James Hamilton halfway between the darkness and the light?
The sketch comedy group Casual Violence are staging a ‘best of’ show at the Leicester Square Theatre in November with the title Om Nom Nominous – which is a little odd but then they are a little odd. Especially writer, producer and co-director James Hamilton.
Well, OK, he is not weird. But his writing is, which is why he has been nominated the last two years for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.
Last year, Casual Violence’s Edinburgh Fringe show was called Choose Death. Not an obvious title for a comedy sketch show. This year’s title was A Kick in the Teeth – the title crops up within the show itself as “All life has to offer is just another kick in the teeth.” Both shows felt like comedy set in The Twilight Zone.
“I thought the show was absolutely brilliant,” I told James Hamilton after seeing A Kick in the Teeth.”
“Oh, thank you,” he said.
“But I had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on,” I added. “Just like last year.”
“It is a weirder show than last year,” laughed James.
“It is very difficult to describe your shows,” I said. “I tell people to go see them, then they ask me What’s the show like? and I can’t come up with any description which does it justice.”
“We always really struggle trying to come up with a sales pitch to define what the show is,” said James. “Last year was easier. You could say: There’s a serial killer with no arms and there are hit men who are Siamese twins. If you say those sort of things, people laugh. The characters in this year’s show are not as easy to describe in a funny way.”
“The Poppy Man, who you play yourself in A Kick in the Teeth, is very difficult to describe,” I said.
“Not easy to describe in a good way,” agreed James.
The character, who pops up throughout the show, is a strangely evil, threatening seller of Remembrance Day poppies.
“So…?” I prompted.
“The Poppy Man,” suggested James, “is one man’s guilt nightmare for not wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. It’s like a Roald Dahl short story… In fact, I guess the Roald Dahl comparison is probably relevant… In October or November last year, I re-read his Tales of the Unexpected which I hadn’t read since I was a child. I remember reading the stories as a child and that’s where I learnt what taxidermy is… in The Landlady.
“That’s the one where a guy goes to stay in a bed and breakfast and the landlady has had two guests previously and she taxidermied them; you never see them, but it’s implied. It didn’t have a conscious influence on last year’s show, but maybe there was an influence.”
“So maybe you were a psychotic, evil bastard as a kid?” I suggested.
“No!” laughed James. “No I wasn’t! This is the thing. People keep saying to me that they don’t really get why I do the comedy that I do, given that I… One of my best friends said You’re one of the straightest people I know and yet the stuff you come out with is really weird.”
“Have your parents got any showbizzy genes?” I asked.
“No,” said James immediately, “Not at all. My dad is an antique silver dealer, which is much less interesting than it sounds.”
“Not in that bizarre vault place?” I asked vaguely.
“Yes! Yes!” said James. “The London Silver Vaults. Yes.”
“I went there for the first time a couple of months ago,” I said, “How weird.”
“Am I going to end up plugging my dad’s business?” James asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Vault 25,” said James.
“He must be white-skinned with large eyes and long white hair,” I said. “Like the Morlocks in The Time Machine. A strange subterranean creature.”
“It’s a really, really weird place,” agreed James. “It looks like a Victorian mental asylum.”
“If you were brought up going down there regularly as a kid,” I said, “it would screw your mind up. You would end up like some evil hobbit.”
“Most people’s shops down there,” said James, “are very layed-out and ornate and glass cabinets. But you walk into my dad’s shop and it’s like a junkyard which I think some people find quite exciting, because it’s like it’s full of mysterious treasures but you’ve got to find them. It’s a challenge.”
“I have a strange feeling I might have gone in there,” I said. “There was a really cluttered one I went into and I had a long chat with the guy in there. He looked normal, though, and he was interesting to talk to. What does your mother do?”
“At the moment,” James said, “she’s doing a bit of antique stuff herself, but really different – antique fairs and that sort of thing. There’s a big antiques interest in the family, but not with me. My mother’s dad also worked in the Silver Vaults.”
“I have a sister who is just a year younger than me and has recently fallen to the antiques trade. My other sister is 14 and wants to be a psychologist. She’s the smart one.”
“You’ve done three shows now,” I said. “Choose Death, A Kick in the Teeth and before that…?”
“The first one was a different format. It was more like a play. A badly-written play. Kate Copstick gave it a one-star review and called it ‘irritating’. Obviously, I feel her review was too harsh, but I also feel the good reviews we got for it were too generous. There are so many things I don’t like about it as a show and it’s the one we don’t talk about.”
“And how do you describe A Kick in the Teeth?” I asked.
“Oh,” said James. “If you like laughing at the misery of other people, you’ll like this. You could describe it as schadenfreude sketch comedy, but that’s not an easy one to lead with. There’s no easy term to describe it. We had Tales of TragiComedy Sketch Terror on the flyer in Edinburgh, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.”
“What’s the attraction of weirdness?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’m weird!” pleaded James. “I sort of know my stuff is maybe weird, but it doesn’t feel weird to me.”
“Are you afraid that, if you analyse it too much you won’t be able to do it?”
“Maybe,” James said. “At one point, the show was going to be about War; that was going to be the theme. I wrote a full script and it didn’t work, so I chucked 80% of it. The Poppy Man was the only character who stayed. That and the idea of a Battleships game-to-the-death.
“Around Remembrance Day last year, everyone was wearing a poppy and I was joking with my then-girlfriend Remember, remember the 11th of November and just riffing on it and saying there was a lot to remember, because my dad’s birthday’s in November, we had a gig the next week, there’s Remembrance Day, there’s fireworks day…
“Some of the stuff I’ve done before has been much darker and my then-girlfriend was never the kind of person to take offence at it but, for some reason, the Poppy Man thing really touched a nerve with her. I don’t know why, but I found it funny she was reacting in that way. I don’t ever want to do comedy that I couldn’t argue was not offensive.”
“Was not offensive?” I asked.
“I don’t actually want to offend people,” explained James. “If people are offended – fine. It can happen. But I’m not setting out to do that. People could be offended by the Poppy Man, but I don’t feel it is offensive.”
“You must have had interest from TV after the 5-star reviews last year and this year?” I asked.
“Not really, no, “ said James. “I think part of the reason for that is we don’t have PR, we don’t have an agent. It’s basically just myself and another producer trying to make stuff happen and it’s very difficult.”
“Weird,” I said.
“Maybe,” said James.