Friday, 24 March 2017

"Here are some phrases..."


This is me trying to transcribe an audience's reactions to a show I performed nine years ago, a promenade version of Jonah Non Grata at the Shunt Lounge: Is that someone saying "This is an asshole of a night" 40 minutes, 40 seconds in? I can't be sure. I might leave that bit out. It's tricky. What sounds like "Good question" on one cheap set of headphones turns out to be "Is it Russian?" on another, and if anyone can tell me what I'm saying 22 minutes and 28 seconds into this, please let me know, or I'll just have to go with "I've discovered a new version of ham" which it definitely isn't.

But it's a surprisingly creative procrastination exercise. Initially I just wanted to subtitle the video using youtube's CC function because so much of it was inaudible (and because it beat writing something new), but the subtitles seem to be taking on a nice life of their own now, and something new seems to be making itself. Of course it might just seem like that because subtitles immediately make something look more like a documentary, or it might seem like that simply because I've spent nearly a week staring at the thing, but so much of the show concerned the reading or repeating of text - phrases in a foreign accent, instructions, hymns, Ian Livingstone's "City of Thieves" - that it seems apt to see this text finally take centre stage. Subtitling also means that any audience murmur I can make out also becomes part of the text now. An unpleasantly fraught audience relationship has become an engaging dramatic narrative. You could never do this in the live show. This is the book. It's almost like a comic. Finally. And the fact that so many of the words are inaudible might actually be helping that transition. Words and pictures.

I still haven't made a decision about Edinburgh though, obviously. This transcription is what I'm doing instead. I'll let you know when I've finished, but in the meantime here's the test piece I did a few weeks ago. I say "test piece" but I don't know who or what I was testing, maybe just people's capacity for attention.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

In lieu of a new blog post: Hannah's show. That.

Here's an alert: Anyone who can make it to Shoreditch Town Hall tonight or tomorrow to catch Hannah Ringham's new show should do so. That's a lot of you I realise, okay let's narrow it down: Anyone who can blah blah the above, and who has ever asked themselves "what is actually funny though?" should go and see - No... Yes, anyone - No. Everyone... Look I suppose my point, really, is that I saw it last night and I was hugely and happily reminded of just what an influence this artist was on me. And I thought about what it might be like for someone who's never seen Hannah before, or heard her writing, and I suspected that it might be mind-blowing. I first saw her perform nearly twenty years ago in those early Shunt cabarets, and I've worked a lot with her since, both in Shunt and out. I never actually saw her perform on her own though until last night (apart from the showings we'd give each other when we were making a show, which I've said elsewhere are among my happiest memories of watching anything). And I noticed myself laughing aloud last night a lot more than anyone else in the audience, sure, but that's normally a good sign. And I was reminded of this blog - In fact that's one of the main reasons I'm recommending the show here, just to let Hannah fill in some blanks - And I thought once again about whether we bill what we do as "theatre" or "comedy", because people should know that they are allowed to laugh, but we don't want to break any promises either, but also, dammit, we want to plant our flags. We do want to go: "This is funny. This has heart, this little, just this. Doesn't it?" We want to check, at least... Listen to me, going "we"! I had forgotten how good Hannah's work was for me. I recommend you get some.

(And if you do book tickets on the site don't worry, as I worried, about having to print your own. It's just the site being stupid. Just go.)

Thursday, 9 February 2017

There are more things in Heaven and Ufton Nervet...

"Populism can survive only amid polarization... Don't feed polarization, disarm it."   This guy

Well this is pretty disarming. Disarming and utterly brilliant.


I found it searching for "Time Spanner" on youtube. As a city boy I'm not entirely sure I get all the references. Is it a Brexit thing? Who cares? I assume the name Time Spanners is a brilliant act of reappropriation though, rather than a terrible mistake. So yeah, two pretty unrelated links... I just thought, parenthetically, it's worth bearing in mind that fascism probably does thrive on polarization, and that there's little more polarizing than a referendum. I'm not saying any of this was planned, but maybe let's not have any more, and - note to self - no matter how hard things get, let's do everything we can to stop that inner census asking of every new face we see: "How did they vote?" because it only helps the heavies. "Oyez. Bad dog."

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Share and Enjoy

LOOK HOW HAPPY HE IS!

Wow I've really played a game of chicken plugging this. Okay, "Time Spanner" - the thing whose progress I've been charting on this blog the past ten years - finally had a pilot recorded in June and was then broadcast on Radio 4 a month ago, which means you now have just one day left to listen to it. Sorry.

And look who turned up to the recording! 
Ben Moor! Ned Mond! Julia, Joel, Jason, Katy Wix!
(Wedding photographer: Stephen Evans)

Has it really been ten years in the making? This interview from September 2007 suggests not. In that I talk instead about wanting to write a vehicle for myself about a homeless wedding planner. What I realised soon afterwards however was that if I was actually going to write that then I'd have to research wedding planning, and I wasn't very interested in researching wedding planning, so I decided to go instead for this sort of cosmic, science-fiction fantasy- You know "Doctor Who"? That. 

Beautiful pic for the Radio Times by Thomas Flintham

Of course it's not really "Doctor Who" (Carrrie Quinlan's got that gig sewn up). Hopefully it rips off so many ideas from so many sources I can't be fingered for any specific theft, but the real impetus behind it is probably the comics I read in my teens, when comics seemed to be doing something amazing... when Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" created a playground in which Peter Milligan's "Shade the Changing Man" could hang back on the benches coolly composing existential thought experiments with painted covers by Brendan McCarthy, while the more popular kids like Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" entered everything and won the gold... exactly the same impetus behind that strip I did about a slacker sent on a mission by an angel twenty years ago now I think about it. Sorry. Obscure references. Bad. 

Also, I wanted to write the show to which "Peaches En Regalia" was the theme tune. 

 Team Spanner photo by Amanda Benson
l to r: Jeremy Limb, me, David Mitchell, John Finnemore, London Hughes, Belinda Stewart-Wilson

So yes, I'm sorry I haven't given you blog-readers much notice of this culmination. You'll probably want to listen to it three or four times, that's what all the cool dudes are doing. John suggests as much in this very nice piece. "John" as in John Finnemore, who played Laika - both in the finished thing and in the first read-through that he let us perform in his flat six years ago. Organising those read-throughs was the only deadline I had for ever finishing a draft. Also present at that first draft was Gareth Edwards who is now the producer of the show. I suspect Gareth experienced even more ups and downs trying to get this commissioned than I did. For me this was always the dream. You're a fool to be disappointed if you don't get your dream. Gareth managed it.

A lot of the "refining" John writes about was the result of conversations I had with Gareth too, both in emails and in person, not to mention the final edit where a tenth of the show had to be cut to meet the running time. I only know this by checking the original script. It didn't feel like a tenth because Gareth clearly cut the right tenth. It was also Gareth who suggested that I call this other dimension "Heaven", rather than as it stood in the 2010 draft "Uberspace", sending the show off in a far richer direction than the original Psychedelic Kid's Show Pastiche I had in mind (although it's worth remembering how many of those shows; "Ulysses 31" "Space Sentinels" and - in particular - "Monkey" felt no qualms about involving the ineffable.) "Uber" didn't mean then what it does now, by the way. Similarly the choice of an unhinged, dictatorial reality-television-starring property developer as the story's heavy seemed a lot more light-heartedly surreal back in 2010. And here's a problem: Among the many exciting things comics were doing back in the eighties, one was the refashioning of Superman's arch-enemy Lex Luthor into a satire on Donald Trump. And it wasn't just Lex: by the release of "Batman Returns" you couldn't budge for superheroes pitting themselves against wealthy philanthropists secretly trying to take over the world, all of whom provided the seed for Kraken.


So I still hope Time Spanner gets a series. Of course I do. But what's funny has changed so, just between you and me, I might have to rethink where it goes. That's the problem when you grow up reading surrealist apocalypic dystopia. But it's also exciting. Far worse for the fate of the show would have been if everything was now fine, and I'm still glad I didn't go with that wedding planner idea. Shall we cheer ourselves up further by looking at more of Amanda Benson's lovely rehearsal photographs?

Here's our Kraken. I had asked for Jon Hamm, but what are you going to do? It's worth mentioning that if it wasn't for David Mitchell I wouldn't be writing comedy at all (see interview) and I certainly wouldn't have written this. In terms of getting the right people to pay attention he effectively joined Gareth as midwife for the last two years of this thing's birth.

Returning for a second to Jon Hamm, I love the motto of Mad Men creator Matt Weiner's: "Subtext is Pleasure". I was keen that the dialogue in Time Spanner should also sound pretty natural, organic even, leaving as many jokes unsaid as possible if that make sense, jokes that would appear more in the performing than in the reading. The problem with this of course is that commissioners read scripts, they don't perform them. They read them once, if that, and even if by some miracle they do correctly interpret every nuance and fluff, the actors who end up having to perform the thing will only be spending an afternoon with these words, there's no learning time, let alone rehearsal time, it's not bloody Shakespeare, so you do have to make it absolutely clear why people are saying what they're saying on that first read. It was David who suggested the solution. Stage directions. Put the subtext in the stage directions. Here's a tiny example:

       
All David's ideas were good. Here I think he's suggesting John be given a stool:

And here he is holding a script in front of his face because the character he is playing is on the other side of a door. John, as Laika, is urging my character on. I, as Martin, am literally miming holding a cup of tea because I'm new to this.

Oh yes. That name. "Martin". 
I wanted - as we all want - something basically normal but a little unfortunate. The words "Martin Gay" came up in conversation eight years ago and I thought: Oo, bingo! It wasn't until two years into the drafting that I realised I'd plumped for exactly the same name John had already chosen for his own feckless sitcom hero in "Cabin Pressure". This might be why nobody in the episode ever actually addresses my character as just "Martin" though.


London! Secret weapon. Gareth always said Gabbie was the key. Here's another indicator of how long I've been writing this: I was writing for Laurence and Gus when I first thought of Gabbie, and Isy Suttie was in the cast. I thought she might make a good Gabbie but then, by total coincidence, she went and got cast as the disarming new love interest in Peepshow, "Dobbie". That long ago. Auditioning actors for Gabbie might be the most grown-up thing I've ever done. Everyone we saw gave beautiful, intelligent readings, but London Hughes was unique in actually reminding who Gabbie was. I don't mean that she reminded me of Gabbie, I mean she literally reminded me who the character was meant to be (and why Gareth was so right). There has to be a surplus energy to Gabbie that - again - you can't really put into words beyond the stage direction "enthusiatically", an energy without which very little Martin does in this episode really makes sense. So we were very lucky with London. If you want more of her - and of course you do - try here.

Far right: B-Stew gets into the zone. Belinda Stewart -Wilson took a porridge of archetypes and instantly made sense of it: Angel, yes, Muse, sure, but also Femme Fatale, Bell Dame Sans Merci, Cylon, Siri, White Witch, half of Tilda Swinton's CV actually, let's face it... VALIS, the Sorceress from He-Man, that weird female Buddha from Monkey, "M", and - if this is a rip-off Doctor Who - the Doctor... a character I was so nervous of pinning down that she's referred to in the script throughout simply as "the Voice", Belinda took it all and simply made it sing.

And completing the team, second from left, the unweildily talented Jeremy Limb, from The Trap and music. You can hear his own science fiction comedy epic Event Horizon Crescent here. If Time Spanner is a baby I always wanted Jeremy to be Godfather. In the Green Room before the recording, as final tweaks to the script were being made, it occurred to me how lucky I was to be in one of the best writers' rooms ever assembled. So thanks again to Gareth and to all the cast for keeping me company. And thanks to everyone who came to the read-throughs and played the roles and helped them exist a bit more. And thanks again to John Finnemore who always seemed to love this thing in all its forms. Which meant it was probably good. Which meant I stuck at it.

Have I missed anything? OH! THE LINK! Here
(And you can like it on here too.)
((And also broadcast that same belated epiphany was Now The Twelfth Night Show, which I loved appearing in, and which you also have a day left to listen to.))