It got a response from Jody VandenBurg on Wednesday. He is making a long-in-production documentary on Malcolm: All The Way From Over There.
“Saw the news about the Wibbley Wobbley,” Jody wrote. “I was down there filming today, met a few interesting characters. Future is uncertain, but am not convinced it’s for the scrap heap just yet.
“The squatters and other people seem convinced it’s going to be scrapped but I met a guy who said he has bought it. He seemed very upset at what had been done to it, that the boat has a lot of history and he wants to preserve it. He said he intended to take it to dry dock in Sea Reach at Canvey Island if it can make it up there.
“He was emptying the boat of all the crap and putting it in a van to be taken to dump.” (Photograph by Jody VandenBurg)
“Anything he finds of any note in the boat, he said, would go to Rotherhithe Museum. He was emptying the boat of all the crap the squatters had left behind and putting it in a van to be taken to dump.
“The only thing is that his account of what happened when they evicted the squatters and the squatters’ version of what happened are completely different so I am not sure who to believe on that front… So that makes me wonder about the entire thing.”
The next day – Wednesday – I got another e-mail from Jody. It said:
“So they are moving the Wibbley Wobbley properly out of the dock on Friday at about 2.00pm. I am going to go down with a couple of cameras to film it.”
I was not able to go yesterday – I was on child-minding duties – but, last night, I got another message about the Wibbley Wobbley from Jody:
“Unfortunate news. They moved it on Wednesday without keeping me updated whilst I was organising the shoot for today and it got scrapped.”
Jody VandenBurg savours Malcolm Hardee’s culture last night
I went to comedian Malcolm Hardee’s birthday party last night. He is dead – he drowned in 2005 – but it would have been his 64th birthday and he is rather a difficult character to forget.
There was a full house to see a stand-up comedy bill and screenings of an hour-long BSB TV variety show which I produced in 1990 – Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbiz – and the still-unfinished and increasingly baroquely-detailed documentary which Jody VandenBurg has been making about Malcolm since 2005 – Malcolm Hardee – All The Way From Over There. Jody told me he hopes to finish it by next year.
Suitably for Malcolm, the event last night took place in a south east London pub – the Fox & Firkin in Lewisham.
Martin Potter (centre) with Clare Hardee and Martin Soan
“We got a lifetime ban from here about 30 – maybe 35 – years ago,” Martin Potter told me. He was the sound man for and a business partner of Malcolm’s and an occasional member of the Greatest Show On Legs comedy troupe which included Malcolm.
“The Firkin chain were the first chain of real ale pubs and this was the first one,” Martin told me last night, “It was started by a man called Bruce and then he opened another one called the Goose & Firkin up in Southwark.
The Greatest Show On Legs performing last night
“The Greatest Show On Legs did a show here and then one at the Goose & Firkin and, at the end of it, Dave Brooks the bagpiper decided to pour a pint of beer over Bruce’s head and we got banned from all the Firkin pubs forever. But that was fair enough.”
Then I got talking to Malcolm Hardee’s daughter Poppy. The subject of Malcolm’s jokes came up – he had about six of them which he used over the course of about 20-25 years. He had two poems. One was:
Malcolm’s daughter Poppy (centre) with friends last night
Roses are red Violets are blue I’m dyslexic Bvjaskjucd
The other was:
There was an old woman Who lived in a shoe She had so many children Her cunt fell off
“Malcolm told that poem at my school,” Poppy remembered. “He turned up with no hair and a blue furry jacket. He was in a stretch limo.
“I said: Dad, you’ve got no hair. What happened?
Martin Soan casually chatting to comic Michael Legge after the show
“He said: I got high and burnt it all off in Glastonbury and then he told the story about the cunt falling off in front of all my friends.”
“How old were your friends?” I asked.
“Twelve,” said Poppy. “We were embarrassed. My schoolteacher told him off once, because he turned up to my play and he distracted the whole audience. It was a Nativity play and I was Mary. At the end, my teacher gave a speech saying: Thankyou, children, for being really sensible and ignoring the drunk old man who was making faces. That was him. He’d been at the back going Way-hay! halfway through the Nativity. I think he was sent out by the teachers.”
Lewis Schaffer hides behind the Source Below door yesterday
What is happening to me?
Yesterday’s blog was about me failing to record a Skyped call with someone in Germany. I claimed a recording snafu had happened on only one other occasion. Then, last night in London, I buggered-up a recording of a post-Lewis Schaffer Soho solo show conversation.
This was the last of Lewis Schaffer’s Tuesday/Wednesday night Free Until Famous shows at Soho’s Source Below for 2013. He is back in January, after the venue allows space for Christmas parties, karaoke nights and the like.
We ended up after his show at a well-lit restaurant in London’s glamorous West End.
To be exact, upstairs at the Kentucky Fried Chicken just off Leicester Square.
Marina Dulepina, Alex Mason and Lewis Schaffer last night
The ‘We’ were Lewis Schaffer, two of his entourage – Heather Stevens and Alex Mason – and Marina Dulepina who was heavily involved in the production of director Jonathan Schwab’s short film titled Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous.
“In Britain,” Lewis Schaffer explained, “the film wasn’t considered a comedy. It was considered to be very serious here. But, when they showed it in Germany, they thought it was hysterically funny. The bits where British and American people are in tears over the plight of Lewis Schaffer’s tragic life, the Germans see as a moral victory of the oppressed worker over…”
“What?” I asked.
“I dunno,” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “I’m making this up. But, in Germany, people did laugh at me.”
“You’re a Jew,” I said.
“They laugh at Jews in trouble,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Did people not laugh, Marina? It’s considered a comedy in Germany. Here, it’s considered a tragedy. The tragedy of Lewis Schaffer.”
“Why is it considered a comedy in Germany?” I asked.
“Ask Marina,” said Lewis Schaffer.
Marina Dulepina was shy and Latvian last night
“She’s too shy to tell me,” I replied.
“That’s because she comes from Latvia,” explained Lewis Schaffer. “She comes from Russian parents and the Latvians are racist against the Russians because of forced colonisation after the War and…”
“Back to the Germans,” I said, “and don’t mention the War.”
“The reasons the Germans liked it are…” said Lewis Schaffer. “Why was the film funny, Alex?”
“It wasn’t!” said Alex Mason.
After this point, although my iPhone claimed it was recording, it did not.
Basically, from then on, Lewis Schaffer talked about what people thought of him… Marina coyly explained about the situation in Latvia… Alex Mason made some highly intelligent observations none of which I can remember… Lewis Schaffer talked about what other people thought of him… Heather mentioned she had been recognised by someone she didn’t know because he had seen her photo in my blog… and Lewis Schaffer talked some more about what other people thought of him.
Entourage member Heather reacts to yet another Schafferism
Marina then explained that the original idea had been to make a film about a boxer.
I was not clear how this had changed into a film about a comedian, but thought it more interesting not to ask.
Then Lewis Schaffer talked about what people really thought of him and Heather buried her head in her arms.
It seems that Jonathan Schwab and Marina Dulepina had realised after first seeing Lewis Schaffer’s show that the more interesting film story was about Lewis Schaffer himself rather than about a stand-up comedian.
Lewis Schaffer was insistent – with some justification – that he is interesting because he is no different on-stage and off-stage and then talked about what people really think of him.
“People laughed in Germany,” he told me. “Did people laugh in Germany, Marina?”
Heather buried her head in her arms on the table.
I left after about an hour, at which point Alex Mason was explaining to Lewis Schaffer how bitcoins are created. Marina Dulepina appeared to be about to nod off and Heather had her head buried in her arms on the table. Lewis Schaffer was admirably continuing to maintain his American accent. It’s amazing how he does it.
It is a pity I failed to record what was said. There was a good blog in there.
This man could snore for the United Kingdom
But, on the other hand, I would have had to transcribe it.
Swings and roundabouts.
On my way home in the train, a large young man was fast asleep and snoring like an earth-boring machine tunnelling from Brownhills, in north Birmingham, to Alice Springs in Australia. Or possibly somewhere else.
Life is a trial.
Jonathan Schwab’s 10-minute film about Lewis Schaffer is online.
In the film industry, there is a long tradition of chisellers, cheats, conmen and crooks. Put this together with lower TV budgets, a morally decent producer and a British TV production company trying to create an expensive-for-TV, glossy sci-fi series made for both the US and UK markets (which have differing expectations) and shot at a major British film studio and you have a recipe both for major production problems and an almost certainly tragic sitcom.
In 1979, I chatted to TV producer Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios during one of several low points in his life.
I reprinted parts of the interview in three blogs back in January last year
Seven years after I had that chat with him, in 1986, Gerry Anderson produced a 55-minute TV pilot film entitled Space Police.
Shane Rimmer (right) in original Space Police pilot
The pilot featured Anderson regular Shane Rimmer as a New York cop called Brogan. The series failed to sell and the pilot was never aired.
Fast forward another eight years and, in 1994, Gerry got together with Mentorn TV boss Tom Gutteridge. They re-styled the Space Police concept and made an ill-fated series called Space Precinct with Ted Shackelford as Brogan.
The Space Precinct Legacy documentary
Last night, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, I attended what was rather grandly called the ‘world premiere’ screening of Space Precinct Legacy, a 90-minute documentary on the troubled making of the Space Precinct series.
Space Precinct was conceived as a cop series set in space, where “instead of the usual run-of-the-mill baddies, you’ve got aliens as baddies”. It centred on the adventures of New York cop Brogan, transferred to take care of trouble on a distant planet filled with cops and baddies wearing prosthetic heads. Animatronics inside the heads made the eyes move.
Expectations were high but were slowly dashed as the production progressed.
Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia explained: “We tried to keep it as honest a telling of the making of Space Precinct as we could without getting sued.”
During the production of the Space Precinct series, there were problems with the US distributor who had claimed to have pre-sold the series across the nation in peaktime slots (a necessity to actually finance the series). In fact, in the US, the series tended to be scheduled in early morning kids slots or very late night graveyard slots with far lower advertising returns.
At one point, Tom Gutteridge had to borrow £2 million to continue shooting the series himself when money from the US backers stopped and twelve US lawyers flew over to the UK to try to get out of the watertight contract signed by the backers.
The backers backed down and continued to finance the show, though presumably through gritted teeth.
The US and UK markets required incompatible drama types
There was a fundamental problem because of the differing tastes and expectations of US and UK audiences. The Americans wanted darker adult drama for peaktime screening. The British wanted twinkle-in-the-eye knowing humour.
Executive producer Tom Gutteridge says:
“If there had been a second series, we would have had to have decided precisely what the show was that we were making. If we were making an American show just for America – which is really what we should have done – it would have been a completely different animal and I’m not absolutely convinced that Gerry Anderson would have been the hands-on producer.
“I think it would have been creatively very different. We would have had a much clearer, stronger, probably darker vision. The humour would have been more consistent all the way through, there would have been fewer – better – writers. There would have been a single voice and that voice I don’t think would have been Gerry Anderson’s… if there had been a second series.”
The Space Precinct on-screen title logo
In retrospect, he thinks there was not enough money, certainly not enough time and that more money should have been put into special effects and less into “lining some people’s pockets”.
Other people involved in the production agree that the series was, partly, scuppered by “jobs for the boys” and dodgy geezers.
One seemingly generally-held opinion was that: “Gerry was listening to all the wrong people – his friends or his trusted allies – and that was a mistake… There were just a handful of people there who were taking the money and running – lining their pockets as fast as possible.”
Christine Glanville (left) and Mary Turner working on an early Gerry Anderson puppet series Four Feather Falls
“I was ten years old. I just had an amazing time, but I remember being sat awkwardly trying to ignore a conversation in which Christine Glanville who had worked from the very beginning as a puppeteer – right from the start – and had been with dad all the way through his various shows… She said she felt really let down by some members of the crew.
“Up until that point, in every show they’d worked on, there had been a real close-knit family feel and all-of-a-sudden there were a few people there who did seem to be lining their pockets and were just happy to do sub-standard work. Even as a ten year old I could pick that up.”
Even now, there might seem to be a bit of a curse on anything to do with the Space Precinct series.
Director Paul Cotrulia at premiere last night
Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia told me: “My production company and my business partners were very keen to do a Space Precinct re-boot and we explored that idea for some time with Mentorn – developing script outlines – then, halfway through the documentary and developing the (new) show, Mentorn said Oh, actually, by the way, we only own the UK rights to Space Precinct. So you’re not going to be able to sell this project internationally. So it came to a halt.”
There are no clips from the Space Precinct series in the documentary.
Paul Cotrulia explained to me: “About halfway through production (of the documentary), Mentorn told us they didn’t get buy-out contracts from the actors, which meant that we would have had to pay those actors their original fee again just to use a clip. It would have cost too much. The same with the music. I love the music, but EMI wanted an enormous amount of money and we had to be realistic about our projections of how the documentary would perform with just releasing it in the UK.”
“That was weird,” said my eternally-un-named friend as we came out of the Brighton Dome last night. “What did you think?”
“Weird,” I agreed. “What a weird experience. Weird. Weird. Weird.”
Earlier in the day, we had been at an optician’s in Brighton.
It turned out that the optician was a South African man so – obviously – he too was going to the concert at the Dome last night.
“Have you seen the film?” I asked him.
“No, he said, “but I grew up with him. Any place you went, everyone you knew had the album.”
A few months ago, I saw the documentary movie Searching For Sugar Man.
I used to review movies. I saw movies from 10.00am in the morning until sometimes mid evening. I went to the Edinburgh Film Festival for about ten years. There, I saw movies from midday to midnight. I have seen a lot of movies.
Now a US Producers’ Guild Award nominee…
Searching For Sugar Man – a documentary – is, without any doubt, one of the ten best films of any kind I have ever seen. I cried at the end.
A few weeks later, I went back to see Searching For Sugar Man for a second time.
I cried all the way through the movie this time because I knew what was going to happen at the end.
Afterwards, like one does, I got talking to a Japanese man in the gents toilets of the Prince Charles Cinema.
“This is the second time I’ve seen the film,” I told the Japanese man. “I’m going to see him at the Brighton Dome.”
“I have seen the film four times,” said the Japanese man. “I am seeing him at the Roundhouse. I tried to book for the Festival Hall,” but it was sold out.”
I was going to blog about Searching For Sugar Man after I saw it the first time, but thought I might give away some of the twists and turns in the story. It is extraordinarily well structured but then, again, the truth is so incredible. Literally almost incredible.
Last night, when I got home, there was an e-mail from an American publication saying that Searching For Sugar Man had been nominated for a US Producers’ Guild Award.
We are in the area of legend here.
Last night, when He came on the stage at the start of the concert, being helped to walk, the audience reaction was like they had seen Lazarus raised from the grave. There was a gigantic rising roar of whoops and hollers and awe.
It was like watching Lazarus perform at the Dome last night
Every song got rapturous applause. More than applause. Adoration. When the opening chords of each song were played, there was an excited ripple of anticipation you could almost feel in at least three-quarters if not 90% of the audience.
As for me, it was like being a villager from a remote Chinese village suddenly plonked down at the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium. The whole audience knew the most famous songs in the world but, mostly, I had never heard them before.
“Someone in the film,” I said to the optician yesterday afternoon, “asked if he was bigger than the Rolling Stones and the answer was Yes. He must have been bigger than the Stones and the Beatles in South Africa, was he?”
The optician looked at me and never bothered to even answer. Of course he was! his eyes said. Was I mad?
At the end of the concert last night, my eternally-un-named friend said to me: “The woman behind me in the queue for the toilets was from Bournemouth but she was a South African and she was saying it’s so strange. The music was everywhere when she was a student. But, of course, they didn’t realise he wasn’t that famous everywhere. They just assumed he was as famous everywhere in the world as he was in South Africa. It was inconceivable that he was totally unknown everywhere else”
My friend Lynn went to the gig last night too, but was sitting in a different part of the Dome.
Live on stage
“Were you in that bit in the balcony where there were about twenty people dancing?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “They were all from Johannesburg. They had flown over just to see him tonight.”
“I could see them all waving their hands in the air,” I said.
“And shouting out Jesus! Jesus!” Lynn said.
“I’d forgotten his name actually is Jesus,” I said.
“You couldn’t believe it unless you’d seen the film,” my eternally-un-named friend said. “The story is just so unlikely. The woman in the queue was saying it was so sad that he missed out on being a rock ‘n’ roll rich person. I think she was the woman who had been sitting next to us.”
“I thought that couple were English,” I said, “but they got up on their feet at the end. I think she was whooping. I think they were in their fifties.”
“The optician,” my eternally-un-named friend said, “told us every home had a copy of the album.”
“The film,” I said, “was saying every party you went to it was playing…”
“It was strange the optician had not seen the film,” my eternally-un-named friend said.
“Maybe South Africans over here didn’t twig from the title Searching For Sugar Man that it was about Rodriguez,” I suggested.
“I love his voice,” said my eternally-un-named friend.
“The audience gasped at the end of the film,” my friend Lynn said, “because no-one in this country knew anything about the story.”
“The woman in the toilet queue,” my eternally-un-named friend said, “didn’t know what had happened. She said she knew he had vanished, but didn’t know why.”
“Well,” I said, “they knew he had died but didn’t know how.”
“They had no idea exactly how he had died,” my eternally-un-named friend said, “because they were so cut-off in South Africa. They just knew he was dead.”
It has been said that, when Rodriguez’ album was released in the US in the 1970s, it sold six albums.
I can do no better than quote the blurb for the film:
In the late 1960s, a musician was discovered in a Detroit bar by two celebrated producers who were struck by his soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics. They recorded an album that they believed was going to secure his reputation as one of the greatest recording artists of his generation.
Despite overwhelming critical acclaim, the album bombed and the singer disappeared into obscurity amid rumours of a gruesome on-stage suicide. But a bootleg recording found its way into apartheid South Africa and, over the next two decades, it became a phenomenon.
Two South African fans then set out to find out what really happened to their hero. Their investigation led them to a story more extraordinary than any of the existing myths about the artist known as Rodriguez.
Still unfinished but with a staggering amount of unique material collected and a vast number of interviews with Big Name comedians telling stories about Malcolm, a couple of years ago, the projected full-length documentary spawned a short 30-minute film on Malcolm’s notorious comedy club The Tunnel. It includes memories of Malcolm from comedians Harry Enfield, Simon Munnery and Arthur Smith
Last night, I was at a screening of The Tunnel in Greenwich. It is being shown again on 6th May as part of the New Cross & Deptford Film Festival.
It is also, as they say, “going to Cannes” in May.
Last night, director Jody VandenBurg told me:
“We’re going because I accidentally entered The Tunnel for the Cannes Short Film Corner and accidentally got through. I wasn’t even thinking Oh. This is the Cannes Film Festival. I just thought Oh. I’ve managed to find another film festival that’s worth entering. I guess I just thought I was entering a competition rather than the actual short film section of the Festival, which is more of a market place. There are going to be lots of agents and producers looking for new talent.
“The Cannes Short Film Corner is not part of the official Cannes Film Festival competition but it is very much part of the Festival. So, like the Edinburgh Fringe, we are going to take posters and flyers and put them up and encourage people to come and watch the film and we’ve got a screening room where we can show it to people. I’ll take an iPad so I can easily shove it in people’s faces. Show them The Tunnel and the trailer for Malcolm Hardee: All The Way From Over There.
“It’s going to cost you a fortune, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Probably. Yeah,” Jody admitted. “This whole film obviously has cost us all a fortune, so far.”
“So,” I suggested, “Malcolm is managing to screw money out of people even from beyond the grave?”
“Yes,” said Jody. “But he is talent-spotting as well, isn’t he? Helping someone at the beginning of their career even from beyond the grave.”
“You should put the trailer online,” I suggested.
“Yeah, we’ll put that online before Cannes.”
“My memory of the trailer I saw at Edinburgh in 2010,” I said, “was that it had an emotional flow to it. There was a feeling of tragedy and sadness towards the end.”
“Well,” agreed Jody, “there’s much more to Malcolm than just the bollocks-out with crazy antics and stunts, isn’t there? There’s a lot more depth to him, really.”
“Who wants to hear about that, though?” I said.
“Lots of people,” replied Jody. “Big audiences hopefully. People really love The Tunnel because it has that same sort of emotional curve to it.”
There are some very good US comedians living and working in the UK. Yesterday morning, I wrote a blog lamenting the fact that few of them appear on British TV and radio. One of the American comics I included was Lewis Schaffer, a performer with an almost admirable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Last night, I went to see a screening of a re-cut version of documentary filmThe Tunnel, about the late Malcolm Hardee’s legendary London comedy club.
Lewis Schaffer was there too. Afterwards, he told me this:
You know why Americans who live in Britain are not on TV over here?
Because the English know that really funny Americans
(a) they would have heard of already and
(b) would live in America.
Have people heard of Jerry Seinfeld? Yes.
Have people heard of Lewis Schaffer? No.
The American comedians who are not on TV in this country… are not on TV because the TV producers and the audience look at them and think, “This guy’s a nobody. Why do we have to have him here?”
They know that the Australians who are on TV in this country are top comedians in Australia. That is why they are here in Britain.
The Australians who are successful in Australia have to come here.
The American comedians who are successful or could be successful in America don’t come here to live and work; they are in America.
The truth is, if I was a ‘somebody’ I would never have come here. I have two kids now who keep me here. But I did not have kids when I came here. I was a loser in America. I am a loser here, but I would still have been a loser if I had stayed in America.
When the English see an Australian on TV, they think, “He might be as good as us. That’s why he’s here – because he was too big for Australia and he got the hell out.”
When they see someone from New Zealand, they think the same thing.
When they see an American here, unless they’re famous already, they think “What? He couldn’t get work in America?”
And they’re right. He couldn’t.
A couple of nights ago, Lewis Schaffer played his 250th Free Until Famous show at the Source Below in Soho – London’s longest-running solo comedy show.
“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.
So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.
In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.
In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”
The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.
The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.
It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.
He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.
All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.
Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.
Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.
He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.
Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.
Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?
I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.
Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.
It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.
I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.
I am worried I am going to get even fatter and ultimately explode like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I am also worried, having just re-read this blog entry, that I am turning into a mindless luvvie but without the glitz, glamour, class and cravat.
Yesterday I had lunch with Malcolm Hardee documentary director Jody VandenBurg and multi-talented multi-media writer Mark Kelly, who has that very rare thing: a genuinely very original TV idea. He was, at one time the stand-up comic Mr Nasty and he reminded me of one typical early Alternative Comedy incident in which comedy duo The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society got banned from right-on vegetarian cabaret restaurant The Earth Exchange… for throwing ham sandwiches at the audience.
This was actually part of their normal act but proved far too non-PC an anarchic step for the militant non-carnivores at the Earth Exchange which was so small I’m surprised they actually had space to move their arms backwards to throw the offensive sandwiches.
Mark also remembered having his only serious falling-out with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel Palladium comedy club after Malcolm put on stage a female fanny farting act who, at the time, might or might not have been a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend of local Goldsmiths College art student Damien Hirst. Mark felt the audience – and, indeed, Malcolm – might have been laughing at the performer rather than with the act.
Knowing Malcolm, I guess it might have been a bit of both.
(Note to US readers, “fanny” has a different meaning in British and American English.)
So, anyway I had a very nice ham omelette and banana split with Mark and Jody downstairs at The Stockpot in Old Compton Street, Soho, and then Irish comic/musician/vagabond Andrias de Staic arrived. I know him from his wonderful Edinburgh Fringe shows Around The World on 80 Quid and The Summer I Did the Leaving, but he is currently appearing until 2nd April in the Woody Guthrie musical Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End.
I swear that, the last time I met Aindrias – and it was only last year – he was 5ft 9ins tall. He confirmed this height to me. Yesterday he was 6ft 1in tall.
“It’s the theatrical work,” he told me. “It makes you stand straighter and taller.”
For a moment, I believed him. Then I realised it was rubbish. Then I started to wonder if it could be true.
Or perhaps I am shrinking. The uncertainty of life can be a constant worry.
After that, I went to the weekly Rudy’s Comedy Night gig at Rudy’s Revenge in High Holborn to see Miss D perform an interestingly different routine in which she gave advice on what to do and what not to do when having a heart attack – something she knows about, having had one in June 2009.
The gig was also notable because I saw for the first time the extremely funny and talented compere Katerina Vrana… and an extraordinary act by a man claiming to be an archaeologist about having a hawk on his arm. I missed his name. If you know, tell me, because it had the same effect on me as watching Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? in a Kensington cinema one afternoon etched on my memory in 1969. Perhaps I mean the experience scarred me for life. When the movie finished, I sat there like a stunned halibut and thought What was that??!! and sat through it again to see what on earth I had been watching and whether I liked it. Except, of course, I didn’t have the opportunity to sit still and see this guy perform again last night.
He certainly had energy, that’s for sure.
As for Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – it is highly recommended, provided you know what you are letting yourself in for.
It is a bit like North Korea in that respect.
(POSTSCRIPT: Within 5 minutes of posting this, two people Facebooked me to say the ‘hawk’ comedian is Paul Duncan McGarrity. The wonders of 21st century communications leave me in perpetual awe; I should, perhaps, get out more.)
Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.
Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.
I learnt stuff.
I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”
I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.
Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.
I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.
Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”
Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.
The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.
But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.
I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.
I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)
Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.
But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.
The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.
Michael Grade was wrong.
There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.