Monday, August 07, 2006

Edinburgh Nights / Joe's Comedy Madhouse

Edinburgh Nights

Edinburgh Garret 10pm. It is the perfect summer's night in Edinburgh - The City of Dreams. The night sky is a deep, deep blue, tinged with green, yellow and red at its edges. Fireworks are exploding behind the castle. The Firth of Forth looks serene in the far distance, from my room, the Edinburgh Garret, at the very top of this great granite building, off George Street.

I am at the Edinburgh Fringe - probably the greatest festival in the world - for my 10th year with The Stage newspaper.

I never tire of this trip - it always gives me a thrill to be here in August. From where I am typing, I have a wondrous view over the rooftops of Edinburgh, down to the docks at Leith and the Firth of Forth. It is a special place, my favourite and highest garret.

Image of Edinburgh during AugustWhen I am in Edinburgh, I very quickly fall into a very different routine from in the Leamington Garret or Lewes Garret, where I tend to get up early - between 5.20am and 7am - and go to bed between 10am and midnight.

Over the years in Edinburgh, I have generally gone to bed between 3am and 5am and risen between 9am and midday. Reviewing comedy in this magical place, your times shift attending shows in the wee hours of the morning and quaffing the night away.

That is not to say that I do not also enjoy the days in Edinburgh: talking to my fellow reviewers in the Stage Flat (rather like a peaceful version of Big Brother - for critics), walking up and down the hills at great speed, bumping into all sorts of comedy people whom I have not seen for yonks, and soaking up the incredibly rich atmosphere. It is when the sun goes down, however, that Edinburgh truly becomes the City of Dreams for me. I love the buzz around the Pleasance Courtyard and in the Assembly Rooms bar at night. Nothing compares to it.

In years past, I have experienced some extraordinary Edinburgh nights. I remember remonstrating at half past midnight in the street with four comedians to try to persuade them to go ahead with their show so I could review it. They conceded eventually and the show became one long conversation between them and me as they constantly drew me into their work.

The Pleasance courtyard, Edinburgh I recall bumping into the great Jerry Sadowitz very late one night and going for a meal at 5am with him at possibly the only restaurant open at that hour in Edinburgh where he regaled me with dirty gags. And, on other occasions, singing and dancing the night away with the locals at Fingers Piano Bar. The nights have it in the great city at this superb festival. This is what I wrote after my first Edinburgh Night this year:

Edinburgh Garret, Saturday, 5, August. An amazing night - and the view from where I am writing is brilliant, a stunning sky, land and seascrape. I hit the town in a big way last night, checking out the Assembly Rooms and the Pleasance Courtyard, before flowing down the hill to the Holyrood Tavern for my annual feast of madness at Brian and Vicky (Krysstal) Damage's Pear-Shaped at Midnight.

Earlier in the evening, I had seen an Israeli comedian doing a Siberian character act badly while being outwitted by the small and intelligent audience at a free venue. So, a chaotic evening of comedy with some great new acts seemed like a breath of fresh air.

The club is held in the back room of the pub where Brian Damage (pictured below) and Vicky met in the millennium year when they both had shows there as well as one of my favourite acts the Comedy Referee Ivan Steward. Despite their age difference, Brian and Vicky fell in love and married and have happily been promoting shows there since. They also became a double act and have over the years perfected their performance together.

Their warm-up is a surefire hit, regardless of how small an audience is or how hard to please. The show is a straight transfer of what they do in London: a random bunch of comedians who have rolled up on the night. The good, the bad, and downright ugly of comedy. Somehow with the bread of Brian and Krysstal (Vicky's stage name) between the jam of these acts, the show nearly always works. The show I attended last night was the first of this year's run of Pear Shaped at Midnight.

First act up was Karl Edrik, a strapping big lad with some good material. He showed promise but needs to work on his delivery. Next I have to confess I went up and performed a poem written for the Oliver's Poetry website.

Then Fringe stalwart Peter Buckley Hill appeared wild and wonderful with a satiric song lampooning the raw ambition of many Fringe performers. Buckley Hill has done much for the Fringe, promoting more than 50 free shows this year, and remains a Rebel Within.

Caroline Clifford (pictured) - a pretty girl clad in something akin to DDR Communist Party garb - was a very funny act; the storyboard sequence at the end being particularly strong. She could have a great future in comedy.

Dave Howarth had some good gags, and Ginger and Black - unsurprisingly a flame-haired woman and black guy - were outstanding. The send-up of Eminem's Stan was absolutely brilliant. They need to develop a lot more material but have genuine star potential. (But please change that embarrassing name).

Man mountain Rennay was also good. The line in one routine that 'all weddings are gay' won a particularly big laugh. Tiffany, who looked like a model, gave what appeared to be a slightly sozzled performance, ranting about a range of subjects including boyfriends. It was not polished but had its moments.

Rich Sandley performed well with some strong material. Having patiently waited a long time to go on, Judy Batalion was excellent. Her routine about her mother and technology was particularly outstanding. She has great stage presence as well as a winning smile. Phil Kline was laconic and amusing in an anarchic sort of way, rounding off a first-rate evening.

It did not matter that when you took away the comics, reviewer and camera crew, the audience comprised just two people. Indeed it was undoubtedly a finer evening for it. I got back to the Edinburgh Garret at 3.30am, exhausted but happy.

Well, that was Friday night. The other nights so far have proved as eventful. A topic of conversation in the Stage flat was the planned boycott of the visiting Israeli Army Cricket Team. One of the reviewers had picked up a leaflet from a Scottish Palestinian group claiming the visiting side's hands were still warm with murder; their fingers saturated with blood. We have all been urged to boycott the event.

'How can you boycott something you had no intention of attending in the first place?' I asked, amazed that Israelis played cricket at all. Besides, it seemed to me that the tour should be encouraged as cricket will surely be a moderating and civilising influence on the Israelis.

Another reviewer said that the British had taught the Taliban cricket in Afghan prisoner of war camps. 'Well, the Taliban should play the Israelis,' I said.

Incidentally, I persuaded the Stage's team of critics to write a series of Edinburgh Fringe 2006 poems for the Oliver's Poetry website.

They are rather good: Edinburgh Moment, How Many?, Nudity on Stage, Sleep and Ed Cases.

Went out and bought some new shorts and then traipsed off to one of the free venues, Lindsay's, to see the old Joe Comedy Madhouse act Steve Day in his new show, Comprehensive.

Steve Day's performance was excellent and, afterwards, I had a good chat with and comic and comedy writer Mike Belgrave (pictured) in the garden. It was fascinating to hear about the politics of the deaf world, such as when you are allowed to spell deaf with a small d and when with a capital D, something fiercely fought over by militant deaf people.

Having had three pints in the afternoon, I felt tipsy. I cannot drink like I used to when I first came to Edinburgh a decade ago. I no longer have the constitution for it. I started drinking orange juices between shows for my evening shows, all at the Assembly Room, which is conveniently close to the Edinburgh Garret.

Adam Hills was genial and good; Rich Hall was hilarious, as always, but clearly suffering from the smoking ban, and Mike Wilmot's blue show was disappointing. The reviews will be posted on The Stage website. I was back home at 1.30am and slept like a log!

On Sunday, I met a friend for lunch, which was very pleasant - so enjoyable that I shifted my Simon Munnery review to another day. I caught Justin Edwards' comic songs at the Pleasance. They were funny, although not as amusing as his character Jeremy Lion.

For my third and final review of the day, I had plumped for a strange show called Confessions of a Paralysed Porn Star with Sarah-Louise Young (pictured). I had chosen it because I once interviewed Sarah Louise Young when I was Television Editor at the Daily Star. She had struck me as interesting, in charge of her own destiny and making a lot of money.

The C venues are pretty lousy in my view, and this one, in the Carlton Hotel, was no better than usual. The Sarah-Louise turned out not to be the former porn star but a young actress and would-be comedian of the same name who had jumped on the bandwagon. The show was dreadful for reasons I have explained in detail in my review for The Stage, but I did meet a really interesting bunch of people there.

Consequently, I talked and drank the night away at a variety of venues, including a jazz night at the Spiegeltent. It was light by the time I got back to the garret this morning.

Today has been tricky. I wrote up six reviews and filed them to Stage HQ at London Bridge, and felt so drained and tired that I almost did not go to My Dearest Byron, by the Another Midas theatre company, in the C cubed venue, at Brodie's Close. I wanted to report on it for this blog and also our sister site StandupCom Magazine. I enjoyed the show but it was not quite how I remembered Byron's affair with his half-sister.

I disliked the slightly wet way in which Byron was portrayed, although the girl who played Augusta was good. It seemed the production had cut a few corners and I was not sure it had all of their facts spot on. However, full marks for giving it a go and generating interest in Byron.

Afterwards, I went to see Penny Spubbs at the Pleasance, a really hot new female double act comprising Anna Crilly and Katy Wix. It was a great show, although I was tired, and it was so hot in the venue, that I fear I nodded off briefly in one sketch.

I managed to buy an edition of Albert Camus's L'etranger, saving 14 quid by climbing the stairs at Blackwells. It was £18 in the schools section but only £4 in the languages section. When I pointed this out to the staff, they did not look pleased. I shall read it in conjunction with the English one.

At the Gilded Balloon I bumped into my old mucker The Comedy Terrorist, a.k.a. Aaron Barshak, who now has a very long, greying beard, and seemed on good form. We watched Tony Law's show, The Dog of Time, which was excellent. I went straight on into Brendon Burns' concluding show in the Brendon vs. Burnsy trilogy. It was outstanding. Now it is past midnight and I have not even started work on my Edinburgh poem.

Edinburgh at night UPDATE: My final two nights at the Edinburgh Fringe 2006 were just as memorable. On Tuesday night (8 August ), I went to The Stand to see Simon Munnery who was excellent and did a very funny one-man Sherlock Holmes play. My review is on the Stage website. In the evening, I reviewed La Clique, at the Spiegeltent - a variety/circus show. It was sensational - the most exciting performance I have seen in 10 years at the Fringe, even if I did pay £4.30 for a pint of lager at the bar!

Afterwards I was as high as a kite on the entertainment, and danced to the Aussie reggae band in the second Spiegeltent. The slippery slope! I ended up drinking with Mike Belgrave at the Gilded Balloon, taking a high-speed rickshaw to the Assembly Rooms (which was closed as it was 4am), and then boozing on to nearly 6am at Fingers Piano Bar.

It was a night and a half. I recall fending off a nutter in Fingers (he walked off and fell over) and dancing to American Pie with two girls (perfectly innocently, of course). I went home and took photos from the Edinburgh Garret of a spectacular sunrise. Then I slept until 2pm and got up to continue writing up my reviews.

I had caught up by the early evening on Wednesday (August 9) - my last night. I went to see Boothby Graffoe at the Stand and bumped into the Phil Nichol who was extremely friendly and pleasant. Afterwards, I met my friend Nick Awde, a fellow Stage reviewer, at The Stand and we watched Scott Capurro together. We have very different takes on Scott.

I feel Scott Capurro is squandering his talents. He has gone so over the top that virtually no one is shocked any more. His audiences have dwindled, and appearing at the Stand does not suit him. Somehow Scott needs a smarter-looking venue for his act.

He ended his act by revealing that one of his lovers, a married man with children, had called the other night before a show to say he had tested HIV positive. Even though Scott Capurro said he has had unprotected sex with the guy, he said he was not bothered by the news. He claimed to be was more worried about the impending arrival of a comedy reviewer from The Guardian newspaper.

There is something deeply existential about Scott Capurro's attitude. He does not care about life (or love), so why should he care about death? And why should anyone care about him? I had briefly met Capurro at lunchtime the afternoon before, on stage with him at Lunch with The Hamiltons at the Pleasance Dome (when he won the bow tie tying contest, I got a laugh from the audience by quipping, 'You doing that is so gay!' 'Thank you very much,' he said.)

He seemed like a nice guy on at that level. I do not know if what he said in his act is true. It made me sad all the same.

I went on in the cold night air (the weather had turned) to see Winston Churchill Was Jack The Ripper, by an old Madhouse compere Andrew O'Neill (pictured), at the Underbelly. It was really good. Andrew has improved his material enormously in the last few years.

Afterwards, we went for some surprisingly cheap drinks (£1 a pint) in the pub across the road, and had a lovely chat.

Back to the Edinburgh Garret at 2.30am, and up at 7.30am to pack, write my Edinburgh Fringe poem, Ed Cases, and say my goodbyes to my flatmates and Edinburgh for another year. It has been a classic!

Joe's Comedy Madhouse. (Flashback to Monday, 8 May, 2006)

Lewes - London Bridge train. East Croydon. 6.57am. Wet. I usually sleep on this journey but today I met an old Day-Job colleague and so we talked. She was shocked at what had happened at our former workplace (she had already left).

She had previously told me that she had been bullied there herself - and bailed out some time before me. We agreed we were better off away from that place. She is now worked in health and was going to Gatwick Airport to fly to Manchester for a conference.

After she got off the train, I felt sad. Not because I had told her the truth about our former workplace, but that it reminded me of how un-Christian people running Christian organisations can become.

My former colleague is a marvellous old girl - she was a ‘go-go’ dancer in the 1960s: one of those girls in cages at 'nitespots'. How funny! Who’d have thought she would have ended up working for bishops.

I have my own past as a stand-up comedy promoter and performer, and people keep reminding me of it. The other week I was asked to write a short article related to it for Time Out, and I found myself chatting with Felix – from the Lewes Salsa Class – about it because he has started doing stand-up.

Image of comedian Phil Zimmerman Then, the other day, I was asked by a friend of my former ex-promoter, Phil Zimmerman (pictured), if I could email details of some of the mad things that happened at my club, Joe's Comedy Madhouse. (He and Phil Zimmerman want to use them to promote a kind of tribute club they have launched).

For your amusement (or not), this is what I have sent them:

Image of Phil Nichol performing at Joe's Comedy Madhouse 1. A drunken Irish couple gatecrashed Joe's Comedy Madhouse and heckled all the time, after having claimed to have just bought the pub in which the gig was being held. When this was quickly proved untrue, they were doused in foam from a fire extinguisher by promoter Joe Wilson and physically thrown out to loud cheers from the audience.

2. A rugby player who turned up with his teammates on a night when a comedy play was being previewed for the Edinburgh Fringe lost his temper with the production. When he was asked him to leave and offered his money back, he punched Joe Wilson in the eye using a box of chocolates which was being handed round as part of the show. A massive brawl erupted - and the rugger buggers were eventually driven out by Joe and the audience, while the acts cowered behind the backdrop!

3. The Comedy Referee, Ivan Steward, once accidentally spat on a man in the front row during his act. Ivan said: 'Sorry, mate, I didn't mean to get you - I was aiming at him!'

4. Dr Luther Coleman, on his first performance at Joe's Comedy Madhouse, jumped into the audience and started groping an attractive woman. He had to be thrown out, but shortly afterwards dived back into the club through a kitchen serving hatch, smashing a great number of glasses. The whole audience rose as one to re-evict him and secure the hatch and door.

Image of crazy act at Joe's Comedy Madhouse 5. Chocolate Sandwich - an experimental comedy group relying heavily on vacuum cleaners - once bet a heckler that he had to run around the pub upstairs naked if they could raise £5.70 from the audience for him. The punters coughed up the required funds, and the man immediately removed his clothes and treated the shocked crones in the pub above to his naked form.

6. Jimbo once performed his act at the Madhouse entirely from behind the backdrop, so at no point could the audience see his face. On another occasion, he set fire to his crotch with a candle, and was well ablaze before Joe Wilson extinguished the flames with a pint of lager.

7. Tiger Mortisse, an undertaker character act, did a set on Princess Di a few days after her death. The audience was in tears, though not of laughter.

8. One act caused so much devastation that Joe was forced to close the club that night for safety reasons. The gig had lasted less than five minutes, and nearly all the other comedians had run away.

9. One gig had so many mad acts it lasted for more than four hours. Amazingly some members of the audience were still present at the end of the night, at around 1.30am.

The Comedy Terrorist and friend 10. The Comedy Terrorist (pictured) did many of his early gigs at the Madhouse, and went straight there after being released from jail. His debut gig was a huge hit, but, as time went on and he became more infamous, his performances were increasingly bizarre.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Images of India / Big Ken

Images of India

Leamington Garret. Something a bit different this week. I am featuring the work of my fast friend Jason Tilley, who is a very gifted and determined photographer.

His story is an interesting one. He was a successful press and advertising photographer until three or four years ago, at which point he decided to sell everything: his house, his car, and most of his other possessions, so he could travel in India for three years taking black-and-white photographs.

He returned about a year ago, his funds exhausted. Jason had taken hundreds of amazing images but the intensity of the experience had changed him.

Pavement dwelling child

He seemed very different from the Jason Tilley I had worked with in the 1980s and found it very hard to adapt to life back in Coventry.

We met up, admittedly with pretty disastrous results. Gradually over the past year, my friend has seemed less down in the dumps. He came over to the Leamington Garret last week and we went out to the Jug & Jester for a couple of beers. As usual, it turned into the full gallon and we talked and talked.

Despite our very different experiences recently, I feel I have much in common with Jason. When I first knew him, he was an 18-year-old Cov Kid with a natural talent for photography who took pictures for my thrice-weekly pop column on the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

We had a grear time visiting and photographing pop stars including James Brown and Prince, but, at that time, he did not suffer from the same restive angst about life that I always have done. Now methinks he does. In spades.

We discussed how lonely life is. Even though there are nearly always people around me, I feel it strongly. I am alone in a crowded world. I was surprised Jason also expressed the loneliness of his existence. He is good at forming relationships. Yet you can be utterly alone whilst in company.

He said relationships do not matter to him any more. He just wants to complete his Indian project. This is his life’s work. I admired him because I could see it was all that really counted. He has put his art first and has to succeed.

His work is stunning. And, yet, it is so hard to get other people to see it. Jason said he has managed to get some well known photographers to endorse the project and a selection of his photographs are also displayed on the the PhotographyBlog. They look superb.

When you see all the suffering his subjects have been through, it is not surprising that taking these images cost Jason a slice of his soul.

Now he wants to go back to India to complete the project. He should and must do this. Jason Tilley is producing something historic.

After the obligatory kebab and chips at the take-away opposite the Jug, Jason and I returned to the Leamington Garret. We sat on the roof outside my bedroom, smoking his roll-ups and talking deeper and darker.

I was alarmed he insisted on sitting on the wall. It is around 100 foot down, a sheer drop. He could not be persuaded otherwise.

We talked of the madness of life in India and it made me think of all the horrible/wonderful things I saw in Ecuador. They are places where there is no safety net.

Well, I commend Jason’s photographs to you. I thank him for the permission to publish them on this site. Obviously, they are his copyright, so if you are interested in promoting them elsewhere, please email him through this site or Photography Blog.

He is a masterful photographer and deserves a huge break.

Apart from this special blog, I cannot resist a little round-up of what else has been happening:

· My flatmate brought home Taxi Driver on DVD. Watching it reminded me of what a great movie it is. Here, in reverse order, are my favourite 10 scenes:

10. Travis (Robert De Niro) driving through the burst fire hydrants in New York City,
9. Another taxi driver in the coffee house bullshitting about his sexual conquests with female fares,
8. Travis teasing the Secret Service man, giving him the wrong address and then the slip,
7. His first sight of Iris (Jodie Foster), the schoolgirl hooker he decides to save from a life on the streets,
6. Travis driving the presidential candidate and telling him the human scum needed to be washed off the streets of New York City,
5. Travis walking into the campaign office and super confidently and successfully asking out the beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd),
4. The very moving reading of the letter from Iris’s grateful parents,
3. Travis inspecting an impressive selective of firearms and buying the lot,
2. Travis taking Betsy on their first proper date to a pornographic movie with a predictable reaction from her,
1.The big finale shoot-out in which Travis blows away the pimps, rescues Iris and emerges an all-American hero. Cool! Taxi Driver is a great film!

· I cycled for five miles through a thrilling lightning storm the other morning. It was incredible. The forks of lightning seemed all around the mountain bike. The water was coming down in rivers. I could not see, it was so heavy. My eyes were full of it. For the first time in my life I was literally soaked to the skin.

Big Ken. (Flashback to Tuesday, 9 May 2006)

Leamington Garret. 6.24pm by ‘The Clock’. I can get a really good reading from it in good weather with my glasses on. Sometimes in the dark, however, I am making a wild stab at it, and, yet, it is so more romantic telling the time this way than by looking at the clock on the computer (which I have taped over).

On the way here, I heard on Radio 4 the Six O’Clock bongs of Big Ben, and, I thought that Our Clock needs a name: Big Bill, Big Wen - or Big Ken, perhaps.

I am going over to Meriden to see my photographer friend Jason.

Oliver's Poetry

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