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Strippers and stand-up comics in the early days of British alternative comedy

Anna Smith in her Vancouver hospital

Anna Smith in her Vancouver hospital after the operation

Stripping and stand-up comedy have often gone hand-in-hand in London.

The Windmill Theatre was a famed training ground for post-War British comics and, in the 1980s, the original Comedy Store was above a strip club and was co-founded by strip club owner Don Ward.

The So It Goes blog’s occasional Canadian comedy correspondent Anna Smith is, I’m glad to say, recovering well from her St Valentine’s Day operation in Vancouver to get a Dacron patch sewn onto her aorta. She tells me:

“My scar is looking less like one made by an attack with a ravioli cutting wheel and more like I’ve been flayed between the breasts by an accurate whip enthusiast.”

Anna was around in the early days of British Alternative Comedy in the early 1980s. She knew both the strip club and comedy club worlds. She tells me:

“Me trying to be funny in the UK  started in about 1981 and ended in about 1986… interspersed with exotic comedy/dance stints in Belgium, France, Finland and Australia.

“By the time I arrived in London, I had already worked as a striptease artist in Canada for about five years at places ranging from the infamous Penthouse Club in Vancouver to Newfoundland. I was the first person to perform in Newfoundland following a period of ‘prohibition of erotic dance’ that had lasted twenty years. Needless to say I was very popular in St. John’s for so doing – I was costumed somewhat like Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind and received a standing ovation from nine pregnant women at the bar.

“I was often called an exotic dancer; sometimes I felt more like an exhausted dancer. When I was working in London, I was running up and down stairs in Wardour Street and Old Compton Street and even strayed as far as Mayfair to dance at a ‘hostess club’ where, as far as I could tell from what was going on in the toilet, the poor beautiful young hostesses were making a lot of money vomiting for a living.

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

Poster for the Gargoyle and Nell Gwynne club

“The Nell Gwynne/Gargoyle was the best though, because  most of the other clubs only offered one ‘spot’ per night.  At the Gargoyle, the pay per show was less, but we did three shows and could leave our costumes there in the freezing gloomy dressing room. There was also theatre style seating and a real stage and a choice of backdrops (crescent moon and stars, English garden, Arabesque) and an appreciative audience of the trench coat type.”

Anna also frequented the original Comedy Store, which started life above the Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne club.

“I remember Joe, the elevator operator, and Peter Rosengard, the Guinness record holder for insurance sales (who started the Comedy Store with Don Ward), gliding about behind the scenes. Don and Peter had figured out there was a need for comedy entertainment but they really didn’t have a clue how or why it was happening… It was like a couple of kids playing with a chemistry set and all of a sudden the whole thing went BOOOF! But, even then, they still didn’t understand it and were still keeping a lot of bad acts and sacking talented people like myself (and Vivienne Soan).

“It could become confusing with half the people changing stage names on a regular basis. Sometimes we did that to find a name which would look more memorable on the playbill; at other times, we just did it to harass one another. I used to love irritating Sir Gideon Vein (aka Tony Green) by referring to Bob Boyton as ‘Bob Boynton’.

“Sir Gideon would rage: It’s Boyton! – Boyton, I tell you! but I would then call him Bob Boinkton.

Tony Allen was frequently the compere for the Comedy Store Gong Show. He was a great compere. Some of the others would say something demeaning as an introduction – not very encouraging at all – but Tony Allen gave us a fair intro, reducing the chance that the drunken audience would hurl their shoes at us.

Tony Green was Sir Gideon Vein

In the 1980s, Anna remembers Tony Green as Sir Gideon Vein

“He also encouraged me personally and gave me practical suggestions about how to improve my act. When I recently ordered his book Attitude – The Secret of Stand-Up Comedy because I wanted to read about Sir Gideon Vein , Ian Hinchliffe and others, I was shocked to find that he had written a sentence about me in it. I’m in the index as Annie Smith, somewhere after Richard Pryor. What an honour that he remembered me – although it was in the context of comics removing their clothing.

“But so what…as you mentioned in a recent blog this WAS during the time of The Romans In Britain.

“One act I particularly remember was a great voluptuous Canadian dancer from Winnipeg, named Karen. Her shows were completely unique. She danced solely to classical music and wore long pastel gowns and hats which had her resembling a Georgian shepherdess – a stark contrast to the rest of the acts who were sheathed in skin-tight leather, ripped stockings, and other rough punky styles popular in the 1980s.

“Karen was a lovely person to work with. She told us she’d had to flee Canada because she had been a young school teacher in Winnipeg and some incriminating letters between herself and an amorous seventeen-year-old boy were discovered. In those days, seventeen-year-old boys were not permitted to have such thoughts about their busty young teachers. So Karen fled to London where she found immediate employment at the Nell Gwynn Club… and many new admirers.

“One was an older, moustached employee of British Telecom who was so besotted with Karen that he followed her to our weekly Sunday afternoon sherry parties on Royal College Street. The telecom man seemed out of place because everyone else there was a performer: Randolph the Remarkable, Sir Gideon Vein, John Hegley. Ben Elton and Peter Elliot (ape expert to the film industry).

“We would sit in a large circle on the floor of a friend’s bedroom drinking sherry and pass round an enormous spliff….and then decide what children’s games to play, Sardines was a favourite, as it was a four storey townhouse with plenty of hiding spots.

“I think  the man from British Telecom was having a rough time in his marriage and was soothed by sleeping with the insatiable Karen and playing rowdy children’s games with a horde of comedians sloshing around scantily-dressed young strippers… It was a delight beyond his previous imaginings.

“I don’t have any photographs of Karen or even know her real surname – Oh, the tragedy of using fake names! – but I would really like to locate her.

“It’s an irony I have no photos of her, because Karen was a highly skilled photographer who took excellent portraits of the dancers sitting in the dressing room of the Nell Gwynne/Gargoyle Club. This was a cavernous windowless room with four lengths of plumbing pipe rattling with empty coat hangers, from the days when there really were floor shows and spectacular shows. Tattered bits of old costumes used to flutter from the plumbing pipes and, on the floor of the closet in the corner of the room, lay a crumpled iridescent mermaid tail, dusty and abandoned….as if the mermaid had eloped decades ago and moved permanently to St Johns Wood.

“The odd thing is that this vast, chilly dressing room was for the exclusive use of four or five exotic dancers. We even had a ‘secret staircase’ to ascend and then, through a doorway, we could watch the acts performing at The Comedy Store. The comics had no dressing room. They just wandered back and forth in a narrow hallway beside the kitchen clutching scraps of paper, nervously talking to themselves and sometimes juggling things or trying on noses or wigs….

“The mysterious Karen was last seen in London, but has probably travelled widely since then. I know she took some great photos of me and the other dancers in that dressing room. I would love to see them, because they were works of art… and to add to my portfolio which is surprisingly sparse, considering I spent more than fifteen years on stage.

“I suppose I ought to contact Randolph the Remarkable as he was friends with her and I see he is still active, tango dancing and posing in photographs as The Little Mermaid.

“Sometimes I fear I will have to spend the second half of my life researching just exactly what I was doing for the first half.

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Comedy farter Mr Methane gets i-rate and i-noyed with Apple & Red Nose Day

Mr Methane gets iRate with iTunes on his iPhone

Yesterday, Mr Methane got iRate about iTunes on his iPhone

There seems to be no end to the bloggability of my chum Mr Methane, the Farter of Alternative Comedy.

I got an e-mail from him yesterday afternoon:

“Just over two years ago,” it started, “I produced a Mr Methane fart app. This was rejected by iTunes and remains unpublished due to Apple’s we don’t need any more fart apps policy of September 2010.

“They told me: We cannot post this version to the App Store because we are no longer accepting this type of app. We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.

“But fast forward to 2013 and, in the UK, Comic Relief now have a Fart App on the Apple Store.

“Something stinks here,” Mr Methane continues, “there seems to be one rule for me and another rule for someone else! In fact, I’d like to offer Apple my app as a charity download for those people pissed off with Red Nose Day. The profits would go to children in Africa deeply traumatised by being visited by Lenny Henry every year for a Comic Relief documentary.

“Seriously, though, I think Comic Relief needs to move on, get more radical and rediscover those anarchic alternative days of the 1980s when Comedy took on the Establishment and politicians, shining a light on their inadequacies and nefarious activities.

Red Nose Day is on 15th March this year

Red Nose Day is 15th March 2013

“I honestly think that if Comic Relief said Look, everybody! This year we are raising money for humanitarian aid to help families whose lives have been wrecked by illegal attacks from US and British operated predator drones, showed a documentary about it and then asked government ministers some awkward questions, they would have the biggest take in the charity’s history.

“That said, it’s a free country – allegedly –  and some people would say that I’m just doing what I always do – Talking out of my arse!”

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Comedy audiences “haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times and punched their girlfriend”

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

NealeWelch_16feb2013

Neale Welch at the Comedy Cafe sound desk on Saturday

I was at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre at the weekend, talking to outspoken owner Noel Faulkner and his business sidekick Neale Welch who, with a marketing background, perhaps promotes the club in less controversial style.

“Why is the Comedy Cafe moving to single-artist shows after August?” I asked Neale.

“Partly,” Neale explained, “because of a decline in the demand for mixed-bill shows – an MC and three acts. Plus increased competition. And it’s costing us more in marketing to get the same amount of people in for those shows. It costs more to get people in than it did previously.

Say goodbye to the logo

Say goodbye to the old Comedy Cafe  logo

“We’re also re-designing our logo, moving it from the smiley face of the 1990s and refurbishing the room again – we only did it 18 months ago… Lots of little tweaks to make a big over-all change.”

“Are comedy club audiences really declining?” I asked.

“If you look on Google Trends,” Neale told me, “at the graph of Google searches for comedy… live… stand-up between 2004 and 2012 it declines steadily. If you look at live… comedy… London it shows the same decline. So there’s less people searching for live stand-up comedy and, if that’s going down then, probably, the demand is going down too.”

“Did anything happen to the search graph in 2008 with the financial crash?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Neale. “It’s not a fiscal cliff. It’s a steady decline.”

“So,” I said, “you’re going to be changing the type of shows you put on.”

“At the end of this month,” Neale explained, “we’ll be booking acts up until August for normal club shows and then, after that, we’ll be booking single-artist shows to run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays after August.”

“It was over a year ago,” Noel Faulkner reminded me, “that we decided to turn the old Comedy Cafe into more of a theatre-type venue – the Comedy Cafe Theatre – and attract a theatre-type audience and now that’s actually happening.”

“What’s the difference between the theatre audience and the comedy audience?” I asked.

NoelFaulkner_16feb2013

Noel Faulkner at the Comedy Cafe Theatre

“The theatre audience,” replied Noel, “can actually all read and write and they have an IQ of some level. The comedy audience are feckin’ brain dead and don’t know why we’re not giving them Michael McIntyre.”

“But this is the audience you’ve been catering to for years,” I prompted.

“Well,” said Noel, “we’ve all been catering to them for years. Poor old Jongleurs and the Comedy Store Late Show too. Of course you have to cater to the masses. We all have to suck the corporate cock, whether we’re gay or not.”

“So what different type of comedy will these theatrical comedians be doing in their one-person shows?” I asked Noel.

“It’s not a difference in comedy,” explained Noel. “Comics do what they do, but it’s better if you have a sophisticated audience. The other problem, though, is that sophisticated audiences don’t spend money. They have a couple of drinks and they’re happy. They don’t have to get shit-faced, because their lives aren’t horrible. Whereas your average comedy audience – their lives are so horrible that they go crazy at weekends and they feel they haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times, had a fight and punched their girlfriend.”

“In that case, surely,” I suggested, “as a businessman, you should be appealing to the drunken comedy audience who throw money around and not to the more sophisticated audience who don’t spend money.”

“If that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” said Noel, “but, if I just wanted to make a living, I could deal crystal meth or run a lap-dancing club.”

“So,” I asked, “the comedians are going to do the same things but longer in their one-person shows…?”

“Well,” said Noel. “Comedians doing these one-person shows are not compelled to come out with a gag every thirty seconds. It’s going the way I planned it. I want a theatre.”

“You always wanted a theatre?”

“I always wanted a feckin’ audience that would sit down and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” said Noel.

The Comedy Cafe is also expanding into producing comedy shows as downloadable MP3s. Soon they are going to release shows recorded at the Comedy Cafe Theatre by Steve N Allen, Anil Desai, Robin Ince, Michael Legge and Eric McElroy.

The sound of comedy from the Cafe

Expanding Cafe laughter – from live shows to mp3 downloads

“When’s that happening?” I asked Neale Welch.

“It’s just being cut now,” he told me. “I’m sorting out the webpage, the hosting and the PayPal and the functionality, so I’m thinking in the next two weeks; something like that. They’ll be released under the individual artists’ names; there will be a standalone page linked-to from our website; the Comedy Cafe will just be a footnote; we’ve just facilitated it.”

“And the appeal of the audio recordings to you is…?” I asked.

“They give us interesting live shows,” Neale told me. “And a bit of legacy. They will still be there in a few years time. We can build the business into more than one arm. We already have the club, the talent agency, a casting agency. It just gives us another arm.”

“And it means you have content beyond live shows,” I suggested.

“Exactly,” agreed Neale. “And we are looking into other content formats.”

Set List - shows coming to Comedy Cafe

Set List comes to Comedy Cafe Theatre

Neale told me the Comedy Cafe is also having Paul Provenza’s superb Set List comedy improvisation shows coming in for a run every Monday from March 11th for six weeks.

“And then,” Noel Faulkner told me, “we’ve another big production company coming in as well. I can’t name them yet. But they’ll come in weekly or monthly with their acts to prepare them for their TV programmes. A lot of people in the comedy business are suddenly realising there’s a small 120-seat space that is really keen to do good theatre. There’s room for three cameras. A tiny stage, but it works: it’s cosy, it’s intimate and it’s what I always wanted to do.”

“In a recent blog,” I said, “I mentioned how, in the future, streaming live club comedy on the internet might affect club business. And Don Ward’s Comedy Store is doing feature films of its shows.”

The Comedy Store film - "It won't work"

The Comedy Store film. “It’s a great idea… It won’t work”

“It won’t work,” said Noel. “It’s a great idea and I asked him why the cinemas are doing it. He told me it’s on the slow movie nights and I thought Well, on the slow movie nights – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – people don’t want to go out. Why go see a movie on a Tuesday night when you can see it on a Friday or Saturday night? So it’s a Tuesday night and there are comics on the big screen? Well, first of all, you don’t need to see a comic on a big screen, because there’s not a lot to look at. And what? You’re going to go all the way down town to a movie theatre and pay top dollar when you can just nip over to the Comedy Store for the same price on a Tuesday night?”

“But punters can’t pop down to the Comedy Store if they live in Plymouth or Aberdeen,” I suggested.

“Well,” replied Noel, “all they have to do is flip over to YouTube or the Dave TV channel and they can see the exact same comedy on a screen.”

“I can’t see the feature film idea working,” I said, “but, in the future, if you did live streaming from the Comedy Store or the Comedy Cafe and it cost a punter only 99p to watch it in Norwich or Belfast or the Outer Hebrides instead of coming to London to see the same acts…”

“Yes,” said Noel. “If, for £5, you could catch the Late Show at the Comedy Store on the internet outside London, that would be great. But the Comedy Store isn’t doing that. They’re trying to fill a cinema. Also, if you’re in a cinema, are people really going to laugh? If there’s only 100 people spread out over 600 seats, you don’t get the atmosphere of a live club.”

“But what happens,” I asked, “when there is live streaming of good acts from a good club at a cheap price? Janey Godley looked into live-streaming her Edinburgh Fringe show from the Underbelly in, I think, 2005 and they couldn’t do it technically from that building at that time. I’ve never understood why no-one has live-streamed their Edinburgh shows so people can see them in Los Angeles and Adelaide. In a few years time, you could have the Comedy Cafe doing a live show to people in London and live-streaming it on a 99p pay-per view so people can see it in Newcastle or Cardiff.”

“Make it £1,” said Noel. “Don’t do this 99p shit.”

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Are live comedy clubs doomed and is the future of British comedy online?

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
davesleicester_logoThis morning, I was on a panel as part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival – ‘Dave’ being the UK TV channel which sponsors the festival.

Also on the panel were Don Ward of The Comedy Store, Kate Copstick doyenne of UK comedy critics and Nica Burns, founder of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, currently sponsored by Fosters, formerly sponsored by Perrier.

Copstick and I are both judges on the unsponsored yet increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards.

Towards the end of the two hour session, conversation got round to The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, due out in UK cinemas in a fortnight.

“Sony approached me,” explained Don this morning, “and said they would like to put the Comedy Store into cinemas as a feature film. We’ll make four of them and see what happens and we’ll show it as it is, warts and all.

“So we filmed it over four nights. We filmed digital and you should see it – it is The Store. It comes out on the 22nd of this month in around 160 cinemas. It’ll go out all over the country and it will go out as a stand-up show as you would experience it in London.”

“How much,” asked Nica Burns, “will people pay for their ticket?”

“Normal cinema prices,” replied Don.

“Less than at the Comedy Store?” asked Nica.

“Yes,” said Don.

“So,” said Nica, “You’re beaming out your extremely good stand-up evening to 160 cinemas for less than what people pay at your original Comedy Store. What is that going to do for every single small comedy club in Britain, every single little person who is trying to passionately be part of the comedy industry? What is that going to do to the rest of the comedy industry?”

“It interests me,” I said, “because, beyond the feature film, some high-quality club like the Comedy Store with high-quality acts will be able to live-stream for micro-payments. They can charge, say, 99 pence and they’ll make a fortune – 99 pence per view around the English-speaking world. If I’m going to pay 99 pence to see top quality acts in a top quality club, live-streamed. Why should I pay £5 or £10 to see less-good acts learning their craft in a real comedy club down the road?”

“But,” said Copstick, “there is something about the experience of going to a comedy club that is special and will always appeal to lovers of comedy and I don’t think what Don is doing is any different from… I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that destructive, because I don’t think that proper, core, real, comedy-loving audience is necessarily going to go and see that.”

“It’s the same as football, I suppose,” I said. “You can see football better, closer and faster edited on television, but people still go to football matches.”

“I think,” said Nica Burns,” this is a new development on a very large scale. I can’t recall the comedy industry having an experiment like this on this kind of scale. I think we’re looking at potentially enormous changes in how people watch their comedy, from what Don is doing to the live streaming that’s coming. And the ramifications of that, I think, is fewer people becoming more powerful.”

“You can’t stop change,” I said, “you can only adapt to it. In the mid-1990s, Malcolm Hardee said to me that the Edinburgh Fringe was getting very commercialised and he was like the small independent corner shop while the big supermarkets were coming in – agents/managers like Avalon and Off The Kerb.

“I think in the future, the big supermarkets are going to be big Don Wards doing live streaming of their shows around the country and the small corner shop will be YouTube, with individuals doing amateur comedy. But people will still go to big ‘events’ like arena tours.”

“I think the best is yet to come,” said Don Ward. “People want to go out. They will still go out to clubs for the foreseeable future. Comedy is a serious night out.”

“The internet,” said Copstick, “is, if nothing else, totally democratic. Maybe Don is leading live comedy into cyberspace. But, once he’s done that, any tiny comedy club – the smallest comedy club – has the technology to do that. Music has now created so many music stars online. In comedy, (Malcolm Hardee Award winner) Bo Burnham – utterly brilliant – nobody hired him, nobody did anything. He made himself online.

“I’m not 100% sure about the future of live comedy clubs,” she continued, “but I genuinely do believe and absolutely hope that real, core comedy fans will continue going to live comedy, continue having that whole experience and taking the rough with the smooth provided there’s some smooth. But, if actual live comedy withers, then I believe where it will migrate is online. And that is completely democratic. That is not like having to placate and show some muppet at Channel 4 that your idea can attract the ‘right demographic’.”

“But,” asked Nica, “how do they make their living? How will they feed their kids and pay their rents by being a comic on the internet?”

“Well,” said Copstick, “what you do is establish yourself online. If you’re shit, you don’t feed your kids. They starve and you wise up and get a proper job. If you’re good, marvellous. Bo Burnham’s not short of a bob or two.”

“But he makes his money live now,” suggested Nica.

“Then that’s where you migrate,” replied Copstick. “Maybe that’s what the circle’s doing. Maybe the feeder, the starter level is online, because anyone under the age of 20 is physically unable to leave their seat and the only fully-functioning bits of their anatomy are their mouths, their cocks and their thumbs. So maybe that’s where the ‘babies’ go: they go online, they find their audience – because everybody will find their audience online – The bad ones will wither, die and drop off and the good ones will go on. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?”

(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)

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British comedy audiences do not now and have never wanted true originality

Lewis Schaffer viewed in a way he might not like

Lewis Schaffer viewed in an unflatterling light

In his blog today, British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer does a U-turn.

He had previously criticised London’s Comedy Store for putting on “boring shows that set a poor standard for British live comedy”.

Now he says he has changed his mind and been persuaded that, currently, audiences “don’t want interesting” because of the global economic situation and other problems. He says they now don’t want chaos or anarchy, they want something less original.

But, I have to say, this is nothing new. ‘Twas ever thus.

What was the big comedy success on British TV thirty years ago?

Obviously, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

No.

It was Terry and June, the comfortable sofa-based sitcom much-derided by comedy cognoscenti then and now for being dull and unoriginal.

OK, there was also Fawlty Towers but – in pure format terms – Fawlty Towers is unoriginal. It is basically three OTT comedy stereotypes in a single location doing often slapstick comedy.

Monty Python was truly original and played around with the television medium. And Middle England did not watch it on its original transmissions.

I remember Monty Python’s original transmissions. They were shoved all over the place in the schedule. People did not watch in vast droves and it did not appeal to the core mainstream audience.

However, in the 1990s, Reeves & Mortimer did manage to combine originality with vast audience success… didn’t they?

No they did not.

They were a Channel 4 and BBC2 act. When the BBC foolishly attempted to put them in their own show on BBC1 at peaktime on a Saturday night, it was an unmitigated ratings disaster.

What have the big TV comedy successes of the past few years been?

My Family. Very cosy. Vastly popular. Much derided by comedy critics and the comedy industry.

Now we have Mrs Brown’s Boys. Again, disliked by circuit comedians, possibly through jealousy.

And then there is Miranda… indeed, anything with Miranda Hart in it.

We are not talking cutting edge (or even necessarily funny) here.

Who are the biggest stand-ups in the UK?

Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay.

Personally, I admire Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay’s technique, but I would not pay to see them.

Comedy Store audiences would.

Because – a vast generalisation – the larger the audience appeal the less original and less ground-breaking the performance.

Originality does not equate with success in the same way that success does not necessarily equate with talent.

I have heard it said that Lewis Schaffer is a “comedian’s comedian” – other comedians will stand at the back of his audience with mouths open just to see what happens.

He could be a major mainstream TV presenter of factual documentaries. Lewis Schaffer. He is basically Bill Bryson with attitude.

He could even, perhaps, be successful performing at the Comedy Store in London.

But we will probably never know.

To quote the great American comedian Donald Rumsfeld:

There are known knowns.

There are known unknowns.

And there are unknown unknowns.

Lewis Schaffer, oddly, fits into all of those categories.

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What happened to a female comic one night at London’s Comedy Store in 1981

Vivienne & Martin Soan on stage at Pull The Other One this year

Vivienne and Martin Soan at Pull The Other One this year

Vivienne Soan currently hosts the always excellent monthly Pull The Other comedy club. She tells me…

___________________

It was 1981…Tony Allen was the compere at the original Comedy Store in London and I had been to a very important England v Scotland football match that same day.

It was the match where the referee jumped over the ball.

I had been given free tickets and was sort-of fired-up from having sat with the Scots and cheered the English.

I had been in Europe for the past four years with Action Theatre and the queue to get into the lift at the Comedy Store had proved too tempting for the performance hostess that had been maturing within me. I worked the crowd before they got into the venue and so, when I stood up and took the mike after Tony Allen, I challenged the audience to “do better”… I had no doubts…The audience were on my side and I ‘stormed it’ (as an open spot) with a mixture of real life stories and old playground jokes.

My opening line was good. I had been sitting in front of a persistent heckler and said I had taken the stage to get away from him.

After the show, I was invited back by Don Ward (the Comedy Store’s owner) to do three weeks.

After the second week, it was whispered in my ear by the other comics that this was ‘alternative comedy’ and I could only perform original material.

“I’m a performer not a writer,” I proclaimed and they all turned away.

The third week, there was great excitement as the new-born Channel 4 was coming in to have a look.

There was a buzz …. “They are very interested in you,” I was told.

I bounced onto the stage, hit my head on the gong and told my caterpillar joke which ends in “I bin sick”.

At this point, Ben Elton turned the mike off and closed my set with the words: “I’m sorry, darling, you can’t tell jokes like that. We cannot allow you to perpetuate the myth of the dumb blonde”.

I left the night with my head between my legs.

I didn’t venture back on a comic stage until 1991.

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The comedian and magician who used to tear his name off publicity photos

Mystery man of comedy Ray Presto on stage at Up The Arts

“The first time I met Ray was in 2004 at a Linda Trayers gig in Kilburn where Russell Brand headlined and only three people turned up,” Paul Ricketts told me yesterday.

“The gig was pulled but, Russell Brand still demanded his money (£100), leaving Linda Trayers in tears. Straightaway, Ray saw his opportunity to console Linda whilst at the same time continually asking for a gig.

“If he fancied and wanted to impress any lady or promoter he would do his ‘£5 of my own money’ trick which did have overtone of bribery when he paid over his ‘Bank Of Presto’ note with his own face printed on it.”

As well as being an excellent comedian, Paul Ricketts runs the Up The Arts comedy club in London (with Verity Welch) and booked Ray Presto regularly. I asked Paul about Ray Presto because, when he died aged 74 last week, Ray was said in an obituary to be a “stalwart of the London open mic circuit” and “a regular at clubs including Pear Shaped and, most notably, the Comedy Store‘s King Gong show, where he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences… He returned time after time to the show – until 2009, when he was asked to stop, after a new booker took over.”

This intrigued me, because I had never seen his act and the phrasehe would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences” sounded interesting. Especially when Fix comedy entrepreneur Harry Deansway wrote in the obituary: “Famed for his strange but smart appearance, unique delivery of out-of-date jokes and magic tricks, Ray Presto often left audiences baffled. Was this a well thought-out character act, or a delusional Seventies throwback? Was he in on the joke? ”

Paul Ricketts told me:

“Ray was the last of the line of strange acts that I saw during the mid to late naughties – which included Phil Zimmerman, Joel Elnaugh, Linda Trayers, Persephone Lewin and Bry Nylon. Some of these acts were knowingly playing with the conventions of stand-up, while others could be seen as deluded in their ambitions.”

“Ray,” Paul told me, “stood apart because he did take himself very seriously. Because of his previous incarnation as a magician he felt he had the experience and stagecraft to make it as a comic. Right from the start he aggressively sold himself as a comedy performer.

“He became a monthly fixture at the Comedy Store Gong Show, cleverly realising that his Happy Days Are Here Again intro music took up at least one minute of the five minutes he needed to survive. His material was made up of inoffensive old jokes – the sort you’d find in Christmas crackers – delivered at a pace that would make Stewart Lee sound like fast-talking Adam Bloom. It was this slow, deliberate delivery which made him distinctive and generated much of the laughter.

“But his self-belief meant that he didn’t like to take advice from anyone. Don Ward of the Comedy Store liked Ray, gave him several 10 minutes spots and wanted him to develop his act from old jokes mixed with magic tricks to include more observations about his life and age. Ray, however, was wary of moving in this direction as he didn’t want to reveal too much about himself. Instead he tried to add more ‘racy’ material – notably a joke about underage sex – which led to him being immediately ‘gonged off’ at the Comedy Store.”

Anthony Miller of Pear Shaped remembers that Ray “became so successful at the Comedy Store that they had to ban him from the gong as he was undermining the object of the Gong Show – to be cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. He told me he didn’t understand why they stopped him doing the gong and seemed a bit put out by it and so I suggested to him that probably someone like him making it ‘human’ was undermining it a bit and that he shouldn’t let that undermine any relationship he had built up with them if they still gave him gigs. To which he replied That is very deep.”

Paul Ricketts tells me Ray was very ambitious, but would hand out publicity photos of himself with the corner torn off, presumably because they were old photographs and had his real name printed on them.

“He was as impatient as any younger comic about his progression in stand-up,” Paul says, “He would badger people for gigs and hand out leaflets and photos to any and everyone. Once he’d been on or turned up at a gig hoping to get on, Ray would heckle some acts by falling asleep in the front two rows. Not only would this disconcert those on stage, it would disconcert the audience who would be scared to wake him up as they weren’t sure if Ray was dead or alive. In any event ‘falling asleep’ would ensure that Ray became the centre of attention.

“Despite me asking Ray many times,” Paul told me, “he wasn’t forthcoming about his past – all he ever said was that he was a magician from Hull.”

Harry Deansway reveals that Ray moved from Hull to London in 2002 “with the aim of getting more work as a writer, but struggled to get published. Off stage, he was a committed atheist and hedonist, having published a book in 1972 called Choose Your Pleasurea collection of essays on the pros and cons of hedonism and self-indulgence. Off the back of this he got regular writing work as a columnist in Penthouse magazine, which he contributed to under his real name David Shaw… Although he will be remembered by many on the circuit, it will not be for what he wanted to be remembered for – as a serious writer.”

Paul Ricketts adds: “I had some political conversations with him and he was a libertarian in the way that he instinctively distrusted Government, especially the tax authorities. This could explain the occasion when he asked to perform his magic act at a children’s centre but changed his mind when he was asked to give his bank account details and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.

“On another occasion, he asked me how he could open a bank account under his stage name so he could avoid paying tax.

“All I really knew about Ray was that he had an eye for the ladies, he was ambitious to do well in stand-up and he seemed to have enough money to annually spend the winter months in Thailand and showed me pictures of himself strolling through Thai food markets wearing Bermuda shorts.”

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