Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Random anarchy, incompetence and brilliance at the Edinburgh Fringe

After reading my blog yesterday about the Edinburgh Fringe, former Skint Video performer Brian Mulligan left a post on my Facebook page saying :

“This reminds me of watching a left wing revolutionary comic flicking past the front pages of hard political news (Apartheid, Contras other 80s stuff) in search of the past night’s reviews. Truly a bubble…”

He is absolutely right, of course. The whole of London could burn down and all anyone in Edinburgh would care about is whether Kate Copstick gave them a 3 or a 4 star review in The Scotsman.

The Edinburgh Fringe is the ultimate inward-looking bubble outside which nothing exists. It also seems as if the English riots are taking place in a totally different country which, indeed, they are.

Yesterday evening, I was having tea with comedian Laura Lexx in the City Cafe, talking about Ink, the straight play she has written/produced at the Kiwi Bar about the 7/7 terrorist bombings, while music played on the audio system and the TV monitor showed footage of hoodie youths turning their Grand Theft Auto games into 3D reality on the BBC News channel – with subtitles. The ranks of police in Darth Vader helmets running along the streets were keeping impeccable time to the rhythm of the music. It was an instant accidental music video. Respect, bro.

Laura was more interested than most in the riots because, in London, she lives in the middle of what was/is one of the main riot areas, round the corner from a large Tesco store, now looted. Clearly teenagers in her area have low aspirations. She was telling me about how the 5,000 flyers she ordered for her Ink show in Edinburgh had not yet arrived and she had had to pay for another 500 from another printer to tide her over.

Edinburgh at Fringe time becomes spectacularly incompetent with the venues, shops, bars, newspapers, magazines et al dragging in hundreds of inexperienced and largely uninterested students, unemployed and general ne’er-do-wells. All they want is drink, drugs and, if they strike lucky, to make the beast with two backs. There are unlikely to be riots in Edinburgh because all the potential rioters are working long hours in temporary jobs. But the effect of this transient annual workforce is that nobody remembers anything that happened at the Fringe beyond two years ago. There is no continuity. Almost everybody is equally a newcomer.

So far, the City Cafe wins the highly-contended-for prize for utter incompetence. The Blair Street Sauna, only slightly lower down the slope of the same road, almost certainly has better service and probably has better things to eat. (I have never been there.)

At the City Cafe, it took 27 minutes to get a wildly overpriced (as everything is in Edinburgh at Fringe time) and very bland Mississippi Mud Pie out of them when the place was only a quarter full. This saga went through getting the other half of the food ordered, getting the drinks, but them forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, bringing a totally different dessert, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie again; and only getting it when I stood at the bar looking at them with an unblinking and slightly psychotic stare.

I don’t actually mind people ballsing things up through general inbuilt incompetence – it’s their employer’s fault not theirs. But this was don’t give a shit incompetence – par for the course in many an establishment during the Fringe.

Things on the show front were going well, though.

The Forum at the Underbelly is a touching little play about an online internet forum with a slight twist at the end which could elicit tears from the unwary. This ain’t going to become a Hollywood movie because you come out into the night unsettled and melancholic. But it is beautifully acted and scripted.

Sneasons of Liz at the New Town Theatre is the opposite – you come out into the night beaming.

It is a musical narrative about a woman with multiple allergies who sneezes her way around the world and is not remotely anything like what I expected.

It is an odd production because most Edinburgh Fringe shows – even the best ones – are ‘alternative’, which means perhaps a bit rough-and-ready and… well… Fringe-like. The one thing they never are is smooth, mainstream Broadway or London West End quality.

But Sneasons of Liz is just that.

It is only a singer on a stool or wandering the stage plus a piano accompanist and some good lighting design. So it is stark. It has no scenery. But it is of London West End or Broadway standard and almost from another era.

This is largely because its star Liz Merendino is a Grade A humdinger of a performer.

She is a classically-trained singer from New York, based in Hong Kong who has been a music teacher for the last nine years. She was wasting her time doing that; she should have been on the West End or Broadway stage. She is that good. The show combines musical standards with specially-commissioned new songs from Fascinating Aida’s Adele Anderson and it is a wonderfully entertaining showbiz blast. Very American but, in this case, none the worse for that. In fact, it’s a positive advantage here.

We are talking Liza Minnelli blast-em-out songs, though much more varied than that implies and Liz Merendino has a voice to die for – let’s hope she doesn’t – one which can cope with some very difficult singing subtleties.

Great songs. Great energy. Great piano accompanist (strangely uncredited). Great, great singer.

It is probably incomparable at the Fringe but, in its own world, it is a 5-star show which does not put a foot wrong.

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The English jury system at work

A friend of mine was doing jury service recently.

After all the evidence was given and after the jury had been deliberating for a while, one of the jury members asked:

“Which one is the accused?”

When she was told which person was actually on trial, she asked:

“Wasn’t the other bloke accused?”

“No,” she was told by my friend, “he was the chief prosecution witness.”

“Oh,” the other jury member replied, “I thought they were both on trial.”

The accused man was found guilty. He probably was.

Who knows?

True story.

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Why I am pictured in Mensa Magazine (twice) holding a man with an erection

How did a man sporting an erect penis with a dog on the end of it get published (twice) in the current issue of Mensa Magazine, the glossy monthly publication for members of British Mensa?

And why am I holding the man?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Thankyou for asking.

Sit down with a cup of hot chocolate and pay close attention.

Preparing for Edinburgh Fringe shows in August tends to start way back in December or January each year.

I am organising Malcolm Hardee Week in the final week of the Fringe – basically two debates, two spaghetti-juggling contests (anything to get noticed at the over-crowded Fringe!) and a two-hour variety show during which the three annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards will be presented.

I am normally a shrinking wallflower where self-publicity is concerned but, because I am chairing the two Malcolm Hardee Debates and there are precious few other photo opportunities, I had some pictures taken, courtesy of lecturer Peter Cattrell, by photography students at St Martin’s College of Art (where, it turned out, no girl came from Greece, though they did have a thirst for knowledge).

I had brought along a giant dice box for no reason other than the fact it looked interesting. Student Cody Cai had brought along a pair of comedy spectacles and student Kerstin Diegel took a photo of me wearing the glasses and holding the box.

I remember thinking, “Oy! Oy! Malcolm Hardee could be Photoshopped into this, popping up out of the box!”

So now, dear reader, we have to take a time trip with wobbly special effects transitions back into the mists of last century – probably to the late 1990s, when the world was young and the Twin Towers still stood in New York…

London photographer David Tuck took some photos of comedian and club owner Malcolm Hardee, including an iconic one of Malcolm apparently doing shadow puppetry with his hands – you know the routine – you link your open hands together, flap them and it allegedly looks like a bird – except that the shadow on the wall behind Malcolm looks like a dog and, with the shadow of his arm included, it also looks like he has a giant penis rising out of his groin in the foreground… with a dog on the end of it.

David Tuck cannot remember exactly when the picture was taken, but it was a couple of weeks before Malcolm opened a short-lived comedy club in Harlesden, which would make it the late 1990s. Memories of Malcolm seldom come with exact dates.

David tells me: “The image Malcolm originally had in mind was that he would be doing a simple bird shape with his hands and a magnificent eagle would be the shadow image. This was before the days of Photoshop so, to get the image onto a piece of black and white photographic paper, I had to cut the image out of card and physically lay it on top of the picture during the darkroom process.

“My abilities with the scalpel weren’t exactly up to creating a photo-accurate eagle in full flight, so we talked about other possibilities and, when he mentioned a dog, I thought: Yeah, a dog I can do!

“I remember afterwards someone saying that it was funny because it appears to be coming out of Malcolm’s flies, like some sort of shadow penis. Just to set the record straight, that wasn’t the joke. I didn’t even notice until someone said it.”

From such random accidents do iconic photos come!

For anyone who knew Malcolm, it will come as no surprise that he never actually got round to paying David Tuck for the publicity photos he took and that this shadow puppet photo was used widely for years afterwards without David ever getting any money or even any credit for taking the photo.

When I used the photo on Malcolm’s website after he drowned in 2005, I found out David had taken it and have always tried to give him credit for it.

Around 2006, comic Brian Damage, at heart an arty sort, was playing around with images. Brian says:

“I was in the middle of my second or possibly third mid-life crisis. (You lose count after a while) It could have been age-related or something to do with giving up smoking or both.”

He played around with the David Tuck photo of Malcolm and basically ‘cartoonised’ it.

I thought it was excellent and got Vinny Lewis to design a poster using this image for all subsequent Malcolm Hardee shows at the Fringe.

Vinny had designed occasional artwork for Malcolm’s Up The Creek comedy club and had created the printed programme for both Malcolm’s funeral and the first Hackney Empire memorial show in 2006.

He added a coloured background to the cartoon and played with details.

So, when I got the St Martin’s photo back from Kerstin Diegel, I got Vinny to Photoshop the Malcolm shadow puppet image into the photo and the result is now available for The Scotsman or anyone else to publish to plug Malcolm Hardee Week at the Edinburgh Fringe.

‘Anybody else’ turned out to be Mensa Magazine who printed the image on the contents page of their July issue and, inside, to illustrate a piece on Malcolm Hardee Week.

I suspect it may be the first time Mensa Magazine has published a photo of a man displaying an apparent cartoon erection with a dog on the end of it. Their defence is clear – that even David Tuck and (possibly not even) Malcolm noticed that the shadow was of an erect penis.

It’s a funny old world.

You can see the photo here.

It was created by Kerstin Diegel, Cody Cai, David Tuck, Brian Damage and Vinny Lewis.

Nothing is ever simple.

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Do Germans have a sense of humour? Hitler is playing the Edinburgh Fringe.

I am organising Malcolm Hardee Week at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, in memory of the late, great godfather of British alternative comedy who drowned in 2005 – all proceeds go to the Mama Biashara charity run by Scotsman critic and Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Kate Copstick.

As part of Malcolm Hardee Week, on Friday 26th August, there will be a two-hour variety show to celebrate Malcolm’s memory which will include the announcement of the three annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards.

Previous Malcolm Hardee tribute shows have included Jo Brand, Jimmy Carr, Omid Djalili, Janey Godley, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Richard Herring, Jools Holland, Phil Kay, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Phil Nichol, Arthur Smith and Johnny Vegas.

We are not announcing who is on this year’s bill until nearer the time but the two comperes for the evening – you read it first here – will be cabaret legend Miss Behave – star of Olivier Award winning show La Clique – and the Third Reich’s favourite crooner Frank Sanazi – he is, according to The Scotsman, one of the “Top 20 Comedians to Catch” at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

For those who have not experienced Frank Sanazi, he sings like Frank Sinatra but looks like Adolf Hitler. Classic songs on his album Mein Way on a Steinway include Third Reich and Strangers on My Flight (about the 9/11 attacks) – and let’s not even mention The Guy From Al-Quieda (featuring Osama Bing Crosby).

You might think one place it could be problematical for Frank Sanazi to play would be Germany, especially as there have long been legal problems impersonating or representing Hitler on stage… well, you tend to get arrested.

But Frank played three gigs in Berlin last year.

His opening words in Berlin were:

“Nice to be back…”

“The locals were a bit shocked at first,” he tells me, “but then I added I know what you’re thinking… This guy looks like Charlie Chaplin and, when they realised it was all parody, they really got into the swing of it. One man even asked if I would consider performing for his company’s annual office party… though he did later phone, embarrassed, to say that his company directors didn’t share his sense of humour.

“By and large, anyone who says Germans don’t have a sense of humour or irony is severely mistaken as I never encountered a single adverse reaction or comment.”

Surely not?

“Well, OK…” he admits, “I must admit that, at my first gig in Berlin, there were a few stunned elders who didn’t really know what to make of me. But they kept a dignified silence apart from one older German lady who had a noticeable sharp intake of breath when I appeared. But maybe she was asthmatic…”

“All three gigs in Berlin were really well received,” Frank tells me. “However, my run in a cabaret show in Munich this October has been cancelled. The promoter thinks the locals in Munich would not take kindly to reminders of their past. As an act of protest, I have arranged to do a show on top of The Brandenburg Gate in October…

“No, I haven’t really but – seriously – I am back in Berlin in early October.”

So is he looking forward to the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe?

“Heil yes,” he says and waves goodbye to me with a cheerily raised hand.

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Why is taxpayers’ money being spent helping policemen become comics?

(This blog was also published in The Huffington Post)

We are in an economic recession. Even without that, life is tough enough for the aspiring stand-up comedian without policemen trying to muscle their way into the act.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner John Yates and former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman were questioned by the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee about the fact they had claimed there was nothing to investigate when News International papers were accused of phone hacking.

In 2009, John Yates carried out an ‘investigation’ into a previous 2006 phone hacking investigation. His ‘in-depth’ investigation lasted a whole eight hours (presumably including a lunch break) after which he decided there was nothing to investigate.

He had not bothered to examine several bin bags of incriminating paperwork seized from the home of private detective Glenn Mulcaire nor read the 11,000 pages of evidence held inside Scotland Yard which included the fact that both future Prime Minister Gordon Brown and future Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had been hacked.

His defence yesterday for what, on the face of it, was a breathtaking lack of investigation was that he could not investigate the allegations against News International properly because News International would not co-operate with him.

This is a bit like saying that the police could not investigate the Yorkshire Ripper killings because the Yorkshire Ripper would not send them information incriminating himself. If I ever commit a major bank robbery, I would want John Yates to be the investigating officer.

John Yates is Scotland Yard’s new head of counter-terrorism and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson says that Yates “currently undertakes one of the most difficult jobs in UK policing and is doing an outstanding job leading our fight against terrorism.”

I don’t know if I am alone in finding that this – far from reassuring me – makes me feel even more uneasy and unsafe. Presumably he would have difficulty investigating a planned terrorist attack if al-Qaida did not co-operate with his investigations.

We value tradition in Britain. The Metropolitan Police appear to be continuing a long tradition of being staffed by would-be dodgy double-glazing salesmen. Though I have to be careful because I would not want to be sued for defamation by dodgy double-glazing salesmen who might object to being compared to the Met.

Andy Hayman – whom Commons committee member Lorraine Fullbrook called “a dodgy geezer” – was in charge of the original phone hacking enquiry at the Met.

While ‘investigating’ the accusations against News International papers of phone hacking, Hayman (who had wanted to be a journalist when he was younger) had dinners with News International executives (one wonders if he would have dinners with bank robbers while investigating alleged bank robberies) and, on retiring from the Met after reported ‘controversy about his expenses’, he was given work by News International – writing for The Times.

An article in today’s Independent describes the Hogarthian scene in the House of Commons’ committee room yesterday:

When Ms Fullbrook asked him (Andy Hayman) whether he’d ever taken money from a paper in return for information, he threw his arms into the air, as in a Feydeau farce: “I can’t believe you asked that!” And: “I can’t let you get away with that! Taking money?” He was gasping; speechless; eyes bulging. Julian Huppert had observed mildly: “Other policemen have.” Hayman cried something about his integrity and seemed on the point of scrabbling at his chest. The whole room was laughing – at, not with; scornful, down-the-rabbit-hole laughter at a figure who not long ago was defending 90 days of detention without charge. He was, in Keith Vaz’s words: “More Clouseau than Columbo.”

Last week, the London Evening Standard claimed that “Assistant Commissioners Andy Hayman and John Yates were both scared the News of the World would expose them for allegedly cheating on their wives if they asked difficult questions of the Sunday tabloid.”

Previously, Labour MP Tom Watson had used parliamentary privilege to say: “John Yates’s review of the (private detective Glenn) Mulcaire evidence was not an oversight. Like Andy Hayman, he chose not to act, he misled parliament.”

In a blog back in February, I mentioned that Margaret Thatcher’s solicitor – a partner in a major law firm – once told me he would never put a Metropolitan Police officer in the witness stand without corroborating evidence because you could never be certain a Met officer was telling the truth.

Likewise, the owner of a prominent detective agency who employs ex-SAS troopers etc, told me he never employs ex-policemen because you can never trust them.

I am not particularly outraged that the News of the World was hacking into people’s phones – they allegedly bugged both John Yates and Andy Hayman’s phones while the dynamic duo were allegedly investigating the News of the World for phone hacking – I am not even surprised that a policeman was flogging the Royal Family’s personal phone and contact details if he was paid enough – but I am outraged that the taxpayer appears to be footing the bill for policeman apparently attempting to build their performance skills for a future career in stand-up comedy should this ‘police job thing’ not work out.

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Sucking up or sucking off? UK Prime Ministers, Rupert Murdoch and a puff

Look, I only plug people and things I believe in on this blog so, with that in mind, read on…

British Prime Ministers have been sucking Rupert Murdoch’s corporate cock since the 1960s. It’s nothing new. Nor is amorality.

Lance Price was a special advisor to Tony Blair. In 1998, he became deputy to Blair’s Communications Director, Alastair Campbell; and he was the Labour Party’s Director of Communications from 2000 until the General Election of 2001. Price says Blair was under Murdoch’s thumb from the beginning:

“I started working for Tony Blair a year after he became Prime Minister. I was shocked to be told by one of those who’d been closely involved with the talks in Australia, and subsequently, that: ‘We’ve promised News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without talking to them’.”

But – hey! ho! – political pragmatism, like journalistic amorality, is good news for some…

My elfin comedian chum Laura Lexx is staging her first straight play Ink at the Edinburgh Fringe in three weeks time.

The play is actually about the London 7/7 terrorist bombings and the media intrusion into victims’ lives but, of course, the subject of where the journalistic tipping point lies between investigative illumination and amoral intrusion is timeless.

Laura’s press release (written months ago) says: When reporting the news is business, is there space for truth and a conscience?… Will we accept hack journalism as a necessary evil for swift information?

It could have been written last week about the phone hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World. It is a subject, as the red-tops might themselves say, RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES – but of eternal relevance.

The play’s billing reads: “Ordinary man blown up by terrorists – he made jam and had a son. Nothing special. The media made that clear as they conjured headlines from victims and sprinkled them between crosswords.”

My elfin chum Laura Lexx was both a Chortle and Paramount Student comedy finalist in her first six months of live stand-up performance; then she went on to reach the semi-finals of both the Laughing Horse and Funny Women competitions.

I saw Ink when it was a student production at the University of Kent.

It was impressive then.

With the number of actors in the cast cut back for financial reasons and the writing sharpened up even more, it will be interesting to see how it fares at the Edinburgh Fringe, given its accidentally up-to-the-minute relevance.

Now.. if only I could see some RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES angle for my own two spaghetti-juggling events at the Fringe…

My head is spinning.

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The News of the World, the Profumo Affair and the planned military coup

(This blog was later published in The Huffington Post)

I studied journalism at college – well, radio, TV and journalism.

The man in charge of the journalism part of the course was the Production Editor of the News of the World. So we got lots of good lecturers – people like Cecil King, who had created Mirror Group Newspapers and the then-all-powerful IPC.

As a result, we got a very good insight into the real workings of the press and occasionally some great anecdotes.

One was about Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of the News of the World in 1969.

At the time, obviously, there was a lot of publicity about the re-launch of the ‘new’ Murdoch version of the paper and the News of the World’s TV ads promised one big thing – the REAL story of the 1963 Profumo Affair which had brought down Harold Macmillan’s government.

The News of the World had been a major player in the 1963 scandal and had interviewed almost everyone involved in the affair on tape at the time and had sworn affidavits from all and sundry.

But, when Rupert Murdoch took over the News of the World in 1969, he realised that, sitting in the basement in boxes of tapes and papers, there was much that had gone unpublished in 1963 – in particular about the sexual proclivities of Profumo’s wife, actress Valerie Hobson… and about exactly what type of sexual services Christine Keeler provided to Profumo (the UK’s Secretary of State for War) and to Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London.

However, when the News of the World published their ‘new’ stories about the Profumo Affair, they were just the re-heated previously-published stories. There was nothing new or earth-shattering.

Apparently this was because there had been such unrelenting legal, political and financial pressure on the News of the World that they had backed off. There were even stories of the police listening to tape recordings in one room while, next door, News of the World staffers were busily erasing parts of tapes.

I am a great fan of Doctor Who and, boy, do I wish I had a fully-functioning TARDIS so that I could come back in 100 years or 150 years and find out what had really been happening during my lifetime.

Cecil King, our occasional lecturer at college, was an interesting man because, with some good reason, he had an ego that engulfed any room he entered. Years later, it was claimed or revealed (two words that expose a gulf of possibilities) that he had, in 1968, talked to Lord Mountbatten (who was later assassinated) about the possible overthrow of Harold Wilson’s government with Mountbatten replacing the Prime Minister.

It seems to have been a relatively low-key bit of idle ego-boosting by Cecil, as opposed to the more seriously-thought-through plans for a military coup to overthrow the Wilson government in 1974-1975.

This plan for a military coup in the UK was briefly mentioned in some editions of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times in 1987 but, I think, removed from later editions. The article does not seem to exist online at the Sunday Times, but I have the original newspaper cutting.

I did once ask the MP Dale Campbell-Savours about the ‘Cunard Affair’ – part of the plans for a military coup in the UK – as he had brought the subject up in the House of Commons. He asked me to phone him at home at the weekend, not at the House of Commons. I did. And he then told me he could not remember any details. “We were looking into a lot of things at the time,” he told me. “I can’t remember.” I always thought this was a little strange. However many murky affairs you were looking into, a planned military coup to overthrow the UK government (with a dry run during which tanks were taken to Heathrow Airport), might stick in the memory.

Only journalists or time travellers know the truth about history while it is actually happening.

The general consensus seems to be that the perceived necessity for a military coup in 1974/1975 lessened and became unnecessary when Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 and subsequently won the 1979 General Election. The so-called Operation Clockwork Orange in which Margaret Thatcher’s close adviser Airey Neave (who was later assassinated) may have been involved may also have had some effect.

Clockwork Orange and the linked Colin Wallace affair, in which he was framed and imprisoned for manslaughter after he claimed the security services had tried to rig the 1974 UK General Election, surely has the makings of a feature film. A pity the title has already been used.

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are always gripping entertainment, especially if they are real and who knows what is real?

Earlier in this blog, I specifically wrote that both Lord Mountbatten and Airey Neave were peripherally involved in political machinations and were both later assassinated.

Paranoid conspiracy theorists could have a field day with that. But, of course, they were both assassinated by Irish terrorists for reasons totally, utterly unconnected with the alleged plots: they were assassinated because they were high-profile targets.

As for other matters, I always think it is healthy to maintain a certain level of paranoia. There was a saying circulating in the 1960s: No matter how paranoid you are, they are always doing more than you think they are.

I wish I could get a time machine and go forward 100 years to see what was really happening in the world during my life.

If only.

If only.

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