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An Edinburgh Fringe rant, Paul Merton, Dirty Girls, fart fetishers & Comic Relief

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps could let people take better shows to Edinburgh

One thing that increasingly gets up my nose at the Edinburgh Fringe is comedians who do not do stage shows.

They want to get picked up by radio or TV producers, so they bung in long pre-taped video sketches or pre-recorded sound recordings. All this makes me think:

  1. they don’t give a shit about the audience and
  2. they are incapable of doing a live performance

If you are doing a live show, then do a live show, do not make the audience sit and watch you do nothing while a pre-recorded piece of irrelevance plays.

There are exceptions to this, of course – notably the wonderful Juliette Burton (an ex-BBC person) who integrates extremely well-researched and shot videos into her shows and then interacts with them.

I tend not to review shows in this blog – it is mostly a blog of previews and interviews. But I am a Scot brought up among Jews so, if there are two free tickets going, I will always turn up.

The 39 Steps - Paul Merton

Paul Merton took The 39 Steps yesterday

This is a prelude to the fact that, last night, the show I was invited to see was The 39 Steps at London’s Criterion Theatre – obviously, a (comic) stage version of the feature film. And, ironically, it was a brilliant and flawless stage production which could only exist as a live stage show.

Anyone intending to perform a stage show based on material from a different medium – well, any narrative comedy show – should see how The 39 Steps had been crafted. The amount of tiny bits of visual stage ‘business’ is staggering. No wonder it won The Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 and two Tony Awards in the US in 2008. It is a masterclass in writing and directing a live stage comedy.

The reason I was invited to last night’s performance was that it included a cameo by Paul Merton in aid of tonight’s Comic Relief.

And that ‘charity event’ label is enough of a tenuous link for me to mention that, also yesterday, I Skyped Amber Willat, one of The Dirty Girls, in Los Angeles. (The other Dirty Girl is Amber’s sister Harper Willat.)

The Dirty Girls in Los Angeles

Amber (right) and Harper Willat: Dirty Girls  in California

The Dirty Girls turned up in a couple of blogs last week, when they contacted my farting chum Mr Methane about possibly performing at their Funny Farty Yoga Party charity event at Venice Beach which is being held this Sunday.

The Funny Farty Yoga Party starts with a laugh therapy session and continues with a ‘guided yoga session’, a Native American flute player and much else.

“Do the good people of Venice Beach,” I asked Amber, “need persuading that yoga is a good idea?”

Ad for the Sunday event in Los Angeles

Dirty Girls’ Funny Farty Yoga Party event ad in Los Angeles

“Californians love their yoga,” said Amber. “That’s for sure. But yoga has become such a hip thing that it’s become a full-fledged, multi-billion dollar industry. So we kinda wanna demystify the whole yoga world. A lot of people, when they do it for the first time are afraid: Ooo! What if I fart? and we wanna say: No worries. People fart in yoga. That’s why we wanted a professional farter like Mr Methane. But there are none in Los Angeles. When I looked for some, I just found guys on Craigslist who are fart fetishers.”

“There are fart fetishers?” I asked.

“There are a lot of fart fetishers,” Amber told me. “I was amazed to see the array of fart fetishers.”

“How did you become The Dirty Girls?” I asked.

“When my sister and I and some of our friends were in high school – like aged 13 and 14 – we were causing a ruckus on campus. They were saying: These girls haven’t showered in the last two years; they’re disgusting. And we kept fighting back. We went: Oh? You wanna see dirty? No problem! 

“So we would literally come to school with like whipped cream in our hair and, instead of lipstick ON our lips, it would be AROUND our lips. We just wanted to completely like obliterate the status quo of feminine products and beauty and all those kinda things.

the original Dirty Girls documentary

Harper and Amber in the original Dirty Girls documentary

“That was in the 1990s, before iPhones. We were just doing it because that’s what we wanted to do. But this other student kid, Michael Lucid. captured it on camera and shelved it as a VHS tape for 17 years and then, in March 2013, he digitised it and put it on YouTube just to show someone in New York and it leaked and just blew up (in hits) in days. We were called The Dirty Girls in high school. It was an insult then, but now we’re flipping it into like an empowered state.”

“And now it’s The Dirty Girls Project,” I said.

“Yes. There was so much outrage from lots of young women and adults and teenagers reaching out saying: Oh! We wish we had more dirty girls on our campus! You guys are so inspiring! So we thought: I guess there is a real calling for more inspirational badass girls that allow you to be who you wanna be. The Dirty Girls give you permission to be weird.

“And The Dirty Girls Project is this new multi-media platform where we collaborate and find more Dirty Girls and produce original content around them – an event, a video, an art project. Badass awesome content. We launched our website in October 2014.”

“The Funny Farty Yoga Party on Sunday is for charity…” I said.

Shine On Sierra Leone’s sustainable building

One of Shine On Sierra Leone’s sustainable building projects

“Yes. It’s going to various women’s groups, local groups and to Shine On Sierra Leone: they’re an amazing organisation that has very successfully empowered the women of the villages. They’ve built primary schools; they’re building an elementary school; they’ve set up a whole micro-loan system; they’re teaching women how to run their own villages. An incredible organisation. So we are working with them too.”

“Why Sierra Leone?” I asked.

“I know it sounds far-fetched,” Amber started to say.

“We like far-fetched,” I told her.

“But,” she continued, “it’s based in Culver City, where we are and we’re very good friends with the woman who is the founder of it and we’ve directly seen the impact she has had.”

“You were born and raised in Hollywood and you live in Culver City,” I said. “When’s your feature film coming out?”

“We’ve put it on a back-burner. There could be two different approaches. One would be a documentary. Michael Lucid did the film in 1996 and then did a follow-up with us in 2000 and then he did a third one.”

“Are you looking to start a Dirty Girls chapter in London?” I asked. “You could have branches everywhere, like Starbucks.”

“We don’t go corporate,” said Amber. “No way. Evil! Evil!?”

You can see the original 1996 Dirty Girls film on YouTube.

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Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Edinburgh, Sex, Sierra Leone, Theatre

British Lieutenant Colonel writes comedy novel about Sierra Leone war

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

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind his novel

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind novel

It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.

When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”

“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.

“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.

“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”

At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.

“It was always going to be a comic book.”

“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”

“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.

“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”

“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”

“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”

“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”

“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”

“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”

“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”

“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the war

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the civil war

“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”

“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”

“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.

“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.

“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”

“Ultimately, you won,” I said.

The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.

“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive. 

“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems.  So what chance have you got of peace?

“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”

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Filed under Africa, Books, Comedy, Military, Sierra Leone, war