Tag Archives: sound

I saw an iPhone in a plastic box today and a brilliant comedy show last night

Today’s iPhone with sound enhancer

Today’s iPhone with sound enhancer amplifier

Before today’s blog, here is an addendum to yesterday’s…

My eternally-un-named friend who, in yesterday’s blog, came up with a cheap sound amplifier for iPads has today come up with a similar amplifier for iPhones. Basically, it involves putting the iPhone inside a larger plastic food container.

My newly-installed iGlass sound system

The iGlass sound system from two years ago

Personally, I think her idea of two years ago of putting the iPhone inside a funnel-shaped glass is more elegant and more in keeping with Apple’s design ethics.

It is a matter of style.


I have never been able to get my head round what it must be like for performers to triumph on stage. They have got the audience into such a state that there are laughs, tears, whatever. But, once that moment and that emotion is achieved, it is gone forever if it is not filmed or videoed. A live performance is perhaps seen fleetingly by a few hundred people and certainly within a few years is barely remembered in any detail. Indeed, perhaps that happens within a couple of days or a couple of hours.

A show that is recorded can be seen by thousands – potential millions – of people who were never there – and long after all who were there are dead.

No-one who was not there can ever know how good a particular show was unless it is recorded.

Lost – to quote Blade Runner – like tears in rain.

Which came to my mind because, last night, I saw what is certainly one of the five best live shows I have seen in, let’s say, the last five years.

It was one of the monthly, always fascinating, Pull The Other One comedy club shows in London’s Nunhead.

In roughly  alphabetical order, the acts were:

  • Candy Gigi Markham… This year’s winner of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. I was sitting next to Mark Kelly (he writes with Jo Brand) who asked me beforehand what her act was like. I could do no better than quote that piece in Metro the other day which said it was an “almost indescribably odd act”. It is. It was. Both Mark and I laughed out loud: a rare thing.
  • Laurence Owen… with a spot-on song about how women’s roles are defined and limited in Walt Disney films – wonderfully complex and intelligent lyrics to a perfect pastiche of the whole gamut of Disneyesque tunes.
  • The Silver Peevil… top Matthew Bourne dancer Ewan Wardrop as his 1930s sci-fi Venusian character with a silver foil spaceship, a wry dismantling of sexism and (again) a perfect pastiche of a 1930s Hollywood song.
  • Two Pregnant Men – a new musical duo with three highly original rocked-up takes on internet trolls, supermarket cut-price deals and more. Not yer normal comedy act.
  • Wilfredo, Matt Roper’s extraordinary spittle-filled character cross between Barrie Humphries’ Sir Les Paterson and real-life Spanish heart-throb Julio Iglesias. I could barely hear this act at points because two women to my right were understandably screaming with laughter.
The bill for last night’s London show

The bill for last night’s South London show

And all of these acts were held together by the genuinely brilliant and charismatic compering skills of Lindsay Sharman who warmed the audience up by getting them to do whale and dolphin impressions (not a common technique) while she told a story – and who, at two points, shamelessly plugged her new novel by shoving copies in her bra. My eternally-un-named friend said to me: “She should be on television.”

Indeed she should. So should everyone on last night’s show.

Alas, ITV in particular is currently busy making disastrous remakes of 50-year-old formats. Who knows what misbegotten miscalculations Sunday Night at The Palladium will display tomorrow night as ITV continues to turn a silk purse into a dog’s dinner mishmash of decent acts and dumbed-down drossness.

I do not normally review shows as such because, in the medium and long term, it is a lose-lose situation for me. But the sheer brilliance of last night’s Pull The Other One show and the transient nature of live performance drew me to break my own rule. Well, the above was not really a review: it was more of a list. But hey-ho.

Sunday Night at The (apparently no longer London) Palladium is fair game for criticism because crass crap is always fair game. I could draw some obvious parallel between Sunday Night at The Palladium and putting an expensive iPhone into a cheap plastic food container, but it is too obvious.

The real talent, the really great comedy/variety shows at the moment are out there, transient, live and not on television.

I shall now try not to do anything remotely like a review for at least another twelve months.

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

One really annoying thing about last night was that I was enjoying the show so much I took no photographs. Your loss, not mine.

Incidentally, Ewan Wardrop aka The Silver Peevil (SPOILER ALERT!) does the opening to his act in quite a lengthy series of speeches in cod Venusian. He told me that, when he performed this act at Pull The Other One’s club in Leipzig earlier this month, a couple of Germans came up to the organisers after the show. “We liked the act,” they said, “but we were not able to understand some of what he said.”

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A sound technician at the Edinburgh Fringe can face wetness and nudity

Misha Anker at Hampstead Theatre yesterday

Misha Anker sounded good at Hampstead Theatre yesterday

Last August, Misha Anker was sound technician for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – as she was for several other shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Three weeks ago I got this e-mail from her:

“It is with many apologies and a heavy heart that I must inform you that I won’t be able to tech at the Fringe this year. No amount of back-of-the-envelope maths will make my student loan even cover my rent for the summer let alone allow me to save the necessary £1,000 or so the Fringe requires me to have upfront in August.”

I talked to her at Hampstead Theatre in London yesterday and have now arranged for her to come up to specifically handle sound on this year’s Malcolm Hardee show. (She’s open to other offers!) When we met, she had recently handled sound at the Accidental Festival and the Machynlleth Comedy Festival.

“How many hour-long shows did you tech at the Edinburgh Fringe last year?” I asked.

“I had a core run of six a day,” Misha replied, “and then, at weekends, I did an extra one in the morning and some days I’d have an extra one in the evening. A couple of days I worked noon to midnight.”

“Good sound technicians have to very organised,” I said.

“Organised,” said Misha, “but not necessarily functional as people. If you take them outside their job, they just revert to being a man drinking beer and mumbling in the corner of a pub.”

“Yes,” I said, “most sound technicians are men.”.

“That’s why I have to have a short haircut,” said Misha, “otherwise they wouldn’t know what to do with me. You’ve either got to have a beard and a pony tail – which is difficult for me – or short hair and piercings.”

“I suppose a lot do look like ageing hippies,” I said.

“Ageing roadies,” Misha suggested. “You get to the point where you’re too old to travel in a van, so then you move into a theatre. And then, when you’re too old to climb up and down a ladder, you become a lecturer.”

“Comedians are of a breed too,” I said. “Usually wildly disorganised.”

“When I have to write a CV,” laughed Misha, “I always put down that I ‘provided technical support and emotional support’ because most of the job is somewhere between operating things and being their mother.”

“And what do you do to keep your own sanity?” I asked.

“Last year in Edinburgh, I played a game with Stuart Goldsmith,” said Misha. “It was called Wife or PA? He and I had to guess if the attractive lady following the other comedian round was his wife or his PA. It’s hard to tell. The average very shambolic comedian is often being followed around by a woman. Is she married to him or trying to make him do his job? Sometimes it’s both.”

“And sometimes they don’t know the other exists,” I said. “What is the attraction of men with no money who can’t organise their own lives?”

“God knows,” laughed Misha.

“The other game I played last year,” Misha told me, “was called Sweat or Rain? You can play it in the Underbelly Belly Dancer or in The Caves or any venue that gets quite clammy. You have to feel the back of your head and decide whether it’s all hot and damp and wet because you’re really sweaty from running around or because the inside of the venue has rained on you. That, of course, is a game you can only explain to someone who’s been in those venues. At least, outside, you know the rain has only come out of the sky.

“There was one show I saw in Edinburgh where they had plastic bin-bags over the speakers because it was raining from the ceiling inside the venue.”

“Ah!” I said. “The joys of water and electrics!”

One reason Misha is so good is her flexibility

One reason Misha is so good is her flexibility e.g. her thumbs

“Well,” Misha told me, “I was at a venue the other week (not in Edinburgh) where the roof was leaking when we arrived and the speaker stacks and cables were in a puddle. They told me: Oh, it’s fine; we’ve been using it like that all week and I said, OK, but I’m not going to be the one to turn it on. I quite like the idea of not being electrocuted. They turned it on and it was OK, but that was a night I was operating from arms’ length just in case.”

“You should wear rubber wellingtons when you’re working,” I suggested.

“I wear Doc Martens with rubber soles,” explained Misha. “They’re just about sturdy enough  if you drop something on your foot and they have rubber soles for when you unintentionally attach yourself to the mains.”

“That would have been a good sound effect,” I said.

“I was once asked to create the sound of a shadow crossing the moon,” said Misha. “I tried to create the sound of impending doom… And I was once asked to create the sound of summer rain. It can’t just be rain, they told me. It has to somehow ‘evoke’ summer.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“It involved some real rain and I spent far too long listening to summer birdsong.”

“But,” I said. “even real things don’t necessarily sound like themselves.”

“Yes,” agreed Misha, “Someone scrunching up newspaper sounds a lot more like walking through snow than actually walking through snow does. I think it’s partly to do with the way we perceive sounds. It’s not just what you hear through your ear. It’s the vibrations of the tiny bones inside your head. When you hear the recording of a real noise, you’re hearing it as recorded by a diaphragm, not the way you would hear that real sound internally through your ear.

“The most awesome things I’ve ever come across are binaural microphones, which are like two little headphones that you wear in your ears and they use the way your inner ear vibrates to record exactly as you hear things. It’s both very clever and really strange to listen back to. It’s proper surround sound. Really clever and really freaky.”

“Talking of which,” I said. “What did you think of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show last year?”

“It was fun,” said Misha. “It was chaotic, but fun.”

“That’s why I wanted you back again this year,” I said. “Because it was chaotic but nothing went wrong technically. You doing the sound and Ellis of Ellis & Rose helping on the lighting. It must have been awful for you, because things kept changing during the show.”

“It comes with working on comedy a lot,” said Misha. “When you do a mixed bill night, you get people turning up saying: There’s a point in our sketch. You’ll know when to play it or You’ll know when it’s ended. And I think I really won’t and I ask Have you got anything more specific? and they never do. I think the trick is, at all times, to have a laptop with you – I have a MacBook – and make sure it’s running every type of software available.”

“Scripted plays much be much more satisfying that chaotic comedy,” I said.

“Not necessarily,” said Misha. “When the same thing happens every night, you could almost automate to a time schedule and go away. Whereas comedy is fun.”

“And the performers?” I asked.

“I suppose it’s like being a mother with children. They can be frustrating and annoying and you might sometimes want to slap them but, at the end of the day, it’s worth it because there are moments where it’s just the most fun you could possibly have. Though the thing about working with comedians is they don’t understand to concept of I need an early night.”

“Ah,” I said. “The Malcolm Hardee Awards Show ends at one in the morning.”

“I have to tell you,” said Misha, “that the Counting House is not the place for that show. If you’re directly in front, the Naked Balloon Dance is very clever but, because the technical position is off to one side and slightly behind the performers… from that angle, the balloons are not doing their job. Last year, I saw more of Bob Slayer than I ever want to see again. It was really quite difficult to work out where to look. I thought: I’m just going to stare at shoulder height…”

“I dread to think how many times I saw the red spots on Malcolm Hardee’s buttocks,” I said.

“Well,” said Misha, “I think I’ve seen Tom Parry of Pappy’s and Lee Griffiths from Late Night Gimp Fight naked more than any other men I know. Both of them just seem to have this desire to expose themselves. The more people there are in the room, the more exciting it is for them to take all of their clothes off.”

“It may be a growing trend,” I said. “I saw The Beta Males at the Brighton Fringe last night and…”

“Yes,” said Misha, “John Henry likes to take his clothes off a lot.”

“But he does have great tits,” I said.

I regretted saying it almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

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Less than six degrees of separation for Malcolm Hardee, Ridley Scott, Stevie Wonder, EdFringe and Apple iPhones

Paul Wiffen knows how to use Stevie Wonder’s thumb print

I am interested in the concept of six degrees of separation, because it is usually an overestimate.

I had a drink again yesterday with the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook, who is putting together a movie The Devil’s Dandruff, based on There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, the first of his three semi-autobiographical crime/drug trade novels.

He has now teamed up with Paul Wiffen who, like Jason, is what Hollywood calls a ‘hyphenate’.

He is a director-producer-composer-sound designer-performer and even, much to his own surprise, appearing in a cardigan in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

It turned out that Paul’s father was born in Chadwell Heath in Essex and Paul lives there now.

“That’s a coincidence,” I said.

It is the outer suburb of London where my parents briefly lived when my family first came down from Scotland. My teenage years were spent in nearby Seven Kings, where the perhaps one-mile long high road was lined almost entirely with second hand car dealers.

“This was,” I told Paul yesterday, “before the name John went out of fashion because of – I think – Alexei Sayle’s song Ullo John, Got a New Motor? making it a naff name.”

“That’s a coincidence,” Paul said. I was at school with Rik Mayall. I was in a school production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I was Rosencrantz; he was Guildenstern and we also did Waiting For Godot, but I wasn’t one of the two leads: I was the guy who comes on as the horse.”

When Paul left school and went to Oxford University, he joined the Oxford University Drama Group but found others were better at acting, so he concentrated on doing the music.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe,” he told me yesterday, “I was in this terrible po-faced Oxford production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. But, that same year, my friend Lindsay was musical director of a Cambridge Footlights’ comedy production at the Fringe which had Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. Lindsay got food poisoning one night and I filled-in for three or four days.”

“Oh,” I asked. “Was Emma Thompson also performing at a venue called The Hole in The Ground that year?”

“I think she was,” Paul replied.

“Well that’s another coincidence, then,” I said. “I think that might have been the year when The Hole in the Ground had three tents in it – for Emma Thompson, The Greatest Show on Legs and American performance artist Eric Bogosian. My comedian chum Malcolm Hardee got pissed-off by the noise Eric Bogosian made during The Greatest Show on Legs’ performances – and Bogosian had made Emma Thompson cry – so Malcolm got a tractor and drove it, naked, through the middle of Bogosian’s show.”

While at Oxford, Paul also got an early taste of movie-making when he was an extra in the Oxford-shot ‘Harvard’ scenes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the movie which destroyed United Artists).

“I was three behind Kirs Kristoffersen in the awards ceremony,” he told me, “but I was cut out of the ‘short’ version of Heaven’s Gate shown in Britain, so I have never actually seen myself in it!”

By 1982, after he graduated from Oxford University with a Master’s Degree in Languages, he shared a flat on the Goldhawk Road in West London.

“I went to some party that was a Who’s Who of early alternative comedy,” he told me, “and somebody introduced me to this rather chubby bloke saying: This is Alexei Sayle from Liverpool.

“I got on really well with him cos I grew up in Liverpool and he said: Oh, we’re doin’ a music video tomorrow morning in Goldhawk Road. Why don’t you come down. So I stood in the background on a car lot on the Goldhawk Road about three streets away from where I lived and watched them shoot Ullo John, Got a New Motor?

Later, Paul was involved in five Ridley Scott directed movies, the first as sound designer on the Blade Runner soundtrack composed by Vangelis. The gas explosions burning on the skyline are actually, Paul told me, slowed-down timpani “because explosions didn’t work.

“Most of the first three weeks on that project,” he said, “I had no idea what I was working on. There was super secrecy. I thought I was doing a Coca Cola advert. I wasn’t allowed in the main room to see what was being projected but, once, I looked through the door and saw this space ship floating across with Drink Coke on it. After three weeks, I realised Maybe even Coca Cola adverts don’t go on this long.

“Then I went on to another Vangelis soundtrack which was The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Spottiswood. I didn’t do any work with Roger Spottiswood at all. On the final third of his pictures, Ridley Scott has the composer in the room with him – editor, composer, composer’s team and Ridley. Spottiswood wasn’t there.

“For The Bounty, we did the whole score on the 9th floor of the Hotel Pierre on Central Park in New York. Vengelis had the whole of the 9th floor because, he told me, he knew he would be making so much noise the hotel could not put anyone else on the 9th floor. It turned out the movie budget had also paid for every room on the 8th and the 10th floors as well, so Vengelis could compose the soundtrack on the 9th.

“The next time Vangelis called me was for a terrible Italian film called Francesco – the story of St Francis of Assisi with Mickey Rourke strangely cast as the saint. Vengelis always works evenings and nights, so we were there at 4 o’clock in the morning scoring this scene in which Mickey Rourke rolls bollock-naked in a snow drift – apparently St Francis used to assuage his natural urges by doing this. So we are sitting there watching Mickey Rourke rolling bollock-naked in slow motion in a snow drift and Vangelis turns to me and says: Sometimes, this is the best job in the world… but tonight it’s the fucking worst.”

That is a key scene in the planned movie which Paul hopes to make about Vangelis. He would direct the film and also play Vangelis.

“And he’s happy with that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul, “I first suggested the idea to him about two years ago. The main thing is he wants anyone who plays him to be actually able to play the piano.

“The only other film I did with Vangelis was 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I was supposed to do some stuff on Alexander, but I ended up getting 30 seconds of my music in the film and nothing with Vangelis. I’ve done two other movies with Ridley, both with Hans Zimmer – Black Rain and Gladiator. I think I’ve done 17 films with Hans Zimmer.

“On Gladiator, I did a lot of the synthesizers behind Lisa Gerrard, who plays the zither and sings on that score. That was probably the longest project I’ve ever worked on: it was over a year.”

For the last four years, Paul has been developing a movie script with Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran: a feature film version of their New Statesman TV series with Rik Mayall.

“The plot,” says Paul, “is about how Alan B’stard is responsible for the credit crunch and all that money that’s disappeared – Alan’s got it all.”

Gran & Marks are also, says Paul, “developing their half-hour TV comedy drama Goodnight Sweetheart as a 90-minute stage musical”

Between 2001-2004, Paul told me, he “realised the music industry was dying on its feet and I wanted to get into the film industry. I reckoned the only job that could get me from one to the other was working for Apple computers.

“I did the first ever demonstration of an iPod in Europe. The original pre-release version of the iPod recorded sound, but Steve Jobs got so worried about the idea it might be used to bootleg concerts that they actually took the capabilities off the first iPod they released.

“As part of what I did for the next two years, I had to work on the beta versions of new products and they sent me through – in great secrecy – what they called ‘an audio and video recording iPod’. Do you know what that was?”

“What?” I asked.

“It was the iPhone. We just thought it recorded audio and shot video. It looked very similar to what it looks like now, but telephones weren’t that shape in those days. Another team was working on the telephone part of it.

“I pointed out to them that, when you scrolled, it took a long time to go through long lists because it stopped every time you took your finger off. I said, Why don’t you make it so, once you swipe your finger and lift it off, the menu keeps spinning like a globe of the world does if you spin it. So you can spin it and then put your finger on again to stop it where you want…. 2004 that was.”

“Great idea!” I said. “You should be working for Apple at Cupertino!”

“I lived in California from 1986 to 1992,” Paul replied, “and I told myself I’m only going back when I’m a famous film director.”

“Maybe The Devil’s Dandruff will be the one,” I told him.

Jason Cook smiled.

“If you want to get an American work visa,” Paul said to me, “do you know how to get one?”.

“Marriage?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “You get Stevie Wonder to put his thumb print on the application and then they have to grant your work permit, otherwise they’re not allowed to keep the piece of paper with his thumb print. There are always people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service that are big Stevie Wonder fans.”

Paul worked for nine months doing ‘sound design’ on Stevie Wonder’s album Characters which had one hit single –  Skeletons – which was used in the limousine sequence of the movie Die Hard.

Movies, music, Malcolm Hardee, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Willis.

Six degrees of separation is usually an overestimate.

Or maybe Paul Wiffen just has his fingers in lots of pies.

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