Tag Archives: Leicester Square

The President in a comedy competition

President Obonjo

Regular readers will know I am not above getting other people to write my blog for me.

Last weekend, Benjamin Bello aka President Obonjo of Lafta Republic took part in the annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year competition.

I asked him about it.

This is what he told me.


President Obonjo

President Obonjo onstage

Comedy competitions are a great way to showcase your talent in front of industry people and to play to audiences that have never seen your act, but there are times you wonder after you have been going for years: At what point do you stop calling yourself a New Comedian? 

It has been a great year for me, reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions and winning two of them has helped raise my profile. One was based on audience voting only and the other was a combination of audience voting and the judges voting.

Reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions in one year is no mean feat… but there are comedy competitions and there  are comedy competitions.

I recall at the beginning of my comedy career I won the Luton Comedian of the Year competition and I thought I had conquered the world. I had no idea of other comedy competitions like the BBC New Comedy Awards.

I have entered the prestigious annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year twice in previous years going out in the heats and then in the quarter finals the following year. I had resigned myself to not entering again and decided instead to enter the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016. (Benjamin lives in Luton) I was runner up and, as a result, I automatically progressed to the semi-finals of the Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year.

A few weeks before the semi-finals I knew I had to invite friends to come and vote and support me. Invitations went out on Facebook and I tweeted on Twitter and I spoke to a few people individually and they said they would come – I was elated.

I continued gigging across the country to get match fit.

I needed to prepare a polished five minute set.

As I sat in a coffee shop, I reflected on my Edinburgh Fringe show last year.

It was a one hour show. I received five stars with some degree of success.

I thought: Why am I stressing about a comedy competition with a five minute set?

The Leicester Square gig was on a Sunday. I turned down all other gigs the weekend before, just to relax and reserve my energies.

On the day of the gig, I could not relax. I was not worried about my set but more worried that no-one would show up and support me and that would hurt me more than not getting through to the finals. This competition includes audience voting and it does help if your friends are in the audience voting for you.

I arrived at the venue.

The first semi-final had been concluded that evening and I knew one of the comedians who had gone through to the final. He had come third at the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016.

I thought: Yes! I am going to get through to the final!

I met the comedians I was going to be competing with. Some were already in the Zone.

We walked into the venue to choose where we wanted to be in the running order.

I chose the last spot – I am the President and I should close the show.

I thought: It’s going to work! 

The venue was filling up and no-one showed up to support me.

I thought: My election strategy won’t walk tonight. I am going to be performing to an audience of friends of other comedians.

This was going to be tough no matter how funny I was. It was going to be hard to get through.

I waited in the dressing room. The MC called my name and said this was the most difficult spot. I got on stage, did my thing and I was pleased with my performance. Very pleased.

The results were announced.

I was not placed in the final.

My initial reaction was one of utter disappointment. I had wanted this so much.

As I walked out of the building, an audience member came to me and whispered: You were very funny tonight but I could not vote for you.

Another comedian said: You smashed it; you should have got through.  

As I walked home, I thought: I gave it my best shot, but who knows? I might get a wild card.

That thought – I might get a wild card – kept ringing in my ears. I got home, slept it off, checked my email.

There was a gig offer from a comedy promoter but no wild cards.

A few days later, the finalists were announced.

I smiled and wondered who was going to win.

President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello

President Obonjo: yet more places to conquer

I needed to move on but I wondered if I would ever do another comedy competition. Three more are left I think: the BBC New Comedy Awards, the Old Comedian of the Year and the Silverbird Comedy Awards for those over 55.

I still have a few more years left for that last one. LOL.

I have no regrets about taking part in comedy competitions. They have been a real opportunity to showcase my talent in front of the industry and I have had great reviews from them.

President Obonjo of Lafta Republic will be taking a show to Brighton, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe next year.

It will be titled The Rise of the Comedy Dictator.

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Is comedian Lewis Schaffer’s comedy life-changing? For two people, yes it is.

Lewis Schaffer performs at the Source Below last night

Lewis Schaffer being intimate at the Source Below last night

This week, after his return to London from the Edinburgh Fringe, American comic Lewis Schaffer re-started his twice-a-week Free Until Famous shows at the Source Below in Soho.

About halfway through last night’s show, I started to realise I no longer have any idea what is funny or not for ordinary people watching his show. I really dread to think how many times I have seen Lewis Schaffer perform and all the shows tend to blend into one.

He probably has about 15 hours of material and every show is mostly drawn from the same well but each is totally different, totally shaped round each audience and full of good off-the-cuff gags which, in the past, he used to forget. Now one of his entourage writes them down and there is a chance he will remember them and add them to future shows.

“I don’t have an entourage,” Lewis Schaffer told me last night. “It’s a crew. I think it sounds better. Do you think it sounds better?”

“It sounds suitably street talk and American,” I said.

“I don’t want to be part of a crew,” Rose, one of his entourage, told me later.

I was laughing out loud throughout Lewis Schaffer’s show at the Source Below last night. So was Rose. So were comedians Matt Roper and Prince Abdi and comedian Pippa Evans’ dad, who were in the audience. People who had seen a lot of comedy were certainly enjoying the show. And I think the audience was mostly enjoying it. But I realised I had lost the ability to know. I watched two couples in the audience. In each couple, one was laughing throughout and the other was straight-faced. I have no idea if the straight-faced ones were enjoying the show or not. I think they were. Who knows? I don’t.

Rikki Fulton was not in the audience as he is dead

Rikki Fulton: comic with footsteps

Lewis had decided to zero-in on two Scots girls in the front row whose faces I could not see but one of whom should consider a career following in Rikki Fulton’s footsteps. And, in lieu of a ‘real’ black man in the audience, Lewis Schaffer decided that Somalian-born Prince Abdi would stand-in as “the black man in the audience”.

Lewis Schaffer’s comedy shows can be difficult to describe.

This one ended on time and he made a faster-than-normal exit, as he had to get to the Bloomsbury Theatre for a fundraising show in aid of Resonance FM Radio which comedian Stewart Lee had organised.

Each week, Lewis Schaffer performs two Free Until Famous shows at the Source Below, one American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre and his Nunhead American Radio show on Resonance FM. You have to admire the fact he has avoided becoming famous.

So Lewis Schaffer and two of his entourage/crew and I got a taxi to the Bloomsbury Theatre.

He had been scheduled to be top of the bill at the gig solely because he could only arrive  just before the end of the show.

The watching Bloomsbury Theatre technician was laughing

The watching Bloomsbury Theatre technician was laughing

I think he went down well. The audience certainly laughed in all the right places. As did Stewart Lee and the sound technician in the wings – usually a very good sign. If the sound technician laughs, it’s good.

Stewart Lee called him back on stage for an encore.

Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Lewis Schaffer has a very good story about it.

“Tell the story,” Rose and I said to him as he went back on stage. The perfect story to round-off the show that night.

Of course, he did not. He told a story about a blind man. It seemed to go down well with the audience.

After the show, in the foyer, I saw two people having their photo taken with Lewis Schaffer.

This is a big advance, I thought. People must be starting to think Lewis Schaffer is actually famous.

“Listen to this,” Lewis Schaffer told me. “This is Alex and Alicia. They went to see my show at the Source Below three-and-a-half years ago.”

Lewis Schaffer (centre) with Alicia and Alex

Matchmaking Lewis Schaffer (centre) with Alicia and Alex

“We had our very first date by going to see Lewis’ show,” Alex explained to me. “We’d read about this interesting comedy gig, but we didn’t know what to expect.

“When we arrived, we thought This is a very small place to have a comedy gig and we quickly realised we were two of five people in the entire audience. We sat at the back, but Lewis asked us to move to the front to fill out the crowd and, when he discovered that Alicia was half-Welsh and half-Indian, that became the focus of the next hour’s set.

“So this first date became a kind of trial by fire for Alicia to defend her heritage as an Indian and a Welsh person and, three-and-a-half years later, we’ve stayed together and we’re now engaged.”

“When are you getting married?” I asked.

“In a couple of year’s time,” said a broadly-smiling Alicia who then added the Lewis Schaffer like proviso. “Enough time for me to back out.”

Lewis Schaffer was beaming.

He had had an impact on two people’s lives.

(There is now a YouTube clip of the first section of Lewis Schaffer’s appearance at the Bloomsbury Theatre HERE)

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UK-based US comic Lewis Schaffer has his trousers stolen in a seaside town

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer on stage this week, before losing his trousers

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer is performing eight weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre, starting soon. You heard it here first.

Last night, we exchanged text messages…

___

When is your first Leicester Square show?

3rd March

What time?

Sunday 6pm £10.

___

He then texted that he was in a well-known seaside town to play a gig. I will call it Boringtown. I texted back: Condolences. He texted back: Been here before. Seems nice.

Later last night, I was travelling in my car with my eternally-un-named friend (hereinafter referred-to as my EUF). I got another text from Lewis and this exchange ensued:

___

– I wrote that last text before my bag and useful black coat were stolen during the show. So now don’t have a good impression of Boringtown.

– In car. John is driving. EUF here. John says “Email me more about theft.” He hasn’t got a blog for tomorrow. It’s all Him Him Him isn’t it? – EUF says v. sorry to hear about coat. It’s cold. And bag. Hope no money was in it this time.

– I don’t want him to blog about that. I’m always losing things. Or having them taken from me. There’s a few Yiddish words for me. I’m the guy who spills the soup on you and I’m the one who gets the soup spilled on him. I had a feeling it wasn’t safe to leave it there.

It’s the jokes that I’ll miss. The paper bits with the funny things I said that I left in the bag. Who’s going to use them? I mean, if they can get laughs out of my joke scratchings then they’re funnier than I am.

– John says your txt msgs would make a good blog. I say you poor little Yiddish soupy sosage.

– Schmeil or schmozzel. I’ll have to look it up in Leo Rosten’s Joy of Yiddish. One of those words or both. I’m both. I wish I only spilled. My show at the Art Centre was good under difficult circumstances – there was an audience there (joke).

– John says your jokes are so specific to you that no-one else can tell them. He laughed out loud and said half your act is you saying the words ‘Lewis Schaffer’ – that is difficult to steal.

– It’s not that the jokes are good or that I would have used them. It is now I’ll imagine those lost jokes that I’ve forgotten are the funniest jokes I’ve thought up.

– John asks – You’re doing jokes now?

– I have jokes now. I don’t tell them in the right order or when I should, but I have jokes.

– John says Oh yes – The Holocaust ones.

– Now I have a bad view of Boringtown. Please don’t mention the town.

– John says you told him not to blog these texts.

– I lost my clothes. Luckily they didn’t think much of my leather jacket or I’d be going home dressed like a drunk stockbroker after a night out boozing.

– Are you still dressed in your stage gear? John asks have they taken your trousers? If so, comedy gold. EUF says are you on your journey home?

– They took my beloved Kenneth Cole stretchy trousers. I’m on the train. Please don’t say the name of the town. Me bad in not taking my belongings and putting them in a pile on stage with me.

– Sorry. Would hate to lose some fav clothes like that.

– And my beloved Kenneth Cole stretchy black jacket. And my beloved black and white checked shirt. By Kenneth Cole.

– John says have we agreed he can blog these texts minus Boringtown?

– And my beloved black casual shoes by Kenneth Cole, the American clothing designer.

– No more beloved clothes. I don’t know K Cole.

– Beloved Kenneth Cole.

– John says are you naked? If so, send pic immediately.

– They left my ratty suit carrier bag. Why am I such a plonker?

– I say you aren’t. John says you are. Have you still got phone charger? We are arriving at my flat now so there will be a pause.

– Luckily I hid that behind the portable heater in the dressing room. I am a plonker. I don’t think that’s a Yiddish word.

It’s John here again now. So can I blog, provided I don’t mention Boringtown?

– I’m not sure you posting my mishaps is helping me in the comedy business. I’m not sure still makes other comics happy to read of my failures. I’m not a threat to them. Yes, you can blog this, but only because I sense your desperation to keep this daily blogging going. I admire your commitment. I could only do 3 months, if that.

Do you want an IKEA double bed settee, lightweight base with mattress? Was EUF’s sister-in-law’s. Pix to follow. We just brought it back to Greenwich. IKEA beds longer than UK ones.

– Can use bed.

– Good.

– Actually, can’t. Sorry. No room.

– Pity.

– That’s 3 thefts in 5 months.

3 thefts in 5 months? You are being targeted by rogue members of the Elders of Zion… Maybe the Middle Aged of Zion.

– First the money in Edinburgh. Then my iPhone 4S in November. Now this. I should stress that the show was amazing. No-one walked out.

– My EUF says this means none of the audience stole your things. She trained as a sleuth by watching Monk on TV.

– I’ve had a run of good shows.

– Don’t worry. Things will get worse. I presume tonight was part of your Free Until Famous tour of Arts Centres?

– Yes. Packed. 150.

– Your Leicester Square Theatre gigs are eight Sundays in a row?

– Yes. Not announced yet. You can announce them in your blog. But they are paid dates. How can I justify it?

– The audience will justify it by arriving. When are you back in South London?

– I’m in New Cross now.

– Do you want food?

– Where? It is 1.30am. This is England.

– I have a car. We can find.

– Okay. Come. I can change.

– At your age, you cannot change. My EUF is starving. We will come round to your place.

– Okay. Hurry. Am fading fast. No. Don’t come. My door keys were in coat. Feeling flu-ish. Have to wake early to take son to football. His birthday. Sorry John. Ask for EUF’s forgiveness.

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Unmasked: the man who stood in Leicester Square with no message

Last week, I wrote a blog about a man who “stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

His name was Phil Klein.

It was not his first time in Leicester Square and here, indeed, is a YouTube clip which appears to have been shot in 2007, before he became a man who held a nihilistic placard:

In retrospect, I have to say, when I stopped and talked to him on a whim last week, he did look vaguely familiar, as did the name. But I thought that was because Phil Klein is not that uncommon a name and comedy maverick Phil ‘Pigeon Man’ Zimmerman is a British alternative comedian while Alan Klein was the American who managed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

After my blog was posted, though, UK comedy cognoscente Ian Fox told me: “Phil Klein used to be a comic.”

When he was working as a comic, one description of his act (I think penned by Phil himself) was: “His humour incorporates themes on being Jewish, coming from Hampstead, George Dubya, how the Aussies love the English really. Though, if all else fails, he is liable to down a pint (or more) on stage.”

Ian Fox told me that “Phil performed in the Canon’s Gait venue at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe. Every day when he finished his show – he never used a microphone, just shouted at the audience – he’d be quite sweaty and in the change-over period between shows I’d ask him how it went. He always answered the same way: I think I need to work on my material.”

That 2005 Fringe show was called A1A Phil Klein and the Fringe Programme description read: “An honest, warts-and-all exploration of being messed up and Jewish or a blatant attempt to be first in the programme? Take a seat for half an hour on the rollercoaster that is Phil’s life.”

He appears to have got no review for the show, but he was less lucky in 2006, when his show on the PBH Free Fringe was titled The Growing Pains of Amos Phineas Klein Age 33 And A Third and the Chortle comedy website’s one-star review said:

“When a comedy show is free, you have to expect an audience that isn’t 100 per cent focused on the show. But you don’t normally expect it of the comedian. Amos Phileas Klein spends almost the whole of the second half of his show playing with his phone. At first I thought he had some notes on the set stored on there that he was looking up: unprofessional but forgivable. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t the case ­ it seems he is involved in a text conversation with someone, while delivering in an increasingly distracted fashion. It’s a truly shocking degree of contempt for his audience.”

Future Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Jay Richardson, writing in The Scotsman, suggested: ”It’s less a comedy gig than a hostage taking.”

After reading my blog last week, Brian Damage, who runs the Pear Shaped Comedy Clubs told me: “Last time Phil did Pear Shaped he borrowed £10 off me and fell asleep,” and, on the Pear Shaped website, Brian writes that Phil “was for many years our chief competitor. However he has now retired to spend more time with his personality.”

Around 2005, Phil used to be co-promoter and co-compere of The Funny Bone comedy club in Finchley Road, near his home in Hampstead, as well as running another comedy night in North London at The Culdesac. In May 2005, Chortle wrote:

“Regular compering at the small empire of open-spot gigs he runs in central London has given him a level of comfort at being on stage, but even with that near-daily experience of performing, he still doesn’t appear naturally funny… He comes across relatively effortlessly as a nice enough bloke, but there’s a yawning gap between that and the X-factor that will elevate him from the open mic circuit. On current form, it’s a gulf Klein cannot bridge.”

This is a YouTube clip of him performing in London, it seems likely, in 2006:

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Yesterday a man stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

This man has no important message for you

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I was rushing to a meeting at 6.30pm just off Leicester Square, in London.

At 6.18pm (that exact time is on the sound recording on my iPhone) I saw a man standing in the North East corner of Leicester Square with a placard saying:

I HAVE NO MESSAGE. AND I’M NOT SELLING ANYTHING. I JUST HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.

So, obviously, I went up to him.

“You’re a performance artist?” I asked.

“No.”

“An actor?”

“No.”

“So” I asked, “Why?”

“Why?” he asked me in reply. “Why not? It’s something to do. I haven’t got anything better to do. It’s on the placard.”

“So what did you do,” I asked him, “before you didn’t do anything?”

“That’s a bit of a mind-turning thing,” he replied. “It’s been like this for years. I haven’t had anything better to do than this for years.”

“Did you go to college?” I asked.

“I did, but that was years ago.”

“What was the subject?” I asked.

“History and politics,” he replied.

“Ah!” I laughed. “So, you’re a failed politician?”

“Failed.” he said. “Completely failed to be a politician.”

“You could get yourself exhibited at the Tate,” I suggested.

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a Damien Hirst thing.”

“It’s an idea,” he agreed. “In the Tate? Just stand on the steps at the Tate?”

“Yeah,” I told him, realising he was thinking of the old Tate building. “In fact,” I said, “you should stand at the main entrance to Tate Modern – at the slope – and you might get a commission. You might get a commission to stand there for weeks on end.”

“Brilliant,” he said with little enthusiasm.

“Leicester Square is the wrong place for you,” I suggested. “This is the home of showbiz and Hollywood. But, if you go to Tate Modern, that’s the home of people who give lots of money for nothing. That’s your ideal market.”

“So that would be my attempt to advertise myself?” he asked.

“Is that too commercial?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I dunno. I probably need a seat or something. Do you think they’d give me a seat?”

“No,” I said, “you’re better to stand.”

“But it’s going to get knackering after standing for too long,” he said.

“But,” I explained, “if you’ve got a seat, it smacks of lack of cutting-edgeness.”

“You think so?” he asked me.

“I think so,” I told him.

“Basically, you’ve got the wrong market here,” I told him.

“You think so?” he asked.

“I think so,” I told him, “There was a story that Damien Hirst was on his way to see some people who wanted to commission him to create a work of art and he accidentally stood in some dog shit on the pavement outside the building and he went in and put the shoe with dog shit on it on the table and they were very impressed.”

“If there’s some dog shit, I could step in it,” he said trying, I think, to be helpful.

Message from the messenger with no message

“Nah,” I said. “That’s been done. This is original – what you’re doing here is very original and admirably meaningless. The important thing is it’s totally and utterly meaningless.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Because that’s life for you. Life is totally and utterly meaningless.”

“How did you get the idea?” I asked.

“It just came to me one day,” he said, brightening up slightly. “It just came to me. I thought Why not? Why not do something completely pointless and meaningless?”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“About four years ago, I think,” he said, his enthusiasm dimming. “I’ve been doing this for four years.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “I’ve never seen you before…”

“I stopped doing it for years,” he explained. “I started four years ago, but then I didn’t bother for about two or three years.”

“Why?” I asked. “To create a demand?”

“No,” he explained. “I just stopped because I couldn’t be bothered.”

“Why not have a hat on the ground to collect money?” I asked. “Would that undermine the idea?”

“No,” he said. “I just haven’t got round to doing it.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Phil.”

“Phil what?”

“Phil Klein.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“London.”

“And you live in London?”

“I live in London.”

“Can we take a picture?” four passing girls asked Phil.

“Yeah,” he said, without much interest.

“You have a market here,” I told him. “You should be charging for this.”

The girls took their pictures.

“It spreads the word,” said Phil. “It spreads the word.”

“What word?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Phil replied. “There is no word. But it’s spreading whatever is there to be spread in its own kind of way. So this is like… yeah…”

“Where do you live?” I asked. “What area?”

Hampstead,” Phil told me.

“Oh my God!” I laughed. “You’ve got too much money!”

“Not me,” Phil said. “My parents.”

“There’s Art somewhere here,” I mused. “Performance Art. What do your parents do? Are they something to do with Art?… Or maybe psychiatry?”

“They just earn money,” Phil said. “Doing stuff. Well, my dad earns money doing stuff.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Erm… Thirty… nine,” Phil replied.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“You were a bit uncertain,” I said.

“No,” said Phil, “I just felt… It was a bit of a question… thirty nine.”

“You must have done something,” I suggested. “In an office or something?”

“No,” he told me, “I’ve literally done nothing in my life. This is as exciting as it gets for me. This is as exciting a journey, an adventure as…”

A passing girl took a photograph of the large question mark on the back of Phil’s placard.

Seeing the back of the man in Leicester Square

“Thankyou,” she said.

“It works quite well,” he told me. “You see, I have a question mark on the back and a statement on the front.”

“It might be a bit too multi-media,” I suggested.

“You think so?” asked Phil. “Too…”

“Too pro-active, perhaps,” I said.

“You think it’s too active?” asked Phil.

“You need to be more passive,” I said.

“Right,” said Phil.

“Ooh!” I said looking at my watch. “I have to be in a meeting in two minutes!”

“You’ve got to go in two minutes,” Phil told me, with no intonation in his voice.

“Let’s hope the iPhone recorded that,” I said. “If it didn’t, I’ll be back again! Are you here at the same time tomorrow?”

“I could be,” said Phil.

When I came out of my meeting an hour later, Leicester Square was more crowded and Phil and his placard had gone, like a single wave in the sea.

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The great showmen and conmen of London: why I am proud to be British

I saw a special screening of Showmen of the Streets tonight – a 45-minute documentary about street performers of the 1930s-1960s and their precursors. People like The Earl of Mustard, The Road Stars, The Amazing BlondiniPrince Monolulu, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, The Happy Wanderers (who I just about remember playing Oxford Street in my erstwhile youth) and Don Partridge aka ‘King of the Buskers’, who actually managed to get into the UK hit parade and who hired the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 to stage a show called The Last of The Buskers with some of the great street performers of that and previous eras.

A couple of characters not in the film whom I remember are Don Crown and ‘Little Legs’.

Don Crown used to perform an act with budgerigars in Leicester Square and various other places. I used him on TV programmes a couple of times but, the last time I met him, he was a broken man: he had become allergic to feathers.

True and sad. Though I see from his website that he seems to have recovered and performs on the South Bank in London.

The other character I remember was a dwarf called Roy ‘Little Legs’ Smith who was a busker himself, but he also used to collect money for street performers. A busker would play the queues in Leicester Square and Little Legs would go along collecting money in, as I remember it, a hat. The theory – which proved true – was that it is almost impossible not to give money to a dwarf collecting for a busker.

Little Legs appeared in the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. He died in 1989 and, according to his obituaries, he had worked for the Kray Twins as an ‘enforcer’ in the 1960s. Indeed, a book Little Legs: Muscleman of Soho was published in 1989 which traced, among other things, “his long career as a street entertainer and card-player”. In 1999, his nephew stood as a candidate for Mayor of London.

I merely pass this on.

The DVD of the documentary Showmen of the Streets is being released in a couple of weeks time.

Director John Lawrenson – who used to perform the ‘ball and cup’ magic routine in London’s streets – is currently preparing a new film about great hoaxers, including William Donaldson (aka Henry Root) who wrote to prominent public figures with unusual or outlandish questions and requests and published their replies.

Also in the film will be the late but glorious Fleet Street hoaxer Rocky Ryan who, among other career highlights, persuaded major British newspapers to print stories that sex and drug orgies were taking place on Mount Everest and that the Yorkshire Ripper was being let out of Broadmoor to go to the local disco as part of his rehabilitation into society. He also managed to persuade several Israeli newspapers that Adolf Hitler was alive and well and living in Golders Green… a famously Jewish London suburb.

It makes you proud to be British.

Although Rocky Ryan was Irish.

But let’s not get into that.

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What makes a cult movie? Does it just have to be ramshackle, rickety and unhinged? Like these.

Yesterday morning, I received a DVD in the post of the 2006 movie Special – Specioprin Hyrdrochloride which mad inventor John Ward had sent me.

According to the cover, Nuts magazine called the film “A huge cult hit”

I must have blinked. I have never heard of Special.

I guess, ironically, that is often the definition of a cult film.

Last night, I saw a special screening at the Museum of London of probably the biggest cult film ever made in Britain: The Wicker Man.

It is a film linked to one of the reasons I stopped drinking and I have family connections with its shooting.

It is often called a horror film but, despite Christopher Lee’s involvement as both actor and producer, it is not. It is just plain weird to an extraordinary extent; it has been called “a pagan musical” which, while being totally and utterly misleading, is not too far from the truth.

In fact, it is not as weird as director Robin Hardy’s next film The Fantasist – released a whole 16 years later in 1989 – that one takes the biscuit as the only film I have ever seen anywhere near Michael Powell’s bizarre 1950 movie Gone to Earth: one of the few movies which manages to directly link sex and fox hunting. Alright, maybe the ONLY movie to directly link sex and fox hunting.

For maybe the first 60 minutes of both films I thought This is the worst acting I have even seen in my entire life and The direction of this odd movie is more than a bit ropey. By the end of both, I had got half-used to the non-naturalistic style. But only just.

I think The Fantasist lasted maybe one week in Leicester Square before it was quickly taken off. When I saw it there, I was the only person in the cinema. I saw Gone to Earth at a one-off screening at The Cornerhouse in Manchester. When I left at the end, I recognised someone I worked with at Granada TV who had also sat through the movie. We looked at each other, speechless, united in our confused disbelief.

Neither The Fantasist nor Gone to Earth has really reached cult status. In fact, The Fantasist has simply sunk without trace.

Umberto Eco, the Italian who has an opinion on everything, apparently says a cult film has to be “ramshackle, rickety and unhinged” and that certainly covers The Fantasist and Gone To Earth.

When I first saw The Wicker Man, I definitely thought it was very ramshackle, very rickety, very rough-edged indeed and that the director was almost certainly unhinged. Since then, I’ve see it five or six more times (there are at least three different versions of it) and it gets better on repeated screenings. Though no less weird.

One of the problems is that  you only realise on a second and third screening just how good and how tight the script is. You have to have seen the entire film to understand why you are watching what you are watching. It was scripted by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote Sleuth; his brother Peter Schaffer wrote Equus and Amadeus. Those are a couple of siblings who must have had interesting parents.

Even the direction of The Wicker Man – more than slightly eccentric at best – seems better and tighter on repeated screenings

The Wicker Man was originally released in the UK as the bottom half of a double bill with Nic Roeg’s much over-rated Don’t Look Now.

As I mentioned in a blog last year, at the time The Wicker Man was released by British Lion Films in 1973, Michael Deeley, the highly-talented and highly-regarded head of British Lion, reportedly said that it was the worst film he had ever seen. Years afterwards, the equally highly-regarded Cinefantastique magazine devoted at entire issue to The Wicker Man, famously calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror films”, while the Los Angeles Times said it was: “Witty & scary! No one who sits through it to the end is likely to find it easy to shake off.”

One of the most impressive things in it, as far as I’m concerned, is Edward Woodward’s spot-on West Coast Scottish accent. Britt Ekland’s accent is pretty good too, though she has the advantage of being Scandinavian – always a bonus with the bizarre Western Isles accent.

I have a particular affinity for the The Wicker Man because some of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Whithorn, Wigtownshire, where both my parents went to school. And the climactic sequence with the Wicker Man itself takes place on Burrowhead, off which one of my dead relative’s ashes were tossed into the sea – not because of the film but because he had spent many happy childhood days there.

Also the film – which is so bizarre it must have turned many people to drink or drugs – ironically contributed to my giving up drink. I was never much of a drinker: in my late teens/early twenties, I drank weak lager to be sociable because it was less horrible than Bitter. All I really liked was vodka drowned in orange juice or champagne drowned in orange juice – and they were a bit pricey as everyday drinks.

But I was reviewing films when The Wicker Man came out and the press officer at its distributors British Lion was clearly a very intelligent man who had simply been drinking for too long – it was part of his job – and it appeared to have softened his thinking processes. The sharpness of mind which he presumably once had had melted away. It’s one of the downsides of being a PR man.

I thought I don’t enjoy drinking anyway, so why bother when this can be the outcome?

So I stopped.

Ever since then, because I don’t drink, people have thought I am weird.

Well, OK, there might be other reasons.

But if you want really weird, see The Wicker Man.

And if you want REALLY REALLY weird, see The Fantasist and Gone to Earth.

Ramshackle, rickety, unhinged. With knobs on.

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