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A UK comic with a building reputation and a collapsing Edinburgh Fringe show

Martin Soan - stimulated by decorating

Martin Soan – stimulated by home decorating

“I don’t mind admitting what I find stimulating,” said Martin Soan over breakfast this morning.

Pull The Other One comedy club runner Martin Soan is decorating my hall, stairs and landing this week.

It might seem odd having a man decorate your house who is best known for creating a naked balloon dance.

But Martin has more than a bit of previous, as prop-maker to comedy performers (of which I am not one).

“There was that Edinburgh Fringe show in 1995 where you created a kitchen for Boothby Graffoe,” I said.

“Did you ever see it?” Martin asked.

“No, I missed it,” I said. “But just getting the set in and out of the room must have been a nightmare.”

“For the first 20 minutes,” Martin explained, “Boothby did stand-up in front of a curtain while we erected the set behind the curtain. But, after the third day, I’d ironed-out all the problems and we could erect it in about 8 minutes. There was a table, oven, sink, bookcases, walls, doors and lots of little sight gags round the place.”

“And it was nominated for the Perrier Award,” I said, “but legend has it Boothby didn’t get the award because he wouldn’t be photographed drinking from a Perrier bottle.”

A photograph of a Perrier bottle without Boothby Graffoe

A Perrier bottle without any Boothby Graffoe

“He didn’t like playing up for the cameras” admitted Martin. “I was perfectly ready to prostitute myself. But, to be honest, we weren’t going to win, because it was about time a woman won it.”

“That was Jenny Eclair’s year?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Martin.

“Well, at least it was a chum of yours,” I said.

“And good luck to her,” said Martin, “But Boothby didn’t behave for the Perrier publicity and  Avalon (Boothby Graffoe’s agent at the time) didn’t want to put the show on tour because they couldn’t see any profit in it. Insane.

“Such a pity, because there were some brilliant gags in it. The concept was there were sight gags all round the kitchen and, five minutes before the end of the show, Boothby said: I’ve gotta just put some washing in the washing machine. Then he said Look after it and left the stage.

“Then there was just an empty kitchen with the washing machine in the middle going Brrrrrrr…. There was a great big pause and silence, then giggles from the audience. Then it goes into spin mode and I’d taken some of the ballast out of the washing machine so it really started shaking and that started vibrating the whole of the set and gradually, bit by bit, everything started falling down.

“The oven walked out and exploded – I had a stick and the top would come down and I’d weighted the top so, when it hit the back of the thing, it lifted everything up in the air….

“The Welsh Dresser’s shelves fell down alternately, either side, and the plates would run down like some sort of pinball machine…

“There was just lots and lots of stuff. We had great big lumps of cornice at the top which were knocked off and the wall was strips of lino so it looked like a solid wall but, of course, when the set fell apart, it used to curl up and fall to the floor…

“The table legs used to jump up in the air and the table would collapse.

“The door was fantastic – a floating door – so there were sight gags with that, where you would open the door one way, close it, then open it the other way and it used to spin on its axis.

“Boothby did this sketch about No 10 Downing Street. The door would spin round. It was black and had No 10 on it. He put on a policeman’s outfit and pretended to be the copper outside No 10, looking around. Then he’d open up the letterbox and shout in You wanker! Then the door would open and I’d stand there bollock naked wearing a John Major face mask.

“There were three of us putting up the set every day, then packing it away and putting it into a Portakabin. There was me and Suzie the stagehand and a guy called Adam. It was a massive show which packed down into almost a zen thing.”

“How long did it take to design and build the set?” I asked.

“About 9 months to make it,” replied Martin.

“And at Edinburgh?” I asked.

In lieu of any photos of a collapsing kitchen, Marton Soan in my hall this afternoon

In the absence of photographs of a collapsing kitchen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1995, Martin Soan in my hallway today…

“I used to get there around five hours before the show,” explained Martin, “and I’d be fixing stuff because things got damaged every day. About 2 hours before the show, I’d start arranging the gear in a specific order for a massive get-in real quick when the show started.”

“And this was outside?” I asked.

“We had the Portakabin,” explained Martin, “and I stuck up tarpaulins outside in case it started raining.”

“You got full houses at the Edinburgh Fringe, didn’t you?” I asked.

“The first day, people were really, really worried we could pull it off,” said Martin. “Then there were respectable-sized audiences the first three days and the show was sold out from Day 4 for the rest of the run.”

“So you and Boothby made lots of money out of it?” I asked.

“There were £33,000 of tickets sold, “said Martin, “and we got a £400 cheque nine months later, after loads and loads of hassling.”

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Janet Street-Porter is wrong; Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Jimmy Carr are right

"Kiss my ass" - the cry of bad law-makers

The English legal system and British government out grazing

Am I alone in wondering why Starbucks is getting so much stick about not paying its taxes in the UK?

And Google. And Amazon. And (getting surprisingly less stick) Vodafone.

Yesterday, Janet Street-Porter (whom I rate vary highly) wrote a piece for The Independent headlined GOOGLE, AMAZON, VODAFONE AND STARBUCKS MIGHT NOT BE BREAKING LAWS. BUT THEY DESERVE TO BE PUNISHED. 

Why?

Why should anyone or any company be punished for not breaking any laws? Should you be punished for not breaking the law? Should I be punished for not breaking the law?

Admittedly, Starbucks’ PR is utter shit.

Saying they will, out of the goodness of their corporate heart,  pay a flat sum of £20 million totally unrelated to any percentage of their profits is simply shooting themselves in their very large, clown-like feet.

But, if the law allows them to do what they have been doing – paying only 1% of their UK profits in tax over the last 14 years – then do not blame Starbucks, blame the British government, blame Parliament and blame the taxman.

If the law is not what the government and the public want, then change the law. And do not change it retrospectively.

If I park my car outside a house and the government or local council does not want me to do that, then paint a double yellow line on the road. Don’t paint a double yellow line on the road and then fine me for parking illegally on the road before it had a double yellow line and when parking there was perfectly legal.

Jimmy Carr got crucified in the same way.

His accountant sorted out his tax perfectly legally and in the most efficient way for Jimmy… and then the government complained he was wrong in acting perfectly legally…

If the law is an ass, then don’t blame the people or companies who ride the ass. Don’t ask people to kiss the English legal system’s ass. Change the law.

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Throw eggs at hypocritical politicians who attack law-abiding Jimmy Carr

Mad inventor John Ward is building a catapult

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

What’s all this bullshit over comedian Jimmy Carr paying 1% tax on his millions by exploiting a perfectly legal tax loophole?

If the government has passed laws which have loopholes which the Prime Minister considers “morally repugnant”, then the government should close the loopholes, not try to appear to be morally superior by criticising people who are acting perfectly legally.

British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer said to me when this Jimmy Carr story first blew up: “What’s the big deal? In America, it’s not an option – it’s seen as a patriotic duty to pay as little tax as possible.”

Bloody right.

If Jimmy Carr is given the option by Parliamentary law to pay either 1% tax or 40% tax, why is it morally repugnant of him to pay 1%?

It is not morally repugnant; it is common sense to do it.

It would be financially and intellectually stupid of him to pay anything more than 1%.

If the politicians do not like it, then they should change the law.

The Labour-leaning Daily Mirror newspaper today says that “against a backdrop of cuts that threaten jobs and livelihoods, struggling Britons will agree with David Cameron that Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance was morally wrong.”

I suspect this is utter bollocks. Where are these Britons who want to give money to the Inland Revenue and who think anyone should pay 39% more tax than they actually have to?

The Mirror is on stronger ground when it says: “Hard-up families being stripped of their child benefit will be furious that Mr Cameron’s rich pals are allowed to get away with paying just one per cent tax,” especially as “his stockbroker dad Ian used tax havens in Panama City and Geneva to build up the family fortune,” and that “the PM appointed billionaire Sir Philip Green as a Government adviser despite complicated tax arrangements which mean his High Street retail empire is owned by his Monaco-based wife.”

I am sure the Labour Party front bench is equally hypocritical and I would be interested to see how much tax the owners of Mirror Group Newspapers are paying.

Are they sending letters to the Inland Revenue saying: “I notice that I legally only have to pay 5% tax, but I would like to donate another 35% to the nation in these hard times”?

Perhaps, to be morally responsible, while Britain is in a recession caused by highly-paid bankers with good accountants, Westminster politicians – who are paid above the average wage – should donate to the Inland Revenue the difference between their salaries and the average salary of the average Briton.

I somehow suspect they would see this as unfair and unnecessary.

But they should put up or shut up.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Meanwhile, in more important news, my chum mad inventor John Ward is building a giant catapult for Sunday’s World Egg Throwing Championships in Lincolnshire.

Now THAT is important news.

I know whom I would like to see as the primary target for the eggs.

And it ain’t the perfectly law-abiding Jimmy Carr.

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How thinking up a good TV format can make you a millionaire or screw you with a horrendous court case

Last weekend I posted a blog about Mr Methane phoning me from Manchester Airport on his way home from recording a TV show in Denmark. It turned out he wasn’t on his way home. He is still away on his professional travels – farting around the world, some might call it – but he has given me more details of the Danish show he appeared in.

He was brought on stage as Mr Methane and farted in the face of a man whom he had to make laugh within 60 seconds. Mr Methane tells me:

“The show comes out in Denmark in the autumn and is called My Man Can: the ladies bet on what their man will be able to achieve and he has fuck-all idea what’s going on because he is in a glass cylinder listening to Take That or some other shite music that’s being piped in. It’s a bit like a modern day Mr & Mrs with a slightly different twist so Derek Batey doesn’t see them in court.”

It does sound a bit like that to me too and I also thought Derek Batey created the TV gameshow Mr and Mrs but, in fact, it was created by the legendary Canadian TV quiz show uber-creater Roy Ward Dickson

TV formats are big business. I remember the ATV series Blockbusters hosted by Bob Holness (the request “Give me a pee, Bob” was oft-quoted by fans).

It was based on a US format and, in the UK, was networked on ITV from 1983 to 1993. In one period, I think in the late 1980s, it ran every day around teatime Monday to Friday. From memory (and I may be wrong on details) at that time the format creators were getting £5,000 per show and the show was transmitted for six months every year – I think they transmitted for three months, then had three months off air, then transmitted for another three months and so on.

That is serious money in the late 1980s. To save you the calculation, 26 x 6 x £5,000 = £780,000 per year for a format thought up several years before; and the format was also running on US TV and in several other countries around the world and, for all I know, could still be running in several countries around the world 25 years later.

That is why format ownership and copyright is so important. If you have an idea, it can maintain your millionaire status 25 years down the line. Ripping-off formats is an extraordinary phenomenon. You would think, given the amount of money involved, that there would be some workable law against it, but there isn’t. One factor, of course, is that you cannot copyright an idea; you can only copyright a format and there lies the rub that will probably stop you and me becoming millionaires.

My Man Can, for example, is most definitely not a rip-off of Mr and Mrs. The format of My Man Can is that “four women gamble with the abilities their partners possess – and put the men’s courage and skills to the test. She sits at a gambling table and bets her rivals that her man can accomplish certain tasks. He waits helplessly in a soundproof cubicle, waiting to hear the task his wife has accepted on his behalf. Each of the women is given 100 gambling chips which she uses to bet on her partner’s performance in each round of the game.”

The most definitive horror story I know about formats is the scandalous failure of Hughie Green to get the courts’ protection over the format to his Opportunity Knocks talent show.

Green first started Opportunity Knocks as a radio show in 1949. As a TV series, it ran from 1956 to 1978 and was later revived with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting 1987-1990.

Hughie Green invented a thing called “the clap-o-meter” which measured the decibel volume of clapping by the studio audience after an act had performed. But the acts were voted-on by viewers and Green’s several catch-phrases included “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

The way I remember the copyright problem is that, one day in the 1980s, Hughie Green got a letter from the Inland Revenue asking why, on his tax return, he had not declared his royalties from the New Zealand version of Opportunity Knocks in 1975 and 1978. This was the first time he knew there was a New Zealand version.

It turned out the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation had transmitted a TV talent show series which not only ran along the same lines as Hughie Green’s show but which was actually titled Opportunity Knocks, had a clap-o-meter to measure audience clapping and used the catchphrases “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

Not surprisingly, in 1989, Green sued the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation for copyright infringement. He lost. He appealed. He lost. My memory is that it ultimately reached the House of Lords in London, sitting as the highest court of appeal in the Commonwealth. He lost. Because all the courts decided that a largely unscripted show which was different every week (which is what a talent show is) with “a loose format defined by catchphrases and accessories” (such as the clap-o-meter) was not copyrightable and “there were no formal scripts and no ‘format bible’ to express the unique elements that made up the show”.

In 2005, Simon Fuller sued Simon Cowell claiming that Cowell’s The X-Factor was a rip-off of Fuller’s own Pop Idol. The case was quickly adjourned and settled out of court within a month. Copyright disputes are not something you want to take to court.

Once upon two times, I interviewed separately the former friends Brian Clemens (main creative force behind The Avengers TV series) and Terry Nation (who created the Daleks for Doctor Who). BBC TV had transmitted a series called Survivors 1975-1977 which Terry Nation had created. Or so he said. Brian Clemens claimed he had told Terry Nation the detailed idea for Survivors several years before and Nation had ripped him off. It destroyed their friendship.

As I say, I interviewed both separately.

I can tell you that both of them absolutely, totally believed they were in the right.

Brian Clemens absolutely 100% believed he had told Terry Nation the format and had been intentionally ripped-off.

Terry Nation absolutely 100% believed that Survivors was his idea.

They fought a case in the High Court in London and, eventually, both abandoned the case because of the astronomically-mounting costs. Neither could afford to fight the case.

There’s a lesson in legal systems here.

Basically, even if you are fairly wealthy, you cannot afford to defend your own copyright. If you are fighting as individuals, the legal fees will crucify you. If  you are foolish enough to fight any large company, they have more money to stretch out legal cases longer with better lawyers than you. They will win. In the case of Hughie Green, even if you are rich and famous, you may be no different from a man who is wearing a blindfold and who, when he takes it off, finds someone is farting in his face.

When BBC TV remade Survivors in 2008, it was said to be “not a remake of the original BBC television series” but “loosely based on the novel of the same name that Nation wrote following the first season of the original series.”

Guess why.

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The most obscene tax in Britain (and Europe)

It’s time to do the quarterly VAT return.

I know this is hardly an original thought but…

Fuck me slowly with a sweet potato while floating in a tub of battery acid…

Is VAT not just the most appallingly obscene tax ever thought up by any Euro-wanker in the entire history of Euro-wanking?

It’s a tax on behalf of the rich and against the poor.

All big companies and sensible people with loads of money are registered for VAT and ultimately don’t pay it. People on lower incomes and people struggling to make ends meet – single parents, the unemployed, the disabled, the retired, pensioners – are forced to pay it.

What sort of tax is that?

It’s a tax which very large companies do not pay and which the unemployed do pay. It’s a tax which specifically targets those least able to pay it.

For those registered, VAT is a tax where the money just goes round in a circle and the government does not benefit at the end of the process; it just keeps loads of bureaucrats in pointless work.

In a simplified but basically true break-down…

Company A adds 20% VAT on top of the price they really want to charge and then bills Company B 120% of what they need to charge.

Company A then pays the 20% VAT money it receives to the Taxman (minus loads of expenses) and Company B then claims back from the Taxman the whole 20% of the 120% they paid.

In effect, Company A collects 20% VAT and hands it to the Taxman (minus expenses – so they give less than the full 20% to the Taxman)… the Taxman then hands back to Company B the full 20% VAT which Company B shelled-out. So:

– Company B has lost some money for a short time but ultimately pays nothing.

– Company A has passed on less than full 20% to the Taxman, who has then paid the full 20% to Company B

– So Company B has, ultimately paid nothing and the Taxman has paid out more than he received.

At this level of companies, millionaires and other people who can afford accountants, the whole thing goes round in a circle and creates jobs but not tax revenue. Am I missing something?

There are points in the system where Company A and the Taxman are holding onto money and earning interest on the money from bank accounts – well, Company A is. But that’s the basic system. The money goes round in a circle if you already have a lot of money.

At petrol stations, for example, companies and rich entrepreneurs and businessmen, in effect, do not pay any VAT at all – they claim it all back. But the less well-off who own cars have to pay the full extra 20% which they can’t avoid.

It’s a tax which specifically targets the less well-off which discriminates in favour of the better-off.

It’s obscene.

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