Tag Archives: Equity

Edinburgh Fringe Day 2: Good advice on dodgy comedy stage show directors

In this blog yesterday, a comedy performer whom I did not name was complaining about the way they had been treated by their director who had just said their show being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe could be directed from London without the director coming up to Edinburgh at all. 

I know a few theatre directors and got this response from the highly-experienced and much admired Catherine Arden (who is NOT the director in question). In other words, this is good advice…


Advice from Catherine Arden, director

I was concerned to read about the performer whose director did not support him or her to bed in the show for the opening week in Edinburgh.

I served two 2-year terms on the Equity Theatre Directors’ Committee and recently attended a conference where this type of thing was discussed and strongly disapproved of. It gives professional directors a bad name and is not good for the industry!

Some suggestions for the performer:

–  If both the performer and director are Equity members, Equity can help resolve and give assistance to the performer to make contracts clearer in future.

–  There is a Fringe contract the performer might want to look at.

–  If the director is an Equity member, the performer can report this poor behaviour to Equity.

–  If the performer is an Equity member, then he or she can get further guidance on the matter and learn how to safeguard future dealings.

If neither the performer nor director are Equity members, I recommend the performer goes along to the Equity desk in Edinburgh.

Equity is running workshops at the Edinburgh Fringe which are great for professional development as well as for networking with proper professionals.

Also, Equity says…

If you are a member or student member taking part in any of the Edinburgh Festivals and need advice or support at any point please contact our local office on 0141-248-8472 or scotland@equity.org.uk

The Fringe has its Venues and Companies team for any show or venue taking part in the festival and they may also be able to help: participants@edfringe.com

Failing all that, your performer can get in touch with me as a director with Fringe experience if she wants a director who will give her the support he or she needs – and deserves! 🙂

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The Edinburgh Fringe: where shows with no audience can get 4-star reviews

Red Bull - Not to be encouraged in Edinburgh

Multiple Red Bull usage – Not to be encouraged in Edinburgh

I arrived in Edinburgh for the Fringe on Monday morning at 7.55am and got into my rented flat at 3.15pm. Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.

I got very little sleep on the journey up, was mentally dead by the time I got into the flat and failed to rectify the matter with three Red Bulls. All they did was make me even sleepier. And the mental torpor did not abate yesterday, not even with – or possibly because of – three more Red Bulls.

I was already behind on six interesting blog chats which I had had last week and which I had been going to post in the days leading up to my arrival in Edinburgh.

For example…

Ivor Dembina feels a right tit

Ivor feels a right tit; I have no caption shame.

I had a chat with long-time club organiser and comic Ivor Dembina about one of his three upcoming Edinburgh Fringe shows. (Yes, three this month.)

“On the last day before registration,” he told me, “an Edinburgh venue got in touch with me and said an act had pulled out so there was half a run free if I wanted it. So I said Yes I’ll fill it. I didn’t have a show, but they didn’t seem to mind.

“For the last two or three years, I’ve been running something I call a Comedy Drop-In – a fortnightly meeting point for anyone in comedy who just wants to get together and talk about what they’re doing and show some stuff. From complete newcomers who’ve never done a gig to seasoned club comics.”

“So it’s not like a six-week course?” I asked.

“That’s the thing,” said Ivor. “I don’t really set myself up as a teacher, more just a fund of information, as someone who’s been performing and running comedy on the circuit – fairly near the bottom of the food chain – for the best part of 30 years.”

“So that’s your show this year?” I asked.

IshouldHaveListenedToIvorDembina“Sort of. I also noticed that, having done other courses and having been interviewed by the press, there is a fascination out there with the job of being a comedian. And, over the years, I’ve found myself being asked the same questions over and over again. So what I thought might be an idea for this year’s show would be me answering these questions in as interesting and entertaining and funny way as possible. When I started off, all I had was a title – I Should Have Listened to Ivor Dembina.

“One of the beauties of the idea was I could go on stage knowing I knew what I was talking about but not having to write a word. I’m also taking my show Old Jewish Jokes up to Edinburgh – the fourth year I’ve taken it up.”

“With new jokes?” I asked.

“No,” said Ivor. “The clue’s in the title. And I’m doing a third show this year – City Cafe: Late Nite & Free – a compilation show I’m compering.”

So Ivor Dembina is taking one of his shows – I Should Have Listened To Ivor Dembina – up to the Fringe by accident. And comedian Philip Simon is up here by accident too.

I accidentally met him on a train out of Elstree last week (we both live in Borehamwood).

Philip Simon on a Thameslink train with no bull

Philip Simon with invisible Andy Zapp – on a Thameslink train

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To an Equity Comedians’ Network meeting. We’re strengthening the industry through support of the union.”

“Oh yes?” I asked. “And what else have you been up to?”

“I got married last week.”

“To the woman you’ve been living with for two years?”

“It seemed easier.”

“You going up to the Fringe this year?”

“I’m doing a show with Aaron Levene: The GILF and The BuJew. But, in my case, The Guest and The BuJew. Aaron is really supposed to be performing it with Andy Zapp but, for the first ten days, Andy can’t be there.”

“What is on the flyers and posters?” I asked.

“My head on Andy Zapp’s body,” said Philip.

“With you Photoshopped in?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Philip. “With Andy Zapp’s everything, except his head. It’s even his wrist.”

Andy Zapp (left) and Philip Simon (right) with Aaron Levine

Andy Zapp (left) and Philip Simon (right) with Aaron Levene thanks to the magic of Photoshop

“And, after that?” I asked.

“I’ll be in an Enterprise Car Rental commercial. I’m being a tourist. I get chased by a bull. They flew director Dawson Marshall Thurber over from America. He wrote and directed the movies Dodgeball and Central Intelligence.”

“Is the bull going to be added in on CGI?” I asked.

“No. It was real. We have already shot it.”

“You didn’t die?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.,” said Philip.

Italian Luca Cupani represents the UK in

Italian Luca Cupani represents UK in Canada

I also had a chat with Italian comedian Luca Cupani who – in a double whammy of surreality – was about to go off to Canada to represent the UK at the Just For Laughs festival along with Japanese comedian Yuriko Kotani.

Unfortunately, I have taken so long not writing this blog that Luca is now back in the UK and his show – Luca Cupani: The Admin of Death and Other Confessions – starts tomorrow.

At the same comedy dementia show (yes it was) last week where I met Luca, I also had a chat with Steve Jameson aka excellent character act Sol Bernstein (who keeps reminding me I claim I don’t like character acts although I like his).

He remembered an Edinburgh Fringe gig which had been reviewed by Kate Copstick.

Steve Jameson as Sol Bernstein

Steve Jameson as his character Sol Bernstein

“We knew Kate Copstick was coming,” he told me, “so we thought Ticket the place out! We gave away 30-40 tickets and nobody came on the night except Copstick and a guy from Mervyn Stutter’s show. So I did the show because I knew she wouldn’t come back. I called her a hooker, a lesbian; everything I say on stage to people in the audience. I called the poor guy from Mervyn Stutter a faggot – everything I could think of to insult him.”

At the end of the show, I got a standing ovation.

Copstick wrote in her review: He got a well-deserved standing ovation. She gave me 4 stars.

That epitomises the Edinburgh Fringe. Shows with no audience can get 4-star reviews if they are good. And some full-to-the-brim shows are shit.

In my opinion.

But what do I know?

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Mr Nasty: BBC comedy series Hi-de-Hi and 1980s hardline Left Wing comedy

Mark Kelly in Soho this week

Mark Kelly – former Mr Nasty & extra – in Soho this week

In this blog a couple of days ago, Ricky Gervais’ TV series Extras was mentioned. I had not realised that comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly – an occasional popper-upper in this blog – had, at one time, been a real TV extra.

He also used to perform stand-up under the name Mr Nasty.

“In the 1980s,” he told me this week, “on the alternative cabaret circuit, I did this song with a chorus of Hi-de-Hi! and people never realised it was written from bitter personal experience.

“I was living near Colchester, playing in a band and quite happy doing that and weird theatre and signing on (for Unemployment Benefit).

“I had an Equity card, because I had been with a fringe theatre group years earlier when Granada TV made a documentary about the group.

“In those days, Equity was a closed shop and you had to sweat blood to get an Equity card. It was very difficult to get, but I got one with no effort at all.

“I was with this group called RAT Theatre who were based in Stoke-on-Trent and Granada TV were making this documentary on them. It wasn’t an Equity theatre group, but it was just assumed I had an Equity card and, when Granada realised I didn’t, one of the production team just came up to me, gave me a form and said: Sign this; we’ll send it off. I didn’t even fill it in; I just signed the form and, by return post, got an Equity card.”

“If it was a documentary,” I asked, “why did you need an Equity card?”

“Because it included performance. Anyway, I had an Equity card and the consequence was I ended up appearing in Hi-de-Hi!

“At the time, there was a shortage of extras – who had to be Equity members – in East Anglia. So all of us who had Equity cards and were signing-on got forced to go along.

Hi-de-Hi was filmed at Warners Holiday Camp in Dovercourt near Harwich. They filmed two series a year out-of-season, so it was usually pretty cold and you’d dread the swimming pool scenes. The main cast would have people standing by with warm dressing gowns and towels; we would have nothing.

“The way (producer) David Croft cast his series was quite interesting. For the pilot of the first series, they would quite often have characters who would then be written out. They would throw in more people than they needed to see what worked. They would try characters out and, if they didn’t work or were too close to another character in comedy terms, they would get rid of someone.

The cast of Hi-de-Hi

The large cast of Hi-de-Hi who put the camp in holiday camp

“They also had quite big casts. One of the consequences of this was, because they had quite a large recognisable main cast and then a slightly recognisable lower-level cast, it meant there was very little money left for anyone else. So they would go to what felt like somewhat absurd lengths to make sure you didn’t speak – because, if you spoke, they had to pay you a lot more.

“I was cast as a walk-on which meant I got no lines but I did get ‘directed movements’, which meant I got repeat fees. Until a few years ago, when Equity did a dreadful ‘buy-out’ deal, I still got repeat fees which, once or twice, actually came in really handy and bailed me out.

“I came with the opposite attitude to most of the extras. Most of the extras wanted to be in showbusiness and wanted to be seen on camera. I didn’t particularly want to be seen on camera. What I wanted to do was sit in the canteen and read. I became very adept very quickly at knowing how they set up scenes and all the reverse angles they were likely to do and positioning myself so I would not be needed for other shots.

“The irony of this – which I had not actually thought through – is that what they do NOT want from extras and walk-ons is for them to become recognisable visible characters. So, by hardly ever being in shot, I actually prolonged my shelf life and I was in six – possibly seven – series of Hi-de-Hi. So, although I am present in every episode, apart from on two or three occasions, you would need a freeze-frame and zoom-in to see me.

“There was one series where I was a teddy boy, which I quite liked, and there was one costume I actually tried to buy off them. Jeffrey Holland plays the character Spike and one of the running gags in the series is that, in most episodes, he will appear usually looking harassed in some stupid costume that he has been forced to wear.

“In this particular episode, it was a liquorice allsorts costume, including a head, all completely made of liquorice allsorts. It wasn’t that heavy, you could move in it OK and it wasn’t too hot to wear and he was approximately the same size as me. But the BBC would not sell it to me.

“In those days, I was doing a very ‘hard’ Communist politics set. Had I got hold of this costume, I would – doing alternative cabaret as Mr Nasty in London – have gone on stage wearing this liquorice allsorts costume. To me, that’s what I am about. I love the idea of saying what I actually believe but deliberately undercutting it and making it seem absurd at the same time. I think that is the essence of comedy.

Bertie Bassett

Could Lenny Bruce have become Bertie Bassett?

“Maybe I should still do something like that. I have always thought that Lenny Bruce would have been enormously improved if he had gone on stage as Bertie Bassett. I seriously do because, otherwise, it’s comodificaion. People like certain things to go together. So, if you are going to be Lenny Bruce, even if you’ve got money, they like you to look as if you haven’t got money.

“If you are going to do hard, Leftist politics, why not just go on and be completely absurd? What’s wrong with that? If you are actually saying – which I do believe, like Tony Benn – that it’s about the issues not the personality, then let’s test this theory. Listen to what I am saying while I am looking ridiculous. If what I am saying has any value, then the fact I am looking ridiculous should not matter.”

“I would have paid more attention to Tony Benn,” I told Mark, “if he had come on as a pack of Polo Mints.”

There is a clip from Hi-de-Hi on YouTube.

Hi-de-Hi frame

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Networking tips for shy extroverts, for comedians and for Michael Winner…

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post)

Always wear clothes appropriate for the job

Always wear clothes appropriate for the job

Last month, I mentioned in a blog that the famously self-confident film director Michael Winner has said on more than one occasion that, when he went to parties on his own, he was sometimes almost too shy to go into a room full of strangers.

This came to mind yesterday, when I went to a seminar (I guess that’s what it was) at Equity in London where members – mostly actors – were being told about and swapping tips on networking

Top tip seemed to me to be that, when presented with some networking opportunity you should always take it and never turn it down. Sounds obvious, but there is the Michael Winner factor of wanting to hide in a hole in the ground.

Almost all performers – actors, comedians, whatever – are extrovert show-offs who want a bit of attention and are Me-Me-Me…

But they also tend to be overly-endowed with insecurity and self-doubt.

Shall I go to that party/schmoozathon and sell myself to important people and further my career or shall I hide under the duvet in my bedroom?

Best advice is probably to think not What might I gain from going? but What opportunities might I miss by not going?

Networking is a bit like dogging. You will get nowhere by staying alone at home in your bedroom.

It was also suggested that selling yourself succinctly involves having a variety of pre-prepared ‘elevator pitches’.

Hollywood wisdom is that you should have an elevator pitch for your movie project in case you accidentally meet a studio chief in a lift in a building and he is only going up one floor. You have to encapsulate your 120-minute movie in one sentence…

  • Romeo & Juliet in the West Side of New York
  • Robin Hood in gangland Chicago
  • Love Story crossed with The Wild Bunch

Some pitches are more effective than others.

When networking yourself rather than your project, you have to encapsulate your entire professional life in two sentences but – as you are selling different versions of yourself to different prospective employers or financiers – you need perhaps five different versions of your pitch prepared for five different circumstances.

This is something I have always spectacularly failed to do.

When asked at a party, “What do you do?” I have a tendency to look blankly at the person and say, “I have no idea. Never have. Still don’t.”

Someone once told me: “John, your career appears to be unfocussed”. It was intended as a criticism.

I took it as a good thing – variety being the spice of life and all that.

Most bizarre insight of yesterday, though, came when the problem of working at home cropped up.

When I was a student, I lived in a house of bedsits in Hampstead. Surprisingly cheap. The landlord was an altruistic Christian and merely covering his costs.

One of the other rooms was rented by a woman who lived in a big house in the next street. She was a novelist. Every morning, she would walk out of her own front door, come round to our house, go into her bedsit, write until 5.00pm, then go back to her own home.

I used to think this was eccentric until I found difficulty working from home myself (despite the fact my third bedroom is kitted-out as an office) and found working in the local library – or in an Apple Store – was easier.

This was taken one step further yesterday when someone said that, when about to do work at home, she changed into ‘office clothes’ – she put on a dark business suit… When she had finished her work at home, she changed back into her casual homely clothes.

This sounds bonkers at first, but is logically eminently sensible.

Someone else said that her boyfriend did the same thing – except he just changed into a bow tie.

I think I may buy a bow tie.

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The mystery of a £500 million man, the German love of Red Indians and the tough future for seven dwarfs.

I was in Brighton yesterday, visiting a friend. Her partner comes from Wolverhampton.

When I arrived, she asked me: “Have you heard about Snow White?”

“Erm, no” I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Apparently,” she told me, “Radio 4 says the local panto in Wolverhampton this year is Snow White, but they have sacked the seven dwarfs… Sacked them! Suddenly!”

I looked at my friend.

“What on earth did they do?” I asked.

I had visions of the legendary mayhem and Bacchanalia which reportedly happened among the Munchkins during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” my friend explained. “It was the economic recession and the soaring cost of dwarfs… The theatre is going to replace the dwarfs with children wearing masks.”

“It won’t be the same,” I replied. “Don’t Look Now would’t have been the same. Didn’t they think about the soaring cost of vertically-challenged people before they employed the seven dwarfs in the first place?”

“Radio 4 didn’t say.”

“That seems a bit remiss of them. Standards are falling at the BBC.”

“Yes,” my friend replied.

“We live in a strange and mysterious world,” I said.

“Yes,” my friend replied.

We had a cup of tea.

Later in the afternoon, in The Lanes, we picked up a leaflet for the Brighton Festival Fringe. At the top, it said: The third largest Fringe in the world.

“Brighton has always been billed as the second biggest,” my friend said.

“You’ve been shamed,” I ventured. “Edinburgh is by far the biggest arts festival in the world and the biggest Fringe. What on earth is the second biggest?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

So we went to Brighton’s always surreal-sounding Vegetarian Shoes shop and stared in the window. Nearby, was a man sitting on the ground outside a Native American shop; he was dressed as a Tibetan lama and was apparently talking on his mobile phone to his girlfriend; he had an English accent.

“They’re very popular in Germany,” my friend told me.

“Tibetan monks?” I asked.

“Native American artifacts.”

“I seem to remember reading,” I said, “that German movie-goers are very fond of Westerns, too. What’s that all about?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

“I can’t help feeling that, if Hitler had dressed in a Red Indian head-dress, it would have undermined his credibility,” I suggested.

My friend looked at me.

She said nothing.

Any news of Nicholas van Hoogstraten?” I asked, as we walked on. I’m always interested in people with unusual lives and my friend had once given me a biography of van Hoogstraten as a Christmas present.

By 1968 (aged 23), he simultaneously became Britain’s youngest millionaire and started a 4-year prison sentence for paying a gang to throw a grenade into the house of Rev Braunstein, a Jewish leader whose eldest son owed him £3,000. He later said of the people who threw the grenade: “These weren’t anarchists: they were businessmen, respectable people.”

In 2002, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the manslaughter by two other men of business rival Mohammed Raja; a jury decided that “although he wanted Mr Raja harmed, he had not wanted him murdered”. He was released in 2004 after successfully appealing against his conviction on the grounds that “there was no foundation for a manslaughter case.” In 2005, Mohammed Raja’s family won £6 million in a civil action against van Hoogstraten after the court found that the balance of probabilities was “that the recruitment of the two thugs was for the purpose of murdering Mr Raja and not merely frightening or hurting him”. Van Hoogstraten reportedly told the BBC that the family would “never get a penny”.

“Is he still in Brighton?” I asked my friend.

“It’s a mystery to me,” my friend said. “Every now and then you hear stories. Some people say he’s in Zimbabwe.”

“Among friends, then,” I said.

“Not any more,” my friend said. “One story is he sold all his assets in this country and put all his money into Zimbabwe because he was so chummy with the regime but they fell out and he lost all his land there.”

The last time I heard van Hoogstraten, he was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme defending Robert Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ policies.

“How’s van Hoogstraten mausoleum?” I asked.

“Crumbling,” my friend said.

By this point, we were passing a bronze statue of the British music hall star Max Miller.

“An interesting place, Brighton,” I said. “Max Miller and Nicholas van Hoogstraten were both equally at home here.”

“Yes,” said my friend.

“Bronze is very colourless for Max Miller,” I said.

“Yes,” said my friend.

Apparently Adelaide is the second biggest Fringe in the world.

And, according to Wikipedia, which is surprisingly accurate on such things, Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been reported to be worth £500 million, “though he has stated that his assets in the UK have all been placed in the names of his children”. His assets in property and farming in Zimbabwe were estimated to be worth over £200 million.

I don’t know what he is worth now or where he is. Nor does my friend.

All I know for certain is that life is tough for dwarfs in Wolverhampton.

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Showbiz and TV talent shows before Margaret Thatcher

I had lunch last week with the highly entertaining Derek Hobson, host of ITV’s seminal talent show New Faces, which was responsible for the ‘discovery’ of Michael Barrymore, the wonderful Marti Caine, Jim Davidson, Les Dennis, Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood etc in the pre-Thatcher 1970s. He reminded me about the old union-dominated days at ATV (where I worked a various times). Lenny Henry was chosen by the producers to be on New Faces and it made him a star, but it took a whole year before he was seen on screen because the unions only allowed card-carrying Equity or Musicians’ Union members to appear on the show.

Derek told me that, when Yorkshire TV recorded its classic sitcom Rising Damp, which was screened on ITV as six-part series, the company used to schedule recordings for seven episodes per series on the basis that one entire episode would always be lost due to Luddite practices during the recordings by the all-powerful ACTT union. I well remember their pre-Thatcher power. The ACTT was less a union protecting its members, more a protection racket threatening employers and running a heavily enforced closed shop.

As a member of the National Union of Journalists at ATV, I suggested a documentary to be transmitted on the 40th anniversary of the 1940 Wartime bombing of Coventry (and provided research and sources) but I was not allowed to be employed nor credited as a researcher on the show because I was not an ACTT member and researchers could only be ACTT members.

Derek also told me the story of a singer who triumphantly performed on one edition of New Faces, wowing the judges, the studio audience and the viewers at home. The response was immense. On the Monday after the show was transmitted, the singer received a phone call from the manager of two of the biggest music acts of the time – acts with a similar style. The manager wanted to sign the singer to an exclusive management contract. The singer was overwhelmed and flattered to be approached by the high-profile and highly successful manager; he  thought his career was made and his life would be transformed. But, in fact, the manager wanted to sign the singer because he saw a potential threat to his two existing acts. The singer was too similar; he was given ten duff songs in a row to record, his potential career was destroyed and the manager’s two existing acts continued to prosper with no threat of competition.

So it goes.

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