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Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

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Tablecloth maestro Mat Ricardo on comedy club barriers & juggling dogs

My eternally-un-named friend with Mat Ricardo in March 2012

My eternally-un-named friend with Mat Ricardo, March 2012

I first blogged about Mat Ricardo in February 2011 after I saw him do the impossible at Pull The Other One comedy club.

He performed the standard routine of pulling a tablecloth out from under real crockery…

But then, after a pause, he whipped the tablecloth back ONto the table UNDER the crockery. Since then, I have been a fan. His act is faultless; his patter is perfect.

Since February this year, he has been performing monthly shows – Mat Ricardo’s London Varieties with a full bill of genuinely top acts at the Leicester Square Theatre. He later uploads the full shows onto Vimeo.

“The viewing public have always enjoyed Variety,” said Mat. “It’s just that it’s seen as unfashionable by people who make TV shows and fund big theatre shows. It just got taken away from them. When Variety died – when the music halls closed – Variety performers didn’t stop doing what they do. They just did it in other places – Butlins Holiday Camps or the end-of-the-pier or working men’s clubs or cruise ships or on the streets like me. I earned a living for 20-odd years before the supposed cabaret resurgence happened. For a good 15 years, the majority of my income came from street performing. I’ve worked Butlins, shopping centres, festivals, cruise ships, everywhere.”

“I’m always surprised you were a street performer,” I said. “I always think of you as more classy Monte Carlo and Paul Daniels Show…”

“When I was a street performer, that was my gimmick,” said Mat. “I wore a smart suit.

“I’m not a real street performer any more in that I don’t need to do it for money in the hat, but I do love it and, if you don’t have to do it, then it becomes more enjoyable. Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to be invited to street performing festivals. Over the last couple of years, I’ve done Christchurch, New Zealand; Fremantle, Australia; the Landshut Festival in Austria – also on that gig was The Boy With Tape On His Face…”

“Was he street?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Mat. “Not doing that character. He did a stunt show. There was also the great Portuguese clown Pedro Tochas who mainly works theatres now.”

Mat Ricardo yesterday outside the Hippodrome in London

Mat Ricardo yesterday outside the Hippodrome

“And, after you finish talking to me,” I prompted, “you’re playing the Hippodrome casino in the West End.”

“Yes, the Hippodrome’s great,” enthused Mat, “because it’s got such history. It was The Talk of The Town, it was Judy Garland’s last show. You go backstage and there’s all these old programmes framed on the wall. Everyone has worked there and you feel it when you go on stage. I’m lucky enough to have played a few of the key Variety venues in this country. I’ve played the London Palladium and Leeds City Varieties and all these places you walk on and you can feel it.

“I played Leeds City Varieties a couple of months ago and you walk on that stage, you look into the spotlight and you’re seeing the exact same thing that Harry Houdini saw. That’s amazing. These venues have been refurbished, but they haven’t changed: the shape you see from the stage is still the same; the only thing that’s different is I’ve got a slightly more modern suit on.”

“The gentleman juggler,” I said.

“I consider myself as much a comedian as a juggler,” Mat told me. “And being a juggler is still seen as unfashionable. If you call a comedy club and say you’re a juggler, there’s a little pause while they giggle.

Mat Ricardo - the gentleman juggler of comedy

Mat Ricardo – the gentleman juggler of comedy

“I’ve got a few goals left. I’d like to get booked consistently at a high level in comedy clubs. They don’t book jugglers. The people who book the good big comedy clubs where there’s some prestige and some money think their audiences will only watch straight stand-up. They’ll occasionally book a magician who is basically a stand-up with a few tricks or occasionally a stand-up who might do a ukelele song. But it’s still quite a challenge for someone like me to get booked into those clubs. I’d like to crack that just out of sheer bloodymindedness.”

“Club owner Malcolm Hardee,” I ventured, “used to say he didn’t respect jugglers as much as comics because juggling was a skill not a talent: with enough practice, anyone could be a juggler.”

“Well,” replied Mat, “I have to tell you Malcolm Hardee saw me perform on the street in Greenwich in the early 1990s and he gave me money. So he was lying. He did like my show at least.”

“For Malcolm to give anyone money,” I said, “was a miracle and, indeed, a massive sign of deep respect,”

“He gave me a quid,” said Mat. “I remember thinking I know who you are… But that’s what you get. People say Oh, I don’t want to go see a juggler. But then, if you take them to see an act like mine – and I’m not the only one – they’ll love it.”

“You did the tablecloth act in a TV ad for Unum Insurance,” I said. “that must have given you good exposure.”

“It got me an appearance on the Jonathan Ross TV show,” Mat said, “because Jonathan saw the ad and apparently put my name into YouTube, spent an afternoon watching all my stuff and said We gotta book this guy! That’s the great thing about the internet. I didn’t need a manager to leverage me onto TV: I just had to do interesting work and upload it.

“And also Unum Insurance booked me for a bunch of their annual meetings and parties and funded the current London Varieties shows – so they’re paying everyone’s wages including mine. I couldn’t put this show on without their support. Everyone’s getting paid and getting paid well. If I book Paul Daniels, as I did last month, who is a legitimate legend, I wanna make sure he gets paid well. I pay my acts well because I expect to get paid well myself. This is a childhood dream: to have my own variety show in the West End.”

This week’s London Varieties show billing

This week’s billing for Mat Ricardo’s London Varieties

“And you set yourself a new juggling challenge each month,” I said. “Last month, I saw you juggle three cordless electric carving knives when they were switched on.”

“That was genuinely very dangerous to learn,” said Mat. “My wife Lesley did not like it.”

“And you are juggling spaghetti at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Edinburgh this August?” I reassured myself.

“Indeed,” said Mat. “And for the last London Varieties show this year on 24th July, I think I might invite the audience to… it’s an old Variety gag – The Flying Karamazov Brothers revived it in the 1970s but it was an old routine before that – You get the audience to bring objects to your show – anything bigger than a grape and smaller than a breadbox. The audience then selects three of the objects and you have to juggle them. I can make two adjustments, then I have to juggle the three objects for ten throws or I get a pie in the face. There is one thing you can bring along which could screw it up – a water-filled balloon. That’s just impossible and I might disallow it.”

“I’m going to bring along a hedgehog,” I said.

“Well, on the London Varieties show this Thursday,” said Mat, I will be doing a juggling trick with a live dog.”

“What breed?” I asked.

Piff The Magic Dragon with Piffles

Piff The Magic Dragon with Piffles, soon to be ‘tableclothed’

“Chihuahua… Piff The Magic Dragon is on the show on Thursday and has this dog, Mr Piffles, which is a chihuahua in a dragon suit. I might or might not juggle him, but I’m certainly going to put him on the table, pull the tablecloth from under him and put the tablecloth back on.”

“What if a prominent American act thought of stealing your tablecloth routine?” I asked.

“Well,” said Mat. “you can copyright an act of choreography which, technically, is what it is and all you have to do is say I copyright it, which I’ve just said. But you can waste your life trying to sue somebody and you don’t want to sue a millionaire. I did create both the effect and the technique and people know that.”

“And people have seen it and it’s on YouTube with dates,” I said.

“It’s not like writing a gag,” said Mat. “A comedian can sit down and write some jokes and just do them. I have to sit down, write something, then go off and practice it for a year.”

“How long did it take you to perfect the tablecloth routine?” I asked.

“It took me a couple of years before it pretty much worked every single time. I smashed a lot of crockery.”

“Difficult to top,” I said.

“I have a way to top it,” said Mat.

“No!” I said.

And then he told me what it was.

“Fuck me,” I said. “Jesus Christ…. Now THAT would be AMAZING…”

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Answers to nine questions asked by first-time Edinburgh Fringe performers

My first view of the world this morning

My first view of the world from bed this morning was fuzzy

I did not get to bed until 4.30am this morning, only had three hours sleep and have to go out. This is not good.

At my age, I should be in a bed that tilts being tended by uniformed nurses wiping spittle away from the edges of my mouth. But enough about my fantasies.

I deserve one day of blog-writing laziness. So below is a blog I posted over two years ago.

I have updated the audience figures. But the situation and advice remains the same as it did two years ago. The situation has been slightly affected by the increasing importance of the PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival, so some of this advice (particularly the financial stuff) refers only to pay venues.

Anyway, in a spirit of altruism and pomposity, I thought I would give my personal opinion on nine Things Performers Need to Know About the Edinburgh Fringe…

1. HOW MUCH DOES ACCOMMODATION COST?

You know the phrase “an arm and a leg”?

If you think you can get anything as cheap as that, you are having an idle fantasy or you are taking hallucinogenic drugs far stronger than you should if you want to stand upright on a stage.

And, if you haven’t been up, you have no idea. The Edinburgh Fringe is unimaginably large and sprawling. It is the biggest arts festival in the world; Edinburgh is a relatively small city. In 2012, there were around 22,457 performers in Edinburgh simply for the Fringe. That is just performers. Then you have the back-stage, administrative, media and service industry people and the audiences themselves.

An Edinburgh street during the Fringe

One solution to 2012 accommodation problems in Edinburgh

Last year, there were 42,096 performances of over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues. And that’s just the Fringe.

Simultaneously, you have the separate official Edinburgh Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Art Festival, the Book Festival and the Television Festival. Any one of those would be a major event on its own in any other city.

In Edinburgh, they are happening simultaneously. Plus there are endless other events and street theatre on a massive scale. And just normal meandering tourists.

Last year, at the Fringe alone, there were around two million bums-on-seats for shows. No-one knows exact figures for sure because of the increasingly large PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival numbers.

It is a simple case of Thatcherite market-led supply and demand. The demand for accommodation is enormous; the supply is severely limited.

Someone I know who is friends with an estate agent in Edinburgh was told – this is true – that one rule of thumb they use for calculating rental rates for flats during the Fringe is to ask the owner: “How much is your annual mortgage?” That then becomes a fair amount to charge someone for the month of August.

I had relatives and friends in Edinburgh until five years ago. Now I have to pay. It’s horrendous.

The phrase to bear in mind with everything connected to the Edinburgh Fringe is “like lambs to the slaughter”.

But, like the mud at Glastonbury, it is addictive.

2. SHALL I GO UP FOR JUST ONE WEEK?

No.

The first (half) week is dead and tickets are half-price or two-for-one. You will get low audiences and even less money. If you do get audiences, they will fall off a cliff on the first Tuesday, when the half-price deals end.

The second week (called Week One) is usually almost equally dead.

The third week (called Week Two) perks up a little.

The final week is buzzing.

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

The Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2008

But, if you have not been there since the very beginning and only go up for the last week, you will have generated no word of mouth about your show, no momentum and no review quotes to put on your posters and flyers. And you will be wiped off the face of Edinburgh awareness by a tsunami of other shows which have all these things.

That is if you even get a review, which is highly unlikely.

Whenever a foolhardy Fringe virgin asks my advice, I also tell him/her:

“You have to go up for three consecutive years”

The first year, you will be lost and ignored. The second year you will, with luck, know how to play the system. The third year, reviewers and audience will think you are a regular and you may get noticed.

I know one act who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe three times. Great act. Wonderful. Got 4-star reviews every time. But, because he/she could not afford to go up every year, there was no momentum building from year to year. He/she, in effect, had to start from scratch each year as an unknown.

Remember that it is not just audiences but reviewers who have a high turnover. The punter and reviewer who saw your show two years ago is probably not in town/ not reviewing this year.

3. CAN I RELAX ON THE PUBLICITY FRONT BECAUSE MY VENUE’S PRESS OFFICE AND THE FRINGE’S PRESS OFFICE WILL HANDLE ALL MY MEDIA PUBLICITY?

You have no idea how it works.

No they won’t.

The venue’s press office is not there to specifically publicise your show. They publicise the venue and act as a central contact point. They will try to be even-handed, but they have lots of other shows. They cannot do constant hands-on publicity for you.

Same thing with the Fringe Office. They are a central contact point. Keep them informed. But they are too busy to do the impossible and publicise your show. Last year, they were dealing with 42,096 performances of 2,695 shows in 279 venues. And with 22,457 self-obsessed and wildly disorganised – possibly mentally unstable – performers. This year, the numbers will probably be higher.

The Samaritans are the ones to ask for help in Edinburgh.

4. DOES MY VENUE’S STAFF KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING?

No.

Trust me.

No.

Most only arrived a week ago, some are Australian and the ones who are not have little experience of anything outside their friends’ kitchens. They probably had no sleep last night and are certainly only at the Fringe to drink, take drugs and, with luck, get laid by well-proportioned members of the opposite sex. Or, in some cases, the same sex.

Trust me.

With help and advice, they could organise a piss-up at the Fringe but not in a brewery.

5. HOW MUCH MONEY MIGHT I MAKE?

Are you mad?

You have to assume a 100% loss on your investment. Even if people make a profit, they usually calculate that by ignoring accommodation costs and the amount of money they would have made anyway if they had not gone up to Edinburgh.

6. I HAVE A PROMOTER AND/OR PRO AGENT. HE WILL LOOK AFTER MY INTERESTS, RIGHT?

He might do. And you might win the EuroLottery. Or he might try to screw you rigid.

One thing to look out for is an agent/manager/promoter’s expenses.

Edinburgh: pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

Edinburgh is pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

One performer I know went up with a well-known promoter who was looking after seven shows that year. He quite reasonably deducted the cost of his own accommodation and transport. But, instead of dividing the total costs by seven and spreading that cost between all seven shows, he deducted 100% of the cost from each show’s profits, thus getting back 700% of his total costs.

Another thing to look out for is agents, promoters or managers who take their percentage off the gross, not off net receipts. They should be taking their percentage off the genuine profit – the net receipts after deduction of genuine overheads and expenses. If they take their percentage off the gross receipts before deduction of overheads and expenses, you are being severely disadvantaged.

Alright. They are fucking you.

If your show makes £100 but costs £90 to stage, then the profit is £10. If the promoter/agent takes 10% of that net profit, then he gets £1 and you get £9.

If your show makes £100 and the promoter/agent takes 10% off that gross profit and the show cost £90 to put on, then he gets £10 and you get zero.

And, in both those examples, the show made exactly the same amount of money.

And let’s not even get into the games which can be played with the point at which they add in or deduct VAT.

7. IT’S MY FIRST EDINBURGH. WILL I GET FINANCIALLY SCREWED BY UNSCRUPULOUS PEOPLE?

Yes.

8. WILL IT RAIN?

Yes.

9. SHOULD I GO BACK AGAIN NEXT YEAR?

Yes.

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Old-fashioned British TV, with in-vision announcers & the un-named Mike Hunt

Reginald Bosanquet, alleged drinker and serial libel accuser

I’ve been to a couple of TV events at the National Film Theatre in London over the last couple of days.

At the first one, Spitting Image/Not The Nine O’Clock News and QI producer John Lloyd opined that he had been quite lucky in that he had never been sued – except by legendary newsreader Reginald Bosanquet who, it turned out, made quite a good living from suing people for not-too-high sums if they said he drank too much.

Like John Lloyd, people tended to settle out of court rather than risk the vast costs of any court case (even if Reginald Bosanquet was an epic drinker) so Reggie made a lot of money out of a large number of small settlements.

Yesterday, the NFT event was about TV promotions and presentation (the trailers, the announcers, the branding) – an area I worked in for over 20 years.

Anglia’s much-admired weatherman

I started at Anglia TV in Norwich. It appeared to be a very genteel station. Their weather man Michael Hunt, an amiable moustachioed man, was never introduced – perhaps for an obvious audio reason – as Mike Hunt. But I suspect the obvious reason was never thought-of at Anglia.

From Norwich: Nicholas Parsons with the Quiz of the Weak?

It had a reputation for pulling above its weight. Although a small regional station, Anglia produced major network shows like Tales of the Unexpected (a drama series with big-name stars), Survival (nature films shot worldwide to rival David Attenborough’s on the BBC) and quiz show Sale of the Century hosted by the eternally gentlemanly Nicholas Parsons.

The reality of Anglia was that Tales of the Unexpected was produced in London with non-Anglia crews by Anglia board member Sir John Woolf. His cinema movies included Oliver!, Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File.

The award-winning Survival films were made by a unit in London separate from Anglia TV.

Sale of the Century and other game shows were, indeed, made by Anglia in Norwich with Anglia crews, but the prestige drama and natural history programmes were made well away from the Norwich studio complex where most staff seemed to live for their evening and weekend lives in comfortable rural villages while the Anglia bosses seemed to live a slightly old-fashioned life of country house shenanigans and grouse-shooting.

Anglia Television’s quickly old-fashioned knight to remember

The originally classy but quickly rather old-fashioned looking Anglia knight logo eventually had to be updated to a more modern look well after it should have been retired.

I remember the presentation to staff by image/style consultant company Lambie-Nairn in which a believable young man explained how they had come up with a new brand image for the company.

The altered logo – a complex heraldic tradition or a triangle?

They had replaced the old-fashioned knight figure with what was, in effect, a crisp, brightly-coloured triangle like the letter A in Anglia. This had cost (I think) millions and was a good-enough logo but – Ye Gods! – the pseudo-intellectualising spiel that went into explaining how they had come up with this simple triangular design was a master of the marketeers’ art. A heraldic continuation of the Anglia knight’s up-market image seemed to play a large part.

Jesus! I thought. It’s a triangle like the A in Anglia with some other triangles in it – the first thing anyone would come up with!

The highly talented and highly amiable Martin Lambie-Nairn himself – a man I much admire – was on stage at the NFT last night and gave some other background to that re-branding:

“Anglia Television,” he said, “was a very interesting company, a very nice company and we were there getting rid of the knight. We spent a lot of time presenting ideas to the board and there was a kind of detachment in the sort of people we were presenting to on the executive board and the non-executive board. We were presenting to these people and Lord Townshend was Chairman of the Board. We started our presentation and Lord Townshend said: One moment. Where’s John? Someone turned to Lord Townshend and said John Woolf was shooting at Elstree m’Lord….. Oh? Oh! said Lord Townshend. Who owns the shoot at Elstree?”

Martin Lambie-Nairn says he was partly responsible for ending what was eventually seen as the old-fashioned idea of having on-screen announcers on British television – by getting rid of them at the BBC and at ITV stations including Anglia.

When I started as a Continuity Scriptwriter at Anglia – writing scripts for the on-screen announcers – the only facilities were the announcer sitting in his/her booth with no autocue (he/she had to memorise any script you wrote), a slide machine and (if it was not being used for transmission or by a programme) a videotape and telecine machine. Edited trailers were rare. Feature film trailers tended to be single sections chosen from the film and were run unedited off a telecine machine.

Because ITV was a network of independent companies transmitting local programmes, networked programmes, part-networked programmes and local ads (which were sold and might be cancelled up to around 5.00pm every day) the presentation and promotion ‘bits between’ had to fit to the half-second. If you over-ran by one second, you would be cut off; if you under-ran by two seconds, there would be an unsettling gap. Equally, if a live programme over-ran or under-ran there were ‘gap’ problems.

Famous announcer/host David Hamilton: Diddy? Yes he did

Iconic announcer/presenter ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton was at the NFT last night. He was the continuity announcer one evening when, on the live Sunday Night at the London Palladium show, Shirley Bassey decided not to sing a song and the programme under-ran by five minutes, leaving a sudden gap which he had to fill with no warning, no autocue on a locked-off camera with no tape, slide or film back-up and only a copy of the TV Times listings magazine to ad-lib round. Presumably every announcer at every ITV station around the country had the same problem.

David was a promotion scriptwriter at ATV in 1960. He remembered:

“We had a boss who said to me one day: Think about how much people pay for a 30 second ad. You have got 30 seconds to sell our programmes. This is very very important and very valuable time and you must make those scripts pay.

Later in his career, he said, he remembered “one night introducing Crossroads, the long-running soap in which the sets moved more than the actors…”

Crossroads, like all good soap operas, had a central location which allowed new characters and storylines to naturally appear and disappear. In Coronation Street and EastEnders, the pub is central. Crossroads was set in a motel, which allowed new characters to appear and leave naturally.

“That evening,” said David Hamilton, “I read what the continuity writer had scripted for me: Tonight an actor arrives at the Crossroads Motel and I saw I had a second or so left on the clock and I added: Not before time.

“Two minutes later, the phone rang and it was Noele Gordon (star of Crossroads) who said: David, I didn’t like what you said about my programme. I was working for Thames and Crossroads was an ATV programme so I didn’t get too much of a bollocking.

“We weren’t really announcers,” he remembered. “More of an evening host. You became a friend in the home.”

He once got a letter from a woman living alone who explained he was the only person who talked to her during the day.

“People felt there was someone there watching the programmes with them,” he explained. And, because they were in people’s living rooms, they were famous faces.

McDonald Hobley was happier than Larry

McDonald Hobley was one of the early BBC TV announcers and had a very small part in the movie version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which was being filmed on the seafront at Blackpool with Laurence Olivier.

“During a break in filming,” David Hamilton remembered, “the two of them were walking along the Golden Mile and a couple of ladies came walking towards them. One of them said: Ey up! Are you McDonald Hobley? He straightened his tie and said I am, indeed. And she looked at Laurence Olivier and asked MacDonald Hobley: Who’s yer friend? Is he anybody?”

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Edinburgh Fringe: a 14 year old comic, Janey Godley and tales of a Tit Factory

Eternally relevant street art in Edinburgh

So far, I have bitten my tongue about the ticket incompetence at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

On my first day here, a ticket for a show (ordered ten days before from the Fringe Office) was not confirmed. The show started at 6.10pm. Eventually, at around 8.30pm, I got an e-mail to say the ticket had now been confirmed.

A couple of days ago, a ticket ordered even longer in advance never appeared (twice); I went to the venue press office instead; they arranged it; on the night, it was still not at the box office.

I never blogged about these (and similar) things because it’s impossible to know who cocked it up and, each year at the Fringe, different parts don’t work. You just have to accept it. That’s Fringe life. But it is just as well I did not complain. Yesterday it was me with the massive cock-up. Oooh missus!

Janey yesterday – not photographed by me

Comedian Janey Godley was at an event in Glasgow at lunchtime yesterday. New housing was being opened next to the pub she used to run in the Calton. The housing is named after St Thenue and Janey had been asked to donate a painting of St Thenue and to officially open the new housing with the Lord Provost of Glasgow. Why?

“I kept that building up,” she told me last week (you have to read her autobiography), “and, because of that, they had to build good, sympathetic architecture next door to it.”

“It’s your swirly painting?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “The one that looks like my mammy in the Clyde, but it’s St Thenue, who also ended up in the Clyde.”

I invited myself along to take photos and blog about it.

It happened yesterday.

Except I had put it in my Fringe schedule as happening today.

“Where are you?” a text from Janey said yesterday morning.

By that time, it was too late for me to get to Glasgow from Edinburgh.

Which was a bummer because, in all truth, it was going to be one of the highlights of my Edinburgh Fringe this year.

I allegedly edited Janey’s autobiography Handstands in the Dark – still in print and a book which gives Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money in horror. I have walked round Shettleston, where she grew up, and the Calton, where she ran a bar for 14 years. But not with her. It would have been fascinating. We had even talked about it last week.

She had been to see the new housing development in the Calton a couple of weeks before and had popped into her old bar next door.

”The guy who runs the pub now,” Janey told me, “is a guy I barred from the place back in the early 1990s. I told him I’ve just been to see the new houses and he says Aye, they’re just gonna be alcoholics and wife-beaters in there so I asked Have you got your name doon?

Anyway. I let Janey doon yesterday – often a physically dangerous thing to do, as others have found to their cost – and, while she was opening the housing in Glasgow with the Lord Provost and photos were being taken by her daughter Ashley, I was in Edinburgh watching 14-year-old stand-up comic Preston Nyman perform his Fringe show Shtick. (It is only on until Sunday.)

Preston Nyman wears well for 14

I had asked Janey’s daughter Ashley about this because in 1999, aged 13, she had performed her own comedy show What Were You Doing When You Were 13? at the Fringe.

“I can hardly remember it,” she told me. “I know I was ballsy and blatant about it all and everyone was very worried I would say something risqué by accident. But mostly I blanked it all out. I did enjoy it but, looking back, I think What the fuck was I doing? Who let me do that? I wasn’t made to do it. It was all my idea… but who let me do that?”

Preston was very professional, part 1950s Catskill joke purveyor, part fast-talking double glazing salesman. He even did sword-swallowing and persuaded a member of the audience to put his head in a guillotine. Aged 14, he has been, he says, performing since the age of 7 and was dressed in a rather 1950s outfit with blue blazer, frilly-fronted cream shirt and checked trousers.

Young Preston and his guillotine with perhaps foolish punter

“This is what I normally wear,” he told me after the show.

“Where on earth do you live?” I asked.

“Hammersmith in London,” he replied.

“It’s kinda Catskills Jewish,” I said. “The clothes and the act.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s a kinda mix of vaudeville and 1970s ITV. All my life I’ve just loved performing and making people laugh and, seven years ago, I heard about this workshop Comedy Club 4 Kids. It’s every day, 5.30, at the Bongo Club during the Edinburgh Fringe, but I do it in London at the Soho Theatre.”

Preston’s dad is Andy Nyman actor, magician and co-creator/co-writer of the Derren Brown TV shows Derren Brown – Mind Control and Trick of the Mind. He has also co-written and co-directed four of Brown’s stage shows.

After the impressive shock of young Preston yesterday, I went to see the gloriously-titled musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory. The Fringe office had buggered-up the ticket for this too but, through Janey Godley, I contacted the show’s writer Paul Boyd and got a comp ticket (remember I’m a Scot brought up among Jews).

Paul Boyd wrote the intro and outro music for Janey and Ashley’s weekly podcast as well as eighteen previous musicals.

“Paul and I were on blog.co.uk back in 2004,” Janey told me. “He’s of the same ilk: he’s a performer, a writer, similar minds. We became friends and then this guy John Palmer from New York, a model, started talking to him and talking to me. Paul wrote to me and said You know, that guy John, I kinda fancy him and I said Go for it! He looks gorgeous and he sounds amazing!

“So then Paul phones me out of the blue – we’d never actually talked – and said I’m about to get on a plane and go to New York and meet John. I’ve given up my life, my lover. I’m gonna go. And he did and they’re still together after all these years.

“Then, a couple of years ago, me and Paul were in the Groucho Club in London with John one night and in walk some of my comedy friends. One of them was Tara Flynn. Paul is Irish, so I said jokingly Oh, Paul, you might know Tara Flynn – she’s also Irish. They screamed and hugged each other. I had been joking, but they’d been in a play together twelve years before and now she’s in Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory.”

And Molly Wobbly, I can say with total honesty, is astonishing.

It has more catchy tunes in it than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals combined. You could argue that’s not difficult but it’s still very very impressive. It is a combination of Rocky Horror style exuberance, British music hall jollity and the best of West End musicals.

All this plus a singalong song titled “When I Shouted ‘Fuck’ in the Manse”.

Whether it will play to Americans I don’t know, but its effervescent vitality is quite something to behold and, given that it got a lot of attention because the official Fringe Programme (which is very censorious this year) printed the title without any asterisks, there is a wry smile to be had at the very end of the performance with a change to the words in the title.

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The Edinburgh Fringe: publicising comedy shows with nudity in the street

“Two red bollocks and a sawn-off cock…”

After my blog yesterday about the Edinburgh Fringe’s sudden censorship of show titles, English grammar and risqué images this year, pink-suited Fringe veteran (how he will love that description) Mervyn Stutter pointed out to me: “Ooh that Pr*gr*mme cover, J*hn! It looks like two red b*ll*cks and a sawn off c*ck……..NURSE!!

Mervyn, whose Pick of The Fringe show celebrates its 21st birthday this year, also suggested that, if you list a show in the Fringe Programme as being Theatre not Comedy, you are more likely to get less censorious scrutiny:

Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory,” Mervyn pointed out, “sailed through without comment! What a load of nonsense. But then this Tit show is a proper musical from Dublin and is therefore Art. See the difference?………No, nor me.”

Australian performer John Robertson told me: “Mervyn may be right. I was allowed to call a show about sleeping with Queen Elizabeth The Old Whore. The Fringe Programme features a picture of her face PhotoShopped to appear goofy and hideous. Thank goodness ‘whore’ isn’t classified as slang, eh?”

With the Programme now published, performers’ thoughts are turning to how best to promote their shows in August. Martin Soan told me yesterday:

“We’re trying to approach all the people who’ve ever performed with the Greatest Show on Legs – and there are a lot of them – to see if they’re around in Edinburgh this year and fancy performing sketches with us.”

Vic Reeves did it, didn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Martin. “On an episode of The Tube.”

“And…?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Martin. “At the time, he was a self-seeking publicist. He’s gone on to do great stuff and he’s very talented and I wouldn’t take any of that away from him. But we used to do The Tube regularly and we were proud of our work on it. Vic Reeves was supposed to be a heckler from the audience who was supposed to say one thing, but he crow-barred his way in and went on for about five minutes. It destroyed a rather good sketch.”

“And,” I prompted, “Keith Chegwin did the naked balloon dance on an Amnesty gig, didn’t he?”

“He let his balloon slip,” said Martin, “and showed his bollocks halfway through the balloon dance, which is not the way it’s done. He rather mis-interpreted the ‘artistic’ side… The idea is to go through a rather drunken side-stepping routine to some cheesy music, hiding one’s bollocks all the way through to the end and then let the balloons go, show your bollocks and then just walk around and chat. I think he didn’t like me much, because I was drunk.”

“And I saw Simon Munnery do the naked balloon dance at Glastonbury,” I said.

“That was one of the times I didn’t turn up at Glastonbury,” Martin replied.

“So why did all these people perform with The Greatest Show on Legs?” I asked.

“I guess because they knew they could do whatever they wanted.” Martin suggested. “When we were in Oswestry, Paul Merton appeared as a pyjama-clad comic.”

“But no women,” I said.

Holly Burn,” said Martin. “She was the first woman to appear as part of the Greatest Show on Legs.”

“But not doing the balloon dance,” I said. “A woman couldn’t do it. It would sexualise it and they’d have to wrangle three balloons.”

“Mmm,” said Martin.

“You told me you were thinking of not doing the naked balloon dance in the Edinburgh Fringe show this year,” I said. “You have to finish the show with it, surely?”

“Or start the show with it,” said Martin. “Get it out of the way. If people want us to do it, then of course we will. In fact, we may do the balloon dance outside of the show – in the street. Let’s get into real trouble. We will do a naked balloon dance in the street with an old-fashioned portable ‘Brixton briefcase’ cassette player – to get the punters into the venue… and then, when the audience are in the Hive, we’ll get them to take their clothes off and then we’ll perform completely clothed in front of a naked audience. I think that’s a very good idea, don’t you? No-one can get in and see us unless they’re completely naked.”

“You think the police may object in the street?” I asked. “Have you had any problems with the police in the past?”

“Only when there was a fight and Chris Lynam stuck a firework up his arse,” Martin replied, ”There was a fight which we tried to break up and the police were involved in that and there was a bit of surprise when Chris Lynam stuck a firework up his arse outside the venue.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked.

“Because the venue wouldn’t allow us to put a firework up his arse inside,” replied Martin.

“Which venue was this?” I asked.

“I can’t remember,” said Martin. “It was in a pub basement near the big roundabout.”

“Why can’t you remember?” I asked.

“God, John!” said Martin. “Over the years? They just all… I tell you who was on with us. The Brighton Bottle Orchestra…”

“Ah!” I said. “Ah!…”

“They were on the show before us,” Martin explained. “And they were very very funny.”

“Indeed they were,” I agreed.

“Very funny,” said Martin. “It was a pub near the big roundabout. There’s probably something else there now. The Fringe changes.”

“Indeed it does,” I said.

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What do street performers & comedians earn and why don’t they just give up?

Paolo Ferrari – reaching a spaghetti junction in his career?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

For decades, Covent Garden Piazza in London has had a pitch for street performers. One of the regulars there is Paolo Ferrari who also plays comedy clubs. I had a chat with him in Covent Garden yesterday afternoon.

“It’s all about guts,” he told me. “A performer had to have the guts to get into the business in the first place, but often they don’t have the guts to leave the business. They don’t know when to call it a day.

“I am not at all thinking of leaving the business myself but I am 35 and, when reach that age, you think OK. I can see myself doing this for another three, four, maybe five years, but what then?

“For me, street theatre has always been a stepping stone for comedy. When I perform in Covent Garden, I have to slightly change my act but, for me, it has always been an outlet to try things out so I can have an edge over my fellow comedians: the fact that I can play street theatre.

“What I was trying to say to you the other day was that I think I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that I will not become a mid-40s, goodish street act who is incredibly bitter because, for one reason or another, he or she hasn’t quite made it to the top.

“Ultimately, for me and lots of performers, street theatre is just an outlet to better yourself at what you do. In my case, it’s comedy. Street theatre is just a start and then you move on. But it’s not something you can do forever.

“With street theatre, when do you call it a day? Or comedy or performing in general. There must be an age when you should just give up and realise you are not going to get any further.

“A friend said to me last week: I’ve been doing it for years, Paolo. It pays the bills. Sure, I am 47, but I’m still fit. What else can I do? I can’t see myself doing anything else.

“This friend is scraping together a fairly good living, given the nature of the business. But what do you do when you have reached a certain stage… a certain age?

“I was at an audition recently. I was the oldest one there and I am 35. All the others were, I guess, between 19 and 23.

“What do you do when you’re 47? You can re-invent yourself provided you have acquired a certain status over the years but, if you’re just a street performer – perhaps even a sublime street performer… Well, maybe some of them don’t want to progress. Some just don’t have any other options. They know they can put food on their table with the money they currently make.

“What sort of money,” I asked, “can you make playing Covent Garden regularly?”

“I could tell you,” said Paolo, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

“It would be a blessed relief,” I said. “But people probably make more money than being a comedian on the London club circuit. I don’t know how much the average run-of-the-mill, top-of-the-bill gets now in a middle-of-the-road club. Maybe £120? And they can only get that two or maybe three days a week and with luck and that’s topping the bill.”

“I have a very good friend,” Paolo told me, “who’s a very talented performer. Been doing it since, maybe 2002 or 2003. He’s my age, predominately playing the Jongleurs circuit. He reckons he can make £400 to £600 a week.”

“I think they pay a bit more than most,” I said. “But it’s less for comedy clubs in the suburbs… and for street theatre?”

“I would say,” said Paolo, “a very hard-working performer willing to play the game… Obviously, you need to sell the right product, especially at places like Covent Garden… I would probably say you could take home, at the end of your year, £20,000? I’m talking about someone working, on average, six days a week for ten or eleven months.”

“And,” I suggested, “to reach that point, they’d probably have been doing it for six or seven years?”

“Yeah,” said Paolo. “My earnings reflect what I do. I don’t ride a tall uni-cycle. It’s just me, my jokes and a couple of silly gimmicks. Whereas, if you are really, really trying to enhance your earnings, then you have to have much more marketable skills like juggling, unicycling, fire-eating and all that malarkey – though you can’t do fire at Covent Garden. But the more daring your act is – or appears to be – the more you can get in theory.

“The problem is lots of people get trapped. They start making decent money. It’s easy, in that you don’t have to do anything if you’re not in the mood. You don’t have a contract. If you’re good and if your product sells, it’s very hard to give up.

“Even if you don’t make £20,000. Let’s say you make £17,000. How many people can survive on £17,000? You can survive on a lot less and, being able to make that amount of money by just performing whenever it takes your fancy, is quite an achievement. It’s a very enticing way of living.

“I think the average annual wage for ‘normal’ people is around £25,000 now?” I said.

“Yeah, in London, maybe around £25,000 to £28,000,” Paolo agreed.

“Well,” I said, “They’d be better off working behind the counter in a building society.”

“I think a lot of people just get trapped,” said Paolo. “I recently asked a friend: In five or six years time, what will you be doing? and he couldn’t answer. And I feel the same. I don’t know what I will be doing.

“It’s not like you say to yourself: The 4th of March 2015 or 2017 is going to be my D-Day, my traffic junction, my Spaghetti Junction.

“Some people get bitter, old, twisted, angry, frustrated, but they don’t have the guts to leave the industry. Which is sad, because they had the guts to get into the industry in the first place. And it does take guts.”

“I guess they hope,” I said, “that, tomorrow someone will see their act and change their lives.”

“I think it’s habit,” said Paolo. “Human beings are creatures of habit; they get used to things. A business psychologist friend of mine told me recently that a lot of people have had problems during the current recession when they lost their jobs. Not, as such, because they lost their £50,000-a-year job but because, all of a sudden, they got stripped of their own identities. The job had become their identity. And that’s the hardest thing to cope with. You identify yourself with your job. You pull strings week-in-week-out and, if someone says No more string… That’s a problem. John is the writer. Paulo is the buffoon.”

“That’s the title for your show,” I said.

Urban Buffoon,” Paolo laughed. “That’s it! We got the show! We’ve got an hour-long show!”

“But surely,” I asked, “the last thing a performer would want to do is leave the industry? Because he/she would be so frustrated for the rest of their lives. You have to keep playing every card. The thing is to be in the right place at the right time, so you need to put yourself in as many places as possible as often as possible.”

“Well,” said Paolo, “if you have fired all the bullets you have at your disposal, there may be a level of peace that you may be able to acquire. If you’ve done everything in your power to achieve your goal… If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

“You can never second-guess what may unexpectedly happen out of nowhere, though,” I said. “It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. And to keep trying because, if you don’t try, on your deathbed you will still be wondering What if?… That’s the ultimate lifelong frustration you would face eating away inside you: What if?… What if?

“There is no answer,” said Paolo.

“I don’t think there is,” I said. “Do you want to buy a Big Issue?”

“Are you selling one?” Paolo asked.

“Not at the moment,” I replied. “But I think maybe I should research the potential market.”

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