“The first time I met Ray was in 2004 at a Linda Trayers gig in Kilburn where Russell Brand headlined and only three people turned up,” Paul Ricketts told me yesterday.
“The gig was pulled but, Russell Brand still demanded his money (£100), leaving Linda Trayers in tears. Straightaway, Ray saw his opportunity to console Linda whilst at the same time continually asking for a gig.
“If he fancied and wanted to impress any lady or promoter he would do his ‘£5 of my own money’ trick which did have overtone of bribery when he paid over his ‘Bank Of Presto’ note with his own face printed on it.”
As well as being an excellent comedian, Paul Ricketts runs the Up The Arts comedy club in London (with Verity Welch) and booked Ray Presto regularly. I asked Paul about Ray Presto because, when he died aged 74 last week, Ray was said in an obituary to be a “stalwart of the London open mic circuit” and “a regular at clubs including Pear Shaped and, most notably, the Comedy Store‘s King Gong show, where he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences… He returned time after time to the show – until 2009, when he was asked to stop, after a new booker took over.”
This intrigued me, because I had never seen his act and the phrase “he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences” sounded interesting. Especially when Fix comedy entrepreneur Harry Deansway wrote in the obituary: “Famed for his strange but smart appearance, unique delivery of out-of-date jokes and magic tricks, Ray Presto often left audiences baffled. Was this a well thought-out character act, or a delusional Seventies throwback? Was he in on the joke? ”
Paul Ricketts told me:
“Ray was the last of the line of strange acts that I saw during the mid to late naughties – which included Phil Zimmerman, Joel Elnaugh, Linda Trayers, Persephone Lewin and Bry Nylon. Some of these acts were knowingly playing with the conventions of stand-up, while others could be seen as deluded in their ambitions.”
“Ray,” Paul told me, “stood apart because he did take himself very seriously. Because of his previous incarnation as a magician he felt he had the experience and stagecraft to make it as a comic. Right from the start he aggressively sold himself as a comedy performer.
“He became a monthly fixture at the Comedy Store Gong Show, cleverly realising that his Happy Days Are Here Again intro music took up at least one minute of the five minutes he needed to survive. His material was made up of inoffensive old jokes – the sort you’d find in Christmas crackers – delivered at a pace that would make Stewart Lee sound like fast-talking Adam Bloom. It was this slow, deliberate delivery which made him distinctive and generated much of the laughter.
“But his self-belief meant that he didn’t like to take advice from anyone. Don Ward of the Comedy Store liked Ray, gave him several 10 minutes spots and wanted him to develop his act from old jokes mixed with magic tricks to include more observations about his life and age. Ray, however, was wary of moving in this direction as he didn’t want to reveal too much about himself. Instead he tried to add more ‘racy’ material – notably a joke about underage sex – which led to him being immediately ‘gonged off’ at the Comedy Store.”
Anthony Miller of Pear Shaped remembers that Ray “became so successful at the Comedy Store that they had to ban him from the gong as he was undermining the object of the Gong Show – to be cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. He told me he didn’t understand why they stopped him doing the gong and seemed a bit put out by it and so I suggested to him that probably someone like him making it ‘human’ was undermining it a bit and that he shouldn’t let that undermine any relationship he had built up with them if they still gave him gigs. To which he replied That is very deep.”
Paul Ricketts tells me Ray was very ambitious, but would hand out publicity photos of himself with the corner torn off, presumably because they were old photographs and had his real name printed on them.
“He was as impatient as any younger comic about his progression in stand-up,” Paul says, “He would badger people for gigs and hand out leaflets and photos to any and everyone. Once he’d been on or turned up at a gig hoping to get on, Ray would heckle some acts by falling asleep in the front two rows. Not only would this disconcert those on stage, it would disconcert the audience who would be scared to wake him up as they weren’t sure if Ray was dead or alive. In any event ‘falling asleep’ would ensure that Ray became the centre of attention.
“Despite me asking Ray many times,” Paul told me, “he wasn’t forthcoming about his past – all he ever said was that he was a magician from Hull.”
Harry Deansway reveals that Ray moved from Hull to London in 2002 “with the aim of getting more work as a writer, but struggled to get published. Off stage, he was a committed atheist and hedonist, having published a book in 1972 called Choose Your Pleasure, a collection of essays on the pros and cons of hedonism and self-indulgence. Off the back of this he got regular writing work as a columnist in Penthouse magazine, which he contributed to under his real name David Shaw… Although he will be remembered by many on the circuit, it will not be for what he wanted to be remembered for – as a serious writer.”
Paul Ricketts adds: “I had some political conversations with him and he was a libertarian in the way that he instinctively distrusted Government, especially the tax authorities. This could explain the occasion when he asked to perform his magic act at a children’s centre but changed his mind when he was asked to give his bank account details and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.
“On another occasion, he asked me how he could open a bank account under his stage name so he could avoid paying tax.
“All I really knew about Ray was that he had an eye for the ladies, he was ambitious to do well in stand-up and he seemed to have enough money to annually spend the winter months in Thailand and showed me pictures of himself strolling through Thai food markets wearing Bermuda shorts.”