Hell and a meeting in a sex shop brought me together with William Sebag-Montefiore.
In January last year, I wrote a blog about the shooting of a sitcom pilot called Hell, set in a sex shop.
Well, OK, it was a film set pretending to be a sex shop.
The would-be TV sitcom pilot was eventually re-titled Whipped, posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing this, has had over 365,000 hits. Another result was that, last week, I had tea at the Soho Theatre Bar with William Sebag-Montefiore. He had acted in the film.
I figured: He must be related to British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. How many Sebag-Montefiores can there be around? And Wikipedia said Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s great-great-uncle was an international financier who worked with the Rothschild family.
I thought: I might get a free cup of tea out of this.
And I did… but…
William told me: “We’re not really that related. Simon Sebag-Montefiore is my cousin twice removed. I have a name that sounds like I have connections but, in reality, I don’t. I was brought up in Leeds. My mum is Scottish; my dad is Canadian. My grandma is from Inchinnan in Glasgow.”
“Have you got siblings?” I asked.
“Two younger sisters. One’s at the University of Essex studying International Relations. The other is a nurse. So she saves people’s lives and I run around pretending to be someone else.”
“Are there other thespians in the family?”
“My dad’s a clinical oncologist and my mum is a Special Needs Assistant.”
“So no thespian tendencies?” I asked.
“When dad was at medical school,” William proffered, “he did all the comedy revues and used to sing a song called Praise The Colo-rectal Surgeon. And mum loved Billy Connolly.”
“Do you have any medical tendencies?” I asked.
“Well, when I was 17 and started working in a bar, I thought about being a paramedic. It might have been because I watched Casualty on TV when I was a kid. Maybe I just want to be in Casualty. In fact, I still do.”
“You wanted to be an actor?” I asked.
“I am an actor,” William said. “I did a year’s Masters at the Central School of Speech and Drama.”
“Acting is easy, isn’t it?” I asked. “You just have to pretend to be somebody else.”
“I was doing an hour-long one-man show,” said William, “which was a terrifying experience. An hour of me talking and it was not comedy. It was a play about a man made out of newspaper: The Inevitable Disappearance of Edward J Neverwhere, written by a gentleman called Igor Memic.”
“Surely,” I suggested, “doing an hour acting as someone else is not as terrifying as doing an hour of stand-up comedy as yourself?”
“I haven’t done stand-up,” said William, “because of the autobiographical angle. I can’t find a way of expressing myself through it, because I would be doing an imitation of someone like Stewart Lee – and a poor one.”
“But you could always be a character comedian?” I suggested.
“I think the problem,” said William, “is more that there’s an hour of responsibility on me. The reason I like acting is because I like listening and responding. When I like watching actors on stage, it’s when they’re listening and reacting. When it’s live, it has to change all the time and, when there is another person there, if you lose focus for a second, the likelihood is they will stay focussed and bring you back in. But, if you are on your own…
“We were doing that terrifying one-man show in a listed building in Peckham – as part of The BasicSpace Festival – and somebody with four dogs knocked on the door saying: Someone told me I could watch the show.
“He was just a bit of a local oddball. I stood there, looked at him and thought: I have to acknowledge it. So I looked over at the door, looked back and had no idea where I was in the script. There is that responsibility of focus and continuation…”
“Now you are doing sketch comedy,” I said. “You seem very trendy. Sketch comedy is out of fashion, isn’t it? What’s the attraction?”
“I just think it’s silly and it’s fun. The thing that really made me love it was radio sketch comedy – John Finnemore and his Souvenir radio programme.
“I tried to write a sketch when I was about 10 or 11 which was directly copied from a Harry Enfield sketch about someone coming round to rob a house but they were like a door-to-door salesman.
“And I did a lot of improvisation and sketch comedy at Newcastle University. I studied English Literature, then graduated from Central and went into this industry where I thought: Everyone will want me for everything and I’ll be in a Hollywood film in a year… But people soon told me: Ah! That’s not how it works and now TV only makes sitcoms with established comedians.”
“Do you consider yourself,” I asked, “to be an actor or a comedy performer?”
“I am an actor who does comedy. People have put me more in the comedy bracket which is great, because that’s the stuff I like to create.”
“And.” I said, “you are now forced to have tea with me to plug the show you are doing at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London on 7th and 8th April – Just These, Please. Will it make your fortune?”
“We won’t make money out of the show. It’s for love of the form and wanting to get our name out there. We are a comedy sketch group, but we are all writing sitcoms and stuff and having pipedreams. There’s this hope that we will be so endearing and hilarious that people will think: We need to put these guys everywhere.”
“You’re a foursome.”
“Yes. Tom Dickson and I met at Newcastle University, in a play where we were brothers with exceptionally questionable Irish accents. Now he is a trainee lawyer, so he has a real career in him. It was revealed to us that our Irish accents were questionable by one of the girls in our troupe: Philippa Carson, who’s intimidatingly talented – an award-winning film editor and actress. She went to film school; she’s an improviser. And Georgie Jones is our other member – she’s a member of the National Youth Theatre and in the poetry collective at the Roundhouse Theatre. Fundamentally, they’re just hilarious women and very talented actresses.
“The group has, technically, been going for about two years. We did one show with about 30 sketches about two years ago but then did nothing. We filmed some sketches but haven’t yet released them. Since last October, we’ve written 60 new sketches for this one.”
“So is the future going to be YouTube?” I asked.
“I think so. We have about four sketches – our longest one runs maybe 5 or 6 minutes – filmed and we are waiting to find the right time to release them.”
“Exactly. This is the problem with a bunch of creatives trying to do the business side of it. I would say around the summer time.
“I’m also a member of an improv group called Very Serious People who have a monthly residency at the Bridewell Theatre near Blackfriars. Maybe I like doing too many things.”