When I try to explain who Dragos is, I tend to say he is the Romanian equivalent of UK TV star David Jason with a touch of Elton John. In other words, he is indescribable – in a good sense! We are talking an international level of top entertainer here.
On Sunday (15th December) he is performing his full-length stage show All Aboard for Christmas! in London, so we met up at the Soho Theatre Bar for a chat. Towards the end, we got interrupted by another performer…
JOHN: You’ve already performed All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. So now you are going to stage it…
DRAGOS: …every three or four months. My next aim – which turns out to be not that easy – is to find an agent – I don’t expect to be ‘big overnight’! – Someone to provide work at least constantly. Perhaps not daily but maybe weekly. What I do is very suitable for let’s say private parties – playing the piano; my Elton John thing. ..
JOHN: Corporate gigs you would be ideal for.
DRAGOS: Exactly. I am realistic.
JOHN: What would be a good step for you?
DRAGOS: A three minute song on a morning TV show. Three minute songs on radio shows. Three minutes here and there.
JOHN: You are more of an hour-long solo show performer but you can also do 5 and 10 minute spots…
DRAGOS: Yes. If you have 5 minutes of material, it is very difficult to extend it to 10 or 20 minutes; but, when you have 60 minutes, it is easier to extract 5, 10 and 20 minute routines. But they are different styles.
JOHN: (I NAME ANOTHER PERFORMER) does great one-hour shows and, in fact, I’ve seen (THE OTHER PERFORMER) do brilliant two-hour solo shows, but they are never going to be on BBC TV on Live at the Apollo, because The Apollo wants gag-gag-gag, punchline-punchline-punchline.
Five-minute acts tend to be full of quick gag punchlines.
DRAGOS: Exactly. It is very difficult to catch the audience within five minutes and keep them. You need to use one-liners and I respect that and salute it. But, when you are doing a 60-minute show, you cannot have the audience punched every minute. You have to bring people into the story… A beginning, a punchline or two or three and sections and an end and maybe you draw a conclusion from the story. The pace has to be different.
The trend is for stand-ups which I am not… entirely.
What I want now is not even money. I want people to be aware I can bring an hour of ‘light’ entertainment and people will go home more content, more relaxed and re-charged like a battery for work the next day.
JOHN: You must have had to learn what sense of humour British audiences want.
DRAGOS: When I came here, I didn’t use any of my Romanian routines. When I first started in Britain, one routine I had was about people lacking money and being in a shopping mall where money was flying around but it didn’t work with the audiences. People were laughing reluctantly. They didn’t relate.
Someone told me: “Everybody in the world needs more money but it is not an issue for us. We are not that poor. Not comedy audiences. They can put food on their tables. They can travel around the country or even the world. So people do not personally relate to being poor in comedy routines.”
But the rent in London is not low and audiences can personally identify with that. So I have a song about it and, at the end, I have sometimes had standing ovations. Especially if there are a lot of young people in the audience. They identify – Shared house, high rent, poor living conditions.
JOHN: What is the sense of humour in Romania?
DRAGOS: We still tend to laugh about what British people used to laugh about 20 or 30 years ago – the disabled, drunken people, less-minded guys…
JOHN: Punching down.
JOHN: And now, in Britain, we punch up not down.
DRAGOS: Yes. But, on the internet, I have seen shows from 20 or 30 years ago and it was the same here in Britain. People laughed at different things then.
JOHN: Did Romanian TV charge after Ceausescu was overthrown?
DRAGOS: Under Ceausescu, there were only three hours of television per night.
JOHN: And that was mostly about what Ceausescu had done that day.
DRAGOS: Yes. And occasional Romanian movies. And, once a week we had an international – specifically American – film. That is why Romanians speak English with an American accent. The only foreign languages we heard were French, a bit of Russian and a lot of American.
JOHN: And television after Ceausescu…?
DRAGOS: He fled with his helicopter and his entourage on 22nd December 1989 and landed at a cabin in the mountains. But he was captured and he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day.
JOHN: And, after that, television changed…?
DRAGOS: The revolution caught them unprepared. They had no regulations about what you could show on TV. They transmitted an uncensored Romanian film with nudity at 8 o’clock at night and…
(…AT THIS POINT, PERFORMER NARIN OZ ARRIVED IN THE SOHO THEATRE BAR…)
JOHN: (TO NARIN) Do you know Dragos? You should go and see his show at the Hen & Chickens on Sunday.
NARIN: I can’t. I’m filming in a horror movie. I play Death. I’m the villain.
JOHN: That’s typecasting. It’s the evil eyes. Dragos is the David Jason of Romania. Ask him something.
NARIN: What’s your background?
DRAGOS: I graduated in engineering from the University of Timișoara, where the Romanian revolution started. in 1989.
JOHN: You were there?
DRAGOS: Yes. I was there in the beginning. Things expanded dramatically. Within four days, there was blood on the streets. We didn’t have weapons. We had the mentality at that time to go out bare-handed and, as they say, bare-chested. But I wasn’t that crazy. When things changed and became quite serious, I ran. I ran and I was kind of a prisoner in the students’ area.
Nothing was working. Not the public transportation, not the trains, not nothing. I was blocked up to about the 24th December. The spark was on 18th December and rolled over and smashed all the country, but it ended up in Bucharest within two or three days on 21st of December and, on 22nd, Ceausescu fled, then was killed on 25th. They call us religious people, but we killed our leader on Christmas Day: come on!
NARIN: So your show is about Romania…
DRAGOS: No. Not at all. I just put all that in brackets – what I just said.
NARIN: Those are very big brackets. Is it a tragedy or a comedy?
JOHN: It’s not a comedy show as such. It has comedy but with lots of music. It’s like an old-time variety show but solo.
DRAGOS: Though I think, when you walk away, you have some ideas and a conclusion maybe?
NARIN: Are you singing?
DRAGOS: Yes. Singing and playing the piano and comedy.
JOHN: Songs you have written yourself.
DRAGOS: Ten songs written especially for the show.
JOHN: And a bit of Elton John.
DRAGOS: Yes. That is a more serious piece of music. I do an impersonation of Elton John. (HE SHOWS A VIDEO ON HIS PHONE)
NARIN: You’re a bit of a legend.
JOHN: He is. Twenty years daily on television. Multiple series. And he wrote and produced and starred in this sitcom which…
DRAGOS: That was the first sitcom ever in Romania because, before 1989 and the overthrow of Ceausescu, we didn’t have such entertainment there. Then, after ten years of importing Seinfeld and Married With Children, we started our own sitcom on Pro TV – a private one, like ITV here. It lasted for ten years and 524 episodes.
JOHN: Produced and written by you…
DRAGOS: Well, there was a whole team of writers…
JOHN: But mainly you…
DRAGOS: Yes, because I created the idea; so I was like the head writer; I would re-touch and revise a little bit and I also acted in it.
NARIN: So, why did you come here? You were known there. You had everything.
DRAGOS: Yes, but I felt I needed somewhere to go and something to do NEXT. When you become very comfortable within your situation, that can lead to lack of inspirational creativity.
I have built up this new stage show and now I am struggling to get it going because I am in-between worlds.
Romanians in Britain would come to see me but, when they find out the show is in English… Not many have perfect English, especially the guys who just come here to work, to get some money to build something back in Romania. In London, there are doctors, lawyers and others who have been here about ten years and speak good English, but…
NARIN: Why don’t you do a Romanian language show?
DRAGOS: I have. But it’s not what I came here for. When I address things in English, I have to have a British audience. And the non-Romanian, English-speaking audience do not know me at the moment. I’m not complaining. This is the normal way to do it. To build a new audience.
NARIN: You could do, say, a 4-day run with two shows in Romanian and two in English.
DRAGOS: I could, but doing the same show in English and in Romanian doesn’t work. The topics are slightly different. With the Romanian shows I have to be very specific with Romanian references and culture. Every other month, we have a 2-hour Romanian show with various acts.
But I want to move on, move up.