Tag Archives: dyslexia

Why Robert White went on Britain’s Got Talent and what comedy has taught him

Robert White won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 (beating Bo Burnham and Dr Brown). He claims to be – and I think no-one is going to dispute this – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, web-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit.


JOHN: So why did you do Britain’s Got Talent?

Robert White, aspiring primary school teacher

ROBERT: Because I had given up comedy.

In August last year, the Edinburgh Fringe financially destroyed me so much that I decided I was going to go full-time into teaching music in primary schools.

JOHN: I genuinely thought it was a wonderful Fringe show.

ROBERT: Well, doing an opera like that was artistically spectacular but the only thing it did for my career is that, now, if I die in poverty, at least I’ve got a chance of being recognised 200 years after I’m dead as a composer.

JOHN: Why primary school children? Because they are not as stroppy as teenagers?

ROBERT: Yes. There is an element of discipline. But, being dyslexic yet very creative, I’m very good at taking things and translating them in a very innovative and creative way. Obviously, I have done a degree and highly academic work, but, rather than engaging with HUGE amounts of written material and expressing it in an academic, written way, I would much prefer engaging with limited written material and expressing it in a creative way

In secondary schools, there is a lot of This Date… That Date. I can and have done all of that but, because of the nature of me, I would not choose to do so much of it; there is just so much more writing and so much more reading. With primary school, you are taking things like scale or high and low and the basic elements of music and conveying them in various different interesting creative ways.

I looked into it and, because I had not used it for so long, the PGCE (teaching qualification) I had from 20 years ago was no longer valid. So I would have to re-train. When I decided to go into teaching full-time, it was literally a week after the training course had stopped. There is a thing, though, whereby you can teach primary school music if you have a degree and some teaching experience: which I have.

So I thought: If I do some primary school teaching, that will give me some income. And, if I do the gigs I have, that will give me some other income. And the primary school teaching I do will give me enough experience so that, at the end of the year, instead of having to re-train, I can get a position in a private school where you don’t actually need to have the teaching qualifications.

So that was going to be my career path. A year of finishing-off comedy and building-up teaching then, at the end of it, I would be teaching full-time.

The reason for Britain’s Got Talent was I thought: Well, I’ve done 12 or 13 years of comedy. I may as well cash in what I’ve done and at least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.

“At least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.”

I told my mum: “Look, I just don’t want to struggle any more.” I don’t mind whether comedy works or teaching works or if I move home and just start a job in a shop and work my way up to be a supervisor. I just don’t want to struggle any more.

The last 20 years, it has felt as if I’ve been trying to pay off the same £1,000 overdraft and never succeeding…

JOHN: You’ve been doing comedy for a while now…

ROBERT: I have Asperger’s Syndrome and comedy through the last 13 years has been like CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

I have been putting myself in difficult situations, night after night after night, and it has helped so much. Comedy has not just brought me a comedy career, it has actually helped my Asperger’s enough that I can now do a normal job. It has got me to a point now where I can teach.

Comedy has taught me about people and Asperger’s and the way I think. Every year, I’ve become more free. Even walking on stage, I now don’t think I have to do A-B-C-D in a certain order. I’m more relaxed.

JOHN: Whereas before…?

ROBERT: Because I have Asperger’s, I find it very difficult to connect with people in the real world and all of my social processes are thought-through processes. Now, with what I’ve learnt from years of doing comedy, some have become more intuitive. But they are not naturally intuitive.

You don’t have Asperger’s so, to you, reading facial expressions is intuitive. To me, it is not. Literally thinking-through and analysing: What is this other person thinking? How do I act in this situation? Which becomes very very very very tiring.

The thing that comedy has done for me is it taught me about social skills and gave me an understanding of people. If you think of the audience as a macro-person, then that translates into how one person acts to the individual micro-person. It has helped me understand about people.

But conversely what that has meant is that, sort of like horse whispering, I’ve got an almost unusually natural understanding of audiences that other people wouldn’t have – because I analyse them in a certain way. If there’s any way my autistic mind does work well in the overly-analytical way, it’s basically an understanding of the audience and what’s going on.

I’m the only person I know who, before he goes on, fills up his hand and his whole arm not with jokes but with social cues. That’s because, when I first started – and now – I needed to reinforce myself with certain things. I still do that.

JOHN: Writing on your arm such things as…?

ROBERT: Be nice. No rudes. Time equals money. There is an understanding that there is a right sort of groan and a wrong sort of groan. That has now come to inform me on a level other people don’t have. Which is why standing on stage now and being able to say whatever I want is an amazingly freeing thing. 

The judges’ reaction to Robert White on Britain’s Got Talent

When it got to Britain’s Got Talent and the audition, I looked at my act…

If you take away the crudeness and swearing – there is so much still left. I had not considered that before. There is quirkiness, jokes, puns, silliness, music. I have got many more strings to my bow than I originally considered.

JOHN: You are playing 20-minute spots at the Comedy Store now.

ROBERT: I did the Gong Show at the Comedy Store about two years ago and it was a really rough gig. There was this woman shouting me at the front and I had to go off-piste and really properly play the gig. So, in an absolute, utter bear-pit gig, I won the night.  Eleven years earlier, I did the Gong Show, walked onto the stage; same response; but I ripped my tee-shirt and started crying.

That is what comedy has done for me.

The whole process of doing comedy and then Edinburgh making me give up comedy led to Britain’s Got Talent and rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

But we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

All I want is to not struggle.

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A stand-up comic struck down with amusia before the Edinburgh Fringe

As anyone wise enough to read this blog regularly will know, I love the very funny US TV detective series Monk which has a central character with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. So I am now a sucker for any OCD stories.

Which brings me to British stand-up comedian and writer Gill Smith, who (as I explained in recent a blog) inspired the annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award – now there’s something for her to put on her gravestone.

Last week, she asked me to wantonly plug her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show in this blog.

I am a man of principle. It is not something I would normally do except for wads of used £50 notes or, at the very least, a free meal. But, perhaps foolishly lured by the carrot of OCD, I told her:

“I will give you a blatant plug if you give me a quirky anecdote.”

So…

The lovely Gill Smith is returning to the Fringe this year with her new show OCD: the Singing Obsessive – at The Three Sisters as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. The hour-long show is 6:05pm from 4th to 28th August daily… except every Tuesday.

Only someone with OCD, of course, could even conceive of performing a full run of Edinburgh Fringe shows daily – but not do them every Tuesday.

That was not the quirky detail Gill told me, though – she probably doesn’t even think that IS quirky…

The billing for her show reads: “For years Gill Smith resisted her biggest obsession – breaking into song… Now she’s accepted her own obsessive toe-tapping and is sharing her inner soundtrack.”

There proved to be a slight problem about this concept, though, which she discovered in her pre-production preparations.

“In the course of planning the show,” Gill tells me, “I discovered that I can’t actually sing! Of course, I’ll be doing so anyway. But my singing tutor and I found that I do actually suffer from a little-known condition called ‘amusia‘, which is the musical equivalent of dyslexia… It doesn’t stop me enjoying singing… but I can’t promise others, especially those with good pitch, will find it as enjoyable!”

When Gill told me that her condition is actually called ‘amusia’ I began to think she was taking the piss – she is, after all, an esteemed former Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award winner.

But, no, it’s all true, She actually does have this condition and, incredibly, it is actually called ‘amusia’ – surely that name must be like striking gold for a comedian.

“The even better word for the condition,” say Gill, “is the Japanese one – ‘onchi’ – which translates most closely as ‘tone idiot’… I love it!”

I disagree.

Amusia.

Who would have thought?

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Filed under Comedy, Health, Music, PR, Psychology

My inability to read books, the dyslexic ex-gangster and the recent arrest of one of the Cheeky Girls

Since the morning of 9th March 1991, I have not been able to read a book.

I have written books since then, but I am physically unable to read them.

Last night, at Elstree Studios, I had a chat with author and would-be film producer Jason Cook, a very interesting man who has written three novels despite being severely dyslexic.

I am not dyslexic.

Jason Cook is an ex-criminal… some might say he’s an ex-gangster, but defining the word ‘gangster’ is a matter of semantics. By anyone’s definition, though, he is a very amiable, charismatic, creative dynamo of a man.

He was smoking and selling hash from his bedroom at the age of 12. By the time he was 16, he had moved on to ecstasy and had become involved with – by any definition – local gangsters. He took steroids, worked out at the local gym to build himself up and also had a tendency to carry knives AND guns; he was always thorough. By the time he was 17, he was helping the same local gangsters collect drug-related debts.

He was also addicted to cocaine.

Eventually, he was arrested and given a seven and a half year prison sentence, though he only served two years and nine months of it. While he was inside, he joined the education programme, volunteered for the drug-free wing (interesting that the prison authorities only labelled one wing as being drug-free) and was given support to kick his drug habit.

As part of this rehabilitation programme, he was encouraged to start writing about his experiences. The result is three novels – There’s No Room for Jugglers in My Circus, The Gangster’s Runner and the soon-to-be published A Nice Little Earner. This, remember, is from a man who is severely dyslexic.

All three novels have now been scripted as movies and ballpark budgeted. A few months ago, I advised Jason against joining the glut of cheap Brit movies and go for the big-time, big-screen legit movie area. Now he has offices at Elstree Studios. And now, I suspect, the fun and painful games will really start…

Well, in a sense the fun has already started.

At the beginning of last month, shortly after meeting Jason to discuss a role in the first of his planned trilogy of films, ‘Cheeky Girl’ Gabriela Irimia was arrested by police in Wilmslow, Cheshire, for shoplifting £40 worth of groceries from a local Sainsbury store. Her formidable mother Margareta told the Daily Mail that Gabriela “was getting into character” for her forthcoming role in the film version of Jason’s first book.

The Cheeky Girls are still in line to appear on-screen.

Jason is still trying to get full finance for his three movies and he is so energetic anything is possible.

As for my inability to read any book since the morning of 9th March 1991, more about that tomorrow…

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Filed under Books, Crime, Drugs, Movies

A hard man is good to find

I was in the bar at Elstree Film Studios last week, which can feel a little like swimming in the recently dangerous waters off Sharm-el-Sheikh, surrounded by sharks circling for prey – though, in the current economic climate, the dead eyes are more desperate that deadly (unless, one presumes, you go into business with them).

Fortunately, though, I was there for a drink with the extremely amiable and apparently totally indefatigable criminal-turned-author Jason Cook (not to be confused with the amiable and I’m sure equally indefatigable comedian Jason Cook).

The first Jason Cook’s film company moves into production offices at Elstree Studios today.

He is one of those interesting people who are a just joy to meet, although I suspect living his life was considerably less enjoyable than sitting back and hearing about it. He is a dyslexic ex-con, who was smoking and selling hash from his bedroom when he was 12. By the time he was 16, he had moved on to ecstasy and became involved with local gangsters. He carried knives and guns, took steroids and worked out at the gym to build himself up. By 17, he was helping alleged gangsters collect debts – related to money-lending, drugs, anything.

Eventually, by now addicted to cocaine, Jason was given a seven and a half year prison sentence, of which he served two years, nine months. During this stretch in one of Her Majesty’s finer residential establishments, he joined the education programme and volunteered for a ‘drug-free wing’, where he was given help and support to kick his habit.

As part of the rehabilitation programme he was encouraged to start writing about his experiences and this inspired him to write his first partly autobiographical book, There’s No Room for Jugglers in my Circus (2006). This was followed by The Gangster’s Runner (2009) and the upcoming A Nice Little Earner ( to be published in 2011).

It’s a rare thing to find an optimistic story about a hard working indefatigable person who has overcome the odds and could succeed because of sheer personal determination.

Jason’s first two novels are being used by local community ‘drug awareness’ groups; he does an impressively heavy schedule of book signings in Waterstones etc etc; and he is trying to raise finance for the first of a movie trilogy based on his books – thus the move into Elstree Studios today.

But one of the strangest things he told me is that his definitely – indeed, definitively – ‘hard man’ books are mostly bought by women. Neither he nor I understand why as, from all the above, you can tell they appear to be resolutely “lads” books about “the Chaps”. One theory Jason has is that his books are being bought by women as presents for their men; the only other possibility would seem to be that women are somehow moving from ‘chick-lit’ to tougher books.

Perhaps they, like Mae West, believe that “a hard man is good to find”.

PS If you have couple of million pounds to invest, Jason Cook is your man. That’s the author/producer not the stand-up comedian, though I’m sure that other Jason Cook wouldn’t turn it down either.

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