Tag Archives: Piazza

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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Filed under Age, Comedy, Psychology, Retirement, Theatre

“Britain’s Got Talent”, Eric Morecambe, Malcolm Hardee and the question of torturing teddy bears

Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.

Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.

I learnt stuff.

I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”

I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.

Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.

I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.

Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”

Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.

But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.

I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.

I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)

Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.

But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.

Michael Grade was wrong.

There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.

And Variety is not dead elsewhere. Mr Methane still farts around the UK; Charlie Chuck is more speciality/spesh act than stand-up, The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper doubles as The Great Voltini and the ratings success of Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1 and The Magicians on BBC1 show that there are not just loads of good spesh acts out there but that there is an appetite for them.

Now, what was the name of that bloke who used to torture teddy bears on a wheel of death at Malcolm Hardee’s old clubs The Tunnel Palladium and Up The Creek?

Was it Steve someone?

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Filed under Comedy, Magic, Television, Theatre