Tag Archives: writing

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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Bloggers are really just desperate self-publicists… including me in this blog

You know you have lived too long when students think you know what you are talking about.

Yesterday, I was approached by a student who was writing an essay on “blogging as a means of journalism”. I told him I did not think of myself as a journalist. He did not agree. This is an edited version of the exchange.


– Do you consider yourself a journalist or any bloggers for that matter? If not, what do you think makes a journalist?

The fact you can ask the question implies the words ‘journalist’ and ‘blogger’ have different meanings. I don’t consider myself a journalist. Bloggers are certainly not news journalists – if they ‘break’ stories and report instantly on current news stories, it is not really a blog; it’s a news site. You could argue they are neo-magazine journalists providing comment and background.

Most bloggers are amateur dabblers and/or wannabe writers who want a voice in a world where they have none.

I started my blog to publicise a movie. Then to publicise stuff I was staging at the Edinburgh Fringe. It continued as self-publicity. If I were up my own arse, I might also say it preserves details of people in sub-cultures that might not otherwise be preserved. But it’s basically lightly-disguised self-publicity.

A good journalist is concerned with objective facts (whether reporting on them or commenting on them). A good blogger is usually more personal and ego-centric in style.

Some bloggers, of course, are frustrated wannabe journalists so the dividing line is muddy.

Personally, whether it’s a correct dictionary definition or not, I make a distinction between a newspaper report and reportage. I think a journalist/reporter’s piece has immediacy – you have to read it today or tomorrow for it to have any impact. Reportage (like George Orwell’s factual books and essays) can be read just as effectively years later. I would say Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia or Down The Mine are pieces of reportage by a writer, not journalism. Today, they could be written in the form of blogs.

– Do you feel any external constraints as a blogger? Do you ever feel under pressure to say specific things (or not say specific things) to protect people or yourself?

I do not generally write anything which, in my opinion, could legally, physically, professionally or personally damage people. I do not feel any pressure to say specific things and I do not give the subjects of my blogs copy approval in advance. My blogs are mostly interview-based and I record everything so I cannot mis-quote.

If – rarely – I want to disguise a person or a fact (eg if an unprosecuted or unknown crime or something ‘immoral’ or ‘embarrassing’ is involved) I will sometimes – very very VERY rarely – alter the name, geographical location or, if possible, the sex of the person involved. It means I can still tell the truth about the event itself but the person cannot be identified.

I have only done this less than a handful of times over eight years.

Altering the person’s sex totally throws people off any recognition.

– Has your blog ever been censored?

Only by me for reasons above.

I used to re-post a few of my blogs in the Huffington Post. I did once write a blog about rude words and discussed the use of the word “nigger” which is interesting because it is mostly completely unacceptable but IS acceptable from some people (eg Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino) – and, in The Dam Busters movie, a dog vital to the plot is called Nigger, which was inoffensive at the time but is now worrisome to TV stations.

The Huffington Post would not publish the piece, although the word was solely being discussed as an abstract word.

– Do you ever have any issues in terms of libel or slander when writing your blog? Does it worry you sometimes that someone will ever take legal action against your opinions?

No. I worked for BBC Ceefax (part of BBC TV News) and briefly in the newsrooms at Anglia TV, Granada TV and ITN. So I am careful.

If anyone threatened me with a libel action, I would go to court, defend myself (because, in England, lawyers have no incentive to win minor cases – they get paid anyway – and the legal system has nothing to do with justice) and publicise the shit out of it to get more awareness of my blog.

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How to edit your script and not be invisible at the Edinburgh Fringe (etc)

To be pompous… and, if I can’t be pompous here, then where can I be?…

If you fancy yourself as a wordsmith on stage or screen, my advice is to write as little dialogue as possible.

If your work of genius would work as well on radio as it would on stage or screen, then it needs visuals added.

Television is not radio.
Movies are not radio.
The stage is not radio.

That’s a big thing of mine.

If a script will work on radio, then it is probably a bad script for stage or TV/movie production.

Having said that, Johnny Speight and a lot of Galton & Simpson TV shows are all dialogue….

So what do I know?

One Foot in the Grave, though, has loads of visual gags. There’s a gag where the phone rings and Victor, asleep on a chair, sleepy, reaches down and picks up a small dog.

The tortoise episode has visual gags aplenty. There are loads of surreal visuals in Grave which don’t rely on spoken words.

And, of course, allegedly the British public’s most beloved and memorable TV comedy sequence is not Ronnie Barker’s “four candles” routine nor John Cleese’s ‘dead parrot’ routine but the visual gag from Only Fools and Horses.

Just because something ain’t got spoken words doesn’t mean it ain’t a good piece of scripting.

Clint Eastwood says he told Sergio Leone to cut acres of his character’s dialogue out of the original script of A Fistful of Dollars. He told Sergio: “I can do those two lines of dialogue by just one look”.

The 2mins 40secs pre-credits opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West is brilliantly scripted but has only three short, totally inconsequential lines of dialogue.

So write a stage or screen script.

Then go through it and try to cut out as many words as you can because, if you can, they are unnecessary.

Then go through it again and try to cut out as many of the necessary words as you can and replace them with something visual.

If words can be cut out and the point made visually, that’s miles better – though, if it’s for a stage performance, the people at the back have to see it. So subtle eye movements may be invisible.

And I get SO annoyed when performers sit or lie on the floor in venues bigger than the ones they are used to.

It may have worked in some room above a pub with an audience of 5 but it don’t feckin’ work when you are sitting in the audience at the back of a non-tiered room with even only three rows of people seated in front of you. If the performer’s head is below the heads of the people sitting in the front row then the odds are that even the person sitting in row 4 can’t see it clearly if at all.

End of pomposity. Raises eyebrow. Slaps forehead. Says nothing.

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How to mess up an Edinburgh Fringe comedy script and lose one review star

The Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published tomorrow – almost two months before the world’s biggest arts festival actually starts.

So here is my two happence on why some comedy shows will fail or will lose at least one star in reviews.

Performers have to think up their show title in around February, usually well before they have written the show and often before they have developed any ideas they have.

During the much-later writing process, they then discover what their show is actually about. This is often barely relevant to the show title.

And, even if they think they know what their show is about when they start writing, it may turn into something totally different by the time they are finished – and even further-removed from the title which they are now (because of unnecessarily-early Fringe Office deadlines) stuck with.

If they are sensible, they will preview the show a good few times in front of genuine audiences (ie NOT their friends) to see where the laughs really are. These laughter-points may be totally different to what they assumed. And the audience may be uninterested or extremely interested in parts of the show unforeseen by the performer.

This is good. Dry runs of the show are good. But there is a danger.

The comedy performer will often, perhaps usually, have written the show themselves. This is good.

If they are wonderfully creative, they will have had hundreds of ideas and sidetracks swirling through their brain as they constructed the show. This is good.

They test-run the show in front of audiences to see where the laughs are so that they can adjust the structure. This is good.

But they are comedy performers. They crave laughs. They feel in their heart, mind, body and soul that, if the audience is not laughing, they are failing as performers.

Or, more to the point, they are not having their egos boosted as they constantly require.

So, after each dry-run performance, they will tweak the structure of the show so they keep in the laughy bits and cut out the non-laughy bits. In theory this is good.

But there is that fine cliché saying: You can’t see the wood for the trees.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, people choose to go to a live stage show.

The live stage show has a title. If it is a literally attractive and very specific title, it will have drawn the audience in.

If the title bears little or no relation to the content of the show, there is a high risk of confusing or alienating the audience during the performance or, at least, distracting them.

They are sitting there thinking (even if only subconsciously):

This show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA and there has been no mention of fishing or Guatemala so far. When is he/she going to mention it? Is all this stuff I am sitting through heading towards a story about a fish-based tourist trip which will pull all these funny but unconnected jokes/stories together?

The other danger is that, during the writing process, the performer has bunged-in and kept-in everything funny they can think of to get laughs. And, during the previews, he/she has kept in everything that gets laughs while removing everything that doesn’t get laughs. Including the linear narrative that holds the bleedin’ show together.

So, even if there was originally a single unifying idea to the show, it is now a mishmash of funny but unconnected and disconnecting 2-or-3 minute items swirling around uncontrolled within a 55 minute show.

If it is a pure ‘gag’ show a la Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine or Milton Jones, that works. Especially with those three, because they are brilliant, highly-experienced performers with total control of their content, linking and pacing.

But, if it is a show that supposedly has a subject and/or a show with a title that implies a subject but the subject is not constantly holding the show together or propelling it forward, then, dear performer, you are fucked with a very sharp stick indeed.

You will lose the audience’s concentration and you will lose – at the very least – one star in reviews.

Even at a late stage, though – like tomorrow, when the Fringe Programme is published – not all may be lost.

In 2005, the Scots comic Janey Godley wrote her autobiography, which I edited. She wrote every word. It was a single flowing narrative which could happily have had no division into chapters but, for ease of reading, it was broken into chapters.

I gave Janey advice and wrote the chapter titles. She wrote 100% of the text of the book.

We had both suggested titles for the book to the publishers. Some were random thoughts which might lead to other thoughts.

One of these was Handstands in the Dark because, during her very very dark childhood, Janey would do handstands, sometimes without the room light on.

The publisher liked the counterpoint of the happy handstands and the darkness of her life and insisted on Handstands in the Dark as the title. I personally think the publisher also liked it because it sounded classy and publishers are partly in business to boost their egos when they talk about their books to wanker friends at Islington dinner parties.

When, while writing the book,  Janey prepared her next Edinburgh Fringe show – which would be used partly to publicise the book and covered the same autobiographical subjects – she chose the much more commercial Good Godley! as her show title. The publisher could have used this title but had brain-freeze on Handstands in the Dark.

So, when structuring the book – which was not fully written when Handstands in the Dark was decided-on as the inevitable title – we had to bear in mind what the tenuously-relevant title of the book was.

One of my contributions as alleged editor was to get a reference to Janey doing handstands on the first page with a brief mention of why. She wrote:

“I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside-down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling…  Sometimes I would only talk upside-down. Sometimes I would talk in a code only I knew. Sometimes out in the street I would kneel down and scoop water from puddles with my hands coz I was thirsty but too scared to go home and face what was there…”

The book has 27 chapters.

The first chapter is titled THE WORLD UPSIDE-DOWN.

The penultimate chapter is titled THE HANDSTAND, implying that the book builds towards a particular handstand and there is a relevant handstand theme important to the structure and (that terrible publishers’ term) ‘story-arc’ of the book.

But the importance of the concept of handstands in a dark world is something added on top of the book. It is not what the book is about.

The book has its own terrifically strong structure of throat-gripping hook-after-hook-after-hook (all Janey’s doing, not mine), leading up to an unforeseen end.

When published, Handstands in the Dark was a top-five hardback bestseller in Scotland and a top-ten paperback bestseller in the UK. It is still in print and selling 12 years later because it is an extraordinarily well-written book (and I did not write a word of the text).

My point is that the content of the book itself is actually not defined by the title. It grew organically and brilliantly as Janey wrote it. The addition of the penultimate chapter title and the inclusion of the first-page reference were to make the irrelevant title seem relevant.

So my advice to anyone with an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show stuck with an irrelevant title is this…

Bung in a reference to the title of the show at least three, ideally five times, scattered throughout the show. This will make it seem like the title defines the show.

If your comedy stage show meanders all over the bloody place, then you are probably dead in the water, but…

In your own mind, define in one single short sentence exactly what the show actually IS supposed to be about (which may well have changed since you first thought you knew what you were going to write). And make sure that everything – EVERYTHING – in the show relates to that short single sentence concept.

It does not matter if one 2-minute section gets big laughs. If it is irrelevant, cut it. You can use it in another show.

An audience can be carried along on laughs and an idea.

But, if you have laughs and no single central idea which is developed through the show and builds to a logical, relevant climax, then (unless you really are as technically brilliant as Jimmy Carr) you are going to have a show with laughs but no actual audience involvement – you will lose the audience’s attention and emotional involvement and you will probably lose at least one less star in any review.

If your show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA then, for fucksake, at least mention fish and Guatemala.

(My apologies to anyone who actually HAS written a comedy show titled and fascinatingly about fishing in Guatemala.)

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Don’t Think Twice – When scripting a movie, a story is not the same as a plot.

Five days; two movie previews; two bizarre starts.

Last week, before a movie preview, comic Richard Gadd persuaded me he was half-Finnish and starred in the film. Neither was true.

Last night in London, I went to a preview of the movie Don’t Think Twice. I had not actually been invited. I was a last-minute stand-in as someone’s +1.

I arrived well before they did, explained to the PR people who I was and who I was with. We got right through to the point where my name badge had been written out, put in its plastic sheath and handed to me when I – for no real reason – asked: “This IS for the Don’t Think Twice preview, isn’t it?

It was not.

It was for a New Statesman talk on Brexit and Trump.

I was tempted to go to that because I actually HAD been invited to that event and had not been invited to the film preview.

But I took the movie title to heart and went to the Don’t Think Twice preview.

It was what used to be called a ‘talker’ screening and is now apparently called an ‘influencer’ screening. In this case, an audience of comics and comedy industry people.

Afterwards, one comedian told me they loved it. Another told me they thought it was awful. Yet another told me that, as long as they remained within the confines of the building, they would say it was very good.

As I wasn’t officially invited to this screening, I feel I can actually be honest about my thoughts.

The story is about a New York improvisational comedy group – they are middling fish in a small pond – all of whom see their next career step as being invited to be one of the regular performers in the TV show Weekend Live (a not-really disguised fictionalisation of Saturday Night Live). The publicity says the movie “tells a nuanced story of friendship, aspiration and the pain and promise of change”. And therein lies the problem.

Well acted, well-directed, well-intended, but only an OK script

Mike Birbiglia is the director/co-star (it is an ensemble piece). He is a comedy performer as are most of the cast. It is shot in a successfully easy-going style. But it falls prey to the problem of a movie created by actors about and for actors.

Actors are interested in building atmosphere, character and relationships.

Which is good.

But that ain’t plot.

The movie tells a story – Which, if any of them will get on the TV show? There is a sub-plot about their live theatre closing and the father of one of the performers is dying. And there is the thought: Will success spoil existing relationships?

But those are stories, not a movie-movie plot.

Clichés are clichés because they tend to be right.

The cliché plot structure is:

  • You start with a major unresolved problem. That is the ‘hook’.
  • The body of the film involves the unravelling of the problem.
  • The problem is resolved at the end of the film.
  • Along the way, the hook is refreshed and additional subsidiary temporary hooks are inserted and resolved while the main plot continues.

A subsidiary ‘rule’ in a movie-movie is breadth of scale and that, ideally, the entire set-up of the movie, the main characters and the hook are established in the first 2-4 minutes. (The best example I have ever seen of this is the original Die Hard movie in which everything is set-up, including an important back-story, under the opening titles.)

Don’t Think Twice starts with sequences which establish the main characters and the general setting but the main hook (the not-quite-strong-enough Saturday Night Live Will-they?/Won’t-they? plot) is brought in far too late.

The film is high on atmosphere and fine on characters. Good.

It has a story.

But not a gripping plot structure.

There is nothing particularly wrong with it as a piece of entertainment. It will probably feel better watched on a TV or computer screen at home rather than in a cinema because it is not a movie-movie. It is a TV movie or (in olden days) a straight-to-DVD movie.

It got some laughs of recognition from the rather industry audience I saw it with. But, at its heart, it is a movie created by performers, about performers and for performers. Average punters Dave and Sue in Essex or Ohio, in South London or East LA have no real reason to be gripped.

‘Story’ is not the same as ‘plot’.

But – Hey! – What do I know? I did not like the multi-5-star-reviewed Finnish film The Other Side of Hope and liked Guy Ritchie’s $175 million mega audience disaster King Arthur.

Don’t Think Twice was shown in the US last year. It opened on one screen in New York City and grossed $92,835 in its opening weekend, the highest per-screen gross of 2016. Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the film an approval rating of 99% based on 111 reviews.

What do I know?

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Filed under Comedy, Movies, Writing