Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

Movie asks: Is the brutalist new town of Basildon an architectural/social utopia?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that film documentaries do not get audiences. That is not true.

Tonight’s screening of director Christopher Smith’s New Town Utopia at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London was sold out.

It is about the much-derided Essex new town of Basildon, just outside London. 

Why? 

I asked Christopher Smith.


JOHN: A documentary film about Basildon as an architectural utopia? Are you mad?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, that’s the reason I made it, really. That is what everyone said to me when I mooted the idea four years ago.

JOHN: Were you unfortunate enough to be brought up there?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m from Benfleet, next to Basildon.

JOHN: And the film is now released in cinemas.

CHRISTOPHER: It played at the Barbican for a week and got good reviews. One of the less good reviews was in Time Out – “It’s as far away as you can get from Avengers: Infinity War” – I might actually put that on the poster. It’s also available on Curzon Online at the moment.

JOHN: Why did you think anyone would be interested in a film about Basildon?

CHRISTOPHER: I was always convinced there was an audience for it. There are a lot of people interested in post-War British architecture and social history. There’s a real fetishisation and love of brutalist architecture and modernism. I like modernist art – the geometric stuff like Malevich and I think I like the architecture for that reason: it’s kind of ordered.

“You have all these people who love brutalist architecture…”

What interested me was that you have all these people who love brutalist architecture – most of whom are probably middle class and live in London – and then you have all the people who live in it. And they generally are not the same people.

Initially, the film was about exploring that and seeing where there was a cross-over in opinion or experience. But then it turned into someone more. It became a social history of the town, told through the memories, words and performances of artists and creatives from the town.

In doing that, it touches on the impact of globalisation, the impact of ‘Right To Buy’ and the loss of social housing, the impact of Margaret Thatcher and her influence on individualism v community, the importance of facilities for the arts – and art as a route to wellbeing, rather than just something you do.

It touches on all those things.

JOHN: Did you make the film for a political reason? As soon as I hear ‘Basildon’, I think ‘Basildon Man’ – a variation on ‘Essex Man’.

CHRISTOPHER: That was not the reason but it is definitely teased-out a lot in the film. My parents were not political, but my uncle was a Tory councillor.

JOHN: The phrases ‘Basildon Man’ and ‘Essex Man’ basically meant working class men with aspirations.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. East End Boy made good. And my parents were both from working class backgrounds. My dad started his own business, which became pretty successful.

JOHN: In?

CHRISTOPHER: Electronic office equipment. I guess my parents voted Tory, but they never brought politics into the home. I suppose I am a bit more of a tub-thumping liberal Leftie.

The film is definitely political. The people in it actively talk about the impact of Right To Buy, the loss of all the factories, the lack of investment in arts facilities. I guess, because most of them are artists and creatives, there is a kind of Leftie bent but I hope there is a balance.

One of the people in it – he’s an actor – says: “I’m from a Labour family. I am a Labour voter. But, actually, some of the incentives that Thatcher’s government brought out for small businesses in the 1980s are what helped me set up my theatre company.”

JOHN: And your background is…?

CHRISTOPHER: I used to do a lot of weird, dance music based films in my early-twenties for nightclubs and I used to perform with another guy at music festivals and arts festivals. I did the music; he did the visuals. 

JOHN: What was your band called?

CHRISTOPHER: Addictive TV. I used to play vinyl records as well as CDs and other stuff. 

JOHN: You were not a guitar combo?

CHRISTOPHER: No. We were all electronics.

I did that for a few years, then fell out with him and moved into advertising for over ten years. I ended up as a creative director at various ad agencies but got frustrated because I was not making things myself. You come up with the ideas for your client – for a terrible bank or a breakfast cereal – you can’t choose – but you don’t actually make things yourself. About five or six years ago, I was working 60 or 70 hour weeks and not enjoying it – fun at times but stressful and I jacked it all in to start making films.

JOHN: Risky…

CHRISTOPHER: To pay the bills, I now do direct. I have done a few ads – for some reason, a lot of healthcare ads – and videos for Facebook and things like that. 

Are the streets of filmic Basildon paved with potential gold?

JOHN: But this film is not going to make you vast amounts of money…?

CHRISTOPHER: No money.

JOHN: So what is it going to lead on to?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m not sure. There’s a writer I am possibly going to collaborate with on a new project.

I am not a writer. I have tried and I can. But I know there are a lot of other people out there better than me. I think I’m quite good at structuring things and I know where I want the audience’s emotions to be at certain times in a film, but dialogue is what I struggle with.

JOHN: And this new project is…?

CHRISTOPHER: The one that’s crystallising at the moment is about… Well, it’s about Epping Forest, but it’s also about a lot of other things. In the same way I used Basildon to explore issues that affect a lot of aspects of British society, I quite like the idea of using Epping Forest to give me a broader canvas. Basildon was set over a 70-year period. Epping Forest would be over tens of thousands of years.

Can Chris replicate Basildon Man as Epping Forest Man?

It would be factual. There are some very interesting existing real people now and back in history whose lives have crossed. There may be a really interesting way of looking at sanity and mental stability and the idea of the internal and the external with the forest and the outer spaces.

There is a building that used to be a big asylum sitting on one edge of Epping Forest. John Clare the poet was there and there were protest movements about the M11 motorway and forest conservation activism and anarchism.

Outside the mind is possibly where things are clearer and inside is where anything can happen.

The forest is an enclosure and I think there could be a way of looking on it as the mind.

I think there are interesting themes that can be explored, but it’s still quite early days.

JOHN: There’s still no money to be made from documentaries, though…

CHRISTOPHER: That’s not true. There’s no money to be made in MY documentaries. But Netflix has really opened the doors. HBO are doing quite ‘high end’ documentaries like the OJ Simpson trial and they’re getting people like Martin Scorsese to direct documentary series. So there IS money in documentaries at the moment… though not in arthouse documentaries.

If I had the right idea for them and they were interested, I would work with Netflix.

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Will Franken wants to return comedy to the art form it was intended to be

Will Franken and Charles I in Soho Square today

Will Franken and Charles II in London’s Soho Square today

The last time Will Franken appeared in this blog was on Christmas Day, when he and Lewis Schaffer were talking about being comedy failures.

This afternoon, I talked to Will about the 4-hour ‘satire workshop’ he is hosting at comedy critic Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara emporium in London, on Sunday 17th January – promoted by the ever-entrepreneurial Arlene Greenhouse.

The workshop is titled: From The Classics To The Clubs: Bringing The Rebellion Of Satire Back To Comedy.

“There is a continuum,” Will told me. “There is a link between Jonathan Swift on up through to, let’s say, Chris Morris.”

“What do you know about satire?” I asked him.

“Well, I have my degree in Restoration and 18th Century British Literature. My thesis was on Juvenalian Satire Within Swift and Pope.”

“Where was this?” I asked.

“The University of Missouri. I had some good instructors.”

“So, in your satire course, you will include what?” I asked.

“One thing I will slip in will be Obvious versus not-so-obvious enemies. If you are going to be a satirist, you have to have an enemy of some sort. Horatian satire, for example, is very lighthearted – like You know, the people at Starbucks, who make the coffee – But Juvenilian satire is like Swift – Oh, you want to stop the starvation problem in Ireland? Here’s a recipe for eating babies – It’s got this viciousness.”

“What are the satire targets today?” I asked.

Donald Trump or Jeremy corny? The choice is yours

Choose Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn…

“Well,” said Will, “if people come to the workshop and say I want to do something about Donald Trump, I would caution them by saying: First you have to look at supply and demand. Do you think that the market will be saturated with Trump jokes? I presume it will be. However, are there any Jeremy Corbyn jokes? So how can you look at Corbyn and try not to be obvious? Is there anything in Corbyn that you can see is worthy of ridicule? If you can, you might be on your way as being able to stand out as a satiric voice, 

You don’t want to perform in an echo chamber. You need to be able to stand out. When I got started in San Francisco, everybody had George Bush jokes – It was Bush Bush Bush Bush. I realised the only way I could stand out was to add a layer to that and make fun of the people who were making fun of Bush. So I had to observe them, learn their mannerisms, learn their hyperbole and make it even more exaggerated.”

“Why did you choose Restoration satire for your university course?” I asked.

“Well, I had been a fan of Swift before that. I had read stuff like Directions to Servants and Modest Proposal, of course. I was just intrigued by the fact somebody could have that idea of biting against the Establishment that long ago – and even before that, with Juvenal and Horatio.

“What I’m really good at is satire and being able to make a point of moral indignation but couch it in humour to make it a bit more palatable.”

“That’s your definition of satire?” I asked.

“Yeah. When I originally put the posting about the workshop up on Facebook, a lot of people confused satire with sarcasm.”

“So how,” I asked, “is your workshop on satire going to change comedy for the better in Britain?”

“At the very least, it will add a bit of intellect,” will replied. “When I first sent Arlene Greenhouse my pitch, she said: I dunno if they’re gonna get it. And I said: Well, the thing with comedians is that they all want to be clever. So, even if they don’t get it, they will pretend that they get it.”

“If I print that,” I said, “it will sound like you are knocking your market.”

Will/Sarah Franken - "I didn’t know when to make the move"

Will Franken – for intellectuals, pseudo intellectuals & ‘others’

“Well, the thing about my comedy,” said Will, “is it works with intellectuals AND with pseudo-intellectuals. Even if they only pretend to get it, I win. And other people love it because it’s just weird and politically offensive.”

“That,” I warned him, “will read as if you have a superiority complex.”

“It’s because I’m a failure,” replied Will. “All I have is my ego.”

“You reckon you will be a good teacher?” I asked.

“Well, I did it before and quite enjoyed it. I taught World Literature and Creative Writing.”

“Where?”

“At North Carolina for a couple of years and at the University of Missouri for a year. I used to dress up as Jonathan Swift and get a powdered wig and an 18th century outfit in Springfield, Missouri. I memorised the entirety of Modest Proposal and had a PowerPoint presentation on the recipes for the children.”

“Are you going to wear a powdered wig in Shepherds Bush?”

“My wig days are over, man.”

“British alternative comedy’s great days,” I suggested, “were when Margaret Thatcher was in power in the 1980s.”

“Margaret Thatcher,” said Will, “had a debate with William F Buckley around 1980/1981. She said: There was a time when people had conviction. Now, you see, it’s all consensus. Who can argue with that? It’s a paraphrase, but…”

“I suppose yes,” I said, “if you want to rule by constant consensus, you must be against people who rule by conviction.”

“Yes,” said Will. “There is an assumption that, if a lot of people agree with something, it is therefore correct and good. How stupid can you get?

“There is a dearth of satire nowadays and I think that’s because people largely don’t know what it is – and I think that’s largely due to being inundated with political correctness. If you have a politically correct comedy establishment, there’s really not much you can do in the way of satire.

“When people come in and they say Sensitivity… sensitivity… they are basically saying Don’t do comedy. There is a hyperbolic feeling which people have that, if you come out and say Political Correctness is stupid. Of course you should make fun of whoever you want to make fun of… then there will be black people hanging from trees.

“A satirist is an artist, right? A comedian fills a function. That’s another thing I hope to bring across to people in the workshop: How to transform comedy from something that’s just a means to get a pay check from Jongleurs… Because it’s always the bookers, not the audience.

Will Franken

“Throw something out there and it’s good… they will grasp it”

“It’s the bookers who are the gatekeepers, who say: I get it, but the audience will be too stupid.

“As pessimistic as I am, I always believe that people in this country will innately veer towards the intelligent. That, if you throw something out there and it’s good, they will grasp it.

“I say in the marketing stuff for my workshop: I can’t guarantee you a string of gigs at Jongleurs, but I will veer you towards being able to go after comedy as the art form it was originally intended to be.”

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Martin Besserman, Margaret Thatcher, a Jewish Christmas and a chicken poem

Martin Besserman at Monkey Business yesterday

Martin Besserman was up to more Monkey Business last night

Comedy promoter Martin Besserman of Monkey Business has been staging Jewish Christmas shows for around ten years.

“This year,” he told me, “it’s in the Glasshouse Room in the Holiday Inn, Camden. And I’ve booked the room for New Year’s Eve as well.”

“A Jewish Christmas show?” I asked.

“Jews traditionally love going out on Christmas Eve,” he explained. “I don’t know why that is. They drink Coca Cola or coffee, not alcoholic drinks. They love their entertainment, then they go home and eat cake.”

“They eat cake?” I asked.

“They eat cake,” repeated Martin Besserman.

“How do you make the show Jewish AND Christmassy?” I asked.

“It’s primarily Jewish acts – Adam Bloom, Lewis Schaffer, Lenny Beige, Simon Schatzeberger as Woody Allen – and it coincides with it being Hanukkah. It’s not compulsory to be Jewish to come in. I mean, we’re not going to check your schmekel…”

“Schmekel?” I asked. “What’s a schmekel?”

“It’s exactly what you think it might be,” Martin told me.

“You’ve been in the show business a while,” I said.

“When I started off,” Martin told me, “I was 15, I joined a theatre group, performing in Parliament Hill. I always wanted to entertain. You’ve blogged about my days at Speakers’ Corner. Then I was in a band. We were put on with guys like The Pretenders and Depeche Mode.”

“You were glam rock?” I asked.

“I’ve done punk, everything,” said Martin. “My first gig was at the Electric Ballroom in Camden: I was the only support act for Adam & The Ants: we had the same manager.”

“What were you called?” I asked.

young Martin Besserman - man of music

Young Martin Besserman… was a glam man of music

“Just Martin Besserman. Sometimes I had a backing band. Sometimes I went on as a solo poet. I even went to 10 Downing Street and complained about my housing conditions to Mrs Thatcher. She made sure I got re-homed. Her Press Secretary got in touch with me and told me she had looked at my housing situation and, three weeks later, I was offered a new place to live.”

“What was wrong with your housing situation?” I asked.

“I was four flights of stairs up,” explained Martin, “and every time I needed to go to the toilet I had to go downstairs but sometimes I couldn’t be bothered and did it in a bottle and poured it out the window. I did a lot of campaigning poems in those days. I did one about chickens in Petticoat Lane, because I was a vegetarian.”

“When did you start being a vegetarian?”

“In my twenties… In those days, chickens were sold in public and people would grab hold of the chicken and mishandled and I was very upset about that as an animal lover. It was horrible. They would chop their heads off in public in Petticoat Lane. So I got in touch with the Daily Mail and I also got publicity on Capital Radio. I wrote a poem about it:

I’m a poor little helpless chicken
Imprisoned in a cramped box made of wood
I can hardly breathe in this chosen environment
If only they understood

There is no Valium to calm me down
I’m hungry and thirsty too
I’ve got a broken wing and there’s not a vet around
If you were a chicken it could have been you

There is a death smell from my murdered mates
I’m sure my turn is near
The slaughterer’s hands will soon be around my throat
I suppose it could at least end my fear

I understand I must make tasty food
After all I’m a beautiful creature
But now I’m on show
As part of a Petticoat Lane tourist feature

…I can’t remember the rest, but…”

“So you were a vegetarian?” I asked.

“I am,” said Martin. “I love animals. I don’t feel we have the right to abuse them in the way we do. I often see people campaigning for Corbyn – all the injustices in the world – and some of those injustices that they’re talking about have a lot of credibility. I understand that. But they’re the same people who will think nothing about being part of the mass murder, suffering and exploitation of animals. I don’t want to be part of the pain and suffering.”

Besserman Jewish Chrisrtmas

Have a Besserman Jewish Christmas…

Besserman Jewish New Year

Have a Besserman New Year’s Eve…

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Ex-government minister Norman Baker on the Coalition & mad Prime Ministers

The Reform Club, with Norman Baker |(centre)

Reform Club, with Norman Baker (centre)

Politician Norman Baker served 28 years in elected office – 18 as an MP. He lost his seat at the general election in May this year.

In 2010, as part of the Conservative & Liberal Democrat Coalition government he was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

In 2013, he was appointed Minister of State for Crime Prevention at the Home Office. That means he was based at the Home Office, preventing crime – not that he was preventing crime happening within the Home Office.

In 2014, he resigned, citing conflicts with Home Secretary Theresa May.  (Bear this fact in mind later.) He was quoted as saying that being the only Liberal Democrat at the Home Office was like being “the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert”.

The music analogy is not random. For the last 20-odd years, he has been lead singer and lyricist for The Reform Club, a band which he describes as playing “retro-1960s pop” music.

There is a video of them on YouTube, performing at Piccadilly Circus in 2013.

“Did you want to be a rock star?” I asked him yesterday in Soho.

“No,” he told me. “That’s a ridiculous thing to want to be. I just wanted to have some fun. It’s a therapy, a release. It’s like playing pinball. I’ve got a pinball machine.”

“I have never,” I said, “seen the point of playing pinball.”

“It’s a bit like playing snooker or playing in a band,” he told me. “You just switch off. It’s like meditating for an hour.”

“You are,” I said, “President of the Tibet Society and you were a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. Why?”

“Well,” he replied, “it’s a matter of human rights and justice and trying to take on bullies.”

“But you’ve been quoted,” I said, “as saying: Compromise is a useful thing.”

“It is a necessary thing. No-one gets 100% their own way.”

“But you have to,” I said, “do deals with nasty people.”

“Yes, you do. Sometimes you have to work with them.”

“In the Home Office?” I asked.

He did not reply.

Norman’s books include The Strange Death of David Kelly

Norman Baker’s books include The Strange Death of David Kelly (on the alleged ‘suicide’ of the UN’s pre-Iraq War weapons inspector)

“You seem to be a terribly principled man,” I said. “Don’t you compromise your principles by talking to and doing deals with shits?”

“Well, otherwise,” he replied, “they run the show themselves. People asked why didn’t I resign, why didn’t the LibDems resign from the government? The answer is because all the people you don’t like would be left there and we’d be gone. Do you really want to hand the government over to the people you disagree with most?”

“So you’re a left wing LibDem,” I said.

“Yes.”

“The LibDems have got lost somewhere,” I said. “I don’t know where they are in the spectrum.”

“We need them,” he replied. “We need a liberal voice.”

“So what’s the book you’ve just written? – Against The Grain?”

“It is,” he said, “a political memoir. 1987-2015.”

“Why write it?” I asked. “To justify your time in office?”

Norman Baker with his latest ’tell-all' book

Norman Baker with his latest ’tell-all’ book

“No, to close a door on it. And so the public know what happened. It’s the first Coalition book and shows how it worked. But it was quite selfish of me in a way. It was cathartic, rationalising the last 28 years in my head, putting it in some sort of order and shutting the door on it.”

“Do you have an elevator pitch for the book?” I asked.

“Truthful, controversial, humorous, contrary, pleasingly insulting. That sort of thing.”

“Is that a description of you or the book?”

“Me… Well, both.”

“You have said you’re not interested in going back into politics.”

“I’m not. I have done 28 years in elected office.”

“But, if you’re really passionate about changing things…”

“I’ll do it in a different way. I’ll write books or lecture. Tony Benn famously said he was leaving the House of Commons to spend more time on politics.”

“I’m not an admirer of Tony Benn,” I said. “He was a bit too far up his own arse.”

“It’s a good quote, though,” said Norman.

“Do you think the book you have written will have as big as an effect as being an MP?”

“Probably not.”

“Books are on the way out,” I said. “You can only have an effect if you’re on TV.”

Norman Baker as a LibDem MP “in goverment on your side

As a LibDem MP – “in goverment on your side”

“I don’t have to have an effect. I need to do what I think is right. And I need to put myself first for a bit. I spent 28 years serving the public. I don’t want to sound too grand about it, but that’s the sum of it. You don’t become a LibDem if you are after power; you do it from the ground up. If I can make a pittance writing books or doing music, then that’s fine. I don’t have to be ‘out there’. I’ve done that.”

“The irony,” I said, “is that people became LibDems thinking they would never actually be in power and then they ended up in the Coalition government.”

“We had a big effect. You can see the effect we had, because it’s all being undone by the Tories.”

“What,” I asked, “is the worst thing they’re un-doing?”

“Well, reducing the tax credits is clearly just vicious.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that, with the tax credit thing, George Osborne is undermining his own chances of becoming Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is going to become Conservative Party leader now…”

“Well,” said Norman, “out of all the candidates, it may sound unlikely but I would rather have Theresa May. At least she’s got principles, even if you don’t agree with them. Osborne is just terrible. Boris is a nasty bit of work and Osborne is just power crazy.”

“But being power crazy is OK in politics, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Well, Osborne is interested in two things: becoming leader of the Tory Party and winning the 2020 Election and everything is being sacrificed to those two ends. That is not in the interests of the country; that’s the interests of Osborne.”

“I think Boris will make a good Prime Minister,” I said, “because…”

“Boris has not been a very good Mayor of London,” Norman told me. “He’s had his back covered by a lot of people. He’s made a lot of mistakes.”

“Why is he a nasty piece of work?” I asked.

“You need to listen to the interview with Eddie Mair.”

(It was on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show in March 2013)

“What does it show?” I asked.

“Well, it shows he’s a nasty bit of work.”

“Did you used to read Scallywag magazine?” I asked.

“Yes, in fact, the guy who wrote it (Simon Regan) sent me some information.”

“About what?’

“About MPs allegedly involved in child sex exploitation.”

“You didn’t live in Dolphin Square?”

“No.”

“The male prostitutes allegedly in that place…”

“That’s one thing, There’s nothing wrong with that. I take the view, if you’re over 18, you can make up your own mind what you do.”

Scallwag 'knew' it was true but it was not

Scallywag had the wrong woman as mistress

“The scandal Simon Regan got wrong, though,” I said, “was the John Major affair with…”

“…Edwina Currie,” said Norman.

“No, the caterer,” I said. “Scallywag wrongly kept going on about Claire’s Kitchen. Everyone was thrown by that.”

“I think it’s nobody’s business,” said Norman. “I feel quite strongly about that.”

“John Major was married, though,” I said.

“But so what?” said Norman. “You’re entitled to a private life. Mitterrand and everyone else has all these affairs and no-one worries about that. The question is: Are you, in public life, doing what you are supposed to do for the benefit of the public? Yes or No? End of question.”

“I think,” I said, “that the problem was John Major was talking about Victorian Values a lot at the time.”

“No,” said Norman, “to be fair to John Major, it was Back To Basics and, by that, he meant things like the Three Rs in education, but it was taken by the press to mean some sort of puritanical view. I don’t think he ever meant that.”

“John Major,” I said, “seems to have grown in stature since he stopped being Conservative Party leader.”

“Well, he is not mad.,” said Norman. “He’s the only Prime Minister in recent times to leave office not mad.”

Margaret Thatcher?” I asked.

“She was hopeless,” said Norman. “She went to the Sistine Chapel with all the other European leaders on some EU trip and they were all in there admiring the Michaelangelos, or pretending to, and there was silence and she barked out: My goodness! How do they keep the floors so clean?”

“That’s surely good PR,” I said. “…I’m the woman next door.”

“Completely gormless, actually,” said Norman.

“Mrs Thatcher wasn’t a great brain,” I suggested. “She got where she got by being really hard working. But no Einstein.”

“She was hard-working,” agreed Norman. “She wasn’t Einstein, but she thought she was in some ways: I’m a chemist, therefore I understand this.”

“By the end,” I said, “she thought she knew better than the public.”

“Yes,” said Norman. “Blair had the same fault. It’s a sign of madness.”

“Blair talked to God,” I said. “and, it seems, God does not always make good decisions.”

“Well,” said Norman, “Blair became a Catholic and, within two weeks was telling the Pope he was wrong, which must take some medal for arrogance.”

“You asked questions in the Commons on UFOs,” I said, “which seems totally out-of-character.”

Animal Countdown - an EP by ‘Norman Baker and Friends'

Animal Countdown – a new EP by ‘Norman Baker & Friends’

“I didn’t ask any UFO questions,” said Norman. “This is a slur put about by my enemies. I asked about expenditure by the Ministry of Defence on a particular area. I was interested in the potential of other countries invading our airspace without being detected by radar. I’m afraid you’ll find that people who want to try to disagree with my arguments seek to character assassinate me. That’s what people do. They’ll go for the player rather than the ball. It’s a standard technique.”

“It must be a relief not being in Parliament,” I said. “You don’t get all that crap.”

“Yes. I enjoyed it and I achieved quite a lot, but I’ve now shut the door on it and I’m feeling rather better for it. The new Reform Club album is out on January 16th. It’s called Never Yesterday.”

YouTube also has an audio track from Animal Countdown – the latest EP by Norman Baker and Friends.

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How Left Wing TV writers won an election for Margaret Thatcher, the godmother of UK alternative comedy

The new ITV series Newzoids starts tonight. A satirical programme about politicians, performed by puppets. (Not too far removed from real life, then.)

“It sounds just like Spitting Image,” I suggested yesterday to Dave Cohen, who is one of the writers on Newzoids. Dave is also the man who originally created the oft-used saying Comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll.

“W-e-e-e-e-l-l,” said Dave, “That’s the first thing people compare it to.”

“How far ahead is Newzoids recorded?” I asked.

Dave Cohen, the man behind television's political laughter

Dave Cohen, the man behind television’s political laughter

“Like Spitting Image,” Dave said, “over a long period of time. I’ve been doing mainly songs for it. And the odd sketch.

“The songs have to be done quite a long time in advance.

“We were doing music at the start of the year – January/February.

“Most of the show has been made and I think they have a 2 or 3 minute window to add things.”

“That’s very dodgy during a General Election campaign,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Dave, “I’m surprised four episodes are going out before the election because, all the years I’ve worked on topical shows and at the BBC, there was always this absolute decree that you must be equally rude about everybody. But maybe, because it’s ITV…”

Spitting Image,” I said, “transmitted an episode on Election night, but only immediately after the polls closed. Margaret Thatcher singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me

“That was actually from another episode,” said Dave.

“But very effective,” I said, ignoring my mistake.

“A lot of people,” said Dave, “thought Spitting Image won the election for the Tories in 1992. Which was a paradox. Everybody who was writing for Spitting Image hated the Tories. I’d say most people who write and perform comedy in general are Left-ish or Left or very Left. The BBC are always moaning that they’re desperate to get Right Wing people on quiz shows. I think I agree – and I am not Right Wing myself – but the trouble is finding them. There are not that many.”

“You have scripted for Have I Got News For You,” I prompted.

“God, yes,” said Dave. “Over the years, I’ve written for William Hague, Robin Cook, Neil Kinnock – that was the worst one ever. He guest-hosted.”

“Why was he a nightmare?” I asked.

“When you have some professional comedian like Jo Brand or Lee Mack hosting the show, they’ll say OK, give that line to me; I’ll do it my way, and you trust that. But, when Neil Kinnock says: It’s OK. Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out… Apparently he wouldn’t do any of the script in rehearsal either. I went to the recording and it was an absolute nightmare, really.”

Neil Kinnock: Have I got a loser for you?

Neil Kinnock: Have I got a loser for you?

“Did he look good on transmission?” I asked. “I sat through one recording of Have I Got News For You and it was two-and-a-half hours of recording for a half-hour show.”

“All I can say,” said Dave, “is that Neil Kinnock looked relatively better in the half hour edit.”

“Getting back,” I said, “to Spitting Image – with Left-leaning writers influencing the result of the 1992 Election, which the Conservative Party won…”

“Well,” said Dave, “there was all this slagging-off the Tories, as you’d expect but, when it came to Labour, there was maybe more anger because Labour were so crap – they were not criticising the poll tax or the Tory cuts and Neil Kinnock was being a bit useless. And that anger also seemed to hit a chord with voters who, even if they hated the Tories, thought: At least they’re better than Labour.”

“Well,” I suggested, “on Spitting Image, Neil Kinnock’s character was a floundering Welsh windbag. Margaret Thatcher was very strong in her male business suit. And Norman Tebbit in his leather jacket looked really aggressive – I guess he was supposed to be a devilish-type figure – but, as a result, he actually came across as a strong politician.”

“Well,” said Dave, “Johnny Speight created Alf Garnett (the central right wing character in Till Death Us Do Part) as a monster and the worse he made him the more loveable he became to the audience. People were saying: Oh, Alf Garnett? We love Alf Garnett! Alf Garnett for Prime Minister! That was another thing with Spitting Image – However hard they made Tebbit and Thatcher, people just went: Hahha! Look at the funny monsters!

“I always,” I said, “thought Alf Garnett was very complicated because, if you agreed with his views, you agreed with his views and the young git sitting on the sofa (his Left Wing son-in-law, played by Tony Booth, father of future Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie) was just some young idiot. There was nothing to change your existing views. And I always thought, in reality, Alf Garnett would have been a Labour voter: a real dyed-in-the-wool working class conservative-with-a-small-c Labour voter.”

There is a clip of Till Death Us Do Part on YouTube.

“Well, this is an interesting area,” said Dave. “There was this myth at the time that people who voted Labour could not be racists or sexists. And that’s sort-of mostly true now but certainly, in my experience in my stand-up comedy years, there was then a lot of sexism on the circuit.”

I said: “I think dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters over a certain age are very conservative with a small c.”

“I think where Labour is losing votes to UKIP in this election,” said Dave, “it’s where those type of attitudes still persist. In cosmopolitan places like London and Manchester, even people who aren’t satisfied with Labour are not going to UKIP whereas, in some of the places where things haven’t changed so much and people are more dyed-in-the-wool and there are older people in older communities, they’re the ones who are going to UKIP.”

“Margaret Thatcher still divides people,” I said.

“She was a brilliant politician,” said Dave. “She did do all these amazing things like the Channel Tunnel, which brought us closer to Europe. She was the first person to say climate change is happening and we’ve got to do something about it. People forget the very pragmatic side to her. But…”

“You could almost be a fan,” I laughed.

“I got utterly stitched-up by a Daily Telegraph journalist,” said Dave. “When my book How To Be Averagely Successful at Comedy came out, he interviewed me and there’s a chapter in my book in which I say that Margaret Thatcher probably did more to help alternative comedy than anyone else.

An inspiration: Margaret Thatcher

Godmother of British Comedy?

“Not just for the jokes but also by allowing people to be unemployed. She basically said: Unemployment is a price worth paying for getting rid of all our old manufacturing industries. So people of my era – I’m from Leeds but I was a journalist in South Wales – just moving to London, unemployed, only had to sign-on once a week, didn’t have to go to Job Centres, were allowed to earn a certain amount of money every week and were still allowed to sign-on as long as we declared it. You still got your housing benefit and your dole money.

“The alternative comedy clubs were starting up and The Young Ones had become famous on TV and suddenly there were loads of clubs in London and not enough comedians to play them. I was doing 3 or 4 gigs a week and being paid £20 here, £30 there. All legit and all thanks to Margaret Thatcher.

“So this journalist gave me a nice plug for my book in the Daily Telegraph but said Dave Cohen says Margaret Thatcher had a fantastic sense of humour – I didn’t say that at all!”

“People demonise her,” I said.

“Well,” said Dave. “I’ve been thinking more about how to deal with politicians, because the social media has become so polarised now – You HAVE to be one thing or another. But I think, really, you’ve got to engage seriously with people you disagree with. However much you disagree with people, you’ll always find a few things you can agree on and that’s where you have to start from, really.”

The Immigrant Diaries are coming to the South Bank soon

The Immigrant Diaries are coming to the South Bank soon

“You told me,” I said, “that you are in a storytelling show called Immigrant Diaries in two Fridays’ time at the Purcell Room on the South Bank.”

“Yes,” said Dave. “I’ll be telling the story of that fateful day in 1994 when a bunch of comedians got together when the (extreme right wing) BNP were doing very well in the Isle of Dogs – it’s in my book too.”

“I think everyone in Britain,” I said, “is a bloody immigrant except a few people in Wales who speak Welsh and ironically don’t want to be British. But then, go far enough back, everyone is an immigrant in every country.”

“I am working,” said Dave, “on a show for the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in July – a Muslim/Jewish comedy show. The fact that Jews and Muslims can get together to create a comedy show is considered quite a shocking thing by some people. The very idea they can have a dialogue! The auditions are happening next week.”

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Comic in Kray Twins’ territory tells of being kicked in the street cos of his act

Ellis & Rose in Kray territory

Ellis & Rose in the old Kray Twins’ heartland

Yesterday, I went to Malcolm Hardee Award winning Ellis & Rose’s irregular Brainwash Club show at the Backyard Comedy Club in London’s Bethnal Green. The full house saw a knee-face-painting contest and the hosting duo accidentally knock over and almost terminally smash punster Darren Walsh’s MacBook computer… twice.

The audience also saw Harry Hill, Jody Kamali, Harriet Kemsley, Darren Walsh, John Henry Falle as The Story Beast and Matt Tedford as a singing Margaret Thatcher.

Matt Tedford at the Backyard Bar last night

Matt Tedford at the Backyard Bar last night

I talked to Matt before the show.

“How was your Edinburgh Fringe last year?” I asked.

To publicise his Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho show, he had walked round town dressed as Margaret Thatcher.

“I got kicked in the street,” he told me.

“Why?” I asked innocently.

“Because they didn’t like the poll tax. I got heckled nearly every day about the poll tax and Scottish independence – it was about a month before the vote. I’ve been a gay man for about ten years and it’s the only time I’ve ever had any abuse.”

“Did they not,” I asked, “realise that Margaret Thatcher was very dead and you were not actually her?”

Matt as Margaret last night at the Brainwash

Matt as Margaret last night at the Brainwash in Bethnal Green

“Well,” Matt told me, “they went for it anyway. I got things thrown at me – you name it. One woman threw-up in her handbag and that nearly came at me and a lot of people launched themselves onto the stage. Pulling the wig was popular.”

“But,” I checked, “you were actually being attacked outside in the street for being a famous dead politician…”

“Oh yes. And what could I do? Report it to the police? – I’ve just been attacked – Why? – I was dressed as Margaret Thatcher.”

“And then,” I suggested, “the police might have kicked you.”

“Exactly,” said Matt. “Margaret Thatcher’s ex-bodyguard came to the show and told me afterwards: You’ve not changed a bit, ma’am.

“And these two little old dears came and sat in the front row – very pearls, twin-set and blue-rinse – and they came up to me afterwards and said: We were her nurses towards the end of her life. One told me: I saw her tits… Oh, I said. How were they… Very good for an old bird, she said.”

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The Grotto of Comedy, blood in Bahrain and a British comic who might not exist

Bob at the bar of his Grotto last night

Bob Slayer at the bar of his merry Christmas Grotto last night

Last night I went to the media launch for promoter Bob Slayer’s December pop-up venue Heroes Grotto of Comedy in the City of London, just round the corner from the Bank of England.

It is in a building which apparently used to be one of the flagships of J.Lyons restaurants. In the course of the evening, I discovered I am the only person in Britain who did not know late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to work for J.Lyons as a research chemist and came up with a new process for storing Lyons Maid ice cream. “And she invented the Mr Whippy ice cream,” added comic Lindsay Sharman.

The pop-up venue came about because Bob Slayer and Weirdos Comedy chap Adam Larter were trying to find somewhere to stage the annual Weirdos’ panto.

A busy list of comedy acts at the nightly Grotto

A busy list of comedy acts at the nightly Grotto

Having found a temporary venue, they then decided to add more shows. So now there are nightly shows 3rd-18th December, including charity shows in aid of Shelter and the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

“In the first week,” said Bob Slayer, “we will be having Stompy, The Half-Naked Chef cooking up a festive show out in the street. You’ve seen the police out there. I think a man running around in his pants accosting City workers from 5.00pm is going to be…”

The assembled throng for the media evening included comedian Joz Norris pretending to be a reporter for the Horse & Hound magazine. No, I have no idea either.

Bob Slayer asked the assembled throng: “What did Adam Larter say to get you all here?”

“I told different people different things,” said Adam. “Some people were told it’s a party.”

John Robertson tied his wife Joe Marsh into her corset at theGrotto of Comedy last night

John Robertson tied his wife Jo Marsh into a corset before the Grotto of Comedy last night

I got talking to various people who will be performing at the Heroes Grotto, including performer John Robertson, recently returned from Australia, who told me he had met a man in the Middle East who asked him: “How are things in Brighton?”

“But I don’t live in Brighton,” John told the man.

“Yes you do,” the other man replied. “I read it in John Fleming’s blog.”

“Oh lord,” I said. “I should have recorded you saying that. It will sound good in my blog tomorrow. International readers.”

So I tried to get John repeat the story. But he got sidetracked.

Firstly by magician David Don’t (who will be appearing on the fringe of the Grotto shows most nights). He told me he had submitted a video to Objective Productions which may possibly be appearing on a TV show in January. It involves a trick that went wrong and burst into flames when he performed it at Pull The Other One comedy club. There is a clip of it online:

“And my house just caught fire last night,” he added.

“What?” I asked.

David Don’t checking nothing else has caught fire

David checking nothing else has caught fire

“We went away for the weekend and left the children in charge of the house,” he told me. “Florence, our daughter, phoned us and said: Don’t worry, dad, everything’s OK, but there’s been a fire in the house. The dishwasher burst into flames, but I put it out by pouring water all over it. The fire engines have come and taken it away and Clifford (the family dog) bit the firemen because he saw people rushing into the house with axes and big helmets and got frightened. But they had protective clothing on, so he didn’t manage to damage them too much.

“I was in Bahrain recently,” said John Robertson. “The promoters who booked me quite desperately tried to play down the fact it is a war zone.”

“A war zone?” I asked.

“Well,” admitted John, “Civil unrest… But ‘civil unrest’ is where only one side has an army and the other side is made up entirely of civilians who are being murdered routinely.”

Placid John Robertson at the launch last night

Placid John Robertson at the launch last night

“Are you sure you want to be quoted saying that?” I asked.

“I do. Well, they’re having me back in May.”

Inshallah,” said David Don’t.

“Yeah, Inshallah,” said John Robertson. “God willing. We were in a 5-star hotel. We were completely insulated from the entire world and then me and comic Liam Malone were walking down the street just trying to get anywhere that wasn’t a car park, because no-one walks in Bahrain, mostly because they’re being murdered…”

“Are you sure about saying this?” I asked.

“Yes. All we were told was: Don’t insult the King. Don’t insult the government. And we didn’t on stage. But I found their internet filter doesn’t filter out articles about dissidents being kidnapped and beaten. So I just hung out in the 5-star hotel room. I do want to go back to Bahrain.”

Brighton in England is probably safer than Bahrain

Brighton is safer than Bahrain but has considerably less sand

“Someone thought you lived in Brighton,” I prompted him. “You did used to.”

“Yeah,” said John. “And I also got in trouble last year because of your blog.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Last year,” said John, “I was on at Spank! at the Edinburgh Fringe and I was getting ready to completely die because my motormouth screaming was not quite endearing me to this audience of pissed-up scumbags and I found a little person actor – a dwarf – who wanted to crowd surf and we crowd surfed him around the room and he was told that, when he landed, his girlfriend would then remove one item of clothing to her comfort level. So she took off a sock. And, as they surfed him round the crowd, they chanted: Positive body image! Positive body image! and then I mentioned this to you in passing and you put it in your blog:

The blog that caused the aggro

A very offensive blog

“So then I got a text at 3.00am from a really gung-ho, socially-aware guy from Sydney saying: John! You can’t use the word dwarf! And I thought: But we’ve already thrown him! He really wanted to do it! Why are you so upset?

“Well, even without the Brighton story, there’s a blog there,” I said.

“You write a blog?” asked John. “I always thought that was not a phone in your hand. I thought it was a taser you liked to hold while people assaulted you with information.”

“All I wanted,” I told John, “was a little story about someone thinking you lived in Brighton. It wasn’t much to ask.”

“Well, you’ve got that,” said John, “and the future and, if we come over to this bar and order a drink, I will eventually de-materialise and we will never know if I was here or not.”

“I have saved so much money,” I said, “by not taking drugs and just hanging around comedians.”

Joz Norris having a reality check last night

Joz, with a cinnamon stick, having a reality check last night

A little later, I was talking with 25-year-old comic Joz Norris who said:

“I went to Cambodia and I had an epiphany that, if it turned out I was imaginary and everybody I knew had collectively imagined me 25 years ago, I think a lot of them would accept that. Which is not to say that I think they wouldn’t be sad. I do think they would be sad that I was not real. But I do think they would very quickly go: Yeah. It figures. The signs were there. That’s an interesting thing to think and to try to deal with in your head. Ooh! What if I AM imaginary?

“Maybe,” I suggested, “you just imagined you thought that.”

“What?” asked Joz. “The holiday in Cambodia?”

“Everything,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Joz. “It is difficult to prove any of this. The only place you really exist is in your own mind. Except possibly not.”

“Where else could you be?” I asked.

“Well,” said Joz, “if you are imaginary, then you don’t have a mind, so you can’t exist there. Maybe I only exist in your mind. Maybe people only exist in the pages of your blog.”

I imagine Bob’s Grotto will be ready in time for the first show

I imagine Bob’s Grotto will be ready in time for the first show

“But,” I said, “if you are imaginary, some person must be imagining you.”

“And that does imply it is you,” said Joz, “seeing that you are the person recording this.”

“But what if my blog does not exist?” I asked.

And perhaps it does not. It could be all in your fevered imagination, dear reader. Try to remember if you woke up this morning. Did you really awaken? Can you remember that exact moment when you regained consciousness?

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