Tag Archives: pantomime

OH YES IT IS ! – Matt Roper + the first pantomime in New York for 100 years

(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)

“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”

We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.

“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”

“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”

“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”

“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)

Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”

“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”

“Yes,” said Matt.

“OK,” I said.

“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”

“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”

“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”

“Someone?” I asked.

Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)

“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!

“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”

“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”

“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”

“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”

“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”

“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”

“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”

(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)

“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”

“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.

“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”

“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”

“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”

“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”

“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”

“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”

“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”

Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”

“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.

“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”

“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”

“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”

“And you were…”

Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State

“Androboros.”

“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”

“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”

“So you are surviving,” I said.

Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”

“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”

“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”

“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”

“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”

“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.

Wondrous Wilfredo performs at The Slipper Room

“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”

“And you…?” I asked.

“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”

“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”

“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”

“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”

Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage

“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”

“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”

“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”

“Nothing surprises me,” I said.

Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.

“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”

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Paul Boyd: from Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory to the bloody Tower of London

Paul Boyd at the Tower of London yesterday

Paul Boyd, ready to audition, at the Tower of London yesterday

My chum comedienne Janey Godley’s weekly podcast has a new signature tune from today, written by the wildly prolific Paul Boyd.

“It’s the same tune,” he told me yesterday at the Tower of London, “I just brushed it up a bit, because I thought: They’ve had it for five years now. I didn’t want to have an outcry from all her fans if I changed it too much.”

“Probably wise,” I said. “There’s an awful lot of them and anyone connected to Janey is possibly dangerous.”

On Monday, I had not been able to go to the launch party for Paul’s latest music album One Night Stand.

“It is,” Paul told me, “subtitled The Best of Paul Boyd, Volume 1 – I made them put Volume 1 in case anyone thought I had died.”

The launch party had included performances by some of the artists.

“It was really strange,” Paul told me, “to hear my songs sung out of context and not within the confines of a show. This is my 7th album but all of the previous ones have been cast recordings.”

“How many shows have you written?” I asked.

One Night stand but 22 musicals and much more

One night stand but 22 musicals + much more

“22 musicals, 35 scores for plays that have toured nationally, 2 water spectaculars and hundreds of songs for cabaret, concerts and so on.”

“You did two water spectaculars?” I asked.

“They’re very big,” said Paul, “in Japan, Taiwan, Serbia and Denmark.”

“You did two water spectaculars?” I repeated.

“Huge water spectaculars,” he replied, “that I co-wrote, scored and co-directed. One was called The Little Mermaid and the other one Sinbad. Boats were coming on. It was crazy. I really loved it.”

“Serbia?” I asked. “Before, after or during the war there?”

“After the war. In Belgrade, there were lots of bullet holes in the walls, but I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s, so I was the only one not phased by any of it. There were about 2,000 people a night coming to see it. We were staging the show in the Olympic swimming pool which had become a bit dilapidated since 1984, so there was a real sadness to the place.”

“Maybe the swimming pool was a bomb crater?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “It survived, weirdly. But there were little things like they didn’t have enough diesel to heat the pool to the standards we required because, when you do water shows, there are so many rules and regulations about the amount of chlorine and so on and the temperature dictates the costumes your actors wear. So, in Serbia, we had all the costumes re-designed, made out of neoprene – the stuff you get in wetsuits – which has a slightly insulated quality. But we had to have two mermaids because they got too cold if they stayed in the water too long.”

“You are,” I said, “from Belfast, but the name Boyd…”

Paul’s glorious musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory

Paul’s glorious musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory

“… is Scottish. yes. I’m from the Royal House of Stuart – well, a servant of… maybe we scrubbed their steps… There is a rumour that the Boyds were kicked out of Scotland for flirting with the King’s men, which is a family trait I like to keep going. Now I’m working with the Beefeaters…”

“Which is why are we meeting at the Tower of London…” I prompted.

“Yes. because I’m doing auditions for chorus members here today. Next February – the 13th and 14th – there’s a variety show – Live at The Tower – it’s Valentine’s Eve and Valentine’s Night – which Historic Royal Palaces have asked me to direct.

“Like all royal palaces, the Tower of London needs to raise money every year to keep going – I think they need to raise something in the region of £2 million a year just to keep the gates open and keep everything functioning. We’re hoping to raise money for St John’s Chapel, which is the oldest Norman church in England – it’s in the White Tower. Lots of people were dragged out of there to meet their deaths. It needs a bit of tender loving care so we’re going to raise a bit of money for that.

Beefeater Moira Cameron (Photo by Joshd at en.wikipedia)

Yeoman Warden woman Moira Cameron (Photograph by Joshd at en.wikipedia)

“The Beefeaters themselves – the Yeomen Warders – came up with this idea – Pete McGowran and Moira Cameron – the first and only female Beefeater. We didn’t know what kind of show to do so I thought a variety show. I love variety, music hall. The Royal Variety Show is the kind of feel we’re looking for and that’s the kind of audience who will be invited along to pay the sort of prices we want for the tickets.”

“Televised?” I asked.

“Not this year. Fingers crossed for future years. The idea is we launch it next year and see what happens.”

“It’s in the White Tower?” I asked.

“It’s in the New Armouries building – There’s a huge banqueting hall on the top floor which has the White Tower as the backdrop.”

“That’s in February next year,” I said, “but, before that…?”

“I’m directing my first panto.”

“Where?”

“Blackpool, the home of variety. At the Blackpool Grand.”

“That’s gigantic,” I said. “And it’s your first panto?”

“Yes,” said Paul. “A lot of my shows started off as Christmas productions, like Alice: The Musical and Pinocchio and Hansel and Gretel, but I’ve never written a panto ever.”

“Oh yes you have,” I have.

“Oh no I haven’t,” said Paul.

“What’s the panto?” I asked.

Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs starring Sue Pollard with real-life little people. A lot of pantos don’t do that now. A lot have children with big heads and pre-recorded voices. And some just have people on their knees. We’re very fortunate. We have a very good-quality cast.”

“Pantos,” I said, “are very restrictive, but in a good way.”

Paul’s first ever pantomime - coming to the Blackpool Grand

Paul’s first ever pantomime – coming to the Blackpool Grand

“Yes, there are all the rules and regulations. Things like the good fairy always enters from stage right and the bad fairy or Wicked Queen always has to enter from stage left.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul. “If you ever see a panto where the good fairy comes on from stage left, it’s wrong.”

“Any trouble with Disney?” I asked.

“I imagine there’s always trouble with Disney. But I think the only thing is, with the dwarfs, you’re not allowed to call them Sleepy. Dozy, Doc, Bashful and so on.”

“There was,” I said, “the porn film Snow White and The Seven Perverts and, when Disney threatened to sue, the distributors changed the title to Some Day My Prince Will Come.”

“I remember reading once,” said Paul, “that someone was doing a panto of Beauty and The Beast – which is a Disney stage show as well as a film – and they had to have their posters approved by Disney in case they infringed any Disney rights.”

“You are very prolific,” I said, “but you have not done a new musical this year.”

“I did have three shows lined up,” explained Paul, “which all fell apart. We have had a really dodgy year in Theatreland this year.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, there’s a lot of people running venues in London who just really don’t know what they’re doing. That’s the honest truth. I work in Rep theatres all over the country and other theatres all over the world but in London – particularly on the fringe – the lunatics are running the asylum.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

Some of Paul’s many musicals

Just some of Paul Boyd’s successful musicals

“I think so, yeah. Though make sure you say there’s some lovely lunatics, because some of them I get on with really well. But I’ve had a couple of run-ins with people who’ve taken shows almost to the point of production and then turned round and decided they’re going in another direction. You don’t do that. I’m not used to that. A lot of faffing around. There’s no malice in it at all. A lot of people just don’t know what they’re doing and I think a lot of us, as writers, are finding it frustrating when our only outlet is the fringe and off-West End.

“One of the shows I had lined up with one of these fringe venues that didn’t come off this year, we’ve decided to do next year and I’ve just started to co-write it with a very well-known, award-winning TV scriptwriter who is venturing into theatre for the first time. He’s bringing a lot of cachet with him and a lot of people with big names want to be involved in it now. So having it fall through initially has actually helped the show.”

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I meet my namesake Amanda Fleming, an LA actress who found her rock band father after 16 Sudden years in Rochdale

Last Wednesday, I got an e-mail. It read:

Hi John

I have a film, Titans of Newark. Being a fellow Fleming, I was wondering if you could do me the honour and help with creating a buzz about it. I play the goddess Hera and it is on at the Short Film Corner during the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Amanda Fleming

Amanda Fleming in the award-winning Titans of Newark

Amanda Fleming in award-winning short Titans of Newark

I looked at the film trailer on YouTube and I met Amanda at the National Film Theatre yesterday, but we barely talked about the film.

“My mum was very young when she had me,” said Amanda. “She was just turned 18. I was conceived in the summer of 1969. What can I say? He was in a band. She was a bit of a hippie. Apparently my father was in his early 20s and in a rock band which had a one-hit wonder. About four years later, my mother ended up marrying someone else. I was brought up by my grandparents in Rochdale; they legally adopted me, so my aunties became my sisters.

“By the time I was 16, I was sick and tired of asking my mother who my real father was. I think, at various times, she told me his name was Bob, James and lots of other names and eventually I said: I’m not speaking to you ever again unless you tell me the truth. She told me he was called Ian but not his surname and she told me: He’s red-haired like you.

“So, one day, I decided Right! I’m going to find out who he is. I set off at five in the morning. I knew he was called Ian, had red hair, looked a bit like me and lived somewhere in Sudden, which is an area of Rochdale.

“I was only 16. I didn’t realise how big Sudden was. I got there about six in the morning. There are about 150 streets. I started on one side of Sudden and the first street I came to was called (Amanda told me the name of the street).

“I knocked on a door and, by this time, it was seven in the morning. It was a young couple. Luckily they were getting up for work. I said I’m looking for my real father and I told them He’s called Ian, he’s got red hair, he was in a band and he lives somewhere in Sudden.

“They said: Sorry. He’s not here. We haven’t been here very long in this street. So I spent the entire day knocking on ten doors in every street.

“By about 6.30 at night, I was distraught. I thought: I’m never going to find him. What am I doing? What am I thinking of? I started crying. I was about to give up and there was an Old People’s Home that’s shut down since and I saw there was a small pathway to another street and I thought: I wonder if I’ve been on that street? And it was the street I’d first gone to. But it was the other end of that street and I was about to give up but I thought I’ll try one more time and I knocked on a door and an old couple opened it.

“I was crying.

“They said: Hello. You alright, then?

“I said: I’ve spent all day – cry, cry – Nobody knows who he is – cry. cry – My father.

Oh sweetheart, they said. What’s his last name?

“I said: I don’t know. All I know is he was in a band, he’s got red hair, he’s called Ian and…

Oh, that’s Ian and his brother Alan, they said. They’re not living there any more, but his parents are still there at No 16.

“So I ran to No 16, banged on the door and this old lady came out. She looked right at me and said: You’re Amanda, aren’t you?

“Apparently my aunts had taken me at 18 months old to say: Hey! You need to tell your son he has a daughter. He was away on a three-year tour with his band in Europe. He was doing really well and so he didn’t know anything about it and they wanted to keep it quiet because they didn’t want it to interfere with his life. But they’d matured since then and they were a lot more laid back and relaxed, so they said: Come on in.

“I was really shocked. I thought: I’ve actually found them!

“They got on the phone to my dad and he came down and I think he must have asked me about 25 times: So, how are you? That’s all he seemed to ask me.

Amanda at the NFT in London yesterday

Amanda at the National Film Theatre in London yesterday

“And, when I found my dad, that was my excuse to go fully into entertainment. He was an entertainer. So I went to Oldham Theatre Workshop and went to drama school. After that, I did a lot of theatre, a lot of Rep, worked for the Cambridge Shakespeare Company and a lot of other things.

“Independent film was just starting to pick up in the early 1990s so I did that and I also did corporates and bits on TV and radio and worked for a company called Absolute Murder that did improv theatre murder mysteries. Then I started up my own theatre company DeProfundis Productions.”

“Why DeProfundis?” I asked.

“I thought it was a good name for a company which is new writing, semi-Gothic productions with maybe a bit of sci-fi mixed in there. I grew up loving Hammer House of Horror and I loved the idea of bringing Gothic theatre to the public. So I wrote an hour-long semi-Gothic interpretation of Elizabeth Báthory‘s story.”

“She’s the one who bathed in virgins’ blood…” I said.

“Yes,” said Amanda, “she was reputed to have murdered 650 people over 30 years.”

“So you learned about improvising murders,” I said, “and then you wrote about a woman mass murderer. That’s rather scary.”

“Yes,” laughed Amanda, “but I also used to do touring pantomimes all the time. I loved it. It’s the meat-and-potatoes of theatre training. And then someone said: Have thou ever thought of doing comedy adult pantos? So, in 2005, I set up Carry-on-Antics Pantomimes.

Amanda - Oh yes it is! - in a saucy panto

Amanda – Oh yes it is! – in a saucy Carry On type UK panto

“My dad said he was proud of me for doing that but he didn’t come to see any of the shows because he said: I don’t want to see you in that way. There was no nudity. It was just tongue-in-cheek, very slapstick, very Carry On. It wasn’t that rude. I arranged a six-week tour; five shows a week. We did Big Dick Whittington with his pussy and, the next year, Little Red Romping Hood and Hot Cinders. It was pure comedy.”

Amanda went to Los Angeles in 2007.

Amanda with red hair in 2011

Amanda with red hair in 2011

“I got a three-year visa and I was only going to use it to go over for the pilot season, which is January 10th to round about April – three months of intense auditions for episodes in up-and-coming productions and for new characters in already-running productions.

“Then I was going to come back to the UK, because I was supposed to be getting booked to arrange a third year of pantos – a 10-week tour. But that year – 2007 – the recession hit and only three of the venues re-booked. So I stayed in the US and signed with a US agent and, for the first six months, it was mostly getting my face known.”

“What’s your pitch?” I asked. “I’m the new Helen Mirren?”

Amanda with blonde hair in 2009

Amanda with blonde hair in 2009

“Someone did say,” laughed Amanda, “that I’m a younger Helen Mirren mixed with Meryl Streep… but then someone also said I was like Bette Midler!”

“This Titans of Newark film,” I said, “which we haven’t talked about. It  was filmed in 2012?”

“The latter end, yes,” said Amanda. “It was edited up to the beginning of 2013, then went round all the festivals. The budget on Titans of Newark was quite low – it was done as a student project – but it’s been winning awards at lots of film festivals. And now I’m going over to Cannes in May to plug it even more.”

“As a kid, did you want to perform or be famous?” I asked. “They’re different.”

Not bad for a young girl from Rochdale

Not bad for a young girl from Rochdale…

“When you first leave drama school,” said Amanda. “you’re all Ooh! I’m going to be famous! but it doesn’t work like that. It’s a lot of hard work and plugging yourself. You gotta do a lot of PR and get your face in as many places as possible. Now I’d rather people come to me and say I really respect you as an actor and as a business person and entrepreneur. I’d rather have that sort of pat on the back than celebrity. Though, of course, if opportunity knocks – Great!”

The 26-minute Titans of Newark movie is viewable online.

Always a pleasure to meet a Fleming.

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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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British comedian Bob Slayer reports on how women pee in public in Australia

Yesterday I went to a primary school pantomime in the sports hall of a very well-run new school in Woodford, Essex. The work put into the thing was amazing, but the Disney-esque innocence of Beauty & The Beast as performed by Year Three of Churchfields School was slightly undercut by the smell of stale plimsolls.

Such is the glamorous life I lead.

While I was doing that, though, the So It Goes blog’s first ever Foreign Correspondent was donning his shades and Trilby hat and sending me what could and should be the first in a series of exclusive reports from Australia.

Esteemed Irish playwright Brendan Behan once described himself as not a writer with a drinking problem but a drinker with a writing problem.

Esteemed English comedy performer and entertainment entrepreneur Bob Slayer is, in the same way, not a comedian with a drinking problem…

He is in the land of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to perform his show titled Bob Slayer Will Out-Drink Australia.

So here, for the first time…

SO IT GOES IN AUSTRALIA
from Bob Slayer

Long flights don’t normally phase me, however I now know why my flight was the cheapest. Royal Brunei Airways don’t serve booze and nor do any of the stop-off airports (although the in-flight map did helpfully tell me at all times what direction Mecca was).

24 hours of sobriety did something strange to me. I started to notice things… like how people with kids on planes look like they are psychotically about to kill them all the time until someone looks at their baby and then they transform into uber-proud parents. The fear that sobriety could turn me into an observational comedian was enough to keep me drinking.

Fortunately, I was able to max out my duty-free at Melbourne Airport. I enquired if the limit applied to how much you bought or how much you actually took through Customs because, if it was the latter, I planned to drink an extra bottle of Jägermeister there-and-then… Unfortunately, this seemed frowned upon.

Melbourne seems to have become very en-trend since I was last here. They have guerilla knitting on lamp posts and gourmet Taco vans that scenesters get very excited about and queue at for hours. 

I met a lady called Domani who took me to a busy park full of hipster Melbonites having Australia Day Bar-B-Qs. Later, she taught me the art of peeing in public without getting caught. 

The secret is all in the position. Instead of the traditional squat that gives away what a lady is doing and often leads to wet feet (as demonstrated by some English girls I met), it seems Melbourne ladies have learned to adopt an asymmetrical curtsey-type squat which can be perfectly disguised as a stretch or lunge. This technique does require that the exponent is wearing a summery dress. 

I am still learning how knickers are dealt with. 

I intend to investigate further and hopefully get photos.

I also had my first run-in with the Australian Police last night. I had been told that they can be somewhat heavy-handed over here and, as darkness fell in the park, a number of police cars appeared and drove through, herding everyone out. The revellers seemed to accept that the party was over. 

Unfortunately, the police did not seem interested in my questions as to why they needed to clear the park. Even when I told them that this information was for John Fleming’s So It Goes blog. 

They refused to give me a lift back to my flat and I declined their offer of a bed for the night. So, alas, I still have a lot to learn about Australian policing but I am sure there will be more updates in this area before my tour of duty is up. 

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In praise of the Daily Telegraph and Pear Shaped Comedy Club’s quirkiness

To start at the end of this blog and to reply to your reaction…

Look.

It’s my blog. I am allowed to witter.

So, for fans of Tristram Shandy

Brian Damage and Krysstal’s weekly Pear Shaped comedy club has been running in London’s West End for eleven years. Brian and Krysstal promote it as “the second worst comedy club in London”. I prefer to call Pear Shaped the Daily Telegraph of British open spot comedy clubs.

Let me explain.

When I blogged about last weekend’s six-hour event celebrating the anarchic life of Ian Hinchliffe, I did not mention that I told ex-ICA Director of Live Arts Lois Keidan about my admiration for Bernard Manning as a comic, Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentary debater and the Daily Telegraph as a newspaper. I do not think she was impressed with this triple whammy.

But – in addition to my love of quirky Daily Telegraph obituaries in their golden era under Hugh Massingberd and their sadly now-dropped legendary Page Three oddities – I think the Daily Telegraph is the only actual national NEWSpaper left. All the others are, in effect, magazines with ‘think’ pieces and additional background to yesterday’s TV news.

But the Daily Telegraph prints a high quantity of short news reports and (outside of election times) maintains an old-fashioned Fleet Street demarcation between News and Comment. The news reporting is, mostly, unbiased straight reportage; the comment is what non-Telegraph readers might expect.

They have also consistently displayed an admiration for rebels.

The Daily Telegraph – perhaps moreso the Sunday Telegraph – always showed an interest in and admiration for comedian Malcolm Hardee. They loved quirky MP Alan Clark, though they disapproved of his sexual amorality. The Daily Telegraph even surprisingly championed early Eminem. When the red-top tabloids were claiming his music and his act were the end of Western Civilization, the Daily Telegraph reviewed his first UK tour as being in the great tradition of British pantomime.

I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

So the Daily Telegraph ended up with an amazing quantity of news stories, often not fully explained because they had been cut short.

I remember reading on a classic Page Three of the old Daily Telegraph, a brief court report about a man accused of scaring lady horse-riders by leaping out of hedges in country lanes dressed in a full frogman’s outfit, including flippers, goggles and breathing tube. That was, pretty much, the whole news item. If ever a story needed more background printed, this was it.

The Pear Shaped Comedy club is a bit like the Daily Telegraph in that it is an extraordinary hodge-podge of fascinating items apparently thrown together randomly but somehow holding together as a recognisable whole with its own personality. Quirky, eccentric and barely under control. Last night, in addition to the consistently good and massively under-praised Brian Damage & Krysstal themselves, the show included increasingly-highly-thought-of Stephen Carlin, rising new comics Laurence Tuck and Phillip Wragg and very new but intriguing Samantha Hannah.

And then there was long-time comic, club owner, compere, comedy craftsman and humour guru Ivor Dembina. He had come down to try out some new material as he is performing in four shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, including the fascinatingly unformatted Ivor’s Other Show. He told me:

“I might just invite on people I’ve met in the street. Anything that takes my fancy.” Then he added, “Do you want to come on it one afternoon, John? Can you do anything?”

“No,” Pear Shaped co-owner Vicky de Lacey correctly interrupted, “he can write but he can’t actually do anything.”

But that never stopped Little and Large, so I may yet appear on Ivor’s Other Show, perhaps as a human statue. There is, inevitably, a ‘living statue’ resource page on the internet.

We live in wonderful times.

I refer you to the start of this blog.

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The Long Good Friday script and Malcolm Hardee following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier

On Sunday, I met an old friend of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee at the first annual Pantomime Horse Race in Greenwich. It has only just reminded me that, I guess around 1990/1991, Malcolm told me another chum of his – Barrie Keeffe, who scripted the wonderful British gangster movie The Long Good Friday – had approached him with an intriguing, bizarre and possibly brilliant suggestion.

When The Long Good Friday was produced as a TV movie, I was working for Lew Grade’s ATV in Birmingham. Lew had financed The Long Good Friday via one of his subsidiary production companies Black Lion for transmission on the ITV Network at Easter. But, when the movie was completed and Lew saw what the climactic ‘twist’ to Barrie Keeffe’s plot actually was (I presume he had never personally read the script before it was produced), he was morally and patriotically outraged. He immediately withdrew it from its ITV transmission and, initially, refused to even let the producers buy it for themselves for cinema distribution. It was only when George Harrison’s Handmade Films made Lew an offer he couldn’t refuse that he eventually relented and allowed it to be screened in cinemas to critical acclaim.

More than ten years after he had scripted The Long Good Friday, Barrie Keeffe told Malcolm he had bought rights from the Estate of the late John Osborne to update the classic showbiz play The Entertainer.

The Entertainer (which was partially about the Suez Crisis) had been written by Osborne in 1957 specifically for Laurence Olivier who also went on to play the central role of faded and rather seedy comedian Archie Rice in the 1959 movie version.

Barrie Keeffe wanted Malcolm Hardee to star as Archie Rice in this updated stage version but other events in Keeffe’s life intervened and, as far as I’m aware, the updated version of The Entertainer was never written.

I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like.

Malcolm was strangely unable to act – in his various appearances in The Comic Strip Presents, Blackadder etc, he could never really ‘inhabit’ a character. As has often been said by his friends and admirers, Malcolm never really had a stage act: his greatest act and his greatest performance was his life.

But it could have been a masterstroke of casting and the thought of Malcolm Hardee as Archie Rice conjures up all sorts of visions of what might have been.

* * * * *

There is an American trailer for The Long Good Friday here; clips from The Entertainer here; and clips of Malcolm Hardee here.

An American re-located re-make of The Long Good Friday is due for release in 2011. I don’t have high hopes, although the alleged re-make of The Italian Job triumphed by totally throwing away the original script and just using the title. As Barrie Keeffe’s plot ‘twist’ at the end of the original Long Good Friday – the one which so outraged Lew Grade – is so specific to the UK, it will be interesting to see how the American-based re-make can possibly cope.

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