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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.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A long time ago I was in a Jerry Lewis film

That's me, back row, between the men holding the live donkey and the grumpy lady with the massive hat (Also visible in the uniform on the far right is genuine London eccentric and vocal sound effects genius Chris Luby, who I had the pleasure of touring Germany with a lifetime ago).

1994, it was, so I would have been 25. The film was, of course, the under-rated "Funny Bones", and it had quite the cast: Jerry Lewis, Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Leslie Caron, Oliver Read, Richard Griffiths, and it was about the nature of comedy and variety, and it was touching and magical and funny.. so there were plenty of reasons for me to be excited about doing it, but - truth be told - I only needed one. George Carl. He was my hero back then and he remains my hero today. Owner of the funniest silent 7 minutes in the history of entertainment. one of the last links between the modern era of comedy and real, honest to goodness fucking vaudeville. He was the man, and always will be. And he was in this film.

He started out as a circus acrobat in his early teens, but pretty quickly the clown inside got out and he was made for life. He played the best venues in the world, and regularly. Resident clown at the Crazy Horse Paris, regular on the Royal variety show, recipient of the Golden Clown award, and real, legitimate, actual genius. He spent 60 years polishing and honing a 7 minute act. A more noble and beautiful way to spend a life you might be hard pressed to find.

I remember watching him get tangled up in his microphone cable when I was a child, on the Royal Variety Performance (back when it was an actual variety show, and not just a long-form advert for various CDs, DVDs and west end shows), and being entranced by this curiosity - this crazy little old man who came on stage, got into difficulties, somehow reduced everyone to hysterics, and then left, having seemingly done nothing. To this day, I still make myself giggle by getting my thumb stuck in my jacket buttonhole, and of course my 3 ball/jacket routine is heavily influenced by the great man.

He died on the first of January, 2000, aged 84. I never met him. When I filmed my bits for "Funny Bones" he wasn't on set. We shot three scenes with me in, two of them in which I was featured quite prominently, but they ended up on the cutting room floor and all the remains of me in the movie is the scene captured in the picture at the top of the page. Didn't meet Jerry Lewis (which would, I'm assuming, have been awesome and terrifying), or anyone else - although Oliver Platt did hang around and we exchanged a few words. Nice fella and a hell of an actor.

So I never met him, but I kinda did. Whenever I do that 3 ball routine, he's there. Whenever I take off a jacket and make those around me groan by getting a thumb caught in a buttonhole, he's there. Whenever I throw a hat so it lands on a microphone stand, that's him. So a painter lives on past death through their paintings, a musician lives on through the music. A vaudevillian? A vaudevillian lives on through all the little bits of business that people giggle at. Passed down to those who see the magic in them like the treasured fragile heirlooms they are.

George was silent through almost all of his career, and he was silent throughout almost all of "Funny Bones", but towards the end, he speaks these lines about the nature of being a clown:

"Our suffering is special. The pain we feel is worse than anyone else, but we see the sunrise more beautiful than anyone else. We're like the moon - one side forever dark - as it should be. But remember, the dark moon draws the tides also."

Friday, 16 September 2011

Old Passport, New Passport

Got a new passport today, which means dumping the old one. I thought that they took the old one away from you, but no, they let me keep it, but with a corner of the cover snipped off. It's wings have been clipped so it can't fly any more.

Couldn't help but take a look through the pages before I traded it in for a shiny blank one. These days most airports don't bother to stamp your passport unless you specifcally ask for it, which I don't. But some do. And as regular readers of this blog (and it stuns me into a stupor to believe that there are such people, but site statistics don't lie) will know I travel a lot. I'm not in the Richard Quest league any more, but still do my share of globe-destroying travel, so my passport was packed with stamps.

And with every little blurry stamp is a little blurry memory. Often not distinct, but a feeling, a little ache of muscle memory of a place.

Now, I've done enough grown-up martial arts to know that the trick with life, as it is with the drawing of a sword, is to truly be only in the moment. The past is gone, the future is yet to happen, so "be here now" as the kids used to say in the 90's. But as I look at those stamps, I get enveloped by a fog of associated airports, trips, mishaps, people and sandwiches..

The second image from the top is for Tokyo Narita airport. I got off the plane, excited and nervous, stood in line at the immigration check and noticed that someone had slapped a sticker onto the front of the desk. As I got closer I could make it out - "Andre The Giant has a posse", and a picture of the great man. What kind of crazy balls does it take to slap an Andre The Giant sticker on the front of the desk behind which sits the man who can stop you entering the country? Awesome. He stamped my passport, and I went through, picked up my bag, and got met by a cool Japanese lady called Erica who took me to meet Monkey. But that's another story. Ain't they all.

The new passport runs out in 2021, which feels as absurdly futuristic as 2011 did ten years ago when I got the old passport. I remember that day too - I was about to go on a little European tour with Steve Rawlings. That became no fun pretty quick, but at least it was paid badly.

So. Chapter closed. New one begun. Same book though.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Waiting For Stanley

Shoot this morning with Leela (also known around these parts as burlesque clown Audacity Chutzpah), for her upcoming one-woman theatre show "Waiting For Stanley", which will be performed at the Greenwich theatre from the 13th-16th of October. If you've ever seen Miss Chutzpah perform, and if you have any sense, you will already have bought your tickets for this. If you're unfamiliar - trust me, and get yourself down there, she's great.

Also, she bought a Toblerone to the shoot. One of the big ones. This is not something future models need to do, but it can't hurt. Just saying.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Sneak peek

A little sneaky peek at something that'll be all over your defenceless televisions come next month. It's an advert. I apologise in advance. Daddy needs shoes.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Post-Edinburgh wrap-up

A few last images from last month.

Here's to my ever-expanding cabaret family. You're great.