In this blog yesterday, a comedy performer whom I did not name was complaining about the way they had been treated by their director who had just said their show being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe could be directed from London without the director coming up to Edinburgh at all.
I know a few theatre directors and got this response from the highly-experienced and much admired Catherine Arden (who is NOT the director in question). In other words, this is good advice…
Advice from Catherine Arden, director
I was concerned to read about the performer whose director did not support him or her to bed in the show for the opening week in Edinburgh.
I served two 2-year terms on the Equity Theatre Directors’ Committee and recently attended a conference where this type of thing was discussed and strongly disapproved of. It gives professional directors a bad name and is not good for the industry!
Some suggestions for the performer:
– If both the performer and director are Equity members, Equity can help resolve and give assistance to the performer to make contracts clearer in future.
– There is a Fringe contract the performer might want to look at.
– If the director is an Equity member, the performer can report this poor behaviour to Equity.
– If the performer is an Equity member, then he or she can get further guidance on the matter and learn how to safeguard future dealings.
If neither the performer nor director are Equity members, I recommend the performer goes along to the Equity desk in Edinburgh.
I am available as a Director or Creative Consultant (or whatever words you want to use) on live comedy shows in 2016 – mostly, I guess, for people who intend to stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, although I am open to anything.
This can include structuring a show, giving feedback and show notes on performance and presentation, advice on publicity and marketing; whatever you want short of totally writing and performing the whole bleedin’ thing.
I won’t read scripts, because you are not reading out written scripts on stage. I will only advise people or see their live performances or run-throughs or try-outs – even if it’s in a living room! Me just reading words on paper or on a screen is a waste of your time and mine.
I have been going to the Edinburgh Fringe since around 1985 and been involved in the production of various live Fringe comedy shows including ones by Charlie Chuck, Janey Godley, Malcolm Hardee, Helen Keen and Lewis Schaffer. Since 2005, I have organised the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and, since 2006, staged annual variety shows in memory of Malcolm Hardee in London and Edinburgh, running anything from two to five hours. There will be a two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe.
If I give advice on any show that is later considered for a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award, I will opt out of the decision-making process and will bend over backwards not to show bias. So, ironically, if I advise you on your show, you are much, much LESS likely to win a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.
2008-2010 I was UK creative consultant to New York’s Bleecker Street Theater and Green Room venue.
2010-2015 I was UK creative consultant to New York based Inbrook Entertainment, including the Gene Frankel Theatre.
I worked in British TV for around 25 years – including peaktime entertainment shows and series with performers including Jeremy Beadle, Cilla Black, Jack Dee, Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant et al – as well as directing/producing/writing promotion & marketing campaigns and press & sales tapes for TV stations in the UK, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
In print, I wrote comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, edited comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography and edited an anthology of stories by 19 stand-up comics. My blog So It Goes – mostly about comedy – was posted daily 2011-2015 and continues sporadically, with over 1 million hits.
I have also written for Chortle, the Huffington Post, the Independent, Screen International, Three Weeks, What’s On Stage and others. And been a script consultant for TV’s This Morning, Tricia, Turner Movies and ITV News etc as well as a researcher for BBC TV News.
In 2014 and 2015, I chaired live Grouchy Club chat shows about comedy at the Fringe with Scotsman comedy critic Kate Copstick. This will continue at the 2016 Fringe. We also post weekly Grouchy Club podcasts and host monthly live Grouchy Club meetings in London.
Quotes about me include: “The Boswell of the alternative comedy scene” (Chortle) “Fleming knows a bit about comedy’s extremities”(Fest magazine) “One of the most influential figures in British comedy” (The Skinny)
My charges are:
£50 per hour + (if outside the London Travel Zone area) travel costs, including time taken.
£350 for up to 10 hours. For this, I have to be paid 50% up-front and 50% at the end of the consultation.
What is the point of having a blog if you can’t use it for blatant self-publicity?
In this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I talk about the end of the comedy section in Time Out. The end of my daily blog. The last live Grouchy Club meeting. Performer Nina Conti joining a porn film set. Will and/or Sarah Franken deciding to teach satire. My suggestion that Copstick should teach how to be aggressive in a Scottish accent. Free Fringe boss Peter Buckley Hill’s thoughts on an award. More chaos at the Edinburgh Fringe. The dead owners of Cowgatehead. Plus Lewis Schaffer, Juliette Burton, Bob Slayer, Mark Watson… and it all ends with an orgasm from Copstick.
But there is also this brief section in the 32 minute podcast:
Now I heard a rumour…
…Mr Fleming… that you were thinking of offering your services as a director for people taking shows up to the Edinburgh Festival.
Except, as we both know, a director doesn’t really do anything. So I thought the word ‘consultant’ might be vague enough.
For tax reasons, ‘Consultant’ is probably good as well.
Well, to be wholly truthful, it covers two centuries, doesn’t it?
Yes. And, to be fair, it looks like it’s taken its toll.
… on the industry.
So somebody could actually…
I did hear Time Out was closing its comedy section because it couldn’t actually compete with my increasingly prestigious blog.
Maybe they will open it again, now your increasingly prestigious blog is closing. But you could take anyone’s…
I can make them. I can break them.
…embryonic Edinburgh show and turn it into something very close to Lewis Schaffer, could you? that successful? Is that what you’re offering? I can make you Lewis Schaffer!
If I can make Lewis Schaffer successful, anything is possible.
Exactly. think what you could do for a talented person!… No! I don’t mean that!
Lewis Schaffer is still available at the Museum of Comedy until probably Monday. My influence is so great that I have actually made Lewis Schaffer a museum exhibit.
Yes… But, seriously, you’d consult on people’s shows and…
Well, the thing about me is that I’m not a performer, so you have to opt out of…
Well, I think you’re doing pretty well here, I have to say.
… but I am a keen observer of the scene…
And a seasoned producer.
A seasoned everything, yes – radio, TV, journalism, advertising. I’ve done them all. So I could give a… a… We haven’t thought this through as a marketing exercise, have we…
No, we haven’t.
I can give an objective view from years of experience of watching really awful acts. So, if anyone has a really awful act, I am very experienced in watching them.
Yes, that’s fantastic. You’re not going to judge. I think that’s what you’re saying.
I did, for a couple of years, do reviews for Chortle, the comedy website.
I did. But I never liked it. You have to be honest if you’re reviewing and therefore you get hated by the comedians.
I know the feeling.
So my blog never actually criticised anyone, because I could pick and choose interesting people doing interesting things whom I admired and who were worthy of promotion and I could ignore any old trash. Although, admittedly, I have promoted Lewis Schaffer quite a lot.
Indeed… Now, I want you to answer completely honestly here, John. Would the fact that you are consulting on a show give it a better chance of winning the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards?
Ah. Now this is what’s worrying me. I haven’t actually thought this one through. One possibility is I say: If I consult for you, you can’t possibly win or be considered.
But all the kind of shows, surely, that would benefit from your particular and extensive expertise are exactly Malcolm Hardee type shows.
I think we’d have to say that the Malcolm Hardee Award is just going to be my decision next year. Lovely. Job done.
The reality would be that, if I consulted on a show that was seriously considered for the Malcolm Hardee Award, I wouldn’t take part in the decision making.
Philip McGinley and Emily Atack star in Almost Married
Last night I went to the May Fair Hotel in London for the premiere of Almost Married, a movie starring Philip McGinley (Game of Thrones) and Emily Atack (The Inbetweeners and Dancing On Ice). It starts a limited cinema release – and has a simultaneous digital release – tomorrow.
Before last night’s premiere, I asked writer/director Ben Cookson: “What’s it about?”
“It’s about,” he said, “a guy who comes back from a stag weekend with a sexually transmitted disease.”
“So it’s a comedy?” I asked.
“It was… err…” said Ben, “It became a comedy. It had to be.”
“Autobiographical?’ I asked.
“Biographical. Not necessarily my own. The stories I’ve heard: it’s not an isolated case.”
“How much did it cost?” I asked.
“I think the official line is $1 million. We lost some regional funding so then it was a case either looking for another region to back us or just do it on a tighter schedule.”
Almost Married was originally scheduled for a four week shoot but, because of the last-minute partial loss of funding, it was shot in 18 days (three 6-day weeks).
(From left) Philip McGinley, Ben Cookson, Emily Atack, Mark Stobbart on stage before last night’s Almost Married premiere
“Within the first three or four days,” Ben told me, “we realised we needed to use a 2-camera set-up otherwise we weren’t going to get it done.”
Ben graduated from Bournemouth University with a First Class Honours in Scriptwriting after winning the Alan Plater Award for Best Screenplay.
Almost Married got off the ground when he met producer Lionel Hicks in a toilet at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Some stories are best left dangling – leaving the reader wanting to know more.
“I never really had any ambitions to direct,” Ben told me. “I just wanted to write stories.”
Like many another writer-director, he directs to get the script closer to his vision.
“We shot a 15-minute teaser in 2011 to help raise money,” he told me yesterday, “and then we shot the film independently in March 2012 with no distributor or sales agent in place. That’s about as independent as you can get. And then, when you get a sales agent or distributor, they’re going to want to make changes, which is why it took a lengthy time to get here.
“In the edit, the original cut was just under two hours which they liked but which for a comedy – which is how it’s being packaged and sold – is too long. They wanted it nearer 90 minutes, which I understand. Shortening it was a difficult process. We went from two hours to 90 minutes and then I fought to get it up to 97 minutes.”
The latest film directed by Ben Cookson
“I went to AFM (the American Film Market in Los Angeles) for the first time in November last year and managed to get a manager off the back of it. We got on and he really likes the idea of my next project.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“It’s a romantic thriller set in Paris about a fashion photographer who’s left with severe double vision after a mugging. It’s about his relationship with a young woman he meets in hospital.”
“And the relevance of the double vision is…?” I asked.
“Well,” said Ben, “it completely debilitates his career and… Well, I had double vision myself. I’ve still got it to an extent. If I play pool or snooker, I have to play with one eye closed, because it goes double vision at the top and the bottom.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
“It was originally from a trauma,” explained Ben. “I got got hit in the eye with a pool cue… My eye and cheekbone were affected for about ten days… The socket of my eye was replaced by polythene and a few screws. When the doctors correct it, your brain has to learn to put the two images from your two eyes back together again and it’s pretty debilitating but it also drives you pretty insane. It’s 24/7. You can’t do anything. You can’t read; you can’t write. If you make a cup of tea, you’re pouring it all over the table because you see two cups.”
“Will there be humour in this movie?” I asked.
Ben at the Almost Married premiere
“It’s pretty dark,” replied Ben. “It’s more… How are we billing it?… It’s Blow Up meets Black Swan or maybe more Blow Up meets Leaving Las Vegas.
“I want to try and get the double vision across visually. Tinnitus of the eyes is the best way of describing it. I’m talking to DoPs (directors of photography) about ways of doing it in-camera. When you see double vision in films, it’s usually done in post production: it’s just two images and that’s not representative of what it is actually like to have double vision – because everything moves on a bit of an axis. Everything’s all out of kilter.”
“So it’s not,” I asked, “like me watching a 3D movie without wearing 3D glasses?”
“Not quite the same,” said Ben, “but it is as nauseating.”
“How long did your double vision last?” I asked.
“For six months at least. It’s really hard to measure, because it’s so gradual when it improves. You wake up every day thinking Oh, it’s just the same, but it’s actually incrementally getting slightly better. For six months, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t work or do anything.”
“You must have had trouble just walking down steps,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Ben, “it’s like being paralytically drunk but without the enjoyment. And all the time. And you can’t drink either, because what’s the point?”
“You must have thought when it happened: I can never be a film director.”
“I dunno what I thought. Christ! You think Worst case scenario is, if it stays as bad as it is, I’ll have to get rid of one eye. It would be better to be blind in one eye and function. But I didn’t have to do that.”
(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
“You were thinking about making a 5-minute science fiction film called Avatar last time I saw you,” I reminded Danish director Nicolai Amter yesterday. “I never told you, but I thought it was a very uncommercial title.”
“Oh, that was ten years ago or more,” replied Nicolai. “Before the other Avatar or The Matrix or Minority Report came out.”
“So maybe we have not seen each other this century,“ I said.
“Maybe not,” agreed Nicolai.
He and I used to work together at Scandinavian TV channels TV3 and TV1000.
“My Avatar film was back when I still needed a DoP (Director of Photography),” mused Nicolai. “When I went out as a director, standing next to a DoP I often felt I knew as much as he did and I knew exactly the kind of lighting required, but I didn’t know all the camera gear required.
“I started out as a music photographer and then I got into music videos in Copenhagen and then I ended up in TV promotions and now I’m getting back into the whole photography thing because of the new Canon 5D camera – an amazing stills camera which also shoots amazing video.
“When it first came out and I saw a test, I sold all the video equipment I had and bought it and it changed the way I work. It liberated me from needing a DoP on a lot of projects: I can shoot everything myself.”
“So what are your plans now?” I asked.
“Getting some work in London for a change,” Nicolai told me. “It seems every time a job comes up, it’s always back in Africa – in Kenya or Nigeria or Ethiopia or Ghana or Tanzania. I’ve spent so much time in Africa over the last year….”
“Nigeria??!!??” I laughed. “Any views on Lagos?”
“It’s very intense,” replied Nicolai.
“Mmmm…,” I said.
“The people are very friendly,” said Nicolai. “There were a couple of experiences, but nothing that involved me. They were local misunderstandings between other people, I think. But it did mean I and the camera had to make a hasty retreat back to the car while it got sorted out.”
Nicolai yesterday, at the opening of his exhibition in London
Nicolai and I met again yesterday because I went to the opening day of an exhibition of his at Antenna Studios in London’s Crystal Palace: a series of photos he shot at the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. It runs until the end of the month.
Any money that comes out of it will go into projects for the people living in the slum.
Kibera is reportedly Africa’s largest urban slum. A census in 2009 found it housed 170,070 people. A railway line runs through the slum, which has its own railway station. The slum is contaminated with human and animal shit, due to the open sewers and what has been called “frequent use of ‘flying toilets’ – people shit in bags and throw them away on the ground. Obviously, Kibera is heavily polluted by this shit, garbage, soot, dust etc.
Somewhat bizarrely, the slum has its own newspaper – the Kibera Journal and its ownradio station – Pamoja FM. It even has a film school.
One of Nicolai’s photos of the Kibera slum
One recent report said: “The ground in much of Kibera is literally composed of refuse and rubbish. Dwellings are often constructed atop this unstable ground, and therefore many structures collapse whenever the slum experiences flooding, which it does regularly. This means that even well-constructed buildings are often damaged by the collapse of nearby poorly constructed ones.”
“Why were you in Kibera?” I asked Nicolai.
“My brother is based out in Nairobi,” Nicolai said, “working mainly for the BBC as a freelance journalist. I went out to help him on a film for the BBC Media Trust.
“We were filming there for the BBC and, because my brother had done reports from there before, he knew a guy who lived there who worked as a fixer for the BBC. So I could hook up with him and go back later and walk around.
“At one point, I was walking around with him and all my film gear and we saw these three young girls from some NGO coming towards us with three armed guards. And I thought: Wait a minute! You need three armed guards and I have several thousand pounds worth of equipment here and only one unarmed guy!
“I did ask him: Am I safe here? and he said, No problem at all.”
As for me, I have never seen African poverty; in fact, I have never been to Africa.
Children living alone in their ‘homes’ outside Puno, Peru, 1983
But when I was in Lima, Peru, in the early 1980s, it was clearly one of the armpits of the world.
I could understand why some people supported the extremist-bordering-on-psycho rebels, the Sendero Luminoso Maoist guerrillas.
In Lima, the local tour guide took me to what she called a ‘beautiful Spanish street’. It looked like it had been hit by an earthquake: the buildings were falling apart. That turned out to be because it had been hit by an earthquake.
I wondered why people were apparently flowing into Lima from the countryside to live in the slums. When I went into the countryside and saw the poverty there, I realised why.
Nicolai said to me yesterday: “It seems to me, in Nairobi, there are rich areas with slum areas not very far from them. All the help and all the maids and so on are living in the slums. A lot of the people walking out of the slums in the morning are going to their jobs as cooks or maids or whatever.”
“I remember,” I told Nicolai, “being in a yurt slum on the outskirts of Ulan Bator in Mongolia in 1985. There was mud and shit and open sewers everywhere but, in the morning, everyone was coming out of their yurts dressed in smart, spotlessly-clean clothes, crossing gnarled planks across the open sewers and going off to be secretaries and office workers or whatever in the Russian-style concrete blocks in the middle of town. Very surreal.”
“The craziest thing I saw in Kibera,” said Nicolai, “were open sewers with plastic pipes in them, carrying clean water. Just by using that clean water, you could avoid cholera and all sorts of diseases but, because it’s in the open sewer, it gets polluted by all the dirty water.”
“I presume,” I said, “that the young children are relatively happy, because they have known nothing different?”
“We’re not living; we’re just surviving” (Photo by Nicolai)
“It seemed to me,” said Nicolai, “that all the young kids were quite happy running around but, as they started to grow up, they started to feel downtrodden by the whole situation.
“People kept telling me: We’re not living; we’re just surviving. They’re stuck in a horrible situation. They get paid so little from the work they do that they just can’t afford to live any better. They will continue to work as maids and security people for the middle classes and upwards.”
“When I was in Lima in the 1980s,” I told Nicolai, “there were people living in abject poverty in the slums and, a short distance away, there were people driving Mercedes Benzes and playing in private tennis clubs and it seemed to me the problem was that there was no significant middle class. There was nothing for the people in the slums to aspire to. People had no hope of climbing out of the slums. Not them. Not their children. Not their grandchildren. No hope.”
“There’s some hope in Kibera,” said Nicolai, “because Africa is starting to boom and there’s much more investment. It feels like a lot of the young people who went abroad – to MIT and so on – are starting to move back. In Nairobi, they have people doing web design and iPhone apps.”
“Are you going back to Kibera again?” I asked.
“Possibly,” replied Nicolai. “Last year I was in Africa five times filming for NGOs and so on. I came back a month ago from Ethiopia, where I did a job for the British Council: an English course they run up in north Ethiopia, teaching the kids using wind-up MP3/radio players with solar panels on them. They teach the kids English on those.
“I really like Ethiopia. It’s the most friendly and easy-going place I’ve been in Africa. They’re very proud because they never had any colonisation. They’ve always been independent. They did have the Italians, but they kicked them out. They have their own language, their own calendar and even have their own time. If the sun goes down at six, they basically say, OK. Six is midnight and seven is one o’clock and so on. Everybody else in the world has decided on a single unified time, but not in Ethiopia – We do it our way! – I like that.”
(This piece was also published on Indian news site WSN)
US poster for Spielberg’s movie Lincoln
Across the Atlantic, Daniel Day-Lewis is getting rave reviews for his performance in the title role of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – which does not open here in the UK until January.
Nicholas Hytner is Director of the National Theatre in London, but he also occasionally directs films. In 1996, he directed a movie of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Scofield.
Yesterday, Nicholas Hytner gave the annual Directors’ Guild Peter Brook Lecture in London and said this about the filming of The Crucible:
Nicholas Hytner’s movie of The Crucible
Daniel was looking forward to working with Scofield more than I think any actor has ever looked forward to working with any other actor. I think he assumed that, because Paul was so mysterious and seemed to have access to such a kind of vast inexplicable world – he seems to channel something from deep beyond what’s easily expressible – Daniel, I think, assumed he would be a kindred spirit.
And Daniel really does – though he’s much more genial and self-mocking about it than you would ever know from the way he’s written about – he really does all the stuff he’s reputed to do.
So he came and he helped build the house that John Proctor lived in and farmed the land that John Proctor was farming and tried to live the life of a Puritan farmer… though he still came out for dinner with us at the end of the day.
He did all that.
And Daniel was, at that stage, in a place where he could barely admit he was going to learn the lines. It was an enormous challenge for him. Because, on the one hand, he was doing it because of this extraordinary text, the extraordinary texture of the way Arthur Miller had written for this Puritan farmer. That’s why he was doing it. On the other hand, by learning the lines, he was admitting the artificiality of the proceedings.
It’s been just one of the most thrilling parts of film-going in the last thirty years – to see Daniel struggling with that conundrum in movie after movie and coming up with this incredible series of great, great, great performances.
He expected Paul to be the same.
He reluctantly agreed to quite a lot of rehearsals, which Paul wanted because Paul said I’m in my seventies. I need these rehearsals or I’m not going to learn the lines.
So, at the first rehearsal, Daniel is holding the script behind him and as far away from him as he can as if to kind of deny that it’s even there… and mumbling, because he doesn’t want to commit himself to anything until he does it spontaneously on the day.
And Paul starts by rehearsing the vowel sounds.
We live in a new TIIIME… a new TYYMMME… a new TIYEMM…
That is how Paul got into his character, how he got there… through the vowels. And also through the costume. He was twitching his cloak. All that stuff.
So, initially, Daniel was phenomenally disappointed.
But you put them in front of the camera on the day and they’re doing exactly the same job. They’re both completely in the present. They’re both completely spontaneous. They’re surprising each other. They’re firing off each other.
The point is, as a director, you’re often in the middle of approaches as different as that.
I had a drink again yesterday with the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook, who is putting together a movie The Devil’s Dandruff, based on There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, the first of his three semi-autobiographical crime/drug trade novels.
He has now teamed up with Paul Wiffen who, like Jason, is what Hollywood calls a ‘hyphenate’.
He is a director-producer-composer-sound designer-performer and even, much to his own surprise, appearing in a cardigan in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
It turned out that Paul’s father was born in Chadwell Heath in Essex and Paul lives there now.
“That’s a coincidence,” I said.
It is the outer suburb of London where my parents briefly lived when my family first came down from Scotland. My teenage years were spent in nearby Seven Kings, where the perhaps one-mile long high road was lined almost entirely with second hand car dealers.
“This was,” I told Paul yesterday, “before the name John went out of fashion because of – I think – Alexei Sayle’s song Ullo John, Got a New Motor? making it a naff name.”
“That’s a coincidence,” Paul said. “I was at school with Rik Mayall. I was in a school production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I was Rosencrantz; he was Guildenstern and we also did Waiting For Godot, but I wasn’t one of the two leads: I was the guy who comes on as the horse.”
When Paul left school and went to Oxford University, he joined the Oxford University Drama Group but found others were better at acting, so he concentrated on doing the music.
“At the Edinburgh Fringe,” he told me yesterday, “I was in this terrible po-faced Oxford production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. But, that same year, my friend Lindsay was musical director of a Cambridge Footlights’ comedy production at the Fringe which had Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. Lindsay got food poisoning one night and I filled-in for three or four days.”
“Oh,” I asked. “Was Emma Thompson also performing at a venue called The Hole in The Ground that year?”
“I think she was,” Paul replied.
“Well that’s another coincidence, then,” I said. “I think that might have been the year when The Hole in the Ground had three tents in it – for Emma Thompson, The Greatest Show on Legs and American performance artist Eric Bogosian. My comedian chum Malcolm Hardee got pissed-off by the noise Eric Bogosian made during The Greatest Show on Legs’ performances – and Bogosian had made Emma Thompson cry – so Malcolm got a tractor and drove it, naked, through the middle of Bogosian’s show.”
While at Oxford, Paul also got an early taste of movie-making when he was an extra in the Oxford-shot ‘Harvard’ scenes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the movie which destroyed United Artists).
“I was three behind Kirs Kristoffersen in the awards ceremony,” he told me, “but I was cut out of the ‘short’ version of Heaven’s Gate shown in Britain, so I have never actually seen myself in it!”
By 1982, after he graduated from Oxford University with a Master’s Degree in Languages, he shared a flat on the Goldhawk Road in West London.
“I went to some party that was a Who’s Who of early alternative comedy,” he told me, “and somebody introduced me to this rather chubby bloke saying: This is Alexei Sayle from Liverpool.
“I got on really well with him cos I grew up in Liverpool and he said: Oh, we’re doin’ a music video tomorrow morning in Goldhawk Road. Why don’t you come down. So I stood in the background on a car lot on the Goldhawk Road about three streets away from where I lived and watched them shoot Ullo John, Got a New Motor?
Later, Paul was involved in five Ridley Scott directed movies, the first as sound designer on the Blade Runnersoundtrack composed by Vangelis. The gas explosions burning on the skyline are actually, Paul told me, slowed-down timpani “because explosions didn’t work.
“Most of the first three weeks on that project,” he said, “I had no idea what I was working on. There was super secrecy. I thought I was doing a Coca Cola advert. I wasn’t allowed in the main room to see what was being projected but, once, I looked through the door and saw this space ship floating across with Drink Coke on it. After three weeks, I realised Maybe even Coca Cola adverts don’t go on this long.
“Then I went on to another Vangelis soundtrack which was The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Spottiswood. I didn’t do any work with Roger Spottiswood at all. On the final third of his pictures, Ridley Scott has the composer in the room with him – editor, composer, composer’s team and Ridley. Spottiswood wasn’t there.
“For The Bounty, we did the whole score on the 9th floor of the Hotel Pierre on Central Park in New York. Vengelis had the whole of the 9th floor because, he told me, he knew he would be making so much noise the hotel could not put anyone else on the 9th floor. It turned out the movie budget had also paid for every room on the 8th and the 10th floors as well, so Vengelis could compose the soundtrack on the 9th.
“The next time Vangelis called me was for a terrible Italian film called Francesco – the story of St Francis of Assisi with Mickey Rourke strangely cast as the saint. Vengelis always works evenings and nights, so we were there at 4 o’clock in the morning scoring this scene in which Mickey Rourke rolls bollock-naked in a snow drift – apparently St Francis used to assuage his natural urges by doing this. So we are sitting there watching Mickey Rourke rolling bollock-naked in slow motion in a snow drift and Vangelis turns to me and says: Sometimes, this is the best job in the world… but tonight it’s the fucking worst.”
That is a key scene in the planned movie which Paul hopes to make about Vangelis. He would direct the film and also play Vangelis.
“And he’s happy with that?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said Paul, “I first suggested the idea to him about two years ago. The main thing is he wants anyone who plays him to be actually able to play the piano.
“The only other film I did with Vangelis was 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I was supposed to do some stuff on Alexander, but I ended up getting 30 seconds of my music in the film and nothing with Vangelis. I’ve done two other movies with Ridley, both with Hans Zimmer – Black Rainand Gladiator. I think I’ve done 17 films with Hans Zimmer.
“On Gladiator, I did a lot of the synthesizers behind Lisa Gerrard, who plays the zither and sings on that score. That was probably the longest project I’ve ever worked on: it was over a year.”
“The plot,” says Paul, “is about how Alan B’stard is responsible for the credit crunch and all that money that’s disappeared – Alan’s got it all.”
Gran & Marks are also, says Paul, “developing their half-hour TV comedy drama Goodnight Sweetheartas a 90-minute stage musical”
Between 2001-2004, Paul told me, he “realised the music industry was dying on its feet and I wanted to get into the film industry. I reckoned the only job that could get me from one to the other was working for Apple computers.
“I did the first ever demonstration of an iPod in Europe. The original pre-release version of the iPod recorded sound, but Steve Jobs got so worried about the idea it might be used to bootleg concerts that they actually took the capabilities off the first iPod they released.
“As part of what I did for the next two years, I had to work on the beta versions of new products and they sent me through – in great secrecy – what they called ‘an audio and video recording iPod’. Do you know what that was?”
“What?” I asked.
“It was the iPhone. We just thought it recorded audio and shot video. It looked very similar to what it looks like now, but telephones weren’t that shape in those days. Another team was working on the telephone part of it.
“I pointed out to them that, when you scrolled, it took a long time to go through long lists because it stopped every time you took your finger off. I said, Why don’t you make it so, once you swipe your finger and lift it off, the menu keeps spinning like a globe of the world does if you spin it. So you can spin it and then put your finger on again to stop it where you want…. 2004 that was.”
“Great idea!” I said. “You should be working for Apple at Cupertino!”
“I lived in California from 1986 to 1992,” Paul replied, “and I told myself I’m only going back when I’m a famous film director.”
“Maybe The Devil’s Dandruff will be the one,” I told him.
Jason Cook smiled.
“If you want to get an American work visa,” Paul said to me, “do you know how to get one?”.
“Marriage?” I suggested.
“No,” said Paul. “You get Stevie Wonder to put his thumb print on the application and then they have to grant your work permit, otherwise they’re not allowed to keep the piece of paper with his thumb print. There are always people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service that are big Stevie Wonder fans.”
Paul worked for nine months doing ‘sound design’ on Stevie Wonder’s album Characters which had one hit single – Skeletons – which was used in the limousine sequence of the movie Die Hard.
Movies, music, Malcolm Hardee, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Willis.
Six degrees of separation is usually an overestimate.
Or maybe Paul Wiffen just has his fingers in lots of pies.
The first time I ever paid attention to film directing as a child was watching the British ABC TV arts series Tempo.
One episode I saw was so visually stylish and so vividly edited that I actually went to the TV Times listings magazine and checked who the director was.
It was Mike Hodges and I looked out for his name ever after. He is 80 years old in nine days time.
He directed the wonderful and little-seen 1969 Thames TV thriller Rumour (if ever any film were ripe for a re-make, this one is) and his first cinema movie was Get Carter(1971), arguably the best British gangster film ever made (although The Long Good Friday gives it a run for its money).
Michael Caine has said: “One of the reasons I wanted to make Get Carter was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny.” He said central character Jack Carter was the sort of person he might himself have become: “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.”
Mike Hodges had originally written the script (based on Ted Lewis‘ novel Jack’s Return Home) with Ian Hendry in mind for the title role (in the finished film, he plays a subsidiary role as the henchman Eric Paice). But producer Michael Klinger wanted Michael Caine, by then already a bankable star.
Ian Hendry’s career had declined, he was alcoholic and in poor physical shape. The climactic chase scene between Caine and Hendry was shot in reverse order, with Hodges filming Hendry’s death first because he was worried Hendry would be too out of breath to play the death scene after running. Hendry’s jealousy of Caine’s success was apparently obvious on set and was made worse by his drinking. Hodges tried to rehearse the film’s racecourse scene between Caine and Hendry in their hotel the night before, but Hendry’s “drunken and resentful state” forced him to abandon the attempt.
Despite all this, Ian Hendry got a 1972 BAFTA Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor and Michael Caine, in one of his best film roles, got nothing.
Mike Hodges introduced a screening of Get Carter at the National Film Theatre in London last night, part of their celebrations of the hundredth birthday of cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who was in the audience and, according to Mike Hodges, still “leaps up stairs like a gazelle”).
“I loved that film,” Mike said last night. “It was shot in Soho and I was going to be shooting Get Carter in the North East of England, but it was in the same sort of milieu as Get Carter – a seedy underworld.
“The Small World of Sammy Lee was shot in black and white. To show poverty and a seedy world is comparatively easy in black and white: it lends itself to showing that kind of decay. But colour is a different matter.
“There had been a film called Up The Junction released a little earlier, in 1968. It had been a TV play in black and white, then they made a cinema film of it in colour, which made it look very glossy and beautiful and expensive and, although it was made in London in the same sort of sad, junky-ridden areas we were shooting in in the North East… Well, Wolf’s gift to me on Get Carter was to capture the seediness in colour.”
Yesterday, I had tea with a very good but not yet famous comedy performer.
He was, quite rightly, lamenting the homogenised nature of comedians on television and said he did not think he was suitable for television because he liked to try to be original.
This is a complicated area because, much as I admire Michael McIntyre’s act – and I do – I prefer to see an act which can be brilliant but which may, on occasions not quite work – rather than an act which is slickly guaranteed to be effective 100% of the time and exactly the same every performance.
Yesterday, to the very good but not yet famous comedy performer, I mentioned a middle-ranking English comedian whom I admire.
He has an act which he performs and it is a very good act which he regularly updates and tweaks. When this comedian has a good audience, he is reliably funny. Very good value for money.
When he has a rowdy audience, however, he is far, far better. Because, if he is heckled or interrupted in some way, it sets him off at a tangent from his regular act. He soars away from sentence to sentence to idea to idea and can be brilliantly funny, then he comes back to the backbone of his regular act, then he will soar away again on surreal tangents, playing to the unpredictable audience’s reaction.
This is not necessarily what TV wants, though.
Another act we talked about yesterday used to be reliably unreliable. The comedian updated and varied his act regularly but there was a certain predictability about it. Perhaps 20% or 30% of the act did not work. Perhaps 70% or 60% of the act would be successfully funny, though nothing special. Very often the remaining 10% of the act, though, could be utterly brilliant – sheer near-genius comedy. The downside was that, occasionally, that 10% did not happen. But it was always worth seeing the comedian’s act because of even the promise of that 10% of totally original genius.
Again, though, that is not what television wants.
Television is an expensive business and requires an act which can be pretty-much guaranteed not to fail or sag. You do not want to throw away an entire recording. You have to know what to expect. The director ideally needs to know exactly what the act will do verbally, visually and spatially – where he or she will be on the stage – so the cameras will catch the right angles. And the act is best for the director when it is exactly the same in the rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and during the recording.
Reliability is what TV ideally needs.
But reliability and comedic genius are not necessarily the same thing.
So does this explain why there are so many middling-but-not-very-original comedians on TV?
Yes and no.
My advice to the comedian with whom I had tea yesterday was the same as it always is to comedians.
If you approach a television researcher or producer, your viewpoint should not be that you are a small unknown comedian approaching a bigtime person who can help your career develop. Your mental viewpoint should be that you want to help the television researcher or producer develop their own career.
The TV person has a life and career just as you do. They are struggling to maintain their job, to get new and better jobs just as much as you are. You are dealing with an individual human being not a large monolithic company.
Keep repeating to yourself:
“This other person is a frail human being too. He/she eats, shits, farts, gets ill, needs to make money to survive and will die alone just like me.”
The way that TV person can develop their career is by appearing to spot talent other people cannot spot or have not yet spotted. So, perhaps surprisingly, they really are looking for originality although – this is important – they are looking for “controllable originality”. They really are not looking for someone who is a clone of 25 other comics people have already seen on TV.
That will not get them a promotion from researcher to producer or get them a job on a better TV show with a higher salary. They will succeed if they can spot “the next new big thing” before anyone else. Even if they cannot find originality, they have to be able to say to the person above them who takes decisions (or to the person who may give them their next job) that they found this act with mainstream or at least accessible cult appeal who is actually very original and unlike anything seen before.
The technical term for this in the world of television is “bullshitting”.
There is, at this point, though, a fine balance.
The thing they are looking for is “controllable originality”.
The fine line between these two words is complicated by how effective the producer or director is. The better the producer or director, the less controllable the comedian has to be.
Several years ago, a TV director I know who lives in a far-flung corner of the UK stayed at my home in London while he was directing a TV series for a minor channel. He was directing an unknown comedian in a show which roamed around the streets and, by and large, had no script. It relied on the comedian.
The show was semi-anarchic and – as I know because I worked on the legendarily anarchic children’s show Tiswas – you have to be very organised to create effectively what appears to be anarchy. If you do not have control, the whole thing may fall apart into tedious, disjointed irrelevance.
The director of this new would-be anarchic TV show would come home of an evening raving to me about how irresponsible and uncontrollable the comedian – who was taking drugs at the time – was.
The director would tell me all the irresponsible, uncontrollable things the comedian had done and I would think, but not say:
“Well, that sounds great to me. You should be going with the comedian and trying to cover what he does, rather than keep him to the rough script you are trying to follow.”
What was required was a totally self-confident director which this one was not. The director had to be confident that he could edit his way out of any problems and this one was not.
I was also at the studio recording of the first episode in an expensive TV series starring Michael Barrymore. I knew the producer who was – and is – an utterly brilliant director of entertainment shows. This, though, was one of his first shows as a producer.
Michael Barrymore (after he got over his initial urge to imitate John Cleese) could be wonderfully original – almost the definitive uncontrollable comedian who needed a strongly confident producer and/or director.
In the TV recording I saw, which involved Barrymore going into the audience a lot and interacting with real people, the show kept being stopped because Barrymore kept going off-script. The floor manager would stop the recording and, relaying directions from ‘the box’, remind Barrymore that he had to say or do X or Y.
They were trying to keep him and control him within a structure which was too tight. Barrymore had to have a structure to control the potential anarchy. But it had to be a loose structure and you had to put him on a long leash and just follow what he did. The producer in question did manage to do this as the series progressed.
One brilliant piece of lateral thinking which I did work on was an entertainment series for the late but not too lamented company BSB (later bought by Sky).
It was a large, complicated variety show and the producer employed a director who had little experience of directing entertainment shows. But what he did have was (a) a sense of humour and (b) lots and lots of experience directing sports events.
This is relevant because directing a sports event means covering an event which has a loose structure but within which you do not know exactly what is going to happen. The director has to be prepared for anything to happen and to have the cameras in the right place to catch it when it does.
He was a very confident director working for a justifiably very confident producer and it worked well although, because it was screened on BSB, it got zilch viewers.
This comes back to what researchers and producers are looking for when they see or are approached by comedians and, indeed, any performer.
They think they want and are looking for true originality… but, if they are not particularly talented researchers or producers, they will compromise according to their lack of talent.
The phrase is “controllable originality”.
The more talented the TV person, the more important the word “originality” is.
The less talented the TV person, the more important the word “controllable” becomes.
As we can see from current TV shows, there are an awful lot of less talented and less confident TV people around.
But it still remains the case that, to sell a truly original act to a TV person, you have to emphasise its originality… though you also have to emphasise its controllability and potential mainstream or large cult appeal as well as suck on the TV person’s ego like a giant tit – which the TV person probably is.
The key thing is not to look at the ‘sell’ from your own viewpoint as a little unknown person approaching a big TV company.
You have to look at the situation from the small and possibly untalented TV person’s viewpoint –
“What will this performer do for ME? How will using this performer advance my own career and increase my own job prospects?”
Do not compromise on the originality of your act – just sell it with ‘spin’ appropriate to the wanker you are approaching.
Look, I only plug people and things I believe in on this blog so, with that in mind, read on…
British Prime Ministers have been sucking Rupert Murdoch’s corporate cock since the 1960s. It’s nothing new. Nor is amorality.
Lance Price was a special advisor to Tony Blair. In 1998, he became deputy to Blair’s Communications Director, Alastair Campbell; and he was the Labour Party’s Director of Communications from 2000 until the General Election of 2001. Price says Blair was under Murdoch’s thumb from the beginning:
“I started working for Tony Blair a year after he became Prime Minister. I was shocked to be told by one of those who’d been closely involved with the talks in Australia, and subsequently, that: ‘We’ve promised News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without talking to them’.”
But – hey! ho! – political pragmatism, like journalistic amorality, is good news for some…
The play is actually about the London 7/7 terrorist bombings and the media intrusion into victims’ lives but, of course, the subject of where the journalistic tipping point lies between investigative illumination and amoral intrusion is timeless.
Laura’s press release (written months ago) says: When reporting the news is business, is there space for truth and a conscience?… Will we accept hack journalism as a necessary evil for swift information?
It could have been written last week about the phone hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World. It is a subject, as the red-tops might themselves say, RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES – but of eternal relevance.
The play’s billing reads: “Ordinary man blown up by terrorists – he made jam and had a son. Nothing special. The media made that clear as they conjured headlines from victims and sprinkled them between crosswords.”
My elfin chum Laura Lexx was both a Chortle and Paramount Student comedy finalist in her first six months of live stand-up performance; then she went on to reach the semi-finals of both the Laughing Horse and Funny Women competitions.
I saw Ink when it was a student production at the University of Kent.
It was impressive then.
With the number of actors in the cast cut back for financial reasons and the writing sharpened up even more, it will be interesting to see how it fares at the Edinburgh Fringe, given its accidentally up-to-the-minute relevance.