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Comic Sarah Hendrickx on cycling 520 miles, burning 6,000-7,000 calories a day and eating 75 pain au chocolats

Suntanned Sarah Hendrickx yesterday on Skype

A sun-tanned Sarah Hendrickx yesterday on Skype

“I’ve got a terrible cold, so I’m going to cough and splutter and sniffle through this” I said when I started talking to Sarah Hendrickx on Skype last night. “But now you’ve cycled all those hundreds of miles, you must be very healthy.”

“Oh, not healthy,” replied Sarah. “My knees. They were bad before I went and they’re no better.”

“And your bum?”

“My bum’s recovered now,” said Sarah. “Thanks for asking.”

“You bicycled back yesterday evening?” I said.

“No,” said Sarah. “A British Airways flight from Barcelona.”

“How many miles did you do eventually?”

“I cycled 520 and I caught a train for 200 or so in the middle, because I wouldn’t have had time to finish.”

The last time comedian Sarah Hendrickx was heard of in this blog, she was on an 800 mile cycle ride to Barcelona having only previously ever cycled for 38 miles. For her, the journey was “a personal, physical and mental challenge” because, years ago, she “got stuck up the Sagrada Família in Barcelona and ended up going a bit mental and getting agoraphobia. So this is me going back to sort it all out and become a brave person.”

It was also research for her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show Time Traveller.

“You triumphantly cycled into Barcelona?” I asked her yesterday.

The second victim of bike-killer Sarah Hendrickx

The second sad victim of the European bike-killing comedian

“No,” admitted Sarah. “I conked out 60 miles outside… Eleven spokes broke on my wheel, due to weight and general abuse, just treating it really badly. I was going off-road; I was trolling around like a lunatic. I just busted it, basically. I probably had about 120 kilos on it what with my weight and the tools and the clothes and camping gear. I had racks on the back with saddlebags over the top like an old donkey.”

“But you enjoyed it?” I asked.

“I did,” enthused Sarah. “I absolutely loved it. The cycling and being out on your own day after day in the sun was fantastic.”

“You said before you went,” I reminded her, “that you’d never really been on your own for three weeks. Didn’t the loneliness drive you up the wall?”

“During the day when I was biking it was fine,” Sarah explained. “In the evenings, I didn’t know what to do with myself really. But I was exhausted, so I mostly slept early. Sitting in too many restaurants on your own is a little bit bleak.”

“Last time we talked,” I said, “you had encountered a Norman Bates type psycho hotelier. Did you meet any others en route?”

“No, but I met a couple of very keen Belgian cyclists. I was older than them and cycling faster than them. A lot of the road cyclists in France and Spain were wearing all their gear – the Lycra and stuff – and they would clap and cheer me when I went past. There were a few other people touring round on holidays on bikes, but no other women on their own.”

“You were really going to Barcelona to exorcise your personal demons, weren’t you?” I asked.

Sarah outside Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Sarah outside Sagrada Família in Barcelona, where she was exorcising personal demons

“That was the point. Absolutely.”

“So what happened?” I asked.

“That’s in my show,” laughed Sarah, “so you can piss off. Come and see the show.”

“Is it going to have an uplifting ending?” I asked.

“Of course it’s going to be uplifting,” replied Sarah. “It’s going to be fabulous! There’s going to be singing. It’s gonna be great!”

“You’re going to be singing?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’ve got lots of good things to talk about, but I’d have done the trip without the show. In your life, you end up thinking this sort of ‘different stuff’ is difficult to do, but you just have to take that one first small step. Once you’re in it, it’s easy: you’re just getting on with it. But it’s that’s the first transition bit people struggle with.”

“So what are you doing next year?” I asked. “Cycling up Everest?”

“I thought Afghanistan might be a nice little cycle route,” laughed Sarah. “There’s nothing like a few landmines to keep you on your toes.”

“Could you write a book about this last trip?” I asked.

“I don’t think there’s anything interesting enough for me to fill a whole book, but there might be something about the concept of having little adventures. Anybody can have an adventure, regardless of their budget or physicality. There are things that anybody can do.”

“So no concrete plans for next year?” I persisted.

“Well,” said Sarah, “I’ve been talking to my other half about cycling from the Spanish border to the Italian border right across France… or across the Pyrenees.”

“Is your other half proud of you?” I asked.

“Very proud of me,” said Sarah. “I think most people thought I wouldn’t do it. They were surprised I stuck it out, didn’t get fed up, didn’t just sit in a corner and cry. They were like: Bloody hell… She’s still going! Her bike’s broke and it’s pissing with rain and she’s still going.

“You managed to destroy two bikes, didn’t you?” I asked.

“I did,” said Sarah. “I got caught in a number of thunderstorms. I got stuck up a mountain in a thunderstorm with a broken bike that I had to push up the mountain. That was fairly bleak. But it was all character-building stuff.”

“So you’ve undergone a sea change?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Sarah. “I’m still an anxiety-ridden, panic-attacked person. That hasn’t changed in the slightest. I’m just a bit browner-skinned and capable of riding 500 miles I didn’t know I could do before. And I don’t want to go to work ever again. Cycling round France for a living would be absolutely marvellous. I think you should go somewhere yourself, John, and have a little adventure.”

“It smacks of doing healthy things,” I said. “If I eat healthy food, I come out in a rash.”

PainAuChocolat_LucViatour_Wikipedia

She didn’t just have a sweet roll, she ate her own body weight

“Well,” Sarah said, “despite cycling for six or seven hours every day and burning 6,000 or 7,000 calories a day, I did manage to put on weight. I have eaten my own body weight in pain au chocolat and Orangina on the basis of thinking: I’m burning calories – I need to eat! I need to eat!

“I was eating eight pain au chocolats a day for snacks. I think I was mainlining pain au chocolats. It was an excuse to eat as much as I liked and not get markedly fatter. So the Hendrickx Diet you mentioned last time we talked is not a goer or, if it is, I’m not the poster girl for it.

“But it was fantastic. You could pretty much eat what you liked and nothing really atrocious would happen because you were exercising so hard.”

“And now,” I said, “you have to get back to doing boring administrative things for your Edinburgh Fringe show?”

“I think it’s mostly there,” said Sarah. “It’s in the Programme. I’m one above Sarah Millican, so I’m hoping for some of her cast-offs or people who get confused by the whole bulk of the Fringe brochure.”

The two Sarahs vie for attention in the Fringe Programme

The two Sarahs vie for attention in the Fringe Programme

“You wrote your blurb for the show several months ago,” I said. “So what are the selling points you only now know you have?”

“At the moment,” replied Sarah, “I’m trying to write a sub-line for the poster, which will be something like One Woman – 800 Miles – Two Bicycles – 75 Pain Au Chocolats. I suppose it’s about looking for your lost courage, looking for your nerve because we all get a bit safe and dull in our lives and want to know Have I still got it?”

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The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show gets thrown together – much like spaghetti – at the Edinburgh Fringe

Like Malcolm, a unique one-off

The Awards Show poster at the 2012 Fringe

I always tell people that staging the annual two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe is a win-win situation.

If the show goes smoothly, that is good.

If the show turns a bit shambolic, then it is a true tribute to Malcolm and just as good.

The trick is really to book a good MC. Last year I struck gold with the excellent Miss Behave, who was and is on the right wavelength of Bizarre and knows all the best odd acts. This allowed the show to comprise even more speciality acts and less straight stand-ups. I hope she will present the Awards Show again this year but her availability is still uncertain – as is always the case with all acts at the Fringe.

I am not going to approach most acts until after the Fringe Programme is published on May 30th and I know who is actually in town, but I have some building blocks.

Last year, we had a very successful celebrity Russian Egg Roulette contest – instead of holding guns to the head, two people face each other across a table and smash hard-boiled eggs on their foreheads BUT one of the eggs is not hard-boiled – it is raw. The result is messy and that person loses.

Last year, contestants included comedians Richard Herring and Arthur Smith as well as eventual winner Lewis Schaffer.

This year, the World Egg Throwing Federation’s esteemed president Andy Dunlop will again be supervising a contest and has agreed our event will be the official Scottish Russian Egg Roulette Championship.

I feel honoured and humbled. And somewhat soiled.

Even British Mensa member Noel Burger had trouble juggling spaghetti in 2011

Even British Mensa member Noel Burger had trouble juggling spaghetti in Edinburgh in 2011

The two-hour Awards Show will also (I hope) include the return of uncooked spaghetti juggling.

Several Fringe performers and passers-by tried this a couple of years ago outside the Beehive Inn in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. The only one who managed it truly successfully was juggler supreme Mat Ricardo who (unless he gets a better offer) will recreate his triumph on the show.

It is also likely that the farter of Alternative Comedy, the world’s only performing professional flatulist Mr Methane (after a run of his own show earlier in the Fringe), will make a special trip back up to Edinburgh to perform on the Comedy Awards Show.

As for publicity, I will be hosting five daily chat shows in the week of the Awards Show, titled Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! So It Goes – John Fleming’s Comedy Blog Chat Show. Book early to avoid disappointment – it’s only a fiver.

Malcolm Hardee pioneered the use of Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! in Fringe show titles as a way to get first listing in the Fringe Programme. One can but pray no-one else has added more letter ‘A’s this year. The Awards Show itself is titled Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! Free! It’s the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Details of who is appearing in the show will be posted on my website www.thejohnfleming.com and on the long-due-for-a-re-design Malcolm Hardee website www.malcolmhardee.co.uk/award

But also, in keeping with the title of the show, I have bought the domain name www.increasinglyprestigious.co.uk as well as www.fringecomedyawards.co.uk and, as the current newish sponsors of what used to be the Perrier Awards keep misleadingly implying that they have been sponsoring their awards for the last 30+ years, you can also find details of the Malcolm Hardee Awards at www.fosterscomedyawards.co.uk

This is in a general hope that they may try to sue me for misleading punters – something that is, I would argue strongly, at the heart of the Fringe experience. We do, after all, have an annual award for the best Cunning Stunt.

Our two hour charity variety show will, of course, include the presentation of the three annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (even I would not be THAT misleading). These are:

– The Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality

– The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award (for best Fringe publicity stunt)

and, hopefully self-explanatory…

– The Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award

The Malcolm Hardee Awards by the Forth Bridge

The Malcolm Hardee Awards await collection by Forth Bridge

Obviously, there are no rules, no forms and no application processes. The winners emerge, much like a new Pope, after obscure consultation in small rooms and modest tea-drinking by the judges who are more talent spotters than Simon Cowell type judges.

We hope to stumble on the winners. We do not particularly encourage people to suggest themselves.

The winner of the main Comic Originality award has to have a truly original act, show or persona. Anyone who thinks their show is “zany” is on the wrong wavelength. We have no idea what we are looking for – if we knew what to look for, it would not be truly original – but we recognise it when we see it.

If anyone has to tell us they have pulled a cunning publicity stunt, then they are not going to win by definition – If they have to tell us because we have not heard about it, then the stunt has failed to get publicity.

As for the ‘Million Quid’ award, the number of people likely to pretend to think they are going to make a million quid is too high to even begin to think about. Even if they do make a million quid, it will probably be squandered on drink, drugs, sex and agents they can’t afford, so it is usually a hollow success. But it sounds good as an Award title.

Last year, Ireland’s Rubberbandits won the Award For Comic Originality… England’s Stuart Goldsmith won the Cunning Stunt Award… and South Africa’s Trevor Noah won the ‘Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid’ Award.

As usual, the three Awards this year will be presented by The Scotsman’s legendary comedy reviewer Kate Copstick and the evening will end, I hope, with The Greatest Show On Legs performing their traditional naked balloon dance. I certainly hope this is going to happen, because central ‘Leg’ Martin Soan is coming up to Edinburgh solely for this show and is stealing my bed in my Edinburgh flat on the basis he will get his kit off and wave some inflated rubber spheres around in a balletic manner.

Other performers will be announced nearer the date. Previous Malcolm Hardee tribute shows have included Jo Brand, Jimmy Carr, Jools Holland, Stewart Lee, Johnny Vegas et al. Do not expect Justin Bieber.

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival – free entry, but with the audience encouraged to donate money as they leave. A full 100% of all money collected (with no deductions of any kind) goes to the Mama Biashara charity run by Kate Copstick.

As Malcolm Hardee’s reputation on money was not angelic, I feel obliged to spell out the exact details.

Especially as this year, for the first time, the Awards Show will be sponsored.

Just The Greatest sponsors

Just The Greatest sponsors the 2013 Comedy Awards

The new Just The Greatest comedy audio label is kindly donating a lump sum to cover the cost of designing, printing and distributing flyers and posters… and the cost of the Fringe Programme fee, the sound teching of the show and the cost of engraving the trophies. A full 100% of any money left over from this lump sum will be donated to the Mama Biashara charity.

I have always been a bit wary of sponsorship for the Awards because of the risk of anything too corporate being connected with an anarchic-imaged set of awards. Also, I do not want to make or to be misinterpreted as making money out of giving awards in memory of dead Malcolm. And I would have trouble getting top acts to perform for free if the few pennies donated were not going to charity or if I were making anything out of it. So I have never covered any of my costs before.

Because of Malcolm’s rather dodgy reputation, just to be clear… None of my personal costs are being covered. No transport; no accommodation costs; no personal costs. Nowt is being covered except show costs – the Fringe Programme entry, flyers, posters, engraving and sound teching. To save money, the flyers and posters will probably advertise both the Awards Show and the five days of my chat shows. In that case, only 50% of their costs will be taken from the sponsorship money (to cover the Awards Show element) and I will pay for the other 50% (to cover the chat shows’ advertising) out of my own pocket.

100% of any sponsorship money not spent on specific show costs will go to the Mama Biashara charity. As will 100% of all money given by the audience on the night of the Awards Show – Friday 23rd August, the final Friday of the Fringe.

Jesus! The hoops I have to make sure I am seen to jump through just because Malcolm might have been a bit creative with money. And I will still be losing money on the show. All this for some dead bloke with big bollocks!

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At the Edinburgh Fringe in August – Five daily chat shows based on this blog

Pay a fiver and be guaranteed a chance to heckle me

Pay a fiver and be guaranteed a seat & a chance to heckle me

I am staging five daily chat shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year allegedly based on this blog.

As I have mentioned here before, I am a bit dubious about Bob Slayer’s new idea. His two Heroes of Fringe venues this year come under the umbrella of the Free Festival, but you can buy £5 advance tickets for some of their shows.

The whole idea of the Free Fringe and the Free Festival is bizarre enough to begin with… The audience does not pay to get in but they can pay as much money as they think the show was worth on the way out (or not pay anything if they thought it was worth nothing). In effect, it is indoor busking.

This year, Bob Slayer’s two venues – The Hive and his new Bob’s Bookshop – will have shows following the ‘Free’ principle of not charging admission… You just turn up, go into the venue, see the show and then decide how much to pay, if anything…

But you can also buy a £5 ticket in advance which guarantees you a seat. He calls this Pay-What-You-Want.

His original idea was that you could pay as much as you wanted in advance, but that uncertainty was too much for the Fringe Box Office system.

I think the original ‘Free’ format is confusing enough already without adding in another layer of confusion. When I blogged about this before, Bob got a bit grumpy and had a rant.

But that, of course, hasn’t stopped me joining up. Other shows at Bob’s Bookshop include Miss Behave, Phil Kay, Mr Methane, Patrick Monahan and the Sun’s former comedy columnist Tommy Holgate – plus Janey Godley, Tony Law, Glenn Wool et al passing through.

My annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show will be staged, as usual, in the ballroom of The Counting House in Edinburgh as part of the Free Festival under the ‘normal’ system where you pay as much as you want on the way out (and, in this case, 100% of the money will go to charity with no deductions). That happens on the evening of Friday 23rd August.

Comedian Tommy Holgate outside the soon-to-be Bob’s Bookshop - formerly the Scottish-Russian Institute

Comedian Tommy Holgate outside the soon-to-be Bob’s Bookshop venue – formerly the Scotland-Russia Institute

But my five Fringe shows snappily titled Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! So It Goes – John Fleming’s Comedy Blog Chat Show will be staged in Bob’s Bookshop under the Pay-What-You-Want system and, from last night, you can pay £5 in advance online to buy a ticket and guarantee entry. The shows will run Monday 19th to Friday 23rd August.

As I understand it, the capacity of the main room at Bob’s Bookshop is 40 people and – of course – demand will be high with people like Lord Lucan, Keyser Söze and James ‘Harvey’ Stewart attending, so I recommend booking early.

I have no idea who is going to be on the show, of course. I will be booking people after the Fringe Programme is published on 30th May and I know who is actually going to be in town. But a regular guest should be The Scotsman’s Kate Copstick: doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, a regular in this blog and a woman for whom the phrase acid-tongued is too bland. She tells me she will recommend the best and rip into the worst Edinburgh shows and, knowing her as I do, I imagine she will have some potentially libellous daily gossip.

That is unless she has money thrown at her to do something better.

But what could be better?

My chat shows, unlike the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show, are not for charity but I will presumably make a loss because – hey! – it’s the Edinburgh Fringe and, if you can’t take a joke at your own expense, there is no point going.

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How Doug Segal changed his image from top corporate advertising agency man to successful comedy mind reader

Changing his image - Doug Segal in 2008 (left) and in2011

To help change his image, Doug Segal lost 8 stone in weight

This Saturday is Star Wars Day – May The Fourth be with you – and I am probably going to Stowmarket in Suffolk to see two early Edinburgh Fringe previews – by comedian Juliette Burton and mind-reader Doug Segal.

Both are also performing their shows at the Brighton Fringe next month.

Whether I go to Stowmarket or not depends on the carpet man from John Lewis. Trust me. You do not want to know.

But I had a chat with Doug Segal in case I do not go.

Yesterday, he told me: “Stowmarket will be the first time I’ve ever done an actual ‘preview’ as opposed to a fully-honed show, so I’m packing extra trousers! I’ve already identified a bunch of major changes I’ll be making between this weekend and Brighton – but I’m leaving them in because I want to work on other stuff and I need to try that in front of a real audience.

“The new show is called I Can Make You a Mentalist and premieres properly on 24th and 25th in Brighton, then there are about ten dates around the country, then it runs at the Gilded Balloon throughout the Edinburgh Fringe in August and it tours the country in Spring next year.”

Doug is very successful but does not have an agent.

“I’m really struggling to get an agent,” he told me.

“But you have bookings coming out of your ears!” I said, surprised. We were talking in London at lunchtime; he was on his way to Brighton to play a corporate afternoon show, then he was returning to London in the evening to play another big gig.

“I’m playing big venues,” agreed Doug. “I played York Theatre Royal two weeks ago. It’s frustrating. I’ve got 15% of an on-going business that I’m desperate to give away.

Wrestling with the problem of agents who cannot categorise him

Agents’ problem with Doug’s act is they cannot categorise it

“Agents come along and say: I absolutely love what you do!

“Then they have a little think: Oh! I can’t just put it into the machine, crank the handles and it’ll fall into the normal places. I’ll have to actually think about it.

“Then all of them tell me the same thing: We adore what you do! Amazing! But it’s a lot of work for us at the moment and we’re not sure we’ve got the manpower.

“And I think: Well, I’m managing it AND doing the act, so why can’t you?”

Perhaps that might be because Doug is a better salesman than most agents.

He started off selling space to advertisers in the Today newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.

“I left advertising and did corporate after-dinner mind-reading shows for about six years,” he told me. “Then I went off and started a second career doing stand-up comedy and got to the point where I was getting regular paid middle-of-the-bills and the odd paid opener. And then I quit… because the whole point was learn how to make my act funny. So then I had a comedy mentalism act and started doing public shows and that took off beyond my expectations.”

“What first interested you in mind reading?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I used to fanny around when I was doing psychology at London University – Birkbeck College – I started doing party pieces. I usually tell people I was taking hard science and perverting it for tawdry entertainment. I also did some acting with a theatre company and I’d been in bands in my teens – from 14 to 19. We supported some decent bands.”

Who knows what is going on here?

Mind reading? Who knows what is going on?

“So you had a desperate urge to be famous,” I said.

“I had that once,” said Doug. “Now I just want to make a decent living performing. I think Stewart Lee’s model is you want 10,000 people who are prepared, each year, to pay you £15 to come and see a new show.

“So I only want sufficient fame to make that happen. I would hate the level of fame where your life becomes a pantomime played out on the public stage. That would be horrific; I genuinely don’t want that.

“What happened was I had a son really, really young and needed to provide for my family and needed to get a sensible career, so I sold advertising space for newspapers and worked for an advertising agency. I learnt about persuasion, extended my repertoire of party pieces and then I had a client who bullied me into doing a show for a car manufacturer’s conference.

“It went down really well and I thought I could give this a go! I miss being on stage: I’ll give it a shot! And I sold out the Baron’s Court Theatre for two weeks and then things escalated from there.

“I was at quite a senior level in advertising when I left. I was on the board of a major agency: the third biggest agency in the UK at the time. I was one of the first people in Britain to spend money on posters in toilets. And I was one of the ad agency people developing all these LED sites you see on the roadside and in the underground.”

A sophisticated act, Doug never resorts to know gags

Off stage, Doug is an art connoisseur

“Can I say in my blog that you were very big in toilets?” I asked.

“Only in the context of posters,” replied Doug.

“What are you going to be doing in ten years time?”

“I have no idea. What I wanted to do when I left the corporate world was to effectively have an early semi-retirement. The principle was: Don’t work very often but charge an obscene amount of money when you do. That model worked right up to the Recession.

“Then my wife told me: You need to do a tour. I said No, self-funded public tours lose money. So she said: You should do the Edinburgh Fringe. I said: Absolutely not. It’s a money pit. But she talked me into it and it went really well.

“That first year – 2011 – I did ten days on the Free Fringe, picked up ten 4 and 5 star reviews and, after accommodation costs, made £350.

“Last year, I played the Gilded Balloon and the average loss you make at a paid venue is something like £8,000… But, after taking into account accommodation and everything, I only lost £102 over the full run and that was only because I had a bloody expensive screen and TV camera. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have made a decent profit.”

“So this new show…” I said. “You do a mind-reading act… Mind-reading is mind-reading. Basically, it’s the same as your previous shows. It’s the same old – highly successful – tosh.”

“No,” said Doug laughing, “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same old tosh. I’ve really ramped-up the comedy angle and there is a storyline. Things happen dramatically through the show. I don’t just move from one thing to another. There are ‘events’ within the show.

“It’s always been a comedy mind-reading show – there are gags and stuff – but, as well as that, there’s now sketch comedy, animation and music. The sketches I’ve co-written with James Hamilton of Casual Violence and Guy Kelly from the Beta Males.”

“Good grief,” I said.

“This year’s show,” explains Doug, “starts with a random audience member being chosen and then they do the show. They do all of the tricks in the show. I have this enormous machine on stage called the Brainmatiser 3000. It’s like my TARDIS, I guess. Stuff happens. The narrative of the show gets taken off-track. Unexpected events happen and then get resolved. Lots of physical comedy.”

“But you’re screwed on TV,” I said, “because there’s only room for one mentalist act at any one time on TV and Derren Brown is already there.”

“What I really want,” said Doug, “is for people to come out of my stage show this year and say I have really no idea what that show was. This year’s show is a Fast Show type comedy with mentalism plus a storyline running through. That’s something different. You could put that on screen and it would not be the Derren Brown show.”

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My 6 Edinburgh Fringe shows this year

Russian Egg Roulette at last year's Edinburgh Fringe

Russian Egg Roulette at 2012 Malcolm Hardee Awards; back in 2013 as the Scottish Russian Egg Roulette Championships.

The Edinburgh Fringe never seems to stop.

It does not happen until August, but people start preparing for it in January – or even the previous December. I think I started last November.

I occasionally stage shows there in addition to the annual increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

One thing I did in November was buy the domain name www.increasinglyprestigious.co.uk in case anyone queried the adjectives.

I have not actually updated the site yet, but – hey! – the Fringe is over three months away.

This year, leading up to the Awards show on the final Friday night of the Fringe, there will be five daily chat shows based on this blog. They will be perhaps rather pompously titled So It Goes – John Fleming’s Comedy Blog Chat Show.

As any regular reader of this blog knows – especially if you read the recent ones about poverty in Kenya and Hermann Goering’s great-niece – it is not always a comedy blog… but truth-in-advertising is not always the case in Edinburgh.

My five chat shows will run at 4.00pm in the afternoon Monday-Friday in the final week of the Fringe, leading up to the increasingly prestigious two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show starting on the Friday night at 11.00pm.

Perhaps more interestingly, the chat shows will take place in comedian Bob Slayer’s new venue Bob’s Bookshop which is part of his widening Heroes of Fringe empire (he is also running the Hive venue). Heroes of Fringe is separate from but part of the Free Festival which comes under the general umbrella of the Edinburgh Fringe but is unconnected to the PBH Free Fringe.

You read it first here - or there

I was up for Three Weeks at the Fringe in 2012 & temporarily lost one finger while I was there

The Fringe was never simple.

For example, back in 1960, the legendary Beyond The Fringe show was not actually part of the Fringe. The clue is in the title. It was part of the official Edinburgh International Festival, which is entirely separate from the Fringe.

To make matters even more complicated, Bob Slayer’s venues’ shows this year will not follow the normal ‘free’ model of Fringe shows. They will be ‘Pay What You Want’ shows. This means you can follow the normal ‘free’ model of turning up for shows, not paying for entry but, at the end, pay what you thought the show was worth (or pay nothing)… But now, at Bob’s ‘Pay What You Want’ shows, you will also be able to buy tickets in advance for £5.

So you can pay what you want after the show or pay for a ticket before the show. Bob says this is a more honest version of the ‘free’ show concept – which was never really free.

When he first suggested it to me, I told him it was too confusing – Just when people have got used to the idea that Free Festival and Free Fringe shows are not actually free – you bung money in a bucket at the end – there is this extra jigsaw piece added to what was already oddly complicated.

Bob has more confidence in the Edinburgh Fringe-going audience than I do – but, with the line-up of acts he has for his two venues, I guess the audiences are going to come even if they’re confused.

And confused is arguably the normal state in which most people attend the Edinburgh Fringe anyway.

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John Cage: the avant-garde composer who won millions in TV gameshows

(A version of this piece was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

Martin Soan trawling the internet for John Cage

Martin Soan trawling the internet for tales of John Cage

I blogged yesterday about a chat I had with comedian Martin Soan.

When we were chatting, he mentioned he had read somewhere that avant-garde American composer John Cage had once won five million lire on a TV quiz show by answering questions on mushrooms.

Surely not, I thought. It sounds like an urban legend. But it turns out to be true.

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water on US TV

John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US was when he appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, a show in which the panel had to guess what contestants’ secrets were.

John Cage’s secret was that he was going to perform his own musical composition involving a water pitcher,  an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, two cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a Seltzer siphon, five radios, a bathtub and a grand piano.

This planned musical performance caused a “juristictional dispute” between two of the trade unions who were involved in the show. There was a dispute over which union should have the responsibility of plugging the five radios into the power supply.

This was resolved by John Cage, who said: “Instead of turning the radios on, as I had written to do, I will hit them every time I was supposed to turn them on. Then, when I turn them off, I will knock them off the table.”

His composition was entitled Water Walk, explained Cage, “because it contains water (in the bathtub) and because I walk during its performance.”

John Cage (right) on I've Got a Secret in 1960

John Cage (right) on the I’ve Got a Secret gameshow in 1960

The show’s presenter said: “Inevitably, Mr Cage, these are nice people (in the audience) but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?”

“Of course,” John Cage replied, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.”

That was John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US.

But the year before – 1959 – he had appeared on the Italian TV quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing).

Cage was in Italy to see the composer Luciano Berio who, at that time, worked at Studio di Fonologia, the Italian state broadcaster RAI’s experimental studio for audio research.

As a result, John Cage ended up making five appearances on the Lascia o Raddoppia gameshow, in which he answered questions on his specialist subject ‘poisonous and edible mushrooms’. He also provided musical interludes with his own compositions.

Reviewing his first appearance on the show, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported: “John Cage, an American very fond of mushrooms, left a very good impression. The lanky player revealed that he had begun getting into mushrooms while walking in the Stony Point woods near his house. He is now in Italy to perform experimental music concerts and play an extremely weird composition of his made of shrill squeaks and dreary rumbles via a specially-modified piano. Mr Cage sat by a special piano tweaked with nails, screws, and elastic bands, drawing unusual chords from it. The piece was entitled Amores and it sounded like a funeral march.”

Part marine

“A cross between a baseball player & a marine”

On his second appearance, La Stampa reported that Cage looked like “a crossbreed between a baseball player and a marine” and “was a sort of institution within New York University circles a while ago. Everywhere he went, students with a Jerry Lewis hairdo and their female mates in blue jeans forsook their books and gathered around a jukebox… That’s where Cage showed his incredible capabilities: he goggled his eyes with a disappointed face, he spread his long arms and uttered weird guttural sounds from his mouth. The students happily danced to the rock ‘n’ roll music around him… He once dragged a student marching band through the streets of New York, attempting a bizarre imitation of what jazz used to be at the beginning: only the police managed to stop Cage’s tumultuous enthusiasts.”

On his third appearance, according to La Stampa: “Before facing the 640.000 Lire question – which he answered brilliantly – John Cage performed an experimental music concert specially composed for the Italian TV audience. The piece, if we could call it such, was entitled Water Walk.” The result, said La Stampa was “a carnival bustle. The audience enjoyed the joke and applauded… It seems that John Cage is about to repeat the piece in all the Italian cities where he will perform his concerts. After which – he jokingly claimed backstage – I can commence my truck farming business.

John Cage (right) on Lascia O Raddoppia in Italy, 1959

John Cage (right) demonstrates his musical talent, 1959

By the time he got to the five million lire question, La Stampa was even more enthusiastic, saying: “John Cage, the great American mushroom expert, looked a lot more determined. During the first question he had to complete the analytic key of the ‘poliporacee’ (a mushroom species) from which four names were deleted. He did it without hesitation, as well as adding the name, colour, shape, width and length of a particular mushroom whose picture was shown to him. The very last question, the 5 million one, shook his nerves and turned his blood cold. John Cage had to spell all 24 names of the white-spored ‘agarici’. Twenty-four questions in one! A very tough question, even for a real mushroom expert. However, John Cage – a little bit sweaty this time – quickly pronounced all of them in alphabetical order. A triumph! While he was receiving audience applause, he thanked the mushrooms and all the people of Italy.”

At the time, five million lire was worth around $8,000 and Cage used the money to buy a piano for his home in New York and a Volkswagon bus for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

John Cage died in 1992.

So it goes.

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Another comedian is not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year because he is preparing his Edinburgh Fringe show

Another comedian not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year

Martin thinks camping around is too extreme for me

In a previous blog, almost a month ago, I mentioned comedian Martin Soan’s suggestion that he and I take a one-week barge trip through rural England.

He told me then: “I do all the barging. I do all the cooking. And you just sit on your computer and you blog. I’ll be telling you stories. But also you’ll be sailing at six miles an hour – roughly two miles an hour faster than walking speed – which is very good for contemplation and creativity. What a brilliant idea that is.”

Last night he told me:

“I looked into it. Hiring a barge is prohibitively expensive. But you could sit on your sofa in your living room at home in Borehamwood and I will get you a roller…”

“The car?” I asked.

“Not the car,” said Martin. “A roller like they used in the old silent movies. I paint lots of country scenery on this roller and it moves along behind your sofa so it feels to you like you are travelling along at six miles an hour. And I do everything else. I do all the work. You just sit there…”

“You do all what work?” I asked.

“Like cooking,” said Martin. “Cooking, cleaning and rollering and the scenery goes past you like in the middle distance at a perfect speed for cogitation and imaginative thought.”

“What about the lack of water?” I asked.

“Well,” said Martin, “you’ll have your computer with you, so you can’t risk having any water around. You would have been OK on a barge with a computer, but that’s prohibitively expensive and camping on riverbanks is too extreme for you.”

“Camping on riverbanks is too extreme for me?” I asked.

“Too extreme for you,” said Martin.

“I don’t mind extreme,” I said, slightly miffed.

“I know a trip down the River Wye…” continued Martin.

“Why?” I asked.

“Wye,” repeated Martin wearily. “And you can do a three day trip down and it only costs you £150 to hire the canoe and you can…”

“Did you say canoe?” I asked, slightly worried.

“Canoe,” confirmed Martin.

“That sounds a bit extreme for me,” I said.

“It’s an absolute genius holiday,” Martin emphasised.

“Is a canoe like a barge?” I queried.

“Nothing like a barge,” said Martin, “but the same rules apply. If it’s raining, that’s tough but – you know – it’s always raining. It’s amazing. When you’re outside in Britain 24 hours a day, it is amazing how much rain there is out there. You would say it hadn’t rained today, wouldn’t you?”

“It hasn’t rained today,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“It has rained three times,” said Martin.

“Where?” I asked.

“Here, there and everywhere,” replied Martin. “Believe me. I speak the truth. It always does.”

“It does in Edinburgh, that’s for sure,” I said. “Why aren’t you performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year?”

“I can’t say why,” explained Martin, “because it would go in your blog and people would know about it. And it’s not going to be ready until next year.”

“You don’t have to mention that,” I reassured him, “You only have to say why you’re not going up this year.”

“I’m working on my Edinburgh show for next year… That’s why I’m not going up to Edinburgh this August,” laughed Martin. “I’ve got to a stage of maturity within my showbiz career when I realise it’s pointless.”

“What’s pointless?”

“Me going up to Edinburgh this year. I don’t have the show. Next year, I will have the show. I’m starting work on it now and I don’t want to be rushed into it or cobble things together. Last year’s show was so rushed I didn’t think it through.”

“For example?”

“The exploding maraca man – What a gag – But it was dropped on Day One, because I just had the costume in shreds without the exploded maraca… and no explosion… All these things are fairly essential to make the gag work.”

“You had the maraca?” I asked.

“I had the maraca,” Martin confirmed.

“You had to be there, I guess,” I said.

“Not really,” said Martin.

“But no Edinburgh Fringe show for The Greatest Show on Legs this year,” I checked.

“No,” confirmed Martin.

“Though you might,” I said hopefully, “come up to perform on the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on the final Friday night?”

“I’m certainly coming up for that,” said Martin.

“Are you sleeping on my floor on the Friday night?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “I’m sleeping in your bed. You’re sleeping on the floor.”

Mr Methane might have a prior booking on the bed,” I warned him.

“Is he doing the Malcolm Hardee show?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” I said, “unless he gets a call from Spielberg or Las Vegas. He’s done it before. Last time, he did it as a return trip – he just blew in and blew out.”

Martin looked at me and said nothing.

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