Malcolm Hardee while researching his autobiography in 1995
In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned British comedian Malcolm Hardee in passing. He was, to understate the truth, very anarchic. A comedian, club owner, agent and force of Nature, he has been called the father of (British) alternative comedy.
He drowned in 2005. At least, that is the story.
He wrote his autobiography in 1996. It was titled I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake which, indeed, he did. It has been out of print for quite a few years.
At the time of writing this blog, there are a couple of second hand copies available on amazon.co.uk – one at £49.98, the other at £109.95.
One second hand copy is also available on amazon.com at $49.98.
Full disclosure: I own 20% of the royalties from I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. But, as the book is out-of-print and these are second hand copies, there are no royalties. So I would get nothing if anyone forked out £49.98 or $49.98 or £109.95.
On amazon.com, the book’s description correctly reads:
“The humorous memoirs of criminal-turned-comedy agent Malcolm Hardee, who recalls a life of crime and misdemeanours before finding fame and fortune in the comedy boom of the 1980s. He also recalls how he did in fact, as the title suggests, steal Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake.”
On amazon.co.uk, the description reads:
“For successful classroom teaching, your students need to be engaged and active learners. In this book, there is practical advice that is grounded in the realities of teaching in today’s classrooms on how to be an inspirational teacher and produce highly motivated students. This book contains 220 positive, practical teaching ideas that are relevant to both new and experienced classroom teachers. With reference to reflective practice, best practice and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), this book provides essential support for trainee teachers, new teachers and experienced teachers looking to extend their repertoire.”
Yup. It is the description of a totally different book. Amazon’s computers have somehow got their techno-knickers in a twist. Originally I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake had the correct listing on amazon.co.uk but somehow, between 1996 and 2021, it got surreally mistaken for this other academic book.
It has been listed like that for years, certainly since 2015. But, as I get nothing out of any sales, it doesn’t particularly bother me and I have a sneaking feeling that Malcolm Hardee would have somehow enjoyed the mix-up.
Over the six intervening years, I have more-or-less halfheartedly but officially notified Amazon.co.uk of the error I think four times – helpfully pointing out that the listing was correct on amazon.com, so they only had to copy their own listing from amazon.com.
Sadly, the blurb for Teaching Teenagers: A Toolbox for Engaging and Motivating Learners on amazon.co.uk does not describe it as “The humorous memoirs of a criminal-turned-comedy agent who recalls a life of crime and misdemeanours”.
A couple of nights ago, I was talking to multi-talented performer Matt Roper aka Wilfredo in New York.
Full disclosure: he was in New York; I was in London…
…and I mentioned all the above jolly shenanigans to him. I explained to him that the amazon.com listing for I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was correct.
But, yesterday, he contacted me to tell me he had just looked up the amazon.com listing and although it was, indeed, mostly correct… it did say that I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake had been published on January 1, 1600… He attached a screen shot of the page.
He told me: “Amazon.com seems to think the book was published in 1600, just as Giordano Bruno was being burned at the stake by the Inquisition and when the first Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. Perhaps that’s why it costs so much here.”
The price advertised at the time was $164.66.
I have just looked it up myself and the amazon.com page now says I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was published on 5 Aug 1996 and it now has a $49.98 price tag.
Full disclosure: My head is swirling a bit – I seem to be getting bouts of vertigo – and I am beginning to think that Malcolm Hardee faked his own death by drowning in 2005 and is playing anarchic games from beyond the non-grave.
I would not put it past him.
Incidentally, I have some pristine copies of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake available at a mere £675.99 plus postage… They are collectors’ items for marketing surrealists and increasingly prestigious.
The mattress, pillows and bedclothes of the man who apparently died last night were taken away in big plastic bags, replaced by new ones.
Another patient, whom I shall call The Welshman replaced the dead man. He is only here for one night – going to be released tomorrow.
I am in a 4-bed ward or rather bay. In fact, I think maybe the larger ward itself has four ‘bays’ each with 4 beds. But all I am aware of is my own section – my own ward.
I now share the 4-bed ward with the almost blind man opposite (George – not his real name) and the guy next to me (Basil – again, not his real name).
Basil was here when I first arrived. He spends most of his days silently with his chin slightly down and his eyelids hooded, so you can’t tell if he is awake or asleep. He is fairly deaf.
The nurses work in 12-hour shifts 0800-2000 and 2000-0800. At the changeover point, the old shift leader tells the new shift what they need to know about the patients in the ward.
I overheard the morning briefing today. The shift leader told them that Basil was almost in dementia (he mutters in his sleep overnight and plays out entire nighttime scenarios in conversation).
She told the new shift that George was a ‘Do not revive’ patient.
And she said I was ‘random diabetes’… I do not have diabetes and they know I don’t have diabetes but – because they have no idea what has caused my kidney/calcium problem – they randomly test me on occasion as if I do have diabetes to see if that might give them some result which might give them a clue.
The first blood sample of the day was taken – eventually – by a man who clearly didn’t quite know how to do it. Presumably one of the medical students brought in to beef up staff numbers during the coronavirus crisis.
Just before lunch, a doctor came in to tell the staff a visitor had walked into a nearby ward (not this one) with no protection on to visit her dad. No visitors are allowed anywhere except close family members in the end-of-life wards.
I asked British performer Matt Roper in New York: “I hope President Trump is paying you something – or do you count as a Mexican alien?”
He replied: “No Trump money. Living off money allocated to pay taxes next year. (We can see where this is going…)”
George – in the bed opposite me – is isolated by his near-blindness and fairly bad hearing. He told a West African nurse that he was the former General Secretary of a major British trade union, which he named. And, indeed, I checked on Wikipedia and he had been.
This, of course, meant nothing to the young West African nurse. He mentioned an honour he was given by the Queen and told her that “The press know who I am.”
I imagine the nurse just thought he was fantasising. There is a lot of it around.
Later, George asked another nurse if he could use her mobile phone (it is actually the ward’s mobile) to call his son. He had his own two mobile phones brought to thehospital by his son yesterday. But he doesn’t know how to use either of them.
This is not something you want to share a ward with (Photo by Peter Coxhead via Wikipedia)
There is a hornet in the ward. I thought this was a fly-like creature but, when one of the nurses thwacked it, it turned out to be like some giant creature from a Hollywood special effects movie.
George – former General Secretary of a major trade union but now a bit doolally – asked a young black nurse (who was saying this morning how she missed Africa) if she knew David Lammy.
She said No. Perfectly reasonably. He is a black UK Labour MP.
George said: “He came and spoke for me…”
So I presume this very caring young nurse also now thinks he is fantasising about how his possibly imaginary mate Dave came in to visit him yesterday… even though no visitors are allowed.
Later in the day, George – remember he is a bit deaf – started listening without headphones to an audio book he has about history after WW2. This was bad enough – there is a limit to how much I want to hear about the intricacies of Stalinist squabbles in the 1940s and 1950s Soviet Union – but also the reader of the audiobook kept mispronouncing ‘nuclear’ as ‘nucular’. For some reason, after a time, exploding a ‘nucular’ device seemed a fair option to me.
After the lecture on Stalinist ‘nucular’ policy abated, a kidney consultant came in to see me. He said they may release me tomorrow. Only ‘may’.
It depends on the kidney and calcium numbers.
They think the calcium level is affecting my kidneys and they have, really, I think, been trying to treat and monitor my calcium level not my kidney function. Who knew?
My kidney function is up from 27 yesterday to 28 today.
If the calcium is OK, then my kidneys should be nearer to OK, as I understand it.
But, as yet, they as yet have no idea why the calcium number is/was off.
Kidney Man said the kidney function numbers I have been asking about – eg 62 last October down to 19 last Wednesday – are always slightly unreliable. He went into a very complicated multi-faceted explanation of the two more trustworthy numbers they really follow, neither of which I can get my head round. Did I mention chemistry is a mystery to me?
Once my kidneys are at an OK (not necessarily perfect) level, they will continue testing stuff, but I will not need drip feeding or measuring urine or the poor nurses investigating and reporting on the texture and colour of my ‘stools’ etc etc so I can go home.
After they release me (whenever that might be) he will treat me as an outpatient from his clinic either here or in another hospital, probably by phone. I presume because of the continuing coronavirus outbreak. On the NHS. They will do a PetScan after I am released.
After he left, I started the first of three more 6-hour drips.
TUESDAY 26th May
In the early morning, around dawn:
Nurse – “Are you in pain?”
George – “Where?”
Nurse – “Anywhere.”
George – “No.”
The ward ran out of its recyclable cardboard urine bottles…
The ward has run out of cardboard (ie recyclable) urine bottles. I get through about four each night, with the drip putting litres of liquid into me.
The nurse thought the supply problem might be because yesterday was a Bank Holiday. Luckily I had hidden one big cardboard urine bottle under the bed for just such an eventuality… Another, far-sighted, nurse gave it to me a few days ago as a precaution.
At one point, George and Basil, in beds diagonally opposite each other, both somewhat deaf, were being examined by nurses and having conversations with them. Because both are a bit deaf, both nurses were having to shout a bit.
George (registered blind) thought the voice of Basil’s nurse was his nurse so he was answering to the wrong nurse and Basil thought that George was talking to him, so we entered a complex cross-conversation situation as if a Two Ronnies comedy sketch were scripted by Harold Pinter.
Afterwards, George returned to listening to his audiobook on Stalinism – back up at full whack again.
At 1600, a new 8-hour drip started. Before the new bag was attached, I went to the toilet. I have been mildly constipated for a couple of days – well, I have not, to use the technical term, ‘had a bowel movement’. I can urinate at any time using the cardboard urine bottles (if available). But, if I want to go at any other time, I have to get disconnected from the electricity socket in the wall to which the saline drip thing is attached..
At least, I thought I wanted to go and ‘have a bowel movement’. And I did manage, with all my internal strength, to push the most gigantic ‘stool’ out of myself. One that felt worthy of inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records.
But, when I looked down into the pan, nothing, nada, zilch, absolutely nowt.
It must have been just air.
So a nurse gave me tablets – two to be taken daily – sodium something. Everything seems to be sodium something.
Another roaming nurse offered me a free shave which I declined. You get the full Park Lane hotel treatment here, especially the truly wonderful food.
Astonishingly good: you get the full Park Lane treatment…
If it were not for the constant blood-letting – including getting a needle in my stomach (well the fatty bit) every evening, I could happily stay here… as indeed may turn out to be the case.
The Welshman was rather disappointed not to be released today.
WEDNESDAY 27th May
My blood sugar level is 5. I have no idea what that means.
My kidney function which was 62 in October last year and was 19 last Wednesday is now 32. But, of course, that is the inexact number which the doctors don’t really use.
I talked to the lady who does the wonderful meals here. They are sent in from an outside company and then, she said, she did something to their healthiness. She may have been joking; not sure. But she supplies food for 24 people daily – that’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The nurses, of course, do long-12 hour shifts.
I was thinking: If you allow 8 hours for sleep and 1 hour for travel from home to work to home (likely to be a big underestimate in London) that leaves only 3 hours of personal life each day they work.
After lunch – all within half an hour – Basil was taken off to be looked after at home. The Welshman was released, to be looked after at home. And George was taken to a local rehab centre/community hospital.
The ambulance men who took them out wore face masks and gloves. One of them told me that, when they deal with COVID patients, the only extra stuff they wear is an apron. He said, in April, this ward and the surrounding (non-COVID) wards were “choc a bloc with patients, like Piccadilly Circus”.
Almost immediately after the other three left, a new patient was brought in. He was like someone from 19th century Bedlam. He would suddenly shout out, half-try to get up out of his bed, look sideways, startled, then look up and examine the ceiling as if there was something important up there – much like the acid girl when I first came into the hospital. Or the mental hospital in Essex when I was 18. Except they drugged everyone into silence then.
This is what Mr Bedlam sounded like:
Who would be a nurse?
Soon afterwards, without much warning, I was discharged (to become an outpatient) because my calcium level was OK and my kidney function was no longer in the “danger” area.
Because no-one was coming to collect me and I was an “independent” patient (which I think means I didn’t need a carer once home) they were not allowed to give me any hospital transport home: I had to make my own way home. This was not the nurses’ decision; it was a bureaucratic Discharge thing. Rules.
This meant either getting a bus back home or getting a mini-cab.
“We would prefer it if you didn’t get a bus,” I was told.
When the Discharge person had left, I asked the nurse if she had the number for a minicab. She didn’t, but said Main Reception would and would arrange for a cab to come for me. She took me to the lifts. I was a bit light-headed. I had been basically lying on a bed for seven days with a saline drip in my arm for all seven days.
There was coincidentally a tired-looking doctor in the lift. She asked him to show me where Main Reception was. He said they would be able to phone for a cab.
He showed me where Main Reception was. They said they couldn’t phone a cab for me but, round the corner, there was a wall phone with a direct line to a cab company. I asked if they took credit cards (I only had a single £10 note in my pocket). She said she didn’t think so, but I could stop off at a cash machine on the way.
I gave up and walked out and up a slight hill to the main road and waited at a bus stop.
In the lower floor, the front area by the driver was taped-off so you couldn’t infect him. There were seven passengers, all sitting separately but no way near being 2 metres apart from each other (not possible).
I was a bit light-headed and got near home on the bus route, then walked back home safely and drank a lot of water… The doctors still don’t know what is causing the kidney problem…
I switched on the TV. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on TV, looking like shit, bags under his eyes. Like he was auditioning for the part of Mr Covid in a Christmas panto.
Throughout the night, I was on a liquid drip, linked into my left arm.
0930 – The first of the needles and blood tests begins.
First new consultant of the day. A white South African. Never usually a good omen. But she seems fine.
Now a drug bloke with questions about my lifestyle. Alas, I am very dull. No smoking. No drinking. No recreational drugs. No bestiality beyond the norm.
I am attached to a bag of gooey stuff with an electrical thingie in between it and me
Around midday, I have to drink unexpected vegetable soup and have a new drip tube inserted into my left arm linked to a bag of gooey solution. I have to keep my left arm as straight as possible otherwise it cuts off the electrical thingie between the bag and my arm. Not good if I want to eat or hold an iPad with my left hand and type with my right hand.
It will be there for the next 8 hours, so presumably they won’t be sending me home today. Hopefully tomorrow.
This billed day of multi-tests has turned into some brief blood-taking at the start… then the first four hours (1200-1600) of new planned 8-hour drip treatment.
A new bag is attached at 1700 and the next bit is now going to be three 2-hour bag drips – presumably ending at 2300. So one suspects definitely not getting out tonight!
I am reattached to this new drip bag for my latest 6-hour stint at 1700 but then taken along corridors at breakneck speed in a broken wheelchair (although I can walk fine) for a scan.
There had been some bureaucratic SNAFU – the scan people hadn’t known which ward I was in.
The wheelchair pusher was very much a jobsworth. He told two other wheelchair pushers we passed by that they were leaving their wheelchairs in the wrong places and told a cleaner bloke outside the scanning room that a couple of other staff had been saying he (the scanner bloke) had been being lazy but he (my bloke) had said the other guy was a good worker not lazy. Psychological workplace politics at play.
I had the scan lying on my back. They scanned from top of my chest to my pelvis, to include lungs, liver kidneys, etc etc.
It was then back to my ward where my evening meal was waiting at around 1810 but I was only reattached to my drip around 1830, presumably to avoid me switching off the drip by bending my left arm when eating. Who knows when this attachment to bags will finish?
“So bad at chemistry, my teacher emigrated”
FRIDAY 22nd May
They have just (1041) changed the drip feed bag again.
I have already had another blood test. The nurse (Hispanic) says this new bag is for eight hours. I guess that means another night in.
A nurse tells me the liquid in the bag is 98% or 99% water and the rest sodium chloride. It is only later I realise ‘sodium chloride’ is actually salt. Like I knew?
At school, I was so bad at chemistry, my teacher emigrated to New Zealand. I am convinced my inability to do the subject was at least a contributory factor.
Yesterday, a young Thai nurse told me this is an awkward ward to work on because the patients tend to be old men, some either doolally (my word) or very awkward.
My night nurse was a black (I guess from the accent) African lady.
This morning, round about dawn, further down the corridor, my African nurse was having an argument with an old patient. Raised voices, I’m guessing because his hearing was not good:
HE – “Don’t touch me! Do NOT touch me!”
SHE – “You have wet yourself. I have to change you. Your bottom is full of poo.”
HE – “Get out! You are fired!”
SHE – “Who is Darkie? Who is this Darkie?”
She eventually got him to let her look after him by a combination of shouting back and not letting him tell her what to do – to leave the room etc – and by getting some laughter into their exchanges as if they were chums having a play fight.
Then she immediately had to come back into my ward where she was quietly tender, gentle and caring to a patient. She should write a book on psychology: How To Control Uncontrollable People Who Have Uncontrollable Mouths.
One clever thing they seem to have done in the hospital – this is only my guess from observation – is to split the teams on ethnic or linguistic grounds. I have so far not seen any white nurse. All 100% are non-white, multi-ethnic, multi-national.
My night team are black Africans and share a language – I’m guessing Swahili but the main nurse is probably West African.
During the day I have Spanish-speaking teams. (Not necessarily from Spain itself.)
Occasionally there are a few Asians – Thai, Chinese-origined, Filipino etc.
What this means is, as they are almost all working in a second language, they can communicate nuances to each other in their own shared first language and there can be clearer communication.
In strict PC terms, there should not be teaming by ethnicity or nationality but, in this case, I think linguistics and a shared social background wins over.
The doctor tells me they still have no idea what is wrong with me. So they are just testing everything in sight. I will be in here at least one or two nights, I am told.
If they can find a cause for my calcium and kidney problems, then they can maybe send me home. If not, more needles ahead.
During the current coronavirus lockdown, the hospital allows no visitors unless you are dead or giving birth and then only (I think) one person. There are special rules for the end-of-life wards, but I’m not exactly sure what they are and it would seem presumptuous to ask a nurse.
I get a text message from British performer Matt Roper in the US… “God forbid I ever have to stay in a hospital in America. I pay $355 for health insurance every month and I’m still billed for co-pay regardless. I have to pay $30 for a visit to a GP, $50 for a specialist, $35 for urgent care and $200 for a trip to A&E. They are running a racket. God bless the NHS.”
My friend in Central London, whose friend is still in the Intensive Care Unit of an NHS hospital with COVID tells me: “A COVID-19 ICU bed costs the NHS £1,500-£2,000 per day. He has been in there 45 days”… at no cost to him, of course.
Ariane Sherine, currently training to be a celebrant at Humanist funerals (true), has offered to give me a free funeral. It is a bargain, though there are personal pros and cons to my having a funeral right now.
Personally, I think a funeral for me is pointless and have told my executrix Lynn I don’t particularly want one – Just bung me in the ground.
But I don’t really care: the real me won’t be there.
Unlikely to happen in the near future, but a pig may fall on my head at any time.
Worldwide, that is not as uncommon as it might seem.
(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)
“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”
We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.
“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”
“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”
Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)
“Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”
“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”
“Yes,” said Matt.
“OK,” I said.
“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”
“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”
“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”
“Someone?” I asked.
Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)
“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!”
“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”
“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”
“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”
“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”
“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”
“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”
“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”
(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)
“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”
“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.
“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”
“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”
“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”
“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”
“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”
“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”
“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”
Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.
“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”
“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.
“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”
“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”
“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”
“And you were…”
Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State
“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”
“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”
“So you are surviving,” I said.
Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”
Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage
“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”
“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”
“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”
“Nothing surprises me,” I said.
Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.
“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.
“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”
Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning
This morning, I was supposed to Skype English performer Matt Roper in New York at 0630 UK time (0130 New York time) to talk about the first off-Broadway preview night of I’ll Say She Is, the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers show in which he plays Chico.
Matt was not online at 0630.
At 0641 UK, I got an e-mail – “John! Problems this end! We’re at the theatre. Disaster tonight! – The ‘butler’ in the show fell and we had to dial an ambulance! I’ll be home in an hour (3am)!”
We eventually talked at 08.30 UK / 03.30 New York time.
“You look bleary-eyed,” I said.
“It’s the middle of a heat wave,” Matt told me. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) today. It’s nearly four in the morning now and it’s 76 degrees (24C) outside!”
“What happened to the butler?” I asked.
“You’ve seen the Marx Bros films,” said Matt. “The dowager character played by Margaret Dumont has a sort of butler/footman. He broke his leg.”
“Oh, wonderful!” I said with genuine enthusiasm, thinking of the publicity potential.
“Well,” I admitted. “That old theatrical good-luck wish – Break a leg! – he really did take it too literally – and on the first preview night!”
(Top to bottom; L-R – Photo by Mark X Hopkins) Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo
“I think,” said Matt, “it was when he was going off stage, coming down a step. Something like that. He slipped. It’s a big loss, because a lot of his sequences are with Harpo, because Harpo is the one who is stealing all the family silverware. We have a good understudy, but we’re going to miss this guy because his comic timing is brilliant.”
“How long will it take to mend?” I asked.
“I don’t know. The ambulance came and he was whisked away. He might be able to perform on opening night at the Connelly Theater on Thursday on crutches: we might be able to work that into the show.”
“So what,” I asked, “other than people breaking their legs, has been the most difficult thing for you?”
“Learning to play the piano for the last eight weeks. Chico had such a particular style of playing.”
“All the funny hand movements,” I agreed. “Could you play the piano ‘normally’ before?”
“A little bit. Obviously, for my Wilfredo act, I sing and write music but, when the Chico’s hands start going, that’s something completely different. If you hit the wrong key on a piano, it’s invasive, right? But it went fine tonight.”
Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary
“If you can play the piano to begin with,” I said, “it must be really difficult to play oddly. It must have been really difficult for Les Dawson to play off-key because he could actually play properly.”
“Yes,” agreed Matt (whose father George Roper was one of Granada TV’s legendary 1970s Northern Comedians) “because Les was a very accomplished pianist. I mean, before he became famous, he was making money as a pianist. He spent months in a brothel in Paris playing piano.”
“He did?” I asked.
“Yeah. I mean, Les Dawson had this great ambition to become a poet and a novelist but, back in the 1940s and 1950s, because of his working class background, he felt he couldn’t, so he ended up making a living playing piano in all sorts of places.”
“Anyway,” I said, “back to the Marx Bros.”
Premiering on Thursday off-Broadway
“Well I’ll Say She Is,” said Matt, “pre-dates musical theatre as we know it. It pre-dates Show Boat. It’s a revue, really. This is the show that really made the Marx Bros. It got them off the vaudeville circuit. They had been ready to give up. They had had enough by 1923/1924. They had been going for about 15 years and had made a lot of enemies on the vaudeville circuit.”
“So it’s more of a revue than a story?” I asked.
“It has a very loose plot, which may be why it was never made into a film. It’s a series of sketches, really, with a lot of music and the chorus girls and so on. But it does have a plot. The niece of the Margaret Dumont character is a high society girl on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and there is a sequence in the show called Cinderella Backwards. She longs to be poor and in the gutter and experiencing the gritty side of life.”
“How did you,” I asked, “an Englishman, get the part of a New York Jew playing an Italian-American?”
“I was doing a gig at a supper club called Pangea, on the bill with Sabrina Chap, a singer-songwriter, and we just got chatting and she said: I’m musical directing this Marx Bros musical. We have still to cast Zeppo and Chico. So I sent an e-mail to the producers and they said: It’s funny you should write, because we have heard about you through other people. Why don’t you come in and read for us? That’s how. Just circumstance.”
“Chico,” I suggested, “is possibly not as interesting as Groucho and Harpo?”
Chico Marx – interestingly naughty man
“No,” Matt disagreed, “he is very interesting. The story goes that, as a young boy, in this great immigrant city of New York, he used to defend himself from gangs by adopting accents. There were anti-Semitic attacks and so on. If he ran into an Irish gang in the Lower East Side, he would pretend to be Irish. If he ran into a gang of Italians, he would pretend to be Italian. And that was how his Italian persona developed from a young age.
“And he was a compulsive gambler. He lost ALL of his money in crap games and poker. The Marx Bros movie A Night in Casablanca was made specifically so that Chico had some money to live off.
“Somebody once asked him How much money do you think you’ve lost gambling? and his reply was Ask Harpo how much money he has made and that’s how much I’ve lost. If he saw a drop of rain on a pane of glass, he would bet on which direction the drop would run down. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”
“He was called Chico,” I said, “because he was a womaniser?”
“Yes. His wife actually spied on him and caught him with a chorus girl and his response was: I wasn’t kissing her, I was only whispering in her mouth.”
“Yeah,” he told me. “A couple of times a week; I host on a weekend. It’s a variety theatre – a burlesque joint as well. Often I don’t get offstage until 2.00am and then, to get up to 137th Street in Harlem where I’m living, it’s bit of a schlep at night: I have to catch two subway trains.
“I had been up since 7.00am the previous day and it was now 3.30am. I knew my train terminated at 96th Street and the carriage was more-or-less empty, so I thought I would just swing my legs across the seats, put my head against the window and get a little bit of shut-eye. so that’s what I did. When I woke up, two police officers were looking over me, saying: Get off the train please, sir!
“So I got off the train onto the platform. ID, they said. So I gave them my passport. Do you know it’s a crime what you’re doing? It’s outstretching. It’s a crime.
“I said: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.
Matt did not know it was a crime amid the pools of whatever
“That was the annoying thing: I didn’t know. There are no signs saying it’s a crime. Feet on the seats we know is not cool, but these were just plastic seats, the carriage was empty and it was filthy because it was 3.30am in the morning – There were beer cans and pools of whatever. What was it Kenneth Williams said? I’m sick and tired of offending everybody. My crimes are nothing compared to Mussolini.”
“I would have thought,” I said, “you would get off for being a foreigner and, by definition, ignorant.”
“They either wanted to make a bit of an example of me,” said Matt, “or there was some sort of incentive: I really don’t know. But they said: You’re going to have to come back to the station with us while we take your details and, as they said it, one of the officers was putting my hands behind my back and putting handcuffs on me. I just couldn’t believe it. I asked: Are you serious? – I was told: Yes, sir. They were quite sweet; they were charming. They took me back to the police station. I was fingerprinted and they photographed me, then put me in a cell for three or four hours. They locked me up and then released me. It was an interesting experience because I had never been arrested before – I’ve been all the way around the world without being arrested – so part of me was quite enjoying the experience but then, after the first hour passes and you’re still in a cell, locked up, the novelty wears off.”
“And, unusually,” I said, “you were not in a cell with prostitutes and gangsters?”
“No. which says a lot about Harlem these days. It was an empty cell and, if my crime was as bad as it gets at 4.00am in West Harlem, then I think its reputation is a little unjust.”
“Why,” I asked, “did they lock you up for three or four hours? What were they waiting for?”
Wilfredo did not know outstretching was illegal (Photograph by Garry Platt)
“I really don’t know,” said Matt. “When I researched it later that day… I spoke to you that day, I came back, had a sleep and then got up and Googled this ‘outstretching’ charge and it seems some people are just given a fine; one African guy was deported.”
“He was?” I asked. “Just for putting his feet on the seats in the subway?”
“I don’t know if he was an illegal or not,” said Matt.
“So,” I said, “there are police photos of you?”
“Well,” said Matt. “I wanted to get a copy of my photograph. They say it doesn’t exist, but I saw the form with my photograph on it. I said to them: Can I get a copy of this? Because I’d quite like it framed, really. They said: You can get it when you go to court.
“But, when I got to court, they said: No, no, we don’t have copies of that; you have to go up to the sixth floor. So I went up to the sixth floor and they said: No, no. Because we decided not to prosecute you, it doesn’t exist. But I don’t quite believe that.”
“Why did they say they were not going to prosecute you?” I asked.
“I think because they were having a busy day.”
“What was the court like?”
“I was one of the few white people in there.”
“It was a proper high court. You go in through these huge doors and there’s the flag, there’s the eagle, there’s In God We Trust. all sorts of people making notes beside the judge. All these people on pews and all of them were on desk appearance tickets like me. They’d been speeding or busted with marijuana. They were mainly kids – mainly Latin-Americans and African-Americans. I was one of the few white people in there. I guess it shows the police go for a certain type of person.”
I said to Matt: “You playing comedy in a burlesque club is a bit like… Well, I think your father (comedian George Roper) was too young to do it, but like British comedians playing at The Windmill in London.”
“I think it’s exactly like that,” said Matt. “You know my dad was up in court with six striptease performers… You blogged about it…”
“Did I?” I asked.
“My dad was tried for obscenity in the 1960s…”
“Did I actually blog about this?” I asked.
“I really must read my own blogs,” I said.
“It would have been in December 2012,” said Matt. “In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, women were allowed to be nude on stage in England but, if they moved, it was considered obscene.”
“Were the girls dressed and your father was naked?”
Wilfredo in his now stolen costume
“Anyway,” I said, trying to change the subject away from this blog I had forgotten. “Your act got stolen in New York.”
“Yes, about three weeks after the arrest,” said Matt, “I was in a bar having a wonderful time, I put my bag down by my feet and it got stolen. I’m rather amused by the thought of whoever took it – hoping for a laptop or an iPhone – unzipping it and finding Wilfredo’s costume inside… The trousers were just… and the wig and the teeth and the shoes. They must be the most disappointed thieves. Though it was a pain in the arse because I had a gig a couple of nights later and Wilfredo is quite difficult to replace.”
“But you had a spare set of teeth?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s all back to normal, though the hair is a little bit longer.”
“Did you go to a wig shop in New York?”
“Yeah. One of the burlesque dancers said she would cut the wig for me. And now he has been cast in a feature film which we’ll be shooting this winter.”
“But his second film is an out-and-out comedy: The Mel and Fanny Movie – James and his wife are Mel and Fanny Frye – he plays this character from the Borscht Belt. Wilfredo has been cast as Mel and Fanny’s personal chauffeur.”
“That’s something to look forward to,” I said. “Wilfredo’s teeth in the movies.”
Matt Roper as Wilfredo in Edinburgh last week (Photograph by Garry Platt)
As I am still a zombie from the after-effects of the Edinburgh Fringe and not yet fully able to string thoughts together, here is a blog (to quote Slaughterhouse-Five yet again) “somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from”.
Matt Roper is almost unrecognisable as Wilfredo, the greasy singer he performed as at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show in Edinburgh last week.
But yesterday, Matt was paying for fuel at the counter of the Texaco garage in Totnes, in the South West of England, when the girl behind the counter asked him: “Are you Wilfredo?”.
He replied: “Not at the moment, no”.
Matt says: “As I was punching my PIN number into the card machine, she was showering me with praise… I love what you do… I keep up with what you’re up to… It’s so good to see you doing so well! And, at that very moment, with a queue of customers waiting behind me, my card payment was declined.”
Meanwhile, this morning, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith, who lives on a boat in Vancouver, sent me an e-mail:
Anna Smith has been thinking about dinosaur eating habits
We had a major wind storm here that knocked down trees and left 700,000 people without electricity for up to four days (including me).
Apparently information websites crashed with people wanting to know when the electricity would return.
My phone is near dead. I dropped it in the bilge… Well it slid off my bed as I slept through the windstorm of ninety kilometer per hour gusts that was knocking trees onto houses and cars. But it is now in a bag of red rice from Texas, so maybe that will revive it.
A young server at the McDonald’s Drive Through restaurant suggested I put the phone into a bag of dry rice. It is supposed to work the way rice dries out salt in a salt cellar.
This, in itself, seemed a little surreal to me, but then she added:
Did Tyrannosaurus Rexes hallucinate on prehistoric acid trips?
Did you hear about the scientist who found ergot in amber? I was listening to a CBC radio program about it. They were speculating that dinosaurs were having acid trips…
I thought I had better check up on this and, indeed, the Daily Mail wrote a piece about it in February, headlined:
DID DINOSAURS GET HIGH?
FUNGUS CONTAINING LSD COMPOUND IS FOUND
ON A 100-MILLION-YEAR-OLD FOSSILISED BLADE OF GRASS
with the sub-headings:
– Ergot produces compounds that can induce delirium and hallucinations
– Scientists in the 20th century used these compounds to synthesise LSD
– Researchers say herbivorous dinosaurs are likely to have eaten the fungus
John Fleming bearded with plastic bag (Photograph by Nick Awde)
Yesterday’s penultimate live Grouchy Club involved a discussion not about comedy but about the difficulties of scripting and shooting pornographic movies – one of the comedians present had enquired about entering the profession.
Mr Twonkey at the point of his egg triumph (Photograph by Blanche Cameron)
The Scottish National Russian Egg Roulette Championships appropriately included performer George Egg and ‘Mr Spunky’ – an anonymous member of Mensa, which allowed one member of the audience to yell out: “He’s an egg head.” Fortunately the puns ended there and the worthy, if somewhat surprised, new Scottish National Russian Egg Roulette Champion is Mr Twonkey.
Comedy critic and Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Kate Copstick presented most of last night’s show, as co-host Janey Godley had to go off and be Spanked. (It’s a show… It’s a show.)
Miss Behave, who turned up halfway through from another show had been going to co-host on her arrival, but somehow it turned into an act where she unexpectedly swallowed a giant pair of scissors and two flaming torches. As the torches produced a fair amount of upwards-drifting smoke, I was rather relieved no smoke alarm went off in the room, because I knew what was going to happen at the end of the show.
Chris Lynam with his banger last night (Photograph by Garry Platt)
This was Chris Lynam, former member of The Greatest Show on Legs, who performed his famous or possibly infamous banger-up-the-bum routine. This involves him putting a firework between his buttocks and having it lit (on this occasion by Malcolm Hardee’s sister Clare) to the strains of Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business Like Show Business.
As this is not an act which is easy to follow, it ended the show and, sure enough, just as it ended, the room’s smoke alarm did go off. It seemed a fitting end.
There is a video on YouTube of Copstick plugging the Mama Biashara emporium in 2010. Things have only changed for the better.
While Matt Roper was at Mama Biashara last night, I was off elsewhere. It was my birthday.
During the evening, Kate Copstick posted this on her Facebook page:
We’ve got wonderful character comic Matt Roper visiting the emporium to see a show tonight. For those who don’t know him, he’s the man behind the vile but utterly loveable powerhouse creation of Wilfredo, of whom I had the good fortune to witness last year at the Fringe. Due to an error at The Scotsman, my review of his show only gave three stars when in fact it ought to have been a full five. He’s up at the Fringe once again this year in Routines, a new immersive comedy experience which I predict will smash the Festival this year (3.45pm at the Three Sisters). Those who haven’t seen Matt at work are highly recommended to do so. A huge comic talent.
Facebook posting that set it all off, sent from Mama Biashara
I re-posted it on my Facebook accounts and thought no more about it until I got a Facebook message a little later from Matt. It said simply:
Just fraped Copstick.
I had to look this up. The online Wiktionary’s first definition of ‘frape’ was:
A crowd, a rabble.
This seemed unlikely.
The Wiktionary’s second definition was:
(Internet slang) To hijack, and meddle with, someone’s Facebook account while it is unattended.
Uh-oh, I thought.
And, sure enough, Matt had written the glowing review of himself (with the fake Scotsman stars) on Copstick’s computer while she had been off dealing with the Fringe preview in the Mama Biashara performance space.
I was not the only one who was taken in; there was widespread re-posting and Tweeting.
This morning, the real Copstick posted on her Facebook page:
So here’s a thing: Matt Roper popped by the Mama Biashara Emporium last night to pick up his typewriter. I leave him alone with my desktop for FIVE MINUTES and I wake up this morning to find FB wet with excitement over something I had apparently posted on the subject of how fabulous and talented he is and how the Scotsman stars were a misprint and should have been five. Yes I think he is pretty good and yes, to be fair, he did give me two slices of his pizza… but even John Bloody Fleming reposted the thing! Are my posts usually so fulsome in their praise? Well, I will be going along to see Routines (see place and times on ‘my’ previous posting) and it had better be FUCKING BRILLIANT, Roper!
A few hours later, Copstick posted:
They are still sharing Matt Roper’s fucking fake fucking fabulous fucking posting on my page about him and fucking WilfuckingFredo and RouFuckingTines. WTF.
Matt just did this publicity stunt on a whim; there was no advance planning. But it is a thing of beauty. A contender (I would think) for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.
It did not just publicise Matt and his show but did so by making people not only fall for a con (as I did) but setting it up so that other people did the real work – all the people who were taken in and re-posted and re-Tweeted the initial frape.
It also, in this year – the tenth anniversary of Malcolm Hardee’s death – managed to doff a hat to one of Malcolm’s own legendary Edinburgh stunts. The one in which he and Arthur Smith wrote a glowing review of Malcolm’s Fringe show and submitted it to The Scotsman under the name of William Cook, the newspaper’s own highly-esteemed comedy reviewer – and it was, indeed published.
Matt’s stunt was almost better than this, in that he did not even have to write a fake review of his own show – he merely referred to an existing review and twisted perception of reality.
A desperate pose with Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award
Only a few days ago, I had been lamenting to myself that no cunning stunts had, as yet, appeared publicising a Fringe show or performer this year.
Ellis & Rose (as I mentioned in an April blog) had pretended they had appeared at Soho Theatre by hanging their own carefully-designed photo on the wall of the theatre’s bar. But they have no show in Edinburgh this year.
And, a few days ago, there was a brilliant publicity stunt by magicians Young & Strange who, while a Sky TV reporter talked to camera about government NHS reforms, staged a variation of the sawing-a-man-in-half trick behind him, on the green in front of Parliament.
This stunt got even better when it transpired that the whole thing was fake – it was not a real Sky reporter, nor a real Sky transmission, just a beautifully-crafted fake and one of a series of Young & Strange self publicity stunts aimed at getting broadcasters’ attention.
I would think this wonderful stunt would have been a sure cert for a Cunning Stunt nomination – if it were not for the fact Young and Strange are not plugging any Edinburgh Fringe show.
At least Matt Roper has now set a high benchmark to which others can aspire.
Comedian Matt Roper is staying in my spare bedroom until the Edinburgh Fringe starts in August. In the middle of last night, he posted this on his Facebook page:
Well, friends. Here I lay on the bed of bewilderment in what is known as a cockroach hotel. I’ve known far too many of them in my time. The owners of such places tend to decorate bedrooms like mine with the strangest objects of paraphernalia. For example: who the hell is this grinning at me from the wall opposite my bed? I’ll be fucked if I know.
This photo accompanies his Facebook post.
The face on the wall in Matt Roper’s bedroom
I should point out that Matt is in Istanbul for a week. But I will re-decorate my spare room so he feels more at home when he gets back. I have a much-admired framed portrait of Nicholas Parsons above my own bed.
Meanwhile, I have a backlog of blog chats to post and things keep happening to prevent me transcribing them.
Yesterday included being dragged willingly to the National Theatre by my friend Lynn, seeing Kate Cook’s excellent Invisible Woman show preview at RADA and (for a second time) seeing Sara Mason’s both funny and deeply traumatic show Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11) as part of the ongoing Edinburgh Fringe previews at the back of Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush. This was followed by Copstick telling horrendous after-show tales of a Somalian vagina crawling with maggots in Kenya. She has shown me the video too. I am lucky I do not remember my dreams.
Performer Louise Reay was in the audience and told me her Chinese language It’s Only Words Fringe show (which I blogged about appropriately on 1st May) has now been sponsored by the Chinese government in the form of The Confucius Institute – China’s version of the British Council.
Cleaning a great wall may have helped Louise Reay in China
“How did you get them to sponsor you?” I asked.
“I asked them and they said Yes,” Louise replied. “It’s a real lesson in just posing the question.”
“What did you tell them the show was about?”
“I didn’t. I just said: My show’s all in Chinese, but for an audience that doesn’t speak any Chinese as all. I think they thought it would attract new people to the Chinese language.”
“So they have no idea what your show is about and they’re covering your costs?” I asked.
“And then some,” said Louise. “I’ve taken four months off work.”
My day had started with sophisticated comic David Mills sending me an e-mail:
I’ve just confirmed UK-boxing promoter Kellie Maloney (formerly Frank Maloney) as a guest on my chat show / podcast The In Crowd with David Mills at the new Camden Comedy Room on 8th July. Can I entice you to come along?
David knows me well enough to know that I am not going to turn down the chance to see a chat show involving a transsexual boxing promoter. I asked him more about the show.
David Mills – will be strutting his stuff, talking boxing
“As you know,” he told me, “I’ve been itching to take the reins of my own chat show for ages and I’ve trialled The In Crowd with David Mills out and about a few times. The new Camden Comedy Room has really got behind the show and will be recording it as a podcast as well. We’re sort of seeing how this goes before hopefully launching something more regular after the Edinburgh Fringe. I approached Kellie on Twitter and she agreed immediately.”
This seems to confirm what Louise Reay says. “It’s a real lesson in just posing the question.”