Tag Archives: England

Private Eye magazine – shining a light on a naughty world

How soon current affairs become history.

I’m sadly old enough (just) to remember the satirical magazine Private Eye starting up. At the time, I was not a vast fan. It seemed to me a bit too much like privileged public schoolboys biting the Establishment hand that paid their fees. But it has been admirably bitey over the years, publishing what other publications would not dare to print.

If it was not always part of the Establishment, it is now.

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Private Eye co-founder and former editor Richard Ingrams to plug the publication of a new book about the Eye. Ingrams now edits The Oldie.

According to Ingrams, Private Eye struck lucky early on because, just one year after it started publication, the Profumo Scandal broke: ideal fodder for the new satirical magazine.

The people at Private Eye knew absolutely nothing at all about the details of the scandal or what had happened but, again, they struck lucky by encountering Claud Cockburn, a writer who did know all about it, had copious contacts in very high places and who edited a special Profumo edition of Private Eye for them.

Once people think you know everything, then they will tell you almost anything: a great bonus if you are in the market for printing secrets or, at least unknown facts.

The Profumo Scandal eventually brought down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Party government… although, yesterday, Richard Ingrams claimed Macmillan had actually resigned “by mistake” because he thought he had terminal cancer and, when it turned out he did not, he was more than a little angry.

Private Eye was also the first publication to name notorious London gangsters the Kray Brothers after the Sunday Mirror had published an article linking the Krays with showbiz peer Lord Bob Boothby; the Sunday Mirror had not named Boothby (who had also been having a long-term affair with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s wife).

But, while Richard Ingrams was away on holiday, comedian and Private Eye owner Peter Cook edited the magazine and he named the Krays, then perhaps wisely left the country. With Ingrams still on holiday, the next issue’s guest editor had to take all the flak – pundit Malcolm Muggeridge.

Also involved with the Krays was Labour MP (and rumoured Soviet spy) Tom Driberg who liked a ‘bit of rough’ and one of whose criminal boyfriends stole from Driberg’s flat a newly-written draft of The Times’ obituary of Harold Wilson, the then very-much-alive British Prime Minister. He sold it to Private Eye for £10.

Shortly afterwards, Richard Ingrams was at No 10 Downing Street and asked Wilson: “Would you like to see what your obituary in The Times will say?”

Wilson apparently responded: “They never liked me.”

Private Eye, established by public schoolboys, was now part of the Establishment to such an extent that the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret would phone up their Grovel columnist Nigel Dempster with unflattering tales of Princess Diana, knowing they would be published.

People thought the Eye had gone too far when they printed items about Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party, trying to have ex-lover Norman Scott killed… until Thorpe was arrested and tried for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. (He was controversially found not guilty.)

And then, of course, there were the legendary and seemingly endless writs for libel.

Corrupt newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell’s last writ, just two weeks before he ‘fell off his boat’, was about an ‘outrageous’ libel the Eye had printed about him dipping his fingers into his companies’ pension funds. Which proved to be true.

And the most famous series of writs, of course, was the James Goldsmith case which backfired. The day after Lord Lucan accidentally murdered his nanny thinking that it was his wife, his influential chums at the Claremont Club in Mayfair got together to talk about how they could best help the missing peer, who had done the proverbial runner. Private Eye published a story that millionaire financier, publisher and political wannabe James Goldsmith was at this meeting although it later turned out he had, in fact, not been present – he took part by telephone.

Goldsmith was supposedly outraged that the Eye printed he had been present at this meeting and had therefore attempted to pervert the course of justice and he went ahead with a two-pronged attack – suing Private Eye for the very obscure charge of criminal libel which could have seen Ingrams imprisoned and the Eye financially ruined… and threatening criminal libel cases against the magazine’s distributors and retail shops which sold it (like WH Smith) in a successful attempt to damage Private Eye’s circulation and sales.

As I understand it (not something mentioned by Richard Ingrams yesterday) this strategy backfired on Goldsmith because his Establishment chums held rather unsavoury grudges against him: he was felt to be ‘not one of us’ firstly because he was French-born and secondly because he was Jewish. It was felt he was an outsider who “did not understand” British culture because, although suing Private Eye for simple civil libel was acceptable and part of a game the Establishment and the Eye played, trying to destroy the magazine was ‘not on’.

And that is still the case.

Private Eye is a valuable self-regulatory asset within the Establishment to keep members of the Establishment from straying too far from generally accepted behaviour. People can stray into corruption within reason but not within plain sight. If they do, they are fair game for the well-connected Eye.

Yesterday, Richard Ingrams told a story about Stephen Ward, the osteopath who was at the very heart of the Profumo Scandal, coming round to, in effect, ask Private Eye how much they knew.

Stephen Ward was, said Ingrams, trying to keep things under control and still believed at this point that the Establishment would stand by him and protect him.

Instead, of course, he was thrown to the lions at the Old Bailey and committed suicide on the last day of his trial on the highly dubious charges of procuring prostitutes and living off immoral earnings.

Private Eye occasionally tries its best to shine a light on a naughty world but one torch is of limited use in infinity.

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Mr Methane: the man who put the art into fart-a-dart on blowing not sucking

Yesterday, I blogged about Bob Slayer and Mr Methane’s predilection for including darts in their stage shows: Bob Slayer encourages people to throw darts at him and Mr Methane – the world’s only professionally performing flatulist – a farter to you and me  – blows darts out of his bottom to burst balloons attached to the heads of audience members.

Bob Slayer now tells me the current showbiz obsession with darts goes further than I knew:

Dave Gorman,” he tells me, “is a big fan of darts and carries his ‘arrows’ everywhere in case he has time to kill and can nip into a boozer to chuck them at a board.”

Mr Methane, meanwhile, has been telling me how his fart-a-dart routine started.

“It was when I was touring with Bobby Davro back in the 1990s,” he tells me. “Bobby used to tell me that any show needs a good start, an at-least average middle and a memorable finish.

“I figured that farting a dart into a large balloon attached on top of someone’s head in a William Tell manner would provide that finish. But, at first, I could not figure out the correct type of dart, in terms of weight and velocity etc.

“I was using 2.2 air rifle darts and they were too heavy so, consequently, they were too slow and did not straighten up enough to impact the balloon properly. Then, one day, a Japanese TV show wanted me to ‘Fart The Dart’ into a balloon, so they studied my equipment and also videos of me farting a dart. Then they did what the Japanese do best – they improved the design and solved the problem

“When I arrived in Tokyo, I was ceremonially presented with a custom-made, MK2 balloon-piercing darts kit and we had a test run followed by green tea and sushi. Needless to say, the test run and the recording were both successful and, on taking the darts home with me to the UK, I took a leaf from the post-war Japanese Engineering Handbook and I ‘back engineered’ the product to unravel the manufacturing secrets of the darts so I could construct them myself.

“It is always a very tense moment during a live stage show when I fart-a-dart, as I like to burst the balloon first time. I suppose it is similar to the emotions that an England football player feels during the penalty shoot-out at the end of an England v Germany game in the World Cup when the pressure is really is on.

“I think my own worst time for nerves was during the semi-finals of the TV show Das Supertalent (Germany’s Got Talent).

“I was representing the United Kingdom on Germany’s No 1 prime time Saturday night entertainment show, so I had my nation’s and Her Majesty’s honour to uphold and – because it was going out live – there could be no room for any mistakes.

“The relief when I nailed the balloon first time was immense.

“It is all in the technique…

“I find it is best to grip the end of the blow pipe with your sphincter muscle in the same way you would use your lips if blowing a dart with your mouth.

“You have to be very careful not to discharge even the slightest amount of air from your colon once you are gripping the blowpipe with your buttocks and going for the countdown otherwise the dart will rise up and fall out the end with no velocity.

“Once you count zero, you blow-off big time and, hopefully, it will be a bulls-eye.

“The time lapse between the dart leaving the blowpipe and piercing the balloon in reality is very short but, for me, lying there on my back with my legs up in the air, it seems to be in slow motion, rather like events appear to be when you in a car accident or similar.

“On a Health & Safety note, I have a small filter at the end of the blowpipe which touches my bottom. This is like a filter-tip of dart-farting and is there for safety reasons – to stop the dart going any further in an inward direction, for obvious reasons.

“When farting a dart, it is important not to suck but to blow.”

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London is no longer an English city and who won World War Two anyway?

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Recently, John Cleese told an Australian interviewer: “London is no longer an English city… it doesn’t feel English.”

Last night I saw Arnold Wesker‘s 1959 play The Kitchen at the National Theatre in London. It was two hours twenty minutes long.

Good acting; showy direction; but it could have done with at least an hour cut out of it, an actual central plot added in and a decent end line with a point.

What was interesting about The Kitchen, though, was that it was set in the – no surprise here – kitchen of a large restaurant in 1959 with characters who were, in alphabetical order, Cypriot, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, West Indian and I think others… oh and English.

London, according to John Cleese, is not an English city in 2011.

But London was not an English city in 1959.

London has not been an English city for centuries – Jews, Huguenots, Flemings, Kenyan Asians, Poles, Albanians and, before them, Saxons, Normans, Danes and many many others all flooded in on different waves of immigration and invasion including the English.

The truth is, of course, that London was never an English city in the first place.

London was created by the Romans – a load of bloody Italians with all the foreign hangers-on who made up their army… all of them coming over here without a by-your-leave, taking our jobs and women and opening corner shops all over the place.

The Angles and the Saxons came later, lowering property prices in Londinium and Camulodunum – or Colchester as someone-or-other eventually re-named it. Camulodunum was not even a Roman town; the Celts had been there before the Italians arrived with their legions and ice cream shops.

The idea of London or anywhere else in ‘England’ being an English or even a British city is a myth, just as the idea that the British (and, as always, arriving late) the Americans won the Second World War is a myth.

The ‘British’ forces included Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans and many more troops from around the British Empire and elsewhere.

I remember a historian (an Italian one) telling me about the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy towards the end of the War. As he put it:

“A large Allied army composed of Americans, Moroccans, Algerians, Filipinos, Indians and Poles stormed the Cassino front.”

After the War, he got to know a German Panzer commander who had fought at Cardito, a hilltop a few miles away from Monte Cassino. The German remembered:

“We used to wonder each morning what colour the men coming up the hill would be that day. Coloured men of many races came up in waves. At the end of May, the Poles made it up to the top of the hill; they were the only other tall, blond men around apart from us.”

The Second World War was not won only by the British and the Americans.

And London, founded by the Romans, was not even originally an English city.

The English were and are just one group of foreign immigrants among many.

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Filed under History, Racism

Random anarchy, incompetence and brilliance at the Edinburgh Fringe

After reading my blog yesterday about the Edinburgh Fringe, former Skint Video performer Brian Mulligan left a post on my Facebook page saying :

“This reminds me of watching a left wing revolutionary comic flicking past the front pages of hard political news (Apartheid, Contras other 80s stuff) in search of the past night’s reviews. Truly a bubble…”

He is absolutely right, of course. The whole of London could burn down and all anyone in Edinburgh would care about is whether Kate Copstick gave them a 3 or a 4 star review in The Scotsman.

The Edinburgh Fringe is the ultimate inward-looking bubble outside which nothing exists. It also seems as if the English riots are taking place in a totally different country which, indeed, they are.

Yesterday evening, I was having tea with comedian Laura Lexx in the City Cafe, talking about Ink, the straight play she has written/produced at the Kiwi Bar about the 7/7 terrorist bombings, while music played on the audio system and the TV monitor showed footage of hoodie youths turning their Grand Theft Auto games into 3D reality on the BBC News channel – with subtitles. The ranks of police in Darth Vader helmets running along the streets were keeping impeccable time to the rhythm of the music. It was an instant accidental music video. Respect, bro.

Laura was more interested than most in the riots because, in London, she lives in the middle of what was/is one of the main riot areas, round the corner from a large Tesco store, now looted. Clearly teenagers in her area have low aspirations. She was telling me about how the 5,000 flyers she ordered for her Ink show in Edinburgh had not yet arrived and she had had to pay for another 500 from another printer to tide her over.

Edinburgh at Fringe time becomes spectacularly incompetent with the venues, shops, bars, newspapers, magazines et al dragging in hundreds of inexperienced and largely uninterested students, unemployed and general ne’er-do-wells. All they want is drink, drugs and, if they strike lucky, to make the beast with two backs. There are unlikely to be riots in Edinburgh because all the potential rioters are working long hours in temporary jobs. But the effect of this transient annual workforce is that nobody remembers anything that happened at the Fringe beyond two years ago. There is no continuity. Almost everybody is equally a newcomer.

So far, the City Cafe wins the highly-contended-for prize for utter incompetence. The Blair Street Sauna, only slightly lower down the slope of the same road, almost certainly has better service and probably has better things to eat. (I have never been there.)

At the City Cafe, it took 27 minutes to get a wildly overpriced (as everything is in Edinburgh at Fringe time) and very bland Mississippi Mud Pie out of them when the place was only a quarter full. This saga went through getting the other half of the food ordered, getting the drinks, but them forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, bringing a totally different dessert, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie again; and only getting it when I stood at the bar looking at them with an unblinking and slightly psychotic stare.

I don’t actually mind people ballsing things up through general inbuilt incompetence – it’s their employer’s fault not theirs. But this was don’t give a shit incompetence – par for the course in many an establishment during the Fringe.

Things on the show front were going well, though.

The Forum at the Underbelly is a touching little play about an online internet forum with a slight twist at the end which could elicit tears from the unwary. This ain’t going to become a Hollywood movie because you come out into the night unsettled and melancholic. But it is beautifully acted and scripted.

Sneasons of Liz at the New Town Theatre is the opposite – you come out into the night beaming.

It is a musical narrative about a woman with multiple allergies who sneezes her way around the world and is not remotely anything like what I expected.

It is an odd production because most Edinburgh Fringe shows – even the best ones – are ‘alternative’, which means perhaps a bit rough-and-ready and… well… Fringe-like. The one thing they never are is smooth, mainstream Broadway or London West End quality.

But Sneasons of Liz is just that.

It is only a singer on a stool or wandering the stage plus a piano accompanist and some good lighting design. So it is stark. It has no scenery. But it is of London West End or Broadway standard and almost from another era.

This is largely because its star Liz Merendino is a Grade A humdinger of a performer.

She is a classically-trained singer from New York, based in Hong Kong who has been a music teacher for the last nine years. She was wasting her time doing that; she should have been on the West End or Broadway stage. She is that good. The show combines musical standards with specially-commissioned new songs from Fascinating Aida’s Adele Anderson and it is a wonderfully entertaining showbiz blast. Very American but, in this case, none the worse for that. In fact, it’s a positive advantage here.

We are talking Liza Minnelli blast-em-out songs, though much more varied than that implies and Liz Merendino has a voice to die for – let’s hope she doesn’t – one which can cope with some very difficult singing subtleties.

Great songs. Great energy. Great piano accompanist (strangely uncredited). Great, great singer.

It is probably incomparable at the Fringe but, in its own world, it is a 5-star show which does not put a foot wrong.

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The English jury system at work

A friend of mine was doing jury service recently.

After all the evidence was given and after the jury had been deliberating for a while, one of the jury members asked:

“Which one is the accused?”

When she was told which person was actually on trial, she asked:

“Wasn’t the other bloke accused?”

“No,” she was told by my friend, “he was the chief prosecution witness.”

“Oh,” the other jury member replied, “I thought they were both on trial.”

The accused man was found guilty. He probably was.

Who knows?

True story.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Internet, Television, Theatre

Steve Coogan to play porn baron Paul Raymond in new Winterbottom movie?

Apparently plans are “well advanced” for Steve Coogan to play British porn baron Paul Raymond in a film directed by the extraordinarily prolific Michael Winterbottom – they previously worked together on the excellent 24 Hour Party People in which Coogan impersonated Tony Wilson to a tee. I encountered Tony Wilson when I was working at Granada TV and Coogan’s voice was uncannily spot-on though I found the hair strangely unsettling. Paul Raymond had a hairstyle even more extravagant than Tony Wilson, so this could be the start of a movie hair trilogy.

The planned new movie – currently called Paul Raymond’s Wonderful World of Erotica – is based on Paul Willetts’ biography Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond.

Willetts said he originally wanted to entitle his book Panties Inferno after a long-ago American burlesque revue but, mystifyingly, there were legal problems.

I heard about both the planned movie and the book title last night at a publicity event for the book on a suitably sweaty night in Soho. Other long-ago US burlesque show titles loved by Willetts because they tried to make strip shows classy were Julius Teaser and Anatomy & Cleopatra.

Those were the days.

Paul Raymond also tried to make strip shows seem classy – “nudity without crudity” was the phrase he used. And he is a perfect movie subject – larger than life and with pretensions beyond his art. The best biographies are often akin to naff 1950s travelogues:

Paul Raymond – Land of Contrasts…

When he was 13, he wanted to be a Catholic priest – so maybe his later porn career ironically turned out to be less sexually seedy than it might have done. And, in latter days, he bankrolled Mark Thatcher’s failed motor racing career. Perhaps as a thankyou, he was once invited to Downing Street by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as “an exemplary entrepreneur”.

When he got rich, he inevitably bought a boat and even tried to give that class by naming it ‘Get ‘em Off’ – but in Latin. His girlfriend Fiona Richmond’s mother was, at the time, a teacher in a convent and got the nuns to translate the words into Latin, though quite how she managed this without suspicions being aroused remains a complete mystery to me.

I only went to the Raymond Revuebar once, in the 1980s, when it was hosting alternative comedy shows. My clear memory is that regular comedy evenings were being run there by a young Eddie Izzard, though a quick Google tells me it was the Comic Strip.

Who knows?

In its early days, alternative comedy in the UK overlapped with dodgy Soho clubs.

In his early days, before the Revuebar opened, Paul Raymond had been a theatrical agent/producer with a winning formula he called ‘the comic, the conjurer and the girl with her tits out’.

In an interview in a 1969 LWT series called On The Record, Paul Raymond was interviewed by Alan Watson and rather bizarrely compared stripping to stand-up comedy. He said (I paraphrase): “Comedians tell gags to get laughs. Stripping is like comedy. If the act isn’t having the desired effect, then the stripper has to work harder.”

No wonder Margaret Thatcher thought he was an exemplary entrepreneur.

But the character Paul Willetts chatted about from the Soho ‘scene’ of that time who most interested me was not Paul Raymond but his acquaintance Paul Lincoln, an Australian who made his name in the ring as wrestler Dr Death, then started and co-owned the legendary 2i’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, Soho – birthplace of UK Rock n Roll.

Paul Lincoln died in January this year but, back when Paul Raymond was starting his seminal Revuebar in Walker’s Court in 1958 – allegedly the first strip club in Britain – Lincoln was promoting wrestling bouts around the country as well as running the 2i’s.

The two Pauls – Raymond and Lincoln – had a falling-out over an allegedly genuine German aristocrat – a baron – who wrestled on Lincoln’s UK circuit. The baron lived in a flat above the 2i’s and had a pet cheetah which he took for walks in Hyde Park.

These were innocent days.

The Raymond Revuebar, at the time, had novelty acts performing in its entrance area and Raymond effectively nicked the baron from Lincoln and started having wrestling bouts in the Revuebar entrance. Not only that, but he got the baron to train his cheetah to join the strippers on stage and undo girls’ undergarments with its teeth.

These were, indeed, the much more innocent, golden days before Health & Safety rules kicked in.

The Raymond Revuebar also reportedly featured a horse removing girls’ underwear with its teeth – sugar lumps were attached to relevant parts of the underwear to encourage the horse.

What encouraged the cheetah or how they got the horse into the club I don’t know.

Some of life’s most intriguing questions are doomed never to be answered.

(There is a follow-up to this blog HERE; and the comedy industry website Chortle picked up on this blog as a news item HERE.)

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The man who kept accused war criminal Ratko Mladic’s hat in his living room

I posted this blog a few months ago but, with the arrest yesterday of former Serbian general Ratko Mladic, I thought part of it might be of interest again. It is about one of the most interesting people I never met.

* * *

Bill Foxton is dead now and we’re back to that famous Rutger Hauer death speech in Bladerunner.

He’d seen things you people wouldn’t believe and, when he died, almost all those moments were lost in time, like tears in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

In the mid-1990s, I (almost) wrote the autobiography of a Soviet sleeper agent who, let’s say, was called Ozymandias. I have blogged about him before. He believed that the British and the Spanish were the most violent people in Europe. He told me about a British friend called Bill Foxton who, he said, had gone to public school in Somerset, then joined the French Foreign Legion for five years and fought in the Algerian War of 1954-62.

“At that time, a lot of guys in the Legion were German,” Ozymandias told me, “Many of them former S.S. men. Bill told me that during the French Algerian War in the early 1960s, when they entered a village to ‘clear it up’, the Spaniards were the only ones who would shoot babies in their cradles. Even the ex-S.S. men didn’t do that.”

After his experiences in the Algerian War, Bill Foxton returned to England in the Swinging Sixties with lots of money in his pockets and met lots of girls who fancied him and, according to my chum Ozymandias, joined a privately-run special services group. They used to train Idi Amin’s bodyguards in Uganda and there was an incident in Qatar when the Emir’s brother was shot.

“Finally,” Ozymandias told me, “in 1969, Bill was employed as one of a group who were paid to go and kill Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. But they were stopped at London Airport by the British security services and the private company they worked for was closed down. Because of his experience, Bill was persuaded by the British authorities to join the SAS and was immediately sent to Ireland 1969-1973.

In a previous blog, I mentioned an extraordinary true story in which an Irish Republican was kidnapped in Belfast, drugged and put on a plane from Shannon to New York. Bill Foxton was involved in that. He was also a member of the British bobsleigh team in the 1972 European Championships. He was an interesting man.

In 1973, he was sent to fight in the secret war in Oman which, at the time, was called ‘the Dhofar insurgency’ and was said to be restricted to southern Oman; it was claimed the Omani Army were fighting some Yemeni insurgents. In fact, the insurgents were backed on the ground by South Yemeni regular troops supported by East German advisors and troops, acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. Oman was backed on the ground by British SAS troops (plus, in the early stages, the Royal Navy) and by units of the Shah of Iran’s army and the Jordanian Army. The commander of the British forces was an admiral and his problem was to cut the rebels’ supply routes from South Yemen into Oman. The British strategy was to construct three fences along the border, manned by more than 5,000 Iranian troops. Behind these three fences, inside Oman, the war was fought by the British SAS and Oman’s mainly Baluchi army while Jordanian desert troops defended the northern part of the desert in Dhofar province.

In 1975, Bill was inspecting a sector of the border fence when East German troops fired an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade – at him. He was alone, but managed to jump back onto his jeep and drive off, holding his blasted and bloodied arm onto his torso with a torn strip of his uniform. He held the strip of fabric with his teeth and drove with his other hand, while the enemy troops continued firing grenades at him. He drove about 6km to a British base where a Pakistani medic came out to see him.

“I think I’ve lost my arm,” Bill said through his clenched teeth.

“Well, let’s have a look then,” the Pakistani medic replied sympathetically. Bill let go of the strip of fabric he was holding with his teeth and, when his arm fell out, the medic fainted on the spot. Alan fainted too. They flew him to the British base at Akrotiri on Cyprus, where his arm was amputated and, by the time my chum Ozymandias met him, he had an artificial one.

“I am a big man,” Ozymandias told me, “but Bill has a neck twice the girth of mine. He may only have one arm but, when we met in 1982, I could see immediately he was extremely tough. Red hair, red beard, strong, broad neck. We immediately got on.”

According to Ozymandias, Bill Foxton had won an award from the SAS:

“At that time, Bill had already lost his left arm but was still a serving member of the SAS; he was training in the deserts of Oman with younger SAS troopers closing in on his position from all sides and he buried himself in the sand. He dug a hole with his one good arm and simply buried himself deep underground. The SAS troopers passed over him without realising until he told them and the Regiment was so impressed they gave him their Award.”

After the secret war ended, Bill decided to stay in Oman and started running the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) Beach Club: apparently a splendid, well-organised place with a restaurant full of ex-patriot British soldiers from a wide variety of armies. He had his SAS Award plaque hanging on the wall of his office.

I heard all these stories about Bill Foxton from my chum Ozymandias and then, one day in the 1990s, I accidentally heard him being inteviewed – Bill Foxton – he was by then spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and apparently also head of the European Commission Monitoring Mission during the Yugoslav wars.

According to Ozymandias, Bill kept a hat in his living room in Britain. The hat belonged to Serbian General Ratko Mladic. During the Yugoslav wars, Bosnian forces ambushed Mladic’s car in an attempt to assassinate him; he was not in the car but his hat was. So the Bosnians killed his driver and gave the hat to Bill, whom they admired. That was the explanation Bill Foxton gave.

In 1999 he was awarded the OBE for his work in Kosovo.

By 2008, he was working in Afghanistan, running humanitarian projects.

The next year, in February 2009, he shot himself in the head in a Southampton park with a 9mm Browning pistol after he lost his life savings – reportedly over £100,000 –  in the $64 billion Bernie Madoff fraud.

His death was not news except in the local Southern Daily Echo in Southampton. The BBC mentioned it as a ‘human interest’ aside to the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fraud story, like a teardrop in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

Oh – that British plot to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1969, the year he came to power… it was allegedly stopped because the US Government felt that Gaddafi was sufficiently anti-Marxist to be worth ‘protecting’.

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The comedians’ cricket team goes down swatting

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the village of Staplefield in West Sussex, to see the annual cricket match between the locals and a comedians’ cricket team organised with Germanic efficiency by Frank Sanazi.

I am not a great lover of cricket. I think the British Empire may have been built by armies going to foreign countries and insisting that the locals played cricket with the English/British until they lost the will to be independent and handed over their countries and natural resources rather than play another match.

But this cricket match and this cricket team was different.

Yorkshire comedian Keith Platt inexplicably dressed as a footballer.

Former submariner Eric was wearing a tennis headband when he fielded but black-rimmed Groucho Marx glasses as a batsman. He claimed these were not comedy props and he needed them, but I wasn’t totally convinced as he developed the hint of a strange gangling run when he wore the Groucho glasses.

Meanwhile, Bob Slayer dressed in black with a normal white sun hat on his head which, when erect (the hat, that is), oddly made him look like a rather down-at-heel TV celebrity chef wearing a rugby strip. He did, though, manage the impressive multi-tasking triumph of drinking at least one pint of beer while fielding.

I had to leave during the second half to see a friend who told me tobacco companies had been discovered putting sugar in their cigarettes to make them more addictive.

And, mid-evening, Frank Sanazi texted to tell me that the comedians had lost by 69 runs – 209 to 140 – but that Bob Slayer had finished 31-not-out and was “now a comedy cricket legend, as he developed a batting style called ‘swatting’ in which he maniacally tried to bash every delivery like he was Zorro.”

An interesting cricket match.

Now there’s an oxymoron.

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