Tag Archives: Tommy Cooper

Writer/musician/comic John Dowie on his death, dentists and other Dowies…

So I had a blog chat with poet/comedian/writer John Dowie. 

I was going to the dentist. We arranged to meet when I was finished.

“You might as well come to the dentist in case he’s over-running,” I suggested.

“Charming as your dentist’s waiting room undoubtedly is,” John Dowie replied, “I will be in this pub down the road.”

And he was.

He drank sparkling water. He wore a hat,

This is part of our chat.


JOHN FLEMING: Are you going to see Avengers: Endgame, the latest Marvel movie?

JOHN DOWIE: No, because I won’t go to a cinema. People talk, use their phones and eat popcorn. I can’t believe they sell popcorn in cinemas: the noisiest and smelliest food known to mankind. I resent the attitude of the people who own the cinemas: they shouldn’t sell popcorn. I mean, people are bringing in hamburgers and chips now.

FLEMING: Are they? Where?

DOWIE: I dunno. But they are.

FLEMING: You’re getting to be a grumpy old man.

Consistently grumpy young John Dowie – a living legend

DOWIE: Getting? I was always a grumpy man. Age doesn’t come into it.

I can’t function unless I’m in complete privacy, in an enclosed space with no distractions.

FLEMING: You must have had to in your erstwhile youth.

DOWIE: I had a bedsit and wrote in that. Or I’d sit in my bedroom in my mother’s house and write there.

I am now thinking of trying to rent an office.

FLEMING: It is difficult to write at home.

DOWIE: Yes. If you have a partner of any kind, just as you reach the moment where you think: Yes! YES! there will be a knocking on the door – “Would you like a cuppa tea?” – and it’s all gone.

I had a friend, Gary, who was a painting artist and he said it was always happening with his missus.

FLEMING: The painter’s wife from Porlock.

DOWIE: …or the unwitting girlfriend from Porlock.

FLEMING: Unwitting?

DOWIE: To think it’s alright to knock on the writer’s door and ask if you want a cup of tea.

FLEMING: You should be publishing more. Your story in the excellently-edited Sit-Down Comedy anthology was wonderful.

Freewheeling John Dowie’s latest book

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got an idea for another book. But it’s under wraps. It’s bad luck to talk about it before you’ve done it.

FLEMING: Fiction?

DOWIE: No, no. I can’t be fucked with fiction… But I did have an idea for a story… It’s about this woman dentist who has a new patient and he walks into the room with the most perfect teeth. She falls madly in love with this guy, but how does she keep on seeing him? There’s only one way: tell him his teeth are shit. So, over the course of a year or so, she gets him back for more appointments, taking out his teeth one-at-a-time until he has no teeth left… and then she goes off him.

FLEMING: You should call it Take Me Out.

DOWIE: …or Pulling.

FLEMING: Can I quote that idea?

DOWIE: Yes. I won’t use it. But I do have an idea for a new book – though I can’t write it until I’ve found somewhere to live. At the moment, I’m staying with my two sons and their mother. One of my sons is doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

FLEMING: Called?

Comedy/magic and conspiracy theories

DOWIE: Oddly Alike. My son is Harry Scott Moncrieff and it’s a two-hander with his mate Robbie Fox. Harry does comedy/magic wrapped around conspiracy theories. If he does it really well, they will kill him.

FLEMING: Or so he thinks… Why is he Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: He took his mother’s name which has turned out quite well, because he’s not cursed by association with my name as being drunk and abusive.

FLEMING: But Dowie is a famous name.

DOWIE: In Scotland it is… Dowie’s Tavern in Edinburgh… 

FLEMING: I’ve never heard of it. But Dowie is a creative name. There’s you. Your sister Claire Dowie. And Helga Dowie whom I worked with at ATV, who’s a producer now. Your son should have kept the Dowie name. Three prestigious Dowies. How many Scott Moncrieffs are there?

DOWIE: Hundreds, including the man who translated Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

FLEMING: Really? Was your ex-girlfriend related to the Proust Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: Yeah. And she can actually claim lineage from Henry VIII. All I can claim is a couple of ex-cons from Australia.

FLEMING: Really?

DOWIE: Nah! Dunno. Irish. My dad’s Irish, so… Well, there’s a famous John Dowie in Australia who’s a sculptor.

FLEMING: Oh! Is he related to you?

DOWIE: No… There’s another John Dowie who plays football. He is related.

Maybe dour, mean-spirited but never ever dull

FLEMING: Does ‘Dowie’ mean anything?

DOWIE: It means dull, dour and mean-spirited. There’s The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, a famous folk song.

FLEMING: So your father was Irish with a Scots name…

DOWIE: Yes. My mother was very scathing about the Irish.

FLEMING: She was Scottish?

DOWIE: No. From Stoke-on-Trent but she married my dad, who was from Belfast and she was always scathing about how terribly not-bright the Irish were. I once did a genealogy thing on her maiden name. It turned out she was from Ireland… I think I may get an Irish passport if Brexit happens.

FLEMING: A comedian has just been elected President of Ukraine. (Volodymyr Zelenskiy)

DOWIE: Yes. Swivel on THAT Mark Thomas! Never mind your NHS show. Look what a real politician comedian’s getting up to!

FLEMING: Can I quote that?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Yeah! Jeremy Hardy must be spinning in his grave. That could’ve been me up there on that podium! I’m going to the Jeremy Hardy memorial in May. He was very good, very precise and his death deserved all the press coverage it got.

“Now, when comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries…” (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

It used to be that comedians were only jealous of other comedians succeeding. But then you write a book and you’re jealous that other comedians’ books are doing better than yours. Now, when other comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries. Ian Cognito’s obituaries this month! I would kill for that amount of space!

FLEMING: I know. He was getting in mainstream papers…

DOWIE: … in the Guardian AND in The Times! I expected the Guardian to do one, but not The Times.

FLEMING: Malcolm Hardee got very extensive obituaries in the quality newspapers because people in the media knew who he was, even if the public didn’t. But Ian Cognito! – I don’t think people outside the comedy industry itself were really aware of him. He did prove, though, that the best way to die is on-stage like Tommy Cooper – and/or live your life so OTT that there are lots of outrageous anecdotes to quote. Fame may die but anecdotes live forever.

DOWIE: That Hollywood Reporter article you posted on Facebook about John Belushi’s death was quite horrific. No respect. There’s a corpse being wheeled out on a trolly – Oh! I’ll take a photograph of that, then! – No. mate, don’t – And Lenny Bruce, of course. He died on a toilet trying to inject himself. He was lying naked on the bathroom floor with a syringe still in his arm and they were leaping up the stairs two-at-a-time to take photographs of him.

FLEMING: Apparently dying on the toilet is quite a common thing. Doing Number Twos puts a big strain on the heart.

DOWIE: Elvis.

FLEMING: Yes.

DOWIE: I have ‘died’ IN some toilets.

FLEMING: Wey-hey! You still have it!… I should have taken heroin when I was younger. Look at Keith Richards: 75 years old and a picture of good health; his main risk is falling out of trees he has climbed. Wasn’t it Keith Richards who accidentally smoked his father’s cremated ashes?

DOWIE: He said he did; then he said he didn’t.

FLEMING: Always print the legend, I say, if it’s a good story.

DOWIE: The story I like is Graham Nash. After his mother died, he discovered that she had wanted to be a singer but was saddled with having to bring up children and having to work. So he took her ashes on tour with him and, every time he did a gig, he dropped a little bit of her on the stage.

“What’s going to happen? … Are you going to rot or be burnt?”

FLEMING: What’s going to happen to you? Are you going to rot or be burnt?

DOWIE: When I buried my friend David Gordon, I found a natural death company with grounds and you can do what you like there. You can put the body in a hole in the ground or in a coffin or in a sack – You can do what the fuck you like – And then they plant a tree there. That’s what I’m going to have done – What kind of tree would it be? – I think it will have to be a weeping willow.

FLEMING: You’ll be happy to rot? You don’t want to be burnt?

DOWIE: I don’t like that bit where the doors close.

FLEMING: Like curtains closing on a stage…

DOWIE: …and no encore.

FLEMING: I think it’s more romantic to rot.

DOWIE: Also your body serves a purpose if you grow a tree out of it. Actually, I quite like the idea of a Viking funeral with the boat and the flames. But I try not to ponder on my own death too much, John. It’s just tempting Fate.

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RIP Ian Cognito, dangerous comedian and great opera singer

“Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!”

Comedian Ian Cognito died on stage on Thursday night at the Lone Wolf Comedy Club in Bicester, Oxfordshire.

So it goes.

He reportedly “sat down on a stool while breathing heavily, before falling silent for five minutes during his show” and the audience thought it was part of his routine. He had earlier joked: “Imagine if I died in front of you lot here”.

In the US, Variety quoted audience member Ryan Mold: “He sat down, put his head and arms back; his shoulders were twitching… His behavior didn’t come off as unusual to those used to his flamboyant character.”

Compere Andrew Bird told the BBC: “Everyone in the crowd, me included, thought he was joking. Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!” 

The BBC quoted audience member John Ostojak as saying: “Only ten minutes before he sat down, he joked about having a stroke. He said: Imagine having a stroke and waking up speaking Welsh… We came out feeling really sick, we just sat there for five minutes watching him, laughing at him.”

Andrew Bird said dying on stage would have been the way Cognito “would have wanted to go… except he’d want more money and a bigger venue.”

The comedy website Chortle rather understated the case when it wrote he was “known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage act and would often boast of the number of clubs he was banned from”.

At one time, he used to start his act by walking on stage with a hammer, banging a nail into the wall and then hanging up his hat. “This lets you know two things about me,” he would shout. “Firstly, I really don’t give a shit. Secondly, I’ve got a hammer.”

Over the course of a 30-year career, no British TV company ever took the risk of putting him on screen. Yet today The Times, reported his death and called him a “cult comedian”. The Daily Mail today called him “a proper comic”.

The lesson to other comics seeking media coverage is clear: literally die on stage.

In comedian Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, there is an anecdote which starts: “An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk, as is his wont. When he’s drunk, he gets aggressive.”

I always found him very amiable and intelligent though with a slightly insecure glint in his eye. Well, he WAS a comedian.

In 2005, I shared a funeral car with him and Jenny Eclair at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral in Greenwich. Malcolm had drowned by falling in a dock while drunk… So it goes. 

Ian Cognito and Pam Ford at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

In a 2013 blog from the Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote: “Last night, Cognito told comic Pam Ford and me a very funny series of stories about his own dad’s funeral and what happened to the ashes afterwards. Alas, I don’t think I can repeat them, because I was harassing Cognito that he should do death stories as an Edinburgh Fringe show in 2014.”

He didn’t, but no matter.

And, alas, I have now forgotten the stories.

I also wrote in that blog: “He was wearing a hat. He said he had a song about the late Malcolm Hardee. I invited him to perform it at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on the final Friday of the Fringe. He said Yes.”

He didn’t.

But no matter.

Today his son, Will Barbieri, shared a quote from his father: “I hope when I am gone, that you will remember me for all the things I didn’t do, but could have done so easily.”

In 2014, I quoted the comedian Matt Price in a blog. He said:

“I mentioned to Ian Cognito: There’s a rumour going round you used to be an opera singer and he said: Oooh! Keep that one going, dahlin’ I do like that one!

So I will remember Ian Cognito as an interesting human being, a fascinatingly dangerous performer and a great opera singer.

But I did not really know Ian Cognito.

Malcolm Hardee Award winner Becky Fury did know him better. She sent me what follows under trying circumstances this morning.

She wrote: “I am a bit distracted by a total freak show in the kitchen and a man naked in the kitchen. Just a standard day in Deptford.”

Here is what she sent me…


‘Cogs’… in one of his quieter, more reflective moments…

I’m sad about – but also keep laughing hysterically about – Cogs.  

He actually died on stage, the mad bastard, and people thought he was pretending but he was actually dead. The compere came on and went to prod him as he thought he was joking but he was actually dead. Fuck me, that’s hilarious.

The man was a crazy, beautiful diamond and, like all diamonds, it’s the darkness that give them their brilliance.

Last night I went on stage and told the story of Cognito’s last prank. I’m still hoping he jumps out of the coffin at the funeral and shouts: “Gotcha, you cunts!” and then dies again – because that will be really funny.

It is interesting giving people permission to laugh at death.

It’s a taboo and Cogs liked smashing those. 

It’s the essence of liberation. 

It is nice to be given permission to continue to erode those taboos and it is an honour to explain to an audience your friend died like Tommy Cooper but he did it better. Dying on stage is a very naughty thing to do and the person was very naughty to do that but you can and should laugh because the person was a great comedian and it’s what he would have wanted.

I also explained I would be doing my Ian Cognito tribute act later and I had already taken the capsules of cyanide which was the grand finale after the crowd surfing just to put my own spin on it.

I’d known Cogs since I was 19. He ‘pulled’ me after a gig I was running with my we’ll call him ‘ex’ boyfriend as he was after that happened and who also happened to be the promoter. 

My relationship status with the promoter was unknown to Cogsy but was in hindsight a classic Cogsy as he had an almost supernatural knack of pissing off promoters

We were friends after that. Me and Cogs.

Me and the ex-boyfriend never recovered.

The Cogs I knew was a lovely, fascinating guy and I had a load of really interesting times with him, like a lot of people did. 

After our initial encounter, we met again in the backstage area of Reading Festival and spent the weekend getting drunk and talking and not seeing any bands. Why would you go and see Blur when you have Ian Cognito to talk to?

He even surfaced a few months after that and helped me get rid of another unsuitable ex-boyfriend and helped end another relationship for me. Like a sexy, crazy, cool dad that you can shag.

He had an uncanny knack of appearing when he was needed like a swaggering Cockney genie that lived in a bottle of Jameson’s.

And then a few more times after that.

When I started comedy, I did a few gigs with him at the Edinburgh Fringe where he was kind enough to offer me to share a spot he had in a show at the Pleasance. I was unfortunately too pissed to take him up on the offer. I could blame the fact I was keeping up with his drinking habits but that wouldn’t be true and truth was something that was very important to Cogsy in his life and his art – not that he would have said anything that pretentious.

I never knew him to be anything other than a lovely, wise, bright, shiny, gem of a person. An authentic soul and genius comic. 

There are very few of those and now one less. 

I’m still kinda hoping he kicks his way out of the coffin, does that song about his dog farting and then makes use of some of PR his death generated. But it was never about that.

It’s about living your truth to the full and making your life and death a work of art.

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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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Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

I have sat through some weird shit in my time

Michael Powell’s movie Gone To Earth, Robin Hardy’s movie The Fantasist and Edinburgh Fringe stage show Sally Swallows and the Rise of Londinian. They spring immediately to mind.

And I can now add to that an ‘acclaimed’ Finnish ‘deadpan comedy’ movie The Other Side of Hope.

I was invited to an “influencer preview screening” in Soho yesterday afternoon. It was in English, Finnish and Arabic. With English subtitles.

The first person I saw when I arrived was Scots comic Richard Gadd. His factual movie drama Against The Law is being screened on BBC2 at the end of June.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m the lead actor in The Other Side of Hope.,” he told me, apparently slightly affronted that I had not known.

Some people will turn up to the opening of an envelope. I will turn up to anything which has the likelihood of free tea and salmon sandwiches. It does not mean I read the fine details of any press release.

“How come you are the lead in a Finnish film?” I asked Richard Gadd.

“Because,” said Richard Gad, “I am half-Finnish.”

“Heavens,” I said, slightly embarrassed, “I didn’t know that,”

“Well I am,” he told me, slightly wearily.

Thom Tuck (left) and Richard Gadd at Soho House yesterday

The next person I saw was comedian, writer and variably-hirsute thespian Thom Tuck, currently touring Britain in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“Are you playing Willy?” I asked.

“No,” he said slightly wearily. “He is in his 60s.”

I thought it unwise to mention anything about ‘playing with Willy’ so, changing the subject, I said: “I didn’t know Richard was half-Finnish.”

“I only know how to swear in Finnish,” Thom replied.

“Don’t let me stop you,” I told him.

“Kusipää…” he said. “Vittu pois… Kivekset.” Then, looking at Richard, he asked: “Was my pronunciation OK?”

“Pretty good,” said Richard, generously.

As for The Other Side of Hope – the film we had come to see…

Well, as for the film…

What can I say…?

One selling synopsis for it is:

MORAL CLARITY IN PLURALITY
A poker playing restauranteur and
former travelling salesman befriends
a group of refugees.

It is about a Syrian immigrant from Aleppo during the current civil war who is in Finland as a refugee.

The film won the Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and rave reviews for it include:

“Combines poignancy with torrents of laughter” (5-stars. Daily Telegraph)

“’Surreal and screamingly funny” (5-stars. The Times)

“I laughed, I cried, I shrieked.” (5-stars, Observer)

It currently has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score.

People say comedy is a universal language.

Well, I am here to tell you it is not.

Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry: too straight-faced for the English

I remember working for a cable or satellite TV channel (I can’t remember which) and, in trailer-making mode, I sat through three episodes of Scotch & Wry, a legendary successful BBC Scotland TV comedy show which I had never seen and which I don’t think had been screened on English terrestrial television. It was absolutely terrifically funny,

After seeing the three episodes, I went back into the office.

“Have you seen Scotch & Wry?” I started to say. “Isn’t it absolutely…”

“Yes,” said someone. “It is utter shit, isn’t it?”

That was the general English view in the office and I think it was because star Rikki Fulton et al performed everything utterly straight-faced. I think deadpan comedy works with Scots audiences, not so well with English audiences and it may ultimately be a Scandinavian thing,

I worked in a Swedish TV company with Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. Each nationality’s sense of humour was slightly different and the Swedes in particular were very, very straight-faced though equally humorous.

My experience of Finns is mostly meeting them on holiday – particularly in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, in cliché mode, I think of Finns as very very amiable but almost always paralytically drunk (there are licensing problems in Finland and the exchange rate between blue jeans and vodka in Leningrad was highly in favour of the Finns).

All this comes as an intro to my opinion of The Other Side of Hope.

The film very-noir in its original Finnish: it translates appropriately as “Beyond Hope”

It was like watching zombies perform some dreary social-realist drama about Syrian immigrants in a grey city. It made Harold Pinter’s dialogue and pauses seem like Robin Williams speeding on cocaine.

The film opened with a woman wearing curlers in her hair. She was sitting at a table on which stood a spherical cactus with thin spines sticking out. I thought: This may be a commendably weird movie.

Well weird it certainly was but, for me, utterly titterless. Not a single titter dropped from my lips, missus.

There was a 10-15 minute section towards the very end of the film which showed signs of very straight-faced, deadpan humour involving a restaurant. But even that was titter-free.

I have obviously missed something.

It is oft – and truly – said that Tommy Cooper could walk on stage, do nothing, say nothing and the audience would laugh. I have often wondered if some American or German or Latvian who had never seen Tommy Cooper before would have laughed.

And there is the never-to-be-forgotten lesson of Scotch & Wry.

I am prepared to believe The Other Side of Hope has them rolling in the frozen deadpan-loving aisles of Helsinki. It left me totally enjoyment-free. It was a bleak film about a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki in which people didn’t say much. But, then, I did enjoy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness, I like eating kimchi and, as a child, I enjoyed cod liver oil.

The Other Side of Hope has had great reviews. It can survive without me.

As a coda to all this, I should mention that, as we went into the screening room, Richard Gadd told me he was not half-Finnish and he did not appear in the film at all. He had just been invited along to see it because he is an “influencer”.

This turned out to be true.

He is not in the film.

Yesterday afternoon was just totally weird. I also met a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head like Carmen Miranda. He was not smiling. He may have been an actor of Finnish origin.

Oh, alright.

I made that bit up. I did not meet a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head.

The rest is true.

Though I am beginning to think I may have dreamt the whole of yesterday.

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Filed under Comedy, Finland, Humor, Humour, Movies

A desperate blog with Matt Roper about Lewis Schaffer and Marianne Faithfull

Matt Roper - a man barely alive after a bad night’s sleep

Matt Roper – a comedian barely alive after a bad night’s sleep

“I am a desperate man,” I told comedian Matt Roper, who has been living in my spare room for the last few weeks (with my knowledge).

“I need a blog. You said you have a sore back. What has happened to it?”

“I dunno,” Matt said. “It’s just the way I’ve been sleeping.”

“Or is it the fact you’ve got the weight of the world’s troubles on your shoulders?” I suggested.

“I’m glad you said that,” replied Matt, “because Lewis Schaffer needs to realise he’s not carrying them all on his own.”

“We’ve barely seen each other since you’ve been here,” I said. “Where have you been these last few weeks?”

“John,” said Matt. “This is not an interesting blog. Let’s get Wilfredo out.”

On stage, Matt plays the part of Hispanic singer Wilfredo.

“Nah,” I said.

Matt had been trying to persuade me I should interview him for this blog in character as Wilfredo in my back garden.

“My blog’s about real people,” I had told him. “It would be like Chortle (the comedy industry website) interviewing Alan Partridge instead of Steve Coogan.”

Lewis Schaffer (lefty) exercising in the park yesterday with Martin Soan

Lewis Schaffer, here talking to Martin Soan about ping pong

“Does Lewis Schaffer work at Greggs The Baker?” Matt asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Does he?” asked Matt. “What does he do there?”

“Of course he doesn’t work in Greggs The Baker,” I said. “Why on earth would he?”

His Wikipedia entry said he did last time I looked.”

We looked at Lewis Schaffer’s Wikipedia entry.

It had been changed.

“Don’t mention Greggs The Baker in your blog,” said Matt. “Lewis Schaffer will be upset by that.”

“No he won’t,” I said. “He probably wrote it.”

“I’m going to go out for a ciggie,” said Matt.

“Is there’s a picture in it?” I asked.

“John, this isn’t interesting,” said Matt. “We could invent a fake person specifically for your blog,”

“Lewis Schaffer is enough,” I said. “I’ll take a picture of you.”

“Get your garlic grotto in the background,” said Matt.

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden & two weeping angels

“Garlic grotto?”

“Dalek grotto,” said Matt, correcting either me or himself.

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden.

“How about publicising Wilfredo’s Christmas single?” asked Matt.

“Nah,” I said.

It started to drizzle rain.

“John, I can’t live in this country,” said Matt.

“Why?”

The British attitude to life - A glass half empty

The normal British attitude to life exemplified

“It’s just so painful. Everything’s expensive. The people are miserable. Everyone’s got this glass-half-empty approach to life.”

“But you’re from the North of England!” I laughed.

“Not as far north as you,” said Matt.

“Scotland isn’t the North of England,” I said.

“Maybe I should move back up North,” mused Matt.

“But,” I pointed out, “if you go too far north, you hit Glasgow, which is never a good idea. Talk about misery.”

“I’ve never been to Glasgow,” said Matt.

Glasgow - a fine and refined city of culture

Glasgow – a fine and refined city of culture

“Misery and violence,” I said. “It’s a heady mix. Have you really never been to Glasgow?”

“I was once in a cafe called Leopold’s in Bombay,” replied Matt.

“It’s not the same,” I said.

“I used to spend a lot of winters out there,” said Matt.

“The cafe?”

“India. I used to sing in clubs in the summer down in Devon. There was good money in it.”

“What sort of stuff?”

“Swing and jazz, all sorts of stuff.”

“Why have you never been to Glasgow?” I asked.

The show Matt saw on London’s South Bank last Friday

The show Matt saw on London’s South Bank last Friday night

“I did go,” said Matt, “to see Marianne Faithfull in London last Friday night.”

“Oh yes,” I said, “you told me you thought she should be a comedian.”

“She was very very funny,” said Matt. “She had a stick because she had shattered her hip bone. So she sits in a chair on stage with this stick, yelling at all the techies because the lights are too bright. Then she counts – One – Two – Three – and unseats herself grandly from this chair and all the audience applaud and she shouts Imagine! Getting a round of applause just for standing up! I feel  like Tommy Cooper! and all the audience applauded.

Tommy Cooper

The late great Tommy Cooper

I love Tommy Cooper! she says. I AM Tommy Cooper! My kinda guy!”

“So there’s a scoop for your blog,” said Matt. “Marianne Faithfull is a huge Tommy Cooper fan.”

I left Matt outside, smoking in the drizzle.

Inside, there was a message on my computer from someone I know who had better remain nameless.

“I am listening to Lewis Schaffer attempting to interview Stewart Lee on Nunhead American Radio,” it said. “Worth a listen. Total chaos.”

Sometimes I think: Should I continue to write this blog? Does anyone really believe Lewis Schaffer exists?

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Why do British comedy clubs have to just book samey stand-up comedy acts?

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

The Silver Peevil danced the night fantastic

In a not-yet-posted blog-chat with Dutch comedian Jorik Mol earlier this week, the subject came up of the difficulty of succeeding as a comedian in Britain when there are simply too many stand-up and wannabe stand-up comedians around.

British comedy clubs are having a tough time at the moment and I think one of the reasons is that they programme wall-to-wall stand-up comedians.

In the 1980s, when alternative comedy really WAS alternative, a typical comedy club bill might include a juggler, a poet and an indefinably anarchic act as well as straight stand-ups.

Nowadays, too often, there is no variation. It is all a bit samey. The stand-ups may be good, bad or indifferent but they are, basically, doing the same thing.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the comedy clubs were general comedy clubs. Now they are almost entirely stand-up comedy clubs.

In blogs before I have mentioned that many of the most original and funny comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe in the last couple of years were not listed in the Comedy section of the Fringe Programme but in the Cabaret section.

Last night, I saw a glorious night of comedy at Pull The Other One in South East London. It was their last show of the year, it was a real corker and there was not a single traditional stand-up on the bill. Unlike most comedy clubs, you did not know what TYPE of act was coming next.

Jon Hicks was simply indescribable (he describes himself as ‘The International Man of Artistry’) and his act involved three elephants, a hammer and scientific principles all on PTOO’s small stage.

Jody Kamali was a performer of note

Jody Kamali was a comedy performer of note

Jody Kamali seems to inhabit a different on-stage character every time I see him. This time, he managed to cram into one 20-minute spot three bizarre, physically active and visually surprising characters plus he dragged a dodgy punter on-stage and sucked the guy’s arm.

Ewan Wardrop – formerly a principal dancer with Matthew Bourne‘s company Adventures in Motion Pictures – managed to refine his already astonishing 1935 visitor from Venus act – The Silver Peevil – AND do a wonderful post-modernist George Formby pastiche AND sing original songs as himself.

The nearest thing to a traditional stand-up on the bill was Steve Best, performing his flawless act which could also be from another planet – It is like a recording of Tommy Cooper performing comedy on acid which is then run at 4-times normal speed.

All these extraordinarily original acts were presented by Lindsay Sharman in her charismatic thespian poetess compere mode with popping eyes and acrobatic lips – a face-changing, voice-morphing Joyce Grenfell for the 21st century.

What the Germans will make of a show like this when Vivienne & Martin Soan start their Pull The Other One shows in Leipzig in February I cannot even begin to imagine.

And nor do I know when a broadcast company will come to its senses and transfer Pull The Other One’s already fully-formed bizarre comedy variety show to television.

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The day English comedians Malcolm Hardee & Ricky Grover broke into a zoo

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Ricky Grover amid the glamour of South Mimms service station

Ricky Grover in the glamour of South Mimms service station

So, yesterday I was sitting in South Mimms service station on the M25 motorway talking to comedian and actor Ricky Grover about Malcolm Hardee, ‘the godfather of British alternative comedy’.

“Every day I spent out with Malcolm,” said Ricky, “there were always two or three near-death experiences. And that’s not an exaggeration.”

“I know,” I laughed. “I went out on the Thames with him on his boat twice. We could have died both times.”

“That was just part and parcel of Malcolm,” laughed Ricky. “Do you know we once broke into a zoo?”

“No.”

“Years ago,” Ricky said, “I bought a new car. I was really pleased. It was the first brand-new car I’d ever bought. A Toyota RAV4. I drove round and showed Malcolm and he said: Oy Oy That’s alright, innit? My mum wants to learn to drive. Would you teach her to drive?

“So I said: Course I will. When do you wanna go?

Now, he said. So this first day of getting my car, we drove to Deal on the Kent coast, where Malcolm’s mum lived.

Joan & Malcolm Hardee

Malcolm and mother Joan

“When he’d said ‘learn to drive’ I’d thought he’d meant she’d had a few lessons. But she was brand spanking new to it – like she went to get into the passenger side.

“This was a new car. You know what it’s like when you get a new car? You’re worried it’s gonna scratch and all that. All that went out the window. I didn’t care. I thought Oh. It’s Malcolm. I’ll just go with the flow. By the end, we was missing things by inches, going down weird alleys and things.

“So I drop his mum back home and, on the way back to London from Deal, Malcolm asked: Do you wanna go to the zoo? Right out of the blue, as Malcolm did.

“I said: Yeah, alright.

“He says: It’s not a normal zoo. This bloke let’s all the animals walk about free and you can stroke them…

John Aspinall?” I asked. “He had an animal park near Canterbury.”

“I dunno,” replied Ricky, “but we go to the zoo and it’s closed, so I said: Oh, that’s a shame! And Malcolm says: Don’t matter. It’s alright. He took his coat off, threw it over the barbed wire at the top, climbed over and let me in through the turnstiles. He said: It’ll be alright, I know the bloke who owns the place. He didn’t – obviously.

“So we start walking through the middle of this zoo and, after a few minutes, it hit me again what he’d said: It’s not a normal zoo. It’s a zoo where the animals just walk about. And Malcolm had that ridiculous walk. He looked like an animal himself, didn’t he? He was like a smaller version of a Bigfoot. You remember he had that weird walk?

“So I thought: If them animals see us, he’ll be alright. Because Malcolm didn’t give a fuck about anything. I thought: If an animal sees us, Malcolm’s gonna be alright and the animal’s gonna be on me.”

“Because,” I said, “Malcolm wouldn’t be scared but you would be?”

“Not only that,” said Ricky, “but because I’m the lumpy one. More flesh. More meat. I’m a better deal. They’ll get a good couple of days of eating out of me. They’d only get a half hour out of Malcolm.

“I’m walking through there and me arsehole went a little bit and then Malcolm shouted Oy! Oy! – I jumped out of me skin but I’m trying to act brave. And Malcolm’s seen a silverback gorilla, hasn’t he? A great big silverback. And he says Oy Oy to it, calls it over and shook hands with the silverback and the gorilla’s hand must have been five times bigger that Malcolm’s. It only had to give a jerk and it’d pull Malcolm’s arm right off his body.

A silverback gorilla in its natural environment, not in England

A silverback gorilla in its natural environment, not in England

Oy Oy… Oy Oy goes Malcolm, like he’s saying Hello to it and he says Come over! Come over! to me.

“So I go over and I think I don’t really fancy shaking hands with a silverback gorilla. You can’t reason with a silverback – it ain’t gonna make no difference.

“So I say: No, it’s alright, Malcolm. I’m alright for a minute.

“And I look round and I think: What the fuck am I doing? I’m in the middle of a zoo almost shaking hands with a silverback gorilla. And I started stepping out, trying to walk towards the exit. And I could hear all these growls in the bushes.

“Anyway, I got out and we managed to get home. But that was just an average day with Malcolm. When I got my car home, it looked like it had been to Afghanistan, because Malcolm’s mum had been driving it. It was splattered with mud and scratches. Typical Malcolm. It was a white car.

“My wife Maria looked at it and went: What’s happened? 

I’ve just been out with Malcolm, I told her.

Oh, she said.

“What I loved about Malcolm was he had funny bones. There are gonna be so many people at the Edinburgh Fringe this year – like always – really working at becoming funny. With Malcolm, he started off funny and ended up being on the stage rather than getting on the stage and trying to be funny.”

“As soon as I met him,” Ricky told me, “I clicked with him and the reason was he wasn’t like a normal person. Normal people drive me fucking mad. Not many people got much out of Malcolm except Oy Oy. But I think Malcolm opened up to me a bit. He told me things I’d never say that were quite deep. He had a really lovely genuineness about him.”

Malcolm Hardee on the Thames (photo by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee on the Thames (photo by Steve Taylor)

“Everybody,” I said, “tended to say Malcolm’s act was his life.”

“His act was shit, wasn’t it?” said Ricky. “His actual act was shit, but he was SO funny.”

“Well,” I said, “he only had about six jokes which he told for about twenty years.”

“I went to the Edinburgh Fringe with him,” said Ricky, “when I’d been doing comedy about six months and the shows were really badly organised – obviously. No advertising. Just giving out flyers to anyone in the street, so most of our audience was foreign. They didn’t have a clue what we was talking about. They were just sitting there staring at us.

“It must have been the worst show on the Fringe. It was Malcolm, me and The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper and the show climaxed with the Dam Busters theme music playing and us standing there in black bin-liners, back-to-back, going round in circles holding little wooden planes on sticks. The planes were painted with ultra violet paint, but it wasn’t totally dark and the audience could see us: just sixteen foreigners who didn’t speak English staring at us performing with ultra violet planes not in the dark.

“It was just shit and, after we’d done about three shows, I told him: Malcolm, I don’t think I want to do comedy. I’ve tried it and I think I’ll go back to doing what I was doing before, just messing about. I can nick a living. This alternative comedy thing isn’t really for me. 

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (photograph by Steve Taylor)

“Malcolm said: Listen to me. I’ve spotted some of the biggest talent in this country. And he rolled off all these names. Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Paul Merton… all the names. He said: I was the one who spotted them. I was the one who found them. I was the one who told people about them.

“And he said to me: You’ve got something a lot more special. You’ve got a lot more layers. You’ve got a lot more gears. You are going to be absolutely massive. 

“So I was really enthralled in the moment. Can you imagine? A young comic, six months in. And I said Do you really mean that? and he said No. Of course I don’t.

“And I pissed myself for about twenty minutes. I couldn’t stop laughing and I still laugh about it now. And whenever I start taking myself seriously, I always think of that because it brings it all down to earth.

“I remember telling Jo Brand about it and she really laughed. Because what happens is you can get so wrapped-up in the importance of it all and what you think you can achieve but no-one knows. No-one knows what will happen.

“You know and I know there are shit people who make it massive and there’s people we both know who should have their own series on telly who never get the chance. Like everything else in this world, most of it is all corrupt. It’s not how it should be. So I think you’ve got to just enjoy the journey. Enjoy what you’re doing the best way you can – and that’s what Malcolm did. It was such a laugh being with Malcolm.

“When you said he only had half a dozen jokes, when we went to Edinburgh, he was already twenty years into doing them. There was a group of firemen used to come and watch him in Edinburgh – and, every year, they used to piss themselves like it was the first time they’d ever heard the jokes.

“It wasn’t about the jokes. The Number One thing you need to be funny is insecurity. As soon as you think you’ve got something, you’re in trouble. And Malcolm was full of all of that. I’ve seen him have a pop at someone in the audience with cancer and bring the house down and make the geezer with cancer piss himself laughing and feel like a person again instead of an object who’s dying.

“Malcolm had a real good connection with people.

“One thing I’m sad about, though,” said Ricky, “is that I gave Malcolm a wide berth the last couple of years of his life. I still saw him, but I didn’t spend time with him like I used to, because I’ve got an addictive nature, so if…”

“He was on cocaine…” I said.

Wreaths on the hearse at Malcolm Hardee's funeral

Wreaths on Malcolm Hardee’s hearse. The top one was from Ricky Grover.

“Exactly,” said Ricky. “So, if I’d ended up on gear, I wouldn’t have been able to function. It’s hard enough living with the addiction of over-eating, let alone getting into all that as well. Because he went that next step. He didn’t want to make old bones. I think Malcolm went pretty much when he… He knew he was going to go over early…”

Malcolm drowned, drunk, in January 2005.

So it goes.

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