Tag Archives: Elton John

Derek Hayes – from the Sex Pistols to the life of Christ and Madonna’s video

Derek Hayes, now a Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University

Two blogs agoI reprinted a piece I wrote in 1979 about the animated movie Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. The directors were two young National Film School graduates – Phil Austin and Derek Hayes. 

Last week, stuck at home by coronavirus lockdown, I chatted again to Derek Hayes via Skype…


JOHN: We were almost going to talk well over three weeks ago before the coronavirus lockdown when you came to London for the British Animation Awards…

Phil Hayes’ sheep-influenced BAA ‘flock’ wallpaper award

DEREK: Yes, the Awards are every two years and the awards themselves are actually made by animators for other animators and, because the initials are BAA, it is sheep-themed.

JOHN: You have made awards?

DEREK: One year, I made one that was flock wallpaper.

JOHN: Why?

DEREK: ‘Flock’ wallpaper… and the flock pattern design was of sheep.

JOHN: Doh!… Since we last met – you’ve made 10 short films, 2 cinema features and much more – videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John and lots of others; you’ve won a BAFTA for the opening titles of TV’s Jeeves and Wooster and all sorts of things…

 

JOHN: 41 years ago, you had just finished training as animators…

DEREK: When we were at the National Film School, we basically had no animation tutors – nor did we at Sheffield Art College when we first started. So it wasn’t until we got out into the world that we actually found out what real people did.

Because we were the first two Animation students at the National Film School – we said: “Well, you’re gonna have to spend some money and get people to come in and talk to us.” So we used to get anybody we wanted if they would come to Beaconsfield – to come and spend a day with us and show us films and talk.

One of the people who came was Terry Gilliam before he became really big in terms of film directing.

JOHN: So he was just known for Monty Python…

DEREK: Yes, I think he might have done Jabberwocky. But one of the things I always remember him saying was that the thing he was most proud of was a sequence where all he had done was a background and a picture of a dog lying on its back. There were voices off. One voice was saying: “That dog’s dead” and the other says “No he’s not! It’s alive. I saw it move!”… “No, he’s dead!”… “No! I saw it move!”

And that was it!

JOHN: So he just had to create one static picture…

DEREK: Yes. And he said people swore blind that they saw it move!

JOHN: So you learned simplicity from Terry Gilliam…

DEREK: Not really, because we just ignored everybody. We just did the most complex that we could. We did millions of drawings for everything, which is a crazy thing to do.

JOHN: You made Max Beeza and the City in The Sky at the National Film School in 1977; I last talked to you in 1979; then you and Phil Austin went on to run your own successful company Animation City…

DEREK: Yes, we did a lot of stuff and we were very successful for a few years – I think Animation City was probably the second most successful animation company in London after probably Hibbert Ralph.

JOHN: You and Phil animated Friggin’ in the Riggin’ for the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock n Roll Swindle. Surely a career highlight?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) We did all the animation and all the little bits of graphics – things like cash registers popping up and anything that needed a bit of effecty stuff – and inter-titles things – whatever.

JOHN: Animation City also did music videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John et al.

DEREK: Yes, mostly before Phil died. We had rented a nice building at the height of the property market and then there was the crash – I think I’ve been through about three or four recessions now. So, although the work was still coming in – some really good work, like those music videos – it wasn’t enough to sustain the building and all the staff.

JOHN: Phil Austin died in 1990…

DEREK: He was gay and he got AIDs at a time when there was nothing to ameliorate the condition.

JOHN: But Animation City carried on until 1993.

DEREK: Yes. Because we had been doing a lot of music business work, we had a lot of contacts so we still had a lot of music videos. Usually, the artist would decide they were sick of making videos – “I’m sick of standing on a rock with a guitar… Can’t we do an animated one where I don’t actually have to do anything?”

JOHN: I read an article yesterday where, on Superman, Marlon Brando tried to persuade the director that Superman’s dad should be played by a bagel and he would only do the voice-over – because he would still get paid the same mega-fee. The director decided against the idea.

DEREK: Well, Superman’s dad was Jor-el. That would have been Bag-el.

JOHN: Anyway, when you closed Animation City in 1993, you then pretty much went straight into your first feature film.

DEREK: The Miracle Maker, which was the life of Christ in animation…

JOHN: It was a traditional-ish animation?

DEREK: Well, The Miracle Maker was a collaboration between S4C in Wales and Russian animators. The Russians did stop-motion puppet animation and the Welsh were doing two-dimensional stuff. So those two things had to be put together.

JOHN: Why Russia? 

DEREK: They were cheap and did good work. S4C had had this idea to do the Bible in animation – nine half-hour Old Testament stories and four half hours for the New Testament. I did one about Elijah from the Old Testament but, when they started thinking about the New Testament, they realised it was going to be four half hours all about the same guy, so they thought: Why don’t we make a full-length feature film?

Because we were doing 2D and the Russians were doing stop motion, I had to come up with a way of combining the two things. So a lot of the visual effecty stuff came in there.

After that, S4C wanted another film based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi. It has a whole series of stories in it, including some of the earliest King Arthur stories. It was re-titled Otherworld for English-speakers.

S4C’s Otherworld, based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi

JOHN: That’s the English meaning of Mabinogi?

DEREK: No, the literal translation is ‘Stories to Tell Youth’.

JOHN: Nothing to do with Noggin The Nog?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) No. But Otherworld was my second feature. That was all 2D plus some live action and some visual effects to stitch them together.

JOHN: Nowadays, even live-action movies like the Marvel ones are almost mostly animations with all the CGI work.

DEREK: There are two things now. There’s still Special Effects – physical effects like blowing things up – and Visual Effects is everything else.

It goes from simple stuff if you’re like doing a period drama where you can add a townscape or you didn’t notice there was a factory chimney or a pylon in the background which you can get rid of with effects… through to where you might have only one real live actor against green screen and you can create an entire alien horde and all kinds of stuff around him.

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no… 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Dragos, “the David Jason of Romania”, on comedy styles and the revolution…

Dragoş Moştenescu first appeared in this blog back in 2017 and in 2018,

When I try to explain who Dragos is, I tend to say he is the Romanian equivalent of UK TV star David Jason with a touch of Elton John. In other words, he is indescribable – in a good sense! We are talking an international level of top entertainer here.

On Sunday (15th December) he is performing his full-length stage show All Aboard for Christmas! in London, so we met up at the Soho Theatre Bar for a chat. Towards the end, we got interrupted by another performer…


JOHN: You’ve already performed All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. So now you are going to stage it…

DRAGOS: …every three or four months. My next aim – which turns out to be not that easy – is to find an agent – I don’t expect to be ‘big overnight’! – Someone to provide work at least constantly. Perhaps not daily but maybe weekly. What I do is very suitable for let’s say private parties – playing the piano; my Elton John thing. ..

JOHN: Corporate gigs you would be ideal for.

DRAGOS: Exactly. I am realistic.

JOHN: What would be a good step for you?

DRAGOS: A three minute song on a morning TV show. Three minute songs on radio shows. Three minutes here and there.

JOHN: You are more of an hour-long solo show performer but you can also do 5 and 10 minute spots…

DRAGOS: Yes. If you have 5 minutes of material, it is very difficult to extend it to 10 or 20 minutes; but, when you have 60 minutes, it is easier to extract 5, 10 and 20 minute routines. But they are different styles.

JOHN: (I NAME ANOTHER PERFORMER) does great one-hour shows and, in fact, I’ve seen (THE OTHER PERFORMER) do brilliant two-hour solo shows, but they are never going to be on BBC TV on Live at the Apollo, because The Apollo wants gag-gag-gag, punchline-punchline-punchline.

Five-minute acts tend to be full of quick gag punchlines.

DRAGOS: Exactly. It is very difficult to catch the audience within five minutes and keep them. You need to use one-liners and I respect that and salute it. But, when you are doing a 60-minute show, you cannot have the audience punched every minute. You have to bring people into the story… A beginning, a punchline or two or three and sections and an end and maybe you draw a conclusion from the story. The pace has to be different.

The trend is for stand-ups which I am not… entirely.

What I want now is not even money. I want people to be aware I can bring an hour of ‘light’ entertainment and people will go home more content, more relaxed and re-charged like a battery for work the next day.

JOHN: You must have had to learn what sense of humour British audiences want. 

DRAGOS: When I came here, I didn’t use any of my Romanian routines. When I first started in Britain, one routine I had was about people lacking money and being in a shopping mall where money was flying around but it didn’t work with the audiences. People were laughing reluctantly. They didn’t relate. 

Someone told me: “Everybody in the world needs more money but it is not an issue for us. We are not that poor. Not comedy audiences. They can put food on their tables. They can travel around the country or even the world. So people do not personally relate to being poor in comedy routines.”

But the rent in London is not low and audiences can personally identify with that. So I have a song about it and, at the end, I have sometimes had standing ovations. Especially if there are a lot of young people in the audience. They identify – Shared house, high rent, poor living conditions.

Dragoş created, wrote, produced and starred in Romania’s first television sitcom after the Revolution – La Bloc

JOHN: What is the sense of humour in Romania?

DRAGOS:
We still tend to laugh about what British people used to laugh about 20 or 30 years ago – the disabled, drunken people, less-minded guys…

JOHN: Punching down.

DRAGOS: Exactly.

JOHN: And now, in Britain, we punch up not down.

DRAGOS: Yes. But, on the internet, I have seen shows from 20 or 30 years ago and it was the same here in Britain. People laughed at different things then.

JOHN: Did Romanian TV charge after Ceausescu was overthrown?

DRAGOS: Under Ceausescu, there were only three hours of television per night.

JOHN: And that was mostly about what Ceausescu had done that day.

DRAGOS: Yes. And occasional Romanian movies. And, once a week we had an international – specifically American – film. That is why Romanians speak English with an American accent. The only foreign languages we heard were French, a bit of Russian and a lot of American.

JOHN: And television after Ceausescu…?

DRAGOS:
He fled with his helicopter and his entourage on 22nd December 1989 and landed at a cabin in the mountains. But he was captured and he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day.

JOHN: And, after that, television changed…?

DRAGOS: The revolution caught them unprepared. They had no regulations about what you could show on TV. They transmitted an uncensored Romanian film with nudity at 8 o’clock at night and…

(…AT THIS POINT, PERFORMER NARIN OZ ARRIVED IN THE SOHO THEATRE BAR…)

JOHN: (TO NARIN) Do you know Dragos? You should go and see his show at the Hen & Chickens on Sunday.

NARIN: I can’t. I’m filming in a horror movie. I play Death. I’m the villain.

JOHN: That’s typecasting. It’s the evil eyes. Dragos is the David Jason of Romania. Ask him something.

Narin Oz unexpectedly arrived during my chat with Dragos at the Soho Theatre Bar in London

NARIN: What’s your background?

DRAGOS: I graduated in engineering from the University of Timișoara, where the Romanian revolution started. in 1989.

JOHN: You were there?

DRAGOS: Yes. I was there in the beginning. Things expanded dramatically. Within four days, there was blood on the streets. We didn’t have weapons. We had the mentality at that time to go out bare-handed and, as they say, bare-chested. But I wasn’t that crazy. When things changed and became quite serious, I ran. I ran and I was kind of a prisoner in the students’ area.

Nothing was working. Not the public transportation, not the trains, not nothing. I was blocked up to about the 24th December. The spark was on 18th December and rolled over and smashed all the country, but it ended up in Bucharest within two or three days on 21st of December and, on 22nd, Ceausescu fled, then was killed on 25th. They call us religious people, but we killed our leader on Christmas Day: come on!

NARIN: So your show is about Romania…

DRAGOS: No. Not at all. I just put all that in brackets – what I just said.

NARIN: Those are very big brackets. Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

JOHN: It’s not a comedy show as such. It has comedy but with lots of music. It’s like an old-time variety show but solo.

DRAGOS: Though I think, when you walk away, you have some ideas and a conclusion maybe?

NARIN: Are you singing?

DRAGOS: Yes. Singing and playing the piano and comedy.

JOHN: Songs you have written yourself.

DRAGOS: Ten songs written especially for the show.

JOHN: And a bit of Elton John.

“A serious piece of music… an impersonation of Elton John.”

DRAGOS: Yes. That is a more serious piece of music. I do an impersonation of Elton John. (HE SHOWS A VIDEO ON HIS PHONE)

NARIN: You’re a bit of a legend.

JOHN: He is. Twenty years daily on television. Multiple series. And he wrote and produced and starred in this sitcom which…

DRAGOS: That was the first sitcom ever in Romania because, before 1989 and the overthrow of Ceausescu, we didn’t have such entertainment there. Then, after ten years of importing Seinfeld and Married With Children, we started our own sitcom on Pro TV – a private one, like ITV here. It lasted for ten years and 524 episodes.

JOHN: Produced and written by you…

DRAGOS: Well, there was a whole team of writers…

JOHN: But mainly you…

DRAGOS: Yes, because I created the idea; so I was like the head writer; I would re-touch and revise a little bit and I also acted in it.

NARIN: So, why did you come here? You were known there. You had everything.

DRAGOS: Yes, but I felt I needed somewhere to go and something to do NEXT. When you become very comfortable within your situation, that can lead to lack of inspirational creativity.

I have built up this new stage show and now I am struggling to get it going because I am in-between worlds.

Romanians in Britain would come to see me but, when they find out the show is in English… Not many have perfect English, especially the guys who just come here to work, to get some money to build something back in Romania. In London, there are doctors, lawyers and others who have been here about ten years and speak good English, but…

NARIN: Why don’t you do a Romanian language show?

DRAGOS: I have. But it’s not what I came here for. When I address things in English, I have to have a British audience. And the non-Romanian, English-speaking audience do not know me at the moment. I’m not complaining.  This is the normal way to do it. To build a new audience. 

NARIN: You could do, say, a 4-day run with two shows in Romanian and two in English.

DRAGOS: I could, but doing the same show in English and in Romanian doesn’t work. The topics are slightly different. With the Romanian shows I have to be very specific with Romanian references and culture. Every other month, we have a 2-hour Romanian show with various acts.

But I want to move on, move up.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Romania

Advice if you are a stripper or burlesque dancer: DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR

John! There’s a new psychedelic from Brazil, but it’s not a plant! She’s an enormous naked fat lady – well she wears only tiny silver pasties and a matching tiny G-string so she seems naked – and she dances tango solo while delicately removing invisible clothing to rapturous applause which was – when I saw it – interspersed with moments of awed silence. All this concluded with a standing ovation.

(That was the start of another missive from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She continued…)

I saw her – Delirious Fenix – yesterday at the Burlesque Festival in Vancouver Playhouse, the municipal theater, which used to show plays and employ actors. I was very sad when the municipal theater company was disbanded a few years ago. I thought it was a sign of the end of the world, but I had not foreseen that Delirious Fenix would perform there.

There is a clip on YouTube of her appearance on the Ferdinando TV show in Brazil.

Babe Camille 2000’s earlier ‘ass dress’

Delirious Fenix and the Emperor of Fabulous were very good, And I stood up and yelled for Camille 2000… She deserves it just for being alive, for having played a dominatrix to Iggy Pop in Miami Vice and also for wearing the costume that displayed her ass so hilariously when she was a babe!

Then there were many beautiful solo lady dancers… But WHY did almost all of them rip their gloves off in the first two seconds and end their acts humping the floor? I always used to leave my gloves on as long as possible. Otherwise you just look like an ordinary naked girl in no time.

Each act at Vancouver Playhouse had four assistants to pick up their clothing which was strewn all over the huge stage. I could tell the more professional ones because their clothes landed in the same general area…

A tables-and-tassles intermission

During the intermission, there were tables selling pasties, hair ornaments and hand-made panties. At one table, volunteers were selling courses on how to do burlesque. A young volunteer lady told me I should take an introductory course in burlesque.

“You would like it,” she told me. “It’s  for all ages.” She brandished a brochure outlining the classes available at The Vancouver Burlesque Center. The classes had titles like Discovering the Sexy You and How to Own The Stage.

I glanced at the brochure. The room was full of excited people wearing bright silly costumes and talking loudly.

“You really should try it,” the young lady said perkily. “It’s more fun than you might think.”

Camille treats Anna like Iggy (Photograph by Bazuka Joe)

I wasn’t in the mood to say that I used to be a headline act or to start explaining that I had spent fifteen solid years dancing on four continents so I didn’t really need an introduction to Stripping For Fun classes.

She looked hopelessly fresh-faced and anxious to convert me to this fun new hobby and smiled hopefully. I found myself having to shout over the surrounding conversations which were punctuated with the squealing sounds of friends admiring each other’s outfits.

“Its ALRIGHT,” I shouted. “THANK YOU BUT I DON’T NEED a brochure. I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’M SORRY! I HAVE DIFFICULTY HEARING!”

I tried to smile kindly, waving my arms around and escaped.

The poor young girl. She had been so nice. I hope she didn’t feel too badly that she couldn’t convince the poor old deaf lady to try out a strip class.

Did I tell you that Camille 2000’s pet peeve about young strippers is when they do a ‘floor act’. She tells them in her workshops: “Do NOT get on the FLOOR!!! Get a chair. Get a prop. Get ANYTHING. But DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR!… A STAR does not get on the floor!”

Camille 2000 is from Alabama. The way she says “on” has two syllables and sounds very pretty to me.

Oh, great… A conveyor belt broke at the airport and my flight will be delayed.

I am going to Montreal for six days. I wish it was for longer. Montreal is probably the most culturally ‘happening’ city in Canada… possibly because the rent is cheaper than any of the other major cities here – plus the immigrant mixture, good food and being a major port.

Anna Smith (left) and her group have written a book

I am going for the annual Canadian HIV/AIDS research conference. We (Dr.Dan Allman from the University of Toronto’s Della Lana School of Public Health and the Triple X Workers Solidarity Society – represented by my friends Andrew Sorfleet, Will Pritchard and me) are holding an ancillary event to premiere the short film about our ‘groundbreaking consultation’ with 50 diverse sex worker organisations from across Canada about PrEP and our various concerns about its promotion and use.

It is the project we did for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The sponsors of the conference are mainly big drug companies like Gilead but I noticed that one of the sponsors bears the hipster-sounding name ‘Tweed’. I wondered what Tweed does so I looked it up and it is one if Canada’s largest marijuana facilities. I don’t suppose they will be giving out samples.

Seattle’s Emperor of Fabulous

I did meet the Emperor of Fabulous last night. He is from Seattle and he is a very nice man.

He took my email address and gave me his business card and said we could take a photo together but then he scampered off because the lady ushers at the municipal theater are very fierce. I imagine most of them worked as prison guards before they were drafted into the theater.

I looked up the Emperor of Fabulous on Facebook later and saw that he did a benefit for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

In the United States many sex workers, mostly women, are serving long prison sentences. Conditions are very harsh.

In Arizona a woman was left for four hours in a cage in the sun and she died of dehydration, ignored by 14 guards while she begged for water. A documentary about this incident was made, with the help of SWOP Behind Bars instigated by sex worker activists Carol Leigh and Christina Sardinia. The documentary is called No Human Involved and it was released in July 2016. It has won several awards.

The incident that prompted the film was back in 2009 but I think, if anything, the situation is now worse in the United States.

There is a trailer for the documentary online.

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Elton John, 29 Canadian sex workers, $75,000, a Toronto hotel, stag parties

Logs_FraserRiver_Vancouver

I have received another email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent.

She lives in a boat near Vancouver.

She says:


We are in the middle of a series of three huge storms; the next one is the tail end of a typhoon. Last night a tugboat ran aground off a remote section of the coast and it is leaking fifty thousand of litres of diesel, threatening the clam beds at Bella Bella.

We were promised last year that there would be a moratorium on tanker traffic by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (known locally as Donny Osmond), but the local Bella Bella  M.P. says he is still waiting for some legislation that is not filled with loopholes..

I am limbering up to visit Toronto on Tuesday with a delegation of eight hookers from the west coast. We are flying them in from the east coast also. I like saying ‘hookers’ but properly we are called ‘sex worker organizations’. It looks better than Elton John pays out thousands of dollars to 29 Canadian hookers.

Anna Smith with Andrew Sorflee, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia (Photo by William Pritchard)

Anna Smith with Andrew Sorfleet, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia (Photograph by William Pritchard)

An HIV researcher has been given a $75,000 grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation in support of his work to prevent HIV infection among Canadian sex workers.

The money is going to facilitate the consultation (and possibly record a pop video of it). We are getting our airfare and hotel paid but not receiving a salary.

We are going to stay in a regular downtown hotel on Yonge Street and having the consultation at the University of Toronto but, when I was there in the 1980s, I lived in the Selby Hotel, so I am the missing link between Ernest Hemingway and Elton John because Hemingway also lived in the Selby 60 years earlier.

I don’t know which room he was in. Maybe I shared the same bathtub as him. I did drink a lot while living there and ate mostly salad as there was no stove. I also learned how to cure ham, as there was no refrigerator either. The bathtub was fantastic though: a huge clawed thing in its own room. It was a great place to sleep, drink and bathe in.

Plus, if I wanted drugs, all I had to do was go to the basement, because it was a gay bar and you could easily buy any drug there. The bar was called BOOTS.

Also it was handy when I danced at Italian stag parties. The Italian stags (they travelled in groups) would eagerly drive me home from the suburbs in their comfortable new Cadillacs. I would instruct them to drive into the parking lot and they would say in surprise: “You live here?”

Outside the bar would be guys in leather, groping each other or passionately kissing.

I would say: “Yup! Thanks for driving me all the way home.” Then I would jump out of the car and go into the bar, quickly buy some hash and go upstairs to my room and make another salad.

The Fillmores Club in Toronto

The Filmores Club in Toronto – stag parties, art and poetry

When I was living at the Selby, I mostly was dancing at a club called Filmores. When I walked home at 3.00am, I sometimes found interesting things on the street.

Once I found a huge painting that I liked – an abstract patterned with zigzag lines and bright geometric shapes. It reminded me of a Rousseau – it had the feeling of a jungle with layers of bright yellow and green painted in vivid 80’s style. So I dragged it home to my room and kept it for ages. It felt like a stage scrim and made every room it was in seem larger.

Another time, I spotted a poem glinting from a rainy dark puddle in the street. It was in the handwriting of a young child and was addressed: TO DAD.

I picked up the poem, which was written on a rectangular piece of coloured paper, and carried it home like a treasure.

It was a very beautiful and lonely poem which gave me a sad feeling. I thought it might be a Father’s Day present that the child had tragically dropped on the way home.

TO DAD

All day I hear the noise of waters
Making moan,
Sad as the sea-bird is when, going
Forth alone,
He hears the winds cry to the water’s
Monotone.

What a great poem, I thought. It showed how brilliant children are before they get boxed in and made to conform. I’ve always loved the art that children make.

After having that poignant fragment in my mind for many years I then discovered that the poem had actually been written by James Joyce.

I have been sleeping a bit fitfully. Ferries are being cancelled due to storm. I will now try to wake up, make a coffee and look out to see if the river is flowing onto the road yet.

CONTINUED HERE

A slightly out-of-focus map of Toronto which Anna painted in around 1978.

A slightly out-of-focus map of Toronto which Anna painted in around 1978.

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A dog’s dinner in our very Fortean times

We live in Fortean Times

We improbably live in weird Fortean Times

What do you do if you get home late, don’t get enough sleep, then have to get up and leave home early, have a busy day ahead, no time to transcribe the two interesting chats you have had with people and have to write a blog before you leave?

You grasp at straws.

I had a quick look at some old e-diaries.

On 7th March 2004, I was in the Anglia TV region and their local news reported that a former Essex Chief Inspector had written a book about his career in the police force called Catching Monsters. He was signing copies of the book in a local shopping centre when he was attacked by a man who hit him about the head with a block of wood.  The man escaped. According to Anglia News, “Essex Police said the attacker could have had a grudge against the officer.”

The lateral thinking of the police constantly impresses me.

Professor Hand’s book on the probability of improbable things happening

Professor Hand’s book on improbability

Last night, I went to a meeting of the London Fortean Society at which Professor David J. Hand, the emeritus professor of mathematics and a senior research investigator at Imperial College, London, explained his Improbability Principle which, basically, explains why the most improbable things are statistically liable to happen.

He said that statistically, in order for it to be likely to have two people in a room with the same birthday (day and month) you only need 23 people. He showed a video in which a man walking along a street was struck by lightning. The man fell down, lay still for a few moments, got up, carried on walking and, around 5 seconds later, was struck by lightning a second time.

The London Fortean Society’s next meeting is called Fucking Strange: The Weird and Wonderful World of Animal Sex in which Dutch ecologist and evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen, based at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and who also holds a chair in evolution at Leiden University will, the billing says, “invite the audience to join him as he uncovers the ways the shapes and functions of genitalia have been molded by complex Darwinian struggles” and “we learn why spiders masturbate into miniature webs”.

I remember, years ago, reading in the Fortean Times, about a road accident in which three cars collided. One of the drivers was a Mr Butcher, another was a Mr Baker and the third was a candlestick maker. Strange and so improbable as to be unbelievable, but entirely true.

I remember another article in Fortean Times years ago which pointed out the false logic of statistics often quoted in newspapers. If there is a 60-million-to-one chance of something happening, it is highly unlikely it will happen to you… But there are over 60 million people in the UK, so it is likely to happen to someone.

Yesterday afternoon, I met a woman behind me in a queue at Marks & Spencer. We got chatting. She was 38 and told me she had only been on an underground train three times in her life. She had never ever bought a newspaper until this week and does not watch TV news. Then I got to the cashier and could ask no more. I will never know how this woman had lived her life.

Last night, at the London Fortean Society, I got chatting to someone who had met Elton John. She told me he looked “like an ageing American housewife”.

This seemed a little harsh.

Life is a dog’s dinner of random events.

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Variety is not dead in Britain – not with the Royal wedding of William and Kate AND Pull The Other One

I saw a repeat of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade on BBC TV recently. The argument was that variety is dead. Michael Grade (unusually) was wrong. Two things yesterday proved this to me: the Royal Wedding and a monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, home of Only Fools and Horses – no connection with the Royal Wedding.

At school, I took British Constitution for ‘A’ Level so i am a very strong supporter of the institution of a constitutional monarchy, but I have absolutely no interest at all in the soap opera of the Royal Family. If left to my own devices yesterday, I might have switched on BBC1 to see the RAF fly-past at the Royal Wedding and perhaps I would have watched the drive back from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace in case anyone got assassinated.

As it was, I was with a friend who is a feminist republican. (Note, if you are an American reader, a republican is almost the opposite of what you might think: more left wing than right wing).

Of course, like almost all British republicans, she is obsessed with reading about and watching the Royals and following the soap opera and I had to sit through the whole thing on TV.

We had recently sat through Lindsay Anderson’s surreal movie If…. together and yesterday, when it got to the marriage bit where camp-looking churchmen in kitsch golden dresses were intoning sleep-inducing words and the congregation was awash with politicians, Royals, the upper classes and Elton John, I half expected Malcolm McDowell to appear high up in the Abbey among the gargoyles desperately firing an AK-47 at the congregation who would flood out the doors of the Abbey into Parliament Square where mortar bombs would explode.

Perhaps my mind wandered a little.

But men intoning the word of God in funny costumes always stimulates the surreal nodes in my brain.

My friend did make the interesting point that, apart from Kate Middleton, the colourful service was an entirely male affair apart from two nuns sitting to one side dressed in drab grey among the men in bright colours and the presumably-repeatedly-buggered choirboys in white surplices. It looked to me like the two nuns had been hired from Central Casting. One was unnecessarily tall and the other was unnecessarily small. It was like watching that classic comedy sketch where John Cleese is upper class and Ronnie Corbett is working class.

I am Sister Superior; I am taller than her and nearer to God… and I am Sister Inferior; I know my place.

Even when they sat down, the tall one was twice the height as the small one – that never normally happens. I began to fantasise about special effects and trapdoors in the pews.

The real pisser for me, though, was that the BBC TV director managed to miss the shot of the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane flying down the length of The Mall. That was the only reason I was watching the thing – other than the possibility of visually interesting assassinations – and it was almost as bad as ITN missing the Royal Kiss on the balcony when Charles married Di.

Everything else was so impeccably stage-managed, I couldn’t understand why they missed the shot. I particularly loved the trees and random greenery inside Westminster Abbey though I found the chandeliers distracting. I don’t remember chandeliers inside the Abbey. Did they come with the trees as part of a special offer from B&Q?

The Royal Wedding guests included Elton John, an invisible Posh & Becks and the distractingly visible two nuns.

In the evening, I went to the monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, which similarly attracts performers who come along to see the show but not to participate. This month it was writer Mark Kelly, actor Stephen Frost and surreal performer Chris Lynam. As I have said before, you know it is a good venue if other performers come to see the shows.

Pull The Other One is not a normal comedy show in that its performers are almost entirely speciality acts not stand-up comedians. If you need a break from reality, I recommend Pull The Other One as a good place to go. And the compering is usually as odd as the acts.

With Vivienne Soan on tour in Holland, the always energetic Holly Burn – the Miss Marmite of Comedy as I like to think of her – compered with Charmian Hughes and the latter performed an Egyptian sand dance in honour of the Royal wedding. Don’t ask, I don’t know, but it was very funny.

Martin Soan, Holly Burn and massed wind-up puppets performed Riverdance.

The extraordinarily larger-than-life Bob Slayer surprisingly did balloon modelling and unsurprisingly drank a pint of beer in one gulp.

Juggler Mat Ricardo (to be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe this August in the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show) still has some of the best spesh act patter around.

Magician David Don’t – who had variable success last month when he used blind-folded members of the audience throwing darts at each other – unusually succeeded in an escapology act involving a giant Royal Mail bag, although it’s the last time I want to see a banker with no clothes on and a Union flag coming out of his groin.

Earl Okin did wonderful musical things with his mouth.

And, to round off the evening Matthew Robins, with ukulele and accordion accompaniment, performed a shadow puppet story about murder and mutilation and a visit to the zoo. It is rare to see a shadow puppet show about someone getting his fingers cut off with pliers, his sister hanging from a rope and the audience spontaneously singing along to “I wanted you to love me, but a snake bit my hand…”

But it is more interesting than watching the Archbishop of Canterbury with his grey wild-man-of-the-desert hair wearing a gold dress and a funny pointy party hat in Westminster Abbey.

Pull the Other One – on the last Friday of every month – is never ever predictable and Stephen Frost, keen to appear, lamented to me the fact it is fully booked with performers until November.

Most interesting line of the evening – of the whole day, in fact – came from Earl Okin, who pointed out what a historic Wedding Day this was…

Because it was exactly 66 years ago to the day when Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun.

“It doesn’t bode well,” Earl said.

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