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Britain’s Got Talent did not tell you this about harpist Ursula Burns last night

Britain’s Got Talent has to appeal to a mainstream audience, but that doesn’t explain why they had to blandify ‘Dangerous Harpist’ Ursula Burns in the live Semi-Final last night. Most of her YouTube videos are currently blocked lest BGT viewers see them.

Ursula Burns on a fluffy cloud in mid-air on BGT last night

Alright, lyrics with four-letter words – well, seven – “I’m your fucking harpist” – might be out and Dry Your Eyes, Jesus might be a bit too controversial, but that is no reason not to allow her to simultaneously play a harp and a grand piano (except that someone sang a comic song with a piano the previous night).

When she was younger, she ran away to join the circus and can play a harp while walking on stilts! Instead, we got some horrendously manufactured twee story about her loving her harp so much she wanted to marry it.

And let’s not even mention minimising her harp-playing and minimising her ability with a song she didn’t write.

These type of TV programmes used to be called ‘real people shows’. Now they are over-produced with as many unreal people in them as a manufactured boy band.

As for Ursula Burns, this extract from a blog of mine written at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013 – the year she was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality – may be of interest.

Born in the Falls Road: Ursula’s Dangerous Harpist album

She was born in the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1970 – not a good time or place to be born.

“Bombs, shooting, war. Miracle that I actually survived,” she tells her audience (several of whom have never heard of the Falls Road).

“Total and utter war zone,” she tells them in her Ulster accent. Then she switches to a Spanish accent to say: “Now I will sing my song for you: Being Born.”

Her aunts play the piano and sing; her grandfather was a fiddle player from Donegal; her dad “sings funny songs in bars”; and her mum plays the harp – which is why Ursula never wanted to play the harp while she was a child.
She sings comic songs while playing a very glamorous Paraguayan harp. Her songs include I’m Your Fucking Harpist and Get Divorced and Join The Circus.

When she was 14, she actually did run away from home to join the circus – “They were dark, dark times,” she told me – and, when the Fringe ends, she is going to France with the Irish Tumble Circus.

Ursula, circus-trained, plays her harp on stilts in Belfast

Ursula, on stilts, plays her harp while walking through Belfast

She cannot read music but she can stilt-walk and taught herself to play the harp only when she was an adult. She accidentally won an Irish music comedy award.

During her show, she says:

“People think, because I play the harp, that I’m actually cultured. They think I care about the history of the harp and how many strings it has. They think, because I play the Paraguayan harp, that I know stuff and I’m cultured. But, actually, I just do it for the money.”

Her show is called Ursula Burns: I Do It For the Money, which is true – because she has to support her 9-year-old son who is, she says, very successfully flyering for her in Edinburgh “because he is cute and everyone likes him on sight”.

After the show – in Fingers Piano Bar at 3.10pm daily (except Mondays) until 24th August – she told me:

“I had always written funny songs and I’ve always composed music, but I never associated what I was doing with ‘Comedy’. Then I accidentally won the Irish Music Comedy Awards last year.”

“Accidentally?” I asked.

Ursula accidentally wins an award (Photo by thecomedyscoop.com)

“I uploaded a couple of videos to YouTube,” Ursula explained. “The Hospital Song  and It Does Not Rock (aka I’m Your Fucking Harpist)

“People shared them round and a comedian in Belfast – Stephen Mullan – used it in his comedy night and he said You should forward your video to the IMCA Awards, which I’d never heard of.

“I tried, but the deadline was the next day – in March last year – and I couldn’t do it. But another guy had forwarded my details and just got in before the deadline.

“The IMCA people got in touch with me and asked me to come down to Dublin and play in the finals… and I won. I only had two funny songs at that point but, in the next month, I wrote the hour-long show.

“I had accidentally got on the comedy circuit and I found that really difficult because I was getting up there with a harp, sandwiched on the bill between two stand-up comics. I found the comedy world quite rough; I didn’t understand it; I was a fish out of water. They were all men and I’d turn up in a ball gown with a harp. I’d won this award and people were looking at me: Go on! Prove yourself! I need good sound and some of these gigs wouldn’t even have proper sound set-ups.

“The comedy scene doesn’t pay very well. I live off gigs; I live from gig to gig. There’s months where there’s nothing coming in and my life is expensive – I have a 9 year-old son. That’s why I wrote the song I Do It For The Money. I’ve been performing all my life. I’ve paid my dues. Everyone who was on the scene when I was learning my craft has either got famous or given up, but I’ve hung in there.

Ursula packs her gear into her van after the Piano Bar gig

Ursula and her portable accommodation in Edinburgh, 2013

“People said You’d go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe but, at a basic, bottom reality, I couldn’t afford to come here. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a grant and I only found out I was getting it at the very end of June (too late to be in the Fringe Programme) and I only got the money the week before I arrived. I couldn’t have come here without their help. Sustaining yourself as an artist with a child is hard and ends do not always meet.

“When I first started,” said Ursula, “I would write really violent lyrics and put them with beautiful melodies and I would be travelling round with bands in vans. I’ve played everywhere from the Albert Hall to tube stations.

“The thing for me about the harp is breaking down the boundaries and comedy is just another aspect where I can do that. I don’t imagine that I will stay in comedy. I need to explore all things in all directions.”

She is a stilt-walking harpist who won an Irish comedy award by accident…

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Merry Christmas greetings from the late Malcolm Hardee, Mr Methane and me…

Malcolm Hardee (left) at Christmas

The late Malcolm Hardee (left) at Christmas

The late comedian Malcolm Hardee legendarily had about six jokes which lasted him around 25 years. But occasionally, perhaps especially at Christmas, he would throw in a new one.

His friend Alexandra Mendel tells me of a couple she heard him tell at Christmas.

She says:

“I remember he came on stage just before Christmas to warm his audience up at the Tunnel club and asked: What did the little deaf, dumb and blind boy get for Christmas?…. Answer… Cancer!

“There was another one to go with it too: What’s red and slimy and slides across the chip shop floor?… Answer… Abortion of chips…

Here is Malcolm Hardee’s Christmas card to his friends in December 2001, three months after the 9/11 attack on New York. It features the view from his floating pub The Wibbley Wobbley of the Canary Wharf towers in London’s Docklands.

Happy 25/12 Christmas card 2001

Malcolm Hardee’s 2001 Christmas card

Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing flatulist, has also drawn my attention to a festive 2001 E! video of his (Mr Methane’s) 22-minute appearance on Howard Stern’s US radio show in which he farts Christmas Songs.

For those who are too busy eating, drinking and toasting the Queen to spend that amount of time watching a video, Mr Methane has also thoughtfully provided a festive 2min 25sec audio version of Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.

And finally, from me, for anyone I have forgotten, here is a limited edition Christmas card from last century which never got the distribution I felt it deserved…


A Merry Christmas to you

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How Fringe legend Mervyn Stutter was inspired by the Daily Mail & male nudes

Mervyn Stutter was at home with his self-portrait yesterday

In yesterday morning’s blog, I mentioned the current censorious state of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme and Fringe legend Mervyn Stutter’s reaction to it, as well as the fact that performer Martin Soan had told me The Greatest Show On Legs intended to perform their naked balloon dance in the street outside their Fringe venue, to attract an audience.

After reading the blog, Mervyn e-mailed me: “It reminds me that I wrote a song about the Greatest Show on Legs for BBC TV. Looking for it now…..”

Mervyn has been performing at the Edinburgh Fringe for 26 years – 5 years doing solo shows, then (including this year’s) 21 annual Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of The Fringe shows in which other acts (very carefully chosen by Mervyn) perform highlights from their own Fringe shows.

Yesterday afternoon, by coincidence, I had to take a friend to see a solicitor in Bournemouth. (Don’t ask.) Mervyn lives in Christchurch, just beside Bournemouth. So, of course, the lure of hearing a song about The Greatest Show On Legs and the possibility of getting a free meal and drinks was too much to ignore and Mervyn and his wife Moira fell for our “we haven’t eaten” ruse.

What he told me perhaps gives a glimpse into another, different social era.

“In the mid-1980s,” Mervyn told us, “I had to write songs for the first ever BBC daytime television programme, Open Air. The two presenters on the pilot were Pattie Coldwell and Alan Titchmarsh and the series itself was presented by Pattie and a very thin Irishman, just off the boat, called Eamonn Holmes. It was in the days when the topical song was popular and wasn’t ridiculed, as it has been a lot since.

“Pattie put me up for it and I had to send a tape in of several topical songs so the producer knew I could do it.

“In the Daily Mail that week – Tuesday 26th July 1986 – was an article headlined Anger Over BBC’s Nudes.”

Daily Mail outraged at nudity

The article started: Outraged people in a TV audience walked out of a show hosted by an MP when three naked men danced on the set with only balloons to protect their modesty.

The pilot show for a new TV discussion programme called Day To Day had been chaired the previous Sunday by Robert Kilroy-Silk. The show had been about nudity and audience members had included ‘moral campaigner’ Mary Whitehouse, the streaker Erika Roe, Page Three girl Linda Lusardi and, according to an outraged Daily Mail, ‘teenage girls’ .

The Greatest Show on Legs performed their naked balloon dance to – again according to the Daily Mail – great outrage.

The report claimed that “Clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse has registered a formal complaint with BBC Director General Alasdair Milne, demanding ‘that the people responsible for this outrage should be disciplined’.”

Publisher Ian Critchley’s wife, the article continued, was in the audience and he “was considering legal action against the BBC for shocking her”. In those far-off golden days, ladies had to be protected by their husbands and were unable to cope with such manly things as taking legal action to protect their own modesty. Mr Critchley warned, possibly echoing the Daily Mail’s own outaged thoughts: ‘The BBC are on the slippery slope to depravity’.”

The presenter of the Day To Day pilot, Robert Kilroy-Silk, was always a staunch defender of the arts and bravely told the Daily Mail: “I was simply helping some friends at the BBC and had nothing to do with the balloon men. They were not my responsibility.”

However, in their final sentence, the Daily Mail quoted the BBC as pointing out: “Most of the audience thoroughly enjoyed it”.

“So,” Mervyn told me yesterday, “I wrote a song called One Little Prick about how outrageous it was, which ended:

If the audience did get up and leave, of course.
It would be The Greatest Show on Legs

“I did it on the audition tape for Open Air, but whether it was ever broadcast, I can’t remember.”

Mervyn played the song for us in his dining room yesterday evening and, with luck, he may turn up singing it during The Greatest Show on Legs’ own performances at the Edinburgh Fringe this August… and, of course, at the much-anticipated (at least by me) Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on the final Friday night of the Fringe.

So there we have it.

An insight into the anarchic way in which people may or may not be booked to appear in shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

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