Last weekend, actor Will Smith (a former comic) slapped Chris Rock (a current comic) in the face at the Oscars ceremony for allegedly slighting his wife with an ad-libbed joke obliquely-referring to her alopecia-caused baldness/shaved head.
I can’t help but feel that Americans’ sensibilities are a little too touchy and their attempts at edgy comedy could do with a bit more edge-sharpening.
Still… it was the slap that echoed round the world, making front-page news and generating much comment.
On Twitter, British comedian and writer David Baddiel observed: “As a comedy moment it’s still not up there with a member of the audience at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 1991 punching Jerry Sadowitz out cold for opening with Hello moose-fuckers!
The full line was: “Hello moose-fuckers! I tell you why I hate Canada: half of you speak French, and the other half let them.“
As David Baddiel pointed out, there is no footage of that particular punch, but there is a video of Clive Anderson interviewing comedians Denis Leary and Bill Hicks about it after the event…
In a comment on David Baddiel’s Tweet this week, Mr AR Felix (who describes himself as a “Ferrari supporter, casual artist and culture vulture”) wrote:
“The rarely-quoted follow up line, which Sadowitz claims is what actually led to him being attacked was: Why don’t you speak Indian? You might as well speak the language of the people you stole the country off of in the first place.”
When I mentioned the Sadowitz attack on my own Facebook page, former Time Out editor Dominic Wells commented:
“Loved Jerry/Gerry Sadowitz — the reason for my G/J being that when I was still chief sub on Time Out, and editor Don Atyeo showed his new columnist round the office, I asked him (pre-internet): How do you spell G/Jerry?
“Spell it how ye fucking want, son, ah don’t give a shite, quoth the comic.
Jerry or Gerry Sadowitz takes Time Out with Ben Elton
“So I (unlike Wikipedia, now that it exists) spelt it with a G in all his Time Out columns and the cover he was on, throttling the Spitting Image puppet of Ben Elton, for which Ben apparently never forgave us.
“G/Jerry was by a long chalk the funniest columnist I have EVER read, let alone subbed. I would hoot with laughter at his copy. Sadly G/Jerry proved too close to the edge even for Time Out. The editor couldn’t handle the letters of complaint and sacked him after just four or five, despite my entreaties.
“I guess the tone was set by his very first column, replacing Muriel Gray, who had departed for the Guardian or similar. It opened with a poem:
“See that Muriel Gray/ In a’ the Fleet Street papers/ You can read her if you want/ But I’d rather fuck the Proclaimers.“
After this Facebook comment, comic and cultural icon John Dowie reminisced:
“What’s the worst opening remark a comedian could ever say? asked Nick Revell, backstage prior to a 1980s comedy gig. Nelson Mandela – What a cunt! was the winning answer… Jerry opened with it… Of course.”
Then, returning to the subject of outrage caused at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, Rob Williams (who describes himself as a “writer of stuff” added:
“Malcolm Hardee at Montreal got told before going on that they love observational humour. Do observational stuff and you’ll be fine, they told him… So he opened with: Have you ever noticed that if you stick a carrot up your arse and lick it it tastes like shit?”
I can’t help but feel that Will Smith – especially as an ex-comic – was being more than a tad over-sensitive and Chris Rock could have been more offensive.
So I had a blog chat with poet/comedian/writer John Dowie.
I was going to the dentist. We arranged to meet when I was finished.
“You might as well come to the dentist in case he’s over-running,” I suggested.
“Charming as your dentist’s waiting room undoubtedly is,” John Dowie replied, “I will be in this pub down the road.”
And he was.
He drank sparkling water. He wore a hat,
This is part of our chat.
JOHN FLEMING: Are you going to see Avengers: Endgame, the latest Marvel movie?
JOHN DOWIE: No, because I won’t go to a cinema. People talk, use their phones and eat popcorn. I can’t believe they sell popcorn in cinemas: the noisiest and smelliest food known to mankind. I resent the attitude of the people who own the cinemas: they shouldn’t sell popcorn. I mean, people are bringing in hamburgers and chips now.
FLEMING: Are they? Where?
DOWIE: I dunno. But they are.
FLEMING: You’re getting to be a grumpy old man.
Consistently grumpy young John Dowie – a living legend
DOWIE: Getting? I was always a grumpy man. Age doesn’t come into it.
I can’t function unless I’m in complete privacy, in an enclosed space with no distractions.
FLEMING: You must have had to in your erstwhile youth.
DOWIE: I had a bedsit and wrote in that. Or I’d sit in my bedroom in my mother’s house and write there.
I am now thinking of trying to rent an office.
FLEMING: It is difficult to write at home.
DOWIE: Yes. If you have a partner of any kind, just as you reach the moment where you think: Yes! YES! there will be a knocking on the door – “Would you like a cuppa tea?” – and it’s all gone.
I had a friend, Gary, who was a painting artist and he said it was always happening with his missus.
DOWIE: Well, I’ve got an idea for another book. But it’s under wraps. It’s bad luck to talk about it before you’ve done it.
DOWIE: No, no. I can’t be fucked with fiction… But I did have an idea for a story… It’s about this woman dentist who has a new patient and he walks into the room with the most perfect teeth. She falls madly in love with this guy, but how does she keep on seeing him? There’s only one way: tell him his teeth are shit. So, over the course of a year or so, she gets him back for more appointments, taking out his teeth one-at-a-time until he has no teeth left… and then she goes off him.
FLEMING: You should call it Take Me Out.
DOWIE: …or Pulling.
FLEMING: Can I quote that idea?
DOWIE: Yes. I won’t use it. But I do have an idea for a new book – though I can’t write it until I’ve found somewhere to live. At the moment, I’m staying with my two sons and their mother. One of my sons is doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
Comedy/magic and conspiracy theories
DOWIE: Oddly Alike. My son is Harry Scott Moncrieff and it’s a two-hander with his mate Robbie Fox. Harry does comedy/magic wrapped around conspiracy theories. If he does it really well, they will kill him.
FLEMING: Or so he thinks… Why is he Scott Moncrieff?
DOWIE: He took his mother’s name which has turned out quite well, because he’s not cursed by association with my name as being drunk and abusive.
FLEMING: I’ve never heard of it. But Dowie is a creative name. There’s you. Your sister Claire Dowie. And Helga Dowie whom I worked with at ATV, who’s a producer now. Your son should have kept the Dowie name. Three prestigious Dowies. How many Scott Moncrieffs are there?
FLEMING: So your father was Irish with a Scots name…
DOWIE: Yes. My mother was very scathing about the Irish.
FLEMING: She was Scottish?
DOWIE: No. From Stoke-on-Trent but she married my dad, who was from Belfast and she was always scathing about how terribly not-bright the Irish were. I once did a genealogy thing on her maiden name. It turned out she was from Ireland… I think I may get an Irish passport if Brexit happens.
DOWIE: Yes. Swivel on THAT Mark Thomas! Never mind your NHS show. Look what a real politician comedian’s getting up to!
FLEMING: Can I quote that?
DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Yeah! Jeremy Hardy must be spinning in his grave. That could’ve been me up there on that podium! I’m going to the Jeremy Hardy memorial in May. He was very good, very precise and his death deserved all the press coverage it got.
“Now, when comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries…” (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)
It used to be that comedians were only jealous of other comedians succeeding. But then you write a book and you’re jealous that other comedians’ books are doing better than yours. Now, when other comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries. Ian Cognito’s obituaries this month! I would kill for that amount of space!
FLEMING: I know. He was getting in mainstream papers…
FLEMING:Malcolm Hardee got very extensive obituaries in the quality newspapers because people in the media knew who he was, even if the public didn’t. But Ian Cognito! – I don’t think people outside the comedy industry itself were really aware of him. He did prove, though, that the best way to die is on-stage like Tommy Cooper – and/or live your life so OTT that there are lots of outrageous anecdotes to quote. Fame may die but anecdotes live forever.
DOWIE: That Hollywood Reporter article you posted on Facebook about John Belushi’s death was quite horrific. No respect. There’s a corpse being wheeled out on a trolly – Oh! I’ll take a photograph of that, then! – No. mate, don’t – And Lenny Bruce, of course. He died on a toilet trying to inject himself. He was lying naked on the bathroom floor with a syringe still in his arm and they were leaping up the stairs two-at-a-time to take photographs of him.
FLEMING: Apparently dying on the toilet is quite a common thing. Doing Number Twos puts a big strain on the heart.
FLEMING: Wey-hey! You still have it!… I should have taken heroin when I was younger. Look at Keith Richards: 75 years old and a picture of good health; his main risk is falling out of trees he has climbed. Wasn’t it Keith Richards who accidentally smoked his father’s cremated ashes?
DOWIE: He said he did; then he said he didn’t.
FLEMING: Always print the legend, I say, if it’s a good story.
DOWIE: The story I like is Graham Nash. After his mother died, he discovered that she had wanted to be a singer but was saddled with having to bring up children and having to work. So he took her ashes on tour with him and, every time he did a gig, he dropped a little bit of her on the stage.
“What’s going to happen? … Are you going to rot or be burnt?”
FLEMING: What’s going to happen to you? Are you going to rot or be burnt?
DOWIE: When I buried my friend David Gordon, I found a natural death company with grounds and you can do what you like there. You can put the body in a hole in the ground or in a coffin or in a sack – You can do what the fuck you like – And then they plant a tree there. That’s what I’m going to have done – What kind of tree would it be? – I think it will have to be a weeping willow.
FLEMING: You’ll be happy to rot? You don’t want to be burnt?
DOWIE: I don’t like that bit where the doors close.
FLEMING: Like curtains closing on a stage…
DOWIE: …and no encore.
FLEMING: I think it’s more romantic to rot.
DOWIE: Also your body serves a purpose if you grow a tree out of it. Actually, I quite like the idea of a Viking funeral with the boat and the flames. But I try not to ponder on my own death too much, John. It’s just tempting Fate.
“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”
Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative.
“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”
Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”
Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…
DOWIE: This book my first prose work.
FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.
DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.
FLEMING: So why now?
DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.
DOWIE: Is that the word?
FLEMING: I dunno.
DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.
FLEMING: How has the book done?
An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway
DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.
FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?
DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?
DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?
DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.
FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.
DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.
FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…
DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.
FLEMING: To distract them?
DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.
“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”
“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”
“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”
It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.
FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?
DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.
FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…
FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.
DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.
FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)
DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.
FLEMING: A great name, though.
DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.
FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.
DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.
Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”
DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.
FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?
DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.
FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.
DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.
FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.
DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.
FLEMING: I don’t know that one.
DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”
FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?
William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea
DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.
FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?
DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.
FLEMING: On stage, though?
DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.
FLEMING: I think that might just be you.
DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.
FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?
DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.
FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?
DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.
FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August
This now seems to be happening at The Hive venue on Wednesday 23rd August under the title Malcolm Hardee: Back From The Drink – two days before the last ever annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.
Malcolm was famous for his stunts at the Fringe. One of the most famous was writing a review of his own show which he conned The Scotsman newspaper into publishing in 1989.
In his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, he described this jolly prank:
One year, we were playing at The Pleasance venue and, as normal, when you open the first week, there’s no-one there. All the other shows at The Pleasance had been reviewed by The Scotsman newspaper. Again, we were ‘wrong side of the tracks’. They hadn’t come to review our show. I was feeling bitter. So I thought I’d write my own review for them.
Malcolm’s stunt-laden autobiography
I got a copy of The Scotsman and picked out a reviewer’s name at random – William Cook. I talked to someone I knew who used to write reviews for The Scotsman and found out how to do it. All you do is type it out in double-spacing. That’s the trick.
Then, with Arthur Smith, I wrote a review of my own show, put William Cook’s name at the bottom, folded it up, put it in an envelope and went to the Scotsman’s offices at about 9.00pm when all the staff had gone home and gave it to the porter. Sure enough, next day, they printed it. After that, the show was full up.
Then The Scotsman went mad because someone told them I’d done it and William Cook didn’t speak to me for years. I don’t know why. I presume he got paid for it.
This week, I asked William Cook what he remembered of all this.
“Since it was all so long ago – I make it 28 years – tempus fugit! – I’m not sure there’s much (if anything) I can add. I’d been writing reviews for The Scotsman for a grand total of about a fortnight and I had never even heard of Arthur Smith or Malcolm Hardee – although I naturally saw them perform and interviewed them quite a bit thereafter.”
Arthur Smith this week remembered the glamour of it all
Earlier this week, I asked comic Arthur Smith what he remembered.
“The story as it is usually told,” I began, “is that Malcolm wrote his own review. Did he write it? Or was it both of you?”
Arthur laughed. “I wrote every word. My memory is that his show had been going a week or so and it wasn’t getting big houses. So he shambled into the bar one day and said to me: Oy! Oy! Do you wanna write a review of my show?… So I said: If you like… And he told me: I’ve found a way of getting it into The Scotsman. I guess he must have been buttering-up some critic and – typical Malcolm – he had a bit of deviousness in mind.”
“Surely not,” I said.
“It only,” Arthur told me, “took me half an hour or something like that. Obviously, Malcolm wanted me to write it very favourably, but not so they would read it and say: Fuck off! That’s not a real review! It was a fairly straightforward kind of review in a way.”
This is what Arthur Smith wrote and what The Scotsman printed:
Malcolm Hardee shambles on-stage in an ill-fitting suit looking like a debauched Eric Morecambe and initiates the funniest show I have seen in Edinburgh this year.
The infamous fake Edinburgh Fringe review
Hardee delivers some gross but hilarious one-liners before giving way to John Moloney, “angry young accordionist”; his sharp and aggressive observations had the audience hooting with laughter.
Then Hardee, who looks like he lives in a bus station, introduced the open spot. On the night I went a 13-year-old called Alex Langdon did a standup routine which put many of his professional elders to shame.
But the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Terri Rodgers, who walked on looking the epitome of a sweet old lady but then introduced her puppet friend Shorty Harris, who proceeded to tell a string of jokes that made Gerry Sadowitz’s material sound like Jimmy Cricket’s. This is alternative ventriloquising of the highest order.
Note: Terri Rogers is mis-spelled as Rodgers. Jerry Sadowitz, at that time, would occasionally and, I think, fairly randomly sometimes spell his forename as Gerry.
Brian Mulligan, who was, at that time, half of comic duo Skint Video, said last week: “It wasn’t completely gushing which I thought was very amusing.”
“That’s right,” Arthur told me. “Maybe, in a way, I should have gone: This is the greatest show ever. But maybe I thought that would alert the sub-editor or something. It was quite a good review. They didn’t have stars then but I would have given him 5-stars.
“I’d written reviews before for people. I had a column in the Guardian where I could write anything I liked provided it was vaguely arts-based and I reviewed a friend’s show – I don’t think I’d even seen it – and I just gave it 5-stars as a favour.
The former Scotsman building – now The Scotsman Hotel
“Anyway, I wrote the Scotsman review for Malcolm and, maybe two days later, there it was. I recall it really caused quite a kerfuffle. They got very upset about it.”
This week, writer/performer John Dowie told me: “I recall the editor of The Scotsman releasing one of the greatest ever closing-the-stable-door-after-the-horse-has-bolted remarks: We have taken steps to ensure that this can never happen again.”
Arthur Smith’s opinion today is: “I thought they took it a bit more seriously than they really needed to. They went on about the freedom of the press. It was just a great stunt, really, though I suppose it made them look a bit like cunts… but not really.”
“Did Malcolm tweak the review at all?” I asked.
“No,” Arthur told me. “It was printed exactly as I wrote it. I would have written it by hand back in those days and he must have typed it up and handed it in.”
In fact, exactly how it was delivered to The Scotsman has got hazy in the mists of time.
Last night I talked via Skype to Woodstock Taylor in Edinburgh. She was the then-journalist who actually told Malcolm how to submit the fake review.
“How did you know Malcolm?” I asked.
Woodstock Taylor, taken sometime back in the mid-1990s
“We had a dalliance,” she told me. “I had been dallying with (another now high-profile comedian). He dumped me, then Malcolm seized the opportunity and it seemed like a good idea at the time. We dallied for a while, then stayed friends after we stopped dallying.”
“And so…?” I asked.
“Basically,” she told me, “I used to review for The Scotsman. I was the comedy critic for several years, before William Cook got there. He took over my patch.”
“William Cook said,” I told her, “that he had only been in the job about two weeks when this fake review came out.”
“That’s right,” said Woodstock, “because I had been going to do it and then I didn’t.”
“So that,” I said, “was how Malcolm knew how to submit a review to The Scotsman. But do we now own up to the fact you told him how to con The Scotsman?”
“I think so,” said Woodstock. “It’s been 28 years. I’m not likely to write for them again. They’re not very likely to come and review my Fringe show this year. And, in any case, I have a different name now.”
Founded in 1817 – survived Hardee in 1989
“So how,” I asked, “did the fake review come about?”
“Malcolm kept coming up to me and pestering me to do a review of his show and I was trying to explain to him that I didn’t have any control over what was reviewed. I would have done him a review if it had been allowed and possible.”
“This was after you dallied?” I asked.
“Ooh, ten years after. He kept saying – about a review – Oh, come on. You can make it happen. And eventually, he got this idea and I told him how it was done.”
“He just,” I said, “put it in a tray one night, didn’t he?”
“No,” said Woodstock, “in those days, all you had to do was phone up the paper, reverse charges, and ask for the Copy Desk and then just read them the review.”
“So,” I asked, “he just phoned up and said: Ello! This is William Cook!?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly how it was done.”
“Poor old William Cook,” I said.
William Cook: now a successful author on the comedy industry
“I think it probably made him,” suggested Woodstock. “Nobody knew who he was before and everybody did afterwards.”
This made me wonder, when the editor of The Scotsman said We have taken steps to ensure that this can never happen again, what those steps actually were.
John Dowie told me: “When I mentioned it to Malcolm, he said: It’s a code number which you have to attach to the copy. But I know what it is. I gave a journalist ten quid and he told me. I could use it. But it’s somebody else’s turn now.”
The last ever Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards take place at the Edinburgh Fringe next month, billed as Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s the Last Ever Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – and It’s Free!
One of the three awards is the Cunning Stunt Award for the best publicity stunt publicising a Fringe performer or show. There is a piece on how to win a Cunning Stunt Award HERE.
PATRON SINNER OF ALTERNATIVE COMEDY,
HE WAS RENOWNED FOR HIS OUTRAGEOUS STUNTS
On the day his death was announced, Hardee’s friends and family converged on the Wibbley Wobbley to pour a measure of his favourite tipple, rum and Coke, into the river where he felt so at home. For alternative comedy’s patron sinner, who has been called a millennial Falstaff and a south London Rabelais, it was a suitably irreverent farewell.
(Video produced by Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon venue in Edinburgh)
The Artist formerly known as The Iceman: a brush with fame
I have blogged before about the comic performance artist legend that is The Iceman. The last couple of times he has cropped up, it has been as a fine artist (I use the words loosely) not a performance artist. As a stage performer, he has been described as:
“…a living saint” (Stewart Lee)
“…incredible” (Mike Myers)
“A figure of mythic proportions” (Independent)
“inexplicable” (The Stage)
“shit!” (Chris Tarrant)
“brilliant” (Simon Munnery)
“truly a performance artist” (Jo Brand)
AIM’s painting of Jo Brand (left) understanding The Iceman
He sent me an email this morning asking if I wanted to write another blog about him because he feels my blog-writing style has “sort of subtle undercurrents where sarcasm meets genteelness” and, where he is involved, has “a mixture of awe, bafflement and sneaking respect.”
Those are his words.
He added: “I think you should keep it short and pithy. Do you do short blogs? As my sales increase I am going to keep you very busy indeed so, for your own sanity, it should be more like a news flash.”
Eddie Izzard/Iceard (left) upstaged/icestaged by The Iceman
The Iceman – who now prefers to be called AIM (the Artist formally known as the Ice Man) – measures his fine art success against van Gogh’s sales of his art during his lifetime.
He told me that, yesterday, he “nearly tripled/then quadrupled/then quintupled van Gogh’s sales record… but, in the end, I just tripled it as the buyer couldn’t stretch to it…”
‘It’ being an “confidential but significant” sum.
Buyer Maddie Coombe overawed in the presence of the AIM
He sent me photographs of the buyer – “discerning collector” and dramatist Maddie Coombe – who topped an offer by another buyer who desperately tried to muscle-in on the art purchase.
Ms Coombe says: “I bought a very colourful and bold piece of the Iceman’s work. I loved it because of its colour, composition and bold brush strokes. I will keep it forever as a memory of the time I have spent being his colleague – a man unlike any other!”
Comedian Stewart Lee (right) and poet John Dowie carrying The Iceman’s props with pride – a specific and vivid memory.
The Iceman says: “The sale was a formal business agreement born of an authentic appreciation of AIM’s art/oil paintings in a secret contemporary art gallery south of Bath – It’s in a valley.”
Explaining the slight element of mystery involved, he explains: “Being a cult figure I can’t be too transparent with anything,” and adds: “AIM is now painting not from photos but from specific and vivid memories insice the ex-Iceman’s head, resulting in even more icetraordinary imagices.
“One gallery visitor,” he tells me, “was heard to say It looks like it’s painted by a three year old which, of course I thought was a huge compliment.”
AIM’s most recent painting – Stand-up comedian, activist and author Mark Thomas (right) gets the political message of The Iceman’s ice block at the Duke of Wellington’s public house many years ago
“It does as well as I can be bothered to flog it. I am going to do another one.”
“So,” I asked, “on this world tour, you are doing a split bill in these bookshop shows and reading from your books both published and unpublished?”
“No,” said Dave, “I’m doing a show. I tried to write a novel and it didn’t work. So I thought: Maybe it’s a sitcom. But that didn’t work either. So I thought Well, maybe it’s a 40-minute stand-up poem.”
“Why didn’t it work as a novel?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to write novels. Well, maybe I do. But I didn’t have whatever it takes to do it.”
“I think,” said John, “you have to write quite a lot before you can get a good one out of yourself.”
“I think,” I suggested, “writing a novel is the most difficult thing to do.”
“Well no,” said John, “having your leg taken off without an anaesthetic is worse. Tell us your dirty secrets, English paratrooper, or we will make you write a novel! That never happens.”
Guns ’n’ Moses were (L-R) Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré
“To write a good joke…” suggested Dave. “Maybe 10 words, 12 words? To write a really fantastic joke: that’s a really hard skill. The most brilliant comedy writers who can do that are not necessarily that good at being able to write characters. You get people who are successful gag writers who can’t do a sitcom as good. It’s a different skill.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Horses for courses. Like comperes and comedians… It’s a different skill. Really good comedians are very often shit MCs…”
“Anyway,” said Dave, “my show… It’s called Music Was My First Love and it’s about me falling out with my dad. I did it at the Edinburgh Fringe and I think that’s in the contract. If you do a show in Edinburgh and you’re a male comic it has to be about not getting on with your dad. Did you ever do a ‘dad’ show, John?”
“It’s in me forthcoming book,” John replied. “The Freewheeling John Dowie. And I did a show about Joseph, father of Jesus – Jesus, My Boy – I guess that was partly to do with parenting.”
“That was great,” said Dave. “I saw it in a packed West End theatre.”
“Did you ever perform it yourself?” Dave asked him.
“When I first wrote it I did. Nothing sharpens the writer’s pen more than having to go on stage shovelling filth over the footlights yourself – Then it’s: God! That scene’s going! That’s gone! THAT’s gone!”
“I’ve only done my show eight times,” Dave told me. “The first time I did it, it was about an hour and ten minutes long. The poor people who saw that first show really sat through my entire life story! So I got up the next morning and had a cup of tea and cut and cut and cut it down to about 55 minutes. Then John here told me thought 40 minutes was enough. So I cut it and cut it again and it’s now 40 minutes long.”
“How did you two meet?” I asked.
“I was,” explained Dave, “a fan of John before he even knew I existed. He was one of the pioneers in the punk days. I got into punk and, at the same time as I was setting up my record label in Bristol, John was appearing on Factory Records. There was a very small circle of people who were doing music and comedy in the late 1970s. There was Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias and John Dowie and that was kind of it. Billy Connolly sometimes – though he was Folk, really.”
“I became a big John Dowie fan and bought this record which had John on and also happened to have Joy Division and the Durutti Column. As a result, I suddenly became really hip among my Bristol contemporaries. Wow! You’re into Factory Records! But it was really just for this funny Brummie bloke who did comedy songs.”
An early John Dowie album – this one was on Virgin Records
“How,” I asked, “did a Brummie end up on Factory Records in Manchester?”
“I lived near Manchester,” John told me.
“What year is this?”
“You did gigs with Nico when she was living in Manchester,” I prompted.
“Briefly. She lived with John Cooper Clarke. She was being managed by a guy in Manchester.”
“It was very pleasant living with them,” he said. “But a single person living with a couple was very…”
“You were a gooseberry,” suggested John.
“Yes. In fact,” Dave added, “John O’Farrell always said he wanted to write a sitcom based on me: a single bloke living with a married couple. I said: Yeah. Thanks for taking the sad loneliness of my pathetic life and turning it into comedy.”
“He never tried it?” I asked.
“He came close. He was writing with Mark Burton at the time and that was one of their ideas.”
“I am,” said John, “going to sue God for my life. It was a disappointment from start to finish. It didn’t say that on the label.”
“Anyway,” I said to Dave, “basically you were a John Dowie groupie.”
“I was,” he agreed, “and then, years later, I was doing a gig at the Earth Exchange and I think John turned up with Arthur Smith and we went for a drink afterwards. So there I was with my absolute god hero and it was… eh… It was character-building.”
John laughed out loud.
Dave explained: “He basically told me what was wrong with my act and he was absolutely right. I went away and thought: He’s absolutely right! I don’t look at the audience! I do move around too much.”
Dave got better. In the 1980s and 1990s, with Pete Sinclair, he co-wrote several songs for ITV’s Spitting Image, including one when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office.
“When I first started,” John Dowie said, “I was up in Edinburgh and a theatre director came to see it, liked the material and hated the performance. I spent a week with him in London learning how not to walk away every time you get to the punchline. Why do you keep walking away on the punchlines? Stand still and say the punchline! Of course, the reason you walk away on the punchline is because you’re frightened of not getting a laugh and then, because you do it, you don’t get a laugh.
“They were quite nice,” John continued, “those 1980s days, because everyone was sort-of-doing the same gigs and hanging out in each others pockets and drinking in the same bars and going to the same nightclubs and slipping in the same sick. And it was not always mine. It was very camaraderie orientated, wouldn’t you say?”
“It’s a career now,” Dave agreed. “In the early 1980s, nobody who was doing it was thinking: Right, OK. This is my life now. I’m going to work as a stand-up, get some TV work and…”
“Well,” said John, “there was Mike Myers. He was the Paul Simon of the comedy generation. Came to London. Told everybody how he was going to be rich and famous in three years or else it was over. Went off and proved himself to be completely right.”
Very early Comedy Store Players included (L-R) Paul Merton, Dave Cohen, Kit Hollerbach, Neil Mullarkey and Mike Myers
“But,” said Dave, “he was still also very much a part of the spirit of it. I worked a lot with him at that time. When we set up the Comedy Store Players, he was fantastic. He was very giving and very much into the whole ethos of that whole stand-up scene. But he had come from Canada and…”
John interrupted: “I assumed he was from the US.”
“No,” said Dave. “Kit Hollerbach was the American one. She brought that professionalism and Mike Myers brought the improv side thing as well. So it became sort-of professional at that point. They made it a professional thing. Which was not a bad thing. A couple of years before that, nobody would see somebody like Paul Merton and think: Oh, right, this guy’s gonna be the hugest comedy star in the country and successful for 30 years.”
“So,” I asked, “if, before this, the incentive was NOT to build a career, why was anyone doing it?”
“It was better than working,” John replied.
“And what,” I asked, “are you going to do after this world tour is finished?”
John Dowie is difficult to describe. Wikipedia’s current attempt is: “a British comedian, musician and writer. He began performing stand-up comedy in 1969.”
His own website describes him as: “Not working. Not writing. Not performing. Not Twittering. Not on Facebook. Not on Radio. Not on TV. Not doing game shows, chat shows, list shows, grumpy-old whatever shows. Not doing quiz shows. Not doing adverts. Not doing voice-overs for insurance companies/banks/supermarkets/dodgy yogurts.”
The synopsis of his up-coming autobiography starts: “If you’re thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian (and who isn’t?) then here’s some advice: don’t start doing it in 1972. I did, and it was a mistake.”
I know John Dowie because he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the 2003 anthology of comedians’ (often dark) short stories which I edited with the late Malcolm Hardee.
A foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb
John’s was the story of a Northern comedian who has a foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb. The Daily Mirror called it: “a wrist-slashingly brutal account of a Bernard Manning-esque comic who plans blood-thirsty revenge. Disturbing? Very.” The Chortle website called it a “breathlessly entertaining yarn”.
“They reckon the average book takes about six weeks or two months.”
“Have you started writing it?”
“I’ve already written it!”
“So the crowdfunding is just for the physical creation of it?”
“Yes, you have to reach a funding target for the printing process to begin.”
“So what have you been doing,” I asked, “since the triumph that was Sit-Down Comedy?”
“I have been riding my bicycle.”
“France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Ireland which is horrible, Wales, up and down England.”
“I like Ireland,” I said.
“Bad roads,” said John Dowie.
“And you are publishing your autobiography by crowdfunding…?”
The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunding and bicycling
“Well, it’s not actually an autobiography,” John corrected me. “It’s like an autobiography, but with the boring bits cut out. There is no stuff like Birmingham is an industrial town in the heart of the Midlands. It’s got autobiographical elements. But, if you are a nobody such as I, then the only way you can tell a story about yourself is if it is a story that stands in its own right.”
“So how do you want The Freewheeling John Dowie described?” I asked. “A bicycling autobiography?”
“Yeah,” said John. “Well, if you ride a bike and you’re in a quiet piece of the world, what do you do? Your mind is free to wander and, as it wanders, you find yourself going from place to place in your mind that you were not expecting to go.”
“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to write your autobiography now?”
“I’m 65 and I’ve been retired for 15 years,” explained John. “And, if you’re 65, you’re fucked. So I thought: If I’m fucked, I’d better spend my time working because I’m of more use as a fucked-up performer than I am as a fucked-up retiree.”
“You were born in 1950?” I asked.
“Yes. Just in time to miss Elvis Presley and just in time to get the Beatles.”
“Did you approach a ‘proper’ publisher for the book?” I asked.
“No… Well, I think Unbound are more proper than publishers, because they care about the things they make. A friend of mine has a client who’s a comedian who went to a voice-over studio to record her book and was regaled by the engineers with all the comedians who came in to read the books they ‘wrote’ but had never even read yet – and finding mistakes in their own books – Ooh! My mother isn’t called Dorothy! Those are books done by ‘proper’ publishers.”
John Dowie – a living legend from the early alternate days
“Is there what they call a ‘narrative arc’ in your cycling autobiography?” I asked.
“I met him once,” I said. “I think he must have got out of the wrong side of the bed that day.”
“I think,” John said, “that he got more crotchety as he got older. When I met him, he was very decent to me. I was hanging around backstage after one of his shows. He was touring a play which he wrote with John Antrobus – The Bed-Sitting Room. People talk about taking LSD for the first time and how it changed their life. Watching The Bed-Sitting Room changed my life. It was like a door had opened.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I had not experienced anything like it before. Live comedy. I was 15 or 16.”
“So you didn’t know what you wanted to be?”
“And you decided to be Spike Milligan?”
“Yeah. That’s more or less it, yeah. I became Spike Milligan for a period. Apart from the talented bits, obviously.”
“What happened when you stopped being Spike Milligan?”
“I got my friends back.”
“Why? Because you were rude as Spike Milligan?”
“No. Just not funny.”
Naked Noolies and I Don’t Want To Be Your Amputee
“And then, I said, “you became one of the living legends of the original Alternative Comedy circuit.”
“Well,” said John, “I’m living. That’s halfway there.”
“But you are,” I said, “one of the originators of Alternative Comedy.”
“I don’t think so,” said John. “I don’t think I’m one of them and it’s not as if it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there. I was coincidental more than anything. It wasn’t as if anybody saw me and thought: Oh, let’s start a movement. I considered myself to be in the same field as Ivor Cutler and Ron Geesin.”
“Wow!” I said. “Ron Geesin! I had forgotten him!”
“Yes,” said John. “He was great. He was a John Peel discovery. Ron played Mother’s Club in Birmingham where John Peel’s Birmingham audience used to go religiously to see the acts John Peel played on the radio. Ron Geesin came on and did his first number on the piano and the place went fucking barmy and Ron Geesin said to the audience: Listen, nobody is THAT good.”
“Yeah,” said John. “The first one. The first Factory Records release. FAC- 2… FAC- 1 was the poster. I was on the same record as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and the Durutti Column. It was a double EP.”
“Ah!” I said.
Then he said to me: “It’s all very good if you know everything about comedy, John, but, if you don’t know about pop music…”
“Why should people crowdfund your autobiography?” I asked.
But I think many anti-Bernard Manning sentiments are knee-jerk reactions. People dislike him because they know they are supposed to dislike him.
The comedian, musician and writer John Dowie contributed a very interesting short story to the Sit-Down Comedy anthology which the late Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited for Random House in 2003. His Help Me Make It Through the Night is basically a fictional story about a right-on early Ben Elton type alternative comedian and an old school Bernard Manning style comedian… written sympathetically from the point of view of the Bernard Manning character.
The story was written for the book by John Dowie after he and I had a discussion about Bernard Manning and surprisingly found a lot of common ground. Indeed, I think we agreed that we both admired him as a technically brilliant comedian; and it helped that we had both lived through the period when Manning was having his greatest success.
John Dowie is (in my opinion) a notable left-wing thinker; we are not talking a Daily Mail reader here.
RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!
It is perhaps not the most original of ideas for a debate, but it is never not irrelevant and I felt it still has a lot of proverbial mileage left in it. The phrasing and punctuation of the debate’s title can be taken to represent either viewpoint:
RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!
I did invite Jim Davidson to take part in this debate (through his agent) without payment. He is taking part in the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of the week reflecting, according to the programme, “on the industry that loved him, supported him but ultimately rejected him, as he discusses the changing nature of acceptability in comedy and television as a whole”.
His agent said Jim was unable to be in Edinburgh on Tuesday 23rd for the Malcolm Hardee Debate because he is on tour – playing Great Yarmouth on the Monday night and Weymouth on the Wednesday night.
I have no idea if it is just impractical (it sure ain’t easy) or because there was no money in it or because he just did not fancy doing it. All are perfectly reasonable.
It is a pity – but much in life is, like the fact choc ices are fattening.
I have never met Jim Davidson and have never seen his live act (television, in this case, does not count). I have asked people who have worked with him what he is like and opinion is varied. I have no personal opinion on him.
Prejudice is not something I admire and, by that, I mean judging people without really genuinely knowing what you are talking about. It is a comic irony that people who say you should never believe what you read in newspapers and magazines nor on the internet – and you should never believe edited video clips out of context – often do.
So I am prepared to believe Jim Davidson is a shit; but I am also prepared to believe he is misunderstood and misrepresented. Jimmy Carr, a brilliant comic whom I have seen and whom I do admire, has also been accused of telling racist jokes. To which I say Bollocks.
Admittedly, even if I did think Jim Davidson were a shit, I would put him on to get bums on seats and to let him defend himself (equal factors in my mind).
I think the line-up on 23rd August without him is still very good:
Simon Donald, co-founder of Viz magazine, who has now re-invented himself as a stand-up comedian.
Hardeep Singh Kohli, sometime presenter on BBC1’s The One Show and columnist for Scotland on Sunday newspaper.
I have blogged before about the galloping-blindly-towards-an-unknown-destination changes in book publishing.
In 2003, the late Malcolm Hardee and I put together Sit-Down Comedy for Random House. It was an anthology of original writing (some of it very dark) by comedians Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Malcolm Hardee, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavare, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.
Sit-Down Comedy has just been issued in both iBook (for iPads) and Kindle downloadable electronic editions.
Apparently, in the US market, electronic books now account for 20% of total book sales. In the UK, it is still only 5%, but it is expected to double in the next year.
A highly relevant factor is that print-on-demand publishers may take 20% of your book’s earnings to arrange print and electronic versions… while conventional print publishers doing the same thing normally give the author royalties of only 7.5% of paperback sales. With print-on-demand you have to market the book yourself, but you also have to factor in that significant difference between getting 80% or getting the conventional 7.5%.
I have blogged before that am thinking of re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (probably revised back to its original version) as an e-book… but that is only if I can actually pull my finger out – always a major factor in the production of any book.