I was sad to hear today about the death of comedian Gregg Jevin. I met him around five years ago and I was going to write his autobiography. Eventually, it fell through because I could not get through to the real person.
With Gregg, you could never ‘find’ the real person; he always hid behind that facade of being the ‘Gregg Jevin’ on-stage character.
I only ever encountered that a couple of other times. Once was with Matthew Kelly and the other was with the late Frank Carson, who also sadly died this week.
When I was at Granada Television, we once went to Blackpool to film a series of on-screen promotions for the TV station. The promos featured stars of the legendary series The Comedians and we, of course, gave them a complimentary lunch in the upstairs room of an off-season Blackpool pub.
It was quite an exhausting lunch, because there were about eight comics sitting round a table all trying to out-do each other on jokes and jollity. I have a feeling Bernard Manning opted out and ate separately, probably wisely. The loudest and most overwhelming of those present was Frank Carson. He never switched off. I talked to him a little bit over the course of that afternoon – and he also appeared in various episodes of the children’s TV series Tiswas on which I worked.
But I never felt I was ever talking to the real person. He was always being the ‘Frank Carson’ character.
TV scriptwriter Nigel Crowle agreed when I asked him about Frank: “He never seemed to switch off,” Nigel told me.
I also asked comic and actor Matt Roper (son of George Roper, who also appeared on The Comedians) if he had any memories of Frank Carson.
“My main memory,” Matt told me, “was his ability to talk non-stop for hours. “There was no ‘off’ button. I remember my mum telling me how my parents had had a huge housewarming party in the 1970s and Frank was last person to sleep at night sitting in an armchair, still muttering away, and the first person up in the morning, at full-power over breakfast.
“I really was a baby in the 1980s even; I knew a few of the old school but not all of them too well. Just my dad’s mates. When I started getting into comedy myself I began to get a bit more interested in it all but, by that point, most of these boys (they were all boys, notably) were off the telly and back in what was left of a dying carcass of a club scene or, if they were lucky, summer seasons and panto.”
Gregg Jevin, of course, was from a later generation. But, like Frank Carson, I could never find the switch to turn off the stage character and turn on the ‘real’ person.
I was on a Storywarp panel last year which discussed storytelling and the subject of how to present real people’s stories came up – and the fact that it is not only the subject of the interview who is presenting a version of themselves but also the interviewer.
Helen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor at the New Statesman said:
“There’s an element when you’re interviewing somebody that you have to present the version of yourself to them that you think they will respond to. Which is really bad if you talk to somebody for so long that you start falling into their cadences of speech. One of the many things you do when you’re interviewing someone is that you’re constantly monitoring their responses, thinking Can I push them further? I need to get a quote from them on this subject. It’s incredibly difficult nowadays when you’re interviewing celebrities and there’s a PR handler and they’re aware they want to give you the blandest interview possible but they want to get a huge plug for the film.
“You want to trick them into saying something of vague interest to somebody other than The director was great! and I love acting. So that becomes a kind of negotiation and you have to be the kind of person they will respond to. Every writer thinks that they themselves are the most interesting person in the world and actually the interview would be much better if they were answering the questions. You have to remove yourself from the process. I hate interviews where it’s all about the interviewer.”
I agreed. “About five years ago,” I explained, “I almost wrote the ghosted autobiography of a stand-up comedian called Gregg Jevin and the sub-story to that was that he was actually a transsexual; he had actually been born a woman but had the operation and became a male stand-up. So there was an interesting secondary story, which no-one knew about. It all fell through, tragically, because there were so many lies and half-truths involved in what he was telling me. I could never ‘find’ the real person.
“But Gregg, interestingly, said to me that he thought the process of writing a biography was the same as being an archaeologist or a stand-up comedian building fake comic stories on a bedrock of truth.
“In the case of an archaeologist, you are carefully excavating and uncovering the past, but you haven’t really any idea what the hell actually went on. You might uncover a slab of stone and think it was used for a particular purpose, but you could be wrong. If you are a comedian, then you go so far with the bedrock of truth but then start embellishing the details. Equally, if you’re writing a biography of someone then, if they’re dead, you’re probably guessing quite a lot – even if you have a lot of sources, you’re still guessing. And, if they’re alive, you’re still vaguely guessing that they’re telling the truth or that your guess of what they’re telling you is what they’re actually telling you.”
TV scriptwriter Ivor Baddiel, who was also on the Storywarp panel, added: “In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he describes exactly that. He thinks stories are like archaeological finds. You unearth them and then you chip away at them until you get them back to their perfect state. And there is something in that. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you know that you’ve found what’s right. If I’m writing a gag or a line or whatever, I’m scrabbling around for it in my head. And, more recently, I’ve learned to listen to my gut feeling more and sometimes it just pops out of the ether. It might not be completely, fully formed but that’s as right as it’s going to get, maybe.”
“But that,” suggested Helen Lewis-Hasteley, “is also dangerous, because that’s terribly seductive. It’s often pattern recognition. You think I’ve heard this story before and what happens with biographies is that it strips away any nuance. It’s like a politician in a sex scandal. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be a wonderful, reforming politician but also to be an absolute shit. But no-one can hold those contradictions in their heads any more. This is the danger of telling a story: it’s one story or the other.
“Newspapers and magazines rely very heavily on archetypes: you need a baddie and a goodie in a story. Most forms of journalism are so short and it very much helps to have archetypes. It’s all about shorthand.”
“Well,” I said. “with comedian Janey Godley’s book Handstand in the Dark… I allegedly edited that and she had never written before for print at all. At that point, she was a stand-up comedian not a writer. So I was shepherding her. I never actually wrote it. I advised her without ever suggesting any specific words at all. At first, she did what I think a lot of people do when they write their autobiography: she wrote facts – and autobiographies are not about facts. She wrote I did this, I did that, I did the other in a long list of things she did. So I told her Don’t do that, because it can be dull. People are not interested in facts; they’re interested in people. So what you want to write is that, if you were doing lots of things at this time, figure out one episode that epitomises what you felt and what was going through your mind – what your emotions were – and then expand on that one element. That will cover over 15 uninteresting facts.
“If you’re writing a biography or autobiography, it’s the emotional journey, it’s the mental journey you’re interested in, not the facts. No-one cares if you went to Swindon for a day; you want to know what they felt and why. It’s like the American election philosophy: It’s about the Economy, stupid. In autobiographies: It’s about the emotions, stupid. It’s about people.”
And so, when I heard about the death of Gregg Jevin today, I thought to myself: What was the one key emotional centre-point of Gregg Jevin’s character that epitomised him?
And I could not think of a single thing. My mind went blank. It was as if he had never existed.
A sad comment on a life.
(There is more about Gregg Jevin HERE.)