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Ariane Sherine wants to live to 100 and write 100 books, starting with this one

Ariane Sherine has had a busy week. It’s her birthday.

And she released the first episode of her weekly podcast Love Sex Intelligence.

And she has published her first novel, Shitcom, about two male TV sitcom writers.

She knows that about which she writes. She has been a writer on BBC TV’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and on My Family.

She claims Shitcom is her first book, although she has previously published The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, Talk Yourself Better and How To Live To 100.


A TV sitcom, a shitstorm and a switch…

JOHN: Why’s the new book called Shitcom?

ARIANE: It’s a novel about two comedy writers on a sitcom. One’s extremely successful and an arsehole. The other one is extremely unsuccessful but very nice… And they swap bodies.

JOHN: So it’s a cosy little comic romp…

ARIANE: No. It’s got racism, misogyny, homophobia, extreme swearing, graphic descriptions of violence and a short rape scene. The villain calls his mother a jizz-lapping old whore and calls his step-father a fisting spaffmonkey. He is obsessed with his penis because it’s only 2 inches long.

JOHN: You wrote it in 2004, when you were…

ARIANE: …a sitcom writer for BBC TV.

JOHN: So it’s all semi-autobiographical?

ARIANE: It’s ‘loosely based’ on my experiences. But all the characters are fictional.

JOHN: The plot is a body/identity swap story.

ARIANE: There IS a body swap and Neil – the nice guy – inhabits Andrew’s body and is able to get his sitcom idea commissioned, but he then realises fame and success are not all they’re cracked up to be.

Andrew is trapped in Neil’s body and there’s a hilarious/outrageous and disturbing turn of events which sees him end up homeless and having to have sex with a guy for money so that he can buy a gun.

JOHN: Why are fame and success not what they’re cracked up to be?

ARIANE: Because nobody treats you normally. It’s a very hyper-real/surreal type of existence. Most of the famous people I’ve met have been very nice, professional and reliable. They treat people really well. But I would not personally want to be famous. I don’t think it makes you any happier and you never know if people like you for you or just because you’re successful.

Ariane created and ran the Atheist Bus Campaign, seen here at its launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

JOHN: You famously created and ran the Atheist Bus Campaign and got shedloads of publicity.

ARIANE: I experienced the slightest distant glimmer of fame in 2009/2010 and it was quite disorientating. You don’t feel like yourself because people have this impression of you which doesn’t tally with your own impression of yourself. It’s confusing and I personally wouldn’t really want to be wildly famous.

JOHN: You wouldn’t want to be successful?

ARIANE: I think there’s a difference between having recognition for what you do and being a megastar where it’s so out-of-proportion that it’s ridiculous.

You really wouldn’t want Fred Bloggs accosting you when you’re trying to take the bins out – thrusting a camera in your face, demanding a selfie or an autograph.

JOHN: Alas poor Chris Whitty. You don’t want to be famous at all?

Ariane keeps her fingers in many pies, including podcasts

ARIANE: I wouldn’t mind a bit of recognition, but not being followed around by paparazzi wherever I go.

JOHN: Why did you not publish the novel in 2004 when you wrote it?

ARIANE: I had always wanted to write novels and I was putting the finishing touches to it in 2005 when I was violently assaulted by my then-boyfriend when I was pregnant with his baby. I had to have an abortion which I didn’t want to have. I cried every day for a year and I shelved the novel because I thought: I don’t want to focus on comedy! I’ve just been through hell! I don’t want to be focusing on jokes when my baby is dead.

JOHN: Wouldn’t focusing on comedy be cathartic in that situation?

ARIANE: I just didn’t feel I could write it successfully and, instead, I wrote a memoir of what had happened. That didn’t get published and I’m very glad it didn’t get published because it was so raw. It had a lot of scenes from my childhood and my dad was still alive and I think it would have got me into a massive mess.

So I sort-of lost interest in Shitcom. I shelved it and then a little later I started writing for the Guardian (until 2018) and I think I made some tweaks to Shitcom in 2008, but, as a Guardian columnist, I didn’t want to put out a book with an incredibly racist, sexist, homophobic male character and a ton of racial slurs in it. That felt like it might be a bit of a faux pas.

JOHN: And the Covid lockdown happened last year… That had an effect?

ARIANE: Yes. I was going to do a 100-date book tour for my last book How To Live To 100 but then the Covid lockdown came in, so the tour got shelved.

Shitcom was published after servicing Patreon subscribers

But I have a Patreon account and one of the subscriber tiers is my Writing Tier. 

Subscribers to that tier get a sample of my writing every week.

I came across Shitcom again and I thought I would send them that chapter by chapter. As I was reading it again, I realised it was hilarious and I loved it. So I thought Why don’t I just put it out rather have it languish on my hard drive?

I didn’t even try to get it traditionally published. Nobody in the publishing industry has seen it and, in this age of ‘cancellation culture’ I don’t think any publisher is going to be too keen on it.

JOHN: Have you thought about also publishing your ‘too raw’ memoir which you could now look back on objectively?

ARIANE: If I ever did write a memoir, it would probably be at the end of my career. I have so much left to do; and also my mum and brother are still alive and I wouldn’t want to hurt them with what’s in it. It might be something I do in 40 or 50 years.

I am aiming to write 100 books in my lifetime and I see Shitcom as the first book.

My next book – traditionally published by my publisher Hachette – is called Happier and will be my fourth traditionally-published book. 

Ariane also wants to write 100 books…

JOHN: You’ve said you consider Shitcom your first book but you have published three books already.

ARIANE: Well, they are all either co-writes or they contain a ton of contributions from other people. I think they are very enjoyable and I love my publishers, but I also want to put novels out – and, by self-publishing them, people can read them for just £1.99 each.

JOHN: So what’s your next solo book?

ARIANE: I’m Not In Love, another novel.

JOHN: Autobiograhical?

ARIANE: Partly. It’s about a girl who’s not in love with her boyfriend. He smells of banana. He does not eat or like bananas, but he has a strange banana smell.

JOHN: This bit is autobiographical?

ARIANE: Yes. It’s based on a boyfriend I had who is a comedian and writer and actually quite successful now. I don’t know if he still smells of banana, but I do feel sorry for his wife if he does. Also (in the book) he wears these terrible slogan T-shirts like While You Are Reading This, I Am Staring at Your Tits… And she falls in love with another man, but he’s engaged to be married and one of her unscrupulous, amoral friends says to her: Why don’t you just keep this guy that you’re engaged to around as insurance and date other guys behind his back?

So that’s what she does. But she is in her 30s and is aware that time is not on her side if she wants to have kids. So it’s a rom-com. 

It’s already written, the main character is really acerbic and funny and it will be out before the end of the year.

Shitcom is out now, though, for just £1.99. Buy it!

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Filed under Books, Publishing, Sex, Television

ECCENTRIVIA – Mis-gendering, Tit-Bits, Potato Heads and Janey Godley

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned the NHS wasting time and money sending out three letters when only one was required. That referred to a local hospital appointment I am (still) having on 11th May with the Respiratory Department.

Today I received a text on my mobile from the same hospital about a telephone appointment I have with their Physiotherapy Department on 4th March. The text tells me that my telephone appointment has been changed to a telephone appointment.

Apart from the surrealism of my telephone appointment being changed to a telephone appointment, there is the quirkiness of the fact that they could have saved money yesterday by sending me one text rather than three physical letters. The technology seems to be not unknown to them.

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The NHS is an organisation that just keeps on giving. After reading yesterday’s blog, a care worker I know sent me a message she received from the NHS’s ‘Health Education England’ – presumably sent to all NHS workers in England who interact with members of the public – advising her what to do if she should “misgender someone by accidentally using the wrong pronoun”.

Her reaction to me was: “FFS, I think I’ll stay in lockdown”.

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In other gender-bending news, Hasbro’s Twitter account announced that, from Autumn this year, its iconic Mr & Mrs Potato Head toys will be getting “a 21st-century rebrand” as ‘Potato Head’ so that the toy could “break away from traditional gender norms” and, when the new brand is unveiled, “kids will have a blank slate to create same-sex families or single-parent families”.

This would mean the toys would not “impose a fixed notion of gender identity or expression”, freeing kids to do whatever feels most natural to them. A girl potato might wear trousers and a boy potato might wear earrings. Hasbro would also sell “boxed sets that don’t present a normative family structure”. This approach would allow kids to project their own ideas about gender, sexuality and family onto their Potato Head toys, without necessarily offending parents who might have more conservative notions about family.

After some surprised reaction on social media, Hasbro then re-Tweeted yesterday that, although the toys would indeed be re-branded as Potato Heads, they would also still be identified as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ on the packaging.

So Mr Potato Head will now be called Potato Head to avoid gendering the toy, but the toys will be identified on the packaging as Mr Potato Head or Mrs Potato Head.

I am undecided whether this is good publicity – lots of coverage of the brand – or bad publicity – too much ducking, dodging, diving and weaving in the PR.

Collins Dictionary currently defines ‘Potato-head’ as “[slang] a dumb or stupid person”.

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Meanwhile, on Facebook, Man-of-All-Arts Peter Stanford has spotted a piece in a 1884 edition of Tit-Bits magazine.

Peter’s reaction was: “I so want some reputable magazine to offer this service. I would write my own, and send it off with my subscription, just in case.”

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All publications are desperate for readers and ever have been.

In yesterday’s Daily Record (basically Scotland’s national equivalent to England’s Daily Mirror), there was a prominent article on comedian and author Janey Godley ‘dividing the internet’ by posting a picture of her dinner: a plate of toast, mince, peas and onions.

According to the Daily Record, “many were outraged by her choice of dish”.

You know you have really succeeded in the fame game when a national paper starts reporting your dinner (with pictures) for the sole reason that, if they publish your name, people will want to read the article. All the more jaw-dropping because this week Janey started writing a weekly column for the Daily Record‘s competitor, The Herald.

 

 

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Filed under Bureaucracy, Eccentrics

Orson Welles: “I like to meet those people who didn’t get anywhere…”

I stumbled on a YouTube video a few days ago. 

It was of Orson Welles chatting on The Dick Cavett Show half a century ago, on 14th May 1970.

I always thought Welles seemed a bit up-himself in previous interviews I had seen with him but, in this one, he seems very relaxed and open and probably as close to the real person as it was possible to get. 

Interestingly, near the end, when asked whom he would most like to meet, after mentioning Mao Tse Tung (or Mao Zedong as he seems to be spelled now), Welles said: “Almost everybody I don’t know… and those way-out people too and great leaders, some of them frauds, some of them not, that you don’t get to meet except in some silly capacity.  And then all those great people who never get to be anything… If you have talent, it will out – That isn’t true at all. You can have all the talent in the world and never get anywhere and I like to meet those people who didn’t get anywhere; I know quite a lot of them. And they’re fascinating too.”

I was reminded of Welles’ words when I got an email this morning from John Ward, eccentric inventor and designer of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. He attached a link to a YouTube video.

“We saw this chap busking in Blackpool a few years back,” John wrote, “when we went there for the illuminations. He could be heard quite a way off and we honestly thought The Shadows had reformed as the sound was that good it was like… well, The Shadows. 

“On getting nearer to him, amid the crowd around him, it struck us after a few minutes that he was blind or partially blind.

“We stood and enjoyed his music for over half an hour and, judging by the amount of people also there, we were not the only ones. Very talented and it was only by chance I found him. We nearly cried. A truly amazing man. His name is Andy J.”

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There’s more to Richard O’Brien than the Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff…

Three weeks ago in this blog I mentioned the sad death of Douglas Gray of The Alberts, the extraordinary surreal brothers little remembered by ordinary punters now but whose influence on British comedy was so great that Douglas got a full-page obituary in The Times.

Richard O’Brien – creator of The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – commented on the blog: “I had the great pleasure of working with Tony and Douglas, plus Tony’s son Sinbad, in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid theatre in 1969. Each day was a delightful excursion into organised chaos…”

So obviously, I had to ask him about it. He now lives in New Zealand…


Richard O’Brien with a statue of him as Riff Raff erected in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the site of the barber shop where he cut hair in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

JOHN: New Zealand? Why on earth New Zealand?

RICHARD: Well, my parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1952 when I was ten and I was brought up there – went through puberty, adolescence, all that kind of stuff – the BIG bit of growing-up, basically.

JOHN: New Zealand seems a very sensible place. Not surreal or anarchic or OTT…

RICHARD: What was really nice about it was that it was a middle classless society. Nobody was your social superior. It was an egalitarian meritocracy, about as good as it could get. Not ideal but still wonderful.

JOHN: So when you came back to Britain in 1964, you found they couldn’t socially classify you because you had not been brought up here?

RICHARD: I had a great card to play. If I was with people who were a bit snobby, I was out of the equation. I had a go-anywhere card because England at that time was a deeply class-ridden society – still is to an extent – look at Boris and his chums.

BBC reported that Richard “delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s”

It was wonderful. I could go absolutely anywhere and I was not on any level of their thinking. So it was wonderful.

Being under-educated and unsophisticated, I kept my mouth shut and I wasn’t a bad-looking boy, so I was invited to places because, well, we ARE so fucking shallow, aren’t we? And, as long as I was well-mannered and a good listener, I was welcome anywhere. It was great.

JOHN: One of the first things you did over here was work as a stuntman on the movie Carry On Cowboy… Whaaat? 

RICHARD: It was simply because, in 1965, there was an opening to do that. I did three movies in 1965: Carry On Cowboy, The Fighting Prince of Donegal and that early version of Casino Royale which nobody understands. But I didn’t really want to be a stuntman. I wanted to be an actor.

JOHN: Which you became…

“Delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: And, in 1968, Sean Kenny decided to direct and design Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and he got together an incredible cast. A huge range of actors. It was quite wonderful. Some real ‘characters’. And, of course, The Alberts were part of that.

JOHN: You said that the Mermaid show experience with The Alberts was “a delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: Douglas would turn up in a kilt and in all kinds of uniforms. They might come on stage with a wheelbarrow but there was bound to be an explosion somewhere. They would wear pinafores with naked bodies painted on the front. Quite childish; very childish. You couldn’t really call it professional. It was like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. But it was delightful.

“I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs” (Photograph c 1964)

JOHN: You are an actor/writer/musician/TV person. Which one did you want to be when you were 16?

RICHARD: I am ‘musical’. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I play the guitar a little and I sing and I have a good ear.

I wrote songs when I was in my teenage years: mostly derivative rock n roll stuff. I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs.

I wouldn’t have minded singing folk songs – going round the world learning different countries’ folk songs.

I like writing songs, but mostly because I like storytelling. I love narrative poetry. I think probably my strength more than anything else is writing lyrics. Dressing-up and making-believe was always a kind of joy. Acting is not really a job for grown-ups. It’s a childish kind of thing to want to dress up and make-believe. But it’s a very enjoyable one.

…as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show…

JOHN: Your obituary in The Times is inevitably going to have “Rocky Horror” in the headline. 

RICHARD: Well, of course it will. It’s one of the longest-running movies ever in movie history. It’s a silly piece of adolescent fun and nonsense. You can’t take it seriously and yet it’s had an incredible effect on a lot of people. It’s given a lot of people hope in their world if they’re lonely and lost. Rocky Horror’s got a sense of Well, you’re not alone.

It would be perverse for me not to acknowledge Rocky Horror.

JOHN: Rocky Horror re-routed your career?

RICHARD: It probably took me away from acting. I maybe thought I should stay at home and be writing more. The nice thing was I was successful without anybody knowing who I was if I walked down the street.

Willie Rushton was a lovely man whom I got to know – he was in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid. He was on television all the time and I would walk down the street with him and everybody would come up to him and I would stand beside him and, in monetary terms and in theatrical terms, I was doing as well as he was but nobody knew who I was. I had this wonderful anonymity… but that disappeared when I started doing The Crystal Maze on TV. The anonymity all went out the window.

Richard’s anonymity disappeared doing The Crystal Maze

JOHN: Everyone wants fame and fortune…

RICHARD: I didn’t want to be famous. Honestly. And I didn’t want to have a lot of money. Luckily, something went wrong and I achieved both those ends. But I wasn’t searching for it. Never was.

JOHN: What is the least known or least appreciated creative thing you have been involved in that you are most proud of?

RICHARD: Proud of? I don’t like pride. It comes before a fall. 

Even with Gay Pride… I think it’s really silly to be proud of something which you are by default… Be glad. Over the moon. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes. Deliriously happy. Fantastic. Yes. 

Proud to be black? Proud to be white? Proud to be straight? Proud to be what you are by default?… Proud to be blond? – How stupid would that be?

JOHN: But, if I pushed you on what is most underestimated…

RICHARD: I adapted The Dancing Years by Ivor Novello which we did with Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of The Opera). I think we did a wonderful job on it and we had two stagings of it upstairs in a rehearsal room at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London – lots and lots of people there – and grown men were crying at the end. They were weeping. I think we did that very well but we weren’t allowed to go further with it, which was a great, great shame.

JOHN: You’re knocking on a bit. Old blokes cannot be creative…

RICHARD: Well, I’m 78, I’ve just had a stroke, but I’m still working… 

JOHN: On what?

RICHARD: A satirical fairy tale.

JOHN: And then?

RICHARD: I’m going to go and have a sit-down and maybe a cup of tea.

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Filed under Acting, Cult, Movies, Theatre

Rest in Peace: British showbiz legend Nicholas Parsons and other gentle men

Nicholas Parsons – much loved by generations of Brits

I was at a crematorium in Hampshire today. For a celebration of the life of my cousin’s husband, Michael. He was that seemingly rare thing: a kind, decent and gentle man. My cousin chose well marrying him.

When I left, within less than a minute of me switching on my phone again, there was a BBC newsflash that Nicholas Parsons had died, aged. 96.

And it started to rain.

Truly.

I grew up watching Nicholas Parsons on TV. He played the upper-class and slightly up-himself ‘posh’ foil/neighbour to Arthur Haynes’ working class character/tramp in a ratings-topping ITV comedy show The Arthur Haynes Show, written by Johnny Speight (before he created Till Death Us Do Part).

So, as a child, I suppose I thought of Nicholas Parsons as the character he played – a bit of a posh bloke thinking a bit too much of himself. Sort of a cliché actor type, if you see what I mean.

Later, when I was living in a bedsit in Hampstead, I guess in the early 1970s, there was a story in the local Hampstead & Highgate Express about some girl who had been sexually attacked on Hampstead Heath and afterwards she went to the nearest house she found which, as it happened, was Nicholas Parsons’ home.

My memory is that she was effusive about how wonderful and helpful, how kind and considerate, caring and efficient he was, helping her with the police and so on.

I always thought much more of him after that – he was not just some posh sitcom actor/foil on a television show but a good person – a human being.

A few years later, I was working in the on-screen promotion department at Anglia TV in Norwich, where he fronted their big ITV ratings-getter Sale of the Century. (It was getting over 21 million viewers weekly.)

One way to rate TV ‘stars’ I always found was that, if they ate in the canteen with the plebs and the canteen ladies liked them, then they were OK as human beings. The canteen ladies at Anglia TV always liked Nicholas Parsons. (A parallel was Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, early in their careers, in the Granada TV  canteen in Manchester.)

His TV gameshow was getting over 21 million viewers weekly

One day, Nicholas Parsons came into the promotion office at Anglia TV and, for the life of me, I can’t remember why – I think maybe he was asking advice or plugging some travel project he had – but he – the big Anglia and ITV Network star – was, as ever, amiable, modest and charming – not in a schmaltzy showbiz promotional way but in a genuinely normal person-to-person way.

His image was, I suppose, of a constantly-smiling, slightly cheesy, always ‘on’ old style showbiz star.

But, on the two occasions I briefly met him in the flesh, he was anything but that. He was, if I have to choose a naff but exactly true term, a ‘real’ person. It was impossible not to like him.

An unlikely meeting of minds in 2007…

The second time I briefly met him was when he was a guest on Janey Godley’s Chat Show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. I met him on the steep stone steps behind what had been the old Gilded Balloon, was at that time The Green Room venue and has since gone through various names.

He was, again, a charming, keen-to-please and keen-to-be-helpful, slightly frail gentle man. (He was 83 at the time and I thought to myself: He is going to pop his clogs soon… That was 13 years ago and he was still going strong last year!)

As a result of being a guest on that show, he – the seemingly definitive comfortable ‘Home Counties’ man – and Janey – the definitive tough wee East End Glaswegian – seemed to bond because, as I understand it, his parents had sent him to do manual work in the Glasgow shipyards in his youth to ‘toughen him up’. As a result, despite his image as ‘Home Counties Man’, I think he felt an affinity with working class Glaswegians.

Janey turned up multiple times later both on his own Edinburgh Fringe chat shows and on his long-running BBC Radio 4 show Just a Minute. The BBC tried the format on TV in 1999, but it didn’t catch on there. It has been running on radio since 1967.

On her Facebook page this afternoon, Janey posted this tribute to him:


Just a Minute – Paul Merton, Janey Godley and Nicholas

#NicholasParsons was one of the very few old school iconic comedians/presenters who was very much invested in new and young comics at Edinburgh – he came to see our shows and spent time getting to know us – he was one of “us” he loved stand up.

The sheer delight knowing that Nicholas was in your audience was something that “lifted” our spirits at the Fringe – despite his age and workload he came to see HEAPS of comedy shows and sat and chatted with us afterwards – nobody else that famous did that for us.

He took time with new and emerging comics and always was generous with his time. We were used to famous faces at the Fringe but Nicholas was that guy who sat in a tiny hot room and laughed and cheered you on. And for that I will always love him


That is Janey’s opinion.

TV chat show host Graham Norton Tweeted this afternoon: “Nicholas Parsons was truly the kindest and most generous person I’ve ever worked with. His continued delight at being a part of show business should be an inspiration to us all!”

I can’t say, personally, that I have ever warmed to men as a species. I’m more of a cat person. Cats have a nobility and (if you feed them) an amiability that is usually sorely lacking in men.

So it is a very great loss when genuinely decent gentle men die.

Nicholas Parsons had three wildly successful, long-running, overlapping showbiz peaks – The Arthur Haynes Show, Sale of the Century and Just a Minute – and, quite rightly, memories of him are splattered all over TV and radio news, in print and on the internet.

My cousin’s husband Michael – whose memorial celebration was packed to standing room only in a small Hampshire town today – tried to follow the philosophy of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”

Michael lived his life to the full and added to it the other key ingredient: kindness. I think he and Nicholas Parsons shared that.

At the end of the celebration of Michael’s life today, the poem One At Rest by that prolific writer Anon was read out. It ends:

And in my fleeting lifespan,
as time went rushing by
I found some time to hesitate,
to laugh, to love, to cry.
Matters it now if time began
if time will ever cease?
I was here, I used it all
and I am now at peace.

RIP Michael and Nicholas.

Or, as the Tralfamadorians would say:

So it goes.

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Stand-up comedians, death and fame – Who will be remembered and why?

Yesterday, I was talking to someone about reviving the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – I would not be involved in them. 

Of course, few people have ever heard of Malcolm Hardee.

Fame, as they say, is a fickle mistress.

In the UK, who were the biggest and most-loved comedians of the late-20th Century?

Probably Morecambe & Wise.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Haynes.

Before him? Maybe Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Lucan.

But, younger readers might ask, Who WERE these people?

Arthur Haynes, Tommy Handley and Arthur Lucan?

Never heard of them.

Come to that, who the fuck was Arthur Askey?

Certainly, if you are my devoted reader in Guatemala, you will never have heard of them.

But massively famous in their lifetime is what they all were. In the UK. But now forgotten by subsequent generations in the UK. And still totally unknown elsewhere. 

If you were born and brought up in China, India, Indonesia, the USA… none of those names ever meant anything even when they were at the height of their fame. Perhaps Benny Hill was more famous worldwide. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese State Television interrupted their programming to announce his death. But do new generations remember him still in Shanghai or Guangzhou? I doubt it.

Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home in London, 1995

The annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards ran at the Edinburgh Fringe 2005-2017. 

Not a lot of people know that. Certainly not in Guatemala or Guangzhou.

I mentioned during the conversation I had yesterday that I thought there was a chance – perhaps an outside chance – that Malcolm Hardee might be remembered in the UK for much longer than other comedians who were ‘famous’ during his lifetime and who are nationally known today.

Come to that, given current events, memories of Malcolm might outlive the very existence of the UK.

Malcolm was not famous when he was alive – infamous in certain areas, yes, perhaps, but never famous.

He was totally unknown by the general public unless you mentioned to people of a certain age The Naked Balloon Dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT in 1981 or 1982. Then they might remember the three-man act doing the perfomance; but not him individually. He was the one on the left.

His death in 2005 got lengthy obituaries in all the quality press but none in the popular tabloids. Because, although he was widely-known by the media and very influential in the comedy industry – Heavens! GQ even ran a fashion spread featuring Malcolm – not a man known for his sartorial elegance! – the general public didn’t know he existed.

My point yesterday was that the material and style of comedy acts date but vivid anecdotes of real people’s lives do not. 

In my opinion, Malcolm was not a good stand-up comedian. In fact, you could hardly call him a stand-up comedian at all. Though he was a superb and much-underestimated MC/compere. 

People always correctly said that Malcolm’s act was his life. He had maybe eight or ten jokes which he repeated over 20 or so years. But ask people about him and what do they remember first? Not the jokes but:

    • the fact that, naked, he drove a tractor through someone else’s act at the Edinburgh Fringe.
    • the fact that (with Arthur Smith) he wrote a good review of his own Edinburgh Fringe show and conned The Scotsman newspaper into printing it thinking it was written by their own reviewer.

If you see a stand-up comedy show from 40, 30, 20, even 10 years ago, the material has dated; the style of delivery has dated; the physical look of the whole thing has dated. Even Morecambe & Wise shows, the last time I saw one, are starting to date. And, sadly, surprisingly, younger comedy fans do not find even Tommy Cooper as funny as those who saw him years ago.

Comedians’ acts and material date badly and relatively quickly.

But wildly eccentric OTT life stories and anecdotes about rebellious characters do not date.

If anyone ever fully collates the OTT anecdotes about recently-deceased comic Ian Cognito, there is another performer whose legend and personality were arguably greater than his impact on the general public.

The image which promoted the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in Edinburgh.

Successful comedians tend to be more mentally ‘together’ than the real wild card comics. People love the successful performers’ professional material, love their delivery. But they are less interesting off-stage.

When was the last time you heard a wildly eccentric anecdote about that brilliant on-stage performer Michael McIntyre doing something totally apeshit off-stage?

Malcolm Hardee could not walk from his home to the Post Office without five bizarre things happening to him – or causing bizarre things to happen.

Even the title of Malcolm’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (yes, he did) is OTT and the story of him stealing it will possibly still be funny decades hence, long after people have forgotten who, Freddie Mercury was.

Well, maybe that’s not true, because the off-stage Mercurial life story is a cracker too.

But my point is that anyone watching a 100% brilliant, top-notch Michael McIntyre routine… anyone watching an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python or Fawlty Towers… anyone watching a Robin Williams routine… in 75 or 100 years time… may not find any of them funny because tastes will have changed and cultural tastes are different. Humour in the form of jokes and scripted funny routines does not necessarily transcend borders.

A joke that is funny in Indonesia may not make ‘em rock with laughter in Canada or Novosibirsk today. A joke or routine that is funny in London today may not be funny in London in 2099. But a bizarre anecdote about a man who “throughout his life maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences” (as Malcolm Hardee’s obituary in The Times said) is likely to outlive all the people who were more ‘famous’ than he was during his lifetime.

Malcolm Hardee – generally unknown during his lifetime and remembered by few since then – may yet outlive those who apparently achieved more during their lives. 

Lao Tzu is right that “the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long”. But the flame which burns half as bright as those around it is still just as 100% hot when you stick your finger in it and yet may burn twice as long.

Of course, if you’re dead, it doesn’t do you any good so, as Malcolm himself would have said: “Fuck it!”

Or: “It don’t matter, do it? There are people starving in Africa. Not all over… Round the edge… fish.”

RIP the unknown comic, Malcolm Hardee, 1950-2005.

I know someone is going to mention that Charlie Chaplin is remembered fairly worldwide. But I don’t care and I never found him funny anyway. And I am already regretting the line about sticking your finger in…

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Massages, Molly Ringwald & musicians

Flame-haired, mysteriously-banned Anna Smith in Vancouver

Just over a week agothis blog’s Canadian correspondent Anna Smith was explaining she had been banned for life from massaging musicians at the Vancouver Folk Festival – and no-one would tell her why. Today, I got an update from her:

“The Folk Festival still hasn’t said why they won’t let me massage musicians, except to say that their committees and administration have been having meetings about me and they all agree that I broke their code of ethics…

“They sent me their code of ethics (which is a lot shorter than Hammurabi’s code) and the main rules seem to be about drunkenness with the interesting detail that, if a volunteer is drinking in the beer tents, they have to remove their volunteer identification badges while so doing…

“When I was there before, I was too busy massaging musicians to find out where the beer tents were even located… I will try to write them a third query letter tomorrow and then maybe their committees will hold another meeting about me.

“I am thinking that if I start a petition for Canadian musicians to sign – to say that I should be allowed to give them massages – then I probably could get quite a number of them to agree… like probably all of them!

The Breakfast Club (1985) with Molly Ringwald (bottom)

“Have people in Britain heard of the American actress Molly Ringwald?”

“Yes,” I told Anna. “The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and all that. But why?”

This is the reply I got from Anna:


I had never heard of her until one day in the early 1990s when I was sent to a hotel in Vancouver to do a massage and it was her, but I didn’t know who she was. I thought she was probably the daughter of some rich dentist in L.A. because she was wearing very expensive sunglasses and had perfect teeth.

That is not unusual. Most massueses meet celebrities.

Anyhow, she seemed to like that I had never heard of her and it was funny. She said: “Oh well… I’m in Vanity Fair this month.”

She was really nice. After the massage, we talked a bit and then she showed me her computer. She was the first person to show me the internet .

Then she invited me to her film set which was on location in Stanley Park. She had me stand with the director and watch her act. She was playing a villain and the script called for her to angrily light a cigarette. The wind was playing up and making it impossible for her to light it, so the crew started murmuring: “She needs a Zippo”.

Eventually the director was forced to ask through his megaphone: “Is there a Zippo on the set?”

Someone produced one and it was passed to her and filming continued. It was funny because it was like a Zippo commercial.

Molly Ringwald in Greece in 2010 (Photograph by Pgianopoulos)

She invited me to her own trailer and to her makeup trailer and a few days later she took me out for dinner at Le Crocodile, the best French restaurant in Vancouver. I told her she would have to pay, since I had a baby at home.

She said: “Order whatever you want.”

So I ordered a seafood dish and she ordered her dinner and a bottle of wine which we shared. We stayed there quite late talking and, when the cheque arrived, I was horrified because it was around $500.

She said: ”Don’t worry. It must have been the wine.”

She gave me her address in Paris and told me to come and visit her… but I never did.

Now Molly Ringwald has become a jazz singer (her dad is also a musician).

Mainly I remember how she was so nice to me. She didn’t have to be.

I am just remembering this because of being banned from massaging musicians.

I can’t decide if I should get photographed with my hands tied with gigantic red tape or start the musicians’ petition to allow me to massage them – or both.

I can’t completely rely on the musicians because some won’t want to jeopardize their jobs at the festival so I will have to ask the ones who don’t care…

A Zippo lighter cannot solve all problems

Really, they should WANT me to be there. I have been warning everybody about the new incurable gonorrhoea that The World Health Organization has described recently. The sex workers are calling it Super Clap and reminding everyone that condoms have no substitute.

I had some problems sending out the Super Clap warnings by email though. They were being diverted and marked as spam because they contained the word ‘warning’.

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The new Krays movie – at what point do facts in real events become Legend?

A piece of street graffiti in London’s Easy End last week, promoting the release of the Krays movie Legend

A piece of street graffiti in London’s East End last week, promoting the release of the Krays’ Legend

At what point can you make up facts in a movie about real events, the actual facts of which are well-known and within living memory?

I saw Legend last night: the new movie about the Kray Twins.

Legend - the movie poster for The Krays

The British movie poster promoting the Krays’ movie Legend

The film plays fast and loose with the widely-known facts, which totally threw my suspension of disbelief – especially for me as one of the central threads holding the plot together is the ‘love affair’ between Reggie Kray and his eventual wife Frances.

For a description of the actual relationship between Reggie and Frances, you could read my September 2014 blog chat with the Krays’ close associate Micky Fawcett.

For the actual background to the shooting of George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub by Ronnie Kray, you might want to read my blog of July 2013.

For a description of the actual killing of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie (I presume based on the court case evidence but which strangely omits the mis-firing gun) you could read the Daily Telegraph’s August 2000 piece.

And for details of police corruption and Ronnie Kray’s psychopathy, you might read my blog of October 2013.

The Krays were arrested in 1968 and imprisoned in 1969 – so they were active roughly 50 years ago.

Billy The Kid (a criminal murderer, now an outlaw hero) was killed in 1881 and the first major film made about him was in 1930 – 50 years after his death. Presumably the facts were embroidered.

Jesse James (a criminal murderer, now an outlaw hero) was killed in 1882. In 1921, two movies were made with Jesse James Jnr playing his father; but the first major film about his life was in 1939 – almost 60 years after the events. Presumably the facts were embroidered.

Micky Fawcett (left) with Reggie Kray and Frances

Micky Fawcett (left) with Reggie Kray and Frances (Photograph from Micky Fawcett’s book Krayzy Days)

The events depicted in Legend are within living memory – I am old enough to remember the shooting in the Blind Beggar being reported on BBC TV News. So it is very dodgy to change facts – even though filmgoers in the US are unlikely to have heard of The Krays. So I do not know the answer.

At what point does embroidering the facts of real events within living memory totally screw belief in a movie? And at what point in time does it not matter?

At what point does the legend take over and the facts become irrelevant?

There is that well-known 19th century newspaper saying:  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Except, of course, it is not a real saying. It was something scripted in the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and now people think it is some real saying from way way back.

There is a famous TV interview with the Kray Twins which is on YouTube.

.

 

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Why I am named in the Daily Star today

Flyerer Blanche Cameron behind the fame of Lewis Schaffer

Blanche Cameron chooses to hide her light under a Lewis-Schaffer-flyer-shaped bushel

Fame is strange and not necessarily welcome.

I was working at Granada TV in Manchester when the station decided to move its announcers from voice-over to on-screen. One day, I was wandering along the street with an announcer who was unenthusiastic about the upcoming change.

“I don’t want people to recognise me when I buy my underpants in Marks & Spencer,” he told me.

I am quite happy living in a Facebook world. In this blog yesterday I mentioned a Facebook Friend of mine who met me and, quite reasonably, did not recognise me because we had never met.

That’s fine with me. I think it is good no-one I don’t know recognises me except occasionally when, by a process of elimination – There’s an abnormally old man in the room – they may twig I’m that blogger bloke with whom they are Facebook Friends.

Yesterday, before Mel Moon’s Sick Girl show started, I was chatting to a stranger in the audience and someone in the row behind us asked if I was that bloke who did the Grouchy Club Podcasts with Kate Copstick – he had recognised my voice.

I found this simultaneously surprising and unnerving.

Which gets us to the newspapers today.

Edinburgh Fringe stunt When does an Fringe stunt overstep the mark?

When does a Fringe stunt overstep the mark?

In this blog three days ago, I mentioned a stunt in the Cowgate in which two people dangled on a trapeze under George IV Bridge, high above the Cowgate, as pedestrians and cars passed underneath. They did it – risking their own lives and possibly the lives of those underneath – to publicise a show. To create fame.

According to the Edinburgh Evening News today, they “could now face a police investigation over their ‘excessively dangerous’ performance amid claims that their actions crossed a line and ‘could have been lethal’.”

In 2006, the Evening News reports, “student Kate Flannery was left temporarily paralysed and suffered a fractured skull” after she was hit by a traffic cone thrown from George IV Bridge 60 feet down onto the Cowgate.

Two human bodies falling 60 feet onto other people or onto the windscreen of a passing vehicle would obviously have an even more dramatic impact.

Daily Star - Cilla & Barrymore

Today’s Daily Star – a result of my blog

Also in the papers today, I am quoted in the Daily Star in a brief piece about alleged rivalry between Cilla Black and Michael Barrymore at London Weekend Television. This piece came about because the reporter had read my blog of exactly a week ago.

I suspect any rivalry they had was as nothing compared to some acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, where yesterday one comic told me about their posters mysteriously being taken down. A rival comic is suspected.

Ah, Infamy! Infamy!… etc etc

Fame is transient and often localised.

Yesterday, waiting to go into Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words, I bumped into Sara Mason, who is sharing a flat with Louise. Sara’s own jaw-dropping show is titled (entirely truthfully) Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11).

Sara Mason - Burt Lancaster poster

That is Burt NOT Tinky Winky on the right

It is directed by Dave Thompson, who played Tinky Winky in the children’s TV series Teletubbies. This is mentioned on the posters and flyers.

Sara told me: “More people know Tinky Winky now than know Burt Lancaster. More than one person has seen the picture of Burt Lancaster on my flyer and asked: Ooh! Did he play Tinky Winky? They don’t even recognise Burt Lancaster’s face.”


I was scheduled to see seven shows yesterday. These are five of them.

Mel Moon: Sick Girl
Faultless, perfect Fringe story. Warmth, laughter and potential death (potentially even during the actual performance) from a horrendous disease which continues to afflict Mel.

Louise Reay: It’s Only Words
So good I’ve now seen it twice. More than a stand-up show – performed totally in Chinese – an experiment in how visual perception overwhelms verbal communication. Very very funny. Especially for lovers of EastEnders. A triumph of charisma and eye movements.

Christian Talbot: Cheaper Than Therapy
Basically, a load of comics sitting upstairs in Bob Slayer’s BlundaBus venue talking in fascinating detail about the reality of being comedians. Last night’s subject was ‘nerves’. Sadly, tonight’s show is the last one.

Gary Meikle: Dysfunctionally In Order
Highly efficient Scottish stand-up. Anyone whose flyer has a recommendation from Janey Godley is always worth seeing. I have a feeling there is a humdinger of a confessional show lurking in there somewhere which was only glimpsed last night. He is clearly a very good club comic. I suspect he could also be an exceptional weaver of 60-minute Fringe shows.

Madame Señorita; ¿Eres Tú?

Madame Señorita; ¿Eres Tú?

Madame Señorita: ¿Eres Tú?
I saw this show. I cannot tell you what it was about. Showman Adam Taffler persuaded me to see it on the basis he knew “a fucking crazy Spanish lady” – Paula Valluerca – Madame Señorita.

Mad, surreal and OTT does not even begin to describe the show. And possibly her.

She won Best Female Act at the London Solo Festival in 2013 and Best Theatre Play at the 2015 Carabanchel en Escena Festival in Madrid.

Do not say I didn’t warn you.

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How Cilla Black re-invented herself, courtesy of Terry Wogan, in 1983

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Cilla Black died two days ago. So it goes.

I worked as a researcher on her Surprise! Surprise! series at London Weekend Television. I cannot honestly say I was enamoured of her. I think she was the only star I have ever worked with who behaved like a star. But she was worth every penny she earned. On screen she was brilliantly the girl and later auntie next door.

In the 1960s, Cilla was a pop star, then her career faded. In the 1970s, BBC TV producer Michael Hurll re-invented her as a mainstream, peaktime entertainment presenter on BBC TV’s Cilla. Then her career faded. Then, in the 1980s, Alan Boyd of LWT re-invented her as an ITV entertainment presenter on Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

In a TV tribute yesterday, comic Jimmy Tarbuck mentioned a TV interview in 1983 which revitalised her career. I asked writer and broadcaster Nigel Crowle about that interview with Terry Wogan on the TV chat show Wogan.

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith at TVS, 1988 (Photograph by John Ward)

Nigel later wrote for People Do The Funniest Things and Beadle’s About. He wrote the lyrics for Oscar-nominated animated film Famous Fred; and Baas – an animated kids’ show about sheep for Al Jazeera TV. With David Walliams and Simon Heath, he co-devised Ant & Dec’s first show for BBC TV. In 1996, it won BAFTAs for Best Children’s Show & Best Sketch Comedy.

Over the years, he has written scripts, links and sketches for performers including Mel Brooks, Basil Brush, the Chuckle Brothers, Noel Edmonds, Lenny Henry, Jack Lemmon, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant and Terry Wogan.

“In 1983,” he told me yesterday, “I was a researcher on the Wogan show. I had never done anything like that before – researching. I had suddenly gone from promotion scriptwriting to this world of celebrities where you had to go and interview people and ask them all the questions that a chat show host would.”

“Yes,” I said. “When I was working at the BBC, I once saw the research notes for some major film star who was to be interviewed on the Michael Parkinson chat show and the researcher (in the US) had basically done a full interview in advance – all the questions; all the answers.”

Nigel with some of his children’s books

Nigel later wrote several children’s books

“What happened with Cilla,” Nigel explained, “was that Marcus Plantin, my producer on Wogan, said to me: This week, you’re going to do Cilla Black. I remember saying: Really? She’s a bit yesterday’s news! I didn’t think she was any great shakes as a singer. But he said: No, no no. She’s up for revitalising her career. She had just brought out her Greatest Hits album – she was promoting it on the show.

“Marcus said to me: Go down and see Michael Hurll – he was the one who used to produce all her shows. Michael told me a few anecdotes about going and knocking on the doors – with live cameras! – they used to do a lot in the Shepherd’s Bush flats behind BBC Television Centre. It was real seat-of-your-pants stuff, going out live on television. And I asked him what she was like and he said: Well, y’know, she’s OK. She’s fine. She can be a bit of a perfectionist.

“Some people,” I said, “have used the word diva.”

On-screen, as I said, I thought she was worth every penny she was paid. Every inch a star.

There is a clip on YouTube of Cilla singing Life’s a Gas with Marc Bolan on her Michael Hurll-produced TV series.

“Anyway,” said Nigel, “come the day, I have to meet her and, obviously, Bobby (her husband/manager) was there. We went to one of the star dressing rooms on the ground floor at Telly Centre. In her day – the 1970s – she would have been there, so coming back must have felt to her a bit like Oh, I used to be big. She must have felt a bit Sunset Boulevardy, maybe.

“But we sat down, talked about her early life, how she started and she was very open. And also she was very, very, very funny. Absolutely hilarious. I was in stitches. The moment I finished doing the interview with her, I knew this was her moment – again. I went home and told my wife Mel: I was totally wrong. Cilla is SO going to storm it on Saturday.”

“You had originally thought,” I asked, “that she might not be interesting?”

Cilla Black became cuddly girl/auntie next door

“I really had thought she was past it – and this was in 1983! I thought she’d had her moment… She had had two bites of the cherry – the 1960s as a pop star and the 1970s as an engaging TV personality. Now, come 1983, she was just trying to flog her Greatest Hits album.

“Going on Wogan had maybe seemed like an act of desperation, but it wasn’t. It was a clinical assault on stardom – again – and – My God! – it absolutely worked! She made her career that night – revitalised it. She was terrific.

“She did the show (there is a clip on YouTube) and she was hilarious and the audience were absolutely loving her. She did all the stories about John Lennon and she was big mates with Ringo – I think there was a family connection. Paul McCartney wrote Step Inside Love for her. She did all the nostalgia about the 1960s and then what it was like being a Liverpudlian and that is really what engaged people. She came across as the girl next door.

“We recorded the show on the Friday and it went out on the Saturday night. As I understand it, on the Sunday morning, Alan Boyd (Head of Entertainment at LWT) phoned her up. I think Jim Moir (Head of Light Entertainment at BBC TV) was waiting until Monday morning to phone her up but, by that time, it was too late. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that, on the Monday morning, Marcus Plantin was saying: Well, the Beeb missed a trick there. And she went to LWT for Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

The panto Nigel Crowle wrote for Cilla

Jack and Cilla and Beanstalk, but no giant

“By that time, I was ‘in’ with Michael Hurll and I wrote a panto for her – Jack and The Beanstalk at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Michael told me: We’ve spent most of the budget on Cilla. So much so that we have not got enough money for a giant. We’ll do it all as an off-stage voice. So we did Jack and the Beanstalk without a giant.”

“Did you have a beanstalk?” I asked.

“We had one which kind of fell on stage when the giant… We had a pair of giant boots. The character Fleshcreep was played by Gareth Hunt. She had a sword fight with him. After it ended, she went to the front of the stage with Fleshcreep lying on the floor with her sword at his throat and she asked the audience: What shall I do with him, kiddies? Each day, they would all shout: Kill him! Kill him! So then she would ask them: How shall I kill him? And, one day, a kid in the front row just yelled out: Sing to him!”

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” I said. “When I worked at LWT, I remember someone told me you should always avoid mentioning what size car Michael Barrymore had to pick him up or share the information about the cars with anyone because, if Cilla ever found out – and vice versa. There was rumoured to be a bit of rivalry.”

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

“I was told,” said Nigel, “there was a little bit of jiggery-pokery about where the pictures were. When Cilla came out of the lift on the Entertainment floor at LWT, she had to see the Cilla picture on the wall there, rather than the Barrymore picture.”

“Did they move them around?” I asked.

“I think there was probably a bit of that,” said Nigel. “Certainly I heard the cars mentioned. And the worry that, if you had Barrymore and Cilla doing a show at the LWT studios on the same night, who would get the star dressing room? Because there was just one star dressing room.”

“But,” I said, “on-screen she was wonderful. Worth every penny. And she reinvented her career so successfully.”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “Well, what was incredible was not that she had these peaks and troughs in her career but that the peaks were SO high. Everyone in Britain knew who Cilla was. Everybody could do a Cilla impression. That is real fame.”

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