Sunday, July 30, 2006

Writers' Holiday at Caerleon Campus, University of Wales
Newport, South Wales 23-28 July 2006

I took the course The Funniest Thing About Comedy run by Brad Ashton who has written more than 1000 TV scripts. Brad, an energetic, amusing 75-year-old, provided non-stop entertainment. He described how he had lunch with Goucho Marx who appeared incognito at a London restaurant without his moustache and was nearly thrown out for not wearing a tie, until he produced his trademark cigar. (If I remember correctly, which I rarely do. That's my shortened, second-hand version of the story.)

Brad recalled Benny Hills' flat, which had hardly any furniture. But cartoons and newspaper cuttings of jokes covered the walls.

Brad also witnessed arguments over theatre dressing rooms. Famous comedy singers demanded the top dressing room, saying that if they did not get it, they would refuse to perform.

Brad has written for Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Bob Monkhouse. His first book, published in 1983 by Elmtree books, was How to Write Comedy which is used in universities in Canada and America. His latest book is The Funny Thing About Writing Comedy.

Our workshop finished with everybody giving a short performance. It was most reassuring to learn that even the greats have days or nights when they die on stage. For example, an act which went down well in the USA last night might mystify the puzzled UK audience next morning.

Brad learned to write by copying jokes until he had six notebooks full of them and could spot the pattern or formula.

If you need an after dinner speaker, he is immensely entertaining.

Performance Poetry and Humour
by Angela Lansbury
I made a brief appearance during the poetry evening. I listened to all the humorous poems, the majority of which were about sex. I now have to adapt my comedy act to one with humorous verse so that I can perform at poetry events which are another opportunity.

Since it was a poetry evening, I could not perform my usual routine with the sex jokes. However, I ended by saying that as there were not enough men I had brought my own. I pulled out of my bag a talking boy doll which speaks when you press its hand.

Brad pointed out that a further opportunity for speakers is entertaining at homes for the elderly. However, they are frequently hard of hearing and an act all about sex would not be ideal, though an act including humour about being chased and evading a lustful old man could be amusing.

Public Speaking workshop by Angela Lansbury
I gave an afternoon tea workshop on public Speaking. I told one of the quietly-spoken speakers to speak to an imaginary person in the empty back row of the long room. Then I thought, why not move myself, or one of the audience, to the back row? Why not everybody?

So I moved everybody to the back of the room. I made the muttering impromptu speakers practice raising their voices so they could be heard at the back.

So simple. But we always do the opposite. We move the audience forward at Toastmasters.

I started them doing elevator speeches. My friend Linda does Tai Chi. Her one minute elevator speech was fine but nothing visual. So I got her to stand on one leg to demonstrate tai chil. Everybody thought that was very funny.

One of the speakers was giving regular speeches about audio books for the blind. I mentioned using glasses or an audio tape as a prop.

During the speech she said that the council only gave a tiny amount towards the cost, which was why she was fund-raising. As she said 'a tiny amount' she gave a slight gesture of dismissal, like throwing away something tiny. I got her to exaggerate that.

Another speaker talked about writing a mystery novel and subconsciously made a slight gesture of both palms down facing forward with a shrug. I got him to exaggerate that.

A good time was had by all. I gave out a four-sided handout

The next week-long Writers' Holiday is 29 July - August 3rd 2007, costing £339 which includes university accommodation, three meals and coffee with biscuits, a free excursion Wednesday afternoon, all tuition and evening lectures. Gerry Hobbs will even collect you from the railway station and organise a coach back to the station Friday lunchtime and packed lunches for those who can't stay for lunch.
However, if you can't wait, there are also shorter and cheaper courses:
Fishguard Bay Hotel, Pembrokeshire, Friday 10th-Sunday 12th November for £199.
Or Friday 16th-Sunday February 18th. More details from Anne Hobbs:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Wednesday 19th July 2006

Stand-up Comedy
Yesterday, Tuesday night, I went to The Live Bar, a comedy bar, an oasis of glamour in seedy littered Deptford, South East London. If I had been on stage at Deptford, that would have been an encouragement. It would have counterbalanced the nightmare of rushing diagonally across London from the North West, arriving late.

Here's my excuse for being late - the lady will protest too much. (That's about Lady Macbeth?) I spent half the day trying to get a map of Deptford and the pub. Friendly fellow comic Joanne emailed my and those who trained with me to ask who is going tonight. I phoned her mobile and left a message to say yes.

I e-mailed Live Bar big shot organiser Lloydy boidy to say I would like to be on stage, preferably early because I travel a Long way. (Today, Wednesday, a day too late, I am notified of a delay - my email has not yet been delivered to him!)

Yesterday, magic Tuesday, I'm all over the Internet 'like a rash'. Never mind AA and RAC route planner. First I need to get the address and see a picture of the venue. Downloading the map is a challenge. You print off blank pages or only the ads around the map unless you click on microscopic print which says 'to print map click here'.

The London transport travel planner shows that my journey is in three sections - or four. There are delays on all the shorter three section routes. The temperature is in the 90s.

I told my son Anthony I was not going. He says that from the London suburbs his French girlfriends need two and a half hours to arrive on time at work in London. But in only two hours they travel all the way from Paris to London, or London to Paris!

I took my car in late to garage for service and MOT. My son Anthony comes over - to ask for money. But, so sorry, I must rush off, because Joanne rings cheerily to say she's glad I'm coming tonight and she'll meet me at Deptford station. The show doesn't start until 8.30.

The garage phones to say car can be collected just as I'm about to leave. So I collect the car. And set off late.

My son leaves his wallet in my car. So I have to deal with that, phone him to call him back. I unlock the house. Put the wallet where he can see it. Phone him to tell him. Then decide to hide it. Phone him to tell him. Why make one call when you can make three. Feel like a family.

At the station my first difficulty is buying a ticket to Deptford. Nobody is at my unmanned station, Hatch End, to tell me whether an all day travel card will do the trick.

The train is already on the platform! But by the time I have bought my ticket, and taken the overhead bridge, the train has gone. The wood pigeons overhead think it's very funny. They are playing shit on people who sit waiting. I have a twenty-minute wait. You can go off wood pigeons.

So I hunt in my huge bag and find leftovers from lunch which I forgot to put in the fridge. The food has been out in 90 degrees of heat more than one hour. Therefore, according to health and safety regulations, I am acting illegally, and giving the consumer, myself, food poisoning.

After I finish eating, I remember we finished lunch about 2.30 and my chicken has sat around until six thirty. Four hours.

No time to worry about food poisoning. You can only worry about one thing at a time. I now have to worry about my route. And rehearse my act.

At Euston I queued and spoke to a man at a ticket sales window. I spent five minutes trying to communicate: 'Deptford, not Dartford, Depford not Darford, Detford, not Dartford, not Deptford Bridge, Deptford. Thank you so much for your patience.'

I don't run down the escalator. A sign warns that there are more than 900 injuries a year on escalators. (That's only the ones which get reported!)

At Euston I chat to a friendly black girl. I tell her about my act and demonstrate all my props. The furry black and white panda which droops its had and looks sad, and lifts its head to look happy, or claps me. I also bring out my two pianos. And show my bright orange lady's blouse with orange maple leaves on white. My joke is: My relative Pat died in this. So I thought as it was a favourite outfit of the deceased, they should wear it in the coffin. Ready to go to the Pearly Gates. Uncle Pat will arrive and try to talk his way past St Peter, dressed in drag. Not St Peter in drag, my uncle Pat.

Hurray! I have done my rehearsal.

At London bridge I went in and out of three or four barriers. I asked a disembodied helpline. I galloped down assorted tunnels, like an underground fairground. I stood on scary endless escalators.

I finally leaped on the advertised train at London bridge. I phoned Joanne to say I'd reach Deptford Bridge shortly. Then I found I was on a train to Greenwich and Brighton.

Six passengers gave me conflicting advice. 'Go back.' 'No, go onwards.' I had to get off at Lewisham. Then walk to the Docklands Light Railway. The LTR train came in and sat just to annoy me. So I had to call Joanne who was waiting for me and let her go.

At Deptford Bridge the lift down to ground level from DLR is windowless grey metal and the size of an upright dirty coffin. I am squashed in with somebody who looks pregnant. He's more scared than I am.

Dim light. Noisy trundling, screeching of brakes and rocking. Lift hits the ground with a thud like a plane making an emergency landing.

Outside everybody is as lost as I am. Nobody born in England lives in Deptford. Or even goes there.

A girl with a foreign accent thinks Lewisham is to the left. I get out my map. I ask where she's from. She's from Brazil!

Finally I see the pub. Luckily Joanne arrived in time to be put on stage.

But I didn't.


Arriving at the Live Bar, I stumble through the door to the ladies which is held open by a waist-high lightweight plastic dustbin which I collide with. I knock it over, falling half inside. I check the rubbish to see that I have lost nothing.

I've lost my main prop. The scary bright orange lady's jacket. It's on one of the last two trains I've taken, at one of two stations, or in the street.

The amplified stage act sounds louder in the toilets than when you are in the bar. I sneak back to the bar.

Sit-down comedy
Three bar stools between four of us. Joanne generously vacates her stool for me. She occasionally glances at me warily like a person on a tube train hoping that a bag lady won't get any closer. I'm sure the effect of watching out for a lurching bag lady is even more unnerving when the bag lady is a friend, or former friend.

The bar stools are high. A bit like trying to mount a horse. If you are not careful you sprawl across it. It tips over. You fall off the other side. Alarming.

I leap up. Fall back. Embarrassing. Make a second attempts. Still can't get up. Third time lucky. Two fellow comics, looking seriously worried, Tyson and George, are hauling either side. Joanne is saucer-eyed, anxiously holding my two bags. The tall bar stool, stable as a tripod, starts to tip. Stifled commotion.

Somehow I am aloft. Like sitting on the edge of a cliff. Don't lean sideways.

Two people have helped me onto the stool. Now I am up, I want to get down. I am scared of falling off. Imagine a large sack of potatoes in a zizag pattern orange dress poised precariously on a bar stool while something fidgets about inside swaying this way and that, trying to sip a drink through a straw, reaching forward to the table, and back.

It's only a matter of time before I fall off. Or grab somebody or something which I should not grab. What a nice thought.

Two of our three stools have backs. But not mine. I prefer the security of a back. You cannot fall off backwards. It's better for your back and neck. You sit proudly upright instead of hunchbacked.

One of the boys vacates his stool to go to the loo, stretch his legs, get a drink. Now's my chance. How to get off this stool? How do get onto the next?

The Live Bar venue was lovely, I spent a lot of time admiring the spotlit red panels behind the winebottles and carafes. I was wondering if I could get the bar's interior designer to change my living room decor. From oriental paintings and trompe l'oeuil greenhouse mural to Dead Bar.

The Live Bar is much smarter than the place where we rehearsed, the dusty Victoria pub at Mornington Crescent. To get to the latter you leapfrog along the narrow streets over the bin bags past basement kitchens.

The Victoria pub not only has a steep staircase - but also no lights. If 9000 people have accidents on well-lit London Underground escalators, surely somebody must fall down a steeper staircase in complete darkness? I used to wonder why the Victoria pub had not been sued by somebody who broke their leg. Then I realised that people who fall down their staircase won't survive.

The Enterprise Pub where we performed our debut Showcase has lights on an even steeper staircase. Not surprisingly upstairs is a wooden bench with broken arms and legs. If it didn't fall apart, like the cracked Victorian plaster ceiling, it looks like it fell over coming up the stairs and is afraid to go back down.

The Enterprise had sit-on-a-sixpence stools. Maybe they are normal size stools. But I have a twin-size rear end.

I used to take a cushion to sit on. Rob complimented me on my foresight. The cushion doubled as a pillow so I could snooze in the train on the way home after midnight.

At other venues such as the Enterprise, have only one toilet cubicle on the level with the venue. So, in the five minute interval, ten incontinent drunks race to one toilet cubicle. The last person gets no toilet paper.

But here Lloyd the compere cum comic was apparently unhelpful but not uncivil. Listen, I can cope with that. I've been trained by Hils! She is strict. No nonsense. She puts you on stage, but tells you off twice before you go on. She told me to stand back against the wall. And not to fan myself, because I was attracting attention.

According to Nick, when Martin left the stage instead of telling him he'd done well but try to keep to time next time as a courtesy to the others, she had a go at him. She completely spoiled his joy in having done his first ever gig. Discouraged him. Distressed his friends. Upset everybody for weeks after. But I reckon organisers have to be strict about time or the show would never start or end.

I am impressed with the diplomacy of my messages from fellow stand-up Tyson. One message of encouragement hoping I'll come back. A second upbeat note to everybody, praising other people's acts. Mentioning me - who didn't do anything - thanking me for supporting.

Most comedy evenings allow songs which they often put on early or after the interval. Like karaoke, except that you would have a higher chance of being put on and you'd be a novelty. So people like friend William, a karoake enthusiast, could do a song, better still a comic song.

Do you know an comic songs? If you do not know any, tell me. I shall do one. Pretend I teach singing and my puppet is singing. Then give a false grin and praise it for a good first effort.

Regarding props, William, who has the punching rabbi (shown at our showcase by our teacher) might be interested in this and have some useful suggestions.

Lloyd had told me that other people were on stage ahead of me. He did not agree to put me on earlier. In a later interval he told me I would not be on at all. But when we left, he promised 'next time'.

However, I was perfectly happy. I loved his act with the animated baby doll. I realised that the doll was a great prop. Astonishing the way its little hands wave and feet kick about so realistically. I must look on line to get one.

But I didn't hear any punchlines. The mic was muzzy. I heard better when Lloyd was muttering with his back to the audience than when he was echoing and deafening on the mic.

Afterwards whilst at the station reviewing the evening with Joanne, I realised that I have the same trouble with my two pianos. Wonderful props. But not enough punchlines. Joanne suggests I should learn some funny songs, which I'd already thought of. She said she'd seen on the Internet a comedian with a full size piano doing a comedy turn. I could make a high and low note represent something to punctuate a story.

Maybe I could get the puppet to play the piano. If it makes a mistake, I can smile indulgently and give the audience a running commentary. Like a teacher. 'Like an American ski instructor. When you fall over, they enthuse, You're doing wonderfully well!'

I've cut my Deptford Tale into bite size chunks for you. This is the last.


I headed off early from The Live Bar was because I had get home. My journey takes about 40 minutes from Euston, arriving in a car park which can be deserted at night.

The later it gets the more likely I am to be sitting in a carriage with only one other man. Or nobody - except some character lurching along from carriage to carriage slamming doors. Or leaving them flapping and clanging with the menacing noise and mesmerising view of the passing track. I usually try to get to Hatch End by midnight.

Joanne walked me back to Deptford station, only 'five minutes' she had claimed. It is, if you can run a four-minute mile carrying a handbag and a bag of props. I puff along, my feet sliding about in plastic-lined shoes. Never mind vegetarianism. I need leather inserts.

She didn't tell me I was old. I mentioned a friend of mine was 29 tomorrow. She said that I obviously liked to hang around with young people. Ooh! Damning with faint praise.

I started off aged 29, but aged ten years on the journey to Deptford. Another ten on the journey back.

There was a twenty-minute wait for a train from Deptford to Charing Cross (new route). Joanne kindly found the transport helpline to find out the time for my last train from Euston.

I changed at Charing Cross onto the Jubilee. At Euston twenty-minute wait for a train. I phoned my son from Euston. I'd already phoned him from Deptford station saying the train wasn't leaving until gone 11 pm and I might end up stranded at Watford so could he collect me. That's twenty minutes for him to drive to Watford, twenty minutes to drive me home, ten minutes for him to drive home risking killing himself and others. He said he'd rather collect me, and be paid a fiver or a tenner. (We are so naughty. We say fiver and tenner, which granny Netta, who is dead, would never allow, since it was vulgar, and slang. Anyway, he'd rather I paid him than me call a dubious cab driven by an unlicensed foreigner on the wrong side of the road while I try not to blow the rape whistle.

I really don't like to call my son to collect me. I phone and he calls back ten minutes later. He's probably in bed with a girlfriend and it isn't much fun being in bed or even cuddled up hugging watching a DVD knowing your mother is going to ring at ten minute intervals and expect to be collected from a distant station at 1 a.m.

My journey was 'quick'. Got me back to Hatch End at a quarter to one. Station full of men in orange jackets, railway engineers, paid overtime, to do nothing. When I got home I called my son.

I was quite surprised to get home alive. My son was equally surprised
He said, 'So you're home - in one piece.'

One piece but not one peace. But I had managed to travel to deepest Deptford. I got back safely. I saw stage acts. I met my comedy friends. Quite an achievement. Considering that I had not been into London by train between 2000 when my mother died and 2004 when my father died.

Nor had I driven outside my home area for several years. I still don't. The girl I met on the bench at Euston, when I earlier travelled out south to London Bridge for the gig, had told me she had a friend aged about 49-50 who never drove far from home. She hadn't had a major road accident as I did when knocked down by a car in Corsica in1984. So I'm making lots of tiny bits of progress every day.

But I've no chance of finishing my 50,000 word novel in 50 or 100 days if I spend each day writing 1000 word emails. Or 1000 word blogs. I should re-write my novel and finish it. Not should. Shall.

But I must make use of this blog. In novel 4 of my five part series, the book called The Travellers, based on my life.

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