Tag Archives: George Formby

Why do British comedy clubs have to just book samey stand-up comedy acts?

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

In a not-yet-posted blog-chat with Dutch comedian Jorik Mol earlier this week, the subject came up of the difficulty of succeeding as a comedian in Britain when there are simply too many stand-up and wannabe stand-up comedians around.

British comedy clubs are having a tough time at the moment and I think one of the reasons is that they programme wall-to-wall stand-up comedians.

In the 1980s, when alternative comedy really WAS alternative, a typical comedy club bill might include a juggler, a poet and an indefinably anarchic act as well as straight stand-ups.

Nowadays, too often, there is no variation. It is all a bit samey. The stand-ups may be good, bad or indifferent but they are, basically, doing the same thing.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the comedy clubs were general comedy clubs. Now they are almost entirely stand-up comedy clubs.

In blogs before I have mentioned that many of the most original and funny comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe in the last couple of years were not listed in the Comedy section of the Fringe Programme but in the Cabaret section.

Last night, I saw a glorious night of comedy at Pull The Other One in South East London. It was their last show of the year, it was a real corker and there was not a single traditional stand-up on the bill. Unlike most comedy clubs, you did not know what TYPE of act was coming next.

Jon Hicks was simply indescribable (he describes himself as ‘The International Man of Artistry’) and his act involved three elephants, a hammer and scientific principles all on PTOO’s small stage.

Jody Kamali was a performer of note

Jody Kamali was a comedy performer of note

Jody Kamali seems to inhabit a different on-stage character every time I see him. This time, he managed to cram into one 20-minute spot three bizarre, physically active and visually surprising characters plus he dragged a dodgy punter on-stage and sucked the guy’s arm.

Ewan Wardrop – formerly a principal dancer with Matthew Bourne‘s company Adventures in Motion Pictures – managed to refine his already astonishing 1935 visitor from Venus act – The Silver Peevil – AND do a wonderful post-modernist George Formby pastiche AND sing original songs as himself.

The nearest thing to a traditional stand-up on the bill was Steve Best, performing his flawless act which could also be from another planet – It is like a recording of Tommy Cooper performing comedy on acid which is then run at 4-times normal speed.

All these extraordinarily original acts were presented by Lindsay Sharman in her charismatic thespian poetess compere mode with popping eyes and acrobatic lips – a face-changing, voice-morphing Joyce Grenfell for the 21st century.

What the Germans will make of a show like this when Vivienne & Martin Soan start their Pull The Other One shows in Leipzig in February I cannot even begin to imagine.

And nor do I know when a broadcast company will come to its senses and transfer Pull The Other One’s already fully-formed bizarre comedy variety show to television.

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I might have nominated this new UK comic for the Malcolm Hardee Award

Last night, I was at Vivienne & Martin Soan’s always odd comedy club Pull The Other One. Vivienne did part of her introductions in fluent German… of which I suspect we will hear more in the coming months.

As always, last night was a variety fan’s delight with Steve Aruni’s surreal act accompanied by a saxophone-playing vacuum cleaner, Lindsay Sharman in her persona of red-turbanned psychic advisor Madame Magenta (she should add even more songs to this character), Jody Kamali as a very-hands-on karmic Eastern healer, The Greatest Show on Legs searching for Dr Who amid stage smoke and Miles Jupp as the token stand-up comedian showing once again that, however successful he becomes, he is still vastly under-rated.

The second coming of The Silver Peevil

Visitor from Venus – The Silver Peevil returns

But, for me, the highlight of the evening was the second coming of The Silver Peevil, a successfully odd character ripped straight out of 1930s Hollywood Saturday morning adventure serials who is, he says, from Venus. I mentioned his first ever appearance in a blog two weeks ago.

After last night’s show, I was chatting to him. His Earth name is Ewan Wardrop.

He told me he was new to comedy and this was, indeed, only the second time he had ever performed the Silver Peevil act.

I was astonished because he was going on to me last night about being totally new to comedy – yet he was so self-assured (and so funny) on stage. The whole thing about being a newcomer did not gel.

From Venus and Edinburgh to Lancashire

This year, Formby is Edinburgh’s great loss

He said he had been a dancer and actor for about ten years. He told me he had performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe as George Formby in a one-man play he had written himself – Formby – I remember the show and had almost gone to see it, but it did not seem to fall within the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award area and it got elbowed-out by other shows.

He had performed as George Formby at Pull The Other One earlier this year but I had missed that. And he is touring the UK in his Formby play this summer and autumn. There is a trailer on YouTube.

But there was something about Ewan Wardrop that threw me last night. He seemed more confident on stage than someone with the experience he hinted at. This turned out to be because he was rather over-modest.

I checked him out afterwards.

He has acted in London at the Old Vic and for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the National Theatre… He has also appeared in theatrical runs on Broadway and Los Angeles and in Tokyo.

And he is a founding member of The Bo Diddlers – an ‘experimental’ Morris dance group formed in 2008 for the Brighton Fringe Festival. featuring performers from the contemporary dance world. There is a showreel on YouTube:

Which brings me on to what is now-stand-up-character-comedian Ewan Wardrop’s most interesting angle.

He attended the Royal Ballet School (where Morris dance was bizarrely taught as part of the curriculum) and all the dancers in the Bo Diddlers worked for Matthew Bourne’s contemporary dance company New Adventures. Ewan played leading roles in Bourne’s very highly acclaimed productions of Swan Lake and Nutcracker!

Indeed, it turns out my eternally-un-named friend saw him perform in Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells in 2003.

If he were performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year in a full-length show as The Silver Peevil, instead of touring the country as Formby, I might be very tempted to nominate him for a Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

Instead, I suspect his visible talent will probably be spotted elsewhere and he will make lots of money… something that does not necessarily happen if you win a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award – unless it is the ‘Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid’ Award.

But there is definitely something unusual about Ewan Wardrop. Something which the late Malcolm Hardee and the very-much-alive Martin Soan were/are very good at spotting – genuine, original, mesmerising talent.

If you can’t see him as The Silver Peevil, see him in his self-penned biographical play Formby or – totally different – as George Formby singing modern rapper lyrics. There’s a clip on YouTube:

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Comedian Bob Slayer, the gay pub and the relationship with a famous comic

Bob Slayer yesterday with partner Shirley and two lucky cats

Yesterday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I went to comedian Bob Slayer’s home for dinner.

Bob had a bad cough, but regaled us with tales of his early days as a jockey. He broke his back and had to stop riding horses.

It also turned out, not surprisingly, that his mother was born in a pub. Bob, more often than not, downs at least one pint in a single gulp during his stage act.

“My mum was born in the Wheelbarrow Castle pub at Radford in Worcestershire,” he told me, “which my great-grandfather owned and it went out of the family for a long time, but my uncle has recently bought it to bring it back into the family. They lost the farm – my other uncle lost the farm because he pissed it away.”

“Is he alive?” I asked.

“Yes,” Bob replied.

“Then that’s potentially libel,” I said.

“No, I don’t think it’s libel,” said Bob. “Uncle John would say Well, I did piss it away, yeah. My youngest uncle Martin was in short trousers while John was pissing the farm away. Martin is Gemma, my cousin’s, dad – she’s the one you met who helped me run The Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe

“My Uncle Martin re-bought the Wheelbarrow Castle but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he had bought a gay pub.”

“Ah,” I said, “so this is the pub where you suggested we go see The Wurzels perform in October.”

“Yes,” said Bob.

“A gay pub with The Wurzels performing?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Bob. “And, in this pub, my mother was born.”

“Was she gay?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” replied Bob. “but I was at a wedding once…”

“A gay wedding?” I asked.

“No but, at my other cousin’s wedding… He was the first of my cousins to get married… and my uncle came up and said I think it’s about time you heard all about Guzzleguts. And I asked What’s that, Uncle Anthony? And he said When your mum was a teenager, she used to be called Guzzleguts. 

“My mum is one of nine… Well, eight, because Uncle David died last week… but all the brothers would drink in the family pub and they would play pool and people would be travelling through and they’d hustle them and it would get to the stage where they were pissed and they’d lost money and big stakes were going down and they’d say Ah! I bet even our sister could beat you at downing a pint! And these big bets would be put down and then my mother would be brought in and two pints put down on the table and my mum would Phrooom! guzzleguts this pint down. And that’s where I get it from.

“Apparently they also used to interrupt her doing her school work – she was a real swot when she was a teenager – lie her on the bar, put a funnel in her mouth and they would pour three pints into her and they would have had a bet on that – We bet you our sister can down three pints in under so many minutes.”

“And this is where we are going to see The Wurzels?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Bob.

“You told me,” I prompted, “the original Wurzel died in a tragic Marc Bolan style car crash?”

“More tragic than Marc Bolan,” said Bob. “Marc Bolan was a very influential and interesting musician, but he wasn’t really up there with Adge Cutler.

“The band was originally called Adge Cutler and The Wurzels… Adge was driving home from a gig in Hereford in his MGB sports car 1974 and he ran into a tractor and died and I think that’s the most rock ‘n’ roll death ever.”

“No connection with combine harvesters?” I asked.

“Well,” said Bob, “I was originally told he ran into a combine harvester, but that was an exaggeration. It was a tractor. He was full of cider as well, I’d like to say. Cider and acid. That’s a bloody good combination.”

“Lots of drinking in Archers country?” I asked.

“It was very interesting for me to learn about alcoholics,” said Bob, “in a family where they are all pissheads. Their attitude towards alcoholism was Well, you could tell she had a problem, because she hid it. We ain’t got a problem, do we? Cos we don’t hide it. I was taught that when I was growing up: You’re not an alcoholic if you don’t feel the need to hide it.

“So,” I asked, “alcoholism was not so much a warning as an aspiration?”

“I think so,” said Bob, “yeah,” and then he had a coughing fit.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

“I’ve only got one brother,” said Bob. “But I’ve got fifty cousins… I’ve got nine uncles and aunts and most of them are re-married, so…”

“Not 49 or 51 cousins but 50 exactly?” I asked.

“Well, it might be 51 by now,” said Bob. “We do get the odd extras. But they’re all really ugly….” He turned to my eternally-un-named friend: “Going back to this conversation earlier where you decided that 99% of sex-changers do it for the wrong reasons, based on the ones you knew… John here has met one of my cousins – Gemma – at the Edinburgh Fringe, so he would extrapolate that they’re all gorgeous but she is the only one. She is the exception that proves the rule that all the Fernihoughs are ugly as… I’m also related to Ted Edgar.”

“Who?” I asked.

“A showjumper,” replied Bob. “And I’m related to George Formby.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes.” said Bob. “George Formby was a jockey, from a horse racing family. The Edgar side of the family is related to George Formby’s dad. His sister is like my cousin’s great-grandmother.”

“The frightening thing about living in the 21st century,” I said to my eternally-un-named friend, “is that, before we get home, Bob will have changed the Wikipedia entry on George Formby so that all this is true.”

“Look at it now,” said Bob.

And I did. The Wikipedia entry said:

In 1921, three months after the death of his father, Formby abandoned his career as a jockey and began appearing in music halls using his father’s material. At first he called himself George Hoy, using the name of his maternal grandfather, who came from Newmarket, Suffolk, where the family was engaged in racehorse training.

“George Formby Senior – George Formby’s dad,” said Bob, “was a performer and used his money to set up racing stables. George Formby became a jockey to please his dad and had maybe twenty or thirty 2nds – he had loads of rides – but never rode a winner. He was going to take over the stables but, when his dad died prematurely, his mum persuaded him to go on the stage.

“His sister took over the stables and that’s the side of the family that has relations to my mother. My mother’s grandmother was George Formby’s sister; so my mother’s great-grandfather was George Formby Senior.

“George Formby was born blind or he didn’t open his eyes until, at the age of six months or so, he had a violent coughing fit and opened his eyes for the first time.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Bob. “Check Wikipedia.

I did.

The entry read:

Formby was born blind because of an obstructive caul. His sight was restored during a violent coughing fit or sneeze when he was a few months old.

“I’ve even got George Formby’s chest at the moment,” said Bob, “with this sore throat and the coughing. Coughing was quite a thing in the Formby family. George Formby stopped being blind after he had a coughing fit. His dad George Formby Senior had been neglected by his parents and left out; he often slept rough and he ended up busking and that’s how he got into performing, so he had a bad chest and later TB and that’s what killed him. He would often cough up a lung on stage but make a joke of it and bet the audience he could out-cough them.”

“So he was an early TB star?” I asked.

“It’s getting late,” said Bob.

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