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Comedy singer Ariane Sherine – from Duran Duran to Humanist ‘reservations’

Ariane Sherine and I first had a blog chat in October 2014, when she released her music album Beautiful Filth.

This Saturday, she is headlining the annual (free) One Life Humanist Choir concert at what she calls “the fabulous heathen palace” of Conway Hall – more correctly the Ethical Society’s London HQ.


JOHN: Are you in the choir?

ARIANE: No. The choir are amazing and brilliant. They’re going to be playing seven songs including two of my favourites: Days by The Kinks and Billie Jean (Michael Jackson). When I was originally approached, though, it was also suggested they might supply a choral backing for my songs and I was so excited. I was thinking about writing out sheet music for the first time in decades and what sort of arrangements I would score, but then the choir heard some of my songs and I was told they had ‘reservations’.

JOHN: Why? Are you singing about God?

ARIANE: No. Singing about sex. The choir ‘had reservations’, so I sent them one of my cleaner songs and they said: “Wow! If that is the more subtle one then the extreme ones could be interesting!” They said they had too full a schedule to do the backing, but I think they were being polite and were actually put off by my filth.

JOHN: What was the clean song you sent them?

ARIANE: Would You Still Love Me

Would you still love me
If I took you to the cleaners?
Would you still love me
If my nose turned into a penis?
Would you still love me
If I never said thank you or please
And I always did asparagus wees
And my flange smelled like blue cheese?

JOHN: What did they find objectionable?

ARIANE: I don’t know. I’m totally baffled.

JOHN: You are also bringing out a book in October. I presume that is going to be full of filth too?

ARIANE: No, it’s not. It’s called Talk Yourself Better: A Confused Person’s Guide To Therapy, Counselling and Self-Help. It’s a beginner’s guide to therapy and types of therapy. I’ve written guides to the different types of therapy which are short and funny like myself. And there are contributions from people who have had therapy – including Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker, David Baddiel, James Brown…

JOHN: James Brown the singer?

ARIANE: No, John. He’s dead. That would be difficult, especially as I don’t believe in an afterlife. James Brown, the former editor of GQ who also launched Loaded magazine. 

JOHN: What are Humanists anyway? They’re just atheists.

ARIANE: They are atheists with ethics. Atheists who are good without God.

JOHN: Surely it’s just a way of making atheism into a religion, isn’t it? Which is a bad idea, because almost all religions are OK. It’s organised religion that turns things bad. And Humanism is just organised atheism.

ARIANE: No. We have no places of worship; not even community centres. We don’t stop anybody from doing anything.

JOHN: Except joining in with rude songs.

ARIANE: (LAUGHS) That might be a drawback.

JOHN: You keep saying “we”. You created and organised the Atheist Bus Campaign in 2008. But are you a Humanist?

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

ARIANE: I am. I’m a patron of Humanists UK. 

JOHN: Shouldn’t you be a matron not a patron?

ARIANE: That sounds a bit frumpy. I’d rather be the sex goddess of Humanists UK.

JOHN: That would involve flanges, though… So what are you going to sing on Saturday if you can’t sing dirty songs?

ARIANE: I can sing my dirty songs. The choir just won’t be doing the backing.

JOHN: What would they have been doing if they had done it? Ooh-aaah Ooh-aaah ooh-aaahs?

ARIANE: I might have had them sing “vaginosis”. I have always dreamt about one bit in Will You Still Love Me?

Would you still love me
If I had pungent halitosis?
Halitosis
Would you still love me
If I had bacterial vaginosis?
Vaginosis

I would have loved to have had that Vaginosis, John. 

JOHN: You’re not just a singer of dirty songs, though. You have a bit of previous. With Duran Duran.

ARIANE: Yes. I left school at 16. I was asked to leave.

This girl was bullying me and she spat in my lunch and I threw a full coke can in her face and gave her a black eye. Her step-sister’s gang were waiting outside the school to beat me up or worse and the deputy head had to escort me past the gang and it was made clear to me this couldn’t happen again and that I should leave school.

I remember the deputy head saying to me: “You’ve got to work out what you are going to do with your life now,” and I said, “I know what I’m going to do. I am going to go and find Duran Duran.”

A young Ariane Sherine with Simon Le Bon

So I found out where they were recording, went down to the studio, met them and started hanging out with them and that’s what I did for the next three years.

JOHN: As a groupie…?

ARIANE: No, no. As a songwriter. I wanted to write songs. I told them that and they would listen to my songs and give me advice and feedback.

JOHN: But you never actually played with them…

ARIANE: I did do some sessions for one of their records, playing piano and singing – Ken Scott was the producer. But my contributions didn’t appear on the album and they meant to thank me in the liner notes but forgot. And then I didn’t see them for eight years. Then Simon Le Bon saw me interviewed on television when I was promoting the Atheist Bus Campaign and he sent me a letter via the Guardian.

JOHN: Because you were writing columns for the Guardian at the time.

ARIANE: Yes. So we kind of rekindled our friendship then.

JOHN: Any chance of Duran Duran doing a cover of your Hitler Moustache song ?

ARIANE: No, John, it wouldn’t work.

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Ariane Sherine tells backstage tales of comedy amid rampant multi-tasking

ArianeSherine_AdventuresStandUpComicYesterday, ‘new’ musical comic Ariane Sherine sent out to her subscribers the first edition of her weekly e-mail Adventures of a Stand-Up Comic. The comedy industry website Chortle will be running monthly highlights from it.

“So,” I asked Ariane, “Adventures of a Stand-Up Comic will end up as a book?”

“I hope so,” she told me. “It’s so much fun to do a gig and write it up, even if it’s been a bad gig. It’s quite cathartic.”

“Except,” I said, “you will be hated by all the other stand-up comics, because you will grass them up.”

“No,” she laughed. “I’m not going to mention people’s names or dates or places or gig names. Anybody who was at the gig will know what happened, but it’s no different from posting on Facebook saying: Did a gig here and blah-di-blah. I will anonymise it.”

It is a rare thing for someone who has been working as a musical stand-up comic for only three weeks to get a regular piece on the Chortle website. It is also very unusual to get booked for a paid gig after being seen in the first week; and another paid gig after being seen in the second week. But Ariane does have a bit of previous.

She was a stand-up act 13 years ago for around six months. Back then she got into the Laughing Horse New Act Final but quit stand-up before the event to focus on comedy writing for TV shows, including BBC1’s My Family, BBC2’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Channel 4’s Countdown.

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric - do not try this at home

Beautiful Filth – Ariane’s 2014 album as ‘The Lovely Electric’

She has also written regularly for The Guardian, as well as The Sunday Times, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, NME and Esquire, appeared on BBC1’s Breakfast, BBC London News, ITV1’s The Alan Titchmarsh Show, Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show, Radio 4’s iPM and Sunday, released a 2014 album of songs called Beautiful Filth and duetted with Tim Minchin at London’s Palace Theatre.

It is also very rare for a ‘new’ comic to have recent quotes like “Quite brilliant” (critic Kate Copstick)… “If she’s not a huge success, it’ll be an absolute travesty” (Charlie Brooker)… She could be a female Tom Lehrer.

Which is why she was on the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club Podcast last week.

Afterwards, I asked Ariane something I had forgotten to ask her on the podcast (a vivid reflection of my limitations):

“Why go back on the comedy circuit after 13 years?”

“Because it’s the truest form of comedy,” she told me. “People can’t fake laughter – not belly laughter. And you get instant feedback on your work. Whereas, if you write for telly, you might only get feedback on your work from the producer and the script editor.

“What you’re saying on stage is: I find this funny. I think this is funny. And then the audience has the most visceral emotional reaction to what you’ve said. They say: Yes, I agree. This is funny. I am laughing. And that’s wonderful. It just makes you feel so… loved.”

“So,” I said, “performing comedy gives validation to insecure people.”

“Yes,” said Ariane. “I would agree with that.”

“Punters,” I said, “think all comedians must be extroverts to get up there on stage, but almost all the comedians I know want to hide in a cave. There’s that dichotomy between wanting to hide away and getting up on stage and exposing yourself to potential rejection. Actors can hide behind a character, but comedians are more exposed.”

“Yes,” said Ariane. “Unless they’re character comedians.”

Richard Dawkins publicising the Atheist Bus Campaign which Ariane created in 2009

Richard Dawkins helped publicise the Atheist Bus Campaign which Ariane successfully created in 2009

“In 2009,” I prompted, “ you compiled The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas – with contributions from 42 atheist celebrities, comedians, scientists and writers. And now you see The Adventures of a Stand-Up Comic as a book. You are also simultaneously writing two other books at the moment?”

“Yes.”

“What are they about?”

“One is a funny look at trying to lose a load of weight. Another is a book about mental illness – which is a novel.”

“Any particular mental illness?” I asked.

“Pure O.”

“Isn’t that,” I asked, “an Agatha Christie detective?”

“No,” laughed Ariane. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s about the intrusive thoughts that people get which they can’t shake. Pure O is meant to denote only the Obsession part of OCD. So people with Pure O don’t carry out compulsions to the same extent. They don’t take action. They just get very, very upset by the thoughts in their head.”

“Why are you writing a novel about that?” I asked. “Is it autobiographical?”

“Not entirely autobiographical, no. But I’m very familiar with the thought processes.”

“Because?”

“Because I have OCD.”

“I just assume,” I said, “that OCD is arranging all your books and albums in alphabetical order.”

“No, I think that’s an unhelpful portrayal by the media.”

“So what is it?”

“It’s when you have a thought that really scares you and you place too much importance on that thought. So you might think: I’m going to walk down this bridge and throw myself off it. And instead of doing the normal thing and walking down the bridge anyway, you avoid bridges. Or you will only walk down the bridge while holding somebody’s hand. That kind of thing.

“You take action because of this awful thought in your head and, when people are perfectionists and do arrange everything in order, it’s because they think something terrible will happen if they don’t do that. When people clean or wash their hands repeatedly, it’s because they think they’re going to get a terrible disease or contract a terrible virus and die.”

“So why do this as a novel and not something more autobiographical?”

“Because I think it will reach a lot more people as a novel.”

In her first week back on the comedy circuit, Ariane sang about Jeremy Corbyn and Adolf Hitler.

To sign up for Ariane’s weekly email Adventures of a Stand-Up Comic, send a message to ariane.sherine@gmail.com with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line.

 

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John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis and the famous ballerina who was a gun runner

“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.

So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.

In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.

His relevance, as far as this blog is concerned, is that he accidentally appeared in the little-seen and staggeringly weird Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels.

In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”

The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.

The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.

It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.

He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.

All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.

Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.

Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.

He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.

Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.

Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?

I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.

Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.

It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.

I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.

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Filed under Classical music, Drugs, Movies, Rock music, Television