Tag Archives: English

American comedian Lewis Schaffer on the superiority complex of the English

Lewis Schaffer finds himself alone amid clowns

I was clearing out files and photos on my computer last night and stumbled upon a piece of wisdom from UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer which I had cut out of some previous blog back in the mists of time.

I am not sure if is about xenophobia or national insecurities or neither or both.

At first, I thought Ooh. That might be interesting because of the nationalistic rivalries revealed during the Euro 2012 football tournament.

Then I thought: Well, I suppose ‘twas ever thus and f’rever will be, so it is always relevant and worthwhile posting for that reason.

Then I thought: Well, it will fill up today’s blog space quickly and I have to get out of the house.

So this is what Lewis Schaffer said to me a few months ago:

_____

English people look down on Australians and New Zealanders. They are seen as cuddly because they are weak – like Irish people. English people look down on Irish people because they think they are weaker.

It’s not the case that every country looks down on everyone else.

Some countries you look up to because you’re afraid of them. You think, “Wow! They’re better than us!”

America, for example.

Or is that true?

Do the English look up to America or down on America? I don’t know.

English people look down on everybody who comes from any other country because they are not English. English people look down on Americans, because they look down on everybody, because the English are so arrogant, even more than the French.

French people think that France is the greatest country in the world, but they think what makes it not great is the dirty foreigners.

On the other hand, English people think that England is great and the only thing that stops England being great is other English people.

An Englishman thinks: “If it wasn’t for the other English people – if it was just me – this country would be unbelievably great!”

The average English person thinks: “If I was in charge of the NHS or in charge of football, the NHS would be great and we’d win every game.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, England, Racism

Edinburgh Fringe magnifies comedian Malcolm Hardee’s testicles and objects to Charlie Chuck’s English grammar

Charlie Chuck- What the duck is the Edinburgh Fringe doing?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Now, make no mistake, I love the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I like about it is its freewheeling, hands-off nature. Anyone can perform at the Fringe; the Fringe Office itself merely acts as a central not-really-controlling-anything hub. They charge you to put your 40 word listing and perhaps an ad in the Fringe Programme. But it is very relaxed and freewheeling.

In theory.

Except for the fact that they appear to have thrown away the spirit of the Fringe and gone in for mindless bureaucratic stupidity this year. Two examples:

1. THE GREATEST SHOW ON LEGS

This admirably anarchic, occasionally naked-balloon-dancing troupe have already had problems, with the PBH Free Fringe refusing to allow one of their members appearing in a show on the PBH Free Fringe to appear as part of the Greatest Show on Legs in the Laughing Horse Free Festival. (It’s complicated – I blogged previously about it.)

But the Greatest Show on Legs ARE now performing (with special guests standing-in for the missing member – yes, I said the missing member) at Bob Slayer’s Alternative Fringe venue The Hive (administered as part of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe). When I left for China three weeks ago, they were going to be performing for three days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show). Now they will be performing for five days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show).

So they paid for their entry in the Fringe Programme, which includes a tiny photo. The words were:

Famed naked balloon dancers, The Legs return to Edinburgh with extraordinarily eccentric comedy sketches and surprise guests. “Surreal and anarchic comedy” (Huffington Post), “Anarchic high point” (Guardian), “Manic and riotous” (Chortle)

The photo (which I have reproduced here at the size it would have appeared in the Fringe Programme) is on the left. I say “would have appeared” because the Fringe refused to run the photo, saying:

The man on the left of image, is not fully covered by his balloon. As this is a universal publication – one that is read by adults and children – we need to be sure that every image included is suitable. We therefore require you to either use a different image, or photo shop the existing one to ensure that the balloon is covering the entire area.

This was news to me as the photo has been run elsewhere, at a more visible size, before.

But, indeed, when I viewed the original image at full-size, I could vaguely see something and, indeed, if I looked at it at 300% original size, I could see what I think is the shape of the bottom of the late Malcolm Hardee’s testicles. I suppose I should be more certain as, with most comedy-goers of a certain age, I saw them often enough.

Bob Slayer tells me: “I said to them (the Fringe) if they really had to Photoshop, then to do a very subtle blurring but don’t add anything to the image.”

He also asked to see the Photoshopped result, but never did until a couple of days ago, after the Fringe Office was chased-up. They had changed the photo to what you see on the left… with an entirely new third balloon plonked over the offending vague shape. A ridiculous piece of over-kill, not part of the Greatest Show on Legs’ act and, as far as I can figure, it would be completely impossible to actually perform the act with this third balloon. Ironically, the Photoshopped picture is a load of bollocks.

So, a couple of days ago, the new picture you see on the left was submitted, although it is quite difficult to find colour photos of the Greatest Show on Legs with the late Malcolm Hardee (who is obviously a marketing point). Watch this space in case this one is rejected too. The Fringe appears to have gone control-freak mad. Which brings us to:

2. CHARLIE CHUCK

Cirque du Charlie Chuck is the new Edinburgh Fringe show from a man whose act goes far beyond utter nonsense. The words submitted for the Fringe Programme were:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

The response from the Fringe was:

Thank you for your recent registration for the Fringe Programme. I have taken a look at your form, and the copy for the Programme is over the word limit, as some words were missing, as per below:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.

Warm regards,

Katie McKenna
Programme Production Assistant

Note the phrase “These words are required to be added”. Not “suggested”… “required”.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Charlie Chuck was paying almost £400 (OK, it was £393.60p) to have these words put in the Fringe Programme to advertise and promote his show. I can’t imagine The Times or the Daily Telegraph or the equally respectable Guardian objecting to the grammar in a paid-for ad in their hallowed pages.

The Fringe also mounts ‘roadshows’ advising performers how to publicise their shows. One of their annual gems of wisdom is that the Fringe Programme entry is the most important and effective piece of publicity for your show and every word used should count in marketing your show. “Cut out every unnecessary word” is the Fringe’s advice. No mention of adding in an unnecessary “is” or “and” or “a” or of having to use fully-grammatical sentences.

It is also worth mentioning that Charlie Chuck is secondarily listed under “Absurdist” by the Fringe Programme and his shows often start with the words:

“Ay and beway, flippin de bow-wow. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Woof-bark.”

And that is one of the more coherent parts of his act.

I think he could justifiably argue that being forced to write a fully-grammatically-correct Fringe Programme listing would be professionally damaging to his career.

When the Fringe was pushed on this mindless idiocy, the reply came:

It seems your show copy was over the 40 word limit when you resubmitted.

(It actually was not over the limit at all and it was resubmitted via the Fringe computer which does not allow over-length entries to be submitted.)

We do attempt to make the copy grammatically correct. Looking at your show copy, I woud (sic) suggest that the first sentence needs a verb, which on (sic) of our team has put in. I don’t see the ‘and’ you refer to in the proof sent. I think ‘and a lady assistant’ reads fine. However, it largely up to you, (sic) as long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.

Martin Chester
Publications Manager

At the time I write this, the Fringe appears to have accepted an entry from Charlie Chuck which reads:

CIRQUE DU CHARLIE CHUCK
Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck’s back with mixed magic, cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing, burlesque bits, French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’
(Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus unexpected latex suit.

Let us hope they do not refuse to run the almost £400 paid-for ad on the basis that the last two sentences are not, in fact sentences. But, it seems, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe mindless bureaucratic stupidity rules.

1 Comment

Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Language, Sex

Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves’ new movie “Man of Tai Chi” shooting in Beijing

During the night, on the long train trip back to Beijing from Pyongyang, I mention that, since an accident in 1991 in which I was hit by a truck, I have not been able to read books. I can write books, but I cannot read them.

Our English travel agent guide tells me he was recently mugged in the street in Bristol. “They hit me on the back of the head with a baseball bat,” he told me. And roughed me up a bit at the front, too. I have had difficulty reading – and slight speech problems – since then. It’s very frightening when it affects your mind.”

I develop a slight toothache.

As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Yalu River which divides North Korea from China, two smiling strangers (everyone was smiling) separately observed to me how strange it was to feel that entering China was returning to ‘freedom’.

A woman I did not know said to me, smiling: “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”

Somewhere between a station signposted Tanggu and Tianjin city, I noticed there were satellite TV dishes on some of the old, single-storey peasant homes. Not Party buildings, not notable buildings, not in any way rich homes. And occasional clusters of buildings had solar panels on their roofs; possibly communal buildings; impossible to tell.

Then, for mile after mile after mile, a gigantic new elevated road/train track was being built. Make that plural. Over mile upon mile upon continuous mile, new highways, new tower blocks were being built. It is as if the country is building a new city like Milton Keynes every week or a new London Docklands nationwide every few days.

So very different to when I was last here in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

The irony with China is that, in the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese call it the ‘Ten Year Chaos’ – of 1966-1976, the Red Guards wanted to destroy the past, to start from the ‘now’ and build a new society. That now has happened. The irony is that it is not the future they envisaged; it is the future they feared.

Would this giant leap forward have been possible in a country without the unstoppable anti-democratic will and irresistible totalitarian power to push it through? Who knows? But it is an interesting thought/dilemma.

As we arrived at Beijing railway station, someone told me they had seen on BBC World TV that the North Korean satellite launched last week had exploded shortly after launch. Back in North Korea, of course, they will ‘know’ that Satellite 3 was a glorious success and will ‘know’ the giant leaps which their country makes continue to be the envy of the world.

If you live in a self-contained village isolated from all outside knowledge – or, indeed, in The Village in The Prisoner TV series – you know only what you know. There are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns.

Living standards and social/technological advances are comparative. The North Koreans can see for themselves – they ‘know’ – that their society has advanced in leaps and bounds – from the electricity pylons of the 1980s to – now – mobile telephones and three satellites in space. And they have seen the tributes brought to their leaders by the admiring leaders of other countries.

China – with 7.5% growth per year – is living the advance a stagnant North Korea falsely believes it is making.

In the afternoon, in Beijing, I go into a Bank of China branch. It is in a suburb of the city. The door guard and staff look shocked that a Westerner has wandered into their branch.

I get a ticket to go to the cashier. A recorded message on the loudspeaker tells me when my number – Number 46 – is ready to be dealt with and which cashier to go to. The recorded message is in Chinese… then in English. Like the road signs, the metro signs and many shop signs. It is not just for my benefit. Each customer announcement is made in Chinese… then English.

At the cashier’s desk, facing me, is a little electronic device with three buttons marked in Chinese and in English. By pressing the appropriate button, unseen by the cashier, I can say if her service has been Satisfactory or Average or Dissatisfied.

Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

About half an hour later, near the Novotel and the New World Centre shopping complex, I pass a woman with one eye, begging. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

Close to a nearby metro entrance, an old grey-haired woman is lying flat on her back, immobile, on the pavement. Beside her, by her head, a middle-aged man, possibly her son, kneels, rocking backwards and forwards, bobbing his head on the pavement, as if in silent Buddhist prayer. A large sheet of paper with Chinese lettering explains their situation. Passers-by drop Yuan notes into a box.

Welcome to China 2012.

At dusk, walking back to my own hotel from a metro station on one of Beijing’s busy, modern ring roads – a 45 minute walk – I see some movie trucks belonging to the China Film Group – dressing rooms, a director’s trailer, equipment vans.

Further along, down a side street, they are shooting second unit photography for a movie called Man of Tai Chi – actor Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – in an area of grey, old-style, single-storey streets just a 15 second walk off the busy ring road.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean film studios had clearly been doing nothing. But they wanted – they liked – to pretend they have a thriving film industry.

In China, they do.

But they also block Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, this very blog you are reading.

Welcome to China 2012.

… CONTINUED HERE …

1 Comment

Filed under China, Movies, North Korea

Pagliacci at the Edinburgh Fringe – but will laughter get women into bed?

Giacinto Palmieri in Pagliacci costume

As mentioned in my blog yesterday, I had a drink with Italian-born British-based comedian Giacinto Palmieri – after seeing the first try-out of his show Pagliaccio which he will be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Giacinto is one of life’s natural quotables:

“It’s a love story,” he says, “but it’s a double love story because it’s also a love story for the Edinburgh Fringe itself.

“The Fringe is an intense experience. It is like those war veterans who spend the rest of their life talking about what they did in the War. People think Why? The War is a horrible thing – but it’s the intensity they are missing. Once you have done the Edinburgh Fringe, the rest of your life just looks bland.”

This will be Giacinto’s fourth year at the Fringe.

“This is my first attempt to do a thematic narrative show,” he told me in a Soho pub. “I was doing joke-joke-joke comedy but, as a member of the audience, I started to discover and love thematic shows. There was a mis-match between what I was doing and what I really like. So I set myself the goal of writing a thematic show.

“Edinburgh is such a strong experience, it really stimulates your writing. I started to write this year’s Edinburgh show the day after the Fringe finished last year; some material I even wrote during Edinburgh itself. I wanted to start writing fresh from the Edinburgh experience without waiting for January or February like most comedians.”

“Most comedians seem to start writing around 25th July!” I said.

“Yes,” he laughed. “Or on the train up to Edinburgh! It’s true.”

“But I really wanted to express the intensity of being there and the fact that people are up in Edinburgh to express their emotions, so anything can happen there. Once you open the bottle, you don’t know what comes out. Once you go there to express yourself every day for three-and-a-half weeks, you don’t know what you will discover about yourself.

“My show is about comedians living together and sharing a show and working together and it is a true story of unrequited love and jealousy between the comedians and I play with the similarity between that situation and the plot of the opera Pagliacci which is about a travelling group of clowns.

“So it is a love story about another performer I became romantically interested in at last year’s Fringe, but also about the craziness and intensity of the Fringe itself.”

“The Pagliacci cliché,” I said to Giacinto, “is that all clowns are sad.”

“There is clearly some truth in that cliché,” he replied. “One of the best responses I have ever seen on the comedy circuit was when a comedian asked a member of the audience What do you do for a living? and the reply was I’m a therapist and the comedian simply asked So why am I doing this?

“You do need to wonder why we are all doing this.”

Giacinto has been in the UK for eleven years (and is now a British citizen) but he has only been performing comedy for the last four years. Before that, he was a full-time I.T. consultant. That seems a bit weird to me – coming to a foreign country, pursuing your career for seven years, then becoming a stand-up comic.

“It is even weirder than that,” he tells me. “The first time I went to Edinburgh was as a member of the audience. I absolutely loved it and saw 30 or 40 theatre shows but only one comedy show which I did not even like. So I did not know comedy at all. I discovered it later. I was in a pub in London and saw there was a comedy show upstairs and I went and I was mesmerised because I discovered how much creativity and energy there was in it. It looked very fresh. I was fascinated by that level of comedy, not by the professional level on TV.

“When I started, my models were the comedians who were one or two levels above me on the London circuit, not the Big Names.. I discovered the Big Names quite late.

“I had always liked writing. I started writing a fake, mock anthropological study of the British tradition of the corporate Christmas party and – completely by mistake – I emailed it to the MD of my company and he liked it so much he read it in front of everybody during the Christmas party. And it worked very well. People liked it. People laughed. But he did not mention my name. He thought he was protecting me. But I would have liked the recognition.

“So, at the same time, I discovered the comedy club scene on the one hand and my comedy writing instinct on the other hand. I put the two things together. I thought why not take my material and convert it into a stand-up comedy form and perform it myself?”

“But,” I asked Giacinto, “people from I.T. have a different mindset to comedians, don’t they?”

“Well,” he explained, “people in I.T. are interested in recursion and self-referential paradoxes like Bertrand Russell’s – the paradox of the infinite sets.”

“Ah, of course,” I said, nodding sagely and hoping Wikipedia had an entry I could look up later.

“Philosophy,”  Giacinto continued, “is what I studied at University, so there is a connection between my interest in logic and philosophy which can be brought into the I.T. arena because computer programming is applied logic and many jokes are based on paradoxes and self-reference. So, if you like logic, you will probably like word gaming, paradoxes and so on.

“That is why, until now, as a comedian I have always been very academic, very much inside my head, very much philosophical – it has been about language and so on. Which, of course, is very much part of my personality and my way of looking at things.

“The fact that English is not my native language is a difficulty – an obstacle of sorts – but it is also a great opportunity, because you can play with it. I can see in the English language things which a native speaker cannot see. Every foreigner is able to see cultural things which a native cannot see.

“Most foreign comedians in Britain are foreigners but still native English-speakers. They are Australians, Americans, New Zealanders and so on. I have the advantage, as a non-native English speaker, of being not only able to see British culture but the English language itself from a fresh point of view.

“I played with that as part of my act for a long time. This new show Pagliaccio does not play with language so much. It is a love story, so is more universal.

“My comedy was very abstract, so I decided to try to be more personal, to go more into the emotional side of things. And people told me one of the reasons I always had problems with women was because I am too much inside my own head.

“It is true comedy is a journey of self-discovery, in a sense. I am trying to discover the emotional side of me. It is frightening. Once you open the bottle, you don’t know what kind of genie will come out. It might be a good genie or a bad one.”

“One great cliché,” I suggested, “is that the way to get a woman into bed is to make her laugh.”

“Well, it hasn’t worked for me!” laughed Giacinto.

“The comedian Andrew Watts – a very very clever guy – wrote an article. His theory is that women use laughter as a way to communicate a sexual interest in somebody. In a comedy club situation, maybe onstage I can get a bigger laugh than a very good-looking comedian but, if you go for drinks with the girls afterwards, I am pretty sure the good-looking comedian will get bigger laughs in the bar. Pretty sure. Because women are sending signals.

“Getting a woman into bed by making her laugh… That was my hope, but I lost that hope: I don’t think it’s going to work for me.”

“The press will love your show in Edinburgh,” I told Giacinto: “A love story with laughs actually set during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.”

“Perhaps,” he mused.

“Maybe you should call it Pagliacci – An Edinburgh Fringe Love Story,” I suggested.

“Perhaps,” he mused. “Perhaps. Perhaps women will like it.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Italy, Philosophy, Sex, Uncategorized

Coronation Street was built smaller

It is a strange route I know, but this morning I read via the Scottish Television website that English Heritage may list the outdoor set of ITV’s Coronation Street as a historic monument.

Later this year, Granada TV are moving to the new Media City complex at Salford Quays in Manchester and building a new set there. Whether the potential listing of the old set is true or just ITV spin I do not know.

Granada used to do tours of Coronation Street. Maybe they just want a bit of publicity before building a new set and re-opening the old one to tourists.

It is not the original set, though. When I first worked at Granada, there was an older outdoor set which had not been built to normal proportions. It had been built slightly smaller than real life to save money on construction costs but, with careful camera angles, it looked perfect.

You only noticed it was slightly smaller than reality if, for example, you stood in the entrance door of the Rover’s Return pub… and you discovered you were slightly taller than you normally were.

The new set (the one English Heritage are allegedly thinking of listing) is full-scale.

Leave a comment

Filed under Television

Comedian Peter Cook… remembered as a drunken lunatic or an Oscar Wilde?

Last night, I was due to have a drink in Soho with Sally Western, only-begetter of the Malcolm Hardee Appreciation Society group on Facebook.

We were going to talk about the bizarre and traumatic saga surrounding the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Establishment Club, which comedian Peter Cook opened at 18 Greek Street in Soho, on 5th October 1961. It closed in 1964.

By complete coincidence, yesterday was the anniversary of Peter Cook’s death in 1995 and we were joined by actor Jonathan Hansler who played Peter Cook in the stage plays Pete and Me and Goodbye: The Afterlife of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And we were also joined by Robert Ross, the biographer of Marty Feldman and writer of books on the Carry On films, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, The Goodies et al.

As a kid, I used to watch and tape record Peter Cook’s staight-faced comic monologues as E.L.Wisty on ITV’s On The Braden Beat shows. The words fascinated me when I listened back to them. I do not have the recordings now.

Yup. That’s a pity.

I saw him once – Peter Cook .

He was running along Church Row in Hampstead, where he lived in a white-fronted Georgian house with his wife Wendy. It was raining. He nearly collided with me. But didn’t. He had the loose, loping run of a long-legged man. A few years later, as a student, I went inside the house when I did some weeding in the back garden for his by-then ex-wife Wendy.

I am not one of life’s gardeners; I was very thorough but slow. She quite rightly did not invite me back. But she was very, very likeable.

Robert Ross got involved in Sally Western’s Peter Cook plaque saga via the Heritage Foundation and the Dead Comics Society.

“They normally put plaques on dead comedians’ houses,” Robert told me last night, “but it was so cool to do the Establishment Club in Greek Street that they jumped in”.

Sally was the driving force for the plaque and did all the hard behind-the-scenes work on freeholder and leaseholder agreements, sending off letters, setting up a website and arranging anything and everything needed to get the plaque put on the wall at 18 Greek Street – she even contributed to the words used on the plaque. She says actually getting the plaque agreed and put on the building was “a rollercoaster of Hell”.

“At one point, it was going to be an interactive plaque,” she told me last night, “with flashing lights and whirly things on it… It’s so sad that the building’s not being recognised now, because British satire basically started there.”

Jonathan explained: “At that time, the early 1960s, the Lord Chancellor had a ban on rude words and expletive shit in the theatre, but there was no law which prevented you doing it in a late-night club. So Peter thought, Right, I’ll get away with this in a late night club with membership.”

“He sold the memberships before it even opened,” Sally said.

After it opened, London gangsters the Kray Twins arrived at the Establishment Club one day and tried to get protection money out of Peter Cook.

“He went out to meet them,” Jonathan told me last night, “and said in his drawling voice, I think you’re here to intimidate me, aren’t you? Are you going to intimidate me? – and apparently he talked them out of it and sent them away confused. These two gangsters were wandering around saying: Why were we there?…I dunno… Weren’t we supposed to get some money off him?

“Maybe Ronnie took a shine to him,” Sally suggested.

“It’s not given the recognition it deserves,” said Robert. “This is the fucking Establishment Club, for God’s sake! As a nation, we are so obsessed with the Sixties and this is the place that so epitomises that era. Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Terence Stamp – they all went there. Why aren’t people going there now on tours? At least we’ve got a nice little plaque for Peter; that’s a start.”

“It’s a start,” said Jonathan. “It’s not the end. It really is somewhere special that place. As is Peter Cook. In the 100 Best Comedians, voted for by comedians in 2005, he was voted the No 1… I love Morecambe & Wise as much as the next person. I think they’re brilliant. But they are over-played; they’re everywhere. When are they ever going to show any Pete ‘n’ Dud shows? There are still quite a few tapes in existence. Their stuff is timeless because it was always slightly more rebellious. There was always something slightly edgy about those two: much more edgy than any other comics of that period.”

“Peter Cook is the godfather of comedy,” said Robert. “I went to the memorial service for Peter in Hampstead in 1995, at the church in Church Row, and Dudley Moore sang Goodbye for the last time. Mike Palin was there and Terry Jones, Stephen Fry, Eric Idle. Anybody writing comedy in the last sixty years – the Pythons, The Goodies, Vic & Bob, The Young Ones – owe a debt to him.”

“The Goodies weren’t satire,” I suggested.

“But Peter Cook wasn’t always satire,” Robert said. “He was basically just being funny, which is timeless. Yes, he would poke fun at the Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, but if you watch those sketches from Beyond The Fringe or listen to the later shows, they were just being funny. Pete ‘n’ Dud were just being brilliant. And, when you think that Peter Cook, who’s been dead for 17 years today, is still being talked about, still being held up as the litmus paper for the best in British comedy… He always will be.”

“You played Peter Cook on stage,” I said to Jonathan Hansler. “Was there one key thing that made you understand him?”

“I think I kind of understood him anyway,” Jonathan replied. “He was sent to boarding school when he was about nine and his parents lived abroad. I was sent to boarding school when I was nine and my parents lived abroad. And there’s a sense of loneliness you get from that. Dealing with your own mind, spinning stories out and all that kind of stuff. Your imagination becomes your friend because, in those places, there aren’t many actual friends. Everybody in those places is conforming and, if you’re a non-conformist, it’s kind of a different game.

‘The first time I saw him was when he did the Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch with John Cleese – Peter says: Did you know your intestines are four miles long? It’s amazing how they cram it all in. It means none of the food you eat is ever really fresh. And Cleese says: Fancy that! And Peter says: I don’t fancy that at all… And I thought Who’s this lunatic? He’s just brilliant! And, from then on, I was absolutely hooked on the guy.”

“He wrote the one leg routine at the age of 17,” enthused Robert.

“And,” Jonathan added, “a lot of the sketches that Peter performed later were originally written for Kenneth WilliamsOne Over The Eight revue at the Apollo in 1961.”

“The asp routine,” said Robert.

“The shirt shop routine,” said Jonathan.

“Peter was writing that stuff at university,” explained Robert, “and sending it up to the West End… I always say to Sally, The main thing is that we can now walk down Greek Street and see Peter’s plaque. As long as that building’s standing, it’ll be there. And that’s important.”

The plaque was unveiled on 15th February 2009.

“The actual day of the unveiling,” says Robert, “was fantastic. There were too many people to cater for at the club, so we went off to some hotel called the Dorchester. That Sunday lunchtime, me and Sally and Johnny got very drunk in the name of Peter Cook which is what he would have wanted, I think.

“But I get a little bit upset with the fact that he is now seen as a drunken lunatic. He was a fucking genius! I just think he should not be lambasted as this drunk comedian… I met Peter twice in my life and I think the fact he’s now perceived as this person who failed because he was so brilliant at the age of 24… that’s unfair… He wrote as a genius at the age of 24 and he just improved on that for the next 25 years… He was a genius who had achieved everything he could possibly achieve by the age of 25 and he just coasted after that. But why not? He could. And we should celebrate him as the finest comedy brain of the 20th century. He’s up there with Oscar Wilde. He’s up there with the great English wits of any time. Peter Cook deserves to be remembered as that person. I get so upset when they say Oh, he drank his talent away, he wasted it. No he didn’t.”

“If only,” said Jonathan, “If only we could get celebrities – people who’ve got money – to invest in the Establishment Club and put it back where it once was, it’d be the talk of London, it would be THE place.”

3 Comments

Filed under 1960s, Comedy

In Sohemia: God bless the onion-like layers of the English class system

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I once interviewed Nigel Kneale, author of the still extraordinarily excellent BBC TV series Quatermass and The Pit.

He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.

I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.

There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.

I exaggerate, of course.

But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.

This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.

Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.

Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?

And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.

Author Andrew Barrow was talking to the Sohemian Society (which is open to all – anyone can wander along) about his book Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story

It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.

In The QueueJonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.

Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.

Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.

When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”

The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.

The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.

That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.

Not your normal novel, then.

Though very English.

Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.

Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.

But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.

It can happen to anyone.

Ars longa. Vita brevis.

The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.

Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.

And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.

He admits he was awful.

But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.

He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.

He introduced the legendary Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Hugh Massingberd to Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

He has lived.

Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.

The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.

To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”

Amen.

God bless Englishness.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Creativity, England, Psychology, Writing

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Racism

At the Edinburgh Fringe, Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

(A version of this blog was published in the November 2011 edition of Mensa Magazine)

Paco Erhard is performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe called 5-Step Guide to Being German. We drank English breakfast tea at Fringe Central this week.

“There is an English obsession with Germany,” he told me, “but I think it’s getting less and less. It’s more or less the media who keep it going.”

When I met him, he had just got his first review for his show – a 4-star review – but, the previous day, he told me his show had not been successful –

“I didn’t do as well as I could.

“I am a German. Germany has got an inferiority/superiority complex. We basically have this feeling that nobody likes us and we have to stick together but we are better than everybody thinks we are. So, out of that inferiority complex comes a feeling of superiority and we have had that for too long. Germany has to change.

“As a kid, you don’t know what or who you are,” he told me. “Germany is a baby nation. Our country was just pieced together in 1871 and we don’t know who we are.

“The English are like the Germans. They no longer know who they are – the British Empire has gone; they can’t define who they are. The Scots are like the Bavarians. The Scots know very well who they are, what their traditions are and I would love Scottish-type patriotism for Germany. It’s a positive, very inviting patriotism.

“I like Scotland. I like America – I like how positive they are.

“I studied Literature and Philosophy at the German equivalent of the Open University, so I could travel. I lived in America when I was 17 and loved it – North Carolina – very friendly people and I watched lots of stand-up comedy on TV. That is where it started for me. I think it was more or less the year Bill Hicks died.

“I tried to be a writer for a long time but that meant I just stayed in trying to write and never went out meeting people I could write about. I was not quite normal. I got wrapped up in what I wanted the writing to mean rather than just telling a story.

“I did the whole writing thing until I was in Valencia when I saw an ad for a hotel entertainer in Magaluf and thought, Fuck it. That’s what I’m going to do.

“When I was in Majorca, I realised I liked being on stage and met my girlfriend of the time who was British. She had lived in Tenerife and persuaded me to do some compering and comedy there for British audiences there who were not, on average, all that clever. Wonderful people and I really enjoyed compering for them but, whenever I tried my stand-up, if I made any reference to anything that was outside Jordan and The X-Factor, they did not get very much out of it.

“If you add in a lot of racism and a bit of sexism, then you have a good comedy act for Tenerife. And insult people all the time.”

So did he add in racism and sexism?

“Well,” he told me, “I went to borderline things where I thought, I can still live with saying this and feel morally OK with it and not hate myself. But there was some stuff I could never have done with a clean conscience. It was not that terrible, but I would not like doing it for a long period.”

And did he get a lot of stick from predominantly English audiences for being German?

“Oh yeah, plenty! Sometimes I would say to someone in the front row: Don’t worry. Being German is not contagious: it’s not like you’re going to wake up at five in the morning with an incredible urge to invade Poland…

But, often, if I said that, the audience just sat there puzzled because, as my girlfriend explained to me, they had no idea what Poland had to do with anything. These were not 18 year-olds; they were all older people but, to them, the Second World War was just England v Germany and England won 5-1.

“I had lots of material I could never do and so, just over two years ago, I came to London to do ‘proper’ comedy. And, of course, my selling-point in Britain is that I am a German.

“There came a point when I came back from America when I saw my country from the outside for the first time and I started to not want to be German at all. I felt I was German but different. I was born in Munich but moved eight or nine times as a kid, so I saw how various parts of Germany are so different from each other.

“We do have a sense of humour but there’s a much bigger internal division between the different states and between people’s behaviour in public and in private than in any other country I know of. There is the personality you have in private and the face you show to the outside world. In the workplace, there’s no place for humour or screwing around. In private, you can be a completely different person.

“In Germany, there’s a lot you can hate and love at the same time, like the whole order thing. The precision is great, but sometimes you think Just relax. Let go.

“I was at a wedding in Hamburg a few months back – my girlfriend’s friends – and the father of the bride was told I was a comedian and he tensed up. He thought I would go round later making jokes about it and anarchistically destroy everything that he saw as beautiful.

“I think in Germany, there’s a fear of chaos. Humour is great, but it has its place; it is dangerous if there is too much because it might just corrode everything.

“That’s what I love about Britain. Things are more relaxed.

“Here in Britain, I want to be a comedian first and a German second. I do not want to be a comic German. I want German to be the adjective and the noun to be Comic.

A few days after our chat, Paco got a second review for his show – there had been a reviewer in the day before our chat – he had seen the show which Paco knew had not worked well – the show in which, Paco told me, “I didn’t do as well as I could.”

The Broadway Baby reviewer gave Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German a 5-star review.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Germany, Racism, Scotland