Tag Archives: Gilded Balloon

Edinburgh Fringe: Why the Counting House is now free from Ballooning fees

The Gilded Balloon’s Counting House The signposted entrance on the left on the left is not the entrance

Gilded Balloon’s Counting House last year. The prominently signposted entrance on the left is not actually the entrance!

It was recently announced that The Counting House venue is reverting to the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, after it was last year poached by pay venue The Gilded Balloon.

I blogged about this in February last year under the title Gilded Balloon venue’s deal excretes on the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe and, in August, under the title The Edinburgh Fringe venue that doesn’t know where its own entrance is.

The successful poaching expedition by the Gilded Balloon last year ousted the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show and the Grouchy Club comedy industry chat shows from their traditional venue of many years.

I thought I would ask Laughing Horse Free Festival boss Alex Petty about it and tracked him down in Thailand, on his way to Australia for the comedy festivals out there.

Well, “tracked him down” is a slight exaggeration. I FaceTimed him in his hotel in Thailand.

“Which festivals are you going off to?” I asked.

A selfie by Alex Petty in Thailand

A selfie taken by Alex Petty in Thailand

“Perth Fringe World, then the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Comedy Festival,” he told me. “The Australian festivals are basically like a three-month long Edinburgh. I get back to the UK at the end of April or beginning of May, then it’s straight down to the Brighton Fringe. It’s non-stop on Fringes and Festivals these days.”

“Are you looking at any other ones?” I asked.

“We have an eye on doing maybe either New Zealand or Sydney… and we are looking at Glasgow and Leicester in the UK.”

After these polite starters, I asked about The Counting House.

The Gilded Balloon (where acts pay to perform and audiences pay to watch) had billed their newly-acquired Counting House venue as Pay-What-You-Want – free for audiences to enter and they can (if they like) pay at the end plus they can guarantee themselves a seat by buying a ticket in advance. But, whereas under the Free Festival, performers did not pay to hire the venue, the Gilded Balloon charged performers a hire fee and various other fees which meant the venue was free for audiences but relatively expensive for performers.

This cynical dog’s dinner got – it seems to me – the reception it deserved.

“My understanding,” I said to Alex Petty, “is that the bar did not take as much money under the Gilded Balloon at last year’s Fringe as it had at previous Fringes under the Free Festival. And the Gilded Balloon did not take as much money from the shows as they expected.”

“I don’t know the numbers,” replied Alex, “but I think it was pretty obvious to anyone going there that the venue was a lot quieter than expected. And a lot of the performers were saying that. The Counting House very kindly said they would like us to go back and offered it to us for this year.

“I think,” he continued, “that the Gilded Balloon, with the whole Pay-What-You-Want thing, tried to ride on the coat-tails of Bob Slayer (who created the concept), but it wasn’t really Pay-What-You-Want. People who went in told me that audiences were turning up expecting shows to be free and the Gilded Balloon staff were trying to get people to buy tickets in advance. In the end, the Gilded was trying to sell tickets up-front and there were not the same numbers of people hanging around that there had been in previous years.”

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet in Edinburgh

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet

The Counting House is part of a triple venue – three pubs next to each other all with the same owners – The Blind Poet downstairs, The Counting House upstairs and The Peartree downstairs with a courtyard.

“The venue is being renovated, isn’t it?” I asked.

“They’ve just started now,” Alex explained. “It sounds like what was The Blind Poet is going to become the back end of the Peartree bar and become a performance space like it was before but letting you walk through into the Peartree courtyard. That will also give people access up the inside stairs into the Counting House as well.  So, in the Counting House, there will be the Lounge and the Ballroom and, upstairs from them, the Attic and the Loft.”

I asked: “Is Brian going to be back sitting outside on a stool by a barrel?”

The pub’s manager Brian had tended to sit on the pavement outside the entrance, giving information to audiences and interested passers-by. This was missing last year with a swarm of (in my view) officious and often ill-informed people in Gilded Balloon tee-shirts. On one occasion, the Gilded Balloon ‘helper’ on the pavement thought the entrance to The Blind Poet was actually the (entirely separate) entrance to the Counting House.

“Brian was very keen to have us back,” said Alex. “He had put so much work into things the year before (2015) and it really pushed the venue on and we had had so many plans for last year (2016) which did not happen when the Gilded Balloon took it over.

“We are going to try to sort out a slightly better place for him to sit in the Edinburgh ‘summer’ weather. I think, for a lot of people, Brian and his barrel were two of the mainstays of the Fringe a couple of years ago.

“It was such a shame to lose it but I completely understand what the owners did. It was a business decision.”

“I’m glad it’s back,” I said.

“So am I,” said Alex.

The increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show will be held 11.00pm-01.00am in the Ballroom of The Counting House on Friday 25th August. And The Grouchy Club will be in The Lounge live every afternoon for the second half of the Fringe.

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree on West Nicholson Street, as seen on Google StreetView

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree’s courtyard wall beyond (Google Street View)

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How the longest-running comedy festival got started almost by accident

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff Rowe BEM with the 1994 and 2017 brochures

“So. It’s the longest running comedy festival in the world?” I asked.

“In Europe, is what we claim.”

“But almost certainly in the world?” I asked.

Geoff Rowe shrugged: “Probably.”

In 2013, he was awarded the British Empire Medal “for services to comedy”.

“So why did you start it when you were 22?” I asked.

“I came to Leicester to study for a degree in Arts Management at De Montfort University and, in our final year, we had to do a practical project. So, in the summer of 1993, our group sat around in the students’ union and we all read NME and, in 1993, NME put Newman and Baddiel on the front cover. I think that was the first time a non-musician had been on the front cover.”

“That was their Wembley concert?” I asked.

“Yes, their Wembley gigs,” said Geoff. “So somebody in our group – it wasn’t me – said: Why don’t we do a comedy festival? It sounded better than the other option: an Eastern European theatre festival.”

And that is how the Leicester Comedy Festival started in 1994.

“I had a house in Leicester,” Geoff explained, “to stay in over the summer and I knew two people who worked in comedy in London, rang them up and said: Tell me everything I need to know about comedy. I had seen comedy, but never booked it, never produced or promoted it. (He promoted his first concert, aged 13, in the local village hall.) Then, when my group came back from summer holidays, I had got the bones of the festival sorted. I had spoken to some agents and so on.

The first Festival programme with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

The very first Festival brochure in 1994 with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

“So we did the festival in 1994 and it worked quite well. Then I graduated and had no overwhelming desire to stay in Leicester but, equally, I didn’t move back to London again. So, with two university friends, I decided to do it again because it was great fun. There was quite a lot of support for it locally. Even in those days, the venues loved it.

“I kept doing it for about 7 or 8 years and it was the best fun I’ve ever had. It was great. There was no idea it would keep going but, every February, we invited comedians up, we messed around, we got drunk, had fun and it was fantastic.”

“Why February?” I asked. “Surely, after Christmas, no-one has any money?”

“Because we originally did it as part of our degree course and, afterwards, we had to write a report on what we had learned from the experience. So we worked back from the date we had to hand our report in and it was February. But, actually, it is a good time of year because, nationally, there is not much else happening for the media to notice. Also, venues earn loads of money in December and, if the end of your financial year is the end of March, which it mostly is, you get quite a lot of money in December and can then get another load in February.”

“I thought maybe the public had no money left in February,” I said.

“Well, we do sell 70% of our tickets after 25th January because no-one has any money until pay day in January. 100,000 people came last year, a third of them from outside Leicestershire. It’s worth £3 million to the local economy every year.”

“So lots of money to be made,” I suggested.

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff amid piles of new brochures ready for 2017

“People,” laughed Geoff, “used to describe it as my hobby, because I wasn’t earning any money out of it. I was earning money working in bars and in restaurants.”

“For around 7 or 8 years?” I asked.

“Yes. Then I thought: Maybe this is something that’s going to survive a bit longer and maybe there needs to be some proper organisation behind it. At that time, there was no regular staff, no regular office. Now Big Difference employs seven people all year round and then it needs more people to handle 800 shows in 19 days.”

“And no sponsorship,” I said, “until the TV channel Dave came on board.”

“We got some sponsorship locally.”

“Local restaurants?”

“That kind of thing. Nothing serious.”

“Sponsorship as in ads?”

“Yeah. And a bit of cash from the City Council. They’ve always been very supportive. For years, Leicester was never on the map. It has changed slightly because of Richard III and the football.”

“Has Richard III had an effect?” I asked.

“A huge effect on Leicester. That and the football,”

Richard III - a great promoter of comedy in Leicester

Richard III – a great local comedy promoter

In 2012, Richard III’s remains were found buried under a car park in Leicester and, in 2015, reburied with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral. Also in 2015, underdogs Leicester City Football Club (at one time the betting was 5,000 to 1) won the Premier League Championship.

“Leicester,” said Geoff, “was not seen as being groovy. Leeds, Brighton, Manchester were. We were under the radar for quite a long time. So getting sponsorship things was difficult for a long time. If we talked to national brands, they would say: No, if we want to do a campaign, we’ll go to Manchester or somewhere else. 

But then, five years ago, I met Steve North, the channel manager at Dave, and it was absolutely fantastic.”

“And now,” I said, “you have lost them as sponsors…”

“They’re still a sponsor of the festival,” Geoff corrected me, “but not a title sponsor. They’ve reduced their investment. When we started working with them, they did one or two shows each year. Now they are commissioning about 15 shows a year. So they need to spend their marketing money supporting their programmes.”

“And,” I asked, “you are looking for a more titley sponsor?”

“We are for 2018.”

“One of the Big Four Edinburgh Fringe venues – the Gilded Balloon,” I said, “tried Leicester but only for one year.”

“Yes,” said Geoff. “2011. That is one of the reasons why we now run for 19 days. When Karen Koren (who runs the Gilded Balloon) came, we were 10 days. There was really bad snow that year. So 50% of her programme – 5 days – were killed because the weather was atrocious. Karen said to me: If you want this to work and other people to come, you need to make the festival longer so if, in February, there is shit weather, if you have 19 days, it only knackers a third rather than half of your programme. So now we are 19 days. I was slightly nervous about making it so long, but it works better.”

“There are quite a few other comedy festivals around,” I prompted.

“But,” said Geoff, “the model for comedy festivals is often that either management companies or agents or club promoters start them. We don’t promote a regular club; we don’t manage or agent acts. And that makes us independent and we just focus on the festival.”

“And now Leicester has a bigger profile because of Richard III and the football?”

In the first Programme in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell Stewart Lee’s name

In the first brochure in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell comedian Stewart Lee’s name

“Yes. Leicester has changed massively and that has helped. People don’t ask where it is any more. When I started to book acts, at the very end of the conversation, people would say: Can you tell me – where exactly IS Leicester? Somebody told me the Brighton Comedy Festival would succeed and Leicester would fail because, they said: Brighton is just over an hour from London. And I pointed out: So is Leicester.”

“Why,” I asked, “have you lasted so long?”

The Leicester Comedy Festival brochure 2017

Next year’s 156-page Comedy Festival brochure

“Well,” said Geoff, “Big Difference Co Ltd is a registered charity and produces Leicester Comedy Festival. My motivation was never to make money. I want to create a really good festival: a vibrant, exciting festival that sustains itself. I’m serious. It sustains comedians; it helps develop them; it helps the local economy; it’s a good thing in itself, as opposed to some other festivals which are just purely about making money. Joking aside, we HAVE survived for 24 years and no other comedy festival in the UK has. Edinburgh is a general arts festival not a comedy festival. And I think we have survived because of the ethos we have had. If we were just going after money, I don’t think we would have survived so long.”

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The Edinburgh Fringe venue that doesn’t know where its own entrance is

Julie-Ann Laidlaw yesterday

Julie-Ann Laidlaw preparing yesterday

Yesterday, still zonked from my trip up to Edinburgh and not enlivened by six Red Bull drinks, I met Julie-Ann Laidlaw of Blond Ambition, who wanted me to plug her Vive La Variété show for the Cabaret vs Cancer charity this coming Sunday.

On the way to meet her, I bumped into the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge Claire Smith who told me The Scotsman is going to run a piece on me which quotes fellow Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Kate Copstick likening me to a “minah”.

I took this to mean a mynah bird, which tends to be rather noisy and annoying but, apparently she meant something else. I now presume possibly “minor”, but we shall wait to see what it says with anticipation.

But I digress.

Surely not.

“It was just after Bowie died,” Julie-Ann Laidlaw told me, Dusty Limits, Rose Thorne and Benjamin Louche set up a show in London – Ashes To Ashes – and donated all the ticket sales – over £5,000 – to Cabaret vs Cancer. Then they got in touch with me and asked if I would be their ambassador up here.

“Vive La Variété is on for the whole Fringe month and we have been collecting contributions in a bucket after each show but, on Sunday, we’re dedicating the whole show – all ticket sales – everything – to the charity.”

I asked: “Where does the Cabaret vs Cancer money go to?”

Vive La Variety also sells an all-nude charity calendar

Cabaret vs Cancer also sells a nude charity cabaret calendar

MacmillanCancer ResearchSt Joseph’s Hospice and St Joseph’s Bereavement Team for kids who have lost parents to cancer.

“I’ve got a few cabaret shows on throughout the Fringe, so I’ll take the bucket round them as well.”

“Shows such as?” I asked.

Cabaret Whore with Sarah-Louise Young, Doug Segal’s I Can Make You Feel Good, Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Four: Zis Time It’s War and Oh My Dad: Christ on a Bike with Jesus and his followers.”

“Does Christ still live in Glasgow?” I asked.

“Yes,” Julie-Ann confirmed. “I’ve got all those and The Illicit Thrill as well and over in Le Monde I have the Le Monde Cabaret hosted by Bruce Devlin and Fest on Forth at Harvey Nichols.”

“What does Christ do when he’s not being Christ?” I asked.

“He’s a dancer, a choreographer. He choreographs a lot of pantos.”

“Oh no he doesn’t,” I said.

No-one ever laughs when I say that, as I often do. I don’t know why. One of those things.

My personalised flyer from Thom Tuck

My personally illustrated flyer from Thom Tuck

It’s like very few people actually ever flyer me in the street. I think they glance at me and see some bloke well past his comedy-appreciating prime who will clearly never go to a Fringe show and is probably a former bank manager down on his luck and now shopping at Poundland.

Yesterday evening, as is often the case, I think I may have been the oldest person in the George Square Spiegeltent for the Edinburgh Festivals magazine launch. Even there, no-one flyered me except the ever-original and newly svelte Thom Tuck who was drawing individually-personalised flyers for his thom: foolery show.

There are some certainties amid the anarchy of the Fringe.

One is that it will rain.

A second is that people in the comedy industry will talk about Lewis Schaffer but not go to see his show.

Another is that I will rarely be flyered.

Mervyn Stutter in the street this morning

Mervyn Stutter was out the street this morning

And a third is that I will randomly bump into Mervyn Stutter in the street on the first day he arrives in Edinburgh. It happened again this morning. I took a photo of him. I think I have done this for the last three years and never used one.

Mervyn thinks that he rarely gets written about in my blog because – he believes – I am Lewis Schaffer’s personal blogger. “My show starts on Saturday,” Mervyn told me. “It’s my 25th year here.”

One day I may write about him. Both he and his Pick of The Fringe show are an Edinburgh institution.

Unlike the Gilded Balloon at The Counting House.

The Gilded Balloon’s Counting House The signposted entrance on the left on the left is not the entrance

The large entrance on the left is not the entrance to the venue. It’s actually the door on the right. I knew this; the staff didn’t.

This afternoon, I went to see my first show at The Counting House – dubiously and damagingly (for their reputation) taken over by the Gilded Balloon venue apparently after the owner approached them but against the wishes of the management. And comedians.

They have re-designed the outside of the building and it was interesting that the Gilded Balloon staff in the street did not know where the actual entrance to the venue was – they mis-directed me next door.

The upside once I was in and avoided the deadly step in the pitch dark venue room was that Katia Kvinge’s Squirrel show was… well… extraordinary… a proper smorgasbord of energy, intermingling a character comedy show and a ‘confessional’ autobiographical show. If she can keep this level of adrenaline-fuelled anarchy going, people will be going back day after day to see it.

If they could bottle this energy, it would become a drug of choice and be made illegal.

KatiaKvinge_Squirrel

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Gilded Balloon venue’s deal excretes on the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe

Like Malcolm, a unique one-off

Publicity for the 2012 Hardee annual show

We hope to stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show this year, as usual, on the final Friday of the Edinburgh Fringe – 26th August – but not in its normal venue of the Counting House Ballroom.

This is because, today, The Gilded Balloon (a pay-to-enter venue) has ‘poached’ The Counting House venue(s) – including the Pear Tree and Blind Poet – from the Laughing Horse Free Festival and so we are looking for a new venue in which to host both the increasingly prestigious (but now homeless) Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and for the daily Grouchy Club.

I am saddened that the Gilded Balloon has taken this decision to poach three free venues. In a blog chat with me in 2012, Gilded Balloon venue runner Karen Koren said:

Karen Loren inside the Gilded Balloon

Karen Loren inside Gilded Balloon venue

“I did have another venue called The Counting House at the beginning of the 1990s. I named it The Counting House because that’s where they counted the money above the Pear Tree pub and that was around the time I gave up my full-time position as the PA to the Norwegian Consul-General in Edinburgh.”

But that link with The Counting House was over twenty years ago.

It in no way mitigates this new cynical and amoral move – that the Gilded Balloon has intentionally ‘stolen’ three existing venues painstakingly built-up over the last nine years by the Laughing Horse Free Festival – rather than find and build-up a profile for a new venue of its own.

It is a cynical and amoral move that is in no way in the spirit of the Fringe. And it echoes last year’s unforgivably venal and vicious move by the PBH Free Fringe in knowingly financially fucking-over acts in the Cowgatehead venue dispute. (Copious blogs about it last year.)

Wreaths on the hearse at Malcolm Hardee's funeral

Relevant wreath at Mr Hardee’s funeral

Ironically, when the shit hit the fans of Cowgatehead last year, it was the Laughing Horse Free Festival, Bob Slayers’ Heroes venues, Just The Tonic and The Pleasance pay venue who helped out the suddenly homeless acts.

Now The Gilded Balloon has shat on the Laughing Horse’s Free Festival and the acts already booked into the Counting House, the Pear Tree and the Blind Poet.

This cynical move is all the sadder because the first Malcolm Hardee Awards were presented at the Gilded Balloon, its owner Karen Koren staged a Malcolm tribute show at the Gilded Balloon in the year of his death and, at her own cost, she produced a Malcolm tribute video in the year of his death (2005).

As far as I am aware, the Gilded Balloon’s tenure during the Edinburgh Fringe at its Teviot building is still renewed on a year-by-year basis, so what they have done logically means that they could have no objection if other operators put in higher bids for the Teviot building at the 2017, 2018 etc Fringes.

Once you start shitting on people and fucking-over the spirit of the Fringe, the consequences can be incalculable.

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Edinburgh Fringe: suicide & drugs for breakfast, laughter & tears for comedy

So which, I hear you cry, Edinburgh Fringe shows did I see yesterday?

Pasta la vista - Ali Price

Pasta la vista – Ali Brice as his Fringe show alter ego Eric Meat

Ali Brice Presents: Eric Meat Has No Proof, Only Memories of Pasta
Everything you would expect from one of the absurdist Weirdos collective. Plus the chance to take a bite out of an apple.

Liz Fraser: Lifeshambles
Perfect example of a new Fringe genre: attractive, intelligent women (usually not circuit comedians) of around 40 impeccably performing shows about the arrival of their mid-life years.

The Gilded Balloon press show

The Gilded Balloon press show last night

Abigail Schamaun: Post-Coital Confessions
Does what it says on the label and is pitch-perfect. Sexy enough not to disappoint, presented to a mostly middle class audience without them being offended.

The Gilded Balloon Press Launch Show
30th anniversary taster of this year’s shows by arguably the Fringe’s most technically proficient venue. Standout comedy acts yesterday were both Irish – Al Porter and Aisling Bea.

No swinging cats in this shower

No swinging cats in this small shower room


So now today’s blog…

The flat where I am currently staying during the Edinburgh Fringe has no bath, only a cramped shower. This is a drawback for me, as I find it comforting to lie back in hot bathwater and wallow in grains of my own dirt. It is a bit like watching dust particles float in the air through shafts of sunlight – you are literally watching the world decay around you.

Yesterday morning’s shower was interrupted by a phone call from BBC Radio Wales at 10.10am asking me if I wanted to take part at 10.30am in a discussion on learning foreign languages. Well, that is not quite true. I missed the call and picked up an answerphone message at 10.45am, too late to take part in the show. The offer was a tad bizarre, as I speak no foreign languages of any kind. Apparently I was on their list because, a couple of years ago, I slagged-off the frankly unnecessary Welsh language on some BBC Radio Wales show.

Highly prestigious comedy critic Kate Copstick and I are sharing the flat this year. She, of course, is not phoned-up by the likes of BBC Radio Wales. She gets phoned up to do 4 minute interviews on Sky News. This morning, she was dragged out to the Royal Mile at 8.15am to be asked if Dicing With Dr Death was a suitable show for the Fringe.

Kate Copstick on Sky News this morning

Kate Copstick expressed her views on Sky News this morning

In the show – billed as comedy – Philip Nitschke of the controversial suicide advice group Exit talks about suicide. I blogged about the show back in January and February this year when comedian Mel Moon was to co-present it. She and Philip subsequently split over creative differences and she is now in her own show Sick Girl.

This morning on Sky News, Copstick said: “I think everyone ought to have the right to die. We have lots and lots of rights nowadays. I have the right to become a man tomorrow, more or less. But I don’t have the right to be assisted to end my life with dignity and without pain. And I think that’s something we should be talking about… This is comedy to help people. He’s not making fun of anything; he’s not making light of anything. He is putting his information in a more accessible place.”

Kate Copstick’s breakfast yesterday morning

Kate Copstick’s breakfast yesterday morning

Copstick came back to the flat in agony last night.

When I first heard she had the disease lupus, I thought it meant she turned into a wolf on a regular basis. Some of the acts she reviews may have suspected the same thing.

In fact, it is not. It just means she is in pain almost all of the time.

Yesterday was our first breakfast. I had toast. She had six tablets: she needs hyper-strong painkillers for her lupus.

Lewis Schaffer manages to promote one of his while still talking to Ivor Dembina

Lewis Schaffer (left) manages to promote one of his shows while continuing a conversation with Ivor Dembina

After this, yesterday morning, I bumped into comedian Lewis Schaffer in the Fringe Central building and then we both bumped into comedian Ivor Dembina. There is a lot of bumping in Edinburgh at this time of year. I will only repeat one sentence from the ensuing conversation – when Ivor Dembina said to Lewis Schaffer:

“The last thing I want is a lecture on ophthalmics from Lewis Schaffer.”

I think the quote gains from having no context.

Alex Dallas’ Edinburgh fringe flyer

Alex Dallas’ subtle Edinburgh Fringe flyer

Shortly afterwards, Canada-based comic Alex Dallas came and sat with us. Ivor asked for her first impression of Lewis Schaffer, whom she had never met before.

“He is a silver fox with dimples,” she said. “He’s a ladykiller.”

“Dimples?” I asked. “It’s like flying over Cambodia and seeing the bomb craters left by B-52 bombers in the Vietnam War.”

No-one laughed.

Charmian Hughes spots Alex Dallas

Charmian Hughes spots Alex Dallas yesterday

At this point, comedian Charmian Hughes arrived. Conversation soon turned (I did not introduce the subject) to late comedian Malcolm Hardee. Alex had memories, when she lived in London, of him paying her £40 after a performance, then asking her to loan him £20 to pay another comedian; Charmian said she had untold stories of her relationship with Malcolm in her current show When Comedy Was Alternative (The Laughs And Loves Of A She-Comic).

Before she moved to Canada in the 1990s, Alex had been in the female comedy group Sensible Footwear.

“There were,” she reminisced, “a whole lot of women’s troupes back in the 1980s. There were the Scarlet Harlots, the Frank Chickens, Spare Tyre, the Cunning Stunts…”

Alex Dallas with Ivor Dembina yesterday

Alex Dallas with her old(-ish) friend Ivor Dembina yesterday

“That,” said Charmian, “was the first workshop I ever went with. I had to go in a corner and be a rock for an hour. It was my first dramatic experience. It was the happiest hour I’ve ever had in my life.”

“The 1980s were good,” said Alex.

“That’s what my show is about,” said Charmian. “My tagline is now: Did I get off with you in the 1980s? Did I stalk you in the 1990s? If so, you are in my show.”

Lewis Schaffer and Ivor Dembina left. Then Alex Dallas and Charmian Hughes left. Just as I was about to leave, I got an e-mail from TV producer Danny Greenstone. It was headed: The Phantom Raspberry Blower. It read:


Danny Greenstone

Danny Greenstone – blowing phantom raspberries

Believe it or not (and I couldn’t blame you if it’s “not”) I have been asked to direct my first ever London West End stage play. It’s a staging of a radio performance of what was the last ever written – but unperformed – Goon Show. So it will be a bit like the way Round The Horne Revisited was staged.

The producers have launched a Kickstarter project to raise additional funds for the show – There’s absolutely no pressure and no obligation and no dead fish wrapped up in newspaper will turn up at your door… it’s an opportunity if you’d like it.

Kickstarting for extra funds Goon Show

The un-performed Goons show: Kickstarting for extra funds

If you wish to investigate further, here’s the link.

And there we have it. You, too, can be part of The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London Town which opens its cloak at the St. James Studio Theatre in London on 30th October 2015.


Alice Fraser - a law unto herself

“…all the horrible things that had been happening in my life”

After reading this, I tried to leave Fringe Central again, but I was accosted by someone I did not recognise. It turned out to be Australian comic Alice Fraser, about whose preview show, Copstick raved in last weekend’s Grouchy Club Podcast. Alice had recognised me from the (occasionally videoed) Podcast.

“That show Copstick saw,” Alice told me, “was less of a try-out than she thought it was.”

When Copstick saw Alice’s Savage preview – the one she raved about – Alice had just flown from Australia with a 45-minute stopover in Singapore, got off the plane in London and virtually gone straight to perform the show in Shepherd’s Bush.

Alice Fraser: Copstick raved about the show

Alice Fraser: Copstick raved about the show she previewed…

“I was incredibly jet lagged,” Alice told me yesterday, “so the show was more of a mess than it would normally be, but all the bits were meant to be there. It was like doing it in a dream. The audience were mostly my friends from ten years ago. All these faces from my past, smiling dimly at me while I told them all the horrible things that had been happening in my life.”

Alice’s show has audiences both laughing and crying.

“You were here ten years ago?” I asked.

“I went to university here in 2007.”

“Which university?”

“Cambridge.”

“What did you study there?”

“English Literature. Rhetoric.”

“Specifically rhetoric?” I asked.

“Specifically rhetoric. I did a Masters.”

“What was your BA in?” I asked.

Alice’s show has had audiences both laughing and crying

Alice’s show has had audiences both laughing and crying

“My BA was at Sydney University in English and Law. I used to be a lawyer – I was in corporate real estate – and I quit it to become a comedian. The thing about Law is how do people believe that one thing is a crime and something else is not a crime? How do you make them really believe that?”

“You wanted to be a public speaker?” I asked.

“No. I was just interested in how people communicate and more how people get ideas.”

“What is Rhetoric?” I asked. “Just learning about Greek people and a few politicians?”

“Anything. Comedy is really interesting when it comes to rhetoric. You can break it down in incredibly nerdy ways if you want to. Comedy is persuasive speech in itself. You are persuading people (A) that you are funny and (B) that they should laugh at any given joke. Any joke is persuading you of a number of things both of the content of the joke and that the joke itself IS a joke and that it’s funny and worth laughing at.”

A street poster for Alice’s Savage show

A street poster for Alice’s Savage show

“So,” I said, “you are an ex-lawyer and you are interested in rhetoric and therefore you are very together and therefore you are not the normal sort of mad comedian.”

“I AM the mad comedian,” insisted Alice. “I’m just projecting a shield of togetherness.”

“And your show?” I asked.

“I don’t want easy answers. The show is about somebody offering me an easy answer and how infuriating I found it – to be offered an easy answer to an incredibly complicated situation.”

As I said, Alice’s show has audiences both laughing and crying. Copstick raved about it. I have not yet seen it. I am going to see it. It is titled Savage.

That’s life.

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Juliette Burton (a cow) complicates Edinburgh Fringe venues even more

Busy Juliette Burton arrives at King’s Cross

Busy Juliette Burton, King’s Cross

The Edinburgh Fringe venues in August are already guaranteed to be a mess with the Cowgatehead debacle (subject of already too many earlier blogs) meaning many ‘free’ shows will be in the wrong venues and/or at the wrong times or will not exist at all.

Now I have discovered even some ‘pay’ venues will be slightly confusing.

I met Juliette Burton at King’s Cross station to talk about her updated Look at Me show which is being previewed at the Leicester Square Theatre tomorrow night and Thursday night.

“I’ve been adding extra bits to it because of recent newsworthy events,” she told me.

“All that hoo-hah about the ‘beach ready’ ads?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m impressed,” I told Juliette, “that you are not mentioning the product name. The yellow thing we don’t name so they don’t get unnecessary publicity. You wrote about it in Standard Issue and the Huffington Post.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “And it highlights the issues that are brought up in Look at Me. I’ve also been adding in jokes and making it more about me.”

“And,” I said, “you’re taking it back to the Gilded Balloon venue at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.”

“Yes. I’m doing it at the Gilded Balloon for six days, but the Pleasance Dome is housing me and a couple of other people.”

“What?” I said. “You are not actually in the Gilded Balloon building itself?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I’m not exactly sure. It’s called The Gilded Balloon Study, but it’s housed in the Pleasance Dome.”

Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon and Anthony Alderson of the Pleasance

Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon and Anthony Alderson of the Pleasance venues – civilised, amiable Fringe competitors

The Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance are two competing venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. As far as I understand it, the Gilded Balloon’s old press office was going to be turned into a venue this year, but there were problems and the Pleasance venue next door helped out by providing space.

“I’m just happy it’s all so amicable,” Juliette told me. “It’s nice when people work together to overcome obstacles.”

“Yes it is,” I said. “Is that all you’re doing in Edinburgh this year, apart from competing in the annual Russian Egg Roulette Championships at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 28th August?”

(The Edinburgh Fringe is all about blatant promotion.)

“Well, I’m also doing Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour at the Jekyll & Hyde pub for one week and some shows with Abnormally Funny People.”

“Why are you appearing with Abnormally Funny People?” I asked. “You’re not disabled.”

“Because I’ve got mental health problems.”

“Surely that doesn’t count?’

“It’s a disability,” said Juliette. “There are lots of disabilities that are invisible. I always used to feel quite nervous about classing it as a disability.

“I’ve also been nominated for the National Diversity Awards 2015. I’ve been nominated by somebody else, but I have to put together evidence that I am, in fact, a role model for diversity.”

“Diversity” I asked, “is what?”

“It’s about breaking down barriers and encouraging people to embrace everybody, no matter what they look like or what they’ve been through.”

“If you want to embrace everybody, you should team up with Patrick Monahan,” I suggested. “So why are you diverse?”

“Because I’m a nutter. But I’m keen to be less of a campaigner and more of a comedy person now. I’m nominated for the Funny Women Awards on 23rd June. And my videos from MCM ComicCon are coming out soon.”

“You were dressed as your short film character SuperMum, weren’t you?” I asked

Juliette burton - coming soon as supreme

Juliette – also available in different costumes, including cow

“The SuperMum screening was at MCM ComicCon,” said Juliette, “but I was running round dressed as lots of different characters – Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy,  a cow…”

“A cow?” I asked.

“I was running round ComicCon interviewing people for VidFest UK.”

“A cow?” I repeated.

“A cow,” confirmed Juliette.

“A cow normally requires two people,“ I pointed out to her.

“I am two people,” she said. “I give you two for the price of one. I was the whole cow. Actually, weirdly, that was the costume I felt most at home in.”

“Your udder-worldly character?” I asked.

“Very good,” said Juliette, unconvincingly. “My milk shake brought all the boys to the yard… I’m recording another audio book for the RNIB in July.”

“Another Mills & Boon?” I asked.

“No. It’s a dark thriller with murder in it.”

“You should be a PR,” I suggested. “But you are so busy you probably don’t have the time.”

“Do you want me to tell you about my dental appointment and/or my lump?” Juliette asked.

“Probably not,” I said.

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How comedian Malcolm Hardee lost his virginity & then got stabbed in the back

Malcolm Hardee (left) at Christmas

Blessed Malcolm Hardee (left) in his early life

Yesterday’s blog was about the stage show which celebrated the death – ten years ago – of comedian Malcolm Hardee.

Well, ‘celebrated’ might not be the right word. But you know what I mean.

In debonair comedy critic Bruce Dessau’s review of the show, he called me Malcolm Hardee’s “enigmatic biographer”.

I enjoyed this description so much I may use it in publicity for something-or-other. Though I have no idea what. I may bung it on my increasingly prestigious website. Self-publicity was something Malcolm Hardee specialised in.

Anyway, I was not Malcolm’s biographer. It was his autobiography I wrote – in his own words and with his own title – I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

The amazon.co.uk description of the book still erroneously and surreally reads: “For successful classroom teaching, your students need to be engaged and active learners. In this book, there is practical advice that is grounded in the realities of teaching in today’s classrooms on how to be an inspirational teacher and produce highly motivated students.” 

This may explain why the book is out of print now. But I might re-publish it at some point. Perhaps I may crowdfund it. To quote one of Malcolm’s occasional questions: “Anyone want to lend me a tenner? Only for half an hour. I’ll give it back.”

Sometimes the unwary would give him a tenner.

In this extract from I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, Malcolm tells the tale of when he lost his virginity. He was always losing things. He lost a music tape of mine once. I glowered at him. He was a sensitive man who got unsettled whenever people glowered at him. Which was not infrequent. At these points, he used to blink a lot.

Here is Malcolm in his own words:


I Stole Freddie Mercy’sBirthday Cake

Patron sinner of alternative comedy

My first proper girlfriend was Pamela Crew. I lost my virginity on my sixteenth birthday. So did she, though it wasn’t her sixteenth birthday. Then we got engaged but it was a very up and down relationship. I bought a ring and then we had a row on a 94 bus about something. I didn’t used to have rows, but she did. She threw the ring back at me and I later lost it. She never believed me – she thought I sold it – but I didn’t.

I was engaged from 16 right through to about 20 and I was completely faithful to her. We were almost exactly the same age. She was a nice girl. She went to Prendergast, which was the sister school to Colfes.

After we had been together about six months or a year, we learnt to exploit her father’s regular habits. He was a builder. He was the nearest South East London could get to Alf Garnett, a very disappointed man because he wanted a boy and Pamela was one of four daughters. His routine was that he’d do his day’s building, then, at 8.00pm, go round to the Summerfield Arms pub at the end of their street and every night he’d come home at 11.15pm and go to bed. So I used to go and visit Pamela Crew when he was out and sometimes we’d have sex in the front room when her mother and all her younger sisters had gone to bed.

This one night, her father came back at 10.50pm and looked in. I was lying on top of Pam on the floor in front of the fire, banging away. He shut the door behind him and she went out and talked to him. She was in tears and he said to me:

“You’ve made your own bed, now you can lie on it!”

I didn’t like to point out that we didn’t actually use a bed.

Her mother always had a bit of a soft spot for me, but her father just thought I was completely mad and alien. I went round there once on a white horse which I got from Mottingham Riding Stables. I thought This will impress Pamela and her dad answered the door.

“Hello,” I said. “Is Pam in?”

He said: “Bugger off, you silly fucker.”

And that was that.

For some reason, I took the horse up to Blackheath and just left it tethered to a tree. There was a  piece in The South East London Mercury later that week, headed THE MYSTERY OF THE WHITE HORSE.

I once got Pam on the front cover of the local paper as ‘Miss June’. It was in the days before feminism, so she was sitting in the swimming baths with her tits half-hanging out. That impressed her. The fact that I’d contacted the press.

When I left school, after taking my ‘O’ Levels in 1966, my first job was at a thriving advertising agency called Saward Baker at 79 New Cavendish Street in the West End. I started working as a messenger, as people did in those days, thinking you were going to progress up the line and become Mr Big at the top. I definitely wanted to be in advertising. It was a ‘glamorous’ profession. We all wanted to be copywriters or advertising executives. I was the bee’s knees, working in the West End: Malc the Mod, earning my living. My first weekly wage packet held £7-6s-8d (£7.33p in today’s money).

I worked at the ad agency with a bloke called Rod Stewart – but not Rod Stewart the singer. Like me, he was a messenger and a Mod and he had his own motor scooter. We once got stopped by the police going back to where he lived in Pratts Bottom, near Orpington in Kent. The policeman asked him his name.

“Rod Stewart,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” said the copper. “Where do you live?”

“Pratts Bottom.”

We almost got arrested on the spot.

One hot summer day, we went over to Regents Park for the lunch hour. I had a platonic friend called Diane Ainsley who was going out with a bloke called Ray Mitchell. So he came over to the park as well. We were just lying on the grass, I turned over on my front to get a bit of suntan and he threw a knife in my back. It probably went about half an inch into me and stuck there.

I was a bit shocked. He just did it with no emotion or anything. He didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask why he’d done it because it was known he was a bit mad. He must have taken the knife back and he went away. It didn’t hurt. When I got back to work, they all asked what had happened, because there was lots of blood coming out. My shirt was covered in blood. The first aid kit was out and someone stuck a plaster on it.

Another time, I was travelling with Ray Mitchell on a tube train. I was just sitting there, he got up and, for no reason at all, tried to deliver a karate kick right into the middle of my face. It narrowly missed and he sat down again. Never said anything. He just went like that occasionally. He lived in Blackheath and he was probably the first violent psychopath I had met.

He wasn’t a friend of mine. Just someone who was about.

About to stab me. About to kick me.


There is much more of that sort of stuff in Malcolm’s autobiography. He did not lead a dull life.

This year, as normal, the annual increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards will be presented in his honour at the Edinburgh Fringe, during a two-hour variety show on Friday 28th August.

Currently on YouTube, there is a ten-minute tribute to Malcolm, produced by Karen Koren of Edinburgh’s Gilded Balloon venue:

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