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Edinburgh Fringe BBC News crisis comedy – and without Jimmy Savile!

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

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden and Dan Starkey

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden & Dan Starkey in Making News

At the Edinburgh Fringe in August, there will be a play titled Making News about a newly-installed female Head of News at the BBC who has to handle a breaking story about the corporation itself, a TV reporter frustrated about a story she can no longer sit on and the fallout from the decisions taken that “threatens to bring down the BBC”.

For non-British readers of this blog:

In 2011, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight conducted an investigation into DJ Jimmy Savile, a former Top Of The Pops and Jim’ll Fix It presenter. The investigation was never screened by the BBC. When allegations of paedophilia were subsequently broadcast on ITV, the BBC was accused of a cover-up and another Newsnight report wrongly implicated Conservative politician Lord McAlpine in the widening child abuse scandal.

Making News has been written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, who had a big success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with their political play Coalition about a fictional British coalition government. Britain currently has a coalition government.

Robert Khan studied law at university and is now a Labour councillor in Islington. Tom Salinsky studied mathematics and now runs training company The Spontaneity Shop. He also co-wrote The Improv Handbook with Deborah Frances-White.

I had a chat with Robert and Tom at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington last night.

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night in Islington

“Mathematics… playwriting… improvisation?” I asked Tom. “They don’t go together.”

“I’ve always liked problem solving,” he replied, “and plotting a play involves quite a lot of problem solving.”

“You talk about careful plotting,” I said, “but you’ve written a book on improvisation and you run a training company called The Spontaneity Shop. So what’s an improvising-type person like you doing writing scripted plays?”

“Improvising,” explained Tom, “is like solving problems at 100mph. Improvisation’s really about making a series of choices and the delightful thing for the audience is they get to see the moment of inspiration – that moment of creativity – actually happen in front of them.

“The sometimes discouraging thing for the improviser is l’esprit de l’escalier – not thinking of the right thing to do until you’re on the bus on the way home. So, writing a scripted play, you don’t get the rush of instantaneous creativity, but you’re able to revise and improve.”

Making News has a cracking cast of comedians including Phill Jupitus,” I said. “Do you let them improvise?”

“Aahhhhh…..” said Tom and Robert in unison.

“We discourage it,” said Tom. “In rehearsals, anything goes…”

“Yes,” said Robert.

“… but once it’s on stage, it’s discouraged,” continued Tom.

“Heavily discouraged,” agreed Robert.

“Are you frustrated actors yourselves?”

“No,” laughed Robert.

“I am,” said Tom. “Incredibly frustrated as a writer backstage unable to influence events onstage.”

“And you’re both heavily into politics?” I asked.

“I think I’m politically aware,” answered Tom, “whereas Robert is politically active.”

“So why write two plays about politics?” I asked.

“I think it’s interesting to begin with…” started Robert.

Hal Cruttendon & Phill Jupitus in Making News

BBC crisis: Hal Cruttenden & Phill Jupitus with Sara Pascoe

“The new play isn’t party political,” Tom corrected me. “It’s current affairs, but it isn’t party political, whereas Coalition was.”

“We were interested,” explained Robert, “in how a large institution that has to report the news impartially reports bad news about itself.”

“And the strange thing is the BBC does,” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Robert. “I imagine the debates internally are quite difficult.”

“There’s a sort of Catholic guilt about it,” suggested Tom, “that they have to be particularly fearless when they have to report bad news about themselves.”

“Have either of you worked for the Beeb?” I asked.

“No,” said Robert.

“I’ve not been a salaried employee,” said Tom, “but, in my capacity as corporate trainer I’ve worked for all sorts of bits of the BBC – picture research, BBC Worldwide, current affairs… They hired my company for training.”

“Picture research?” I asked, surprised.

“One of their big problems,” explained Tom, “was that the people making the programmes wouldn’t co-operate with them. The conversation would go:

  • We want to take a picture of this big star
  • He’s not available…. 
  • Then we’ll have no pictures of him to give to the press… 
  • Well tough.

…so our job was to go in and help them build stronger relationships.”

“What was the logic,” I asked, “behind saying We’re not going to promote our own thing?

“Well,” explained Tom, “and it’s something we explore in the play… the BBC don’t see themselves as part of one big Corporation. They see themselves as a bunch of loosely-associated but basically independent units all looking out for themselves.”

“It’s true of all large organisations,” said Robert. “You break down into smaller units. It’s the only way human beings can operate… and you then become competitors.”

“So what’s your insight into BBC News?” I asked.

“Well,” said Tom, “we’ve certainly spoken to a few people.”

“But we can’t talk about that,” Robert told me.

“Some fairly senior people within News,” Tom added.

“Have you talked to any of the people you’re parodying?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

“As with Coalition,” said Tom, “we’re not parodying any particular individual. We’re looking at the roles. The hero of Coalition wasn’t based on Nick Clegg. It was an answer to the question What pressures would somebody IN THAT POSITION feel? Likewise, in Making News, we have a Director General, a Head of News, but they aren’t specifically based on any present or past people.”

“And we stress that very heavily,” said Robert, carefully.

“We are looking,” said Tom, “at What does being in that position do to you? When you come under these pressures, how might you react?

“I don’t think we need to do a pastiche of real characters,” said Robert.

“We create our own characters to inhabit those roles,” agreed Tom.

“It could be a tragedy rather than a comedy,” I said.

“Well, the difference is very small,” said Tom. “There’s a quote in the play that Labour governments resent what they see as the BBC’s lofty patrician heritage and try to cut the Licence Fee and Conservative governments think the BBC is a seething bed of Leftie hotheads and try to cut the Licence Fee.”

“If you have a state broadcaster that’s independent,” said Robert, “it’s always going to sooner or later rub-up the elected government the wrong way. And long may that continue.”

Phill Jupitus as the BBC Director General

Phill Jupitus as the BBC’s DG

“I felt sorry for the extraordinarily inept Director General George Entwhistle,” I said, “because he got crucified for saying I didn’t feel it was my position to ask any questions – but that’s the DG’s cleft stick at the BBC. If he interferes in producers’ independence, he’s wrong; if he doesn’t interfere in producers’ actions, he’s wrong.”

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” agreed Robert.

“When did you start writing Making News?” I asked.

“During the Edinburgh run of Coalition last August,” said Tom.

“So before George Entwhistle became DG?” I said.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Way before the Jimmy Savile scandal.”

Operation Yewtree,” added Tom, “cast a slightly distasteful shadow over the idea. We don’t go near any of that sex stuff in Making News. It would have been difficult to make that funny and it wasn’t what we wanted to write about.”

“The stakes are very high for the BBC,” said Robert. “Three Director Generals in the last 20 years have had to resign – essentially been sacked – Alasdair Milne, Greg Dyke, George Entwhistle. That’s quite a dramatic organisation to work for.”

“For a long time,” said Tom, “we were going to cast the Director General as the central figure. By this time, Entwhistle was DG. We thought we’d do A Year in The Life of a DG, ending in ignominy… and then he resigns after 54 days… We’d been trumped by reality! We had to more-or-less start again from scratch at that point.”

“Do you envisage a TV version of Making News?” I asked.

“I don’t think it would be on the BBC!” laughed Robert.

“Why not?” I asked. “They’d be dramatising themselves honestly and fairly.”

“Self-flagellation can only go so far,” Robert said. “Scotland on Sunday asked them about our play and the BBC issued a statement saying: This is not something we would comment on.”

“In Edinburgh last year,” said Tom, “we had both The Culture Show and Late Review come to see Coalition… It will be interesting to see if they turn up for Making News. They may feel completely happy to review it impartially or they may get the hump.”

“In the end,” said Robert, “this is more affectionate than Coalition was. We do hold the BBC in huge respect and affection.”

And so do I.

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Comedian Luisa Omielan is targeting young girls, gays and Beyoncé fans

(A version of this piece was also published by India’s We Speak News)

Luisa Omielan after her show at the Comedy Cafe last night

Is there life after the Edinburgh Fringe for a Free Festival show by a relatively unknown comedian? Well, judging by last night, Yes.

I went to the first night of Luisa Omielan’s eight-week run at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre and she got a standing ovation from a full house whooping for a show which had played to full houses and multiple 5-star reviews throughout the Edinburgh Fringe.

The show is called What Would Beyoncé Do?

“It’s about how Beyoncé songs have helped me,” Luisa told me last night. “How I think I should be a diva but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I showcase Beyoncé songs to highlight how very different my life is to what Beyoncé has.”

My eternally-un-named friend saw the show with me. She (admittedly off-colour and with a possible ear infection) thought the pre-show music was much too loud. So did I. But, after the show, Luisa told me:

“It was to get the audience hyped. It’s not a show where you just sit down and don’t get involved. It’s very much a Yeeeaaahhhhh!!! Paaaarty!!!! show.”

She has performed in various shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for nine years, but What Would Beyoncé Do? was her debut solo show there and last night was her first ever full-length solo show in London.

The Beyoncé poster/flyer designed by Luisa

“From the first day in Edinburgh,” Luisa told me, “it had a full house of 12o people in the audience. About a week in, the fire brigade came and said: You can’t have this many people in the room! and they capped it at 75 and, after that, I was turning away maybe 20 or 30 people a night. They came because of the title and because I got listed as One To Watch and it was a good poster. Title and poster count for a lot.”

“You’ve done a lot of improv and been in other full-length shows at the Fringe,” I said to her. “You are very experienced. But doing a full-length solo show is different. Have you found it scary?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I cried twice before I went on tonight. Petrified. When I went to Edinburgh, I went completely by myself. I planned and dealt with every aspect of the show myself including the poster and the PR. But I was quite confident because I thought I’ve done the Fringe before. This’ll be fine. Whereas here tonight… I’ve never done a London show. I felt I had a lot to prove. There are 99 seats in the Comedy Cafe. How am I going to fill friggin’ 99 seats?

But my Twitter followers went up by 400 during Edinburgh and, because it’s a free show (on the Free Festival/Free Fringe model) people feel ‘invested’ – they really support with the social media networking. So I’ve been using Facebook and Twitter to promote this show.”

“Are you an improviser or a stand-up?” I asked.

“I’m both” said Luisa firmly. “I see them both as my strengths, both as my art forms and I want a show which combines the two.”

“And you want to be an actress…” I said.

“No,” Luisa corrected me. “I want to be what you just saw. I’m doing what I want to be. I’ve never wanted to be anything else but a comedy performer, since I was about four or five. I did do acting at college (she studied Performing Arts) but my thing was always I wanted to be famous for being me. I wanted to be like Whoopi Goldberg or Robin Williams – where they’re a personality. Whoopi Goldberg gets booked as Whoopi Goldberg. I wanted that.”

“When I was watching the show,” I told Luisa, “I was impressed by the audience control.”

“Well,” she said, “over a year ago, I went to Chicago for three months, to the big improv school at Second City and studied clowning over there, which I loved. And clowning’s all about raising and lowering and raising… it’s all audience control.”

“You wanted to move there?” I asked.

“I would have done,” Luisa said. “If Edinburgh hadn’t gone well, my plan was to go back. But Edinburgh went amazing.”

“So you’re going back to Edinburgh again next year?”

“Yes, with the same show at the Free Festival.”

“The same show?” I asked.

Luisa singing – and dancing – at the Comedy Cafe last night

“Yes,” she replied. “Because this show is perfect for my target audience. The people who come to my comedy show are people that wouldn’t necessarily go to a comedy show normally. So there’s a lot of my target audience out there who need to know I exist.”

“And your target audience is…?” I asked.

“The young girls and the gays, because they identify with what I say and what I talk about.”

“You had a significant scattering of black people in that audience,” I said. “That’s strangely unusual in a normal comedy club, though I’ve never known why.”

“But that’s who I want to appeal to,” explained Luisa. “An urban crowd. Absolutely I want to appeal to that audience because it’s all-encompassing. The show is a party. In so many comedy shows you see the same old thing. I don’t fit into that environment. So I did my own thing and they came and, now I’ve found that niche, it’s very important that I build an audience and a following from the bottom up.”

“Where does that go if you’re stuck with young girls and gays?” I asked. “Doesn’t that mean you don’t hit the mainstream audience?”

“I think you’ll find they are the mainstream audience,” said Luisa. “If you get the girls and the gays, then the rest of the world follows.”

“Aren’t comedy audiences mainly young males, though?” I asked.

“People say they are, but there’s actually lots more women coming to comedy now and I want to try and encompass more women in comedy and get more women to go. You look at Jessie J or Beyoncé… Men didn’t pay for that. Women paid for that.

“Women pay for entertainment, not men. Men might pay for football. Women will decide what film you watch, where you go, what you go see. Women will decide that. Women are spending the money. This old men v women thing is bullshit. I have no time for that. Women will pay for a show. I want women in my show. End of. There’s no What about the men? Fuck ‘em. They’ve got Jongleurs. Go to that.”

“So Young heterosexual males piss-off?” I asked.

“No, not piss-off. But there’s plenty of comedy out there. This is my comedy for my target audience which I have found. There’s enough of them there.”

“Have you based your stage persona on someone else?” I asked.

“Who?”

“That’s why I asked,” I said.

“No,” said Luisa firmly. “I’ve based myself on me.”

“Who were your idols?”

“Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Cher, Beyoncé.”

“Steve Martin’s different,” I suggested.

“Yeah, but in his films, he’s very physical and clowny.”

“You dance very well in the show,” I said.

“You’re joking,” laughed Luisa. “I can’t dance at all. I just dance with conviction. Improv is all about conviction. If you’re pretending to die, do it with conviction. If you’re dancing and you’re nervous about it, you dance harder and that’ll get you through.”

“I saw an interview with Fred Astaire,” I mused, “where he said Ginger Rogers actually couldn’t dance… but she could act dancing brilliantly.”

“Exactly,” said Luisa. “You do it with enough conviction and people will believe you. And dancing is a big thing with Beyoncé.”

“But what if people don’t know a lot about Beyoncé?” I asked. “That excludes them from the show?”

“No, because they just see someone dancing silly and enjoying it for dancing silly’s sake.”

“But why should I – if I’m a 26 year-old comedy-goer – go see a show about Beyoncé with Beyoncé in the title if I don’t know about or like Beyoncé?”

“Well, there’s plenty of other shows for you to go and see!” laughed Luisa. “I’m not the only choice, God bless you!”

“Maybe you are the only choice.”

“For my audience, yeah.”

“So you are playing the Comedy Cafe here every Tuesday for eight weeks,” I said, “and then…?”

“I want to tour with it next year. So it’s me building a following and attacking it from different angles, making a good comedy show free and making it accessible. When I got 5-star reviews in Edinburgh, the next day I got comedy-savvy-goers who would come and be boring and sit there and think Oh, this is very interesting blah-blah blah-blah blah. My audience was alright those days, just a bit dead.

“But when I had groups of girls – black, white, Asian – dressed up to the nines coming in for a night out, that’s when I’d have that big reaction you saw tonight where it would blow the roof off. They’re the people that I’m trying to get. The people who don’t normally go to comedy and especially wouldn’t go to Jongleurs on a Friday or Saturday night. They’re the people I want to come to my comedy show and it’s a show that’s honest and truthful and relevant and it’s not pretentious, pretending to be something else or being clever with wordplay. If it’s not for you, by all means don’t come. But, if you want a bit of a party with jokes in, you’ll love it.”

“You don’t need a PR,” I told Luisa, “You are your PR. Have you seen Beyoncé perform live?”

“Yeah,” said Luisa. “She’s amazing. I nearly died. The way she performs – I thought I wanna perform like that… but with stand-up.”

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