Tag Archives: Harry Hill

Ellis and Rose chat to me with Guinness hair but do not have a car made of cake

Ellis and Rose and the Guinness hair

Ellis and Rose in a Pret a Manger that is just about to close

We met at a Pret a Manger in London’s Soho.

“What are you plugging?” I asked. “Harry Hill?”

“Yup,” said Rose.

“Shall we get the plug out of the way?” asked Ellis.

“OK,” I said.

So Harry Hill is appearing in Ellis & Rose’s Brainwash Club evening at the Backyard Comedy Club in London’s Bethnal Green this coming Wednesday. The bill also includes the Birthday Girls, James Hamilton, Lipstick & Wax, Tim Renkow and Mr Susie… And Ellis and Rose.

“He’s been on before, hasn’t he?” I asked. “Harry Hill.”

“Yeah,” said Ellis, “in February.”

“I think I was there,” I said. “I have a shit memory.”

“Yeah,” said Rose, “you drew on your knee.”

“I drew on my knee?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Rose. “We got you up on stage and everyone drew on their knees during the interval.”

“Were you heavily sedated?” Ellis asked me.

“We threw felt-tip pens into the audience,” Rose reminded me.

“No,” I said. “I don’t remember any of that at all. This Pret a Manger closes in ten minutes. Give me two bizarre anecdotes and that’s the blog done and you can piss off.”

Jon Brittain (right) with John Kearns

Perhaps I HAVE met John Kearns. I have a photo of Jon Brittain (right) with John Kearns

“The other day,” Ellis said, “John Kearns told me that I should rock up for this chat with you in a car made of cake.”

“Rock up?” I asked. “Is that what the kids on the street are saying nowadays?”

“Yes,” said Ellis. “Do you want an anecdote or not?”

“I have to insert myself,” I explained, “otherwise people might think I just slavishly copy down other people’s lines.”

“You didn’t take issue,” Ellis pointed out, “with having a car made of cake. Only with ‘rock up’. What does that say about you?”

“It says,” I replied, “that I am a man who cares about words but not about you.”

“…or content,” suggested Rose.

“…or cake,” said Ellis.

“I have never met John Kearns,” I said. “I seem to have met everyone who ever went to university with him, but never him.”

“So?” Rose asked.

“Nice hair,” I told Ellis.

“I think he looks like a half pint of Guinness,” said Rose.

Gareth Ellis with his Guinness hair

It’s Ellis: a man with a Guinness hairstyle

“Do you want some style advice?” Ellis asked me.

“Yes.”

“Get a beret.”

“Are you doing the Edinburgh Fringe next year?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Ellis replied.

“And next year,” Rose added, “we have a producer and director for the first time. Can we talk about our…”

“No,” I said. “This Pret a Manger closes in ten minutes.”

“…about what has changed,” Ellis completed.

“We’ve got new suits,” explained Rose.

“Why?” I asked.

“Most people,” said Ellis, “don’t even get changed when they do their shows. They wear the clothes they have on the street. We dress up. I know how to tie a bow tie. Not a real one, but I know how to put on a clip-on. We have to be careful when we chat to you, because you edit like a bitch.”

“A bitch?” I asked.

“A sly little dog,” said Ellis.

“You take out any nuance so that it’s sensationalist…” said Rose.

“…and make us seem like actual idiots,” said Ellis.

“Actual idiots?” I asked.

“Actual,” said Ellis.

“The new suits,” explained Rose, “were because we thought we needed an overhaul.”

Ellis and Rose in their new suits

Ellis and Rose in their new suits with a new work dynamic

“So,” I said, “given the choice of writing a new script or buying new suits, you chose the suits.”

“We’re working on it,” said Ellis.

“And, to be fair,” said Rose, “the dynamic on stage has changed. It used to be kind of aggressive and shouty. Now it’s a bit more conversational and two people having fun.”

“I think it’s less stressful to watch,” said Ellis.

“When you die,” Rose told me, “we are going to carry on your blog by ghost-writing it.”

“Just stereotypical John Fleming blog posts,” said Ellis. “so one will be Lewis Schaffer repeating his name for a whole blog – or photos of him with grey hair and black hair. It’ll be: Lewis Schaffer, Lewis Schaffer…

“And then,” said Rose, “we will do one of your diary extracts from 1927 in which you had a dream…”

“…about how it reminded you of your mother,” suggested Ellis. “And then we’ll get someone from Canada to write to us and put that in.”

“And,” enthused Rose, “we’ll get Kate Copstick to say something controversial.”

“Try stopping her,” I said.

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A comedian’s blood, the Lady Gaga of comedy and Monty Python with chips

Texts flew through cyberspace last night

Texts flew through cyberspace…

So, last night, I was getting a train from my home in Borehamwood to see Joel SandersAngry Boater show by the Grand Union Canal in Haggerston, when I got a text from Juliette Burton.

“Driving past Borehamwood,” it said, “on my way to Putney to do a 5 minute gig after recording a Mills & Boon audiobook all day for the RNIB.”

Joel’s show started off slightly weird. Well, the show had not even started.

He sat at a table and, when the last member of the full-house, pre-booked audience walked through the door, asked her to help him. He then took a blood pressure reading. She was his witness.

His blood pressure was apparently very high. His show is about being angry and living on canal boats.

Joel Sanders through th porthole

Joel Sanders – The Angry Boater – through the porthole

I have to say his hugely enjoyable show was very calmly – even gently – presented. It climaxed with the true and ongoing story of how the engine of his canal boat has been buggered. A new one may cost him £8,000.

Afterwards, I asked him about his show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“Fringe?” he replied. “Everyone assumes I will be at the Fringe! I did it in 2011 and found it a miserable period so I don’t have any plans to return – at least not this year.”

He is a very busy man for someone concerned with his high blood pressure and general health. He recently interviewed Jim Davidson and Matt Lucas on-stage at Bethnal Green’s Backyard Comedy Club and, tonight, he is interviewing Harry Hill there.

“My next thing,” he told me, “once I get the engine sorted, is to take the Angry Boater show up the canal and set up impromptu shows in the nether. Wherever I moor up, I’ll find a venue, spend a week promoting it, do the show, move on and repeat. I want to be P.T. Barnum on a boat. Show up in villages and small towns – places with very little entertainment – and try to create some hype. It has got to be easier than London.”

Juliette Burton’s selfie in a car last night

Juliette Burton’s selfie in her car last night

After that, I got a train home to Borehamwood and, on the way, had a text message conversation with Juliette Burton about how her gig had gone. she is the queen of complex 60-minute multi-media reportage shows, so I thought 5 minutes must ironically have been very difficult.

“Well,” she told me, “my 5 mins tonight was very interesting. Alex Martini, the lovely MC, greeted me saying he was a huge fan thanks to your blog and then bigged me up massively before bringing me on stage. I had been told a strict 5 minutes, but then I was told 10-15 minutes cos I was such a ‘big name’.

“I was incredibly flattered but really wasn’t sure my added-on material deserved the praise. According to Alex, I am ‘the Lady Gaga of comedy’ because I have an entourage. I rather like that. But I did turn up at the gig totally alone. And my dress wasn’t made of luncheon meat, sadly.”

In the British circuit comedy, it has to be said, only Lewis Schaffer has an entourage. Everyone else only has fans.

“I honestly don’t know how I went,” Juliette told me. “My ad libs got more laughs than anything. I spouted some stuff about recording the Mills & Boon book today, which they seemed to like.

“They laughed at me saying I had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act as a teenager and, the more I insisted it was not a joke, the more they laughed. Weird. Alex said he was heartbroken to learn I had a boyfriend.”

“How,” I asked, “did the Mills & Boon recording go?”

“I have never,” replied Juliette, “said the words ‘nubbin’ and ‘thickness’ so much in one day.”

“Nubbin?” I asked her. “Do you mean ‘knobbing’?”

“No!” she texted back, “Nubbin! It is used like the word ‘bud’.”

Claire Smith’s selfie in Brighton last night

Claire Smith’s selfie in Brighton last night

I remain mystified by nubbin but, by then, Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge and Scotsman comedy reviewer Claire Smith had started texting me from the South Coast, where the Brighton Fringe is in full swing.

“Tonight,” her first text said, “was the official opening of Lynn Ruth Miller’s art exhibition at Bardsley’s of Baker Street – which is one of Brighton’s oldest fish and chip shops.”

Lynn Ruth Miller, now aged 81, has one of the youngest minds on the UK comedy circuit.

“As well as showing Lynn Ruth’s paintings,” Claire told me, “the chip shop is also the permanent home of the Max Miller Society’s collection. There is a little room at the back where you can eat your fish and chip dinner surrounded by posters of the ‘Cheeky Chappie’ and cards with his jokes. They also have one of his floral suits in a glass case.”

“This,” I asked, “was a grand opening for Lynn Ruth’s art exhibition? Who was there?”

Carol Cleveland with Lynn Ruth Miller in Max Miller collection

Carol Cleveland with Lynn Ruth Miller in Max Miller heaven (Photograph by Claire Smith)

“The first to turn up,” Claire told me, “was Carol Cleveland from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  She told me she loved taking part in the Monty Python reunion shows at the O2 because one of the best things for her was that she finally got to act. As well as doing the dolly bird stuff she also got to play a couple of roles that used to be played by Graham Chapman in drag.”

“How is Lynn Ruth?” I asked.

“Busier than ever,” Claire texted. “I’ve seen her in two shows at the Fringe. Not Dead Yet – which is a musical version of her life story – and Eighty! – which is a show about growing old and continuing to have lots of fun. Last night turned into another of her chip shop salons – with a huge group of friends and admirers eating at a giant table as Lynn Ruth held court.”

Kate Copstick,” I texted back, “was telling me she might go down to Brighton just to see Lynn Ruth in the fish and chip shop. I could be persuaded too.”

Lynn Ruth Miller  + Roy Brown of Bardsleys Fish & chip shop, Brighton

Roy Brown of Bardsleys Fish & Chip Shop + Lynn Ruth Miller (Photograph by Claire Smith)

“I’m not sure if there is a programme for these,” explained Claire, “or if they just happen when Lynn Ruth decides to do it. But I am sure if La Copstick were in town a salon would spontaneously arise.”

I think I must phone my friend Lynn (not to be confused with Lynn Ruth) who lives near Brighton and see if she fancies some fish and chips in exchange for me having a kip (not to be confused with kippers) in her spare bedroom.

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Comedy promoter Martin Besserman on sexism, Harry Hill and the Holocaust

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

I saw Harry Hill perform at Monkey Business last night.

Martin Besserman’s Monkey Business comedy club has been running in London since 2002. At the moment, it runs Thursdays and Saturdays in Kentish Town with other occasional forays – this week, they staged the special Harry Hill show at Camden Lock. It is not the first time Harry Hill has appeared for Monkey Business.

“You get big names,” I said to Martin Besserman.

“We have a relationship,” he told me. “I have known Harry for many, many years. When I used to work in the market, he was always inquisitive about that. He is a decent, genuine guy. I think performing at Monkey Business takes him back to his roots. I’ve got Bill Oddie coming to Monkey Business on 20th May, because it’s for a charity he believes in – Angels For The Innocent. He’s going to host the show.

“Bill and I come from very different backgrounds, but what we share in common, incredibly enough, is that many many years ago, we had the same girlfriend – not at the same time. It wasn’t a threesome. I was eighteen. I was her next boyfriend after Bill Oddie. Some things stick in your mind.”

“You were telling me,” I said, “that you thought you might have had a reputation for being sexist as a comedy club MC, but that you have reformed yourself.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of reforming myself,” Martin replied, “because I don’t believe I was ever sexist. People love to gossip, often to disguise issues they are dealing with themselves – and the easiest way of doing that is to criticise other people. It’s very unfair because I think that, over the years, I’ve been very supportive of some of the individuals who are now troublemakers and manipulative gossipers. There’s no credibility whatever in anything they’ve said. I can be clumsy on stage – I admit that – but I have addressed it and I think I am getting better. People are telling me I am getting funnier.”

“What,” I asked, “does ‘clumsy’ mean in this context?”

“Well,” said Martin, “maybe not being aware of the consequences of being spontaneous. But, for some people, there’s a certain charm in that. Obviously, some people will get hurt when you make business decisions that are not in their favour.”

“You mean,” I asked, “if you see their act then don’t book them a second time?”

MartinBesserman2

Martin Besserman – Everybody has their own interpretation

“Yes and they have their own interpretation. At the end of the day, everybody likes to feel that they are special and their contribution to comedy is appreciated. So, if a promoter gives them the elbow or doesn’t give them the welcoming warmth they feel they deserve, then sometimes some of them get bitter. That can happen. But the amount of female acts that perform at my club is greater than at most other clubs. I try to be fair, both with the sexes and also I try to make it multi-cultural.

“There are a lot of good, funny female acts and there are a lot of good, for example, Asian acts. There’s a new-ish act called Hari Sriskantha who was so impressive that I put him on with Harry Hill this week and I’ve also got him on at the Amnesty gig.”

“That,” I said, “is The Secret Policeman’s Ball gig you are programming on 6th June.”

“Yes. I think it’s the first time Durham University have done it. Interestingly, there were some people who criticised me for getting involved with Amnesty. Some Jewish people who said: Mmmm… Amnesty doesn’t like the Jews.

“I am sympathetic to the Palestinian people but, as a Jewish person, I’m equally sympathetic to the Jews. My father was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t think it matters what side of the fence you are on – the objectives are identical. You want peace. You want people to love each other. Both sides have done wrong things and it would be hypocritical to not be aware of that.

“All I know is my father was 14 or 15 years old and he saw his father being led to the gas chambers in 1945. About three weeks ago, I saw a photograph I’d never seen before of my father, just as he came out of the camp with his name: Maurice Besserman. The idea was that newspapers would have photographs in case any of the relatives would recognise any of the people who had survived.”

“What did he do after the War?” I asked.

“He was a very good auctioneer in the market.”

“And you helped him?”

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London, was subsidising comedy for years

“Yeah. I never really knew what my vocation was going to be. I was very confused. We were poor, so I never had an academic education, but I was inquisitive and intelligent and quite wise to the world.”

“And you said Harry Hill was interested in your work at the market?”

“Well, he always used to ask me about it.”

“This was when he was a doctor?”

“No. When he had become a performer. He used to ask me about the market where I worked, in East Street, near Elephant and Castle.”

“He knew you before you went into comedy?”

“No. The market was subsidising comedy up to about six years ago. I was there for years. It was a fantastic business. I made a lot more money out of the market than I did out of comedy, though eventually comedy was subsidising the market because that market – like all the markets in London – got competition from the pound shops and changing cultures and bureaucracy from local councils and went into decline.”

“What were you selling?” I asked.

“Initially jewellery,” said Martin. “Then I incorporated vibrators.”

“Do they have the same buyers?” I asked.

“I was younger then,” said Martin, “I was selling loads of vibrators until the market inspector closed me down. He said: You cannot sell sex tools in a market. I told him: It’s not a sex tool. It’s a massager. He said: No, my wife’s got one of those. Those were his exact words. I don’t think that would happen today.”

“Are you still speaking at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park?” I asked. He has been speaking there since 1978.

Martin at Speakers’ corner recently.

Martin explains at Speakers’ Corner recently.

“It’s not as good as it used to be,” he replied. “The great characters and the great speakers have been replaced with a lot of religious fanaticism. I used to go there as a poet. I’ve been speaking since I was 16. My message now is Make Love Not War. In itself, it’s not controversial but, then, everybody else is talking about segregation, about how great their religion is. There tells to be a little bit of an aggressive theme there now.”

“What was it like before?” I asked.

“There were a lot of eccentrics. Years ago, even the religious speakers were loveable eccentrics. They put on a show. That, unfortunately, is not the atmosphere now. But it’s still a place where you can get up on a platform and express whatever you think is fundamentally right or wrong with the world and nothing will happen to you. Of course, there have been isolated fights there, but you won’t be arrested for speaking against the monarchy or whatever. That’s a freedom that should never be trivialised. This Sunday, a film crew want to include me in some filming there.”

“What’s it about?”

“I don’t know. It’s definitely about comedy and it’s written by a Danish guy. They sent me a script. I don’t think I have to say too much, but they tell me it’s very important… and they’re going to have the Monkey Business logo in the background…”

On YouTube, there is a 2-minute news report of young Martin Besserman at Speaker’s Corner in 1985.

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Is Alexander Bennett a cock, the Devil or “witty, weird and dark” (Harry Hill)

Alexander Bennett at King’s Cross station yesterday

“Dark” Alexander Bennett at King’s Cross station yesterday

Alexander Bennett runs a regular first-Tuesday-of the-month comedy show in London – This Is Not a Cult in Camden.

Yesterday, I met him at King’s Cross station. I do not know why. We had thirteen minutes to talk.

“This chat is for quoting in my blog,” I told him, “so I have to ask if you have had any nervous breakdowns, long periods of heroin addiction, run-ins with prostitutes and gangsters, visits to Thailand or recent experiences with enemas?”

“For your blog,” Alexander told me, “everything except Thailand, because I can’t afford to go on holiday.”

“What are you doing at the moment?” I asked.

“I’m preparing for the Edinburgh Fringe in August – I’m possibly doing two shows. One will be my stand-up comedy show and the second one is a gameshow set in Hell where I play the Devil.”

“Type-casting?” I suggested.

“Possibly,” admitted Alexander. “Two audience members have to play to keep their soul. Each rounds in the gameshow will be hosted by a different historical character – Watercolour Challenge hosted by Adolf Hitler; What’s My Organ? hosted by Jeffrey Dahmer…”

“I had forgotten about your fascination with serial killers and mass-murderers,” I said.

“…and so on and so forth,” concluded Alexander. “I wanted to do something with lots and lots of other comics.”

“What happens,” I asked, “if the two members of the audience lose in their attempt to keep their souls?”

“Something unexpected,” said Alexander. “Nobody at the moment is doing…”

“Hellish shows?” I asked. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

“… fun bad taste shows,” concluded Alexander. “You get your brutal Frankie Boyles or Andrew Lawrences, but nobody’s doing stuff that’s bad taste but fun – as in the specific meaning of bad taste – taking the subject too lightly.”

“Are gameshows with the Devil really bad taste?” I asked.

“Well, if you put Jeffrey Dahmer and Hitler in them, yeah. And a few others.”

“And your other Fringe show?” I asked. “The stand-up comedy one – the non-bad-taste one. That is…?”

Alexander Bennett – I Can Make you a Moron, which is making people stupid for their own sake.”

“Do you think people might avoid sitting in the front row for that one?” I asked.

“I’ll make them. The idea is the world is too complicated and the only way to be happy is to be stupid.”

“You are still developing that?” I asked.

“Well, I’m doing a show – Your Beloved Alexander Bennett – at the Leicester Comedy Festival this Saturday. It’s sort-of halfway between last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show and this year’s one. So I get to try out new material without massively pissing-off anyone in Leicester.”

“That’s for them to judge,” I suggested.

“I’ve got quotes from Chortle and Harry Hill and the Guardian on my publicity,” said Alexander, “so I hope that will lure them in.”

For the record, the Harry Hill quote is: Witty, weird and dark, the one to watch out for: at the spearhead of a wave of great new comics. All hail Alexander Bennett!

Your beloved Alexander Bennett likes to be hailed.

And quite right too.

“Anything bizarre happen to you on the way here?” I asked him.

“I think you’re clutching at straws for your blog,” he told me.

“You’re a comedian,” I said. “Things always happen to comedians on the way to anywhere.”

Alexander Bennett yesterday in London’s Chinatown

The beloved and clothed Alexander Bennett

“I was in Chester at the weekend,” he told me, “performing to a hen party.”

“Did you keep your clothes on?” I asked.

“Yes. But, during the show, one of the hens just started shouting out the word Cock!”

“Was that,” I asked, “because she thought you were one or she wanted to see one?”

“These were details,” admitted Alexander, “that needed clarification. She just shouted out the word Cock! at regular intervals. Then, after the show, a slightly older woman came up to me and said: I’m really sorry that my daughter kept shouting out the word Cock! during your performance. She is really drunk. I wouldn’t mind, but she’s a fucking lesbian.”

“That will do,” I told him.

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Comedian Al Murray on the origins of The Pub Landlord and why he performs for only £5 at the Edinburgh Fringe

Al Murray in Soho last week

Al Murray in London’s Soho last week

In this blog a couple of days ago, comedian Al Murray was talking about the Second World War. And yesterday he was talking about a book he is writing on medieval fools. This is the third and last part of the conversation we had last week.

“You’re actually writing two books simultaneously?” I asked.

“I’m trying to write everything all at once, yes.” he replied, “I’ve got another chunk of World War Two to deal with – Why has it stuck to us culturally? Although it’s beginning to fade: there’s now a whole generation of people who don’t know what Two World Wars and One World Cup means, which is brilliant – and healthy.”

“And,” I said, “you’re also preparing your new live stand-up comedy show as The Pub Landlord.”

“Yes, I’m trying to lay down the stuff that will be in the new show at the end of the year,” explained Al. “I always try to work well in advance so I can bed it in properly. I’m touring from September to Christmas, which means final previews at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, which means knowing in July what’s going to be in the show, which means writing it in June, which means thinking about it in April and May.

“The last few years,” I said, “you have performed in £5 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe…”

“That’s me trying out new material,” said Al.

“But why £5?” I asked. “You’re an established star.”

“I’ve always thought,” replied Al, “that, if you get to the… erm… the level I’m at, you should not to go to the Fringe and play massive venues for £25. You should go and play a small venue for £5.”

“Why?”

“Because the point of the Fringe is for people starting out and trying to figure themselves out and creating what they’re doing rather than audiences and money being sucked-off to bigger shows. At £5, it’s not taking a lot of money out of the system and normally I play somewhere small in the afternoon so I’m not in anyone’s way. Twenty years ago, when I was doing the Fringe, if someone had turned up and played a big venue for a long period at high prices, I’d have thought You fucking cunt!

“The Pub Landlord started at the Fringe, didn’t he?” I asked.

Harry Hill and I met writing on Week Ending for BBC Radio 4,” said Al, “back when they had a non-commissioned writing thing, and we hit it off and shared a flat in Edinburgh. He was getting me to do voices and bits and pieces in his Fringe show and I was also performing with Guns ’n’ Moses that year, so I had my drum kit up in Edinburgh and Harry’s mate Matt had brought his keyboards and we started playing together in the flat with Harry singing. I said Well, let’s do a gig at the Fringe Club. We did. It went really well. So we said: Alright, next year we’ll come back and do a show with this band in it at the end of the show. 

Al Murray (top) with (from left) Andre Vincent, Brenda Gilhooly and Harry Hill in Avalon’s 1992 Comedy Zone show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Publicity photo for Avalon Enteetainment’s Comedy Zone show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1992 with (from left) Andre Vincent, Brenda Gilhooly, Al Murray and Harry Hill.

“That’s what we planned to do. And I wanted to do a character act – like a sort of entertainer who’s shit – but I couldn’t make it work. So, on the opening night in Edinburgh, we were in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar and Harry said: We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to link this show together. What do you want to do?

“I said How about we say the compere hasn’t shown up and the bar manager has offered to fill in and cover the gaps? and Harry went Yeah, OK, whatever and I went on and did that and it worked. By the end of a fortnight, I knew how The Pub Landlord spoke and, when we went on tour at the end of it, I had an hour’s material.”

“Ridiculous, isn’t it,” I said. “Just one throwaway idea and a career gets built out of it.”

“Tell me about it,” said Al. “In a way, that’s one reason I’m so fond of The Pub Landlord, because it came out of nowhere. I never planned it. The first year in Edinburgh when it was getting reviewed, they said It’s a dissection of this, that and the other and he’s put in this-and-that and I thought Really? OK. If you say so. I’ll run with that, then.”

“You changed the act to fit the reviews?”

“No, no. I just thought: Oh, I suppose that IS what I’m doing.

“And now you are consciously putting in all the intelligent, intellectual things.”

“Yeah.”

“Before, you mentioned the frustrations of television – commissioning editors changing and all that. What do you want to do that the TV people haven’t let you do?”

“Basically everything!” laughed Al. “Well, the talk show I did as The Pub Landlord (Al Murray’s Happy Hour)… that came to an end at the very moment I thought I was getting really good at it – That was very frustrating. It was a thing I really loved doing. We were not doing a normal chat show. We didn’t tell the guests what we were going to talk about. So they were having to react, rather than go through their glib stories.”

“You could do an Edinburgh Fringe chat show,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Al, “what Tim Vine’s done with his chat show in Edinburgh means there’s no point doing it. What he’s done is so brilliant. He’s a brilliant interviewer and he is so sharp.”

“So you’ve shown all your talents, haven’t you?” I said. “You’re a historian, you’re a comedian, a chat show host. What have you not shown? What don’t I know you can do?”

“The thing I would like to try to do is some acting,” said Al. “I haven’t really done any, so it would be nice to find out if I could do it. That was why I did stand-up in the first place: to see if I could do it and it looked like a lot of fun and it might be really interesting. Though there was a big bit of me which also thought It would mean I don’t have to get up in the morning. The dilettante in me was coming out. The other attraction of acting is you don’t have to write it; you don’t have to originate it.”

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What was it like to be a finalist in the New Act of The Year Comedy Awards show last night in Bloomsbury, London?

I told comedy act Candy Gigi I was likely to go to the final at the Bloomsbury Theatre last night but, at the last minute, could not go. So this text correspondence ensued late yesterday afternoon:

Last night in London, the final of the contest

Last night in London, the final of the contest

Candy Gigi: I’m shitting it. That’s what I’m feeling now. Literally SHITTING IT. Can you tell I’m nervous? I’m gonna make a mess of every loo that I walk past today. My bowels are OK now actually. Later they’ll let rip no doubt. Anyway, out of the 550 people in the audience tonight, 549 of them are going to be my mum’s friends so, if nothing else, I know there will at least be support from people. Loud Jewish people too. The best kind of audience, really.

John: All that chicken soup. No wonder you’re on the loo.

Candy Gigi: Ha. You can put this in your blog. My mum said to me this morning as soon as I woke up: “Candy, why DO you hold a celery like it’s a baby and put it to your breast? Do people ACTUALLY find that funny? Do you HAVE to do that tonight? I don’t understand it.” – As if I didn’t have enough to worry about, now I have to think about how I can make breast-feeding celery make sense. I didn’t ask to be born.

John: I should Google for some knob gags ASAP. After the show, tell my answerphone what happened. I will get back home very very late.

Candy Gigi: My dad’s driving so I’ll do it in the car home.

John: Get your dad to shout things out while he’s driving. It may not get in the blog, but it will scare the shit out of pedestrians on zebra crossings.

Candy Gigi: He probably would do that anyway. When I was younger, I used to walk him down the road on a dog lead and he would bark and pretend to be a puppy. Welcome to my life.

John: Now THAT’s an Edinburgh Fringe show. Or a career for you in certain parts of Soho.

Candy Gigi: All true. Explains a lot, really, doesn’t it?

John: Still doesn’t explain breast-feeding the celery. But that’s probably for the best.

Candy Gigi: You’re probably right. Would it not be a fair argument if I just put it down to me not wanting the celery to wilt?

John: I think an explanation of how and why you keep a stick of celery in a non-flaccid state is probably something for an entirely different type of show. If you actually explained it in any way, of course – ironically – it would lose its point… not that there is one.

Candy Gigi: I couldn’t explain it as I don’t understand it myself. It’s like an out-of-body experience and I’m watching someone else do it.

John: You mean an out-of-body in-body experience.

Candy Gigi: Yeah. Except I don’t put it in as it isn’t circumcised and my mum would kill me. If I’m going to go for celery, it had bloody better be Jewish.

John: Kosher celery? There might be a market for that.

Candy Gigi: Celery is good for chopping, so could easily be converted. That’s why I chose celery. Out of all the vegetables, it’s the closest to marriage material.

John: The normal vegetative material for comedy is cucumber. The word is funnier than celery, though not as funny as banana.

Candy Gigi: Yeah, but cucumber is everybody’s cup of tea, whereas celery is the underdog. And I love an underdog.

John: I will take some time to find a double meaning in that. Bananas are always funny in any context.

Candy Gigi: Yeah, bananas are OK. But not as useable as celery.

This morning, I woke up to this text message:

Candy Gigi

Candy Gigi – Different. And “different is unsafe”

Candy Gigi: I’m so sorry I didn’t call your answerphone last night. I ended up getting the train home late as I needed to ‘network’ but basically I didn’t win. I think it’s because I genuinely scare the shit out of everyone, including myself. I get up there and literally lose the plot for five minutes and people don’t know what to do with that.

I’ll never be a winning act and I’ve realised that’s OK. What I do is different and different is unsafe and I like not being safe. It makes me feel safe. I can find my own little audience who know what’s going to happen when I get up there and who enjoy that.

That’s all I want. A little group of kooky people who like vegetables and unhinged women. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

John: Now you join the ranks of those other New Act of The Year losers including Harry Hill and Eddie Izzard. It ended their careers in much the same way. They were too niche. Who has ever heard of them now?

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Comedy club owner Martin Besserman: from sexually-frustrated middle-aged women to increasing monkey business

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Martin Besserman last night: “They were bewildered”

I thought Martin Besserman must have been running comedy clubs in London for the last 25 years. He seems to have been around forever.

I was wrong, as I found out when I talked to him last night.

He currently runs two Monkey Business comedy venues in north west London – in Belsize Park/Hampstead and in Kentish Town – the first for higher profile acts; the latter mostly for newer acts.

“Initially,” said Martin Besserman, “I ran a club in Kentish Town at a bar called O’Reilly’s which, when you go in, it looks like everyone’s done something bad in their life.”

“And they probably have,” I said. “It’s your ideal comedy audience.”

“I was upstairs there for about a year,” continued Martin, “and then their former manager recommended me to the Sir Richard Steele pub in Hampstead. And they were very impressed because, within the first month, I had acts like Harry Hill and Omid Djalili and they were bewildered and really impressed that I managed to build it up so quickly. I’ve been there eight years now.”

“I’m still bewildered,” I said “that people like Harry Hill try out new material at Monkey Business.”

“He did four shows with me last year,” said Martin.”He’s a very nice man and he remembers his roots. If they’ve had a good time at your club, then they remember you. People sometimes take a chance on you and, if you form some sort of bond… I mean, we do come from different backgrounds.

East Street market in London, where Martin worked

East Street market, London: net curtains & frustrated women

“My background was doing what my father did – selling net curtains at East Street market in the Elephant & Castle to sexually-frustrated middle-aged women. In fact, I worked next to Jade Goody at one time. She got sacked for nicking a quid about one year before she became famous on Big Brother.”

“Monkey Business,” I said, “is a very well-known club now.”

“I think because I’ve been running it for such a long time,” said Martin. “People have said there’s no other promoter like me, that I have a certain style and I don’t try to  copy any other club. So maybe there’s a uniqueness, because the philosophy of the MC and the person organising the club is certainly significant.”

“What’s your philosophy?”

“It’s all about individuality,” explained Martin. “People go to expensive workshops and think that they can learn to perform. I’m sure sometimes it can help them develop whatever potential they might have but, at the end of the day, you just have to have natural funny bones. There has to be something about you that is special.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that workshops give people who have ability the confidence to do what they could do anyway. And, if you have no ability, you will still have no ability at the end.”

“I think so,” said Martin. “I did go to Tony Allen’s workshop in the late 1980s which was good but, before then, I was a public orator at Speakers’ Corner.”

“You still do that?”

“Yes, in the summer. I occasionally drag performers there – I dragged Reg D.Hunter there. For all the black guys at Speakers’ Corner, he was the new Obama, although Reg wouldn’t get up until I bought him a bottle of vodka.”

“And you go there in the summer because it’s sunny?” I asked.

“I prefer it when it’s warm,” agreed Martin.

“Has it changed?” I asked.

“It has lost,” said Martin. “a lot of great orators like Lord Soper (a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist at the end of the last century) and lots of interesting eccentrics. But, for me, it’s still important because it’s a symbol of our democracy: the fact one can go there and express what one feels to be fundamentally right or wrong with Society.’

“So what’s your soapbox schtick?” I asked.

“I learnt from Lord Soper when I was 16 that, if you want to convey a message, you should always do it with humour. There IS a serious point I’m trying to make there: Make Love, Not War, though you would have to listen to me for a long time to work that one out.

“It’s difficult because I’m Jewish and there are a lot of Moslem people at Speakers’ Corner – you’ve got Edgware Road close by, which is mainly Arabic – so Jewish speakers tend to have a fairly hard time – they’re heckled fiercely. There are some people there – not all – who are quite radical in their opinions and you have to address that. So, for me to convey a message which is not about taking sides but about uniting… it really amounts to me trying to get them to laugh with me – to buy in to my humour.

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

Harry Hill (left) and Martin Besserman at Monkey Business

“I started my first comedy club in Edgware Road at a bar called the Hanging Tree. In those days, you got a lot of support from people like the Evening Standard and Time Out. I got 250 people turn up for the first gig.”

“Did you always want to be a club owner, as opposed to a jobbing comedian?”

“No,” Martin replied. “It happened by mistake. I used to enjoy comedy at the King’s Head, Crouch End. I knew that I liked it. I knew I wanted to be part of entertainment. I was in a band. It happened because I split up with a girlfriend and I wanted to impress her, so I started a comedy club. I thought there was more to me than just being a market trader.

“I had no idea that, eleven years later, I would still be running a comedy club which is one of the more well-known clubs.”

“At the moment,” I said, “the economic climate is very bad for comedy clubs. They’re closing down all over London and all over the country and you’ve just decided to open one in the heart of the West End of London. Have you gone mad?”

“It’s out of necessity,” explains Martin. “Eventually, they will be turning the Sir Richard Steele pub into flats and my time there is limited. It could be in a few months or a few years – getting the planning permission, the builders and all that – but it is going to happen.

“I’m a survivor. I’ve got a taste for the business. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to leave a club. I’ve had all sorts of things – I’ve had managers trying to hijack my club, I’ve been replaced with karaoke. It’s very difficult when you have to start a new club and have to build up your reputation all over again. But I feel confident in the West End.

MonkeyBusiness_logo“There are two venues in question. One is Leicester Square – that’s only a 65-capacity venue, one minute from the tube station. Because it’s not a very large room, it would be quite easy to fill up.

“The other possible venue is above a very beautiful Turkish restaurant in Covent Garden – Sofra in Tavistock Street – two of the chefs there used to cook for the Royal Family – and they are going to let me do a trial show on New Year’s Eve. The room accommodates 100 people.”

“So,” I asked, “if that works well, you would be running a Leicester Square club AND a Covent Garden club?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I have operated two clubs on a Saturday night before. It’s difficult. You have to trust the staff at the other venue. You can’t be at both.”

“Being a compere at a comedy club,” I said. “…People seem to think it’s easy, but it is very, very, very difficult. I have seen very good comedians try to MC and it can be a disaster – if they just tell gags – because it’s not about telling jokes between other people’s jokes.”

“Well,” said Martin, “there’s no rules about being a good MC. The testimony is if the audience have a good time. Sometimes I’m on form; sometimes I’m not. The MC can make or break a show. The job is not to hog the stage. An MC should have a minimum amount of time on stage, unless you’re Michael McIntyre. The job is to relax the audience. If the MC doesn’t deliver, all the acts he introduces will have a harder task, no matter how good they are.”

“When you compere,” I said, “you don’t really perform, you schmooze; you chat to the audience.”

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“You’ve got to know the boundaries,” said Martin last night

“The audience should be your friends for the evening,” explained Martin. “You should act familiar with them, but you’ve got to know the boundaries of how far you can go. I have seen other people compere and they can be crude.

“Sometimes you can be crude but not if it doesn’t suit your personality: if it all seems out of place. I’m not saying I’m crude, but it’s tongue-in-cheek humour and I would like to think it’s not offensive.”

“All comedians manipulate the audience,” I suggested, “but the compere more than anyone is manipulating the atmosphere for the other acts.”

“It’s like boyfriend/girlfriend,” said Martin. “The relationship has to be that you have to feel comfortable in that other person’s company.”

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