Tag Archives: Storywarp

The death of comedians Frank Carson and secret transsexual Gregg Jevin

On the studio floor at TV show Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson & associate producer David McKellar

I was sad to hear today about the death of comedian Gregg Jevin. I met him around five years ago and I was going to write his autobiography. Eventually, it fell through because I could not get through to the real person.

With Gregg, you could never ‘find’ the real person; he always hid behind that facade of being the ‘Gregg Jevin’ on-stage character.

I only ever encountered that a couple of other times. Once was with Matthew Kelly and the other was with the late Frank Carson, who also sadly died this week.

When I was at Granada Television, we once went to Blackpool to film a series of on-screen promotions for the TV station. The promos featured stars of the legendary series The Comedians and we, of course, gave them a complimentary lunch in the upstairs room of an off-season Blackpool pub.

It was quite an exhausting lunch, because there were about eight comics sitting round a table all trying to out-do each other on jokes and jollity. I have a feeling Bernard Manning opted out and ate separately, probably wisely. The loudest and most overwhelming of those present was Frank Carson. He never switched off. I talked to him a little bit over the course of that afternoon – and he also appeared in various episodes of the children’s TV series Tiswas on which I worked.

But I never felt I was ever talking to the real person. He was always being the ‘Frank Carson’ character.

TV scriptwriter Nigel Crowle agreed when I asked him about Frank: “He never seemed to switch off,” Nigel told me.

I also asked comic and actor Matt Roper (son of George Roper, who also appeared on The Comedians) if he had any memories of Frank Carson.

“My main memory,” Matt told me, “was his ability to talk non-stop for hours. “There was no ‘off’ button. I remember my mum telling me how my parents had had a huge housewarming party in the 1970s and Frank was last person to sleep at night sitting in an armchair, still muttering away, and the first person up in the morning, at full-power over breakfast.

“I really was a baby in the 1980s even; I knew a few of the old school but not all of them too well. Just my dad’s mates. When I started getting into comedy myself I began to get a bit more interested in it all but, by that point, most of these boys (they were all boys, notably) were off the telly and back in what was left of a dying carcass of a club scene or, if they were lucky, summer seasons and panto.”

Gregg Jevin, of course, was from a later generation. But, like Frank Carson, I could never find the switch to turn off the stage character and turn on the ‘real’ person.

I was on a Storywarp panel last year which discussed storytelling and the subject of how to present real people’s stories came up – and the fact that it is not only the subject of the interview who is presenting a version of themselves but also the interviewer.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor at the New Statesman said:

“There’s an element when you’re interviewing somebody that you have to present the version of yourself to them that you think they will respond to. Which is really bad if you talk to somebody for so long that you start falling into their cadences of speech. One of the many things you do when you’re interviewing someone is that you’re constantly monitoring their responses, thinking Can I push them further? I need to get a quote from them on this subject. It’s incredibly difficult nowadays when you’re interviewing celebrities and there’s a PR handler and they’re aware they want to give you the blandest interview possible but they want to get a huge plug for the film.

“You want to trick them into saying something of vague interest to somebody other than The director was great!  and I love acting. So that becomes a kind of negotiation and you have to be the kind of person they will respond to. Every writer thinks that they themselves are the most interesting person in the world and actually the interview would be much better if they were answering the questions. You have to remove yourself from the process. I hate interviews where it’s all about the interviewer.”

I agreed. “About five years ago,” I explained, “I almost wrote the ghosted autobiography of a stand-up comedian called Gregg Jevin and the sub-story to that was that he was actually a transsexual; he had actually been born a woman but had the operation and became a male stand-up. So there was an interesting secondary story, which no-one knew about. It all fell through, tragically, because there were so many lies and half-truths involved in what he was telling me. I could never ‘find’ the real person.

“But Gregg, interestingly, said to me that he thought the process of writing a biography was the same as being an archaeologist or a stand-up comedian building fake comic stories on a bedrock of truth.

“In the case of an archaeologist, you are carefully excavating and uncovering the past, but you haven’t really any idea what the hell actually went on. You might uncover a slab of stone and think it was used for a particular purpose, but you could be wrong. If you are a comedian, then you go so far with the bedrock of truth but then start embellishing the details. Equally, if you’re writing a biography of someone then, if they’re dead, you’re probably guessing quite a lot – even if you have a lot of sources, you’re still guessing. And, if they’re alive, you’re still vaguely guessing that they’re telling the truth or that your guess of what they’re telling you is what they’re actually telling you.”

TV scriptwriter Ivor Baddiel, who was also on the Storywarp panel, added: “In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he describes exactly that. He thinks stories are like archaeological finds. You unearth them and then you chip away at them until you get them back to their perfect state. And there is something in that. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you know that you’ve found what’s right. If I’m writing a gag or a line or whatever, I’m scrabbling around for it in my head. And, more recently, I’ve learned to listen to my gut feeling more and sometimes it just pops out of the ether. It might not be completely, fully formed but that’s as right as it’s going to get, maybe.”

“But that,” suggested Helen Lewis-Hasteley, “is also dangerous, because that’s terribly seductive. It’s often pattern recognition. You think I’ve heard this story before and what happens with biographies is that it strips away any nuance. It’s like a politician in a sex scandal. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be a wonderful, reforming politician but also to be an absolute shit. But no-one can hold those contradictions in their heads any more. This is the danger of telling a story: it’s one story or the other.

“Newspapers and magazines rely very heavily on archetypes: you need a baddie and a goodie in a story. Most forms of journalism are so short and it very much helps to have archetypes. It’s all about shorthand.”

“Well,” I said. “with comedian Janey Godley’s book Handstand in the Dark… I allegedly edited that and she had never written before for print at all. At that point, she was a stand-up comedian not a writer. So I was shepherding her. I never actually wrote it. I advised her without ever suggesting any specific words at all. At first, she did what I think a lot of people do when they write their autobiography: she wrote facts – and autobiographies are not about facts. She wrote I did this, I did that, I did the other in a long list of things she did. So I told her Don’t do that, because it can be dull. People are not interested in facts; they’re interested in people. So what you want to write is that, if you were doing lots of things at this time, figure out one episode that epitomises what you felt and what was going through your mind – what your emotions were – and then expand on that one element. That will cover over 15 uninteresting facts.

“If you’re writing a biography or autobiography, it’s the emotional journey, it’s the mental journey you’re interested in, not the facts. No-one cares if you went to Swindon for a day; you want to know what they felt and why. It’s like the American election philosophy: It’s about the Economy, stupid. In autobiographies: It’s about the emotions, stupid. It’s about people.”

And so, when I heard about the death of Gregg Jevin today, I thought to myself: What was the one key emotional centre-point of Gregg Jevin’s character that epitomised him?

And I could not think of a single thing. My mind went blank. It was as if he had never existed.

A sad comment on a life.

(There is more about Gregg Jevin HERE.)

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Why loving jigsaws as a child helped me write other people’s autobiographies

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

Last night, I was on a panel comprising (in alphabetical order) Ivor Baddiel, currently scriptwriter for the X FactorHelen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor of the New Statesman magazine… and Professor Joanna Woodall, art historian at the Courtauld Institute.

We were taking part in the third Storywarp erm eh meeting, conference, shindig? – Whatever it was/is. People talk to an invited audience about structuring ideas. This one was about the difficulties of telling “Other People’s Stories” and took place in the offices of the Made By Many agency in Islington. I am not quite sure what they do either.

I guess I was there because of three things.

I wrote comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, which was compiled from tape-recorded interviews…

I was paid as editor by Random House to advise comedian Janey Godley on how to write her own bestselling autobiography Handstands in the DarkShe had never written for print before…

And I shepherded, cajoled and edited 19 stand-up comedians who contributed short stories to the anthology Sit-Down ComedyQuite a few of them had never written for print before either.

The last of those three was like juggling spaghetti in a high wind, but that is something which has always attracted me.

In preparing for the Storywarp panel, I realised that I had two relevant interests when I was a kid.

The first was that I was really interested in jigsaws.

You can only put together a jigsaw in one way. Later, I got into television production and editing, where there are a million different ways to put the component parts together. In a sense, writing is the same. You can write anything in any way. There is no single ‘right’ way.

The second thing was that, when I was a kid, I wanted to become a good writer. I did not particularly want to see my name in print. It was not an ego-driven thing in that sense. I just wanted to be a ‘good’ writer.

One of the people I admired was George Orwell.

I think George Orwell is an absolutely shit novelist… Nineteen Eighty-Four is a shit novel. The central female character is badly-written; the love scenes are absolute crap. Yet it is a great book, because Orwell is a shit novelist but a great writer.

He is great at communicating what is in his mind and that is what writing is about. Communication between two people. He is a writer of thoughts; he is an essayist; he is a journalist; but he is not really a novelist.

I thought I would quite like to have George Orwell’s technical ability: to be able to write clearly. So, I asked myself, How did he learn to do that?

I reckoned he learned to write simply by doing lots and lots and lots of hack writing: he was a journalist; he worked at the BBC; he worked in Room 101 at Broadcasting House which later became the Future Events Unit.

And I reasoned, perhaps bizarrely, one way to do that was to become what was then called a Continuity Scriptwriter. You wrote for the announcers on television and, to an extent, for the voice-overs on TV trailers.

You had to write for the announcers under tight deadlines and you had to write for the exact duration. There is no point writing a brilliant 35 second piece if it is for a 17 second slot. There were also the tight deadlines. The durations of local ITV continuity spots changed all the time as they sold or did not sell ad spaces and local and/or network programmes over-ran or under-ran.

You might also have two different announcers per day and different announcers each week plus different voice-over performers for the trailers – so you were writing for different voices all the time. They all spoke at different paces, so you had to write in different ways for different speech patterns and different characters.

It was very hack but, with luck, I ended up being able to write anything at the drop of a hat.

I loved jigsaws. I wanted to be a writer. And writing biography or autobiography – “other people’s stories” – is writing using facts and quotes about and from people like a jigsaw putter-togetherer on a grand scale.

But, then, all writing – all creativity – is putting together a jigsaw.

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