Tag Archives: finance

The illegal Silk Road linking BBC TV’s EastEnders to the Edinburgh Fringe

It was Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Gareth Ellis – one of those people who seems to know everyone – who told me that writer Alex Oates was going to be on The Keiser Report last week.

I had tea with Alex at Soho Theatre yesterday.

“Being on Max Keiser’s show must have been an interesting experience, I said.

“I had thought,” replied Alex, “it was an online version of some Bloomberg type thing. I had no idea it was on Russia Today. I just agreed to it.”

“When did Max start shouting?” I asked.

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left)and Max Keiser

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left) and Max Keiser

“Quite soon,” said Alex.

Alex appeared on The Keiser Report with director Dominic Shaw, to plug Alex’s upcoming Edinburgh Fringe play Silk Road.

“Max wanted us on cos of the Bitcoin thing,” Alex told me. “He’s a Bitcoin evangelist.”

“And your play,” I prompted, “is about…?”

“We were going to call it SILK ROAD – OR HOW TO BUY DRUGS ONLINE but everyone said that was too gimmicky, so we just called it SILK ROAD. It’s a dark comedy about Silk Road, the illegal marketplace that uses Bitcoins, so we thought we would try and get funding through Bitcoin. It would be the first play financed through Bitcoins.”

“The guy who allegedly started Silk Road has been arrested,” I said.

“But,” said Alex, “three weeks after he was arrested, it came back and Silk Road 2 is very much alive.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to do a play about an online site where you can buy heroin and AK-47s?”

“You can’t buy AK-47s any more,” said Alex, “they’ve got a conscience.”

“But heroin is OK?” I asked.

One drug-selling page on the Silk Road hidden website, 2012

One drug-selling page on the illegal Silk Road website, 2012

“Yeah,” said Alex. “Strange, their moral compass. A bit wonky. Why did I want to do it? Because it’s really fascinating: the idea you can buy drugs on the internet and have them posted to your door by Royal Mail. And there’s a feedback system so you know what you’re buying is good drugs. There have been lots of plays and films about drug dealers, but this is the next generation of drug dealers.”

Silk Road is a one-man play starring James Baxter.

“How do you make it interesting?” I asked. “Because no-one ever meets anyone. It’s all online.”

Silk Road - The Play

Silk Road – a play about drugs, nans and tea cosies

“The guy in the play lives with his nan,” Alex explained. “She has an eBay business selling tea-cosies. He is trying to bring drugs to your average user. It’s quite hard to use Silk Road, so what he does is buy the drugs in bulk from Silk Road and then start slipping them into his nan’s tea-cosies. He lets people know that, if you buy his nan’s tea-cosies, then you’ll get a gram of cocaine with each one. So his nan’s eBay business goes from selling them for £5 to £60 and she virtually becomes a millionaire overnight.”

“How did Silk Road react?” I asked.

“Well, I advertised the play in the forums on Silk Road. Originally, a bunch of dealers were quite angry about it, saying: We don’t need any more press! We’re trying to keep this quiet! Then some dealers said: Look, we’re gonna get press regardless. So we might as well have someone in our corner. 

“Then one dealer said: I’ll give you some Bitcoins. And two Bitcoins were deposited in our account which, at the time we sold them, were worth £600 (together) – now, two weeks later, they’re worth around £850. The producer had thought Bitcoins might crash but, really, they’re not gonna crash any time soon, so we should have kept them. It was a mistake.

“I tried really hard to sell tickets for the play on Silk Road itself, but they’re not accepting any new venders at the moment. There’s a very strict authentication process and they’re being cautious since the fall of the first Silk Road.”

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre yesterday afternoon

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre in London yesterday afternoon

“How did you get involved in Silk Road?” I asked.

“I’m friends with a lot of tech guys and I know some people who use the website.”

“For what?”

“Buying drugs. They were telling me about Silk Road and how amazing it was.”

“You can see pictures of what you are going to buy,” I said.

“Yes. And the actual chemical breakdown of the drug and how pure it is. And that is guaranteed. And then there are people who write reviews and say: Yes, I’ve tested this. It is actually what it says it is.

“Is there a money-back guarantee if not satisfied?” I asked.

“There’s an escrow system,” explained Alex.

“I’m not sure if this is a good development of capitalism or a bad development of capitalism,” I said.

“It fascinating, though, isn’t it?” said Alex.

“So,” I asked, “Your Silk Road play. Does it have a message?”

Alex Oates laughs on The Keiser Report

Alex, a man with little political agenda, on The Keiser Report

“I think if I have a political agenda,” replied Alex, “it’s about drug reform and how the War on Drugs does not really work.

“It has demonised a generation of potheads and, really, if you regulated it and taxed it, then it would be a lot safer. In the play, we go into local gangsters who cut cocaine with urinal cakes.”

“Urinal cakes?” I asked.

“The little yellow cakes that are there to make the urinals fresh.”

“Oh,” I said, “I thought for a moment you meant cakes made out of urine. After all, we are sitting in Soho. There is probably a niche market for people who want to eat things like that.”

“There is a market for everything,” said Alex. “If I’m making a political point it is about drug reform, but Silk Road is a very light and whimsical play.”

“So you wrote it because…?”

“I’ve always been obsessed with theatre.”

“There’s no money in writing plays is there?” I asked.

“They say you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. So I’m going for the killing.”

“No theatrical background?” I asked.

“My dad’s a policeman; my mum’s a nurse.”

“Your dad was in the drug squad?”

“No. He’s a retired inspector.”

“What did you study at university?”

“Theatre Arts at the University of Middlesex.”

“And then…?”

“I started writing on an EastEnders spin-off for the BBC.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I should do research in advance.”

A BBC publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20

BBC TV publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20 series

“I was very lucky,” said Alex. “I got into a BBC Young Writers’ Summer School thing. It turned out the idea was for ten of us to create this thing called EastEnders: E20. I became the lead writer for that and wrote for three series of it.

“Then I applied for the Old Vic New Voices scheme and got onto that. They used to do a thing where you’re given 24-hour to write a play and you put it on in the Old Vic as a way to showcase yourself to the industry.”

“Jesus Christ 2,” I said. “I really should do research in advance. But I do know you are trying to finance Silk Road by crowdfunding it on Kickstarter and Max Keiser’s StartJOIN.

“Yes,” said Alex, “it finishes next Tuesday on Kickstarter. We need to raise £2,500 by next Tuesday or we get nothing.”

The play has already received £1000 from the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

“Next?” I asked.

“My next play is about an autistic boy,” said Alex, “because that’s my day job. I work with people with special needs.”

Rain Man?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Alex. “The thing that annoys me about the autism stereotype is the Rain Man thing. I wanted to show the other side. The really hard work. It can potentially ruin your life if you have an autistic child. It’s the sort of thing nobody really says, so the play is about a couple struggling to deal with having an autistic kid.”

There is a teaser for Silk Road on YouTube.

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RT financial guru Max Keiser’s view of journalists, criminal banker wankers & financing new Edinburgh Fringe shows

On Tuesday, the American journalist Abby Martin seemed to commit premeditated professional suicide on Russia’s RT TV channel – her employer – by criticising the Russian invasion of Crimea, part of the Ukraine.

On Wednesday, her colleague Liz Wahl did resign live on air.

I asked RT’s American financial guru Max Keiser about this when I chatted to him in London’s Soho yesterday.

“Journalists report on the news,” said Max, “and, at RT, they’re free to report anything they want to report. There’s no editorial restrictions. The young woman who resigned didn’t have to resign. After giving her thoughts, she could have easily stayed on just like Abby Martin stayed. Abby had comments regarding Russian policy on Ukraine and these comments were – eh – widely talked about and that’s what a journalist does. They either report the news or they give their opinion. But to then resign on air… That’s not journalism. That’s being a drama queen.”

Max, of course, is not shy of expressing his own opinions. Nor of unexpected actions.

A couple of weeks ago, he launched a crowdfunding site called StartJOIN, just one week after he launched his own alternative currency – Maxcoin.

Maxcoin was the biggest launch in the history of altcoins and achieved a $5 million market capitalisation within a week. Maxcoin is similar to BitcoinLitecoin and other crypto currencies.

Max himself, as I mentioned in a previous blog, is a former Wall Street stockbroker and still occasional stand-up comedian. But launching your own crypto currency is no joke.

“The Mt Gox bitcoin exchange has now collapsed,” I said. “Doesn’t that mean all these crypto currencies are vulnerable?”

“That one exchange collapsed,” said Max, “but it has nothing to do with Bitcoin. It’s like saying the London Bullion Market Association might collapse one day – but that wouldn’t really affect gold.

“We launched Maxcoin and it very quickly got up to $7 million in value and now it’s trading at around $2 million and it’s still one of the most actively-traded currencies out there. The miners who are mining it are profiting from their mining activities. Maxcoin launched successfully. And, based on the success of Maxcoin, we may soon see Stacycoin.”

“Based on Stacy Herbert?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Max.

Stacey Herbert with Max Keiser on RT series The Keiser Report

Stacey Herbert with Max Keiser on RT’s The Keiser Report

“Your TV co-presenter on The Keiser Report?”

“And my wife,” added Max. “She used to be a comedy script doctor. She worked on lots of TV shows here in the UK, including an animated sitcom called Popetown, commissioned by the BBC. But it was never aired here because the Catholic Church found it highly offensive. It had the voices of McKenzie Crook, Kevin Eldon, Matt Lucas, Bob Mortimer and Ruby Wax. Before that, Stacy was in Los Angeles doing TV and mostly film.”

Roseanne Barr is trying to finance a new film via your StartJOIN crowdfunding site,” I prompted.

“Yes,” said Max. “It’s called Bailout 2. It’s a sequel to a film called Bailout.”

“Now there’s a thing,” I said.

Bailout 2 is described on the StartJOIN site as “a hard-hitting, mud-slinging, social and political documentary exploring the Eurozone Crisis”.

“So what is your new StartJOIN site?” I tried.

“It’s crowdfunding – proper crowdfunding,” replied Max.

“For anyone?”

“Anyone. Any thing. I’m particularly interested in the Edinburgh Fringe.”

“But there’s no money in the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“Well,” said Max. “I went to the Fringe for the first time last year and fell in love with it. But you hear over-and-over again about performers going up there and losing money. Crowdfunding seems perfect as a way to solve that problem: to get money up-front so you don’t have that economic risk. All the shows: comedy, theatre, music, lectures, whatever.

“The economics of the Fringe are terrible because the performers lose money for the most part. They have to come up with money ahead-of-time, then they have to go there and try to make it back and, for the most part, they don’t. So crowdfunding is perfect for this; it allows performers to raise money before they go and, when they get to the Fringe, they can concentrate on just doing their show.

“I’m going to make it a personal goal with StartJOIN to try to get as many acts as possible financed and up there. It’s an example of where alternative economics can step in and solve what I perceive to be a problem.”

“You see yourself as a modern-day Medici helping artists?” I asked.

“My hope with the Fringe is that, if it works this year, next year we can get even more active by actually putting as much additional financial resources as we can behind acts. We wanna make it the crowdfunding home for Fringe in the UK. We’re going to promote it as aggressively as we can. My intention is to throw as much money as I can at good acts.”

“Isn’t launching a crowdfunding site and your own crypto currency dodgy?” I asked.

“I’ve already launched successful businesses before,” said Max. “The Hollywood Stock Exchange in Los Angeles which is now a $200 million business that was sold eventually to (the bank) Cantor Fitzgerald. And KarmaBanque (a hedge fund) was a big project. I did that with Zac Goldsmith here in the UK. Plus my TV show is very successful. RT has a huge global presence. It’s in 150 countries. We do three Keiser Report shows each week, each show broadcast three or four times. We figure my show gets about 20 million viewers a week.”

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs - possible in Edinburgh

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs – possibly in Edinburgh

“And, as for the Edinburgh Fringe…?” I said.

“I want to go up there this year myself with my own stand-up show Rage.”

“What are you going to rage about?” I asked.

“The bankers.”

“Isn’t that yesterday’s news?”

“I don’t think so, because the scandals are continuing and they will continue because there’s no reform. The regulations are getting weaker not stronger, so the criminality will get more intense.”

Criminality is rather a harsh word.”

“It’s an apt word because they break laws. They break laws and they pay civil fines to avoid criminal trials. They should not be allowed to simply pay civil fines for an amount of money that is less than the money they made breaking the law. These banks in the UK have a profit centre called Law Breaking.”

“Surely that’s a world-wide thing, not just in the UK,” I suggested.

“The UK is uniquely positioned,” argued Max, “because it has the weakest regulations in the world. That’s why so many other banks in other countries outsource their banking fraud to the UK.”

“The UK is possibly going to recognise Bitcoins, isn’t it?” I said.

“This is what could be the saving grace for the UK. They could become the Bitcoin capital of the world, which could save them from destruction. I’m all for that.”

“And the Bitcoin Foundation is moving to London isn’t it?”

Mark Carney: Is this man a brain-damaged ex-hockey player?

Mark Carney: Is this fine Canadian man a brain-damaged ex-hockey player or is he only Chairman of the Bank of England?

“Yes. This is potentially going to save Britain from economic destruction. It will replace Mark Carney, the Chairman of the Bank of England.”

“You’re just averse to him because he’s a Canadian and you’re a Yank,” I said.

“He’s a Canadian and he’s a shifty fellah,” replied Max. “When he played hockey in college, he played as a goalie. If you’ve ever played hockey, you know that goalies almost universally suffer brain damage because they get hit in the head so many times with the puck. Mark Carney’s a perfect example of that… and that’s an example of what I’m going to rage about.”

“That’s it then,” I said. “Thanks for the chat.”

“What about Charlie Brooker? asked Max.

“What about him?” I asked

“He does a show called Newswipe,” said Max.

“Yes,” I had to agree.

“And,” said Max, “he takes the piss out of TV shows and commercials. He hasn’t had a clip from my show on his show yet.”

“Am I to be blamed for this?” I asked.

“I want the people to know I’m not happy,” said Max.

“Why are you not happy?”

“Because, by all rights, he should have a clip of my show on his Newswipe show. He’s the only guy I like in UK media. Charlie Brooker’s got the best show in the UK right now. It’s the funniest and it’s very biting satire. He’s a very talented guy.

Max Keiser with friend Alec Baldwin in New York’s Upper East Side

Max Keiser with Alec Baldwin in New York’s Upper East Side

“We were going to do a show together – It was going to be Charlie Brooker and myself and Alec Baldwin. We were going to do a show here in London. A writer friend of ours put it together. It was going to be shot over at the Gherkin building and we were going to try to sell it to an American distributor. We were talking to Charlie Brooker’s ‘people’. Alec Baldwin was going to be the executive producer, because he’s been a friend of mine for 30 years. He’s thinking about moving to London and doing theatre.”

“Well, now Kevin Spacey is leaving The Old Vic…” I mused. “What sort of TV show was it going to be?”

“It was based on that BBC World News series I did called The Oracle. We’re trying to bring it back for another season, but I keep Tweeting about how the BBC is full of drunks, so it’s gonna be a tough sell.”

“If you can’t sell it, no-one can,” I said.

Max Keiser is such a good salesman he could even, in my dreams, sell laissez-faire rather than blindfolded pragmatism to the Russians.

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Filed under Bankers, Comedy, Crowdfunding, Finance, Politics

Russia Today’s American financial guru Max Keiser tells me how to make myself $100 million and why he can libel me

Max Keiser in a taxi in 2007, as the financial markets headed for collapse

Max Keiser in a London taxi in 2007, as the world financial markets headed for collapse

“I can tell you how to make $100 million right now,” RT’s Max Keiser told me over coffee at Bar Italia in London’s Soho.

“Join Al-Qaeda?” I asked.

“No, said Max firmly. “All you have to do is you call up someone like Jamie Dimon over at JP Morgan or call Goldman Sachs and say I want to open a Prime Brokerage Hedge Fund account and I need to borrow $100 million and then you sell short gold futures contracts in the open market along with all the other players who simultaneously sell gold every day at the same time.

“If you watch the chart of gold every day, at around 8.00am UK time, gold drops by about 3% or 4% – almost every single day at the exact same time.

“You do this repeatedly for a number of weeks. You bank your $100 million in profit. You pay back the loan to JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs. And you walk away. There’s nothing hard about it.”

“Unless,” I suggested, “it moves in the other direction.”

Today’s gold prices. The graph looks the same each day

Today’s gold prices. The graph has the same drop at the same time each day

“Well,” said Max, “since they’re all colluding together and they do it together and there’s no law against it – or, if there is any law against it they don’t enforce the law – the risk is almost zero. Every day traders working together – colluding – slam the price of gold for a quick profit using money they borrow at 0% interest – all gains are 100% cost free – and since the government bails out any losing positions, these gains are also risk free.

“This is a well-documented occurrence in the gold and silver markets that many have tried to get regulators to stop – but it’s too profitable for the insiders who have control of the regulators.”

The price of gold price on another day

Price of gold drops on another day

“What’s that name you have for bankers?” I asked. “It’s not wankers, it’s…”

“Terrorists?” suggested Max.

“Banksters,” I remembered. “Banksters – a combination of bankers and gangsters.”

“They’re also terrorists,” said Max. “(A major British bank) just admitted they laundered money for HezbollahAccording to David Cameron, Hezbollah is on the list of terrorist organisations.

The price of gold on yet another day

The price of gold on yet another day

“I mean, a lot of people don’t think Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation but according to Israel, according to the EU, according to the British administration, Hezbollah are terrorists and (a major British bank) just said Yeah, we do launder money for them. We will pay a little fine. That makes (a major British bank) financial terrorists. There’s no equivocation here. There’s no hyperbole. They are financial terrorists and they have no way to counter-argue what I just stated. If there was, they would.”

“Well, they would probably sue me for libel,” I said.

“But I get an American exception,” Max told me. “Under the Speech Act of 2010, no British person can sue me for libel. Any libel suit against me where you’re seeking damages would have to go through and comply with American free speech law. You’d have to persuade an American court I was violating free speech according to American law.”

“You can say I fuck sheep and I can’t sue you?” I asked.

“I can say you fuck sheep all day long,” said Max. “You can sue me in the UK, but you’d have to go to America and prove the libel to get at my American assets.”

“I can only imagine what those are,” I said.

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How British Government finance works – by the stand-up comic who worked for Education Secretary Michael Gove

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Stand-up comics tend to have odd and interesting backgrounds.

Gareth Morinan’s university degree was in Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics.

Yesterday at Bar Italia in Soho, he told me: “I started in the Civil Service in late 2008 because I wanted to see how government works and I was there until around mid-2011.

“Most of the time I was there, I was in the Education Department although, for the first six months, I worked in this dodgy department called The Export Credits Guarantee Department, which is the only department other than the HM Revenue & Customs that makes money. It’s basically like a government-run insurance firm.

If some big British company wants to export, they’ll always have an insurance deal. But, if they’re exporting to some dodgy country – if they want to export fighter jets to some dodgy country – no private insurance company is going to insure that: it’s too risky. So the government has this entire department purely set up for supporting dodgy deals. I was really curious, so went to work there for six months and then left. I was an analyst there. As an analyst, people take your word as Gospel.”

“That’s because your art is a science.” I suggested.

“Yes,” Gareth laughed, “even though, when you look at the spreadsheets, it’s very dodgy. I had situations where I would e-mail someone a figure saying This is a very rough figure. This is the best figure I can get. And it got sent round the department and would eventually come back to me as fact and I’d say: I know that’s not fact. I came up with that figure. Don’t put that out on a press release. But they did. This happened a lot in the Export Credits Guarantee Department.”

“That was under the Labour Party?” I asked.

“Yeah. You had these figures – especially around the time of the financial crisis, where some analyst somewhere in some bank had come out with some figure he’d plucked out of the air on the back of an envelope and, as soon as it became public, that figure became ‘fact’ and it could not be changed and everyone had to work from those figures.

“All politicians really want is a number: Give me a number. Don’t tell me anything else. The less I know about how dodgy this number is, the better it is – It’s that plausible deniability thing.

“I started in the Education Department about a year before the General Election so, when I started, Ed Balls was the Minister and then, about a year later, it was all-change because the Coalition came in and what we were doing changed somewhat.”

“Changed?” I asked.

“Well,” Gareth told me, “the key thing Michael Gove did when he came in was – on the first day – a big picture of the Queen was put up in Reception. And there were some formality differences.

Policies changed with Michael Gove

Policies changed with the arrival of journalist Michael Gove

“The most interesting thing was that the Permanent Secretary told us – these are not his exact words, but he basically told us – This new government – specifically Michael Gove – doesn’t care so much about the details or the facts. He cares more about ‘the narrative’. 

“When we were doing White Papers, whereas before it was very much We’ve got to have these details; this is the headline figure, Michael Gove, because he’s a journalist, just wanted the story to read well.

“He was a local journalist, then a journalist for The Times, then a TV commentator… then suddenly he’s in charge of national education policy, which makes a change from cracking jokes on A Stab in The Dark with David Baddiel.”

There is a clip on YouTube of him presenting 1993 TV satire show A Stab in The Dark:

“Most of the financial projections in Education,” Gareth told me, “are based on how many kids there are going to be and those calculations are based round the Office for National Statistics’ population projections. But Michael Gove was quite keen for a while on trying to replace them with projections done by somebody he knows at Tesco.

“At Tesco, they have all this Clubcard data and they have projections which help them decide where to open up a new store. And, for quite a while, he was arguing we should start incorporating those – or replace the official national projections with ones done by Tesco. It didn’t go down well in the department.

“I actually had to lie for Michael Gove once.

“During the big Comprehensive Spending Review where (Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne works out how much money he’s going to give to all the departments, I was basically the guy working out the headline figures of how many billions we needed. I would hand those numbers to someone who then had a meeting with Michael Gove – There was always a buffer zone between me and Michael Gove. Maybe I was too scruffy.

“Our department did quite well in the budget review – basically they decided to give us extra money at the cost of other departments. So we had a nice little champagne reception to thank everyone and the look Michael Gove gave me when I stood there listening to his speech was like How did this one get in? I was just wearing a shirt and cardigan and looking very scruffy with uncombed hair. He was like Oh God! What is going on there?

“But, basically, in the spending review, we were negotiating and there was a strategy department. I provided numbers and we would go into meetings with all these senior Treasury people and I was the person having to justify all the numbers.

“Over the course of several months, while this was happening, the Office for National Statistics came out with a new projection of pupil numbers, which underpinned all our financial projections… and their projections were basically lower. So, overnight, our projection of how much money we needed went down by about half a billion pounds.

Michael Gove at Westminster in 2008

Michael Gove looking contemplative in Westminster in 2008

“Michael Gove’s opinion was that this had not happened and that the projections we believed were the ones that were higher. That was the official line.

“We were about to go into this meeting and I’m the one who has to explain the actual numbers to all these senior Treasury people who were probably better negotiators than the people in our department and better analysts than me. And I was told before I went into the meeting: Well, just come up with something.

“So I was pinned down in this meeting by the Treasury people: What’s the difference in these numbers? Which ones are the correct ones? The higher ones? Why? I basically just stuttered for a while and gave a very unconvincing performance.”

“Did you get away with it?” I asked.

“No,” said Gareth. “After that meeting, I went to my boss, who was an analyst, and he was like Well, this is outrageous. We shouldn’t be lying. And my boss spoke to the other person’s boss and eventually they decided that we were going to go with the lower numbers… But here’s an interesting example of how analysis works in the government.

“The thing you learn when you work in any government department is how little information we actually have. There are entire swathes of the education budget that no-one really knows the cost of.

“The biggest mystery black hole is kids who have special needs. There are more of these kids every year – especially ones with serious medical problems who require like £100,000 a year – because, as health technology improves, more kids get saved and live longer.

“There’s no way of predicting how many of these kids there’s going to be and medical costs keep going up, so there was this line in the budget which was The 1% Assumption. It was a long-standing assumption: We don’t know how much it’s going to be, so we just assume it’s going to rise by 1% every year.

“My brainwave was to ask: Well… Could we make this The 2% Assumption? That was thought to be a genius idea. We put it into the calculations and suddenly the gap was closed and we were back to the higher figure we had originally wanted.

“That was probably the one thing I did which made the biggest actual difference when I worked for the government.”

* * * * *

Gareth Morinan has a YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/gmorinan, to which he will be adding over the next couple of months.

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“Being a stockbroker is like being a comedian”: Russia Today’s Max Keiser

Max with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

Max (right) with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

If you want to see the heir of the late American comedian Bill Hicks performing, where do you look?

Not in British comedy clubs where Bill Hicks is the comedians’ comedian. Certainly not in America,  where Bill Hicks only came to most people’s attention fairly recently.

Perhaps one place to look is a television programme transmitted three times a week on the RT channel (The channel used to be called Russia Today.) American presenter Max Keiser is RT’s economic guru; he fronts his own show: The Keiser Report.

Max Keiser (extreme left) on 10 O'Clock Live

Max (perhaps suitably on the extreme left) on 10 O’Clock Live

Last month, he was a guest on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was a guest on Channel 4’s comedy series 10 O’Clock Livepresented by Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell. 

Jimmy Carr came up to me after the show,” Max told me yesterday in Soho. “He was very nice and wanted to know more about my views on the economy. A few weeks later, I was having lunch over at his place – beautiful house, beautiful tennis court. He had me up there to talk about gold and silver. He said he was prepared to buy a ton – that’s 32,000 ounces – of silver. Since that lunch, the price has dropped about 50%. So that’s probably why I haven’t heard from Jimmy since then.”

“And you’re a fan of Bill Hicks,” I said.

“If anyone is a big fan of comedy and they watch my show on RT,” said Max. “they’ll recognise that I borrow heavily from him. I liked Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and that raw, unvarnished truthfulness is something we’ve always tried to strive for in The Keiser Report. It’s just very raw and sometimes it works not from having people’s funny bone tickled but because they are uncomfortable.”

Max Keiser presents his Report on Russia Today TV

Max presents Keiser Report next to Boris Johnson’s City Hall

“But The Keiser Report,” I said, “is a current affairs show – a news show covering business and finance – that is not normally a comic area.”

“At this point in time,” replied Max, “the financial world and the banks are so pathetically corrupt that it’s impossible to cover them without having, to some degree, a satirical view. Very few things which banks do, in this country at this point, are legal. Virtually 100% of everything all the Big Four banks do is illegal.”

“Could you be pushing this angle because you’re a presenter on the Russian government’s own TV channel?” I asked.

“Well, the show is produced by Associated Press,” said Max. “which is an American company. The show is recorded at a TV studio that’s part of London & Partners, which is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s public relations division. And we make other shows with Associated Press which are sold to other outlets. We sold a show to Press TV.”

“Thats worse!” I said. “That’s the Iranian government!. These are dodgy people we are talking about.”

“These are fine international news organisations,” said Max. “We’ve done a show for BBC World News. We did shows for Al Jazeera English.”

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English, Doha

“Ah, now,” I said. “Al Jazeera English is a very, very good news channel, though I don’t know about the Arabic version.”

“When we were in Doha where Al Jazeera English is based,” said Max, “there was this famous car park with the Al Jazeera English building on one side and the Al Jazeera Arabic building on the other and they really did not get along. So there is a perpetual stand-off in Doha and occasionally executives would be taken out to the car park and…”

“Beheaded?” I suggested.

“…left to their own devices,” continued Max. “And that’s not easy to do, because you need an exit visa. So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.”

“What show did you make for them?” I asked.

“We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.”

“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?

“Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still seems to want to be fighting the Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the US, they still think it’s 1970. They don’t understand that Russia and the Russian economy has leapfrogged well beyond what was happening during the Cold War, well past the Soviet Union. They are very entrepreneurial in Russia and the TV network is very savvy. They have a bigger reach than the BBC – over 800 million. I think they’ve really taken the top position in the world right now as far as global international satellite and cable TV is concerned. And whatever we can do to support that, we’re happy to do. In this country, I would say the relationship with the Soviet Union is quite strained. Other countries have moved on from their Cold War perception.”

“You’ll get a Hero of the Soviet Union medal,” I told Max. “You’ve had other comedians on The Keiser Report, haven’t you?”

Max Keiser (right) interviews comedian Frankie Boyle on Russia Today

Frankie Boyle (left) interviewed on RT’s The Keiser Report

“Yes, we’ve had Frankie Boyle. I’m a big fan of his. A no-holds-barred comedian who’s willing to take big risks.”

“What were you talking about?”

“I think he and I talked about the state of the media.”

“But you’re a business show.”

“Yeah, but so much of business now is driven by perception and that perception is driven by the media. The Stock Market – whether it’s the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones – it’s a hologram driven by perception. There’s no actual equity in those markets; it’s completely a bubble puffed up on zero collateral.”

“What were you before being a TV presenter?” I asked.

“I started out as a stockbroker for Paine Webber on Wall Street in the early 1980s. Before that, I was at New York University and I was doing stand-up comedy. I made the transition from doing comedy to being a stockbroker at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period.”

“Why?”

“Because, surprisingly, being a stockbroker is not that much different from being a comedian. You’re telling stories to people, going through a lot of stories quite rapidly and you are essentially getting people not to laugh but to say: Give me 1,000 shares. To get to that moment, you use the same techniques as a comedian: pacing, word-choice, empathy.

“I was at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jerry Seinfeld was the MC. Rich Hall was doing improvisation down in the theatre district. Robin Williams was at Catch a Rising Star. On the West Coast, you had Steve Martin. It was the beginning of that huge new wave when comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and then TV shows came out of that.

“Watching Robin Williams work was pretty remarkable. During that time, before he went on stage, his ritual was to line up seven or eight Kamikaze cocktails. They’re extremely potent alcoholic concoctions. As the MC was about to introduce him, he’d just go Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang and down those suckers and then hit the stage with all that energy.

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs - possible in Edinburgh

Max Keiser is into a post “Comedy is Rock ’n’ Roll” period

“Now we’re into a post Comedy is rock ’n’ roll period. I’m hoping we’re getting back to the more politicised comedy – the Lenny Bruce type of comedy – that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. A lot of people who do comedy here in London go to the United States and come back and tell me: It’s great; it’s all very funny; but it’s homogenised. They’re all doing the same kind of jokes, which is because of this huge thing called TV: the sitcoms. They’re looking for a certain type to fill a certain spot and there’s 10,000 comics trying to get that one spot and they’re all doing the same act.

“I love the comedy here in London, because it’s completely different. There’s a lot of political edginess to it. A lot of comedians here identify themselves as ‘left wing’. In America, there is no left wing. There’s only slightly right-of-centre and extreme right-of-centre and the fanatical right.”

“Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I went for the first time last year.”

“You should do a show up there,” I suggested.

“I would like to take a show up there though, if I do, I’d have to workshop it here in London beforehand. But I’ve already been doing my Stand-Up Rage show in cities around the world: Dublin, Los Angeles, London.

“People are fans of my rages on The Keiser Report and this is a 60-minute rage without any control whatsoever. I go into a fugue state in a white rage. Afterwards, I literally have no memory of what I’ve said. It’s a cathartic experience and the audience, in many cases, achieve a level of ecstasy.”

There was a slight pause.

“So you don’t have a script,” I asked. “You just go off on a rant?”

“I start off on one basic idea,” explained Max, “and I will refer to headlines and each usually triggers a good ten minutes of rage. Then, to catch my breath, I will maybe cut to a 20 second music or video blurb.”

“And you rage about politics?” I asked.

“It’s about the bankers and the banksters because, when you have this merging of the private banking interests and the political interests otherwise known as Fascism… I mean, London is the capital of financial terrorism. This is where the financial Jihadis congregate.”

“You do good headline,” I said.

“If you go down to the City of London,” continued Max, “they have the madrassas – otherwise known as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. These are the madrassas of banking fanaticism. They pursue market fundamentalism which says they can blow themselves up and others around them – not to seek THE Prophet but some profit.”

(The Keiser Report is transmitted on RT, with editions also available on YouTube)

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At the Edinburgh Fringe, Lewis Schaffer turns down a review by Kate Copstick; Bob Slayer strips another reviewer

Noel Faulkner trying to give away £20 notes

Noel Faulkner trying to give away £20 notes

London Comedy Cafe Theatre owner Noel Faulkner has been staying in my Edinburgh flat the last couple of days, on a quick trip up to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday, he tried standing in the street, offering £20 notes to people if they would see a particular show – just to find out if they would. No-one would.

“People weren’t interested,” he told me, “unless there were Dancing on Ice stars in the show. The Edinburgh Fringe is dead. Mediocrity reigns.”

The Fringe – perhaps as always – is certainly in a state of flux.

And – perhaps as always – it is to do with money.

Yesterday, this blog published comedian Bob Slayer’s piece about ticket prices at the Edinburgh Fringe which The Scotsman newspaper commissioned but refused to print.

The Big Four venues at the Fringe are often criticised (including in this blog) for making money out of performers and being responsible for inflated ticket prices.

But someone yesterday (not connected to the Big Four venues) pointed out to me that the Big Four venues are as much held to ransom financially as the performers. One un-publicised villain of the piece, it was put to me, is Edinburgh University.

The Edinburgh Fringe

There’s a lot of it at the Edinburgh Fringe – but who gets it?

I was told by someone with alleged access to the figures (which I cannot confirm) that over 75% of the tickets sold at all venues (excluding the Free Fringe and Free Festival) are sold in venues rented out by Edinburgh University at high rates. These “exhorbitant” (the word used to me) fixed overheads mean that ticket prices have to be higher than they would otherwise be. Not only that but, normally, the takings from bars on property ultimately owned by Edinburgh University go not to the Fringe venues but to Edinburgh University and its Students’ Association. An exception would be the Udderbelly in public Bristo Square.

So all that visible money-making ‘exploitation’ of Fringe punters’ pockets is coming not from the venue owners but the ultimate landlord of the properties which the venues rent.

If you are a performer at the Edinburgh Fringe, all you want is lots of bums on seats and a good review from Kate Copstick in The Scotsman.

Unless you are Lewis Schaffer.

Yesterday, Copstick told me she had gone to see Matt Price’s much-talked-about unbilled show at The Hive: Matt Price Is Not In The Program: Turkeygate, Tinky Winky & The Mafia.

“I loved it,” she told me last night. “Matt is wonderful, warm, but very, very needy and that just gives me an overwhelming urge to smack him in the face. But he’s wonderful with the audience and the show was tremendous.

“I came out of Matt’s show with a glow and a terrible bout of acid stomach, so I was heading up Niddry Street to get some emergency Gavescon, when I bumped into Lewis Schaffer – He was the next show at The Hive and I was there to review him. Matt’s show finishes as 7.30 and Lewis starts at 8.00.

Lewis Schaffer needs no reviews

Lewis Schaffer: a man with no shoes

“So Lewis Schaffer says: Oh! Kate Copstick! Kate Copstick!

“No tongues?” I asked.

“Thank goodness. No tongues,” said Copstick. “But I told him: I’m coming to review your show.

No, you’re not! he told me. Well I am, I said.

No, no, you shouldn’t come, he said. You know what it’s gonna be like.

“I said: Well, I like to think I’m open-minded as a critic and I don’t assume that I know what anybody’s show is going to be like. 

No! You know what it’ll be like, said Lewis. OK, you could give me 3 stars, you could give me 2 stars, but you’ll probably give me 4 stars.

“I said: Well, it’s rather unseemly for you, as a performer, to assume you are confident enough in my work as a critic to know what the star count will be. 

Well, you know, you shouldn’t come, he said.

I’ll be there, I told him. But, as I walked up and back – and it may have been the shock of having to pay £5 for a tiny bottle of Gavescon – I thought Fuck this! I absolutely adore Lewis, love his work. I gave him great reviews when no-one else even knew he was there.

“But I mean, you never know when he is being tongue-in-cheek. Well, you do. His tongue is massive, but his cheek is bigger. And I thought Fuck this! I’ll go and see someone else. And I did.”

Copstick is the one reviewer everyone (apart from, it seems, Lewis Schaffer) wants to come and see their shows.

But one massive pet hate of most performers is the use by some (not all) of the seemingly expanding number of Edinburgh Fringe publications of young, amateur reviewers.

bobslayer_bawbags_10aug2013

Bob Slayer – unusually over-dressed last night

Last week, I was at one of Bob Slayer’s Midnight Mayhem shows at Bob’s Bookshop. Among the crowd in the main room was a reviewer for one of the Fringe publications. He looked very young and inexperienced.

“I spotted him all fresh-faced with his press pass around his neck,” Bob Slayer told me yesterday, “and I told him: You can only be reviewing for one of two publications.

“So that’s why I took his press pass off him,” Bob told me. “After you left, the gig turned down to about a dozen people. Adam Larter took acts and they went and had a party in the back room while I told stories to punters in the front room.

“I asked the young guy how many shows he’d seen and he started talking about the ones he’d reviewed and I said No, no, no. Before you reviewed a show, how many shows had you seen? and he said None… And that’s a reviewer for one of the Fringe papers!

“But I got to like this guy, cos he was honest. And he said: Well, we’re perfectly entitled to review… and actually maybe a review from an ordinary person is better than a review from a bitter and jaded old hack. Except Copstick. She’s fine. An opinion is an opinion.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose ignorant reviewers are the ‘real’ audience. People who know who Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies or Arthur Askey was are not the comedy-going audience who read reviews to find out which shows they may like.”

“We made the gig all about teaching him about comedy,” Bob said. “He didn’t even know who Morecambe and Wise were, let alone Malcolm Hardee. He’s like an ‘open mic’ reviewer. He told me they don’t get paid anything. They offer them some training and a reference and that’s it.

“The long and short of it is, the little lad came in at midnight to review the show and left at 5:30am in only his underpants carrying his clothes and shoes. He had also stamped all over his hairless chest with my Bob Slayer ink stamp. As he stumbled into the street he asked where his press pass was. I told him that he would have to come back for it the next day – and settle his bar tab. The little lamb came in very hung-over the next day. I think he will become the greatest reviewer at the Edinburgh Fringe, because I have trained him up to send him out into the world to go out and review properly. He has had a Fringe experience.”

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A rather sad Space Precinct legacy for Thunderbirds producer Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson in his Pinewood office in 1979

Gerry Anderson in Pinewood office, 1979

In the film industry, there is a long tradition of chisellers, cheats, conmen and crooks. Put this together with lower TV budgets, a morally decent producer and a British TV production company trying to create an expensive-for-TV, glossy sci-fi series made for both the US and UK markets (which have differing expectations) and shot at a major British film studio and you have a recipe both for major production problems and an almost certainly tragic sitcom.

In 1979, I chatted to TV producer Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios during one of several low points in his life.

I reprinted parts of the interview in three blogs back in January last year

Seven years after I had that chat with him, in 1986, Gerry Anderson produced a 55-minute TV pilot film entitled Space Police.

Shane Rimmer (right) in Space Police pilot

Shane Rimmer (right) in original Space Police pilot

The pilot featured Anderson regular Shane Rimmer as a New York cop called Brogan. The series failed to sell and the pilot was never aired.

Fast forward another eight years and, in 1994, Gerry got together with Mentorn TV boss Tom Gutteridge. They re-styled the Space Police concept and made an ill-fated series called Space Precinct with Ted Shackelford as Brogan.

The new Space Precinct documentary

The Space Precinct Legacy documentary

Last night, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, I attended what was rather grandly called the ‘world premiere’ screening of Space Precinct Legacy, a 90-minute documentary on the troubled making of the Space Precinct series.

Space Precinct was conceived as a cop series set in space, where “instead of the usual run-of-the-mill baddies, you’ve got aliens as baddies”. It centred on the adventures of New York cop Brogan, transferred to take care of trouble on a distant planet filled with cops and baddies wearing prosthetic heads. Animatronics inside the heads made the eyes move.

Expectations were high but were slowly dashed as the production progressed.

Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia explained: “We tried to keep it as honest a telling of the making of Space Precinct as we could without getting sued.”

During the production of the Space Precinct series, there were problems with the US distributor who had claimed to have pre-sold the series across the nation in peaktime slots (a necessity to actually finance the series). In fact, in the US, the series tended to be scheduled in early morning kids slots or very late night graveyard slots with far lower advertising returns.

At one point, Tom Gutteridge had to borrow £2 million to continue shooting the series himself when money from the US backers stopped and twelve US lawyers flew over to the UK to try to get out of the watertight contract signed by the backers.

The backers backed down and continued to finance the show, though presumably through gritted teeth.

US and UK dramatic needs varied

The US and UK markets required incompatible drama types

There was a fundamental problem because of the differing tastes and expectations of US and UK audiences. The  Americans wanted darker adult drama for peaktime screening. The British wanted twinkle-in-the-eye knowing humour.

Executive producer Tom Gutteridge says:

“If there had been a second series, we would have had to have decided precisely what the show was that we were making. If we were making an American show just for America – which is really what we should have done – it would have been a completely different animal and I’m not absolutely convinced that Gerry Anderson would have been the hands-on producer.

“I think it would have been creatively very different. We would have had a much clearer, stronger, probably darker vision. The humour would have been more consistent all the way through, there would have been fewer – better – writers. There would have been a single voice and that voice I don’t think would have been Gerry Anderson’s… if there had been a second series.”

The Space Precinct title logo

The Space Precinct on-screen title logo

In retrospect, he thinks there was not enough money, certainly not enough time and that more money should have been put into special effects and less into “lining some people’s pockets”.

Other people involved in the production agree that the series was, partly, scuppered by “jobs for the boys” and dodgy geezers.

One seemingly generally-held opinion was that: “Gerry was listening to all the wrong people – his friends or his trusted allies – and that was a mistake… There were just a handful of people there who were taking the money and running – lining their pockets as fast as possible.”

Jamie Anderson, Gerry’s son, said after the screening last night:

Christine Glanville (left) and Mary Turner on Gerry Anderson’s series Four Feather Falls

Christine Glanville (left) and Mary Turner working on an early Gerry Anderson puppet series Four Feather Falls

“I was ten years old. I just had an amazing time, but I remember being sat awkwardly trying to ignore a conversation in which Christine Glanville who had worked from the very beginning as a puppeteer – right from the start – and had been with dad all the way through his various shows… She said she felt really let down by some members of the crew.

“Up until that point, in every show they’d worked on, there had been a real close-knit family feel and all-of-a-sudden there were a few people there who did seem to be lining their pockets and were just happy to do sub-standard work. Even as a ten year old I could pick that up.”

Even now, there might seem to be a bit of a curse on anything to do with the Space Precinct series.

Director Paul Cotrulia at the premiere last night

Director Paul Cotrulia at premiere last night

Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia told me: “My production company and my business partners were very keen to do a Space Precinct re-boot and we explored that idea for some time with Mentorn – developing script outlines – then, halfway through the documentary and developing the (new) show, Mentorn said Oh, actually, by the way, we only own the UK rights to Space Precinct. So you’re not going to be able to sell this project internationally. So it came to a halt.”

There are no clips from the Space Precinct series in the documentary.

Paul Cotrulia explained to me: “About halfway through production (of the documentary), Mentorn told us they didn’t get buy-out contracts from the actors, which meant that we would have had to pay those actors their original fee again just to use a clip. It would have cost too much. The same with the music. I love the music, but EMI wanted an enormous amount of money and we had to be realistic about our projections of how the documentary would perform with just releasing it in the UK.”

A sad legacy for the late Gerry Anderson.

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