Tag Archives: report

UK Comedy: the death of a magazine, a website and a forgotten comedian

No more mustard after this year

No more Mustard magazine after this year

Last week, it was reported that Mustard comedy magazine is to cease publication; the final issue will be out in a few months.

I think I have a temperature. Last night, I kept waking up every half hour in bed and my pillow was wet with sweat. Things are a bit swirly this morning.

I am staging two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and I am a multi-award-winner. I think, perhaps, I should have mentioned that on my posters.

When I was 11, I won an award at school for handwriting. As a prize, I was given an abridged version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Why I was given that book and why it was the abridged version, I do not know.

My award as Best Awards Founder

My no doubt increasingly prestigious award as Best Awards Founder

A century later, in 2010, I was given a Fringe Report award as ‘Best Awards Founder’ for awarding the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. It was even better that that, as the actual physical awards for which I was given an award for awarding awards were actually designed by a Ward – mad inventor John Ward.

Fringe Report was a quirky online publication covering the Edinburgh Fringe and the London theatre Fringe. It closed in July 2012 after ten years of sterling reviews, features, parties and occasionally eccentric awards.

Yesterday afternoon, I supped tea with its erstwhile editor John Park, who told me that all the Fringe Report material is going to be archived by the British Library “so that, in future years, people can read without payment some of the flavour of what happened in this great area of the experimental arts at the start of the 21st Century.”

All the online text will be transferred into a series of physical books.

“We’re planning about 14 volumes,” John Park told me. “One for each of its 10 years.”

“Eh?” I said.

“There will be 11 volumes, as it started and ended mid-year,” he explained.

“Eh?” I said.

“Then one for all the awards certificates,” he explained. “And one for articles still in notebooks which were never written up for the site – our editing backlog. And one as a cumulative index of all the other volumes.”

“Ah!” I said.

I used to attend the Fringe Report social events

Fringe Report monthly social (photo by Catherine Balavage)

“The books will probably be A4, hardback bound,” said John. “All of the photographs of awards ceremonies, Fringe Report ‘First Mondays’ meetings and other social events are being donated as several hundred digital images. The films and soundtracks of about 4 to 5 years of Fringe Report Awards are being donated as digital files. The books will be compiled by us and designed into books by Richard Dragun who designed all our awards certificates. Compiling the books and indexing who is in all the photos is likely to take a year, so it will probably be completed around the middle to end of 2014.

“The main Fringe Report site will go offline during 2013, at the latest by November but probably before.  We’ll probably keep the WordPress site online after that, at least into 2014.”

So some memories of people passing through the transient world of live performance will be preserved. Something I try to do – slightly – in this blog.

Yesterday, I also got an e-mail from my occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith, who has memories of the live UK comedy scene as long or longer than mine.

“Did you ever see The Brixton Bank Manager perform?” she asked me. “He was very personable, great to work with and grew fine tomatoes on his window ledge. He was also known as Richard Elkin and Norby West. He was possibly the most elderly of the comics on the circuit in 1986. A very funny man.”

He started performing at festivals and in the streets in the 1970s with a pornographic Punch and Judy act and as The Amazing Percy Main.

The Brixton Bank Manager - “Cheques should be made payable to Richard Elkan  * Bollocks baffle madness - the old family motto

Photo of Norby West in the 1980s – autographed  “Cheques should be made payable to Richard Elkan [aka the BBM*] *Bollocks baffle madness – the old family motto”

“In the 1980s,” Anna told me yesterday, “he telephoned the Open Heart Cabaret which Sir Gideon Vein (Tony Green) was running. I answered the phone and a cheery voice at the other end said: Hello – This is the Brixton bank manager. I thought it must be a wrong number as we were far too impoverished to have any reason for a bank manager to call, but he quickly explained: I’m not really a bank manager – that’s my stage name….

“Who knows, he may have worked in a bank once. He had an ageless quality. He was going to newcomer comedy nights when he was in his seventies. He had an infectious childlike enthusiasm, combined with a professional sort of manner.”

His Norby West character was billed as “the granddad from hell” and described as “geriatric filth disguised as satire”. When he died in 2009, the Chortle comedy website quoted comedian Paul Foot as saying:

“Richard retired about six years ago because the smoke in the clubs affected his ancient lungs and we remained friends. I would pop round to his flat, he’d give me a stale biscuit and we would laugh at amusing moments from our comedy careers. Richard was an entertainer for most of his life. He continued writing plays and other things after his retirement. He never lost his creativity or sense of fun and will be massively missed by me and other comedians.”

Now Richard is forgotten by new generations of comedy club goers. He died of pneumonia at the age of 80.

So it goes.

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How BBC News got a bias against news

Slowly recovering from the damage

Slowly recovering from the damage

In yesterday’s blog, I criticised the lack of world news on British TV channels, including the BBC News Channel. One reason, of course, is that people are not interested in news items which don’t directly and immediately affect them.

They do want to know about hospitals, schools and roads in the UK. They generally do not want to know about war in the Congo or trade wars in Asia… Although North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and London Mayor Boris Johnson may run neck-and-neck in the “and finally” humorous eccentricity stakes.

The Bland Birt Corporate logo

Bland Birt Corporate logo

Another problem with BBC TV News at the moment, though, is the deadly legacy which remains of former BBC Director General John Birt’s grey grip on journalistic style.

Birt came up with this theory that his presumed intellectual inferiors – the ‘ordinary’ men and women of Britain – did not understand the background to the news they were told in news summaries. He came up with the theory that there was a “bias against understanding” in news reports… so he directed that the background to every news story had to be explained any time there was any news.

Before Birt Came - the old logo

Before Birt Came – the old logo

The BBC used to divide factual reporting into two separated areas: News and Current Affairs.

News reports did just that. They reported news.

Current Affairs programmes (like Panorama) reported the background to the news.

Birt abolished the distinction, resulting in news reporting where you could not see the wood for the trees.

During his grey, foggy time at the BBC, I once heard a news item.

Some ordinary (ie not high profile) person had got shot in Northern Ireland.

I actually timed the report.

In the “news” report, there was just under three minutes of background on the 600-odd years of Irish Troubles which led up to the shooting and under 15 seconds reporting what had actually happened when this person had got shot.

Under Birt, news reporting had a “mission to explain” which actually became a mission which lessened not just the amount of news reported but the actual investigative reporting of reality.

In days of yore, BBC reporters would go out to uncover what was actually happening. Under Birt, the theory was that reporters should sit in their office, cool, calm and collected, look at all the sources they had, decide what was happening, then write their report.

They would then try to make this near-academic monologue more ‘visual’ by going out to interview people from whom soundbites could be extracted illuminating the pre-determined angle of the report. If interviewees inconveniently gave a different view, the reporter, it was suggested, should try to get the ‘correct’ angle out of them. If they continued to spout the ‘wrong’ view, then they would not be included in the report.

Because ‘ordinary people’ were deemed intellectually inferior, the message of any report had to be reinforced by relevant vivid visuals. This still lives on.

Two days ago, BBC News had a serious political story that LibDem leader Nick Clegg had likened the creation of coalition government policy to the making of sausages. The report was filmed not with the reporter standing in the Palace of Westminster or in Whitehall or talking to a Liberal Democrat but – you guessed it – standing beside a sausage machine inside a sausage factory.

I once saw a BBC political correspondent describe in a serious political report what was happening in the ‘Westminster circus’ by standing in a circus ring while acrobats flew overhead on a trapeze.

The BBC has mostly recovered from Birt’s pseudo-stylistic insanities.

But not totally.

The more analysis and background of news you have in news reports, the less time there is for actual news items.

Birt’s “bias against understanding” has resulted in a bias against actual news reporting.

There is also the risk, of course, that a “mission to explain” means explanation and editorialising outweigh reporting… and ‘explanation’ and ‘editorialising’ can easily overlap into opinion.

BBC News should report the news.

It should not have an opinion.

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Sucking up or sucking off? UK Prime Ministers, Rupert Murdoch and a puff

Look, I only plug people and things I believe in on this blog so, with that in mind, read on…

British Prime Ministers have been sucking Rupert Murdoch’s corporate cock since the 1960s. It’s nothing new. Nor is amorality.

Lance Price was a special advisor to Tony Blair. In 1998, he became deputy to Blair’s Communications Director, Alastair Campbell; and he was the Labour Party’s Director of Communications from 2000 until the General Election of 2001. Price says Blair was under Murdoch’s thumb from the beginning:

“I started working for Tony Blair a year after he became Prime Minister. I was shocked to be told by one of those who’d been closely involved with the talks in Australia, and subsequently, that: ‘We’ve promised News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without talking to them’.”

But – hey! ho! – political pragmatism, like journalistic amorality, is good news for some…

My elfin comedian chum Laura Lexx is staging her first straight play Ink at the Edinburgh Fringe in three weeks time.

The play is actually about the London 7/7 terrorist bombings and the media intrusion into victims’ lives but, of course, the subject of where the journalistic tipping point lies between investigative illumination and amoral intrusion is timeless.

Laura’s press release (written months ago) says: When reporting the news is business, is there space for truth and a conscience?… Will we accept hack journalism as a necessary evil for swift information?

It could have been written last week about the phone hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World. It is a subject, as the red-tops might themselves say, RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES – but of eternal relevance.

The play’s billing reads: “Ordinary man blown up by terrorists – he made jam and had a son. Nothing special. The media made that clear as they conjured headlines from victims and sprinkled them between crosswords.”

My elfin chum Laura Lexx was both a Chortle and Paramount Student comedy finalist in her first six months of live stand-up performance; then she went on to reach the semi-finals of both the Laughing Horse and Funny Women competitions.

I saw Ink when it was a student production at the University of Kent.

It was impressive then.

With the number of actors in the cast cut back for financial reasons and the writing sharpened up even more, it will be interesting to see how it fares at the Edinburgh Fringe, given its accidentally up-to-the-minute relevance.

Now.. if only I could see some RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES angle for my own two spaghetti-juggling events at the Fringe…

My head is spinning.

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