Monday, 30 January 2012

Satire, The News Quiz, Camilla and Coronation Chicken

I learned most of the tiny bit I know about politics and business from an old Radio 4 satirical sketch show called Week Ending back in the 70s. Nowadays we have TV's Have I Got News For You, which teaches my kids all about politics and business. We also have the fantastic News Quiz (, again on Radio 4, which through the magic of podcasting means you no longer have to gather around a gramophone to listen. 

Through the News Quiz this week, I have carried on learning. First of all I found out that Camilla has launched the longest-titled competition in the world: The British Food Fortnight's Cook For The Queen's Diamond Jubilee competition. I also learned that Constance Spry invented Coronation Chicken for the Queen's coronation banquet in 1953. I thought it was invented by Heinz or someone like that. Through the magic of Wikipedia I found that Constance was a florist, but as it's Wiki it might be untrue (I'm still reeling from finding out that Norman Wisdom didn't write The White Cliffs of Dover), she might have been the inventor of cooking oil.

In Royal Factor I put in a line about Camilla looking a bit like Leonid Brezhnev. But I thought that was a bit nasty, so I took it out and put in something else instead.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Stand-up versus novel writing

At the nerve (ous) centre of stand-up in Marylebone

For many years I dreamed of performing stand-up comedy. I'd presented at press and other conferences for years and done a couple of wedding speeches, throwing in 'a line' here and there, which seemed to work. I had also begun writing the odd novel, but only ever begun.

But with comedy, where to start? I couldn't turn up at a club and say 'give me a go', surely? And if someone said 'yes', what would I have done? I can't remember how but I came across the name Logan Murray somewhere or another. Logan, apparently, ran courses teaching people how to get into stand-up. Writing sets, developing jokes, getting over nerves, dealing with hecklers... It was all there, an unbelievable combination of jollity and professionalism that led to one of the most daunting nights of my life, the signing up night. It was a room full of people who wanted to be funny watching Logan's best graduates perform and then being asked to pay up and sign on Logan's "I will make you funny" dotted line. I did this knowing that I could never be as funny as the people I'd seen.

I did sign up and it was one of the best things I ever did. Around 14 glorious Tuesday nights of laughing at and with a group of people all wanting to entertain and be entertained. Each one of us, or groups of us, took in turns to be the stars of the show or the audience, jollied along by clown-master general Logan.

There were people who were absolute naturals, people who had it but needed developing, comics who felt they'd lost their mojo and no-one who couldn't do it. Intriguing to me were people who suffered from depression or had a fear of social situations who had been advised to get involved in comedy, these were amongst the star performers.

At the end of the course we put together a showcase of our acts for family and friends. It was the first time that most of us had performed in front of a 'real' audience. I think everyone had a great night, all acts appeared to go well and a lot of people had achieved a significant life ambition: they had an idea that was funny, they wrote it down, they performed it and people laughed.

A number of us got together after the course and put together a comedy club in a pub in Marylebone. Steve 'Straw' was the principal mover and shaker, along with Chris Shevlin, Amy Button and Julian Young (Britain's most famous lawyer after Rumpole, Kavanagh QC and that Mansfield bloke). This was an education in itself, the pub was divided: 20% comprised people we had almost literally dragged off the streets through our 'marketing' (dragging people off the streets), 25% were friends (family had long given up), 50% were pub regulars - and 5% were extraordinarily rich young Arab gentlemen who thought that we were the most incredible thing they had ever seen and would lavish drinks, cigars, etc upon us in a most unsettling fashion.

Unfortunately the regulars put paid to much of our well-practised comedy timing by shouting: "Fuck off, we want our pub back!" Apart from this inconvenience I absolutely loved it. However, I found that although I was a good beginner, as the others got better, I got worse. Nerves were a big issue for me. One night, comedy legend Arthur Smith compered for us, he said after my set: "You've got some bloody good lines David, but your delivery is shit."

I did quite a few shows after that in various places but I didn't enjoy it so much. The nerves were all-consuming and what seemed like the funniest lines ever when I had thought them up, days before a performance, seemed like incomprehensible parts of an MBA lecture from a temperance society executive five minutes before I was due to go on. No performance went terribly wrong but I never, ever felt comfortable at doing this thing I had always wanted to do.

Now compare that with novel writing. Of course, I am far from proven in this area too. But it's possible to think up the ideas, put them down and send them out to an audience without fear of immediate retribution. For years I had never been able to complete a novel but, combined with an idea for a story, I found that the discipline of developing jokes made a whole book so much easier to write.

The feeling of getting to the end of a novel was incredible - it was like the rush I got after a stand-up set had gone well, but it lasted for days. I finished it on a train and as I got off, instead of wanting to hunt down and kill every member of the Southeastern Railways staff on the station, as most of its passengers do if they complete a journey, I wanted to hug them. That's a bloody big step, these people are natural Stasi members and do not hold normal relations withn other humans. But I didn't do that, I saved it for colleagues at work.

So, if you're a frustrated stand up who is too nervous to get on stage, join all those great lines up with a story and bung them in a book. You'll not have to deal with hecklers or 'die' in mid-flow, and if your book ever makes it, you can resurrect your stand-up career. That's an extraordinarily long-term plan but I think it's the only way I'll get back in.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012