‘imoff

In the dark days of my relative youth, a viewer might see a vaguely familiar face (usually attached to an associated body) acting in some screen-based entertainment and wonder where it had been seen before.  Was it ‘im off (or ‘er off) Bergerac (or some other treat from the idiot box of yesteryear)?  Sometimes reference to the cast list in the Radio Times or the end credits might bring enlightenment, but often you would be left unfulfilled with a continuing age sense of familiarity.  If the viewing had taken place in company, fruitful scope for discussion or argument might ensue – but, once again, with no guarantee of a satisfactory conclusion being reached.

Today, the power of the internet – and in particular, IMDB and Wikipedia – can usually resolve any such question as to where a face had been seen before.  Well, it can as long as the current and previous viewings both took place on either the big screen or the haunted goldfish bowl (and engrammatic storage has not degraded beyond a certain, critical point).  They are of much less help if either viewing occurred live with the actor in question strutting their stuff atop a stage.  For those in the business (of show, in this case) there is source of answers, Spotlight, but this does not give up its secrets to the mere punter (not unless he – or she – also happens to be a skilled hacker).

Given my recent habits, I find it increasingly common that I will know an actor largely (or wholly) from their work on the stage.  This has been a primary driver behind my tendency to purchase a programme when visiting the theatre: to check whether I should recognise anyone on the stage and, if so, from where.  This is far from foolproof, but does beat hanging around the stage door and asking some poor unfortunate, as they emerge, where I might know them from?  Where the programme approach either fails is or unavailable, I am forced to rely on my internet search skills, fading memory and luck to find a rationale behind any nagging sense of familiarity.  This process is complicated by my rather good memory for faces, but rather poorer ability to retain the link between the visage and its associated context (including a name).  Still further issues ensue given my tendency not to store the various elements of a face together and then lose the important linking information them – so I may easily “recognise” a face based on the nose of face A, the mouth from B and the eyes belonging to C (for A≠B≠C): very much a false positive).

Still, despite these obstacles I am sometimes fortunate and do manage to achieve a positive ID – and this happened last Friday: though this same process of successful identification also (probably) illustrated complete loss of other facial memories.  Let me explain…

On the evening in question, I braved the torrential rain and made my way to Clapham Junction.  By some miracle, Southwest Trains did manage to deliver me to my destination (which Southern Railways could not, having cancelled all services between Southampton and “the Junction” – though this may not have been rain related as these services seem to be cancelled very frequently, so often that I think they have stopped even waiting for someone to drop an item of millinery).  There was a nervous moment about 200 yards from our destination when the entire train had to be re-booted, but after a relatively modest delay, we were able to make it to Clapham.  CLJ (as we regular users of the National Rail website know it), is not really in Clapham at all, but in Battersea – which suited me as I was off to visit what remained of the Battersea Arts Centre.  This, as some may recall, was spectacularly ablaze not so long ago – though, during my visit the risk of unwanted combustion was pretty low (and evidence for the previous inferno was far from apparent to this viewer).   Indeed, after its previous assault by the forces of fire, on Friday evening it was suffering from a degree of flood: I assume earth and air are queueing impatiently to do their worst against the fabric of the building in the not too distant future.  Someone at the BAC must really have offered the Classical Gods.

My visit was for a pair of Edinburgh Previews by The Pin and Liam Williams – two apparently unrelated acts.  I have seen Mr Williams (NRTK) several times before, but this was my first experience of The Pin – who are a sketch double act – though they had been on my “to see” list for a while.  I can thoroughly recommend The Pin – they were quite brilliant (and alarmingly clever) performing what might best be described (by me at least) as meta-sketch.  I think they may have supplanted Sheeps (of which Liam W is one-third) as my favourite current sketch act.  Mr W was also good, though I suspect has a little more work to do over the next couple of weeks.  Given his stage persona is somewhat dour, it was also rather enjoyable seeing him laughing in a unrestrained manner at the antics of The Pin.

So far so good, but how do they two strands in this post come together?  Well, half of The Pin – one Ben Ashenden – seemed terribly familiar, but my unaided brain came back with no hint as to why.  He has not spent a lot of time on screen, so that also proved a dead end.  However, he does have a relatively uncommon name and the profile on his agent’s website provided the key to unlock his familiarity.  He was, fairly recently, in the Cambridge Footlights – and I had seen him perform in the ADC theatre when I was resident in South Cambs.  Whilst I clearly do remember him, his past writing left few clues on the fleshy tables of my memory as to his current genius.

The same internet search revealed that his partner – Alex Owen – was also in the Footlights at the same time.  The poor lad had clearly left no trace in my grey (or white) matter.  Worse, Liam Williams was also one of the same happy band (as were some of the rest of Sheeps) – and despite repeated exposure has sparked not even a hint of recall.  Mr A is not especially unique looking – there is no second nose or third eye (visible) – or sounding, so I have no idea why he alone should have been committed to my memory.  Perhaps just random chance?  Maybe the others have just aged more in the last four or five years? He does wear glasses – whereas none of the others do – so as a fellow wearer he may have been granted preferential access to long-term storage. This could be a top-tip for others seeking stardom – though, as I have absolutely no power to affect the career of the aspiring actor or comic, is probably a red herring.  Well, unless there is a much stronger link between glasses and prosopagnosia than the current scientific literature suggests – could this be the basis of my long-awaited PhD?

Overall, a very enjoyable – if extremely damp – evening, but one that left me with the nagging suspicion that my mental decay is progressing even faster than I’d realised.

Part of the in-crowd?

I like to think of myself as a maverick, a lone-wolf – never one to follow the crowd, rejecting anything that becomes too popular.  I have never wittingly followed fashion – though fashion is welcome to follow me, if it has the necessary vision and can keep up.

So events of the last couple of weeks have been rather disturbing, assailing my delicate self-image where it is at its most vulnerable.  I keep finding myself doing things which appear wildly popular with others – have I suddenly joined the mainstream?  Or has it joined me?  Which is the more disturbing development?  Will he ever stop asking us questions?

A couple of weeks back I took the train to Brighton from my home in Southampton (well, OK, not my home – but the nearby station).  This train was beyond packed long before it reached its destination – boarding was impossible for the last six or seven stations and regular Northern Line passengers were growing concerned at the level of over-crowding.  I had somewhat anticipated a degree of crowding given that it was a weekend in the summer, though one with a fairly poor weather forecast, and figured that the masses might be hurling themselves towards the sea – though to be fair, the sea was rarely more than a couple of miles away for the entire rail journey.  As a result, I paid the modest supplement for a ticket in first class – but even I was surprised.  Southern Railways clearly had no clue that the train might be busier than normal and so provided no additional carriages – I’m thinking I should be employed as a highly paid consultant to ATOC as I am far better at gauging the volume of travellers than any rail company.

When I arrived in Brighton, every incoming train seemed similarly heaving – though my new train heading off towards Eastbourne was pretty quiet.  Only some days later did I discover why, apparently Gay Pride was taking place in Brighton – though my fellow sardines did not look particularly gay (then again, my lack of interest in gland games may make me rather poor – and supremely uninterested – in identifying people’s preferred sexual partner).  I will admit that on my return, I did identify that a small group of lads sitting near me were probably gay – but only because one was wearing a t-shirt stating that he couldn’t even think straight.  However, I feel if I was the primary rail operator serving Brighton I might have been aware of this event and laid on some extra rolling stock.

My train up to Edinburgh was also exceeding packed – so much so, that passengers were encouraged to disembark at Darlington and switch to a slightly later and much more empty train.  I had selected the train as it offered the cheapest Advance First fare to Edinburgh – so I fear East Coast may have rather mis-judged its popularity.

The last couple of years, I have ceased pre-booking gigs to fill every minute of my time here in the weeks before my departure – as this was, frankly, making me look slightly insane.  Instead, I rely on the edgy (or just plain unpopular) nature of my choices to allow me to book my gigs “on the day”.  Newspaper articles saying that there were just too many events at this year’s Fringe and audiences were spread too thin, reinforced my belief that this was a safe approach.  Really, I ought to be old and cynical enough to know better than to believe a newspaper headline!

All the “normal” (i.e. ticketed) Fringe events I have visited have been full – and several have just not been available as a result of selling out.  Is the left-field the new centre?  Or is my taste just less obscure than I like to think?  However, it is the Free Fringe that has been the worst – with most events filled to way beyond capacity.  I blame The Guardian (though other broadsheets must shoulder some of the blame)!  It keeps either recommending or giving 5* reviews to people I want to see – before I’ve seen them – thus revealing their desirability to the unwashed masses.  How is a chap to maintain his obscurantism under these circumstances?  Have I been hacked by left-leaning journos?

Liam Williams was the worst example, where I had arrived at the venue 40 minutes before the off to enjoy a leisurely pint.  The queue was already round two sides of the pub (jn the rain) when I arrived and grew much worse – the venue was packed (I suspect well beyond legality) and my tardy arrival meant I missed all the seats by some distance.  Still, the gig was fun – and quite disturbing – and I do tend to spend too much time sitting down whilst in Edinburgh.  I did, however, learn that my shoes were significantly less waterproof than I had hoped – so I did spend the rest of the day with wet feet.

My next gig was with Mark Cooper-Jones and was entitled Geography Teacher – and I (of course) have not one but two O-levels in geography.  When I arrived at the aptly named venue – The Globe (I like to think that MC-J insisted on it) – it was virtually deserted.  I bought myself a pint and by the time this transaction was complete (~ 90 seconds) a substantial queue had materialised from nowhere – and I only just obtained the last seat in the venue (and that was partly due to the kindness of strangers, I like to credit my grey hair and the sympathy for the poor, old codger it engenders – but I think the lad was just being polite).  The crowd weren’t even proper geography fans – no-one even knew what an esker was!  Still, MC-J did seem impressed (or perhaps slightly scared) by my knowledge of glacial features some 35 years after completing my second geography O-level.  Should he happen to read this post, I think mworld could use an inselberg – somewhere central.

I think I may have to learn to live with my new role as trend-setter – perhaps I could monetise it?  Perhaps we could also ban newspapers giving a review summary based on 0 to 5 stars – if people had to read the full text to identify whether a gig appeals, it might keep at least the lazier of the masses out of my way.  Another policy to implement come my imminent, and glorious, rule!

 

Skittish

I am now well into week 2 of this year’s Edinburgh festivals experience, so my body is probably running low on green vegetable-based goodness by now and the city’s cobbled streets have played their traditional havoc with my feet and ankles.  It is also probably time to mention my comedy experiences at the 2013 Fringe.

I should perhaps make clear that I have “views” on comedy – though as with most of my views, these are really rather mutable as I am not terrible good at sustaining dogma in any area of my life (I’d make a very poor fundamentalist).  I think that comedy, like jazz, is best served live in an intimate (even sweaty) venue – it really doesn’t work in a stadium (or even large theatre) and loses something when televised (though survives the transition to radio quite well).  As a result, I tend to stop seeing comedians when they become overly successful and start playing larger spaces, but this has the positive benefit that I do keep having to seek out fresh (to me at least) talent.

The seeking out of novelty does lead me to believe (wholly unrealistically) that I “discovered” some people and I am then quite inappropriately proud when they go onto greater things or critical acclaim.  On the plus side (for the performer at least), I do feel a responsibility to support their career until they become too successful (see above) and I can feel that my work is done.

I first saw Bo Burnham as a rather brief talking head on a BBC4 documentary on musical comedy (two things very close to my heart) and was forced to use a well-known search engine (you know, the one that encourages you to stare) to find out who he was.   Back in 2010, I booked his show on the basis of this rather limited knowledge and it totally blew me (and the critics) away – it was incredible dense with ideas and jokes.  I have been somewhat obsessed by this show (and his recorded output) ever since and was properly excited by his return to Edinburgh this year.  Despite him playing (and filling) an undesirably large venue, I went and he really didn’t disappoint – I should also mention that he is quite sickeningly young and American, so I was overcoming a lot of prejudices to love his show.

I’ve been following John Robins since he MC’d a gig in Cambridge several years ago.  I do worry about the lad as he remains resolutely unfamous (despite producing consistently funny shows) and he seems to play to small and less than full venues each year.  This year’s show was his best yet and I was really pleased to read some good reviews for it.  He deserves some success and I am going to make it my mission to ensure he gets it – though will admit I’m not quite sure how to make this happen.  A project for the long, dark winter evenings, perhaps.  Stuart Goldsmith is a similar project, but more about him in another post.

This has been a very good year for sketch comedy – both the Beta Males and Max and Ivan were largely new to me but excellent and Jigsaw were as stunning as I’ve come to expect.  For me, WitTank were this year’s top sketch act in an extremely silly but very funny show – I even got to take part, playing the triangle in a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria (which I think we can all agree is a pivotal role).  Actually, I have been starring in rather a lot of shows this year – I think it may be down to the fact that I have reached the age where I am more worried about leg-room than embarrassment and so am not afraid to sit in the front row (though not as yet, with Mark Lawson).

Whilst mentioning sketch comedy, I would also thoroughly recommend Daniel Rigby’s Berk in Progress – which was a little rough around the edges (given its “in progress” status), but exceeding funny.  I shall carry the phrase “mind beard” with me for a while and will never be able to look at Hungarian dance in the same way again.

I’ve tended to avoid “character” comedy in the past, but after seeing a little of him as part of a larger bill earlier in the year I took a punt on Kieran Hodgson.  HIs show based around a fictional(?) flood of the Lincolnshire town of Gainsborough was very funny indeed and once again provided a part for yours truly, as the police inspector’s deputy.  It also marked one of three shows where there has been some form of osculatory action between myself and the comic – another theme of the 2013 Fringe which the broadsheets seem to have missed.  Michael Legge also planted a smacker on me  — though I think I may have been the first audience member willing to play along with the conceit.  I also had a significant role in John-Luke Roberts’ wildly silly and very funny Free Fringe show which involved my apple balancing skills (using only my head) – initially very poor, but then rather too good – and also a slightly uncomfortable (and plain weird) serenade.

I tend to avoid one-liner comics as they relentlessness tends to grate after about 20 minutes.  However, I have heard so much about how great Gary Bainbridge joke-writing is that I decided to risk his show and was not disappointed.  I lasted the whole hour with no difficulty – and could have taken more – and boy can that man write a joke.

In terms of more traditional stand-up, I can also really recommend Alex Horne who’s show has an extremely clever McGuffin and is very funny.  I would also recommend James Acaster, who’s show as very good and very interesting to me as I’d seem a very early incarnation as part of a live ComComPod.  It was funny then and it was fascinating to see how much more funny he’d managed to extract from what might seem rather unpromising ideas in the intervening months.  I’d also really recommend Liam Williams – I’d only seen a little of him before, but his full show is very good and rather original.  It also one of very few occasions where I have found that my knowledge of English Literature was slightly inadequate.

Two people I didn’t see in Edinburgh, but caught in London’s terribly hip Spitalfields (not quite sure how I was allowed in) and would heartily recommend are Tom Rosenthal and Romesh Ranganathan.  I was singularly pleased when I discovered that their shows were deservedly  well-reviewed.

Jonny and the Baptists and Mitch Benn provided some excellent music-based comedy.  Mitch also provided my most exciting moment of the Fringe so far.  At the gig, I found myself sitting next to Ian Rankin – not planned, I just sat-down and looked to me left and recognised the chap and after a few seconds worked out why.  Given the cramped nature of most Fringe venues I was literally (in all senses of the word) touching with him.  I found myself trying to be cool, whilst also trying to decide how much accidental frottage I could get away with – in the hope that even the tiniest iota of his writing talent might rub off on me.

In short, this Fringe has provided a whole range of opportunities (real and imagined) to improve my performing and blogging skills – while I have an immoderate amount of fun (and consume quite a lot of IPA).  I fear it may prove quite tricky returning to my real life next week…