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Edinburgh Fringe becomes laughing stock as comedians & critics turn on it

To be seen on posters all over Edinburgh in August – but not in the Fringe Programme.

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Last week, I wrote a blog about this year’s extraordinarily heavy-handed and draconian censoring of the £400 Edinburgh Fringe Programme entries. (Performers pay almost £400 to get a meagre 40 word listing in the Fringe Programme).

You might have thought, at £10 per word, you could print what you want within the law, especially at a cutting-edge, pushing-the-barriers event like the Edinburgh Fringe but, this year, the newly-idiotic Fringe Office appears to have taken leave of its senses.

In 2009, I staged a show titled Aaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s Bollock Relief! – The Malcolm Hardee Award Show. I did wonder if there might be any objection to the testicular word but, no, there was no problem at all listing it in the Fringe Programme. The Fringe, after all, is an easy-going, laissez-faire, open-to-all beast; it is not run by Scotland’s Wee Free Kirk.

Or is it?

Yesterday, the Chortle comedy website ran an article by Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge and highly-respected journalist Jay Richardson. It reported that the Fringe had refused to allow comedian and ITV1 Show Me The Funny contestant Stuart Goldsmith to list his new show as Stuart Goldsmith – Prick in the Programme. They insisted that he had to change the word Prick to Pr!ck.

Jay Richardson also reported that comedian Richard Herring’s show Talking Cock (whose title was printed in full in the 2002 Fringe Programme) is being reprised this year but the title has been modified by the Fringe to Talking C*ck: The Second Coming.

When I read this, I asked Richard Herring what he thought about it. His reaction was a little surprising:

“Actually,” he told me, “this is the first I’ve heard about the title being censored.”

Just to recap here… Richard told me this yesterday – 8th May. The final Fringe deadline was 11th April after which no changes could be made. The Fringe Programme is published on 31st May. The Fringe Office had never even told Richard they had changed the 40-word listing for which they charge performers £400…!

I thought I had better check if the Fringe really had changed the word “cock” to “c*ck”, so I contacted Martin Chester, Publications Manager at the Fringe. In a rather terse reply, he e-mailed:

“I can confirm that Cock will appear as C*ck in the 2012 Fringe Programme.”

Richard Herring explained to me yesterday: “I was told I couldn’t use the words ‘dick’ and ‘fuckinghamshire’ in the 40 words. I wasn’t too surprised about the ‘fuckinghamshire’ (honourable member for fuckinghamshire was the line) even though that isn’t a swear word and presumably means you have to censor ‘Scunthorpe’ too.

“But I thought ‘dick’ was a bit of an over reaction. Not only is it a very minor rude word, it’s also a name.” In fact, of course, it is Richard’s own name. “Hopefully,” Richard told me, “Dick Van Dyke won’t come to the Fringe – they’ll have to call him D*ck Van D*ke.

“I am annoyed to find out that the title has also been censored,” Richard continued. “‘Cock’ itself is not a rude word and is used everyday in many non-offensive ways by farmers and their cocks (who only say cock-a-doodle-do) and cockneys (sorry c*ckneys) say Hello cock. For them to decide that the title of my show is not allowed to be printed in their programme is quite insulting in itself and not something that an Arts Festival should be condoning. Frankly I think they’re being stupid c*nts.”

Personally, I think it is more idiotic than that.

The word ‘cock’ in the phrase ‘talking cock’ is actually a shortened version of ‘cock and bull’, the dictionary definition of which is “to talk nonsense or engage in idle banter”. That commonly-used English phrase comes from the name of two public houses in Stony Stratford – the Cock and the Bull.

The fact that the Fringe Office sees fit to censor this commonly-used phrase as supposedly offensive (without even telling the man who paid them almost £400 to have his listing printed) betrays a level of illiteracy (and financial dodginess) at the Fringe Office which is rather worrying at what is allegedly the biggest Arts festival in the world.

It also means that performers in future should beware of making any reference to any other pubs in their show titles. If the Fringe insists that a reference to the Cock inn has to be censored, who knows what they would do with a far-worse reference to any King’s Head or Prince Albert pub.

I asked Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers and also a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and Show Me The Funny judge, what she thought.

“I am lucky enough to remember the glory days of the Fringe,” she told me yesterday, “when I was peripherally involved in a show called Whoops Vicar is That Your Dick? Sadly, this year, whoever is ‘gate-keeping’ the Fringe programme has completely lost their sense of … well, simply their sense. Not only has the irreproachable Stu Goldsmith been censored, but a regular and highly thought-of event entitled ArtWank (on the PBH Free Fringe) has felt the heavy hand of the Idiot In Charge. They are now ArtW*nk. And even they are not alone. If the Fringe Society REALLY want to control that which is offensive in the Fringe Brochure – what about ticket prices ? Pricks and wankers, the lot of ’em.”

Comedian Sameena Zehra told me: “This is ridiculous. how pathetically coy can you be? ‘Pr!ck’? Could it be that the Fringe is now becoming about money and advertising, instead of pushing the boundaries of performance and art? If the Fringe wants to be part of the establishment, it should join the official Festival and we should create an alternative Fringe that does what it says on the tin.”

Mervyn Stutter has been presenting shows at the Fringe for 26 years, notably his annual Pick of The Fringe show (which presumably narrowly avoided the Fringe Office censors by one letter).

His e-mailed reaction to me yesterday was: 

F**k me! (note my clever use of Fringe approved self censoring there) This is tragic.”

I asked him if he remembered any favourite show titles printed in the Fringe Programme in the last 26 years. Like Kate Copstick, he, too, fondly remembers Whoops Vicar is That Your Dick?

“There was a wonderful Australian act,” he told me, “called somebody-or-other and The Travelling Wankbrains. My memory fails me, but the first name was also filth!

“The Fringe back then was free for all and you could call it how you wanted to. No corporate money or images to maintain. No Mary Whitehouse sensibilities on the Fringe – only a woman on Edinburgh Council – the legendary Moira Knox. Her public objections to ‘naughty’ shows always guaranteed big Box Office.”

Martin Soan, originator of the Greatest Show on Legs act, whose image the Fringe Office also censored this year, agreed yesterday. When I told him about the ‘prick’ hoo-hah, he responded: “Ah! Censorship… The alternative advertising!”

What gets up my own nose – because it shows a totally idiotic new mentality at the Fringe Office – is not so much any objection to supposedly ‘dodgy’ words or images, but that I was told by the Fringe Office (as mentioned in my previous blog) that Charlie Chuck’s Fringe Programme entry (which I wrote) was “required” to be re-written because it was ungrammatical.

Among other ludicrous things, I was told that the phrase “with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant” had to be changed to “with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant” (at £10 per word) to be acceptable because all entries in the Fringe Programme have to be “grammatically correct”.

Yes, you can no longer, I was told, write in headliney telegramese. Your £400 40-word entry now has to have totally grammatically-correct sentences containing subject, verb and object. That is what I was told. Subject-verb-object. And apparently, if necessary, also the definite and indefinite articles. You have to use the word ‘a’ if it is grammatically necessary – at a cost of £10 minimum.

This is madness of a gargantuan order which almost demands a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award of its own for sheer inanity.

Mervyn Stutter says: “My advice to Stuart Goldsmith is to keep going public. Make as much noise about it as possible. It’s what social networking is there for. He might also find useful the phrase Kick against the Pricks – ‘To argue and fight against people in authority’ (Cambridge Dictionary)”

It could, indeed, be a motto for dealing with the newly-narrow-minded Fringe Office people in general.

According to the Bible, Jesus said it to St Paul – “Kick against the Pricks” – It is quoted in Acts of the Apostles (9:5)

No doubt the Fringe Programme would today refuse to run the Biblical quote without replacing the i with an ! or an *

But, as the late Malcolm Hardee would have said: “Fuck ‘em.”

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Language

“Star Wars”, the ladies and the $350 million Disney disaster “John Carter”

John Carter loses Walt Disney’s shirt

What’s in a title? Well, in the case of Disney, maybe a $200 million loss on their movie John Carter after they inexplicably dropped the second part of the original title John Carter of Mars.

One theory about why the movie has been such an utter box office disaster is that no-one knew who the character was nor where or why he was fighting aliens. According to some reports, people coming out of screenings did not even know the film had been set on Mars. Oh! – and, in Hollywood’s post mortem, it was felt potential women punters had no idea there is a central romance in the movie. And the little ladies only love a war movie if it has romance, says Hollywood (e.g. Gone With The Wind).

Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the John Carter character before he created Tarzan but today, while everyone has heard of Tarzan, culturally no-one knows John Carter. This is a fact which seemed to bypass the Disney publicity team, who sold the movie heavily on the name.

Titles are, of course, not unimportant.

Star Wars was originally going to be called The Adventures of Luke Skykiller (sic). When producer Gary Kurtz and director George Lucas decided to re-title it The Star Wars, 20th Century Fox researched reaction to the title in shopping malls and came back saying: “Women will not go see a movie with the word ‘War’ in the title.”

The studio, according to Kurtz, always disliked the title (until it made mega-millions) but could not come up with a better one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on John Carter of Mars influenced many sci-fi movies from Star Wars to Avatar and many books and movies in-between and before, which also ironically means the new Disney movie feels slightly derivative. John Carter may have been the original, but, by now, audiences have  seen most of it before in other films.

Disney’s strange removal of all reference to Mars in the title John Carter may be because the studio took a bloody nose Mars Needs Moms last year. The movie’s budget was a reported $150 million + marketing costs; its worldwide box office gross was $39 million. The old rule-of-thumb (not altogether true today on mega-budget movies which require additional mega marketing budgets) was that, to break even, you had to gross 2.5 times your negative cost. So, roughly speaking, a $50 million movie had to gross $125 million to break even.

Mars has been doing badly of late. Columbia Pictures are currently re-making the 1990 movie Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and someone working on the special effects tells me it is not set on Mars. And let us not mention the normally superb Brian De Palma’s 2000 aberration Mission To Mars (budget $100 million; box office gross $110 million) nor Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (budget $80 million + marketing $20 million; box office gross $101 million)

It might be cheaper to go to Mars itself. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary last Tuesday, rocket entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed he could send people to Mars for $500,000 per person.

Me? I prefer Edinburgh and I am here this weekend for a two-day event organised by the Guardian newspaper in which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain how the original Star Wars movie was made.

According to Gary Kurtz, one of the inspirations for Star Wars was – yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books about John Carter of Mars.

Getting down to figures, the Disney movie of John Carter, based on Burroughs’ first (1912) John Carter book A Princess of Mars, cost $250 million to make and $100 million to market… and last week Disney announced they reckoned they would make a $200 loss on it.

“None of it worked on any level,” Sandy Lieberson said yesterday afternoon in Edinburgh. “Not on the marketing, the production, the casting, the chemistry. So it’s a perfect example of talented people, lots of money, the sky’s the limit and you come up with a dud.”

Before the original Star Wars was made, Gary Kurtz had tried to buy rights to the John Carter of Mars books as well as rights to Flash Gordon and to Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress, but negotiations failed. So George Lucas made up his own story which, originally, was about a courier taking mysterious substances from one place to another.

Until a late stage in the scripting, robots C3PO and R2D2 were bickering bureaucrats, as in The Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas and Gary Kurtz had wanted to cast Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune in the Star Wars role of Han Solo (eventually played by Harrison Ford), but Mifune’s English was not good enough. For the briefest of moments, according to Kurtz, Lucas suggested: “Why don’t we make it in Japanese with sub-titles?”

According to Kurtz, Lucas would snip tiny little bits of his own hair off when he had trouble writing. If Kurtz’s secretary arrived in the morning to type-up what Lucas had written (in long-hand on yellow paper) and found lots of little bits of hair lying around, she would say, “Boy! That must have been a bad night!”

Gary Kurtz agrees with the oft-quoted (by me) famous movie-making maxim of William Goldman in Adventures in The Screen Trade that “Nobody knows anything”.

“You never know in advance,” Gary Kurtz said yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the troubles. I don’t envy studio executives at all. I never wanted to be one I was offered a couple of times to be a part of the production team at a studio, but I couldn’t see it, because it is very difficult to predict about projects.”

The example he gave was director Robert Wise and Julie Andrews. “They put together The Sound of Music,” said Kurtz. “It was a famous musical on the stage but it worked brilliantly as a film. The very next project they wanted to do together was another musical that was really well-received on the stage – Star!

“And it didn’t work at all. Yes, the music was different. But on the stage it had worked. Why didn’t it work as a film? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to analyse. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. You put in all the ingredients, you mix it all up and you stand up and put the burner under it and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into the most beautiful liquid possible. Other times, it just blows up in your face and you don’t know why.”

To hell with philosophising about movie-making, though. Were there any ‘romances’ among the crew and cast during the making of Star Wars?

“No,” according to Gary Kurtz. “Everyone was too tired. On the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, yes. But on the first film, no.”

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