Tag Archives: Fawlty Towers

Jonathan Hansler on being Basil Fawlty AND Peter Cook and what happened…

Jonathan Hansler spoke to me at Soho Theatre in London

Jonathan Hansler appeared in this blog back in 2012, when a blue plaque was going to be unveiled on the site of Peter Cook’s old Establishment Club in London’s Soho and when Jonathan was going off to the Cannes Film Festival.

This month, he is involved in two separate productions featuring comedy icons – he performs the John Cleese role in Fawlty Towers Live: The Themed Dinner Show throughout the Edinburgh Fringe… and his play about Peter Cook and Dudley MooreGoodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore – plays six dates at Dingwalls in London, starting this Friday.

Pete & Dud, Cook & Moore: show this month

He usually plays Peter Cook but, because of his Edinburgh commitment can’t on this occasion.


JOHN: So you can’t be in the Pete & Dud show in London…

JONATHAN: No. but I’m thrilled because Kev Orkian, who plays Dudley Moore, has taken the reins of producer, which is lovely, because it’s a play I dearly love.

JOHN: You’re getting typed as an interpreter of comedy icons – Peter Cook AND John Cleese.

JONATHAN: How I got interested in the world of entertainment all came from seeing John Cleese and Peter Cook on a park bench doing the ‘interesting facts’ sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.

I was a little boy and I saw Peter just reeling out this stuff and I thought: That’s what I want to do! Instead of asking for an Action Man that Christmas, I wanted a book of scripts.

JOHN: You co-wrote Goodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore.

JONATHAN: Yes. Some young reviewer wrote: “Fans of Cook and Moore will enjoy hearing the classic lines re-deployed…” Well, we wrote the whole fucking thing. Every bloody line in that is ours.

JOHN: We…?

JONATHAN: Yes. I got stuck on about Page 30. I didn’t know where I was going with it. It didn’t seem to have a structure. Then I re-met Clive Greenwood at a party. He has this incredible knowledge of post-War comedy and he came on board and started to write it with me. He was the more logical one and I was typically like Cook, totally rambling and going off into spirals of imagination.

JOHN: It is set when Pete and Dud are dead.

JONATHAN: Yes. The whole thing is NOT a series of Pete n Dud sketches. Not one. It’s our interpretation of how they are forced to become their characters after they’re dead by a Divine Force that is ‘judging’ them for their Derek & Clive routines. Peter has had to wait seven years for Dudley to turn up and he is running a bar in the afterlife

JOHN: Why did you think: I wanna do a play about two dead comics after they have died?

JONATHAN: My father had died and I no longer had a father figure. Peter became a sort of father figure to me, because I loved his humour so much. I had this idea about all these comics kept in a Prisoner of War camp in heaven in the afterlife. 

Peter and Dudley were the prime focus but other comics are there. I usually play Peter. Kev Orkian plays Dudley – he has been playing the piano since he was 4. And Clive Greenwood plays all the other characters – Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Frankie Howerd, Terry-Thomas… and Lord Reith of the BBC.

I can’t be Peter this time because I’m in Edinburgh doing the Fawlty Towers dinners at the Carlton Hilton on the North Bridge twice daily – 48 shows throughout the Fringe. That ends on 27th August and the last two performances of The (After) Life are on the 30th and 31st August, so I’m going back to London to watch those – and very proudly so.

‘”The only one that does the original scripts.”

Our ‘official’ Fawlty Towers show – sanctioned by John Cleese – is the only one that does the original scripts – so, for the first time in 40 years, people can hear those live.

JOHN: As an actor, you must be frustrated at having to copy someone else’s interpretation so closely?

JONATHAN: No, I’m not, actually. When John Cleese put the Australian show together, he said he didn’t want a carbon copy of himself; so I have a very Cleesian performance, but with my own twist on it.

JOHN: Which is?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) I’m not absolutely sure! There’s a lot of improvisation involved, because it’s a dinner show.

JOHN: With the audience sitting as if they are in the Fawlty Towers dining room…?

JONATHAN: Yes. We have to improvise round the tables with my own words and we put the script on top of that.

JOHN: What else do you have in the pipeline?

JONATHAN: One of the biggest things is an initiative I helped set up (with Andrew Eborn) called Canned Laughter. A lot of comedians and people who drink have this false laughter or they play games so we don’t know what lies behind. So I opened up an initiative with Equity with the slogan

IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK

The nervous energy which performers have is anxiety – and that’s where the problems start… Depression and all those things that lurk underneath and I’ve been through them all and, coming out the other side of booze, you start to realise where you have been and what you’ve come to and what you have to do to stop other people going down the same path.

Jonathan’s drinking days are behind him…

JOHN: How long have you been off the booze?

JONATHAN: 5½ years. And off sugars. I used to be: I’ll do every pill in the world! I’ll do every cigarette in the world! I’d do every drug in the world! I’d go to every club in the world!

JOHN: And now you have taken up knitting cardigans?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) No! My revolution and my rebellion comes in my writing, I think.

JOHN: You are writing other things?

JONATHAN: I am writing, but I am terrified. I am going to eventually do an hour’s stand-up on anxiety and about my childhood. I don’t give a fuck if people know now. I was abused. That’s why I wear blue chakra round my neck – because I was orally abused twice. at different times, I was in a school which had a paedophile headmaster and…

JOHN: What’s a blue chakra for?

Jonathan’s blue chakra with its healing sodalite stones…

JONATHAN: The blue chakra is the throat chakra, which is about the art of communication. This is a stone called sodalite and it actually gives… whether you believe it or not; a lot of people don’t and that’s fine… but I need something to believe in because of my past so I can’t help but believe in it and I’m happy to believe in it. As mad as it gets, that’s what I have to believe in, because they tried to hang me twice… Once when I was in my prep school and once in my senior school.

JOHN: Who tried to hang you?

JONATHAN: The kids. Y’know. Just brutal kids. Really brutal kids. There is a huge court case going on about my old school and paedophilia. There were boys who had it far worse than me.

There was one guy who forced me orally to do what I had to do. I think he was probably being abused himself. I think the kids who were being abused were picking on other kids who weren’t being abused. It was horrendous. Just horrible, horrible, horrible.

That’s another reason why I’ve done Canned Laughter.

JOHN: Peter Cook drank a lot.

JONATHAN: A director once said to me – after I got sober: “The reason why you can play Peter so well is because you were both on similar paths of self-destruction.”

Peter Cook (left) and Jonathan Hansler: very parallel people

We are very parallel. Very parallel people. That sense of loneliness. I was sent away to a boarding school at 9 years old like Peter. My parents went to the Middle East; his parents were in Gibraltar. He had asthma and, in those days, they didn’t have inhalers, so he was injected with ephedrine which sent you to the ceiling. He must have been floating around on the ceiling every night. No wonder his mind became the mind it did because he was being given these strange drugs to stop his asthma.

JOHN: Presumably talking about what happened to you at school is, to an extent, cathartic.

JONATHAN: I’ve got to a point where I don’t give a shit. I also want to explain why I’ve been maybe so awkward over previous years.

“…the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty…”

Why is it – and it’s a stigma – that people say: “Performers are difficult to work with”? Have they ever asked why? God knows what happened to them earlier in life. And they still have to keep their teeth smiling and their tits up in this industry and bow down and cow down to all these people who… Y’know?… It’s wrong. People should know each other more and understand each other more and, by understanding each other, we grow together and we become real.

JOHN: I know comedians rather than actors but, to an extent, it IS true that all comedians are mad. You wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. There has to be something in you that needs the fulfilment of applause and acceptance.

JONATHAN: People say: “Oh, you’re so lucky to be playing Basil Fawlty…” But do you know the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty?”

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Sachsgate & the Mail on Sunday – How people became offended second hand

Mark Boosey at Brunel University yesterday

Mark Boosey at Brunel University yesterday

Yesterday, I was at Brunel University in London, where their Centre For Comedy Studies Research had a panel discussion on Comedy, Class and Offence.

Mark Boosey, esteemed and eternally mysterious British Comedy Guide boss, brought up the 2008 ‘Sachsgate Affair’ in which vast offence was reported after a BBC Radio 2 edition of The Russell Brand Show.

On the show, Russell and guest co-presenter Jonathan Ross had phoned up actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to invite him on as a guest. When he did not answer the phone, four messages were left mentioning that Russell had had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter, who was one of the performers in a ‘baroque dance group’ called Satanic Sluts.

Some extracts from the messages are below:

Sachsgate - BBC picture

MESSAGE ONE
Jonathan Ross: ”He fucked your granddaughter… “

MESSAGE TWO
Russell Brand: “I wore a condom.”

MESSAGE THREE
Jonathan Ross: “She was bent over the couch…”

This caused a furore. And Ofcom fined the BBC £150,000.

However, yesterday, Mark Boosey gave the timeline for the public’s outrage:

SATURDAY 18th OCTOBER 2008
The pre-recorded show was transmitted.

SUNDAY 19th OCTOBER
The BBC noted two complaints in its log of listeners’ views. One referred directly to the Andrew Sachs section.

Mail on Sunday - Sachsgate

The Mail on Sunday’s trigger for Sachsgate

SUNDAY 26th OCTOBER
Eight days after the broadcast, the Mail On Sunday ran a main story on the Andrew Sachs answerphone messages.

MONDAY 27th OCTOBER
The BBC received 1,585 complaints.

TUESDAY 28th OCTOBER
The total number of complaints rose to 4,772.

WEDNESDAY 29th OCTOBER
By 10.00am, the number of complaints had reached 18,000 and, at 11.30am, the BBC suspended Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. At 5.45pm, Russell Brand quit his show.

THURSDAY 30th OCTOBER
By 11.30am, the number of complaints had reached 30,500. At 5.50pm, BBC Controller of Radio 2 Lesley Barber resigned. At 6.21pm, with complaints now at 37,500, the BBC announced Jonathan Ross was being suspended without pay for 12 weeks.

FRIDAY 7th NOVEMBER
Radio 2’s Head of Compliance, David Barber, resigned.


Mark Boosey yesterday pointed out that only two people who heard the broadcast on transmission had been offended (perhaps only one) and it had taken eight days for 1,583 other people to have been offended second-hand.

What it all proves I do not know, but it must prove something. I personally thought what was broadcast (which I have listened to) was way-way-over-the-line into unacceptable offensiveness.

Yet, on 9th November 2008, Russell Brand told the Observer that what had been broadcast had been “toned down”: that “the worst bits” were cut out before the broadcast – presumably they believed the new version was not offensive.

I guess it also shows that, in a world of instant TV, radio and internet, newspapers still have a big effect. And it had a lasting effect even after it ‘ended’.

On Friday 21st November 2008, after publishing a report on the incident, the BBC Trust said that a list of “high-risk radio programmes” should be put together to prevent a repeat of what happened.

That is simultaneously sensible and unsettling and the BBC have, arguably, been running scared ever since.

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Filed under Newspapers, Radio, Sex

British comedy audiences do not now and have never wanted true originality

Lewis Schaffer viewed in a way he might not like

Lewis Schaffer viewed in an unflatterling light

In his blog today, British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer does a U-turn.

He had previously criticised London’s Comedy Store for putting on “boring shows that set a poor standard for British live comedy”.

Now he says he has changed his mind and been persuaded that, currently, audiences “don’t want interesting” because of the global economic situation and other problems. He says they now don’t want chaos or anarchy, they want something less original.

But, I have to say, this is nothing new. ‘Twas ever thus.

What was the big comedy success on British TV thirty years ago?

Obviously, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

No.

It was Terry and June, the comfortable sofa-based sitcom much-derided by comedy cognoscenti then and now for being dull and unoriginal.

OK, there was also Fawlty Towers but – in pure format terms – Fawlty Towers is unoriginal. It is basically three OTT comedy stereotypes in a single location doing often slapstick comedy.

Monty Python was truly original and played around with the television medium. And Middle England did not watch it on its original transmissions.

I remember Monty Python’s original transmissions. They were shoved all over the place in the schedule. People did not watch in vast droves and it did not appeal to the core mainstream audience.

However, in the 1990s, Reeves & Mortimer did manage to combine originality with vast audience success… didn’t they?

No they did not.

They were a Channel 4 and BBC2 act. When the BBC foolishly attempted to put them in their own show on BBC1 at peaktime on a Saturday night, it was an unmitigated ratings disaster.

What have the big TV comedy successes of the past few years been?

My Family. Very cosy. Vastly popular. Much derided by comedy critics and the comedy industry.

Now we have Mrs Brown’s Boys. Again, disliked by circuit comedians, possibly through jealousy.

And then there is Miranda… indeed, anything with Miranda Hart in it.

We are not talking cutting edge (or even necessarily funny) here.

Who are the biggest stand-ups in the UK?

Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay.

Personally, I admire Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay’s technique, but I would not pay to see them.

Comedy Store audiences would.

Because – a vast generalisation – the larger the audience appeal the less original and less ground-breaking the performance.

Originality does not equate with success in the same way that success does not necessarily equate with talent.

I have heard it said that Lewis Schaffer is a “comedian’s comedian” – other comedians will stand at the back of his audience with mouths open just to see what happens.

He could be a major mainstream TV presenter of factual documentaries. Lewis Schaffer. He is basically Bill Bryson with attitude.

He could even, perhaps, be successful performing at the Comedy Store in London.

But we will probably never know.

To quote the great American comedian Donald Rumsfeld:

There are known knowns.

There are known unknowns.

And there are unknown unknowns.

Lewis Schaffer, oddly, fits into all of those categories.

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The bad review of the unauthorised Father Ted stage show at the Edinburgh Fringe and the threatened legal action

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

The Father Ted logo from the original Channel 4 TV series

If you are a performer, reviewers are like Americans. It is difficult to live with them, but it is difficult to live without them.

Getting a bad review can be very upsetting, though.

Yesterday morning Garry Platt, photographer, occasional Edinburgh Fringe reviewer and one of the So It Goes blog’s increasing number of men-in-the-street with his finger-on-the-pulse, drew my attention to an amazing Fringe story.

The previous day, reviewer Amy Taylor had blogged about a theatre/comedy review she had written at the recent Edinburgh Fringe. It was her fourth year there as reviewer and, in her blog, she did not name the show she reviewed. She described it as “a two-hour long interactive comedy show, that involved actors impersonating characters from a famous TV comedy”.

She had booked her Fringe tickets via the show’s PR lady.

Amy says in her blog: “I wrote what was I felt was a negative, yet honest and fair review, which was published on The Public Reviews website shortly after. In my review, I stated that the show was ‘unauthorised’ as when I researched the show, I found a number of articles and quotes from the makers of the TV show saying that the show had not been authorised by them.”

Amy Taylor’s blog about the controversial Fringe review

It is well worth reading Amy’s full blog here but the potted story is this…

… A few days after the review was published, a barrage of e-mails started from the show’s PR lady, culminating in a threat of legal action for libel. Even this escalated with, Amy says in her blog, accusations of conspiracy.

Amy’s view is that “the intimidation, bullying and harassment of journalists simply because someone disagrees with what they have written, is immoral, unethical and odious. My advice to any company that is disappointed with a review is to see what they can take from it. If the review is constructive, then there will be something positive in there that you can learn from.”

She also points out that “journalists communicate with one another. This means that if you threaten a writer or a publication with legal proceedings, other writers will hear about it. Once others learn about your treatment of journalists, it damages your reputation more than any negative review ever could. Some might say that’s ironic, but to me, that’s poetic justice.”

Amy’s review is still online here at The Public Reviews.

The stage show logo, as published with the review

The show she reviewed was Ted & Co: The Dinner Show, staged by the British company Laughlines Comedy Entertainment who also have Fawlty Towers: The Dinner Show in their repertoire (not to be confused with a rival Australian company’s show Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience).

Laughlines claims to be “the UK’s leading comedy entertainment company” – something which I think might be disputed by the BBC etc.

I asked PR guru Mark Borkowski what he thought about the handling of this affair. He has vast Edinburgh Fringe experience – he legendarily got acres of coverage for Archaos in two separate years by simply claiming they were going to juggle chainsaws during their show (they were not) and then having people ring up and complain to the Council and to the press.

He told me yesterday: “In PR, legal action is a threat of the very  last resort. Jaw-jaw before war-war. It reminds me of the Private Eye reply to a letter they received threatening legal action. The letter said:

Our attitude to damages will be influenced by the speed and sincerity of your apology.

Private Eye’s reply was:

“Tell your client to fuck off – Sincere enough for you?

“Frankly,” Borkowski told me, “every bad review is an opportunity.

“According to Claire Smith at The Scotsman,” he told me, “2012 was a high bullshit mark on the old Festival’s Plimsoll line. There were more PR people running around the Fringe than performers.”

So, obviously, I asked Claire Smith what she thought.

“I think there was definitely more paranoia around this year,” she told me, “and a lot of misunderstanding about the way PR people and journalists work together. PR people helped me get interviews – get comments on things – check information. But I heard a lot of spurious theories about the way PR people influence reviews which I would not agree with…

“Reviews are not as powerful as they once were because of the influence of social media and I would say that is a good thing. Social media has amplified the word of mouth effect – which has always been one of the great things about the Fringe. But the numbers of people getting paid to write reviews is shrinking. Are we losing something? I think we are… Though I would still argue reviewers can add something to the mix.

“I’m glad Amy blogged about her experience. I’ve had similar experiences myself in the past and it is very upsetting.”

(Claire refers to a recent report she wrote for The Scotsman on the financing of the Edinburgh Fringe and being threatened, during her research,  by a prominent venue owner and a prominent British comedian.)

Australian John Robertson, who had two shows at this year’s festival tells me: “The only PR people I saw at the Fringe drank with me in various bars, danced with each other, knew each other and when gathered in a group, all began to look and sound exactly the same. My PR was lovely, but I can’t speak to a deluge. Though I did see the high watermark of bullshit (fake stars, stars from odd places, reviews with plenty… of… this) but that begat its own backlash from punters, which is lovely.”

There is another angle to this story, though. That the Ted & Co stage show at the Fringe this year had no authorisation from the copyright owners of Father Ted.

Mark Borkowski told me: “Clearly there is a rights issue. If I was a corporate TV rottweiler legal, I would take a good look at the company’s output. Do BBC Worldwide know they are staging Fawlty Towers or Father Ted?” (BBC Worldwide distribute Channel 4’s Father Ted series)

Comedian Ian Fox pointed out to me that the Chortle comedy website had posted an article raising worries about Father Ted: The Dinner Show when it was performed at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe.

In a posting on my Facebook page yesterday, comedian Richard Herring put into words what I myself had been thinking: “I simply don’t understand (and never have) how they are allowed to do this without the consent of the people who created the characters.”

Ian Fox suggests: “The Fringe Society does question whether or not you’ll be using music in a show and you pay relevant PRS fees at the end of your run. I don’t see why they can’t ask when you fill in your Programme registration If you’re using characters and material created by others do you have the rights to perform the material? and simply not allow anyone who doesn’t have rights into the main Programme.”

As regular readers of this blog will know, Ian was randomly attacked in the street during this year’s Fringe. I can report he is slowly mending.

Ian Fox experienced one of the dangers of the Fringe

“I’m free from noticeable bruising,” he tells me. “Still not got the feeling in two teeth at the front. I believe it’s the infraorbital nerve that is damaged/injured and, once the areas that are under the skin have healed, the feeling should come back. I have more feeling in the teeth than last week. However lots of movement appears to make my face ache.

“What’s more annoying though is the fact that I appear to be showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in that I’m very jumpy in busy places and still don’t like being out at night. Which is making gigging a bit difficult.”

He is still gigging widely.

But, with threats of legal action over bad reviews and physical attacks on comedians in the street, the Edinburgh Fringe seems like it is getting to be an increasingly dangerous place to be in August.

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Filed under Comedy, Copyright, Journalism, Newspapers, PR, Television, Theatre