Tag Archives: recession

What comedy club owner Noel Faulkner REALLY thinks of the comedy business

(Versions of this piece was also published by Indian news site We Speak News and in the Huffington Post)

Noel Faulkner two days ago at the Comedy Cafe

Yesterday Noel Faulkner, Irish owner of London’s Comedy Cafe in London’s trendy Shoreditch, left for two weeks sailing off the west coast of Ireland. Before he left, he told me what he really thinks of the state of the current comedy business in the UK.

“The game is really played-out,” he told me. “I think ‘arena comedy’ has really done it damage, because 60,000 people at a time can go and see comedy now.

“I’d say the average comedy punter used to go to a club maybe four times a year. But, when they go to these arena shows, it soaks them up and they don’t bother coming to the little places. They go to an arena show and see ‘him off the telly’ and they’re able to boast about it at work on Monday morning: It was amazing. We were right against the big screen! Really up close!”

“But also,” I suggested, “they pay to see a known quality at the O2 whereas, if they go to a club, it may be hit-and-miss.”

“Not if you come to the Comedy Cafe,” said Noel. “We always had good comics. We still do.”

“But, in general, you think comedy clubs are going down the tubes?”

“Yeah. Clubs which used to run Fridays/Saturdays are only running on Saturdays now. And this summer is just chaos. No-one knows if the Olympics in London is going to be a huge success or what the effect may be.”

“What effect did the Euro 2012 football on TV have on attendances?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied. “comedy was already devastated and Euro 2012 didn’t help. We got loads of calls from comics whose gigs had been pulled at other clubs. There’s not even the money now to pay cancellation fees. The money just isn’t there.”

“Yet you’re going back to stand-up comedy yourself,” I said. “You started off performing comedy in America…”

“Well,” he corrected me, “I started out as a dancer in Ireland and, because I have Tourette Syndrome, it’s easy being a dancer because of the twitching. And then I came to London and started acting. And then I went to drama college in America and acted in Chicago, San Francisco, New York.”

“So why are you going back to stand up?”

“One of the reasons,” explained Noel, “is that, in the last four or five years, I’ve seen so many bad, hack, middle class comics trying to break through and some of them have made it all the way to telly. Twenty minutes of talking on stage doesn’t mean you have a comedy set. Talking, in itself, is not comedy.”

“So what’s wrong with middle class?” I asked.

“It’s fucking boring,” Noel said. “It just seems there’s a lot of middle class twats because they can afford to try and become comics when everyone else is working in a call centre trying to make it to a club. I’ve seen quite a few Edinburgh Fringe previews this year and I know they improve before they reach Edinburgh but – Jesus Christ! – Very shallow on jokes.”

“But you’re middle class…” I said.

“Oh totally middle class. My father was a bank manager in Ireland. But I’ve fucking lived a life.”

“Indeed,” I said, “You’ve worked on fishing trawlers, you were on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list…”

“Mainly because of my associates,” interrupted Noel.

“And,” I continued, “spent time in some jail I’ve forgotten.”

“No,” he said. “I’ve only spent nights in jail – in Costa Rica and the States.”

“So are you allowed back into America?” I asked.

“No.”

“So, if you got big as a stand-up, you couldn’t play the chat shows over there?”

“I could,” he said, “because I could afford a big fucking lawyer and he’d sort it all out for me. I am no longer ‘wanted’ in America. I got bail and probation.”

“And,” I said, “all that was in your one-man show Shake, Rattle and Noel at the Edinburgh Fringe four years ago…”

“…Five years ago. It was about how I discovered I had Tourette’s Syndrome and why I became a marijuana smuggler in order to pay for specialists to try and sort me out. I may bring the show back again. Might do it in London. Nobody’s really seen it. I did it in Edinburgh five years ago and that was it. I’d like to do it at Galway Arts Festival next year.

“Are you thinking of taking it back to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” mused Noel. “But, if I did do Edinburgh, I don’t want to spend £10,000, which is what it costs. I mean, it’s £1,500 for an ad in a fucking brochure. £400 to get listed in the Programme. It’s just obscene. And that’s even if you play the Free Fringe or the Free Festival. And £10 for a baked potato just to exist.”

“Well,” I said, “somebody must be making money out of the Edinburgh Fringe and money out of comedy, even though you say the clubs are dying.”

“Agents,” said Noel. “The big stars. What’s happening now is everyone’s trying to get on a ‘talking head’ show and then they’ll get their own tour on the back of it.. But, last year, half the tours were empty. Only the really big names sold. All the guys who’d just been on telly a little bit… their agents thought We can tour on the back of this… but they weren’t selling that well at all.

“The whole thing is imploding. It’s because of the big arena gigs and also a lot of the pubs have cleaned up their acts. On a Friday night, you can get a nice slap-up meal out. Twenty years ago in a British pub, you got warm beer and a cold smile.”

“Is it possible to regain the audience for comedy?” I asked.

“Well, the Recession is really kicking ass,” Noel replied. “And now we’re in the middle of summer time and there’s the Olympics. So many factors. And so many great free festivals – and pay festivals. You can see big names for free or for the cost of a weekend ticket that covers everything.

“More festivals are having comedy tents, which is good because it’s keeping the comics employed but my big concern is for all the comics who are over 40 and married with kids. They can’t really change career. At the moment, at the Comedy Cafe, we’re trying to be loyal. We only encourage new young comics in if they’re brilliant.

“Before, we used to be able to slot in an up-and-coming comic to give them experience, but now… Well, we try… I’m got a couple I’ve got my eye on… but we’ve run out of nights, you know?

“At the moment, we’re doing Wednesdays with open spots, Thursdays for Edinburgh previews, we’ve dropped Fridays for the summer and we are doing Saturdays.”

“But,” I suggested, “with your set-up, if comedy is going downhill, you will still make money from music?”

In the Comedy Cafe building, the upstairs Bedroom Bar (a DJ area) was half the size of the downstairs Comedy Cafe. Now the two have been swapped over. The Comedy Cafe is upstairs in the smaller room, with music downstairs in the Bedroom Bar.

“Yes, said Noel, “we have comedy upstairs now and music downstairs and the whole place turns into a two-floor, three room music venue after ten o’clock when the comedy’s finished.”

“And,” I said, “you’ve re-branded the Comedy Cafe as The Comedy Cafe Theatre…”

“…because,” said Noel, “we’re trying to get away from hack comedy.”

“Which is why you’ve gone back to stand-up yourself?” I asked.

“We re-started the Comedy Cafe talent agency,” said Noel. “and the people running the agency persuaded me because there’s only a handful of old farts my age on the circuit.”

“So the agency has intentionally not signed middle class wankers?” I asked. “So who have you signed?”

“Well,” said Noel, “there’s a girl called Kate Lucas who writes very clever, very funny songs. She has a really sweet voice and you really don’t expect her to come out with the profanities she does.

“We have a Somalian guy. He’s got one eye, a hooked hand, a wooden leg and some great jokes: he’s a pirate… No. There’s a Somalian comic called Prince Abdi who is a hugely tall, good-looking guy, very charismatic and definitely got what it takes.

“We’ve got Lee Camp, the voice of Occupy Wall Street. He’s all over the internet. He does great rants and raves. George Carlin’s daughter said he was the best comic she’s see in America at the moment: the only one who’s on the ball.

“There’s Jimmy James Jones, an outrageous black kid.

“And we have Dag Soras, who’s Norwegian; and three Swedes – Fredrik AnderssonTobias Persson and Magnus Betner who is playing the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Plus, of course, Nick Sun, who’s very alternative and is also in Edinburgh this year.”

“And you are bringing over the Canadian comic Graham Clark this month?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Noel, “He’s amazing, hard-hitting. He’s performing his one hour solo show here at the Comedy Cafe on 27th July, the opening night of the Olympics.”

“That’s very brave of him/you,” I said.

“He’s very good,” Noel said. “It’s a genuine UK exclusive for 2012: you can’t see that show anywhere else this side of the Atlantic this year.”

“So there’s light at the end of the tunnel?” I asked.

Noel shrugged.

“Shoreditch is a good, trendy place for comedy,” I said.

“The Shoreditch crowd are shit for comedy,” said Noel. “Because the skinny people in Shoreditch riding their skinny bikes with their skinny pockets and their skinny brains photographing skinny fucking cigarette butts in the gutter are too cool to go to comedy because they’d have to laugh and not be fucking cool.”

“Are you happy to be quoted on that?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Noel. “I say it on stage. You’re basically getting my act.”

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy

Mafia capitalism takes the same route as the Titanic on its maiden voyage…

Capitalism with a dash of  socialism to add a restraining touch of morality  is, arguably, the least-worst economic option for running a country’s economy. Certainly better than Communism under inevitably self-perpetuating elites.

But shareholder-based capitalism is flawed and possibly doomed, because its aim is the short-term maximisation of profits for the shareholder rather than the long-term growth and health of businesses in which the shareholders invest. The aim is short-term profit-taking, not efficiency. In that sense, it has the same flaws as countries run by dictators or businesses run by criminal organisations… or, indeed, countries run by criminal organisations.

Which brings me to Italy.

I have just arrived in Milan for a couple of days.

I have blogged about the Mafia before…

According to a report issued two days ago, the Mafia is now “Italy’s biggest business”. But this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

Post-War Italy was, in effect, run by the secret Masonic lodge P2 (Propaganda Due) for around thirty years: an unholy alliance of politicians, big business, the military, the intelligence services and the Mafia. It was a conspiracy theorist’s most paranoid dream come true.

The real ‘new’ news story about the Mafia’s financial power seems to be that the current world financial crisis has particularly hit Italy and has partially unified the traditional Mafia groups.

In the current economic crisis, traditional banks are reluctant to lend, so many Italian businesses nationwide have been forced to borrow at crippling rates of interest from organised crime, including the three big Mafia groups – the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.

As a result, the Mafia now have an alleged annual turnover of around £116 billion with reserves of 65 billion Euros, making them “Italy’s biggest bank”.

This is according to a report issued a couple of days ago by Confesercenti, a prominent employers’ association which represents 270,000 small-to-medium businesses. They simply called their report Criminality’s Grip on Business  and it says the Mafia account for around 7% of Italy’s Gross Domestic Profit – and we are talking very ‘gross’ here.

Marco Venturi, the president of Confesercenti, was quoted as saying: “According to our estimates, loan sharking caused the closure in 2010 of 1,800 businesses and destroyed thousands of jobs. Right now, Mafia Inc is the only business enterprise willing to make substantial investments.”

That sounds to me like a man with an eye for publicity.

But, basically, if you are running a small business facing ruin and potential closure in the current economic crisis where banks are only interested in short-term strategies, you have few options to try to save yourself except to borrow from the Mafia… which ironically may itself result in ruin and the potential closure of your business.

Small business owners with tight margins and limited cash flow also, as always, face extortion and straight robbery by the Mafia, at a reported rate of one crime every minute.

This week’s Confesercenti report says the influence of various mafias is now being felt not only in traditional strongholds such as Naples and Palermo, but increasingly in the wealthy north of Italy, in regions such as Lombardy – in other words, the country’s business capital of Milan – and the report says the mafias have expanded there with the “complicity” of some politicians, as well as lawyers and accountants.

Again – perhaps especially in Italy – that comes as no surprise.

Another report this week – by Libera, an anti-Mafia association – says the average adult Italian spends nearly 1,300 Euros every year on slot machines, bingo and other forms of gambling. This 76 billion Euro market is Italy’s third biggest industry and the Libera report claims the Mafia have also now moved into what the report calls ‘new’ areas of business such as public health, transport and logistics.

Milan is known for its fashion industry and now seems to have picked up the latest street fashion – criminal organisations running not just Big Business but the country’s infrastructure.

Well, that is the story.

In fact, I think, as I said earlier, this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

In Italy, traditions run deep.

1 Comment

Filed under Crime, Economics, Italy, Politics

Comedy in an economic recession: how the Greatest Show on Legs survived

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

There is a report in The Scotsman today which starts: “Theatres across Scotland have had their best winter for years as families flock back to the panto to raise morale and spread Christmas cheer during a time of economic crisis.”

Who knows whether a Recession is good or bad for showbiz in general and comedy in particular? Hollywood movies and Busby Berkeley escapism prospered in the 1930s.

I was chatting to performer Martin Soan recently.

With his wife Vivienne, he currently runs the Pull The Other One comedy clubs whose format is, basically, to book several bizarre variety acts and one token Big Name stand-up comic. It is an unusual formula and always interestingly different.

But Martin is also renowned for his Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe, which included British comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee. Their main claim to fame was the naked Balloon Dance which they performed on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show in 1982. Once seen, never forgotten.

The Greatest Show on Legs’ surreal and anarchic comedy survived the last big Recession and also the rise of straight-faced political comedy in the 1980s. I asked Martin how The Greatest Show on Legs prospered and survived changing comedy tastes until Malcolm Hardee’s death in 2005.

This is what he told me:

_______

What happened in the 1980s with Thatcher was that just everybody jumped on the political bandwagon. Even with The Greatest Show on Legs, we used Margaret Thatcher posters instead of balloons at one point. If you ripped the mouth out, you could just stick your knob though it and get a big laugh. It was hardly political satire: it was a visual knob gag.

In the 1980s, a lot of comics were derisory – to say the least – about The Greatest Show on Legs. But the good guys found us funny. The bad guys said things like: “Your style of comedy is dead. It’s now all about stand-up gags and politics. You look so silly. Stupid. Why are you doing this?”

It was depressing for a bit because people coming up to you and saying those things can knock your confidence a little bit. But we had no capability or talent to change in any way whatsoever, so we stuck to our guns. We had no choice.

How did it turn round? Well, I don’t think you can keep stuff down, so we did start getting a little more complex in our ideas. We did start experimenting a bit more.

We had a Hands piece where we used Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March 

We had a very ordinary, black proscenium arch with eight holes in it and black curtains so you couldn’t see the holes and then we choreographed a routine with white gloves. So, at the beginning of the show, the music starts and eight gloved hands appear and open and close and create this pattern. Doesn’t sound much but, for us, it felt like Oh God! We’re really going out on a comedy limb here.

Malcolm pushed it forward in terms of business and I was forever trying to push it forward in terms of the creative side. But, of course, Malcolm was a genius. He’d just say one phrase and then I would go away, envisage it all and choreograph it all.

The classic example of that was the Red Sparrows routine. He said:

“Oy Oy. Instead of the Red Arrows, we do the Red Sparrows.”

Just from that one phrase – the Red Sparrows – I go away, make all the sparrows on sticks, choreograph it, get the music, turn up and try to do a bit of rehearsal.

“I ain’t fucking doing a rehearsal,” Malcolm says.

“Oh, come on, look Malcolm,” I say, “I’ve made all this fucking gear. At least put five minutes in before we go on stage.”

“Well,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting this. Having to rehearse!”

With some other ideas I suggested to Malcolm, he said: “Nah. It’s too artistic.”

Once, I said: “I’ve got a great one about voodoo, Malcolm. You come on and you talk about voodoo and you say I’ve got a voodoo doll here this evening and you hold this doll up and it’s got a very specific costume and, as soon as you bring it up in front of the microphone, I pop out from downstage in this same very specific costume that’s on this voodoo doll. You lift the arm up; I do exactly the same. I just mirror whatever you do with this doll. And then you say Voodoo? It’s a load of old bollocks! throw the doll over your shoulder and I do a back flip.

“That,” he said, “is much too poncey and artistic.”

I suppose a combination of Malcolm and the Balloon Dance created a whole image that we were just a load of old Joe Soaps going around.

I was always a little disappointed, because I wanted to work harder. Malcolm was always content with being a bit of a minor celebrity, owning a club and going around doing our Balloon Dance and Michael Jackson’s Thriller routines. I wanted to push it forward. But we got the reputation of just being a load of drinking men getting up and taking our clothes off.

There was an element of that, of course.

But, if you ‘do’ surreal and anarchic, you have to be disciplined if you want to reproduce that on stage time-and-time-and-time again. You have to think things through, work out how ridiculous props can be fitted-into small spaces and all the rest of it. It’s discipline.

If you get more than one person doing the same thing at the same time to a bit of music, it’s always impressive.

I would say I am a performance artist with a sense of humour.

It’s well-on-the-cards now that we are probably going from Recession into Depression. Even the optimistic forecast says it’s going to be five years before we get proper growth again.

So I reckon the way through for people like me is to do the cabaret/German type surreal comedy of the inter-War years where you are reflecting how people feel.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, History, Marketing, Politics, Theatre

Career prospects if you have not worked for several years

This morning, I was talking to a friend who has not worked for several years. She is over forty. She has not worked in one specific job area. She has bummed-around a bit between jobs.

We were discussing what she could do.

“There are pros and cons for you,” I suggested. “The downside is that, in almost any business at the moment, there are loads of unemployed people with lots of experience in that one specific business area looking for work. They have much more specific experience than you… Also, you are not computer literate. You don’t know Microsoft Word or spreadsheets or data storage systems. That’s a drawback…

“On the other hand,” I said, “the upside is actually your age. If you were a 30 year-old who had not worked for several years, they’d think you were flighty and unreliable and a risk. But, because you are of ‘a certain age’ they will look on you as being more reliable and responsible, just returning to full-time work after taking some years off.”

“But the trouble,” she told me, “is that I don’t really like people. I’ve become very bitter and I would like to go round shooting a lot of people.”

“You could consider the police as a career,” I suggested. “You have the perfect psychological profile and, although I don’t recommend shooting people, it would be an option.”

My friend is still considering her options.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The greatest mystery in all of China is to be found in a Northwood restaurant

I will be going to see more movies in the China Image Film Festival in London later today.

In round figures, there are 4,000 cinema screens in the UK.

In China – a vastly larger country – there are only 6,000 screens.

But, within the next five years, China will have 20,000 screens and will become the second biggest film industry in the world after the US – larger than India’s Bollywood. In the last year alone, there were 500 films made in China.

I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, not far from ’the bunker’, and got home to watch yet more on the BBC News channel about a world economic situation that is barely – or perhaps not – under control. All the ‘advanced’ countries seem to be in debt that will stretch decades into the future.

But China is sitting on vast amounts of money. The irony of a Communist country becoming rich on capitalism.

The last decade was all about China making things but the next decade will be all about China owning things.

Which reminds me of something a history teacher once said as a throwaway line at my school when I was about 13.

He said: “Civilisation and power moves westwards because invading armies have always ridden westwards, following the daylight.”

Trite, of course.

But, in the northern hemisphere, it is roughly true.

At the moment, power is moving from North America to the Pacific Rim (a phrase that always sounds to me like a dubious sexual practice).

What confuses me is that the Chinese are very expansionist of late.

They have been putting money into Africa, especially into very suspect regimes, for a couple of decades. They are building an aircraft carrier or, at least, have refitted a Russian one. They are now investing heavily in the West.

This seems very un-Chinese. The Great Wall was built to keep the uncivilised long-nosed foreign devils out and to preserve the integrity of China which, with quite a lot of justification, looked inward at itself as the only truly civilised place.

Japan was always the regional expansionist power, not China.

Of course, there was the invasion of Tibet in 1949, but that seemed an unfortunate exception to the rule and a knee-jerk reaction after Mao Tse-tung’s Communists took power.

It seems to be very un-Chinese to be expansionist. It is a great mystery.

Though, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, it was secondary as a mystery in my mind to the greater ongoing mystery of why the Chinese – who, let’s face it,  invented pretty much everything – never invented the teacup handle not the knife-and-fork. And why on earth were chopsticks thought to be a good idea in a nation where the staple diet was and is based around small grains of rice?

Life is a constant mystery.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Food, History, Movies, Travel

The story two-faced Tony Blair/Bliar successfully hid from the British public

The individual’s right to privacy, the public’s “right to know” and freedom of the press.

Now there’s a difficult balance to strike.

And then there are super-injunctions.

One of the reasons for granting one of the notorious secret super-injunctions was apparently that, if the man’s marital infidelity were revealed, his children might get bullied at school. I rather think that, if the guy’s kids get bullied because their father has been sticking his knob within someone other than his wife, then the guy should take responsibility. It ain’t for the public courts to help him try to hide his adultery.

But the protection of children versus freedom of the press can be a well-balanced problem – of which more later, with Tony Blair.

Yesterday, the Guido Fawkes blog ran a story that, since 2008 – unknown to the British public – it has been an offence punishable by imprisonment to reveal that Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain – who has donated £2 million to the Labour Party – has a super-injunction gagging all reporting of an unknown and unprintable matter.

And much was made in the press yesterday about the super-injunction with which former RBS boss Fred Goodwin tried to hide an affair he had with a married subordinate before the financial crisis of 2008. This was the super-injunction which also, technically, made it illegal to describe him as “a banker”.

There have been lots of worthy ‘public interest’ words about how the public deserved to know about Fred Goodwin’s affair because it may have affected his judgment in the period leading up to the point at which the British taxpayer had to fork out billions of pounds to save RBS.

I’m not convinced that Fred The Bed’s rumpy pumpy is too likely to have specifically contributed to RBS’s woes in any major way. I think that may be more to do with the near-meltdown of the entire world’s financial system – and, from my biased perspective, two Icelandic banks which stole the money I had invested in them. But stress, obviously, does affect people’s judgment in times of crisis.

If – let us say for argument’s sake – if… a Prime Minister were making important life-or-death decisions in a highly volatile post-war situation, the public would have a right to know if he were making those decisions under extreme personal stress, wouldn’t they?

Well, no, apparently the public would not have any right to know that.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think highly personal matters SHOULD be in the public domain if people – perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of people – might die because of a potentially wrong decision taken by a politician under extreme personal pressure.

Tony Blair – sometimes called Tony Bliar, a far more fitting spelling – the man who brought in the Freedom of Information Act – claimed he wanted ‘open’ government.

Yet, when his 16 year old daughter Kathryn attempted suicide on or around 13th May 2004, he and his chaps went to the editors of the main British newspapers and had all reporting of the attempted suicide barred from publication because it was a solely personal, private matter. Rupert Murdoch barred publication of any reporting of the incident in any of his newspapers worldwide; I do wonder what sort of political payback he could expect for doing that.

It remains one of many stories known by but not reported in the UK media. Many people who knew about the attempted suicide at the time agreed and still agree with the blanket non-reporting of the fact it happened. They believe that it was and is a family tragedy and there is no “in the public interest” factor involved; they argued and argue that the physical and psychological protection of the individual child outweighs any public right to know. I disagree.

In a recent blog I mentioned I tried to commit suicide when I was 18.

The Blair daughter suicide bid happened almost exactly one year after the invasion of Iraq, which was in an even worse mess and the Abu Ghraib torture pictures had recently been publicised. The suicide bid was rumoured to have been caused by a combination of exam stress and bullying by schoolmates about her father’s involvement in Iraq. Which is where that earlier reference to school bullying comes in.

The Blair suicide story is not an urban myth. I know someone who, at the time, was connected to the Blair daughter’s Roman Catholic state secondary school, the Sacred Heart in Hammersmith. I heard about it at the time because, obviously, the school knew it had happened.

I first heard the story mentioned in public by an Irish comedian at the August 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. The story had been published in Ireland and abroad but not in the UK and not by any news sources controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

At the time, there were unexplained stories in the British press that Blair was considering leaving office. No reason was given in the reports as to why Blair might leave office beyond, occasionally, some vague reference to “family”. And it seemed to me that Blair suddenly visibly aged at that time.

If those stories were true and he was indeed considering actually resigning for family reasons then it does not seem to be a vast leap of supposition to believe that he was making important decisions of life and death in an extremely volatile and unpredictable high-pressure post-Invasion situation while under extreme psychological stress.

The reasons for his stress might well have been “personal” and “private” but, when personal, normally private events affect national and international decisions and potentially the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people, the public has a right to know the circumstances under which those decisions are being made.

There ARE cases where the public’s “right to know” and freedom of the press over-ride people’s “right to privacy”.

7 Comments

Filed under Newspapers, Politics, Sex

The mystery of a £500 million man, the German love of Red Indians and the tough future for seven dwarfs.

I was in Brighton yesterday, visiting a friend. Her partner comes from Wolverhampton.

When I arrived, she asked me: “Have you heard about Snow White?”

“Erm, no” I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Apparently,” she told me, “Radio 4 says the local panto in Wolverhampton this year is Snow White, but they have sacked the seven dwarfs… Sacked them! Suddenly!”

I looked at my friend.

“What on earth did they do?” I asked.

I had visions of the legendary mayhem and Bacchanalia which reportedly happened among the Munchkins during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” my friend explained. “It was the economic recession and the soaring cost of dwarfs… The theatre is going to replace the dwarfs with children wearing masks.”

“It won’t be the same,” I replied. “Don’t Look Now would’t have been the same. Didn’t they think about the soaring cost of vertically-challenged people before they employed the seven dwarfs in the first place?”

“Radio 4 didn’t say.”

“That seems a bit remiss of them. Standards are falling at the BBC.”

“Yes,” my friend replied.

“We live in a strange and mysterious world,” I said.

“Yes,” my friend replied.

We had a cup of tea.

Later in the afternoon, in The Lanes, we picked up a leaflet for the Brighton Festival Fringe. At the top, it said: The third largest Fringe in the world.

“Brighton has always been billed as the second biggest,” my friend said.

“You’ve been shamed,” I ventured. “Edinburgh is by far the biggest arts festival in the world and the biggest Fringe. What on earth is the second biggest?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

So we went to Brighton’s always surreal-sounding Vegetarian Shoes shop and stared in the window. Nearby, was a man sitting on the ground outside a Native American shop; he was dressed as a Tibetan lama and was apparently talking on his mobile phone to his girlfriend; he had an English accent.

“They’re very popular in Germany,” my friend told me.

“Tibetan monks?” I asked.

“Native American artifacts.”

“I seem to remember reading,” I said, “that German movie-goers are very fond of Westerns, too. What’s that all about?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

“I can’t help feeling that, if Hitler had dressed in a Red Indian head-dress, it would have undermined his credibility,” I suggested.

My friend looked at me.

She said nothing.

Any news of Nicholas van Hoogstraten?” I asked, as we walked on. I’m always interested in people with unusual lives and my friend had once given me a biography of van Hoogstraten as a Christmas present.

By 1968 (aged 23), he simultaneously became Britain’s youngest millionaire and started a 4-year prison sentence for paying a gang to throw a grenade into the house of Rev Braunstein, a Jewish leader whose eldest son owed him £3,000. He later said of the people who threw the grenade: “These weren’t anarchists: they were businessmen, respectable people.”

In 2002, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the manslaughter by two other men of business rival Mohammed Raja; a jury decided that “although he wanted Mr Raja harmed, he had not wanted him murdered”. He was released in 2004 after successfully appealing against his conviction on the grounds that “there was no foundation for a manslaughter case.” In 2005, Mohammed Raja’s family won £6 million in a civil action against van Hoogstraten after the court found that the balance of probabilities was “that the recruitment of the two thugs was for the purpose of murdering Mr Raja and not merely frightening or hurting him”. Van Hoogstraten reportedly told the BBC that the family would “never get a penny”.

“Is he still in Brighton?” I asked my friend.

“It’s a mystery to me,” my friend said. “Every now and then you hear stories. Some people say he’s in Zimbabwe.”

“Among friends, then,” I said.

“Not any more,” my friend said. “One story is he sold all his assets in this country and put all his money into Zimbabwe because he was so chummy with the regime but they fell out and he lost all his land there.”

The last time I heard van Hoogstraten, he was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme defending Robert Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ policies.

“How’s van Hoogstraten mausoleum?” I asked.

“Crumbling,” my friend said.

By this point, we were passing a bronze statue of the British music hall star Max Miller.

“An interesting place, Brighton,” I said. “Max Miller and Nicholas van Hoogstraten were both equally at home here.”

“Yes,” said my friend.

“Bronze is very colourless for Max Miller,” I said.

“Yes,” said my friend.

Apparently Adelaide is the second biggest Fringe in the world.

And, according to Wikipedia, which is surprisingly accurate on such things, Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been reported to be worth £500 million, “though he has stated that his assets in the UK have all been placed in the names of his children”. His assets in property and farming in Zimbabwe were estimated to be worth over £200 million.

I don’t know what he is worth now or where he is. Nor does my friend.

All I know for certain is that life is tough for dwarfs in Wolverhampton.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Crime, History, Theatre, Travel