Tag Archives: West End

How a comedy night out in London’s Soho led to what some might call this misanthropic anti-Japanese blog

I had been going to write a blog about American comic Lewis Schaffer’s show Free Until Famous which runs in Soho every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Almost as a joke, he started saying it was the longest-running solo comedy show in London’s West End. Then he realised that, in fact, it probably was.

He’s been performing it in various nightly configurations since October 2008. Initially, he played it Tuesdays and Wednesdays then, because too many people were turning up, he occasionally played it twice-nightly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – at 8.00pm and 9.30pm. For the last few weeks, he’s been running it every Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday night at 8.00pm.

He successfully brought the model of Edinburgh’s Free Fringe to London. You don’t pay anything as you go into the venue but as you leave at the end, if you liked the show, you pay whatever you think it was worth.

Lewis tells me: “When I started, there were no free shows in London and now there are millions. What makes my show unique is that all the other shows are group shows with maybe one or two acts the punters will like and the rest not to their liking. I am akin to a single malt in a world of blends. If you like it, you love it; if you don’t you won’t; but the ones who like it…”

Whenever I have gone, his audience is always, eclectic and bizarrely international. Last Wednesday, that meant three Saudi women who were coming to his show for the third time. They don’t live in London but, every few months, when they are over here, they make a pilgrimage to Lewis’ comedy show. He doesn’t know why. I don’t know why. Even they probably don’t know why.

I asked Lewis about this after the show.

“They have told me directly We are fans!,” he said, bemused. “But they cover their faces after every joke! Maybe it’s the guilty pleasure of listening to dirty things from a double infidel – I’m an American AND I’m a Jew – plus maybe they find my Semitic look attractive, with my naturally dark hair.”

(Lewis tried not dying his hair the other week; I told him it really wasn’t a success.)

He always moans to me that it’s hard to get people in – moan moan moan these bloody Colonials – but, when I went last Wednesday night, it was a full house – it always is when I wander along – and Lewis was on unusually good form. Normally, he plays a blindingly good first half then loses confidence and tries to persuade the audience they’re not enjoying themselves as much as they think they are. Or he starts the show by saying he’s shit tonight but, by at least halfway through, he’s storming it. Last week, he stormed it for about 95% of the time though, of course, afterwards he was complaining to me that he hadn’t done very well.

Much like Lewis’ rollercoaster shows, it’s always worth any trip to Soho anytime because there are always unexpected and eccentric things happening. Last Wednesday, after the show, my friend and I had to plough through a crowded Brewer Street, which was being used for location shooting of some big-budget Bollywood movie. When I asked one of the crew who the star was, we were told:

“All I know is he’s a mega-star in Bollywood. Their equivalent of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise combined. I don’t know who the fuck he is.”

O vanitas vanitatum. A good overview of superstardom.

Then, in a doorway, we passed two red-faced drunks sitting on a doorstep between a sex shop and a pub, clutching bottles, almost falling sideways as they slurred a drunken conversation with each other. As we passed, I only heard the words:

“Ave you ‘eard 50 Cent’s latest? It ain’t nowhere near as good as his last one.”

Drunks who follow 50 Cent and the latest music trends. Only in Soho.

So I WAS going to blog about all that but decided not to.

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier.

Anyway, during the show, Lewis made a joke about how people gave money to Japan following their triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear ‘accident’. Remember we are talking here about a comic who, to my mind, has the best Holocaust joke(s) I have ever heard.

The audience reaction to Lewis’ Japanese joke was to gasp – possibly because it was a truth spoken openly for the first time – and then to laugh. I won’t tell the full joke as it’s one to be heard live on stage.

But there was a news item yesterday that the owners of the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant say it will take another 6-9 months to sort out the mess.

I have a friend who has worked at Oxfam for many years. So I’m not unsympathetic to disaster-hit countries. She was recently in a country even I had barely heard of.

But people in the UK donating aid and holding charity gigs to raise money to supply aid to Japan? Give me a break.

Japan has the third biggest economy in the world, after the US and China. It has a stronger economy that Germany, France and – in 6th place – the United Kingdom.

Haiti is largely ignored now. It is still an impoverished disaster area. And people have been donating money to Japan? That’s an example of people donating money to charity to make themselves feel better not to make a disastrous situation any better.

Countries in Africa and Asia where babies are routinely living for a few days or hours or being born dead because of the poverty are not as ‘sexy’ as Japan was for a few weeks because the TV pictures were not there on TV screens.

There were 62 tornado reports in North Carolina on Saturday. Communities across Oklahoma and the Carolinas have been devastated.

Do I feel sorry for people in those areas? Am I sad at the deaths? Yes.

Am I going to donate money to the world’s strongest economy to alleviate my own sadness and cheer myself up about the USA’s tragedy? No.

Will I donate money to children in certain parts of Africa? Yes.

If some tragedy occurs in Hampstead or Islington, I would not expect the good people of Haiti to have a whip-round or put on charity gigs to raise money to help.

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Blow me! – My sex education

There was an item on the BBC News Channel last night in which two teenagers were explaining how the Scout movement had now introduced sex education into the curriculum to join tent erection and tying knots in ropes. For some, there might be no distinction. The newscaster asked if there would be a badge for it. The answer, sadly, was No.

Then, this morning in the bath, I turned on Radio 4 and – blow me – Woman’s Hour was talking about sex education.

What is going on?

In my day, sex education was non-existent but, from peripheral evidence, it seemed to involve stamens on flowers and the human bowel system.

I am old enough to have hit puberty before the Penguin English Dictionary was published. This was the first widely-available UK dictionary which included 4-letter words and defined clearly what other sex-related words actually meant.

As my parents were Scottish, my sex education came largely through reading the News of the World on a Sunday (and looking at the pictures).

Sex for me was a strange world of naughty vicars, women with large lines between their squeezed-tightly-together breasts and evil people of opposite sexes who were “living in sin” together, mostly in flats and bedsits. The News of the World would expose these people in long articles with pictures. They were not celebrities, just seemingly normal people who were, in secret, immoral and evil and had started to live with each other without being married but – ever vigilant – the admirable News of the World and, to a lesser extent, The People hunted them down and exposed their sinful ways in print.

My sex education also involved Carry On films at the cinema – breasts and a lot of running about and screaming seemed much involved in sex.

At home, we had a large pre-Penguin dictionary circa 1935.

This tended to confuse me.

When the News of the World and The People reported sex cases, the key words mostly seemed to be “rape” (as both a verb and a noun) and people having “carnal knowledge” of each other.

When I looked up “rape” in the dictionary, it said it was an agricultural crop grown in fields and further investigation uncovered the fact that seeds and oil were a related outcome. This “rape” was a noun and there appeared to be no verb for the word. So it seemed unlikely it was what was being described in the News of the World; but it was worth my keeping it in mind, just in case.

The alternative definition for “rape” – a verb – was to “carry off by force”. I knew this was a good definition as I had vaguely heard of The Rape of the Sabine Women, in which the Romans carried off female members of some tribe or other – well, it must have been the Sabine tribe, obviously. I was a very good researcher, so I also knew this incident had been turned into the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So that also obviously involved rape, too. But this didn’t help much. Though I did know the Italians and French made sex films with lots of large naked breasts which were shown at small cinemas in London’s West End.

This whole carrying off by force lark was presumably akin to kidnap though some of the cases reported in the News of the World did not seem to involve any carrying off to other locations. It was a puzzle.

Then there was the problem of what “carnal knowledge” actually meant. The dictionary defined “carnal” as “fleshly”, so “carnal knowledge” meant “fleshly knowledge” so, presumably, these people being exposed in the News of the World had seen other people of the opposite sex without their clothes on and that was what the big hoo-hah was all about.

It was all a great mystery to me and still is.

If anyone can help, I would be very grateful.

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Bitching about famous people. Your chance to guess – who is XXXXX, the lecherous showbiz groper?

Isn’t gossip a wonderful thing?

Yesterday, following on from my blogs about The downside of being a dead celebrity and Famous two-faced showbiz pond scum, I was having a wee e-chat with Scots comedian Stu Who about the “celebrities” we’d met.

He told me: “My own personal nemesis was XXXXX, who I found to be a particularly rude and lecherous auld cunt, when out of the public gaze… Lechery, of course, is no sin, but when a position of power is abused by touching-up young runners and crew in a ‘joking’ way, I just can’t keep quiet and had a couple of altercations with XXXXX …. not a nice man!!!”

This interested me, because I had heard XXXXX was a groper, but wasn’t sure if it was true because I’d met him briefly twice and both times he seemed very amiable, gentle and uncle-ish; he fitted his ‘family entertainer’ image perfectly.

Stu told me, though, that he found dealing with people like XXXXX “was all counterbalanced beautifully by some of the really nice people I have also had the privilege to encounter and work with… Some of them I literally ‘hated’ on TV before meeting them and I was subsequently gobsmacked to find out how cool and friendly they were in real life… Bob Monkhouse being the most notable.

“He’d been my pet hate for decades with his plastic appearance and gushing superficiality, but he turned out to be really pleasant, courteous and astonishingly supportive to this daft Glaswegian who’d been hired to do his warm-up for the Lottery shows.”

I have never heard anything bad about Bob Monkhouse whom I greatly admired. He was known for his great love of slapstick and his collection of comic silent movies. We had him as a guest on the very slapsticky children’s show Tiswas and his only stipulation up-front was that he should not be custard-pied in the face.

There was no problem with this and he mentioned it right up-front when he was booked; but none of us could figure out why he didn’t want to be ‘pied’ – it seemed perfect for his image and he was in no way pompous; he was a lovely man. Our only wild guess was that he wore a wig – but we had never heard of him having one, I have never read of such a thing and it didn’t look like he had a wig. So, to this day, it remains a complete and utter mystery to me.

I’ve been luckier than Stu Who.

I’ve actually only ever worked with one person who played the “I’m a star” bit.

People told me Chris Tarrant was a bit up himself when Tiswas first hit big but, when I encountered and later worked with him, he was a joy: a total laid-back professional. He was nothing like his image – he was a highly professional, highly sophisticated, cigar-smoking reflective fisherman – and a good bloke.

I’m sure his anarchic image can survive that description.

But you can never tell what people are really like.

A few years ago, at a special National Film Theatre screening of her father Anthony Newley’s indescribably odd film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?Tara Newley confirmed that her mother Joan Collins had decided to divorce him after attending the premiere of the movie. According to Tara, Joan had never seen the finished film before that screening. And, if you have ever seen the autobiographical movie (in which Anthony Newley, Joan Collins and their children all appear), you can see why she divorced him. I seem to remember reading an interview with Joan Collins in which she loved him but couldn’t live with him.

I am not surprised.

I once tried to book Anthony Newley on Channel 4’s The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross and failed.

I talked to his agent while Newley was in the US and before he came to London to appear in a West End stage show. The agent was happy for him to appear on The Last Resort and Newley was keen to appear on the show. The trouble was that our TV show transmitted live from 10.30pm in Wandsworth and Newley was on stage until around 10.30 in the West End.

It would probably take him at least 10 minutes of show over-run, applause and rushing out of the theatre (still in costume and make-up) to get out onto a street where a car could pick him up. He was even prepared to ride pillion on a motorbike to do the journey. But there was no way to guarantee at that time on a Friday night in London that he could be got to Wandsworth and into the studio in time for any meaningful appearance on The Last Resort.

So we had to abandon the idea. No problem.

We had wanted him on the show. He had wanted to appear.

We were all the best of chums and no-one was to blame. It was just one of those things.

A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call in the Last Resort office.

“Hello, it’s Tony Newley,” the voice on the other end said.

He was phoning from his shower in a Park Lane hotel. I could hear the water in the background.

“Can you believe they have a telephone in the shower?” he asked me.

He said he wanted to apologise for not being able to appear on our show.

I said there was no problem because it was just the timing which had proved impossible. We would have him on in future in a flash if we could.

But he wanted to say sorry.

There was no need for him to make the phone call and certainly no need to make it to me – I was merely the show’s researcher, not the producer.

But he made the call.

I always thought very highly of him after that.

I still don’t know if Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? is a good film, though. And I have seen it three times. It is certainly bizarre.

But Anthony Newley, on the basis of my one phone call with him, seemed a good man.

On the other hand, though, on the basis of two brief meetings, XXXXX seemed OK to me.

Who can tell?

Gossip is an in-exact art.

________

NB… I should point out that XXXXX, a well-known entertainer, is definitely not any of the people named in this blog and I have never mentioned him in any previous blog.

________

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Comedy, burlesque and going OTT at PTOO with a naked Irish Riverdance in Peckham, London

There seem to be two separate ‘circuits’ in London at the moment: the amorphous alternative comedy circuit and the burlesque circuit. The latter seems to meander from stripper-type-tease to glimpses of old-style variety to fetish-style stuff with more than a nod to Berlin cabaret between-the-Wars.

Most of the straight comedy shows nowadays are a just a string of stand-ups with maybe, occasionally, an odd act thrown in. Vivienne and Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One club in Nunhead (that’s Peckham to me and you) is clearly not burlesque; but it is not one of the amorphous straight comedy nights either.

It is old-style variety mingled with comic performance art plus usually one big-name straight stand up. It is never short of the unexpected and bizarre, so it’s no surprise that Pull The Other One regulars Bob Slayer and Holly Burn both appear in the April issue of Bizarre magazine as New Alternative Comedy Heroes.

The average Pull The Other One show does not exist and it is a sign of how unusual it is that it has always attracted comedians to its audience. Last month Boothby Graffoe was there in the audience just to enjoy it; this month it was Stephen Frost.

The Big Name stand up on the bill last night was multi-talented Omid Djalili, a man who can move with nary a blink from appearing in Gladiator, The MummyPirates of the Caribbean and James Bond movies to club gigs on the London comedy circuit to playing Fagin in Oliver! at the London Palladium and having his own TV series on BBC1. His career is almost as variety-filled as a Pull The Other One show.

I missed most of last night’s show because main speciality act Paul Morocco had got cut down earlier in the day with a very serious stomach bug and couldn’t appear – well, it’s a tribute to his professionalism that he would have appeared if Vivienne Soan had not been able to find a fill-in sharpish. But Paul’s amazing act includes juggling, a lot of bopping around and blowing/juggling multiple ping pong balls from his mouth. This is not ideal if you have a serious stomach bug and just want to lie in bed and die with the pain.

So I missed most of last night’s show because I was picking up and driving my chum Melbourne-based Irish fiddle-playing comic vagabond Aindrias de Staic from the West End to Nunhead after he appeared in two performances of Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. Aindrias is not so much jet-lagged as show-lagged. He is over in London to appear in Woody Sez until 2nd April – another two shows today – and tomorrow he performs his one-man show Around The World on 80 Quid at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.

So last night, at 9.35, we were legging it to my car to get to Pull The Other One in time – parking mid-evening on a Friday in the West End had not been fun.

Aindrias decided in the car on the way to the venue what he was going to do: mostly stand-up stories with an inkling of fiddling… but, when he actually got there and realised the measure of the audience, changed it all.

He gave them a bit of a foot-stomping fiddle, then a bizarre story and a couple more musical items.

Well, that doesn’t quite do it justice.

He had had a 20-second chat with Martin Soan before he went on and they ad-libbed what then happened.

Aindrias was interrupted during his second diddly-aye foot-stomping Irish fiddly piece by Martin Soan – totally naked, of course – Riverdancing in from the wings behind him and, trust me, Irish dancing in the nude is a particularly visual entertainment.

There’s a lot of flopping up and down going on.

When this went down very well with the audience, Aindrias called Martin back on stage to do a reprise “bollock dance” to the Jew’s Harp accompanied by a rather dubious song which Aindrias improvised.

Aindrias called what was happening “gyp-hop” – a musical combination of gypsy and hip-hop.

Watching this, Stephen Frost said to me: “If only Malcolm (Hardee) were here to see this.”

Indeed.

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I saw this comedian last night and I have no idea who he was… or if the act was good or just deeply odd

I am worried I am going to get even fatter and ultimately explode like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I am also worried, having just re-read this blog entry, that I am turning into a mindless luvvie but without the glitz, glamour, class and cravat.

Yesterday I had lunch with Malcolm Hardee documentary director Jody VandenBurg and multi-talented multi-media writer Mark Kelly, who has that very rare thing: a genuinely very original TV idea. He was, at one time the stand-up comic Mr Nasty and he reminded me of one typical early Alternative Comedy incident in which comedy duo The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society got banned from right-on vegetarian cabaret restaurant The Earth Exchange… for throwing ham sandwiches at the audience.

This was actually part of their normal act but proved far too non-PC an anarchic step for the militant non-carnivores at the Earth Exchange which was so small I’m surprised they actually had space to move their arms backwards to throw the offensive sandwiches.

Mark also remembered having his only serious falling-out with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel Palladium comedy club after Malcolm put on stage a female fanny farting act who, at the time, might or might not have been a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend of local Goldsmiths College art student Damien Hirst. Mark felt the audience – and, indeed, Malcolm – might have been laughing at the performer rather than with the act.

Knowing Malcolm, I guess it might have been a bit of both.

(Note to US readers, “fanny” has a different meaning in British and American English.)

So, anyway I had a very nice ham omelette and banana split with Mark and Jody downstairs at The Stockpot in Old Compton Street, Soho, and then Irish comic/musician/vagabond Andrias de Staic arrived. I know him from his wonderful Edinburgh Fringe shows Around The World on 80 Quid and The Summer I Did the Leaving, but he is currently appearing until 2nd April in the Woody Guthrie musical Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End.

I swear that, the last time I met Aindrias – and it was only last year – he was 5ft 9ins tall. He confirmed this height to me. Yesterday he was 6ft 1in tall.

“It’s the theatrical work,” he told me. “It makes you stand straighter and taller.”

For a moment, I believed him. Then I realised it was rubbish. Then I started to wonder if it could be true.

Or perhaps I am shrinking. The uncertainty of life can be a constant worry.

After that, I went to the weekly Rudy’s Comedy Night gig at Rudy’s Revenge in High Holborn to see Miss D perform an interestingly different routine in which she gave advice on what to do and what not to do when having a heart attack – something she knows about, having had one in June 2009.

The gig was also notable because I saw for the first time the extremely funny and talented compere Katerina Vrana… and an extraordinary act by a man claiming to be an archaeologist about having a hawk on his arm. I missed his name. If you know, tell me, because it had the same effect on me as watching Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? in a Kensington cinema one afternoon etched on my memory in 1969. Perhaps I mean the experience scarred me for life. When the movie finished, I sat there like a stunned halibut and thought What was that??!! and sat through it again to see what on earth I had been watching and whether I liked it. Except, of course, I didn’t have the opportunity to sit still and see this guy perform again last night.

He certainly had energy, that’s for sure.

As for Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – it is highly recommended, provided you know what you are letting yourself in for.

It is a bit like North Korea in that respect.

(POSTSCRIPT: Within 5 minutes of posting this, two people Facebooked me to say the ‘hawk’ comedian is Paul Duncan McGarrity. The wonders of 21st century communications leave me in perpetual awe; I should, perhaps, get out more.)

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Yesterday I met a man from Atlantis who speaks Japanese

For ages, I have thought there was mileage in a Real People chat show on TV – if you go to any bus queue in any town in Britain and choose any person at random then, with the right questions, that person will reveal the most extraordinary life story.

Life truly is stranger than fiction. Novels are very often watered-down versions of the truth and they have been watered-down simply to make them believable.

I was reminded of this when I was passing through the food department of Selfridges in Oxford Street yesterday and I was offered a free tea sample by a Greek-Bulgarian sales specialist working for the East India Company which was bought by an Indian entrepreneur in 2005 and which opened a shop in London’s West End last year. It turned out the tea-offerer was from the island of Santorini (claimed by some to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis). He told me he spoke six languages including Japanese and Scots Gaelic – which he then proceeded to do.

Speak Gaelic.

It is a tad odd to have a Greek-Bulgarian from Atlantis who works for the East India Company (given its charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600) speak Gaelic to you when you are passing through the food department of Selfridges department store.

To surprise me, it would have been enough for him, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company because I hadn’t realised it had been re-born.

While being one of the most successful commercial companies ever to exist –  at its height, the company allegedly generated half of world trade and it established Singapore and Hong Kong as trading centres – it also effectively ruled India with its own army on behalf of the British government 1757-1858 and virtually built the British Empire by monopolising the Opium Trade – it was responsible both for the Opium Wars and the Indian Mutiny!

That Indian entrepreneur – Sanjiv Mehta – who bought the name in 2005 and re-started the company last year is a near genius. People are buying recognisable brand names for millions of pounds/dollars all over the world and the East India Company must be one of the most famous names worldwide – it has been around for 411 years – though I’m not sure trade with China will be easy!

So it would have been enough for the tea-offerer, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company but, good heavens – perhaps you had to be there – a Greek-Bulgarian who works for the East India Company, comes from the original Atlantis and speaks Gaelic! What are the odds of that combination happening? If you wrote a novel with a character like that in it, people would laugh at how stupid you were for including such a literally incredible character…

What price a Real People chat show?

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The Spirit of the Fringe is dead, dying or thriving

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Scots comedienne Janey Godley has been telling me and has blogged that she feels this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is different. That the spark has gone. That it has lost some of its character.

I told her it felt that way every year. Malcolm Hardee, the legendary godfather of alternative comedy and a Fringe legend, told me fifteen years ago that he felt the “supermarkets” of the big-time agents and comedy promoters had taken over from the ramshackle “corner shop” shows which he ran and which epitomised the spirit of the Fringe.
But, in the last few days, I have come round to agreeing with Janey Godley. The old Fringe is dying or is already dead. The big venues are now overly-large operations charging serious prices for mostly slick shows. The new McEwan Hall venue’s 2,000-seater is staging Cameron Mackintosh’s West End and Broadway hit Five Guys Named Moe in a production where The Scotsman rightly guessed the lighting rig alone cost more than most normal Fringe shows. It is straight West End transfer in a limited run. A Fringe show it ain’t.

The true spirit of the Fringe has transferred to the two competing Free festivals and to the Five Pound Fringe.

Bob Slayer’s gobsmackingly anarchic Punk Rock Chat Show (which had nothing to do with punk, rock or chat the evening I saw it but did involve a banana, nudity and an orifice) is the pure unadulterated spirit of the true Fringe and, with Lewis Schaffer now taking the erratically-billed 5.30pm performance of his improvised Free Until Famous show out of the venue and literally onto the streets, come rain or shine, we are living in a two-tiered Fringe world.

Punters can’t take the increasing financial risk of paying professional-level prices in the big venues on shows that might be rubbish. They sensibly lessen their financial risk by booking for shows by Names they have already watched on TV.

The spirit of the Fringe in which people accidentally discover new talent and rising stars in grim, sweaty rooms has now transferred to a second, lower tier of the Fringe.

It’s not all bad news, though.

Janey Godley herself straddles both Fringes, drawing big audiences in one of the Big Four venues on the reputation of her often highly improvised live shows despite not being one of the young Oxbridge males so beloved of BBC3 and Channel 4.

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