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Last month I slept with Arthur Smith; last week I talked to new comic Archie Williams Maddocks; both write plays

Arthur Smith: man, myth and playwright

Arthur Smith: man, myth and playwright

Last month I slept with comedian Arthur Smith.

Oh, alright, we stayed in different rooms in the same house on different storeys after I saw him perform at the Comedy Lounge in Totnes. He left before breakfast.

No depth is too deep for me to plumb for a shallow, eye-catching headline.

But the point is… on the bill with Arthur at the Comedy Lounge was a young comedian called Archie Williams Maddocks who showed remarkably good stage presence and audience control. I wondered why, so I had a chat with him in London last week. He is 25.

“I did my first gig just over a year ago,” he told me, but I’ve been going properly – trying to gig every week – for about ten months and I’ve only started gigging three or four times a week since June of this year – about four months.”

“Why do you want to be a comic?” I asked him. “You don’t appear to be mad.”

“It’s a problem, isn’t it?” laughed Archie. “I’m not unhappy. I’m not crazy… I was doing an improvised play and someone came up to me afterwards and said The way your mind works is very quick: maybe you should try stand-up comedy. I had always liked comedy but never thought about trying it… It looked like a horrible life to me.”

“It is,” I said.

“Well,” said Archie, “I thought I’d give it a try and, when the first wave of laughter hit me, it was like Fuck! That’s amazing! It’s like a drug. I’m addicted to it now.”

“But you didn’t want to be a comedian before that?”

“I’m a playwright by trade,” Archie told me. “In the summer, I had something on at the Royal Court Theatre as part of their Open Court season.

The new Bush Theatre, London

The Bush Theatre is to be the site of a Brixton funeral parlour

“And I’ve just been commissioned by the Bush Theatre to write a play about gentrification in Brixton seen through the eyes of guys in a West Indian funeral parlour. It’s all about the idea that Brixton was once a very West Indian area and it’s becoming gentrified and the West Indian community which was there has moved out to other places like Barnet and the shops serving the diminishing West Indian community no longer really have a purpose. So my play questions the role of tradition and whether you should re-invent yourself, which means losing a bit of what you established in the first place.”

“Is this going to be totally straight or with laughs?” I asked.

“The first three-quarters is going to be funny and then…”

“… then you undercut the audience’s expectation?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Archie. “I find with a play, if you make it funny and accessible, they’re going to warm to it more quickly. If it’s a serious drama the whole time, you can’t help like feeling you’ve just been beaten up. It’s hard work watching a drama for two hours, so I want there to be laughs – not massive ones, but little titters here and there and quite big laughs.”

“Will you be acting in it?”

“No. The whole idea of playwriting in the first place was to be in the plays but the more I write them the less I want to be in my own plays, because I think I would get too controlling. I kinda just want to create them and I’m getting all my performance needs from doing comedy. I’ve always loved people looking at me, watching me and enjoying what I’m doing or hating what I’m doing – as long as I get a reaction from them.”

“Isn’t there a problem about people doing something with your play that you didn’t intend?” I asked.

“It’s kind of like you’ve made a baby, but then you’ve given it up for adoption and you watch someone else raise it. You think it’s going to come out one way and it doesn’t and it can be a bit of a shock but, at the same time, it can be amazing. So far, I’ve been lucky and directors have kept in constant contact.

“I’m also working on a play that’s going to be put on in London and in New York at the same time. It’s about the relationship between Africans and Caribbeans here in London and black Americans. This notion of blackness in two different spectrums and the dichotomy between that.

“It’s going to be about a West Indian woman meeting a black American man in America and it’s going to be about their different attitudes and perceptions towards race. Two black people from two different countries talking about race in America is almost like a black person and a white person talking about race in England. I think it’s quite an interesting dichotomy to explore.”

“How many plays have you written now?”

“Nine. Well, including short plays, I’ve written about eighteen.”

“And you’re 25.”

Yes.”

“You always wanted to write?”

Archie Williams Maddocks in his 15-year-old dreams

Archie Williams Maddocks, as seen in his 15-year-old dreams

“No. Until 15, I wanted to be a wrestler.”

“An American wrestler?”

“Yeah.”

“Because they’re macho and showbizzy?”

“Yeah, pretty much. And because you get to say the most ridiculous things.”

“Did you have a wrestling name you were going to use?”

“I was going to be The Dominator… or Half Man Half Amazing.”

“So when did you lose your ambition to be a wrestler?”

“When I properly figured out it wasn’t real. I figured I wanted to do something more serious than this. I wanted to act and follow in my father’s footsteps.”

“Your father’s an actor.”

“Yes.”

“So,” I said to Archie, “you’re very serious about writing plays and you think you will be able to continue doing that as well as doing a little bit of acting and doing stand-up comedy?”

“Well,” replied Archie, “I’ve started to put the acting on hold a little bit, because I’ve grown to love comedy so much that I want it really, really badly: I want to be out there every night. Comedy and playwriting sort of go hand-in-hand: it’s two different forms of writing.

“If you’re doing comedy, you’re out to make people laugh and to forget themselves and their troubles whereas, as a playwright, you’re out to make people think and evoke questions and loads of reaction. But I think you can do both at the same time.

“For me, the comedy brain works very quickly; it’s off-the-cuff and instinct. Whereas my playwriting brain I let cultivate ideas over time so the ideas I have are fully-formed when I come to them and I can write them out in two or three weeks.

Archie Williams Maddocks, no longer an aspiring wrestler

Archie Williams Maddocks is no longer an aspiring wrestler

“What I’m doing now is four days a week of playwriting, three days a week of comedy writing and trying to gig every night. Yesterday I was in Wincanton in Somerset; tonight I’m in Brighton; over the next few weeks, I’m going to be in Stockton-on-Tees, Newcastle, Leeds. That’s what you gotta do. You gotta get out there.”

“How would you describe your comedy?”

“I’m an observational storyteller, an anecdotalist.”

“Totally scripted?”

“I try to do a bit of improvisation in every gig and I try to do something new at every gig. There’s no set script. There’s beats and units in my mind where I know what I want to come next, so there’s a flow to it. But I never end up saying it the same way two nights in a row.”

“Are you going to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?”

“With a comedy show. I would never take a play up there at the moment. Far too expensive.”

“Yes,” I said, “The cost of hiring a venue – and the free venues don’t really put on plays.”

“And,” said Archie, “in Edinburgh, if you have a choice between seeing a play that you pay for and a free play, what are you going to see? You’re going to see a play that you pay for because you think it will be better quality. Whereas, in comedy, ‘free’ is the way it’s going at the moment – ‘free’ is not taken as being rubbish any more.”

“Your father is an actor?” I asked.

“Both my parents are actors,” replied Archie. “My mum, Mary Maddocks, is an actress: she was in The Rocky Horror Show when it was in the West End; and my dad is Don Warrington (of TV’s Rising Damp etc).

“The main thing I get from both of them is they understand the art of performance and the need to perform. It’s not something you choose to do. It’s something that you can’t not do. I’d rather be poor and do something I enjoy than be rich and have to go into work every day at something I don’t like and be miserable. I’d rather live outside in the cold literally – I hope I don’t, but…”

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Comedy is difficult because tragedy can be funny & jokes can sadden audiences

In the final week of the recent  Edinburgh Fringe, I staged five daily hour-long chat shows. In the third show, the guests were English eccentric adventurer Tim Fitzhigham and comedian Patrick Monahan. This is a brief extract:

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Tim Fitzhigham (left) and Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

Tim Fitzhigham (left) & Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

JOHN: Remind us what your background is, Patrick.

PATRICK: Me dad is Irish, me mum’s Iranian and I grew up in Teesside in North East England.

TIM: It’s almost the set-up for a joke… A Geordie, an Iranian and an Irish guy…

PATRICK: Well, I did a gig in Germany and they were laughing at the set-ups, not the punchlines. I would say Me dad’s from Ireland, me mum’s from Iran… and they’d go Ha ha! Oh yes!… and I’d think I’ve not done the joke yet. Then I’d add: We spent most of our family holidays in Customs and they wouldn’t laugh. They’d react Yes, that is true.

I did those jokes for a few years but I thought I don’t want to get pigeon-holed. One year, I’d like to just talk about the Irish-Iranian background stuff. But I don’t think I’ve matured enough as a comic yet to do that. It gets quite serious and you think Oh god, do people really want to hear about…

TIM: Well, the stuff you want to talk about in a serious way… I tried it and people were crying with laughter. I was going into what was, in my head, a very moving section of my show about when our family home sank and… (AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)… You see? It’s already started. I thought this was my confessional minute and I was explaining how, when I was a child, my father would just close off the doors and lock them because they’d gone under the water line. I thought it was a real, emotional tear-jerker and I said to the audience: Dad closed the kitchen door and he locked it and said Don’t play in there any more and then he turned to me and said Where’s the cat? I was really moved by that. The cat had gone under the water line. The cat had drowned. But the way I phrased it must have been a disaster, because the audience was weeping with laughter.

PATRICK: Once, about a year ago, I was playing a theatre in Didcot and thought I’d do some personal stuff. I had a joke about my grandparents – the Iranian and the Irish. There was one point where our families didn’t speak when I was growing up. I told the audience, as a kid, I loved old people, but our family never spoke – the Irish and the Iranians. So I said I used to go to old people’s homes with biscuits, just so old people would talk to me. And the whole audience just went Aaawwwwww….. I’m trying to do a joke here but, for a minute, they were just Aaawwwwwwing and I thought What have I done here? They were all really sad. So I thought OK, let’s talk about something different. So I never really touch on the personal stuff now.

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White people? You can’t tell them apart

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

One mantra for racists in Britain used to be:

“They all look the same to me.”

In 1986, I was in a group of people who went to North Korea. The local guide kept getting me muddled-up with another member of the group. We were all white Westerners and he had difficulty telling our faces apart. We all looked the same to him. It was particularly odd in this case because I had a beard and the guy he kept muddling me with had no beard. But he genuinely had trouble telling our faces apart.

So it was interesting at a Royal Institution lecture last night to hear Professor Bruce Hood say:

“Everything you experience is an illusion. There is a real world out there but everything you experience about that world is constructed by your brain.

“Babies up to the age of about one year can easily tell the difference between human faces, but they can also tell the difference between primates. Adults find these sorts of faces very difficult to tell the difference between because, as we experience faces, we get more clued-into them. and we store in our brains a representation – a model – of what a face looks like.”

To demonstrate this, Bruce Hood showed pictures of two similar-looking human faces and two monkeys’ faces. It was easy to tell the two men apart instantly. But we had to search visually to see that the monkeys’ faces were different.

According to Bruce Hood, after about ten months, babies retain the capacity to differentiate between human faces they see but lose the capacity to differentiate between primates’ faces.

Presumably this is because they see lots of different human faces but very few monkeys’ faces and the brain realises it will have to store more nuances of human faces because there will be more interaction with them.

The reason I mentioned being in North Korea is because that country is very isolated. North Koreans see very few Western European faces in the flesh. So, from my very unscientific experience in 1986, I suspect a lot of, if not all, North Koreans think “all Western Europeans look the same ”.

I presume that, the more multi-ethnic a country becomes, the less the sentence “They all look the same to me” is heard.

But what I find interesting is that, when I see primary school aged children in the street, they are starting to all look the same to me.

And policemen.

I think I am getting old.

Or people are slowly being replaced by clones.

Both options are equally worrying.

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Filed under Psychology, Racism, Science