Tag Archives: Tiswas

My Comedy Taste. Part 3: Stand-ups vs jugglers. Skill is not the same as talent.

I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage


LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…

JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.

If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.

If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.

If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.

LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…

Tommy: often copied; never bettered

JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.

LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.

JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.

LOUISETTE: Bob Monkhouse was brilliant. But would you have paid to go and see him? You said earlier that you would not pay to see Michael McIntyre because he was too professional for you.

JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.

LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.

JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.

As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.

Bob: “He just really was hyper-sensitive”

Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.” No-one had any idea why.

The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.

LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?

JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then. 

I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.

Hardee called Johnny Vegas “a genius”

He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”

And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.

There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.

A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”

Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.

Janey Godley is interesting in that respect because you know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

… CONTINUED HERE

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My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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My Comedy Taste. Part 1: Improvisation good and bad but not Michael McIntyre

The late Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe

I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017. 

To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? 

So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.

Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.

But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of that  June 2017 chat.


LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?

JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.

LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?

JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.

But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.

LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?

JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!

LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.

Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like

JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.

What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them. 

Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.

People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.

In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.

LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?

JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.

LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.

JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.

LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?

JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.

LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?

Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected

JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.

There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.

If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.

LOUISETTE:  Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.

JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.

If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.

If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.

I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.

LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?

JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.

LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?

“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”

JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.

Very good. Very interesting.

But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.

Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…

LOUISETTE: …formats?

JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust. 

Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.

LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.

JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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From Tiswas custard pies to cunning comedy awards, my petard is hoisted

ITV’s Tiswas – Good clean family fun

I can’t remember what a petard is and can’t be bothered to look it up, but it’s easy to be hoisted with your own one.

I used to work as a researcher on the slapstick-ish children’s TV show Tiswas, where people had custard pies shoved in their faces. So, sometimes, when I met people who wanted to be on the show, they felt obliged to demonstrate how ‘wacky’ and ‘zany’ they were by shoving a custard pie in my face.

Except they used a real custard pie. The Tiswas ones were actually made from highly-whipped and coloured shaving foam (it clung to you, did not stain and wiped off easily).

Now I organise the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, so I have to beware of people pulling cunning stunts on me.

Last year’s Cunning Stunt Award was won by Becky Fury who not only put her flyer on the dating site Tinder to attract single men to her Fringe show but who, on that flyer, claimed she was a ‘Last Minute Comedy finalist’.

Becky Fury – burgering around yet again

Last year, the second most prestigious comedy awards at the Fringe – formerly known as the Perrier Awards – were sponsored by lastminute.com so were called the Last Minute Comedy Awards.

Becky correctly called herself a ‘Last Minute Comedy finalist’ to lure in punters thinking she was up for the ‘Big’ prize whereas, in reality, she had been a finalist in a competition run by a small comedy club operation called Last Minute in Hertfordshire. The day I saw her show, four people had, indeed, come with (and still retained when they left) that false belief. A cunning success.

But who would have thought that the lovely Becky was a grass?

Or possibly a nominator. It depends on your viewpoint.

This week, she drew my attention to a couple of comedy blurbs.

Loose Brie – never-knowingly under-promoted comedy duo

In one, comedy duo Loose Brie blurbed themselves as MALCOLM HARDEE FIRST MINUTE AWARD NOMINEES 2016 –

Like The Dangerous Brothers, Vic and Bob and We Are Klang before them, Loose Brie deal in the glorious art of high-concept, low brow, organised chaos. They’ll use their bodies in ways you didn’t think were possible. You’ll see things you can’t un-see.

All jolly and appealing except there was and is no such thing as the Malcolm Hardee First Minute Award. At least, I don’t think there is. Reality, like grassing-up/nominating someone, is often a case of personal perception.

Cally Beaton – a cunning award winner

Cally Beaton is publicising her debut solo show Super Cally Fragile Lipstick by saying her previous show Cat Call (with Catherine Bohart) “received a Malcolm Hardee Award” at the Fringe last year.

What happened last year was that the excellent Edward Hobson (a former producer on BBC TV’s The One Show) had the cunning idea that he would give an award for the Fringe show with the best first minute. On the basis that, if a show doesn’t grab you in the first minute, it is no good. He would go into shows, see the first minute and then leave. Which he did.

So I gave him one minute at the start of the increasingly prestigious two-hour-long Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show last year to announce the winners of his First Minute Awards. Which he did.

Cally Beaton was the winner; Loose Brie were nominees.

Cunning and genuinely award-winning Cally Beaton

They were, to tell 100% of the truth, neither nominees nor winners of a Malcolm Hardee Award but they deserve brownie points for exploiting every opportunity. In fact, I am of a mind to possibly nominate Cally Beaton for a Cunning Stunt Award this year on the basis of her not-quite-100%- truthful plug for her excellently-named Super Cally Fragile Lipstick show at next month’s Fringe.

I did ask both her and Loose Brie if they had any quotable comments and the Brie duo sent me a frankly unnecessarily-long statement, which read:

We believe it is very much in the spirit of our show about confidence (Loose Brie Are Great, Camden Fringe, July 31st – Aug 6th) and the Malcolm Hardee Awards, to have linked our nomination for the jokey, one-off ‘First Minute Awards’ to the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardees, due to them both being given out at the same venue.

Loose Brie: never knowingly under-promoted comedy duo

By claiming almost-but-not-quite falsely to have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award we have provided a fitting send off to, at the very least, the Cunning Stunt Award.

No need to thank us, as the nomination is thanks enough. 

We are not up in Edinburgh this year (because we are at Camden Fringe, July 31st – Aug 6th, show title: Loose Brie Are Great). But, if we were there, we can all agree Loose Brie definitely would have been nominated for several more Malcolm Hardees. Our 2018 poster quotes are likely to reflect this.

Edward Hobson at the Grouchy Club during last year’s  Edinburgh Fringe

Ed Hobson told me today:

“Cally did win and Loose Brie were nominated, but I never told them it was a Malcolm Hardee Award so I think they’re just being ‘cunning’.

“The First Minute Award is not making it to Edinburgh this year because I spent one minute planning my trip, looking at trains and accommodation and then stopped. If it can’t be decided in one minute it’s not worth doing.

“Also, with my wedding in October and getting my fiancée over from the USA, I decided it might be out of my budget.”

“Wedding?” I asked.

Ed Hobson with his possibly sedated betrothed Nikki Kvarnes

“Yes,” he said, “I’m getting married to Nikki Kvarnes, an American musician and artist.

“She was in a band called Those Darlins.

“We find out today if her visa to marry me has been granted or not. Very exciting day. She is far too talented and beautiful for me but thankfully my sense of humour paid off.”

Or perhaps hers.

Everyone thinks they’re a comedian.

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How I helped create the character of the fake American comedian Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer (left) and Erich McElroy

A very young Brian Simpson (left) in Edinburgh with genuine American comedian Erich McElroy

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brian Simpson, the English character comedian who performs as American comic Lewis Schaffer, was a massive fan of Tiswas, the slapstick children’s TV show I used to work on. He was born and bred in Brownhills.

Tiswas was broadcast live from the ATV Studios in the centre of Birmingham every Saturday. Brownhills is in the north of Birmingham and Brian, then a novice  comedian, knew one of the regular cameramen on the show.

Brian would stand in the crowded studio and try not to be noticed but he had this wild laugh and people did tend to notice him. Most people assumed he was one of the crew.

A studio floor pass for the show

Brian got onto the ATV studio floor courtesy of a friend

After one particular Tiswas Christmas show in 1981, his friend the ATV cameraman told me Brian wanted to meet me. I was only a researcher on the show, but Brian told me it was a thrill to meet me. He said he loved the bizarre ‘real people’ acts I found for the show, including a ‘Talented Teacher’ segment I sorted out.

He said he was struggling to get noticed on the comedy circuit and he thought this was largely because he was based in Birmingham. He was thinking of moving to London, especially as he was having trouble at home. He was in a relationship with a young Jewish American girl at the time (she was around 19) and they were having problems. This was before he discovered he was gay.

He was disillusioned and was thinking of quitting comedy.

After our first chat, he would talk to me almost every Saturday after the show and ask me what eccentric ‘real people’ items I was working on. He was trying to develop his own eccentric stage character. He was also getting advice from his American girlfriend. He told me he was trying to develop a character act in which he would pretend to be a no-hoper Jewish American comedian from New York who had performed at Caroline’s and at the Cellar, then married a Scottish girl, moved to England and was trying to establish himself over here.

I thought this sounded a little unbelievable, but his girlfriend helped him ‘translate’ his jokes into American English and give it a Jewish slant.

Now firmly established as Lewis Schaffer (Photo by Garry Platt)

Brian today – now firmly established as ‘Lewis Schaffer’ (Photograph by Garry Platt)

I thought and still think he could have been a brilliant British comic as himself but he didn’t think he was funny at all.

And, slowly, he built that self-doubt into the Lewis Schaffer character he created.

After about five years of advice from me (it continued after I left Tiswas), he told me that he thought he was going to make it in the UK and that he didn’t need to speak to me as often – that there were other ‘artists’ who needed my help.

Now we see each other less often.

On YouTube, there is a rare brief glimpse of Brian as himself in the background of the crowd on the studio floor of the last ever Tiswas, broadcast on 3rd April 1982.

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I got it wrong in the Grouchy Club podcast + Noel Edmonds killed a man

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club podcast in her London flat because she was ill.

It was possibly a mistake on her part to ask me about my background – or possibly a clever ploy so she needed to talk less. This is an extract about me working on TV shows last century:


JOHN
The first show I ever did (as a researcher) was Tiswas and that was 39 episodes in a row and I think they were a minimum of three hours long – I think they changed the duration. Basically, 39 weeks of 3-hour shows – live shows – tends to settle you in a bit

COPSTICK
Bloody hell. And was the finding of weird acts how you got to meet Malcolm Hardee?

JOHN
Yes. I did children’s shows – Tiswas and a few others less well known. I never really dealt with stars. I was never that interested.

COPSTICK
Lucky you.

JOHN
Indeed. What I tended to deal with was ‘real people’.

COPSTICK
They’re difficult to find in television.

JOHN
But real people who want to be on television shows tend to live in appalling places, so I never got to go anywhere glamorous… Never ever ever go to Barrow-in-Furness. It’s a nightmare. Don’t go. Three hours to travel one inch.

COPSTICK
Oh my God! The man who was the love of my life – at the time and for some time after – is a doctor in Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
Well, I’m very sorry for you.

COPSTICK
Isn’t it lovely? It’s Lake District.

JOHN
It’s awful. It was awful.

COPSTICK
I’d like to apologise to anyone listening who is on or around Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
I went to Barrow-in-Furness because a blind man wanted to parachute jump.

COPSTICK
Whoa!

JOHN
This was for Game For a Laugh because, after the children’s shows, I did ‘real people’ shows. So I did Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise!

(AND THIS IS WHERE I MADE THE FIRST OF TWO FACTUAL MISTAKES IN THE PODCAST – I HAVE A NOTORIOUSLY BAD MEMORY – IN FACT, I WENT TO SEE THE BLIND WOULD-BE PARACHUTIST FOR CILLA BLACK’S SURPRISE! SURPRISE! NOT FOR GAME FOR A LAUGH. SO…)

Things like that: finding bizarre acts.

COPSTICK
Do you know my friend Matthew Kelly?

JOHN
I did the series after he left.

COPSTICK
Lovely, lovely, lovely Matthew Kelly. He’s a wonderful man.

JOHN
I did work with Matthew Kelly once, I did Children’s ITV. In my Promotion hat, I produced Children’s ITV because the BBC was destroying ITV’s ratings in children’s hour, so they thought up the idea of having a block of Children’s ITV presented by a famous person doing the links. So I recorded a month’s worth of links in an afternoon, I think.

(IN FACT, AGAIN, MY MEMORY LET ME DOWN. I RECORDED A MONTH OF LINKS IN TWO AFTERNOONS, A FORTNIGHT APART)

And one of the people who did it was Matthew Kelly. Terribly nice man, yes.

COPSTICK
Gorgeous man. Anyway, sorry I interrupted. You were talking about finding a blind man who wanted to parachute out of Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
And we would have done this, because it’s quite easy. You just attach the person to another person who really can parachute jump, throw them out of a plane and…

COPSTICK
Presumably it’s not like going along a road. Once you’ve jumped out of a plane, being sighted or non-sighted, there only is one route and that’s straight down.

JOHN
Yup. Much like my career.

COPSTICK
Only since you met me, John

JOHN
Again, as with most of my stories, there is a coda; there is a But…

COPSTICK
Mmm hmmm?

JOHN
We didn’t actually do this, because Noel Edmonds managed to kill someone on his show. (BBC TV’s The Late, Late Breakfast Show.)

COPSTICK
Yes! I remember that.

JOHN
There was a man suspended in a box and, for some extraordinary reason, you could open the box from the inside. He was suspended about 40ft up in the air and, for an unknown reason, he opened the box. He fell out – 40ft down or whatever – died. This happened (on BBC TV) and LWT, who were producing Game For a Laugh (ACTUALLY I MEANT SURPRISE! SURPRISE!) thought: Oooooooohhhhh. It’s very dodgy. We would never have let it happen (what happened on BBC TV) because we would have had 18 safety features.


This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast lasts 31 minutes.

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Last night I remember I dreamt of several dead British television stations

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

Last night, I went to bed early, but kept waking up with an erratic cough, so I am just as tired as I was when I went to bed.

One benefit of constantly waking up, though, was that I remembered a dream. Regular readers of this blog will know I am semi-obsessed with NOT remembering my dreams.

Once upon a time, there was no single ITV in Britain. It was a network of 15 independent companies with geographically separated franchised contracts.

For around 20 years, I worked in TV promotions – writing and producing programme trailers – for Anglia, ATV, Central, Granada, HTV, LWT, Southern, Thames, TVS, Yorkshire and for a centralised ITV unit. I also worked on programmes – for example, the ITV Saturday morning children’s show Tiswas, produced by ATV in Birmingham.

Over those 20 years in Promotion Depts, I worked on very short-term contracts – perhaps a week, perhaps two, very rarely more than three weeks, although I did once work at Granada TV in Manchester for around six months solid on a series of rolling contracts none of which (from memory) was more than three weeks long.

Last night, I dreamt I arrived in the ATV/Central ITV building in Birmingham at the start of a new contract (I had been there before lots of times) and went to the open plan Promotions Dept office at Granada TV in Manchester.

The Promotions boss from Anglia TV in Norwich was there. He was distracted and asked me to record some programme. “Look it up on the list,” he told me.

But I had not been there for a while and did not know which list nor where they kept it.

All the Promotion Depts at the fifteen ITV companies were organised slightly differently and even one department in one company might have changed its system between my visits.

A couple of people I knew from HTV got chatting to me and, when I looked at myself in a mirror, there was a small black plastic comb stuck in the left side of my long, thick, black hair. I have never had black hair though I did once have hair. It was never thick. I think, in my dream, I may have stolen the hair from Dave Davies of The Kinks, as I saw the Kinks’ tribute musical Sunny Afternoon a couple of weeks ago in London.

How did that comb get there? I thought. It must have been there since London and now I am here in Cardiff. There was dust on the front of my black pullover where I had cleaned the lenses of my spectacles.

Then the fastening of my gold-coloured (but actually brass) watch strap was not working.

“Where’s the nearest place I can get a new watch strap?” I asked the couple from HTV in Cardiff.

We were in Birmingham.

And then I woke up in my bed in Borehamwood.

The entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

The ‘new’ entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

What must have triggered my dream was that, yesterday, I was sent photos of the demolition of the ‘new’ ATV/Central ITV building in which I made promotions and in which I worked on Tiswas and The (originally Big Daddy’s) Saturday Show. It was a new and fairly modern-looking building when I worked there. Now it is being demolished.  At one point, I had worked there in Birmingham on The Saturday Show programme while simultaneously producing Children’s ITV continuity links in London.

There has been a lot of overlapping in my life, a bit like a dream.

Below are the photographs I saw yesterday, as posted by Tiswas fan Mark Neun:

ATVstudiosDemolition_byLeeBannister

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Memories of Tiswas, Frankie Howerd’s wandering hands and Norman Collier

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and associate producer David McKellar

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and David McKellar

So yesterday I drove up to Birmingham for a reunion of people who worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas. It turned out there were 100 fans there too.

Everyone I knew years ago seem to have grown white hair and beards or both apart from presenter Sally James and you can never be too sure of anything nowadays.

I got chatting with David McKellar, who was Associate Producer/Script Associate on Tiswas when I was there. He was a wildly experienced gag writer. I remember being impressed when I realised he had written one of the few jokes I ever remembered, a fake news headline:

“Bad news for three-foot dwarfs… four feet snow drifts.”

I think David Frost delivered the gag in one of his TV series, probably The Frost Report.

David McKellar remembered Tiswas yesterday

David at the Tiswas gathering in Birmingham yesterday

David McKellar wrote for various David Frost shows as well as Ken Dodd, Frankie Howard, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, The Two Ronnies, Celebrity Squares… you name it…

He told me that, taking a look at Lenny Henry’s website recently, he noticed that Lenny had credited him with changing his career path.

“I had no idea,” David told me.

“How did you change his career?” I asked.

“He used to do gags as himself and I suggested he did characters. When he went on This Is Your Life, he mentioned my name. It’s good to be remembered.”

“It is nice,” I said, “to change someone’s life when you didn’t even realise it. Who did you write your first joke for?”

Max Miller

Max Miller paid David £1 in the street

Max Miller. He lived in Brighton. I lived in Brighton. I met him in the street, told him this joke and he gave me £1.”

“What was the joke?” I asked.

“I wish I could remember,” laughed David. “The thing about him was he never used  a dirty word on stage and he was the dirtiest comedian. It was the audience who were thinking the dirt in the act. Comics nowadays will say ‘wanking’ for no reason.”

“You wrote for Frankie Howerd, didn’t you?” I asked. “That was all innuendo.”

“You never went into a room alone with him,” said David.

“Jonathan Ross,” I said, “advised me never to get in a lift alone with Frankie Howerd.”

“He’s remembered,” I said, but people like Norman Collier are not and he was a great comedian.”

Norman Collier

The great Norman Collier – gone but not forgotten by some

“I remember,” said David, “he took me into a restaurant one night in Birmingham – on the Friday night before the Tiswas show (which was on Saturday morning) and he came in with a ten-foot ventriloquist’s dummy. He put it on the chair next to me and the waiter came along and gave us three menus. The dummy ordered a whole meal, then Norman got hold of a popadom, held it under the table and there was a Woof! Woof! sound. They threw him out because they didn’t allow dogs in the restaurant. But he had no dog. He left me sitting in there with a ten foot dummy.

“I was with him in Toronto and he had two dolls and vented them singing I’ll Be Loving You.… Two people bought singing dolls off him and they weren’t singing dolls.

“I was with him in Gibraltar… Barbary apes… He goes over and feeds them so their lips start moving and he starts talking to them and venting them talking to him. An hour and a half we were there. There was this couple from Alabama and they left thinking the apes talked. Norman stayed there until they were convinced and had left. They would have been telling everyone back in Alabama about the talking apes in Gibraltar.”

There is a clip of Norman Collier’s act on YouTube.

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

At this point, Tiswas presenter and ex Darts performer Den Hegarty came over, with two paper plates covered in ‘custard pie’ (actually white shaving foam) sticking to his face.

“Just like the old days,” said David.

“It’s not the stuff we used to use,” said Den. “We always used Erasmic. But this stuff stings the eyes. Though I didn’t used to get pies. I tended to get baked beans poured over me. Then people wrote in and complained we were wasting food and all the starving people in Africa could be fed with out baked beans. So then we had to make fake baked beans and they were poured over me.”

“The glamour of television.” I said.

The ending of the final episode of Tiswas is on YouTube.

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Nudity on ITV, balloons & how Malcolm Hardee fell out with OTT Chris Tarrant

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee in Alternative Comedy’s early days with his protégée comedian Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

As I have very little time to write a blog today and as yesterday’s blog was about the ‘old’ ITV, here is an extract from comedy icon Malcolm Hardee’s increasingly prestigious autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It is about his participation in Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show On Legs and refers to OTT, the adult TV series produced by Chris Tarrant after his success with children’s series Tiswas.

At this time, I was working on the continuing Tiswas series.

Because ATV/Central messed-up and did not at first give the OTT team their own office, Tarrant squatted in our Tiswas office for around (if memory serves me) a month. I later worked on the LWT series Game For a Laugh, but not at this point.

This is Malcolm Hardee’s story…


The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

The Greatest Show on Legs perform the Balloon Dance (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Clarke, Martin Soan

The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on ITV.

Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks was supposed to be with The Greatest Show on Legs on the OTT pilot, but he’d buggered off to Cornwall. He’d had enough.

This was right in the middle of The Mad Show.

So, at about 6.30am one morning, I knocked-up Martin Potter who used to operate our tapes and he came out with us and did  the pilot for OTT and the audition for Game For a Laugh.

We needed someone permanent and Martin Potter wasn’t interested, so we recruited Martin Clarke from Brighton, who’d been in a theatre group called Cliffhanger. He had quite a posh voice and looked a bit like Tony Blackburn, so we called him ‘Sir Ralph’.

We were invited to do The Balloon Dance first on Game For a Laugh but, when we got to the LWT studios, the producer wouldn’t let us do it naked. He said the show was for family viewing.

“But that’s how we do it,” I said. “That’s the whole humour of it.”

He sent researchers out to get smaller and smaller items of underwear – even going into sex shops to get us jockstraps. But we held out and said:

“We’re not doing it with our pants on”.

We partly held out because we knew that OTT also wanted us on ITV in a month’s time and they would let us do it naked. In the end, we did the Scottish sword dance on Game For a Laugh. We used the show’s co-presenter Matthew Kelly as the crossed swords. He had a broken leg at the time. So we kept our clothes on but terrorised Matthew Kelly in exchange.

A month later, we finally got naked on TV when we performed The Balloon Dance on OTT. (The video is on YouTube) That was in January 1981. It was one of the first programmes made by Central, who had taken over from ATV as the Birmingham ITV station.

OTT was meant to be the all new, very daring adult version of Chris Tarrant’s anarchic children’s show Tiswas. Alexei Sayle performed on it every week and still no-one understood his humour. Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Helen Atkinson-Wood were the other OTT regulars.

On the first night we were there, the studio audience didn’t react very well to the over-all show but, when we came on, we set the place alight – figuratively speaking – and afterwards there was a furore in the press, which we wanted. Mary Whitehouse complained about it, which is always a good thing.

We got on very well with Chris Tarrant but, two or three years later, we did the Balloon Dance on another late-night TV show created by him (Saturday Stayback – there is a video not including Malcolm on YouTube). It was shot in a pub and he was desperate for ratings, because they hadn’t been very good. So he got us in to do the last show in the series.

Afterwards, there was a big end-of-series party for everyone and we weren’t invited to it. So our roadie saw a massive bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam – and nicked it. We were giving Helen Atkinson-Wood a lift because she also had to miss the party to get back to London. We all got in our Luton Transit and suddenly Chris Tarrant came running out, mad, shouting:

“You’ve had my champagne!”

“No we haven’t!” I lied.

“You have!” he yelled. “You’ll never work on TV again!”

At this, Helen Atkinson-Wood jumped out of the van because she didn’t want to be associated with us and the roadie drove us off back to London.

I have heard since that Chris Tarrant says this incident involved the pub having some silvery cutlery nicked which had sentimental value to the landlord. If anything else was nicked, it wasn’t us; we just nicked one bottle of champagne.

Anyway it all ended in tears. But our first appearance on OTT was our big breakthrough and afterwards it was all congratulations.

As a result of our TV success, we ended up with an agent, Louis Parker, who treated us like The Chippendales.

We went mainstream. We were doing hen nights and End of The Pier variety shows for two or three years – not the University shows that we had done before. Literally end-of-the-pier. Colwyn Bay and Blackpool we did. We were a novelty act doing a 15-20 minute show for what was then an enormous amount of money: about £500-£600 a show. But there were three of us to pay, plus a roadie.

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson, who clashed with the show’s BBC producer

While we were doing that, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson went on to TV success in The Young Ones.

Pete Richardson (who went on to direct The Comic Strip) was meant to have been in that: he was meant to have been the one that no-one knows. They wanted a macho-man figure as a counter-balance to the others and Pete was replaced by someone they recruited out of a casting agency.

The Young Ones garnered all the credit for being clever comedians, while we were literally performing a dumb show. Our success was short-term, lowbrow and mainstream.

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs doing the Balloon Dance in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dogs got booed off for being sexist: he was singing a song about a woman with tits and they didn’t like him. But they liked The Greatest Show on Legs naked with balloons. Except that we didn’t use balloons: we used photos of Mrs Thatcher to cover our genitalia and, after we turned round, our penises were sticking out of her mouth.

They loved it.

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One little-known yet legendary British contender as the comedy performer most mad, bad and dangerous to know

Ian Hinchliffe performs in South London in 1990

Ian Hinchliffe performs in South London in 1990

At the end of last week I posted a piece in which Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, fleetingly mentioned the late, great – or, at least, highly OTT – performer Ian Hinchliffe.

He is less-known than, say, Malcolm Hardee but is much-talked-of and vividly remembered by those who encountered him.

On the few occasions I met him, I found he was always fascinating but better when he was only slightly rather than very drunk – so there was sometimes a narrow window of opportunity.

This blog’s mention of Ian Hinchliffe reminded ex-Tiswas stalwart Sonny Hayes about one of many anecdotes.

“I once,” Sonny told me, “saw him covered in puke attempting to console a crying hippie. It happened at Walcot Festival (Bath Arts Workshop).

“A guy had lost his guitar or something and was being comforted by a hippie girl who was telling him to let it all out… Hinchcliffe – pissed and covered in puke – decided to cuddle the guy, consoling him with the words There, there, don’t cry.

“The malodour from the beer and puke must have been quite overwhelming and, between sobs, it showed in the guy’s face. He just wanted to get away.

“But a dispute arose between the girl and Hinchliffe as to whether or not crying was dangerously suppressing emotion. This caused Hinchliffe to hug the guy even tighter in a fit of Yorkshire compassion.

“I suspect the guy had been hoping to get laid by the hippie girl but the puke-covered Hinchliffe coming to his rescue rather put a damper on that possibility.”

Sonny’s anecdote, in turn, reminded Anna Smith of the first time she ever saw Ian Hinchliffe:

“He was staggering about on a large stage in a busy pub in North East London,” she told me, “then he collapsed onto a knife he had set on the floor.

“He stood up, pulled the knife out of his chin and said sweetly, There you go, ladies and gentlemen – Kirk Douglas, while blood streamed down his face.”

Actor Kirk Douglas had – indeed, at the time of writing, has – a famously cleft chin.

Until I checked, I thought Kirk Douglas was dead.

Ian drowned while fishing on a lake in Arkansas on 3rd December 2010.

So it goes.

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