Tag Archives: Fortean Times

Improbability factor of L.A. actress and a man at the Edinburgh Fringe, London

Charlie Wood(Underbelly), William Burdett-Coutts (Assembly), Ed Bartlam (Underbelly), Karen Koren (Gilded Balloon), Kath Maitland (Edinburgh Fringe), Anthony Alderson (Pleasance)

(L-R) Big 4 Fringe venue owners Charlie Wood (Underbelly), William Burdett-Coutts (Assembly), Ed Bartlam (Underbelly), Karen Koren (Gilded Balloon), Kath Maitland (Edinburgh Fringe) and Anthony Alderson (Pleasance)

Tonight, I am going to a London Fortean Society lecture by David J Hand on The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen Every Day.

Well, one happened last night when I went to the ‘Big Four’ venues’ Edinburgh Fringe launch at the Udderbelly on London’s South Bank.

I was with Rochdale-born, L.A.-based actress and producer Amanda Fleming (no relation). She was off getting drinks (that is what producers do) when I was accosted by two people – a man and woman.

“Where are you from?” they asked me.

It turned out they meant: “What do you do?”

They were theatre producer Jude Merrill and writer/performer Saikat Ahamed, plugging their new Edinburgh Fringe production Strictly Balti.

“We were told,” said Jude, “that the important thing to do to get publicity was to find bloggers.”

“That’s only,” I said, “because no-one knows what’s going on in the media now and people are clutching at any and every unknown straw.”

Strange results from a decision in Birmingham

Strange results from a parental decision in Birmingham, UK

Strictly Balti tells the true story of how Saikat Ahamed’s Bangladeshi parents in Birmingham – a family of lawyers, doctors and suchlike respectable professionals – did not want him to become an actor so persuaded him to take dancing lessons. The result was that he decided he wanted to become an actor.

At this point, Amanda Fleming (no relation) came back with drinks.

I introduced her to them.

They had a little chat.

Saint Ahamed, Jude Merrill and Amanda Fleming last night

Saikat Ahamed, Jude Merrill & Amanda Fleming (no relation)

Then Saikat Ahamed said to Amanda Fleming (no relation): “Have I met you?”

There was a pause.

“Did you stay in my house?” he asked.

I looked at Amanda Fleming (no relation).

I saw the sudden realisation on her face.

“Good God!” she said.

“I had a house in Ilford,” Saikat told me.

“You did?” I asked. “I was partly brought up in Ilford. Your house wasn’t 39 Mitcham Road was it?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“That’s a pity,” I said. “I would have been an even better coincidence.”

“I was doing a pantomime,” said Amanda Fleming (no relation).

“Oh no you weren’t,” I said.

“Oh yes I was,” said Amanda Fleming (no relation).

From Birmingham, Ilford, Rochdale and London to this

From Birmingham, Ilford, Rochdale and Los Angeles to Edinburgh Fringe London launch

“We had a mutual friend, Lee,” said Saikat Ahamed. “You weren’t staying there long.”

“It was only,” said Amanda Fleming (no relation), “like two or three weeks, during rehearsal time.”

They had not seen each other for around 15 years and then only for a few weeks and he had accosted me randomly as I passed at an Edinburgh Fringe press launch to which Amanda Fleming (no relation) had also come. As she was temporarily not in L.A.

Tonight, I will be paying special attention to The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen Every Day.

Who knows what may happen?

There is a trailer for Strictly Balti on youTube.

1 Comment

Filed under Coincidence, Comedy

Susan Harrison & Gemma Arrowsmith: not necessarily aiming for Radio 4 series

Mina The Horse with delusions of unicorndom

Mina The Horse with delusions of unicorn-ness

I last blogged about Susan Harrison in 2013 and first saw her perform at Pull The Other One – as Mina The Horse. Yup. a horse. Not an act I am likely to forget. She also runs Cabarera! themed comedy nights. The next one has a 1970s theme and is on 24th March.

“You must have done most decades?” I asked her last week.

“We’re revisiting some,” she told me. “We did a pre-historic one and one act came on as a prehistoric rock. He took ages to get to the stage.”

When we chatted, she was with Gemma Arrowsmith. They are previewing their separate new Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of a double bill at the trendy Proud Archivist in London this Tuesday. The two met at Free Fringe venue Le Monde in Edinburgh in 2012.

Gemma Arrowsmith (left) and Susan Harrison

Gemma (left) and Susan at The Actors Centre in London

“This year,” Gemma told me, “I’m operating my own sound in Edinburgh; my techie will just do lights. I saw Ivan Brackenbury – Tom Binns – do everything himself and I think it was seeing that which inspired me to do it myself.”

Susan chipped in: “I saw Michael Brunström do that recently. He was being Mary Quant for Cabarera! and he was operating the sound of whales noises because it was Mary Quant who went whaling, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I said. “Can we recap? Whaling? He was being Mary Quant?”

“It was for the 1960s night,” explained Gemma, then asked Susan: “Who were you that night?”

“I can’t remember,” said Susan.

“That sounds like a very realistic 1960s night,” I suggested.

“Andy Warhol,” said Gemma.

“Yes, Andy Warhol,” said Susan.

“What did you do with your hair?” I asked Susan.

“I emerged from a soup can,” said Susan.

“I still want to know what you did with your hair,” I told her.

“A wig,” she replied.

“But you have an awful lot of hair,” I said, enviously.

“Well,” explained Susan, “if you’re a character actress and you have long hair, you get used to wig caps.”

“I suppose,” I said, “once you’ve played a horse with unicorn aspirations, you can play anything… You’re both actresses, really.”

“I think we’re both obsessed with comedy,” said Susan, “and have been since we were little.”

“Recently,” said Gemma, “I had to get rid of my enormous comedy collection to the Museum of Comedy. It was getting out of hand. Absolutely ridiculous. I started collecting comedy when I was 10 and, by the time I was 12, I had 500 VHS tapes. So you can imagine what it was like by 32… VHSs, books, scripts, book tie-ins. Getting things signed as well. Going to see Ben Elton, Jack Dee, Hale and Pace. I saw Hale and Pace at the Wolverhampton Civic when I was about 13. They were amazing.”

“I think,” said Susan, “they’re much-maligned because they were on ITV, not BBC.”

“That could be true,” I said. “So what are your shows?”

Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe

Gemma exposes Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe

“Mine is Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe,” said Gemma. “I call it a rogues’ gallery of quacks, charlatans and con artists. So homeopathy comes in for a few blows.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said.

“No it’s not,” said Gemma.

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you have traditional medicine people in your family…”

“No,” said Gemma, “I just have a hatred of nonsense. I was in a double-act with a guy called Steve Mould for a long time. We did a trilogy of shows in Edinburgh and Steve got me interested in science. I did a video for a charity called Sense About Science and their Ask For Evidence campaign, which means, if anyone makes a bold claim, you should ask for evidence.”

“I go down the Fortean Times route,” I said, “where you just accept anything, unless…”

“Oh God!” said Gemma. “Fortean Times!” Then she asked Susan: “Have you ever read the Fortean Times?”

“No,” Susan replied.

We live in Fortean Times

Should we disbelieve or believe unprovens?

“It’s this magazine,” Gemma explained, “of nonsense. Aliens and stuff like that.”

“It’s not a parody?” asked Susan.

“No,” said Gemma, “it’s on the level, though sometimes I think Is it? because it’s so ridiculous.”

“Their philosophy,” I explained, “is Don’t disbelieve anything, unless you can disprove it.”

“Surely,” argued Gemma, “Don’t believe anything until you can prove it should be how you look at things?”

“But,” I said. “if you don’t disbelieve anything, there’s some tremendous fun to be had. I think they mostly don’t believe most of it. They used to have annual UnConventions. Do you remember the supposed alien autopsy film? The newspapers had been talking to doctors for months to prove it was a fake.  Fortean Times flew over two movie special effects men from Hollywood who immediately explained how it had been faked.”

Susan Harrison as Jennie Benton: Wordsmith

Susan as Jennie Benton: Wordsmith

“My show,” said Susan, “is called Jennie Benton: Wordsmith and it’s about a character I’ve done on the circuit and in sketch shows for years.”

“Does the horse appear?” I asked.

“Unfortunately not,” Susan replied.

“She could appear as a pot of glue,” I suggested.

“That’s harsh,” said Gemma.

“There is a line about glue in it,” said Susan, “but it’s not about her. This show is all about two 15-year-olds who are really into spoken word and hip-hop. At the moment, the other act is Richard Soames from the Beta Males. Basically, he’s in love with her and she’s in love with her teacher and it’s all about unrequited love.”

“And the object of appearing at Edinburgh,” I asked, “is to get commissioned by BBC Radio 4?”

“I don’t think those are the aims any more,” Susan told me. “I think the thing with my stuff and podcasting and YouTube is, because you’re making it yourself, you know it’s going to get made – as opposed to sending a script off on a wing and a prayer and getting so far and then it’s Oh, the producer has left and it’s not happening any more. That just happens so many times.

Susan Harrison’s Back Row image

The Susan Harrison hipster Back Row podcast reviewer

“We do a podcast where we play two reviewers. It’s called Susan Harrison’s Back Row and it’s a bit like BBC Radio’s Front Row. So we are these two hideous reviewers who are… I’m a real hipster reviewer and Gemma’s character is more of a broadsheet reviewer.”

“Everything,” explained Gemma, “is very super-beneath us.”

Susan added: “We started reviewing proper things – books, exhibitions and things like that – but recently we’ve reviewed Christmas crackers…”

“…and,” added Gemma, “our experience of New Year and Hallowe’en costumes.”

“The thing I hate most,” said Susan, “is pretentiousness, so it’s really fun to lampoon that. It’s these characters’ nonchalance that’s annoying.”

“So no Radio 4 aims?” I asked.

“The point is to create,” said Susan. “It’s just a matter of making something, doing something. I wouldn’t see it as a realistic option to have to be on the radio, because there are so many reasons why people get on there and so much of it is a fluke. There’s no point that being your goal. Your goal should just be to make what you want to make and just keep getting out there and performing.”

Gemma does Sketches In My Flat on YouTube

Gemma creates Sketches In My Flat

“That’s certainly,” Gemma agreed, “why I started doing my YouTube channel Sketches In My Flat. I got home after doing the Edinburgh show in 2012 and decided, purely for fun, to record a few of the sketches in my living room with a budget of zero.

“One of the sketches got re-Tweeted by a few people – Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins – and overnight it was seen by 10,000 people – It was seen by ten times the number of people who had seen my Edinburgh show across the whole month.

“That was on a budget of zero and it makes you think when you know how much you spent on your Edinburgh show. So I decided I would take at least a year out just doing videos on YouTube. I started off doing some of the sketches from the show and then I started making new sketches specifically for YouTube. One of my un-written rules is I don’t spent any money whatsoever on it. Except wigs.

“I did a year of doing a lot of YouTube and then a year of doing… well, it’s put out as a podcast, but it’s like an audio series. And I’ve really enjoyed not going to Edinburgh.”

“So why are you going back this August?” I asked. “Someone once described performing at the Fringe as like standing in a cold shower, tearing-up £50 notes.”

Somewhere under the rainbow - madness in Edinburgh

Edinburgh, where there may be gold at the end of the rainbow

“Well, it’s a trade show for comedians,” said Gemma, “but I heard someone recently also describe it as a dog show for comedians.

“I like what Holly Burn said: that basically you just throw a load of shit at a wall. That’s what Edinburgh is – Everybody throwing shit at a wall and hoping that something sticks. Both of us have had a break from Edinburgh and I feel like getting all the shit and throwing it all out there and seeing what comes of it.”

“That’s a show I would like to see,” I said.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy

Nina Conti’s amazingly intelligent new film on Ken Campbell and on herself

(This blog was later published on the Chortle comedy industry website and by the Huffington Post)

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies.

But, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush‘s drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices.

Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti‘s documentary Her Master’s Voice – she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the “watcher at the gates of the mind”, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original – often means being criticised, which no-one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

As its climax, the recent Fortean Times UnConvention screened Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti’s wonderfully quirky new love-letter documentary to Ken Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial.

In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind.

In a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about “playing God with other people” – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s “bereaved puppets” she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that “creativity and insanity are almost the same thing” and the doll “gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator” while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her “an extra dimension”.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be.

This is an extraordinarily successful documentary.

Her Master’s Voice.

Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Psychology, Theatre, Ventriloquism

The End of the World is nigh… though we might need a wee re-calculation

On the second and final day of this year’s Fortean Times UnConvention, former BBC Religious Affairs correspondent Ted Harrison gave a talk about the end of the world.

He has previously written a novel King Clone about how to start your own religion – worshipping Elvis Presley. And he is currently writing a non-fiction book Apocalypse When about various End of The World scares throughout history.

Well, it’s mostly non-fiction.

Scares about the Apocalypse being imminent have thus far proved to be wrong and crop up with alarming regularity throughout history – sometimes when there is a cluster of natural disasters or astronomical abnormalities; sometimes when people are starting up religions and need a strong selling point to grab people’s attention.

When Joseph Smith started the Mormon church, he expected the Apocalypse to be within his lifetime.

The Seventh Day Adventists were a splinter group of the Millerites, who had expected the world to end on 22nd October 1844 and who had to re-calculate when it did not. Understandably, they called what did not happen on 22nd October 1844 “The Great Disappointment”.

More recently, Harold Camping, boss of the Family Radio network proclaimed that Jesus Christ would return to Earth, the righteous would fly up to heaven and there would be five months of fire, brimstone and plagues on Earth, with millions of people dying each day, culminating on October 21, 2011 with the end of the world.

When this appeared not to have happened, on re-consideration, he re-calculated that, in fact, it had indeed happened, but “on a spiritual level” and that the physical apocalypse when God would destroy the universe was actually going to happen on 21st October 2011.

On that day, I was quite busy.

I went filming with Mr Methane, had a drink with comedian Paco Erhard and then went to the launch of Silver Road Studios in Shepherds Bush. The party in Shepherds Bush was quite noisy and I may have missed something; but I am writing this blog on 14th November 2011 and I suspect I would have noticed the end of the Universe if it had happened.

How Harold Camping has coped with the irritating non-appearance of the Four Horsemen, I do not know, but one of my fondest semi-religious memories is of attending a talk by Benjamin Creme in Holborn around 1984.

In the Spring of 1982, he had paid for ads in the London Times, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers worldwide. The ads said:

“The Christ is now here”

They announced that Jesus Christ – or, more correctly, the Maitreya – was already walking the Earth and would telepathically reveal himself to the people of the world via television on 21st June 1982.

Alas, this failed to happen and I went to the blessed Benjamin’s talk to see how he had come to terms with this.

Jesus, by the way, was working at this time within the Indian/Bangladeshi community in the Brick Lane area of East London.

Apparently he had been going to reveal his identity in the telepathic television broadcast. Really he had.

The reason Jesus had not kept his appointment with destiny, it turned out, was because the world’s media had not taken that extra small step of trying to find him.

Call me cynical, but I had thought there might be – just perhaps – some financial scam involved in this saga.

When I attended Benjamin’s lecture, though, I realised I was wrong. He was an amiable, totally sane and clear-eyed middle-aged man with no particular financial axe to grind. From memory, the talk was free.

Benjamin came across as a kindly uncle trying to do his best although I was a little taken aback when he told us he was going to electrically charge us.

I think this was to increase our powers of understanding and/or awareness.

His eyes went into a wide-eyed staring trance, he stretched both his arms out towards us with his all his fingers sharply pointing forwards and, standing erect, his body slowly moved in an arc round the room, the invisible power source presumably pulsing into each of us.

After he had helped us thus, his eyes returned to their amiable Uncle Benjamin state and, presumably, I was in a higher state of consciousness though, alas, too stupid to realise it.

Benjamin has occasionally given other dates for what I like to think of as the Second Coming of Christ. So far, this has not happened, though I live in hope of good news.

Benjamin would, I think, disagree with me on the use of the phrase “the Second Coming of Christ”.

In April last year, he wrote in the Guardian that he has “never presented Maitreya as a messiah figure who comes to make all things bright and beautiful for a supine humanity” and (I think rather relevantly) he revealed “I am not a betting man”.

We are, by the way, not yet out of the woods on the End of the World being nigh.

The long-dead Mayan civilisation allegedly calculated the End of The World would take place on 21st December 2012.

That is good news for the London Olympics, but bad news for Christmas card manufacturers and for the organisers of Edinburgh’s 2012 Hogmanay celebrations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Eccentrics, Religion, Strange phenomena

Never perform comedy with intelligent dogs

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

The first rule of showbusiness is you never perform on the same bill as animals or children.

Last night, there was a very good line-up in the New Variety Lives! show at the Shaw Theatre in London. But what can you do when, also on the stage, unbilled, is ‘Sid Russell’, a small Jack Russell terrier who has bafflingly had over 1,730,000 hits on YouTube in a month – for just running up and down steps –

and who, last night, kept a blue balloon in the air by death-defying leaps upwards to bop it with his cute nose?

On any other night, top-of-the-bill US comedian David Mills, one of the smoothest new acts on the UK comedy circuit – indeed, he was New Act of the Year 2011 – would have been a difficult act to follow, but even a highly charismatic comedian is no competition for a leaping Jack Russell.

Compere Jo Brand, excellent new female comedian Tania Edwards, Nathaniel Tapley as cast-iron-TV-show-prospect ‘Sir Ian Bowler MP’ and New Zealand comic Javier Jarquin who had an excellent street-theatre-type act which I have never seen before and which built to a cracking climax – all those and more were trumped by an acrobatic Jack Russell terrier…

But then, earlier in the day, I had learned with others at the Fortean Times UnConvention all about the species superiority of Canine Intellectuals and Celebrated Talking Dogs.

Jan Bondeson was plugging his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities and, if his book is anything like his one-hour lecture, it must be a cracker.

We had tales of Rolf, the militaristically-inclined German dog who could discuss religion and philosophy but who, at the outbreak of World War One, demanded he should join the German Army despite the fact he was a Yorkshire terrier.

And we had Don, an alleged talking dog who was so intelligent he was earning 12,000 marks per month in German music halls even before he went to the US in July 1912 to perform at Oscar Hammerstein’s famous Roof Garden theatre in New York, where he shared the bill with a man with a 9-foot beard and a troupe of dancing midgets. Don was insured for $50,000, kept profitably touring the US until August 1914 and met Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Buster Keaton.

At my school, I never got taught any of this in history lessons.

Apparently Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, taught a dog to say, “How do you do, grandma?”

And even the Nazis took an interest in super-intelligent dogs. When they transported Jews, any ‘innocent’ pet dogs were given to ‘good’ Aryan families and there were even Nazi research institutes for educated dogs.

All this came as enough of a shock to me yesterday without It being topped by ‘Sid Russell’ and his acrobatic, balloon-bopping antics.

I think I need to lie down.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Dogs, Strange phenomena, Theatre

Miracles, Part 1: iPads and the high chance of being hit on the head by a falling pig

When I came home in the early hours of Sunday morning, I absentmindedly switched on the TV and BBC2 was screening Fritz Lang’s 1953 film noir classic The Big Heat.

My friend asked, “When was that made? It looks very old.”

“Well,” I said, “it was way before they had an iPad.”

“But,” she replied without the slightest pause, “that woman’s got one!” and she disintegrated into laughter.

Because, at the exact same moment I said the word “iPad”, on the TV screen, a woman walked through the door wearing an eye-pad.

What are the odds of that coincidence happening?

Well quite good, actually.

The odds against unlikely events and coincidences always seem to me to be misquoted.

The odds of me myself being killed by a pig falling on my head are astronomically high. At least, I hope they are.

But if, God forbid, I live until I am 80 or so it is fairly likely that, sometime during my lifetime, several people in different parts of the world will have been killed by a pig falling on their head.

The odds of me being killed by a downwardly-mobile pig are low.

The odds of anyone being killed by a downwardly-mobile pig are high.

Bizarre coincidences happen. Bizarre events happen. All the time.

The odds are often not as high as they seem.

Millions of little events happen every month to every person on the planet. Most of these millions of events are totally forgettable. But, if one unlikely event or coincidence happens to you, you will remember it and the several-million-to-one chance of it happening will seem amazing but it is actually not unlikely given the millions of other times it did not happen.

And then there are the miracles in the Bible.

If you see Lazarus raised from the dead and you are a simple shepherd, fisherman or generic peasant who knows nothing about comas, it seems a rock-solid 100% miracle. But it is not so amazing.

I have read that, with the winds from the right directions, the waters in a tributary of the Red Sea, apparently, really do separate and it is possible, briefly, to literally walk across the sea bed from one side to the other. Something which seems utterly impossible does happen naturally – though very very rarely.

The odds against the Red Sea parting seem so great as to be impossible. And it seems against Nature. But (with a slight geographical adjustment – it’s not really the Red Sea itself) the impossible becomes merely a rarity. What seemed impossible becomes unlikely but possible.

And the unlikely happens all the time.

Which brings us back to iPads and eyepads.

Oh, alright, it’s not profound, but I find it mesmerising.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies, Religion, Strange phenomena, Television

The Three Golden Rules of Comedy

The percentage likelihood of strange things happening is almost always mis-quoted by the media. For example, the odds against any one specific person being killed by a pig falling on his or her head are VERY high. It is very unlikely ever happen to you yourself or to any specific, named individual. But the odds of some one person being killed by a falling pig somewhere in the world at any time during your lifetime are much lower. It is highly likely to happen

Shit happens all the time to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit. Which brings me to comedy improvisation.

I am a tad wary of improvisation groups perhaps because, when I was a student, I used to go most weeks to see shows called Theatre Machine supervised by Keith Johnstone at the Freemason’s Arms pub in Hampstead. Keith later went on to create Theatresports. His earlier Theatre Machine shows were so effective and so entertaining that it arguably ruined me for any other improvisation groups.

The other problem is that, by their nature, improvisation groups are often reliant on their audiences for inspiration.

On Tuesday, I went to see The Couch at The Miller pub behind Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. The venue has different impro groups each week and this week there were nine improvisers – possibly four people too many but all very good and – strange but true – they included Mensa’s former financial director Neil Goulder.

They were uniformly good as performers and improvisers, but two of their sketches showed the difficulties of the art. Two good punters suggested two good sketches, but one routine was doomed from the start by its very origin.

The successful one started with pulling one punter out of the audience and asking him about his childhood to provide the bare bones of the sketch. It turned out that, as a child, his hobby was, in all truth, keeping and breeding small creatures – principally snails, butterflies and wood lice. This was a pure gift for the comedy improvisers. It also turned out that the punter’s brother had accidentally trodden on and killed his favourite snail called (I’m not sure this can be true) Eric. Starting from those basic facts, the improvised comedy sketch could almost not fail. And it didn’t.

The other sketch, though, was doomed from the start because its original basis was so deeply bizarre that nothing the troupe could ever improvise could ever have made the story stranger. Funny haha stood no chance of outshining funny peculiar and it reaffirmed my belief that, if you pluck a punter at random from anywhere – a bus queue, a venue audience, the cheese aisle in Tesco – they will have the most extraordinary true stories in them. Because shit happens to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit.

This particular punter was asked what his most disastrous romantic date had been.

There was a pause before he replied: “Oh, there have been soooo many…”

The audience laughed.

He then talked about a date in which he had taken his prospective girlfriend to a restaurant. Halfway through the meal, she had an epileptic fit. He tried to help her as she writhed on the floor. But the other diners and restaurant staff thought he had been in some way responsible for what had happened – they thought perhaps he had given her Rohypnol or some other drug. The police were called and dragged him off into custody.

This sounds like the perfect basis for a dark comedy because it is so bizarre, but it was and is too bizarre. There was and is no way of exaggerating the reality into comedy. The truth was so beyond belief that there is no way of manipulating it and comedy usually requires the re-arrangement of reality. When the improvisers tried to recreate the event in three different movie genre styles it was partly successful but ultimately anti-climactic.

The improvisers had and have my sympathy. They stood no chance, through no fault of theirs, which exposes the odds against improvisational comedy being successful; by its nature, it is always hit-and-miss; you are sometimes totally dependent on the audience. The only thing that might have worked would have been to follow the late Malcolm Hardee’s Three Golden Rules of comedy as expressed on page 173 of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

1. If in doubt, wobble about.

2. If that don’t work, fall over.

3. If that don’t work – knob out!

The third is, perhaps, not a practical option for everyone.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Strange phenomena