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Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, was a very vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and a supporter of the Stop The War Coalition.

She is performing Accidentally Muslim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

She trained as an actress, became a journalist and converted to Islam in 2010.

Her father was actor Tony Boothwho became famous as the Left Wing son-in-law of Alf Garnett in BBC TV’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

“Your mother’s maiden name was Pamela Cohen”

Accidentally Muslim is a dramatisation of her 2016 memoir Finding Peace in the Holy Land.


JOHN: Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Tony Blair?

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: So you are persona grata…

LAUREN: Ehhh… Well, I think there’s a lot of love in the family.

JOHN: Your mother was Susie Riley née Pamela Cohen. That’s a Jewish name.

LAUREN: Yeah. Her father, my grandfather, was Jewish.

JOHN: Was her mother Jewish?

LAUREN: No.

JOHN: So she’s technically not Jewish.

LAUREN: That’s right.

JOHN: There’s a lot of stuff at the moment about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Can someone be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish?

LAUREN: I’m not going to go into that, because that’s not in my show.

JOHN: So…?

LAUREN: It’s not the same at all.

JOHN: Why not?

Lauren in Iran with an anti-Zionist Rabbi and Christian priest

LAUREN: Because you can be against a political regime without wishing harm on people who follow a faith. There are Zionists who are not Jewish and it’s the political ideas that people protest against.

JOHN: Why are you an ‘accidental’ Muslim?

LAUREN: Because things kept happening to me that pushed me in one direction until, one day, I pretty much woke up and went: Whaaaaat?? – Oh! OK! Right!

Some people will go and read and study for six years. Other people will just accept a faith. But I was resisting. I was like: Nice food, but no thankyou. And… it just happened.

JOHN: You saw a report on TV in 2000 of a boy who got shot in the Gaza Strip and then you accidentally found yourself in his village.

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: Are you Sunni or Shiite?

LAUREN: I just say I am Muslim.

JOHN: Can you be?

LAUREN: You can, because everything is between our hearts and the Creator. I just think it’s really disingenuous and unhelpful to get involved in sectarianism.

JOHN: Don’t people say: “You have to be with us or them”?

LAUREN: Yes, unfortunately that happens and that’s why I don’t go into it.

JOHN: How do you spell the faith? Moslem or Muslim?

LAUREN: Muslim. Like the word mosque. You know the origin? Apparently the colonial troops in India described the people flocking to their religious building as mosquitos – that eeeee sound. There were thousands of them and you didn’t want them, so that’s why it’s ‘mosque’. Most Muslims refer to it as ‘masjid’.

Young Sarah Jane later Lauren Booth

JOHN: You were born Sarah Jane Booth. So where did ‘Lauren’ come from?

LAUREN: It’s an Equity name. There was already an actress called Sarah Jane Booth, my height, brown hair, brown eyes, born the same year.

JOHN: That is rather creepy. You have a doppelgänger!

(LAUREN HUMS THE THEME TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE)

LAUREN: I just plucked ‘Lauren’ out of the air.

JOHN: Accidentally Muslim is billed as a play in the Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Is it a play or a monologue?

LAUREN: A monologue.

JOHN: So is it a monologue about how we should all become Muslims?

LAUREN: Absolutely not.

JOHN: But it’s going to be a terribly serious talk about death, destruction and…

LAUREN: Well, I’ve just come out of rehearsals for it and we’ve been roaring with laughter for 30 minutes. It has some real light and shade in it.

JOHN: You have a director for the show. You started as an actress, then became a journalist. You can write and you can act. Why do you need a director?

LAUREN: It would have been such an act of arrogance to have come back after 26 years of not being on the stage as an actor and say: “I can do this on my own!”… It would have been a catastrophe. I wanted to dramatise the story and make it ‘live’. It has a soundscape and visuals and lighting cues and I play twelve characters. So it’s very much not a lecture.

JOHN: So it’s not a monologue: it IS more of a play.

LAUREN: Is it a one woman dramatisation? Does that work? One of the characters I play is Billy Connolly.

One of the 12 characters Lauren will play (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

JOHN: If you have to cover your head for religious reasons and you don’t have a beard, how are you going to do that?

LAUREN: You’ll have to see the play to find out.

JOHN: Good PR!… So the play is a coming-together of your skills as an actress, journalist, world traveller…?

LAUREN: You know, going through these rehearsals, it’s a story of somebody who’s by chance at certain pivotal moments in history and has certain realisations along the way. It covers 40 years, 12 characters, 2 faiths and 2 or 3 continents.

JOHN: Which continent is the Middle East in?

LAUREN: It’s a totally Orientalist term. The Orientalists said Britain is the middle of the world and everything else (beyond the English Channel) is East, so it is the Middle of the East.

JOHN: It’s certainly not Africa; it’s certainly not Europe; it’s not Asia.

LAUREN: What about calling it Middle Earth?

JOHN: We would have to worry about the Nazgûl coming in. Talking of which, among others, you wrote for the New Statesman AND for the Mail on Sunday. There’s a – eh – mixture of politics in there.

LAUREN: Well, my politics was always the same. I like to tell myself that the Right Wing paid for my Left Wing pretensions. But I don’t know if ethically, looking back, that really works. Can you take quite so much money off Associated Newspapers and still be Left Wing? That’s up for debate. But I wrote what I wanted. They did give me free rein and I did get some good stories that I wanted in because I used to stand-in for Suzanne Moore: hardly a bastion of the Right.

I described doing that kind of job as being an aquifer for hatred for Middle England.

JOHN: …and at the New Statesman? The type of stuff you were writing was…?

LAUREN: I would call myself  “a chronicler of London society” at that time.

The Daily Mail’s photo of Lauren with her dad Tony Booth

JOHN: Someone said, when you converted, you had moved “from hedonism to hajj”. Your dad, actor Tony Booth, was very Bohemian.

LAUREN: Well, we are all products of our childhood and my dad taught me an awful lot. He taught me how to roll a spliff that would look like a cigarette.

JOHN: Remembered fondly.

LAUREN: Absolutely.

JOHN: You’ve worked for Press TV AND Al Jazeera. Press TV? That’s pure propaganda…

LAUREN: It was the only place to get out some really good information about Palestine.

JOHN: You spend a lot of time in the Middle East?

LAUREN: I haven’t been for five years. I’m hoping to go back to Qatar. I can’t really get into Gaza at the moment. The last time I went through Israel was 2009. The problem with getting into Gaza is you can’t get in through Egypt. You have to go in through Israel.

JOHN: Do you personally, specifically have problems getting into Israel?

LAUREN: I haven’t so far.

JOHN: You were on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2006. Why did you do that?

LAUREN: Because it was adventure. The only thing that scared me was bungee jumping and I did three… Three!

JOHN: The viewers voted that you had to?

LAUREN: Yeah.

JOHN: You are always going to be tarred with Tony Blair… but the good side is you will always get coverage out of it.

LAUREN: It’s not about coverage. I have no issue with it having been a door-opener. At certain times, you have to say: That door was absolutely opened because of it. What you do when you get inside, though, is what defines you. So I am very grateful for that and I hope I’ve used it for good and made some points that needed to be made and told stories for people who don’t normally get their stories told.

JOHN: I was going to say it’s a cross you have to bear. But I suppose it’s a crescent you have to bear.

LAUREN: Can I have that for the play?

JOHN: It’s yours.

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Filed under Islam, Palestine, Politics, Religion

Candy Gigi – Ethel Merman meets Lionel Bart in a 5-Stars-of-David show

Candy Gigi in London last night with composer and musical accompanist Jordan Clarke

I almost never do reviews in this blog but – hey! – if it involves a bit of self-publicity too…

The late Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards had a halfway-decent hit rate, including spotting future US successes Trevor Noah, Bo Burnham and Reggie Watts.

In 2014, we gave the main award for Comic Originality to Candy Gigi.

Last night I saw a beyond-barnstorming London preview of her Edinburgh Fringe show this year: Friday Night Sinner.

It is an astounding abso-fucking-lutely gross-out musical about a frustrated young, wildly psychopathic Jewish girl’s life and marriage in Borehamwood.  

The poster bills it (and this rather understates the case) as:

and the blurb listing says: “This deluded, narcissistic, unsatisfied occasionally violent woman has delusions of grandeur and wants to become the biggest star in the universe – or at least in Borehamwood.”

Far too OTT to be staged by any mainstream West End Theatre, but with superbly tuneful songs by Jordan Clarke performed by Candy Gigi with belting all-stops-out passion, including Borehamwood!, Finishing What Hitler Started and the hopefully/possibly prophetic She Will Be a Star. 

This (certainly in the preview last night) is a 5-Stars-of David show.

There is a clever line in one of the songs about wanting to be “a Jewish Barbra Streisand“.

But it felt more to me like Ethel Merman Meets Lionel Bart in some unholy, foul-mouthed, foul-imaged, sweet-tuned union.

It will be a bloody miracle if Candy Gigi’s voice lasts out for the whole 3½ weeks of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I always thought she had immense potential though what on earth she could do with it I was never quite sure. Now I know. Candy Gigi should be on the West End and Broadway stage in a musical (with words and images that don’t make your aged aunt or Miss Marmelstein blush).

One warning:

As with all Candy Gigi shows, do not sit in the front rows unless you enjoy imminent physical peril.

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Filed under Comedy, Jewish, Music

Gay comic Sam See from Singapore is Coming Out Loud at Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Sam See will be in Edinburgh this August but here he plays the Merry Lion in Singapore.

Scots comic Scott Agnew suggested Sam See from Singapore talk to me.

So we chatted via Skype…


Sam See at home in Singapore yesterday.

JOHN: Your show is called Coming Out Loud. Good title, because the audience knows what it’s going to get.

SAM: (LAUGHS) Dick jokes for an hour!

JOHN: Is there an elevator pitch for the show?

SAM: An openly gay comedian coming from a country where free speech and homosexuality is illegal… Expect dick jokes.

JOHN: Can you say free speech is illegal in Singapore?

SAM: No. In Singapore, I can’t say that free speech is illegal in Singapore. If you criticise the lack of free speech while you are here, you will be… erm… It’s a lovely irony.

JOHN: Is being gay totally illegal in Singapore?

SAM: Yes. It’s 100% illegal. The law itself is as vague as possible. It is basically the old-school English sodomy laws. It is illegal but…

JOHN: So how can you talk on stage about being gay if it’s illegal?

SAM: Because I am not yet popular or famous enough. On stage I always say I am gay. But, if they try to arrest me, I can say it is a character and then they would have to prove I’m gay which… well, good luck to them.

JOHN: So doing this chat with me could get you imprisoned…

SAM: It depends… They would need to prove I have done something untowards with another gentleman…

JOHN: You can say you are gay provided you’ve done nothing about it…?

SAM: Kinda. But, if you are on-stage saying it, they can still fine you or arrest you for homosexual propaganda or propagating that homosexuality is positive.

JOHN: Anyway, Coming Out Loud at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Why?

SAM: A lot of Edinburgh regulars recommended I should give it a bash – Martin Mor told me: “Come over, Sam, do the full run, go crazy and lose money.”

I guess I have to. It’s the Hajj. It’s the Mecca for comics: we all have to do it once in our life. But I don’t understand how people can do it for 10 or 20 years: a whole month!

JOHN: It’s addictive.

Sam is gearing up for Edinburgh with a tour of South East Asia

SAM: I am doing a whole run shows around Asia before it. I am gearing up to play outside my comfort zone.

JOHN: You started performing comedy in 2012…

SAM: Yes. The comedy scene is Asia is less than ten years old.

JOHN: I presume, if you are gay, you can’t play China?

SAM: I can, actually. I have played Brunei, if you can believe that!

JOHN: Did they reverse the law about stoning people to death if they are gay?

SAM: It’s on hold. The law is technically not in effect but it has not been repealed. In very heavy Moslem areas like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, I have to be really careful. If I play there, I try to play in embassies like the British or American so I have that clemency of being on international soil.

JOHN: Remembering this is going online, is it just a problem with Islam?

SAM: No. Myanmar is heavily Buddhist and they set people on fire. In China, they put people in re-education camps. There are heavy beliefs in this part of the world: whether religious or atheistic.

There was a chief from the UN who came down to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya crisis and the chief Buddhist monk of Myanmer called her a slut and threatened to have her raped… Remember this is a man of peace.

JOHN: How do your audiences react to a gay comic?

SAM: They have changed over time. They don’t mind hearing about it; but not too much. When I first started, it was a combination of me not knowing how to tailor the material for the audiences and the audiences not being ready to receive such information. But I have become a more competent performer with time and they have grown with time.

Sam See or Woody Harrelson? You decide.

JOHN: People get pigeonholed. Who do people compare you with?

SAM: I see myself as a much longer-form Joan Rivers, more into storytelling and less insults. 

JOHN: Joan Rivers? So acid-tongued. 

SAM: Yes, acid-tongued, hopefully fast on my feet. But I’ve had comparisons to John Oliver; I’ve had Trevor Noah. For some reason, Woody Harrelson once.

JOHN: What???

SAM: I have no idea why. He is not known for his stand-up comedy!

JOHN: Are there many gay comics in Singapore and surrounds?

SAM: No. I am the one openly gay comedian. There are two who are closeted and one bisexual, but she is more into poetry than stand-up.

JOHN: I presume no-one is admitting to being lesbian?

SAM: None of the locals. There are some expats who come to Asia, do stand-up and say: “I’m proud to be a lesbian.” But then they move on.

JOHN: Things must be getting better. You have been on TV in a weekly Singapore panel show OK Chope!

SAM: No-one had really done the panel show format in the region before. There are variety show formats but not the traditional UK-style panel show. Host, regular panellists and rotating guest panellists.

JOHN: Did it work?

SAM: It was a mess, because it was a topical news show where we were not allowed to talk about news because… well… it’s Singapore.

It was a one-hour show transmitted live, with a zero second delay.

JOHN: Jesus! A zero second delay?

SAM: Yes. I am not kidding.

JOHN: This was actually transmitted? It wasn’t just a pilot?

SAM: Yes, a full season… 7.30pm prime time, before the watershed.

JOHN: Double Jesus!

SAM: We all managed to drink in the afternoon before we shot it.

JOHN: Did the TV company get nervous after Episode One?

SAM: Oh yes. Every week, we would have one of the government censors watching us from a booth. He would give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

JOHN: But, if it’s live, it’s too late…

SAM: Well, too late for the show but not too late to put us in jail.

JOHN: And it ended because…

SAM: We made fun of the then Prime Minister of Malaysia who had been accused of being a thief and we made jokes about it and somehow he watched that episode.

JOHN: And the result was…?

SAM: He called our Prime Minister who took us off the air.

JOHN: So the series ended before it was due to end.

SAM: It happened on the last episode at the end of the season.

JOHN: So was someone being intentionally provocative?

Sam See addresses his audience

SAM: No, that whole segment had actually cleared the censors. It was just that, at the time, Malaysia was having an election, so they needed a scapegoat and a way to look strong. If they can get the neighbouring country to formally apologise to them, it makes them look powerful and in control.

JOHN: Do you have a 5-year career plan that starts in Edinburgh and ends in Las Vegas?

SAM: Well, it starts in Edinburgh and then I am in talks with some folks over in the United States for representation. 

JOHN: Presumably, like performers everywhere, you want to move to the US.

SAM: I don’t know. I think I would like to move to one of the other countries, but I would still make Singapore my home base because (a) it is my home and (b) the tax rates are better. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: I suspect Donald Trump thinks Singapore is somewhere in South America.

SAM: No. He knows where we are, because he started the North Korean treaties here.

JOHN: (LAUGHS) You should play North Korea!

SAM: You joke, but some of us have been thinking about it for a while. You just have to find an embassy that’s crazy enough to go along with the idea and just play it on embassy soil and don’t make jokes about the North Korean government or mention South Korea.

JOHN: Getting in might be a problem. And let’s not even fantasise about getting out. Singapore doesn’t have an embassy there, does it?

SAM: We can enter North Korea visa-free.

JOHN: Really???

SAM: Yes, we can just walk in on a holiday.

JOHN: Bloody hell!

 

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Gay, Singapore

Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore – but still has views

Joe Wells is a political comedian. He has written for Have I Got News For You and performed as support act to Frankie Boyle and Alexei Sayle.

Joe Wells faces a bit of a career crisis…

His previous Edinburgh Fringe shows were Night of The Living Tories (2014), 10 Things I Hate About UKIP (2016) and I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative (2017).

But this August his show is entitled: Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore!

So that’s a bit of a career crisis.

Between the ages of 8 and 15, he suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He overcame it with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. When he was 15, he started writing about his experiences of OCD.

These writings went on to form the basis of his first book Touch and Go Joe.


JOHN: So… you have been doing previews of your new show before it hits Edinburgh…

JOE: Yes. In some of my previews, I’ve felt a bit self-conscious because, in part of the show, I am really quite earnest and I worry that is going to be a bit weird for the preview audiences. Though I know, in Edinburgh, they are going to be open to that. There is so much different stuff at the Edinburgh Fringe and people go there with such an open mind.

JOHN: Your show says what it’s about in the title: Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore! Anything else?

JOE: One of the things I would like the show to be is a sort of defence of Comedy because, from all sides, it feels like it’s trendy to slag off Comedy. From the Left, people are saying Comedy is bullying and horrible. From the Right, they say Comedy has become too PC and comedians are just saying what people want to hear. 

I don’t think either of those things is true.

Comedy is great because it puts viewpoints in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear those viewpoints. That is what the Left should be striving for: getting people to hear from voices they don’t often hear.

But the Left has become quite insular: Let’s just talk amongst ourselves.

JOHN: Maybe Comedy audiences tend to be Left-leaning.

JOE: I want there to be Right Wing people in my audience so I can put forward my ideas of how I want the world to be. Why wouldn’t I want that?

French National Assembly: the original Left and Right Wingers

JOHN: There is this idea that defining politics as Left or Right is wrong. It’s just an accident of history – the way they sat in the French National Assembly. Thinking about Left and Right is misleading – it’s not a straight line: it’s a circle. If you take Left and Right to their extreme extremes, they both end up in the same place. A more sensible division might be Authoritarian and Libertarian.

JOE: But then, again, that becomes full circle. I want us to have a Welfare State; I want us to have… things which some people would see as Authoritarian. I think… yeah… I dunno. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. The thing is comedians do not really know what they are talking about. I think that’s partly why I don’t want to do political stuff any more. I mean, I’m not a political theorist.

JOHN: But you do want to put your views out there, like all comedians… And all comedians are misfits. Different. If they were more like everyone else, then they wouldn’t be interesting to listen to. It’s because they can come up with a bizarre, unexpected angle – a different viewpoint on something. Michael McIntyre is arguably the most successful stand-up in Britain at the moment. And he is telling ordinary people about things they see every day – nothing new – but they haven’t seen those things from his viewpoint before.

JOE: I think he’s great, though I’m not queueing up to buy tickets. His routine about the bus stop is just a powerfully-written routine. Yes, to some extent, you have to be on the outside looking in.

JOHN: In a sense, if you do not have a character defect, maybe you cannot be a good comedian.

Joe Wells manages to fit into a bath…

JOE: I can’t think of many comedians who really properly ‘fit in’.

But, outside of comedy, I do know loads of people who I think do fit it. They know where they belong in things. Even though there are comedians who take their kids to school and lead a ‘normal’ life, they’re still a little bit… not so normal.

JOHN: Why did doing specifically political comedy attract you?

JOE: I talk about it in the show… I was an angry young man and a lot of that anger came from stuff that was not to do with politics. But at 18 or 19 I would go on protests – and shouting and being a political comedian and rallying against things was incredibly cathartic.

I am still a big Leftie and there’s still lots of injustices and things I want to change, but I’ve realised that the reason I fitted so neatly into being an angry political comedian was because I got to feel OK about being angry.

When we talk about mental health, people say: It’s OK to feel sad; it’s OK to feel this or that. But you rarely hear people say: It’s OK to feel really angry about things which aren’t anyone’s fault. I can feel angry about things that happened in the past and there’s rarely an individual I can blame for stuff that’s happened in the past. But I can still feel that anger. And it’s valid. It’s OK to feel really angry.

I have felt angry a lot of my life.

JOHN: Because…?

JOE: Well the show has a ‘reveal’ – about whether or not I am autistic. I was assessed for autism in February this year. The reveal is whether they said I am… or not.

“Why don’t these kids at school want to be my friends?” (Photograph by Ed Moore)

I did have those traits and I was different. I could not make friends and I didn’t fit in. I thought: Why can’t I fit in here at school? I feel I’m nice and I feel I’m a kind person. So why don’t these kids at school want to be my friends?

I think that informed a lot of my life growing up. I don’t have many male friends. Most of my good friends are women. I would go to parties and see all the men would talk together. They’ve got some jigsaw pieces where they fit together and it works. There was something that was not working with me.

I have always had a real chip on my shoulder about football. I hated football fans.

But then I realised what it is is that my dad used to take me to football and it was so noisy. I hated all that shouting and noise. I found it overwhelming and horrible and I felt angry with the people making that noise. And, in my head, I created a story about that – Football fans are horrible!

But now I know lots of people who are into football and that’s fine… It’s not football fans I hate – It’s that noise. But I felt the anger and had to come up with a reason for why I felt that anger.

People need a narrative around why they feel a certain way and, if there’s no narrative…

One of the things I talk about in the show is that, in Comedy, everyone has their say.

“They are different – you can’t compare a fish and a cat…” (Photograph by Hannah Reding via UnSplash)

There are problems with diversity in Comedy – of course there are – but, moreso than in any other industry or art form, there are people from COMPLETELY different backgrounds, COMPLETELY different world views, seeing things in COMPLETELY different ways.

I would argue that Comedy is more neurodiverse than any other…

JOHN: Neurodiverse? What does that mean?

JOE: People think differently. There’s a book NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. The basic idea is we have bio-diversity and different animals all play their role. You need all those animals. They are different – you can’t compare a fish and a cat – but they all co-exist and are necessary. Same with cultural diversity.

And we also have neuro-diversity. Some people are more on the autistic side; others are good at social things and are very good at connecting to people emotionally; it’s all part of diversity.

The old way of looking at things is that there is this ‘good way’ of being and thinking, but actually the best way is for everyone to think and view things differently.

A lot of comics think about things differently and come at things from different angles and that’s part of how you write comedy – looking at things in a different way.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Michael Livesley: “an outrageous talent” has a comedy show and slimming advice

“An outrageous talent,” is how Stephen Fry described him.

“Bellowing, manic chutzpah,” said Robin Ince.

“Brilliant! Berserk! Simply wonderful!” wrote the Guardian.

But now Michael Livesley is quite literally only Half The Man he was and that is the title of his first ever show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August.

He has appeared in this blog a few times before, when he was staging Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Vivian Stanshall tribute shows with, among others, Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman and Stephen Fry .

Half The Man is totally different…

…Michael Palin (left) with the old-style Michael Livesley…


The new-look Michael Livesley – “It’s time for me to move on”

JOHN: You are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time this year… Why?

MICHAEL: It’s time for me to move on.

JOHN: The show is in the Comedy section But you’re not a stand-up comedian, are you?

MICHAEL: No.

JOHN: So what are you?

MICHAEL: I don’t know. I suppose the word Storyteller fits. I was a singer and then I ended-up getting into acting. I’m just talking about me life, really.

JOHN: The show is…?

MICHAEL: The line that sums it up is: Losing weight is a thermodynamic process. Eat less; move more. But it’s one that’s complicated by emotional baggage.

It’s not just about losing weight. It’s about what leads people to the psychology of locking themselves indoors and hiding away from society and filling the void – the dearth of having a social life or a life in general, filling that emotional void with food and drinking. Which is what I was doing.

JOHN: But with humour?

MICHAEL: It definitely has laughs!

JOHN: So you have lost a bit of weight…

MICHAEL: Yes, I started on the 20th of September 2018 when I was 23 stone 4lbs and, by January 2019, I’d lost five stone.

JOHN: And how much are you now, at the start of July 2019?

MICHAEL: 13 stone.

JOHN: And that’s the show?

MICHAEL: Well, I found out a lot about myself, not just by going through the process of losing weight but in the process of writing this show. I found out where my triggers were. Did you have breakfast this morning?

JOHN: Two boiled eggs. Two slices of toast.

MICHAEL: You see, in the past, I couldn’t have done that. I would have had to have 12 pieces of toast and 10 eggs. And it’s all down to this thing called the Scarcity and Abundancy Mentality.

People who have a Scarcity Mentality have… well… How many pies would you like?… ALL of them… How many pints of beer would you like?… How many have you GOT? I want to have them all because I don’t know when there’s going to be more.

Michael sings with Neil Innes at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre

It went back to all the poverty when I was growing up. Me nan had a saying: It’s like giving a donkey strawberries.

The donkey won’t stop eating strawberries and that’s kinda what I’m like. It’s not what I WAS like. It’s what I AM like.

So I changed me diet to this ketogenic diet which removes carbohydrates.

JOHN: Why?

MICHAEL: Because carbohydrate for me is… Once that chain reaction of glucose and sugar and everything within my body starts, it gives me a reward in the brain – a hormonal reward – it spikes insulin – whatever you want to say – that is addictive to me. That pleasure feeling is addictive to me.

That’s the physical addiction side of it.

But then there’s the attachment side of it. That goes on in a part of the brain I refer to as the pub-conscious. The attachment side of it is: Remember when that person split up with you, you had that big pizza and that big bottle of cola and aaah you felt good? Or: You remember when that person died, after the funeral you got really pissed and you were having a laugh with your mates?

All these things ‘leave a ring around the bath’ as they say. And you try to emulate these things like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations where she’s in her wedding dress and has the wedding cake. You try to surround yourself and build an artifice dedicated to the past. But the past has gone. 

Michael (left) and his friend Lee photographed in June 1993 (top image) and in a June 2019 re-staging of the same photo

So the day you realise the past is dead, that’s the day that things start to change. Because you realise that actually there is a life to lead. It’s about the hard work of recognising that. Letting go of the past. Letting go of all the emotional crutches that were sustaining you in a non-life.

All these shitty things happened to me in the past, but I’m still worthy of fulfilling the potential of living my life.

That’s what I realised.

German compound verbs seem to come up an awful lot when I’m writing. The one German word that describes all this is torschlusspanik – ‘gate shut panic’ – which means ‘time is running out’.

We call it a mid-life crisis.

That feeling is what happened to me. I got this torschlusspanik.

People like you were telling me I should be getting on with things. You know you’re capable of at least having a go at this stuff. Get on with it. What’s standing in your way? – Oh, well, I don’t want to stand out there being 24 stone because of all the criticism and all the public shaming.

Public humiliation forms a big component of fat people’s lives. And the name-calling and all the other shit you go through in life… which bit by bit by bit makes you retreat and shrink your world down to your basic ‘Sitting in a room surrounded by things that give you comfort in the hope that you can reignite that fire within your mind and within your emotional being’.

So that’s kind of the story. I lay on my side for so long that the hair on my left leg stopped growing. Honestly. Truly. I was so lazy, my hair couldn’t be arsed growing.

JOHN: But you weren’t just sitting in a room doing nothing. You were constantly going off on stage being jolly and singing and joking.

The old Michael (beer bottle in hand) with Rick Wakeman

MICHAEL: I was doing that every now and then but, in-between, I’d lock myself away and drink and drink and drink – just crazy fucking drinking.

JOHN: And you moved back from London to Lancashire. Was that linked?

MICHAEL: I suppose now, looking back, you could say that gave me the support that I needed and made me feel less anxious. Because anxiety and depression were completely and utterly ruining me life.

JOHN: And…?

MICHAEL: Charles Bukowski, the American poet, has this great poem called The Spark about how shit his life was but how he kept this spark and how he would have to blow on it to keep it alive and it was kinda keeping him alive. The poem ends with the great line: A spark can set a whole forest on fire. Just a spark. Save it.

My show is about me trying to do everything I could to give me the outward confidence to match what I believed I could potentially do to improve myself and improve the life of others.

It’s a modern phenomenon: eating all this crap and locking ourselves away. We didn’t used to have the option. You had to get off your arse and go out to work every day.

JOHN: You don’t want to lose any more weight, do you?

MICHAEL: Well, I could but I can’t. I’ve been on these monitors at the gym that tell your body fat and I’ve got no body fat to lose. I’ve got so much muscle now. I’ve never been that guy. I’ve become muscular by accident.

JOHN: What are you going to do after the Fringe?

MICHAEL: I’d like to tour the show. And I do the videos online. I’ve been doing videos talking about the process.

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Noel Faulkner, outspoken comedy club owner, quits London after 40 years

Outspoken Noel Faulkner, the veteran (he will hate me using that word) club-owner is leaving London after about 40 years  (though with an interlude of about 18 years of that in the US). He started and ran London’s Comedy Cafe venue and, through his management agency, helped establish acts including Jimmy Carr. Last night, I met up with him to ask why he is leaving.

I had been seeing a comedy show and we met outside the venue after the show finished. That was his choice.


Noel Faulkner in London yesterday

JOHN: So you’re leaving in around 9-10 days. Do you have a set date for departure?

NOEL: No. I’m out of my house in London in about a week, then I’m going back to Galway. I’m from Galway. I’ve got a house there; I’m buying a boat – 40 or 45ft – and I’m going to sail six months of the year in the Mediterranean.

JOHN: I thought you were from Killarney.

NOEL: My parents moved a village in Connemara when I was a teenager. I was only there for a few years. Galway’s my home town.

JOHN: So why are you going back?

NOEL: Mainly because everybody I know in London is working. I never see anybody. All my friends are comics and I don’t want to hang round in comedy clubs. There is nothing more boring. I’d rather watch a proctologist operate.

JOHN: But you ran comedy clubs for…

NOEL: It’s all gone. After the Comedy Cafe closed, we tried it in a hotel but the people there were fucking idiots; they kept wanting to change the opening times. It’s done.

JOHN: Aren’t you going to feel pangs of nostalgia?

NOEL: I never want to see another comedian perform. I could have gone to this show you went to today. But I thought: I’m not going to sit in that. I just can’t be around comedy. You know the punchline and then the fuckers don’t hit it and you go: Oh! Fucking hell! I have no interest in comedy now. None.

JOHN: But you have an active mind. Galway is lovely. But you will get bored after six months, just sitting around.

NOEL: I’ll have a sail boat: you are permanently fixing something on a sail boat. I can fuck off anywhere I wanna go.

JOHN: And you are going to finish your autobiography in Ireland?

NOEL: Yeah. When I started writing it, there was only one Panama Canal. Since then, they’ve built a second one.

JOHN: Is it basically your 2005 Edinburgh Fringe show Shake, Rattle & Noel?

“…a Tourette-fuelled Helter Skelter ride through three decades” (New York Times)

NOEL: Yeah. But longer. More facts and craziness.

JOHN: What’s the last page? Leaving the Comedy Cafe?

NOEL: It doesn’t matter. Who’s going to buy it?

JOHN: You have amazing stories – Robin Williams, the drug cartels, being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the…

NOEL: Yeah, it’s a great book but I’m nobody, so I won’t get a publisher. I just wanna finish it for me. I have no ego any more about anything. I don’t give a fuck. 

JOHN: That’s age.

NOEL: Yeah. My mates are dying all around me. My brother’s girlfriend just died. I just want to get up every day and for it to be a good day and joyful.

JOHN: Paul Sinha has Parkinson’s Disease.

NOEL: Yeah. He’s a sweet man… Ian Cognito just died last month. I knew Paul (Cognito’s real name). He was a lovely man. Very sad.

JOHN: His death must have had an effect on you.

NOEL: Scary.  That’s why I realised… Just get the fucking boat… I might be dead in five years time.

JOHN: He was 60. But he had lived a fair old bit…

NOEL: A brilliant singer. I saw him sing with Peter Graham’s orchestra at the Hackney Empire… white tuxedo… beautiful. Highly talented but totally self-destructive. Permanently on self-destruct.

JOHN: I’m amazed Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones is still alive.

NOEL: It’s in the genes.

JOHN: Do you have long-living relatives?

NOEL: I have a great-great-great-grandfather who lived to be 125.

JOHN: Was he fairly compos mentis?

NOEL: I don’t know. I wasn’t born then.

JOHN: Comedy moves on. Jo Brand got into trouble. People in the UK have been throwing milk shakes at politicians. She joked on a BBC Radio show: “Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?” Nigel Farage complained; the police investigated but decided it was not an incitement to violence.

“We can’t start censoring. You’ll have Dialogue Police.”

NOEL: It was just a fucking joke. Listen, we can’t start censoring. You’ll have Dialogue Police. When I had the Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch, they were doing a test attaching microphones to lampposts. If someone was murdered, they would hear it and the CCTV guys could start looking at the… That’s how fucking… So we could be sitting here outside a cafe having a conversation and you swear 12 times and say this word and… We are right up to that!

JOHN: 1984.

NOEL: We can’t have it! If I was doing stuff on stage now, I would fucking tear into everybody and go: Fuck you all! It’s like “Good evening ladies and gentlemen and everyone with a sexual preference from A to fucking Z”… Now I haven’t offended anybody, ya cunts. It’s fucking ridiculous. I don’t even know what the initials LGBTQ… Does ANYbody fucking know what they stand for? NO. But some guy’s got a penis transplant to his forehead and a vagina in his ear… For fuck’s sake!

JOHN: You should seriously think about doing an Edinburgh Fringe show where you just go up and rant.

NOEL: I don’t want to spend a month up there. It’s depressing. Really depressing.

JOHN: But, if you don’t give a shit, it’s OK.

NOEL: You’re still depressed. I’ve been up there with money in my pocket. Hated it.

JOHN: When you did your show in 2005? But you probably cared then. The trick is not to care.

NOEL: Yeah, but you’re spending fucking £10,000. Edinburgh, for a comic, is the greatest illusion ever.

JOHN: In what way?

NOEL: That you’re gonna make it.

JOHN: Are you gonna have a farewell ‘do’?

NOEL: No.

JOHN: Oh go on… A farewell rant.

NOEL: No, I’m not. I don’t want to stand round in a bar having to talk to people. They can fuck off. I’m gone.

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Stand-up comedians, death and fame – Who will be remembered and why?

Yesterday, I was talking to someone about reviving the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – I would not be involved in them. 

Of course, few people have ever heard of Malcolm Hardee.

Fame, as they say, is a fickle mistress.

In the UK, who were the biggest and most-loved comedians of the late-20th Century?

Probably Morecambe & Wise.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Haynes.

Before him? Maybe Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Lucan.

But, younger readers might ask, Who WERE these people?

Arthur Haynes, Tommy Handley and Arthur Lucan?

Never heard of them.

Come to that, who the fuck was Arthur Askey?

Certainly, if you are my devoted reader in Guatemala, you will never have heard of them.

But massively famous in their lifetime is what they all were. In the UK. But now forgotten by subsequent generations in the UK. And still totally unknown elsewhere. 

If you were born and brought up in China, India, Indonesia, the USA… none of those names ever meant anything even when they were at the height of their fame. Perhaps Benny Hill was more famous worldwide. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese State Television interrupted their programming to announce his death. But do new generations remember him still in Shanghai or Guangzhou? I doubt it.

Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home in London, 1995

The annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards ran at the Edinburgh Fringe 2005-2017. 

Not a lot of people know that. Certainly not in Guatemala or Guangzhou.

I mentioned during the conversation I had yesterday that I thought there was a chance – perhaps an outside chance – that Malcolm Hardee might be remembered in the UK for much longer than other comedians who were ‘famous’ during his lifetime and who are nationally known today.

Come to that, given current events, memories of Malcolm might outlive the very existence of the UK.

Malcolm was not famous when he was alive – infamous in certain areas, yes, perhaps, but never famous.

He was totally unknown by the general public unless you mentioned to people of a certain age The Naked Balloon Dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT in 1981 or 1982. Then they might remember the three-man act doing the perfomance; but not him individually. He was the one on the left.

His death in 2005 got lengthy obituaries in all the quality press but none in the popular tabloids. Because, although he was widely-known by the media and very influential in the comedy industry – Heavens! GQ even ran a fashion spread featuring Malcolm – not a man known for his sartorial elegance! – the general public didn’t know he existed.

My point yesterday was that the material and style of comedy acts date but vivid anecdotes of real people’s lives do not. 

In my opinion, Malcolm was not a good stand-up comedian. In fact, you could hardly call him a stand-up comedian at all. Though he was a superb and much-underestimated MC/compere. 

People always correctly said that Malcolm’s act was his life. He had maybe eight or ten jokes which he repeated over 20 or so years. But ask people about him and what do they remember first? Not the jokes but:

    • the fact that, naked, he drove a tractor through someone else’s act at the Edinburgh Fringe.
    • the fact that (with Arthur Smith) he wrote a good review of his own Edinburgh Fringe show and conned The Scotsman newspaper into printing it thinking it was written by their own reviewer.

If you see a stand-up comedy show from 40, 30, 20, even 10 years ago, the material has dated; the style of delivery has dated; the physical look of the whole thing has dated. Even Morecambe & Wise shows, the last time I saw one, are starting to date. And, sadly, surprisingly, younger comedy fans do not find even Tommy Cooper as funny as those who saw him years ago.

Comedians’ acts and material date badly and relatively quickly.

But wildly eccentric OTT life stories and anecdotes about rebellious characters do not date.

If anyone ever fully collates the OTT anecdotes about recently-deceased comic Ian Cognito, there is another performer whose legend and personality were arguably greater than his impact on the general public.

The image which promoted the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in Edinburgh.

Successful comedians tend to be more mentally ‘together’ than the real wild card comics. People love the successful performers’ professional material, love their delivery. But they are less interesting off-stage.

When was the last time you heard a wildly eccentric anecdote about that brilliant on-stage performer Michael McIntyre doing something totally apeshit off-stage?

Malcolm Hardee could not walk from his home to the Post Office without five bizarre things happening to him – or causing bizarre things to happen.

Even the title of Malcolm’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (yes, he did) is OTT and the story of him stealing it will possibly still be funny decades hence, long after people have forgotten who, Freddie Mercury was.

Well, maybe that’s not true, because the off-stage Mercurial life story is a cracker too.

But my point is that anyone watching a 100% brilliant, top-notch Michael McIntyre routine… anyone watching an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python or Fawlty Towers… anyone watching a Robin Williams routine… in 75 or 100 years time… may not find any of them funny because tastes will have changed and cultural tastes are different. Humour in the form of jokes and scripted funny routines does not necessarily transcend borders.

A joke that is funny in Indonesia may not make ‘em rock with laughter in Canada or Novosibirsk today. A joke or routine that is funny in London today may not be funny in London in 2099. But a bizarre anecdote about a man who “throughout his life maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences” (as Malcolm Hardee’s obituary in The Times said) is likely to outlive all the people who were more ‘famous’ than he was during his lifetime.

Malcolm Hardee – generally unknown during his lifetime and remembered by few since then – may yet outlive those who apparently achieved more during their lives. 

Lao Tzu is right that “the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long”. But the flame which burns half as bright as those around it is still just as 100% hot when you stick your finger in it and yet may burn twice as long.

Of course, if you’re dead, it doesn’t do you any good so, as Malcolm himself would have said: “Fuck it!”

Or: “It don’t matter, do it? There are people starving in Africa. Not all over… Round the edge… fish.”

RIP the unknown comic, Malcolm Hardee, 1950-2005.

I know someone is going to mention that Charlie Chaplin is remembered fairly worldwide. But I don’t care and I never found him funny anyway. And I am already regretting the line about sticking your finger in…

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Filed under Comedy, Fame