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A meeting in a sex shop led me to tea with actor William Sebag-Montefiore.

Hell and a meeting in a sex shop brought me together with William Sebag-Montefiore.

In January last year, I wrote a blog about the shooting of a sitcom pilot called Hell, set in a sex shop.

Well, OK, it was a film set pretending to be a sex shop.

The would-be TV sitcom pilot was eventually re-titled Whipped, posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing this, has had over 365,000 hits. Another result was that, last week, I had tea at the Soho Theatre Bar with William Sebag-Montefiore. He had acted in the film.

I figured: He must be related to British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. How many Sebag-Montefiores can there be around? And Wikipedia said Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s great-great-uncle was an international financier who worked with the Rothschild family.

I thought: I might get a free cup of tea out of this.

And I did… but…

William told me: “We’re not really that related. Simon Sebag-Montefiore is my cousin twice removed. I have a name that sounds like I have connections but, in reality, I don’t. I was brought up in Leeds. My mum is Scottish; my dad is Canadian. My grandma is from Inchinnan in Glasgow.”

“Have you got siblings?” I asked.

“Two younger sisters. One’s at the University of Essex studying International Relations. The other is a nurse. So she saves people’s lives and I run around pretending to be someone else.”

“Are there other thespians in the family?”

“My dad’s a clinical oncologist and my mum is a Special Needs Assistant.”

“So no thespian tendencies?” I asked.

“When dad was at medical school,” William proffered, “he did all the comedy revues and used to sing a song called Praise The Colo-rectal Surgeon. And mum loved Billy Connolly.”

“Do you have any medical tendencies?” I asked.

“Well, when I was 17 and started working in a bar, I thought about being a paramedic. It might have been because I watched Casualty on TV when I was a kid. Maybe I just want to be in Casualty. In fact, I still do.”

“You wanted to be an actor?” I asked.

“I am an actor,” William said. “I did a year’s Masters at the Central School of Speech and Drama.”

“Acting is easy, isn’t it?” I asked. “You just have to pretend to be somebody else.”

“I was doing an hour-long one-man show,” said William, “which was a terrifying experience. An hour of me talking and it was not comedy. It was a play about a man made out of newspaper: The Inevitable Disappearance of Edward J Neverwhere, written by a gentleman called Igor Memic.”

“Surely,” I suggested, “doing an hour acting as someone else is not as terrifying as doing an hour of stand-up comedy as yourself?”

William with a hot tea sheath and a crushed Kit-Kat wrapper in London’s Soho Theatre Bar

“I haven’t done stand-up,” said William, “because of the autobiographical angle. I can’t find a way of expressing myself through it, because I would be doing an imitation of someone like Stewart Lee – and a poor one.”

“But you could always be a character comedian?” I suggested.

“I think the problem,” said William, “is more that there’s an hour of responsibility on me. The reason I like acting is because I like listening and responding. When I like watching actors on stage, it’s when they’re listening and reacting. When it’s live, it has to change all the time and, when there is another person there, if you lose focus for a second, the likelihood is they will stay focussed and bring you back in. But, if you are on your own…

“We were doing that terrifying one-man show in a listed building in Peckham – as part of The BasicSpace Festival – and somebody with four dogs knocked on the door saying: Someone told me I could watch the show.

Somebody with four dogs knocked…

“He was just a bit of a local oddball. I stood there, looked at him and thought: I have to acknowledge it. So I looked over at the door, looked back and had no idea where I was in the script. There is that responsibility of focus and continuation…”

“Now you are doing sketch comedy,” I said. “You seem very trendy. Sketch comedy is out of fashion, isn’t it? What’s the attraction?”

“I just think it’s silly and it’s fun. The thing that really made me love it was radio sketch comedy –  John Finnemore and his Souvenir radio programme.

“I tried to write a sketch when I was about 10 or 11 which was directly copied from a Harry Enfield sketch about someone coming round to rob a house but they were like a door-to-door salesman.

“And I did a lot of improvisation and sketch comedy at Newcastle University. I studied English Literature, then graduated from Central and went into this industry where I thought: Everyone will want me for everything and I’ll be in a Hollywood film in a year… But people soon told me: Ah! That’s not how it works and now TV only makes sitcoms with established comedians.”

“Do you consider yourself,” I asked, “to be an actor or a comedy performer?”

“I am an actor who does comedy. People have put me more in the comedy bracket which is great, because that’s the stuff I like to create.”

“And.” I said, “you are now forced to have tea with me to plug the show you are doing at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London on 7th and 8th April – Just These, Please. Will it make your fortune?”

Just These, Please foursome together – (L-R) Georgie Jones, William Sebag-Montefiore, Philippa Carson & Tom Dickson

“We won’t make money out of the show. It’s for love of the form and wanting to get our name out there. We are a comedy sketch group, but we are all writing sitcoms and stuff and having pipedreams. There’s this hope that we will be so endearing and hilarious that people will think: We need to put these guys everywhere.”

“You’re a foursome.”

“Yes. Tom Dickson and I met at Newcastle University, in a play where we were brothers with exceptionally questionable Irish accents. Now he is a trainee lawyer, so he has a real career in him. It was revealed to us that our Irish accents were questionable by one of the girls in our troupe: Philippa Carson, who’s intimidatingly talented – an award-winning film editor and actress. She went to film school; she’s an improviser. And Georgie Jones is our other member – she’s a member of the National Youth Theatre and in the poetry collective at the Roundhouse Theatre. Fundamentally, they’re just hilarious women and very talented actresses.

Just These, Please at Canal Cafe Theatre

“The group has, technically, been going for about two years. We did one show with about 30 sketches about two years ago but then did nothing. We filmed some sketches but haven’t yet released them. Since last October, we’ve written 60 new sketches for this one.”

“So is the future going to be YouTube?” I asked.

“I think so. We have about four sketches – our longest one runs maybe 5 or 6 minutes – filmed and we are waiting to find the right time to release them.”

“Which is?”

“Exactly. This is the problem with a bunch of creatives trying to do the business side of it. I would say around the summer time.

“I’m also a member of an improv group called Very Serious People who have a monthly residency at the Bridewell Theatre near Blackfriars. Maybe I like doing too many things.”

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Sketchy comedian Will Franken admits: “I am unable to create in moderation”

Will Franken

Will – raising the dead – using sketch comedy

It is that time of year when comedians are preparing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe in August and are looking for free venues in which to perform previews. One such is the performance area at the back of comedy critic Kate Copstick’s charity shop Mama Biashara in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Next Friday and Saturday evening, Italian comics Romina Puma and Giacinto Palmieri are previewing early versions of their Edinburgh shows. And the following weekend – on the afternoon of Sunday 8th May, American comic Will Franken is hosting his third 4-hour comedy workshop at Mama Biashara. This one is titled:

RAISING THE DEAD: USING SKETCH COMEDY TO BREATHE LIFE INTO STAND-UP

“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.

“Anybody who wants to do something different,” he told me. “And anybody who wants to get to the essence of a sketch quicker. I think people are prone to take a course from me because they’re tired of doing the same things. I think the problem is there is so much regularity in comedy.

“I think a lot of sketches go on far too long. They don’t know a clever way out. They don’t know the Monty Python approach of Don’t beat them over the head with a sledgehammer punchline, just find a nice segue into something else. Brevity!”

“You’re very keen on characters,” I said.

“Love characters,” he replied.

“Hiding behind them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so. A couple of years ago, Fest magazine wrote about me: He’s a rare breed of character comedian. He has no love for his characters.

“The trouble is it’s hard for me to love a character long enough to let them live past five minutes. Usually I kill them off after 2 or 3 minutes and I’m onto the next character. It’s a very Monty Python type approach.”

“You’re not interested in sitcoms?” I asked.

“I’m more geared to sketch than sitcom. I think with sitcom you have to have a great love for your characters. I’ve always envied people like David Renwick who created One Foot in The Grave. The love he must have had for Victor Meldrew to be able to carry that through so many series! And Father Ted. They’re great examples of sitcoms. I never liked Monty Python when they had recurring characters.”

Comedy performer and writer Ariane Sherine was sitting with us. She has written for the sitcoms My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as well as various children’s shows including The Story of Tracy Beaker. I asked her what she thought.

“I quite like to inhabit a character in a sitcom,” she said, “and see how they develop and change. You can’t really do that with sketch. Though in, say, The Fast Show, they re-visit the same characters. It’s effectively the same sketch each week. It depends what you like – whether you like to feel that you are growing and developing this character and seeing them change or more likely seeing them not learn from their mistakes. Or you like the diversity of being able to have any type of situation in any location and it doesn’t matter about continuity.”

I said: “I never really liked Vic Reeves Big Night Out because they just seemed to be doing the same sketch over and over again.”

“I much prefer,” said Will, “their actual sketch shows like The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.”

“So you wouldn’t have a recurring or developing character?” I asked.

Alan Bennett in 1973 (Photograph by Allan Warren)

Playwright Alan Bennett photographed in 1973 by Allan Warren

“I do have a character now,” admitted Will, “that I can see possibly going on for a long time. He’s in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year. He’s a Yorkshireman and I’ve been slowly perfecting the accent, listening to Alan Bennett nightly. I’ve just got into Alan Bennett’s stuff. He’s amazing.”

“And your character?” I asked.

“He’s working on a children’s story called Little Jo about a half-pig, half-rabbit who lives in water and, in order to stay alive, he’s gotta spin round and round, spitting out water from both mouths for all eternity.

“That’s the beginning of this year’s show. And then there’s this whole story about how his relatives don’t die and so he murders all of his descendants so they don’t have to live the life that his Nan’s Nan had, who grew up to be 500 years old… Cos that’s no life for a child: to be 500 years old. So I slaughtered all of them and that’s why no-one brings me cake on me birthday… and somewhere sandwiched in the middle of all that is going to be my regular sketch weirdness.”

“Have you done sketch group comedy?” I asked.

“I did once and they said too many of my bits were racist! It was in North Carolina and I had a bit where Whitney Houston has a mental breakdown during a recording of The Greatest Love of All. She’s singing nonsense lyrics: I believe Jeremiah Crenshaw destroyed the world in 1962…

“…and the studio engineer interrupts her to say the lyrics don’t make sense and she says: What the fuck you know, muthafucka? In North Carolina, they said it was too racist, so I could never get my ideas past the group.

“Before that, when I was 16, I had two friends in Missouri and we wrote a little sketch revue for about 20 friends at the coffee shop. But they didn’t want to do it for a living and I did. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have a group. I think it would be nice, but I think I’ve passed that stage now where I could fit into any group.

“It’s like if you’ve been single for a long time, it’s hard to have a wife because you gotta adjust and compromise and I don’t think I’m able to do that.

“You could,” I suggested, “try a sex commune?”

“Possibly. But then I’d get jealous. I have such low self-esteem it’d be like: Whaat? I think free love is very selfish. I’m only into monogamy, unless I don’t like the girl, when I’m into one-night stands. I vacillate between misogyny and monogamy.”

I asked: “You think free love is very selfish?”

“Yeah. I dated a Hare Krishna girl one time and she was seeing somebody else. The guy was away in a hospital, selling his body for medication and medical experiments. I didn’t know this for a whole month… and then he came back. So I associate free love with hippie girls in long broomstick skirts and deceit.”

“You do a podcast, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I had a very highly successful… I hate to use the word Podcast… I call them Albums. At one point, I had 50,000 listeners. I used to do them pretty regularly and then I started drinking and doing drugs and now I’ve been sober for two years and it’s scarier to put the headphones on and start recording again without the drugs.”

“When did you start doing them?”

“2006. They’re like my live shows: there can be five of me going at once.”

Will Franken

Will Franken randomly approaches podcasts like a symphony

“What’s the podcast called?”

Things We Did Before Reality.”

“So,” I said, “you have been doing this for the last ten years and I have not noticed? How many episodes have I missed?”

“About 25. They’re very insane. I don’t smoke pot any more, but you can put your headphones on, smoke a joint and go off into cuckoo land with it.”

“Is it weekly?”

“God no. When I first started, they were almost every two weeks.”

“And now they’re what? Monthly? Regularly?”

“I approach them like a symphony,” said Will. “The thing is I’m such a perfectionist.”

“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.

“I think it’s perfectionism.”

“So they are released randomly?” I asked.

“Very randomly, yeah.”

“And you’ve just done one?”

“Yeah. This one’s not been published yet but this is my first one in about a year and a half. Maybe within the week it will be published. Before that, I hadn’t done one in more than four years. They’re mostly about 30 minutes long. There’s one called Side Two of Abbey Road where I use all the songs on Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album to tell my life story.

“It’s like a one-man sketch thing. You sit with the headphones on all day and you hear playbacks of yourself doing a Yorkshire accent, a Scottish accent, talking to yourself on a train and you really lose your mind by the end of the day. I just woke up this morning chain-smoking and resenting having to go get food. I don’t want a shower, I don’t want to leave the house. The phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I am unable to create in moderation.”


WILL’S SKETCH COMEDY WORKSHOP IS ORGANISED BY ARLENE GREENHOUSE PROMOTIONS – greenhouse effect@btinternet.com

 

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We Are Thomasse. They are talented.

Yesterday’s blog was taken from a conversation I had over a month ago because ironically, when I stopped posting daily blogs, I still had the same or worse amount of time free. Today’s is the same.

We Are Thomasse at the Museum of Comedy

We Are Thomasse were at the Museum of Comedy last month

Over a month ago, I saw American-based comedy sketch duo We Are Thomasse at the Museum of Comedy in London. They flew in on the Thursday, did the show on Friday, attended a wedding on Saturday (their real reason for flying over) and flew out on Sunday.

We Are Thomasse are British-born Nick Afka Thomas and US-born Sarah Ann Masse (Thomas + Masse = Thomasse).

“So,” I said to Sarah at the Museum of Comedy after the show, “You were living and working in New York and your manager was in LA And now you are moving to LA for the pitch season?”

“Yeah. Our manager had us go out. We went out to Los Angeles four times last year. We went on a whim to a sketch festival and really had a good time and decided to go back. In LA, it’s a theatre called iO West and they said any time were back in town they’d put us on their main stage, which they did.

“It’s really nice to have a place to perform every month. We had a monthly show in New York for a year at the PIT – the People’s Improv Theatre.”

“And,” I asked, “you post regular online stuff?”

“Yes. On our YouTube channel. We do the online sketches every fortnight. We filmed a lot between June and September last year and then a few in December and January and we’re now releasing them every two weeks.”

“How did the two of you meet?” I asked.

“Through a mutual friend. The only thing I knew about Nick when I met him was that he was a maths tutor and wrote books about Sudoku. He came second in the National Sudoku Championships. I had no idea he was an actor and writer.

“We just got on really well and he moved back to London; but I was in New York. So we spent the next five months typing to each other online every day. We started writing together then. Then he came back out to New York to do a play with me.”

I was talking to Sarah alone. Nick was schmoozing the rest of the room.

“He’s very well-spoken,” I said.

“Though,” said Sarah, “every now and then an Estuary sound comes out of his quaint, posh accent. He was born in Peterborough and grew up between England and Switzerland – because his dad got a job there and…”

“I thought you were going to say he went to finishing school there!” I told her.

“No, he went to Eton,” she told me.

“Well then,” I said, “he’s only one step away from getting some superhero lead in a Marvel film…”

“And later,” added Sarah, “he was back there teaching at Eton.”

Trans-Atlantic opposites attract - We Are Thomasse

Trans-Atlantic opposites attract, complement and compliment

A few days after this conversation, Nick e-mailed me:

“When I was talking to Sarah about how much you already knew about me, I realized that she hadn’t been filling you in on her own credits, so you must not have heard about what an interesting life she’s had. It’s totally different from mine, which keeps in line with our ‘opposites attract’ thing: husband-wife, British-American etc.

“Whereas I was at a fancy school and university, Sarah was home-schooled from the age of 11 and made the decision that she didn’t want to go to university at all (saving thousands and thousands in pointless debt). She began auditioning professionally at 18, did the famous (at least famous in the US) Williamstown Theater Festival two years in a row and started her own highly-acclaimed theatre company when she was 21… I didn’t even get out of drama school until I was 23! I have to be honest: Sarah is responsible for a majority of those punchlines in the show.

“It’s a shame we don’t yet do songs, since her singing voice is absolutely breathtaking – She used to be a musical theatre actress, working with some pretty big names. We haven’t figured out how to incorporate that yet, but hopefully one day we’ll begin to have a musical side.”

Now, flashing back to my chat with Sarah at the Museum of Comedy:

“Working together,” I suggested, “is often not a good idea if you are a couple.””

“Well, we started working and writing together before we started dating. In the five months that we were not dating – just talking online – we started writing characters for what would become a web series. Nick always wanted to do sketches and a sketch show.

“Eventually we got round to doing a few of our sketches in other people’s shows and then we applied to a festival in New York and got in and – Oh no! We’d better put a show together! – and, since then, for just over a year now, we’ve been doing a version of this show.”

At this point, Nick joined us.

We Are Thomasse drawing attention to their existence

We Are Thomasse are drawing attention to their existence

“The big thing for us at the moment,” he said, “is to draw people’s attention to the fact we even exist. There are so many YouTube channels and so many sketch people out there that how do you know what’s worth seeing?”

“Why bother with Britain at all,” I asked, “when you are doing fine based in the US?”

“We are British-American, so we want to keep that connection on both sides. We are interested in appearing in Edinburgh. I went to the Fringe a couple of times – once with the Oxford Revue and once with NewsRevue.”

“You were in NewsRevue?” I asked.

“One of the things I took from that experience,” said Nick, “was the speed of change, the pace of it. If you fly at it, even if there is a bad sketch, you are through really quickly. Sarah and I have kept our change-overs (between sketches) to about ten seconds or less. In NewsRevue, I think we were doing 4 seconds, but they had two more people to be able to do that.

“In America and in a lot of sketch shows I’ve seen in Britain, the gap between sketches can be so long that the energy that has been built up just gets dissipated. That was a big thing with us from the start, which is one of the reasons why we do all our changes on the stage.”

“So your career will be sketch shows for ever more?” I asked.

“We are talking to a director,” Nick replied, “about doing a play where the two of us play all the characters.”

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