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If alternative comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, is storytelling the new comedy?

Natural Born Storytellers at The Lost Theatre

Natural Born Storytellers went theatrical at The Lost Theatre

Comedy clubs in the UK are said to be on the decline. But storytelling is teetering on the brink of the possibility of becoming the new comedy.

Nowadays, by and large – especially at the Edinburgh Fringe – comedians do not perform traditional gag routines. They tell stories with laughs. Some – often the more interesting – do not even tell funny stories. They tell serious stories in a way that makes people laugh. I often say that my very talented chum Scottish comedienne Janey Godley does not tell funny stories: she tells stories funny.

A couple of weekends ago, at The Lost Theatre in London, I saw a Natural Born Storytellers show – their first in a theatre. It was packed. Their normal monthly shows are at the Camden Head pub. The next is tomorrow night. It is like sitting in some Icelandic hut thousands of years ago, listening to short sagas. Fascinating and entirely successful.

Natural Born Storytellers is run by comedians Michael Kossew and Matt Price. I talked to them at Soho Theatre yesterday.

“Storytelling clubs could take off big,” I told them. “But it’s a marketing problem. The word ‘storytelling’ is not as sexy as the phrase ‘stand-up comedy’.”

Matt Price (left) and Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre

Matt Price (left) & Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre yesterday

Michael said: “If I tell people it’s a true storytelling night, they want to know more. I think the themes help to get people in.”

“We have a different theme every month,” explained Matt. “And it’s the ‘true’ element that attracts people. It’s true, alternative, raw storytelling. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Michael said: “I did Natural Born Storytellers at the Burning Nest Festival in May and I told one story. The rest of the 1 hour and 45 minutes was made up by everyone sitting round in a circle taking turns to tell their own stories. I thought This works! This really works! – in a festival environment, in a theatre environment. It works. People are really interested.”

“And in a corporate environment,” suggested Matt. “I am not lowering ourselves quite to the level of karaoke but, if you’ve ever seen a karaoke night, once one person has a go at singing, everybody else wants to have a go. We find our audiences stay behind after the show and people are telling stories. It’s a different vibe to a comedy night. Everyone has a story. It’s no different, really, to sitting round the dinner table. The difference is we are in a club and you have to walk into a building with strangers but, by the end, people become inspired and want to hear more stories and tell more stories.”

“It’s massive in America,” said Michael. “There’s a thing called The Moth.”

The Moth has taken off in the US

The Moth storytelling outfit has taken off in the United States

“The Myth?” I asked.

“The Moth,” said Michael. “It is like a fly-on-the-wall, but it’s a Moth. I’d never heard of them until we had been going a few months, but they do very similar things to us.”

“And there’s also RISK!” said Matt, “and CRINGE. I think raw and honest is the direction we want to go in although we have room for everybody – so long as their story has a beginning, middle and end. That’s what drives me mad sometimes. It’s such a simple concept and I can’t understand why some people don’t get it.”

“Even comedians?” I asked.

“Especially comedians,” said Matt.

“Surely in comedy,” I said, “comics are used to heading towards a strong end – a punchline?”

“But,” said Michael, “they are looking for laughs. They are not so comfortable with telling an eight-minute story – we have an eight-minute time limit – with no-one laughing. People can be sitting on the edge of their seats absolutely enthralled and then the comedian slips in a joke just to hear a laugh and the audience loses interest because it feels too contrived. People will laugh if it’s a funny story, but it’s a more natural laugh coming from empathy with the person telling the story. Not because there is a punch line. You don’t need that.”

“I guess,” I said, “that most of your current storytellers are comedians or showbiz people because of your contacts?”

“We’re looking to find a wider variety of storytellers,” said Michael.

“I don’t know if we want comedians, really,” said Matt.

“Some do get it,” said Michael. “They get on stage, use their normal voice and tell a story. That’s what we’re looking for. People to be themselves on stage. If you can’t be yourself, it’s going to be hard to tell a true story.”

“And you’ll hate it,” said Matt. “And the audience will hate it.”

“Eight minutes is not some arbitrary number,” explained Michael. “It’s pretty much the exact point where people will start losing interest in a short night. If you keep it to eight minutes, you’ve got them gripped the whole way through.”

“And the storytellers are restricted to the monthly theme…” I said.

Natural Born Storytellers Each month a different theme

For the last 18 months, a stage for Natural Born Storytellers

“The themes are designed to be flexible,” said Matt. “So, for example, with My Hands Were Tied there was the moral decision element, the sado-masochism element and we even had a guy who was a former escapologist who talked about the politics of being an escapologist.”

“In a future show,” said Michael, “we have a story about a man who boiled a parrot.”

“Perfect,” said Matt.

“I’m going to make up a special theme,” said Michael, “just so he can tell that story. It is one of the funniest stories I have ever heard in my life.”

“But,” I said, “the stories do not necessarily have to be funny.”

“Oh no,” said Matt.

“We have had people crying,” said Michael.

“It’s lovely to hear a gasp followed by a laugh,” said Matt, “and then people even crying.”

“Sounds like a synopsis of my sex life,” I said.

“There have been one or two occasions,” said Michael, “where events have happened almost too close to the person getting on stage and telling the story. To them, it’s more like venting and that’s not really what we’re about. We want a coherent story rather that a psychiatrist’s couch.”

Matt said: “We like to think of ourselves as alternative storytellers. We’re so modern, we don’t even know where we are going.”

“How can you develop it?” I asked.

“At the Camden Head,” said Michael, “we’re going to do a live podcast.”

“And,” I suggested, “although people don’t want to listen to the same jokes again and again, they will listen to the same song lots of times and still enjoy it. It can be the same with good stories.”

Chris Dangerfield’s 2014 Edinburgh Fringe show

Dangerfield’s Edinburgh Fringe show – quite a story to tell

“At the Edinburgh Fringe this year,” said Matt, “I went four times to see Chris Dangerfield’s show. The reason was because it felt like going back to listen to a really good music album. It was not radically different every night, but it took on a different tone each night. With stories, they evolve as you tell them. Some of the best stories are ones you can hear again and again and you actually gather more each time you hear them.”

“Well,” said Michael, “with any story, the more you tell it, the better you are going to get at telling it. I’m going to run a three-hour storytelling workshop starting in November – about techniques and figuring out how to elicit stories from your past and how to construct them. But every person tells stories completely differently. It’s mostly about constructing an atmosphere for sharing and constructive feedback between a group.”

“But if you can do workshops,” I said, “it implies there is no such thing as a natural born storyteller: the technique can be taught.”

“There are natural born storytellers,” said Matt, “but you may have to bring that natural talent out.”

“Some people,” said Michael, “need a little bit of coaxing out of their shell. It’s also about structure. Finding what is relevant. What is the story REALLY about?”

Can storytelling clubs ever become as widespread or as populist as comedy clubs?

At the end of each edition of BBC TV’s highly popular Graham Norton Show featuring ‘A’ List stars, he has ordinary members of the public tell stories in ‘the red chair’. If the story is not interesting enough, they get tilted out of the chair – a bit like a storytelling Gong Show.

Storytelling clubs could catch on now that the appetite for pure gag-based comedy appears to be waning.

The story told by Matt Price at Natural Born Storytellers in the Lost Theatre show is on YouTube.

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Why “Peep Show” led one American in Los Angeles to love British comedy

The current image on Naomi’s Twitter page

The current public  image displayed on Naomi’s Twitter page

I have had a Twitter account – @thejohnfleming – since March 2009 but, honestly, I have never got the hang of it. Nonetheless, people follow me – only 2,026 at the moment, but every little helps.

Naomi Rohatyn started to follow me last week. Her profile says: “Wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in LA. Aspiring to become wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in London.”

I thought this was fairly interesting as most comedy writers in London seem to aspire to be writers in Los Angeles.

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

But just as interesting was the fact she runs a Tumblr website called Pun Dumpster.

It is just a series of pictures of PhotoShopped graffiti on large waste containers.

So, obviously, I FaceTimed her in Los Angeles this morning.

“You like British comedy?” I asked.

Naomi via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

Naomi spoke via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

“I think the real obsession for me,” she explained, “started a couple of years ago with Peep Show. I think people of my generation in America grew up watching Monty Python… AbFab was on in the 1990s and even The Young Ones played here I think on Comedy Central in the 1990s.

“A couple of years ago I was just tootling around on Hulu and found Peep Show and now I’m obssesed. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it. So then I became obsessed by everything David Mitchell and Robert Webb did and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have ever done and followed the threads. I could follow David Mitchell round all day and listen to his brilliance.”

“You know he’s taken now?” I asked. “He married Victoria Coren.”

“Yes. I hadn’t really been aware of her before. The only panel shows I’d watched were a fair amount of QI because, of course, Stephen Fry is brilliant, but then I sought out Victoria Coren’s panel show and she’s very funny and witty and… this is so embarrassing… I wanna pretend I have fine taste, but.. I was watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and she had this great riff on Goldfinger. David Mitchell and Victoria Coren are perfect for each other.”

There is a clip of Peep Show on YouTube.

“Where do you see all this stuff?” I asked. “On PBS?”

“All on my computer,” said Naomi. “On YouTube or Hulu or Netflix. All the panel shows have been on YouTube.”

“Have you got BBC America?” I asked.

“I don’t have cable. I just watch everything online.”

“Why UK stuff?” I asked.

“Part of why I love British comedy so much,” explained Naomi, “is what I perceive as bleakness in the British soul; a way of looking at the world with a knowing smirk. So much of British comedy starts from the premise that life is basically a series of humiliations and disappointments – whereas American humour is perhaps still uplifting at its core – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t have the same gaping ennui, which is something I just love about British comedy.

Naomi Rohatyn

Naomi insists Americans hold no sole patent on stupidity

“I think we do political satire and social satire really well, but there’s still something missing – a different approach to the human experience. In scripted shows, we still tend to default to things that are ultimately uplifting or protagonists that are either utterly likeable or a a clear anti-hero – they’re not just flawed fuck-ups.

“There is also that stereotype – for a good reason – that British humour is wittier and more intelligent than some American stuff. That has a foundation in truth, though it’s not because Americans hold the sole patent on stupidity and ignorance. But I do think there’s a strange cultural rejection here for anything perceived as intellectual.

“Even if you look at something like (the British TV show) The Thick of It and (its US re-make) Veep. I feel Veep is smooth peanut butter as opposed to the chunky original.”

There is a BBC trailer for The Thick of It on YouTube.

“We do have this weird proto-populist rejection of anything that is too intelligent. In The Big Bang Theory – even though they’re supposed to be super-intelligent – it’s low-brow humour.

“When I watch Peep Show it is so grim and vérité, but then they make allusions to Stalingrad and I feel that would come off as somehow so elitist here or people simply wouldn’t get the references. It’s not part of discourse here except in academia. And there’s not such a culture of self-deprecation here as there is in Britain.”

“You’re a writer or stand-up or both?” I asked.

“I would say 90% writer and 10% performer. What I mostly am is a dork.”

“And you write for…?” I asked.

“Yeaahhh…” said Naomi. “We are still working on that.”

“What did you study at college?” I asked.

“Critical Social Thought,” replied Naomi. “Probably the subject least applicable to any actual career. It was the liberaliest arts degree one could get. Our joke was it made you even less employable than an English Major.

Naomi Rohatyn_selfie2

When she moved to LA, Naomi worked on the devil’s testicles

“When I first moved to Los Angeles (from San Diego) I started at the very bottom rung of the entertainment industry, production assisting on many horrible TV reality shows which are woven of the devil’s testicles. I did a lot of random crewing – art department, sound department, post production stuff. Then the 14-hour days started getting to me and I wasn’t writing enough, so I took a day job at a law school for a couple of years and I’ve gone in a straight downward trajectory and now I walk dogs for cash in hand to support my writing habit.

“I feel like now I have goodish contacts here in LA: a lot of friends many of whom do have representation and are legitimate, functioning, employable human beings.”

“What are you writing at the moment?” I asked.

“I’m working on a satirical travel book. A satirical guide to Britain for American travellers. All utterly worthless information – a satire on those Rough Guides.”

“Have far back does your British comedy knowledge go?” I asked. “Do you know British acts like Morecambe and Wise?”

“Yes. This was why Peep Show was such a great gateway drug because it got me into the history of the double act. That’s something we don’t have as much of.”

“Off the top of my head,” I said, “I have to think back to Burns & Allen.”

There is a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen on YouTube.

“We had Nichols & May,” said Naomi.

“But, in the UK,” I said, “they were not really known as a double act. They were a film director and a writer and, in fact, sadly, Elaine May was not much known here.”

“That’s too bad,” said Naomi.

“Indeed it is,” I said.

“There’s Key & Peele today,” said Naomi, “but double acts seem more of a tradition in British comedy.”

There is a clip of Key & Peele on YouTube.

“I suppose there is a British tradition,” I said. “Reeves & Mortimer, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball… Do you know Tommy Cooper who, in Britain, is really the comedians’ comedian?”

“I don’t know him.”

“You wouldn’t want to live in Britain, though,” I said. “Living in Los Angeles has some advantages. For example, there is sunshine.”

“It is wasted on me,” said Naomi. “I don’t care about the weather, I don’t care about the beach. I can’t swim very well, I don’t surf, I don’t need sunshine. To me, rainy, cold, foggy miserable, dark, damp, grey Britain is perfect because it gives me an excuse to hate everyone and be in a coffee shop writing.”

“You should move to Glasgow,” I said. “You will love the weather and the fact you hate humanity will be much appreciated. If you go round being aggressive, you will fit in perfectly. In fact, if you like bleakness in the British soul… I think Scottish humour is much more dark and dour and straight-faced than English humour – Scotch & Wry or Rikki Fulton or Rab C.Nesbitt.”

“I’ve seen Frankie Boyle on the panel shows,” said Naomi, “but most of my concept of Scottish comedy – or Scottish life in general – is English comedians slagging it off – drug addicts and reprobates and fried Mars bars.”

“That is not comedy,” I said. “That is social realism and reportage.”

There is a clip from Rab C.Nesbitt on YouTube.

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Greek comedian Katerina Vrana – she’s not cheesy, just getting feta and better

The show

Scotland, England, Australia, Greece and America?

I missed Katerina Vrana’s show Feta With The Queen at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, but I caught up with it a couple of weeks ago in London.

Katerina is a British-based Greek actress/comedian with a pure English accent who has a lot of hair and a lot of potential. Feta With The Queen is about her experiences as a Greek living in the UK and was a flawless comedy show with a flawless performance by a comedian who had a good script and total audience control.

Shortly after that London show, she flew to Greece to perform Feta With The Queen there and, last week, she flew to Melbourne for Australian shows until 17th December.

I talked to her yesterday, after her jet lag had abated. It was lunchtime in London and half past midnight in Melbourne, where she had just returned to her flat after her show.

“How long did it take to write the show?” I asked.

“About a year,” she told me. “It actually started in Greek, not English. I did it in Athens in Greek, though it was a slightly different show. And then I wanted to see if bits would work in the UK, so I started working on it in English in Spring 2012.”

“And it changed from the first Greek version?” I asked.

“It’s complicated,” said Katerina, “because stand-up is such a new form in Greece that they sometimes don’t know the conventions and how it works. So the simplest way was a very simple format of We do this… But, in the UK, they do this… And that would make them laugh. I obviously developed it for Edinburgh.”

“I somehow imagined,” I said, “that the Greeks invented stand-up comedy. They invented everything else in performance.”

“You would think so,” agreed Katerina, “But, like everything else, they probably invented it 3,000 years ago and haven’t touched it since.”

“Was Aristotle not doing knob gags?” I asked.

“Ooh loads,” laughed Katerina. “It was political satire with loads of knob gags. And a lot of sexism, which we do very well as a culture.”

“The British do that very well too,” I said.

“You’d be surprised how much behind us you are.”

“That’s not a phrase I want to hear…” I said.

Kateina Angel 7

Would you refuse to give feta sponsorship to this performer?

“Last year,” said Katerina, putting me back on track, “I tried to get sponsorship from feta companies in Greece and one of them was extremely positive but, after they’d said Yes, a week later, they got back in touch and said: We’ve just had a meeting and we’re not sure what stand-up comedy is, so we’re saying No.

“A friend of mine brought the CEO of that company to see my show last week in Greece and he said Well, we clearly need to sponsor this girl. So hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to get some sponsorship, because I’d like to go to New Zealand and possibly Montreal, though I’m not totally sure.”

“But, anyway,” I said, “after trying the planned Edinburgh show out in Greece in January, you also previewed it in Melbourne in Spring this year.”

“Yes, I thought the best way to preview it for the Edinburgh Fringe was to take it to another festival where I could work on it and perform the whole show as often as possible instead of doing one preview a month in London – and also to see if it had any resonance to people who aren’t Greek and aren’t British. Can it stand on its own if the people don’t live in the UK but have an understanding of the UK? If you are not Greek or British, does the show work? And it did.”

“And now,” I said, “having performed an early version in Greece and previewed it in Melbourne, then run it successfully through the Edinburgh Fringe, you have just played the finished Edinburgh version in Greece again…”

“People had sent me messages from Greece,” explained Katerina, “saying We want to see the show that got all the 5-star reviews in Edinburgh. So it’s the same Edinburgh show you saw in London with a couple of Greek swear words thrown in.”

“How did it go down?”

“It went really well,” said Katerina. “I had to add an extra show because they sold out. Greeks take forever to book. There was a very slow trickle of advance booking then, the day before I performed, all three shows booked out. So, on Sunday, I did two shows back-to-back.”

“And it being in English was not a problem for the audience?”

“No. But it’s not enough to be able to simply understand English. I tend to speak fast sometimes and I didn’t want to compromise by slowing down, though I did slow down some things in the end… Greeks tell you immediately if they don’t like something and someone did shout out: Speak slower! and I said (in a posh English accent) I’m terribly sorry.”

“Did you have to change the actual content for a non-British audience?”

“No, I did add a couple of Greek swear words instead of English because they were more natural in that context. But only tiny little tweaks like that. No massive changes. I wanted to take the show I did at the Edinburgh Fringe to Greece.”

“Did you revert to a Greek accent?” I asked.

“No. If I’m talking to people in Greece in everyday situations, I do revert to a Greek accent but, when I’m talking to myself on stage, it’s easy to keep my British accent.”

“So, in a sense,” I said, “when you’re on stage, you’re not talking to the audience, you are monologuing in your head.”

“More or less,” agreed Katerina. “I’m basically opening the door so you can look inside my head.”

“And you might take this same Feta With The Queen show back to the Edinburgh Fringe again next year?”

“Yes – Maybe… Well, in whatever form it might have taken by then, because I’m going to keep working at it. I want to include more nationalities and I lived in India for a year and a half and I’d like to bring that in a bit.”

“In India,” I said, “with your English accent, they presumably thought you were British?”

An Indian guru - not a Greek comedy performer

Same hair; different approach: Indian guru, not Greek comic

“No,” said Katerina, “they didn’t know what to do with me because, to them, I didn’t look white enough to be British and my hair confused everyone. They kept saying Haha. Your hair is like Sai Baba.

“Who?”

“A guru in south India who died in 2011 with a lot of hair. I actually tried to see if I could get little parts in Bollywood films when I was in India, but they said I didn’t look foreign enough. That’s plagued me a lot in my acting career: I never look ‘enough’ of the thing I want to go for. I routinely get turned down for Greek parts because I don’t look Greek enough.”

“What does a Greek woman look like in theory?” I asked.

Penelope Cruz.

“She’s Spanish.”

“Yes. That’s what they think we look like… Like Salma Hayek.”

“She’s Mexican.”

“Yes. I get that a lot, especially in the US. Not so much in the UK, because so many Brits go on holiday to Greece that they know what Greeks look like.”

“So where do Americans think you come from?”

“They can’t even hazard a guess.”

“I suppose,” I said, “to seem Greek in America, you would have to be bald and suck a lollipop like Kojak. But ‘bald’ would maybe not be a good look for you.”

“I would lose half of my material,” said Katerina.

“Your show would presumably play well to Americans?” I asked. “You’re talking about British and Greek culture, but that can be understood even by people who have not actually lived in either country.”

“Yes,” replied Katerina. “But, at the moment, I’m concentrating on one continent at a time!”

“So what else in happening in Australia?” I asked.

Katerina performs her show in Thessaloniki  (Photograph by Sofia Camplioni)

Katerina performs first version of Feta show in Thessaloniki (Photograph by Sofia Camplioni)

“I’ve got some meetings with a couple of producers – I’m talking about bringing over some Greek acts and touring them in Australia, because there’s such a massive Greek population here.

“In Greece in the summer, as soon as May hits and the heat goes up in June/July, everything stops. Theatres close down; everything closes down unless you’re doing something outdoors – and stand-up does not work well outdoors because there are too many distractions.

“So comedians don’t work in Greece from May to October and therefore June/July would be a good time to take Greek comedians over to Australia because it’s autumn there. There’s such a demand in Australia for new comedy and new voices.”

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A rather sad Space Precinct legacy for Thunderbirds producer Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson in his Pinewood office in 1979

Gerry Anderson in Pinewood office, 1979

In the film industry, there is a long tradition of chisellers, cheats, conmen and crooks. Put this together with lower TV budgets, a morally decent producer and a British TV production company trying to create an expensive-for-TV, glossy sci-fi series made for both the US and UK markets (which have differing expectations) and shot at a major British film studio and you have a recipe both for major production problems and an almost certainly tragic sitcom.

In 1979, I chatted to TV producer Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios during one of several low points in his life.

I reprinted parts of the interview in three blogs back in January last year

Seven years after I had that chat with him, in 1986, Gerry Anderson produced a 55-minute TV pilot film entitled Space Police.

Shane Rimmer (right) in Space Police pilot

Shane Rimmer (right) in original Space Police pilot

The pilot featured Anderson regular Shane Rimmer as a New York cop called Brogan. The series failed to sell and the pilot was never aired.

Fast forward another eight years and, in 1994, Gerry got together with Mentorn TV boss Tom Gutteridge. They re-styled the Space Police concept and made an ill-fated series called Space Precinct with Ted Shackelford as Brogan.

The new Space Precinct documentary

The Space Precinct Legacy documentary

Last night, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, I attended what was rather grandly called the ‘world premiere’ screening of Space Precinct Legacy, a 90-minute documentary on the troubled making of the Space Precinct series.

Space Precinct was conceived as a cop series set in space, where “instead of the usual run-of-the-mill baddies, you’ve got aliens as baddies”. It centred on the adventures of New York cop Brogan, transferred to take care of trouble on a distant planet filled with cops and baddies wearing prosthetic heads. Animatronics inside the heads made the eyes move.

Expectations were high but were slowly dashed as the production progressed.

Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia explained: “We tried to keep it as honest a telling of the making of Space Precinct as we could without getting sued.”

During the production of the Space Precinct series, there were problems with the US distributor who had claimed to have pre-sold the series across the nation in peaktime slots (a necessity to actually finance the series). In fact, in the US, the series tended to be scheduled in early morning kids slots or very late night graveyard slots with far lower advertising returns.

At one point, Tom Gutteridge had to borrow £2 million to continue shooting the series himself when money from the US backers stopped and twelve US lawyers flew over to the UK to try to get out of the watertight contract signed by the backers.

The backers backed down and continued to finance the show, though presumably through gritted teeth.

US and UK dramatic needs varied

The US and UK markets required incompatible drama types

There was a fundamental problem because of the differing tastes and expectations of US and UK audiences. The  Americans wanted darker adult drama for peaktime screening. The British wanted twinkle-in-the-eye knowing humour.

Executive producer Tom Gutteridge says:

“If there had been a second series, we would have had to have decided precisely what the show was that we were making. If we were making an American show just for America – which is really what we should have done – it would have been a completely different animal and I’m not absolutely convinced that Gerry Anderson would have been the hands-on producer.

“I think it would have been creatively very different. We would have had a much clearer, stronger, probably darker vision. The humour would have been more consistent all the way through, there would have been fewer – better – writers. There would have been a single voice and that voice I don’t think would have been Gerry Anderson’s… if there had been a second series.”

The Space Precinct title logo

The Space Precinct on-screen title logo

In retrospect, he thinks there was not enough money, certainly not enough time and that more money should have been put into special effects and less into “lining some people’s pockets”.

Other people involved in the production agree that the series was, partly, scuppered by “jobs for the boys” and dodgy geezers.

One seemingly generally-held opinion was that: “Gerry was listening to all the wrong people – his friends or his trusted allies – and that was a mistake… There were just a handful of people there who were taking the money and running – lining their pockets as fast as possible.”

Jamie Anderson, Gerry’s son, said after the screening last night:

Christine Glanville (left) and Mary Turner on Gerry Anderson’s series Four Feather Falls

Christine Glanville (left) and Mary Turner working on an early Gerry Anderson puppet series Four Feather Falls

“I was ten years old. I just had an amazing time, but I remember being sat awkwardly trying to ignore a conversation in which Christine Glanville who had worked from the very beginning as a puppeteer – right from the start – and had been with dad all the way through his various shows… She said she felt really let down by some members of the crew.

“Up until that point, in every show they’d worked on, there had been a real close-knit family feel and all-of-a-sudden there were a few people there who did seem to be lining their pockets and were just happy to do sub-standard work. Even as a ten year old I could pick that up.”

Even now, there might seem to be a bit of a curse on anything to do with the Space Precinct series.

Director Paul Cotrulia at the premiere last night

Director Paul Cotrulia at premiere last night

Last night, the documentary’s director Paul Cotrulia told me: “My production company and my business partners were very keen to do a Space Precinct re-boot and we explored that idea for some time with Mentorn – developing script outlines – then, halfway through the documentary and developing the (new) show, Mentorn said Oh, actually, by the way, we only own the UK rights to Space Precinct. So you’re not going to be able to sell this project internationally. So it came to a halt.”

There are no clips from the Space Precinct series in the documentary.

Paul Cotrulia explained to me: “About halfway through production (of the documentary), Mentorn told us they didn’t get buy-out contracts from the actors, which meant that we would have had to pay those actors their original fee again just to use a clip. It would have cost too much. The same with the music. I love the music, but EMI wanted an enormous amount of money and we had to be realistic about our projections of how the documentary would perform with just releasing it in the UK.”

A sad legacy for the late Gerry Anderson.

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John Cage: the avant-garde composer who won millions in TV gameshows

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

Martin Soan trawling the internet for John Cage

Martin Soan trawling the internet for tales of John Cage

I blogged yesterday about a chat I had with comedian Martin Soan.

When we were chatting, he mentioned he had read somewhere that avant-garde American composer John Cage had once won five million lire on a TV quiz show by answering questions on mushrooms.

Surely not, I thought. It sounds like an urban legend. But it turns out to be true.

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water on US TV

John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US was when he appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, a show in which the panel had to guess what contestants’ secrets were.

John Cage’s secret was that he was going to perform his own musical composition involving a water pitcher,  an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, two cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a Seltzer siphon, five radios, a bathtub and a grand piano.

This planned musical performance caused a “juristictional dispute” between two of the trade unions who were involved in the show. There was a dispute over which union should have the responsibility of plugging the five radios into the power supply.

This was resolved by John Cage, who said: “Instead of turning the radios on, as I had written to do, I will hit them every time I was supposed to turn them on. Then, when I turn them off, I will knock them off the table.”

His composition was entitled Water Walk, explained Cage, “because it contains water (in the bathtub) and because I walk during its performance.”

John Cage (right) on I've Got a Secret in 1960

John Cage (right) on the I’ve Got a Secret gameshow in 1960

The show’s presenter said: “Inevitably, Mr Cage, these are nice people (in the audience) but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?”

“Of course,” John Cage replied, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.”

That was John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US.

But the year before – 1959 – he had appeared on the Italian TV quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing).

Cage was in Italy to see the composer Luciano Berio who, at that time, worked at Studio di Fonologia, the Italian state broadcaster RAI’s experimental studio for audio research.

As a result, John Cage ended up making five appearances on the Lascia o Raddoppia gameshow, in which he answered questions on his specialist subject ‘poisonous and edible mushrooms’. He also provided musical interludes with his own compositions.

Reviewing his first appearance on the show, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported: “John Cage, an American very fond of mushrooms, left a very good impression. The lanky player revealed that he had begun getting into mushrooms while walking in the Stony Point woods near his house. He is now in Italy to perform experimental music concerts and play an extremely weird composition of his made of shrill squeaks and dreary rumbles via a specially-modified piano. Mr Cage sat by a special piano tweaked with nails, screws, and elastic bands, drawing unusual chords from it. The piece was entitled Amores and it sounded like a funeral march.”

Part marine

“A cross between a baseball player & a marine”

On his second appearance, La Stampa reported that Cage looked like “a crossbreed between a baseball player and a marine” and “was a sort of institution within New York University circles a while ago. Everywhere he went, students with a Jerry Lewis hairdo and their female mates in blue jeans forsook their books and gathered around a jukebox… That’s where Cage showed his incredible capabilities: he goggled his eyes with a disappointed face, he spread his long arms and uttered weird guttural sounds from his mouth. The students happily danced to the rock ‘n’ roll music around him… He once dragged a student marching band through the streets of New York, attempting a bizarre imitation of what jazz used to be at the beginning: only the police managed to stop Cage’s tumultuous enthusiasts.”

On his third appearance, according to La Stampa: “Before facing the 640.000 Lire question – which he answered brilliantly – John Cage performed an experimental music concert specially composed for the Italian TV audience. The piece, if we could call it such, was entitled Water Walk.” The result, said La Stampa was “a carnival bustle. The audience enjoyed the joke and applauded… It seems that John Cage is about to repeat the piece in all the Italian cities where he will perform his concerts. After which – he jokingly claimed backstage – I can commence my truck farming business.

John Cage (right) on Lascia O Raddoppia in Italy, 1959

John Cage (right) demonstrates his musical talent, 1959

By the time he got to the five million lire question, La Stampa was even more enthusiastic, saying: “John Cage, the great American mushroom expert, looked a lot more determined. During the first question he had to complete the analytic key of the ‘poliporacee’ (a mushroom species) from which four names were deleted. He did it without hesitation, as well as adding the name, colour, shape, width and length of a particular mushroom whose picture was shown to him. The very last question, the 5 million one, shook his nerves and turned his blood cold. John Cage had to spell all 24 names of the white-spored ‘agarici’. Twenty-four questions in one! A very tough question, even for a real mushroom expert. However, John Cage – a little bit sweaty this time – quickly pronounced all of them in alphabetical order. A triumph! While he was receiving audience applause, he thanked the mushrooms and all the people of Italy.”

At the time, five million lire was worth around $8,000 and Cage used the money to buy a piano for his home in New York and a Volkswagon bus for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

John Cage died in 1992.

So it goes.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Italy, Music, Television, US

American comedian explains the US healthcare system at Edinburgh Fringe

Andrew J Lederer alive and reasonably well in Edinburgh

“I mentioned to the audience that I was hot and that I wanted to take my sweatshirt off, but that I didn’t have a shirt underneath it – I was just wearing the sweatshirt – and they yelled Take it off!” American comedian and storyteller Andrew J. Lederer told me this week.

We were at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I can’t resist a dare,” Andrew told me, “so I took off the sweatshirt and then went Oops! I just gave the show away! Obviously, they had seen the photo, but they didn’t know if it was real. They even asked: Is it real?

“Well, I told them, there are many ways of answering that question. No matter what it is, it’s real. A real WHAT – that’s the question.”

“What was the problem?” I asked him.

“I needed heart re-adjustment,” Andrew told me. “I don’t want you to give away too many details in your blog, because the fun of the show – the rollercoaster joy of the show – is coming along with me as these things revealed themselves – always surprisingly and always unsettlingly.”

“But you had a heart operation?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he told me. “It was thirteen weeks ago this week.”

“And why does your Edinburgh Fringe show have the title Cold?” I asked.

Andrew’s 2 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Well, I’m doing two shows on the PBH Free Fringe,” he explained. “Cold is just an overall umbrella name for the two shows because last year’s was called Cold Chicken and this year’s is called Cold Comfort and I’m performing them both at this year’s Fringe.

Cold Chicken was about when I was having my London breakdown and about me trying to figure out what was wrong with me: was it physical or emotional? And that sent me back to America – which resulted in Cold Comfort. I may be the only guy ever to go from England to America to get medical treatment!

“I set out to find out was I really having a physical problem or an emotional problem or both. And I found out that I needed open heart surgery. And then the day before I was scheduled to go into the hospital and have myself buzz-sawed in two, the phone rings and I get the answer to the question about what had been happening to me. Only I didn’t care any more because it was cold comfort. Great! I got the answer to the question but, by then, it had become a trivial question.”

“So the two shows are connected,” I said.

“No,” said Andrew. “They’re entirely separate. One is about me in London, falling apart. And the other is about me in New York trying to find my own pieces and put them together – or find someone who can do that for me.”

“And you had a serious operation just 13 weeks ago?” I asked.

“It’s a massively serious operation,” said Andrew. “They take you offline. You’re living on a heart-lung machine. It’s as serious as it gets. I had to be emotionally prepared to die.

“I had to say to myself: This could be the last day I’m alive. They’re going to sap away my consciousness and that may be my last moment of consciousness. I posted something on Facebook that night called Last Will and Testicles.”

“You’d never been that close to possible death before?” I asked.

“Well, I’d walked into the street and there are cars in streets,” Andrew said.

“Maybe this is the year of heart problems at the Fringe,” I said. “Rick Shapiro was in the hospital for three months and got out in late June, then arrived at the Fringe at the start of August. There’s Richard Tyrone Jones and his heart failure. And Carey Marx didn’t come because of his heart attack. Then your own operation was only 13 weeks ago.”

“In New York,” said Andrew, “I go to the gym three times a week.”

“You do?” I said.

“It’s cardiac rehab,” said Andrew, “and it’s just like the gym except it’s paid for by insurance. It’s at the hospital and you wear electrodes and they watch your heart while you do it. Because of budget cutbacks or whatever, you have to put your own electrodes on.”

“You’ve moved back in New York now?” I asked. “You’ve left London?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re going to stay in New York?”

“That’s a question I’m never capable of answering. I seem to go where the money isn’t.”

“Did you go back to the US because you had health insurance there?”

“Well, I only went back because of a wonderful thing that happened while I was in London.”

“Which was?”

“I went broke. Completely. So, when I went back to America, I was poor enough to get poor people’s health insurance. In America, you’re only allowed to get health insurance if you’re rich and can afford to pay for it. Or if you’re very poor. Because they want the middle class to go away. They get in the way. The rich people want poor people to stay alive so they can exploit them. So we have a healthcare system that is, in fact, the greatest healthcare system in the world if you have it, but you’re only allowed to have it if you either have a lot of money or no money.”

“But,” I asked, “if you’re an expat and have been living in London for a few years, how can they totally know what you have? You may have money salted away.”

“You wanna know the beauty of it?” said Andrew. “They just ask you how much money you make. You need no documents of any kind.

“By the end of my London experience, I had twitching eye muscles, my neck felt like it was pulling itself apart. I didn’t know if I was having a nervous breakdown or something was wrong with me. I went to Whitechapel Hospital and they said Huh. You’re alright! It went on for months. They didn’t care. It was not an emergency as far as they were concerned.

“So I went back to the States and started searching out the answers and, over a period of more than a year, it led me to more horrible questions.”

“You were able to search out the answers for free on healthcare as well?” I asked.

“You know what it was like when I got back to the States and had access to healthcare? It was like winning one of those competitions where you get to run through a supermarket with a giant cart and put as much as you can into it as you possibly can. I’ll take a foot doctor! And here’s a cardiac specialist! And you end up with a cart that’s just full of all these guys in white coats with various specialties, brandishing their diplomas.

“I looked up all my doctors online before I chose them. There are these great websites in the States where people go online and they comment on the doctors. They give the doctor stars like he was an Edinburgh Fringe show and they write their reviews.”

“So how did you choose which doctor to go with? You went on the number of stars?”

“Yes! It’s exactly the same as in Edinburgh!”

“I want to become an American citizen,” I laughed. “Do you get financial support once you’re out of hospital?”

“No. I was out of the hospital four days after they buzz-sawed me in two.”

“So, basically,” I said, “they do it all for free but then don’t help you support yourself when you’re recovering?”

“Well, you know what?” said Andrew. “The surgeon told me – and this is one of the top one percent of cardiothoracic surgeons in the United States – he told me, You know, when you get out, you’re going to do various things and some of them might hurt and, if it hurts… don’t do it. He didn’t realise he was saying the oldest, purest medical joke in the world!”

“Have you been performing comedy in America?”

“I haven’t been doing anything! I’m a patient! I’m a professional patient!”

“Have you got a fallback place to stay in New York?”

“In the 1950s, my grandfather, a very forward-thinking man, bought a large number of cemetary plots for the family. It was a steal, he told us. You know how much it costs to buy a  piece of cemetary land?

“So there have been difficult periods of my life where my domestic circumstances would have been better if I were dead rather than alive. I should have been able to live on my cemetary plot. It’s my land! Why can’t I live on my land? I’ve lived in smaller spaces in New York.”

“This is how big?” I asked. “A bit of ground maybe seven feet by four?”

“I own whatever the amount of space is that they need to allow you to be dead. I should pitch a tent there! Who would I be hurting? Who am I going to disturb? It’s beautiful greenery and I know the people there; close relatives everywhere I turn. And yet I’m told I can’t stay there unless I’m dead and what good does it do me then? It’s in New Jersey. It’s suburban. I would be a squire. What kind of free market laissez faire capitalist country is it where a man can own a plot of land and can’t place his weary bones there unless his bones are past the point of all weariness?”

“Well, you should do it,” I told Andrew. “I think you should go and pitch a tent there for the next nine months and that could be the subject of your Fringe show next year.”

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Canadian comedian Graham Clark – the man who takes on the Olympic Games

Graham Clark is not worried by the toughest gig in London

When I chatted to Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner recently, he mentioned that Canadian comic Graham Clark was coming over to the UK to play one show only for one night only at the Comedy Cafe and it is this Friday.

I had tea with Graham yesterday afternoon, admirably and surprisingly not just awake but lively after flying over from Vancouver.

“You have the worst possible date for a gig,” I told him. “Clashing with the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games on TV.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had a gig the night the Vancouver Winter Olympics started in 2010.”

“So you’ve already experienced what London’s next few weeks are going to be like?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I know what a nightmare it becomes. The rich people are really excited about it, because they’re the ones who’re gonna see lots of things and then everybody else gets screwed because the traffic’s messed up. They sell it as the brotherhood of man and a great coming-together of the world, but it’s really just a good time for rich people and everybody else has to put up with it. Getting everywhere in Vancouver was a nightmare and all the comedy clubs were kaput.”

“There’s no comedy ‘circuit’ in Canada, is there?” I asked.

“Not like there is here in Britain,” Graham explained. “Because it’s such a gigantic country. There’s mini-circuits within the Provinces, but it’s not like here or the US because you would spend so much money going from city to city on a plane – or driving – that you’d never make any real money. There’s a small fringe festival circuit, but not like here.”

“Have you thought about playing the Edinburgh Fringe over here?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” Graham said, “But you just hear stories that it costs a fortune.”

“A couple of hours ago,” I said, “someone told me one of the major agencies this year was unusually honest to a new act they manage. They told her that, if she sells out every seat at every performance of her show at the Fringe this year, she will end up only owing them £9,000.”

Graham laughed.

“So what’s it like being a comedian in Canada?” I asked. “You’re a second rate American.”

“It’s tough,” Graham said. “Really tough.”

“And do the audiences react to material the same in the States and Canada?” I asked.

“In the States, the crowds are more lively,” Graham said. “They go nuts. They clap and shout and hoot and holler. And, as a comedian, that’s great. Even the best Canadian audiences are very sedate. The worst American audiences are still more lively than the best Canadian audiences.”

“American comics,” I said, “sometimes complain that British audiences sit there thinking That’s very funny but don’t laugh.”

“It’s the same in Canada,” said Graham.

“Did you start your weekly podcast to break into a wider market?” I asked. “You saw it as a pilot for a radio show?”

“No,” said Graham. “There isn’t really a place for that in Canada. We pitched it loosely to CBC; but maybe it’s too much in its infancy.”

“And you continue the podcast because…?”

“Because, in Canada, everyone does everything,” Graham explained. “There are people in Britain who just do stand-up. It blows my mind that you could just be one thing. In Canada, you have to be doing stand-up, writing on a TV show or, if something comes up, you act in something or you produce your own shows or do podcasts – and that’s just to make the rent. That’s not piling up riches.

“In Canada, there’s not even that much money in TV. In the last couple of years, I’ve worked on a couple of sitcoms and a panel show and a daily news humour show: but none of them paid very well. There’s only one Canadian comic I know who can fill auditoriums – Russell Peters.”

“So you are exploring all avenues,” I said.

“Yeah,” Graham agreed. “I put a DVD directly online, because that’s the new…

“What Louis C.K. does,” I said.

“Yeah. But it works surprisingly well, even in a smaller microcosm like Canada; it’s easier for people to access.”

“So do you reckon comics have to leave Canada to make it big at all?”

“Yeah. And the whole time you’re working in Canada, that’s hanging over your head. Everybody moves to the States or to Britain.”

“So you, too, have to move?” I suggested.

“Yeah. It’s possible.”

“You thinking about it?”

“Every time I pay the rent,” Graham laughed.

“To the States or Britain?” I asked.

“It costs a lot more to move to the States,” he said, “and I have an Irish passport – my family’s from Antrim – so that makes it very easy to work over here.”

“Would you describe your act as more gag-based or story-based?” I asked.

“More story-based, I guess,” Graham replied, then paused. “I’ve written gags for other people but, for myself, doing lots of one-liners never works: it always comes out sounding too ‘finished’. I don’t have that Jimmy Carr type of delivery where you do accept from him that he is performing written one-liners. People want my delivery to be like it just fell out of my head. If it seems too polished, people don’t accept it from me, which is weird.

“When Jimmy Carr goes on stage, you kinda know he is the character ‘Jimmy Carr’. It’s the same thing in America with Rodney Dangerfield or Steven Wright.

“You identify them as a specific character, so they can talk in one-liners; it doesn’t bother you. But some people – like Louis C.K. – talk naturally in paragraphs or in stories. I don’t know if I would accept Louis C.K delivering one-liners, even though that’s what he used to do: shorter jokes.”

“So,” I said, “in your own audience’s view, you just come onstage and chat to them.”

“Yeah,” Graham mused, “I’ve tried a bunch of ways but that’s the way that flows the best for me: to have an idea and push it out on stage.”

“People have to believe it’s…” I started.

“…organic,” Graham said. “Yeah. With me, if it’s too ‘written’, it’s gonna sound that way. I’ve tried different styles of jokes – linked and stories and short and one-liners and dirty and clean – and the one thing that seems to work the best with me is when it just seems to be running off the top of my head.”

“Traditional comics with strings of short gags,” I suggested, “seem to be a dying breed. It’s mostly stories at the Edinburgh Fringe now.”

“Though, oddly, I feel my jokes are getting shorter,” Graham told me. “When I started out, they tended to be longer and have more detail, but now maybe I’m better at editing and want to get to the point faster. The British comics we see who come over to Canada have big, long stories.”

“Does that go down well?”

“It does,” said Graham, “but you could never develop that in Canada because, in the clubs, you need to turn over the laughs faster because nobody’s paying attention.

“In Britain, a whole 5-minute routine can be one story. You’d really have to be very confident to do that in Canada, because people don’t have the attention. They want jokes every 30 seconds. If you’re not delivering that on a Friday night, then they’re gonna drift. We have to be more gag-based than the British.”

As Graham and I parted – he was off to do a radio interview to publicise his show – he said to me: “That was a good interview you did with Noel Faulkner.”

“Well,” I said. “Noel’s like me: he’s got to that age where he doesn’t care – He’ll just say what he thinks.”

“I wish I could get to that stage,” Graham said. “I still worry.”

Twenty minutes later, I got a text message from Neale at the Comedy Cafe, telling me that Graham’s show on Friday – up against the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV – had sold out.

Maybe Graham Clark does not need to worry.

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Filed under Canada, Comedy, Humor, Humour, London, Olympics, Performance, UK