21st July 2011
Festival time in Edinburgh can be strange for the writer who performs their own work. You walk around a city choked with shows, operating from every conceivable venue, and many, many of them are absolutely dire. Yet unless you got organised six months earlier and paid the almighty price of entry to the Fringe programme, you probably won’t get a gig.
There are exceptions — Itsy’s Kabarett events have some slots if you can handle the intimidation factor of appearing between edgy comedians and beautiful women taking their clothes off. And PBH’s Free Fringe has an entire spoken word programme at the Banshee Labyrinth which you might be able to squeeze into somewhere. But on the whole, you’re more likely to be bumped from your regular haunt by a out-of-town trio singing topical comedy songs, losing money on every show.
Which is why it was refreshing last year to see the arrival of Havers and Blethers. This presented twenty different nights of unpretentious spoken word — powerful stories and poetry delivered by locals and guests, with a little music to taste. It’s back this year in a prime slot, 7.30pm–8.30pm; a central location, the Captain’s Bar on South College Street; and at the time of writing, it still has slots available.
Of course we’re talking here about reading to an open pub, not a sanitised back room populated only by poets waiting for their own slot. But it’s a pub packed with people who appreciate a good poem or a story, and will shut up for long enough to give you a chance. It has an occasional pirate theme, perfect for stories of buried treasure, exotic islands or sea monsters. And it’s beneath the room where William McGonagall died.
If you think you have something that fits the bill — five to eight minutes is about right — then drop the bar a line. Or pop in and ask for Captain Pamela. Yarrrr.
Havers and Blethers, Captain’s Bar, South College Street. 7.30pm–8.30pm, 1st–20th August. FREE admission.
26th May 2011
Spoken word nights come and go. The earliest one I remember was Rodney Relax's Yellow Café in what is now Medina. Being a producer and avid consumer of stories, I’ve never been very interested in exclusive poetry nights like Big Word or Is This Poetry? and somehow I've never become a regular at the Forest’s lit/music/poetry institution The Golden Hour. Recently, though, we’ve seen three new nights around the capital. They’re all different, they’re all great, and all of them are on nights you might otherwise spend watching dregs on TV. Get out and try them.
First up, on a occasional Sunday night, comes Illicit Ink. Cunningly situated in the Speakeasy, a lush hideaway on Blair Street, this is the brainchild of Napier creative writing students who have descended from their ivory tower wearing big stompy boots. No open mic here — the evening is themed (anti-Valentine, faeries, murder) and they try to introduce some little extra to every show, whether it be winged MCs or actual interrogations. An intimate event to make the weekend last longer.
Winning the prize for easiest venue to remember is Blind Poetics at The Blind Poet. This night takes over the entire pub on the second Monday of the month. Run by Weaponizer supremo Texture, who has one foot in the world of prose and one in the world of poetry (as well as a weird third foot in the world of music) it’s already made a name for carefully chosen programming and a buzzing atmosphere. Get there early to secure a sofa.
Finally, Inky Fingers is the most established “new” night. Run by a colourful collective, headed by the energetic figure of Harry Giles, Inky Fingers normally drops in to the Forest Café on the last Tuesday of the month. Unusually, they open up with a solid feature performer and only then switch to their open mic. Here, you’ll get a real roll of the dice: I've heard several startling pieces of literature which came out of nowhere and demanded more than their allotted time, and seen a performance which was as close to a lethal car crash as you can achieve with five minutes and a single microphone.
Inky are serious about this stuff. They’re organising their own small festival for August 8th–13th. Six days of spoken word, and perhaps the last chance to appear in the embattled Forest Café. You have until June 10th to propose something …
16th March 2011
So I had a secret plan to try stand-up comedy in 2011. I feel comfortable MCing and lots of my stories are funny, so I thought it would be a natural progression. I thought I'd book into a beginners’ night and while I was waiting for my name to come up — these things have an eight-month queue — I would embark on a period of intense study to try, somehow, to assemble five minutes of usable material. That was before Siân Bevan offered me a ten-minute slot at her comedy storytelling night Electric Tales with two weeks notice.
I could have easily done a couple of stories from Crap Ghosts but there is a “no reading” rule. So it came down to memorising stories — which I should do anyway — or trying something new.
I’ve learned flash fiction word-for-word before, for a “prose slam”. I found I could do it but my performance lacked energy. I was so busy concentrating on getting the words right that I wasn’t throwing myself into it like I usually would. So I put the substandard spooks away for the night and worked up some material on The Six Million Dollar Man.
Nobody is quite sure what to make of Electric Tales. The storytellers like Gerry Durkin select their funnier stories. The comedians like Andrew Learmonth discard some nob gags and make room for something with more narrative. Coming at it from the storytelling angle is easier because it’s driven by a series of images: you talk about the bionic legs, then arms, then eye, then ear. You don’t need to remember the exact words. I practised while walking around the city. Mothers ushered their children away as I mimed the “bionic leap”. Where the links were not obvious I found a cognitive chain: helicopter drone leads to talking about the “pilot” episode, and so on. I was slightly staggered and utterly pleased to get through the entire ten minutes on the night without missing a link. It felt like about three minutes actually.
What stays with me is the backstage atmosphere. A comedy club backstage is an intense place. Everybody is relaxed and friendly on the tigerprint armchairs, but there’s a constant awareness of the audience, just through the wall. Everybody (except Siân) is out of their comfort zone; even a consistently brilliant performer like Alan Bissett wasn’t sure that The Stand comedy club was the right place for his Moira Monologues. There is no telling until you get out there. And before you get out, there’s a protracted period of standing just behind the stage door, just out of sight, waiting, waiting.
The night belonged to Susan Calman though. She put aside the guaranteed laughs to tell the story of her personal journey through Glasgow’s lesbian subculture and eventual coming out to her parents. It was fascinating — I had no idea mass punch-ups happened so regularly at women-only clubs — and moving, and of course, bloody funny, as ordinary life is. She posted the next day that she didn’t know whether it had been the worst or the best gig of her life. Part of the backstage talk had been about conventional stand-up and how aggressive it has become, as opposed to the storytelling. I really hope Susan decides to give us more of this stuff. Although a part of me wants it to have been a one-night thing, just for those of us who were there.
There was also a girl who very much wanted to win a luminous robot. But that is another story.
1st March 2011
I visited Blackpool recently for my first magic convention. I saw some amazing things: guys reading cards held behind their back, mental transmission of a date between two strangers from the audience, dancers producing seemingly endless packs of cards, and even a dodgy levitating couch. But the most amazing thing was entirely spontaneous.
Having registered very late, my seat for the Saturday night gala show was in the back row of the balcony; not too bad for somebody with an interest in magic, as you get the benefit of an often revealing overhead view. The guy in the next seat groused about how bad the compere had been last year.
When the new compere came out he reminded me a lot of Ted Bovis from Hi-De-Hi. He talked about celebrating 36 years in showbiz, that he lived in Tenerife now, and worked on the Queen Mary 2. He had a real flavour of the old Blackpool about him.
Of course I had a flavour of Blackpool already. The sky was grey for my entire visit, tram works blocked most access to the seafront, and my hotel featured earnest young performers knocking out tired old showtunes to a disinterested audience who got free drink between 7pm and 10pm.
The trouble was, for a guy who had been 36 years as a stand-up comedian, he wasn’t very funny. He cracked some weak jokes about the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Then he mimed a camp walk. He did a Larry Grayson impression. I don’t think Larry Grayson has been on TV for twenty years. It was pretty tedious. But he claimed kinship with the assembled audience of magicians because they were “in the business”.
What he failed to do was adapt to that audience, who were a younger breed than the ageing Northerners he was accustomed to, on the cruise ships he mentioned five or six times. For a while he got a lukewarm reaction, and general relief when he introduced the feature acts.
Then one guy in the balcony heckled him. He didn’t hear it, but he heard chuckles from the audience nearby. “What are they laughing at?” he asked. “Not you anyway,” yelled the heckler, and got a genuine laugh from the three thousand capacity hall.
Our host diverted into warm stories about Bernard Manning and a lecture on how he’d never “used language” in his career and how when he wanted to talk about “a certain subject — you know the one” he used the term “gardening”. Cue stories about husbands spending time on their allotments.
At this point, the heckler started a slow clap that spread across the balcony and down. I joined in with immediate delight. “Why are they clapping?” asked the puzzled compere, and when he worked it out, he was furious.
“I’ve never witnessed anything so disgusting in my life,” he said. “And you’re supposed to be in the business. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He was sufficiently passionate about respecting other performers that I felt guilty for joining in. “I’ve been in this business for 36 years and you will not shake me.” He got applause from scattered sections of the audience.
Five minutes later, he had passed through “I don’t have anything against gay gentlemen but (shiver) it’s not for me … yeuchh.” Now he was talking about women wearing bikinis without shaving their pubic hair first. He referred to it as “trimming the lawn”. The slow clap started again and this time most of the room joined in. He took offence again and determined to only introduce the acts, with no further comedy. But he never came back.
Later there was talk in the pub of whether we were out of line. But I felt fine. His material was racist, sexist and homophobic. He was performing to an audience from around the UK, with many women and gay people. He’d probably been using the same set for 36 years without bothering to update or adapt it. I enjoyed him as a dated, clichéd, colourful local character. But I really enjoyed watching three thousand people reject him.
9th January 2011
This week was good for TV magic with the debut of The Magicians on BBC and Penn and Teller: Fool Us on ITV. There could hardly have been more of a contrast.
I’ve never been a great fan of Penn & Teller because of the shock value in their act — I like my magic with more elegant mystery and less fake blood. But they were great on this show.
Never mind the trick where they made some poor girl’s phone disappear and it turned up inside a dead fish in a sealed box — although, that was great. And never mind their gory misdemonstration of sawing a woman in half. What I liked about them this weekend was their good-natured professionalism.
The concept of the show was that working magicians got the chance to fool them with a trick and if they did, they got a trip to Vegas to appear on the P&T show. I won’t spoil the programme for you in case you want to catch it online, but they on the whole found a way to communicate the method when they rumbled it, without exposing too much. One sad truth about magic is that the “secret” is often rather uninteresting compared to the staggering effect. P&T also treated the contenders with a politeness that I didn’t expect — and genuinely seemed to want to be fooled.
Having said that, my absolutely favourite moment was the giant figure of Penn yelling in honest frustration, “We didn’t come here to be fooled by some retired policeman and his five envelopes!”.
Over on the Beeb I caught up with The Magicians. I could almost hear the voices from the production meeting. “But you know, we don’t want it to be boring like Paul Daniels. So let’s put in some celebrities who have to learn magic. Yeah! And we have to have someone booted out like in Big Brother or The Apprentice. So we’ll have a forfeit. Brilliant. Right, shoot it.”
I can’t tell you what the forfeit was. I turned it off after twenty minutes. I just couldn’t be bothered waiting through more dance groups and celebrity profiles. I felt sorry for Lenny Henry — who I rather like — stuck on the front of this tedious show. I switched instead to his stand-up set at the Apollo in London which showed him on top form.
It comes down to production choices. ITV let proven performers do their thing without interruption and added a little glimpse behind the curtain as a tease. The BBC didn’t trust their magicians to carry the show and added the kind of content you can see on any filler show.
Guess which of these programmes is the first of a series, and which is a one-off? :(