Tag Archives: Virginia

Simon Jay’s play is not about John Lewis or John Lewis but John Lewis

The things you miss when you do not go to the Edinburgh Fringe…

This year, I missed the extraordinary Simon Jay reprising his highly-praised Trumpageddon show and a new show @JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted. The latter is about the American academic and “computer science educator” who owns the @johnlewis Twitter handle and gets mistakenly deluged by enquiries intended for the famed chain of British department stores.

The British store chain’s slogan is Never Knowingly Undersold.

Simon Jay answering my questions

Last night, I went to see@JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted – only on at the Drayton Arms Theatre in London until Saturday.

And, this morning, I Skyped Simon Jay for a pre-arranged chat. He overslept  and was barely conscious. 

I always find this is the best way to chat with people for blogs…


JOHN: So what did John Lewis, the American, say when you contacted him?

SIMON: He is very modest and self-deprecating. So he said: “Why would anyone write a play about me?”

JOHN: Modest and self-deprecating? Are you sure he’s an American?

SIMON: Yes. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

JOHN: He was shocked you wanted to write a play about him?

John Lewis, confusing but not confused

SIMON: (LAUGHS) Humbled. Originally, the play was going to be much more like a Jon Ronson investigation, where I tried to get into his life and how it all came about. He gave his blessing but then said he was incredibly busy. So it turned into a sort of Joyce Grenfell character piece.

JOHN: Did he have to approve everything?

SIMON: No. I mean, I wasn’t going to take the piss. I wasn’t going to betray him. He didn’t even see the script. He said he didn’t have time to read anything, so he just took it all on trust, really. I put updates from our rehearsal on Twitter. I don’t know anything about his mother, but I portrayed her as some kind of religious zealot. I Tweeted a picture of me full-crazy and he said: “Oh! It’s uncanny!”

JOHN: When you quote him saying things in the play, are those quotes he gave you?

SIMON: Well, based on things that he said, yeah. When I interviewed him, I was only able to get a couple of lines on each question I asked him. And he did give a few interviews early on to people like the Daily Telegraph.

JOHN: Has the quirky story been picked up in the US or only in the UK?

US Congressman John Lewis

SIMON: Well, John Lewis, the store, isn’t known in America. In the US, he is confused with Congressman John Lewis.

JOHN: Who you also mention in the play.

SIMON: Yes, he gets a lot of racist abuse on Twitter intended for the Congressman, which I was going to explore. But then I thought it might be a dramatic turning point too far – from a light-hearted show about mistaken identity to the racist underbelly of the US.

JOHN: Why racist abuse?

SIMON: Because the Senator he shares a name with is a black Senator from Georgia, a civil rights campaigner who talks a lot about how racist America is. So lots of people take to Twitter to abuse him (LAUGHS) to prove how right he is!

JOHN: You talked to the John Lewis Partnership – the stores – about the play…

SIMON: Yes. They were a bit bewildered at first. But it’s very much a warm, fluffy thing; John Lewis are hardly going to be offended and sue me. And the story is not about them; it’s about mistaken identity. The fact it is about John Lewis is incidental, really.

JOHN: It’s all good, light-hearted publicity for them.

SIMON: Well, some people genuinely think it’s a conspiracy – that John Lewis have employed someone to pretend to be this man with their name!

JOHN: And the store’s reaction?

John Lewis: amused and bemused

SIMON: They just think: Oh! It’s just an amusing thing that has happened and we don’t really get involved, but we are very grateful for the fact he forwards everything on.

JOHN: He does?

SIMON: He always puts the @JLPartners tag when he answers on Twitter. (They are also @jlandpcustserv)

JOHN: In the play, you have some characters who are John Lewis staff reacting to things, sending him presents and so on.

SIMON: Well, they really did send him a hamper at Christmas and even embroidered his @JohnLewis Twitter handle into a cushion. It’s all fact. That’s all true.

JOHN: The staff in the play are slightly bitchy to each other. Did John Lewis, the store, object?

SIMON: Well, their Regional Marketing Manager came to see a preview. I think they were checking to see it wasn’t libellous. She liked it. I think she just accepted we all know characters like that.

JOHN: Any chance you might be in one of the famous traditional John Lewis Christmas ads on TV?

Never knowingly under-represented online

SIMON: Well, apparently the management did talk to the director of this year’s ad and there was some talk about that and they were looking to get the ‘real’ John Lewis involved and the way to do that was to have lots of different John Lewises in the ad and I would be one of the John Lewises. Maybe they would have had archive footage of the Congressman. But, like all these things, it was probably just an idea on a piece of paper and they will have gone with something much more outlandish.

JOHN: So whither the show now? The West End and Vegas?

SIMON: There’s a thought of taking it on tour, but I think I will have a break.

JOHN: Doing what?

SIMON: Sleeping.


(AND I ADDED THIS BIT ON 19th NOVEMBER 2018…)

Alas, Simon did not appear in the John Lewis Christmas ad on UK television but, today, The Guardian carried a story headlined MAN NAMED JOHN LEWIS STARS IN TWITTER UK’s CHRISTMAS AD. Here is the Twitter ad…

…and here is John Lewis (the department store)’s actual 2018 Christmas ad – starring Elton John…

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Juggling countries with music and comedy globetrotter Paul Morocco

Paul Morocco on Skype from Australia

Paul Morocco, possibly jet-lagged  on Skype from Australia

Paul Morocco can be quite difficult to get hold of.

We almost talked when he was in Dubai. This morning, I got hold of him on Skype when he had just arrived in Fremantle, Australia. Soon he is off to Thailand.

‘Thailand would just be a holiday,” he told me, “but, in the last few weeks, we have a new US agent who is more of a Variety agent and he has a friend in Thailand who has a TV station and radio station. Then there’s another friend who’s a magician who has been telling me about Thailand. They are starting a community there and want to attract other performers. They’re farming, fishing, getting water from under the ground and have a bigger plan of mixing scientists, artists. So I’m going to see that. Then I go to Moscow – I’ve got a gig on the 20th. Then we do a run in Berlin.”

How do I know Paul? I booked him on the Last Resort With Jonathan Ross TV show on Channel 4 in 1987. At least, I think I did. I’m fairly sure I booked him for two different series on different channels, but I can’t quite remember – Look, I have always had a notoriously eccentric memory and it was last century sometime.

‘If you did get me the Jonathan Ross,’ Paul told me, “that was like a career-changing gig for me. I remember I had an octopad where I spit the ping-pong balls onto it and I had a guy with a keyboard and… Yeah… Those are the days I really relish, because I was solo. I do some solo gigs still, but I can’t imagine how I did it – going out there alone.”

Paul started as a solo juggler, then formed a musical variety trio called Olé with which he still tours.

There are clips of Olé videos on YouTube.

“How did you transform from being a solo act?” I asked.

“I went from solo to duo to Olé. We started after the first London Mime Festival in 1990.”

He appeared at the London Mime Festival in a show he had created called Paul Morocco and the EC Big Band – with Bill Bailey and Alessandro Bernardi, the latter known to comedy cognoscenti as the opera singer who used to sing Nessun Dorma, nude except for his Davy Crocket hat, at the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s birthday parties.

“Showbiz is in your family background?” I asked Paul.

“No. I’m from Virginia. My mum was from Morocco – Moroccan Jewish – and my dad’s from New Orleans – a country Southerner. Divorced. I thought it was a normal middle class family but, as I got older, I realised we were a bit quirky. My mother was definitely really ‘out there’, like a gypsy lady.

Ole! Paul’s family life was not like this

Olé! – Paul’s ‘straight’ family life was not like this in Virginia?

“My dad was a US Navy boy. He looked a bit like Harry Connick Jr.

“They fell in love. And, back then, my mum was Miss Casablanca and, as she used to tell us, she was going with the richest Jewish man in Casablanca and then I met your son-of-a-bitch father.”

“An interesting family background,” I said. “And now you are eternally touring and eternally on jet-lag and making lots of money…”

“It should be like that,” Paul told me. “It should be comfortable. But, to be honest… Do you want the full story or soundbites?”

“I like fulls,” I said.

“My brothers were in business,” Paul started, “and didn’t speak for five or six years. They’re both dead now. I have one other brother still alive.”

“What business were your two other brothers in?” I asked.

“One brother,” explained Paul, “had a security company and a limousine company. He bought real estate and he eventually even set up a gay club called Offshore Drilling in Myrtle Beach. I went to Myrtle Beach for two years, trying street performing, going to university and the performing thing was a big step for someone coming from my background because there was nobody in the arts in my family.

“When I became a street performer, I got really really happy. I’d got in touch with my bohemian roots and it’s insecure but I felt I was alive. Every day there were little pockets of people you would meet. I travelled. I lived out of a van.

“In New Orleans, I met José, a street performer and painter who had become a bit of a prolific writer – he’s gone the more university way since. He told me about Europe and we went straight to Covent Garden in London. Three months. Then we travelled Europe. Did Copenhagen, Munich, Paris, Lucerne. That was my exciting new life, my new frontier. And then I went back to America, got depressed, ran out of money. So I went back to Europe.

Paul Morocco: Sophistication in entertainment.

Paul Morocco is now wanted worldwide

“Everything was moving along quite nicely, then my brother got colon cancer in 1993. We had done the Edinburgh Fringe twice – this is Olé. The first time, everyone expected it to be good, but the show wasn’t quite ready, though it got better near the end.

“The second year, the show was better but they’d already seen us.

“Then the third year, for some reason, everything was going brilliantly. The press was more interested; the show was better; the Perrier Award Panel were having a look at the show as a potential for the Award. I never thought I was in that kind of league – they tend not to like ‘skill’ stuff – but it was about 8 or 9 days in, going very well.

“And then I got the call that my brother was going to pass away at any time. I felt like this was a pinnacle moment and it wasn’t a difficult decision but it was a dramatic one. I had to go back. So I did this crazy dash from Edinburgh to Glasgow to New York to Virginia and I was writing a diary and I remember my handwriting getting scribblier and scribblier as I got closer and I was getting more panicky because there was this edge that, at any minute, he could die.

“He was like my dad in a way because, when our parents had divorced, he had taken over the role of the father, which was difficult for him because I think he was repressing a lot of stuff – he liked men but, in those days especially, he had to keep it right under cover and here he was playing a macho father role. He looked a bit like Tom Selleck in Magnum PI.

“When I got there, at the airport, someone was waiting for me and they drove me at 100 mph to the hospital and, when I got there, there were about 50 people just sitting outside it – he was a dynamic, positive-thinking person who connected lots of people.

“It took eight days for him to pass away and he left me as heir to all his assets.

“I inherited a global security company and all these properties, but his soulmate – a girlfriend, an angel who looked after him in his last year – turned into a Cruella de Vil and I didn’t fight it, I didn’t get a lawyer. She got a lawyer. I was back in Europe performing. I was being this clown in Europe, making 25 Deutschmarks and I had like $1½ million in America. but I saw it like blood diamond money. There was something negative about the whole thing.

Paul with his daughter Rosie in Australia

Paul and film-making daughter Rosie in Australia this month

“I did get a chunk of the money eventually, but it was mostly spent going back and forth and, actually, I spent it on art. I tried some new ideas and bought bigger props and did some tours and stuff. I got established, encouraged my daughter: she went to private school. I did all those things and, funnily enough, she’s just arriving now. My daughter. She’s filming the festival here. At university, she got an award for her documentary about street performing and about the right for public access to self-expression and how they’re clamping down on performers.”

“So, are you going to just circle the world forever?” I asked.

“Basically,” Paul told me, “I’m not sitting on a wealthy situation. I’ve come back to my true spirit. I’m a natural bohemian. It was never about the money because I had the money and it didn’t make me happier.

“At one time, I had these two lives… living an earthed life in Chertsey, near London, and this other crazy life where you put the mask on, you’re flying, you have the ego… then you come back and you’re earthed. That has kinda gone away and I am essentially homeless now. I got divorced – well, we got separated five years ago – and I don’t have a base any more – I have some bases – mainly Barcelona and London.

“But I’ve got used to this motion – always travelling. It becomes its own culture. Literally like physics, metaphysics. Things are flashing past you all the time. That crazy part I used to have has become the normal part. it’s become a way of life. But I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve done yet.”

Paul’s daughter Rosie Baker-Williams’ video, Beggars With a Gimmick is on Vimeo.

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