Tag Archives: Monty Python

Douglas Adams talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.

Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.


‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction, Television

Douglas Adams talks. Part 1: Life before “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In 1980, I interviewed writer Douglas Adams for Marvel Comics. The result was published as a two-part piece in the March and April 1981 issues of their Starburst magazine. I am republishing the interview in four parts in this blog. Here is Part One…

Douglas Adams at home in 1980. Later, he claimed: “You actually managed to make me sound fairly intelligent, which I think is a remarkable achievement on your part.” (Photograph: John Fleming)

Douglas Adams has made it big. He is 6’5″ tall.

He was born in Cambridge in 1952. When he was born his father, a postgraduate theology student, was training for Holy Orders but friends persuaded him this was a bad idea and he gave it up. He wanted to do it again recently but was again dissuaded.

This philosophical bent seems to have been passed on to young Douglas because, at school, he says, “They could never work out whether I was terribly clever or terribly stupid. I always had to understand everything fully before I was prepared to say I knew anything.”

It was while still at school that he decided to become a comedy writer-performer after seeing John Cleese on BBC TV’s The Frost Report.

“I can do that!” he suddenly thought. “I’m as tall as he is!”

He appeared regularly in school plays and sometimes was asked to write. “I felt I ought to,” he says. “I used to sit and worry and tear up pieces of paper and never actually write anything. It was awful. I’ve always found writing very difficult; I don’t know why I’ve wanted to do it. Sheer perversity. I really wanted to be a performer and I’d still like to perform. I was a slightly strange actor. There tended to be things I could do well and other things I couldn’t begin to do. I couldn’t do dwarfs; I had a lot of trouble with dwarf parts.”

He went to Cambridge University largely so he could join the Footlights, the student group which had spawned many of the people he most admired — the writer-performers of Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Monty Python’s Flying Circus etc.

During university vacations, he built barns and cleaned chicken sheds to make money and, for the first time, started to write seriously (if that’s the word). He was involved in the creation of two Cambridge revues — Several Poor Players Strutting and Fretting and The Patter of Tiny Minds.

The original idea for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had come to him before he went to university, when he was drunk at a camp-site near Innsbruck, while travelling round with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe in his rucksack. But it was years before the idea came to fruition.

JOHN: After you left Cambridge, one of the things you did was collaborate with Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. I wrote with him for about eighteen months on a lot of projects that mostly didn’t see the light of day. And those which did actually didn’t work awfully well.

JOHN: Which ones did see the light of day?

DOUGLAS: Well, we wrote and made the pilot for a television comedy series. The series itself never got made because Graham got more involved back in Monty Python again. This was really during the Python lull and nobody was quite sure what the future of Python was going to be.

So we wrote this sketch show called Out of the Trees which actually had some very good material in it, but just didn’t hang together properly. Graham was the sort of lead and there was also Simon Jones (who played Arthur Dent in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker) and Mark Wing-Davey (who played Zaphod Beeblebrox). It was shown once on BBC2, late on Saturday night, against Match of the Day. I don’t think it even got reviewed, it was that insignificant. There were some very nice things in it; it just didn’t stand up. The structure for it hadn’t really been found.

JOHN: What else did you do with Graham Chapman?

DOUGLAS: Curiously enough, the thing we virtually came to blows about was his autobiography. He wanted to co-write it. He actually went through about five co-authors, of which I was the first, and really I didn’t think it was getting anywhere because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing you could do as a pair. It came out recently (A Liar’s Autobiography) and it’s good. I think there’s one very bad section which was the bit he and I co-wrote.

JOHN: It must have seemed a great opportunity. Writing with one of the Monty Python stars.

DOUGLAS: Yes, the promise of that period. I thought: This is terrific! This is my great break! And, at the end, there was nothing to show for it except a large overdraft and not much achieved. And I suddenly went through a total crisis of confidence and couldn’t write because I was so panicked and didn’t have any money and had a huge overdraft paying the £17-a-week rent. So I answered an advertisement in the Evening Standard and got a job as a bodyguard to an Arab oil family.

JOHN: But you were still sending off ideas to The Burkiss Way on Radio 4…

DOUGLAS: Yes. Simon Brett, the producer of The Burkiss Way, asked me if I’d like to write some bits for it and, at that stage, I just felt I’m washed up. I can’t write. I may as well accept this fact now. But he insisted, so I sat down and wrote a sketch which, I thought, would prove to everybody once-and-for-all that I could no longer write sketches. And everybody seemed to like it rather a lot. (LAUGHS) The one thing I’d spent all the summers since Cambridge trying to interest people in was the idea of doing science-fiction comedy; I couldn’t get anybody interested at all.

Simon was the only person I hadn’t gone to with the idea. And, after I’d done these bits for Burkiss, he said to me, quite out-of-the-blue: I think it would be nice to do a science fiction comedy series. It was extraordinary. And so it carried on from there.

JOHN: It was around this same time you got involved with Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Well, after we’d done the pilot of Hitch-Hiker, it took a long, long time before BBC Radio decided to go ahead and I was desperate for money. So I sent the first copy of that Hitch-Hiker script to Bob Holmes, who was then script editor of Doctor Who and he said: Oh yes, we like this. Come in and see us. So I talked to them for a long time.

JOHN: You sent it in as a Doctor Who idea, or . . .

DOUGLAS: No, just to sort of say: Here l am – This is what I do. And I ended up getting a commission to write four episodes of Doctor Who (The Pirate Planet)…

…but it didn’t really work out as something which was going to fill in that gap, because that took a long time to come through too. I eventually ended up getting the commission to write the rest of Hitch-Hiker and the Doctor Who episodes simultaneously in the same week. So that became a serious problem. (LAUGHS) And I got through the first four episodes of Hitch-Hiker and then I had to break off to get the Doctor Who episodes done – so I did those at a real gallop. And, at the end of that, I was totally zonked. I knew a lot of what was going to happen in the last two episodes of Hitch-Hiker but I just couldn’t sort of get myself to a typewriter and just needed help and a sounding-board just to get it done.

JOHN: So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6…



The BBC Radio 4 production team recording an episode of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy on 19th May 1979. (Left-Right) studio manager Lisa Braun; Douglas Adams; studio manager Colin Duff; production secretary Anne Ling; producer Geoffrey Perkins; studio manager Alick Hale-Monro. (Photograph copyright © BBC)

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Radio, Science fiction

The girl who loves gangsters the Kray Twins and imprisoned Charles Bronson

Sarajane at the Kray Twins’ grave in Chingford, East London

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Sarajane Martin which said:

“I am aware this may be a long shot but I’m a 21 year old Fine Art student living in London, studying at the University of Westminster and I am in the process of writing my dissertation…”

She asked if I could help her with something. Alas I could not, but I can spot a good blog subject when I see one, so we had a tea and coffee this week. She handed in her dissertation today.

Sarajane: I was born in a moving car going at about 80 miles an hour. My dad kept driving and he said he heard the sound of a child being born behind him. He turned round and me mam was sat there with me and he was fucking flying and he just kept going.

John: He was on his way to the hospital?

Sarajane: Yeah. He ran in and he said: Me wife’s had a baby in the car! And they told him: You are drunk, sir. Please go! And he’s like: For fucksake! My wife’s just had a baby!

John: It was unexpected, then?

Sarajane: Yeah. Afterwards, me dad went back to the house to get things for me mam, like pyjamas and stuff, and the second he hit the spot when I had come out, where he heard that noise, Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann came on the radio and he sang it all the way to Durham, thinking about his new daughter. He sang it to me my whole life. I have a tattoo of a flamingo on my leg and it says Daddy and he’s got one on his.

John: When Ron Kray shot George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub, there was a jukebox playing, wasn’t there?”

Sarajane: Yeah. It was playing The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. Ron said, the second he shot him, it went: The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore… Anymore… Anymore and it jammed. How weird is that?

John: What is your BA (Hons) dissertation called?

Sarajane: What Does Performance Art Contribute To The Myth of The Criminal?

John: What DOES it contribute?

Sarajane: Well, if I’m being totally honest, I just said ‘Performance Art’ because I’m an art student and I had to connect it to art somehow. I wanted to write about gangsters and bad boys an’ that.

John: In her autobiography Handstands in the Dark, Janey Godley says that old-time Glasgow gangsters were like actors. They were putting on a performance of being gangsters.

Sarajane: It’s right, that. It IS a performance, like it’s not real. I got interested in criminals. I think it’s a thing we all do.

Sarajane Martin at Soho Theatre in a T-shirt

John: You have a Kray Twins T-shirt on.

Sarajane: Ultimate gangsters.

John: Criminals are bad people.

Sarajane: I know. It’s not that I think they’re nice people. I just find them more interesting than good people. That’s just a human reaction, isn’t it?

John: Any specific reason?

Sarajane: I know exactly why. I have two older brothers. The oldest one is 37. I’m nearly half his age. I’m 21 and I’ve done much more than he’s ever done because he has just like been in prison his whole life near enough. Petty stuff. Gone with the wrong crowd. Daft. Stupid. A rolling stone.

He would write me letters when I was a kid. I remember seeing it was an HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) envelope and I was buzzing, thinking it was really cool. My brother in prison had sent me a letter! I was thinking of this when I was writing a letter to Bronson.

John: Charles Bronson, the criminal.

Sarajane: Yes.

John: He’s changed his name again, hasn’t he?

Sarajane: Yes. Charles Salvador.

John: Some women get married to long-term prisoners.

Sarajane: People start to write to a person because they know that person’s a murderer.

John: Why would they want to write to someone who has killed people?”

Sarajane: Because they see the good in people. They say Ron Kray was mad. But he was ill. Nowadays, he wouldn’t have lived like that. It was such a different time.

John: There are still psycho killers around today, though.

Sarajane: Yeah. Yeah. But they’re treated differently.

John: Have you seen The Piranha Brothers in Monty Python?

Sarajane: No.

John: People say the East End of London was safer when the Krays were around. They only killed their own, not ordinary people.

Sarajane: Yes. In a Fred Dinenage book, Ron is quoted as saying he wanted to kill George Cornell. He says he had shot people before but he did it just to maim not to kill. With George, I wanted to. I walked in there and wanted to kill him. That’s mad.

John: You are from the North East of England. There are loads of hard men up there.

Sarajane: Yeah. But Northerners are wankers.

John: Are you sure you want that quoted?

Sarajane: I’m a Northerner, so I can say it. They’re just not very interested in the world around them.

John: If this were 1963 or 1965, would you have thought of marrying Ron Kray?

Sarajane: Probably. (LAUGHING) I don’t think Ron would have done what he done if we had met. (LAUGHING) I don’t think Ron would have been that interested in me. They reckoned when Ron liked someone, that was it. Someone said: You would hear that the Krays were coming and all the good-looking lads would piss off. They knew Ron was on the way.

John: You just fancy bad boys.

Sarajane: I don’t fancy Bronson or owt like that. I just love ‘em, you know what I mean? I don’t fancy them. It’s not like that.

John: You would not marry Bronson but you love him?

Sarajane: Yeah, but in a different way… Appreciation…

John: …of what?

Sarajane: I don’t know.

John: You appreciate his art?

Art by Charles Bronson was controversially displayed at Angel station, London, in 2010

Sarajane: I do. I love his art.

John: It IS interesting.

Sarajane: Do you know he sent a Get Well Soon card to the girl who lost her leg in Alton Towers? (When a rollercoaster crashed at the amusement park.) Bless him.

John: I hate to say this, but Hitler was an artist.

Sarajane: And Joseph Goebbels was about five foot high and used to wear high heels when he was in photos. What a weird thought.

John: You graduate this year. What are you going to be?”

Sarajane: I felt I knew before I started the course.

John: What did you think back then you were going to be?”

Sarajane: Famous. That was the only thing I wanted. I wanted to come to London and be famous. Like Bronson. Go into prison and become famous.

John: Really?

Sarajane: No. I’m joking. I always just wanted to be a painter. I was going to be pure punk and drop out of Art School and just be a failure. And then I thought: No, I can’t go my whole life saying Oh, yeah, I dropped out of Art School.

John: Have you done any art inspired by the Krays?

Sarajane: I’m saving it for my degree show. I want it to be like you feel the presence of the two of them.  Possibly something like two life-sized sculptures which show the difference in their characters.

John: So what are you going to do when you leave university this year?

Sarajane: I haven’t got a clue. All I know so far is I’m going to Nuremberg and to The Berghof. And Nürburgring. Do you like Formula One racing?

John: I’ve never seen it live.

Sarajane: I like the old 1970s Formula One, me. Much cooler. And they were much more ‘for it’. Now it’s all money and there’s no, like, courage in the game. In the 1970s, they were like right up to death, looking it in the face: We don’t care. Niki Lauda is one of my heroes. His crash happened at Nürburgring. He was on fire. They had to put a thing in his lungs and like vacuum his lungs and he did it more than once. He was that much of an animal he was like: Do it again. It doesn’t even hurt that much, man: do it again.

John: You’re just looking for the ultimate bad boy.

Sarajane: He’s not a bad boy, though. He’s just a total nerd who had an accident.

John: You’re attracted to death and punk. It’s Goth Art.

Sarajane: Goth’s dead. I’m pure punk. I’m pure 1970s punk, me.

Sarajane Martin – work in progress

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Crime, Performance

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:


“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.”




Filed under Comedy, Podcasts

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Music, Theatre

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.


“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?”


“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.”


Leave a comment

Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Music, Theatre