Tag Archives: writer

I may well have talked trite gibberish in an Irish comedy podcast. Who knows?

Gibberish rampant, perhaps

I am not one of Life’s natural interviewees

I am not one of Life’s better interviewees.

Today, the Irish website Seven 2 Ten has released as a podcast a one-hour interview with me which comedian Christian Talbot recorded in London three weeks ago.

Considering my inclination to ramble and talk gibberish, I think it is fairly interesting. Here are two linked extracts from the podcast. The link between the two is jigsaws.

When you directly transcribe what anyone says exactly, it can tend towards gibberish. In this case, of course, that might be because it is. When I transcribe interviews with people I talk to, I normally tidy up little bits of grammar etc; in this case I have not. This is what I said, referring to my two erstwhile  TV careers – as a trailermaker and as a researcher on shows including Tiswas, Game For a Laugh and The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross:

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I‘ve never had any interest in becoming a comedian, but I think I’m quite good editorially. When I was doing television stuff, it was mostly to do with editing, so I’d see the two-and-a-half hour film and decide how to edit it down to 20 seconds or 30 seconds for a trailer and what music to put on and what voices to put on and what words to put in. And so, in the same way as I’ve always edited those sorts of visual things… I’m not a writer, in fact… I’m not a writer, I’m a re-writer.

I’ve interviewed people like Brian Clemens who did The Avengers and Nigel Kneale who did Quatermass and they’re utterly brilliant, in my opinion, because you talked to them and they were spewing out plotlines – original plotlines – like ten-to-the-minute. Extraordinary, amazing, fertile imaginations. I don’t have that. I can’t think of plotlines but, given material, I can do it as a jigsaw and make it interesting.

When I was a child, what really fascinated me was jigsaws. I loved jigsaws. You can only put a 1,000 piece jigsaw together in one way. But, if you’re editing a film or editing TV, then you’ve got 10 million pieces, 10 million elements and you can put them together in all sorts of different ways to create a variety of different good effects. There is no right or wrong way. There’s just a variety of possible ways through which you can get to a good result. And the same thing with performing, possibly.

It’s not a science; it’s an art. You can’t say, “The way to be a comedian is to do X, Y and Z” and “Structure a joke with these words X, Y and Z,” because it may not work. There is that X factor.

I was watching a programme on Tommy Cooper last night and Tommy Cooper was basically telling rather bad jokes or rather silly, childish jokes. But he was absolutely brilliant. And Barry Cryer was saying on this programme that no-one could explain why Tommy Cooper was funny. You knew he was funny. With just a blink of the eye or a look at the camera or an intonation he was funny. But you couldn’t really explain why. Comedy is an art not a science.

I can perhaps be objective with comedians and say to them, “This isn’t quite working,” and almost academically explain to them why I think it’s not working, but I couldn’t do it myself.

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I had a reputation for finding bizarre acts, which wasn’t altogether justified. Anyone can find bizarre acts. You just take out an ad in The Stage for three weeks in a row and they come out of the woodwork. The thing is to know how to use them.

A producer on Game For a Laugh decided he was going to go with me to see various acts and we saw a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant slackwire act – absolutely, utterly brilliant… Slackwire instead of a tightrope… So, instead of a tightrope or a tight wire, this was a slackwire which sags in the middle and he swings all over the place. Utterly brilliant. And I said to the producer: “It won’t work on television,” and he said, “Yes it will,” and he had him on the show.

I said, “It won’t work on television because we’re watching it live in a 3D environment and it feels dangerous – you can see what’s going on, you can FEEL what’s going on and how dangerous it is. But, if you put it on television, it’s a two-dimensional image and it will just look like a man walking along a line.”

And it didn’t work and the producer admitted it didn’t work.

What I was good at wasn’t finding bizarre acts – because anyone can find bizarre acts – it was actually manipulating bizarre acts. So I could see someone perform something that wasn’t very good live, but I could see that it would work on television if you made a few changes. Or I could see that someone was utterly brilliant live, but the act wouldn’t work on television. I could manipulate the component parts of a performance in that way – I think – I think – and therefore, with comedians, I can say to them without being too offensive why I think that bit works or that other bit doesn’t work. Or that bit, if you tweaked it, might work. In that sense, I can sort of direct or produce comedians, but I’m not myself a comedian at all. I’m not funny at all.

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YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE PODCAST BY CLICKING HERE.

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The best-written paragraph in English was written by a shortsighted Irishman

James Joyce in 1915

James Joyce, shortsighted man, in 1915, the year after Dubliners was published

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer.

I took my early jobs because they would make me write a lot, on the principle that quantity might make me able to write as well as George Orwell and I might be able to write in any style on demand.

George Orwell was not a great novelist, but he was a brilliant communicator of ideas.

I would like to have thought I could write a book as well as George Eliot but, like several others, once I read Middlemarch, I knew this was not even a  distant possibility.

As for style, when I was young, I might even have hoped that one day I could write something as perfect as the final paragraph of The Dead, the last story in James Joyce’s book Dubliners. It is arguably the most perfectly-written paragraph in English literature… written, as it happens, by an Irishman.

The final paragraph always reminds me of Christmas. These are the final three paragraphs of The Dead:

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The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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So it goes.

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“The Avengers” was like a Doris Day comedy – says writer Brian Clemens

The Avengers’ style was dictated by the budget

In 1979, I chatted to writer Brian Clemens, the man behind British TV successes The Avengers and The Professionals. The interview was published in Starburst issues 29 & 30.

Yesterday I posted the first half of the first part of that interview. Now the second half…

* * * * *

The two words that epitomise everyone’s memories of The Avengers are visual style. How did that develop? According to Brian Clemens an important factor was economics.

“A lot of the evolution of the style was really because they didn’t have any sets. (Director) Peter Hammond was always shooting through wine glasses because, if he moved the camera over here, they didn’t have any windows or walls. A great deal of the evolution of the style was pure economics.

Women could be tied but not killed

“But, having seen the way it was going, when we started making the shows on film (with the Diana Rigg series) I introduced certain ground rules: that there shouldn’t be any blood, that women shouldn’t be killed and the streets should only be populated with people in the plot. They tended to be empty streets because if you put Steed, who is an anachronism – a pantomime character – alongside any reality, then you’ll stop believing in him.

“It’s really in the mould of a Doris Day comedy, where there are no upstairs rooms. The world of fantasy only works if you totally believe in the world it’s enclosed in and we tried to do that in The Avengers. In some of the plots we broke the rules. We did have one where it was necessary to show ordinary, busy streets in order to then say Now there’s nobody there. Generally speaking, we abided by the rules, but the rules were always totally flexible. One could always bend the rules for the sake of an exceptional plot.”

Another part of The Avengers’ style was the inversion of the dramatic cliché.

“We did that an awful lot,” says Clemens, “like Sherlock Holmes planting clues. And we had a marvellous teaser once with the body outline marked out on the floor and this chap comes in, they shoot him and he falls into the outline. We were always doing that sort of thing.”

Co-stars included Arthur Lowe (later star of “Dad’s Army”)

The series got more and more bizarre and, as well as debunking Sherlock Holmes, famous film plots started turning up – High Noon, The Maltese Falcon and Tarzan movies were just some.

“At one time,” says Clemens, “the premise was that once we attacked a subject nobody could ever do it again for real. But, again, we were ahead of our time and it didn’t totally work in international terms because, when you got to the Teutonic masses or the mid-West, they were all taking it for real. Today I think it would have a completely different impact.”

Throughout the various Avengers series, Clemens’ influence was considerable. On the early videotaped series, he had just been an occasional writer. After the Honor Blackman series, he was offered a job as general videotape producer-director at ABC Television. He turned this down when he was offered a job as script editor and associate producer on the new filmed Avengers series starring Diana Rigg.

“What they wanted,” he explains, “was someone who knew The Avengers and knew film and I was the only person who was qualified.”

Today he has no regrets about turning down the producer-director job. “If I’d produced and directed on tape, I could be sitting with Sydney Newman now. (Former Head of Drama at ABC and the BBC.) Sydney was a brilliant man but didn’t make any impact internationally. The thing about getting involved in something that was very successful internationally was that I could go to Hollywood four years later and people had heard of me and knew what I’d done.

“I don’t hold a great brief for America. But unfortunately, as we have no film industry, if you want something to be done these days, you have to think of America as the mecca of film-making. It’s sad. I mean, five years ago, I wanted to make Britain the Hollywood of television product – which it could easily be if you could find anybody who’s willing to take a chance. And it’s not much of a chance.

“If you’re a millionaire and I say to you Give me a million pounds and I’ll invest it in television product, you might not do a Jaws, you might not make £50 million, but you wouldn’t lose your million. I don’t just mean The New Avengers. Almost anything. I don’t think anything I’ve written has been transAtlantic, but they’ve always sold internationally and I don’t just mean America. Thriller has sold in 90 countries and The Avengers has sold in something like 120 and The Professionals is selling. I don’t think indigenous success (in Britain) means quite so much. It means people in the local pub like you, but it restricts you ultimately.”

One of Brian Clemens’ Avengers scripts

One reason Clemens’ work has always sold internationally is probably because he writes strong plots and, if he has to be pigeonholed at all as a writer, he could be called a ‘plot’ man.

“Yes,” he says, “I suppose I am a plot man. Of late, I’ve tried to be more, but I am a plot man. I think that’s fair. I’ve never pretended I’m a brilliant writer, but I can think up 400 plots today, if you want them, and some will be quite new.”

So is it an innate skill?

“I think it must be, yes. Or it may be that I’ve seen so many plots I understand them so well… I understand that, if you change one brick, you’ve got a different plot.”

Another trait that often surfaces in Clemens’ work is a quirky humour.

“You see,” he says, “humour is enduring. It’s like Dickens. Nothing could be more dated than Dickens – he’s talking about social injustices that have gone 50, 60, maybe 100 years ago. But, because he’s funny and he’s warm, we still relate to him. I think modern writing and modern concepts… People are resisting being funny or warm as if making people laugh or cry weakens them. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s just as dogmatic as certaiun MGM products of the 1950s which portrayed the American way of life as it wasn’t.

“Now we’ve got another way of life (on screen) which isn’t really like that either. It’s only showing one half of the truth. I don’t believe people can survive in our society without crying or laughing. You couldn’t. How could you exist in some of those coal mining places up North or in Wales if you didn’t have that asset of being able to release the optimism within you? I think it’s terribly important.

“Over the last six or seven years on television we’ve had a lot of programmes showing that people who lived between 1910 and 1950 had a terrible time. My father and mother grew up in the East End of London just beyond the turn of the century. My father’s written about it and told me about it and I’d rather be there then than here now. I run two cars and have a good life, but his life was richer.

“He was an engineer, but he lived in a real slummy area and all his memories are rich – even the bad memories are rich. My memories are bland compared with his. I didn’t suffer and struggle at my age as he did at the same age. At the end of the First World War, my father walked something like 22 miles a day just looking for work. He didn’t like it at the time but, along the way, he met all sorts of interesting people.

“At least he knew he was alive. Sometimes I think you have to have a little bit of suffering to me made aware that you’re alive. I think the antithesis of that is California, where they’re all very much alive but many of them might as well be embalmed.”

TO BE CONTINUED… HERE

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Writing someone else’s autobiography: The World Trade Center comparison

Unknown numbers of unknown unknowns

I was talking to someone last night about writing their autobiography. It will probably never happen, because the publishing industry is in decline, is running scared and does not really know what is happening with eBooks, self-publishing, print-on-demand and all the other new imponderables.

Back in December 2011, I wrote a blog about How to write someone else’s biography or your own autobiography 

That did not go into the mechanics of the thing.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

– There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know.

– There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.

– But there are also unknown unknowns – There are things we do not know we don’t know

He got a tremendous amount of unfair criticism claiming this was gibberish when, in fact, it is entirely clear and entirely correct. Especially when you are writing a book about someone else’s life.

You do not know how much – let alone what – you do not know about the other person’s life. And, if you do not know what you do not know, you may not know the right questions to ask to find out what you do not know and what the other person has forgotten or does not realise is illuminating.

By-and-large, I think the best thing is to chat to and record the person talking about their life. This might take 30 hours – or much more.

With my non-typing skills, I take three times as long to transcribe a chat as the chat takes itself. You cannot get someone else to transcribe it, because they may miss something vital in the intonation or the syntax or in the umming and ahhing and meandering which everyone does in ordinary everyday speech.

So that means, in this case, 30 hours of chats would take 90 hours to transcribe – so a total of 120 hours. If you work a solid seven-hour day, that means just over 17 days. If you take weekends off, that means three weeks and two days in total, working solidly every weekday from 9.30am to 5.30pm with a single one-hour lunch break.

After all that, you are at ground zero. You have the material with which to write the book, but you have not yet started to write the book.

If you have conducted the chats well, you will have got the basics and managed to stop the person diverging too much onto sidetrack dead ends – although you have to allow a lot of genuinely irrelevant, pointless sidetracking because you are faced with unknown numbers of unknown unknowns – and one apparent sidetrack may lead to you striking pure gold.

Even if the person has excellent recall of details (which is rare) and has been able to tell their story in some rough form of chronological order (which is even rarer), what you have now is a meandering, waffly mess, from which you have to create some sort of structure with threads running through which will intrigue and ‘hook’ the reader.

What you exclude is arguably more important than what you include.

Telling a life story is not a matter of telling the reader everything that happened. Facts are not necessarily interesting. You have to find specific incidents which will illuminate and explain certain periods in the person’s life. No point describing in detail what happened as 153 events slowly developed in one six month period of a whole life; you have to find one key event which illuminates the period, develops a thread and cut it back so it becomes vivid and insightful.

Part of that you have to sort-out when you are chatting to the person. But a lot is in the later writing, which is like putting together a jigsaw wading through syrup in concrete boots while carrying an octopus on your back.

The important choice is what you do NOT include.

It is like telling the story of how one person died in the World Trade Center. Going through the ruins of both collapsed buildings with a sieve and a toothbrush will not help. There is too much information. Too much rubble.

People know too much about their own lives. A ghost writer has to find the key vivid facts, incidents, thoughts and feelings which condense decades of incidents into 90,000-120,000 words.

And, trust me, 90,000 words is less than superficial.

So pity the poor person trying to write someone else’s autobiography.

You don’t know what my life is like.

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Writing with comics is like pulling boxer Mike Tyson’s teeth on a trampoline

The paperback written on a trampoline

In 2003, Sit-Down Comedy was published: an anthology of new short stories by stand-up comedians. It was (as the cover says) “sort of edited by Malcolm Hardee and John Fleming”.

The comedian-writer contributors were Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavaré, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.

In the August/September 2003 issue of The Writers’ Bulletin, the magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, I wrote this…

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PULLING MIKE TYSON’S TEETH ON A TRAMPOLINE

Sit-Down Comedy is published by Ebury Press this month. I compiled it. Pulling Mike Tyson’s teeth on a trampoline would have been easier. You know you are in for trouble when a publisher suggests commissioning original writing from 20 stand-up comics. Any genre, any style.

“Oh, they’re used to writing,” is the unspoken encouragement that hangs in the air.

“Oh f***,” was my un-asterisked reaction.

Stand-ups are used to feeling insecure all week then appearing in front of strangers for 45 minutes and performing a routine they often cobbled together a year ago. Writing new material risks personal abuse; not writing new material risks failure. It is not a profession for the insecure; yet most comics are.

I am not un-used to the world of stand-up comedy. I couldn’t do it myself to save my life. I have no talent. But I know a man who does – Malcolm Hardee. I wrote his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. Malcolm can walk 15 yards to buy a packet of condoms in a chemist and en route more bizarre incidents will happen to him than a one-legged transvestite footballer experiences in a lifetime. The man attracts comic incidents like a TV executive attracts sycophants. But he can’t even remember the decade when some of them happened.

Almost every brief anecdote in his autobiography was cobbled together from at least three separate conversations when he would remember different parts of the same incident – all of them barely credible but actually true. He is, in the flesh, a very funny raconteur. Write down exactly what he says, though, and it’s an unfunny shambles. Even more than most, his spoken speech patterns diverge from grammatical, logical written sentences. And, like all great comedians, it’s all in the timing – something that simply doesn’t and can’t exist on the printed page. I had to re-shape his spoken word structure so that, on paper, the effect seemed like what it was in reality.

The stand-up comics commissioned to write for Sit-Down Comedy – experienced as they were in writing for the spoken word – often had no experience at all of writing for the printed page. How can you put a half-second pause into a paragraph to build up the tension or the punchline?

Some of our contributors were published authors with novels (or, in the case of Arthur Smith, copious newspaper columns) under their belts. They needed little help. But some (not all) of the others needed advice or, at least, someone to bounce ideas off.

If, for me, the piece didn’t work in some places I told them so honestly and always tried to give – in detail – exact reasons. I also made specific suggestions on how to correct the problems. The writers then had something concrete to consider. They could reject 80% of what I said; partly agree with 10%; accept 5%; and maybe the final 5% of my suggestions were rejected as bollocks too – but some passing detail might set them off on a totally different creative tangent that neither they nor I had previously thought about. One entire piece came about because I mentioned, in passing, that I admired Bernard Manning’s professionalism.

Some delivered polished versions which needed no changes. With others I discussed the general idea before any writing started. Some went though perhaps five drafts, with me making suggestions at each stage. One delivered a free-form poem of over 5,000 words which both the publisher and I found completely unreadable. The writer happily transformed it into prose and (I have not checked this but I suspect) changed not a single word – he just removed the line breaks. The result, in my opinion, is an almost jaw-droppingly beautiful piece of writing which, strangely, feels more poetic as prose than it did as a poem.

Malcolm’s name opened doors, opened telephone lines (except to some of the newer and more affected Armani-suit wearers) and got people to say Yes. Getting them to stay on the trampoline was my problem.

Some suddenly had genuine projects appear which took up their time; many suddenly realised how difficult writing 3,000 to 5,000 words can be. It’s an awkward length. Longer than a newspaper article; longer than a long stand-up joke. It needs structure and more than a single thought dashed off in a night. At the same time, it is too short to fully develop sub-plots. The structure and the detail has to be tight, linear and immediately compelling.

A new stand-up perhaps has ten one-minute jokes. A more experienced stand-up can make those same ten jokes last 30 minutes. A great stand-up can build the same ten jokes with peaks and troughs and sub-jokes into a single hour-long routine which appears to be a unitary, flowing routine. But even that is no preparation for writing a logical, flowing 5,000 word prose piece with a slow build and a climax.

So people entered and fell out of this project like trouserless vicars opening and closing doors in a Brian Rix farce. We had one ‘big name’ on board for two days. Another, having said for over a year he would do it, told me two weeks before the final deadline that he couldn’t. The replacement – a hot up-and-comer – let us down at two days’ notice though I felt that was OK as his deadline was so tight.

Almost every contributor in the final book told me, at one time or another, that they were dropping out. One of the final contributors – who eventually wrote a wonderful piece – told me on five separate occasions that he honestly couldn’t see how he could make time to do it. And his excuses (pressure of work) were genuine and understandable. Then, suddenly, his first draft appeared – and he wrote two more versions in quick succession.

My worst problem was balancing the Yeses and Maybes against the number of contributions budgeted for in the Advance. If I assumed everyone who said Yes would deliver and they didn’t, I would have far too few pieces. If I wrongly guessed that certain people saying Yes would not deliver, thus commissioned replacement contributors, then they all delivered, I would have too many contributors and not enough money to pay them.

As it was, we ended with 17 instead of 20 pieces but, as almost all tended towards 5,000 rather than 3,000 words, we were OK on our word tally and the publisher was, indeed, worried we would have too much.

There was also a problem on content. The sine qua non of all contributions was that they had to be, in some way, funny. They didn’t have to be comic punchline writing as such, but they had to have some comedic sensibility or elements in them. The pieces delivered pushed this description to its very limit but, early on, the publisher and I agreed that quality over-ruled anything. There is one piece in the book which I don’t think is remotely funny in any way (Malcolm and the publisher disagree) but it is undeniably a great piece of writing, so I was always comfortable with including it.

The published Sit-Down Comedy book is not quite the one Malcolm and I expected. But, if you commission people with original minds to write anything they fancy in any style in any genre, you’re bound to get something unexpected. What we ended up with was a collection of very well-written tales of beheadings, psychopaths, robbers, tramps, bombs in toilets, some gentle poetic fantasy and one piece that I think even owes a debt to Samuel Beckett. It’s not the superficial laugh-a-minute gagathon we originally thought we were going to get. It’s better than that.

Fortunately, the publisher liked it too.

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Sit Down Comedy was re-published by Ebury Press in 2009 and is still available as a paperback and as a Kindle eBook. It is also downloadable as an Apple iBook from the iBookStore

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Martin Soan: the tit-fancying surrealist comic who props up other comedians

Yesterday: Martin Soan in a quiet suburban setting

Yesterday, on his way back home to London from Leicestershire, where he had been writing scripts with comedian Boothby Graffoe, surrealist comic Martin Soan stopped off for a meal with me and my eternally-un-named friend at my home in Borehamwood.

“What was that kitchen set you built for Boothby at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago?” I asked.

“You know what it was,” Martin said.

“I never saw it,” I replied.

“That was my biggest prop ever!” Martin said. “The idea was that it was a whole kitchen including a Welsh dresser with plates, a washing machine, fridge, double freezer, table, pictures on the wall and bookshelves.

“Boothby did a load of sight gags around the kitchen and, at the penultimate moment of the show, he put some washing in the washing machine – a real one – and says, Look after it and he goes through the door and the washing machine is left alone on stage.

“The washing machine goes whiiiirrrr… Silence… Then whiiiirrrr… Silence… Just the washing machine on stage doing this… and I had programmed it so that, on the third one, it goes into this spin… Whiiiirrrrrrrrrr… and I had upset the balancing of the machine so it gets a lot of vibration and wobble on it and the whole kitchen set starts vibrating and, slowly, things start falling off: the oven walks out and explodes, the fridge falls down in bits, the Welsh dresser’s shelves all drop at a special angle so the plates run off like a pinball machine and it all falls apart in a spectacular and stylistic way.”

“And what were you writing with Boothby yesterday and today?” I asked.

“Basically, the return of The Greatest Show on Legs to the Edinburgh Fringe in August with their new show,” he replied, “which is a deconstruction of the Legs, basically.”

“What’s a deconstruction?” I asked.

Deconstruction means taking it apart and building it up again,” explained Martin.

“And how are you going to do that?”

“We don’t do it. It’s just what we tell people. Then we do the same old shit and everyone thinks we’ve re-invented ourselves.”

“You do other writing work with Boothby, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yup,” Martin said. “He’s a great gag/punchline man and I’m good at creating scenarios and situations. What a lot of people don’t realise about Boothby is he’s a great physical actor: a great clown, great at being stupid. Most people think of him as being a rather cerebral comic on the surreal/intellectual side of things. They don’t realise he’s a great prat-faller and he does that for me and I think he really enjoys it. When I’m writing with him, I’m falling about laughing, because he’s a genius.”

“And you’re a bird watcher,” I said.

“A lot of comedians are ‘twitchers’,” Martin replied. “When I was a kid, I studied my Observer Book of Birds every night before I went to bed. When I was eight years old, I became a member of the XYZ Club.”

“The XYZ Club?” I asked.

“Exceptional Young Zoologists,” Martin explained. “It involved taking a keen interest in animals and birds and their welfare and, when I was eight years old, I was involved in the ecological side of the balance of nature. For my efforts, I received a monthly periodical called Animals and twelve free tickets to the London Zoo which, even in those days, was well worth getting.”

“What’s your favourite bird?” I asked.

“Probably the mistletoe thrush.”

“Why would that be?”

“Because,” he said, “I have a great fondness of them, being a London EastEnder. It was probably the most exotic type bird that I regularly saw.”

“You saw it in Forest Gate?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “Surely it was all sparrows in the East End?”

“I was tremendously fond of sparrows and starlings and skylarks,” he said, “And thrushes, bullfinches and tits – They were all common in the East End at that time.

“Lots of tits in the East End?” I asked.

“Lots of tits in the East End, yeah. We used to get coal tits but no marsh tits and no long-tailed tits.”

“Cold tits?” I asked.

“There are about six tits,” said Martin. “There’s a blue tit, great tit, marsh tit, coal tit and long-tailed tit. I think there might be a bearded tit, too, but I might be getting mixed up with a circus act.”

“You were telling me that,” I said, “this time of year, you get depressed because you have to build all sorts of sexual props for other acts.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “stand-up comedians going up to the Edinburgh Fringe want to do a new show and sometimes they either think of slide shows or some sort of sexually-orientated genitalia props – usually mammoth-sized. In the past, I have had to make a woman’s genitalia six-feet high – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing… it actually talked. I built it so it talked like a mouth. I looked at millions of women’s genitalia to get it anatomically correct, but I decided there were no two anywhere that were similar.”

“This was research you had to do?” my eternally-un-named friend asked, “on the internet? Or you actually had to go and find…”

“No I did not,” Martin interrupted. “I did not go round asking people like you: Can I have a look at your cervix for someone else’s comedy show?

“Which internet pages did you look at?” I asked. “I think we should see.”

“No,” said Martin, “I don’t want to look again because, in the end, they all start to look like aliens. You start having dreams about them.”

“I know,” I said. “Are you doing any of those sort of props this year?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I’m doing one for an act that I really do like: Bridget Christie. I’m making a birth canal for her.”

“But you’re not using any for your own Greatest Show on Legs performances at the Fringe…”

“Oh, well,” he replied, “I’m using loads of proper ‘prop’ props. I’m going to have Bob Slayer come on with an enormous pair of maracas and, of course, one of them explodes.”

“Of course,” I said supportively.

“And I’m going to have a proper hospital drip,” Martin continued, “on wheels so we can move it around.”

“Why do people approach you to make props for them?” I asked.

“Because I’m so cheap!” said Martin. “And because I specialise in low-tech props.”

“Innovative,” my eternally-un-named friend interjected,” with materials that are easily acquired.”

“Yeah,” said Martin. “So, if it goes wrong, they can very easily…”

“Like the Red Sparrows on sticks,” my eternally-un-named friend interrupted.

“Yeah,” said Martin. “You got it. And I’m beginning to familiarise myself again with latex.”

Martin paused and looked at me.

“When you write this as a blog, John I expect you to use a little grace,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” I replied.

“At least modify my foul mouth,” he replied. “There was one blog you wrote about me where I was saying Oh, for fuck’s sake fucksake, John, don’t you fuckin… ‘ave you fucking ‘eard of… I mean,” he said, turning to my eternally-un-named friend, “I’m drunk and telling a mate a story and he copies it all down and leaves all the fucks in! He could have quoted me as saying, My goodness, my good man, why I do believe it once happened that... But some of your blogs are funny, John. That one about the mice and Lewis Schaffer…”

There was a suspiciously long pause and then Martin looked me in the eye and said: “You known I had a relationship with a mouse?”

“You see,” I told him. “Lines like that, Martin, are ideal for blogs.”

“It was driving me mad,” he continued, “and I was very cruel to this mouse.”

“You were?” I asked.

“I was,” he replied, “and then I felt sorry for it.”

“How were you cruel to the mouse?” I asked.

“It had made an actual mouse hole,” he explained, “like a Tom & Jerry mouse hole. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a hole and it was very Tom & Jerry and it was in the wainscoting.

“So I set up this very elaborate little crossbow pointing at the mouse hole, triggered by a hair. And, when the mouse came out to get this little bit of cheese, it set off this hair-triggered crossbow which was rubber band powered. The ‘arrow’ was a match with a little pin stuck in the end and it just shot it towards the mouse hole.

“I fucking pinned the mouse! I got it! I killed the fucking mouse! I was so shocked I was immediately full of remorse. But I skewered him. I pinned him. I got the mouse. I killed the bloody mouse. And it made me feel really guilty.”

“Imagine how the mouse felt,” I said.

“I killed a mouse!” said Martin, looking simultaneously glum and triumphant.

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Inventions, Mice, Theatre

KIS KIC Apple computers can teach you how to be a good writer and comedian

Who says you cannot lick a new Apple product ???

I have never bothered with a smartphone before, but I got an Apple iPhone 4s yesterday because I think it might help me understand how to use Twitter (which I never have) and because it means I do not have to buy a new iPad to get 3G coverage – I can just tether my iPhone to my old non-3G, WiFi original Apple iPad.

You will gather I like Apple products. I also have an iMac and a MacBook Pro.

I first bought a computer in 1989. It was an Amstrad. I bought my first Apple Mac in 1993. I have never bought a Windows PC.

A prime example of why is what happened to me in Ireland.

It was my first day working on a contract at the late Tara TV in Dublin; they had PCs using the then-new Windows 98 operating system. I was the last and only person in the office in the evening. When I had finished, I tried to shut down my computer. I could not find any way to do it. There was no on-screen button anywhere. Eventually, I had to phone a friend in England and ask how to switch off the system.

“You click the Start button,” she told me.

This seemed to me to epitomise Microsoft products.

In order to shut down the computer, you had to click the Start button.

Why?

It was the only way to do it.

You had to know the rules and follow them.

I once heard a Microsoft executive proudly say they had done market research into what people wanted in their computers and found that most of what people wanted but said they did not have was already in the Windows operating system.

He took this as an example of how good the system was. I took it as an example of how Byzantine the system was. People had no idea how to find or do anything.

The difference between Apple and Microsoft Windows products has always seemed to be that Windows works in a certain way and you have to follow the rules to do anything. Apple  computers really are intuitive. If you want to do something, you think, “How would I do that?” and you can probably do it the way you think you can. But there may be five other ways to do the same thing, because different people think differently. Apple designs with the user in mind.

Setting up my new iPhone yesterday was simplicity itself, because everything appeared on screen logically, simply and in plain English, not in nerd-speak.

I think, when Apple design ‘ways to do things’, they do not think “We are creating a system here and then have to tell the user how to use it”… They seem to think, “If I were a user, what would I want to do to use the thing I am using?”

In that way, I think it is like writing.

People who sit down to write thinking “I want to say something. I have an empty page. What am I going to write on it?” may tend to write badly.

The trick is not to think “I am a writer writing this.” The trick is to think “I am a reader reading this as it appears word-by-word on the page.”

I think the best way to communicate (which is all writing is – or should be) is to think “If I read these words appearing on the page as I type, what are they telling me as the reader (not as the writer) and what will I need to know next?”

It is like writing an autobiography or a book on any subject. If you tell the reader absolutely everything you know in total detail you will clutter everything up with thoughts and facts, like Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s brilliant Middlemarch. (Something I did not need to mention.)

KIS KIC

Keep it simple. Keep it clear.

There used to be a television ad for a tinned fish supplier which had the selling line: IT’S THE FISH JOHN WEST REJECT THAT MAKE JOHN WEST THE BEST.

It is keeping an eye on what you exclude – even more than what you include – that makes a difference to the end product.

Good writing is created by a writer who looks at it from the viewpoint of the reader not the viewpoint of the author.

Good comedy is created by a comedian who looks at it from the viewpoint of the audience not the viewpoint of the comic.

Good computer operating systems and programs are created by nerds who look at them from the viewpoint of the user not the viewpoint of the nerd.

That is why I buy Apple computers.

They KIS KIC.

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Filed under Comedy, Computers, Technology, Telecoms, Writing