Tag Archives: drama

Amanda Fleming on concussion and stitches and the serial killer Countess

Amanda: Originally, we were going to talk about The Countess

So I arranged to chat via Skype with my namesake but non-relation actress Amanda Fleming in Manchester. She has not been heard of in this blog since May 2015.

We were going to talk about her play The Countess, which we last talked about in February 2015.

But we got sidetracked…


JOHN: So, your vampire Countess woman…

AMANDA: She wasn’t a vampire; she was a serial killer.

JOHN: Well, she was Countess Dracula, in the Hammer horror film.

AMANDA: Yes. Ingrid Pitt. She’s still alive, isn’t she?

JOHN: Of course; she is one of the undead.

AMANDA: No, Ingrid Pitt… Well, the… I… Oh… Someone here wants to say hello… (A WHITE CAT APPEARS ON SKYPE AND SNIFFS THE SCREEN)… I have two cats now. This is Misty.

JOHN: Hello Misty. Lovely pink ears. Not the cat, of course. You.

AMANDA: Pink ears. But no earlobes.

JOHN: You or the cat?

AMANDA: Me… Look.

JOHN: No earlobes.You must be Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

AMANDA: What?

JOHN: From the James Bond films… You have no earlobes.

AMANDA: The Plantagenets didn’t have earlobes.

JOHN: You are a Plantagenet?

AMANDA: According to ancestry.com I am.

JOHN: Related to whom? Not Richard III, I hope.

AMANDA: Edward I… Longshanks.

JOHN: The Hammer of the Scots? I am Scottish. I am shocked and saddened.

AMANDA: Well, I have my Celtic side. My bloodline from about 1500 upwards is a bastardisation of the Tudors and the Plantagenets and then they married into Irish aristocracy from Wexford.

Forget the Planagenets and James Bond – clock the pink ears

JOHN: Accidents of birth.

AMANDA: I had an accident.

JOHN: You had an accident?

AMANDA: I had an accident. A window fell on me on 5th May this year. I finished work and went to the theatre pub where we were doing a show to do a bit of work on the synopsis. I was sitting in the beer garden, typing away on my laptop computer. I had had literally two sips out of a glass of Chardoney and I heard this crack and the edge of a pane of glass from an upstairs window hit me on the head.

JOHN: The pane or the frame?

AMANDA: The whole section of the middle part of the glass.

JOHN: It hit you flat or the edge hit you?

AMANDA: The edge. Luckily it was not two floors above me or I would have had time to look up and I would have been a goner. It was excruciating pain. I didn’t even know it had cut all down my face. The shock.

Apparently there was an improvisation performance going on upstairs and there was only a very thin wood panelling covering the window and blacking out the room and a guy bumped into the wood panelling. That loosened the centre part of the window which broke loose and fell down on me – about this size.

JOHN: Bloody hell! That’s about what? Two feet wide?

AMANDA: The circular centre with a jagged edge broke loose and fell and just thank God the jagged edge didn’t hit me or I would be dead. It hit the corner of my skull and slit down off the side of my face and that is why I have a big gash there.

JOHN: It was mostly impact damage?

AMANDA: Yes. It smashed on the floor. The police who came said: “Amanda, you’re very lucky. It would have been a lot worse if it had smashed on your head.”

You know when you bang your head sometimes? You come up too quickly and you hit your head on something? Imagine that, but five times more painful. I thought a piece of metal had hit me on the head. I didn’t realise it was glass. I got up and went: “Oh! What was… Aaaargghh!” and then it all went Boooofff! – There was blood everywhere.

The guys in the beer garden were going: “Shit!! Shit!!!” and all running round.

Amanda Fleming’s head cut – in May 2018

I had no idea of the extent of it. There was a 9 cm gash and I had to have two lots of stitches. I had them under, because it had cut an artery – That was why were was so much blood. Apparently I had lost half my body weight in blood by the time I got to the hospital.

It was a surreal experience, because I was talking and trying to crack jokes, but I could hear my voice slurring.

JOHN: Because of the impact; because of the concussion.

AMANDA: Yeah. I tried to do yoga breathing to keep myself calm, because I could feel myself… you know… the adrenaline. I was telling everyone else: “It’s OK! It’s OK, yes…” Crack a joke, crack a joke, crack a joke. But, inside, I was thinking: KEEP ALERT! KEEP ALERT! KEEP ALERT!

JOHN: You were trying to crack jokes?

AMANDA: I think it’s just a kind of survival instinct thing with me. To not think about what is actually happening.

By the time I got in, the surgeon realised the secondary artery – not the main carotid artery – the one next to it that goes down – had been sliced and that was why I had lost so much blood. So he had to do two lots of stitches: one lot to secure underneath and then on the top of the head as well.

There was a lot of work I had to cancel. I had about £2,500 of work booked in for the next six weeks and I had to cancel it all.

For the first couple of weeks afterwards, I was just numb everywhere. Now, near where the scar is, it’s like a weird kind of tingling. And, if I touch the right side of my head here, I feel it on the left side. It’s the weirdest thing ever.

JOHN: I was hit by a truck in 1991 and the back of my head hit the corner – the edge – of a low brick wall as I fell – My brain wasn’t even remotely right for about nine months with concussion coming and going. You must have had problems with the concussion.

AMANDA: It was weird. I had never had concussion before. I have noticed some of my words I have to think about a bit more now. And, when I’m typing fast, some of the letters go wrong… not all of them… just like, for example, if I mean to type WEAR it sometimes comes out as WAER.

As directed and produced by Amanda – The Countess in Salford, Manchester

JOHN: It hasn’t affected your acting?

AMANDA: Well, I think I’m going to go fully into directing now. It has changed my life – the way I look at my life now. Definitely.

JOHN: You look up a lot more?

AMANDA: Don’t even get me started on that… That’s still an anxiety I’m trying to get over… When I see scaffolding ahead of me, I have to cross the road.

JOHN: But it’s changed your life more fundamentally?

AMANDA: Yes. I used to over-think things all the time. Things I could not really do anything about. It would frustrate me and get me angry and make me bitter about things. But, since this happened – even though lots of negative stuff came with it – the sensations and shooting pains and things – on a personal level, it has made me realise that, right now I should be doing everything to enjoy myself and do what I love rather than worrying about what could have been or what people think or whatever.

JOHN: And why has that happened? Because you could have been killed?

AMANDA: That’s it, yes.

JOHN: Why have you decided not to act?

AMANDA: I haven’t decided I’m not going to act – if something comes up in films or commercials or voice-over or whatever, I will still do it, but I’m not going to act in theatre any more: I’m going to direct theatre and I’m getting a strong passion for film-making and directing.

JOHN: Why?

AMANDA: I think because I have more scope and creativity there. When you’re an actor, you only have a specific area where you can create. Having been in acting for like 30 years, I can bring my actor’s side to directing. You are in charge of your own creativity.

JOHN: Anyway, we are supposed to be talking about your Countess woman thing.

The Countess was a success in Todmorden’s Gothic church

AMANDA: I wanted to make it historical but with a supernatural twist. We put it on for three performances at Todmorden, because they have an amazing Gothic church there. Ideally, we would like to tour round the country in those types of venues. We did two performances in Manchester last month, because people who saw it in Todmorden told people in Manchester and there was a demand… It sold out in Manchester.

We cant afford to stage it in Edinburgh, but we are trying to get the funding together to take it to the festivals at what they call The Three Bs – Brighton, Buxton and Bath. But we would like to tour it round rural venues like barns and village halls.

JOHN: Or castles?

AMANDA: We’d like to! We are going to get a video – a 60 second ‘taster’ – and press pack together.

JOHN: Sounds like it has movie potential, too.

AMANDA: Yes. Or maybe an amazing Gothic opera.

JOHN: And it’s the Countess Dracula woman?

AMANDA: Well, she wasn’t a vampire, though some sources say she was somehow distantly related to Vlad the Impaler.

JOHN: Blood relatives.

AMANDA: Maybe. Might not be true. 

JOHN: But she was for real.

AMANDA: Yes. Countess Elizabeth Báthory. She was a Hungarian aristocrat in the 1500s who murdered at least 650 people – 90% women plus some men – probably more than 650, but those were only the bodies they found. 

JOHN: 650 is going it some… Was there a ‘trigger’?

AMANDA: She started by knocking off peasant girls and bathing in their blood. She didn’t want to grow old. Blood is kind of soft and moisturising – it’s the plasma in it. She must have thought: Ooooh! It makes yer skin go really soft! That was the trigger.

The Countess – by Amanda Fleming – “Historical but with a supernatural twist”

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Drama, Horror

How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

1 Comment

Filed under Television, Writing

Performer Richard Gadd on ego, anxiety and why comedians are like strippers

Richard Gadd flyering outside Soho Theatre

Richard Gadd flyering his show outside Soho Theatre

Performer Richard Gadd played Macbeth in a school play.

“I enjoyed the nerves and the adrenaline,” he told me yesterday. “And the sense of accomplishment at the end. I liked that. I wanted that.”

Ten years later, he was playing Macbeth on stage at the Globe Theatre in London. But he is currently in his own show (categorised as comedy) at London’s Soho Theatre.

“Are you a comedian or an actor?” I asked.

“I’m difficult to pigeonhole,” he agreed, “but I like that. I am not a comedian, but I do comedy.”

“What does your agent say you are?” I asked.

“I think he’s as confused as I am,” he laughed.

“If you had to put your profession on your passport,” I asked, “what would you be?”

“A writer-performer. If someone introduces me as a comedian, I think Oh fuck! Don’t say that! Comedy is limiting. I am not a comedian in the purest sense – I can’t tell jokes.”

“And you don’t play the comedy circuit,” I said.

“The circuit is a circle,” said Richard. “You need to figure a way to get off it, otherwise you keep going round and round and then, all of a sudden, you’re 40 years old and what the fuck have you done? I was not mainstream enough and I was not good enough to make it as a full-time circuit act.”

“Which is?” I asked.

Richard Gadd - Cheese and Crack Whores - not mainstream

Richard Gadd – Cheese and Crack Whores – not mainstream

“A circuit act is a good, reliable, dependable act who can earn money and knows where to get the laughs. I wasn’t like that. I would go on with a wig and a stuffed parrot and stuff my face with cake and whip myself with a belt. You can’t guarantee that’s going to go well every single time.”

“So what is your schtick?” I asked.

“Heightened surrealism.”

“Your show last year,” I said. “Cheese and Crack Whores. What was that about?”

“That was about a break-up I had with a lady and I stalked her and my life spiralled out-of-control. It was more-or-less a veiled truth. I never stalked her. I would never stalk anyone.”

“It was heightened reality?” I asked.

“Yes. I was going through a break-up and I teased it out. You know when you go through a break-up and you sort-of go insane and you think those thoughts: I’m going to do this… I’m going to do that…?  But you can’t do them, because no sane person would. So I did a show about What would I have done if…? But, in fact, I don’t like cheese and I don’t like crack whores.”

Breaking Gadd - Richard’s current show

Breaking Gadd – Richard’s calming current show

“You’re halfway through your current show – Breaking Gadd – at the Soho Theatre. The Guardian called it a comedy of relentless degradation.”

“Yes. Up until 20th December.”

“What is this one about?” I asked.

“In this one, I lose my memory after getting attacked in an Edinburgh street and then I have to piece my life back together, because nobody comes to my bedside in hospital. I piece my life back together only to find out that my life probably wasn’t worth remembering.”

“That’s most people’s reality,” I said. “What was this fabricated truth based on?”

“A fractured family,” said Richard. “Not that I had a fractured family. There’s no reality. I’m from a place in Fife called Wormit, which sounds like what you do to a dog. Kids from St Andrews had their teddy bears. I grew up hugging a bottle of Buckfast.”

“You told me you got drunk on Buckfast after the show last night,” I said.

“That’s what I do,” said Richard. “A bottle of Buckfast before bed. It’s got a lot of caffeine in it, so it doesn’t really work, but I pass out awake.”

“Why did you shave your hair off?” I asked. “You used to have long hair.”

Richard Gadd talked calmly yesterday of comics and strippers

Richard Gadd talked calmly yesterday of comics and strippers

“So I look more like a psychopath on stage.”

“Are you interested,” I asked, “in damaged characters?”

“Yeah. All comedians are like strippers.”

“You’ve been preparing your quotes,” I said.

“I don’t even think it’s my quote,” said Richard. “I think it’s a bastardisation of some well-known quote, but it’s a good analogy. In comedy, you strip your emotions in front of an audience. Good comedy is always revealing and truthful. You emotionally unravel in front of an audience, like a stripper physically unravels in front of an audience. The difference is a stripper is attractive and a comedian is often ugly and neurotic.”

“And the difference between comedians and actors is…?” I asked.

“Comedy is, at least, interested in pure art,” said Richard. “Comedians create something which they then tell an audience. Actors are very much conduits of someone else’s text: they are an echo of someone else’s work. They probably require the biggest egos and the biggest inflated sense of self-worth. But, in reality, they’re the least important part of the artistic process. Their art wouldn’t exist unless there was an original creator and actors are not original creators unless it’s improvisation. I get more annoyed at actors than I do at comedians.”

“Why annoyed?” I asked.

“Because comedy is creativity and ego, whereas a lot of acting is solely I want to be an actor because I want to be adored. It’s pure ego a lot of the time.

“I think I used to chase that and, when I realised I was chasing it, I decided I wanted to step away and wanted to write and want to create stuff. I was chasing ego and adoration and I don’t think that’s good. I don’t think that leads to happiness.”

“Being adored doesn’t lead to happiness?” I asked, surprised.

“No it doesn’t,” said Richard. “You need to learn how to self-critique and not chase your own ego. You need to learn to appreciate what you have, not what is waiting for you in the future because you’ll just keep chasing your own ego. The ego inflates and inflates and inflates and never pops; it never bursts.”

“Sounds a bit Buddhist,” I said.

“Well,” said Richard, “I do meditate.”

“What type?” I asked.

Transcendental meditation,” replied Richard. “Two 20-minute sessions a day.”

Maharishi?” I asked.

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - an unlikely role model?

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – unlikely role model?

“Maharishi, yup,” said Richard. “It’s very important, transcendental mediation. I used to have so many performance anxieties, so much anxiety in life. I still have in certain cases, but I’m a lot better than I was. It teaches you to focus your mind on one thing and not let it run away with itself. The second I did it, I realised my life was getting better. It’s like being given the keys to a secret truth. It genuinely is.

“And I’m not spiritual. I’m not into the hokey-pokey spiritual side. I don’t believe in that side to it. But I believe there is a practical, extremely useful, scientific, proven methodology behind transcendental meditation.”

“So you’re not doing it for philosophical reasons,” I said. “You’re doing it for physical reasons?”

“Yeah. It takes your anxiety levels down. I used to not be able to get on public transport. I used to hate the tube. I used to not be able to make eye contact with people. Once, I would have found talking to you quite difficult.”

“What was the problem with the tube?” I asked. “Too many people?”

“A mixture of claustrophobia and the fact you are forced to be in other people’s gazes. The public’s gaze can be quite hard sometimes – if you catch eyes with someone. What are they thinking of me? I used to very much care how I was coming across in every single situation.

“Everybody makes a faux-pas every now and again but, if I made a faux-pas back then, it would stay with me for days. I would think about things I did when I was 16 that still made me embarrassed. I would ruin a day. It was affecting me professionally. I wasn’t performing well on stage or when I went to auditions. I was too anxious.

“Meditation has really helped me. I’m still a long way from being perfect, but it helps. I’m very manic on stage, but that has to come from a place of stability. The one tool I lacked was mental stability. I have not got it yet, but at least I’ve got the hammer and chisel towards getting my full tool box.

“I don’t have inner peace, but performance is something I do because I think it’s important.”

“Do you enjoy performing on stage?” I asked.

“I’m still not sure,” said Richard. “It’s not something I enjoy particularly. I don’t enjoy it like I used to when I was a kid. But I enjoy writing and putting stuff out there that’s different.”

“What you’re telling me,” I said, “is you used to enjoy it when you were terrified. Now you are less terrified, you don’t enjoy it so much.”

“Yeah,” said Richard. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t want to play the stereotype of the suffering artist, but I definitely feel like I’m sometimes one of those awful fucking guys saying I dunno why I do it; I hate it so much! but then can’t stop doing it.”

“Adrenaline?” I asked.

“Adrenaline,” agreed Richard. “Fear of failure. Fear of What if in 20 years time? Plus the fact of those rare instances when you do enjoy it and you do feel proud of yourself or you meet someone who says they were touched by your stuff. That is a priceless feeling.”

1 Comment

Filed under Acting, Comedy, Psychology, Theatre

Last month I slept with Arthur Smith; last week I talked to new comic Archie Williams Maddocks; both write plays

Arthur Smith: man, myth and playwright

Arthur Smith: man, myth and playwright

Last month I slept with comedian Arthur Smith.

Oh, alright, we stayed in different rooms in the same house on different storeys after I saw him perform at the Comedy Lounge in Totnes. He left before breakfast.

No depth is too deep for me to plumb for a shallow, eye-catching headline.

But the point is… on the bill with Arthur at the Comedy Lounge was a young comedian called Archie Williams Maddocks who showed remarkably good stage presence and audience control. I wondered why, so I had a chat with him in London last week. He is 25.

“I did my first gig just over a year ago,” he told me, but I’ve been going properly – trying to gig every week – for about ten months and I’ve only started gigging three or four times a week since June of this year – about four months.”

“Why do you want to be a comic?” I asked him. “You don’t appear to be mad.”

“It’s a problem, isn’t it?” laughed Archie. “I’m not unhappy. I’m not crazy… I was doing an improvised play and someone came up to me afterwards and said The way your mind works is very quick: maybe you should try stand-up comedy. I had always liked comedy but never thought about trying it… It looked like a horrible life to me.”

“It is,” I said.

“Well,” said Archie, “I thought I’d give it a try and, when the first wave of laughter hit me, it was like Fuck! That’s amazing! It’s like a drug. I’m addicted to it now.”

“But you didn’t want to be a comedian before that?”

“I’m a playwright by trade,” Archie told me. “In the summer, I had something on at the Royal Court Theatre as part of their Open Court season.

The new Bush Theatre, London

The Bush Theatre is to be the site of a Brixton funeral parlour

“And I’ve just been commissioned by the Bush Theatre to write a play about gentrification in Brixton seen through the eyes of guys in a West Indian funeral parlour. It’s all about the idea that Brixton was once a very West Indian area and it’s becoming gentrified and the West Indian community which was there has moved out to other places like Barnet and the shops serving the diminishing West Indian community no longer really have a purpose. So my play questions the role of tradition and whether you should re-invent yourself, which means losing a bit of what you established in the first place.”

“Is this going to be totally straight or with laughs?” I asked.

“The first three-quarters is going to be funny and then…”

“… then you undercut the audience’s expectation?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Archie. “I find with a play, if you make it funny and accessible, they’re going to warm to it more quickly. If it’s a serious drama the whole time, you can’t help like feeling you’ve just been beaten up. It’s hard work watching a drama for two hours, so I want there to be laughs – not massive ones, but little titters here and there and quite big laughs.”

“Will you be acting in it?”

“No. The whole idea of playwriting in the first place was to be in the plays but the more I write them the less I want to be in my own plays, because I think I would get too controlling. I kinda just want to create them and I’m getting all my performance needs from doing comedy. I’ve always loved people looking at me, watching me and enjoying what I’m doing or hating what I’m doing – as long as I get a reaction from them.”

“Isn’t there a problem about people doing something with your play that you didn’t intend?” I asked.

“It’s kind of like you’ve made a baby, but then you’ve given it up for adoption and you watch someone else raise it. You think it’s going to come out one way and it doesn’t and it can be a bit of a shock but, at the same time, it can be amazing. So far, I’ve been lucky and directors have kept in constant contact.

“I’m also working on a play that’s going to be put on in London and in New York at the same time. It’s about the relationship between Africans and Caribbeans here in London and black Americans. This notion of blackness in two different spectrums and the dichotomy between that.

“It’s going to be about a West Indian woman meeting a black American man in America and it’s going to be about their different attitudes and perceptions towards race. Two black people from two different countries talking about race in America is almost like a black person and a white person talking about race in England. I think it’s quite an interesting dichotomy to explore.”

“How many plays have you written now?”

“Nine. Well, including short plays, I’ve written about eighteen.”

“And you’re 25.”

Yes.”

“You always wanted to write?”

Archie Williams Maddocks in his 15-year-old dreams

Archie Williams Maddocks, as seen in his 15-year-old dreams

“No. Until 15, I wanted to be a wrestler.”

“An American wrestler?”

“Yeah.”

“Because they’re macho and showbizzy?”

“Yeah, pretty much. And because you get to say the most ridiculous things.”

“Did you have a wrestling name you were going to use?”

“I was going to be The Dominator… or Half Man Half Amazing.”

“So when did you lose your ambition to be a wrestler?”

“When I properly figured out it wasn’t real. I figured I wanted to do something more serious than this. I wanted to act and follow in my father’s footsteps.”

“Your father’s an actor.”

“Yes.”

“So,” I said to Archie, “you’re very serious about writing plays and you think you will be able to continue doing that as well as doing a little bit of acting and doing stand-up comedy?”

“Well,” replied Archie, “I’ve started to put the acting on hold a little bit, because I’ve grown to love comedy so much that I want it really, really badly: I want to be out there every night. Comedy and playwriting sort of go hand-in-hand: it’s two different forms of writing.

“If you’re doing comedy, you’re out to make people laugh and to forget themselves and their troubles whereas, as a playwright, you’re out to make people think and evoke questions and loads of reaction. But I think you can do both at the same time.

“For me, the comedy brain works very quickly; it’s off-the-cuff and instinct. Whereas my playwriting brain I let cultivate ideas over time so the ideas I have are fully-formed when I come to them and I can write them out in two or three weeks.

Archie Williams Maddocks, no longer an aspiring wrestler

Archie Williams Maddocks is no longer an aspiring wrestler

“What I’m doing now is four days a week of playwriting, three days a week of comedy writing and trying to gig every night. Yesterday I was in Wincanton in Somerset; tonight I’m in Brighton; over the next few weeks, I’m going to be in Stockton-on-Tees, Newcastle, Leeds. That’s what you gotta do. You gotta get out there.”

“How would you describe your comedy?”

“I’m an observational storyteller, an anecdotalist.”

“Totally scripted?”

“I try to do a bit of improvisation in every gig and I try to do something new at every gig. There’s no set script. There’s beats and units in my mind where I know what I want to come next, so there’s a flow to it. But I never end up saying it the same way two nights in a row.”

“Are you going to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?”

“With a comedy show. I would never take a play up there at the moment. Far too expensive.”

“Yes,” I said, “The cost of hiring a venue – and the free venues don’t really put on plays.”

“And,” said Archie, “in Edinburgh, if you have a choice between seeing a play that you pay for and a free play, what are you going to see? You’re going to see a play that you pay for because you think it will be better quality. Whereas, in comedy, ‘free’ is the way it’s going at the moment – ‘free’ is not taken as being rubbish any more.”

“Your father is an actor?” I asked.

“Both my parents are actors,” replied Archie. “My mum, Mary Maddocks, is an actress: she was in The Rocky Horror Show when it was in the West End; and my dad is Don Warrington (of TV’s Rising Damp etc).

“The main thing I get from both of them is they understand the art of performance and the need to perform. It’s not something you choose to do. It’s something that you can’t not do. I’d rather be poor and do something I enjoy than be rich and have to go into work every day at something I don’t like and be miserable. I’d rather live outside in the cold literally – I hope I don’t, but…”

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Comedy, Theatre

BBC: “You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Ireland”

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

As I am currently on jury service in a city somewhere in England, I was interested to hear last night a quote from Robert Mark who became Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1972. He said his ambition was to “arrest more criminals than we employ”.

He seems to have failed.

The quote came up last night, when TV and film producer Tony Garnett was talking at at London’s National Film Theatre.

The second best drama I have ever seen on British TV

The second best drama series I have ever seen on British TV

Tony Garnett was responsible for The Cops, the second-best drama I have ever seen on British television.

The best was John Hopkins’ Talking To A Stranger, directed by Christopher Morahan, who was also in the NFT audience last night.

On television, Tony Garnett produced – among many, many other influential dramas – Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope and the series Law and Order, This Life and The Cops.

Last night, he said that, when he worked at the BBC and produced some of his most acclaimed shows, “the BBC had a very different management theory. It wasn’t perfect then and one’s freedom was very limited but they did, to some extent, believe in ‘producer power’.”

He then went on to say:

____________________________________________________________

They thought producers were basically ‘good chaps’ – there were one of two chapesses – and, if you had a problem, you should refer upwards. I never thought I had a problem. I was given a fair amount of freedom. You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Northern Ireland and so on, but you could find a way through.

What’s happened since the 1990s is that everything in this country’s been Thatcherised and management’s right to manage predominates.

Management is one of the great con tricks of the 20th century. A number of people have made a lot of money out of it, including managers and (the management consulting firm) McKinsey’s.

McKinsey’s have a phrase. They say If you can measure it, you can manage it.

The problem with the BBC is that what it’s there to do is be creative and you can’t measure creativity. You just can’t do it. You can say something’s really good if it lasts a century or two but, apart from that, you can’t measure it. So big trouble.

Huw Wheldon (BBC TV Managing Director) in the 1970s – and I’ve only got his word for it – told me they had asked McKinsey’s to come in to the BBC and, after a while, with their extremely expensive chaps roaming round the BBC, the boss man came to Huw and asked: Could you tell me, Mr Wheldon, how many actual decision makers do you have at the BBC? I mean people who can actually take decisions about the product. 

Huw said: Well, we have several hundred producers…

And the man said: Yes, I thought so. I’m afraid we can’t help you.

But the management at the BBC now is so tight and there are so many layers of management that the pyramid is a bit like The Shard.

The BBC has now taken on the shape of The Shard in London

The BBC is now the shape of London’s Shard

So you have lots and lots of people who can tell you what you must not do. And lots of people supervising you at each stage. That is the enemy of creativity.

One problem with the BBC, like the problem with much else in our culture – and this is more in Current Affairs and News than in drama – is that the BBC concentrates on one borough of London called Westminster and makes programmes for people who live in two or three other boroughs – Notting Hill, Islington…

The whole of the rest of the country is completely ignored.

Occasionally, they’ll go and make a programme in Doncaster and they’ll send Jeremy and Emily, who come from a very nice family, and they’ll send them out like visiting anthropologists to either come back with very sympathetic portraits or maybe to laugh at all these Chavs who are not like ‘us’.

I’d like some kids from Doncaster to go to Canary Wharf and make a film about the people there. But the traffic’s all one-way and I think it’s a great, great pity and a dereliction of the BBC’s responsibility, because we live in a very diverse society – in all sorts of ways diverse – and the BBC’s main job is to consult a national conversation.

Particularly in drama, because the beauty of drama is that it allows you to empathise with others: to say Oh, I felt like that. These people are not so different from us.

The BBC have made a very good start at Salford (in the new Media City) but they really ought to fight against London-itis and realise that they are representing and a part of this whole diverse country.

I think the BBC is very important. That’s why I criticise it. If there’s a great institution that has many enemies, one of the problems is that we tend to want to draw the wagons into a circle to defend it – the same is happening with the NHS now.

I think that is a mistake.

The more you love the BBC and the more valuable you think it is – imperfect as it is – the more you should criticise it. Society’s changing all the time. Technology’s changing all the time. The BBC won’t stand still. It will get worse or it will get better and we’ve got to push it to be better all the time. It’s no good just defending it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Drama, Politics, Television

An extravaganza of comic political ego unleashed at the Edinburgh Fringe

Scots comedian Des McLean is Tommy Sheridan

I am at the Edinburgh Fringe to see comedy shows, so what better this afternoon than a 90-minute play about a disgraced Socialist leader?

Especially as that leader is the OTT, almost cartoon-like, Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan and the play – I, Tommy – is written by Rab C.Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison.

It is a rollercoaster of a story and this is a humdinger of a production.

Just to re-cap, Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was accused by the News of the World of going to a swingers’ sex club in Manchester. Tommy sued for defamation, the newspaper paid damages, but then Strathclyde Police investigated, prosecuted Tommy for perjury at the original trial and Tommy was imprisoned. He has now, enterprisingly, in the last few weeks, tried to reclaim the moral high ground by painting himself as a lone hero facing the disgraced, Murdoch-owned, phone-hacking behemoth of News International.

So he’s an anti-hero? Is that why Ian Pattison chose to write the play and negotiate what was a potential legal minefield?

Ian Pattison at Edinburgh Fringe this week

“It’s the character,” Ian told me when I asked him this week. “And the story. It’s the story of a small political party that appeared to be on the brink of if not great things then considerable things. They had six MSPs in Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament) and looked set to build, but then they imploded when Tommy decided to take on the News of the World over these sex allegations.

“A wiser course may have been just to admit it, if he did it, – but, of course, he insists he didn’t – and take a year in the sin bin. That’s the traditional method of dealing with those kind of things if there is truth in them. But Tommy decided he was going to clear his name and took them on. And that was the point of no return. Once you go down that path, well, nobody can quite tell how things will unfold. But certainly from the SSP’s point of view, it was the beginning of the end for them. So it was that kind of trajectory which interested me.”

The play is fast, lively and funny – the story of a Scots ‘Tam O’ Ranter’… Ian has captured the rabble-rousing rhetoric, the sometimes meaningless sloganising and soundbites of a populist politician in full flow.

It’s a barn-storming performance by Scots comedian Des Maclean, gifted with a brilliantly written script. It is also a play of surprising depth about a charismatic real-life character in a story filled with almost child-like optimism and lechery.

“It was such a big story,” Ian Pattison told me, “and Tommy was such a popular guy. He managed to get his side of events all over the press, whereas his party co-workers – the other SSP people – were not as charismatic as a group and made a political decision that, if they couldn’t support Tommy, then they wouldn’t oppose him, which left a media vacuum which Tommy was able to fill with his own version of events.”

I, Tommy + SSP – Sex, Socialism, Perjury

There is a running motif throughout the play of Tommy’s somewhat eccentric mother singing To Dream The Impossible Dream, which pretty much sums up a story so OTT it would be ridiculously unbelievable if it were not true.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, Tommy went into the Celebrity Big Brother house with rap singer Coolio and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films! You could not make it up.

The play is introduced as “an afternoon of broken dreams, backstabbing and treachery” and you could also add an awful lot of laughter.

Ian Pattison has only met Tommy Sheridan once – shortly before the play emerged.

“Well,” Ian told me, “I suppose you would want to get an idea of what it might be going to be like.”

“What was Tommy like?” I asked.

“Very polite,” replied Ian.

So far, Tommy Sheridan has not sued.

He is too canny for that.

Ian Pattison has cleverly avoided the potential legal pitfalls and Tommy Sheridan has emerged as a morally ambiguous anti-hero in Ian Pattison’s first Fringe production.

Why is it Ian’s first Fringe outing?

“At this stage of the game,” he told me, “I just wanted to see what else I would like to do and, never having done the Fringe, this seemed like a good opportunity. Probably not a sensible move for a man of my advanced years, but I seem to be still here and vertical, which is always a bonus.”

If this does not become a movie or a TV production, then Tommy Sheridan is not the fascinatingly charismatic (if ultimately failed) politician portrayed in this extravaganza of amoral egotism.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Newspapers, Politics, Scotland, Theatre

Malcolm Hardee Award nominee James Hamilton aims to prove comedy critic Kate Copstick wrong by writing weirder

James Hamilton, yesterday, drinking it all in

At the Edinburgh Fringe last year, writer/performer/producer James Hamilton was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. One of the judges for the Malcolm Hardee Awards is doyenne of Fringe comedy critics Kate Copstick.

James runs a comedy sketch group called Casual Violence and, last year, their show was called Choose Death. At the time, I blogged that “I had absolutely no idea what was going on… Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’… Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe the previous year,” James told me yesterday afternoon in Soho, “Kate Copstick gave us a one-star review for our show Dildon’t. At the time, it was quite… eh… demoralising. It was our first time at the Fringe. It was a play more than a sketch show and, after her one-star review, people were turning down our flyers in the street. They’d say: No thanks, mate. I read the review in The Scotsman… Which was really tough to deal with at the time.

“But, last year, we quoted her review on the back of our flyer for Choose Death and it genuinely sold us more tickets than it had cost us the year before, because people would look at it and go Oh! That’s honest of you! which they don’t quite expect in Edinburgh in August. The word we quoted on our flyers from Copstick’s review was just the word Irritating….”

IRRITATING – ONE STAR (THE SCOTSMAN)

“A one-star review,” I said, “can be quite effective. The worst thing to get is a 2-star review. But a one-star review means there’s something odd going on. And if you can get a one-star review AND a 5-star review for the same show, it means it’s definitely worth seeing!”

“Well,” said James, “we got that in 2010. We got one 5-star review, three 4-stars and a 3 and a 1. So we almost had the full set.”

“If you get a one star review AND 5-star review,” I said, “there’s maybe something wrong with the critic who may have got out the wrong side of the bed that morning – Copstick will kill me  – or it’s the audience or the performance that particular night. Or it’s some unknowable factor. And, as you found out, a one-star review can be useable in publicity – if you are careful – especially if you get 4 and 5 star reviews too. It signals it may be a ‘Marmite’ show – people either love it or hate it with no in-between – and, certainly in Edinburgh, that’s good.

“Whatever it was,” said James, “it got that one-star review in 2010 and, when we quoted it in 2011, people seemed to think it was weirdly honest of us. A couple of people asked us if it was a requirement to put the bad reviews on the flyers!

“So, this year, we’re doing it again, but we’re using the word STUPID from Copstick’s 2010 review. On the front of the poster, we’re going to have One Star (The Scotsman) and, on the back, we’re having the one star with the words: Stupid. A waste of rather a lot of perfectly serviceable latex (The Scotsman)”

“And your show this year is…?” I asked.

A Kick in The Teeth,” James said. “We’re trying it out next Friday and Saturday – the 25th and 26th – at the Brighton Fringe.”

“It’s a sketch show?”

“I think of it more as character than sketch,” said James. “It’s the same sort of format as last year’s Choose Death show. But it’s a weirder show in some ways. There’s less Siamese Twins. There’s a character called The Poppyman who’s horrendously sinister with some really weird, quite dark, quite bizarre stuff in there. We’ve got a clockwork man character that we’re quite looking forward to trying out.

“Actually, I say there’s less Siamese Twins, but they do have a sort-of cameo in the show. It’s the only throw-back to last year’s show that we’re including.”

“And do you know what show you’ll be doing in 2013?” I asked.

“I know roughly,” James replied, “but it’s only a vague thing. I want to do a more theatrical show with more narrative. It would be based on the Roger and Charlie Nostril characters from Choose Death last year. They were the characters who lived in the mansion full of taxidermied people. Roger Nostril was the old, dying man who ordered his death bed and got a death lilo instead and Charlie’s his son who just got abuse hurled at him for most of the show.

“This year, with Kick in The Teeth, we’ve kept that structure of having five sets of characters and having them hurtle towards their fate through their own doings. But I couldn’t kill them all this year, because we did that last year and it would have felt like a re-hash. Basically, worse things happen to them than death this year.”

“So some of it’s sad again?” I asked.

“Yes. One of the big worries last year was finding the balance. Making it funny while also being quite tragic and quite unpleasant.”

“Do you,” I ask, “write comedy shows with dramatic bits or theatrical shows with funny bits?”

“They’re comedy shows with theatrical bits,” James answered. “They’re comedy shows ultimately. A lot of comedy can feel a bit throwaway. Getting a laugh out of an audience is a bit of a quick fix. It’s a great feeling for a moment, but then it passes. The thing we really wanna go for is making comedy that ekes other feelings out of people.

“My favourite stuff in Choose Death last year were the bits that made people go Oooaaa….

“Over the course of the run, we had a couple of people who said the Clown bit made them cry. It’s a silent bit where the Clown has a picture of his dead girlfriend and he takes a real girl out of the audience, puts a wig on her and makes her up and poses her to look like the dead girlfriend in the picture just so he can give her a hug.

“When I wrote it, I thought it was going to be quite creepy but, when Greg performed it, it was adorable and, from the audience during that sketch, you got as many sympathetic noises as you did laughs. And I liked that. I like the sort of comedy that makes you feel sorry for characters and worried for and by characters and has that sort of tension there as well.”

“And is weird,” I said.

“And is weird,” James Hamilton said.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Theatre, Writing