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The Maggy Whitehouse Experiences – the stand-up comic who is also a vicar

Maggie says: “Most of the congregation are sheep… Literally”

Maggy Whitehouse bills herself as a “Maverick priest, comedian and author who believes in an All-Inclusive Loving Beingness that also kicks ass.”

 So, obviously, I wanted to talk to her.

So, obviously, we did – at Paddington station – when she was in London.

So we were, obviously, supposed to be talking about comedy but we ended up, obviously, talking about religion…

…and, no, she is not related to Mary Whitehouse…


JOHN: I tend to ramble when I chat to people..

MAGGY: I love rambling. Going off in different directions. Most of the congregation are sheep.

JOHN: Be careful what you get quoted saying!

MAGGY: No. Literally. I sometimes go out and practise a sermon at night, when I’m putting the chickens to bed. I will be in the paddock sermonising out loud and I will turn round and 30 pairs of sheep eyes are staring at me, from the field behind.

JOHN: You live a rural life on Dartmoor. Are you from there?

MAGGY: No. Harborne in Birmingham.

JOHN: And you were a producer for Carlton TV.

MAGGY: I did a couple of documentaries on China in the 1980s, because my dad was a railway expert and used to write books about steam engines. He founded the Birmingham Railway Museum. He went in to China in 1976 – as soon as it opened up – with my brother. After three or four years, my brother decided to get married. My father had no-one else to travel with, so he took me to China.

Suzi Quatro, Vince Hill and Caesarian scar sightings

I was already working as a radio presenter with Radio WM in Birmingham, then I moved over to BBC TV – Pebble Mill at One – as a producer. I joined them three months before they closed. Then I moved to Carlton TV and a terrible lunchtime show called Gas Street. It had Suzi Quatro and Vince Hill as presenters. That was a marriage made in Hell. Suzi was great fun: she used to show us her Caesarian scar and things like that.

JOHN: You met loads of famous people.

MAGGY: Yes. This was back in the politically incorrect days. I met Rolf Harris and he was disgusting.

JOHN: He had a reputation, back then, as a groper.

MAGGY: He used to push himself up against you and put his hands behind you and go “Woo-wugh-wugh-woo-wugh-wugh” like his wobbly board thing. Fortunately I was too old for Jimmy Savile. I just knew he was vile; he made my skin crawl.

JOHN: Steam engines got you into TV…

MAGGY: Yes. My dad got a commission to write a book on steam engines in China but they wanted a real coffee table book – not just all about the engines; more about travel. I had been travelling with him for six years by then – we went out every summer – so I wrote the book and he took the pictures.

Then I did two TV documentaries on steam engines in China and got lots of marriage proposals but Tiananmen Square happened and all future travel in China went out the window. And I had also met my first husband, Henry. He was a sound recordist. We got married and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer six months later – two months after Tiananmen Square – and by February the following year he was dead. So I lost husband and career within a year, which was a bit…

JOHN: Was this when you had a Road to Damascus and decided to become a vicar?

MAGGY: No. But I lost my faith then, really. I had been an armchair Christian. I just showed up at church occasionally at Christmas.

My husband Henry had been an atheist and, on his deathbed, the Catholic hospital chaplain said: “I’m sorry, my dear, but, if he’s an atheist who does not believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, then he cannot go to heaven.”

THAT was a Road to Damascus moment, because I just thought: But that is wrong! Henry was a better person than I. He was kinder than I. He was far less of a trollop than I had ever been. I just thought: No! No! And I could not get a funeral for him that would reflect a little bit of faith. 

It had to be Church of England or Humanist back then and my family and his family would not go for Humanist so, basically, I walked up the aisle behind my young husband’s coffin hearing him damned to Hell. And I was thinking: This isn’t right! This isn’t right!

Most people might go into Atheism from that, but I went crazy and went into New Age – Buddhism and chakras and healing and that sort of thing.

JOHN: Kabbalah?

MAGGY: That came later.

JOHN: Did the New Age stuff help you?

MAGGY: Yes, because I learned about all sorts of alternative things and Healing was very interesting at this point.

Maggy’s business card (NOTE: Terms & conditions apply)

After a few years, I realised I was still FURIOUS with Christianity. The whole idea that, if you didn’t believe in Jesus, you didn’t go to heaven. And all the power and corruption which everybody alerts me to and I know about… But I realised what I had done was I had stuck all this in a nasty heap in the corner, put a nice pink blanket over it and covered it in tea lights and crystals and I was pretending it didn’t exist. I realised I was going to have to deal with it.

I also started having the opportunity to do funerals for people.

JOHN: You were a multi-faith funeral giver?

MAGGY: Sort of. A sort of self-taught one. I found a guy in London who taught me.

JOHN: Funerals? What needs teaching?

MAGGY: You have to be taught what not to say and how to deal with dead bodies and bereaved people. You are quite often going to be there when they are dying. I ended up being a hospice chaplain.

So I started putting myself around as a funeral person in London, where the work was. And I went to university to learn New Testament Greek because I thought: If I can read the New Testament in Greek, I might actually understand what this guy Jesus was on about and not have to rely on other people’s translations.

However, it turns out there are 32,000 versions of the New Testament in Greek.

JOHN: Not literally 32,000…

MAGGY: Yes, literally. Most of them are fragments. Only about 500 are full ones. But they are quite dramatically different.

JOHN: Are they all translated from the Aramaic or something?

MAGGY: No, they’re just different ways they wrote it down because, in those days, if somebody had written down one of the Gospels and wanted to copy it out, they would read it out loud and people would copy it down and they would make mistakes. 

JOHN: I remember reading or hearing somewhere that, in the original language, there is no definite or indefinite article. 

MAGGY: That’s right.

JOHN: So the phrase ‘Son of God’ does not necessarily mean THE Son of God, it can equally mean A Son of God. And we are all Sons (or Daughters) of God.

MAGGY: Yes. We are all children of God… and Christ is not Jesus’ surname… The Christ exists independently of Jesus.

JOHN: In the original, no-one was saying he was The Christ. They were saying he was a Son of God: he was a good man. The Moslems believe in Jesus as a prophet, don’t they?

MAGGY: Yes. In fact, he is mentioned in the Koran more than Mohammed is.

A sphere representing the Left Eye of God – inside the Cao Dai Tây Ninh Holy See in Vietnam.  (Photograph by Ernie Lo)

JOHN: The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam reveres Confucius, Jesus and Victor Hugo… I think because the French civil servant who created the religion rather liked the works of Victor Hugo.

MAGGY: Well, you should see my altar at home. It has Isis, Mary & Joseph and…

JOHN: Isis as opposed to ISIS

MAGGY: Yes. One of my friends Christened his daughter Isis eight years ago. It is a problem now…

(… CONTINUED HERE …)

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Available as a comedy show consultant or director or whatever you fancy, really

5Stars

The number of unknown unknowns is unknown

In the immortal words of Max Bialystock: “Flaunt it, flaunt it!”

I am available as a Director or Creative Consultant (or whatever words you want to use) on live comedy shows in 2016 – mostly, I guess, for people who intend to stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, although I am open to anything.

This can include structuring a show, giving feedback and show notes on performance and presentation, advice on publicity and marketing; whatever you want short of totally writing and performing the whole bleedin’ thing.

I won’t read scripts, because you are not reading out written scripts on stage. I will only advise people or see their live performances or run-throughs or try-outs – even if it’s in a living room! Me just reading words on paper or on a screen is a waste of your time and mine.

I have been going to the Edinburgh Fringe since around 1985 and been involved in the production of various live Fringe comedy shows including ones by Charlie Chuck, Janey Godley, Malcolm Hardee, Helen Keen and Lewis Schaffer. Since 2005, I have organised the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and, since 2006, staged annual variety shows in memory of Malcolm Hardee in London and Edinburgh, running anything from two to five hours. There will be a two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe.

If I give advice on any show that is later considered for a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award, I will opt out of the decision-making process and will bend over backwards not to show bias. So, ironically, if I advise you on your show, you are much, much LESS likely to win a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

2008-2010 I was UK creative consultant to New York’s Bleecker Street Theater and Green Room venue.

2010-2015 I was UK creative consultant to New York based Inbrook Entertainment, including the Gene Frankel Theatre.

I worked in British TV for around 25 years – including peaktime entertainment shows and series with performers including Jeremy Beadle, Cilla Black, Jack Dee, Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant et al – as well as directing/producing/writing promotion & marketing campaigns and press & sales tapes for TV stations in the UK, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

In print, I wrote comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, edited comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography and edited an anthology of stories by 19 stand-up comics. My blog So It Goes – mostly about comedy – was posted daily 2011-2015 and continues sporadically, with over 1 million hits.

I have also written for Chortle, the Huffington Post, the Independent, Screen International, Three WeeksWhat’s On Stage and others. And been a script consultant for TV’s This Morning, Tricia, Turner Movies and ITV News etc as well as a researcher for BBC TV News.

In 2014 and 2015, I chaired live Grouchy Club chat shows about comedy at the Fringe with Scotsman comedy critic Kate Copstick. This will continue at the 2016 Fringe. We also post weekly Grouchy Club podcasts and host monthly live Grouchy Club meetings in London.

Quotes about me include:
“The Boswell of the alternative comedy scene” (Chortle)
“Fleming knows a bit about comedy’s extremities”(Fest magazine)
“One of the most influential figures in British comedy” (The Skinny)

My charges are:

£50 per hour + (if outside the London Travel Zone area) travel costs, including time taken.
or
£350 for up to 10 hours. For this, I have to be paid 50% up-front and 50% at the end of the consultation.

I know comedians!

CONTACT: john@thejohnfleming.com

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BBC: “You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Ireland”

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

As I am currently on jury service in a city somewhere in England, I was interested to hear last night a quote from Robert Mark who became Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1972. He said his ambition was to “arrest more criminals than we employ”.

He seems to have failed.

The quote came up last night, when TV and film producer Tony Garnett was talking at at London’s National Film Theatre.

The second best drama I have ever seen on British TV

The second best drama series I have ever seen on British TV

Tony Garnett was responsible for The Cops, the second-best drama I have ever seen on British television.

The best was John Hopkins’ Talking To A Stranger, directed by Christopher Morahan, who was also in the NFT audience last night.

On television, Tony Garnett produced – among many, many other influential dramas – Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope and the series Law and Order, This Life and The Cops.

Last night, he said that, when he worked at the BBC and produced some of his most acclaimed shows, “the BBC had a very different management theory. It wasn’t perfect then and one’s freedom was very limited but they did, to some extent, believe in ‘producer power’.”

He then went on to say:

____________________________________________________________

They thought producers were basically ‘good chaps’ – there were one of two chapesses – and, if you had a problem, you should refer upwards. I never thought I had a problem. I was given a fair amount of freedom. You could not piss on the Queen and you had to be careful about Northern Ireland and so on, but you could find a way through.

What’s happened since the 1990s is that everything in this country’s been Thatcherised and management’s right to manage predominates.

Management is one of the great con tricks of the 20th century. A number of people have made a lot of money out of it, including managers and (the management consulting firm) McKinsey’s.

McKinsey’s have a phrase. They say If you can measure it, you can manage it.

The problem with the BBC is that what it’s there to do is be creative and you can’t measure creativity. You just can’t do it. You can say something’s really good if it lasts a century or two but, apart from that, you can’t measure it. So big trouble.

Huw Wheldon (BBC TV Managing Director) in the 1970s – and I’ve only got his word for it – told me they had asked McKinsey’s to come in to the BBC and, after a while, with their extremely expensive chaps roaming round the BBC, the boss man came to Huw and asked: Could you tell me, Mr Wheldon, how many actual decision makers do you have at the BBC? I mean people who can actually take decisions about the product. 

Huw said: Well, we have several hundred producers…

And the man said: Yes, I thought so. I’m afraid we can’t help you.

But the management at the BBC now is so tight and there are so many layers of management that the pyramid is a bit like The Shard.

The BBC has now taken on the shape of The Shard in London

The BBC is now the shape of London’s Shard

So you have lots and lots of people who can tell you what you must not do. And lots of people supervising you at each stage. That is the enemy of creativity.

One problem with the BBC, like the problem with much else in our culture – and this is more in Current Affairs and News than in drama – is that the BBC concentrates on one borough of London called Westminster and makes programmes for people who live in two or three other boroughs – Notting Hill, Islington…

The whole of the rest of the country is completely ignored.

Occasionally, they’ll go and make a programme in Doncaster and they’ll send Jeremy and Emily, who come from a very nice family, and they’ll send them out like visiting anthropologists to either come back with very sympathetic portraits or maybe to laugh at all these Chavs who are not like ‘us’.

I’d like some kids from Doncaster to go to Canary Wharf and make a film about the people there. But the traffic’s all one-way and I think it’s a great, great pity and a dereliction of the BBC’s responsibility, because we live in a very diverse society – in all sorts of ways diverse – and the BBC’s main job is to consult a national conversation.

Particularly in drama, because the beauty of drama is that it allows you to empathise with others: to say Oh, I felt like that. These people are not so different from us.

The BBC have made a very good start at Salford (in the new Media City) but they really ought to fight against London-itis and realise that they are representing and a part of this whole diverse country.

I think the BBC is very important. That’s why I criticise it. If there’s a great institution that has many enemies, one of the problems is that we tend to want to draw the wagons into a circle to defend it – the same is happening with the NHS now.

I think that is a mistake.

The more you love the BBC and the more valuable you think it is – imperfect as it is – the more you should criticise it. Society’s changing all the time. Technology’s changing all the time. The BBC won’t stand still. It will get worse or it will get better and we’ve got to push it to be better all the time. It’s no good just defending it.

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Filed under Drama, Politics, Television

This man with movie dreams already has a free yacht and a free Jumbo Jet

Borehamwood yesterday: Jason Cook, a man with a dream

I woke up in the early hours of this morning wanting to go to the toilet and realised I had been dreaming about the plots of Alfred Hitchcock movies. There was the one where he broke the convention that all flashbacks by central characters should be true. And there was the famous one where, by killing off the central character (and the only star name in the movie) the whole plot of the first third or more of the film became irrelevant – the ultimate MacGuffin.

I guess I was dreaming of films because yesterday, in Borehamwood’s main street, near his offices at Elstree Film Studios, I met the indefatigable would-be feature film producer Jason Cook, who has a slate of nine films – all scripted and budgeted, including a £3 million animation film – and is trying to get finance for the first of them.

He has been talking to an Indonesian financier/film producer.

“We had one of the action films scripted in English,” he told me, “and now we’ve had it translated into Indonesian and have changed the locations. If we can get it shot in Indonesia, the budget would come way down to £500,000.”

Jason is also, he told me, starting a short film competition with the main event to be held, provisionally, next April.

“We’re looking for up-and-coming talent and short films under five minutes long,” he told me. “There will be a cash prize and an award. We’ve got sponsorship from Elstree Film Studios, Nando’s, The Way Forward Productions and the Ark Theatre. We’re hoping to hold events four times a year. The idea is to get up-and-coming talent and established film-makers together. And we would find enthusiastic new talent, which could be useful.”

If anyone can pull this off, Jason Cook can. His ability to blag and persuade people to do unlikely things – a pre-requisite for making movies – is astonishing. For one of the movies on his slate, he has got free access to an ocean-going yacht and to a Jumbo Jet 747.

“Does it fly?” I asked.

“No,” he told me, “It’s used for training purposes in the middle of a college.”

“Is it just the interior of the cabin?” I asked.

“It’s the exterior and interior of the full cabin and controls and everything.”

“But not the passenger section?” I said.

“The passenger area is there as well.”

“And the tail?”

“The wings are there and the back end of the plane, but not the tail itself.”

“And,” I said, “last time we met, you told me a hotel will put your entire crew up for one of the films for free – and you get free breakfasts. So you’re going to try to find all that film’s locations near that hotel.”

“The hotel have been really good,” said Jason.

“They certainly have,” i said.

“We can film inside the hotel,” he continued, “using it for interior locations. They’ve also said we can accommodate the full crew at very very very cheap rates and they’ll throw breakfast in. I thought it would be best to have all the crew in the same place, with the actors.”

“Yes it would,” I said. “Especially if they’re getting free breakfasts.”

If anyone can get these nine feature films off the ground it is Jason.

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“My name is Jason and I am on the hunt for the Golden Fleece of film investment”

Jason Cook with camera this week

That title is a good opening line, especially from someone with dyslexia.

I first blogged about the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook (not to be confused with the comedian Jason Cook) in December 2010.

We got chatting again this week at the Broadcast Video Expo at Earl’s Court in London.

Jason currently has eight film projects at various stages of pre-production: all different genres ranging from animation to sci-fi and a true-life story based on his three autobiographical novels… and he is still looking for finance in the current bleak economic climate.

The Devil’s Dandruff, based on the first of his three novels There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, has always sounded highly commercial to me, especially given that there is a potential film trilogy there.

He has managed to keep the budget down to £2 million, which seems remarkably thrifty, given the plot but, despite having an enthusiastic letter from an ‘A’ list actor (my jaw dropped when I saw this name) he is still having problems raising the finance.

“There’s been lots of talk about David Cameron bringing finance to British independent films,” Jason told me, “but yet we’re still waiting for that to trickle down to people on the creative side. There are people out there with great ideas and great dreams, but the thing that’s lacking is the investment.

“I’m a working class lad from Borehamwood; I think if I was an Oxbridge graduate I would be more acceptable and respectable for investors. It is difficult coming from where I’ve come from. I have not mixed in the ‘right’ circles.

“I was a genuine lad who got involved in drugs, gun crime and gangsters from the age of twelve and was put in prison for my crimes – the first time for nine months. The second time I got four years and one day and I served two years and seven months.

“At that time, if the judge gave you four years, you would only serve half. This particular judge thought my crime was bad enough that I should serve longer. So he sentenced me to four years and one day, which meant I would have to serve two thirds. That’s fair enough. I did the crime, so I gotta pay the time.

“After coming out of prison twelve years ago, I got myself clean of drugs – because I was also an addict at that time – and I got away from all the crime people surrounding me and I went clean.

“I started to write about my experiences, which turned into my first book There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, about where I grew up and how I got involved.

“I self-published the first book and self-publicised it because I was just a normal guy off the street who’d written a book. I had no backing. I wasn’t a sportsman. I wasn’t a glamour model who could get her boobs out. So I self-published that first one so I could start building recognition.

“I then wrote the second one The Gangster’s Runner because of the good reviews. It’s about the people I was involved with and how I was used in the underworld as a drug runner and a drug enforcer and money collector. Ecstasy, coke and hash.

“And the third novel A Nice Little Earner is how everything ties up and we all go our own ways and it elaborates on the range of characters, from politicians to judges, solicitors, barristers to every level of society. All the way from the street-seller to the user. The up-market characters are based around real people. The details have been changed to protect everyone – to protect them and to protect myself from reprisals. But the books are a big insight into the underworld in London and across the world.

“I’m not glamorising crime; I’m not making it seem good; I’m showing the bare elements of drug addicts, a young lad being blinded by the lights and peer pressure, fast cars, fast money and I’m showing the real gritty parts of real life. All real.

“I’ve always been interested in films. From an early age, I was in Elstree Youth Theatre. I started working on film sets as an extra and became a runner. I want to create films people want to see. Partly for the money but a lot of it for the creative side. I think I can tell a good story.

“The irony is I’ve been clean from drugs and crime for twelve years now but, while everyone else is falling out of pubs, I can’t get into them because I’m still on PubWatch. I was arrested for drugs and put in prison. That’s OK. That’s fair. But, when I came out, I went into my local pubs and they told me I had been put on PubWatch so I was not allowed into any pubs any more for life. I never did drugs or did any crime in any pub and I had never had any trouble with any landlord, but I was put on PubWatch for life because I was involved in drugs in the local area and around London.

“I’m still being punished for my crimes twelve years later, after being rehabilitated…

“Perhaps I should jump on the bandwagon,” Jason laughs. “I should sue the Metropolitan Police and go to the European Court of Human Rights and claim my human rights have been infringed. Everyone else seems to be doing it.”

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Filed under Books, Crime, Drink, Drugs, Legal system, Movies

How to sell yourself to a TV producer + how to control uncontrollable talent

(This blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website and in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I had tea with a very good but not yet famous comedy performer.

He was, quite rightly, lamenting the homogenised nature of comedians on television and said he did not think he was suitable for television because he liked to try to be original.

This is a complicated area because, much as I admire Michael McIntyre’s act – and I do –  I prefer to see an act which can be brilliant but which may, on occasions not quite work – rather than an act which is slickly guaranteed to be effective 100% of the time and exactly the same every performance.

Yesterday, to the very good but not yet famous comedy performer, I mentioned a middle-ranking English comedian whom I admire.

He has an act which he performs and it is a very good act which he regularly updates and tweaks. When this comedian has a good audience, he is reliably funny. Very good value for money.

When he has a rowdy audience, however, he is far, far better. Because, if he is heckled or interrupted in some way, it sets him off at a tangent from his regular act. He soars away from sentence to sentence to idea to idea and can be brilliantly funny, then he comes back to the backbone of his regular act, then he will soar away again on surreal tangents, playing to the unpredictable audience’s reaction.

This is not necessarily what TV wants, though.

Another act we talked about yesterday used to be reliably unreliable. The comedian updated and varied his act regularly but there was a certain predictability about it. Perhaps 20% or 30% of the act did not work. Perhaps 70% or 60% of the act would be successfully funny, though nothing special. Very often the remaining 10% of the act, though, could be utterly brilliant – sheer near-genius comedy. The downside was that, occasionally, that 10% did not happen. But it was always worth seeing the comedian’s act because of even the promise of that 10% of totally original genius.

Again, though, that is not what television wants.

Television is an expensive business and requires an act which can be pretty-much guaranteed not to fail or sag. You do not want to throw away an entire recording. You have to know what to expect. The director ideally needs to know exactly what the act will do verbally, visually and spatially – where he or she will be on the stage – so the cameras will catch the right angles. And the act is best for the director when it is exactly the same in the rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and during the recording.

Reliability is what TV ideally needs.

But reliability and comedic genius are not necessarily the same thing.

So does this explain why there are so many middling-but-not-very-original comedians on TV?

Yes and no.

My advice to the comedian with whom I had tea yesterday was the same as it always is to comedians.

If you approach a television researcher or producer, your viewpoint should not be that you are a small unknown comedian approaching a bigtime person who can help your career develop. Your mental viewpoint should be that you want to help the television researcher or producer develop their own career.

The TV person has a life and career just as you do. They are struggling to maintain their job, to get new and better jobs just as much as you are. You are dealing with an individual human being not a large monolithic company.

Keep repeating to yourself:

“This other person is a frail human being too. He/she eats, shits, farts, gets ill, needs to make money to survive and will die alone just like me.”

The way that TV person can develop their career is by appearing to spot talent other people cannot spot or have not yet spotted. So, perhaps surprisingly, they really are looking for originality although – this is important – they are looking for “controllable originality”. They really are not looking for someone who is a clone of 25 other comics people have already seen on TV.

That will not get them a promotion from researcher to producer or get them a job on a better TV show with a higher salary. They will succeed if they can spot “the next new big thing” before anyone else. Even if they cannot find originality, they have to be able to say to the person above them who takes decisions (or to the person who may give them their next job) that they found this act with mainstream or at least accessible cult appeal who is actually very original and unlike anything seen before.

The technical term for this in the world of television is “bullshitting”.

There is, at this point, though, a fine balance.

The thing they are looking for is “controllable originality”.

The fine line between these two words is complicated by how effective the producer or director is. The better the producer or director, the less controllable the comedian has to be.

Several years ago, a TV director I know who lives in a far-flung corner of the UK stayed at my home in London while he was directing a TV series for a minor channel. He was directing an unknown comedian in a show which roamed around the streets and, by and large, had no script. It relied on the comedian.

The show was semi-anarchic and – as I know because I worked on the legendarily anarchic children’s show Tiswas – you have to be very organised to create effectively what appears to be anarchy. If you do not have control, the whole thing may fall apart into tedious, disjointed irrelevance.

The director of this new would-be anarchic TV show would come home of an evening raving to me about how irresponsible and uncontrollable the comedian – who was taking drugs at the time – was.

The director would tell me all the irresponsible, uncontrollable things the comedian had done and I would think, but not say:

“Well, that sounds great to me. You should be going with the comedian and trying to cover what he does, rather than keep him to the rough script you are trying to follow.”

What was required was a totally self-confident director which this one was not. The director had to be confident that he could edit his way out of any problems and this one was not.

The comedian was a young Russell Brand.

I was also at the studio recording of the first episode in an expensive  TV series starring Michael Barrymore. I knew the producer who was – and is – an utterly brilliant director of entertainment shows. This, though, was one of his first shows as a producer.

Michael Barrymore (after he got over his initial urge to imitate John Cleese) could be wonderfully original – almost the definitive uncontrollable comedian who needed a strongly confident producer and/or director.

In the TV recording I saw, which involved Barrymore going into the audience a lot and interacting with real people, the show kept being stopped because Barrymore kept going off-script. The floor manager would stop the recording and, relaying directions from ‘the box’, remind Barrymore that he had to say or do X or Y.

They were trying to keep him and control him within a structure which was too tight. Barrymore had to have a structure to control the potential anarchy. But it had to be a loose structure and you had to put him on a long leash and just follow what he did. The producer in question did manage to do this as the series progressed.

One brilliant piece of lateral thinking which I did work on was an entertainment series for the late but not too lamented company BSB (later bought by Sky).

It was a large, complicated variety show and the producer employed a director who had little experience of directing entertainment shows. But what he did have was (a) a sense of humour and (b) lots and lots of experience directing sports events.

This is relevant because directing a sports event means covering an event which has a loose structure but within which you do not know exactly what is going to happen. The director has to be prepared for anything to happen and to have the cameras in the right place to catch it when it does.

He was a very confident director working for a justifiably very confident producer and it worked well although, because it was screened on BSB, it got zilch viewers.

This comes back to what researchers and producers are looking for when they see or are approached by comedians and, indeed, any performer.

They think they want and are looking for true originality… but, if they are not particularly talented researchers or producers, they will compromise according to their lack of talent.

The phrase is “controllable originality”.

The more talented the TV person, the more important the word “originality” is.

The less talented the TV person, the more important the word “controllable” becomes.

As we can see from current TV shows, there are an awful lot of less talented and less confident TV people around.

But it still remains the case that, to sell a truly original act to a TV person, you have to emphasise its originality… though you also have to emphasise its controllability and potential mainstream or large cult appeal as well as suck on the TV person’s ego like a giant tit – which the TV person probably is.

The key thing is not to look at the ‘sell’ from your own viewpoint as a little unknown person approaching a big TV company.

You have to look at the situation from the small and possibly untalented TV person’s viewpoint –

“What will this performer do for ME? How will using this performer advance my own career and increase my own job prospects?”

Do not compromise on the originality of your act – just sell it with ‘spin’ appropriate to the wanker you are approaching.

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John Lennon’s night on the tiles and Bernard Manning’s tarbrush legacy

Comedian and actor Matt Roper recently told me a story about defiantly adult Bernard Manning being considered for  the 1972 movie Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I blogged about it last week. Matt is up to his ears moving flat today, then straight off for three weeks of summer festival performances – firstly at Glastonbury, then Lushfest in Poole and then the Maker Sunshine Festival in Cornwall.

Very new school trendy.

But as the son of George Roper, star of 1970s ITV series The Comedians, he grew up with the old school comics and their chums.

“There are tons of stories about the old school,” he tells me. “I never really think about it all too much as my contemporaries are quite young still and don’t really know who most of these guys are. The slightly older generation of alternative comics of course do. I got sick of defending the new school to all the old school and vice versa. They’d hate to hear it, and I’ve thought about it for a long time, but they have more in common than in difference.

“People sometimes tar all of those old school comics with Bernard Manning’s brush. It’s hard, having been so close to my father and loving him for his gentle mind and manner, to hear him being lumped in with all the stereotypes about Northern racist comics… Somebody said to me recently that “Bernard was all about the darkness and your father was all about the light” which was very sweet but makes me think – Never mind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, they should’ve been cast in Star Wars!

One source of stories when Matt was a kid was legendary Granada TV producer Johnnie Hamp.

“He was full of interesting stories which I soaked up happily like a sponge.,” says Matt.

“My favourite story is of when he and his wife were in bed, at home, asleep. It is 2.00am when the phone rings. It’s John Lennon, out on the tiles in Manchester after a TV recording. He asks if Johnnie is coming out to play.

No, says Johnnie, I’m in bed, asleep. But, if you have any trouble getting anywhere, just mention my name.

“As if John Lennon of the Beatles would have had any problem getting into a club and have to resort to name-dropping!”

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