Tag Archives: EastEnders

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 But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date.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

Save Soho!

Tim Arnold stands next to a photo of his mum

Tim stands by a photo of his mum in a Windmill programme

I was chatting to singer-songwriter Tim Arnold, aka The Soho Hobo about his Save Soho! campaign following the sudden closure of iconic Soho club Madame JoJo’s.

I photographed him standing by a photo of his mother.

“Gillian Arnold,” I said, reading the name on the photo.

“Yes,” said Tim. “Mother was a Windmill girl, just before it closed down. She was the youngest nude at the Windmill Theatre at 15. She changed her name to Polly Perkins.”

“Polly Perkins?” I said, genuinely surprised. “Heavens! Really?”

“Yes,” said Tim. “That’s my mum. She was one of the first presenters on Ready Steady Go! before Cathy McGowan. She made several records in the 1960s. Jimmy Page played lead guitar for her for a time, which was inspiring for me when I started writing music. She ran her own club in Mayfair: The Candlelight Club. And then she was a TV actress in both Eldorado and, three years ago, EastEnders.”

The reason I mention this is to show Tim Arnold has quite a background in both show business and in London’s Soho.

Passers by - Madame JoJo’s last night

Soho punters passing by the closed Madame JoJo’s last night

In late October, there was a fight between Madame JoJo’s bouncers and a customer. The police report recommended the club’s licence be suspended. The club changed its manager and selected a new team of bouncers approved by Westminster Council. The Council then permanently revoked Madame JoJo’s licence and, as Tim wrote in an open letter to London Mayor Boris Johnson on 3rd December, “half a century of Soho history ended.”

The letter was also signed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Paul O’Grady. Pete Townshend, Eddie Izzard and a virtual roll-call of the British entertainment industry.

“What’s it all about?” I asked Tim yesterday.

“It’s quite complicated,” he told me. “What we know is that Westminster Council suspended the licence and then they permanently revoked the licence. But what we also know is that, a year beforehand, the Council was given an application by Soho Estates to redevelop that block, which would have involved demolishing Madame JoJo’s.”

“Who,” I asked, “is Soho Estates? Is that the Paul Raymond company?”

“Yes. Paul Raymond’s granddaughters.” (Fawn James & India Rose James)

“I’m surprised,” I said. “Because they quite like Soho.”

“I’m surprised too,” said Tim. “Fawn is a friend who I met three years ago, at the launch of the Soho Flea Market. It was lovely for me to finally meet her, because my grandfather used to work for her grandfather – my grandfather Dickie Arnold was actor-manager of the Raymond Revue when it toured; and, later on, he worked at the Raymond Revuebar with my grandmother.

“It was really great to make that connection with Fawn and, because she’s an actress as well, she performed in one of my videos – Manners On The Manor – which was shot at Ronnie Scott’s – playing the role of Queen of Soho.

“So I am quite confused as to how this has been allowed to happen with her being involved, because I know that Fawn supports the performing arts. And Paul Raymond supported the arts – people don’t realise this.

“I grew up surrounded by musicians, comedians, actors and singers who all, at one point or another, were given a start in Soho, largely down to Paul Raymond. He supported the arts and that is part of what his legacy should be.”

“When I interviewed Fawn on BBC1’s Inside Out a year ago, I asked her off-camera what was going to happen to Madame JoJo’s and she said it was going to have to be moved; but she didn’t elaborate. It’s also a year ago since I sang at Madame JoJo’s with Andy Serkis and The Blockheads. That’s the last time I was inside the venue.

“The sadness over the closure is not about the name. It’s about the space.

“Soho has been a stage for every emerging artist from all over the country for 50 years. Madam JoJo’s was not a pub which had been given a licence for performers to work in – it was a professional space where people could hawk their wares and showcase their talents to the entertainment industry in general which, by and large, is based in London.”

“Surely,” I said. “one little club dying isn’t going to destroy the whole of Soho?”

The London Astoria

The London Astoria – now knocked down & being redeveloped

“They’ve taken a lot of them out already,” said Tim. “The Astoria being knocked down was a shock, particularly to the music industry. That seemed to make it open season on other venues.

“I signed my first record deal with Sony after doing a gig in a basement club called the Borderline – a 200-capacity venue like Madame JoJo’s. These venues are important for up-and-coming bands. We have to keep these venues open, unless developers want to argue that TV talent shows are the only way forward for young artists to get their feet in the industry.

“People keep talking about Madame JoJo’s being representative of the gay and transgender culture. It is. But it was also somewhere bands could perform regardless of their sexual orientation.”

“It wasn’t particularly gay, though, was it?” I asked. “Lots of straight people went there for shows. It was not a gay club as such. It was cabaret, music, comedy, some gay stuff in among all that sex stuff around the Raymond Revuebar alleyway.”

“It was,” said Tim, “a microcosm of what Soho is. It’s everything – a melting pot. It does not have one single identity. Madam JoJo’s disappearing is almost like the performance heart of Soho is. It doesn’t matter what your culture, background, religion, sexual orientation is, you were welcome and that’s why it is pretty serious it has gone.

The Raymond Revuebar in its heyday

The Raymond Revuebar in its heyday

“I’m not a campaigner, I’m an entertainer. That’s the key. A campaign has arisen out of my passion for where I and my family have lived and worked for the last 50 years. I didn’t plan it as a campaign. My mother said I should write a letter to the mayor and I thought How can I make him respond to the letter quicker? So I called my friend Benedict Cumberbatch and he said he would help and, after that, it snowballed.

“Madame JoJo’s was open from 7.30pm to 3.00am. That’s a lot of entertainment. It kept performers working, earning a living, promoting what they do. Equity have come on board today and are also talking to the Council about this to try and repeal the decision.

“Where we are sitting now, in my flat on Frith Street, from Thursday to Saturday night, I see violent altercations pretty much every night dealt with by the police. It’s dealt with responsibly and none of these venues, restaurants or clubs get closed down. If a bouncer did something inappropriate on this street, they would lose their job. The venue does not get closed down and it doesn’t get green-lit for demolition. If they did that all the time, we would be able to see Buckingham Palace from here!”

The closed Raymond Revuebar (left) and Madame JoJo’s (right) in Soho last night

The closed Raymond Revuebar (left) and Madame JoJo’s (right) in Soho last night

“It sounds,” I said, “like bizarre corruption of some sort. They close down this venue where there is an application to change it.”

“I have never,” said Tim, “mentioned corruption, but I have never heard a single person this week not mention it. I’m a singer-songwriter. What do I know?

“And, of course,”I said, “in Soho, there is no history of corruption involving the police in Soho.”

“Anyway,” said Tim, “I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on a very clear message from all sides of the entertainment industry – emerging and established artists – saying You can’t keep doing this without talking to this community first.

“We can welcome any new addition – Mozart lived on this street and television was first demonstrated just a few doors down this same street – but not at the expense of taking away what we already have here.

“Having new art galleries and pop-up art galleries is all well and fine and it looks, on the surface, like the landlords supporting those art galleries are supporting the arts, but Soho IS an art gallery.”

Tim has a song called Soho Heroes

3 Comments

Filed under Gay, London, Music

The illegal Silk Road linking BBC TV’s EastEnders to the Edinburgh Fringe

It was Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Gareth Ellis – one of those people who seems to know everyone – who told me that writer Alex Oates was going to be on The Keiser Report last week.

I had tea with Alex at Soho Theatre yesterday.

“Being on Max Keiser’s show must have been an interesting experience, I said.

“I had thought,” replied Alex, “it was an online version of some Bloomberg type thing. I had no idea it was on Russia Today. I just agreed to it.”

“When did Max start shouting?” I asked.

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left)and Max Keiser

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left) and Max Keiser

“Quite soon,” said Alex.

Alex appeared on The Keiser Report with director Dominic Shaw, to plug Alex’s upcoming Edinburgh Fringe play Silk Road.

“Max wanted us on cos of the Bitcoin thing,” Alex told me. “He’s a Bitcoin evangelist.”

“And your play,” I prompted, “is about…?”

“We were going to call it SILK ROAD – OR HOW TO BUY DRUGS ONLINE but everyone said that was too gimmicky, so we just called it SILK ROAD. It’s a dark comedy about Silk Road, the illegal marketplace that uses Bitcoins, so we thought we would try and get funding through Bitcoin. It would be the first play financed through Bitcoins.”

“The guy who allegedly started Silk Road has been arrested,” I said.

“But,” said Alex, “three weeks after he was arrested, it came back and Silk Road 2 is very much alive.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to do a play about an online site where you can buy heroin and AK-47s?”

“You can’t buy AK-47s any more,” said Alex, “they’ve got a conscience.”

“But heroin is OK?” I asked.

One drug-selling page on the Silk Road hidden website, 2012

One drug-selling page on the illegal Silk Road website, 2012

“Yeah,” said Alex. “Strange, their moral compass. A bit wonky. Why did I want to do it? Because it’s really fascinating: the idea you can buy drugs on the internet and have them posted to your door by Royal Mail. And there’s a feedback system so you know what you’re buying is good drugs. There have been lots of plays and films about drug dealers, but this is the next generation of drug dealers.”

Silk Road is a one-man play starring James Baxter.

“How do you make it interesting?” I asked. “Because no-one ever meets anyone. It’s all online.”

Silk Road - The Play

Silk Road – a play about drugs, nans and tea cosies

“The guy in the play lives with his nan,” Alex explained. “She has an eBay business selling tea-cosies. He is trying to bring drugs to your average user. It’s quite hard to use Silk Road, so what he does is buy the drugs in bulk from Silk Road and then start slipping them into his nan’s tea-cosies. He lets people know that, if you buy his nan’s tea-cosies, then you’ll get a gram of cocaine with each one. So his nan’s eBay business goes from selling them for £5 to £60 and she virtually becomes a millionaire overnight.”

“How did Silk Road react?” I asked.

“Well, I advertised the play in the forums on Silk Road. Originally, a bunch of dealers were quite angry about it, saying: We don’t need any more press! We’re trying to keep this quiet! Then some dealers said: Look, we’re gonna get press regardless. So we might as well have someone in our corner. 

“Then one dealer said: I’ll give you some Bitcoins. And two Bitcoins were deposited in our account which, at the time we sold them, were worth £600 (together) – now, two weeks later, they’re worth around £850. The producer had thought Bitcoins might crash but, really, they’re not gonna crash any time soon, so we should have kept them. It was a mistake.

“I tried really hard to sell tickets for the play on Silk Road itself, but they’re not accepting any new venders at the moment. There’s a very strict authentication process and they’re being cautious since the fall of the first Silk Road.”

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre yesterday afternoon

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre in London yesterday afternoon

“How did you get involved in Silk Road?” I asked.

“I’m friends with a lot of tech guys and I know some people who use the website.”

“For what?”

“Buying drugs. They were telling me about Silk Road and how amazing it was.”

“You can see pictures of what you are going to buy,” I said.

“Yes. And the actual chemical breakdown of the drug and how pure it is. And that is guaranteed. And then there are people who write reviews and say: Yes, I’ve tested this. It is actually what it says it is.

“Is there a money-back guarantee if not satisfied?” I asked.

“There’s an escrow system,” explained Alex.

“I’m not sure if this is a good development of capitalism or a bad development of capitalism,” I said.

“It fascinating, though, isn’t it?” said Alex.

“So,” I asked, “Your Silk Road play. Does it have a message?”

Alex Oates laughs on The Keiser Report

Alex, a man with little political agenda, on The Keiser Report

“I think if I have a political agenda,” replied Alex, “it’s about drug reform and how the War on Drugs does not really work.

“It has demonised a generation of potheads and, really, if you regulated it and taxed it, then it would be a lot safer. In the play, we go into local gangsters who cut cocaine with urinal cakes.”

“Urinal cakes?” I asked.

“The little yellow cakes that are there to make the urinals fresh.”

“Oh,” I said, “I thought for a moment you meant cakes made out of urine. After all, we are sitting in Soho. There is probably a niche market for people who want to eat things like that.”

“There is a market for everything,” said Alex. “If I’m making a political point it is about drug reform, but Silk Road is a very light and whimsical play.”

“So you wrote it because…?”

“I’ve always been obsessed with theatre.”

“There’s no money in writing plays is there?” I asked.

“They say you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. So I’m going for the killing.”

“No theatrical background?” I asked.

“My dad’s a policeman; my mum’s a nurse.”

“Your dad was in the drug squad?”

“No. He’s a retired inspector.”

“What did you study at university?”

“Theatre Arts at the University of Middlesex.”

“And then…?”

“I started writing on an EastEnders spin-off for the BBC.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I should do research in advance.”

A BBC publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20

BBC TV publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20 series

“I was very lucky,” said Alex. “I got into a BBC Young Writers’ Summer School thing. It turned out the idea was for ten of us to create this thing called EastEnders: E20. I became the lead writer for that and wrote for three series of it.

“Then I applied for the Old Vic New Voices scheme and got onto that. They used to do a thing where you’re given 24-hour to write a play and you put it on in the Old Vic as a way to showcase yourself to the industry.”

“Jesus Christ 2,” I said. “I really should do research in advance. But I do know you are trying to finance Silk Road by crowdfunding it on Kickstarter and Max Keiser’s StartJOIN.

“Yes,” said Alex, “it finishes next Tuesday on Kickstarter. We need to raise £2,500 by next Tuesday or we get nothing.”

The play has already received £1000 from the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

“Next?” I asked.

“My next play is about an autistic boy,” said Alex, “because that’s my day job. I work with people with special needs.”

Rain Man?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Alex. “The thing that annoys me about the autism stereotype is the Rain Man thing. I wanted to show the other side. The really hard work. It can potentially ruin your life if you have an autistic child. It’s the sort of thing nobody really says, so the play is about a couple struggling to deal with having an autistic kid.”

There is a teaser for Silk Road on YouTube.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime, Crowdfunding, Drugs, Theatre

Dan March: Santa Claus via BBC TV’s “Miranda” sitcom & an Auschwitz man

Dan - right - and (as Santa) left

Dan March – right – and (in Santa role) left

What is it with comedy people I know being Father Christmas in department stores this year?

Last month in my blog, it turned out Bob Slayer was being a Santa this year.

Just over a week ago, I mentioned comedy performer Dan March’s 40th birthday party in a blogAnd, when I talked to him last week, it turned out he, too, was being a Santa this year – for Selfridge’s.

“Have you been a Santa before?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied. “I was Santa for Disney in their store on Oxford Street about ten years ago. I used to sit in the window and people would be brought in to me. It had its lovely moments and you get letters and they totally believe you.”

Dan’s 2009 solo show about appearing in Blockbusters

Dan’s 2009 solo show about Blockbusters

I met Dan in 2009, when he performed a one-man show called Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe about how, as a 17-year-old in 1991, he had won the TV gameshow Blockbusters.

“You haven’t done a solo show at the Fringe since Goldrunner in 2009?” I asked.

“No. It’s been the (comedy trio) Real McGuffins since then. We started five years ago, before Goldrunner.”

“Sketch groups have had their day, haven’t they?” I asked.

Dan (top) with The Real McGuffins

Dan (top) is one of The Real McGuffins

“There’s always room for sketch comedy,” said Dan. “We’re working with a producer at a production company at the moment. We pitched four ideas, they liked one of them , so now it’s early stages.”

“And you might be doing a solo Edinburgh show next year?”

“I still haven’t made the final decision. I think it’s more about having a story to tell and wanting to tell it and there’s a couple of things I’m interested in telling. One is quite dark, so it might be a straight theatre piece. Or I could go down the full comedy route. I’ll be writing some stuff over Christmas and see if it’s taking shape by the middle of January.”

“Dark works well in Edinburgh for comedy,” I said. “And you’re still a straight actor as well as a comedy actor.”

“I thought I was a very serious actor,” said Dan. “I was in Casualty and EastEnders – I sold the Queen Vic to Peggy Mitchell back in 2001. I played estate agent Mr Hammond; I was in it for about a month.”

“Did you get recognised in the street?”

“I got recognised at a friend’s wedding,” laughed Dan, “and I got recognised the other day, when I was compering a wine-tasting evening. I sold a pub in EastEnders, ran a pub in Casualty and advertised a Belgian beer: so who better to host a wine-tasting evening?

“I thought I was a serious actor"

“I thought I was a serious actor”

“I thought I was quite a serious straight actor and then I did News Revue at the Canal Cafe where I met Gareth Tunley, who’s now directing quite a few things – he directed Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe. I wrote a bit with him for Radio 4 for The News Huddlines and I started drifting in and out of comedy and it was only about six years ago I took the total plunge of having a comedy agent and writing shows and doing Edinburgh really full-on. But a lot of stand-ups now alternate and do some serious roles. Terry Alderton’s in EastEnders at the moment.”

EastEnders should cast Janey Godley,” I said. “She ran a pub for years and she has the genuine dodgy gangster background. Producers should cast comedians more. Good comedians have perfect timing, which is the most important thing in acting too.”

“The last couple of years,” said Dan, “I feel the experience of doing comedy has fed into my acting. I’ve just filmed an episode of a BBC3 sitcom Pramface. I think having gigged a lot in the last five years has really helped my acting. Even when you’re going for pure reality and not gags, the timing is there. Maintaining energy and controlling the audience while keeping in mind where you have to end up.

“I did do a very serious play this year. I think all performers get itchy feet for certain aspects if you haven’t done it for a little while. If you’ve done a lot of television, you get itchy for theatre; if you’ve done a lot of theatre, you get itchy to do telly. It does exercise different muscles, but you really cannot beat live performances.”

“You miss the immediate audible audience response?” I suggested.

“I was in Miranda,” said Dan, “and it was genuinely a joy to work on that programme. She’s a workaholic; she works really hard and people really do love her. She is genuinely famous. She goes out in front of that audience of 400 and they rip the roof off. The live audience response is phenomenal.”

“So, in ten years time?” I asked.

“I’d like to be a regular in a sitcom,” Dan replied. “There’s nothing better than making someone laugh. No better feeling than witnessing that and – in a live studio sitcom – you get that. Though, equally, if you’re filming something and the rest of the crew are laughing and enjoying it, then you know you’re onto something good too.”

Dan March practises his King Canute abilities for future use

Dan March practises his King Canute abilities for future use

“But presumably,” I said, “a 50-year-old comedian has more of a career problem than a 50-year-old actor because the live comedy audience is maybe aged 20-35 and they won’t relate to you.”

“Well,” suggested Dan, “Lewis Schaffer seems to be doing alright. He’s on the up.”

“But can he keep it up at his age?” I asked. “Lewis Schaffer’s shows are like sex. Have you seen his shows?”

“No,” said Dan.

“You have to experience at least two in a row to get the full impact of the unpredictability,” I said.

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” laughed Dan. “Whether you can keep it up. The older you get, I think the wiser you get about how you use your time. I’m trying to be more focussed.”

“Apparently,” I said, “there’s some famous saying that, if you have not reached where you want to reach by the time you are 40, you are not going to reach it… Sadly I read this when I was 42.”

“I think that’s harsh,” said Dan. “Was it Margaret Thatcher said that? I know she said if you are still travelling on a bus when you’re 40, you’re a loser.”

“Did you read that on a bus?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Dan, “but I’ve just read an interesting book called Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl’s bestselling book

Viktor Frankl’s bestselling book

“He was viewed as the successor to Freud in psychotherapy terms. He was put in Auschwitz (and other concentration camps) and survived, then wrote a book looking on his experiences as objectively as possible: Why did certain people survive and others just gave up?

“He looked at what we want from life and there are three main schools of thought. There’s the hedonistic lifestyle of living for immediate pleasure. There’s looking for power. with money as an offshoot of that. And then there’s looking for meaning – looking for the essence of life. There’s really profound stuff in this very short book.

“He said there was this one guy who had this dream in 1942/1943 in Auschwitz that the War would end on a certain date and that’s when they’d be liberated. So he was fine: probably one of the strongest guys in the camp. He made it all the way through and was getting really excited the last week before he thought Auschwitz was going to be liberated. And then it didn’t happen. They were not liberated and, within a week, he was dead. He just gave up.”

“When I was a kid growing up in Scotland,” I said, “the thing that was always drummed and drummed and drummed into your head was the story of Robert The Bruce and the spiderHowever impossible anything may seem, you just keep going. If you want to do it or if you think you right, you just keep going. Keep at it. If you want it, keep going. Keep trying to get that first thread across the gap that you can build the whole spider’s web from. Dogged relentless determination. Never give up.”

“Yes,” said Dan. “You have to find out what it is that keeps you going. For me, it’s about being the best performer I can possibly be. The best actor I can be. The best funny man I can be. If that means doing more acting or more comedy, I’ll do that. I enjoy making people laugh and if, in ten years time, I’m still doing comedy – great. If, in ten years, I’m doing straight drama, then I will be equally happy… I’m happy where I am at the moment.”

DAN MARCH’S SHOWREEL IS ON VIMEO

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Comedy, Television, Theatre

Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter and Roman Polanski. Comparing artists and arses.

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

Spice World released with scum removed

Roman Polanski?” someone said to me yesterday afternoon. “Well, he’s not as bad as Jimmy Savile, is he?”

That is like a red rag to a bull.

Was Jack The Ripper not as bad as Adolf Hitler because he did not kill as many people? You could even argue Adolf Hitler was a morally better person than the Jack The Ripper because, as far as I am aware, Hitler did not personally kill anyone during the Second World War.

It is a pointless argument.

Jimmy Savile had-it-off with more under-age girls than Roman Polanski and was apparently at-it for 50 years. Roman Polanski was only prosecuted over one girl.

But the truth is you cannot compare evil.

Most things are grey. But some things are black and white and incomparable.

I had a conversation with two other men a couple of days ago and which I started to write a blog about the next day but which I aborted because it was too dangerous…

One man was involved in the comedy business. The other had been involved in the music business. We had got talking about Gary Glitter.

When the Spice Girls’ movie Spice World was made, it included a big musical routine involving Gary Glitter. Very shortly before the film’s release, he was arrested on sex charges. He was cut out of the film because (quite rightly) it was thought to be dodgy given the movie’s target audience.

But now, in many places, several years later, his music is, in effect, banned from being played because the act of playing it – and saying his very name in the introduction – is thought to be in bad taste.

The conversation I had with the other two men revolved around Art v Scum.

Just because someone is scum does not mean they cannot create Art.

Just because they have been rightly arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for an act of evil does not lessen the level of any Art they may have created.

I am sure all sorts of artists over the centuries have committed all sorts of morally and criminally heinous acts. But that does not mean we should not appreciate their art.

You may see where this is going and why I abandoned writing this particular blog a couple of days ago. Just by discussing it I might seem to be lessening my dislike of what the scum did. Which is not the case. But it is a danger.

Just because Gary Glitter is scum does not mean he did not create some very good pop music. Perhaps it was not high art. But it was good pop music. The fact that he was imprisoned for having pornographic images of children in Britain and committing sex crimes in Vietnam does not mean his records should be banned.

There is the fact that, if you buy his records, he will receive royalties. That is a problem, but does not affect the theoretical discussion.

Clearer examples are actors Wilfred Brambell and Leslie Grantham.

Homosexuality was stupidly illegal in the UK until 1967. In 1962, Wilfred Brambell (old man Steptoe in the BBC TV comedy series Steptoe and Son) was arrested in a Shepherd’s Bush toilet for “persistently importuning”, though he got a conditional discharge. Ooh missus. He died in 1985. In 2012, he was accused of abusing two boys aged aged 12-13 backstage at the Jersey Opera House in the 1970s. One of the boys was from the Haut de la Garenne children’s home, which is now surrounded by very seedy claims of child abuse, murder and torture (and which Jimmy Savile visited, though this is strangely under-played in newspaper reports).

Actor Leslie Grantham – who famously played ‘Dirty Den’ in BBC TV’s EastEnders – is a convicted murderer. In 1966, he shot and killed a German taxi driver in Osnabrück. He was convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment and served ten years in jail.

Wilfred Brambell’s presumed sexual sleaziness and Leslie Grantham’s actual imprisonment for killing someone does not mean the BBC should never repeat Steptoe and Son nor old episodes of EastEnders, nor that it would be morally reprehensible to watch the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night because Wilfred Brambell plays a prominent role in it.

It does not mean that Wilfred Brambell and Leslie Grantham’s undoubtedly high acting skills should not be appreciated.

A chum of mine was recently compiling a history of glam rock for a BBC programme and was told he could not include Gary Glitter. That is a bit like not including the Rolling Stones in a history of 1960s British rock music or not including Jimmy Savile in a history of BBC disc jockeys.

Which brings us to Roman Polanski.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I think he is scum and (figuratively speaking) his balls should be cut off and he should be thrown into a bottomless pit of dung for eternity.

He drugged, raped and buggered a 13-year-old girl.

End of.

The defence “She was not that innocent” is no defence.

In January next year, the British Film Institute starts a two-month “tribute” to Roman Polanski at the National Film Theatre in London.

I have no problem with that. I might even go to some of the movie screenings.

Dance of the Vampires, Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth are brilliant films. Chinatown and Tess are very good – although I have also had the misfortune to sit through the unspeakably awful Pirates.

As a film-maker, Roman Polanski deserves a tribute. As a criminal on the run from justice, he deserves to be arrested and imprisoned.

Art is often created by people who are scum.

Here is the deleted scene from Spice World:

10 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Movies, Sex, Television

When people ask that British breaking-the-ice question: “What do you do?”

On Wednesday night, BBC2 will screen the first in a new series of that extraordinary TV comedy Rab C Nesbitt, written and created by Ian Pattison.

Last week, I asked Ian if there was something he would rather do instead of another series of Rab C Nesbitt.

“Instead of?” he replied. “Why not ‘in addition to?’ I’ve now finished writing my fourth novel and have written a screenplay based on my third. My novels, of course, don’t sell. I advised the publisher of my last book to put Ian Rankin’s name on the jacket on the basis that IR would never notice my sidled addition to his oeuvre as his stuff takes up all the shelves in Waterstone’s and most of the cafeteria.”

I suspect most fans who watch Rab C Nesbitt do not think of Ian primarily as a novelist. And most people who admire his novels do not think of him primarily as a TV comedy scriptwriter.

Pretty much throughout my life, Whenever people ask that first perennial British breaking-the-ice question, “What do you do?” I have immediately got into trouble, because I have never really known the correct answer.

Sometimes I say, “I have bummed around a lot,” which is probably closer to the truth than anything.

I suspect as a percentage, more than anything, I have probably sat in darkened rooms editing trailers and marketing/sales tapes. But, when I have said that, people have thought I was/am a videotape editor, which I never have been – too technical for me – I was called writer or producer or director or whatever the union or company felt like at the time – or whatever I wanted to make up for a nameless job – and, once you get into mentioning “I do on-air promotions”, you open a whole can of befuddled misunderstanding.

“Do people do that?” is a common response.

So, over the years, different people have thought I do different things, real or imagined, depending on what I happened to have been doing – or what they thought I was doing – at the exact moment I first met them.

TV research is one. Editor of books is another. Manager of comedians is one that always amuses me.

This sprang to mind on Friday, when I saw comedian Owen O’Neill ‘storm the room’ as the saying goes at the always excellent monthly Pull The Other One in Peckham.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy, I suspect, see him as “just” a stand-up comic which, of course, is far from the truth. If they know a bit about comedy, they may know he has performed at over 20 Edinburgh Fringes and been nominated for the Perrier Award.

They may know he acted in the high-profile stage productions of Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Odd Couple.

But I first met Owen off-stage in 2003 when Malcolm Hardee and I were commissioning Sit-Down Comedy for publishers Random House. It was an anthology of writing by comedians – not to be confused with the phrase “comic anthology” because a lot of the short stories are very, very dark (a glimpse, I suspect, of what lurks in many comedians’ minds). The book should have been called Sit-Down Comedians, but publishers’ mis-marketing of their own product knows no bounds.

Owen wrote a story The Basketcase for Sit-Down Comedy: a particularly dark and moving tale. His short film of The Basket Case (which he also directed) won him the award for Best Short Fiction movie at the 2008 Boston Film Festival in the US and Best International Short at the 2010 Fantaspoa Film Festival in Brazil.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy probably do not know this. Most probably do not know his first feature film as writer Arise and Go Now was directed by Oscar-winning Danny Boyle or that his play Absolution got rave reviews during its off-Broadway run or that he co-wrote the stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption currently running in the West End of London.

I suspect if a literate alien arrived from Alpha Centauri and looked at the facts objectively, Owen would be described not as a stand-up comic but as a playwright who also performs comedy (his plays are many and varied).

You get typecast as being one thing in life no matter how much you do.

In the last couple of months, comedian Ricky Grover appeared in BBC TV soap EastEnders; and the movie Big Fat Gypsy Gangster, which he wrote and directed, was released.

What do you call people like this?

Well, in Ricky’s case, you obviously call him “Mr Grover” and treat him with respect.

He also wrote for Sit-Down Comedy and I know his background too well!

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Movies, Television, Theatre, Writing

Why I was dragged into a cellar in Essex and a gun shoved into my mouth

The first time I met Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner was shortly before I got dragged down into a basement in north east London and had a gun shoved in my mouth while former boxer, hairdresser, comedian and now EastEnders actor and film director Ricky Grover shouted at me, “You’re a fucking cunt! You’re a fucking cunt! I’m gonna fuckin’ blow yer fuckin’ head off!”

He was not a happy man.

In fact, he had ‘lost it’ – his eyes were blazing at me, his voice had gone up in pitch, he was sweating and shaking with uncontrollable anger.

Noel Faulkner was supposed to be directing a documentary at the time, though I think he and the crew were left upstairs when I was dragged downstairs.

Your memory strangely forgets some details when you are being threatened with a bloody death by a large man who knows from professional experience how to hurt people.

In the sadly largely-reviled movie Killer Bitch, I played the part of a charity collector who was, I felt, unfairly gunned-down in the street while collecting money on the pavement for Help For Heroes. I was shot in the face by a rather grumpy character played by Big Joe Egan (although, off-screen Big Joe was extremely charming and I am sure will go far on Irish charm alone).

I am, alas, not in Ricky Grover’s new movie Big Fat Gypsy Gangster – a major casting blunder by the normally spot-on Ricky – but I was in a showreel version he shot several years ago to raise money for the project. At that time and, indeed, until very recently the movie project was called Bulla: The Movie and I played the part of a bank manager who was, I felt, unfairly brutalised by Ricky’s character Bulla.

“Can’t I play a more sexy role?” I asked Ricky at the time. “Is there no dashing romantic role for me?”

Ricky replied with, I felt, unnecessary honesty: “I’ve always thought you looked like a bank manager, John.”

I tried to take it as a compliment.

So that was how I ended up in the basement of a disused bank on some suburban Essex high road in north east London with a gun being stuck in my mouth – I think it might have been Woodford Green.

I have never seen the footage, but I think I carried it off with the style for which I am known.

The character I played is not in the actually-shot version of the film, although there is a brief similar scene in a bank vault towards the end. Perhaps Ricky is saving me for a romantic role in his next film.

But there is the thought lingering in dark recesses at the back of my mind that perhaps he cast me because he had always wanted to degrade me and stick the barrel of a gun in my mouth.

There are worse things which can happen to you in the wonderful world of film making.

Noel Faulkner has been replaced by an American.

5 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Movies, Television