Monday, 17 December 2012

Morgan Freeman

Monday, 23 July 2012

Why I Gave Up Stand Up Comedy - And Why I Miss It: A Lament, Part 1.

So I had a bit of a falling out with my agent a few months ago, and it seemed as good a moment as any to draw the line under my reasonably-successful-but-never-quite-took-off stand up career. With a little bit of distance from that decision, I thought I'd write some blogs about how and why I got into stand up, the peaks and troughs, the triumphs and disasters.

Here's how I started. I was a businessman and former lawyer who was looking for new experiences to spice things up. This was pre-children when I didn't know any better. So, thinking I was every bit as funny as the comedians I trudged up to watch every year at the Edinburgh Festival, I decided to give it a shot. There was no career plan, no intention of pursuing it; it was just something to tell the grandchildren. 'Yeah, granddad did stand up once. Impressed? Kids? I say, granddad, Come on, turn that off...' So I put together 15 minutes of cripplingly unfunny material, turned up at the King's Head in Crouch End in December 1992 and was told to do 5 minutes (along with the other 21 open mic hopefuls). Imagine. A bloke with only one barmitzvah and one wedding speech under his belt suddenly having to edit on the fly. Fuck.

Naturally, I did my best joke first: 'As this is my first ever stand up performance, I thought I'd tell you something about myself. I started life (comic pause) as a sperm...' Tumbleweed. And on I ploughed, hoping a hole would open up and suck me all the way to Hades. In desperation and with no dignity left to lose, I threw a couple of impressions in (the only two I could do) - Sean Connery and Frank Bruno - and got a titter. An impressionist! Ah, that's what I am. Who knew? Well actually I was mimic, the kid who did the teachers at school, a bloke who could do a voice or two, some accents, that sort of thing.

I couldn't let it end on such a sour note, and if I could do two, surely I could do ten. So off I went to learn some more voices. Three months later, Comedy Cafe Open Mic night - only won, didn't I? Beat some bloke called Tim Vine into second place. The prize? A paid gig the following night. I had no material, but I could do Chris Eubank. I got some laughs. Suddenly, I was inspired. My sixth gig was the heat for the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition, my ninth, the final alongside Ronni Ancona (who won), Ben Miller and Tim Vine (him again). It was the key to the door, long before I was ready to go through it. Bookers booked me, Jongleurs fast-tracked me, national radio slots followed, I was on TV by August 1993; and I started making inroads into commercial and documentary voiceovers, cartoons, video games.

Bonkers. All because I could sound a bit like other people. I had no jokes to speak of, but people loved the voices and eventually my script caught up. I was soon playing at great venues and shitholes alike. One weekend The Comedy Store, the next, the Flatulent Pig in Stow-on-the-Wold. Corporate gigs followed, as did presenting gigs, bits of TV, voiceovers. It was all fun then. I didn't do it for the money, mainly because - corporates and voiceovers aside - there wasn't much to speak of; it was for the joy of doing it, making people laugh, the power...ahahahahahaha! Meanwhile I was still running my business, having kids, paying my mortgage, the whole schmeer, so I could only gig at weekends and I turned down God knows how many opportunities because of work commitments, including a TV series that helped make someone else famous. Drove my agent mad. Even so, I somehow managed to squeeze in a few solo shows at Edinburgh, plus a sketch show which became a Radio 4 series; I was a Radio 5 Live regular, with my own Christmas show and a gig as lead impressionist on another; I gigged alongside many of today's household names; I did bits of TV (100 Greatest All-Sorts-Of-Shit, The Stand Up Show, Celebri...cough, ahem, sorry...Celebrity Squares...there, now you know). I wrote all sorts of stuff for radio, had various sitcom scripts and pitches seriously considered by the BBC, got invited to a BBC residential scriptwriters' week, the works. I was nearly - nearly - in.

But I never quite committed. It was never my career. I didn't need to be on stage. It wasn't my drug. I had other things to think about - my business interests in recruitment and property, my family, my desire to write books (a whole other story). I retired from stand up a few times, went through various agents (nearly all shit), made comebacks...the truth was, though, that I didn't need it badly enough; I'd already built a life and a steady income before I started in showbiz and without the burning passion, the hunger or, indeed, the time, I was never going to crack it, never gain the necessary momentum.

In part 2, I'll lift the lid on my fellow stand ups, describe some of the shit gigs, maybe some other stuff. Are you listening...anyone?..anyone? Kids?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Dizzy C's Little Book Blog: Review - Song in the Wrong Key - Simon Lipson

Dizzy C's Little Book Blog: Review - Song in the Wrong Key - Simon Lipson: It is the Eurovision Song Contest this week.  The final on Saturday.  This novel is very topical as the main character, Michael writes a son...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Fair Weather Cyclists

Let me be clear. We're all entitled to use the roads, provided we do so with care and consideration for others. A bit of common courtesy combined with the observance of some relatively simple rules and regulations should ensure we all get to and from our destinations safely. Yes, there will be incidents and accidents to quote Paul Simon, but these, while inevitable are thankfully relatively rare given the volume of traffic out there. Be aware, be cautious, think of others.

You see? I'm a fair-minded, thoughtful individual with liberal, John Stuart Mill 'harm principle' sympathies when it comes to road use. Which is why, when I say what I'm about to say, you might wonder whether I'm losing it a bit. It's just that...well, you fair weather cyclists get on my effing tits. You've got no right to be out there with your gleaming, un-corroded, winter-shy bicycles clogging up the roads and all available lampposts and cycle stands as soon as the bloody sun comes out. I mean, there's me, come rain or shine, snow or frost, slogging my way into town every day - and I never miss, ever - nose running, eyes raw, fingers sopping and solid, risking my life on all manner of slippery and treacherous road surface, often in the dark, attaching and detaching lights, scrabbling into useless rainwear at every squall, choking on fog, coddling inside layers that are never quite enough...just so you can come along in late May, all virtuous in your tee-shirts and idiotic shorts, and claim the roads for yourselves. Well it's not right, is it? They're mine.

And you - yes you - on your Boris Bike, trundling around, thinking you're something special, never signalling, chatting to your mates as you ride four abreast, stopping to take in the scenery, bloody-well enjoying your little cycle in the sun, whilst wilfully ignoring the essential tenets of daily city centre cycling - you need to buck up. Here's the code. Learn it:
1) Always go through red lights (if safe to do so - you're on a bloody bike, f'Chrissakes)
2) Always go the wrong way up one way streets (if safe to do so - you're on a bloody bike, f'Chrissakes)
3) Shout at and shock idiotic pedestrians who don't look because they're on their mobile phones (safe or otherwise NB you may legally clip them on a shoulder or knee)
4) Scream at and remonstrate with bus drivers when they try and kill you (because they can't really answer back with passengers on board and professional restrictions and whatnot)
5) Kill - literally kill, if at all possible - white van drivers because they are trying to kill you (pre-emptive, self preservation principle)
6) Remove taxi drivers' wing mirrors at every opportunity with a violent swing of the hand (they're taxi drivers - doesn't matter; and they deserve it for past and future mis-deeds)
7) Have at your disposal a pithy string of epithets to hurl at swerving, mindless drivers on phones, fiddling with radios etc (my personal favourite: 'I've got two little girls who want to see their Dad at home tonight, not visit him in hospital because some cu*t thinks his phone call is more important than fucking looking where he's going' - admittedly, this is clumsy and lengthy and only works when, by some miracle, I've caught up with the miscreant at the next lights and his window is open and he's not fucking enormous and shaven-headed.)

So where was I? Oh yes. You, on your Boris Bike, indeed all of you fair weather dawdlers - this is what we hardened cyclists are all about. It's not a playground out there. Get with the programme or get off our roads. And stop taking our parking spaces. I mean it.

Ok. Off my chest. I think I need a nice cup of cocoa and a Digestive.

Monday, 16 April 2012

On Being Deaf

Confession. I'm not actually deaf. I can function like most people, hear what I need to hear and rarely get caught out. If I had to put a figure on it, I'd say I'm about 70% deaf. My right ear is completely useless; that's 50% right there. If I bash it with a saucepan or stick the radio on it at full volume, it can pick up some sounds, but I'm essentially reliant on my left ear - the remaining 30%, if my maths isn't awry - which was failing long before my right packed in.

I'd had a problem with tinnitus about 10 years ago. This condition, as most people know, is characterised by an incessant variety of blips, cracks and ringing sounds which can deprive beleaguered victims of sleep and sanity. The causes are disputed, but my specialist told me that when your hearing starts to fail, your body starts 'reaching' for sound - something to do with an atavistic self-preservation instinct; we need to hear if we're being chased/stalked/about to be attacked, an essential skill if you insist on going to Arsenal wearing a Spurs shirt, for example - and instead starts picking up the many and various electrical sounds your body makes which we normally screen out. The solutions include listening to other sounds, especially at night, so that the body focuses on them rather than the tinnitus, and improving your hearing by using hearing aids. I tried everything, but couldn't get on with hearing aids - frankly, I wasn't prepared to accept that I needed them at my relatively young age - and eventually learned to screen the maddening noises out by sheer force of will.

Then, about 6 years ago, my right ear - my better ear at that time - closed for business. One minute I could hear, the next I was deaf. Sudden deafness, it's called, and nobody knows what causes it. Theories range from bangs on the head to viruses. My GP thought it was an ear infection and gave me some drops. Panicked when the hearing didn't improve, I went to see another GP at the practice who prescribed different drops. Valuable time was being lost but I didn't know it. The condition can be ameliorated - partially or fully - provided you act fast. Nearly a week after the hearing failed, I saw a specialist who put me on steroids and, thankfully, my hearing returned. It wasn't as clear or mellow as before, but I'd have settled for it. But, after two years of the hearing coming and going, it finally went, leaving me to stumble on with only a dodgy left ear.

The problem for those with unilateral hearing loss is that you can't tell where sound is coming from. As far as I'm concerned, it's all coming from my left, which can be a problem when I'm crossing the road or trying to deal with a heckler in a comedy club (I'm a stand-up, in case you didn't know). On one occasion in a God-forsaken club in Preston, I lashed out at a woman who was utterly blameless. Poor love. Sorry again, by the way.

But deafness is no joke. I suppose I will have next to no hearing by the time I'm 70 and that's a scary prospect. At the moment, hearing aids help a bit (I use a CROS system which means noise on my right side is transferred to my left hearing aid). They help me hear films and the telly, and I can use them in social situations albeit, with all the noise clattering into one ear, it can be difficult to pick up conversation. This can be a blessing, of course, enabling me to screen crashing bores out if I need to. There are other advantages. Cocking a deaf'n becomes easier to justify. My wife yelling something from three floors up can be safely ignored; my kids asking where my wallet is, likewise. Well I can't bloody hear, can I? But it's a bastard most of the time. As mentioned, doing stand-up as a partially deaf man can be hazardous; trying to pick up people speaking in hushed tones - as they often do in the studios where I do voice overs - leaving me craning and guessing how to respond; in shops when they ask me for ten pounds and I hand them a fiver (nothing to do with the deafness, that). Many's the time I've nodded when I should have shaken my head, or gone off at some irrelevant tangent, leaving my inquisitors utterly baffled. I find myself concentrating intently on people's lips, which helps make sense of some of the sounds I'm missing, but probably makes them think I'm being a bit weird.

Most of the time I don't wear my aids. Luckily, I work alone in coffee bars during the day - most of the time - and don't need them. Yet, miraculously, I can still hear American teenage girls talking, like, shit? five tables away as if they're bellowing in my ear. And I can always hear annoying three year olds running wild while their parents assume everyone finds their offspring as charming as they do. That kind of shit is audible. It's the finer points of hearing I miss out on. The sharply delivered quip, the whispered response, the tones and shades of good music. Hopeless.

The only thing I can hear in my right ear is that Jumbo jet taking off 24 hours a day. Yes, deaf as a doornail, but lumbered with deafening tinnitus. Great, eh? There are innovations in the pipeline, and a cochlear implant might restore some of what I've lost, but I don't hold out much hope. Learning to live with it is probably the way forward.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On Literary Agents

Let me take you on a journey. It's 2002 and I've just submitted my lovingly crafted manuscript to five literary agents. I don't really know what I'm doing, of course, so I've picked them out more or less at random. Less than two weeks later and my mobile trills. It's one of them, bubbling, champing at the bit, not just excited about my novel, but also the fact that, as a professional performer, I will be brilliant at promoting it across the UK and...wait for it...globally. Yes, this was what the lady told me during our first conversation. Oh, and we're not talking about some grubby, pay-us-for-reading-your-MS, back street, fly-by-nights; we're talking J K Rowling's agents.

Well that was bloody easy. Wasn't this agent business supposed to be a nightmare? Shouldn't you endure 82 rejections before you get even a tickle? I mean, even the saintly J K got rejections. There was a catch, of course, but a smallish one, I thought. They wanted me to work with one of their editors to get the MS into shape before formally signing me up and submitting it to the major publishers. Well why not? They're the pros, they know what sells. Undoubtedly, many of their comments were valid - my female protagonist was too male, too hard - and some of the structuring needed tweaking. I re-submitted the draft but was then asked to soften the protagonist further. Because they'd missed my point. She was meant to be strident, someone whose independence and fuck-you attitude masked her emotional instability and desperate craving to be loved. They wanted her to be a timid, emotionally together, run-of-the-mill office worker who somehow goes off the rails. Boring.

Well what would you have done? My guess is that you - and, indeed, any sane person - would have done whatever they told you to do. J K Fucking Rowling's agents!!! Come on! Key to the door. Well not me, thank you very much. No, I stood by my artistic principles, told them they didn't understand the book, and walked away. What. A. Fucking. Wanker.

A couple of the other agents expressed an interest but it went no further and, two years later in a fit of narcissistic pique, I published it myself through Matador. Turned out I was pretty good at selling the book - I shifted 400 on the back of some local radio interviews, personal appearances and good reviews, but it was all after the event and half-hearted. Chance missed.

That book was a psychological thriller. But I'm a comedian and thought my next attempt at novel writing should be something within my natural genre. So Song In The Wrong Key was born, the story of a middle-aged man whose idyllic family life falls apart when he's made redundant. Redemption is achieved via his serendipitous selection as the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entrant. It's probably best described as an edgy romcom, with the emphasis on com.

And so on to another ridiculous dance with the agents. I submitted it to 6 of them, and three responded asking for the full MS. A good hit rate, apparently. A fourth didn't bother with all that. He wanted to sign me. I'd only applied to him because he accepted MSs via email, which saves a lot of bother, as well as photocopying and postage costs. And I was flattered - or, to put it another way, still being a fucking wanker. He was an established agent, but one with a conspicuously thin roster of fiction writers. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out. My feeling is that his contact list amongst the fiction publishers numbered no more than two or three. When they didn't take the bait, there was nowhere else to go.

So I left him. Now I've published the book through my own company, Lane & Hart. I've had it professionally typeset and the cover professionally designed. I've engaged a top class PR agent and we're lining up radio and press interviews and personal appearances. I've run a giveaway on Goodreads (745 people applied) and will do another. I uploaded it to Kindle and have been receiving sparkling 5 star reviews (likewise on Goodreads). Would I rather have done all this through traditional channels - an agent championing my book, a top publisher with a serious marketing budget, top chains stocking it etc? Of bloody course. But that all takes patience and a thick hide, neither of which I possess. Yes, you can earn more money per unit by selling on Kindle, but that's not what this is about. Writers need validation and, as much as I value and appreciate the reviews of the handful of readers who've bought the book so far, a traditional deal would open my work up to a vast readership and set me along the path I really want to follow, that of an established author with an established readership who can't wait for my next book. It might come to that one day, but my guess is that it's more likely to happen if an agent and a traditional publisher pick up the reins from here. Well come on. What are you waiting for?