing with the Pub Landlord is populist. Are you sneaking in under the radar?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “Whenever there’s a round-up of what’s going on in satire, I always think: Why am I not on this list?

“Maybe,” I suggested, “because you are appealing to Joe Public in general and not exclusively to Guardian readers?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “It always makes me laugh. I think Oh, come on! At least give me a mention! Or at least print ‘some people say it is but it isn’t’ .

… CONTINUED HERE

 

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“Women are idiotic, shambolic, funny and stupid,” says foolish British comic

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Martin Soan (right) won 2013 International Jesters Tournament

In May, Martin (right) won the 2013 International Jesters Tournament at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria

In May this year, comedian Martin Soan became the official court fool of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. His payment is as much beer as he can drink.

“They’ll go broke buying that amount of beer,” I told him yesterday.

“I thought they were going to deliver free beer to me for the year,” Martin told me, “but, no, it’s only when I’m at the castle.”

“When are you going up next?” I asked.

“I’m going up for a Halllowe’en special, but the major thing is me compering the International Jesters Tournament in May next year.”

“And that’s when you get usurped as a fool?” I asked.

“I do,” said Martin.

“Did you get a trophy when you won?” I asked.

“I got a commemorative bowl,” said Martin. “carved out of the tree Tom Fool used to sit in. And I get to wear the Tom Fool coat. There’s actually a portrait of Thomas Skelton in the castle.”

“He was the origin of the word tomfoolery?” I asked.

The original Tom Fool of Muncaster Castle

Muncaster Castle original Thomas Skelton

“Yes,” said Martin. “He was an eccentric who used to sit in a tree outside Muncaster Castle. Lords and ladies used to come by and, if he didn’t get on with them, he used to send them the wrong way and they used to get in trouble in the marshes and quicksands of the River Esk.

“He was well-loved by the Penningtons, who owned Muncaster Castle, and he was a very clever man. In the end, he managed their estates. He was a very eccentric man who wore a very eccentric cloak – very Harlequin-like – and had a slightly hunched-back and looked very, very like Mr Punch.

“Whether Charles Dickens based Mr Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop on Punchinello or on Thomas Skelton, no-one is quite sure.”

“Was it a surprise to win the competition this year?” I asked Martin.

“I had done it twice before, but I did it on condition that I didn’t win.”

“Why didn’t you want to win?”

“Because it means you have to go off immediately afterwards, leave the castle and the absolutely stunning countryside and go to a TV studio in Carlisle to be interviewed. The competition finishes at about six in the evening and I didn’t want to leave behind all that beautiful countryside and beer and miss the rest of the evening.

“This year, because I’d done it twice before, I didn’t think to say again I don’t want to win. And what happened was there was a tie for between me and this girl from Australia.”

“She,” I asked, “had come over specially to take part in the competition?”

Martin Soan got high with B.A.

Martin Soan sees no need to use costume

“Yeah,” said Martin. “This year, two guys came over from the US with costumes and everything, keen to win. They pay a small fortune to compete, what with costumes and travel and accommodation and everything. It’s glamorous to them. The Penningtons are a ‘real’ English family who have lived in a ‘real’ castle for centuries and it’s where Tom Fool lived. In America and Australia there are societies devoted to Tom Fool. They spend thousands of pounds on costumes and learning the skills.

“So they come over here to compete and I haven’t even bothered to put on a costume and I can’t juggle and I tie with this girl from Australia and that’s when it got out of control because it had been decided that, in the event of a tie, the casting vote would go to this little girl who is aged about eight. So I was looking at her trying to mime Pick the Australian girl! Pick the Australian girl! but she chose me to win.

“So I had to go off to Carlisle and do the interview and miss-out on the evening but, after that was done and dusted, I decided I was going to take the role seriously and try and change it a little and get less traditional Tom Fools involved. I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to get a woman to win next year. There’s never been a woman fool for Muncaster Castle.”

“Surely,” I said, “court jesters and court fools were men not women?”

“But now,” said Martin, “times are changing and women are just as idiotic, shambolic, funny and stupid as men can be.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got the headline for my blog there, then…”

Martin ignored me.

“I’ve got two women lined up – Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman – for next year’s Tom Fool competition,” he continued.

“And presumably,” I said, “Tom Fool was not a straight comic: he was not standing there telling jokes like a stand-up. He was a genuine eccentric. He wasn’t a jester: he was a local loony who sat in a tree.”

“Also,” said Martin, “he manipulated the aristocracy into trusting him, because he was a very intelligent man. He ended up managing the estate really well and made a success of the castle.”

“So he wasn’t even necessarily a loony,” I said. “He might just have been a man who liked surreal pranks.”

“Yes,” agreed Martin. “I think we’ve corrupted what fools were about and have this image of men going around waving bladders with bells on the end of their hats. Tom Fool and his cloak were nothing like that.”

“You were telling me the other week,” I said, “that you think the majority of the really interesting, bizarre new comedy acts at the moment are women…”

Lindsay Sharman

Potential Tom Fool Lindsay Sharman

“Absolutely,” said Martin. “Yeah. We’re coming across more women who are free and open-minded about their comedy… That’s why there are so many women performing at Pull The Other One (Martin & Vivienne Soan’s London comedy club).

“But it’s unbelievable. Talking to Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman and all the rest, women still find it hard to get comedy club gigs. Unbelievable! There are still a lot of clubs that are only booking male stand-ups. Or booking just stand-ups.

“The big agencies just deal in stand-ups, not variety acts. They’ve got absolutely no concept of what’s actually happening out there. Although maybe they’re right for themselves. All they’re after is training people to go on television and you’re not going to get surreal, madcap people presenting programmes for the general public. But there’s definitely more interesting acts around at the moment who are women. Definitely.”

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Miss Behave and the rising new wave of mayhem comedy at Edinburgh’s Fringe

Miss Behave last night

Miss Behave (bottom left) on a London doorstep last night

Yesterday, my two weeks of jury service ended – two days into Week Three – with the defendant leaving the box spitting these words to the judge (which I paraphrase, but not much):

“You’re saying I’m mental. I’m not mental. You can fuck off! You and your jury can fuck off. Fuck off!”

With this, he fairly calmly left his glass-fronted box and there were a few claps from the public seats which seemed to come either from his mother or the lady sitting next to her whom we presumed was his aunt. They were ejected.

I think next time I am called for jury service, I may arrive at court screaming: “He’s guilty! He’s goin’ dahn! He’s goin’ dahn! The voices! Can’t we hear them? We’re all going to die! What’s the point?” then falling to the floor screaming and weeping.

All of which has nothing to do with me sitting for ten minutes last night off Charing Cross Road in London, on a doorstep with Miss Behave. Except we ended up talking about mayhem – the word I have decided to relentlessly use from now on to describe the new wave of rising British comedy performers.

Miss Behave and I were actually getting together to talk about the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show which I am producing and she is presenting on 23rd August at the Edinburgh Fringe – two hours, one hopes, of utter mayhem.

“So let’s do it like last year,” I said. “You basically suggest all the bizarre acts and I’ll figure out the minutes. Mat Ricardo’s going to do some spaghetti juggling and we have the Russian Egg Roulette Championships – Richard Herring’s one of the people who’ve said they’ll do that.”

Bookshop Midnight Mayhem

Bookshop Midnight Mayhem with Miss B & Bob S

This year, Miss Behave is also running the new Bob’s Bookshop venue with Bob Slayer, which has an eclectic mix of shows including my own five-day chat show and Miss Behave’s Game Show, the billing for which says:

Tired of everything meaning something? Just want to have fun? Then look no further: we have shits and giggles galore. Sixty minutes of games, chaos, great acts, bad acts, dancing and fun. 

“What’s that all about?” I asked.

“It involves people and their phones,” she replied. “I kinda don’t want to say too much about it in a weird way. I did three versions of it in the Wonderground recently, just to see how it would go and I’ve never seen an audience that excited… Seven standing ovations one night.”

“And you’re doing a midnight show with Bob aren’t you?” I asked.

“Yes. Me, Bob and Phil Kay. The title Bookshop Midnight Mayhem is probably quite apt though, probably, it’s less about midnight and more about mayhem.

AdrienneTruscott - Asking For It

Adrienne Truscott Asking For It in her Fringe show

“I’ve booked some really good people into Bob’s Bookshop. There’s Adrienne Truscott doing her Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else.”

“That’s the one where she’s only clothed from the waist up and the ankles down?” I asked.

“Yes. I’ve also got a guy called Stompy. He’s never done Edinburgh and I’ve persuaded him up to do some bits and bobs. He’s like Martin Soan on crack.”

“That sounds like Martin Soan himself,” I said. “Will he be naked?”

“When necessary,” replied Miss Behave. “He has an act called The Half-Naked Chef which may or may not be what he’s doing up there; I don’t know.”

“How would you describe yourself?” I asked. What are you? A cabaret act?”

“I would like to be an impresario”, said Miss Behave last night

“I would like to be an impresario” said Miss Behave last night

“I would like to be an impresario,” said Miss Behave. “I don’t like genre definitions. My favourite thing in the world is comedy… Comedy can make you cry. It can make you laugh; you can do it physically, verbally…That’s my favourite thing to do and to watch. The variations are infinite.”

“So sticking a flower through your tongue is just a sideline?” I asked.

“It is,” confirmed Miss Behave. “My dream would be to concoct really silly ideas and give brilliant people the ability to realise those really silly ideas.”

“A twisted 21st century Ziegfeld,” I suggested.

“Exactly, darling,” said Miss Behave. “But less girls, more gags.”

“And more follies,” I suggested.

“Indeed,” said Miss Behave. “Many more follies.”

“What acts shall we have on The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show?” I asked.

Miss Behave’s Game Show

Miss Behave’s Game Show with very unusual guests

“I don’t know,” she said. “The acts I’m booking for Miss Behave’s Game Show are going to vary from a pigeon to a tramp to a dog to a flyerer to maybe an act here and there.”

“Does the pigeon have a manager?” I asked.

“Probably moreso than a lot of the acts,” suggested Miss Behave.

“And this would be a real pigeon?” I asked.

“It’s a game show and there will be a commercial break and a guest. That guest can be anything. What is refreshing in Edinburgh? Someone who is not plugging their show.”

“So a pigeon?” I asked.

“A pigeon,” confirmed Miss Behave. “I’m also figuring a flyerer would be quite funny – someone who hands out flyers in the street.”

“They’re often wannabe performers aren’t they?” I asked.

‘Not necessarily,” argued Miss Behave. “Someone from the street team. They come on for three minutes and we see what happens. They’ll probably get heckled. I started life as a flyerer… Aged 13, I used to flyer over there in Leicester Square for four or five different music clubs. From the age of 13 to 18 I flyered and I was the best fucking flyerer. I had a whole little business going with it. It was brilliant.”

“And the Fringe this year,” I prompted, “will be…?”

Miss Behave looking forward to Edinburgh fun

Miss Behave looking forward to fun in Edinburgh

“I think it will be a fun Edinburgh, provided it’s not a torrential Edinburgh. There’s a lot of good people going and I think the sands have shifted. One of the reasons I’m doing Edinburgh is to prove to myself that it can be somewhere creative that you can develop stuff: you can run stuff in. If that’s so, then suddenly the festival re-opens in a massive way.

“At Adelaide this year, I made money and developed the Game Show and I’m hoping the same thing can happen in Edinburgh this year. If that can happen, then – without sounding like an arty wanker – the artists can take back the Fringe festival and there will be an independence and an autonomy.”

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Fanny & Stella: “I had wanted to write a book which was completely gay”

Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.

But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.

The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.

There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Fanny and Stella bookLast night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.

The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.

Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”

But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:

“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.

“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”

Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month – a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.

“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.

“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.

“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.

“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.

“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.

“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.

“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.

“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?

“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”

But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?

“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.

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Filed under Books, Gay, History, Police, Publishing, Sex, Victorian

Gary The Goat court victory in Oz soon to become comic Bob Slayer book/film

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Gary The Goat, caught in a media scrum outside court

Gary The Goat, caught in a media scrum outside the Oz court

Regular readers of my blog with a taste for the bizarre have been following the saga of Gary The Goat (best friend of Australian comic Jimbo Bazoobi) for almost a year now.

Exactly a week ago, I blogged that the latest news on Gary was that he was facing criminal prosecution for eating some grass and (police alleged) some flowers outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Yesterday, he and Jimbo stood accused at Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney of ‘damaging vegetation without authority’.

Well, OK, Gary was accused of eating the grass and flowers. Jimbo was accused of letting him do it.

Police prosecutor Senior Sergeant Rick Mansley claimed Jimbo “knew Gary was hungry and had been reckless in letting him near the flowers.”

Gary The Goat’s lawyer, Paul McGirr, claimed it could not be proved that Jimbo put Gary up to the act. “We can’t guess what Gary might have been whispered in his goat ear,” he told the court.

Gary The Goat was not called to give evidence and waited nervously outside wearing a rainbow hat, surrounded by reporters, while Jimbo faced the full wrath of the Australian constabulary in court.

In the end, after soberly considering the evidence (the police briefing dossier ran to 200 pages), Magistrate Carolyn Barkell found that Jimbo had no control over what the animal might eat and was unaware of his preference for flowers over grass.

“I accept that he did eat garden plants,” she said. However, she found there was no evidence that Jimbo brought Gary there with the intention of vandalising vegetation. “He might have fancied an ice cream,” she said.

Jimbo and Gary The Goat are on a near-constant tour around Australia. As chronicled in my blog, this time last year British comedian Bob Slayer toured with them with such bizarre and disastrous consequences that Bob is shortly issuing an eBook about their exploits. He also filmed a documentary, currently in post-production with Brown Eyed Boy.

Bob told me today: “We have been waiting for the outcome of this court case before completing the film. Now it just got a whole lot more interesting. There are many stories that can be told here. One angle is the cute goat tale, another is all about a billy goat standing up against the nanny state and then a third is how inspiring people like Jimbo are for the world of comedy.

“I believe that Jimbo, just like Kunt and The Gang before him, is one of the true unsung Heroes of Comedy and a real inspirtion. Having spent years on the fringes of the industry forging his own path, he really deserves this break – Jimbo and Gary The Goat are all over the world media today. Will he embrace the industry or elect to carry on doing his own thing?

“Touring with Jimbo in mining towns, farm towns and sheep stations last year, I saw him handle some of the most difficult comedy audiences imaginable and yet end the night smiling, having given them all a great night out. He has filth and shock in his arsenal but, behind that, there is an extremely high level of skill and a brain that is quite simply hardwired for comedy.

“When, in most comedy rooms, you stand up and do material which points out that racism is perhaps not the greatest idea in the world, you can be pretty sure the audience will agree with you. But, really, this is shooting fish in a barrel. How many acts that do jokes on these subjects could have gone into a room that made the Ku Klux Klan seem a moderate organisation and not only made them laugh, but also actually got them to think about their world view? I saw that happen last year.”

After the court verdict was announced yesterday, Jimbo told an excited media scrum outside: “‘Gary’s name has been cleared of all this slander. I just think there’s so many laws and regulations in Australia which are just an abuse of common sense. This is actually an abuse of the laws of nature – a goat eating grass. I’m a comedian – I can come up with jokes, but it’s pretty hard to compete with the cops coming out with this stuff. Gary the Goat taught the cops a valuable lesson and that is Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Gary The Goat made no comment.

I suspect he may have sold rights to his exclusive first-hand story elsewhere.

(You can see a video of Gary The Goat and Jimbo outside court HERE.)

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Attractive Norwich sheep in a pub; Gary The Goat charged in an Australian court

The Bishop of Norwich was in no way connected to the sheep

The Bishop of Norwich was not involved

In May 2011, I wrote a blog about cat wrestling and a sheep in a pub in Norfolk. It seemed like a good idea at the time and is fairly normal stuff for Norfolk.

At the time, Norwich comedian Dan McKee told me a tale about a local pub – the Ironmongers Arms:

“The peculiarities of the old Ironmongers Arms knew no bounds,” Dan said. “The landlord had no tongue, but he did have a pet jackdaw which hopped around the bar and Friday night entertainment consisted of a young lady singing the hits of Tina Turner. She didn’t sing to karaoke tracks but actually sang over the original Tina Turner records on the juke box and she just tried to sing louder than Tina’s vocals…

“Then there was the night somebody brought a sheep in for a pint. We asked him why he had come in with a sheep and he replied: Well, I couldn’t very well leave it at home.”

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Howard Posner in Norfolk. It read:

“A friend of mine just referred me to your old blog on the tale of the sheep. The sheep was, in fact, stolen from a field on the way back from a rugby game at Beccles in 1976.

“It travelled on the rear seat of a old Ford Cortina. I was in the front seat. The sheep was very placid and was taken into the pub by some of the University of East Anglia’s rugby fourth team (The Rams). I played for the team on and off for three season (two of which went undefeated).

“At the time, UEA’s first team was called the “u’s” and consisted of a lot of lads who were prepared to train regularly and drink a lot. The second and third teams were made up of those who failed in their efforts to get in the first XV. And the fourth team was made up of ‘social’ students, plus a couple of junior lecturers and a chef from the kitchens at Fifers Lane – who had quite a lot of ability but no desire to conform.

“Our pre-match routine was to meet in a pub somewhere and consume beer in such quantities that we would often arrive at the game with less than the requested fifteen players. Luckily, most of the opposition where of a similar sporting standard.

“As the fourth team, we adopted the Ram as our emblem and acquired a rather large advertising hoarding for pure wool with a sheep on it. The sheep was called Louise and we took this with us to all our games and wrote the results on the hoarding.

“On the way back from winning in Beccles on that fateful night, we decided that it would be more appropriate to have a live ram. There were lots of sheep in the area and we ‘acquired’ one. How were we to know the difference between a male and female sheep? We picked that particular sheep because it was the prettiest in the field.

“Our destination was the usual one, the Ten Bells pub, who would not let us in with a sheep. But the landlord of the Ironmongers Arms was happy to allow in at least fifteen drinking men and a sheep. Sadly, the sheep would not drink the beer, which I recall was high quality Norwich Bitter. When it urinated in the bar some of the liquid was mopped up into a pint glass and was quite favourably compared to the Norwich ale in look and smell. As the evening progressed, our numbers swelled and we moved on.

“When Spencer’s night club would not let us in on the grounds that the sheep was not a member, it was taken away. I was told it was released in a field of other sheep (not its own) but there was a tale, never substantiated, that it was actually taken to the Wild Man pub, escaped and was last seen heading towards the Cathedral. I like this version better.”

Coincidentally yesterday, comedian Bob Slayer also updated me on the progress of Gary The Goat, best friend of Australian comic Jimbo Bazoobi.

Bob’s adventures with Jimbo and Gary The Goat as they crossed Australia last Spring were partially blogged about here last year and Bob is about to publish an eBook about their joint exploits.

Gary The Goat reads the charges against him

Gary The Goat reads the charges against him in Australia

As I mentioned in a blog last month, Gary The Goat was recently disgracefully arrested for eating some grass and (police allege) some flowers.

As a result of this arrest, Gary The Goat’s Facebook page, which had 400 likes, zoomed up to 8,500 likes and the first post about the case went viral, had 25,000 likes and was seen by nearly half a million goat-fascinated folks…

The latest news is that Gary The Goat is going to court next Wednesday, accused of ‘damaging vegetation without authority’.

“Earlier this week,” Bob Slayer tells me, “FOUR cops arrived at Jimbo’s place to deliver their ‘brief of evidence’. It is a 200 page document. So far, I’m only half way through reading it.”

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