Tag Archives: Elstree

With other comedy clubs closing, a new one opens in maybe an ideal location…

Borehamwood view by Google with 96 pretty-much centred

I live in Borehamwood which is on the north west edge of London, just inside the M25, London’s outer orbital road. This is relevant.

I moved here because of the easy access. It is close to and betwixt three motorways – the M1, the A1(M) and the M25.

It is also on the Thameslink railway line (appallingly managed by the incompetent Govia franchise but extremely convenient). Trains run direct from Luton and Bedford (north of London) to Brighton (on England’s South Coast), connecting Luton Airport with Gatwick Airport and running through the middle of London, across Blackfriars Bridge, interchanging, I think, with every Underground line in London. And the trains run throughout the night.

Borehamwood (just to confuse visiting Americans) is home to Elstree Film Studios (which also hosts TV shows like Big Brother) and to the BBC’s Elstree Studios (home of the TV soap EastEnders).

What is strange is that it has had no permanent comedy club.

Until now.

Philip Simon outside Borehamwood’s 96 venue

This Saturday, comic Philip Simon is opening the Borehamwood Comedy Club in the local Council-owned 96 venue, right slap-bang in the middle of the high street.

The Jongleurs comedy chain has staged a few sporadic ‘On The Road’ gigs at the venue. But, last month, Jongleurs went bust.

“I have always thought that Borehamwood is the perfect place for comedy,” Philip told me. “It was just a case of finding the right venue. When Jongleurs ended, the Council was approached by every comedy booker you can imagine, including some that have no links whatever in London or even in the South. But I think the Council were more interested in working with a local one-man-band than a big company, so here I am.”

“It’s a great location for a comedy club,“ I said.

“Transport is really important,” agreed Philip. “Elstree & Borehamwood station is the last stop on the Oyster (cheap travel) card and it’s very easy to get to. I did a gig last night in Brixton (in South London) and I got back to Borehamwood in 45 minutes – and that was three trains. Acts can double-up very easily.

“I genuinely think you can get top-level acts who would have opened at maybe the Comedy Store in Central London and be looking for a second show to close and think: Oh! I can get to Borehamwood in half an hour! Because of the transport links, there’s no reason we couldn’t get Brighton acts. It’s a direct train. The venue is a 5-minute – if that! – walk from the station…”

“And the trains run all night,” I said.

Philip has written for TV’s Mock the Week and Taskmaster

Philip was involved in setting up the Comedians’ Network within the actors’ union Equity.

“I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” he told me, “about the way acts have been treated by promoters on the comedy circuit in general – not specifically related to Jongleurs. About how replaceable we comedians are and how irrelevant we are to the bigger picture. So when I found Jongleurs had booked acts here already, the first thing I said was: Those are the acts I want to replace themselves, if they’re still available.

There was already a date booked in here by Jongleurs – this Saturday 25th November – so I took that and went back to the acts who were previously booked by Jongleurs and had been let down. I wanted to honour the bookings so the people who had potentially lost money were given first refusal on the new gig. There had been three acts booked. Two of them signed back up and one was busy elsewhere.”

“And the two are?” I asked.

“Lateef Lovejoy and Trevor Crook. I added in Geoff Boyz to close and I am going to compere it. In future, it will be that same format – One act / a break / another act / a break / headline act. And I will compere it.”

“How much per act?” I asked.

He told me.

“That sounds quite high,” I said. “How much are the tickets?”

“£12. The venue decided that. I have no control over it. The thing I am guaranteeing is that I will pay all of the acts on the day.”

“Unlike Jongleurs,” I laughed.

Are royal portraits all that comedy promoters care about?

“Well,” said Philip, “speaking as an act… the thing that really frustrates me is that I have done gigs where I have seen promoters walk off with a wad of cash and then refuse to pay you for 30 days after the event. I don’t have an agent and I don’t want to spend all my time chasing payment when the money is in the hands of the promoter. Whatever happens, the acts here will get their money on the day of the gig provided the gig goes ahead and they turn up. If, for some totally unforeseen reason, the venue cancels the gig, then the act will be paid a cancellation fee.”

“You don’t have a gig here in December,” I said, “because, obviously, 25th December is not an ideal date. But will you try to go weekly next year?”

“No. I don’t think there’s enough interest for a weekly comedy club of this level. When we re-launch in 2018, I am hoping we will take it monthly. What I might do is a monthly comedy show of this level and, in between, maybe another monthly new act/new material night. £12 a ticket is a lot of money to spend weekly and I’m not convinced that, by spreading myself so thin, I can give enough attention to the gig. Especially if I resident compere it.”

“You said of this level,” I pointed out.

“Yes. I would like it to be a high-end type of show. with faces that people will recognise and will represent the demographic of this area.”

“You could,” I suggested, “do a monthly Jewish gig here?”

“Well,” said Philip, “I did a show at Camden Fringe last year with Aaron Levene called Jew-O-Rama and maybe in this venue here we could do a once-a-quarter Jew-O-Rama. We were intrigued that it did not appeal as much to the Jewish audience as it did to the non-Jewish audience. The nights we sold out, there was a predominantly non-Jewish audience.

Philip aims to heighten the glamorous world of Borehamwood

“As well as the main monthly show, there are two things I want to do – one is the Jewish gig; one is a local gig. To find a way of supporting local acts. If the venue is investing in me as a local act, then there is a benefit in extending that.

“I could do the main show monthly, here. And then, in between those main shows, on alternate months, I could do the Jewish gig and the local gig. There are loads of comedians in the Borehamwood/St Albans/Radlett/Barnet/Shenley/Watford area – comedians of all levels. Newcomers and pro-level comedians.

“What I probably cannot do in the main show is to give stage time as many local acts as I’d like. Because they are all at different levels. The level of the main show at this venue has to be at a high level. But, if I can find a way of supporting local comedians with maybe a lower-level gig that is going to involve less cost and less administration… And there are other projects I would like to do such as maybe a quarterly charity gig and a Christmas show.”

“To be totally PC,” I suggested, “you would need a white male… a female… gay… black… and Jewish… You would need to have five acts per show.”

“I want funny,” said Philip. “The diversity will come with finding the right funny people.”

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Govia Thameslink train incompetence makes me doubt Margaret Thatcher

Fear stalked the bus yesterday

Fear stalked the replacement bus yesterday

I am old enough to remember pre-Thatcherite stand-up comedy routines and the regular cliché butt of jokes was the inefficiency of the Gas Board and of British Railways.

British Gas remains incompetent but now has less incompetent competitors and British Rail was privatised into a whole series of regional franchises and rather bizarre subdivisions, so it is a less easy target for jokes on national TV because rail incompetence has been localised and there is no one organisation to blame.

I have always been fairly happy with rail privatisation. British Railways was so big and everyone had jobs for life, so they did not much care about any service standards or innovation.

I have lived in Borehamwood, using the Thameslink line (under various franchise holders) since 1986. The station here is slightly oddly called Elstree & Borehamwood. The station is not actually in Elstree. This becomes relevant later.

Until late last year, the Thameslink franchise was run by First Capital Connect and I never had any ongoing problems. I rarely travel in the rush hour. Daytime and late night trains were OK under First Capital Connect.

Then, late last year, Govia took over the Thameslink franchise. They also run Southern trains – officially recognised as the most inefficient train system in the UK. Within a month, utter chaos descended on Thameslink with trains cancelled willy nilly all over the place and late night trains a catastrophe of late-running and cancellations, often with the explanation “because no driver is available”.

Govia’s main apparent innovation has been, during crowded periods, to run 8-carriage fast trains (which stop at fewer stations, therefore have fewer passengers) and 4-carriage slow trains (which stop at more stations with more passengers). You cannot fault them for original thinking.

From Thameslink website - journeys include the unexpected

From Thameslink website – journeys + the added unexpected

Since January, every Sunday when I have arrived at St Pancras, the indicator boards have displayed the words BUS SERVICE. There are no directions to this bus service, because there is no bus service. In fact, the trains are still running as normal, but from a totally different, upper, level of the station accessed round a corner and up escalators.  No signs. Seldom any staff to ask.

Last night (Friday) I arrived at West Hampstead station to get my slow 4-carriage train to Elstree. A fast 8-carriage train was due to arrive first on my platform. One minute before it was due, the train disappeared from the indicator board. It had been switched to another platform. There was, of course, no announcement. Those with experience of Thameslink’s ways and of the station legged it up and over the bridge just in time to get on the train. Five people failed to make it.

20 seconds before my own train was due to arrive (I noted the time) the train disappeared from the indicator board. We all – maybe 30 of us – successfully raced up and over to the other platform. There had, of course, been no announcement.

Somewhere in NW London on my unguided tour yesterday

Somewhere in NW London on my unguided tour yesterday

This weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, there are no trains between Elstree and St Pancras, only a replacement bus service. Imagine my joy.

I allowed two hours to make the normally 15-20 minute journey to West Hampstead station this afternoon. It was not enough. You should know that Elstree &  Borehamwood station is on the edge of NW London. West Hampstead is to the south of this.


The Thameslink iPhone app said a bus would leave Elstree station at 1612.

When I asked the bus driver and his supervisor, they told me it would be leaving at 1609.

At 1605, the supervisor told the driver: “You might as well leave now. They haven’t had a bus for a while.”

I was happy enough. Presumably people arriving just before the announced time were not.

Replacement bus

Replacement bus: every turn was an unknowable adventure

The bus, I think, was due to stop at Mill Hill, Hendon, Cricklewood, West Hampstead and St Pancras (although the sign on the front of the bus said King’s Cross, which is not on the Thameslink line). We never went to Mill Hill, just straight down south to Hendon… sort of.

After a while, I started Tweeting, because I smelled a saga.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver had to ask direction to Hendon station from man in street. We arrived at wrong Hendon station.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver has just yelled out “Fuck!” – not good news.

TWEET – Heading north on M1 motorway (away from Hendon)

TWEET – Now north of Elstree, which we left over an hour ago.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver now apparently heading NW to Watford. London is SE.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver now complaining to passenger: “It’s ridiculous”.

TWEET – Bus now in open countryside outside London.

TWEET – Passenger now giving bus replacement driver directions.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver now apparently heading south to Elstree.

TWEET – Bus now heading to Edgware.

TWEET – At last! Houses! We are somewhere near Elstree.

TWEET – Soon we will be back where we started around 70 minutes ago.

TWEET – Phew! Back on route, about half mile off where we started 73 minutes ago.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver now taking route advised by passenger standing beside him at all times.

TWEET – Bus now at Hendon Central station. Wrong station. Attempting to get to Hendon Thameslink station.

TWEET – Apparently now not attempting to get to Hendon Thameslink as passenger doesn’t know way.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver attempting to find Cricklewood. This seems unwise.

TWEET – I think I spotted Edinburgh Castle. May be getting delirious.

TWEET – First traffic jam. Pretty good after 90 mins but then we have mostly been in countryside.

TWEET – Passenger points out Cricklewood station to driver as we pass by without stopping.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver asks passenger: “Where do we go next?” Passenger suggests “West Hampstead”.

TWEET – Now my stomach and head are feeling queasy.

TWEET – Bus replacement driver asks passenger: “How far is railway station?” Passenger (looking at his own mobile phone) says “Under half a mile.”

TWEET – In Kilburn High Road.

TWEET – Have arrived W Hampstead station after 1 hr 46 min trip. Well, 1’50” exactly, as bus left 4 mins early. (It was actually 7 mins early but, by this point, I had lost touch with reality.)

TWEET – Thameslink @TLRailUK have just tweeted “SERVICE UPDATE: Good service.” (I was not the only one who had lost touch with reality.)

The indicator board inside the closed station

The indicator board inside the closed station

The bus dropped us right outside the main entrance to West Hampstead station.

As you might imagine, I was interested to see what the trip back from West Hampstead would be like. Several hours later, I went and stood at the point, outside the main entrance to the station, where the bus had dropped us.

Inside the closed station, barely visible, was a train indicator showing the bus departure times.

TWEET – At West Hampstead station. Replacement bus to Elstree due 2144. I got here 2136. Do I feel lucky?

TWEET – Now 2150. Neither 2142 bus nor my 2144 bus arrived. Maybe, as before, drivers can’t find London?

TWEET – Have discovered buses stop not at large glass-fronted main station but at small alleyway back exit round corner. No signs.

TWEET – I am on bus which left at 2156. Man in yellow jacket was supervising from pavement.

TWEET – I suggested he might tell anyone waiting at main ticket office building. He smiled inanely at me and did nothing.

TWEET – We drove off from the back alleyway entrance presumably leaving people at the main station/ticket office.

TWEET – Driver said this bus goes to Elstree. I neglected to ask “Via where?”. I shall phone ahead to friends in Aberdeen.

TWEET – Bus driver has found Hendon Thameslink station. Maybe a lucky mistake. No Thameslink person outside, of course.

TWEET – So near and yet so far. Was about half mile from Elstree station. Bus has now veered off to take longer route.

TWEET – Now arrived at Elstree village, which is not where Elstree station is – It’s at Borehamwood.

TWEET – Phew! Arrived at Elstree station in Borehamwood. 2242 (46 minute journey) I may take up religion.

West Hampstead Thameslink station

West Hampstead station is the large grey-roofed building, centre bottom, with entrance on Iverson Road. The bus stopped top right of picture, near the blue square at end of ‘Black Path’ alleyway.


Thameslink man ignore main station

Thameslink man ignores main station – a bit of roof visible behind him on far left behind wall

I included the Thameslink Twitter account in the Tweets I sent because – for comic reasons – I was interested to see if there was any reaction. There was not, of course.

Being a PR for Thameslink must be a bit like being a PR for Saddam Hussein’s human rights record. Their response (if they ever bothered) would be to blame other (dis)organisations. But it is part of an ongoing pattern of Govia incompetence and don’t-give-a-flying-shit-ness. I thought the new Thameslink (dis)service had reached its twin peak of Govia surreality when:

– I got on a train a couple of weeks ago which both the indicator board and tannoy announcement said stopped at Elstree… It, in fact, whizzed though Elstree station and an on-train information board said the next stop was Harpenden, three stations further on. In fact, it stopped at St Albans (two stations further on). I thought I must have mis-read the indicator board and mis-heard the tannoy announcement until half the train disembarked to get back to a whole host of stations the train had failed to stop at… and another passenger told me this was the third time it had happened to him.

Wrong Thameslink sign

With St Pancras 11 miles behind us, this suddenly appeared…

– (As I mentioned in a blog on 30th May) after a series of catastrophes – as we approached Crystal Palace and arrived in East Croydon heading south, the on-train information board displayed the words “approaching St Pancras”. We were travelling south. St Pancras was around 11 miles behind us to the north, as the pig flies.

Clearly I underestimated Govia Thameslink’s capacity for incompetence and lack of any discernible professionalism or customer care.

Flying pig - suggested new Govia logo

Flying pig – suggested new logo for the Govia Thameslink line

I still do not think a return to a give-even-less-of-a-shit national British Railways is a good idea.

But, at West Hampstead yesterday, I got on the Overground, now very efficiently run (compared to what it was before) by the Mayor of London.

Apparently Boris has had his eyes on taking over the Thameslink route. I can only hope his successor does.

I do like a bit of surreality and have a high threshold of chaos. But there are limits.

I suppose the company name Govia – Go-via – should give a hint at their lack of any specific direction.

(MORE TALES OF THAMESLINK CHAOS HERE)

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If everything in the world were made of edible plastic, you would not have the problems caused by these green things

My eternally-un-named friend hunting for hedgehogs yesterday

Eternally-un-named friend hedgehog hunting

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting having tea in a garden centre near St Albans – not my natural habitat.

My eternally-un-named friend had gone off to the Information Desk to ask about buying a hedgehog.

It is a long back story.

I have mentioned it in my blog before.

She is waging a war of attrition against slugs in my back garden.

“What did they say at the Information Desk?” I asked her on her return.

“There was this oldish guy there,” she said, “and I asked him Can you tell me where I can get hedgehogs? and he started looking at me slightly frowning.

“He said: Do you mean ornamental ones or real ones? and he was sort of frowning a bit more.

Real ones, I said.

“And he told me: There’s a place you can get them in Notcutts, but we can’t get them – and he’s still looking a bit oddly at me. They’re wild animals, you know, he says. You might be able to get them in Notcutts in Smallford. They have animals there. But I don’t think they’ll have them, because they do pets and a hedgehog is a wild animal.

“By this point, he was scowling even more at me, as if I’m a bad person who wants to buy a wild animal and you’re not allowed to. But, I said, you’re selling hedgehog homes, so I thought people must be able to buy hedgehogs.

Oh yes,” he said, “that’s to encourage any hedgehogs you already have to stay there. And all this time, he’s looking at me as if I’m a bit…”

“That you want to bake and cook hedgehogs?” I suggested.

“No,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “I think he thought it was like when you tie up a swan in your back garden.”

“They sell hedgehog homes?” I asked.

“Yes,” said my eternally-un-named friend. So we went over to look at them.

Hedgehog houses will encourage residency

Slate roofed hedgehog house (right) may encourage residency

There was one with a slate roof for £29.99, and one made wholly of wood for £44.99

“The other thing I’m thinking,” my eternally-un-named friend told me, “is that you have a massive ant problem in your garden.

“They’re all around. Scurrying. You can see them as you come up the road from Elstree station. They’re rife.”

“What happened to the ladybirds?” I asked. “You said you’d found a ready supply of ladybirds to kill the aphids.”

“I can’t get the ladybirds to kill the aphids until I’ve killed the ants,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “because the ants would kill the ladybirds.”

“How are you going to kill the ants?” I asked.

“I’ve got a load of white powder,” she explained, “and I’ve got sprays and I’ve been pouring boiling water on the ant nests. One day when you were away in Edinburgh I went out into the garden to pull out the dandelions – at least they’re not actually going round killing other things – and there were ant nests everywhere.

“The aphids are out the front on one of the plants. And every other day, I would take off the branches that had the aphids on and bin them, because the aphids sap the plant and there was always a little ant walking up the stalk trying to do something to an aphid.

“Those millions of invisible bugs that I put in the ground to kill the ants… Unfortunately they have to be kept wet and we had that dry patch for some time. They cost £11. I know that’s cheap per million, but they didn’t seem to be pulling their weight, so I put down the £3 white powder as well.”

“What if the hedgehog eats the white powder?” I asked. “It will die.”

“I have no idea,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “I’m dealing with ants at the moment. I haven’t found a hedgehog. Who else eats ants?”

“The French,” I suggested.

Anteater - the alternative to a hedgehog

Buying an anteater could be a viable alternative to a hedgehog

My eternally-un-named friend thought for a moment and then said, perking up: “We could get an anteater! It might be easier in the long run just to get an anteater. The problem is there are the ants AND there are the slugs. There’s a double enemy situation.”

“Or we could just get a Frenchman,” I persisted. “They’ll eat anything.”

“When you break open these ant nests,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “you see half of them have got wings, half of them are eggs about to develop and the other half are the ones running around doing things to aphids. That’s the problem. We have 150% of ants trotting backwards and forwards everywhere. it really is hell.”

“You see?” I told her, “Nature is a nightmare. That’s why I try to have nothing to do with it. Anything green is a nightmare. New cheese, old meat, anything with leaves or stalks. Nightmare. I try to have nothing to do with anything green. If everything in the world were made of edible plastic, you wouldn’t have these problems. It must be possible in the 21st century. Natural things are bad things.”

“Well,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “if part of Nature and wildlife is that hedgehogs eat slugs, it’s certainly not happening round Elstree and Borehamwood and I don’t see how hedgehogs are going to come to your rescue when you have main roads.”

“Tunnels,” I suggested. “We will have to build hedgehog tunnels.”

“I got a reply from Bob Slayer,” said my eternally-un-named friend.

A few days ago, she asked comedian Bob Slayer where she could get a hedgehog, on the basis he was brought up in the West Country and would know about such Nature-related things. Yesterday, he replied:

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is based in Clee Hill near Ludlow where I grew up. I went to a local pony club with the daughter of the man who set it up in 1982 – Major Adrian Harcourt Coles. I thought he was dead, but I have checked and he is not.

“I remember he raised a load of money to put ramps in all the cattle grids on Clee Hill so that, if hedgehogs fell in, they could climb out. Then someone proved that hedgehogs don’t live over a certain height above sea level and that there are no hedgehogs on Clee Hill.

Hedgehog flavoured crisps

Hedgehog flavoured crisps were trendy

“In 1981, Hedgehog Foods Ltd decided, as a joke, to produce hedgehog flavoured crisps. To everyone’s surprise, the crisps were a huge success. But they were actually flavoured with pork fat and no hedgehogs were used in the manufacturing process.

“As a result, the Office of Fair Trading took them to court (in 1982) on a charge of false advertising. A settlement was finally reached when Mr Lewis of Hedgehog Foods interviewed gypsies – who actually did eat baked hedgehogs – to ascertain the flavour of hedgehogs. He then commissioned a flavourings firm to duplicate the flavour as closely as possible and changed the labels from ‘hedgehog flavoured’ to ‘hedgehog flavour’ and the Office of Fair Trading was satisfied.”

My eternally-un-named friend showed me Bob Slayer’s e-mail, then suggested: “If a hedgehog did get to your garden, it could have the run of the area. Your garden and other people’s gardens. There’s probably a good living for a hedgehog there.”

“And, if it ran out of slugs to eat, it could drink milk,” I suggested.

“No,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “They can’t drink milk. There’s an advert on television that says they’re lactose-intolerant. It’s an advert for lactose-free milk and they’re telling hedgehogs Yes, it’s OK to have this milk. I’m sure a hedgehog would like to live in your garden, although there is that fox around.”

“I saw it last night by the garages when I was parking the car,” I said. “We may have to set up a fox hunt. Where can we get horses and hounds? Can they be rented or do you have to set up a permanent hunt?”

“I think we should just get an anteater,” said my eternally-un-named friend.

“Or a Frenchman,” I said.

The debate continues.

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This man with movie dreams already has a free yacht and a free Jumbo Jet

Borehamwood yesterday: Jason Cook, a man with a dream

I woke up in the early hours of this morning wanting to go to the toilet and realised I had been dreaming about the plots of Alfred Hitchcock movies. There was the one where he broke the convention that all flashbacks by central characters should be true. And there was the famous one where, by killing off the central character (and the only star name in the movie) the whole plot of the first third or more of the film became irrelevant – the ultimate MacGuffin.

I guess I was dreaming of films because yesterday, in Borehamwood’s main street, near his offices at Elstree Film Studios, I met the indefatigable would-be feature film producer Jason Cook, who has a slate of nine films – all scripted and budgeted, including a £3 million animation film – and is trying to get finance for the first of them.

He has been talking to an Indonesian financier/film producer.

“We had one of the action films scripted in English,” he told me, “and now we’ve had it translated into Indonesian and have changed the locations. If we can get it shot in Indonesia, the budget would come way down to £500,000.”

Jason is also, he told me, starting a short film competition with the main event to be held, provisionally, next April.

“We’re looking for up-and-coming talent and short films under five minutes long,” he told me. “There will be a cash prize and an award. We’ve got sponsorship from Elstree Film Studios, Nando’s, The Way Forward Productions and the Ark Theatre. We’re hoping to hold events four times a year. The idea is to get up-and-coming talent and established film-makers together. And we would find enthusiastic new talent, which could be useful.”

If anyone can pull this off, Jason Cook can. His ability to blag and persuade people to do unlikely things – a pre-requisite for making movies – is astonishing. For one of the movies on his slate, he has got free access to an ocean-going yacht and to a Jumbo Jet 747.

“Does it fly?” I asked.

“No,” he told me, “It’s used for training purposes in the middle of a college.”

“Is it just the interior of the cabin?” I asked.

“It’s the exterior and interior of the full cabin and controls and everything.”

“But not the passenger section?” I said.

“The passenger area is there as well.”

“And the tail?”

“The wings are there and the back end of the plane, but not the tail itself.”

“And,” I said, “last time we met, you told me a hotel will put your entire crew up for one of the films for free – and you get free breakfasts. So you’re going to try to find all that film’s locations near that hotel.”

“The hotel have been really good,” said Jason.

“They certainly have,” i said.

“We can film inside the hotel,” he continued, “using it for interior locations. They’ve also said we can accommodate the full crew at very very very cheap rates and they’ll throw breakfast in. I thought it would be best to have all the crew in the same place, with the actors.”

“Yes it would,” I said. “Especially if they’re getting free breakfasts.”

If anyone can get these nine feature films off the ground it is Jason.

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Origin of the word ‘Wally’ + red-faced Malcolm Hardee and ladies’ underwear

Martin Soan and my eternally-un-named friend last night

Comedian Martin Soan, my eternally un-named friend and I went to a Creative England event at Elstree Film Studios last night, where studio boss Roger Morris gave what I think is the most upbeat assessment of the future of the British film industry that I have heard in thirty years.

When the three of us got back to my home, Martin said:

“Jesus was at Weeley.”

He had read my blog a few days ago about the word ‘Wally’ and how it had supposedly come into the language either via the 1971 Weeley Music Festival or the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

“I was there at Weeley in 1971,” Martin told us, “and people did shout out Wally!. But, really, anyone from East London was shouting out Dick-eyed Wal – Dick-eyed Wal. There was this chant Dick-eyed Wal – Dick-eyed Wal.

“Why Dick-eyed Wal?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Martin, “Dick-eyed Wal is East End terminology for saying you’re a fucking idiot.”

Martin was born in Stratford in London’s East End. He explained:

“We used to call – and, to this day, they still do call – pickled gherkins Wallies.”

“So it did not start in the 1970s?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin, “it was something I picked up as a kid. I remember buying pickled gherkins as a kid and calling them Wallies. I don’t know where it came from, but Dick-eyed Wal was the same as a Wally and was basically a prick. We used to call pickled gherkins Wallies and they’re sort-of penis-like and we used to call people Wallies back then because you associated them with penis-shaped gherkins and Dick-eyed Wals.”

“Why were they shouting out Dick-eyed Wal at Weeley?” I asked.

“They were saying Where’s Wally? on the PA system and we were shouting out Dick-eyed Wal – Dick-eyed Wal like What a wanker! What a wanker! I remember it distinctly because I was with a couple of East Londoners and they started it. And the other thing I remember is Jesus.”

“Jesus?” I asked.

“He used to be at very early music festivals,” said Martin, “with a pageboy blond haircut which, even in those days, was just a bit too much and he wore these long flowing kaftans and did this trippy-type trance dancing and he was always down the front. I saw him at various festivals.”

“And was he consciously trying to be Jesus?” I asked.

“I dunno, but everyone nicknamed him Jesus. I heard a story about him years and years later… This guy was celebrated, you know? He went to lots of festivals. And, later on, he had a go at becoming someone in showbiz.

“So he got some B-celebrity folk singer to appear on this show with him at Camden and he billed himself as Jesus.

“The B-celebrity folk singer did his thing and went down OK and then Jesus came on with the introduction: Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Jesus… and just down the road were these gasworks and they exploded. So he walks on the stage and there’s this huge explosion and everyone was evacuated from the building. And that was his only attempt at showbusiness and everyone went away thinking Wow! That’s Jesus, man!

Earlier, at Elstree Film Studios, almost inevitably, the subject of the late Malcolm Hardee had come up. Malcolm used to perform with Martin Soan in The Greatest Show on Legs.

“You wouldn’t have thought Malcolm could ever be embarrassed,” Martin told us. “But he was once.

“He wanted some sexy lingerie for one of his girlfriends so there was this sexy lingerie shop in Lewisham and I said to him, Well, go in and buy some, and he said, No, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.

Why not? I asked him.

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, he said. So I had to go in there for him. He was too embarrassed to go in.

“The strange thing was I went in and told the assistant I want to buy some sexy women’s underwear and she asked Are you a lorry driver? and I dunno why she said that. She must have just had a lot of lorry drivers coming in asking for women’s underwear. Then she asked me Do you want it in red or black? so I stepped outside into the street and yelled out: Malcolm! Do you want your basque in red or black?

“What did he say?”  my eternally un-named friend asked.

“He just ran off round the corner,” said Martin. “It was so unlike Malcolm. I suppose it was because it was Lewisham and that was where he was brought up, just up the road. Perhaps he was a bit embarrassed because of that.”

“But,” I said, “he never worried about showing off his bollocks to hundreds of people at a time.”

“But it’s like,” Martin replied, “me staying at your house tonight. I’ll get up on stage in front of 300 people and stick my cock in front of a camera and fuck it, but walking naked through your living room with just you and your un-named friend – your eternally un-named friend – it would be embarrassing.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “I can’t see at night without my glasses and you’ve always had the Scandinavian way, you and Vivienne.”

“Yeah,” said Martin. “In front of our children, but not in front of strangers. Not one-on-one.”

“When I used to visit you,” my eternally-un-named friend said, “people were having baths.”

“Of course,” said Martin. “It’s our house. We can have baths in our own house. But, if I walked through naked in front of John in his living room, I’d feel embarrassed. Walking naked in front of 400 people, no problem. If it was part of a stage show, I’d lay my knob over the top of John’s head like a Mohican.”

“Well…” I said.

“… if there were 400 other people there,” continued Martin. “But coming down into his living room at 9 o’clock in the morning with no-one else there and I lay my knob on his bald head, it would be quite…”

“Let’s not go there,” I interrupted.

“…funny, wouldn’t it?” Martin finished. “But tragic and embarrassing. And no-one wants to see that or have that done to them.”

“Oh,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “I don’t know.”

“With the long winter nights coming on…” I said.

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The Elstree Studios project uncovers what Sophia Loren was like in bed

Over the years, for magazines, I have interviewed quite a few film and television production people. I was never much interested in talking to stars and actors: the people behind-the-cameras were much more interesting.

If you interview a star or even a not-yet-famous actor about a movie or TV show they were in, you get a performance. If you interview the set designer or the producer or director, especially a few years later, you get golden anecdotes.

I moved to Borehamwood in Hertfordshire, on the edge of London, after the massive MGM studios had been knocked down and replaced with office blocks and houses. For several years, a full-sized medieval castle had stood by the main road out of town, left over from the movies Ivanhoe (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955)

It was replaced by a Chinese village for Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and, later, The Dirty DozenWhere Eagles Dare and 2001: A Space Odyssey were shot there.

At one time, there were six separate film studios in the small Hertfordshire town. Only two remain now.

As someone said last night, it is odd to think that this very ordinary high street in Borehamwood – Shenley Road – has seen filming for the three Hammer Pictures’ versions of On The Buses and that, literally, you are walking down the same street Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Simon Cowell have walked and driven down. If you stand on the station platform, you know Gary Cooper and James Mason stood there, waiting for a train back into London.

The studios where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his first ‘talkie’ Blackmail, later became the ATV Elstree Studios (despite the fact they are in Borehamwood, not Elstree) where major US stars like Barbra Streisand and Sammy Davis Jnr were brought in to shoot TV spectaculars because they did not want to be dragged up to ATV’s Birmingham studios. By the time I moved to Borehamwood, ATV’s Elstree Studios had become the BBC’s Elstree Studios.

One of the first things the BBC did – alas – was to paint over the eccentric and ornate Muppet cartoons in the canteen which bored members of the Muppet Show production team had done in secret one night. They thought the canteen was dull so they painted Muppets on the walls; ATV, to give it credit, kept them. As far as I can remember, they were painted round an archway.

I once walked round an outdoor set of Will Shakespeare’s London on the backlot at ATV Elstree. Shortly after I moved to Borehamwood, the BBC built their Albert Square set for EastEnders on the same spot. It was originally only a three-sided square and, from my back bedroom, I could look into it. As I never watched the show and, somehow, I was never in my back bedroom when they were filming exteriors, it was not until after they later built the fourth side of the square that I realised what it was. I could have rented my back bedroom out to fans if I had known.

The BBC studios’ modest entrance is surreally between two ordinary suburban houses up a very ordinary-looking suburban side street. When I first moved to Borehamwood, excited teenyboppers and older, fatter people used to sit on garden walls by the entrance on Wednesday afternoons and evenings waiting to spot pop stars because, at that time, Top of The Pops was recorded there. For the first year of EastEnders, much the same people – young fans and overweight older people – sat outside trying to spot the soap’s stars as they went in and out.

But the two big film studios in Borehamwood in its heyday were the former MGM Studios (screen credits always said ‘filmed in Borehamwood’) and, a three-minute walk away, the Elstree film studios (screen credits always said ‘filmed in Elstree’ which were/are actually also in Borehamwood). The Elstree films included the first three Star Wars movies and the Indiana Jones movies; now they shoot Big Brother and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire there.

Last night, I went to the launch of ‘The Elstree Project’ at the University of Hertfordshire, which apparently has 2,800 students in its School of Creative Arts.

Where are they all going to work?

The project, jointly started and run by Howard Berry of the School of Creative Arts and Elstree Screen Heritage, aims to create an oral history of Elstree Studios by interviewing the people who worked in the Borehamwood studios (I suspect it’s called The Elstree Project because ‘Elstree’ sounds more glamorous than ‘Borehamwood’). They aim to interview not the megastars who worked at the studios but the actual technicians and behind-the-camera production people.

The ‘launch’ of the Elstree Project is perhaps an odd phrase given that, over the last year, they have already shot 30 hours of material – interviews with 22 people.

People like the man who painted Darth Vader’s costume in Star Wars as well as legendary ATV/ITC production supervisor Johnny Goodman and Stanley Kubrick’s producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan,

Paul Welsh of Elstree Film Heritage got an MBE for saving the studios when the rapacious company Brent Walker tried to destroy them – half were turned into a large Tesco superstore, but the other half were saved after a campaign in which the local government authority eventually took over the studios.

Paul says: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a major film star who has not worked at Elstree. I’m hard-pressed to think of a famous pop star who hasn’t filmed there, be it David Bowie, Paul McCartney or Take That. You could go to the pub across the road from the Studios, before it became a McDonalds, and see Tony Hancock or Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum or Trevor Howard drinking in there.

Over the years, the studios in Borehamwood have produced TV and movie productions like Danger Man, The Saint, The Prisoner, Star Wars, Grange Hill, EastEnders, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dambusters, The Muppet Show, The Shining, The Railway Children, Murder on the Orient Express, The Avengers and Inspector Morse – although set in Oxford, the production office for Inspector Morse was in Borehamwood and the local Barclays Bank would sometimes crop up in scenes set in Oxford.

The Elstree Project sounds like it will come up with some colourful anecdotes of life at the studios.

“I couldn’t see anybody today doing the jokes that we used to do with Roger Moore on The Saint,” says one of the interviewees. “I mean, to throw a bucket of water over the star – you wouldn’t get away with it.”

“The only thing I remember about Sophia Loren,” says another interviewee, “was her nose. I couldn’t believe it. She was a beautiful woman but, when she lay down in bed and I was at the end of the bed, I looked at her and thought to myself Oh she’s nice! and all that stuff – like you do – but her nose – Oh my Gawd – it looked like the Blackwall Tunnel. She was so beautiful standing up but, laying down…”

This is what people want to hear.

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An ordinary day in Borehamwood: I become trapped in my rubberwear

I live in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, which can occasionally have its moments.

Last night, there was the weekly ritual of spotlights on the skyline and distant roars as an eviction went ahead in the Big Brother house. The house is built in the former water tank at Elstree Studios, which is why contestants entering or leaving the house have to climb up steps, go through a door, then go down steps again – they are going over the side of the water tank.

Sadly, I moved here a few years after the late night fire at Elstree Studios when Stanley Kubrick was filming The ShIning – the heat from the fire caused his polystyrene snow to rise and float, causing polystyrene snowfall over part of Borehamwood.

But yesterday was an ordinary day in Borehamwood.

I went for my annual check-up at the optician. Every year, I think my eyesight has deteriorated badly and I may be going blind. Every year, they tell me:

“No, there’s not much change: it’s just your age.”

Next week, I am going to South West Ireland and a friend, who has been trying to persuade me for almost a year that my rarely-worn Wellington boots are two sizes too small (in fact, they are a little tight but perfectly OK) got me to go into a shop to try on some new, larger, Wellingtons.

“Your old ones scrunch your toes up,” she insisted.

My friend can be very insistent.

“It was bad for Chinese women,” she told me. “And it is bad for you.”

I went into the shop for a quieter life, though I was slightly torn between that and wanting to go home and go to the toilet.

I tried on a pair of grey Wellington boots two sizes bigger than my current ones.

“Too big,” I said, relieved, thinking this would free me for the toilet trip home.

“We will try them one size smaller,” my friend insisted. “That will still be one size bigger than the ones you have now.”

“They don’t seem to be in green,” I said weakly. “They are only in grey. I think they should be in green because we are going to Ireland. It will cheer the Irish up.”

My friend was insistent: “I will go get an assistant and see if they have a green pair.”

Unfortunately, they had a pair. I put the right one on. It was a little tight to get on but, once on, it was very comfortable.

“That’s OK,” I said, grudgingly.

I put the left one on.

“They’re just the right size,” I said, grudgingly.

I took right one off. A bit of a struggle.

I tried to take the left one off.

It would not come off.

My friend tried.

I tried again. My friend tried again.

It would not come off.

I tried again. And again. And again.

It would not come off.

My friend tried, pulling the toes and heel.

“Careful of the toes,” I said.

It was a bit sore on the toes.

A shop assistant tried.

The green rubber Wellington boot would not come off.

At this point I realised I still wanted to pee.

Rather a lot.

A second shop assistant arrived, pulling me nearly off seat when he yanked the boot at the heel and toe.

“Careful of the toes,” I said.

“We may have to cut it off,” the second shop assistant said.

“Well, it might not be necessary,” I said. “I had a circumcision a couple of years ago. I didn’t think it was necessary; the doctors did. I eventually agreed to it because the doctors told me it would be no skin off my nose.”

I looked at the shop assistant. He did not laugh.

“We may have to cut it off,” he repeated.

My friend nodded.

My toes were feeling sore.

“I have a high instep,” I explained.

“Do you want to buy them?” the shop assistant asked.

My friend and I looked at him.

“The boots,” he said. “Do you want to buy them?”

He was not joking.

“No,” my friend replied patiently. “He would have to sleep in them because he can’t get them off.”

A third shop assistant arrived and tried and failed to pull them off. My toes were getting sore; there was what felt like a bit of a sprain on the ankle; and, every time someone pulled, I was having to hold onto the sides of the seat to avoid being pulled off onto the floor.

I was now desperate to go to the loo and all that rubbing and sliding of my bottom backwards and forwards on the seat had now aroused the back-up of shit building-up on my colon or intestines or wherever-the-hell it builds up. It was getting quite insistent about heading for the exit in both retail shop and bodily terms.

“Are the Wellingtons waterproof?” I asked.

“Of course,” the shop assistant replied, surprised. He looked at me: “They’re rubber Wellingtons.”

The three shop assistants went away to get the manager. My friend tried again.

“Careful of the toes,” I said, holding on tightly to the sides of my seat,

By now, a nearby middle-aged couple had stopped trying on new shoes and were just sitting back watching our floor show with considerable interest.

“I have a high instep,” I explained to them.

“If the assistants can’t do anything,” my friend said, “I’m calling the fire brigade.”

I smiled, though I was thinking more of a warm toilet seat and sausages.

“I’m not joking,” my friend insisted – and I knew she was not. My friend can be very insistent. She took out her mobile phone. “You have your leg and your foot stuck in a Wellington. The fire brigade can cut you out. That’s what they’re there for.”

About eight seconds later, the manager and third assistant arrived with a pair of scissors.

I thought of toilet seats and the movie Murder on the Orient Express.

The train remains trapped in a snowdrift as detective Hercule Poirot tries to figure out whodunnit. When the case is finally unravelled, the snowdrift is cleared and the train is free to continue onwards. I have always thought the symbolism was wonderful. I wondered if, as they finally released my foot and leg from my rubber prison, I would piss down my leg and shit would explode out of my bottom.

I will spare you further details.

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