Tag Archives: Wilfredo

OH YES IT IS ! – Matt Roper + the first pantomime in New York for 100 years

(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)

“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”

We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.

“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”

“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”

“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”

“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)

Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”

“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”

“Yes,” said Matt.

“OK,” I said.

“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”

“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”

“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”

“Someone?” I asked.

Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)

“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!

“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”

“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”

“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”

“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”

“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”

“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”

“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”

(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)

“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”

“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.

“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”

“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”

“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”

“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”

“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”

“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”

“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”

Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”

“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.

“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”

“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”

“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”

“And you were…”

Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State

“Androboros.”

“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”

“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”

“So you are surviving,” I said.

Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”

“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”

“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”

“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”

“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”

“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.

Wondrous Wilfredo performs at The Slipper Room

“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”

“And you…?” I asked.

“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”

“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”

“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”

“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”

Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage

“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”

“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”

“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”

“Nothing surprises me,” I said.

Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.

“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”

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BREAK A LEG! (a showbiz suggestion taken too far) – Matt Roper in New York

I’ll Say She Is

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

This morning, I was supposed to Skype English performer Matt Roper in New York at 0630 UK time (0130 New York time) to talk about the first off-Broadway preview night of I’ll Say She Is, the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers show in which he plays Chico.

Matt was not online at 0630.

At 0641 UK, I got an e-mail – “John! Problems this end! We’re at the theatre. Disaster tonight! – The ‘butler’ in the show fell and we had to dial an ambulance! I’ll be home in an hour (3am)!”

We eventually talked at 08.30 UK / 03.30 New York time.

“You look bleary-eyed,” I said.

“It’s the middle of a heat wave,” Matt told me. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) today. It’s nearly four in the morning now and it’s 76 degrees (24C) outside!”

“What happened to the butler?” I asked.

“You’ve seen the Marx Bros films,” said Matt. “The dowager character played by Margaret Dumont has a sort of butler/footman. He broke his leg.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I said with genuine enthusiasm, thinking of the publicity potential.

“Your Satanic grin!” said Matt. “You’re loving this, John, aren’t you?”

“Well,” I admitted. “That old theatrical good-luck wish – Break a leg! – he really did take it too literally – and on the first preview night!”

(Top to bottom; L-R - (Photo by Mark X Hopkins)) Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

(Top to bottom; L-R – Photo by Mark X Hopkins)
Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

“I think,” said Matt, “it was when he was going off stage, coming down a step. Something like that. He slipped. It’s a big loss, because a lot of his sequences are with Harpo, because Harpo is the one who is stealing all the family silverware. We have a good understudy, but we’re going to miss this guy because his comic timing is brilliant.”

“How long will it take to mend?” I asked.

“I don’t know. The ambulance came and he was whisked away. He might be able to perform on opening night at the Connelly Theater on Thursday on crutches: we might be able to work that into the show.”

“So what,” I asked, “other than people breaking their legs, has been the most difficult thing for you?”

“Learning to play the piano for the last eight weeks. Chico had such a particular style of playing.”

“All the funny hand movements,” I agreed. “Could you play the piano ‘normally’ before?”

“A little bit. Obviously, for my Wilfredo act, I sing and write music but, when the Chico’s hands start going, that’s something completely different. If you hit the wrong key on a piano, it’s invasive, right? But it went fine tonight.”

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

“If you can play the piano to begin with,” I said, “it must be really difficult to play oddly. It must have been really difficult for Les Dawson to play off-key because he could actually play properly.”

“Yes,” agreed Matt (whose father George Roper was one of Granada TV’s legendary 1970s Northern Comedians) “because Les was a very accomplished pianist. I mean, before he became famous, he was making money as a pianist. He spent months in a brothel in Paris playing piano.”

“He did?” I asked.

“Yeah. I mean, Les Dawson had this great ambition to become a poet and a novelist but, back in the 1940s and 1950s, because of his working class background, he felt he couldn’t, so he ended up making a living playing piano in all sorts of places.”

“Anyway,” I said, “back to the Marx Bros.”

I’ll Say She Is website

Premiering on Thursday off-Broadway

“Well I’ll Say She Is,” said Matt, “pre-dates musical theatre as we know it. It pre-dates Show Boat. It’s a revue, really. This is the show that really made the Marx Bros. It got them off the vaudeville circuit. They had been ready to give up. They had had enough by 1923/1924. They had been going for about 15 years and had made a lot of enemies on the vaudeville circuit.”

“So it’s more of a revue than a story?” I asked.

“It has a very loose plot, which may be why it was never made into a film. It’s a series of sketches, really, with a lot of music and the chorus girls and so on. But it does have a plot. The niece of the Margaret Dumont character is a high society girl on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and there is a sequence in the show called Cinderella Backwards. She longs to be poor and in the gutter and experiencing the gritty side of life.”

“How did you,” I asked, “an Englishman, get the part of a New York Jew playing an Italian-American?”

“I was doing a gig at a supper club called Pangea, on the bill with Sabrina Chap, a singer-songwriter, and we just got chatting and she said: I’m musical directing this Marx Bros musical. We have still to cast Zeppo and Chico. So I sent an e-mail to the producers and they said: It’s funny you should write, because we have heard about you through other people. Why don’t you come in and read for us? That’s how. Just circumstance.

“Chico,” I suggested, “is possibly not as interesting as Groucho and Harpo?”

Chico Marx - interestingly naughty man

Chico Marx – interestingly naughty man

“No,” Matt disagreed, “he is very interesting. The story goes that, as a young boy, in this great immigrant city of New York, he used to defend himself from gangs by adopting accents. There were anti-Semitic attacks and so on. If he ran into an Irish gang in the Lower East Side, he would pretend to be Irish. If he ran into a gang of Italians, he would pretend to be Italian. And that was how his Italian persona developed from a young age.

“And he was a compulsive gambler. He lost ALL of his money in crap games and poker. The Marx Bros movie A Night in Casablanca was made specifically so that Chico had some money to live off.

“Somebody once asked him How much money do you think you’ve lost gambling? and his reply was Ask Harpo how much money he has made and that’s how much I’ve lost. If he saw a drop of rain on a pane of glass, he would bet on which direction the drop would run down. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”

“He was called Chico,” I said, “because he was a womaniser?”

“Yes. His wife actually spied on him and caught him with a chorus girl and his response was: I wasn’t kissing her, I was only whispering in her mouth.”

“I had better let you get to sleep,” I told Matt.

I did not say Break a leg.

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UK comedy performer Matt Roper aka ‘Wilfredo’ in criminal court in New York

Matt Roper with his Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Matt Roper with his Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Yesterday, Malcolm Hardee Award winning performer Matt Roper (aka character act Wilfredo) was in court in New York City.

“Run me through how it happened,” I told him today. “It started about a month ago, didn’t it?”

“I was performing at The Slipper Room,” he said.

“You have a regular slot there?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he told me. “A couple of times a week; I host on a weekend. It’s a variety theatre – a burlesque joint as well. Often I don’t get offstage until 2.00am and then, to get up to 137th Street in Harlem where I’m living, it’s bit of a schlep at night: I have to catch two subway trains.

“I had been up since 7.00am the previous day and it was now 3.30am. I knew my train terminated at 96th Street and the carriage was more-or-less empty, so I thought I would just swing my legs across the seats, put my head against the window and get a little bit of shut-eye. so that’s what I did. When I woke up, two police officers were looking over me, saying: Get off the train please, sir!

“So I got off the train onto the platform. ID, they said. So I gave them my passport. Do you know it’s a crime what you’re doing? It’s outstretching. It’s a crime.

“I said: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.

Matt did not know it was a crime

Matt did not know it was a crime amid the pools of whatever

“That was the annoying thing: I didn’t know. There are no signs saying it’s a crime. Feet on the seats we know is not cool, but these were just plastic seats, the carriage was empty and it was filthy because it was 3.30am in the morning – There were beer cans and pools of whatever. What was it Kenneth Williams said? I’m sick and tired of offending everybody. My crimes are nothing compared to Mussolini.

“I would have thought,” I said, “you would get off for being a foreigner and, by definition, ignorant.”

“They either wanted to make a bit of an example of me,” said Matt, “or there was some sort of incentive: I really don’t know. But they said: You’re going to have to come back to the station with us while we take your details and, as they said it, one of the officers was putting my hands behind my back and putting handcuffs on me. I just couldn’t believe it. I asked: Are you serious? – I was told: Yes, sir. They were quite sweet; they were charming. They took me back to the police station. I was fingerprinted and they photographed me, then put me in a cell for three or four hours. They locked me up and then released me. It was an interesting experience because I had never been arrested before – I’ve been all the way around the world without being arrested – so part of me was quite enjoying the experience but then, after the first hour passes and you’re still in a cell, locked up, the novelty wears off.”

“And, unusually,” I said, “you were not in a cell with prostitutes and gangsters?”

“No. which says a lot about Harlem these days. It was an empty cell and, if my crime was as bad as it gets at 4.00am in West Harlem, then I think its reputation is a little unjust.”

“Why,” I asked, “did they lock you up for three or four hours? What were they waiting for?”

Matt Roper last week, as Wilfredo (Photograph by Garry Platt)

Wilfredo did not know outstretching was illegal (Photograph by Garry Platt)

“I really don’t know,” said Matt. “When I researched it later that day… I spoke to you that day, I came back, had a sleep and then got up and Googled this ‘outstretching’ charge and it seems some people are just given a fine; one African guy was deported.”

“He was?” I asked. “Just for putting his feet on the seats in the subway?”

“I don’t know if he was an illegal or not,” said Matt.

“So,” I said, “there are police photos of you?”

“Well,” said Matt. “I wanted to get a copy of my photograph. They say it doesn’t exist, but I saw the form with my photograph on it. I said to them: Can I get a copy of this? Because I’d quite like it framed, really. They said: You can get it when you go to court.

“But, when I got to court, they said: No, no, we don’t have copies of that; you have to go up to the sixth floor. So I went up to the sixth floor and they said: No, no. Because we decided not to prosecute you, it doesn’t exist. But I don’t quite believe that.”

“Why did they say they were not going to prosecute you?” I asked.

“I think because they were having a busy day.”

“What was the court like?”

The doors of New York Criminal Court

“I was one of the few white people in there.”

“It was a proper high court. You go in through these huge doors and there’s the flag, there’s the eagle, there’s In God We Trust. all sorts of people making notes beside the judge. All these people on pews and all of them were on desk appearance tickets like me. They’d been speeding or busted with marijuana. They were mainly kids – mainly Latin-Americans and African-Americans. I was one of the few white people in there. I guess it shows the police go for a certain type of person.”

I said to Matt: “You playing comedy in a burlesque club is a bit like… Well, I think your father (comedian George Roper) was too young to do it, but like British comedians playing at The Windmill in London.”

“I think it’s exactly like that,” said Matt. “You know my dad was up in court with six striptease performers… You blogged about it…”

“Did I?” I asked.

“My dad was tried for obscenity in the 1960s…”

“Did I actually blog about this?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“I really must read my own blogs,” I said.

“It would have been in December 2012,” said Matt. “In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, women were allowed to be nude on stage in England but, if they moved, it was considered obscene.”

“Were the girls dressed and your father was naked?”

“No.”

Wilfredo handed out roses to his last fans last night

Wilfredo in his now stolen costume

“Anyway,” I said, trying to change the subject away from this blog I had forgotten. “Your act got stolen in New York.”

“Yes, about three weeks after the arrest,” said Matt, “I was in a bar having a wonderful time, I put my bag down by my feet and it got stolen. I’m rather amused by the thought of whoever took it – hoping for a laptop or an iPhone – unzipping it and finding Wilfredo’s costume inside… The trousers were just… and the wig and the teeth and the shoes. They must be the most disappointed thieves. Though it was a pain in the arse because I had a gig a couple of nights later and Wilfredo is quite difficult to replace.”

“But you had a spare set of teeth?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s all back to normal, though the hair is a little bit longer.”

“Did you go to a wig shop in New York?”

“Yeah. One of the burlesque dancers said she would cut the wig for me. And now he has been cast in a feature film which we’ll be shooting this winter.”

“Made by?” I asked.

Movies beckon for Matt Roper

Movies beckon for Matt Roper and Wilfredo

James Habacker, who runs The Slipper Room, is now making films. He’s just made his first film called The Cruel Case of The Medicine Man, which won Best Feature at the Coney Island Film Festival.

“But his second film is an out-and-out comedy: The Mel and Fanny Movie – James and his wife are Mel and Fanny Frye – he plays this character from the Borscht Belt. Wilfredo has been cast as Mel and Fanny’s personal chauffeur.”

“That’s something to look forward to,” I said. “Wilfredo’s teeth in the movies.”

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I Skyped a stand-up witch at midnight

Jackie Juno via Skype last night

Jackie Juno talking to me from Caerwysg via Skype last night

Last night, appropriately just before midnight, I had a Skype chat with stand-up poet Jackie Juno. She is also a witch. She knows comedian Matt Roper, who was passing through my spare bedroom.

On Saturday, Jackie is organising the Grand Witches’ Ball in Exeter.

“Last year,” she told me, “we held a Grand Witches’ Tea Party, which was a daytime thing and was outside.”

“And this one,” I asked, “is a night-time thing and is inside?”

“Yes. In the 450-seater Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre. We’re going to have bands and loads of different acts, including The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet. I am the lead singer. It’s been going 23 years.”

There is a clip of The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet on YouTube.

“How invisible and operatic are you?” I asked.

“Not very, but I’m very showy-offy. Not very operatic at all. Well, I hate opera, really.”

“But you must love Tibet, obviously.”

“Yes… Well… I’ve never been. But we’ve got a sort-of connection… with Gong, which is another psychedelic rock band. The Invisible Opera company of Tibet was founded by Daevid Allen, the lead singer with Gong. He founded it with my husband Brian.”

“You’re psychedelic?”

“Yeah.”

“Psychedelic witches!” I said enthusiastically.

“I love dressing up,” said Jackie, “and being mad and cackling loudly at people and wearing striped tights”

Jackie Juno reaches 21st century cyberspace on Twitter

Jackie Juno now reaches 21st century cyberspace on Twitter

“I don’t,” I said, “remember striped tights being part of the traditional witch costume.”

“They’re quite important,” said Jackie.

“But I feel,” I said, “maybe not from the Middle Ages.

“No,”agreed Jackie, “it’s probably from kids’ story books, but it’s great fun.”

“Are you treating your witchery seriously?” I asked.

“Yes. As well. I just think it’s important to have a sense of humour.”

“What’s the best thing about being a witch?”

“Connection.”

“With what or whom?”

“Everything and everyone. Connection to the universe, the Earth, yourself, others.”

“How long have you been a witch?”

“I think I was born that way. I used to get loads of stuff in my dreams when I was younger. Loads of psychic things happened. Dead people appearing. So I’ve had all that psychic stuff happen.”

“That sounds a bit scary,” I said.

“I didn’t find it scary,” said Jackie. “Never have done.”

“Not even when you were a child?” I asked. “Dead people appearing?”

“Yeah, well it was my grandad and my uncle. And other people. If I went somewhere, somebody would be there and I would describe them and it would be later confirmed. It doesn’t happen that often, but it has happened intermittently.”

“Does it run in the family?” I asked.

“Doesn’t seem to.”

“I seem to have met a lot of witches,” I said. “So you’re a white witch…”

“I don’t know,” said Jackie, “what this white business is. I am many colours.”

“I thought,” I told her, “that a white witch was a good witch and a black witch was a bad witch.”

“That,” she replied, “is like saying you get good Christians and bad Christians.”

“How does one become a witch?” I asked. “You can’t be born one, can you? You have to choose to become one.”

Jackie runs experiential workshops in Goddesses

Jackie runs experiential workshops based on Goddess archetypes relevant to life now

“You can do both,” Jackie told me. “But I think it’s more of an uncovering, a going towards something. I think being a witch is like a natural state. We’re just in touch with the earth, in touch perhaps with other realms that we don’t often see. Before these organised, patriarchal religions came along and made all their rules and dogmas. I think we are our own people in touch with our own spirituality through the earth, through Nature.”

“I suppose you have seen The Wicker Man?” I asked.

“Yes. Great. I love it. A classic. I must re-watch it.”

“There’s an interesting line in it,” I said, “about Christianity being a Johnny-come-lately religion.”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Were you ever a Christian?”

“God, no. I wasn’t brought up that way. My dad used to describe himself as an agnostic.”

“Not an atheist?”

“No. He believed there was something going on, but he wasn’t sure what.”

“So why did you decide to have a Witches’ Tea Party last year?”

The Grand Witches Tea Party 2014 (Photo by Jim Bachelier-Moore

The Grand Witches’ Tea Party in 2014 (Photograph by Jim Bachelier-Moore)

“I was given the title Grand Bard of Caerwysg (the Welsh name for Exeter), which is a 7-year role. Each ancient bardic seat has a sacred hill associated with it and, in Exeter, it’s Rougemont Gardens. There is a plaque in Rougemont Gardens which honours the last three women witches that were killed in England. They kept the witches – the women – in a tower of the castle in terrible conditions and then they took them to be hanged.”

“Hanged?” I asked. “I thought witches were burned alive or chucked in the river?”

“No. I think in this country most of them were hung.”

“You said England. What about Scotland?”

“I think they carried on killing witches in Scotland after 1682 – the last ones in England.”

“So, in Exeter,” I said, “the sacred hill is Rougemont Gardens…”

“Yes. I’ve always felt a strong affinity with that place and, when I became Grand Bard, I wanted to do something to honour the women that were killed.

“I wanted to hold a ceremony but then it kind of grew and we decided to have a tea party afterwards and then we decided to try and go for the world record of number of witches gathered in one place. But, to qualify for that, you had to have a cloak, a broom and a pointy hat.”

“That,” I asked, “is a Guinness Book of Records rule?”

“Yes. The record had already been set so, if you want to break it, you have to follow the rules. So we thought it would be a bit of fun. That was what got media attention. It just went mental. But the local witchy community were all: Oh! this is a farce! This is Disney! we don’t wear pointy hats! We’re proper witches! They got a bug up their arse, basically. They couldn’t believe you could have a bit of fun as well.”

“How are witches organised?” I asked. “Is there a national Witch Council?”

A queue of witches in 2014, signing a petition to get the executed women pardoned (Photo by Jim Bachelier-Moore)

A queue of witches in 2014, signing a petition to get the executed women pardoned (Photo by Jim Bachelier-Moore)

“There are various groups all across Britain – pagan moots.”

“Any old pagans?” I asked. “Not specifically witches?”

“Yes, any old pagans. Or young pagans. There’s various pagan groups and lots of kind-of I guess witchy, goddess groups.”

“I have met a few witches,” I said, “but I have never met a wizard.”

“Well,” said Jackie, “there are a lot of men who consider themselves witches.”

“So a ‘witch’ can be a man or woman?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So there’s no such thing as a wizard?”

“I’m sure people might also describe themselves as a wizard, but I don’t know exactly what a wizard is…”

“So your husband Brian is not a wizard?”

“No.”

“Is he a witch?”

“He describes himself as a pagan Buddhist.”

“Was he a Buddhist first and then you converted him?”

“I think he was a pagan anyway, really. I think we all are underneath. Pagans do have a lot of fun.”

“It is the old religion,” I said. “Last year was…?”

“A wonderful event,” said Jackie. “It was incredibly moving.”

“Because?”

“Because the ceremony itself was very moving. People came from all over England and Wales.

This Saturday - the grand witches Ball

This Saturday – The Grand Witches’ Ball

“This year, we’re going to hold a ceremony at the beginning and at the end of the night, remembering those killed.”

“And two psychedelic rock bands,” I said.

“And a mind-reading act,” Jackie added.

“A stage act or a psychic act?” I asked.

“A stage act. He lives down Penzance way.”

“You don’t have to be part of witch culture to attend this event?”

“No. It’s open to all. Once we’ve covered our costs, we are raising funds for Womankind Worldwide, which champions women around the world.”

“When did you meet Matt Roper?” I asked.

“Before he got into his Wilfredo character – without the teeth and trousers – and I thought What a delightful young man! How handsome! and then I saw him as Wilfredo and – Christ! – I couldn’t believe it! Has he told you about Reincarnation Street, my mystical soap opera set in Totnes?”

“No.”

“We did it using finger puppets. Johnny Depp is in it.”

“As a finger?”

“No, as a puppet. He has a walk-on part – Well it’s more of a shuffle-on part, because I’ve got my finger up his skirt. The first episode is on YouTube. Reincarnation Street: A Mystical Soap Opera Set in Totnes.”

“Has it got a theme tune like Coronation Street?”

“Yes, but with an Indian sitar.”

“Matt took me to Totnes,” I said.

“Oh!” replied Jackie, “so you have experienced the aura-polishing and the chakra dancing and the womb whispering?”

“Womb whispering?” I asked.

“I saw an advert for it.”

“In the local paper?”

“In a poster up on a notice board. Chakra dancing, womb yoga, womb whispering, equine therapy, free hugs.”

“I have to say some people may think witchery is a bit odd,” I said, “but it has nothing on Totnes.”

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A brief insight into fame, the drug habits of dinsosaurs and a phone in rice

Matt Roper last week, as Wilfredo (Photograph by Garry Platt)

Matt Roper as Wilfredo in Edinburgh last week (Photograph by Garry Platt)

As I am still a zombie from the after-effects of the Edinburgh Fringe and not yet fully able to string thoughts together, here is a blog (to quote Slaughterhouse-Five yet again) “somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from”.

Matt Roper is almost unrecognisable as Wilfredo, the greasy singer he performed as at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show in Edinburgh last week.

But yesterday, Matt was paying for fuel at the counter of the Texaco garage in Totnes, in the South West of England, when the girl behind the counter asked him: “Are you Wilfredo?”.

He replied: “Not at the moment, no”.

Matt says: “As I was punching my PIN number into the card machine, she was showering me with praise… I love what you do… I keep up with what you’re up to… It’s so good to see you doing so well! And, at that very moment, with a queue of customers waiting behind me, my card payment was declined.”

Meanwhile, this morning, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith, who lives on a boat in Vancouver, sent me an e-mail:


Anna Smith last night, "after three days of sleeping on a psychiatrist’s couch"

Anna Smith has been thinking about dinosaur eating habits

We had a major wind storm here that knocked down trees and left 700,000 people without electricity for up to four days (including me).

Apparently information websites crashed with people wanting to know when the electricity would return.

My phone is near dead. I dropped it in the bilge… Well it slid off my bed as I slept through the windstorm of ninety kilometer per hour gusts that was knocking trees onto houses and cars.  But it is now in a bag of red rice from Texas, so maybe that will revive it. 

A young server at the McDonald’s Drive Through restaurant suggested I put the phone into a bag of dry rice. It is supposed to work the way rice dries out salt in a salt cellar.


This, in itself, seemed a little surreal to me, but then she added:


Did Tyrannosaurus Rexes hallucinate on prehistoric acid trips?

Did Tyrannosaurus Rexes hallucinate on prehistoric acid trips?

Did you hear about the scientist who found ergot in amber? I was listening to a CBC radio program about it. They were speculating that dinosaurs were having acid trips…


I thought I had better check up on this and, indeed, the Daily Mail wrote a piece about it in February, headlined:

DID DINOSAURS GET HIGH?
FUNGUS CONTAINING LSD COMPOUND IS FOUND
ON A 100-MILLION-YEAR-OLD FOSSILISED BLADE OF GRASS

with the sub-headings:

– Ergot produces compounds that can induce delirium and hallucinations
– Scientists in the 20th century used these compounds to synthesise LSD
– Researchers say herbivorous dinosaurs are likely to have eaten the fungus

And I thought the Edinburgh Fringe was strange.

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I was tricked on my birthday by a comic’s Cunning Stunt on Facebook

So I currently have comedy performer Matt Roper staying with me. Last night, he went off to see some Edinburgh Fringe previews at comedy critic Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara emporium in Shepherd’s Bush.

There is a video on YouTube of Copstick plugging the Mama Biashara emporium in 2010. Things have only changed for the better.

While Matt Roper was at Mama Biashara last night, I was off elsewhere. It was my birthday.

During the evening, Kate Copstick posted this on her Facebook page:

We’ve got wonderful character comic Matt Roper visiting the emporium to see a show tonight. For those who don’t know him, he’s the man behind the vile but utterly loveable powerhouse creation of Wilfredo, of whom I had the good fortune to witness last year at the Fringe. Due to an error at The Scotsman, my review of his show only gave three stars when in fact it ought to have been a full five. He’s up at the Fringe once again this year in Routines, a new immersive comedy experience which I predict will smash the Festival this year (3.45pm at the Three Sisters). Those who haven’t seen Matt at work are highly recommended to do so. A huge comic talent.

Facebook posting that set it all off, sent from Mama Biashara

Facebook posting that set it all off, sent from Mama Biashara

I re-posted it on my Facebook accounts and thought no more about it until I got a Facebook message a little later from Matt. It said simply:

Just fraped Copstick.

I had to look this up. The online Wiktionary’s first definition of ‘frape’ was:

A crowd, a rabble.

This seemed unlikely.

The Wiktionary’s second definition was:

(Internet slang) To hijack, and meddle with, someone’s Facebook account while it is unattended.

Uh-oh, I thought.

And, sure enough, Matt had written the glowing review of himself (with the fake Scotsman stars) on Copstick’s computer while she had been off dealing with the Fringe preview in the Mama Biashara performance space.

I was not the only one who was taken in; there was widespread re-posting and Tweeting.

This morning, the real Copstick posted on her Facebook page:

So here’s a thing: Matt Roper popped by the Mama Biashara Emporium last night to pick up his typewriter. I leave him alone with my desktop for FIVE MINUTES and I wake up this morning to find FB wet with excitement over something I had apparently posted on the subject of how fabulous and talented he is and how the Scotsman stars were a misprint and should have been five. Yes I think he is pretty good and yes, to be fair, he did give me two slices of his pizza… but even John Bloody Fleming reposted the thing! Are my posts usually so fulsome in their praise? Well, I will be going along to see Routines (see place and times on ‘my’ previous posting) and it had better be FUCKING BRILLIANT, Roper!

A few hours later, Copstick posted:

They are still sharing Matt Roper’s fucking fake fucking fabulous fucking posting on my page about him and fucking WilfuckingFredo and RouFuckingTines. WTF.

Copstick is mellowing with age.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wilfredo-Unchained-Live-California-Explicit/dp/B0100E56JA

Matt strangely forgot to plug that his alter ego has a new album out – Wilfredo Unchained: Live in California

Matt just did this publicity stunt on a whim; there was no advance planning. But it is a thing of beauty. A contender (I would think) for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

It did not just publicise Matt and his show but did so by making people not only fall for a con (as I did) but setting it up so that other people did the real work – all the people who were taken in and re-posted and re-Tweeted the initial frape.

It also, in this year – the tenth anniversary of Malcolm Hardee’s death – managed to doff a hat to one of Malcolm’s own legendary Edinburgh stunts. The one in which he and Arthur Smith wrote a glowing review of Malcolm’s Fringe show and submitted it to The Scotsman under the name of William Cook, the newspaper’s own highly-esteemed comedy reviewer – and it was, indeed published.

Matt’s stunt was almost better than this, in that he did not even have to write a fake review of his own show – he merely referred to an existing review and twisted perception of reality.

Desperate pose with Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

A desperate pose with Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Only a few days ago, I had been lamenting to myself that no cunning stunts had, as yet, appeared publicising a Fringe show or performer this year.

Ellis & Rose (as I mentioned in an April blog) had pretended they had appeared at Soho Theatre by hanging their own carefully-designed photo on the wall of the theatre’s bar. But they have no show in Edinburgh this year.

And, a few days ago, there was a brilliant publicity stunt by magicians Young & Strange who, while a Sky TV reporter talked to camera about government NHS reforms, staged a variation of the sawing-a-man-in-half trick behind him, on the green in front of Parliament.

This stunt got even better when it transpired that the whole thing was fake – it was not a real Sky reporter, nor a real Sky transmission, just a beautifully-crafted fake and one of a series of Young & Strange self publicity stunts aimed at getting broadcasters’ attention.

I would think this wonderful stunt would have been a sure cert for a Cunning Stunt nomination – if it were not for the fact Young and Strange are not plugging any Edinburgh Fringe show.

Still…

At least Matt Roper has now set a high benchmark to which others can aspire.

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A desperate blog with Matt Roper about Lewis Schaffer and Marianne Faithfull

Matt Roper - a man barely alive after a bad night’s sleep

Matt Roper – a comedian barely alive after a bad night’s sleep

“I am a desperate man,” I told comedian Matt Roper, who has been living in my spare room for the last few weeks (with my knowledge).

“I need a blog. You said you have a sore back. What has happened to it?”

“I dunno,” Matt said. “It’s just the way I’ve been sleeping.”

“Or is it the fact you’ve got the weight of the world’s troubles on your shoulders?” I suggested.

“I’m glad you said that,” replied Matt, “because Lewis Schaffer needs to realise he’s not carrying them all on his own.”

“We’ve barely seen each other since you’ve been here,” I said. “Where have you been these last few weeks?”

“John,” said Matt. “This is not an interesting blog. Let’s get Wilfredo out.”

On stage, Matt plays the part of Hispanic singer Wilfredo.

“Nah,” I said.

Matt had been trying to persuade me I should interview him for this blog in character as Wilfredo in my back garden.

“My blog’s about real people,” I had told him. “It would be like Chortle (the comedy industry website) interviewing Alan Partridge instead of Steve Coogan.”

Lewis Schaffer (lefty) exercising in the park yesterday with Martin Soan

Lewis Schaffer, here talking to Martin Soan about ping pong

“Does Lewis Schaffer work at Greggs The Baker?” Matt asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Does he?” asked Matt. “What does he do there?”

“Of course he doesn’t work in Greggs The Baker,” I said. “Why on earth would he?”

His Wikipedia entry said he did last time I looked.”

We looked at Lewis Schaffer’s Wikipedia entry.

It had been changed.

“Don’t mention Greggs The Baker in your blog,” said Matt. “Lewis Schaffer will be upset by that.”

“No he won’t,” I said. “He probably wrote it.”

“I’m going to go out for a ciggie,” said Matt.

“Is there’s a picture in it?” I asked.

“John, this isn’t interesting,” said Matt. “We could invent a fake person specifically for your blog,”

“Lewis Schaffer is enough,” I said. “I’ll take a picture of you.”

“Get your garlic grotto in the background,” said Matt.

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden & two weeping angels

“Garlic grotto?”

“Dalek grotto,” said Matt, correcting either me or himself.

I have a Dalek grotto in my back garden.

“How about publicising Wilfredo’s Christmas single?” asked Matt.

“Nah,” I said.

It started to drizzle rain.

“John, I can’t live in this country,” said Matt.

“Why?”

The British attitude to life - A glass half empty

The normal British attitude to life exemplified

“It’s just so painful. Everything’s expensive. The people are miserable. Everyone’s got this glass-half-empty approach to life.”

“But you’re from the North of England!” I laughed.

“Not as far north as you,” said Matt.

“Scotland isn’t the North of England,” I said.

“Maybe I should move back up North,” mused Matt.

“But,” I pointed out, “if you go too far north, you hit Glasgow, which is never a good idea. Talk about misery.”

“I’ve never been to Glasgow,” said Matt.

Glasgow - a fine and refined city of culture

Glasgow – a fine and refined city of culture

“Misery and violence,” I said. “It’s a heady mix. Have you really never been to Glasgow?”

“I was once in a cafe called Leopold’s in Bombay,” replied Matt.

“It’s not the same,” I said.

“I used to spend a lot of winters out there,” said Matt.

“The cafe?”

“India. I used to sing in clubs in the summer down in Devon. There was good money in it.”

“What sort of stuff?”

“Swing and jazz, all sorts of stuff.”

“Why have you never been to Glasgow?” I asked.

The show Matt saw on London’s South Bank last Friday

The show Matt saw on London’s South Bank last Friday night

“I did go,” said Matt, “to see Marianne Faithfull in London last Friday night.”

“Oh yes,” I said, “you told me you thought she should be a comedian.”

“She was very very funny,” said Matt. “She had a stick because she had shattered her hip bone. So she sits in a chair on stage with this stick, yelling at all the techies because the lights are too bright. Then she counts – One – Two – Three – and unseats herself grandly from this chair and all the audience applaud and she shouts Imagine! Getting a round of applause just for standing up! I feel  like Tommy Cooper! and all the audience applauded.

Tommy Cooper

The late great Tommy Cooper

I love Tommy Cooper! she says. I AM Tommy Cooper! My kinda guy!”

“So there’s a scoop for your blog,” said Matt. “Marianne Faithfull is a huge Tommy Cooper fan.”

I left Matt outside, smoking in the drizzle.

Inside, there was a message on my computer from someone I know who had better remain nameless.

“I am listening to Lewis Schaffer attempting to interview Stewart Lee on Nunhead American Radio,” it said. “Worth a listen. Total chaos.”

Sometimes I think: Should I continue to write this blog? Does anyone really believe Lewis Schaffer exists?

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