Monday, 26 September 2011

Seaside magicians and Stewart Lee


I sometimes whinge about the lack of a big, lucrative, established circuit for a variety monkey like me to work, like there is for stand-ups, and true though that is, the flipside to this situation is that if you're smart and good, you learn to develop to ability work in lots of different places. And that's fun. This past weekend - perfect case in point.
On Friday, me and my suitcase got on a train and journeyed down to Southport (Changing at Crewe of course - where, as those of you that watched Michael Grade's excellent documentary on variety will know - music hall performers of the past used to meet up between gigs for a cup of tea and an occasional stolen kiss), to perform in one of the gala shows of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. I've done a couple of these magic convention gigs this year and I really enjoy them. First things first - as the only non-magician on the bill, the gig is always lovely, with an audience educated and enthusiastic about the variety arts, but grateful for a palate-cleanser between conjurers. But mainly, for me, it's the fun of being in a big convention centre full of nice older men wearing freshly dry-cleaned tuxedos, and wearing name tags with often beautifully alliterative stage names on. It's really a convention for everyone's fun grandad.

I was on the late night show, along with a very serious young frenchman who appeared and vanished CDs, the comedy magician Mel Mellers (See what I mean about alliteration?) and big box illusion act Amethyst (Who had the best intro from the compere: "I know them as Daniel and Annette - you know them as AMETHYST!" Which for some reason I found very funny). Annette, incedentally, had the most costume changes I've ever seen in an act - at one point she walked on stage, gave Daniel and glass of milk, and left - she had an outfit for this bit alone. Awesome. They also had many, many big perspex boxes, velvet curtains and pyrotechnics.

After their spot, I told 'em - "Look at your stuff - I need more boxes, curtains and pyros in my act..", to which Daniel replied, with a world weary grin, "And a fucking van, fella.."


Then on Sunday night I rolled up to the Lexington in Islington to take part in a benefit gig for legendary 80's living cartoon fool Frank Sidebottom. Chris Sievey, who was Frank, sadly died last year, and this was part of the brilliant fund-raising campaign to get a statue of him erected in his cherished Timperly. On the show, I was sandwiched between John Moloney, a raffle, and Stewart Lee, and it was all rather splendid.

The Lexington is primarily a music venue, and as such has an awesome green room:


Complete with brilliant graffiti


 Obviously it was lovely to be asked to be on the show - especially as it quickly became named "The Un-Royal Variety Show" - and I think there was something correct about a variety schmuck like me being involved, because Frank wasn't just a comedian, or a singer - he was a turn. An act. One of us. The kind of performer that you try to describe to someone, and then halfway through, you realise that it's too unique and silly and they just have to see it. And if that's not a good description of what a variety act is, then I don't know a better one.

Stewart Lee was great, of course, and it was a rare pleasure to be able to sit on the side of the stage and watch him work just a few steps away. Brilliant rhythm and pace to his stuff - such good control of when and how to slow it down - almost the way a stunt pilot points a plane nose up and climbs and climbs and then stalls it, so for a moment it hangs in the air, suddenly somehow not a plane anymore, and now just a heavy metal object, turning awkwardly..then as it falls, he turns it into the dive, and swoops back to the horizontal in a graceful smooth curve picking up speed and noise until you feel silly for even doubting that the pilot wasn't always in control. That.


So, two very different gigs in the same weekend - one fabulously old fashioned and unapologetically mainstream, and one achingly cool and cutting-edge. Except not. Did the same act at both gigs, and got laughs and applause in all the same bits. Might have been a little bit more sweary at the Lexington, to be fair. And frankly, I think the audience of magicians and magic fans in southport would have loved Frank Sidebottom, and I think most of the audience in Islington would have clapped in spite of themselves when a box full of fire turned into a cage full of Annette. It's either fun or it's not, and people are either able to enjoy something without wondering if they should, or not.

Speaking of which, this:


Is the best dessert in the world. I had it on Saturday night. It's called Shrikhand, and it tastes of Saffron. Twenty something years ago, wonderful clown, and wonderful friend Pete Mielniczek introduced me to it, and the restaurant where we had it then is still around and still as good as it always was. And, no, I'm not going to tell you where it is. So ha.

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