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“How do you sleep at night?” I asked character comedian Matt Roper two days ago in Buenos Aires

Matt Roper as himself in Edinburgh

Matt Roper as himself at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

On 10th January, I got an e-mail from British comedian Matt Roper. It said:

“Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or Tuscon, Arizona? I’m at truck stop in New Mexico and I can get to either place to get to where I need to be. But I can only choose one. Your thoughts?”

“The Wikipedia entry on Albuquerque,” I told him, “has sections on Freight Service and Sanitation. If the only thing they can write about Albuquerque to make it sound interesting is its sanitary arrangements, the town has not a lot going for it.

“As for Tucson, Wikipedia says: The Arizona Daily Wildcat is the University of Arizona’s student newspaper and the Aztec News is the Pima Community College student newspaper. The New Vision is the newspaper for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the Arizona Jewish Post is the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. You can’t go wrong. It has everything.”

Matt decided to go to Tucson and, on the Greyhound bus trip, he got talking to a bounty hunter. But that’s another story.

When I talked to him two days ago, Matt was in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“I flew into New York and managed to do everything by train up until Texas and then I ended up doing car shares and Greyhound buses,” he told me. “I really like them, because you really meet the real characters on the buses.”

“Who’s the most bizarre person you met?” I asked him.

“Maybe the bounty hunter. Maybe the pimp’s nephew. There was the 18-stone Baptist preacher who tried to convert me to Southern Baptism. And the guy who coached Bobby Fischer, the chess champion. I think that guy is living in abject poverty in New York; he’s in his seventies, drinking quite heavily. He never received any money. Bobby Fischer went on to make loads and loads and he never gave the guy any.”

“But now you’re in Buenos Aires,” I said. “I’m green with envy. You’re just basically meandering around the world.”

“I’m always writing and trying stuff out, doing gigs here and there,” said Matt.

He performs as the rather greasy, slightly lecherous but strangely charming Spanish lounge lizard singer Wilfredo.

An EP of Wilfredo has just been released

An audio EP of Wilfredo’s songs was recently released

An EP of his songs The Wonderful World of Wilfredo has just been released on iTunes and a documentary film Wilfredo Comes To Town is doing the festival rounds.

“I got connected with some local comics and ended up doing a gig here last night,” Matt told me on Skype. “It was interesting doing a Spanish character in Buenos Aires. I felt as if I was being fed to the lions. But it went well. It’s been really inspirational.

Matt (left) with comic Gregorio Rossello in Buenos Aires this week

Matt Roper (left) with Argentinian comic Gregorio Rossello in Buenos Aires this week

“The Argentinian comedy scene isn’t huge, but I met some local comedians. There’s a group of four young Argentinian comics who flyer every weekend. Their work ethic is so inspirational. They hire this little room above a pub like we do in London – 60 capacity. They flyer all day and night on a Friday and Saturday and do three shows a night every weekend – a 10.00pm, 01.00am and 03.00am show – because no-one goes to bed here till gone dawn.

“I have a blessed life. I support myself with writing commissions and gigs.”

“Yes,” I said, “You write these promo scripts, which is sort-of like what I used to do. But I had to go to places like Salford. You get to travel the world and work via the internet.”

“You’ve been to Tibet,” said Matt. “I haven’t been to Tibet. I’ve never seen the Potala Palace.”

“You’ve come to my home,” I said. “You’ve seen the picture.”

“I’ve seen the Dalai Lama,” Matt said.

“I’ve only seen him talk at Wembley,” I said. “You’ve been more exotic.”

“I was an English teacher in China for six months when I was about 27,” said Matt, “teaching adults. I used to wind them up. I would play Odd One Out with them. I’d put the names of four towns on the board and get them to pick which one didn’t belong, say: Lhasa, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Beijing! they’d say – Why? – Capital city! – Good, but wrong. It’s Lhasa, cos Lhasa’s the only one that’s not in China! They’d go ballistic. I’d been with the Tibetan community in exile at Dharamsala in northern India.”

“Have you seen the Iguassu waterfalls yet?” I asked.

“No,” said Matt. “I fly out of Buenos Aires in five hours. Basically, I’ve come all the way to Argentina, rented an apartment out in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, miles away from anywhere, and mostly what I’ve done is sit here and written, drunk a few bottles of wine and taken a taxi into town every now and then. It’s ridiculous.”

“So you haven’t seen the pampas,” I said. “You haven’t seen men on horseback with large balls. None of that?”

Matt with his two constant anti-cockroach friends

“Say hello to my leetle friendz” Matt with his cockroach killers

“None of that,” agreed Matt. “But I’ve seen cockroaches. I don’t mind insects and I love animals, but cockroaches! Buenos Aires is one of the great cockroach cities of the world. You can see them all weaving in-and-out of the human traffic on the pavements. But there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not because the place is dirty. It’s the heat and… I just can’t fucking cope with cockroaches. I don’t want to cook. I lose my appetite.”

“How do you sleep at night?” I asked.

“I just leave the light on. They don’t like lights and they don’t like noise. So I usually keep some music on.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you want to go to Buenos Aires?”

“Because I had to leave the States cos my visa was up and I’ve always wanted to come to Buenos Aires. But I’m going back to the States now… LA and New York… I have to leave the apartment in 35 minutes. Cockroaches can survive nuclear holocausts, you know.”

“And you’re back in Britain in May?”

“Yes. And then I’m doing a tour of Central Europe in June with your Facebook friend Alex Frackleton, because he’s keen to get back into stand-up. We play Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, two dates at an arts festival in the Czech Republic and I’m hoping to play Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One club in Leipzig as well.”

“I saw the first show there,” I said. “It was full. They had to turn people away. Alex Frackleton told me there was a story about you and him meeting up in Prague.”

Matt Roper, Alex Frackleton and Czech friend

Matt Roper and Alex Frackleton with their unknown Czech friend

“Yes, we went to the big Gay Pride event in Prague,” said Matt, “and were photographed with an enormous transvestite. Alex was looking up: Can we have a photograph? – We’re not gay! We’re comedians! – We’re not gay! We’re comedians!

“Why might you play Leipzig?” I asked.

“Because it’s Martin Soan and because it’s close to Prague and because my dental technician is in Berlin. She’s the woman who makes Wilfredo’s teeth.”

Yes, dear reader, Matt Roper wears specially-constructed teeth when he performs as Wilfredo.

“Have you got two sets for safety?” I asked Matt.

“Yes, I always keep one set in my pocket, just in case the first set fly out and break. You gotta have spare teeth, John!”

“No embarrassing questions at Customs yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Matt. “But, when I got to Buenos Aires, I unzipped my bag and the owners of the apartment saw this pair of big teeth and a black wig. Because I don’t speak much Spanish and they didn’t speak English, there was nothing said. Just this silence.”

“I always think travelling makes people better people,” I said. “But has it made you a better comedian?”

“I think the States has given me tons of material,” said Matt. “Not so much Argentina. I think Argentina is more similar to Britain than the States is. It seems to me that Argentinians enjoy nothing more than to see somebody fail. Like the British. They’re very pessimistic. Whereas, in the States, they love to see people succeed. They nurture success and I find that quite attractive. All this Have a nice day! stuff wound me up at first. Have the best day of your life, sir! But, after a while, with everybody saying it, it’s actually quite nice. It’s better than calling somebody a cunt.”

“In Glasgow, calling someone a cunt is a term of affection,” I said, “according to Janey Godley and Jerry Sadowitz.”

“I don’t know Janey that well,” laughed Matt, “but we were both on the Nicholas Parsons show together in Edinburgh and, when she looked across at Wilfredo, she said: Fucking hell! 25 years ago I would have fucking married you!

“Me, half my family is Irish Catholic. My dad’s family is Liverpool, which is naturally like a Celtic city.  All the religious suppression, all the guilt is good for comedy. I think that’s why Liverpool is such a great comedy city. And Glasgow. From that religious suppression comes a lot of humour. How else are they going to get through the day?”

An extract from the documentary Wilfredo Comes To Town in which Matt’s character sings Moon River is on YouTube.

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Filed under Argentina, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, US

What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Internet, Television, Theatre

John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis and the famous ballerina who was a gun runner

“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.

So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.

In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.

His relevance, as far as this blog is concerned, is that he accidentally appeared in the little-seen and staggeringly weird Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels.

In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”

The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.

The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.

It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.

He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.

All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.

Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.

Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.

He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.

Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.

Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?

I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.

Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.

It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.

I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.

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Filed under Classical music, Drugs, Movies, Rock music, Television

Why Roman Polanski’s glamorous rape-excusing friends should be ashamed

I once had to make a television trailer for a documentary on the Waffen-SS. It was very difficult to cut together any pictures that did not make the SS look glamorous because most of the footage was actually shot by the Nazi regime itself, therefore it had a Triumph of the Will style about it. Wonderful angled shots of smart, black-uniformed men marching down steps in formation. The Nazis tended not to film the Waffen-SS butchering men, women and children. Bad for the image.

Let’s be honest, Hitler’s Third Reich made good films and had a great sense of visual style in the design of their uniforms, their architecture and the staging of big-scale live events. But that doesn’t mean that The Holocaust was a minor matter and that Adolf Hitler “should be forgiven this one sin”.

I always find that, if you take an opinion or an event – especially on moral questions – and re-position it into an extreme situation, then that clarifies the opinion or event. My extreme situation is Nazi Germany.

If an argument works put into the context of Nazi Germany, then it probably works in general. Which brings us to Roman Polanski.

His glamorous showbiz chums sit around saying that he should be ‘let off’ the sex abuse charges on which he was found guilty in the US – and on which he jumped bail – in 1977. They say that he should be forgiven his trespasses because (a) he is famous, (b) he is or was a good film director, (c) he had a bad time in the War and (d) it all happened a good few years ago.

I admire Polanski’s earlier films.

But he drugged, raped and buggered a 13 year old girl. This is no small matter and the facts are not in dispute.

If Hitler were found living in Surbiton, the fact the Holocaust was a long time ago and he had had a difficult childhood would not quite merit ignoring what was done and letting him off with a slap on the head and “Don’t do it again, you naughty boy,” said in a disapproving tone.

I recently mentioned in passing on my Facebook page that when IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with attempted rape, was initially refused bail, one reason the judge gave for not giving him bail was the fact that Roman Polanski had done a runner on a rape charge.

Someone pointed out to me that the girl victim in the Polanski case “has been trying to drop charges for the last ten years… She has said that all of the publicity for this incident has hurt her more than the actual crime itself… She’s suffered enough; let it drop.”

Well, if Hitler were found living in Surbiton, the fact that the Holocaust was a long time ago and the people who suffered would be upset by a trial would not affect what crimes had been intentionally committed.

Raping a 13 year old is not right. Buggering a 13 year old is not right. And, equally, jumping bail to avoid a jail sentence for drugging, raping and buggering a 13 year old girl is not something to be ignored just because you used to be a good movie director and it happened a while ago.

The fact Polanski’s original trial judge in 1977 was running for public office, desperate for self-publicity and sounds like he changed his mind on giving Polanski a custodial sentence does not enter into it. I imagine some of the judges at the Nuremberg Trials were scumbags; it does not mean that Nazis found living in freedom 30 years later should not be tried.

My bottom line is that, if you drug, rape and bugger a 13 year old girl and then flee abroad to escape a custodial sentence, you deserve to be imprisoned for a considerable time. The fact glamorous showbiz names champion Roman Polanski and, in effect, say he should be pardoned for artistic merit nauseates me. Hitler was a painter and commissioned good movies. I don’t think his artistic merit or the artistic merit of Leni_Riefenstahl enters into it.

You can read the 37 page transcript of the Grand Jury proceedings against Roman Polanski in 1977 HERE.

According to the girl’s testimony, after giving her champagne and a Quaalude, Polanski sat down beside her and kissed her, despite demands that he “keep away.” He eventually, she said, “started to have intercourse with me.” Later, he asked the 13 year old: “Would you want me to go in through your back?” before he “put his penis in my butt.”

Asked why she did not more forcefully resist 43 year old Polanski, the teenager, who was 13 at the time of the rape, said: “Because I was afraid of him.”

The girl sued Polanski in 1988, alleging sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and seduction. In 1993 Polanski agreed to settle with her and according to the Los Angeles Times he agreed to give her half a million dollars. Reportedly, she was still trying to get part of this money from him in 1996 but she and her lawyers later confirmed the financial settlement was completed.

The girl publicly forgave Polanski in 1997, twenty years after the rape and buggery.

In 2009, Lech Walesa, former President of Poland, argued that Polanski “should be forgiven this one sin.”

I say fuck him.

Details of what was in Polanski’s 111 page Polish Secret Service file are HERE.

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Filed under History, Movies, Politics, Sex

Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke and “normal” rape

I should start this by saying I have known three women who were raped.

I have worked with two; and a girlfriend of mine had been raped in her early teens.

I may be biased because I think Labour leader Ed Miliband is a twat, but I’m more disgusted with him trying to make political capital out of rape than with Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke’s comments on rape sentencing – at least from the relevant excerpts I’ve heard and seen of what Ken Clarke actually said – as opposed to what he is implied to have said.

What seems to have happened is that he was defending government plea-bargaining proposals which would offer a 50 per cent reduction in sentences (instead of the current one third reduction in sentences) in return for an early guilty plea for various serious offences including rape.

When challenged about the seemingly low average sentence for rape at the moment, Clarke mentioned that the average includes cases which involve teenagers having consensual sex with each other if the girl is under 16. The example he gave was of an 18 year old boy having sex with his consenting 15 year old girlfriend. Even though she perfectly happily consents, that is legally rape because she is below the age of consent… but that specific boy is likely (quite rightly, I think) to get a lower sentence than some Neanderthal scumbag guilty of what most people would think of as what Clarke called “serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman”.

I think he is quite right that most people would accept a boy of 16 years and 1 month having sex with a consenting girlfriend of 15 years and 11 months should get a lesser sentence for rape than what people would think of as a ‘normal’ case of a man raping a woman… because it is a ‘different’ type of rape.

The fact that the use of the words ‘normal’ and ‘different’ can be twisted and misconstrued by quoting that sentence out of context exemplify how difficult it is to talk about rape.

Ken Clarke also foolishly said something along the lines that date rape cases can be “complicated” though, indeed, they can be. And he is right that average sentences (which is what he was being asked about) are affected by individual case circumstances because some cases deserve longer sentences than others. In that sense, there are, indeed, ‘different types’ of rape deserving different lengths of sentence. It is not that some cases are less serious but that some cases are nastier.

I asked a female friend about this and she thought that, perhaps, a teenager having consensual sex with a girl under 16 could be legally called something other than “rape”: perhaps ‘unlawful sex’. But it would be very difficult to draft that into Parliamentary legislation because how could you possibly separate a 45 year-old man preying on a 10 year-old girl from a 16 year-old having consensual sex with his 15 year-old girlfriend?

At what point would it change over from a crime of “unlawful sex” to the much worse “rape”? Is the sex performed by a 17 or 25 year-old less predatory than that performed by a 35 or 45 year-old? And at what point is “consensual” relevant? 15? 14? Parliament has decided 16 is the cut-off point. I think in most states in the US it is 18. In Italy, it is much more complicated, as the Silvio Berlusconi case (which I blogged about three months ago) shows.

It is almost impossible to legislate for ‘different types’ of unlawful sex.

But the sight and sound of Labour politicians trying to make political capital out of a very serious matter – trying to score sixth form public school Debating Society type points off each other – is an unedifying spectacle. Far moreso than Ken Clarke making a valid point.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it is particularly edifying to have the government give accused people 17% lower sentences (50% instead of 33%) if they plead guilty early… just to save money.

I’m also not clear if, under the proposals, people would get a 50% reduction for pleading guilty plus the normal (I think it’s) 50% time off for good behaviour… That would mean someone facing a 16 year sentence would get an 8 year sentence and be out in 4 years with good behaviour… a 75% reduction in sentence.

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Filed under Crime, Legal system, Politics, PR, Sex

Memories of Hanoi twenty two years ago – and the woman with the robin redbreast face

I received an e-mail today from a friend who is in Vietnam for business. She is staying at a 6 star resort near Hoi An, south of Da Nang.

“I did a double take in Hanoi,” she wrote, “when I saw the brand new, enormous and heavily branded Hanoi Hilton near the main square.”

Apparently the new Hanoi Hilton hotel is opposite the Opera House. I was in Hanoi in November 1989 and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ I passed was the original one – the notorious Hoa Lo PrisonI recognised its crumbling colonial front from photos. I asked my guide: “What’s that building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye which meant we both knew we were playing a game. I kept a diary when I was in Hanoi in 1989. This is an extract:

THURSDAY 30th NOVEMBER – HANOI

Out of my window, there’s the constant sounds of car and moped horns tooting intermingled with the sounds of cheap engines.

The hotel is a simultaneous mountaineering and orienteering expedition… along endless corridors, up endless stairs, through a darkened room with a hidden comedy step to trip the unwary and finally through a half-darkened fire escape landing. The room is small but just about OK (no wardrobe or drawers) and the shower room looks like it’s seen better days at Auschwitz. But I call it home and it’s interesting to see what East Germans consider an international hotel. (There is a big East German group here.)

Nightlife in Hanoi is quite something. Bright white lightbulbs and shops are open everywhere in what I think is the main shopping street. It’s a bit like a cross between Earls Court Road on a Saturday night and a 1950s American Graffiti street with cruising. I did see three little old wrinkled ladies curling up inside blankets in a shop doorway. One cafe was doing a roaring trade because it was showing Thai rock videos. And children were playing everywhere. Children of all sizes. This was at about 8.45pm.

Teenagers listen to American rock music everywhere. It must be strange for their fathers and grandfathers.

They fought the French in the 1940s and 1950s and defeated them.

They fought the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s and defeated them.

But they lost the peace.

Now their children listen to US rock music.

FRIDAY 1st DECEMBER – HANOI

I now have a new hotel room with television (my first in Vietnam). This is probably a result of changing money with the driver and an excessively expensive $50 trip to Halong Bay. The guide is now paranoid about me telling anyone:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da?”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

People are mostly ignoring me in the street. I think I have now worked out the economics. Beggars ask locals for money but don’t ask me. They think I am a Russian. Everyone thinks I am a Russian. The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because (a) they don’t smile and (b) they have no money. No-one wants roubles only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies can’t trade with the Vietnamese. My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we passed the very flash Opera House, he told me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket. The bottom half of her face was entirely red. Her face looked like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me, then staggered away.

I missed a photo opportunity this afternoon: two Russians buying blue jeans in the Hanoi equivalent of Oxford Street/Petticoat Lane. Further on, another Russian was toying with the idea of buying a Sony Walkman, insisting the shopkeeper put a cassette in it to test the sound quality.

I’m getting obsessed by the Russians. One TV channel at teatime had three particularly dreary Russian cartoons followed by their equivalent of Tomorrow’s World – Programme 2 – The Wonderful World of Computers. The Vietnamese channel carried a programme about a factory.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, one of the Canadians had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese:

I AM NOT A RUSSIAN

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws. In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

The Hong Kong Brit told me he used to keep a pet monkey in Lagos; one of their neighbours in Hong Kong keeps a baboon which has a habit of flushing his toilet in the middle of the night.

I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

All I want is to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti on television for one minute.

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Filed under History, Travel

A man with Tourette’s Syndrome and an FBI file… Plus how comedian Ricky Grover insulted me.

So, the story goes like this…

On Monday night, I went to the New Act of the Year auditions at the Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch, one of the jolliest and most brightly-coloured comedy clubs in Britain. A film crew was coincidentally filming scenes for an upcoming movie called The Comedian.

The Comedy Cafe’s owner, Noel Faulkner, has had a ‘colourful’ past which he revealed in his astonishing 2005 Edinburgh Fringe show Shake, Rattle & Noel. I first met him when we were both helping-out our mutual chum Ricky Grover by appearing in an early pilot/showreel for his planned movie Bulla, which Ricky has recently completed as a ‘pucka’ feature film with Steven Berkoff, Omid Djalili, Peter Capaldi etc.

Noel has Tourette’s Syndrome which doesn’t mean he swears uncontrollably but does mean he occasionally twitches uncontrollably… except, oddly, he doesn’t do it when he’s performing on stage or on film. This non-twitching while performing caused surreal problems during the autobiographical Shake, Rattle and Noel show, as he was talking about how he twitched uncontrollably without actually twitching uncontrollably.

Noel has lived a life-and-a-half and he isn’t through with it yet.

After being brought up in Ireland by the Christian Brothers and working on fishing trawlers and having some peripheral encounters with the IRA, he was in Swinging London at its height where he got involved with the young Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood and sold Gary Glitter his first glitter suit. Noel’s twitching made him a wow in discos – people thought he was a great disco dancer – and it was assumed to be drug-induced, so he fitted perfectly into the very Swinging London scene.

Then he went to hippie San Francisco before Haight Ashbury turned into Hate Ashbury and became a friend of the young, before-he-was-famous Robin Williams. Noel ended up on the run from the FBI, went to New York as an actor and comic, dealt directly with and smuggled dope for the early Colombian drug cartels, was caught and deported from the US, returned to London and set up the Comedy Cafe, one of the few purpose-built comedy venues in the capital.

So this – the Comedy Cafe – was where I found myself on Monday night for the New Act of the Year comedy auditions, the 28th year of the contest – it used to be called the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year (Eddie Izzard came 12th one year). The final used to be held a the Hackney Empire, which organisers Roland & Claire Muldoon ran. This year, the final takes place at The Barbican on Saturday 19th March.

It was well worth going because I saw for a second time the promising up-and-coming stand-up Pat Cahill and, for the first time, the very interesting indeed Duncan Hart who had a dark and very well-crafted set about a heart problem in a hospital, a drug overdose, a mugging at gunpoint and much more. Not obvious comedy subjects and potentially difficult to tailor for comedy in a 5-minute spot, but he performed it flawlessly.

The only downside was that, looking around the Comedy Cafe’s full room, I was, as usual, almost certainly the oldest punter in the room. This depressing scenario is even more depressing when I am up at the Edinburgh Fringe and street flyerers ignore me without a second glance because – clearly, at my age – I can’t possibly be interested in comedy.

Ricky Grover cast me as a bank manager in his Bulla showreel because he has always said I look like a banker (and I don’t think he was using Cockney rhyming slang). After the financial meltdown, I should take this as an insult. And I will. But I won’t tell him.

It would be far too dangerous.

It will be our little secret.

Just you and me.

OK?

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Filed under Comedy, Crime, Drugs, Health, Movies