Tag Archives: William Blake

John Dowie on Bowie, Bolan, bicycles, drinking, drugs, poetry, prose and book

John Dowie is not an easy man to describe even without a hat

I worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas with John Dowie’s sister Helga.

His other sister is writer/director/actor Claire Dowie.

John wrote an original short story for the Sit-Down Comedy book which I compiled/edited with late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

But John Dowie is not an easy man to describe. 

He is a man of many hats.

Wikipedia currently describes him as a “humourist” and says:

“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”

Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative. 

We had this blog chat to talk about his new book, The Freewheeling John Dowie, the Stewart Lee blurb quote for which reads:

“Great cycle of life and love and death”

“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”

Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”

Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…


DOWIE: This book my first prose work.

FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.

DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.

FLEMING: So why now?

DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.

FLEMING: Picaresque?

DOWIE: Is that the word?

FLEMING: I dunno.

DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.

FLEMING: How has the book done?

An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway

DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.

FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?

DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?

DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?

DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.

FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.

DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.

FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…

DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.

FLEMING: To distract them?

DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.

“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”

“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”

“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”

It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.

FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?

DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.

FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…

DOWIE: … doing mime… Supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex… I saw that too.

FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.

DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.

FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)

DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.

FLEMING: A great name, though.

DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.

FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.

DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.

FLEMING: Eh?

Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.

FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?

DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.

FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.

DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.

FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.

DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.

FLEMING: I don’t know that one.

DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”

FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?

William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea

DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.

FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?

DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.

FLEMING: On stage, though?

DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.

FLEMING: I think that might just be you.

DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.

FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.

FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?

DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.

FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?

John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August

DOWIE: No. But I’m doing Fringe By The Sea at North Berwick.

FLEMING: Ah! Claire Smith is organising that – It’s been going ten years but she’s been brought in to revitalise it this year. What are you doing? A one-off in a Spiegeltent?

DOWIE: Yeah. A 40-minute reading from my book and then a Question & Answer section.

FLEMING: What next for creative Dowie?

DOWIE: I’m waiting to see what happens with the book.

FLEMING: It’s autobiographical. Will there be a sequel?

DOWIE: Depends how long I live.

FLEMING: At your age, you’ll die soon.

DOWIE: I’m not going to die soon!

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Is “Killer Bitch” worse than hardcore pornography and what does the dead poet William Blake know about it?

The actor Jack Nicholson said of film censorship: “The reality is, if you suck a tit, you’re an X, but if you cut it off with a sword, you’re a PG.”

As if the power of the tabloid press to overcome common sense and logic needed to be proved, consider the case of the movie Killer Bitch. (I was always a fan of early Roger Corman movies…)

This much-pre-publicised modern-day B-movie was attacked before it was even finished as “vile” porn by newspapers from London to Sydney to New York to New Delhi (yes, literally those places) by journalists who had never seen even a single frame of it. Indeed, the attacks started in the News of the World just two weeks after shooting began: subsequent news reports assumed what had been written the the News of the World was true.

Despite this, when the movie was eventually submitted to the British Board of Film Classification (the UK film censors), I didn’t actually expect much of a problem. It was a  low-budget film, so there was no wildly explicit gore – lots of fake blood but no OTT gore, no bullets exploding on bodies, no exploding heads – and the sex, it seemed to me, though much hyped, was not especially explicit – not by current standards.

There IS a sequence in the film which shows actual sexual intercourse but it was edited soft-core and is far less explicit than many a Hollywood studio movie. Almost everything that is seen to happen in Killer Bitch had been passed by the BBFC in a more extreme and more realistic form in previous films and, since 2002, the BBFC have in fact been passing hardcore sex scenes for general distribution. Why the Daily Mail has never picked up on this as a sign of the utter disintegration of British moral culture I don’t know. I think the BBFC started doing it so quietly that, by the time the Daily Mail twigged, it was old news and not worth attacking.

As it turned out, though, there were major problems with the British film censors over Killer Bitch. We were told the BBFC was very concerned at the “content of the movie” and it was screened at least four times to various combinations of censors, eventually including the Chairman of the Board. I suspect it was just a case of a movie with a high-profile tabloid reputation being referred-up because each person was too scared to take the risk of passing it himself/herself…. At one point, a BBFC Examiner sent an e-mail to the UK distributor saying it was “more likely than not” that there would be several cuts.

I was amazed when I found out what they claimed the problem was. We were told there were two areas of concern:

The first was a glimpse of part of the erect shaft of porn star Ben Dover’s penis at the beginning of the movie. This gobsmacked me. Apart from the fact neither the director nor I had ever noticed this and the censors must have gone through it frame by frame with a magnifying glass (no reflection on Ben Dover), I have still never spotted the offending shot in the movie. The BBFC have been giving 18 certificates to hard core sex scenes (erect penises; visible sexual penetration) since 2002. This was, apparently, a glimpse of part of a shaft.

The second problem was the scene which had got the tabloids worldwide into such a tizzy when (without ever having seen it) they had denounced it as a ghastly and “vile” rape scene. What the BBFC was worried about was not the actual sex scene itself (which was not a rape scene at all) but the pre-amble to the sex scene, in which leading lady Yvette Rowland initially resists Alex Reid then melts in his arms.

I understand the BBFC’s worry to an extent though, really, it’s not much more than 1950s/1960s James Bond sexism – a rugged hero takes woman roughly in arms; kisses her; she resists very briefly then melts in his mouth. Arguably sexist, but repeated a thousand times in other movies: hardly a hanging offence. Especially considering what the BBFC have been passing uncut since 2002. This is one description by  critic (not by me) of Willem Dafoe’s 2009 arthouse film Antichrist which was passed uncut by the BBFC:

“After knocking him unconscious, Gainsbourg bores a hole in Dafoe’s leg with a hand drill and bolts him to a grindstone to keep him from escaping. Then, she smashes his scrotum with some sort of blunt object (the moment of impact happens slightly below the frame). We don’t actually see his testicles become disengaged from this body, though it’s implied. Next, she brings him to a climax with her hands and he ejaculates blood (yes, it’s shown). But that’s not all! Later, in an extreme closeup — lensed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle! — Gainsbourg cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.”

The girl’s masturbation of the erect penis is in close-up and is real plus it’s an erect penis that is ejaculating blood.

Killer Bitch and Ben Dover’s imperceptibly-glimpsed bit of shaft should almost get a U if Antichrist gets an 18…

There IS a rape scene in Killer Bitch (which in no way glamorises nor diminishes the horror but it is not the scene the tabloids got into a tizz about). And someone DOES get his cock cut off in vision. But apparently neither of these scenes worried the censors.

What seems to have worried them was the movie’s reputation. It worried everyone. It was, ironically, passed uncut by the BBFC, but banned from display on the shelves of ASDA, Morrison’s, Sainsbury, WH Smith, Tesco and others (although most of those sell it online). It was even withdrawn by iTunes after two days on sale for rather vague reasons. HMV remained a sole beacon of high street retail sanity and online retailers like Amazon and Play.com never had any problem.

Is the movie Killer Bitch really so much worse than hardcore pornography? Or did tabloid perception overcome reality?

William Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is.”

But, then, what the fuck did William Blake know about anything?

Although he did know a lot about dreams… and I do think it’s slightly odd no-one has noticed Killer Bitch can be seen as an OTT surreal dream by the heroine who may or may not awake, terrified, from unconsciousness early in the movie.

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