Tag Archives: Matt Lucas

Hilary Clinton in drag. Warwick Davis on shortlist. “The Best Sex of Our Lives”

SimonJayThe last time I met Simon Jay, he talked about How To Survive Being Attacked With a Miniature Flame-Thrower For Being GayIn other words, he was plugging his autobiography – Bastardography.

“Remind me,” I asked him yesterday in the Soho Theatre Bar, “why are we meeting up?”

“I dunno,” replied Simon.

“Neither do I… How’s your book going?”

“Very well, It’s coming out in paperback next year. I have to go to Belfast to finish it. I’m writing two new chapters for the paperback edition.”

“Why?”

“I don’t ask these questions. I’m getting a free trip to Belfast. Who could say No to that?”

“They’ve started killing each other again,” I told him. “But you really want to tell me about the play you’re doing.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. I saw some Event thing on Facebook.”

Simon Jay - Universally Speaking

Simon Jay – Universally Speaking next month in London

Universally Speaking,” said Simon. “It’s five monologues. Originally it was written for IdeasTap. They asked me to direct these prize-winning plays, but then they went out of business. But I’m directing and producing them anyway in October for charity – for the UN Refugee Agency.

“I’m also developing another play – a one-man Titus Andronicus written by Peter John Cooper – possibly at the Southwark Playhouse and we’re looking for funding, because we’re going to get a ‘Name’ to star in it. Our money limit is Martin Clunes. We know we can afford him. Do you want to hear who else is on the short list? Warwick Davis, Matt Lucas, David Mitchell.”

“Warwick Davis is on the shortlist for Titus Andronicus?” I asked.

“It’s seen from the clown’s perspective,” explained Simon. “He only has about six lines in the original, but everything in this new play is seen from his perspective. It’s a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. All the bits we haven’t seen.”

“You could see if the Soho Theatre is interested,” I suggested.

“I don’t think they’d touch it with a barge pole.”

“Why?’

“Because it’s intellectual with a small ‘i’ – it’s harking back to a sort of different, older kind of one-man show. It’s more in the tradition of when John Gielgud used to do The Seven Ages of Man… but this time it’s with Martin Clunes.”

“Would you take it to the Edinburgh Fringe?”

“No. I’m doing three shows at the Fringe next year. I’m doing Mr Twonkey’s Jennifer’s Robot Arm, which I’m directing and acting in. And a show about Hilary Clinton.”

“A serious one?”

“Semi-comedy-serious. It’s satire, but it still tells a story, like Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho.”

“Hilary Clinton,” I asked, “would be played by…?”

“Me,” said Simon, “obviously.”

“Obviously,” I said.

“I suggested it to Battersea Arts Centre,” Simon told me, “and they rejected it. I think people are a bit worried about doing a big, prominent American politician. The whole impetus behind the show was…

Hilary Clinton

“…You wanted to dress up as a woman?” – “Obviously”

“…you wanted to dress up as a woman,” I suggested.

“Well, that, obviously,” agreed Simon. “But also I don’t think UK audiences have a very good engagement in American politics. They don’t understand Primaries; they don’t understand how to win states; they don’t understand how she could still be with Bill after he’s shagged half the world. It’s a good fun story.”

“Do you have a title for the show?”

“Yes… It’s Hilary, Bitch!”

“What’s the poster going to be?”

“A big picture of Hilary, maybe astride a bomb or having a Wikileak. It’s going to be very camp.”

“Surely not?” I said.

“…and she sings as well,” Simon added.

“It’s a musical?”

“They do all manner of stupid things to get elected. She danced on a show with Ellen DeGeneres… I’m not against Hilary per se. I want to assassinate her at the end, but I think that might be a bit…

“It’s the American way,” I said.

“The reason Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho worked so well,” said Simon, “is it’s not just a drag Thatcher. There’s a good story as well: about Section 28. I’m not copying. It’s SO different, because it’s about  American politics and it’s a living figure, so it will be updated. I’m really worried Hilary might not win the Primary. If she doesn’t, then the idea might change to Jeremy Corbyn: The Musical.”

“And your third show next year,” I asked, “is…?”

cThe Best Sex of Our Lives

Coming soon? – the poster artwork

“It’s called The Best Sex of Our Lives. I’ve been commissioned to write and direct it by a man called Rich in Sussex who came and saw my show at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2013 and said I want you to write me a drag act and he paid me a couple of grand to write a full-length drag show but, once I had finished writing it, he was like: It’s really good, but I don’t want to do that any more. I want you to edit a novel I’m writing. Another couple of grand. Edited the novel. He said: I’m not writing the novel any more. Can you write an Edinburgh Fringe show? Cost everything for me and I’ll pay it. So I’ve written it. but now he’s being iffy again. So it might not happen but, if it gets to the point where we put it in the Fringe Programme, then we’ll do it.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“The A-Z of sex. All the different sexual practices.”

“What’s Z?” I asked. “Zebra?”

“It IS zebra. Do you know what ‘furries’ are?”

“Not necessarily,” I said.

“People who dress up as their animal alter egos.”

“A whole new world opens up to me,” I told him.

“I could tell you some things that would make your nose bleed,” Simon said.

“Provided,” I told him, “it’s only my nose.”

“You could be a butterfly,” Simon suggested. “You go to a party and people might put nectar on you. It’s basically weird, dress-up bestiality without the animals… Anyway, so I thought Sex sells in Edinburgh and I want to do a commercially popular show.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “a furry Hilary Clinton.”

“Oh God!” said Simon. “People put her face on porn. There’s a lot of that on there.”

“Where?” I asked.

“On the internet.”

Wikipedia’s illustration of Furries (Photograph by Laurence ‘GreenReape’ Parry.

Wikipedia’s illustration of two Furries (Photo by Laurence ‘GreenReaper’ Parry)

“Is The Best Sex of Our Lives a musical?” I asked.

“No. It’s vignettes.”

“A one man show?”

“No. Three actors.”

“Any animals?”

“No. They dress up as animals; they don’t fuck animals.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked.

“Sorry, John,” said Simon.

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A comedian’s blood, the Lady Gaga of comedy and Monty Python with chips

Texts flew through cyberspace last night

Texts flew through cyberspace…

So, last night, I was getting a train from my home in Borehamwood to see Joel SandersAngry Boater show by the Grand Union Canal in Haggerston, when I got a text from Juliette Burton.

“Driving past Borehamwood,” it said, “on my way to Putney to do a 5 minute gig after recording a Mills & Boon audiobook all day for the RNIB.”

Joel’s show started off slightly weird. Well, the show had not even started.

He sat at a table and, when the last member of the full-house, pre-booked audience walked through the door, asked her to help him. He then took a blood pressure reading. She was his witness.

His blood pressure was apparently very high. His show is about being angry and living on canal boats.

Joel Sanders through th porthole

Joel Sanders – The Angry Boater – through the porthole

I have to say his hugely enjoyable show was very calmly – even gently – presented. It climaxed with the true and ongoing story of how the engine of his canal boat has been buggered. A new one may cost him £8,000.

Afterwards, I asked him about his show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“Fringe?” he replied. “Everyone assumes I will be at the Fringe! I did it in 2011 and found it a miserable period so I don’t have any plans to return – at least not this year.”

He is a very busy man for someone concerned with his high blood pressure and general health. He recently interviewed Jim Davidson and Matt Lucas on-stage at Bethnal Green’s Backyard Comedy Club and, tonight, he is interviewing Harry Hill there.

“My next thing,” he told me, “once I get the engine sorted, is to take the Angry Boater show up the canal and set up impromptu shows in the nether. Wherever I moor up, I’ll find a venue, spend a week promoting it, do the show, move on and repeat. I want to be P.T. Barnum on a boat. Show up in villages and small towns – places with very little entertainment – and try to create some hype. It has got to be easier than London.”

Juliette Burton’s selfie in a car last night

Juliette Burton’s selfie in her car last night

After that, I got a train home to Borehamwood and, on the way, had a text message conversation with Juliette Burton about how her gig had gone. she is the queen of complex 60-minute multi-media reportage shows, so I thought 5 minutes must ironically have been very difficult.

“Well,” she told me, “my 5 mins tonight was very interesting. Alex Martini, the lovely MC, greeted me saying he was a huge fan thanks to your blog and then bigged me up massively before bringing me on stage. I had been told a strict 5 minutes, but then I was told 10-15 minutes cos I was such a ‘big name’.

“I was incredibly flattered but really wasn’t sure my added-on material deserved the praise. According to Alex, I am ‘the Lady Gaga of comedy’ because I have an entourage. I rather like that. But I did turn up at the gig totally alone. And my dress wasn’t made of luncheon meat, sadly.”

In the British circuit comedy, it has to be said, only Lewis Schaffer has an entourage. Everyone else only has fans.

“I honestly don’t know how I went,” Juliette told me. “My ad libs got more laughs than anything. I spouted some stuff about recording the Mills & Boon book today, which they seemed to like.

“They laughed at me saying I had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act as a teenager and, the more I insisted it was not a joke, the more they laughed. Weird. Alex said he was heartbroken to learn I had a boyfriend.”

“How,” I asked, “did the Mills & Boon recording go?”

“I have never,” replied Juliette, “said the words ‘nubbin’ and ‘thickness’ so much in one day.”

“Nubbin?” I asked her. “Do you mean ‘knobbing’?”

“No!” she texted back, “Nubbin! It is used like the word ‘bud’.”

Claire Smith’s selfie in Brighton last night

Claire Smith’s selfie in Brighton last night

I remain mystified by nubbin but, by then, Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge and Scotsman comedy reviewer Claire Smith had started texting me from the South Coast, where the Brighton Fringe is in full swing.

“Tonight,” her first text said, “was the official opening of Lynn Ruth Miller’s art exhibition at Bardsley’s of Baker Street – which is one of Brighton’s oldest fish and chip shops.”

Lynn Ruth Miller, now aged 81, has one of the youngest minds on the UK comedy circuit.

“As well as showing Lynn Ruth’s paintings,” Claire told me, “the chip shop is also the permanent home of the Max Miller Society’s collection. There is a little room at the back where you can eat your fish and chip dinner surrounded by posters of the ‘Cheeky Chappie’ and cards with his jokes. They also have one of his floral suits in a glass case.”

“This,” I asked, “was a grand opening for Lynn Ruth’s art exhibition? Who was there?”

Carol Cleveland with Lynn Ruth Miller in Max Miller collection

Carol Cleveland with Lynn Ruth Miller in Max Miller heaven (Photograph by Claire Smith)

“The first to turn up,” Claire told me, “was Carol Cleveland from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  She told me she loved taking part in the Monty Python reunion shows at the O2 because one of the best things for her was that she finally got to act. As well as doing the dolly bird stuff she also got to play a couple of roles that used to be played by Graham Chapman in drag.”

“How is Lynn Ruth?” I asked.

“Busier than ever,” Claire texted. “I’ve seen her in two shows at the Fringe. Not Dead Yet – which is a musical version of her life story – and Eighty! – which is a show about growing old and continuing to have lots of fun. Last night turned into another of her chip shop salons – with a huge group of friends and admirers eating at a giant table as Lynn Ruth held court.”

Kate Copstick,” I texted back, “was telling me she might go down to Brighton just to see Lynn Ruth in the fish and chip shop. I could be persuaded too.”

Lynn Ruth Miller  + Roy Brown of Bardsleys Fish & chip shop, Brighton

Roy Brown of Bardsleys Fish & Chip Shop + Lynn Ruth Miller (Photograph by Claire Smith)

“I’m not sure if there is a programme for these,” explained Claire, “or if they just happen when Lynn Ruth decides to do it. But I am sure if La Copstick were in town a salon would spontaneously arise.”

I think I must phone my friend Lynn (not to be confused with Lynn Ruth) who lives near Brighton and see if she fancies some fish and chips in exchange for me having a kip (not to be confused with kippers) in her spare bedroom.

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Original version of BBC TV’s Pompidou series & a brief history of visual comedy

Matt Lucas (right) and Alex Macqueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

Matt Lucas (right) & Alex MacQueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

This Sunday teatime, Matt Lucas stars in the second episode of the ‘silent’ BBC TV series Pompidou.

The credits say it is written by Matt Lucas, Julian Dutton and Ashley Blaker.

Blaker produced Little Britain on BBC Radio, then wrote and produced Rock Profiles with Matt Lucas. They went to school together.

Multi-award-winning comedy scriptwriter/performer Julian Dutton started as an actor, then became a comedy scriptwriter for radio, but, he says, “I always made sure I performed in the things I wrote.” He appears in a later episode of Pompidou.

“I did stand-up for some years,” he told me yesterday. “I was an impressionist act on the circuit. Harry Hill encouraged me into stand-up when we were doing radio comedy. So I was doing this act, met Alistair McGowan, then Jon Culshaw and realised I was only No 15 or 20 or 25 in the country and the 25th best impressionist in the country does not get his own TV series.”

As a result, Julian turned more to writing, though usually appearing in the many shows he wrote.

Julian Dutton - Museum of Comedy

Julian Dutton – surrounded by comedy – in London this week

“So how did Pompidou come about?” I asked him.

“It originated as a character show,” he told me, “because I wanted to write a visual comedy that was very experimental and avant-garde, using some of the finest physical performers on the circuit – people like Dr Brown, The Boy With Tape on His Face, the Australian act Lano and Woodley – people like that who are under-used on British television.

“I approached everybody. I approached ITV, BBC, everybody. And then Matt’s production company took it on and it morphed into a more family-friendly, slapstick, mainstream entertainment on BBC2. It was decided that an avant-garde and experimental comedy show would be a little bit too niche.

“After that, the second incarnation of it was as a character sketch show like Little Britain, where Matt was going to play all the characters – like a visual League of Gentlemen: a day in the life of a town, but all visual.

“Then gradually, as the months went on, we pared things down and shaved bits off and ended up focusing on one character: Pompidou. It became more mainstream and family-friendly, rather than complex and avant-garde. But I’m happy with it being a family mainstream show, because I love family mainstream shows. It has become more Norman Wisdom and less Jacques Tati.

There is a trailer for Norman Wisdom’s The Bulldog Breed on YouTube.

“Was your series always called Pompidou?” I asked.

“Once it focused on Matt as a single character, yes.”

“What was the first Dr Brown type experimental version called?”

“The Dumb Show. The second title was The Shusssshhh Show.”

“And why the name Pompidou?”

“We wanted an international name and we thought, in the back of our minds, that the French still like mad clowns. Also there’s the pomp pomp-posity. From memory, I think he was originally called Mr Pamplemousse – French for grapefruit. The back-story is that he’s descended from French Huguenots.”

“It was always going to be a silent series?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Julian. “Well, non-verbal, because there is this distinction between silent and non-verbal. The reason I wanted to do a show without dialogue was basically because I grew up with loads and loads of non-dialogue shows on TV – Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman – Every sketch show I remember when I was young had about 10 minutes of non-verbal stuff. There was a revival of it in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I first saw silent comedy when Bob Monkhouse had a TV series Mad Movies and BBC2 brought out a version of it with Michael Bentine: Golden Silents. They used to show Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and The Keystone Kops.

“I was inspired not just by the old, silent comedians but by the new visual comedians – in particular Jacques Tati who, just after the War, re-invented visual comedy. Then there were Eric Sykes and Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman… Dave Allen did tons of visual stuff. In every Dave Allen Show, there was about 10 minutes visual comedy – The Undertakers’ Race, tons of stuff.

The Undertakers’ Race is on YouTube.

“So that,” said Julian, “is where Pompidou came from, really. It struck me that, since Mr Bean – the last one was in 1997 – nobody had tried a visual comedy. And I had written tons and tons of children’s television.”

“You wrote for the Chuckle Brothers’ TV programme,” I nudged.

“Yes, I wrote for them for about four years,” said Julian. “The last three series. They’re a variety act family that goes way back to the 1930s (Their elder brothers are The Patton Brothers.) There were five of them. They were really the early British mainstream variety Marx Bros, though not as anarchic – I think the Crazy Gang were the equivalent of the Marx Bros over here.

“That’s how I cut my teeth on visual comedy, really. The Chuckle Brothers’ shows were deceptively difficult to write. They seem very simplistic and very very light-hearted and infantile, but their knowledge of physical routines was very impressive. When people see light entertainment on screen, they wrongly think that it’s light to create. But it’s not a light matter.”

“The Chuckle Brothers,” I suggested, “are maybe looked-down on by critics?”

“Clowning is a bit looked-down-on in Britain,” agreed Julian. “The French look on dumb-show mime as an art form. We look on it as just pratting about.”

“I suppose,” I said, “mime in Italy and France is an art form and, in this country, panto-mime is for children.”

“Exactly,” said Julian. “And that is why some of the reaction to Pompidou is… We are getting very good feedback especially from family audiences and we have had some very good reviews from people who ‘get’ it – that it’s a family, clown show. Some reviewers have criticised the show for appealing to children, as if that is a bad thing. But children make up the vast majority of the global TV audience. So why shouldn’t we be making comedy for children that stars a guy who was in an edgy sketch show (Matt Lucas in Little Britain)?”

Mr Bean was always accepted by adults, wasn’t it?” I asked.

Mr Bean was very heavily criticised when it first came out,” Julian corrected me, “because Rowan Atkinson had done Blackadder, which was very very ‘in’ with the university wits. Mr Bean was originally looked-on as a downward step for Rowan Atkinson.”

Julian Dutton - Keeping Quiet

Julian’s book on comics Keeping Quiet

“I bow to your superior knowledge of comedy history,” I said. “You’ve written a book about visual comedy – Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound – which is coming out next month. Surely there have been lots of books before on the subject?”

“Oddly, no,” said Julian. “It struck me when I was working on Pompidou that there have been thousands of books about silent comedy, but they always stop at 1927. There has never been a book about the history of visual comedy after the advent of sound. Kevin Brownlow, Paul Merton, Walter Kerr – all the authorities – stop in 1927.

“But visual (non-verbal) comedy didn’t stop then. There have been books on the individual people, but there’s never been a comprehensive history of it as a distinct genre… And it IS a distinct genre. It’s not silent comedy. It’s visual comedy in the age of sound. None of it is silent. There’s sound effects, music gags… Laurel & Hardy introduced sound gags. Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati used sound gags: it’s a different type of comedy. People like Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom…”

“I used to like Jerry Lewis when I was a small kid,” I said.

“And European adults like him,” said Julian. “He’s a hero in France and Norman Wisdom is a hero in Albania.

“In the early 1960s, Norman Wisdom’s films were bigger at the box office than James Bond. I think he’s very under-rated as a subversive comic. At his height, in the 1950s, he was making very subversive comedy.”

“Which is why his films were acceptable in Albania,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Julian. “It was always at the expense of the British Establishment. It was as satirical as most of the Boulting Brothers’ films, which were seen as ‘serious’ satire. I think Norman Wisdom is exceedingly under-rated.”

“After Charlie Chaplin,” I said, “the two most successful British comedians worldwide were Benny Hill and Rowan Atkinson.”

“Absolutely,” said Julian. “Benny Hill’s early work was very very visual, very influenced by continental mime. Very under-rated. And there was a motive when we made Pompidou to make a comedy that would appeal to all nations. Visual comedy has sort-of exploded on the internet – almost all the viral YouTube posts are visual, are slapstick. But mainstream TV has not caught up with the fact we are living in a global visual age.

“Visual comedy is not just clowning. There has been some very experimental stuff. Ernie Kovacs in the 1950s was a television pioneer in the US and made silent TV sketch shows. Mainstream, primetime, early-evening NBC shows. And not just silent, but he made sketches with no human beings in them: comedy sketches with (stop-frame) household objects. This was surreal, avant-garde TV as art in the 1950s. And it was a huge, Emmy-nominated success.”

There are several Ernie Kovacs clips on YouTube.

“And now?” I asked. “After Pompidou, what for you?”

“I’m focusing on feature films now,” said Julian. “I’ve had a feature film optioned and commissioned and the scripting is underway. It’s a British-American animated comedy film. And I’m also pitching a live-action high-octane film to America.”

“American TV is very keen on British comedy at the moment,” I said.

“Funnily enough,” replied Julian, “I’m also writing a cartoon series for American TV called Little People that’s coming out at the end of the year.

There is a BBC TV trailer for Pompidou on YouTube.

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Festive greetings from Farter Christmas

In yesterday’s blog about Mr Methane, I mentioned the Lancashire town of Poulton-le-Fylde and eccentrics.

Mick (right) on Mr Methane’s Let It Rip DVD

Mick Cookson (extreme right) in Mr Methane’s Let It Rip

Mr M has now told me that esteemed ventriloquist Keith Harris and his best friends Orville & Chuckles live in Poulton-le-Fylde – “Or,” says Mr Methane, “at least they were still living there in 2006 when we did BBC TV show The Slammer together.

“Keith had a nightclub which he sold to a guy called Elliot. Elliot was a DJ who had made a load of money by building up a nightclub in Workington and then selling it for a tidy profit. He then came south and worked for Mick Cookson at Panama Joes/Meancat Daddies in Burnley as a DJ. Mick is the guy who interviews people in the Butt Pipe Shocker segments on my Let’s Rip DVD

“Elliot once booked me for a gig at Keith’s club which he had re-named Elliot’s – I did not go down well as it wasn’t my crowd. You could say I died on my arse.

The outstanding Mr Methane with some of his fans

Even Mr Methane strikes low notes amid glamour

“It was a lowpoint in my career. But then I’ve had many low points. Live entertainers tend to have more low points than high points or at least an equal amount – it’s just part of the game. If they’re not your crowd, they’re not your crowd.

“I can remember working with ‘Sir Bernard Cholmondeley’ (Matt Lucas) at Southampton Guild Hall – New Year 1996, I think it was – The crowd just threw things at him and shouted him off. All they wanted was tit-and-arse jokes with a bit of farting thrown in.

“But, as history shows, a bad gig for Sir Bernard and a good gig for Mr Methane are not a good indicator of future commercial success, so you just draw a line and move on. Good gigs happen. Bad gigs happen. And occasionally people throw dangerous objects like Brown Ale bottles and pint glasses at you. Merry Christmas.”

I have also received Christmas greetings and news from the Colonies.

Last week, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith sent me a piece which I posted about ‘Ben from Glasgow’. Last night, she found Ben at his usual workplace on the pavement. Or, depending on your use of English, on the sidewalk.

In Vancouver, Ben from Glasgow.(Photograph by Anna Smith)

Ben from Glasgow in his Vancouver workplace. (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“As it was Christmas Eve,” Anna says, “people were lining up outside the liquor store. I told Ben:

“You’re in a blog in London. Let me show you. Your grandad is in it too.

My grandad’s in it?

“Yes,” I told him. “You’re both in it – together on the same page.

“Ben was overjoyed to see the pictures. In the meantime, people were throwing money into his cap – loonies ($1 coins), toonies ($2 coins) and bills.

“I stood out of the way, leaning against the wall beside him, reading bits of the blog to him. A lot of the people on the sidewalk knew him by his first name and were happy to have an excuse to give him a bit more money than usual. A man darted past and dropped a toonie into Ben ‘s cap and held another toonie up for me. I grabbed it

I can make money just by standing beside you! I told Ben and slid the toonie into his cap. We both laughed.

An LED umbrella and a painting in a Denman Street window display

An LED umbrella and a painting in a Denman Street window display

“A bus driver jumped off his bus, ran towards us and handed Ben a new LED umbrella.

A passenger gave it to me, Benny, he said breathlessly. I thought you could use it.

“Ben got a couple of young men to stop and give him a beer. Then a drunken rodeo clown came up.

I’m on the internet! cried Ben. Look! My grandad was a world champion!

Yeah, right, said the drunken clown.

It’s true! I told him. Ben and his grandad look exactly the same! 

“Then the drunken clown started talking about all his own accomplishments, which were very boring. Then he tried to start a fight with Benny who grabbed his bag and disappeared down an alley.

Merry Christmas, I said to the clown and then walked quickly away.”

This morning, Anna also sent me a photo of a lady.

“This is Janey from Alberta,” the message said.

Janey from Alberta (Photograph by Anna Smith)

Janey from the Alberta tar sands (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“Janey always drops by the shop when she visits Vancouver. She works cleaning trailers in the tar sands (oil patch) in Northern British Columbia and Alberta.

“They are isolated camps in the bush and she says it’s hell up there. It is dangerous and violent. She hires a taxi if she has to cross the street at night. But the cost of a house is as high as it is in Vancouver.

“The work is lucrative but, as the price of oil slumps, people can’t afford to live. Crack cocaine and methamphetamine are rampant.

“There are miles of tunnels and sludge-filled lakes, leaching into the rivers. There are gigantic mechanical bats on poles creaking away in the darkness to frighten away the birds.

“She said no-one gives a shit about anyone there. She showed me lines of scars on her stomach from being run over by a truck.”

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Comedy performer Jo Burke on actors, breast implants, conformity, Streisand, her fear of buttons & her dad’s 3 vices

Jo Burke at the Soho Theatre Bar

Jo Burke was being forthright at the Soho Theatre Bar

“Comedian or actress?” I asked Jo Burke in the Soho Theatre Bar.

“Actress, really,” she replied. “My heart lies there. I got into the comedy thing completely by accident.”

“A hyphenate,” I suggested. “Actress-comedian-performer-writer-producer-whatever.”

Jo filmed a sketch video called Virus in 2001, which she did not bother to upload onto YouTube until 2009.

She also wrote a book about internet dating in 2006 and can currently be heard as co-host every fortnight on Justin Lee Collins’ Fubar radio show (the next one is this Thursday). And, on Saturday, she is previewing her first Edinburgh Fringe solo show Burke Shire at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“I left school at 16,” she told me. “No-one told us university was an option. I got a job in Barclays in Regent Street. My dad was over the moon because I’d got a bank job – a job for life. It was everything I’m not. I was quite naive at 16 and everyone was having affairs. I come from a very stable family.”

“Not showbiz?” I asked.

“No,” said Jo. “None of my family really get it. If I invite them to any of my shows, they have a look of horror on their faces: I might as well have invited them to Auschwitz for the day. I never went to theatre as a kid. We didn’t go to shows, except pantomime every year.”

“Oh no you didn’t,” I said.

Jo ignored me. “My dad was a plumber,” she said.

“So loads of money?” I asked.

“No. He was a plumber for Greenwich Council and he wasn’t the type of person to ever leap into self-employment and…”

At this point, a large number of noisy people came into the bar.

“Oh God, no” I said. “Young people are hugging and kissing each other. They have to be actors!”

“I always find it quite strange when people talk about actors as luvvies,” said Jo, “because I think the whole point about acting is you shouldn’t really be sussed as an actor because you shouldn’t be playing at being an actor, you should be playing at being someone else. It’s about being true. I could wander round now saying Luvvie! and making a scenario about myself, but I think actors should be a bit under the radar.”

“These people aren’t under the radar,” I said. “This is like a thousand plane raid of Luvvies. Is there a difference between comedians and actors?”

Jo’s FunBags sketch group

Jo’s FunBags sketch group – finalists at the Fringe

“Probably,” said Jo, “only in the way they go about it. If you’re a trained actor doing a show, you’ll probably rehearse it in a slightly more structured way. When I first started doing comedy, I was doing solo stuff but, very quickly, I set up FunBags, which is a sketch group.” (They are in the finals of the Gilded Balloon’s Best New Sketch Act Competition 2014 at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

“Comedy is very solitary and I really felt it at first. When you’re in a theatrical show, you have the camaraderie, you play around with the script together in rehearsal, there’s director, a whole feeling of togetherness. In comedy, you’re chucking yourself on stage completely on your own, completely bare. If you’re a female performer and not a massive drinker and not a massive late-nighter, you feel quite solitary.”

“It’s difficult being yourself on stage,” I said.

“It is when that’s not ever what you wanted to be,” agreed Jo. “The nature of wanting to be an actor is you’re interested in other people and you like being other people and, really, you don’t find yourself very interesting. When I was young I either wanted to be Princess Leia in Star Wars – she was beautiful and feisty and gun-toting and shockingly honest – or Kate Bush.”

“Why Kate Bush?”

“She produced everything herself and controlled it… I’m not sure where I fit in.”

“Logically,” I said, “If you don’t fit in, you must be original.”

“But people prefer something that’s familiar,” shrugged Jo. “There’s loads of people out there doing Vicky Pollard (Matt Lucas’ Little Britain TV character). I’m just me, doing what I enjoy doing. If you’d asked me five years ago what would I be doing I’d have said I’d rather chew my own arms off than be a comedian.”

“Because?”

“Because it’s harsh, it’s hard, if it goes wrong, it’s your fault. There’s nowhere to hide if you’re writing your own stuff and, in effect, producing and directing it. It’s horrendous. It’s complete and utter personal annihilation if it goes wrong.”

“So,” I said, “you’ve got to get it right every night for a month in Edinburgh.”

Jo Burke - Burke Shire

Jo Burke advertises her Edinburgh show

“But I will love that,” said Jo, “because that’s more actory. If you’re in a play, you’re in a run so it gets better and better and better and you feel more and more relaxed. But, in comedy, when you’re at my level, you’re doing a couple of gigs a week. It’s stop-start so almost every time you do it it’s like a first night and, as any actor will tell you, First Nights are a nightmare: full of nerves. In comedy, the venue is different every night. In Edinburgh, it is one venue daily for a full month. You get the chance to ‘bed-in’ a show.”

“You don’t give the impression of being easily intimidated,” I said.

“I’m scared of buttons,” Jo replied.

“Buttons?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Jo. “It’s a real thing. You can look it up. It’s got a name.”

(It is Koumpounophobia.)

“You have zips?” I asked.

“Zips on everything,” said Jo. “Metal buttons on jeans are fine, but shirt buttons… I couldn’t go near that; I couldn’t touch them. If you told me there was a jar of buttons, the hairs on the back of my head would stand up. It would make me feel ill just looking at it. Buttons are… err… yeah… not good.”

“Do you know where the fear stems from?” I asked.

“When I was really young,” explained Jo, “I had really long hair. I had two older brothers – 8 and 10 years older than me – and, when I came along, my dad had not a clue what to do with a girl so he used to throw me about a bit like I was a boy and my hair used to get caught on his shirt and that’s where it stems from.”

“Earlier on,” I said, “you made your father sound very conventional.”

“My dad had a furry Russian hat,” Jo told me, “and a leather jacket he had hand-painted an eagle onto. He also had an eagle painted onto the bonnet of our car.”

“He was big on eagles, then?” I asked.

Jo as her Mary Magdalene character

Jo as comic character Mary Magdalene

“Big on eagles,” said Jo. “Big on Egypt. Big on dinosaurs and war weapons – swords and guns. He used to make them. Guns. Replicas. From wood and metal. Properly talented.”

“There’s a demand for guns in South East London,” I said.

“Not ones that don’t work,” said Jo. “His shed had about three different vices in.”

“So I can say in print that your dad had three different vices?”

“Yes you can,” Jo laughed. “He did. And he used to make his own jewellery and belts. Chunks of metal.”

“He was a Goth?” I suggested.

“It wasn’t even Goth,” said Jo. “It was just bizarre. In the 1980s, he used to wear lavender and pink rufflled shirts. As a girl I was thinking: Oh my God! My dad’s in a ruffled lilac shirt with a Russian hat and an eagle leather jacket. Why can’t I just have a normal family? And we don’t even drive in a hand-painted car, we just have hand-painted cars sitting in our driveway that don’t go anywhere.

“Do you see bits of him in you?” I asked.

“I see the quirkiness,” said Jo. “What I love about him now that I hated then is that he didn’t give a shit. He was who he was. The reason Barbie-like plastic surgery is coming in nowadays is that everyone is frightened to be individual and everyone wants to be the same.”

“’Twas ever thus,” I said.

“People,” continued Jo, “are having individual things wiped off their faces to look the same as someone else. A perfect person is the most uninteresting person in the world. I’ve never been attracted to perfection in voices – I can’t stand Céline Dion or Mariah Carey. I’d much rather listen to Amy Winehouse or Paloma Faith who are good singers but are not these perfect warblers. Imperfection is interesting and perfection is really dull, yet we’re breeding a society of people that are supposed to look like someone’s image of perfect.

“I must have missed the meeting where it was decided that Spacehopper boobs and long blonde wavy hair and extended everything was the way to go. People are pressurised to glue on duck lips and, if someone’s nose is characterful, they have to make it look like everyone else’s. It’s bonkers. Barbra Streisand is incredibly beautiful… Buck teeth, big nose and quirkiness? Freddie Mercury.”

“You have a professor character in your show,” I said, “who encourages people to have their thumbs removed because they will look better.”

Jo Burke

“The next step is paralysing facial expressions so you can’t show you are happy, upset or sad”

“It sounds ridiculous,” said Jo, “but is it really? The same as you can’t have small boobs and you can’t be bald – you have to have a hair transplant. The next step is paralysing facial expressions so you can’t show you are happy, upset or sad and that will be ‘better’ because there will be no wrinkles and it’s ‘better’ than looking old.”

“It sounds like you have a 2015 Edinburgh show here,” I said.

“I don’t think anyone else would be interested,” said Jo.

“The best Edinburgh comedy shows,” I said, “are rants with laughs.”

Jo rants well. And in character.

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