We are just two weeks away from the opening night of An Evening Without Henry Barstow. More photos to follow tomorrow once I get the computer started.
We are just two weeks away from the opening night of An Evening Without Henry Barstow. More photos to follow tomorrow once I get the computer started.
You know the Spiderman story in which Peter Parker gets the black suit which expands his powers beyond all of Peter Parker’s dreams but turns him into a complete arrogant bastard? Well that was me when I got a microphone in my hand on a stage.
It was The Brickyard in Carlisle when I had a slightly unusual booking. It wasn’t for a outright comedy gig but for a dating auction. A group of film makers were trying to raise money for their latest project and their producer had the idea to get five single lads and five single girls together, organise dates and let people bid to go on those dates with them. They needed somebody to be auctioneer and, seeing as the producer was a long time friend of mine, I took the job. It remains the only gig I was ever given entrance music for. The wrestling fan in me knew this would be the closest I would get to entering a room full of people to music. For some reason they chose Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ which worked at the time.
I walked onstage with my leather jacket slung over one shoulder, went up to the mic which was set at the correct height seeing as it would just me me using it, grabbed it, mustered my sleaziest voice possible and said “Good evening lovers”. This might make it sound like I’d been drinking beforehand but I always made it a rule not to, I did every gig sober and drank afterwards. What followed was three hours of absolute mayhem, fueled by me being a pretty obnoxious swine to all involved. The first half had the lads up with the girls bidding. Upon noticing that this seemed like a far too heterosexual set of rules I suggested that any blokes who fancied the guys on show should just bid for them as well and we’d be done with it. I was greeted with five men suddenly getting really, really scared.
The bidding for the guys was slow and never really went above £20. The dates were drawn at random by each couple once the bidding was done. The local cinema had given two tickets to a film of the couple’s choice, an Italian restaurant had donated a voucher for a three course meal for two and the bowling alley had given away free games so it was good stuff they had lined up. The highlight of the bloke’s half was when one guy, who was fairly good looking in his own right, was gaining a lot of interest until he raised his arms and revealed massive sweat patches around his armpits. Bids for him stopped suddenly after that. When the girls went up for bids the place really went crazy. One girl got up on stage and twirled around a bit before telling me she wanted it mentioned in her intro that she was Spanish. I opened with “Here’s Lot Number 7 punters, she’s Spanish so imagine the possibility of blow jobs and paella”. Yes, I actually said that in front of an audience. No, I’m not proud. She actually ended up going for £275 which was quite a different set of circumstances for the small beer the lads had gone for. By the end of the night my throat killed, I was downing water just to carry on and I’d thrown the auctioneer’s hammer into the audience like a rock star would throw a guitar plectrum. The night had raised £1500 for the film, it ended up being something based on songs by The Manic Street Preachers.
The team making the film had apparently been of the opinion they’d be onto a good thing if they got £200 out of it. As far as the money return went the night had been a great success, as far as I’d gone personally it wasn’t mainly because I’d spent an evening winding up a crowd and seemingly getting away with it. In all seriousness I was shocked nobody punched me out there and then.
In the meantime I’d been asked to do a gig in Edinburgh, an event which would mean I’d spend the rest of my days saying the phrase ‘it wasn’t during the Fringe’ over and over again. In April 2003 I was due to support John Scott at The Pleasance Bar. The student paper (yes, them again) got a hold of it and I was interviewed by now Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton who was on the journalism course at the time. During this interview I made the fatal error of suggesting that it was a bit much for the paper’s resident opinion columnist to refer to Scotland as ‘Jockland’ in the last edition. As a result the whole thing was published as me being some kind of staunch SNP supporter based in Carlisle accusing the paper of being racist. It was published three pages away from the rubbish review of the Cafe Solo gig. It wasn’t a good news month really.
Edinburgh itself was terrible. Upon arrival my girlfriend and I couldn’t find the hotel so got a taxi outside Haymarket, the taxi driver bellowed that it was ‘just around the fucking corner’ and wanted to boot us out of his cab before taking us very begrudgingly towards our destination. The crowd at Pleasance Bar was minimal to say the least, a smattering of people lumped around the room. There was a small room at the back with photos of people who had performed there previously including a big one of Harry Hill which amazed me at the time. My set started with my eulogy for my dear departed Uncle Roderick and ended with me going searching for Saddam Hussein with two Americans in the audience. I was pretty obsessed with Iraq at the time for some reason, mainly because I thought I was the British Bill Hicks.
I was not.
Years passed by without me going back onto a stage, I graduated from college in 2004 and never really had an desire to do stand up again. I thought at the time that anger was the best thing to go into comedy with but I’d lost all that drive once I graduated. As a result I’d become slightly disillusioned with the whole thing and wanted to concentrate on writing for a career. Also, as previously detailed, I didn’t like the attitude performing live gave me. There was a certain arrogance that flowed when I was up there that had developed very quickly and terrified me when I thought back on it. When looking back I got the impression that, whilst it had been fun at times, I wasn’t that great at this stand up lark as I thought I’d been at the time. Sure I could hold an audience’s attention but my imagination didn’t work fast enough to keep the ammunition running. With that and the ‘evil microphone syndrome’ I was having a very minor version of Jekyll and Hyde going on. It was time for the evil one to die. He did have one last stand though, at Solfest 2006.
Alan Whittaker had asked me to do a short gig on the Drystone Stage which he put the bill together for. It was the first comedy gig I’d ever done when I was offered payment and my wife was pregnant so I thought it best to earn extra cash if I could. I’d been told that whilst it was a family festival they would be okay with ‘edgy humour’. In reality, upon walking on stage, the heavens opened meaning that pretty much everybody left the area leaving me to joke about Boy George’s cocaine habit with a bunch of seven year olds who had stuck around. These people had been entertained all afternoon by gentle folk musicians, they were suddenly greeted by shouting Scotsman. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was about as popular. I left the stage, walked past the tents and flags, got back to my car and drove home. The pay cheque arrived four weeks later. Back in Edinburgh John Scott had said ‘Get your money first’ and during the drive home I really regretted not heeding his advice. There were a few whispers afterwards of me being ‘misbooked’ meaning I was on the wrong stage at the wrong time but there wasn’t much we could do about it afterwards. The thought of standing up on a stage again to perform makes me cringe. Other comics make it look pretty effortless and one of my favourites, Stewart Lee, admits that he tries to lose audiences on purpose during gigs just so he can see if he can bring them back in.
I honestly wouldn’t have the skill to do that, I’m much more comfortable writing when I can edit and refine to a point which I know it’s ready for consumption. This isn’t to say I regret doing it, I’ve mentioned it in two job interviews since (and got both jobs) as it’s certainly something to stick on the CV and make a talking point. If you ever get the chance yourself then I’d recommend doing it as you never know what you’re going to be like until you get up and do it. It’s what I was like afterwards that was the only major concern.
Carlisle did not need a comedy night, Carlisle didn’t have any comedy clubs and the main venue in the city very rarely put on any comedy shows. Rather than see this as a kind of sign I saw it more as a challenge. I thought that way a lot more when I was 22.
Down the road from Cafe Sol sits Cafe Solo (opened by the same two guys originally, hence the similarity). Solo sits on the corner between The Crescent and Botchergate. For those not in the know about Carlisle’s extensive nightlife, Botchergate is the part of town that houses the larger Weatherspoons pubs, Walkabout and many other drinking establishments. As a general rule of thumb if you’re over the age of 22 and want a good night out without any trouble then you head towards the castle end of town. If you’re under 22, want to drink until you can no longer stand and enjoy shouting at police officers on a Saturday night then you head down to Botchergate. Solo escaped the bulk of it though being as it was right at the top but it did have a wonderful window onto the chaos outside. Sol was sold off so any comedy night I was trying to organise had to be done in Solo. I went on an intrepid adventure in promotions. I’d managed to get into the local paper beforehand to hype up the night by saying it had a very open mic policy. I’d discovered stand up comedy almost by accident and I wanted to see if anybody else wanted to follow me. There was an open call for people to walk up to the microphone and have a blast.
Nobody wanted to.
Well, nobody apart from my mate Adam who decided he’d try it out so his name was added to the bill. Also on was Alan Whittaker who is known locally as ‘The Wizard Marra‘. I’d met Alan at the last gig I had done with the coconut and wanted him along for the ride. I called the night ‘Has Anybody Seen My Iguana?’ because I’d been listening to The Breeders a lot at the time and fell in love with this song.
This did involve putting up posters around Carlisle that were adorned with a picture of an iguana and the word ‘MISSING’ across the top. Apparently staff in Cafe Solo were amused as one of the older visitors to the establishment had apparently suggested whoever put up the posters should look after their reptiles better. I had invited the local paper and the student newspaper to come down and cover the show. This was surely going to be a triumph.
It was anything but.
I was halfway on the walk to the venue when my girlfriend phoned me to tell me that Alan wasn’t going to make it due to illness. I’d spent the day thinking that Adam would do five minutes, I’d then do about twenty and then Alan would carry us through to the end with a headline set. Now I was stuck with an audience, a guy who had never done stand up before and myself on my third gig. I actually had a small prayer on the way hoping that nobody would turn up and we’d have minimal people to turn away at the door. The law of sod struck, we had a full house. I found myself faced with a harsh choice, especially since I’d charged £2 for a ticket. I had to either cancel altogether, give everybody their money and wish them well or we just went hell for leather with everything we had and at least put some kind of show on. After five minutes of soul searching we went for option B.
Adam did brilliantly for his first ever gig. He has a really goofy sense of humour which went down really well with the gathered crowd. Tragically I can’t remember much about his set because I was far too busy with my notebook in the corner trying to work out how to extend a twenty minute set into something a bit more substantial for the last slot of the night. By the time I hit the stage there was a certain feeling of unease, it felt like being led to the gallows.
Looking back, ten years later now, I still have no idea why I thought this was a good idea. Maybe it seemed like the noble option, perhaps I wanted to give people something to go home with. If I cancelled out this night on short notice, the opening night no less, then I’d have no hope of building any kind of all conquering comedy extravaganza in the frozen wastes of North Cumbria. Every single tiny idea I had in the notebook, most completely under developed, came out to play that night. If it came through my head at a moment’s notice then it came out my mouth three seconds later. It was around the time when Tony Blair was contemplating marching us into Iraq so I had a completely under researched section of Colin Powell’s evidence to NATO. It was taking the traditional, reactionary student line of not wanting any war and I remember calling him ‘Colin The Barbarian’ and comparing him to Arnie.
I also have a memory of bringing my Dad into it. At the time he was recovering from cancer and I’d been to visit him in the high dependency unit in Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary. There are many good shows that extract comedy from illness (‘Andre Vincent is Unwell‘ being one) but it’s usually the performer’s own. Here I was being a complete idiot by using my Dad’s struggle for the entertainment of an audience. Of all the sheer bollocks that streamed from my stupid mouth that night, that section is the one I regret the most. It was the first example I found of comedy turning me into, for want of a better phrase, a complete cock.
I actually waffled on for about an hour, towards the end my mic started to cut out which must have been a sign from the gods for me to shut the hell up. The audience streamed out towards Botchergate, probably with the feeling that being glassed by a knucklehead was preferable to listening to me for another five minutes. I was left, sitting on the stage, nursing a really sick feeling like I’d just ripped off an entire room full of people.
Matters got worse when the student paper printed their review of the show. It had been labelled a complete mess (which it was) but then the knife had been stuck in beyond all that. I realised that the guy who had came to review the show had sat at the furthest possible seat away from the stage with his back to it. He’d also reviewed Adam saying ‘it would have been nice to hear more from Adam Houghton’ without knowing that it was Adam’s first gig and he had nothing left in the tank beyond that. The bad review didn’t annoy me half as much as the fact the guy had no interest from the outset. I approached him the next day in the college canteen wanting to give him his £2 as he was supposed to get a ‘press ticket’. He visibly recoiled when I sat next to him and suggested that I ‘probably wanted to punch him now’. I didn’t but the fact he thought I would told its own story.
Has Anybody Seen My Iguana went back to Cafe Solo the next month, this time with Alan Whittaker performing in character as a 1960’s drop out. I did another set that night although nowhere near as long to about a quarter of the audience we had on opening night. My attempt to run a comedy night had lasted two months, I had no desire to organise another.
As a side note I’d like to say Carlisle did go on to have a very successful comedy night circa 2005 at The Brickyard Club on Fisher Street (note, it’s near the Castle with reference to what I said earlier) called ‘Don’t Mention The Floods’. There’s also an open mic night at The Source on Nelson Street which, whilst mainly music based, does apparently do some comedy. Also many mainstream comedy acts such as Ross Noble and Rhod Gilbert have played The Sands Centre so there is a growing appetite for live comedy now that wasn’t there in 2002.
Nobody told me that at the time.
I’ll write Part 3 of this sorry tale later which will no doubt take in Edinburgh and the field full of agitated hippies. It’s worth the wait I promise, if only because this is saving me hundreds on therapy.
“Yeah okay, I’ll do it I suppose”
With those words, spoken down a mobile phone whilst sitting in my student digs in 2002, my brief career as a stand up comic began. A local bar had set up a comedy gig which was being headlined by a local comic who had recently discovered the art. Whilst she was good to go it was decided she needed support acts. The gig organiser drank in the same bar that my flatmate worked at. My name came up in conversation as somebody who might be able to do it and when the phone call came I responded in a positive manner without having a great deal of actual positivity within me. I didn’t harbour any great desire to be a stand up comic in my youth which is an idea many people thought once I started doing it. I did not ‘perform’ in school to avoid being beat up as, regardless of how funny I was, I got beat up anyway. I did not enter stand up comedy because I had some kind of inner demon I had to do battle with. I did it because I fancied a go and I was young and dumb enough not to think about the consequences first.
I sat up late at night attempting to come up with something I could talk about for five minutes. A couple of years previously I had crashed my Mum’s car whilst driving from Carlisle to Gretna. Four cars were involved and nobody died (a key factor in using it as a source of comedy). It culminated in two Glaswegian handymen, whose van was at the front of this pile up, asking if I wanted a bag of Quavers a mere two minutes after impact. I was in a state of shock in my driver’s seat whilst they offered me cheese flavoured snacks. Plenty of other stuff happened too but the Quavers gag was pretty much what this was pinned on.
Cafe Sol in Carlisle was the scene of the crime (on Castle Street if you ever want to do the Cameron Phillips tour of Carlisle). Upon arrival I discovered that I wasn’t the only support act. There was another Mancunian student who was on the performing arts course at the time (so therefore used to stages, not like old Media Production me). He went first and opened his set with something along the lines of…
“Right, well…..shark attacks eh?”.
Out of context it sounds rubbish but, for some reason, he got a laugh out of it which was absolute fair play to him. I went up after and did the ‘car crash’ set. Let nobody tell you otherwise, the first thirty seconds of a stand up gig are the worst experience you can have as far as social interaction goes. You’re standing in front of all these people just hoping for some kind of level of acceptance. You’re hoping that the stuff you have lined up hits the mark because you’ve got nothing else. On that night, I got lucky because the build up to the Quavers gag went really well. I spoke at around a hundred words a second due to nerves but it made the performance more frantic. Once the first laugh ripples through the room then you’ve got something to build on and it feels fantastic. I was probably helped by the fact that I approached the mic stand to find it was set far too tall for me and I pretended to bang my forehead off it. Mics being set too high was a common theme throughout my short lived stand up career, I’m only 5 foot 6 in my trainers.
I got offstage to be greeted by a girl who pointed to her stomach and said “Your jokes made me warm right there” which I took as a positive even if she did seem steaming drunk. The main event came and went and we drank the night away, I went back to my room and sat up for a bit trying to wait out the adrenaline build up. It felt great, like something you can truly tick off the list of things you have to try in your life. Even to this day I can say yes to anybody who asks if I’ve tried stand up comedy. I’d made no money out of the gig but I had a great experience and proved to myself I could hang with it. I got invited back the month afterwards for more of the same and I, thinking I knew what was best, decided to write another set from scratch. Rather than attempt to improve on my set list from before I went for something completely different. My reasoning at the time was that I thought I’d be playing to pretty much the same audience so I needed something different. ‘Different’ became ‘random’ which gave rise to ‘weird’. It’s what became known by myself and my friends as ‘The Family Coconut Gig’.
Put simply, an elderly relative had decided to come up North to Scotland and present my Dad with a coconut. This was brought over by a family member who was fighting in the war and took it upon himself to keep a coconut he had found and bring it back to Britain. Obviously, in those days, it wasn’t a case of nipping down to Tesco to get such an item so this was held in great curiousity. By the time it had reached Gretna though it had become infested with various insects which aforementioned elderly relative was blissfully unaware of. My sister and I spent a whole afternoon trying to kill the bug with a variety of chemical sprays and powders. It was like Starship Troopers only much worse.
I took the coconut in a bag, produced it once I hit the stage and proceeded to talk about how it came to be in my possession and why generations of my family thought this was something worth holding onto. Once again it seemed to do okay, getting a few good laughs and hitting a few high notes. This was also the gig which featured my first heckler in the shape of a very drunk man who came in, walked to the front of the stage, raised his fist in the air and yelled “British Army!” before collapsing in a heap in the ground. He was something special indeed.
The first couple of gigs had me riding on a high cloud of wonderment. I had tackled stand up comedy and came out unscathed on the other side. I was considering a couple of offers with bookings and I was looking at going up to The Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow. It was then, whilst waiting for some footage to render in my college edit suite one day, that I pondered what to do next.
‘What Carlisle really needs right now’ I thought to myself ‘is a comedy night’. The sad truth is that I seriously thought I was the guy to supply this. What followed including lost iguanas, a mini war with the student newspaper, an interview by now Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, a theatre in Cockermouth, story telling wizards, bad jokes about cancer, a gig in Edinburgh and annoying a field full of hippies.
It’ll have to wait for now though.
I’ve just finished my first piece of creative short story writing for about 12 years. Whilst I’ve written a fair few scripts in that time I haven’t really had the desire to return to anything like story writing, my first reaction to any new idea was to ask how it would pan out as a movie. There’s a local publication dedicated to writing from this area and I thought I’d try and get something in for their next issue, as an exercise to see if I could still write short fiction. The deadline is August 31st so if you live in Dumfries and Galloway and you fancy a crack at it then I’d get moving now. I’ve submitted a piece which actually has its roots in something I wrote whilst at school. It’s been shortened down a fair bit seeing as I only had 850 words to play with but I knew the pacing inside out so it was a safe bet as a testing ground to get the creative writing flow back after all these years.
It’s a sketch, little more than that which does have slight frustrations. A few years ago, back in college, I was doing a creative writing module as part of my course. We all had to write poems, recite them and receive feedback on what we had written. I went at it purely for laughs with something about everybody avoiding a Big Issue seller in Glasgow. My tutor, a man who I respect and admire greatly to this day, said that whilst it was good it felt a bit ‘poetry lite’. It might have irked me a bit at the time but I’ve come to realise exactly what he meant.
Comedy is really hard to get right but when it does go well, it’s pretty much unbeatable. This said however, it’s often the case that I’ll try and go down the funny route even when I’m trying to write dark drama or make a serious point. Whilst I never had to use comedy as a ‘defense mechanism’ in school to prevent bullying I do end up using it as a defense in my writing. Essentially, if I can lighten the mood then I try to but it’s mainly to avoid anything too bleak.
Hopefully, nobody at The Fankle will mind and it’ll be included as the curio it’s meant to be. I’ve decided to have a simple rule of not publishing any writing on this blog unless it’s been published elsewhere. It would be very easy just to stick it on this block without much thought and move on but that seems a little bit too self important and unregulated. If somebody else deems it worthy of publication then I’ll link it to them.
The story is called ‘Uncle Roger’ and I’ll know if it’s been accepted in the first week of September.
I’ve spent the day redrafting the game show stage play into something that’s just about readable to the outside world. There’s a list of various pointers that read like a software update bug fix. The ending ten minutes are a stand up set in which the main character gives up every thing he’s written down and has a small scale nervous breakdown brought on by gin consumption. This sounds wonderfully straight forward until you factor in that the play takes place on 1986 therefore the humour has to be of the time. Whilst I wrote a good few jokes for that section most of them felt out of place as a result of the setting and had to be dumped.
I’ve also toned down the political aspects of the play. In the first draft there was a lot of references to striking workers, most of the darkness between scenes was caused by power cuts and the lack of electricity is a major reason for the delay in filming this episode of the game show which gives the story its drive in the first place. I had a rather clumsy opening in which the main character aligned himself with Thatcher and expressed his disgust with those ‘sat at home not contributing’. It was horribly ham fisted and needed to go so it’s been cut down to a line or two. I could have gone down the political route with it but I cannot get around the fact that I’d be too heavy handed with it. It does feel a little bit like shying away and pushing the comedic elements forward to cover for it but I’d much rather write a sharp, funny script than an overblown one. Time will tell as to if this is a mistake or not.
I’ll probably leave the script alone again for a few days just for the changes to settle. In the meantime I’m trying to get a short piece of writing done for ‘The Fankle’. I haven’t written anything short story related for about 12 years however so I can’t imagine how this one will go.