Friday, January 18, 2008

When A A Gill Met Joe's Comedy Madhouse

Sunrise in Leamington Spa, UK

I made it through the festive season and enjoyed it, despite the occasional bizarre hiccup along the road (would you believe that the rector at Southover Church Lewes produced and proffered his dirty socks, which had been festering for three months, as an illustration of his perplexing sermon on Christmas morning!)

Also, I must mention an extraordinary missive from my dear friend DJ E, who emailed to say he had been reading a book by A A Gill in which the Sunday Times TV and restaurants critic mentioned my former comedy club, Joe's Comedy Madhouse.

Phil Nichol at Joe's Comedy Madhouse 2005

As followers of this journal may know, I promoted Joe's Comedy Madhouse in a variety of venues from June 1997 until November 2005, when I decided to close it on a rousing high with headliner Phil Nichol (pictured) performing his Edinburgh Fringe Award winning show, supported by the best of the other acts from the Madhouse years. An unforgettable and unbelievable night in a totally packed venue!

During those eight-and-a-half years, Joe's Comedy Madhouse gave stage time to up-and-coming comedians including Jimmy Carr, Daniel Kitson (another Perrier Award winner), Shappi Khorsandi (Best Newcomer at Edinburgh), Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais's co-writer and co-star in The Office and Extras) and Marek Larwood (Best Edinburgh Newcomer) among many others.

Most important of all, I gave stage time to anyone and everyone who wanted it - regardless of how good or bad they were at comedy, but with a particular onus on the genuinely crazy acts (the Comedy Terrorist, for instance, started at my club).

I attended all but one of the Madhouse shows - I was away working in the Holy Land and a huge argument broke out that night leading to the club's eviction from its then venue - and almost always was at the door and then introduced the gig (for years, I did it after a taped introduction which I had made using interviews I had done with Jerry Springer and Gordon Brown).

Strangely, I do not recall Adrian Gill having attended the club, even though I had appeared with him on a late-night chat show on BBC Radio 5 Live on several occasions and, so, one might have thought we should have recognised each other.

I was filled with doubt that DJ E had got it right (central London is flush with madcap comedy clubs of a Wednesday night), but curiosity got the better of me.

So, on New Year's Eve, I went to W H Smith in Lewes to enquire after the alleged A A Gill book, succinctly and deftly entitled The Angry Isle Hunting The English.

River Ouse, Lewes, UK

In among the B- and C-listers, there was no sign of it. It was all Clarkson, Ramsay, Jamie, Jordan, Morgan, Nigella and various other fine, famous people.

I collared the shop girl who asked me to repeat the name before typing it into her stock computer.

'We had two some time ago, but they've not here no more,' she said with an expression that suggested they'd gone back to the wholesaler.

It was the same story in Lewes's other new book store where a crusty old gent described the work as a 'classic', somewhat sarcastically I suspected.

I walked to Lewes Library thinking, 'Just how dodgy is this book by A A Gill?'

At the library, the assistant immediately said it would be the shelf. I asked her to show me but there no sign of the elusive volume.

'It must be lost,' she said, as if this were the natural fate for it.

'No, there it is,' I said, pointing it out, really rather delighted to have found it at last.

Then, strangely, I felt the need to get out a slim volume of poetry by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, as if I were an embarrassed teenager purchasing aspirins along with condoms.

Still, I could hardly wait to see what Adrian had made of Joe's Comedy Madhouse.

It did not take long to find.

The book fell open at the Humour chapter and even a cursory skip quickly revealed that Adrian's research had only extended to going to one comedy night in Soho, London, that had been cancelled and a second, down the road, which was mine.

I was intrigued by his gradual build-up to his inevitable demolition job on Joe's Comedy Madhouse.

Adrian seemed to hate Soho, hate the people he found there, hate the Intrepid Fox pub (scene of the cancellation), hate the Goth night which was taking place there instead, hate the nearby Crown pub, hate its Sky TV screens, hate its customers, hate its toilets, hate their smell, hate the room upstairs in which where Joe's Comedy Madhouse was being staged!

Reading it was like watching a juggernaut approaching a hedgehog at an ineffable laconic rate!

I recall the gig he described in his book but, surprisingly, do not remember A A Gill being there.

Surprisingly because I had appeared on BBC Radio Five Live with A A Gill for at least a couple of two-hour shows, and, yet, in the small and almost empty room I did not recognise him. . . and he did not recognise me.

On the contrary, he describes me in his account as a 'bearded young man', even though I was aged 43 at the time and clean shaven.

Still, I am vain enough to be flattered by this description. A A Gill will be 55 this year (if his own evidence is to be believed), so, maybe, I simply looked young to him.

The deliberately shambolic set-up of the Madhouse was not lost on him.

He wrote of the 'unmatched mix of pub chairs' (I'd always prided myself on making them look messy) and the lopsided and battered backdrop which he wrote 'looked like a prop from a junior school end-of-term play'.

Said item was made in 1997 from material purchased at Dalston Fruit 'n' Veg Market, and, when I read this to them, they were all in tears of laughter that it should be featured in a hardback book published by Orion and retailing for a penny short of 19 quid!

I was rather pleased by the next bit, that I had extracted six quid from A A Gill for coming in - if he had introduced himself I would have waived the entrance fee.

Still, no doubt it was tax deductible for him.

Adrian made the point that Joe is not my real name. Absolutely true, but then neither are Ollie or Oliver. (Best not to go there).

He said that Madhouse is "an unpromising moniker for 'cutting edge experimental comedy'. Here, Adrian has a point, although, to be embarrassingly frank, I picked Madhouse as a name for another reason - I had been a fan of Russ Abbot's Madhouse (a classic Saturday teatime comedy TV show that Adrian would doubtless have hated for its sense of puerile fun).

Then, in his book, Adrian moved onto the compere.

Image of comedian Phil Zimmerman

My resident MC and latterly co-promoter was a gentleman by the name of Phil Zimmerman (pictured), who now promotes and performs at a highly successful comedy club in Drayton, west London.

I would most certainly have introduced him as Phil Zimmerman, yet A A Gill reports my words (in the guise of 'introductory student beardy' - more age flattery) as: 'Welcome to Joe's Comedy Madhouse, and without more ado here's Sid Zimmerman - your host for the evening. A big hand please.'

Sounds plausible, apart from the 'Sid' bit. Where on earth did A A get that from?

Adrian goes on: 'Sid isn't his real name.' Well, that's true. To mine (and Zimmerman's) knowledge, he has never used the name Sid!

But Adrian adds: 'Zimmerman is.' (his name).

Untrue, unfortunately. Phil's real name is Craigie, under which, ironically, he was for many years a journalist colleague of A A Gill at The Sunday Times newspaper. Still, no matter. Why let facts get in the way of a good rant.

Adrian continues: 'It used to be Bob Dylan's name too. Maybe it was Sid's branch of the family that made Bob consider changing it to that of a drunk Welsh Soho doggerelist.'

It is nice Adrian has got the Dylan connection. Phil did indeed change his surname because of an enthusiasm for the great Bob Dylan.

However, I have to say that Adrian's snipe at the great poet Dylan Thomas is a little on the cheap side, in my humble opinion.

These inaccuracies are contained in just the first two paragraphs of two pages on Joe's Comedy Madhouse. And there a couple of hundred of pages to the book.

Goodness knows how many factual errors the entire work contains.

I have to confess I quite enjoyed Adrian's subsequent description of Phil's performance, although it was a little cruel and missing the somewhat obvious point that he is a character act, The Pigeonman.

He is not playing himself. Maybe, A A Gill really believes Al Murray really runs a pub or Dame Edna Everage is a woman. Anything's possible.

I also enjoyed his description of the subsequent acts.

I admit that I never felt I had done my job properly in booking the line-up if at least a couple of first-half acts didn't make the audience squirm with embarrassment.

It was always part of my enjoyment to make them suffer for a decent headliner later in the night.

The chapter gets a bit boring after that. After half an hour, Adrian is off and out of the pub, pondering why anyone would want to do stand-up.

There's another mention of me being young, but he concludes the experience of performing comedy at my club must be like 'dressing up as a traffic warden because you to meet people and make friends'.

This last remark was uncannily apposite. One of my Madhouse acts, Ivan Steward, often used to dress up as a traffic warden at the club and did indeed meet people and make friends as a result.

I tried to plough through the rest of the chapter and the book, but found it a highly irksome read. A style that works well for an 800-word TV critique in the Sunday Times Culture section does not in my view cut it over 80,000 words in book form.

Adrian seems to be working on the basic premise that the English character is based on anger, but he fails to substantiate the argument- Anyway, it is hard to see why he has singled out the English.

River Ouse in Lewes, UK

My own experience of being English, but originally of Scottish stock, is that there is not a huge gulf between the English and the Scots.

If anything, the Scots are more prone to anger than the English who (like English-sounding Scot A A Gill) prefer a good moan.

In the final analysis, however, I would say the English, the Welsh and the Scots are all gifted at having a whinge and losing their rags.

The chapter on booze was more interesting (and accurate) than much of the book. This is, at least, an area where Adrian has some real research.

Railway bridge in Lewes

He starts by saying he is an alcoholic. But like so many dried-out soaks, he is quite harsh on those who continue to drink.

What surprised me most about the book was Adrian's assertion that he was in some way part of the entertainment industry.

Honestly it had never occurred to me that A A Gill might see his work as somehow comedic in its tenor.

Yet, thinking about it, I remembered the Adrian Gill I had met in the BBC Radio 5 Live studio those year ago, a man with a monocle who said he would not review Coronation Street because of all the working class Northerners in it.

And I thought of the only A A Gill fan I had ever met, a working class Northerner (a heavy-drinking Scouser sub-editor on the Daily Star) and it seemed to me that, yes, A A Gill's role is in some small way to add the gaity of the nation, just as Boris Johnson's is.

I am not entirely convinced Adrian was even at Joe's Comedy Madhouse.

The glaring inaccuracies in his account of events (such as my alleged beard) and the fact I did not recognise him makes me think a stodge with a dodgy Biro might have been representing the great personage on that auspicious night.

But God bless A A Gill!

Lewes at dusk

It had always been a dream of mine that Joe's Comedy Madhouse would be immortalised in some way - and, like a Jimmy Savile for 21st Century, Adrian has fixed it for me. Thanks, old son. You have made my day.

I shall tap up my mates at the Sunday Times for his home address and write to Adrian to thank him - and invite him as my guest to my new club, Eight Pints of Poetry, which is to launch at the Lewes Arms, Lewes, East Sussex, on the night of Friday, 15 February 2008.

The headliner is the fantastic stand-up poet Ash Dickinson who genuinely is a young man with a beard!

If he still has a sense of humour, he can even perform a poem there.

January is an especially grim month. Partly because of the weather. Partly because I don't drink. Partly because reality bites like a crocodile.

It is very hard to forget the tough realities of life in the Garret/s when you are freezing and stone-cold sober.

Still, my diet is going well. I have lost around half a stone (seven pounds) so far without even doing any serious exercise.

This year I have not made any resolutions. The reason is that I never manage to keep them, and not for want of trying.

As I get older, the forces of chaos and society seem to conspire to hold you back.

This year I am simply going to bear in mind various things I would like to do and hope I can make them happen. I have no firm resolutions to achieve anything.

I would like to catalogue my photographs, four decades of them dating from 1970.

Otherwise I will completely forget who and what is on these thousands of black and white or colour images.

Incidentally, I took a great number of photographs over Christmas and New Year. Some will appear with this blog entry if I get them back from the processor's lab soon enough (I have not gone digital and have no plan to become so).

I am also using some pictures left over on an unpublished blog page from last year (in the name of good housekeeping).

Cataloguing my pictures is going to be a huge task, but if I can start this year, that will be something.

I would like start to get together a collection of my poetry. This is another tough one. I am currently working on editing my 2007 poems. Never have I written so many incomplete pieces. There is a lot of writing involved in editing them!

Dripping Pan football ground, Lewes, UK

Even finding them (and on manifold notebooks and scraps of paper and envelopes) and typing them out (some I could hardly read, I'd been in such an emotional state) was a hard and time-consuming process.

I would like to enter some poetry contests this year and submit poems to poetry magazines. I'd also like to learn more of them, to get away from the reading.

Most of all, I would like to write with more passion, honesty and courage.

I suppose I have made one resolution for 2008: I must get in touch with old friends.

I am terrible for falling out of touch with people. In 2007 losing two friends with whom I had fallen out of touch made me realise just how long the parting is after death.

So I want to see again a string of people I would love to see again all of whose full names are not given below, in no particular order:

John B: a sailing friend much older than me (I telephoned him and had a really good chat),

John McFarlane: a former school teacher and great influence on me in my youth. I have not heard from him since 1981. He was living in Yemen,

Linda D: A good friend from the Daily Star who I have not seen 2001. Last heard of in Dublin,

Christy C: A pal from the Sunday Telegraph with whom I fell out of touch when I left in 1997,

Monica Healion (now married and called Stone, I believe): An Irish friend now believed to be living the U.S. Have not heard from her since 1991 or so,

Tricia Stead: A mate from Hull University who lived near me in Broadstone, Poole, in Dorset. Not heard from her since about 1992,

Russell T: A school friend who I have not seen since the mid-1990s. Believed to be in South Korea. I already have a lead for contacting him,

Tim R: A Sunday Telegraph mate with whom I lost touch after 1997. Believed to be in Washington D.C. or touring the States covering the primaries,

Mike P: My madcap boss at the Daily Star. Never a close friend but I am curious about him. Believed to be in Los Angeles,

Tracey H: A friend with whom I worked on the Coventry Evening Telegraph. Have not seen since 1998 or so. Believed to be living in London,

Melanie K: Another friend from the Coventry Evening Telegraph. Have not seen since 1992 or so. Believed to be living in the Midlands,

Roger E: A friend from Coaster magazine in Bournemouth. Fell out with him in grand style over an article I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph (my fault),

Paul E: A school mate with whom I also fell out for reasons still a mystery to me. Unfinished business.

Balliol College, Oxford

There's a baker's dozen. If and when appropriate, I shall keep you apprised of how I get on tracing them!

There are also others whose whereabouts I know but I have just fallen out of the habit of seeing.

This life of living in two Garrets in Leamington and Lewes has cost me heavily in my old friendships, and that saddens me.

It getting late now in the Leamington Garret. My flatmate Attila has gone to bed. It is cold and I am not feeling sleepy enough.

I listening to Tonight at the Arizona by The Felice Brothers, a superb CD and birthday present, which I am playing through Attila's computer and the old music centre. On the third track, Hey Hey Revolver, they are struck by lightning but keep playing!

On top of the music centre, I have lit a Vanilla and Apple scented candle. I told you I am in a strange mood.

Change is in the air but also great uncertainty. I felt very unsettled at work this week.

Moreover, poetry has gone out of the window. I have just not been able to focus on a poem for weeks.

Obviously I don't know what this year holds for me. And my lack of control scares the life out of me more this year than ever before.

I had just seen Charlie Wilson's War at the cinema. A great film. I always like watching films about my family.

It made me think how like Uncle Charlie I am. I share his love of life; if only I had his courage...

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