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Friday, 10 March 2017

ACTUAL IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT.

Hello!

I started this blog years and years ago, just as a place to put things - a cluttered kitchen drawer of rants, anecdotes, stories from my travels and news of upcoming fun stuff. I never really thought any decent number of people would read it, and certainly not regularly, but that's what has apparently happened.

One of the craziest and most heartening things that's been occurring of late is that I'll be at a gig, often in some far flung land, sometimes one that I've never been to before, and someone will come up to me and tell me that they read my blog. Blows my dang mind every time.

I could not be more grateful.

The simple encouragement of knowing that people are reading what I write has pushed me to take it more seriously, to try to write as well as I can, and about things that matter to me.

And I won't stop.

However, this blog is moving.

I've just launched a new website, and my blog, from now on, will be a section of that. Neater that way, right?

All the old posts will stay here, the same way they always have, but all new blog posts will be at the new location, www.MatRicardo.com

So, be a cupcake and bookmark the new site - as per usual, I'll drop a link to all new posts on social media (If you're not following me on twitter and instagram, I'd love you to).

I never did tell you what "Abayo" means, did I? Maybe that'll be a post to come.

See you over on www.MatRicardo.com

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Castle


The first 24

The last time I was in Los Angeles was for a couple of hours between flights on the way home from a gig in New Zealand. I had just enough time to meet my old friend Jay Leggett in an LAX coffee shop. We caught up, made each other laugh, hugged and then I was back through passport control and on my plane home. The time before that was many years earlier, but also involved Jay. We stayed at his place for a few days. He showed us the sights, bought us dinner, took us out, drove us around, and generally really loved playing the host and showing us his Hollywood. He helped us make memories I couldn't forget even if I tried.

So, as I sat in my shuttle bus, Eduado the driver cruising us from the airport to the strip, I remembered the times I'd been here before, and smiled, and allowed myself a little cry. If Jay hadn't died, he would have got such a kick out of me being invited to perform at the Magic Castle. He would have been psyched, and would have planned things for us to do, he would have kept me out late, he would have been proud of me. As my week rolled past, I heard his voice in my ear almost constantly, providing a running commentary of teasing and enthusiasm. So this week was, at least partly, for him.

But lets track back for a moment. Yes, I'd been booked to perform at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. The premier venue for the magical arts. No, I'm not a magician. But glossing over that little technicality, it was a hell of a compliment of a booking, and I was ridiculously excited to go.

I gawped out of the window of the official Magic Castle airport shuttle bus, I remembering what LA looks like. All hazy and golden. The grey ribbon of freeway flanked by signs that once were brightly coloured, but quickly faded in the sunshine. They jostle for attention in a way that, were they newer, would be ugly. At least to my jetlagged eyes, their age gave them some kind of beauty that by rights they shouldn't have had. Thats, possibly, one of the things places like LA are good at. Seeing the beauty of an ageing sign seems like the same kind of thinking that started people appreciating old movies, or unfashionable fashions, or diners that have seen better days. The unabashed love for the flotsam and jetsam of fairly recent cultural history. When I was in my thirties, my dad teased me mercilessly for wanting to revisit my childhood neighbourhood, telling me that I was “A little young for nostalgia”. That was, of course, bullshit – loving something from the past isn't about how far back it happened, it's about why it means something to you. So, that's Los Angeles, perhaps – Not too young for nostalgia.

Eduado dropped me off at the Castle, I collected my apartment keys, dumped my stuff, splashed some water on my face, then headed right back out to do two shows. Endorphins beat jetlag by knockout, and pretty soon I was sitting in my dressing room, massive picture of a particularly intense Houdini staring down at me, with a little sheen of sweat on my face, looking at myself in the mirror, grinning like an idiot. Listen, I'm sorry to all the other venues I've ever played, but in nearly thirty years of shouting tricks at people, the Magic Castle has the best audiences I've ever worked to. For a start, they're there to see magic, so they don't need any convincing when a variety act steps on stage. Secondly, the main show at the castle is a hot ticket. You have to be a member, or know someone who's a member, and book in advance. All the shows sell out, so they're super excited to have managed to get a seat. Lastly – they've had a drink. Now, sometimes, obviously, having an audience a little booze-enhanced is the last thing you want, but when that audience is already made up of people who love magic and variety, and are chuffed to have made it there – well, the drinks just help them slide a little bit into unbridled childhood glee. They laugh, they gasp, they clap, and I smile.

I headed straight to bed after my last show, and thanks to my timezone-addled soul, got a solid couple of hours of unconsciousness before the invisible jetlag demon slapped me wide awake. There was no getting back to sleep, so I threw on my suit and decided to wander around outside and see if I could find a good vantage point from which to watch the sunrise. At about five thirty in the morning I found some hills, which turned out to be Runyon Canyon Park. It was pitch black, but there was a lady with a dog, and some young hikers, which inspired feelings of not-danger, so I followed them. I trekked along a sandy path, up and around and up some more, while the sky everso slowly got less black, and more inky blue. Palm tree silhouettes started to become visible overhead, and occasionally, through the leaves, I'd get a glimpse of the pinpoints of light from the otherwise unlit downtown, like showgirl glitter on the floor of a dark dressing room. Up and around and more up. Until there was no more path, just a bench and a sheer drop. I stood, feeling safe by making sure the backs of my legs were touching the bench. The city was spread out in front of me, shiny. The sun starting to throw some haze through the overcast sky, so I could finally see my surroundings. I breathed slowly and deep, letting my head pan across the view, and heard myself say out loud “Well. Damn.”

 

Then I went and got some breakfast.

On the way down I passed a homeless woman. All her belongings piled high in a shopping cart. On first impressions, she looked big – fat, even – but as I got closer to her I realised that she was actually painfully slight, but she was wearing all of her clothes. Hat over hat, jacket over jacket over jacket. In her hand she had a rectangular pocket pack of tissues, which she held to her ear like a phone, or a radio. Her head was tilted back, staring at the sky, unaware of anything else. As I passed her, I heard what she was saying into the pack of tissues. Her eyes darting around the sky above, she implored “I'm here. I'm waitin' Ready to go. Right here. Ready for you”. As if waiting for a flying saucer? Or a rapture? The poetic heartbreak of her mental illness killed me.

Suits and hats

The only thing I planned to definitely do while in LA was to go to, what I had been reliably informed, was an amazing hat shop. I like a hat. So I strolled down to Melrose, to find Hollywood Hatters. On the way, I passed a grizzled looking guy in a hoodie, who, when he saw me, grinned broadly and said – almost sung - “WELL LOOK AT YOU ALL IN A SUIT LIKE A MAN IN A PLACE! WELL ALRIIIIGHT!”. Seriously thinking about making that my new promotion slogan. “Mat Ricardo: All in a suit, like a man, in a place. Alright.”


The internet had told me the hat shop opened at 11, but when I was there at noon it still wasn't open. So Sal, the owner, who had been delayed, arrived to find his first customer in the process of sending him a grumpy email about opening hours. I'm good at making first impressions.

Hat shopping is hard. You have to try on ALL THE HATS. SEVERAL TIMES. Sal was very understanding of that, and after a decent amount of hat sampling, and with his expert guidance, I bought some beautiful hats. One of the styles I bought, Sal told me, was a favourite of Leonard Cohen, who used to live in the neighbourhood, and would get his hats there. Nice.

Close your eyes only when you have to

The rest of my week was a blur of work and looking at stuff. The audiences were faultlessly delightful, attentive and appreciative, but even with that said, three shows a night, arriving at seven and not leaving until past midnight is hard work. Fun work, but hard work. I made sure to plan to go do something every day, as well. It'd be a waste of a city to just sit around in your apartment waiting for the evening to begin, so I started to tick off my list of diners, architecture, shopping and views.

One morning I woke up feeling a little black dog-ish, so I decided I'd spend the day looking at beautiful things. I got the metro downtown, and checked out the beautiful Union station – a spectacular art deco masterpiece that, if it was in Britain, would almost certainly have been gutted and modernised by now, or sold off to a hotel developer. But no, here it was, exactly as it had been since 1939, all polished marble floors, angled wooden beamed ceiling, class and style out the wazoo. And it was quiet. Busy, but not loud. Maybe however late for work you are, it's just impossible to be angry and stressed when your commute takes you thought such a cathederal.

While I wondered through the downtown area, hunger reminded me to tick off another diner from my list, and this one was a doozy – The Nickel Diner. As sung about by TomWaits. Made famous by its bacon maple glazed donut. On this grey day it glowed warm and welcoming, fairy lights in the steamed up window, the shapes of happy, chattering, eating people inside. A mix of local office drones, hipster scum like me, and crusty old geezers. The happiest of happy places. I walked in, sat at the back so I could watch the room, ordered breakfast from the uber-friendly staff, and felt my belly and my soul refill. One day I'll write that book about my favourite greasy spoons all over the world, right? This'll be in it.

The black dog was whimpering and retreating, and a visit to The Last Bookstore, and then the Bradbury Building, finished it off, and put it back in its basket, asleep and beaten.

Most of the rest of my daytimes were spent going out on expeditions with my camera. I like to walk, always have done, and even in LA, it's mostly possible, at least between taxi and metro journeys. Bought some sunglasses at a lovely vintage store in beautiful downtown Burbank (and if you don't know why I said it like that, then shame on you), just around the corner from the actual water tower where the Animaniacs live. Not sure if they were there, they may have been elsewhere, engaged in hijinks.

Milt

One night, between shows, a dapper, older man made his way back stage. I knew who he was immediately. Every big time magician who has seen my act has told me - “You gotta meet Milt Larsen”. In 1963, he and his brother Bill founded the Magic Castle. It's his house. He's a genuine bona-fide Hollywood film, TV and stage legend. But there's something else. Before I was the tablecloth guy, He was the tablecloth guy. Every American movie or TV show you've seen it done in, chances are it was his hands doing it. The reason you know the tablecloth trick – the reason why, when I bend down and take hold of the edge of the cloth, everyone knows what's coming? That's down, in a major way, to Milt. He pushed that one little bit of business into mainstream culture, over a career that stretched through all of his adult life.

He grabbed my hand in a handshake. Held on tight. Stared into my eyes. Told me how funny I was, how perfect my timing was. Told me I had the perfect act. Already I'm shaking a little, the voice in my head saying “You can go cry in the dressing room in a minute”

He told me all the times he pulled tablecloths – in cabaret shows, in movies, wherever, gave me a few tips (“But you don't need my ideas – you're bulletproof – but i'm 85 – what do I need them for?”), "Your act?", he said, shaking his head and grinning, “putting it back? Never seen anything like it”

This is why I do this. I mean, one of the reasons, but one of the big ones. I saw in him, and I think he saw in me, that we were similar. Schtickmeisters. Trading in the currency of gags, lines, bits of business. Both part of a lineage. In my critically-acclaimed, and publicly-ignored, one man show “Vaudeville Schmuck” I talked about how lonely it can be being a solo act, but how, if you do the kind of things that I do, you're never really alone on stage – you're accompanied by the ghosts of all the people who helped your artform develop over the decades before you. A family tree that you've never met.

But this one I met. No ghost. Real and giggling. He shook my hand at least six times in the course of an eight minute chat, and I didn't want to let go any of the times.

He told me that he hoped I liked it here. I told him I certainly did. He told me that he knew London is a long way away, but that he hoped I'd come back many times. I told him I hoped so too. I felt that my check-in luggage might be heavier now, the weight of one passed baton.

Last 24

On Sunday morning I strolled up to the weekly Melrose Trading Post – a fantastic and huge outdoor market in the grounds of Fairfax high school. $3 to get in, which goes to help fund school projects, and then you're in among hundreds of stalls selling vintage stuff, handcrafted stuff, beautiful things, and low-class crapola. It's great. Had a felafel sandwich that was the size of two and a half city blocks. Bought some badges from an English guy who'd moved there thirty years ago. “What got you here?”, I asked. “Would you believe, a woman?”, he replied, resigned to the cliché. He asked what I was doing there, and I explained that I was doing a comedy act at the Castle. “You look like a comedian”, he said. I asked if that was a good thing or a bad thing. “Well”, he said, “It's a good thing if you're a comedian. Not if you're not...”

One more lap of the stalls, a chance to overhear a customer tell a stallholder that he could “Sell the gum off the bottom of a shoe”, and I was on my way back to my apartment and then across the street to do my last night of shows. And that's where was when I wrote this, sat in my dressing room sucking on a polystyrene cup of diet coke, in my costume, headset mic digging into my ear. One show in, on a three show night.

And then I closed my laptop, straightened my tie, and went up into the wings for the second show of my last night. The compere, the lovely Kerry Pollock, gave me his usual killer intro, and onto the stage I swaggered, my eyes immediately falling on the unmistakable form of comedy genius Larry David, sitting a couple of rows back, dead centre, grinning up at me. My brain immediately split into two parts. The main part slid right into doing my act, getting laughs, being sarcastic, threatening to do tricks, my usual kind of schtick. The other, smaller neurological lump just provided me with a n inner monologue of “*Is* is him? Yeah, it totally fucking is. It's Larry David. Watching you. Right now. It's happening right now. Don't fuck up. Calm down. Stop thinking about Larry David. Who is in the audience looking at you. Right now.” etc..

I didn't fuck up. Afterwards he stuck around, shook my hand, told me how funny I was. I got another laugh out of him by telling him how offputting it was seeing him from the stage, and how dare he. He shook my hand again. I told him what an honour it was to meet him. He told me how great my act was. I went back to the dressing room and got dizzy. Actually dizzy. Like all the blood had flowed out of my brain and whatever part of your physiology deals with having a really really good day. I had to check with Kerry that all of that had actually happened. It had. Bloody Los Angeles being such a cliché. Such a fan-fucking-tastic cliché.

And then I was done. Prop case packed. Suit folded. One last double scotch with magicians at the bar with the ghost that plays the piano (Long story), and now I'm sitting on a plane on my way home. All in a suit like a man in a place. Alright.

Jay would have got such a kick out of all of this. 




 If you're not following me on Twitter and Instagram, please do!


Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Queen, and Zardulu

Hello again.

I was half awake, still in bed, on Christmas day. Groggily scrolling through the news in bed, I saw a picture of the Queen and immediately thought it looked like she was wearing an old school starfleet uniform. Her brooch even looked like the insignia. I giggled to myself, screenshotted it, and tweeted my stupid little joke. Then I got up and had breakfast.


By the time I checked my phone again, my tweet had - and I believe this is the correct young persons vernacular - blown up. It was an odd and fun thing to watch the retweets and likes flow down my phone's screen over the next couple of days, often faster than I could read them.

This happened..

 

And then, for some reason, this..

 


It was strange, and a bit scary, as I realised that something was happening that I didn't have much control over. What was particularly joyful, though, was that since it was a bit of a nerdy joke, I was getting retweets from some top class beautiful geeks... people who work for NASA, yer actual rocket scientists, astronomers, professors and such. Nice.

But the internet is the internet, like the force is the force, there is a light side and the dark side. Or at least in this case, a cool, nerdy, fun side, and a confused, missing-the-joke, trolling side...


Some people were funny..


Some just saw it as an opportunity to tell the world how much they liked the queen..

 

Some took it as an opportunity to tell the world how much they didn't like the Queen...



Some took it, perhaps, a little too seriously... (I got literally dozens like this)



 Some made astute and delightful observations...



And some..honestly, I have no idea...



And then there was this guy, who states in his user name what a huge supporter of the next US president he is..



 I know, don't feed the trolls, but it was Christmas, so..



Which sent him scuttling away to try to cause some damage to me elsewhere on twitter, resulting in this enjoyable little exchange..


(a free variety show, you say? Where can I watch it? Right here - and you can subscribe to my channel here - thanks for bringing it up)

 You might think that was the extent of the craziness, and you'd be right, oh..unless you count someone trying to convince me that THE QUEEN IS IN FACT LUCILLE BALL AND THE SIMILARITY OF THEIR EARS IS PROOF..


Yep. That was just the start of that fascinating little trip into weirdville. She was serious. And angry. And blocked.

Oddly, my favourite response to it was from Curtis Stigers. Yes, that Curtis Stigers.  Who proved himself as witty as he is saxaphoney..





So that was all very strange and kinda fun. It's settling down now, and I'm sort of glad. 

As I write this, it's new years eve, and I just came back from an early morning walk along the beach to watch the sun rise, and clear my head of clutter. Out of this, completely unplanned, came some new years resolutions, so I'm going to write them down here so that in a years time the internet can taunt me for having failed to keep them. That's how it works, right? So:

(1) - Try to let the weight of the sad and depressing things of the world squish me down less. This not to say ignore the news, or disengage with the world, but I'm fragile and oftentimes the feeling of powerlessness to do much to affect horrific things happening far away, triggers all sorts of crappy stuff in my head and makes me unable to do much at all. I have to work on this. Partly by actually, y'know, finding ways to do things to help, and partly by remembering my role as an artist and maker in the world. And you know what helped me with this? Zardulu.



Zardulu is the subject of my favourite podcast episode of the year. You can listen to it here, and I really recommend you do. There's also a follow up, complete with actual interview, here.

I want to be more like Zardulu. Or at least let the knowledge that there is a Zardulu help me believe that the world is a little more mysterious, magical, and fantastical than most of us are lead to believe. There's a lot to be said for the power of enigmatic oddness to change the lens through which one sees things. Bad things still happen, but so do fun, inexplicable things. Childhood was full of those feelings, maybe there's space for them in adulthood too, just a smidge, for balance.

(2) - I'm going to try - god I'm going to try - not to engage with idiots posting stupid shit on twitter and facebook. I don't think anyone in the history of the universe has actually ever debated anyone well enough to change their opinions on a social media platform. What, in my experience, happens, is that you start out polite, and then pretty soon it's all Hitler this and Obama that and terrorist whatever, and then I spend the rest of the day needing more Zardulu type stuff to cheer me up. So, from now on, I'm going to avoid confrontation online. If I don't like what someone is putting in front of me, there are myriad ways to click a thing and quieten someone down. All the energy I might spend on arguing, I'm instead going to spend on making cool stuff. That way my mental health ain't so shonky.

(3) - I'm going to be the opposite of my dad. Long story. Cliche. I know.

Happy new year, and stuff, innit.

Monday, 26 December 2016

2016



We're nearing the end of what I think has been universally acknowledged to be a horribly sad and scary year. One that we'll look back on with the same level of fondness as a one night stand with Jeremy Clarkson. It was foul, depressing, painful and fills you with dread about how much worse things might get if unchecked.

Which means - hooray - it's time for a little end of year wrap up. Let's see if I can, if not put a smile on your face, at least unclench your fists for a few fleeting moments. Let the link-fest begin.

I'd like to revisit a few of the things I've written or made in the past 12 months, if that's ok with you. And it seems fitting, during the time of year when, for a lot of people, mental health becomes a tougher fight than it usually is, to start with that. I wrote about my own depression here, and about one of the ways that I manage it here. If you're someone for whom these posts directly apply, then all I can say is that it's ok to prioritise self-care without feeling guilty about doing whatever you need to do to keep things together. The Samaritans can be found here.

Keeping with the cheerful tone, 2016 was the year when, basically, everyone you've ever heard of who made anything great, died. There are too many to talk about individually, but only one who I was friends with. I wrote about him here.

More and more, I started using this song as a bit of a mantra. It takes its title from a line spoken in one of my favourite films, and I would find myself saying it to myself in times of stress, sadness and desperation. So, when I was in Toronto in Summer, I had the words tattooed on me. That way, the sentiment is always with me. Brilliantly, when the director of the festival I was at heard about this, she immediately wrote it up on a big sign that hung over her desk - as you can see from the picture of it at the top of the page. Hearts in eyeballs emoji, right there.

Professionally, I had a really enjoyable and exciting year. I visited some amazing places, got to play to some fantastic audiences, made some new friends, and even got to hang out with a genuine comedy hero. Oh, and one of the amazing trips I went on ended with me commandeering a car to flee the country and literally escape probable incarceration. If you haven't already read my piece about how a gig in Beijing went massively sideways, then enjoy. I've never been happier to get on a plane than I was when I managed to slip out of that trap.





As a response to happily-frequent audience question that I get at the bar, post show - "Why aren't you doing a variety show on TV?" - the answer to which is as depressing as it is dull, I started putting more and more stuff up on my YouTube channel (Which I encourage you to subscribe to), and then I got carried away and put together entire variety show playlists from stuff I'd found buried deep. Here's the most recent one - it's 35 minutes long, and stupid fun.


Also this year I started writing to a deadline for Chortle. The original brief was that I was going to talk about the current cabaret and variety circuit, but pretty quickly that fell by the wayside, and it became a slightly more freeform series of articles on the nature of being a maker, how to stay sane, and what fun variety and circus are. Chortle seem either fine with that direction, or they just don't read what I file - either way, I'm happy with the outlet for my words. Here's are a couple more of my columns from the past year:

On failing. A lot. And learning. A little.

On the power of running away from something.

On having one thing thats yours.

My favourite moment of the year wasn't a professional one though. Me and my wife had gone to Paris to hang out with some old friends for a few days. The night we arrived, one of those friends said that a few of her musician pals were doing a little thing at a bar, and maybe we should go. We did. It was a literal backstreet bar, down an alleyway just around the corner from the Bataclan theatre, where, a few months earlier, there had been stupid, stupid tragedy. The place was packed, and cheerful, and loud, and beautiful. We squeezed into some seats by the window, and filled our table with large plates of cheese, and larger glasses of wine. A couple of days earlier, Prince had died, and when the haphazard group of musicians shuffled onto the tiny corner stage to start the show, they opened with one of his songs. I was done. Immediately, and totally. They played all night - defiantly cool and sexy and virtuosic, the lineup of the band constantly changing as people left for a break and others joined, or people switched instruments. There were enough factors in play that people would be forgiven for being sad, and dour and quiet and shy, but the power of community - a heaving bar packed with artists, drinkers, people here for expert level revelry - created a night I'll never, ever forget. Seared into my soul by love and music, and sealed there by friends and wine. The best musicians I have ever seen, at the best music venue I have ever been to, with some of the best people I know. I can't allow myself to think about that night too much, because when I do, I get sad that I'm not there now, experiencing it all again, but for the first time.


So. Music and art and friends and wine and food and small places full of people and late nights and beating hate and fear with love and new friends. Those things.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

That time Hugh Laurie helped me steal something


In the early 90's when I was a fresh-faced whippersnapper of a juggler, mainly making my rent from street performing, I got my first proper agent. He was a lovely chap, with an office just around the corner from my street pitch in Covent Garden, which was festooned with 8x10s of bodybuilders, martial artists, mimes, and associated people who specialised in physical skills. As a young bouncy circus monkey, he saw some potential in me, started putting me up for castings, and indeed, landed me some fun jobs.

Yes. Me. Shut up.

Mostly, I ended up in late 80's/early 90's pop videos. Which means that if you scour YouTube for a couple of early Shakespear's Sister songs, and one particularly dirgey ditty by Sarah Brighman, there, more often than not under some fucking clown make-up, I am. The Shakespear's Sister ladies were delightful, and I remember playing with Siobhan's young daughter at the time, who made it into one of the video's dressed as a bumble bee. What most of these clips had in common were that they were directed by the brilliant Sophie Muller, and when she was prepping to direct the video for Annie Lennox's next single, I got another call.


The shoot for “Walking on Broken Glass” took place on location over a long weekend in London, but the cast all got called in the day before. It was, I guess, a homage to things like “Dangerous Liaisons”, so we all got plopped in front of a line of mirrors for complicated costume and powdered wig fittings. By the middle of day 2, those wigs felt heavy and painful, dragging on the pins that held them in place and giving everyone matching headaches.



The vibe was a party – cool and beautiful people, and staff serving drinks, and – hey – a juggler entertaining them! But as opulent and beautiful as the location and costumes were, all eyes were on the stars of the show. John Malkovich, kinda sorta reprising his role from “Liaisons..”, and Hugh Laurie, sorta kinda reprising his role from Blackadder. Malkovich took it all quite seriously, struggling a little, I think, to be able to have the kind of fun that Laurie was able to have. And my god, Hugh Laurie was amazing. And then there was Lennox. Draped in spectacular red velvet, gliding around serenely, and treated by everyone – correctly – like the queen. She radiated serene focus, and, at least for me, that became the feel of the shoot. And after the first take, when they'd hit playback and all the actors had heard the song for the first time, we all tried to make sure she saw us grinning at how good it was.


For me though, it was all about Hugh Laurie. I was already a fan, and a totally star struck at working in the same room as him (more so than Malkovich, I'm afraid). As part of the set dressing a harpsichord stood in the corner of the set, and between shots, the talented son of a gun just sat down and played it. There was a key scene where Lennox's character gets drunk and angry – in the final cut the camera cuts a few times to Laurie's face as he desperately tries to calm her down. I remember vividly when that was shot. They just put the camera on him, and let him go. For minutes upon minutes he improvised various different ways of trying to defuse the situation – firm, embarrassed, ignoring it, laughing it off, getting angry, being patronising... he just kept going and going, to a silent, rapt room of actors. When Sophie finally told him they had more than enough, everyone clapped.

Something else that the angry drunk Annie Lennox did in the video, and lets face it, the thing that really spoiled the party for everyone, was barge past the juggler. We shot it a couple of times with me just being pushed to one side and dropping my balls, and then I was asked if I would be ok actually falling down. I've always been very ok with falling down. It's one of my key skills. So, on the next take, she pushes past me, and I take a good old fashioned back bump to the floor. They finish the shot, cut is yelled, and everyone seems happy. Except for Annie, who hurries over to me, asking if I'm ok, totally concerned that she had accidentally, in the heat of the moment, actually thrown me to the floor. I tell her, yeah, I'm fine, it was a pratfall, they told me to go a little bigger, and then she's helping me up and telling me “oh, very nice, very good”. And although it only lasts half a second, and you can't really see it, that's the take they used.

On the second day, while they were shooting something downstairs, myself and a few of the other actors were sitting around on set, killing time, chatting about anything and nothing in particular. I mentioned that it was my girlfriend's birthday soon (she's now my wife), and I hadn't found a good main present. As we're talking, Hugh Laurie wonders in and sits nearby. We started joking that I should steal something from the set. Then we started joking a little more specifically, that I should steal the gorgeous crystal, gold-rimmed goblet that Annie Lennox uses in the video. Then we slowly realised that she'd finished shooting all her scenes with it. And then, Hugh Laurie is standing up, sidling over to the table, taking the goblet, walking back, and giving it to me, with a conspiratorial grin.

I stole it, gave it to Lesley for her birthday, told her the story, and to this day, whenever that video turns up there is giggling and pointing and yelling “Look! It's your glass!”

Sorry Annie Lennox. Sorry Sophie Muller. Blame Hugh Laurie.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Power Man


Here's how it would go:

I'd come out of my grandma's house, turn left, go to the end of the street, past the corner shop run by the Indian family, where the aroma of food on the stove out back melted into the smells of the sweets sitting out front to create a gorgeous heady mix that still, when I smell anything like it today, sends me right back to my childhood. I'd cross the street onto the main road and go to the newsagent that I didn't usually go to. My parents didn't ever send me there. It was small, fairly crappy, and staffed by a couple I was a little scared of, who sometimes shouted at each other. But. On a little plastic-covered wire rack on the dirty lino floor, they had American comics. Marvel comics. Remember – this was the mid 70's, way before the characters and stories contained in those rough, cheap pages had become mainstream pop-culture icons and cash-generating brand ambassadors – especially in the UK. Back then they were still seen as crass, cheap, sensational, primary coloured bad influences. I loved them. I love them.

I didn't love them equally though. Never had much interest in the Fantastic Four, the Hulk didn't hook me, neither did Thor. As I got older, I developed serious fandoms for Daredevil, Spidey, Green Arrow and others, but back then, when I was..what..7 years old? It was all about Luke Cage. Power Man. The hero for hire. He was my guy.

The black guy with the impenetrable skin, whose comics wove Marvels trademark outrageous characters and action, into stories of the inner city African American experience. Superhero blaxploitation. A leading character fresh out of jail for a crime he didn't do, who commits to his new powers by going into business as hired muscle, simply because, just like everyone else in his neighborhood, money was tight. Six or seven years before I discovered hip-hop, the Luke Cage comics taught me about an America that TV didn't often show, and alongside that, it showed me a New York that I dreamed of seeing for myself one day. I wonder if the people making these comics realised the bang-up job they were doing as an unofficial tourist board, because I can't have been the only kid entranced by visions of the USA thrown at me in low-quality ink. And it wasn't just the stories, the rest of the comic too – I poured over the adverts for mysterious things – Slim Jims! SeaMonkeys! I only know who Dr.J is because of his adverts for Spalding basketballs on the back page (Imagine my glee when his name cropped up in Run DMC's “You Be Illin” a few years later, and I KNEW WHO HE WAS).

These comic books were little culture bombs of exciting, edgy, loud, vivid, modern, counter-culture Americana. I was their target market. They hit me with deadshot accuracy, and I never fully recovered.

Flash forward to me as a grown-up, and Netflix announce that they're going to make four TV series, of four Marvel characters, and that those characters were Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. What's the word for a combination of excitement, nervousness and dread? That. But then they release Daredevil, and it was good. As was Jessica Jones. And they just dropped Luke Cage. And it's kinda great.

Thematically it feels like a pretty good update of the source material. A reluctant hero driven into action when local gangland violence and political corruption start to take away his safe places, and hurt those he cares for. It's clearly on a modest budget, but its shot beautifully, with warm colours and a bold visual style giving the excellent cast the frame they need to do really nice work. And essentially, there's plenty of room for discussions of race, power, and, in one key early scene, the N-word. It's not perfect by any means, but sweet Christmas, Mike Colter is Luke Cage.

 
And good god is it timely. The deafeningly loud symbolism of having a hero who's central power is that his black skin is bulletproof is painfully ironic in a country where an increasingly militarized and unaccountable police force seems to be killing unarmed black men with shocking regularity. That a comic character who was created during the black power movement of the 70's, now has a resurgence in the black lives matter era is perfect, and powerful. Colter himself has said that the show is consciously taking that movement into consideration, and that “It's a nod to Trayvon, no question”.

The other thing that's been said about it is that it's the hip-hop Marvel show, which isn't quite true. The whole thing is immaculately soundtracked, to be sure, but not just with hip-hop, but also old school R&B and jazz, alongside some featured live performances, which all contribute to an underlining of the importance of music in the world in which our heroes and villains live.

As a sidenote, I also watched the BBC4 documentary “The Hip Hop World News”, which, at the time of writing, you can catch up with on iPlayer. A bold idea, to look at politics and society through the lens of hip-hop creators, and one that, for my money, didn't quite work. There were some important mis-steps – discussion about the use of the N-word was clearly biased in favour of the presenters viewpoint, while ignoring the key reasons for its re-appropriation, and including obvious fallacies presented as facts. The deeply problematic representation of women was touched on, and this slim and shallow segment was the only time in the whole show that a woman was allowed to talk, and only then because she was an old friend of the presenter. That stank. These are big subjects that, when given the serious insight they deserve, explode and expand some of the cultural underpinnings of the artform, and can only help its understanding. They happened for reasons, and that's where the discussion is, but there was no discussion, instead, only dismissals and opinions in place of explanations.

Having said all that, the presenter in question, veteran British MC Rodney P, was passionate and genuine, and when he shed tears before meeting the great Chuck D, I was right there with him. Although flawed, this was, in general, a very enjoyable show, and one that I hope serves as a starting point for Rodney to bring his beloved world to the screen, rather than a one-off.

And after that show we changed the channel, and there was Jeremy bloody Paxman talking about fucking Victorians. An Oxbridge educated rich white guy basically doing cosplay of one of his old teachers, in a sea of similar looking faces doing similar looking things, and it became apparent how rare and valuable on screen talent - either fictional like Luke Cage, or real, like Rodney P, are.

Excelsior, true believers! 'Nuff said.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A solo performer in a cast and an only child in a family.


I first met Roses when she – and I'm using her own words here – stalked me for months, took me for coffee, told me that she wrote, directed and starred in some theatre shows, thrust a script into my hands, and told me she wanted to work with me. It was equal parts flattering and scary, like many of life's best moments.

I was doing a bunch of cruise ships shows at the time, and as they have a habit of sapping ones soul slightly, I was looking for something different to get stuck into. Something nourishing, challenging, fun, maybe. I took her script onto a plane to Miami, and by the time we'd reached cruising altitude I knew I wanted in.

That was seven years and two installments of her show ago, and last month I was happily roped into another episode of Roses' ongoing theatrical crazyness.

The Night Kitchen Cabaret isn't a cabaret show. Ok, well it sort of is. It's a play masquerading as a cabaret show masquerading as a play about a cabaret show that is really a play. Or something. I'll start again. It's a play about a woman called Ruby Kitchen. She runs a show from her East London home, which may or may not also be some kind of trans-dimensional tardis. Long story. She's surrounded by her family, friends and visitors from far away. Oh, and there's dance and circus and magic and puppetry and mime and music and monsters and and and...

What it mainly is, is virtually impossible to describe with any degree of clarity or accuracy. A multi-disciplinary tour-de-force that is exactly as concerned with slapstick and spectacle as it is with using delicate theatre to delve into some of the gentle, dark places that good art can be so good as illuminating.

I'm lucky. I had a couple of decades of living as a busker, hand to mouth, but these days I do alright. I get to bounce around the world doing my thing in interesting places. But I don't like to keep it too easy. I always want to be doing something new – doesn't matter if its a new gag, routine, venue, show – I always want to be concious, always want to be stretching myself a little, always developing and learning, because otherwise, what's the point? I'm also a solo turn. I function well on my own. Always have done. So spending a month in a rehearsal room (At RADA of all places) being a member of a cast full of way more talented people (or at least that's how my insecurities will always frame it, although holy crap, this cast was amazing), learning everything from heartfelt dialogue, to physical theatre choreography, to full scale Appalachian flatfoot dance numbers – well, that took me to a place where you couldn't see my comfort zone with military-grade binoculars.


I struggle to function as part of a cast. Habit, my inherent shyness, and probably a little fear-fuelled ego all combine to make me occasionally want to curl up a hide under a table. But over the course of rehearsals, we fuse together. Strangers become colleagues become friends, and finally melt into a single cast. Like an army unit – a collection of specialists who, together, make one thing happen. By the time we finally got to walk out onto our beautiful set, we had become the family we were portraying.

I always tell people that one of the things I love about my job is that with my skillset and experience, I can work pretty much anywhere. And sure, on the surface, that sounds like the kind of thing you tell an agent who isn't sure if you're right for a gig, and indeed it is, but it's also really true. My background in street performing instilled in me the ability/obsession to approach any space as a potential venue, and know how to make it work best as one. Still, if I'm in a new town and happen to wonder down the high street, I'll be unable to fight the voices in my head saying “Ok, you'd pitch up there, facing this way, so you're not blocking any shop doorways. Nice flow of people, but the street is wide enough that you're not going to cause an obstruction and get stopped by the police. Also you could stand on that wall to grab attention, and put your suitcase on top of that rubbish bin...”, this is a curse that I'm pretty sure every street performer has. When I recently talked to Eddie Izzard, who, decades ago, I used to share a street pitch with, he said much the same thing. He told me that he'd just played the Hollywood Bowl, and wouldn't have known how to approach that gig, were it not for his days as a busker. 

But this applies to the nature of the gig, as much as it does the venue. I think I'm pretty good at being able to slightly tweak what I do, and more importantly, how I do it, to suit the style of show I'm in. Punchy and improvy for street shows, slick and witty for cabaret, stylish and clean for classic variete. The Night Kitchen Cabaret though, was at the far end of this range. I wasn't even playing myself, I was Great Uncle Alfie. I'd played him twice before, and I love him. He's a juggler, sure, and a butcher. He's also – small detail – been dead for two hundred years. But when the family needs him, he always finds a way to visit. He's east end. Where I feel awkward and shy in a pub, he'd be right at home there, leading a singalong and buying everyone a round. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to take me down to Edmonton Green market. She knew everyone, so on the journey there and back, we'd bump into window cleaners, fruit and veg sellers, and all manner of central casting 1970's London types. I remember loving it, and when I'm Alfie, I play him like all of those people. The rough grinning chancers that would chuck me an apple and ask me what football team I supported, then take it back unless I said Tottenham.

I'm sure there will be more installments of the Night Kitchen to come, full of impossible to describe but beautiful things, so keep an eye out. Regardless of my involvement, they're something special, as is Roses, the creative genius behind it all. And I use that word very consciously indeed. Watch out for her name in the future. You'd be fools not to.

(All the beautiful photos on this post, courtesy of the brilliant Lol Johnson. Go check out her work)

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Woof




This week I've been mostly feeling empty. All my energy bars depleted. Desperately in need of a powerup. Veering wildly between panicky and desperate, and “oh, what's the point of any of it”-type resignation. There's been a decent amount of numb staring into space, a respectable number of whinges, and fairly regular confused crying.

Sometimes, when depression descends, it comes out of nowhere. You'll wake up, and in those first few seconds, you'll feel it and you'll know – nope – this ain’t going to be an easy day. Other times, there might be a trigger, something that pokes at your existing emotional wound and reminds you of it. This week, for me, there were a few things – some real-world triggers, exhaustion, and a cracked rib didn't help. All these things made me an easy target for the illness. And it came in strong this week.

Depression tricks me into measuring my success and happiness by all the wrong metrics. Judging myself by the standards set by those who I don't respect. But they shout their expectations so loudly sometimes, at least in my head, that they are hard to ignore. Of course, by all the valuations that count, I'm doing just fine. I get to go on stage and show-off, to act out the silly ideas I think up, and enough people seem to like it that I'm able to have a roof over my head, a wide selection of hats and ties, and get Wimpy whenever I like. This job has given me a life I share with so many awesome humans. One, particularly awesome.

And usually that's enough to keep me happy, and my keel even. But when my mood is low, when the black fucking dog is standing by the front door snarling and drooling at me whenever I try to leave the house, my perception changes.

I must be a failure. A loser. I'm not doing as well as whoever. I'm not selling as many tickets as I could be selling. I'm not in demand by the right people. I'm not in the cool gang. If only I hadn't buried Britain’s Got Talent so publicly and so often, maybe I could turn off my soul, bite the bullet and tilt at the windmill of a million instant extra twitter followers. But no. I made my bed, it's just that right now I'm finding it hard to get out of it.

I know, I know. There's always someone better, and there always will be. Prince didn't stop being Prince when he realised he'd never be James Brown. He concentrated on being Prince. There's always someone more popular, richer, younger or thinner.. It's just that when you're too busy with the dog to think straight, it seems like that someone is everyone, and it always will be, and you might as well give it all up because really, come on, what were you thinking? And when that dog is straining at the leash, I find myself with no answer to that question. Suddenly, in my mind and heart, I'm back to being the teenager with the different name who dreamt of being something like Mat Ricardo, but was too often told that it should remain a fantasy, or at best, a hobby. I find myself wondering if those people were right.

They weren't, of course. And here I am, at a coffee shop in Marylebone station in London, hunched over my notebook like a jazz pianist, scribbling this all down in the hope that the reasons that these people were wrong will spill out of me.

So.

If I hadn't, on a Wednesday morning in the late 80's, swallowed my nerves and taken some tentative steps out onto the scarily large space of Covent Garden's West Piazza, I'd have none of this. I wouldn't have met the cool Welsh girl who's smart as a whip and packs a killer right cross, who became my wife. I wouldn't have a family of crazy beautiful people spread across the globe, who can do amazing things with their minds, bodies and hearts. And that'd be a shame.

I alluded to this earlier – my real name isn't Mat Ricardo. Except that isn’t quite true.

It's not the name I was born with. But that kid was shy, a timid loner who didn't have many friends and would always rather not do something, than do it. Becoming Mat Ricardo was my way of starting again. Being a different person. One I was more happy being. And I've been him since my late teens, so, that other kid, he's not me any more, and hasn't been for quite some time.

Except when the dog is here. He brings that timid kid along and taunts me with him. Tells me that however much I've moved on from him, he's never truly all the way gone. And I weaken. I start believing what idiots tell me. I stop listening to those I love and those that love me. I start being bitter. Mean. Sad. Jealous. Jealous – goddammit – of people who go on talent shows.

Well, fuck that.

I became Mat Ricardo for a reason. Because I wanted to be more confident. To not waste my short time here with insecurities. To not just leave the house, but to keep on walking. To have adventures. I wanted to make friends in bars, restaurants, street corners, dressing rooms and audiences. I wanted these people to help me find myself. I wanted to be inspired by the love and artistry of indie creators – people for whom making it isn't anywhere near as important as making something. And I got all I wanted. And I'm greedy for more.

“Don't forget what happened to the man who got everything he wanted”, says Willy Wonka, “What happened?”, asks Charlie, “He lived happily ever after”, says Wonka.

Well, sometimes it's not the getting what you want part that is the challenge, it's the living happily ever after. But that’s ok. It is what it is. One just has to remember, as they say in the fight game, to keep your hands up and your face pretty. And hit first.

I'll dress better than I need to, and work harder that I used to, and take the black dog with me on my adventures, and show it the fun I'll have.

That'll confuse the fucker.



Saturday, 2 April 2016

Tell Bells and Broken Wands



It's been a bit of hard couple of weeks for fans of comedy, variety and pro-wrestling like me. We lost a lot of good ones. Paul Daniels sadly passed away (Something I wrote about for Chortle), as did the great Ronnie Corbett. British wrestler Kris Travis also left us, and all three were celebrated greatly by those who loved their work, and mourned by the same people who would have liked to have seen more of it.

And then, last night, as I checked my phone after coming off stage, I was told that Michael Pearse had joined them.

When I was in my teens, before I started performing professionally, I used to go to the Columbo Street sports centre in South London every Sunday afternoon. For a few hours every week, for years, there was a juggling workshop held there. The sports hall was crammed with pros, hobbyists and the curious, all trading tricks, stealing tricks, and eating crisps. When you're young and lonely, as I was, and have a crazy idea for a job, as I did, places like this are important. They show that there are others with the same crazy idea, and a few that are actually living that dream. They fill you with inspiration, ideas, fantasies and the knowledge of how good you'll have to be to compete in the industry you're dreaming of being a part of.

The people I met there became my peers, my influences, and in a couple of cases, some of my best friends, and none were more influential than the late Michael Pearse.



I was in the corner of one of the halls mucking around with my dirty yellow diablo when he bounded up to me, clutching his. “Show me yer tricks, will yer?”, he panted, as he untangled his strings, “Then we'll both know more tricks!”, and he grinned wildly. Can't fault that logic. For months, years afterwards, he'd always ask me to show him a new trick, and he'd always show me some of his in return, and in a hall full of sportswear-clad young men trying to see how many whatevers they could keep in the air, Pearse was different. His tricks were more creative, more interesting. He used household objects, sports equipment, props he'd made himself. I'd look around the hall and see pretty much the same trick being done over and over, and then I'd look at Pearse, and see a crazy, dapper old Irishman with a glint in his eye, showing me something I'd never seen before.

I immediately knew what kind of performer I wanted to be. I wanted to be Pearse.

(Oh, and you'll notice I'm calling him by his last name. That's how I knew him first. His name was Michael Pearse, but I knew him as Pearse Halfpenny, so that's how I'll always think of him)

I had the pleasure of booking him for one of my London Varieties shows, and of course, he brought the house down. I also took the opportunity to chat a little to him about his life. He caught the bug when he was 12, when, back in his native Ireland, he saw a juggler in a circus. All his skills were self-taught, and he worked off and on throughout his life. By the 80's he was working as a building site foreman in London, and in his lunchbreaks he'd go around the corner, to Covent Garden piazza, where he saw lots of young jugglers doing street shows. Pretty soon he was bringing in some of his props and showing the youngsters a thing or two under the church portico.

Seemingly he worked more and more as he got older, indeed, when Pearse was 65, Ken Dodd presented him with an award for “Best comedy newcomer”, which is as perfect as it is ridiculous.

He was working right to the end, and had dates in his diary for the future, too. Which is a fact that will make every performer reading this nod their head contentedly. That's how you want to do it.

He was fiercely original, always well-dressed, charming, witty, immensely skilled, and with a streak of beautiful craziness running through him that made anyone who met him never forget the event. I will miss him.

You can watch his act, as part of my London Varieties show, here. His bit starts at about 34 minutes.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Hong Kong II: Hong Konger




Would I like to come and perform at the Udderbelly, with these idiots, in bloody Hong Kong? No brainer. And yes, I did have my little issues with Beijing a few weeks earlier, but Hong Kong is a completely different beast, and fast becoming one of my favourite cities in the world, so sign me the hell up!

Four nights with the "Edinburgh Fringe All-stars" show, and we had lovely audiences for every single show. And as for the daytimes, well, when you're somewhere like this you don't want to waste a second, so me & the gentlemen from Abandoman hit Ocean Park, the huge (and I mean HUGE) theme park and immediately reverted to twelve year old versions of ourselves. Dolphins doing tricks! Sharks! Pandas! Rollercoasters! Log Flumes! An evil thing that winches you straight up really really high, then waits for a seemingly random length of pause, and then drops you in such a way that every synapse in your lizard brain is screaming "This only ever ends in death" at you, and then you're fine and want to do it again. It basically left us exactly like this.



Also found time to go and hang out with old pal, and diablo genius, Donald Grant, who was performing in a circus in town. Really enjoying hanging out with the trad circus gang, and meeting the dancers, each one of whom was introduced by Donald as "She's the best dancer". Smooth.

The circus show itself was great. I always get a bit emotional watching trad circus in a way that no modern circus has ever made me feel. There's something wonderful about the iconography, style, even some of the routines, being unchanged for so long. I saw the 2pm show. The first of four performances that day, so predictably - and this is absolutely no reflection on the quality of the show - the audience was a bit thin. But they gave it everything. Not a dead eye among the dancers. Not a lazy beat by the clown. And there's something that I, at least, find very moving and noble about performers literally, actually risking their life for their art, and for a handful of people at 2pm on a windy afternoon. Performing tricks and routines that have killed people in the ring, and probably will again. The size of the crowd isn't relevant. They are circus performers. They defy death, and beautifully. It's why they're here, and it's what they do. How many other art forms have that level of unquestioning commitment for their practitioners? I can only think of one similar, and that also takes place in a ring. Good for them, and yay circus.

As regular readers might know, I suffer from a fun little grab-bag of mental health issues - depression and anxiety disorder leading the pack. This means that in the past, while on gigs similar to this, I've often given in to those illnesses and stayed in my hotel room like a hermit between shows. Safe there. Controlled environment. And this is by no means any kind of judgement on people who do the same - you gotta do what you gotta do to be comfortable and stable. But I've been trying to play better with others recently, and I consciously tried to do it on this trip. Boy it paid off. Obviously going to Ocean Park with the Abandoman boys was brilliant. But also smaller things that I might not have done in the past - hanging out a bit with the cast and (wonderful) Udderbelly crew, going for lovely cocktails at the hotel rooftop bar post-show, stuff like that, which sometimes you have to work quite hard to make seem casual and inconsequential, when of course, it very much isn't.




So, thanks to everyone who's face I saw in Hong Kong. I had the most delightful time, and you all helped make that happen. What a fortuitous boy I am, to get the chance to chase these little adventures and meet so many excellent people.

 As per usual, I took my camera. Hope you like..














And now I have a couple of days of R&R, and then it's time to join the big Brian Conley tour. I was his support act a year and a bit ago and had a ball, so I can't wait to be go back on the road with him. 32 dates, all over the place. Wheee!