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The art of political war compared to a comedy club and Disney studio politics

I usually keep away from overt politics in this blog so, no doubt, I will regret posting this one…

Jonathan Pie’s initial comic success came courtesy of RT

A comedian I know was recently asked about the possibility of appearing in the UK-produced comedy series which Russian TV station RT  is apparently planning to screen next year. He said he would not appear on RT, which is financed by the Russian government. I think he was wrong. All publicity is good publicity and, if he is allowed control over his own material, I see no real problem.

But why RT, the former Russia Today – a current affairs channel akin to the BBC News channel – should be thinking of screening a comedy show is interesting.

I was also told that RT is especially interested in screening Right Wing satirists who find it tough to get on UK TV.

Why would RT be interested in Right Wing not Left Wing comedians?

Well, presumably for the same reason that, allegedly, the Russian state set up hundreds of Facebook accounts promoting Right Wing rallies supporting Donald Trump during the US Presidential elections.

The Daily Beast’s view of who was behind Right Wing posts

They supported the more Right Wing candidate against the (comparative to Trump) more liberal, anti-Right Hillary Clinton.

I was in TV promotions and marketing for 25-ish years and have always been interested in techniques of persuasion and how to sway beliefs and perceptions.

As well as in marketing, that is actually what Art does too: you try to take the audience – whether viewers, listeners or fiction readers – along with you.

Which is also relevant to the art of war in the 21st century.

Sun Tzu says in his influential book The Art of War that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” because the object of war should be not to destroy your enemy’s assets and power structure but to take them over intact.

In the modern world, you no longer need to physically take over your rival’s cities, economy and means of production. You do not need to actually take over your enemy’s assets and decision-making processes. What you want is the power to influence your opponent’s economic and political directions and decisions.

Undermining their strength and influence is equivalent to increasing your own.

Lest we forget, the reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (written in the 5th century BC) came back to prominence in the mid-1990s was that Disney company president Mike Ovitz recommended it or (in some versions of the story) allegedly gave copies to all his Hollywood executives as a training manual for navigating the corporate world. It was said that the only two books you needed to read to succeed in corporate politics were Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Sun Tzu’s view in the 5th century BC

Two of Sun Tzu’s oft-quoted and closely-linked insights include:

“You have to believe in yourself”
and
“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

In the modern world, corporations are – it could be argued – equivalent to non-geographically specific states.

You do not need to fully take over a company to influence its direction. A large shareholding will give you a voice – or being able to influence the main shareholders may suffice.

In the modern world, it is pointless – it always has been – to primarily seek to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who agree with your own views. They already agree with and believe what you believe. To change things, you need to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who support/bolster your opponents.

There is no point only targeting the fans of your product, although you do have to remind them your product exists.

The important thing is the target (Photo: Christian Gidlöf)

Your aim is to sell a ‘belief’ in your product to people who are not yet convinced or who are actually actively resistant and opposed to your product. Or – and this is the point – you can undermine their existing beliefs in the product they currently buy, which will increase the comparative impact of your own product.

If that product is a political system, then you do not even have to convince your opponents that your beliefs are right. By undermining their confidence in their own political system, you can strengthen your own comparative position.

If you were to bizarrely and possibly unwisely transfer this to the situation of a stand-up comedy show featuring only two comics then, if you undermine the audience’s belief and confidence in one comic, you increase their (comparative) belief in the other comic. The MC can do this in his/her introduction of the other comic to the audience. Or one comic can undermine the other’s self-belief and thus performance.

In the case of the US, let us just imagine for a moment that the Russians wanted to install Donald Trump because they believed he would be more receptive to their overtures, reduce or remove economic sanctions related to Ukraine etc etc…

Well, they must be very disappointed because he has proved to be a rogue player.

It is a bit like the Kray Twins springing ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell from Dartmoor Prison in the 1960s and then finding that he actually was uncontrollably mad.

US cartoonist Ben Garrison’s view of the Washington ‘Swamp’

But – swings and roundabouts – Trump’s appeal is to Right Wing voters in the US and his constant harping-on about how the Washington Establishment and the ‘Fake News’ media are corrupt must relentlessly and effectively chip-chip-chip away at his loyal Right Wing voters’ belief in their own system.

That is something that no Left Wing politician could ever do.

If you undermine a building, it will collapse.

As for my comedian chum, I think he was wrong to refuse to appear on RT.

If they give him an unfettered, uncensored voice which he cannot get onto UK TV then, in terms of Art, that is a ‘win’ situation for him.

The fact that the financiers of RT may see comedy on existing British society as a way of undermining belief in the current system and appealing to the always-malleable 18-35 year old age group while appearing to be the voice of individual freedom of expression is a side issue.

Morality was never a necessity in Art.

And, of course, abroad, many took individually-seen videos of fake reporter Jonathan Pie as those of a real reporter whose off-camera personal views had been caught between recordings, thus showing the duplicity of Western reporting.

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Paul Boyd: from Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory to the bloody Tower of London

Paul Boyd at the Tower of London yesterday

Paul Boyd, ready to audition, at the Tower of London yesterday

My chum comedienne Janey Godley’s weekly podcast has a new signature tune from today, written by the wildly prolific Paul Boyd.

“It’s the same tune,” he told me yesterday at the Tower of London, “I just brushed it up a bit, because I thought: They’ve had it for five years now. I didn’t want to have an outcry from all her fans if I changed it too much.”

“Probably wise,” I said. “There’s an awful lot of them and anyone connected to Janey is possibly dangerous.”

On Monday, I had not been able to go to the launch party for Paul’s latest music album One Night Stand.

“It is,” Paul told me, “subtitled The Best of Paul Boyd, Volume 1 – I made them put Volume 1 in case anyone thought I had died.”

The launch party had included performances by some of the artists.

“It was really strange,” Paul told me, “to hear my songs sung out of context and not within the confines of a show. This is my 7th album but all of the previous ones have been cast recordings.”

“How many shows have you written?” I asked.

One Night stand but 22 musicals and much more

One night stand but 22 musicals + much more

“22 musicals, 35 scores for plays that have toured nationally, 2 water spectaculars and hundreds of songs for cabaret, concerts and so on.”

“You did two water spectaculars?” I asked.

“They’re very big,” said Paul, “in Japan, Taiwan, Serbia and Denmark.”

“You did two water spectaculars?” I repeated.

“Huge water spectaculars,” he replied, “that I co-wrote, scored and co-directed. One was called The Little Mermaid and the other one Sinbad. Boats were coming on. It was crazy. I really loved it.”

“Serbia?” I asked. “Before, after or during the war there?”

“After the war. In Belgrade, there were lots of bullet holes in the walls, but I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s, so I was the only one not phased by any of it. There were about 2,000 people a night coming to see it. We were staging the show in the Olympic swimming pool which had become a bit dilapidated since 1984, so there was a real sadness to the place.”

“Maybe the swimming pool was a bomb crater?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “It survived, weirdly. But there were little things like they didn’t have enough diesel to heat the pool to the standards we required because, when you do water shows, there are so many rules and regulations about the amount of chlorine and so on and the temperature dictates the costumes your actors wear. So, in Serbia, we had all the costumes re-designed, made out of neoprene – the stuff you get in wetsuits – which has a slightly insulated quality. But we had to have two mermaids because they got too cold if they stayed in the water too long.”

“You are,” I said, “from Belfast, but the name Boyd…”

Paul’s glorious musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory

Paul’s glorious musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory

“… is Scottish. yes. I’m from the Royal House of Stuart – well, a servant of… maybe we scrubbed their steps… There is a rumour that the Boyds were kicked out of Scotland for flirting with the King’s men, which is a family trait I like to keep going. Now I’m working with the Beefeaters…”

“Which is why are we meeting at the Tower of London…” I prompted.

“Yes. because I’m doing auditions for chorus members here today. Next February – the 13th and 14th – there’s a variety show – Live at The Tower – it’s Valentine’s Eve and Valentine’s Night – which Historic Royal Palaces have asked me to direct.

“Like all royal palaces, the Tower of London needs to raise money every year to keep going – I think they need to raise something in the region of £2 million a year just to keep the gates open and keep everything functioning. We’re hoping to raise money for St John’s Chapel, which is the oldest Norman church in England – it’s in the White Tower. Lots of people were dragged out of there to meet their deaths. It needs a bit of tender loving care so we’re going to raise a bit of money for that.

Beefeater Moira Cameron (Photo by Joshd at en.wikipedia)

Yeoman Warden woman Moira Cameron (Photograph by Joshd at en.wikipedia)

“The Beefeaters themselves – the Yeomen Warders – came up with this idea – Pete McGowran and Moira Cameron – the first and only female Beefeater. We didn’t know what kind of show to do so I thought a variety show. I love variety, music hall. The Royal Variety Show is the kind of feel we’re looking for and that’s the kind of audience who will be invited along to pay the sort of prices we want for the tickets.”

“Televised?” I asked.

“Not this year. Fingers crossed for future years. The idea is we launch it next year and see what happens.”

“It’s in the White Tower?” I asked.

“It’s in the New Armouries building – There’s a huge banqueting hall on the top floor which has the White Tower as the backdrop.”

“That’s in February next year,” I said, “but, before that…?”

“I’m directing my first panto.”

“Where?”

“Blackpool, the home of variety. At the Blackpool Grand.”

“That’s gigantic,” I said. “And it’s your first panto?”

“Yes,” said Paul. “A lot of my shows started off as Christmas productions, like Alice: The Musical and Pinocchio and Hansel and Gretel, but I’ve never written a panto ever.”

“Oh yes you have,” I have.

“Oh no I haven’t,” said Paul.

“What’s the panto?” I asked.

Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs starring Sue Pollard with real-life little people. A lot of pantos don’t do that now. A lot have children with big heads and pre-recorded voices. And some just have people on their knees. We’re very fortunate. We have a very good-quality cast.”

“Pantos,” I said, “are very restrictive, but in a good way.”

Paul’s first ever pantomime - coming to the Blackpool Grand

Paul’s first ever pantomime – coming to the Blackpool Grand

“Yes, there are all the rules and regulations. Things like the good fairy always enters from stage right and the bad fairy or Wicked Queen always has to enter from stage left.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul. “If you ever see a panto where the good fairy comes on from stage left, it’s wrong.”

“Any trouble with Disney?” I asked.

“I imagine there’s always trouble with Disney. But I think the only thing is, with the dwarfs, you’re not allowed to call them Sleepy. Dozy, Doc, Bashful and so on.”

“There was,” I said, “the porn film Snow White and The Seven Perverts and, when Disney threatened to sue, the distributors changed the title to Some Day My Prince Will Come.”

“I remember reading once,” said Paul, “that someone was doing a panto of Beauty and The Beast – which is a Disney stage show as well as a film – and they had to have their posters approved by Disney in case they infringed any Disney rights.”

“You are very prolific,” I said, “but you have not done a new musical this year.”

“I did have three shows lined up,” explained Paul, “which all fell apart. We have had a really dodgy year in Theatreland this year.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, there’s a lot of people running venues in London who just really don’t know what they’re doing. That’s the honest truth. I work in Rep theatres all over the country and other theatres all over the world but in London – particularly on the fringe – the lunatics are running the asylum.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

Some of Paul’s many musicals

Just some of Paul Boyd’s successful musicals

“I think so, yeah. Though make sure you say there’s some lovely lunatics, because some of them I get on with really well. But I’ve had a couple of run-ins with people who’ve taken shows almost to the point of production and then turned round and decided they’re going in another direction. You don’t do that. I’m not used to that. A lot of faffing around. There’s no malice in it at all. A lot of people just don’t know what they’re doing and I think a lot of us, as writers, are finding it frustrating when our only outlet is the fringe and off-West End.

“One of the shows I had lined up with one of these fringe venues that didn’t come off this year, we’ve decided to do next year and I’ve just started to co-write it with a very well-known, award-winning TV scriptwriter who is venturing into theatre for the first time. He’s bringing a lot of cachet with him and a lot of people with big names want to be involved in it now. So having it fall through initially has actually helped the show.”

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Laurence Owen, comedy songsmith with a marriage made in Disney World

Laurence Owen

Laurence Owen – not a deceased female skater

“You’re doing quite well,” I said to composer/performer Laurence Owen when we met for a chat.

“I suppose so, “he agreed.  “There are now two Wikipedia pages on Laurence Owen – one is me and the other is a deceased female figure skater.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Your own Wikipedia page.”

“It is absurdly detailed,” said Laurence, “but I didn’t write it and I don’t know who did. There is information on there that I feel only my mum would know and I have asked her and it’s not her. It’s maybe a little frightening.”

“You’ll be writing a hit Christmas song next,” I said.

“I did write one two years ago,” laughed Laurence. “It was a fairly cynical experiment – to see if you could write ANY Christmas song and then release it on all the channels at Christmas and get it picked up.”

“And the answer is?” I asked.

Lawrence’s album: Lullabies of Pervland

Mr Lawrence’s highly original album: Lullabies of Pervland

“No. Not really,” said Laurence. “But I quite like it. It’s a cross between Bing Crosby and Paul McCartney. Christmas songs are all that jingle bells, sleigh bells rhythm aren’t they? My song was called called Kith and Kin and I shoved it onto the end of my Lullabies of Pervland album.”

“What was it about?” I asked.

“A Quasimodo-esque hideous evil twin who lives in an attic, watching the family from the rafters, looking down, wishing one day he might be invited to sit at the Christmas table. It’s very sad.”

“Are you sure,” I asked, “that you had your finger on the genre here?”

“Maybe that’s why it never took off,” agreed Laurence.

“Although,” I said, “on the other hand, the Pogues’ A Fairytale of New York is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st Century.”

“And that’s not a cheery subject,” mused Laurence.

“But your new Edinburgh Fringe show is…?” I asked.

It might be a Silly Musical but is not a Cinnamon one

Might be a Silly Musical but not Cinnamon

Cinemusical,” said Laurence, “which everyone keeps mis-hearing as Silly Musical, which I don’t mind. But it got introduced the other day as Cinnamon Musical, which I’m not so keen on. It makes it sound even camper than it actually is.

“It’s essentially a one-man musical… a sort of adventure story that consists of music from lots of different genres and is performed by me in the guise of various stock characters.”

“So there’s not one Laurence Owen presenting it?”

“No, no. I appear at the beginning to explain what I’m going to do because, at the first preview, I didn’t do that – just launched straight into it – and no-one knew what was going on. They sort-of enjoyed it but looked quite confused for the first half.”

“What’s not to understand?” I said. “It’s a man singing songs.”

“Yes,” said Laurence, “but I play five different characters in total, plus myself at the beginning. The first is the Disney character – the only thing I’ve kept from last year..”

“That’s the song,” I checked, “where you analyse the limited career potential for females in Disney movies?”

The wrong Laurence Owen - Women's Figure Skating February 13, 1961 X 7205 (Photo: Jerry Cooke)

A photograph of the wrong Laurence Owen (Photo: Jerry Cooke)

“Yes. So she begrudgingly resigns herself to being an evil queen on the grounds that it’s the only appealing option. But there is also the bird character she talks to in that song who is now also a character in his own right. The five characters each have a problem, basically, with the limitations of their genre. That’s the framework of the show.

“The characters have a main song each and, in each of those songs, they establish they’re not happy within the rules of their genre.

“The Disney princess character just wants a normal working business life because she’s ambitious and is fed up because she’s got to either become an amicable fairy godmother or die or become evil. The bird is annoyed because he’s only ever allowed to play novelty sidekicks. So, in his song, he’s campaigning for more lead roles for avian Americans. And so on with each character…

“It all ended up, rather by accident, a bit more issues-based than I had intended. But I quite like that. It’s sort-of got a serious point… ish. And they end up quoting Gandhi…”

“Gandhi?” I asked.

“Yeah. Well, it’s actually a fake Gandhi quote: Be the change you want to see. It’s a quote often attributed to Gandhi, but I think it’s like Elementary, my dear Watson – it was never actually said.”

“Except possibly by Russell Brand,” I suggested.

“Possibly,” said Laurence.

“What is married life like for you?”

“Great.”

Laurence recently married comedy performer Lindsay Sharman at Disney World in Florida.

Laurence & Lindsay - a marriage made in disney world

Laurence and Lindsay have a marriage made in Disney World

“I managed to go through our entire Disney wedding,” said Laurence, “without telling anybody I had written a Disney parody. I think I told our wedding planner that I was a composer, but never mentioned Disney. My dad kept trying to tell people and I was quite embarrassed. Maybe I should have let him.”

“You also wrote the music for The Golem,” I said.

The Golem was at the Young Vic, “ said Laurence, “then went to the Trafalgar Studios in London and has been to China and Russia. I don’t know where they are now – maybe Taiwan. They’re touring it all over the place.”

“And after Edinburgh…?” I asked.

Krazy Kat

Krazy Kat – coming back to a screen with re-scored music

“Well, last year Paul Barritt, the animator, made a load of short films loosely inspired by Krazy Kat – a pre-Tom and Jerry American comic strip about a cat and a mouse. He showed these films in Germany last year accompanied by a very very serious German new music, high Art, experimental orchestra.

“It worked well, but that orchestra are very expensive. When Paul was approached by David Byrne this summer for the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank, Krazy Kat was just too expensive. But then he thought – slightly too late for Meltdown – Why don’t I just get Laurence to do a new score for four players?”

I suggested: “Laurence should have thought of Laurence doing that.”

“I wouldn’t have presumed to ask,” said Laurence. “But we are now going to do that – 90 minutes of film with a live score – after the Fringe.”


A very well-produced video of Laurence’s showstopping Disney parody Empowered is on YouTube:

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Two comedy performers to have fairytale marriage in Disneyland

Laurence Owen & Lindsay Sharman

Laurence Owen and Lindsay Sharman at last night’s party…

Last night, I went to the engagement party for performers Lindsay Sharman and Laurence Owen. They are getting married at Disneyland.

“Yes,” said Laurence. “We’re taking ourselves off to Florida as a… erm… sort of… a…”

“Marriage?” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Laurence. “We’re getting married. That’s the main gist of it. For ten days in May.”

“That,” I said, “is a long marriage by American standards.”

“Well,” he replied, “if we get through ten days, we know it’s going to be alright.”

“Why get married at Disneyland?” I asked. “Have they heard your song?” (Laurence has a wonderful humdinger of a Disney pastiche song.)

“That’s the thing,” he explained. “Disney looms very large in our lives. As a kid, I used to go to Paris Disneyland with my dad. And, about this time last year, Lindsay and I had a week with no gigs in and I was temporarily homeless – between flats – so we went to the Paris Disneyland and we had a really amazing time there. Then we went again in September, immediately after last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

“I had this idea that, in January this year, I would pop the question to Lindsay. Then she sort-of beat me to it. Cos we were chatting by text late on Christmas Eve – Christmas Day early morning – and we just got talking about Disney weddings and decided to go on from there, pretty much. So that was it.”

“Proposal by text?” I asked.

“Proposal by text. We’re thoroughly modern.”

“I didn’t realise,” I told him, “that Disney do marriage packages.”

“Oh yes,” said Laurence. “For your basic package, you get a location for a ceremony. We have a gazebo next to a big lake and there’s a pirate ship by the lake and it’s themed like a 1920s boardwalk-type thing; it’s all very nice.”

“And it’s more expensive to have the castle?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Laurence. “And, if you pay $3,000, you can arrive in the Cinderella pumpkin coach and you have two footmen.”

“Frogs?…” I started.

“For that price,” said Laurence, “you would hope so.”

“… or English?” I concluded.

“Maybe,” said Laurence. “And, as well as those guys, you get two buglers who will announce your arrival on long trumpets with flags hanging off them. You have to pay through the nose for that, though. And, if you want to have Mickey Mouse present, you have to pay another $900.”

“Are Mickey, Donald and Goofy all the same price?” I asked.

“Any costume characters,” explained Laurence, “you have to pay $900 each. So, if you want Mickey and Minnie together, that’s $1,800.”

“I wondered if maybe Goofy was relatively cheap.,” I said. “Who wants Goofy officiating at their marriage?”

“Possibly,” said Laurence. “On a sliding scale of Disney characters, maybe if you only want Pluto, you could get him for fifty quid.”

“You’re getting married on May 6th…” I said.

“Yes. We tried to get May the Fourth because that’s Star Wars Day, but they were full up on that day.”

“Of course!” I said. “Disney now own Star Wars. So you could have Stormtroopers in attendance. The ultimate white wedding.”

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Laurence Owen – a Pervland pasticher who could have been Harry Potter

Lawrence’s album: Lullabies of Pervland

Not normal actor-turned-comedian-turned-composer-singer

Last night, a well-known agency staged a ’comedy showcase’ of some of their acts. There were around ten acts.

With the exception of one-and-a-half acts, it was a laughter-free zone.

They were actors and actresses showcasing their acting talent without interruption by humour. They were not comedians.

The result of actors trying to be comedians to ‘fill-in’ before they get ‘proper’ acting jobs is almost always a terrible, humorless dog’s dinner. It is usually a Pyrrhic victory of performance skills over comedy.

Which is why Laurence Owen is a joy to behold. His show Lullabies of Pervland has a humdinger of a song about how women’s roles in Disney movies are defined and limited – it has wonderfully complex and intelligent lyrics performed by Laurence to a perfect pastiche of the whole gamut of Disneyesque tunes. He acts as four characters in the song, including a wiseguy bird from, it seems, the Bronx. A wondrous blend of acting, singing, composition and comedy.

“Disney women don’t have a huge amount going for them after a certain point,” Laurence explained to me. “Their career options are limited and there’s always at least one dead parent – usually the mum  – which leaves these young characters flailing and alone so they can have scary adventures. The Lion King is Hamlet with lions.”

“The thing is,” I said, “you act your Disney pastiche song so well.”

“Well, when I was little,” said Laurence, “I used to be a kid actor. I did various bits and bobs. I was in a film called Wilde with Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde.”

“Heavens!” I said. “You weren’t the one who got buggered?”

“No,” said Laurence. “That was Jude Law. I played Stephen Fry’s son.”

Laurence Owen not Harry Potter

Laurence Owen – not Harry Potter

He also auditioned for the part of Harry Potter.

“I suppose I probably look more like Harry Potter now,” said Laurence.

“So,” I asked, “you wanted to be an actor, not a musical performer?”

“Yeah. I started off as an actor. I was six when I started. I did a costume drama thing for the BBC about nannies – Berkeley Square – and I played a young Brian Blessed in a film called The Mumbo Jumbo which was mad but had a great cast – Sylvester McCoy, Melinda Messenger, John Inman from Are You Being Served?, Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Show, Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed…”

“To have Joss Ackland and Brian Blessed in the same film is quite something,” I said.

“There is a lot of shouting in it,” said Laurence. “I never met Brian Blessed, but they curled my eyebrows up into these big spikes and put grey in my temples, even though I was playing a 10-year-old version of Brian Blessed and I had this one line which I had to deliver in a cod Brian Blessed voice.

“My voice broke when I was about 11 and, after that, I stopped getting work. When I was 12, I looked and sounded about 14 and no-one is interested in that; they want people who can play younger. I went and saw my agent and she basically told me I was not cute enough any more.”

“But you still wanted to perform.”

“Yes. About the same time this happened – about the age of 12 – I started learning the guitar and forming little bands at school and we made little albums. I made my first album when I was 13 and it’s practically unlistenable to, but I’m quite glad we did it. I got into Pink Floyd and things like that – old bands. Throughout my teenage years, I made a load of very over-reaching, quite wanky prog rock things on acoustic guitars.”

There is a video on YouTube of Laurence (centre), aged 18, singing with a band called Freak Kitchen.

“And, all this time, my mum was taking me to the Edinburgh Fringe every year,” Laurence told me.

“Why?”

“Because she loves it. I think this year was her 22nd consecutive year. Never been a performer, just a punter. She’s a champion hobbyist. She’s heavily involved in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, edits The Sherlock Holmes Journal and goes on jaunts across Switzerland to the Reichenbach Falls and all that. She’s learning Japanese now.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s interested in eccentric islands.”

“So she took you to the Fringe every year?”

“Yes. I remember, aged 10, seeing Simon Munnery and feeling Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before! He was doing his League Against Tedium. I remember being really, really inspired by it.”

“At that point,” I asked, “did you want to be a straight stand-up comic?”

“No. I discovered comedy by accident. I went up to Edinburgh every year for years, then started doing music, went to university in Brighton to study music and had this vague idea I would be a composer for a living. Then I moved back to London and started working in my old school in the music department as a kind of admin slave.

“At the same time, I was also performing slightly humorous shanty-type storytelling type songs with bits of weird, dark humour at these very earnest music nights with singer-songwriters who were whingeing on about their girlfriends. The audience really hated my songs and I was getting really down. No-one was interested at all and I was going to just stop and not bother any more, but my flatmate said: We run a little comedy night. Why don’t you come and try it out there?”

There is a showreel of Laurence’s musical comedy material on YouTube.

“So you started doing music-based gigs at comedy clubs,” I said. “But you were never interested in being a straight stand-up?”

“I’m a bit scared of that,” said Laurence. “I don’t think I quite have it in me. And I don’t really want to be a club comedian. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do yet, but I know it’s fairly cross-genre. Bits of all sorts of performance practices. For the new show, which I’m starting to formulate at the moment, I’m not having any guitar at all. It’s going to be all big backing tracks in the same way I do my Disney song.

“The new show (for Edinburgh 2015) is called Cinemusical and it’s gonna be a show about different aspects of film music, apeing all sorts of different film genres and casting a load of mis-matched characters together in a hybrid. I’m going to cast members of the audience as different characters. There will be a gunslinger Western character, a Lara Croft style Indiana Jones type person.”

Cinemusical_LaurenceOwen

“So,” I asked, “you’re going to do pastiches of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann?”

“A few years ago,” said Laurence, “I did make a concept album in the style of Ennio Morricone called South of The River – set in South London. It was about a day in the life of a charity fundraiser, going up to people in the street. He was a kind of lonely guy who got through his existence by pretending to be Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. So, in his own brain, each of these encounters was like a duel and the album was the music which was playing in his head as he was going up to people in the street. It was basically a spaghetti western set inside a man’s head.”

There is a video from it on YouTube – a song called A Moment of Your Time.

“I think pastiche is what I’m interested in. I’ve now got to the stage where I do make a living by performing and composing. I’m a composer for film and theatre.

“At the moment, I’m working for a theatre company called 1927. I think they’re called that because that was the year the movie Metropolis came out. They get a lot of influence from silent films. They have live actors and actresses who interact with projected animation on a huge screen the size of the stage. And they have a live pianist. The show I’m working with them on at the moment is a show called Golem, based on the Jewish folk tale and on the silent film. They have a pianist and a drummer for this one and, to complement the stuff they’re playing live, I’ve made a pre-recorded sound score which goes on around it. It’s being staged at The Young Vic in December.”

“Do you have any urge left to act?”

“I’d quite like to.”

“You should do Harry Potter: The Musical.”

“I’d love to do that.”

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What you can learn from Disney, Alton Towers and UK TV host Jonathan Ross

Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman at the BAFTAs

Many moons ago, I spent two weeks – or was it four? – at the Alton Towers pleasure park where Granada was producing a children’s TV show.

At the time, Alton Towers was run by businessman John Broom, who had looked at research done by the Walt Disney corporation on how people perceived their leisure parks.

The key realisation John Broom got from this research was that the two things which visitors most vividly remembered were the very first image they saw as they stepped out of their cars in the car park – because that was what they thought-of as the start of their ‘adventure’ – and the last image they saw when they left the amusement park.

The Alton Towers car park had previously been in a nondescript area but, after reading this research, John Broom moved it so that the first view which visitors had when they parked and stepped out of their cars was the Alton Towers stately home on the other side of a shining lake. The same image was used on Alton Towers’ video and print marketing.

Research showed visitor satisfaction for the experience of the whole amusement park increased after the car park had been moved.

It sounds obvious – the first and last scenes in anything – a visit to an amusement park, a movie, a stage show, a meeting with a stranger – they are always likely to be the two things with most impact.

Image is everything.

But, though obvious, it is oft forgot.

Jonathan Ross once told me that, even when he was a penniless starting-off TV researcher, although he could not easily afford them, he always wore Armani suits. He dressed to impress.

People tell me I should not dress so shabbily.

Alas, I don’t care.

I should know better.

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“Star Wars”, the ladies and the $350 million Disney disaster “John Carter”

John Carter loses Walt Disney’s shirt

What’s in a title? Well, in the case of Disney, maybe a $200 million loss on their movie John Carter after they inexplicably dropped the second part of the original title John Carter of Mars.

One theory about why the movie has been such an utter box office disaster is that no-one knew who the character was nor where or why he was fighting aliens. According to some reports, people coming out of screenings did not even know the film had been set on Mars. Oh! – and, in Hollywood’s post mortem, it was felt potential women punters had no idea there is a central romance in the movie. And the little ladies only love a war movie if it has romance, says Hollywood (e.g. Gone With The Wind).

Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the John Carter character before he created Tarzan but today, while everyone has heard of Tarzan, culturally no-one knows John Carter. This is a fact which seemed to bypass the Disney publicity team, who sold the movie heavily on the name.

Titles are, of course, not unimportant.

Star Wars was originally going to be called The Adventures of Luke Skykiller (sic). When producer Gary Kurtz and director George Lucas decided to re-title it The Star Wars, 20th Century Fox researched reaction to the title in shopping malls and came back saying: “Women will not go see a movie with the word ‘War’ in the title.”

The studio, according to Kurtz, always disliked the title (until it made mega-millions) but could not come up with a better one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on John Carter of Mars influenced many sci-fi movies from Star Wars to Avatar and many books and movies in-between and before, which also ironically means the new Disney movie feels slightly derivative. John Carter may have been the original, but, by now, audiences have  seen most of it before in other films.

Disney’s strange removal of all reference to Mars in the title John Carter may be because the studio took a bloody nose Mars Needs Moms last year. The movie’s budget was a reported $150 million + marketing costs; its worldwide box office gross was $39 million. The old rule-of-thumb (not altogether true today on mega-budget movies which require additional mega marketing budgets) was that, to break even, you had to gross 2.5 times your negative cost. So, roughly speaking, a $50 million movie had to gross $125 million to break even.

Mars has been doing badly of late. Columbia Pictures are currently re-making the 1990 movie Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and someone working on the special effects tells me it is not set on Mars. And let us not mention the normally superb Brian De Palma’s 2000 aberration Mission To Mars (budget $100 million; box office gross $110 million) nor Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (budget $80 million + marketing $20 million; box office gross $101 million)

It might be cheaper to go to Mars itself. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary last Tuesday, rocket entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed he could send people to Mars for $500,000 per person.

Me? I prefer Edinburgh and I am here this weekend for a two-day event organised by the Guardian newspaper in which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain how the original Star Wars movie was made.

According to Gary Kurtz, one of the inspirations for Star Wars was – yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books about John Carter of Mars.

Getting down to figures, the Disney movie of John Carter, based on Burroughs’ first (1912) John Carter book A Princess of Mars, cost $250 million to make and $100 million to market… and last week Disney announced they reckoned they would make a $200 loss on it.

“None of it worked on any level,” Sandy Lieberson said yesterday afternoon in Edinburgh. “Not on the marketing, the production, the casting, the chemistry. So it’s a perfect example of talented people, lots of money, the sky’s the limit and you come up with a dud.”

Before the original Star Wars was made, Gary Kurtz had tried to buy rights to the John Carter of Mars books as well as rights to Flash Gordon and to Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress, but negotiations failed. So George Lucas made up his own story which, originally, was about a courier taking mysterious substances from one place to another.

Until a late stage in the scripting, robots C3PO and R2D2 were bickering bureaucrats, as in The Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas and Gary Kurtz had wanted to cast Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune in the Star Wars role of Han Solo (eventually played by Harrison Ford), but Mifune’s English was not good enough. For the briefest of moments, according to Kurtz, Lucas suggested: “Why don’t we make it in Japanese with sub-titles?”

According to Kurtz, Lucas would snip tiny little bits of his own hair off when he had trouble writing. If Kurtz’s secretary arrived in the morning to type-up what Lucas had written (in long-hand on yellow paper) and found lots of little bits of hair lying around, she would say, “Boy! That must have been a bad night!”

Gary Kurtz agrees with the oft-quoted (by me) famous movie-making maxim of William Goldman in Adventures in The Screen Trade that “Nobody knows anything”.

“You never know in advance,” Gary Kurtz said yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the troubles. I don’t envy studio executives at all. I never wanted to be one I was offered a couple of times to be a part of the production team at a studio, but I couldn’t see it, because it is very difficult to predict about projects.”

The example he gave was director Robert Wise and Julie Andrews. “They put together The Sound of Music,” said Kurtz. “It was a famous musical on the stage but it worked brilliantly as a film. The very next project they wanted to do together was another musical that was really well-received on the stage – Star!

“And it didn’t work at all. Yes, the music was different. But on the stage it had worked. Why didn’t it work as a film? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to analyse. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. You put in all the ingredients, you mix it all up and you stand up and put the burner under it and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into the most beautiful liquid possible. Other times, it just blows up in your face and you don’t know why.”

To hell with philosophising about movie-making, though. Were there any ‘romances’ among the crew and cast during the making of Star Wars?

“No,” according to Gary Kurtz. “Everyone was too tired. On the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, yes. But on the first film, no.”

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Filed under Books, Marketing, Movies, Science fiction