Tag Archives: Noel Edmonds

Beth Vyse – How breast cancer turned her from an actress into a comedian

Beth Vyse, eating daffodils

Beth Vyse – showing her animal side earlier this week in Soho

When I met Beth Vyse in London’s Soho Theatre this week, she had come straight from lecturing drama students in acting at the University of Rochester in Kent.

“I didn’t know you lectured,” I said.

I think research can be over-rated.

“Oh yes,” she told me. “I teach at LAMDA. I’ve worked at Rose Bruford, the Manchester Met – all the big Uni colleges.”

“Worked at?” I asked.

“Taught at. Directed at,” said Beth.

“You know a bit about drama, then?” I asked.

“I know a lot about Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare and that kind of stuff. I performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company a few times when I first left drama school – small parts in three Shakespeares and then I understudied the leads. I was in Taming of The Shrew, The Tamer Tamed, Measure For Measure and…”

The Tamer Tamed?” I asked.

“It’s the sequel to Taming of the Shrew,” Beth told me. “By John Fletcher.”

“Were you teaching Jacobean stuff in Rochester today?” I asked.

“I was doing animal studies with them. They study animals and the physiology of animals and how they’re weighted and how they walk and communicate and eat. They find the characters within the movement of animals.”

“Surely,” I said, “there are a limited number of roles to play in Planet of the Apes and Star Wars?”

“You can use it in anything,” Beth told me. “My comedy career, perchance.”

“When were you last a camel?” I asked.

A golden-headed tamarin (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

A golden-headed tamarin – it screeches (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

“I haven’t done a camel,” admitted Beth, “but I’ve done a golden-headed tamarin many a time. Facial expressions. Eating.”

She started making screeching noises like a small monkey.

“I also teach at Soho Theatre,” Beth said. “I teach at the Comedy Lab Plus. I work with people who are already on the circuit, sketch performers, some performance artists, some cabaret performers, some normal stand-ups. I help them to try different things, shape their sets, make them more theatrical, use the audience, eye contact, that sort of thing.”

“You always wanted to study drama at university?” I asked.

“I applied to five universities. I wanted to be a town planner. But I thought: Why not apply to one drama school? So I did. And I got an audition at Rose Bruford, got in and the rest is history.”

“Why town planning?” I asked. “That says to me: a mind that wants to organise.

“I’m quite organised when it comes to certain things,” Beth agreed. “Not with some others.”

“You want,” I asked, “to make sense of the anarchy of life?”

“Yeah… Well, that’s why I teach as well. It helps me make sense of things.”

“You want,” I suggested, “to have control – not in a bad way – over the anarchy?”

“Yeah,” said Beth. “I’m always in control. It might look like I’m completely not, but I think I am. I never let it go too much.”

“So your show scripts are very tight?” I asked.

Poster image for Beth Vyse Going Dark!

Poster image for one of Beth’s earlier shows – Going Dark!

Going Dark! was really scripted. Get Up With Hands! was scripted. As Funny As Cancer is the least scripted. I wrote lots of it, but I’ve also left room for audience members to come and play the different parts in the story – to play the Chinese doctor, to play Michael Jackson, my mum, my dad. They have to read my cancer diagnosis and that’s pretty hard for anyone. It’s funny but dark and dangerous and weird.”

“And you are a Weirdo,” I said. “I missed the Weirdos Christmas Panto AND your Edinburgh show As Funny As Cancer last year. I’m embarrassed.”

“We had a chat in the street in Edinburgh,” Beth reminded me.

“Oh God, did we?” I asked.

“It was when the Guardian article about me came out.”

The Guardian piece was headlined:

FAKE BREASTS, PING-PONG BALLS AND TEARS IN A COMIC EXPLORATION OF CANCER

Beth Vyse - As funny As Cancer

Beth Vyse – the poster for As Funny As Cancer

Beth told me: “You said I had a bigger picture than the Queen of Spain got when she died.”

“I think there was about two-thirds of a page on you,” I said.

“We have gone off course,” Beth mused.

“It happens,” I said. “When is your show next week?”

“On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Proud Archivist in Haggerston.”

“This is your Edinburgh Fringe show As Funny As Cancer…”

“Yes.”

“You started as an actress and then became a comedian.”

“I was always an actor and then I got breast cancer when I was 28 and everything got kind-of thrown up in the air, really, and the acting kind-of dried up because I didn’t really care and then… Well, I always wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to be the David Bowie of comedy or the Kate Bush of comedy – Someone who is kind of weird and experimental and changes themselves each time. I mean, I’m nowhere near doing that. I’m teaching animal studies in Rochester!”

“Well,” I said, “David Bowie and Kate Bush’s early performances were both influenced by mime. I saw David Bowie when he was a mime and…”

“I always wanted to do comedy,” said Beth, trying to get me back on track, “but I was never brave enough. So, when I got breast cancer at 28, I decided I was going to write some comedy and get up and perform it. I thought: You don’t know how long life is and you don’t know how long you’ve got. Why don’t I just try it? What have I got to lose?

“So I started writing with a friend of mine and we took a show to Edinburgh. I really enjoyed it and I’ve just been doing more comedy ever since. My comedy is big and grotesque and raw and it’s all to do with me having breast cancer. Everything I do is, really. Once it happens to you, you can’t really change that.”

“But you didn’t talk,” I said, “about breast cancer in your shows before this one.”

Beth Vyse as Olive Hands

Olive Hands: “No-one would have known what it was about.”

“I didn’t talk about it until the five-years all-clear. Before this show, no-one would have known it had anything to do with me having cancer. I played this woman Olive Hands who was a big, grotesque, daytime TV presenter. All she wanted was fame and she had a really nice family at home but never went. A constant want for something. But why? Why would anyone want this type of thing? It was all to do with that theme of wanting something you couldn’t have. In one show, Olive Hands is ill and this is where it all came from. It seemed mental and silly; no-one would have known what it was about.”

“You got the all-clear after five years?”

“Yes. I hadn’t really let anyone know except my close family and got the five-years all-clear and decided last year was the right year to do As Funny As Cancer. I’m taking the show to Leicester, Manchester, Exeter and, in April, New Zealand and I might be going to Los Angeles later in the year.”

“And the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I might take As Funny As Cancer up again, but also a new show. I want to have Gareth Morinan in it, playing Noel Edmonds. I’m quite obsessed with Deal or No Deal. It makes me cry!”

“Why?” I asked.

“People just suddenly win £40,000. I find it very emotional and it’s all done on complete chance. The idea is so stupid and ridiculous, but I find it very emotional and I’m interested in why it gets me like that. It is just boxes with numbers on them. It’s all complete chance.”

“Like life,” I said.

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Comic Michael Brunström likes to do things he is not naturally good at doing

Michael Brunström holds his Malcolm Hardee Award

Michael Brunström and Malcolm Hardee Award

The annual Malcolm Hardee Awards are given to individuals.

At the Edinburgh Fringe last month, Michael Brunström won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. His show was titled The Golden Age of Steam and, this week, he performed it at the Museum of Comedy in London – which was arranged after he won the award.

“So,” I said to him, “since you won the Malcolm Hardee Award, your life has just been one long round of parties, champagne and job offers?”

“It’s more of an ego boost, really,” he told me. “It’s very hard to measure success. It seems like I’ve got a few interesting gigs gravitating towards me.”

“Where,” I asked, “do you keep your award?”

“On my bookshelf.”

“Do you think you can build on it?” I asked. “The award, not the bookshelf.”

“It’s all ballyhoo. It’s all nonsense,” said Michael. “But enough of it builds up a certain presence. The important thing, while still taking yourself seriously, is not to believe the ballyhoo. People have come out of the blue with unusual offers, but I can’t discuss them.”

“Why?”

“Because,” he laughed, “they’re the kinds of things that fall through.”

“I was sad,” I told him, “that your 1960s-clothes-desiger-Mary-Quant-on-a-whaling-expedition-to-Antarctica routine didn’t end up in your Golden Age of Steam.”

“It might end up in something else,” he told me.

“Was she really speaking in a slight German accent,” I asked, “or did I hallucinate that?”

Michael Brunström not Noel Edmonds

Michael Brunström’s eye not Noel Edmonds’

“I can’t do accents,” Michael told me. “I’m doing Noel Edmonds on Monday at Cabarera. I ordered myself a beard today. I can’t grow one by Monday.”

“You’re quite shy,” I said, “so it’s surprising you do audience involvement as much as you did in Edinburgh.”

“Well,” explained Michael, “it’s good to do things you’re afraid of. It’s good to stretch yourself. I am not a natural showman. Maybe that’s what makes it funny. I don’t regard myself as a natural chatty, confident compere type – so that’s why I want to do more of that.”

“What do you want to be doing in three years time?” I asked. “At the Edinburgh Fringe, people tend to succeed well with autobiographical theme shows: My ten years of heroin hell or whatever.”

“Perhaps in three years time I will do an autobiographical show. I don’t have the guts to do that yet.”

“Where were you brought up?”

“West London.”

“Oh dear,” I said. “That’s dull. And I suppose you had a happy childhood? That’s death for comedy.”

“I don’t think I did have a happy childhood,” said Michael. “But I think it was unhappy in a rather dull and complex and un-theatrical way. I had a difficult, unhappy, Liverpudlian father who used sarcasm as a defence mechanism.”

“Sarcasm is never good in a father,” I said. “It was sarcasm, not irony?”

“I think the distinction was not something he would be prepared to pick apart.”

“What was his job?”

“He was a management consultant.”

“Oh dear,” I said, “That’s dull. What was your mother?”

“A laboratory assistant. She worked in a hospital, but spent most of her time looking after her four boys. I’m the youngest of four.”

“What are the others now?”

“One is a doctor of English Literature at St Patrick’s College in Dublin. One is a social worker in Brighton. And the other one is a professor of Psychology at Bristol University. I am the least accomplished of the four.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I disagreed. “You’re an editor at a serious publisher…You should surely be writing books yourself.”

“I don’t find writing easy.”

“You think of yourself more as a performer than a writer?”

“I’ve never been a writer.”

Ken Campbell - The éminence grise of alternative comedy

Ken Campbell – The éminence grise of alternative comedy

It was at this point I remembered Ken Campbell. I have a shit memory. I had forgotten that, in my first blog chat with Michael in May last year, he mentioned working with Ken Campbell, the éminence grise of UK alternative comedy. Michael recently wrote a blog about Ken’s influence on him.

“What’s the attraction of surrealism?” I asked Michael.

“I think” he replied, “that audiences like to be bemused, surprised and shocked. In live performance, the audience doesn’t want to be experiencing it inside their heads. They want to experience the thing that’s happening immediately there in front of them.

“The way I like to explain it is that, if you go to a chess match, you don’t go there to watch what’s happening, you go there to think in your own head what could happen and experience your own understanding of what’s going on.

“In a live performance, it’s not that. The audience is there to watch what is happening. I don’t think my stuff would work on radio. It’s very visual. But, in the same way I try to do lots of audience interaction because I’m not very naturally good at it, I want to do audio stuff because…”

“Well,” I foolishly interrupted, “any sensible producer goes for the person then develops the most suitable material. It’s the person that’s important.”

“I want,” continued Michael, “to make some little podcasty audio things to put out there.”

“Have you played around with sound?” I asked.

“I used to when I was a kid,” he told me. “Me and my mate Robert used to make spoof radio shows together on an old cassette player. Introduce songs and interviews. That sort of thing. I haven’t done it in the last 30 years. Doing it in audio is the constraint.”

“You like constraints?” I asked.

“Yes. The constraint for The Golden Age of Steam was that I wanted to do a show without any food in it.”

“Is that a constraint?” I asked. “Surely lots of shows have no food in them. Macbeth, for example… Oh, no! There’s the banquet!”

Michael Brunström wants to be constrained by food

Michael Brunström wants to be constrained by food

“It’s the go-to thing with alternative comics,” explained Michael. “They always mention or have food in their shows. It’s not easy to do a show with no food. I didn’t even succeed. It had two cans of Lilt in it.”

“Strictly speaking,” I said, “a can of Lilt is not food. Maybe next year you should do a show with no mention or presence of liquids.”

“That’s very difficult,” said Michael. “because liquids are comedy gold.

“Mmmm…” I contemplated. “No pissing jokes. No sweating jokes.”

“How,” asked Michael, “Can you do a show without sweating?”

“No sneezing,” I said.

“Audiences love liquids,” said Michael. “It’s like when there’s a gun on stage. They pay attention when there is liquid on stage.”

“You should maybe do a show with a gun but no liquids,” I suggested.

“It’s on my list,” admitted Michael. “My current plan is to write a one-hour show with the theme of an art history lecture. Maybe take a painting and extrapolate from that like Peter Greenaway does.”

“Why art?” I asked.

“I think you need a strong visual image. Maybe The Garden of Earthly Delights or something like that.”

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I got it wrong in the Grouchy Club podcast + Noel Edmonds killed a man

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club podcast in her London flat because she was ill.

It was possibly a mistake on her part to ask me about my background – or possibly a clever ploy so she needed to talk less. This is an extract about me working on TV shows last century:


JOHN
The first show I ever did (as a researcher) was Tiswas and that was 39 episodes in a row and I think they were a minimum of three hours long – I think they changed the duration. Basically, 39 weeks of 3-hour shows – live shows – tends to settle you in a bit

COPSTICK
Bloody hell. And was the finding of weird acts how you got to meet Malcolm Hardee?

JOHN
Yes. I did children’s shows – Tiswas and a few others less well known. I never really dealt with stars. I was never that interested.

COPSTICK
Lucky you.

JOHN
Indeed. What I tended to deal with was ‘real people’.

COPSTICK
They’re difficult to find in television.

JOHN
But real people who want to be on television shows tend to live in appalling places, so I never got to go anywhere glamorous… Never ever ever go to Barrow-in-Furness. It’s a nightmare. Don’t go. Three hours to travel one inch.

COPSTICK
Oh my God! The man who was the love of my life – at the time and for some time after – is a doctor in Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
Well, I’m very sorry for you.

COPSTICK
Isn’t it lovely? It’s Lake District.

JOHN
It’s awful. It was awful.

COPSTICK
I’d like to apologise to anyone listening who is on or around Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
I went to Barrow-in-Furness because a blind man wanted to parachute jump.

COPSTICK
Whoa!

JOHN
This was for Game For a Laugh because, after the children’s shows, I did ‘real people’ shows. So I did Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise!

(AND THIS IS WHERE I MADE THE FIRST OF TWO FACTUAL MISTAKES IN THE PODCAST – I HAVE A NOTORIOUSLY BAD MEMORY – IN FACT, I WENT TO SEE THE BLIND WOULD-BE PARACHUTIST FOR CILLA BLACK’S SURPRISE! SURPRISE! NOT FOR GAME FOR A LAUGH. SO…)

Things like that: finding bizarre acts.

COPSTICK
Do you know my friend Matthew Kelly?

JOHN
I did the series after he left.

COPSTICK
Lovely, lovely, lovely Matthew Kelly. He’s a wonderful man.

JOHN
I did work with Matthew Kelly once, I did Children’s ITV. In my Promotion hat, I produced Children’s ITV because the BBC was destroying ITV’s ratings in children’s hour, so they thought up the idea of having a block of Children’s ITV presented by a famous person doing the links. So I recorded a month’s worth of links in an afternoon, I think.

(IN FACT, AGAIN, MY MEMORY LET ME DOWN. I RECORDED A MONTH OF LINKS IN TWO AFTERNOONS, A FORTNIGHT APART)

And one of the people who did it was Matthew Kelly. Terribly nice man, yes.

COPSTICK
Gorgeous man. Anyway, sorry I interrupted. You were talking about finding a blind man who wanted to parachute out of Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
And we would have done this, because it’s quite easy. You just attach the person to another person who really can parachute jump, throw them out of a plane and…

COPSTICK
Presumably it’s not like going along a road. Once you’ve jumped out of a plane, being sighted or non-sighted, there only is one route and that’s straight down.

JOHN
Yup. Much like my career.

COPSTICK
Only since you met me, John

JOHN
Again, as with most of my stories, there is a coda; there is a But…

COPSTICK
Mmm hmmm?

JOHN
We didn’t actually do this, because Noel Edmonds managed to kill someone on his show. (BBC TV’s The Late, Late Breakfast Show.)

COPSTICK
Yes! I remember that.

JOHN
There was a man suspended in a box and, for some extraordinary reason, you could open the box from the inside. He was suspended about 40ft up in the air and, for an unknown reason, he opened the box. He fell out – 40ft down or whatever – died. This happened (on BBC TV) and LWT, who were producing Game For a Laugh (ACTUALLY I MEANT SURPRISE! SURPRISE!) thought: Oooooooohhhhh. It’s very dodgy. We would never have let it happen (what happened on BBC TV) because we would have had 18 safety features.


This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast lasts 31 minutes.

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