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Angelo Marcos on why comics are like lawyers and jokes are like whodunnits

Angelo Marcos is a stand-up comedian and actor. He has written two short story collections and two novels. His fifth book, the crime thriller Victim Mentality, is out now.


JOHN: So what’s it about?

ANGELO: Well, I’ve written other psychological thrillers and they were quite dark, so this one was meant to be a lighter book, but (LAUGHS) it didn’t turn out that way. 

JOHN: Part of it is written in the First Person and part of it in the Third Person. 

ANGELO: Yes. The First Person is from the point-of-view of a stand-up comedian. 

JOHN: Everyone says a first novel tends to be autobiographical but, with you, the fifth book is autobiographical?

ANGELO: This is the most personal book I’ve written.

JOHN: You did Law and Psychology at university.

Angelo Marcos (Photo copyright Remy Hunter)

ANGELO: Yes, I studied Law and while I did that, I was also performing stand-up and doing acting, but then I found I didn’t have any money. So then I worked a bit – various things – a bank, offices, a supermarket. I worked for a market research company which was basically just other actors, with everyone sitting around trying to do as little work as possible, waiting for their agent to phone.

Then I re-trained – basically a Post-Graduate three-year Psychology course in one-and-a-half years. And I was writing during that time as well.

JOHN: So originally you wanted to be a lawyer, which is a very level-headed thing to aspire to… but you also had this mad stand-up comedy gene?

ANGELO: I went to university because everyone was going and I thought – Well – Law – OK. But, from the beginning, I was also doing stand-up. I was at the University of London, so it was easy enough to find gigs. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the degree that thought: OK, I DEFINITELY not only do not want to be a lawyer and I don’t want to work in Law. Let’s just get famous instead!

JOHN: Why didn’t you want to be in Law?

ANGELO: I found the analytical side of it fascinating, but I liked the kind-of absurd analytical side of it. I liked the fact you could pretty-much make words mean whatever you wanted them to mean.

I love stories. In criminal law, the cases were fascinating. So I elected to do subjects like Moral Philosophy, Law & Terrorism and other things kind-of affiliated with law, but not the core subject. I dunno. I just found Law itself a bit dry. It’s a really good degree to have. It’s a really good set of skills to have. But I prefer using them in other ways.

Lawyers and comics have much in common

JOHN: Barristers and comedians have in common the fact they both stand up and tell lies to create an effect on an audience.

ANGELO: That’s very true. Although lawyers get paid more, until you get to Michael McIntyre. But there IS that element of performance. 

When you are heckled as a stand-up, there are no holds barred. You HAVE to win. And I guess it’s similar in a court situation. If you are a barrister and someone questions one of your points or if you have a witness who is particularly hostile, I imagine the switch that goes on in the brain is the same: I have to win now!… In the same way that, as a stand-up, you don’t want to lose credibility, you don’t want to ‘lose’ the audience.

JOHN: And you have to persuade the audience that your story is credible and real, even if it might be a lie.

ANGELO: That’s true. You are saying: This is a scenario you need to buy into. This is what happened that night. Whether it’s true or not is a different thing. You have to sell that to the jury or the audience… I’m not saying that all lawyers do this. I’m not saying that no lawyers are interested in truth.

JOHN: I am. They are interested in winning and getting paid though, of course, they get paid whether they win or lose.

ANGELO: What I am saying is that, in my experience, it is entirely possible to be a successful lawyer and not be interested in truth.

JOHN: Being a lawyer in court and being a stand-up comedian are both about telling a story, which is what being a writer is also about…

ANGELO: Yeah. Absolutely. I do a lot of different things – stand-up, acting, writing – and I think the link is they all involve stories.

JOHN: And an interest in structure where the story has to build up to an interesting climax…

ANGELO: I think with the build-up to the punchline of a joke… the mechanism of that is the same when you are writing the twist in a novel crime thriller or a short story. In all three, you are giving the audience or the reader only the information you want them to have. Enough to follow you, but not enough to work out what the twist or what the joke is going o be.

Whether it’s a surprise punchline or the revelation that: “It was the babysitter all along!” – it’s a similar mechanism. I loved The Usual Suspects because it’s so clever and it totally tricked me.

JOHN: Like an optical illusion.

ANGELO: When I was doing Psychology, one of the lecturers explained the mechanism behind optical illusions and he was saying no matter how much you know about how they work, as a human being, every time you look at these pictures you will see the illusion first.

That’s where I got the premise for Victim Mentality: that it doesn’t matter how much you know, we are all wired in a certain way and that makes us all victims. You can try and look at the picture and not see the illusion, but you always WILL see the illusion.

“…the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book”

I suppose a lot of the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book. That sense of going to a gig that’s just not set up for comedy. There are a lot of hostile environments that you walk into at the open mic level, which is where the comedian in my book is.

He has been doing it for a while, struggling, and he’s also trying to get into acting. At the start of the story, his agent books an interview with him and an incarcerated criminal so he can get into character for the role. When they meet, it becomes obvious there’s quite a lot of similarities between them.

The premise of the book is that we are all victims of our own minds. The guy in jail is saying: “You are looking at me as if I am some kind of special case. You are trying to understand why I would do the things I do. But, essentially, we are all wired in certain ways; we all have certain life experiences that cause us to act the way we do.”

There is tragedy in the comedian’s past and in the criminal’s past.

I don’t go so far as to question Free Will, but it’s a case of Are you doing this because you are wired to do it or because it’s fun or whatever? Are you a victim of your own brain just like everyone else?

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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Legal system, Psychology, Writing

How to write a successful Edinburgh Fringe comedy show… Four ideas…

What comedy shows go down best at the annual Edinburgh Fringe?

Well, serious self-analysis always goes down well with the Awards judges.

My last blog here was about a conversation I had with a chum at St Pancras station in London.

I also started pontificating to her about how to write a one-hour comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I think she glazed over internally but disguised it well. After all, she is a performer.

I am not a performer. So what do I know?

Ignore what follows if you have better ideas.

And, like all generalities, there are exceptions.

But – hey! – this is my blog and, just for the helluvit, this is what I think…

Go write your own blog if you disagree.

The only near-certainty if you follow any advice of mine or any advice of any kind or no advice of any kind is that you will probably lose money at the Fringe…


Expanding a good 20-minute stage act where you meander from one anecdote to another via cleverly obscuring the fact that none of the bits really fit together but you have ‘seamlessly’ Sellotaped over the gaps with clever links… That doesn’t work in a 55-ish minute show at the Edinburgh Fringe (or anywhere else).

You have to write a single unitary show.

BIT OF ADVICE 1

I think all Edinburgh shows need a single relentless theme and 100% should be about that one single theme with a single developing narrative strand.

People talk about the ‘dead dad’ story you should drop in about 35-40 minutes into the duration of a 55-ish minute show. 

The theory of the Dead Dad is that a show can have wonderfully funny stories but, after about 30-35 mins, the audience settles into the rhythm of the performance and they still laugh but ‘sameness’ fatigue sets in, even though they’re still laughing.

An unexpected shock at around 35/40 minutes into a 55 min narrative show pulls the carpet from under the audience’s expectations and shocks them into being 100% attentive again. If you can suddenly mention that your dad died last week, that should do it. But anything unexpected and different.

They are shocked – when it’s successful – into total silence. Of course, in a comedy show, you then have to be a good enough performer to get them back in the last 10 minutes to finish with a climactic laughter fest/orgasm. Then they go out happy and smiling having been on the thrill of a rollercoaster.

BIT OF ADVICE 2

Write an elevator pitch for your own show. For your eyes only. Eight words saying what your show is specifically about. Not generally. No generality. One specific subject.

Anything that doesn’t fit that succinct 8-word description, chuck it out.

It doesn’t matter how clever or funny it is. If it doesn’t fit the description, chuck it out. You can use it in a future show but NOT this show. However funny, however clever, however well-written it is… if it doesn’t fit into your 8-word description of your own show’s specific subject, it will interrupt the flow of the single narrative thread and it will be a distraction to the audience’s attention/involvement in your narrative. 

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include.

There used to be an ad on television, the selling line of which was:

“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best”

Follow the fish principle!

But without the smell.

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include, even more than what you include.

BIT OF ADVICE 3

Ask yourself why you alone can do this specific show and no-one else can.

If you can do a show on a general subject, then so can I – so can anyone else.

If you can’t be original, at least be personal. 

Why can you alone do this specific show and no-one else can?

Make it personal.

No-one reads autobiographies for facts.

They want to be voyeurs on another person’s life. Either because they think: That’s just like me. Or they want to experience something they have never and will never experience.

People want to hear about people not ideas.

Or they want to hear about ideas via a narrative involving people whose lives and minds they can become involved with.

No-one except an academic reads books or watches movies or watches comedy shows for abstract facts. That ain’t a show, it’s a lecture. Go perform at Speaker’s Corner in London, not on a comedy stage in Edinburgh.

If you talk about facts illustrated by specific human stories – ideally your own – people will be interested. 

Pretty much the same events happen to everyone. But how the events interact with a specific person is unique.

Ordinary people read books/watch shows for emotional and psychological voyeurism. They want to identify with other people.

BIT OF ADVICE 4

This goes back to concentrating the audience’s minds with a single narrative plot.

The ‘one’ plot is allegedly… A hero (or heroine) sets out on a quest to find something. Things happen along the way. The hero (or heroine) finds the thing (good or bad) – it may be a truth or a revelation.

It is a search for a specific Holy Grail.

In the case of a one hour Fringe show, everything along the way has to progress the journey. No jolly side anecdotes unrelated to the quest. Everything must be relevant to your 8-word definition of the quest.

The Grail – the climax of the show – is a single specific thing.

When you start writing the show, you have to know what the very end is. Otherwise you will inevitably waffle. 

What is the last paragraph, the last sentence of the show?

Anyone can do a show about the quest for an idea. 

What is the specific show only you can write and perform about that quest that I or 2,000 other people cannot do?

Personal.

People.

One single strand.

Keep on the bloody subject!

And now all you have to do is make it funny!!!!!! 

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Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Performance, Writing

I mistook someone else for me in comic Janet Bettesworth’s pre-novel ‘doodles’

She studied Fine Art & Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

Everyone inevitably makes instant judgments on people’s characters at first sight: solely on their looks. But we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

Comedian, art connoisseur and Grouchy Club regular Janet Bettesworth recently announced: “I’m going to write a novel by doodling the characters first.” She studied Fine Art and Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

She is currently posting drawings – she calls them ‘doodles’ – on her Facebook page and asks three questions for Facebook Friends to answer about each unknown person sketched. For example:

  • What is his name?
  • The love of his life?
  • His taste in furniture?

I recognised the 25th sketch was of fellow Grouchy Club regular Peter Stanford. Janet’s questions were:

Peter Stanford – airlifted to safety after a farming incident?

  • What’s his name?
  • His most recent airborne experience?
  • Way of organising a picnic?

Answers included:

  • His name is Nils, he was airlifted to safety after a farming incident. Picnics for him are rye bread & herring & fermented ale.
  • He used to get gigs as a Brian Blessed looky-like until he accidentally boarded an EasyJet to Finland, where he found a lot more work playing Santa to tourists, and now he drinks mulled wine all year round.

And, from Peter Stanford himself:

  • Definitely one of the gods in your novel. Cranach looks down at the mortals giving the Deserving pieces of good luck and mugs of tea. He is rarely airborne as he can transport himself between the godly and earthly realms instantaneously. His worshippers organise ‘Picnics’ (feasts held indoors in the colder months and only outside in high summer) for the poor and homeless – and anyone else – in his honour as part of their devotions, instead of building temples. When he was appearing on earth, he drank mugs of tea, which he shared with other people. “Don’t build any temples”, he told them. “Just organise picnics and tea.” The cult is always in danger of dying out.

A few days later, Peter pointed out to me that No 30 in Janet’s series looked a lot like me, though with different-shaped spectacles. I had a look and thought: Well, bugger me, that does look like it’s me!

The three questions Janet asked of her Facebook Friends were:

Is this me? – or Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge?

  • What is his name?
  • His opinion of Boris Johnson?
  • His chances of winning the Lottery?

The answers seemed to reflect more on the personality of the commentator rather than on me and tended to reflect British people’s somewhat unhealthy continuing obsession with Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Glenn Thoresby. What he really thinks of Boris Johnson is unprintable here; enough to say he believes that the British people have been lied to mercilessly by this entitled upper-class toff who doesn’t give a monkey’s: a feckless, narcissistic, utterly irresponsible public school product, a marionette of Dominic-whom-nobody-voted-for-Cummings. Glenn’s chances of winning the Lottery are nil as he doesn’t buy the tickets. He believes they are an exploitative tax on the poor who, (like Brexit voters) think they have a chance to turn their fates around on a million to one statistical odds. This doesn’t stop him from buying raffle tickets occasionally, though, especially when the prize is a good bottle of plonk and/or the beneficiaries’ cause is a good one.
  • This is a cracking picture. I think his name is Peter Egg and he’s a foodie: a London restaurant critic who is zealous about plant-based foods to the extent that the smell of animal products cooking now makes him gag. Restaurants where he dines now have to put him in a separate room and block the doorframe with towels and wet loo paper to stop the offending molecules reaching his nose. He thinks Boris is an execrable pig or walking pork roast. He has no chance of winning the Lottery as he never enters. It only penetrates his consciousness when he goes to the theatre and sees its logo at the bottom of programmes for plays it has funded.

Janet Bettesworth – Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

  • Dimitri Dennis Zabaroski. He won’t win. He doesn’t do Lottery. Hates the foreign man who won up the road… they should fuck off back home. (Both parents immigrated to Luton in the ’50s.) He works at car plant locally and knows a lot of foreign people abuse the system. Likes Prince Andrew and his confidence. Likes Borris and wants to have a flag pole outside his house with Farage and Union flag. Council refused planning application. All foreign.
  • This is Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge, known to his closest friends as 3Pee. He is a second cousin, once removed to Boris. He is immensely proud and fond of his childhood pal, with whom he roasted chestnuts and netted little jars of frogspawn when the families got together for camping trips. They frequently got their shorts mixed up, being almost identical in size and shape. They still swap Christmas jumpers, particularly the ones gifted by Rachel as she seems to find the ones with the rudest slogans… Piggott has enjoyed a varied career, which includes a brief spell as a fluffer in a Hollywood porn production company (he was sacked for making badly edited and shaky copies on his secret camera which discreetly attached to his paisley patterned cravat). He also worked as a rickshaw driver in Hong Kong, normally stationed outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon but few tourists engaged his services due to his extremely eccentric hats and comedy Chinese moustaches… He eventually made his fortune writing haiku messages predicting the purchasers’ marriage prospects onto extremely dark and gloomy canvases which sell for many dollars all over the USA. In his own way, therefore, he has already won the lottery so has no need to buy tickets on the weekly National Lottery, which he disdains with a passion – matched only by that of his antipathy to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission.

I contacted Janet, because I thought it would make an interesting blog to run her drawing of me with strangers’ character assessments of what this unknown person might be like.

But there was a snag…

She told me it was NOT a sketch of me at all: in fact, it was a sketch of her husband! She said he found the comments amusing – He does despise Boris Johnson, but he does do the Lottery.

Now Janet HAS included a sketch of me. Sadly with less interesting comments/suggestions. 

Does this Jewish man appreciate a good, well-shaped calf?

Her questions were:

  • What is his name?
  • His over-riding passion in life?
  • Way of dealing with problems? 

The responses include:

  • Manny Silverman. Loves small investments. Still dining out on making £35,000 on ‘Britcoin’ a couple of years ago. Cigars and coffee are how he copes with life’s complexities. Don’t mention the time he passed on Apple shares, though.
  • Godfrey was a prostate specialist and his hands could reach parts that others… but now volunteers at his local city farm delivering calves – His approach to life? He always gets stuck in and is happy to get his hands dirty
  • This is Howard Silver. He’s a nice East End Jewish boy now living in Southgate. He’s a life-long socialist and lives in a rented housing association flat that he got through Rachel, one of his cousins who works there. He doesn’t own anything, aside from the clothes on his back and a few sticks of furniture, all the books on Communism he’s read were borrowed never bought. He’s lifelong Labour, red through and through but was recently upset by the growing anti-Semitism in the party so he voted green for the first time ever in protest. He’s what Yiddish speakers would term a poor old nebbish.
  • His name is Frank Gibbins. He thinks that the world has become strange, impersonal and unnecessarily complicated… He seeks solace in the simplicity of nature and its instinctive laws, eg. the way that the ducklings follow the mother duck, the unquestioned authority of the silverback gorilla in setting the direction of his troop and keeping it in order… He likes to sit in the park for hours, observing the behaviour of humans as they centre themselves in selfies against the backdrop of the beautiful autumnal leaves or wander around oblivious to the creatures of the forest…Sometimes he’ll draw them in his book and imagine their thoughts.
  • Constantine Gras – because he looks the spit of a friend of mine called Constantine Gras. Well, what he’d look like in about 30 years. He’s tall – maybe 6’2. He’s an artist/filmmaker.
  • Who are these people? (Photograph: Jez Timms via UnSplash)

    Clive Earnshaw. Son of a bookkeeper and an apiarist, he has inherited a calm demeanour in all kinds of crisis situations, which served him well in his job as an emergency medical technician. His overriding passions in life are his sibling’s children, for whom he would do anything. His search for meaning led him to a retreat in the North African desert and he converted to the Sufic branch of Islam. His way of dealing with problems (apart from whirling) is to quote soothing aphorisms such as: This too will pass. He is deeply peaceful.

The trite lesson to be learned from all this?

People see totally different characters and backgrounds in exactly the same faces. Initial assumptions about people can – and very often are – wrong.

Peter Stanford’s view my sketch was:

  • This is Derek Milchman, a friend of No 30: that one which looks like him. They sometimes swap glasses and pretend to be each other. If this is a humorous book, with hilarious results; if a grim book, this leads to a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.

Janet replied: “I am not entirely in agreement. For students of phrenology and physiognomy, it may be observed that No. 30 has a receding jawline, whereas No. 39 has a protruding one. I do like the idea of a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.”

Comedy critic Kate Copstick, recognised me: “This is John Fleming!!!” And Peter Stanford asked Janet: “So what role are you going to give him in the novel?”

A “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait

She replied: “If you’re referring to the author of the Malcolm Hardee biography, the hands are too big and seem to be coated with some kind of white substance.”

Janet also told me that she had included a “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait – No 31 in the bunch.

And below are three more of her drawings.

Janet tells me: “I do two types of doodles – one where I’m basing it on a real person, and the other where I do random scribbles with my eyes closed, then a face gradually emerges out of the chaos, like seeing faces in the fire – that way is by far my favourite…”

One final comment and query from one of Janet’s Facebook Friends sums it all up, though: “I keep wondering why you’re writing a novel when you’re so ‘geniusly’ good at drawing – Or are you even better at writing?”

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Psychology, Writing

Dreaming the start of a novel – not

Two or three days ago, I woke up at about 5 o’clock in the morning with the idea of a novel which was basically four or five real-life stories cobbled together into a narrative.

I thought about getting up and writing down the ideas but, instead, turned over on the floor and went back to sleep.

I was sleeping on the floor because I buggered my back about four weeks ago.

This morning, again at around 5 o’clock, I woke up with the same opening idea in my mind, minus the other stories.

I thought I had better write it down this time, so I did. 

I doubt if I will add to it because I’m useless without a deadline.

I don’t need a person from Porlock and I ain’t no Coleridge.

I don’t fancy the opium.

Especially as I had a blood test yesterday and that nurse sure needs more practice in how to stick a needle in someone’s arm.


CHAPTER 1

So there was this Irishman, a Dalek and four Scotsmen.

The Irishman was called Michael Julian Andrew Hardwick Bantam Smith. He was married with a younger wife, five children and a parakeet called Charlie.

He – Michael, not the parakeet – had been pushing the Dalek round the Scene Dock, a circular covered roadway that ran round the outside of the studios at BBC Television Centre in West London. He was clutching his stomach and standing half bent over, about to fall, because he had just been shot in the stomach.

The Dalek was a prop. Writer Terry Nation had described it, roughly, as a pepper pot with a sink plunger sticking out the front. BBC designer Raymond Cusick had refined the look and the Daleks became iconic villains in the Doctor Who TV series which, at that time, was fading in popularity. It would later be revived. Unlike Michael the Irishman.

One of the four Scotsman was called Jimmy the Joker. That was not his real name. The four Scotsmen had just robbed the cash office at BBC Television Centre. This was back in the day when people got paid weekly in cash. Jimmy the Joker had just shot Michael the Irishman by mistake. 

Out of the corner of his left eye, he had seen a Dalek suddenly appear into the Scene Dock through one of the open studio doors and some inexplicable reflex action had made his brain fire the Walther PPK hand gun at the human being beside it. It’s a Dalek! was all his brain had thought. Jimmy carried a Walther PPK because that was the gun James Bond used in the books and movies.

Michael the Irishman would die in an ambulance on the way to hospital twelve minutes later. His last words would be whispered urgently but inaudibly. When he was dead, the elder ambulance man would look at the younger ambulance man, shrug and start filling in a form.

Three of the Scotsmen running in Television Centre – including Jimmy the Joker – were dressed as policemen. Two were carrying large canvas mail bags filled with banknotes. Jimmy was carrying a gun. The fourth was dressed in ‘civvies’, carrying a lightweight video camera, apparently filming the other two. All four men wore clown masks.

They ran out of the scene dock and through the car park at the front of the building. People just looked at them with mild interest, thinking it was part of some new TV show. 

The uniformed security men at the front gate looked a little bemused, thought the same thing and stood aside to let the three policemen wearing clown masks – one carrying a gun – and the clown-masked man with the camera out into Wood Lane, the main road which ran past the studios. That was when the trouble really started.

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Filed under Crime, Dreams, Writing

What sort of creative creature is comic Dominic Holland, father of Spider-man?

What is Dominic Holland? 

A writer of books? A stand-up comedian? The father of Spider-man?

Yes to all three.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, an anthology of original writing by comedians which I compiled and edited with Malcolm Hardee. That’s the self-promotion over.

I thought I would talk to Dominic about his latest novel without ever mentioning his son Tom Holland – the current Marvel (soon to be Sony) movies’ Spider-man.

I failed.



“You encounter a homeless person and…”

JOHN: So, you have written five novels… and the latest, I, Gabriel, published a month ago, is about what?

DOMINIC: I have always been very exercised by homelessness. I have lived in London all my life. I used to do the Comedy Store and walk down Charing Cross Road and down The Strand and see homeless people and would give them money.

But I have a thing about hygiene. If I shake a homeless person’s hand, I start to panic. I would rather not touch them. I’m not ashamed of that. That’s just how I am. If you have no washing facilities, you’ve probably got excrement and all sorts of detritus all over your hands.

I thought: What happens if you encounter a homeless person, you shake their hand and they insist on sharing a meal with you. You don’t want to eat their sandwich, but you have to and you contract a food poisoning and it keeps you off a doomed air flight. Wouldn’t that be a great starting point for a drama? That idea has been in my head for 20 years and that’s the kernel of the story. Then I designed a character who had everything and I wanted him to have an epiphany.

The epiphany for Gabriel is that he is a man of vast success and vast wealth but actually has nothing.

It’s a 3-act book. The First Act is fleshing out his character. He is an unpleasant man. He is a very highly-paid, successful surgeon. A very rarified man, very bright. But he is lost to greed. Then he has this epiphany. He realises his life has been a sham, really. And then something rather extraordinary happens in the Third Act.

Where I am most happy abiout is that nobody – but nobody – has seen the ending coming.

JOHN: You are a Christian.

DOMINIC: Habitually. All my life I’ve been a Catholic. Big Catholic family. I have four aunts who are nuns, two uncles who are priests. My whole tradition growing up was going to mass. My boys were brought up Catholic and I like belonging to a Church. I like a feeling of belonging. I belong to the comedy circuit; I belong to the Catholic Church. But my faith, I’m afraid, is not terribly… erm… vivid. I like the punctuation of mass. I go to mass two Sundays in four. I use it as a chance to just sit there and reflect on my good fortune and what I hope to do for the rest of my little time on this mortal coil.

JOHN: Your boys were brought up Catholic…

DOMINIC: Yes. Four boys.

JOHN: What does your wife do?

DOMINIC: She’s a photographer, but she’s now giving that up to run a charity we started: The Brothers Trust. 

It has been going about 18 months/two years. We didn’t want to call it The Tom Holland Foundation. He has the platform to attract money, but we thought it might seem a little bit narcissistic and narrow because Tom’s brothers are involved.

The Brothers Trust family – The brothers Holland (left-right) Sam, Tom, Paddy and Harry with parents Dominic & Nikki

Using Tom’s cachet, we put events on and all the money we get in – less the transactional costs and the charitable costs in America – you have to employ American firms to administer them – all the money WE get, we then distribute to various charities. Our own remit is to give money to charities that struggle to be heard. Not to the big charities. To small charities and charities without the big administrative costs. We don’t personally want to support charities that have got vast numbers of people flying all over the world.

For example, we have built a hostel in India through The John Foundation, who basically take off the streets girls who have been trafficked and this very virtuous doctor and his wife house the girls and train them to become beauticians or overlockers. They get security and a skill and they’re also now making our Brothers Trust T-shirts which we are planning to sell and money from that will go to other causes we want to support.

We also support a charity in Kibera, Kenya, called Lunchbowl – they feed kids every day; we have bought them two 40-seater buses to take kids from the slums to-and-from school.

We support a charity in Britain called Debra which looks after kids with EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa), a pernicious disease where your skin is effectively like tissue paper – there’s 5,000 people in the UK with it. It’s the same number of people with cystic fibrosis, but no-one’s ever heard of it

JOHN: You have also written a book about Tom: EclipsedWhat’s the elevator pitch for that?

“For me, the story was perfectly-formed…”

DOMINIC: It’s the story of how a young boy is spotted inadvertently, finds himself dancing on the West End stage whilst his dad is doing comedy gigs in village halls… That kid goes on to become a movie star and his old man is still playing the same clubs he was 20 years ago.

JOHN: “Spotted inadvertently”? 

DOMINIC: Tom was spotted at a local YMCA disco dancing class and he ended up playing the lead in Billy Eliot in the West End… As I say in Eclipsed, it’s a fluke. The whole thing has been a fluke. A happy fluke.

JOHN: You say ‘village halls’, but you did play places like the Comedy Store in London.

DOMINIC: Yes but, John, you know and I know that, back in the day, I was mooted as one of the ‘Next Big Things’ – and it didn’t happen. And there’s no rancour on my part. I performed at the Comedy Store last weekend and I’m proud to be on that stage because a lot of my mates from my generation aren’t doing it any more. The fact that I’m still being booked to go on last at The Comedy Store means you’ve got chops. I would love to have made it. I didn’t. But, for the book, it’s a perfect juxtaposition. For me, the story was perfectly-formed.

My first novel Only in America was spawned from selling a screenplay. I did a gig in 1995 in Cleethorpes. Didn’t get paid. Long way. I was on the train coming home to London, cold. I had already won the Perrier Award as Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993, I had been on television, I was becoming well-known. So I thought: This is rubbish! I can’t keep going to Cleethorpes for no money. I’m going to write a film.

So I wrote a film and sold it to Norma Heyman, who is the mother of David Heyman – He produced all the Harry Potter films. Norma Heyman’s husband John was a big-shot producer. 

Norma Hayman said to me: “You are the new Frank Capra.”

JOHN: Wow!

DOMINIC: I didn’t even know who Frank Capra was. I had to look him up. But I had these very exciting meetings in Soho and, over the next two or two-and-a-half years, I sold that script two or three times and then it fell over. But that story inspired my first novel Only in America.

Dominic Holland in Soho, London, last week

I then sold Only in America to the BBC and to Hollywood film producers. I went to Los Angeles and had meetings with Big Time agents who said: “This is great! We’re gonna make your movie! Frank Oz was going to direct; Bette Midler was going to be in it… And then it fell over.

So, when Tom started on his journey in the West End, it was a funny story in my head… When he was cast in his first movie (The Impossible, 2012) and was long-listed for an Oscar… THAT for me was a perfect story, because I had tried and failed and Tom was succeeding.

So I end the story on a Los Angeles red carpet with Tom being long-listed for an Oscar and I thought: Well, that’s a hilarious story. I had been spending all this energy trying to make it as a writer and become a new Richard Curtis and, with no problem at all, my boy was going: Dad! Watch! Over here! and making it…!

I finished the book when he was 16 and, since then, he has become a proper movie star.

I didn’t get films made. It’s a small nut to crack and most people don’t crack it and I am one of that ‘most’. But, being one of the ‘most’ and having failed, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of storytelling. Here’s my failed efforts to make it in Hollywood and then here’s my bloody son, with no efforts, BOOM!… and I’m thrilled.

People say to me: “Are you jealous?” and I think: Well, if you think that, you don’t know who I am.”

JOHN: Fuck me, well I’m jealous but, then, he’s not my son…

(BELOW, TOM HOLLAND, PROMOTING SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME IN BALI, AS VIDEOED BY HIS BROTHER HARRY HOLLAND)

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Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

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Writer/musician/comic John Dowie on his death, dentists and other Dowies…

So I had a blog chat with poet/comedian/writer John Dowie. 

I was going to the dentist. We arranged to meet when I was finished.

“You might as well come to the dentist in case he’s over-running,” I suggested.

“Charming as your dentist’s waiting room undoubtedly is,” John Dowie replied, “I will be in this pub down the road.”

And he was.

He drank sparkling water. He wore a hat,

This is part of our chat.


JOHN FLEMING: Are you going to see Avengers: Endgame, the latest Marvel movie?

JOHN DOWIE: No, because I won’t go to a cinema. People talk, use their phones and eat popcorn. I can’t believe they sell popcorn in cinemas: the noisiest and smelliest food known to mankind. I resent the attitude of the people who own the cinemas: they shouldn’t sell popcorn. I mean, people are bringing in hamburgers and chips now.

FLEMING: Are they? Where?

DOWIE: I dunno. But they are.

FLEMING: You’re getting to be a grumpy old man.

Consistently grumpy young John Dowie – a living legend

DOWIE: Getting? I was always a grumpy man. Age doesn’t come into it.

I can’t function unless I’m in complete privacy, in an enclosed space with no distractions.

FLEMING: You must have had to in your erstwhile youth.

DOWIE: I had a bedsit and wrote in that. Or I’d sit in my bedroom in my mother’s house and write there.

I am now thinking of trying to rent an office.

FLEMING: It is difficult to write at home.

DOWIE: Yes. If you have a partner of any kind, just as you reach the moment where you think: Yes! YES! there will be a knocking on the door – “Would you like a cuppa tea?” – and it’s all gone.

I had a friend, Gary, who was a painting artist and he said it was always happening with his missus.

FLEMING: The painter’s wife from Porlock.

DOWIE: …or the unwitting girlfriend from Porlock.

FLEMING: Unwitting?

DOWIE: To think it’s alright to knock on the writer’s door and ask if you want a cup of tea.

FLEMING: You should be publishing more. Your story in the excellently-edited Sit-Down Comedy anthology was wonderful.

Freewheeling John Dowie’s latest book

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got an idea for another book. But it’s under wraps. It’s bad luck to talk about it before you’ve done it.

FLEMING: Fiction?

DOWIE: No, no. I can’t be fucked with fiction… But I did have an idea for a story… It’s about this woman dentist who has a new patient and he walks into the room with the most perfect teeth. She falls madly in love with this guy, but how does she keep on seeing him? There’s only one way: tell him his teeth are shit. So, over the course of a year or so, she gets him back for more appointments, taking out his teeth one-at-a-time until he has no teeth left… and then she goes off him.

FLEMING: You should call it Take Me Out.

DOWIE: …or Pulling.

FLEMING: Can I quote that idea?

DOWIE: Yes. I won’t use it. But I do have an idea for a new book – though I can’t write it until I’ve found somewhere to live. At the moment, I’m staying with my two sons and their mother. One of my sons is doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

FLEMING: Called?

Comedy/magic and conspiracy theories

DOWIE: Oddly Alike. My son is Harry Scott Moncrieff and it’s a two-hander with his mate Robbie Fox. Harry does comedy/magic wrapped around conspiracy theories. If he does it really well, they will kill him.

FLEMING: Or so he thinks… Why is he Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: He took his mother’s name which has turned out quite well, because he’s not cursed by association with my name as being drunk and abusive.

FLEMING: But Dowie is a famous name.

DOWIE: In Scotland it is… Dowie’s Tavern in Edinburgh… 

FLEMING: I’ve never heard of it. But Dowie is a creative name. There’s you. Your sister Claire Dowie. And Helga Dowie whom I worked with at ATV, who’s a producer now. Your son should have kept the Dowie name. Three prestigious Dowies. How many Scott Moncrieffs are there?

DOWIE: Hundreds, including the man who translated Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

FLEMING: Really? Was your ex-girlfriend related to the Proust Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: Yeah. And she can actually claim lineage from Henry VIII. All I can claim is a couple of ex-cons from Australia.

FLEMING: Really?

DOWIE: Nah! Dunno. Irish. My dad’s Irish, so… Well, there’s a famous John Dowie in Australia who’s a sculptor.

FLEMING: Oh! Is he related to you?

DOWIE: No… There’s another John Dowie who plays football. He is related.

Maybe dour, mean-spirited but never ever dull

FLEMING: Does ‘Dowie’ mean anything?

DOWIE: It means dull, dour and mean-spirited. There’s The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, a famous folk song.

FLEMING: So your father was Irish with a Scots name…

DOWIE: Yes. My mother was very scathing about the Irish.

FLEMING: She was Scottish?

DOWIE: No. From Stoke-on-Trent but she married my dad, who was from Belfast and she was always scathing about how terribly not-bright the Irish were. I once did a genealogy thing on her maiden name. It turned out she was from Ireland… I think I may get an Irish passport if Brexit happens.

FLEMING: A comedian has just been elected President of Ukraine. (Volodymyr Zelenskiy)

DOWIE: Yes. Swivel on THAT Mark Thomas! Never mind your NHS show. Look what a real politician comedian’s getting up to!

FLEMING: Can I quote that?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Yeah! Jeremy Hardy must be spinning in his grave. That could’ve been me up there on that podium! I’m going to the Jeremy Hardy memorial in May. He was very good, very precise and his death deserved all the press coverage it got.

“Now, when comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries…” (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

It used to be that comedians were only jealous of other comedians succeeding. But then you write a book and you’re jealous that other comedians’ books are doing better than yours. Now, when other comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries. Ian Cognito’s obituaries this month! I would kill for that amount of space!

FLEMING: I know. He was getting in mainstream papers…

DOWIE: … in the Guardian AND in The Times! I expected the Guardian to do one, but not The Times.

FLEMING: Malcolm Hardee got very extensive obituaries in the quality newspapers because people in the media knew who he was, even if the public didn’t. But Ian Cognito! – I don’t think people outside the comedy industry itself were really aware of him. He did prove, though, that the best way to die is on-stage like Tommy Cooper – and/or live your life so OTT that there are lots of outrageous anecdotes to quote. Fame may die but anecdotes live forever.

DOWIE: That Hollywood Reporter article you posted on Facebook about John Belushi’s death was quite horrific. No respect. There’s a corpse being wheeled out on a trolly – Oh! I’ll take a photograph of that, then! – No. mate, don’t – And Lenny Bruce, of course. He died on a toilet trying to inject himself. He was lying naked on the bathroom floor with a syringe still in his arm and they were leaping up the stairs two-at-a-time to take photographs of him.

FLEMING: Apparently dying on the toilet is quite a common thing. Doing Number Twos puts a big strain on the heart.

DOWIE: Elvis.

FLEMING: Yes.

DOWIE: I have ‘died’ IN some toilets.

FLEMING: Wey-hey! You still have it!… I should have taken heroin when I was younger. Look at Keith Richards: 75 years old and a picture of good health; his main risk is falling out of trees he has climbed. Wasn’t it Keith Richards who accidentally smoked his father’s cremated ashes?

DOWIE: He said he did; then he said he didn’t.

FLEMING: Always print the legend, I say, if it’s a good story.

DOWIE: The story I like is Graham Nash. After his mother died, he discovered that she had wanted to be a singer but was saddled with having to bring up children and having to work. So he took her ashes on tour with him and, every time he did a gig, he dropped a little bit of her on the stage.

“What’s going to happen? … Are you going to rot or be burnt?”

FLEMING: What’s going to happen to you? Are you going to rot or be burnt?

DOWIE: When I buried my friend David Gordon, I found a natural death company with grounds and you can do what you like there. You can put the body in a hole in the ground or in a coffin or in a sack – You can do what the fuck you like – And then they plant a tree there. That’s what I’m going to have done – What kind of tree would it be? – I think it will have to be a weeping willow.

FLEMING: You’ll be happy to rot? You don’t want to be burnt?

DOWIE: I don’t like that bit where the doors close.

FLEMING: Like curtains closing on a stage…

DOWIE: …and no encore.

FLEMING: I think it’s more romantic to rot.

DOWIE: Also your body serves a purpose if you grow a tree out of it. Actually, I quite like the idea of a Viking funeral with the boat and the flames. But I try not to ponder on my own death too much, John. It’s just tempting Fate.

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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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This $15 million woman can teach you to punctuate English sentences correctly

Susan Feehan has written a book about punctuation.

Called Make Punctuation Your Bitch: Punctuation Wrangling Without The Fuss.

The paperback is already on Amazon and the e-book comes out on Friday.

I talked to her. This is what happened.

Any punctuation mistakes are mine, not her’s… erm… hers.


JOHN: So you won’t be a fan of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses… Does punctuation matter? I don’t think spelling was uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary, was it? Before that, all that mattered was that other people understood what you meant. Same with punctuation, isn’t it?

“Not a book for GrammerNazis. They would take offence”

SUSAN: It’s not a book for GrammarNazis. They would take offence at the levity. I’ve done a couple of opening sections about Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Tribe 1 are the GrammarNazis and Tribe 2 are the rest of us.

JOHN: So who is going to buy the book? The GrammarNazis are not going to buy it because they think they know everything and the illiterates won’t buy it because they can’t read.

SUSAN: It’s for people who just need a quick answer. I wrote it because, as a tutor, doing training courses, I have always wanted to look for examples.

JOHN: Examples of… ?

SUSAN: Say, for instance, brackets. You don’t want to wade through a whole load which has everything you DON’T want to know about brackets but one thing you do. So I have split everything into sections. It is quick and easy.

If it takes two minutes to look something up, you will do it.

If it takes ten minutes, you will blag your way through.

JOHN: You are a tutor. Whom do you tute?

SUSAN: I did have a stint at university mentoring students in newspaper production and, well, there’s publishers’ staff. People who just need a bit of a refresher. When they’re editing. Grammar, punctuation, whatever.

JOHN: Surely sub-editors should not need tutoring? If they don’t know it, they shouldn’t be employed.

SUSAN: Well, the thing is, sub-editing is now an entry job. When I was first training on newspapers, you started as an editorial assistant or a junior reporter – you started as a junior writer in any form, served your time – your apprenticeship, so to speak, of about three years – and then they considered you expert enough to be paid full wage. After that, you could segue into subbing.

But, once it all became digital, the software became the prerequisite – It became Must be Quark friendly or, now, it’s Must be InDesign friendly. The software became the reason you were getting employed and the language skills became secondary.

Often, now, people are taking or are given a job as a sub-editor so they can do a hop-over into the writing side. It doesn’t make any sense to me – or anyone else I know. You’ve got juniors put in the position of changing the work of writers who are presumably more experienced. And they now do need to know more than they once would have done. In the past, the sub-editors would have been much more experienced.

JOHN: So we have all these illiterate sub-editors?

SUSAN: I wouldn’t call them illiterate.

JOHN: Different publications have different house styles, so punctuation rules don’t really mean anything, do they? For example… Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?

SUSAN: Well, some of that is house style but often, in the UK, we would generally use single quotes first, then doubles within singles. The Americans would do singles within doubles.

JOHN: Oh… I always do the American way, alas.

SUSAN: And how do you introduce a quote? With a colon or a comma? A colon is very journalistic.

JOHN: I do whatever looks better in a particular sentence.

SUSAN: Ah…

JOHN: You started off as a…?

SUSAN: A lowly junior reporter on a magazine called Display International and another one called Do It Yourself Retailing.

JOHN: You did that because you wanted to be a great writer?

SUSAN: Well, I found out very quickly that I wanted to be a sub-editor. On a newspaper or magazine, if you find a subject you are prepared to write about for the next 30 years – medical, cinema, crime, whatever – then you are fixed. If you can’t find that subject, then you are better off being a sub-editor, because there your joy is in the process and the language not the subject. You can do your job on any subject and still love the process of writing.

JOHN: You wanted to be a sub for the rest of your life?

SUSAN: I certainly did for a hefty while. Then I thought: Aaah! Perhaps I should write something myself. And that’s when I started doing the screenplay thing. There was The Kiss, a romantic comedy.

JOHN: Was that filmed?

SUSAN: We raised the money for it about four years ago – all $15 million of it – but the trouble was it all came from one investor and the trouble comes when one investor thinks he’s been hanging around too long and he takes the money elsewhere.

JOHN: You have written five screenplays.

SUSAN: I have, but I am turning them into novels. One I am going to do as a play.

JOHN: Three are already award-winning and they have not even been made.

SUSAN: You can win lots of screenplay awards without them getting made.

JOHN: Make Punctuation Your Bitch is not your first book.

“Canadians in particular loved it…”

SUSAN: No. There was How To Write Well When You Don’t Know Where To Start. That was three years ago. For some reason the Canadians in particular loved it. It was in the Top Ten in the entire Kindle Store in Canada, not just in its niche.

JOHN: Is it on Amazon?

SUSAN: It was, but I’ve taken it down because I’m going to update it.

JOHN: Are there punctuation differences between the British and Americans?

SUSAN: Yes. And there are Canadian and Australian differences as well. Sometimes they side with the Americans and sometimes they follow us. I have some in the book. The Americans put time at 3:30 with a colon and we do 3.30 with a dot; but now we are starting to take on the colon.

JOHN: In lists, I was always taught that, if you have A, B, C and D, you should never have a comma between the last two – A, B, C, and D – because the commas are standing-in for the word ‘and’. So, by adding a comma, you are actually saying “A and B and C and and D”

SUSAN: That’s not quite true, because it’s ‘The Oxford Comma’… Called that because it was created by Oxford University Press.

The example given in my book is: “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela”. That actually means – without the second comma – that his parents are the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

But, if you put a comma after the Dalai Lama – “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela” – you have differentiated between them.

JOHN: But one comma isn’t worth losing sleep over, is it?

SUSAN: I have a story at the front of my book about the Five Million Dollar Oxford Comma.

There was a dairy in Maine where they had a contract that did not have an Oxford Comma in it. Their drivers sued them about what the contract actually meant and the drivers won $5 million in back-overtime.

There was another case between two telephone companies where there was a comma in dispute and, again it cost one company $2 million.

JOHN: So correct punctuation is here to stay.

SUSAN: I think, in 30 years time, apostrophes won’t exist.

JOHN: Oooh!

SUSAN: But I think the smart money is on semi-colons dying out first.

JOHN: You will have to constantly update your books. Your next one is…?

SUSAN: There might be a Make Structure Your Bitch book.

JOHN: What is structure?

SUSAN: Structure in writing. So the inverted pyramid thing will come in there. And structuring sentences and paragraphs and how to keep the reader hooked.

JOHN: What is the worst crime in punctuation?

SUSAN: Ultimately, it is inconsistency.

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Douglas Adams talks. Part 4: Science fiction, comedy, re-writes and ambitions

After Parts One, Two and Three, the final part of my 1980 interview with Douglas Adams

Concept by Jim Francis for a Vogon demolition ship in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


“…virtually impossible to read science fiction”

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no. I always thought I was interested until I discovered this enormous sub-culture and met people and found I knew nothing about it whatsoever. I always used to enjoy reading the odd science fiction book. Having done The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who for this length of time, I now find it virtually impossible to read science fiction, which is simply a measure of the extent of which I’ve been saturated with it. I’m a bit nervous, at the moment, of being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, which I’m not. I’m a comedy writer who happens to be in science fiction.

JOHN: There’s the double problem that you’re thought of as a science fiction person and as a comedy writer. So, if you wanted to write a serious book…

DOUGLAS: I don’t think I could do a serious book anyway: jokes would start to creep in.

JOHN: You’re not like a stand-up comic who, deep down, wants to play Hamlet?

“I was being fairly flippant about it”

DOUGLAS: No, you see, I actually think comedy’s a serious business, although I may not give that impression. I was being interviewed the other day by a woman from the Telegraph Magazine who’d read the new book (The Restaurant at the End of The Universe) and was asking me all sorts of questions and I was being fairly flippant about it and I think she got rather disappointed, because she expected me to be much more serious about it than I was being.

I think that comes about because, when you’re actually working on something, you have to take it absolutely seriously; you have to be totally, passionately committed to it. But you can’t maintain that if you’re going to stay sane. So, on the whole, when I talk about  it to other people I tend then to be quite flippant about it. Because I’m just so glad to have got through it. (LAUGHS) You say: Ah well, it’s just that. It’s just jokes. She was saying she thought the second book was much weightier than the first, which surprised me. I wasn’t aware of that.

JOHN: Presumably the reason the first book didn’t include the last two episodes of the original radio series was that you hadn’t totally written them yourself and you weren’t totally happy with them.

DOUGLAS: Yes. I also wanted to keep those last two episodes for the end of the second book.

JOHN: Were you not totally happy with the second radio series?

BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Most of the second series was first draft…”

DOUGLAS: No. You see, the first series was written and re-written and re-written and worked on very, very heavily. The second series I had to do under immense pressure while I was doing other things as well. There was an element of desperation in writing it. Also, the first time round, it was my own, private little world which only I really knew about. Writing the sequel series was like running round the street naked because suddenly it’s become everyone else’s property as well. Most of the second series was first draft, as opposed to fourth draft. So about two-thirds of the second book actually comes from episodes 5 and 6 of the first series.

The first third of it was a re-structured plotting of aspects of the second series. I think it works out better like that, although it meant I had to write the book backwards, I couldn’t get the thing started and it held me up and held me up and held me up and eventually I wrote the last bit, then the bit before that and the bit before that – and the beginning was worked out, more or less, by a process of elimination.

Special Effects designer Jim Francis’ concept for BBC TV’s Alpha Centauri

JOHN: It’s all been very successful, though.

DOUGLAS: I now have a company and everything goes through the company. It’s called Serious Productions. I decided most people I know with companies had silly names for them, so I decided I wasn’t. I was going to have a Serious name.

JOHN: How do you get out of the trap of being forever ‘The man who wrote Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘?

DOUGLAS: Well, by doing something else, really. I think we’ll probably do a second TV series, although it’s by no means certain. I think it’s on the cards and, if we did, then it would be a totally new series written for television rather than adapted. And that, as far as I’m concerned, would be the end of Hitch-Hiker.

JOHN: And you would go on to .. .

DOUGLAS: I want to write a book from scratch to prove that I can do it. I’ve now written two books which are based on something I’d already written. That’s not quite kosher. And I would like to write a stage-play because that was the one failure Hitch-Hiker had. And I’d like to write a film. These are all fairly wishy-washy ideas at the moment, but that’s what I’d like to do… Oh, and I’d like to be a guitarist.

(DOUGLAS ADAMS, 11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001, R.I.P.)

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