Tag Archives: Martin Soan

Martin Soan sells bits of comedy history – and The Greatest Show on Legs’ origin

The poster for the latest Pull The Other One

Martin Soan’s comedy club Pull The Other One has been running for eleven years in South East London but is closing in June this year. Currently, there are shows twice a month. Recent acts have included Alan Davies, Omid Djalili, Boothby Graffoe, Robin Ince, Tony Law and Stewart Lee. The next one is this Friday with top-of-the-bill Nina Conti. After that, there are only five more shows including one headlining Simon Munnery. The final Pull The Other One is on Friday 29th June with Oram & Meeten. 

Martin Soan is also a prolific prop maker both for himself and others. Almost every Edinburgh Fringe, it seems, he gets asked to make a giant vagina by different acts: on one occasion, a singing one.

I did not ask him about the giant vaginas when we met.


Martin – legendary performance artist with a sense of humour

JOHN: So you are selling your props… Why?

MARTIN: To get a bit of cash and fund me doing something else. And I don’t have a van any more and some of these props are quite large. That’s the main reason.

JOHN: Doing something else? 

MARTIN: I’m reinventing myself, John.

JOHN: As what? A woman?

MARTIN: A performance artist with a sense of humour.

JOHN: But you’ve always been a performance artist.

MARTIN: I haven’t done a show for ages.

JOHN: You’re doing a show every two weeks!

MARTIN: Well, with that, I’m a comedy producer or a gig owner or whatever. But there’s another show inside me.

JOHN: Which is?

MARTIN: I don’t know yet. It won’t be themed. It won’t be like…

JOHN: Hamlet?

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: So?

MARTIN: Stupid, surreal.

JOHN: What are you going to do with this show? Take it up to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?

MARTIN: No. 

JOHN: Why?”

MARTIN: Because Edinburgh is a black hole of financial… deadlines and… Edinburgh is rich enough now. The breweries, the University. They’re rich enough. Move on… To another city. A depressed city.

JOHN: Where?

Could Scarborough be the new Edinburgh for Fringe comedy?

MARTIN: Scarborough. Let’s create a Fringe at Scarborough.

JOHN: Why?

MARTIN: The last time I went to Scarborough, it looked a bit like Brighton – a gorgeous town – but it was completely and utterly depressed.

JOHN: Isn’t it where Alan Ayckbourn does his plays?

MARTIN: I’m not sure. I’m saying Scarborough, but it could be any town. Scarborough is ideal because it has all these large premises. Loads and loads of rooms out the back of pubs.

JOHN: How about Leipzig? You have staged Pull The Other One shows there.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, but it’s getting popular now. Probably moving out of Leipzig is the thing to do. Grünau is probably the place. I’m desperate to go somewhere like Leipzig.

JOHN: You mean move there?

MARTIN: Yeah, for a time. That’s the desire. I’ve gotta get some funding. Pull The Other One in Nunhead was fantastic, but I don’t make money. I cover my expenses. It’s an enormous amount of work. I dress the room, which takes a day and then another day taking it down. I would carry on, but it does occupy all my time, really, and it’s tense leading up to the gigs. If I don’t sell tickets, I’m losing big-time because I have to pay everyone. The Nun’s Head pub are very, very good to me, but I want to do two or three pop-up shows a year.

JOHN: So what props are you selling?

MARTIN: The Gates of Hell.

JOHN: Eh?

MARTIN: That rack of 24 singing Billy The Bass fish… And  I have an anvil made out of foam… I’m selling The Red Sparrows with written choreography…

…and I’m selling Mr Punch, who is 49 years old. 

JOHN: And the relevance of Mr Punch is…?

MARTIN: He was the very first member of The Greatest Show on Legs. I was the second. Basically, the Greatest Show on Legs started out as a Punch & Judy show and it was me and Malcolm Hardee. That was where me and Malcolm met. He became my ‘interpreter’.

JOHN: Why is it called The Greatest Show on Legs?

MARTIN: Because, rather than being a free-standing booth, the booth cloth came down halfway and was all strapped to my back so my legs came out the bottom and I could walk around with it. In fact, the original one had four legs coming out of it, because I did the old Rolf Harris Jake The Peg thing.

JOHN: Malcolm told me the other reason for building it that way was that, if the show went badly, you could just do a runner…

MARTIN: Well…

JOHN: …or was that just one of Malcolm’s fantasies?

MARTIN: Well, yeah, Malcolm just made that up. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to see where I was running, would I? There was one time at the Ferry Inn at Salcolme when I had had rather too much to drink and, inside the booth you have no horizon so I was falling over and didn’t even know it. Suddenly, it was like a sledgehammer coming up and hitting me on the back of the head and I was knocked out. Malcolm looked at the audience and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be an interval of fifteen minutes.”

JOHN: But you had done the Greatest Show on Legs on your own before you met Malcolm.

MARTIN: Oh yeah. I was 16 when I started. I think me and Malcolm met when we were about 24 or 25. When I first started at 16, obviously, I was shit. I had no formal training in any performing art or anything. I didn’t know what I was doing. I always remember the first show I gave where I thought: Aaah! I think I might have the hang of this! It was at University College, London. Outside one of their buildings, at some event. Something clicked on that one.

JOHN: You got around a bit.

MARTIN: I used to do Portobello Road and only two people used to come and see me regularly. This large black lady and a little boy. They came and saw me every time; I don’t know why. I  used to shit bricks before I got into the booth and started.

JOHN: Why did you start doing it if you had no natural aptitude at 16?

MARTIN: When you’re young, you are desperate to make friends and at least be recognised in some sort of way. Plus it fed my creative ‘making’ side – making props and things. I used to like all the problem solving. 

JOHN: Such as?

MARTIN: Thinking it would be brilliant if Mr Punch got so angry that smoke would come out of his ears. So he has two tubes to blow smoke out.

JOHN: And this is the one you are auctioning off?

MARTIN: Yeah. He is 49 years of age.

JOHN: That must be a bit of an emotional trauma for you.

Martin Soan’s 24 Billy The Bass which will sing in unison

MARTIN: Well, so far, people have not taken it seriously. Boothby Graffoe started mucking around and saying he would bid half a monkey. Otiz Cannelloni bid £500 for the crate of Billy The Bass singing fish which I think… Well, they are £25-£35 each and you could flog ‘em for £25 each so, in singing fish alone it’s worth £500. But it’s a concept and they’re all wired up to one button so they all sing together.

JOHN: How do you know when the auction has ended? 

MARTIN: I will decide when it gets to the reserve price or more.

JOHN: Have you got reserve prices in mind?

Martin says: “Mr Punch is 49 years of age and his skin is really good to look at”

MARTIN: No. Mr Punch is 49 years of age and his skin is really good to look at. He looks aged. He looks 49, but not in a bad way.

JOHN: What does “Not in a bad way” mean?

MARTIN: Look, I’m talking bollocks now. You have tricked me into talking bollocks.

JOHN: It’s a natural aptitude.

MARTIN: I obviously would not let Mr Punch go for for £25.

JOHN: If people want to bid or buy or ask questions, what is the ‘handle’ as I think young people say or used to say.

MARTIN: @PTOOcomedy on Twitter and Facebook is Pull The Other One.

JOHN: Not Martin Soan?

MARTIN: Well, you could. And I have other interesting stuff.

JOHN: Such as?

MARTIN: Miss Haversham.

JOHN: From Great Expectations.

Martin Soan on stage as Miss Haversham

MARTIN: She’s sitting down in an armchair and she has arms and legs – which are false. 

JOHN: And Miss Haversham IS the armchair.

MARTIN: Yeah. You put it on like a costume. You can be dressed normally, You go in from the back and come up and, as you come up, you are putting on the whole costume; there’s even a wig built-in. It’s like a quick-change thing.

JOHN: I seem to remember it involved a 3-minute build-up for one visual gag.

MARTIN: Well, you’ve never seen the whole sketch. It was all about alliteration. There’s Pip and Miss Haversham is doing embroidery and she gives the needle to Pip then she moves away from him to create the tautness of the thread and comes back. Instead of him moving, she moves.

JOHN: You should do a show demonstrating all the props you’re selling ‘as originally used’.

MARTIN: I suppose so. They’re lovely props, but they are big props for a big show. You need a van. To get even the fish in AND Miss Haversham, you need a big van.

JOHN: You’re not going to retire.

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: That’s a relief.

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Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner reviews my first stage performance

Publicity shot for my first ever show

Last Wednesday night I took to the stage for the first time.

I appeared doing a 10-minute spot in a Valentine’s Night special at Martyn Sadler’s new comedy club in East London.

It was, perhaps, a rather rowdier audience than I would have preferred.

But, sitting in the audience, was comedy promoter Noel Faulkner, who founded the Comedy Cafe – now at its new venue in Shoreditch.

He was kind enough to share this review of my act via social media the next day.


Noel Faulkner is a man of exquisite taste

Well I have to say John Fleming – who has seen more comedy than anyone in the business – is definitely a dark horse of the stage. He was amazing in his performance last night. First of all, nobody told me he has such a great falsetto voice. I thought he was miming!

His performance from the moment he stepped on stage just blew everyone away (John is good at blowing). And, at his age, to come on to what must be one of the most difficult tap dancing routines since Fred Astaire and still have the energy to do two songs – one with an audience member on his shoulders – was both a treat and a feat.


Martin Soan (pictured) introduced German act The Short Man in Long Socks in 2016 wearing short socks to avoid confusion

I have hopes that Noel may book me at his Comedy Cafe Theatre in the summer but, in the meantime, Martyn Sadler has re-booked me to perform at his new East London club at the end of March.

Also on the bill will be that extraordinary German variety club act The Short Man in Long Socks – Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken – who has not been seen in London since his appearance at Pull the Other One in Nunhead in 2016.

I blogged about it at the time.

Tickets for the March show at Martyn Sadler’s club are available online now at £10 full price; £15 for students.

This admirable pricing system is based on a model the late Malcolm Hardee once used for his show at the Edinburgh Festival.

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Why audiences would rather pay than see free comedy shows in London

Martin Soan and Paul Vickers before a Pull The Other One

Martin and Vivienne Soan have been running Pull the Other One comedy nights in Nunhead, South London, for over ten years. The shows are monthly. You pay to enter; and, in my opinion, they are always value for money whoever is on the bill.

Relatively recently, they also started monthly sister shows – free to enter – called It’s Got Bells On.

These two monthly comedy shows mean Martin and Vivienne run shows roughly every fortnight.

Pull The Other One is at the Ivy House in Nunhead; It’s Got Bells On is at the Old Nun’s Head in – you guessed it – Nunhead.

Martin has always paid acts to perform at It’s Got Bells On, though entry has been free for audiences. From this Friday, though, Martin is going to charge £3 entry.

“Why?” I asked him a couple of weeks ago, before a Pull The Other One show.

Also sitting at the table, mute, was Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey.

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“So,” I said, turning back to Martin Soan, “why start charging entry?”

“Well,” said Martin, “I started It’s Got Bells On because I was getting a little tired of putting on stuff that sells. If I book a big name like Alan Davies or Omid Djalili or Stewart Lee at Pull The Other One, people will happily pay to come along.

Stewart Lee (left) behind-the-scenes with Martin Soan

“If I don’t have a big name, people won’t come along in such big numbers, Which is very frustrating because all the shows are always consistently good. (Martin tells the truth here.) It doesn’t matter who is on, the shows are worth the same ticket price. The fickle nature of the public, though, is that more will come along if they see a name they recognise. And, because the audience is paying, the acts feel they have to deliver risk-free performances.

“So I wanted to have a free-to-enter evening which would allow acts to be more anarchic and experiment more without worrying about the possibility of failing. I could also feed off It’s Got Bells On and transfer acts tried-out there into Pull The Other One.

“What happened was that the first few months of It’s Got Bells On were incredibly successful. I didn’t realise at the time why, but the (mostly South London) acts I was putting on were bringing along lots of friends. But then, when I started having acts on from North London, they didn’t bring friends and I had only 20-30 people coming in, which was disappointing.”

“Why,” I asked, “would charging get you bigger audiences?”

“People have been talking to me, saying: I didn’t want to come along because it was free so, obviously, it was not going to be very good. Which isn’t true, but that’s what they think. So I thought: Right, fuck it. We will charge the audience, but all the ticket money will go directly to the Clowns Without Borders charity. 

It’s Got Bells On – £3 this Friday in Nunhead

So the people who won’t come to free shows because they think they will be shit may come to this pay show because they assume it will be better. But we will keep the essential elements of It’s Got Bells On – freedom from having to do risk-free comedy and allowing people to experiment. And I will still (as before) pay everyone £20 to perform. So it’s good for the performers and hopefully now people will start taking it a bit more seriously because there’s an admission fee (which goes directly to Clowns Without Borders).

“I’m still gobsmacked by the attitude of audiences out there. People have got these boundaries of what they will allow themselves to experience. If the performers have been on television, then that’s OK. They will come. At Pull The Other One, invariably, when we have really big names on, we will put acts either side who are completely nuts and the audience will come out saying: I loved the Big Name but that guy who did the blah blah blah whatever – I REALLY, REALLY loved him!

“The whole idea of It’s Got Bells On was to be free so acts feel no pressure not to fail… but I have never known an act to fail there. Generally, if you get up and do something new, then your adrenaline and determination will carry the whole thing through.”

Martin smiled.

Martin Soan decided not to have bluetooth

“Why do you have a green tooth?” I asked. “That wasn’t there before.”

“I wanted bluetooth to communicate better but I got a green tooth instead.”

“Ah,” I said. I turned to Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey. “Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

Paul lives in Edinburgh but had come to London to appear in various shows.

“Are you staying with Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“No. I’m staying with Martin here. That means I won’t have to do the book.”

“Do the book?” I asked.

“You remember I told you about the book?” Paul told me. “I Can Teach You How To Read Properly by Lewis Schaffer.

“Ah,” I said. “Do you have any books at your place?” I asked Martin.

“I do have a pop-up Kama Sutra,” he replied.

“A pop-up Kama Sutra?” I repeated.

“Yes. You open the pages and figures pop up fucking each other and, if you move the pages correctly, you get the penis going in and out.”

“How much did that cost?” I asked.

“It was 15p from a charity shop in Peckham.”

“That must be an interesting charity shop,” I said.

“It was in the children’s section.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”

“Why?” I asked. “Just because it was a pop-up book and they assumed it was for children?”

“I suppose so,” said Martin. “I don’t think anyone had opened the book and looked inside.”

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“Ah,” I said.

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In London soon: a little-seen Saxon comedian with a chicken on his head

Martin Soan, master maker of stage genitalia

Martin Soan – long stalked a Saxon comedian

I was in bed all of yesterday, trying to throw off the remnants of a cold which had turned my voice into a rivett-rivetting impression of a frog.

The only real interruption to my sleep was a Skype video call from comic Martin Soan, who was wondering if I was going to his Pull The Other One comedy club show in Nunhead on 29th January.

Wild hoarseness would not stop me, because it is my first chance to see live The Short Man In Long Socks – I always thought he was called The Short Man With Long Socks, but I stand – or, given my cold, lie – corrected. I presume it is a variable translation from his actual German stage name: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken.

Martin tells me it is Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken’s first live UK appearance. I think I may have seen him back in the 1980s when London Weekend Television’s Entertainment Dept had a tape with video excerpts of Vier gegen Willi a German peaktime TV show which was co-presented by a hamster. I think LWT was considering doing a British TV version but might have been put off by the fear of complaints by animal lovers. In Germany, they had to have multiple Willi doppelgängers on standby because the eponymous hamster tended to die under the hot studio lights.

There is currently a clip of Vier gegen Willi on YouTube, though the star rodent does not appear until 26 mins 16 secs into the clip.

Martin told me yesterday: “I first saw Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken 15 years ago in Leipzig, at Jim Whiting’s club Bimbo Town – the best club I’ve ever been to. It’s full of automata, installations, art, music and performance and is what us Londoners call ‘immersive’ – everything is out of this world and challenging. It’s a funfair of surreal proportions in a disused factory and it is VAST… Jim is a magnetic force and artists of all descriptions gravitate to him. Some aren’t even artists but genius just the same.

“Anyway one such act featured that night I went to Bimbo Town was Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken, I really, really was impressed, It was the most pointless and ridiculous act I have ever seen, but one of the best. There are three sections to the routine. Him getting ready to ‘go out’… Him ready to go out… And then him out. That doesn’t really explain his act, but… “

“I seem to remember,” I told Martin, “that, in Vier gegen Willi, he had a live chicken on his head.”

...a chicken...

…a chicken…

“Oh yes,” said Martin. “I forgot about that.”

“Is he possibly,” I suggested, “ever-so slightly bonkers?”

“Depends how you define it,” said Martin. “When I met him, he didn’t think any of it was mad at all. I had the feeling it was maybe a little cathartic for him.”

“Why cathartic?” I asked.

“No idea, “replied Martin. “He told me he very rarely did the act.”

“Possibly,” I suggested, “because of a lack of willing or well-balanced chickens.”

“It was just a thing he felt he had to do,” Martin explained.

“And they say,” I mused, “that Germans have no sense of humour…”

“He is fiercely not German,” Martin told me. “He is very definite that he is a Saxon not a German. Apparently he earns a very good living as an optician in Plagwitz (a suburb of Leipzig). He told me Saxons love designer glasses. He invited me around to his flat for kuchen (cake). We got on really well and he showed me his etchings. Very dark, they were – the subjects. Lots of eagles and women wearing horns. Angst is a good word isn’t it?”

“I do,” I agreed, “always enjoy hearing it said out loud.”

Too poster - Phil Kay

Kay fan: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken

“When I was back in England,” Martin continued, “I contacted him regularly to try and entice him over. I have actually booked him three times and three times he has cancelled and I got resigned to never getting him over for the club. But he’s making it on the 29th of this month because there is some opticians’ convention in London and because Phil Kay is on the bill at Pull The Other One. He has seen Phil Kay perform abroad and he’s a big fan. So he wants to perform with him.”

“Who else is on the bill?” I asked.

“Darren Walsh and a nun.”

“I’m not going to ask,” I told Martin. “Some things are best left to the imagination.”

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Two comedians talk about cannibalism

Lewis Schaffer (left) and Martin Soan

Brian Simpson/Lewis Schaffer (left) & Martin Soan yesterday

Yesterday’s rather self-indulgent blog was about my rail trip to see comic Martin Soan at his home in Nunhead, London. Also there was Brian Simpson, the English character actor who performs as the New York Jewish comic Lewis Schaffer. We chatted…


BRIAN
John, is this really the end of the line for your daily blog?

JOHN
On the 31st of December, yes.

BRIAN
My point is…

MARTIN
There’s always a fucking point with you.

BRIAN
Because I’m trying to get some kind of meaning to my life. I’m not like you who is free-floating and everything’s OK.

MARTIN
I don’t think everything’s OK.

BRIAN
You’re contented. I guess the way you get contented is by not having a point. Because, once you start searching for a point, you will not find contentment. I’m always searching for a point, for some meaning.

MARTIN
Become a table tennis instructor. You would be a genius table tennis instructor. All you’ve got to do is just talk at them. Just talk, talk, talk at them.

JOHN
It’s talking balls. It’s ideal for you.

MARTIN
So what are we discussing?

BRIAN
John’s blog.

JOHN
Chris Dangerfield reckons he can’t remember talking to me for any of the blogs he has appeared in. I might as well have made them up. Although I suppose no-one could make up Chris Dangerfield.

BRIAN
You could. You could have made the entire blog up.

JOHN
Like you made up the Lewis Schaffer character? When are you going to come out as yourself?… Well, I suppose you already did in 2013, but people didn’t really believe it.

BRIAN
I am going to come out as Sarah Franken.

JOHN
Will Franken might be in my very last daily blog. I would prefer the last one to be about a court case that is brewing over the Edinburgh Fringe – because then I could end on a whacking cliffhanger, like The Italian Job. But the guy involved doesn’t want publicity yet. How is your campaign to save Southwark Woods going?

BRIAN
Chris Lynam is interested in the trees. He walks his dogs in Southwark Woods and he’s totally gung-ho about it all.

JOHN
If they want to cut down some trees to put in more burial plots, I…

MARTIN
(TO BRIAN) I’m not against your cause at all, but we’re coming to a population crisis in terms of interment. We’ve got to find a cost-effective way so we’re composted and produce crops for future generations to eat. That’s the next stage. But Mankind can’t accept that, so we do these things like cremations and burials. What we gotta do now is…

BRIAN
… chop up the bodies and make them into fertiliser?

MARTIN
Yeah. Absolutely. There’s no other way for Mankind to go on to the next stage in evolution on this planet unless we do that. We’ve got to recycle Mankind.

JOHN
The next stage of evolution is cannibalism?

BRIAN
That’s what I was thinking: Soylent Green.

MARTIN
Yeah, well we’re eating everything else.

BRIAN
The amount of space it takes to plant a dead body is very minimal. But they could just plant them in mass graves – layer them five on top of each other. They did that historically in this country. All of Camberwell Old Cemetery is people who were buried six deep.

MARTIN
But now we come to a critical phase of that, cos we can’t bury on Mortlake or Blackheath, because that’s Black Plague ground. We’re not allowed to disturb that ground for 150 years That’s why it’s become common.

JOHN
And I think there are plague pits under Soho. They have problems extending downwards.

MARTIN
So where do we go? We can’t take up more agricultural land. Everyone wants to build everywhere, so there’s less and less space. There’s got to be an efficient way of recycling human beings.

BRIAN
Why not put people six deep in a pit? They don’t do that in this country any more.

MARTIN
You can’t bury six bodies at a time.

JOHN
If the history of the Jews has taught us anything, it’s that you can bury people six deep.

BRIAN
…but they prefer to burn them. Jews are very flammable.

MARTIN
Mankind is expedentiating at a rate of…

BRIAN
Expedentiating? You just made up a word there.

MARTIN
Yeah, but I’m good at making up words, man.

BRIAN
Exponentially…

MARTIN
Expedentially. You understand where I’m theorising from now.

JOHN
You could bury them vertically.

MARTIN
Absolutely. It’s a real fucking issue now that no-one wants to face. It’s as big as chickens.

JOHN
As big as chickens?

MARTIN
Yeah. Don’t you understand?

BRIAN
I do. It’s one of those old sayings. The Bells of Bow Bridge or whatever.

JOHN
What does As big as chickens mean?

MARTIN
Of course it does.

JOHN
What is As big as chickens?

MARTIN
The disposal of Mankind upon itself.

JOHN
It’s a phrase you have just made up.

MARTIN
There is no other way to look at it.

BRIAN
(TO MARTIN) Is that a phrase you just made up?

MARTIN
Yeah.

JOHN
That’s a relief.

BRIAN
The point I am making is… We are not disagreeing with any of your points.

JOHN
Yes we are.

BRIAN
We aren’t.

MARTIN
(TO BRIAN) You just want to argue all the time.

JOHN
(TO BRIAN) You want to argue because you’ve turned into Lewis Schaffer. You made him up and now you’ve become him.

BRIAN
I want to argue because I am an ENPT type on the Myers-Briggs scale. ENPT-T. That’s the rage, now, if you’re interested in what’s going on.

JOHN
What does the T stand for?

BRIAN
Trouble.

JOHN
No it doesn’t.

BRIAN
Turbulent. I’m a debater. I like debating.

JOHN
I have lost the will to live. Set fire to me… Martin, when is your next Pull the Other One?

MARTIN
January the 29th.

JOHN
Who’s on?

MARTIN
Phil Kay, Darren Walsh and The Short Man in Long Socks.

Pull the Other One - 29th January 2016

JOHN
At last I will see him!

BRIAN
Who?

JOHN
The Short Man in Long Socks.

BRIAN
Where’s he from?

MARTIN
He works mainly in the Eastern European cabaret circuit.

BRIAN
What’s his act like?

MARTIN
Indescribable.

JOHN
That’s why I want to see him. He’s a legend.

BRIAN
I’ve never seen him.

MARTIN
Yes you have. We were filming for the 8th anniversary of Pull the Other One, which we called the 10th anniversary for publicity purposes. You were interviewed and…

BRIAN
That’s right! He popped in and popped out. I met him, but I’ve never seen the act.


After that, the conversation degenerated even more.

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The repeated re-invention of Tom Jones

Martin Soan in the O2 before the show started

Martin Soan discovers butterflies in stomach before the show

Last night, with comedy performer Martin Soan, I went to the O2 Arena in London to see a gig by Tom Jones and Van Morrison.

Both Martin and I are frightened of heights. Well, he is frightened of heights. I am frightened of overbalancing. So I cannot walk across the new Hungerford foot bridge over the Thames, which has no visible supports when you are on it – I can only get about 40% of the way across and then I want to throw myself down on the tarmac and hold onto the surface for dear life.

Tom Jones - the original Henry Fielding film one

Tom Jones – the original movie one

It dates back to a childhood incident.

You had to be there.

Suffice it to say that the O2 Arena is so steeply tiered that only abseilers or bungee-jumpers can feel 100% safe.

The only previous time I was there, my eternally-un-named friend tied herself to the armrest with a scarf.

But I am glad I went last night.

Tom Jones is an example to all performers of all kinds that perpetual re-invention is a good, indeed necessary, thing.

I am old enough to remember seeing his first few appearances on British TV when he tended to wear a white flowing shirt and have his hair tied into what was almost a pony tail at the back. The image was almost of a novelty act because…

… of course, he took his stage name from Tony Richardson’s film of Henry Fielding’s bawdy romp Tom Jones which had made the hairstyle trendy.

That initial surge of success took him to Las Vegas.

But, by 1987, his star – in the UK at least – was slightly fading. Then he appeared on Channel 4’s The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross. The programme’s researcher Graham K Smith (later Commissioner for Comedy & Entertainment at both Channel 4 and Five) used to handle music on the show and refused to let artists perform their latest release or songs they were famous for. He insisted on something the audience would not expect and persuaded Tom to sing Prince’s Kiss which, as far as I remember, created another surge in his career.

And now, of course, Tom Jones is seen in the UK as one of the judges on BBC1’s The Voice – although he lives in Los Angeles.

It is all a matter of perception.

I tried to persuade Martin Soan to explore the possibility of going to China to expand his career.

“You’re ideal,” I told him. “Your act is not language-based. It’s visual. It’s surreal. It’s performance art. There are bits of mime-like things in there. Puppets. Strange characters. Bright colours. Strange props. Experimental. The Chinese would love it. You could even take Punch & Judy there.”

But I think Martin’s mind was on butterflies.

My mind was on Hungerford Bridge.

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Kissing shoes in Soho, the incendiary comedian, w*** gags & a Banana Split

Richard Gadd wearing nob shoes to promote his Soho Theatre show

Richard Gadd wearing no shoes to promote his Soho show

Yesterday was a pretty ordinary day.

In the afternoon, after talking to director Chris Lincé for a future blog, I bumped into comedian Richard Gadd at the Soho Theatre.

I got down on all-fours and kissed both his shoes.

You can never be too careful when someone is on the way up and you are in decline.

Richard Gadd’s response:

“Is it too late to tell you about the clump of dogshit I stepped in just before I arrived at the Soho?”

I think he was joking. He may not have been. Life is the sole of a comedian’s shoe who has just stepped in dogshit.

Last Friday, I went to see Martin Soan’s always excellent monthly Pull The Other One variety show at the Old Nun’s Head in – no surprise here – Nunhead.

On Monday, I got a call from comic Lewis Schaffer to say the manager at the Old Nun’s Head had found my British Rail travel pass, which must have fallen out of my pocket. Lewis was not at the show, but the manager had phoned him when he found my railpass. It seemed best not to ask why.

So, last night, after going to a Gresham Lecture about finding the body of Richard III under a car park in Leicester, I ventured down South of the River again to collect the card. I told Lewis Schaffer I would buy him a drink or a meal to say Thankyou.

He texted: I have got car unexpectedly staying here. Can you come to my flat instead?

You have a car staying in the flat?? I texted back.

Carnegie, he texted back.

Lewis Schaffer has a son called Carnegie.

I have never asked why. It seemed best not to.

Martin Soan last night, promoting Thursday’s show

Martin last night, promoting  Thursday’s show

As I left the Old Nun’s Head with my railcard, I bumped into Martin Soan with a placard on his back. He insisted I have a cup of tea before seeing Lewis Schaffer.

It is usually better to have a stiff alcoholic drink before seeing Lewis Schaffer.

Martin, whose Pull the Other One I saw in Nunhead last Friday, is preparing for another Pull The Other One show in Peckham Rye this Thursday, which is Guy Fawkes Night. The poster (which he had on his back) promises An Explosive Finale.

“What does that involve?” I asked.

“Indoor fireworks,” Martin told me.

“Indoor fireworks?” I asked.

“Indoor fireworks,” Martin repeated.

“What are indoor fireworks?” I asked.

“Incendiaries,” said Martin. “There are famous indoor fireworks. There’s the snake, the elephant’s arse…”

The incendiary comic Martin Soan last night

The incendiary comic Martin Soan last night

“…Dresden,” I suggested. “Hamburg.”

“No,” said Martin, “they were extremely outdoors.”

“Not if you were indoors,” I said.

“If you were indoors they were indoors,” admitted Martin, “but I think the effect was outdoors.”

“Not if you were indoors,” I said. “They had a big effect if you were indoors.”

“But,” argued Martin, “if you were indoors, you wouldn’t be indoors for very long, because your doors wouldn’t be in.”

“Well, in fact,” I said, “you wouldn’t be for very long.”

“Anyway,” said Martin, “you can now buy specific incendiary devices for all types of computers that blow up in different ways. For computer screens, electric wires, huge fuel boxes, electricity cables on pylons…”

“When I had to buy sugar-glass bottles to hit people with,” I said, “I had to go all the way to Shepperton Studios. Where are these incendiary people?”

“There’s a French company based in London,” Martin told me,” called – it’s a French name – Le something or La something.”

“It would be,” I said. “So, things are going to bang at the show on Thursday?”

“Yes.”

“But will there,” I asked, “still be nudity and knob gags?”

“No,” said Martin firmly. “I am trying to escape my horrific past. I am trying to become a serious fucking artist, John.”

“But it is a tradition,” I argued. “If there’s no nudity and knob gags, you are letting me down, you’re letting your family down, you are letting the Queen and your country down. What else are you doing before Christmas?”

“I’m organising an alternative performance for a Christmas Fair.”

Martin Soan’s living room as it was a couple of years ago

Martin Soan’s living room as it was a couple of years ago

“What is alternative about it?” I asked. “Does it involve Easter eggs and bunnies?”

“I am,” explained Martin, “getting some abnormal people to do walkabouts.”

“No giant, singing-and-dancing vaginas?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin.

“You have no sense of tradition,” I told him.

Martin said: “I did my first proper comedy club – not variety club – shows in ages recently. Just me and stand-ups. I did well but being on the same bill and seeing that stand-up stuff again was a huge cultural shock for me. I haven’t done any regular comedy clubs for years.”

“So was it,” I asked, “just 19-year-olds telling wank jokes?”

“No,” said Martin. “Middle-aged men telling wank jokes. They were extremely well-crafted, extremely good, very funny wank gags, but it was exactly that. I got a bit blown away. I thought: Oh, Jesus Christ! I’ve been living in this rarified atmosphere of variety and people coming on and juggling peanuts and putting costumes on and suddenly there I was in the real world of a proper, regular comedy club. My God! What a shock! I had thought maybe the whole comedy – what I now call the ‘straight’ comedy – circuit had maybe moved on a little bit.”

“I think,” I said, “maybe it moved on and came back round in a circle.”

“Then,” said Martin, “coming up I’ve got some big variety shows up in Sheffield, Halifax, Devon, which I’m completely at home with. But then I have this tradition of spending Boxing Day with this miserable old git in Borehamwood.”

Banana Split a La Lewis Schaffer

Banana Split a La Lewis Schaffer – yum yum

“Oh,” I said.

After that, I went to see Lewis Schaffer. He made me a banana split, with ice cream and banana and put mincemeat on top of it. He seemed to think this was perfectly normal.

Then I had to talk to him for 90 seconds in a brick stairwell because he is making 90 second videos every day which he is putting on YouTube. He told me very few people are watching them.

“Have you mentioned them to anyone?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

The 90 second video I did with him is on YouTube.

I am telling you because he is unlikely to.

When I got home, there was an email from the London Fortean Society telling me that, in January, Rat Scabies – drummer with punk band The Damned – is going to give a talk about the Holy Grail and the mystery of Rennes-le-Château.

It was that sort of day.

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