Tag Archives: golden age

Scots comedians, Daniel Kitson, Eddie Izzard, Jerry Sadowitz and two lesbians

Is this bearded man only 12 years old?

Liam Lonergan with microphone or vegetable?

In yesterday’s blog, I printed part of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan who is compiling a portfolio of long-form articles on stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Here is another extract:

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Liam: I was reading articles about how, in the 1980s, students would get housing benefits or income grants, whereas now it’s more fees not grants. Do you think the fees incurred by universities and students nowadays hinder an active student stand-up scene?

John: No. Because, when you’re talking about students doing stand-up, the thing you’re really talking about is the Edinburgh Fringe and the last seven or ten years the Free Fringe and the Free Festival have been around and that allows anyone to do what they used to do. Though there is a bizarre thing that the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comedians because they say comedy isn’t an art. So they’ll give grants to artists, to ballet dancers, to singers, to musicians but the English Arts Council won’t give grants to comics because comedy isn’t an art.

Liam: Do you think that there’s a richer comedy heritage in Scotland, maybe? Where they consider it an art or…

Rikki Fulton was not in the audience as he is dead

Rikki Fulton – with a slight smile

John: Er, I dunno. Scottish and English comedy? Well, Scottish comedy’s more straight-faced. I remember watching Scotch and Wry – it was a BBC TV series with Rikki Fulton. I had heard about it for years but never seen it and I first saw it when I was working at the UK Gold TV channel in England. I watched an episode and loved it and came down and said to everyone: “Ah! I’ve just watched Scotch and Rye and isn’t it just…” And everyone said “Yeah, isn’t it absolute shit”. And I thought “Isn’t that interesting”. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and they all thought it was shit I think because it was done straight-faced. It was almost Scandinavian. Rikki Fulton doesn’t smile. None of them did, none of the performances were ‘comedy’ performances. All were straight-faced.

Liam: Do you prefer that rather than with a wink?

John: I dunno if it’s a Scottish thing it’s usually straight-faced. I remember – this is irrelevant – I remember being in Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and listening to two tramps sitting on the ground and they were so funny. I mean, they were SO funny. But they were just talking normally to each other. I mean, they weren’t actually ‘being funny’ – it was just their natural speech rhythm and attitude. It was sarcasm or something. Anyway, sorry. I’ve gone off the subject.

Liam: Do you consider there was a golden era for comedy?

John: Nah. The golden era is whenever you were in your teens.

Liam: More receptive to comedy?

John: Teens or early twenties. I mean, the golden era for my parents was the Wartime and just after: ITMA.

Liam: Everyone’s got an era from when they were in their twenties, I suppose.

John: I think what sort of happens with humour is people watch television comedy when they’re teenagers or children because they’re stuck at home. And then they go to college and they don’t watch that much television really – unless it’s daytime television – because they go out and get pissed in the evenings – and then they come back to it when they’re trapped at home with children in their late twenties/early thirties. So there’s a ten year gap and, therefore, the golden era is before that ten year gap – before you stopped watching comedy. When you come back to it ten years later, it never feels quite the same. When was your golden era? What age were you? I mean to me you only look about 12 now.

Liam: Well, I’m 24 now. I remember saving up tokens to get this VHS tape from The Sun newspaper that had loads of bits of Fawlty Towers on it.

John: And, of course, you’re a freak because you’re interested in the craft of comedy. You’re not an ordinary person.

Tony Hancock from a ‘golden era’ or comedy

Tony Hancock – big in a ‘golden era’ of comedy

Liam: I might be an anomaly in that regard. I was watching Hancock’s Half Hour when I was younger and Peter Cook and listening to Derek and Clive. I mean, I don’t know. I was very big on The Office thing but that might be because that came about when I was old enough to properly appreciate the ligaments of comedy.

Another thing… I call it ‘The Daniel Kitson Dichotomy’. He’s someone who seems to sort of espouse a separatist fringe comedy spirit – “I’m a fringe comedian” – But, when you go to get Daniel Kitson tickets, you’re usually on the phone to arts centre switchboards for 45 minutes trying to get through the Daniel Kitson flashmob – because he’s got a sort of business model that is quite profitable. Can he really consider himself a fringe comedian anymore?

John: I thought it was very clever marketing when he, in his early days at the Edinburgh Fringe, would have posters and flyers just saying “Daniel Kitson is on at (wherever)” and appear not to be doing an advert because that’s the best sort of advert. It was a bit like Eddie Izzard kept going on for years about how he couldn’t get on or didn’t want to be on television and he got enormous amounts of publicity by actually not being on television. He said he wanted to write a sitcom about cows which was unfilmable and would never, ever be done. Eventually it was done and it was absolute shit but, of course, it was great publicity to say you were never going to be on television.

Comedian Jerry Sadowitz (left) in Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness, a 1990 show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB

Comedian Jerry Sadowitz (left) in Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness, a 1990 show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB

It can backfire on you, because Malcolm Hardee managed Jerry Sadowitz in his early days and he did brilliantly at marketing him as the foul-mouthed comedian who could never be on television. This built up brilliantly and Jerry became famous for being untransmittable. But the downside of it was that television producers ‘knew’ they could not even consider him because they ‘knew’ he could not be put on television. So he never actually got to the point beyond almost being on television – not until much later.

Jerry is interesting because last time I saw him do a full-length stand-up show was about six years ago and I thought “Surely he can’t be as offensive anymore” because comedy has moved on.  Lots of people do the offensive thing. But he still managed to be jaw-droppingly offensive. Extraordinary. Very impressive. He’s brilliant.

Liam: I’m not someone who’s easily phased but when I saw him in Leicester Square Theatre I was quite shocked…I didn’t expect myself to be.

John: I always thought that (but it might not be true) maybe I helped him get on mainstream television because, before he did a late night magic show for Channel 4 (The Other Side of Gerry Sadowitz on Channel 4), I produced a one-off one-hour stand-up show called The Last Laugh With Jerry Sadowitz, for Noel Gay Television/BSB (in 1990).

I talked to him beforehand and said: “BSB don’t really mind about swearing but try not to do too much. You can probably have about four ‘fucks’ and a ‘cunt’ if you’re lucky so try and keep it back. But don’t let it interfere with your flow…” And he did a one-hour, fast-talking show with not a single fuck or cunt in it. I never thought he could do it because I thought the swearing was part of the rhythm of his speech. But he managed to do it without any fucks or cunts at all.

Liam: Did he still get a good response from it without the swear words in?

John: Yeah, it was a wonderful show. Though he did pick on two lesbians in the audience and then he was surprised when they came up to him after the show and berated him. They were so annoyed and offended. He had really gone for them during the show. And he was telling them afterwards: “But it’s just… it’s just comedy. It’s just an act. It’s only comedy”. He didn’t quite see that people could take it more – ehhh – more personally.

He was just a comedian. It was just comedy.

… CONTINUED HERE

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BBC: “You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Ireland”

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

As I am currently on jury service in a city somewhere in England, I was interested to hear last night a quote from Robert Mark who became Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1972. He said his ambition was to “arrest more criminals than we employ”.

He seems to have failed.

The quote came up last night, when TV and film producer Tony Garnett was talking at at London’s National Film Theatre.

The second best drama I have ever seen on British TV

The second best drama series I have ever seen on British TV

Tony Garnett was responsible for The Cops, the second-best drama I have ever seen on British television.

The best was John Hopkins’ Talking To A Stranger, directed by Christopher Morahan, who was also in the NFT audience last night.

On television, Tony Garnett produced – among many, many other influential dramas – Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope and the series Law and Order, This Life and The Cops.

Last night, he said that, when he worked at the BBC and produced some of his most acclaimed shows, “the BBC had a very different management theory. It wasn’t perfect then and one’s freedom was very limited but they did, to some extent, believe in ‘producer power’.”

He then went on to say:

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They thought producers were basically ‘good chaps’ – there were one of two chapesses – and, if you had a problem, you should refer upwards. I never thought I had a problem. I was given a fair amount of freedom. You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Northern Ireland and so on, but you could find a way through.

What’s happened since the 1990s is that everything in this country’s been Thatcherised and management’s right to manage predominates.

Management is one of the great con tricks of the 20th century. A number of people have made a lot of money out of it, including managers and (the management consulting firm) McKinsey’s.

McKinsey’s have a phrase. They say If you can measure it, you can manage it.

The problem with the BBC is that what it’s there to do is be creative and you can’t measure creativity. You just can’t do it. You can say something’s really good if it lasts a century or two but, apart from that, you can’t measure it. So big trouble.

Huw Wheldon (BBC TV Managing Director) in the 1970s – and I’ve only got his word for it – told me they had asked McKinsey’s to come in to the BBC and, after a while, with their extremely expensive chaps roaming round the BBC, the boss man came to Huw and asked: Could you tell me, Mr Wheldon, how many actual decision makers do you have at the BBC? I mean people who can actually take decisions about the product. 

Huw said: Well, we have several hundred producers…

And the man said: Yes, I thought so. I’m afraid we can’t help you.

But the management at the BBC now is so tight and there are so many layers of management that the pyramid is a bit like The Shard.

The BBC has now taken on the shape of The Shard in London

The BBC is now the shape of London’s Shard

So you have lots and lots of people who can tell you what you must not do. And lots of people supervising you at each stage. That is the enemy of creativity.

One problem with the BBC, like the problem with much else in our culture – and this is more in Current Affairs and News than in drama – is that the BBC concentrates on one borough of London called Westminster and makes programmes for people who live in two or three other boroughs – Notting Hill, Islington…

The whole of the rest of the country is completely ignored.

Occasionally, they’ll go and make a programme in Doncaster and they’ll send Jeremy and Emily, who come from a very nice family, and they’ll send them out like visiting anthropologists to either come back with very sympathetic portraits or maybe to laugh at all these Chavs who are not like ‘us’.

I’d like some kids from Doncaster to go to Canary Wharf and make a film about the people there. But the traffic’s all one-way and I think it’s a great, great pity and a dereliction of the BBC’s responsibility, because we live in a very diverse society – in all sorts of ways diverse – and the BBC’s main job is to consult a national conversation.

Particularly in drama, because the beauty of drama is that it allows you to empathise with others: to say Oh, I felt like that. These people are not so different from us.

The BBC have made a very good start at Salford (in the new Media City) but they really ought to fight against London-itis and realise that they are representing and a part of this whole diverse country.

I think the BBC is very important. That’s why I criticise it. If there’s a great institution that has many enemies, one of the problems is that we tend to want to draw the wagons into a circle to defend it – the same is happening with the NHS now.

I think that is a mistake.

The more you love the BBC and the more valuable you think it is – imperfect as it is – the more you should criticise it. Society’s changing all the time. Technology’s changing all the time. The BBC won’t stand still. It will get worse or it will get better and we’ve got to push it to be better all the time. It’s no good just defending it.

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