Tag Archives: Monty Python

Sketchy comedian Will Franken admits: “I am unable to create in moderation”

Will Franken

Will – raising the dead – using sketch comedy

It is that time of year when comedians are preparing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe in August and are looking for free venues in which to perform previews. One such is the performance area at the back of comedy critic Kate Copstick’s charity shop Mama Biashara in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Next Friday and Saturday evening, Italian comics Romina Puma and Giacinto Palmieri are previewing early versions of their Edinburgh shows. And the following weekend – on the afternoon of Sunday 8th May, American comic Will Franken is hosting his third 4-hour comedy workshop at Mama Biashara. This one is titled:

RAISING THE DEAD: USING SKETCH COMEDY TO BREATHE LIFE INTO STAND-UP

“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.

“Anybody who wants to do something different,” he told me. “And anybody who wants to get to the essence of a sketch quicker. I think people are prone to take a course from me because they’re tired of doing the same things. I think the problem is there is so much regularity in comedy.

“I think a lot of sketches go on far too long. They don’t know a clever way out. They don’t know the Monty Python approach of Don’t beat them over the head with a sledgehammer punchline, just find a nice segue into something else. Brevity!”

“You’re very keen on characters,” I said.

“Love characters,” he replied.

“Hiding behind them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so. A couple of years ago, Fest magazine wrote about me: He’s a rare breed of character comedian. He has no love for his characters.

“The trouble is it’s hard for me to love a character long enough to let them live past five minutes. Usually I kill them off after 2 or 3 minutes and I’m onto the next character. It’s a very Monty Python type approach.”

“You’re not interested in sitcoms?” I asked.

“I’m more geared to sketch than sitcom. I think with sitcom you have to have a great love for your characters. I’ve always envied people like David Renwick who created One Foot in The Grave. The love he must have had for Victor Meldrew to be able to carry that through so many series! And Father Ted. They’re great examples of sitcoms. I never liked Monty Python when they had recurring characters.”

Comedy performer and writer Ariane Sherine was sitting with us. She has written for the sitcoms My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as well as various children’s shows including The Story of Tracy Beaker. I asked her what she thought.

“I quite like to inhabit a character in a sitcom,” she said, “and see how they develop and change. You can’t really do that with sketch. Though in, say, The Fast Show, they re-visit the same characters. It’s effectively the same sketch each week. It depends what you like – whether you like to feel that you are growing and developing this character and seeing them change or more likely seeing them not learn from their mistakes. Or you like the diversity of being able to have any type of situation in any location and it doesn’t matter about continuity.”

I said: “I never really liked Vic Reeves Big Night Out because they just seemed to be doing the same sketch over and over again.”

“I much prefer,” said Will, “their actual sketch shows like The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.”

“So you wouldn’t have a recurring or developing character?” I asked.

Alan Bennett in 1973 (Photograph by Allan Warren)

Playwright Alan Bennett photographed in 1973 by Allan Warren

“I do have a character now,” admitted Will, “that I can see possibly going on for a long time. He’s in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year. He’s a Yorkshireman and I’ve been slowly perfecting the accent, listening to Alan Bennett nightly. I’ve just got into Alan Bennett’s stuff. He’s amazing.”

“And your character?” I asked.

“He’s working on a children’s story called Little Jo about a half-pig, half-rabbit who lives in water and, in order to stay alive, he’s gotta spin round and round, spitting out water from both mouths for all eternity.

“That’s the beginning of this year’s show. And then there’s this whole story about how his relatives don’t die and so he murders all of his descendants so they don’t have to live the life that his Nan’s Nan had, who grew up to be 500 years old… Cos that’s no life for a child: to be 500 years old. So I slaughtered all of them and that’s why no-one brings me cake on me birthday… and somewhere sandwiched in the middle of all that is going to be my regular sketch weirdness.”

“Have you done sketch group comedy?” I asked.

“I did once and they said too many of my bits were racist! It was in North Carolina and I had a bit where Whitney Houston has a mental breakdown during a recording of The Greatest Love of All. She’s singing nonsense lyrics: I believe Jeremiah Crenshaw destroyed the world in 1962…

“…and the studio engineer interrupts her to say the lyrics don’t make sense and she says: What the fuck you know, muthafucka? In North Carolina, they said it was too racist, so I could never get my ideas past the group.

“Before that, when I was 16, I had two friends in Missouri and we wrote a little sketch revue for about 20 friends at the coffee shop. But they didn’t want to do it for a living and I did. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have a group. I think it would be nice, but I think I’ve passed that stage now where I could fit into any group.

“It’s like if you’ve been single for a long time, it’s hard to have a wife because you gotta adjust and compromise and I don’t think I’m able to do that.

“You could,” I suggested, “try a sex commune?”

“Possibly. But then I’d get jealous. I have such low self-esteem it’d be like: Whaat? I think free love is very selfish. I’m only into monogamy, unless I don’t like the girl, when I’m into one-night stands. I vacillate between misogyny and monogamy.”

I asked: “You think free love is very selfish?”

“Yeah. I dated a Hare Krishna girl one time and she was seeing somebody else. The guy was away in a hospital, selling his body for medication and medical experiments. I didn’t know this for a whole month… and then he came back. So I associate free love with hippie girls in long broomstick skirts and deceit.”

“You do a podcast, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I had a very highly successful… I hate to use the word Podcast… I call them Albums. At one point, I had 50,000 listeners. I used to do them pretty regularly and then I started drinking and doing drugs and now I’ve been sober for two years and it’s scarier to put the headphones on and start recording again without the drugs.”

“When did you start doing them?”

“2006. They’re like my live shows: there can be five of me going at once.”

Will Franken

Will Franken randomly approaches podcasts like a symphony

“What’s the podcast called?”

Things We Did Before Reality.”

“So,” I said, “you have been doing this for the last ten years and I have not noticed? How many episodes have I missed?”

“About 25. They’re very insane. I don’t smoke pot any more, but you can put your headphones on, smoke a joint and go off into cuckoo land with it.”

“Is it weekly?”

“God no. When I first started, they were almost every two weeks.”

“And now they’re what? Monthly? Regularly?”

“I approach them like a symphony,” said Will. “The thing is I’m such a perfectionist.”

“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.

“I think it’s perfectionism.”

“So they are released randomly?” I asked.

“Very randomly, yeah.”

“And you’ve just done one?”

“Yeah. This one’s not been published yet but this is my first one in about a year and a half. Maybe within the week it will be published. Before that, I hadn’t done one in more than four years. They’re mostly about 30 minutes long. There’s one called Side Two of Abbey Road where I use all the songs on Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album to tell my life story.

“It’s like a one-man sketch thing. You sit with the headphones on all day and you hear playbacks of yourself doing a Yorkshire accent, a Scottish accent, talking to yourself on a train and you really lose your mind by the end of the day. I just woke up this morning chain-smoking and resenting having to go get food. I don’t want a shower, I don’t want to leave the house. The phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I am unable to create in moderation.”


WILL’S SKETCH COMEDY WORKSHOP IS ORGANISED BY ARLENE GREENHOUSE PROMOTIONS – greenhouse effect@btinternet.com

 

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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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The link between Brecht, Milligan, Python, The Bonzos and Stephen Fry

Michael Livesley

Michael Livesley: another link

My previous blog was about how Michael Livesley – a fan of Vivian Stanshall and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band first staged his version of Vivian Stanshall’s radio/LP record/film of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.


“The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started in 1962,” I said, “and ended in 1970. Sir Henry was created by Vivian Stanshall after that.”

“Yes,” said Michael. “After the Bonzos finished, Viv was at a loose end and so he sat in for John Peel (the BBC Radio DJ) in 1971 when he had a month off. Viv did four shows called Radio Flashes which featured comedy sketches with him and Keith Moon (of The Who rock group) as Colonel Knutt and Lemmy.”

“Those two must have taken some controlling.” I suggested.

Keith Moon (left) and Vivian Stanshall

Keith Moon (left) and Vivian Stanshall were far from uniform

“There is a story,” said Michael, of a bierkeller here in Soho and Viv Stanshall and Keith Moon walk in – Viv is dressed as an SS officer and Moonie’s dressed as Hitler. There’s photos of him and Moon with the map of Europe open and the riding crop.

“Anyway, after Radio Flashes, Viv got asked in to the BBC to do more John Peel sessions and what Viv chose to do was a thing called Rawlinson End which was essentially a long, rambling monologue about this crumbling stately home with the heroically drunk Sir Henry and all the people who inhabited the environs. And, as a result, the mailbag was full of: What is this? Where can I get it? 

“So John Peel’s producer John Walters used to go round to Viv’s house and literally drag him out and take him to Broadcasting House to record this thing and I suppose, by 1978, the momentum was so large they turned it into an LP.

“In Sir Henry, there are so many lines lifted from so many things, but Viv has placed them forensically in there, like with tweezers – like Joe Orton defacing a library book – and you don’t notice them because they’re seamless.

“There’s a line – I stumbled with all the assurance of a sleepwalker. Viv nicked that line from Mein Kampf.”

Michael Livesley as Sir Henry

Michael Livesley performing as Sir Henry

“That sounds unusually poetic of Hitler,” I said.

“Yes,” said Michael. “Viv puts the line – I stumbled with all the assurance of a sleepwalker – into the mouth of Hubert, his brother, crossing to the wind-up gramophone to put on some old popadoms which Sir Henry brought back from India.”

“I like the fact,” I told Michael, “that you mentioned Joe Orton and the library books.”

“Oh yes,” said Michael. “It’s like a pointless little act of rebellion that nobody may ever notice.”

“There is something oddly Joe Ortonish about it all,” I said.

“Yes,” said Michael, “They completely chew away at the foundations of all of our culture in this country and spit it out. We are talking about this, aren’t we, because you blogged about The Alberts.”

“Indeed,” I said. “How did you hear about the Alberts?”

An Evening of British Rubbish toured Britain

Influential Evening of British Rubbish

“They did a year in the West End in London in 1963,” replied Michael, “with Ivor Cutler in a show called An Evening of British Rubbish. Neil Innes and the Bonzos went to see that show and thought: This is what we should be doing!”

“So it’s not bullshit,” I said, “to claim The Alberts and An Evening of British Rubbish influenced the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band?”

“Oh no,” said Michael, “And a line can be drawn directly from Spike Milligan and The Goon Show to The Alberts to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Bruce Lacey doing the sound effects for The Goon Show and then performing with The Alberts, who influenced the Bonzos.

“I like to know every link in the chain – such as Joe Orton or The Alberts or knowing that Bertolt Brecht influenced Spike Milligan. It’s nice to know where all this stuff comes from. The Theatre of The Absurd and all that. Stuff does not just pop up out of the ground.”

I said: “The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started in 1962 and ended in 1970. So they are a pure 1960s group.”

“Yes,” agreed Michael.

The Bonzo’s last London performance

I never saw the Bonzo’s last London performance

“In my spare bedroom,” I said, “I have a poster for the Bonzo’s last London performance – at the Polytechnic in Regent Street – but I didn’t go. I did see Grimms. I remember Neil Innes singing How Sweet To Be an Idiot with a duck on his head.”

“It was a thing out of Woolworth’s,” replied Michael, “called a Quacksie with the wheels took off it.

“Viv got on stage at The Lyceum in London on 28th December 1969 to announce the band was ending. At the time, he was completely bald after getting up halfway through the family Christmas dinner and shaving off all his long hair. He returned to the table to resume eating with a bald head.

“They worked out their commitments for the next 3 months, including the Polytechnic gig on 21st February, and their very last gig was at Loughborough University on 14th March 1970. They had to do an LP in 1970 due to contractual obligations. And Viv’s LP of Rawlinson End was released in 1978.”

“When Lou Reed was contractually obliged to do an album,” I said. “he released a double album of just noise.”

“Yes,” said Michael. “In the mid-1960s, Brian Epstein was going to sell the Beatles to Robert Stigwood, who managed the Bee Gees and the Beatles said: If you do that then, for all the albums we owe you, we’re just gonna sing God Save The Queen for every track.”

“The 1960s and 1970s,” I said, “always seem to have culture-changing originality.”

“That,” said Michael, “is the crux of a lot of the radio documentary I’m currently making about Neil Innes – The Bonzos were the house band on ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set and that’s where they met Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones (later in Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Then, in the second series of Do Not Adjust Your Set, Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python) comes along doing the animations. When I talked to Terry Gilliam, it became self-evident to me just how different those times were and how mavericks like Tony Stratton-Smith were so important to that thing.”

YouTube currently has a clip of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on Do Not Adjust Your Set.

“There’s a book – Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall – and, in that, he argues that young people were making art then because tomorrow they might be blown to smithereens. There was an immediacy to art in the 1960s and 1970s when you were growing up with the threat of nuclear destruction over your head. You’re not going to have the same set of values. You’re not going to have the same application of deference. You’re just going to do stuff because you might not be here tomorrow.

Arty Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall

Arty Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall

“I think within Bomb Culture there’s a lot of explanation for the 1960s and 1970s – that immediacy, that explosion of culture in the 1960s and 1970s. There were people like Brian Epstein and Robert Stigwood and Tony Stratton-Smith who had money and said: Just go do it. We’ll worry about it later

“Tony Stratton-Smith – BOF! Go make Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Here’s money. Go make it. He wasn’t worried about getting his money back and, in the short term he lost a lot of money. But that attitude means you can just create.

“You don’t get that now – it’s all about making money – though now there’s a democratisation about the tools of creating. You’ve got a recording studio in your pocket.”

“And you get to work with whoever you want,” I said.

“I am the luckiest fan there is,” said Michael, “to be working with all these people. I love every aspect of creating, like everybody does in this game. I’ve been asked to sing with the Bonzos at the Coco in Camden Town on 17th April. That’s even madder. To be asked to sing with them.

“And I sang the Bonzo’s number Sport (The Odd Boy) – with Stephen Fry at the Old Vic in January, which was a real Pinch myself moment.”

“Is Stephen Fry a fan of Vivian Stanshall?” I asked.

“Oh, massive. He’s a huge fan. He indulged Viv an awful lot while he was alive. He helped him put on shows. He bankrolled Stinkfoot at the Bloomsbury Theatre.”

“You yourself don’t have that sort of Medici figure,” I said.

“But I’m happy to be at the mercy of market forces,” Michael told me.” There’s got to be some satisfaction in this work. It’s no good going playing to your mates every week and them telling you you’re wonderful.”

“The worst thing,” I agreed, “is to be on your death bed and wonder What if?

“It is,” said Michael, “like that great philosopher Terry Venables said: I’d rather regret what I’ve done than what I’ve not done.”

Michael’s upcoming gigs are on the Sir Henry website.

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In memory of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Michael Livesley

Now teetotal Michael Livesley at the Soho Theatre, London

I got an email from Michael Livesley.

It said:

“I just now came across your blog on The Alberts whilst researching their Evening of British Rubbish show.”

“I am currently making a radio documentary about the career of Neil Innes.

There is a promo for the radio documentary – titled Innes 70th Year – on Soundcloud

So, obviously, we met and had a chat the next time Michael came down to London from Liverpool.

“I never actually saw The Alberts perform,” I told Michael, “but I went up to Norfolk to see them at home and Tony Gray was dressed as a cricketer for no apparent reason. I think he probably just generally dressed that way. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes and all that lot – are a bit Albert-ish.”

Michael’s boyhood tribute band The Eatles

Michael’s boyhood Fat Gang tribute band The Eatles

“When I was a teenager in the 1980s,” Michael told me, “I was aware of Neil Innes cos of The Innes Book of Records and when BBC TV repeated The Rutles. After that, me and me mates in school formed ‘The Fat Gang’ who were all the fat lads who used to wag it and go and do other stuff cos school was a bit boring.

“We started a thing called The Eatles in the shed in my back garden and we did daft songs about food, inspired by Beatles songs – Your Mother Should Eat and Magical Chippie Tour were a couple.

“I wasn’t aware of who Vivian Stanshall or The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were until I got into what I suppose are called ‘art school’ bands when I was at art school myself. It was only about twelve months later, but that seems like years when you’re a kid.”

Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman etc are joining in

Neil Innes, Rick Wakeman etc are joining in

“And now you’re doing shows,” I said. “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, on April 12th at the Laugharne Festival and Radio Stanshall on May 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.”

“The shows have got an agent now,” Michael told me. “The same agent as Roger McGough and Andrew Motion.”

“The ex-Poet Laureate?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re keeping good company,” I said.

“We did Sir Henry at Rawlinson End with Stephen Fry at the Old Vic two months ago,” said Michael. “Aardman filmed it – not in stop/start or we would have been there all year. It was me, Stephen Fry, Ronnie Golden, Neil Innes and Rod Slater out of the Bonzos.”

“You’re like a fan who struck gold,” I said.

“When I first started doing Sir Henry at Rawlinson End,” said Michael, “it was cos I loved it. I wanted to see it performed. And partially also because I was sick of people saying: Who is Vivian Stanshall? People shouldn’t be allowed to forget.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

Vivian Stanshall’s original Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP

“I was cycling all the time, trying to get fit and listening to it – the record. But I wanted to see it performed. It sounded like the best Jackanory story you’d ever heard. It had been filmed but, when you have different actors playing all the parts, it takes away from one storyteller doing all the voices.

“The 1978 LP was all as a result of this amazing guy called Tony Stratton-Smith, who was a maverick in the 1970s and who threw money at the likes of Monty Python and Vivian Stanshall and Genesis. He founded the Charisma record label after he had been a sports journalist. He described himself as a gentleman and adventurer.”

“When you decided to do the show,” I asked, “you had to get the family’s permission?”

“Yes.”

“What was Vivian Stanshall’s father like?”

“He’s dead now, of course,” said Michael. “They all lived in Walthamstow and, before World War II, it was all East End geezer accents there but then his dad went away to the RAF in the War and came back speaking posh and made his lads speak like that. Viv said about the posh accent that it was literally punched into him.”

“Any eccentricity in the family?” I asked.

“His dad,” replied Michael, “was born Vivian and changed his name to Victor Stanshall and then Vivian was born Victor and changed his name to Vivian Stanshall.

“And his dad used to roller-skate all the way from the East End to the City of London in his pinstripe suit. He used to tell Vivian: With a good haircut and clean fingernails, one can literally roller-skate to the top.”

“Vivian has a son?” I asked.

Vivian’s son Rupert’s website

Vivian’s son Rupert’s Handyman site

“Rupert,” said Michael. “He’s got watfordhandyman.com He does building work. I think if your father is Vivian Stanshall, your rebellion is to become ‘normal’ for want of a better word.”

“What do you yourself do?” I asked Michael.

“I’ve thrown away all the fall-backs,” he told me. “all the safety nets. It was a year to the day the other day since I walked out on me last job teaching drama.”

“To be a promoter/performer?” I asked.

“A performer,” Michael replied. “Being a promoter is a necessity these days, really.”

“So you were cycling around,” I said, “and decided you wanted to see Sir Henry at Rawlinson End performed on stage. So what did you do?

“I got a band together,” Michael told me, “and hired the Unity Theatre in Liverpool for two nights. I got a good theatre director called Paul Carmichael, totally versed in Shakespeare and absolutely obsessed with classic British TV comedy. I knew he would know all the right cultural signposts.

Michael as Sir Henry in the premiere at Liverpool Unity theatre, June 22nd 2010

Michael in the Liverpool Unity premiere on 22nd June 2010

“The reviews were great and the next morning the guy who ran the theatre rang and asked me to do it again. Then it started building up a momentum and it was when I was in Paris for about a month, bored, drinking all the time that, one afternoon I thought: I need to put this on in London.

“So I got on the internet and hired the Lion & Unicorn – just a room above a pub in Camden – and staged it there one Friday night in October 2012 and Neil Innes came to see it. And Ade Edmondson and Nigel from EastEnders.

“Afterwards, Neil Innes gave me this massive hug and a guy from Mojo music magazine was there and reviewed it which helped. The show was on the Friday and then, on the Monday morning, Neil Innes rang me up and just said: Hi, Mike. What can I do to help?

(From left) Rick Wakeman, Michael Livesley, JonnyHase & DannyBaker

(L-R) Rick Wakeman, Michael Livesley, Jonny Hase and Danny Baker at the Bloomsbury Theatre after the show

“So then we did some more shows and I did a couple of shows with Neil at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool and then in 2013, when Viv would have been 70, we ended up at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and all the Bonzos bar Roger were able to appear and the next thing was Rick Wakeman and John Otway both said they’d do it too. And that went really well. Danny Baker came along to watch. It was madness. It’s been nearly six years of work now and the first three were very difficult in terms of getting traction.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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Lionel Richie squatted in a London council flat and how comic Barry Ferns gives financial support to Michael Palin

Barry Ferns won last year’s Cunning Stunt Award (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

Barry Ferns/Lionel Richie won 2014 Cunning Stunt Award (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

Comedian Barry Ferns lives directly opposite Monty Python star Michael Palin in Gospel Oak, London

Last year, he won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Barry Ferns, not Michael Palin.

“I’m helping Michael out at the weekend,” Barry told me yesterday.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“I paid a cumulative sum of £200 to take my father to see the live Monty Python show. It’s his birthday.”

“Michael Palin’s?” I asked.

“My father’s.”

The other Lionel Richie (Photo by Eva Rinaldi)

The other Lionel Richie in performance. (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

Until one month ago, Barry was legally called Lionel Richie.

The beloved American singer-songwriter, musician, record producer and actor.

“It must have been exciting,” I suggested, “for Michael Palin to live opposite Lionel Richie for a time.”

“I have been Lionel Richie for seven years,” said Barry. “I went bankrupt as Lionel Richie.”

“Did you plan that?” I asked. “I have never done it myself, but going bankrupt can be quite profitable.”

“These are the Deed Poll forms,” said Barry.

I looked at the forms. They did indeed show that Lionel Richie was changing his name to Barry Ferns. Well, the forms actually said:

BARRY RICHARD SALVADOR FERNS

“Salvador?” I asked.

“I added a Salvador.”

“Why Salvador?”

“Because it’s so ridiculous.”

“Good movie,” I said.

Barry Ferns, comedian and caterer

Barry Ferns, the man named after a Latin American country

“If I ever write an autobiography,” said Barry, “I am thinking of calling it My Seven Years as Lionel Richie.”

“I am still not quite sure,” I said “why you became Lionel Richie.”

“In 2001,” said Barry, “I started sticking stickers on things which said THIS BELONGS TO LIONEL RICHIE.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I found it very funny… The idea that Lionel Richie was going round acquiring things and then sticking stickers on things. That was in 2001.”

“To publicise a show?” I asked.

“No. Though I had taken a couple of shows to the Edinburgh Fringe before and I did another one in 2004. Its full title was The OAP Comedy Spectacular (Guaranteed Winner of The 2004 Perrier Award or Double Your Money Back From Their Pensions). We got a load of old age pensioners to perform in a sketch show.”

“And now Monty Python has followed in your footsteps,” I said.

Barry aka Lionel atop Arthur’s Seat

Barry/Lionel – Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

“In 2007,” Barry continued, “I wanted to make Edinburgh look like it belonged to Lionel Richie. My two thoughts were: It would be hilarious if I were called Lionel Richie. And it would also mean I couldn’t get sued by Lionel Richie for claiming things belonged to him. Because I legally WAS Lionel Richie.

“So, in 2007, I changed my name to Lionel Richie and went bankrupt and the show was called This Sketch Show Belongs to Lionel Richie and I also did a show as Lionel Richie in 2008 but, in 2009, I was just working so hard to get my life back in order… and I was squatting as well.

“I lived in the best squat in the world. Mock Tudor mansions on Swains Lane in Highgate. They’re all council houses. There were three flats next to each other and some law had come in that only one flat was legally allowed to be occupied, because they shared bathroom facilities. Some Council directive had come in which said this. So I filed down the hinges on one of the doors and lived in one of the flats for free for a year.”

“So I can genuinely say Lionel Richie was squatting in a London council house for a year?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Barry.

“I once had a chat,” I told Barry, “with Clint Eastwood in his living room in Wolverhampton.”

“The real Clint Eastwood?” asked Barry.

The other Clint Eastwood

The other Clint Eastwood, who really does not live in Wolverhampton

“No,” I said. “There was – probably still is – a whole sub-culture in the West Midlands of (I guess) out-of-work sheet metal workers listening to country and western music while dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls and going to shooting clubs at the weekend. Clint Eastwood had a Wolverhampton accent and had big pictures of the Old Wild West on his living room wall.”

“That’s brilliant,” said Barry. “I like the pockets of humanity that you wouldn’t expect.”

“I think I might become Gwyneth Paltrow,” I said.

“Please do that,” said Barry. “Let’s have a yearly name change thing. I could be Princess Grace of Monaco.”

“I think,” I said, “in the UK you’re not allowed to call yourself certain things like King, Queen or Lord.”

“Ah, no,” said Barry. “that’s right.”

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane,” I said, “wanted to call her child God but then changed it to China. I don’t know if she was banned from calling it God or just changed her mind. China is not so good as God for phoning up and booking tables at restaurants.”

“God…” mused Barry. “How can I psychologically harm my child immediately from birth?”

“Well,” I said, Lewis Schaffer’s children are called…”

Lewis Schaffer: the face of a multiple killer

Lewis Schaffer in Nunhead Cemetery (Don’t even go there)

“Hold on, hold on,” said Barry. “Lewis Schaffer has procreated?”

“It is a frightening thought, isn’t it?” I agreed.

“Is he a working father in the sense of Is he there all the time?

“Don’t even go there.” I said.

“I think,” said Barry, “that the whole of Lewis Schaffer’s life should have parentheses added after it – (Don’t even go there).”

“Well, Lewis is going to enjoy this blog,” I said, “because it will mention his name and two people will have been talking about him.”

Barry Fern’s Edinburgh Fringe show this year is called The Barry Experience.

It always is when I meet him.

It would be interesting if he changed his name to Lewis Schaffer for seven years. He would get another Edinburgh Fringe show and it would make Lewis Schaffer very happy.

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The death of Tony Gray of The Alberts, who linked BBC2’s awful opening to The Goons, the Bonzo Dogs & Monty Python

Tony Gray

Tony Gray was billed for the opening of BBC2

Fifty years ago this Sunday – 20th April 1964 – the BBC2 television channel was due to start with a special programme The Albert’s Channel Too by anarchic comedy duo The Alberts.

It was billed as coming “direct from the Alberts’ Television Centre” featuring (according to Radio Times) Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.

Instead, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, separately, there was a fault in a 60,000 volt cable at Iver in Buckinghamshire which cut power in West London, including BBC Television Centre.

The opening of BBC2 was a shambles.

The Alberts performed the following night, so BBC2 had two consecutive opening nights, both utterly anarchic.

Last Saturday, I sent a message to Albion Gray, the son of Tony Gray, one of The Alberts:

Tony Gray (left), Douglas Gray (right) and Bruce Lacey (top)

The Alberts – Tony Gray (left) and Douglas Gray (right) – with Bruce Lacey (top) and dog (bottom)

I trekked out to Norfolk to chat to them in the 1980s when I was a researcher on, I guess, Game For a Laugh

Possibly Malcolm Hardee mentioned them to me. They were wonderful people. I don’t suppose they’d be up for a blog chat would they?

He replied:

My dad Tony is a bit too frail to be interviewed but Douglas is in better shape. Let me find out and get back to you.

Yesterday, I got another message from Albion. It started:

Unfortunately my father passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 86. 

By last night, there was an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website headlined

Tony Gray was a co-founder of a musical comedy act whose brand of anarchic slapstick inspired Monty Python

The Alberts were brothers Tony and Douglas Gray. The Daily Telegraph obituary is rather low-key in saying “their specialities included bubble-blowing automata and exploding camels”.

A Show Called Fred (from left). Top row: Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers. Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

A Show Called Fred (from left)… Top row: Graham Stark, unknown dummy, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers… Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

In 1956, in an attempt to transfer the radio success of The Goon Show to TV, Associated-Rediffusion made the series A Show Called Fred in which The Alberts featured. It was broadcast only in the London region, was written by Spike Milligan, starred Peter Sellers and was produced & directed by Dick Lester (who went on to direct cult short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Bruce Lacey in 1960 and later The Beatles’ feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

There is an entire 25-minute episode of A Show Called Fred on YouTube. The Alberts first appear 20 seconds into the pre-credit sequence carrying musical instruments. Douglas enters first.

If you want to know what The Alberts were like – both on AND off stage and screen, think The Goons on the way to Monty Python with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stirred in.

Satirist John Wells famously described one of The Alberts’ 1960s performances thus:

“Moth-eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage; there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllabic political speech; a musician in grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”

There is a 4-minute video on YouTube of The Flying Alberts – Tony & Douglas with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in the 1960s.

In 1962, Peter Cook booked The Alberts for a residency at his seminal London comedy club The Establishment. They performed a Dada-inspired quiz show in which Bruce Lacey asked the questions. A description of one show said Lacey asked a question, the competitor got a bucket of whitewash poured over his head and then said: “Could you repeat the question, please?”

American comic Lenny Bruce saw The Alberts perform at The Establishment and booked them for an American tour. They crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary liner, reportedly either entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Lenny Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity but The Alberts’ show was a success in New York. Somewhat oddly, it reportedly bombed in San Francisco which, you would think, would have been more open to their eccentricities.

The Alberts - purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

The Alberts – purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

Back in London, their West End show An Evening of British Rubbish ran for almost a year in 1963 (Princess Margaret went to see it twice) and they later toured the show in Belgium and France, under the title Crazy Show de British Rubbish.

An Evening of British Rubbish was released as an LP in 1963, produced by George Martin whose work with The Alberts was rather overshadowed that year by his work with The Beatles. George Martin also produced a single for The Alberts (with Bruce Lacey) featuring The Morse Code Melody on one side and Sleepy Valley on the other.

The Alberts – always very musical – are often cited as a big influence on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzos said: “If there was any influence at all, it would be The Alberts or the Commedia dell’arte.”

According to their oft-times collaborator Bruce Lacey, The Temperance Seven band was originally formed by the Alberts but they were later ejected for ‘musical incompatibility’. I know no more.

The fake accounts and AGM of Albert, Lacey & Albert 1960-1961

The fake accounts and AGM of entertainment experts Albert, Lacey & Albert Ltd, 1960-1961

Around 1971, EMI issued a musical compilation album simply titled: The Alberts/The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band/The Temperance Seven and there was a later 1999 album called By Jingo, It’s British Rubbish with tracks by The Alberts, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Temperance Seven, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

It was almost 30 years ago – in the mid 1980s – when I went up to meet Tony and Douglas Gray at home in Norfolk. I can remember very little except that it was an ex-vicarage and I liked both of the brothers immediately and immensely. I do remember Douglas played bagpipes indoors (a commendably eccentric thing to do, though never a good idea to experience) and Tony was dressed in full cricketing outfit… Neither did either of these things for any discernible reason.

Producer Danny Greenstone, who was with me on the visit, told me this morning: “I remember the bagpipe playing, but it didn’t stop at bagpipes. We were also treated to the tuba, a ukulele and other bizarre instruments. We wanted them for Game For a Laugh (of course) but I can’t remember what it was we wanted them to do. It MUST have been some kind of musical act and I think we DID get them to do it, but the details have faded. I also remember that you got a flat tyre on the way back.”

Memories fade. I only remember the bagpipes, Tony’s clothes and their personalities. I think there is a slight possibility that Douglas wore a kilt and a sporran. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

At the time Danny and I met them, they were both working for the Sunday Telegraph and, I think other Fleet Street newspapers by driving delivery vans. This was before Rupert Murdoch fully broke the power of the newspaper unions and I have some vague memory of them telling me that they performed part of their journalistic duties by signing in (or having other people sign in for them) as M.Mouse in London while staying in Norfolk and not actually doing anything. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

Brothers Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

The Alberts had a varied and influential career which deserves to be remembered. They appeared in several Ken Russell films and in the 1965 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium and, in 1966, they appeared in their own show The Three Musketeers Ride Again both at the Arts Theatre and the Royal Court theatre in London.

On YouTube, there is a song – sung by Tony Gray this century – which was written for The Alberts’ 1966 production of The Three Musketeers Ride Again. It is called When I Was Seventeen.

RIP Tony Gray 1927-2014

So it goes.

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Writer/performer Jenny Eclair – from German beer commercials to Splashing

Jenny Eclair was having a Splash! on ITV1 last weekend

Jenny Eclair was making a big Splash! on ITV1 last weekend

“You’re all over the place,” I said to Jenny Eclair. “What are you?”

“I’m a writer/performer.”

“Performing just seems like a form of masochism,” I said.

“I really enjoy it,” Jenny told me. “I like audiences. I’m always relieved when there IS one.”

Last weekend, Jenny appeared on Splash! the celebrity ITV reality show in which celebrities jump off diving boards into a swimming pool in Luton. She had previously been in the Australian jungle for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

“Why did you do Splash!?” I asked her.

“I didn’t get panto this year.”

“Oh yes you did,” I said.

“Oh no I didn’t,” said Jenny. “Well, I didn’t until there were two Saturdays Jo Brand couldn’t do her panto in Wimbledon, so I stood in for her. It was one rehearsal and on. I did five shows as Genie of The Ring so she could go to (her agent) Addison Cresswell’s funeral and do the judging for Splash!

“Well, there’s big money in panto,” I said. “The Fonz from Happy Days – Henry Winkler – he does it!”

One of Jenny’s pantomime extravaganzas

“Pantomime makes you a better performer as a stand-up”

“Yes, panto’s a strange one,” said Jenny. “And for stand-up comics – who are by nature quite lazy – panto is a real kick up the arse. It’s good to have the experience, because it actually makes you a better performer as a stand-up. It’s two-and-a-half hours per show, two shows a day. So it’s performing five hours a day mostly seven days a week. It’s gruelling. I have done three shows a day – a 10.30, a 2.30 and a 6.30. By the end of that, you don’t know what you’re wearing.”

“But why,” I asked, “do Splash! and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!? Usually, to an extent, these celebrity reality shows are for one-time stars on the way down or people who need to revive their careers and you are in neither category.”

“Well, it’s not about career revival,” explained Jenny. “Everything needs to tick over and they’re quite well-paid and it means I buy myself time for writing books that I don’t get paid very much for. I buy myself the extra six months that I need to finish or start a book.”

“But you must get vast advances and sell millions,” I asked.

“I don’t!” said Jenny. “Not at all.”

“You’re a TV star,” I said.

Jenny’s latest well-reviewed book

Jenny’s latest very well-reviewed book

“But that doesn’t translate into selling books,” explained Jenny. “I think I fall between two stools. People who are very into books and their reading are very dubious about me because they think She probably didn’t write it anyway. And, for people who don’t care about books, mine are not shiny and chic-litty enough for them. But it doesn’t matter. I like writing. Though I am quite greedy, too. I like making money.

“I think the thing is to throw yourself around a bit and cast your net quite wide these days because it’s really tough out there. There’s generation after new generation of comics rising and not enough of us are dying. In fact, too many of the old fuckers are coming back and storming round the country doing big gigs and soaking up everybody’s money… Did The Pythons REALLY need to do a tour?”

“But you are one of those people taking the food out of 23-year-olds’ mouths,” I suggested.

“I’m not!” said Jenny very firmly.

“You’re in books, you’re in television, you’re in comedy… You’re taking up ten people’s jobs.”

Jenny Eclair at home, chatting to me about getting a foot up

Jenny, at home this week, giving advice on getting a foot up

“I’m not hogging the live comedy circuit in London,” Jenny replied, “I do the arts centres out-of-town. I feel really sorry for 23-year-old youngsters trying to get into the business, because there are just too many people doing it.

“They’re all really well-educated and bright and funny and they’ve seen a career pattern – there was never a career pattern before, so people didn’t know they could do it – but now there’s a template and you can’t blame them for having a go. I saw a picture of John Bishop’s house in the paper today – his vast country pile.”

“Yes,” I said, “The first time I encountered him was around 2007 when I was in Edinburgh doing the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in the middle of a Late ’n’ Live show which he was MCing at the Gilded Balloon. We had eye contact for about two seconds. I had never heard of him and thought Oh, he’s one of those good, solid Northern club comedians who have been around for ages toiling away unseen, never going to make it at his age… And then suddenly… SNAP!”

“That’s it,” Jenny agreed. “The weird randomness. The fickle finger of Fate that just goes Oh, I’ll have you!

“I think if you’re not going to be one of those very very big ones, it’s quite good to keep not totally under the radar but to change tactics every so often. A lot of my bread-and-butter is doing the arts centres but you can’t do the same ones twice a year. You have to fuck off for about three years because the audience won’t come back if they’ve seen you too recently. I’ve paid to see comics but whether I’d pay to see them twice in two years I’m not sure.

“You can’t be fashionable all the time. You’ve sometimes just got to go away and lick your wounds and say: Well, I’ll just try doing something else for a bit. People sneer at the celebrity reality TV stuff, but it’s silly to think of a career without it now unless you’re very very successful or very snotty about these things. And I’ve never been snotty about ‘light’ entertainment… Well, as a drama student, I thought I was going to be a proper actress. I never thought I’d even end up doing regional theatre. We used to sneer at regional theatre, never mind panto or reality TV.”

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

“You got into this whole thing because you saw an ad,” I prompted.

“Yes,“ said Jenny, “in The Stage in about 1982. An ad for novelty acts. I was still kind of wanting to be an actress. I was waitressing, auditioning now and again. But I’d been part of a cabaret act at drama school in Manchester and I had these punk poems.”

“And you were just starting out and taking anything,” I said.

“Yes. I was with two modelling agencies for odd looking people— Uglies and I think it was Neville’s… Might have been Gavin’s”.

“But you weren’t odd-looking,” I said, surprised.

“No,” said Jenny. “I was quite pretty, but I had anorexia at the beginning, so that was quite a look. They were after girls who could do faces and I used to get quite a lot of beer commercials in Germany, because I speak a bit of German and they didn’t have enough girls who were prepared to look funny. So I’d get auditioned in London and be flown over to Berlin or Stuttgart or wherever and pull faces for beer commercials. Some were for TV. Some were poster campaigns.

“I also worked on the phones for a lookalike agency when Princess Diana had just arrived on the scene and there were millions of grandmothers all over the country sending in photos of their granddaughters saying Doesn’t she look like Diana? And she didn’t at all. She’d be some spotty 17-year-old from Derbyshire. I had odd little jobs like that. I was a life model at Camberwell Arts School.”

“And you still live in the Camberwell area,” I said.

Jenny’s first novel, published in 2000

Jenny’s first novel, published in 2000

“I moved a lot when I was little,” said Jenny, “but I’ve not moved since. I’ve moved houses, but not moved area.”

“You moved a lot as a kid because your father was in the British Army?”

“Yes.”

“My eternally-un-named friend’s father,” I said, “was in the RAF. Malta, Germany, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Scotland, all over. She says she doesn’t feel specifically British: she’s not from anywhere specific.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny. “My parents are northern. It’s something about roots and spirit and sensibilities. I love London. I’m passionate about it though it was hard work when I arrived. I had no money and didn’t know anybody and was incredibly lonely. I had a waitressing job at a bar job in Covent Garden and I couldn’t work out how Camberwell linked to Covent Garden. The shape of London was just completely beyond me. I still don’t understand Ealing.”

….. CONTUINUED HERE …..

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