Comedy

Round in Circles

An article on my book “In Complete Circles” has appeared in the local magazine Omagh Today. Thanks to Claire Martin for the publicity.

“…In Complete Circles – an irreverent, laugh-out-loud, nostalgia-laden memoir/travelogue that takes a hilarious journey down memory lane…”

Please note: This is a quote from the article and not my own words!

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In Complete Circles
is available from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

Alas – Smith & Jones no more

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The Dreaming Armadillo’s official deceased comedians’ obituarist Philip “Skinny Banana” Larkin returns with a tribute to Mel Smith who died last month.

GOODBYE MEL: THE ONLY GOOD POLL IS A DEED POLE

I was spending a weekend with friends down in Milton Keynes a couple of weeks ago, and we decided to go for a long walk in the glorious sunshine. We stopped at a convenience store to grab a few items for dinner, and it was there that I saw on the front of the Daily Mail a photo of Mel Smith and Griff-Rhys Jones in one of their head-to-head conversations.

“Good”, I thought, “they must be coming together for another series, or a special programme.” Then I inspected the photograph more closely. The caption tagline read: “MEL SMITH DEAD AT 60.” He had died from a heart attack. I felt sad, for a number of reasons. The first I suppose is one we all feel when someone we remember as a feature from childhood passes on, someone who has been metaphorically “in our house” through TV. I recall watching Alas Smith and Jones with my brother years ago, us laughing like drains at one of the “Home Video” sketches, where a family of chavs and their slobbish lodger, Len (Mel Smith, obviously!) made a very feeble attempt to re-enact Star Wars. It was hilarious. The second reason I felt somewhat sad was because he died at such a relatively young age, and never got the chance to enjoy the fruits of his achievements and life with his family into old age. That said, he did lead a very full life.

I’ve recently been finding out quite a lot of new information about Mel, but some things about him were obvious to all. He came from an ordinary family in Chiswick, London, where his dad was a bookie – Mel was, I discovered, very fond of the races and a flutter on the gee-gees himself – I suppose that it was in the blood! Apparently from the age of six or so he would direct little plays and sketches with his friends in the neighbourhood, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he took this route in life. He would have admitted himself that he was never the handsomest of men, but he could use somewhat bulbous nose, thick lips, and hangdog appearance to amazing comic effect – he looked funny, and was aware of it, turning what many men would see as a curse to his advantage.

He was one of those people who, once you saw him on TV, you wouldn’t forget. His appearance and frequent portrayals of slovenly and louche characters belied a sharp intellect and a strong sense of street savvy: as my dad would have said, “The softest part of him was his teeth.” From his grammar school he won a place at Oxford to study psychology, but, as he later said, he was attracted to Oxford primarily due to its famous and prestigious Drama Society, of which he later became president. It was through this office that he met Griff Rhys Jones, who was president of the Cambridge Drama Society, with whom he was to form a long-standing partnership. From what I’ve read, Mel was one of those people who really loved life, and all the good things that it had to offer, such as good food, alcohol, cigars, and quality cars. Sadly, it seems as if his fondness for the first three of these took its toll on, since he had suffered from much ill-health in recent years.

I first remember him as a child, appearing in episodes of the then ground-breaking comedy show Not the Nine O ’Clock News, together with other young newcomers Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, and, of course, Griff Rhys Jones. This show, much of which has stood the test of time, was pure gold once it hit its stride, poking fun at more or less anyone and everything, including older, more conventional comedy shows. CW will confirm that I nearly choked with laughter one night when he put on the CD of Mel and Griff’s skit on the Two Ronnies, “The Two Ninnies.” We both later found out that the late Ronnie Barker was extremely upset about this sketch, labelling it “excrement.” I know that CW is bored with me saying this, but I do think that Ronnie overreacted a bit (and allegedly he did come to realise this when he had calmed down), when it would have been better to see the funny side of it. Another memorable sketch featuring Mel was one with Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, where he was a professor on a chat show with Gerald the Gorilla (Atkinson), whom he had taken from the wild and made perhaps too good a job on civilising, including teaching him to speak flawless English, study philosophy, and play a game of one-upmanship with the professor.
Professor: “Let’s put this all in context, when I brought Gerald from the jungle he was wild.”
Gerald: “Wild!? Wild!? I was livid!!”

Priceless stuff, and the comic rapport between Smith and Atkinson was brilliant. Yet it was Jones with whom Smith was to go on and form a long lasting partnership with. Practically all of us of a certain age remember the famous head to head dialogues against a black background, where Smith would play the know-all (who really knew very little), and Jones would play the credulous, dumb bloke who occasionally would hit on a nugget of clear reality, puncturing the inflated pride of Smith.
Mel also scored great success as a producer and director, developing the Talkback production company with Jones, and selling in on to make them multimillionaires. He also directed the Mr Bean movies, starring his old colleague Atkinson. To me, it’s just a pity that time caught up with him so soon and he couldn’t have continued to enjoy life for a bit longer.
Many tributes have been written about him in recent weeks, but I believe that the best of these comes from an old childhood friend from Chiswick, Terry O’Sullivan, who grew up with Mel:

He was a few years younger than me but my mum and his mum, my sister and his sister, we were all friends together. We all used to play in the street together. It was after the war.
We stayed friends even after he went to the local grammar school and moved away and went to university.
I was just a normal working class lad and became a signal engineer, but it didn’t make any difference to Mel. He treated everyone the same and he came to my mother’s funeral.
We used to play cricket in the street together, he had all the bats and the stumps and we played football too, well you did back then.
He was a very generous man and a kind character. Not bad at cricket either!

Perhaps of all the eulogies he was given, Mel might be most pleased with this one cited above. Perhaps he was the archetype of the “working class boy made good”, whose attitudes towards friends never changed despite his success. One thing is certain, and that is that the world of comedy has lost a truly talented man, who brought laughter to us while alive.

Rest in Peace, Mel.

Tyrone Herald: “On The Spot”

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A bit more media coverage for the book via the Tyrone Herald’s “On The Spot” feature.

The picture was taken in the Cabo de Gatos National Park in Almeria, Southern Spain, where many “spaghetti westerns”, notably those directed by Sergio Leone were made in the 1960s. How appropriate – it’s certainly bad and ugly, but I can’t see much good there.

Another shameless plug…

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In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy…

Available now from Amazon for £4.95 or $10.50 or €8.24 (in Italy), €8.12 (in France), €8.56 in Germany, €7.90 (in Spain).

Previews available.

“In Complete Circles” book published

I’m relieved to finally announce at long last that my book In Complete Circles:  The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy has finally been published after almost two years of graft.  Copies can be ordered from Amazon – which also lets you have  a look inside.  More extracts can be found on this blog.

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“A comic and at times irreverent memoir of school life and adolescence in a Northern Irish town during the 1980s and early 1990s with accompanying rants on the absurdities of modern life, nostalgic reminiscences on the news events and popular culture of the era and the subsequent fulfillment of youthful ambitions through travelling, sometimes verging on the surreal. This book is part memoir, part travelogue. The chapters alternate between episodes from the author’s school days and subsequent travel writings (incorporating the Baltic states, Australia, New Zealand, Romania, Spain and Morocco) from several years later – but always with a connecting theme linking the two eras. Examples include a schoolboy fascination with horror films linking a visit to Transylvania, daily reports of the Balkan war during the author’s schooldays in the early ’90s linking a tour of the region 15 years later –and a childhood addiction to tangerines with dreams of trekking through the Sahara on camelback leading to a trip to Morocco.”

Thanks to all who provided me with the valuable support and encouragement during the writing of the book!

Memoirs of An Ageing Schoolboy # 7: The Life of Larry

As some of you may know I’m currently writing a memoir concentrating mainly on my school days.  Just over a year ago I published some early extracts on the blog.  I’ve been working hard on it ever since and now hope to have the finished product out in time for Christmas.  And before any smart remarks come in – yes I do mean Christmas 2012.

In advance of a certain long-awaited reunion due to take place in just under a fortnight’s time, here are some further extracts to whet the appetite.Image

At the behest of our English teacher, a walrus-moustached Belfast man called Lawrence Muldoon, known among the pupils as Larry, a small group of us attempted (“attempted” being the operative word) to set up a film club.  The idea was to hire a film projector and show selected films of the more artistic type like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and profound subtitled European films from the likes of Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut rather than the standard current Hollywood blockbuster to an audience of appreciative younger pupils.

We managed to procure some used film posters from the local cinema and stuck them up at various locations around the school to publicise the imminent formation (ahem!) of the club.  Inevitably they were defaced.  On the Steel Magnolias poster two drawing pins had been strategically stuck through each of Julia Roberts’ breasts, and another one further south.

Due to a combination of apathy and logistical problems the film club never saw the light of day, even though about 20 pupils (mostly gullible first and second years) had already paid the £1 a head membership fee.   Where that money ended up remains a mystery to this day. 

Larry like many of that particular generation of teachers born roughly between 1940 and 1955 was a bit of a character.  He had nicknames for virtually all of his pupils based on agonisingly bad puns. 

If we ever had him for a free period (or study periods as the principal preferred to call them – even though during these interludes we did anything but study) he would go around the class asking boys their names.  A typical exchange would go like this.

Larry: What’s your name, boy?

Pupil A: Sir, Aidan Duddy.

Larry: Sir Aidan Duddy?  Have you been knighted? 

What’s your name?  (Pointing to Pupil C)

Pupil D:  Otis McAleer.

Larry: So what do they call you then? McAlnose?

Pupil D: No, they call me Curly because I’ve got curly hair.

Larry:  Where are you from?

Pupil D: Ballygawley.

Larry: Is that Ballygawley, Tyrone or Ballygawley, Zambia?

Pupil D: Zambia.

Larry:  What’s your name, son?  (Turning his attention to Pupil B)

Pupil B: Sam Teague.

Larry: I just asked your name, not your religion.  (To Pupil C) What’s your name?

Pupil C: Martin McTosser, sir.

Larry: Are you from Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C: No, Killybastard.

Larry: I didn’t know there were any McTossers in Killybastard.  Sure McTosser’s not a Killybastard name.

Pupil C: My da’s from Ballykilbollocks.

Larry: Is your da called Pat?

Pupil C: No, sir.

Larry: Mick?

Pupil C: No.

Larry: What the hell is his buckin’ name then?

Pupil C: Frank.

Larry: Frank, the butcher?

Pupil C: No, he’s an electrician.

Larry: You mean electricity has actually reached Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C (Unamused):  I wouldn’t know, I’m from Killybastard.

Larry: You didn’t have a brother at the school a few years ago?

Pupil C: No, I don’t have any brothers.

Larry:  And what’s your name?

Pupil X: Sergio McBastard

Larry: You’re not one of the Drumgallykilderrymore McBastards are you?

Pupil X: No, I’m one of the Castlegorfinmorebrack McBastards

Larry: You McBastards don’t half get around…

And so on…

There would be situations when certain troublesome pupils were making a nuisance of themselves in class.  Larry would pretend to get angry and bang loudly on his desk, then say: “Get yourself down to Brother O’Loscan’s office now!”  The miscreant in question would go out the door down the corridor and on his way to receive a bollocking or perhaps much worse from the Great Satan only for Larry to shake his head with a sigh and reveal his bluff, ordering a designated pupil to:

“Run after thon buckin’eejit and bring him back here!”

He would also indulge in the occasional spoonerism – If someone had left the door open he would bark at them – “Fose that cluckin’ door!!

Watch this space…

Caption Competition: When Marty met Betty

To commemorate the historic meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness I’m running a caption competition with a special prize for the winner.

I’ll kick things off with my own contribution – and before you ask – I’m not eligible to win – but even if I was it’s unlikely I would win it!

QUEEN:  I remember you when you used to sing with that nice Paul Simon.

MMcG:  I’ve built a few bridges over troubled waters since then.  Just ask Mrs Robinson!

QUEEN:  Yes I’m sure one’s day will come. (Moves swiftly on to have a more in-depth conversation with Michael D.)

IT WAS THE WAY HE TOLD THEM!

In the last few weeks three great names in the field of Irish comic entertainment exited the earthly stage for the very last time to ascend to the great theatre in the sky.  The first to go was veteran actor David Kelly, probably best known for his role as cowboy builder O’Reilly in Fawlty Towers.  Hal “He told me that I have a cult following, at least I think that’s what he said” Roach passed away last week, but the most famous of three was no doubt Frank Carson.  Phil “Wear they dope cap” Larkin pays tribute to the wise-cracking Belfastman.

Before reading it check out this classic clip from the Clive Anderson show circa 1990.

It is with bittersweet feelings that I sit down to write this piece about Frank Carson, the recently deceased Belfast comedian. He leaves many of us, whatever our creed or background, feeling a real sense of loss, even though, by any standards, he enjoyed a long and fulfilled life. I, and probably CW also, grew up with him: he was part of the cult ITV Saturday morning “childrens'” show TISWAS, a role which he could have been born to play. His anarchic and nonstop humour meant that he stole the show in any TISWAS scenes in which he appeared. In my memory he appears almost as an animated cartoon character, with his laughing, chubby features, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and cheeky grin radiating good humour and mischief. There is one word which I think best sums him up: he was a real “character.” In a period when Northern Ireland was characterised on the media by dour faced politicians and bombings, he showed a side of local people which was rarely seen, namely our love of fun and “good crack.”  He was blessed with a great gift: he knew how to make people laugh, often at themselves, in a way which rarely offended. Although from Belfast, the industrial nature of the city and the gritty humour of its inhabitants meant that he slotted well into the Northern English Variety show circuit, where he indeed learned much of his trade. His personality and style of humour fitted alongside people like Les Dawson and Cannon and Ball, all of whom he was great friends with. Unsurprisingly, both Roy Walker and Jimmy Cricket were also friends.

Over the past few days I have been looking at old video footage of him on the BBC news website obituaries, telling jokes which would probably have been regarded as old by the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Without fail, I found myself laughing along with them, quite simply, because of “the way he told them.” He could enliven the most stale punchline with an infectious laugh and often a funny face which I defy anyone to resist reciprocating with a laugh of their own, and by the peak of his career had perfected the machine gun Ulster patter which became his trademark. Frank never hesitated to laugh at himself, and seemed to acknowledge that much of material was a bit on the dated side, to say the least and, (I know that CW will appreciate this!) when he appeared on the Paddy Kielty show he said loudly (as he said everything) that he had come on the show to get some of his old material back! Kielty just looked embarrassed!  [Yes, I most certainly do appreciate this!  CW]

I suppose he came from that generation of northern (Northern England and Northern Ireland) club comedians who really had “come up the hard way.” As Les Dawson said about the northern club circuit: “If they liked you they didn’t applaud – they let you live!” As a Belfast Catholic, he once explained in an interview, without bitterness or rancour, how difficult it was in his youth to find good employment, and after unsuccessful stints as an electrician and a plasterer, he, like many of his contemporaries, joined the British Army. Although too young to see service in World War II, he served as an acting corporal in Palestine in 1945 – 1948 in the Parachute Regiment, fighting against both Arab and Jew. One of his obituaries stated that he personally shot dead a terrorist suspect attempting to escape from captivity. Perhaps people like Frank had to develop a keen sense of humour to protect themselves from the horror and hurt of their circumstances. After his military service, he entered showbiz, and began building a career on Ulster Television, winning the talent show “Opportunity Knocks” twice. However, his real big break came with the ITV 1970s show “The Comedians”, which made people like him, Jim Bowen, and Charlie Williams household names throughout the UK and Ireland. I fully acknowledge how talented a writer Ben Elton is, and I also take on board Alexei Sayle’s criticisms of comedians like Carson and Bernard Manning, but perhaps Alexei does not make enough allowances for the background and era which such comedians came from. Frank Carson did make me laugh, while Elton mouthing off about the iniquities of Thatcherism in a faux cockney voice just does not do it for me. 

[On a point of information, Phil, Stephen Fry states in his autobiography that Ben Elton actually does speak with this accent in real life, as do his brother and sister apparently.  And while we’re on the subject of Alexei Sayle slagging off other comics, he also apparently also had a go at Ben Elton for selling out his former principles as an anti-establishment enfant terrible by writing smash hit West End musicals with Andrew Lloyd-Webber.  CW].

Carson did, however, have a serious side, just like all comedians. I remember once he was interviewed after a bombing incident during one of his visits to Belfast, and he said, forthrightly, that this was the reason why he could never live in the City again. He was clearly both upset and angry. His humour also belied a deep knowledge of political, Parliamentary, and electoral history, and a genuine interest in the arena of politics. One matter of special interest to him was the ending of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which gave rise to intense activism on his part for the cause of integrated education. He was also mayor of Balbriggan twice, a town just north of Dublin.

Given some of the reports of journalists who travelled with him on his tours and campaigns, I get the impression that he could be exhausting company at times: he simply could not stop! As Spike Milligan quipped, the difference between Frank Carson and the M1 was that you could actually turn off the M1! Chat show hosts and producers took him on to their shows at their own risk: he would simply dominate the show and interrupt other guests, insisting on being at the centre of attention at all times.  [As the above clip from Clive Anderson wil testify} CW

I would have liked to have met him in person, but will just have to make do with having seen him as “Buttons” in Cinderella at the Grand Opera House, where our first year class at grammar school went on an outing to the pantomime in early 1986. He was brilliant in the role. After his passing much was made of the fact that his fact that his family was of Italian descent, but little was said about his mother, who actually hailed from Dublin. During 1982-1983 my two tradesmen brothers worked on the sheltered housing project where she lived, and still remember her as a lovely, gentle old lady who would make tea and buy in cream buns especially for the workmen on the project. Frank came himself to open the project when it was finished, and when he had ended his brief speech, he said “I’d better go off and be funny now!” The rather curmudgeonly site foreman, a bloke from Newry called Billy Dinsmore, who was clearly no fan of Frank, remarked audibly and caustically: “Humpf, that’ll be the day!!” To his eternal credit, Carson saw the funny side to the remark and took it in good grace.

I do not believe that we will see his like again. The generation of comedians which he represented are now passing from the stage gradually and steadily, although their descendants are still discernible, in the form of people like Peter Kay.

When he met Pope John Paul II, he was asked by the Pontiff whether he had ever met Elvis. Frank replied: “No, but it won’t be long now!” I hope that he is now together with his close friends and family, making them all laugh up there. 

[Apparently his family issued a statement saying something to the effect of “Now that Frank’s gone it will be a lot quieter here.  But God help the ones up there!]  CW

Rest in Peace, Frank.

Some New Jokes

I’ve written a selection of new jokes for a stand-up comedy act I hope to be doing soon.

For inspiration I went to a comedy club last week.  The first comedian who came on took a live cow with him on to the stage.  He got a round of applause, but he milked it for all it was worth.

The next comedian took a sheep on to the stage.  He said “This is my ex-girlfriend.  We broke up last week.  I said it’s not ewe, it’s me.”

Another featured a live bull.  One guy in the audience didn’t like this so he threw a rolled up copy of “Socialist Worker” newspaper at the stage.  The comedian was furious and went ballistic.  It was like a red rag to a bull.

An insomniac took viagra.  He was up all night.

I switched on my computer yesterday.   I heard this voice coming from the hard drive shouting “F*** OFF YOU UGLY C**T!”  So I phoned up the help desk and told them my computer was out of order.

Noel Gallagher’s cat has no tail.  It’s a Manc’s cat.

Don’t worry, I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon.