Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Tips for Edinburgh Festival visitors

The Edinburgh Festival is underway, with some 3,200 shows to choose from. I have had material used in sketch and stand-up shows many times over the years but here is an article I wrote last year about my experiences as a visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

I'll be posting topical one-liners on a regular basis.

I will be now be regularly posting some of my topical one-liners suitable for radio presenters, after dinner speakers and comedians on article sites such as Bubblews. Here is a selection based on some recent stories featured in UK newspapers. More to follow...

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Topical one-liner suitable for a speech

A study has found that small businesses in Britain are owed £35.3 billion in unpaid invoices. The excuse always used to be 'Your cheque's in the post'; since April it's been 'We're saving up for a first class stamp to put your cheque in the post'. (More details of my topical gags here).

Monday, 6 June 2011

My 1994 BBC TV interview about gag writing

I don't know which to feel more nostalgic about - the amount of open door writing opportunities back then or the amount of hair I still had...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Stuck between a jock and a hard place

Let's see, a high street financial institution needs a new TV advertising campaign but, perhaps being well aware of the low esteem that banks are now held in, decides to associate its brand with something more popular. Lightbulb moment: how about a radio station? Yes, why not pretend that this bank has its own studio that broadcasts its offers to listeners?

Unfortunately the resulting commercials feature a cast of characters so gormless and unappealing that they might just have the effect of putting viewers off ever visiting a bank or listening to the radio for the rest of their days.

The first one that I was unlucky enough to see (so many, many times) showed a ghastly breakfast show posse explaining about giving savers a fiver. In the non-fictional radio world this would be the equivalent of still expecting listeners to get worked up about the prospect of receiving a free windscreen sticker. Nowadays, of course, radio ballyhoo is more about huge cash prizes (although in the banking sector it only seems to be the bosses who 'win' those).

Then there's the ad where a young chap is trying to broadcast details of tax-free Individual Savings Accounts (yeah, that should keep those RAJARs rising!) Sitting next to him is one of those women who manages to be attractive but also rather scary at the same time. The moment he mentions ISAs, she has a lightbulb moment of her own, presses a button and Vanilla Ice's only memorable hit begins playing.

It's hard to decide what was the most amusing thing about Vanilla. Was it the fact that his real name was actually Robert Van Winkle? Or how about the story that he had ended up working not in hip hop but a bike shop? There was also that bit in the dreadful reality show The Farm where he got into a row about the Iraq war and had a finger wagged in his face by a furious, er, Paul Daniels. He's recorded with Jedward, too; now that's sad. No, I think his greatest unintentionally funny moment was the clips programme where he attempted to demonstrate that the bassline of Ice Ice Baby is different from that of Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure but only succeeded in making them sound even more identical than everyone except him already thought. I'm sure he'll find the royalties from this ad useful, though; perhaps he'll invest them in a tax-free savings scheme.

The commercial is in full flow by now. The annoying woman moves her head towards her radio colleague in time with the music. It's difficult to tell if she's flirting or simply trying to drive him to suicide. Whichever it is, she's also loudly whispering 'Isa Isa baby'. I want scream at the telly:


But I have neighbours so I don't.

The follow-up commercial to this one featured a multi-tasking presenter who played her own jingles on an organ (as you do) and tried to read off an idiot board held upside down by an idiot colleague. And this is supposed to give you faith in these people to manage your hard-earned money?

Look, I'm all for using humour in adverts but when it comes to making radio presenters look ridiculous, well, that's best left to Programme Directors.

There's another recent ad I wanted to mention, not for its visuals which feature some animated characters doing all manner of exciting things, but for the accompanying song: '118 24/7, it's Directory Heaven'.

Eh? Do what? Where's that place then?

Over the years, I must have successfully looked up thousands of businesses and private individuals in the Phone Book, Yellow Pages, Thomson's, etc, but I can't say I have ever found myself thinking afterwards 'You know what? I'm in Directory Heaven!' I suppose, in fairness, I should acknowledge that, although it's not quite in the same league as the word 'orange', poets and lyricists have always found that 'seven' doesn't offer a huge number of rhyming opportunities other than 'heaven'. Why, even a certain great white rapper might struggle.

It was actually a directory that led me to the Radio Magazine, for which this piece was originally written. Back in the mid-90s, when my technophobia meant that I avoided any type of computer, let alone that new internet-thing, I visited my local library to find out if there was a radio journal that I could advertise my writing services in. I was handed a set of massive volumes called Willings Press Guide which listed thousands of specialist newspapers and magazines (including, I seem to remember, an organ called The Monk which apparently enjoyed a three-figure circulation in the UK's monasteries) and eventually I discovered what I had been looking for: the Radio Magazine.

But even if I had known back then that one day I would actually write for it, I still don't think that I would have considered myself to have arrived in You-Know-Where because I just can't imagine such a location.

Having said that, if I was forced to choose between inane fictitious settings then I would sooner find myself in Directory Heaven than in that Hell-ifax radio studio any day.

(Originally published in the Radio Magazine, 28 April 2010)

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Like the clappers?

The grammar school where I was nearly educated had a Latin teacher who pulled pupils' hair if we got something wrong in a lesson. (As you can see from my picture, Latin wasn't my best subject). I can remember him once telling us how actors in ancient Rome would say 'plaudit' after a performance, which translates as 'applause, please'. (Well, if you have to ask...)

Of course, some audiences don't need to be requested to clap but rather have to be asked to reign in their appreciation. Another memory from my schooldays is of a primary school headmaster informing us that he would appreciate it if the applause at a forthcoming prize-giving where parents and local dignitaries would be present could be more subtle than that at a recent swimming gala. And I once saw a snooker match on TV where an overly-enthusiastic Steve Davis fan clapped in a loud (and lonely) fashion after every single shot his hero played. He was eventually told to tone it down by an official.

(Don't even get me started on the baying mobs at TV talent show auditions...)

But audience response can be stage-managed. Those cheers at the beginning and end of the new-ish, lower-budget version of Countdown don't quite sound spontaneous to me and we are, of course, well into the party conference season with its predictable standing ovations (probably the only exercise some of those delegates get each year).

So what about the applause on radio comedy shows? At my speaking engagements, I often meet people who believe that all the laughing and clapping must be 'canned' or in response to some little bloke frantically jumping up and down holding signs saying 'LAUGHTER', 'APPLAUSE', etc. Some may even have attended tapings of TV shows - some decades ago - where this actually happened.

Having spent some years regularly attending recordings at the BBC Paris Studios and Radio Theatre, I have to try and convince them that this just isn't the case. I have certainly seen producers tell audiences beforehand to be enthusiastic and observed an announcer hold up an arm to signal applause at the end of the opening and closing signatures but that's about it; the lion's share of the response is down to the material, performance - and audience.

For a radio comedy writer it's a great experience when 300 people in the studio applaud an original one-liner of yours. This may be because it makes a point which they agree with or because they simply find it very funny but the most glorious moments are when something subtle gets a laugh which builds into a ripple and then a full round of applause as the penny drops.

But I once wrote for a topical series on Radio 2 which had very little promotion. I didn't attend any of the recordings and perhaps I should have done; judging from the volume of the laughter and applause, this might have boosted the attendance figures by several per cent. It wasn't a bad programme at all but it only ran for one series and I can't help thinking that this lack of audible appreciation helped to seal its fate.

Some of the most enthusiastic responses can be heard when long-running radio comedy panel games record editions away from London, in fact listeners may be left wondering if this is the only live entertainment which has ever been staged in that particular city. How some commercial radio presenters must envy such audience energy when they compare the indifference at their OBs from shopping malls!

Right, that's the end of this column; please feel free to clap. Go on, 'plaudit, plaudit'...

(Reublished from the Radio Magazine, 30 September 2009)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

20 links you'll (probably) never hear from a commercial radio presenter...

1. "Why DO these people insist on recording their own adverts? No, really, WHY?"

2. "Sorry to keep inflicting this one on you but I HAVE to". (Variations could include: "Oh no, not bloody Leona AGAIN?" or "And now let's hear 'Chasing Cars' by Snow Patrol, surely the most hideously overplayed 'oldie' of the past decade. Or ever").

3. It's 6am so let's hand over to our new Breakfast 'Personality' whose salary will do so much to keep my wages low and your advertising costs high. He/she has never done radio before - see if you can tell..."

4. "And coming up in the next hour, we've got a damp squib 'wind-up' that only really succeeded in upsetting and alienating one of our few remaining listeners".

5. "Amazing headline story in all today's papers about a Radio 1 presenter..."

6. "According to a new survey about banks - oh sorry, can't do that one, we run commercials for a bank. A study has found that few of us trust salesmen - no, can't do that one either because of the double glazing ad..."

7. "Don't forget our celebrity - yeah, right - interview".

8. "On This Day in 1995 (DEAD AIR) Sorry, I was just thinking how much better this job was back then".

9. "This morning's Top Ten at Ten comes from a year we haven't featured for nearly a fortnight".

10. "Here's a very interesting piece of trivia a therapist passed on to me recently when I was in the Priory...yet again".

11. "And today we're coming to you live from a shopping mall where I'm being stared at gormlessly by some teenage mothers with Croydon facelifts under their white baseball caps and a large group of schoolkids so 'HELLO CHAVS AND TRUANTS!'"

12. "Look, I can't possibly fit what I want to say into 17 seconds so just ignore the song you can hear under my voice and keep on listening to me, OK?"

13. "So here's the bit where I try to convince you all that I follow sport".

14. "From Penzance to Canterbury, this is your 'local' station for the South".

15. "I'd better just quickly name-check myself as so many of you keep saying I sound just like a couple of our other presenters'.

16. "There's now a webcam on our site but just ignore it because it invades my privacy. Unless you can tell me what any of these buttons in front of me are supposed to do". (Could also apply to some BBC presenters).

17. "Don't forget to drop me a line if you're getting married this weekend - and you still haven't booked a DJ for the reception".

18. "It's 3.30 am and you know what that means: time for another ProPlus".

19. "And if you've got any thoughts on this, don't bother texting or emailing because I'm not here. In fact, no-one is because this show was pre-recorded a week ago. At this moment I'm listening to my own voice while stacking shelves in Tesco's to earn a living".

20. "I know what you're thinking: did he play six in a row or only five? To tell you the truth, in all this monotony I kind of lost track of the tracks myself. But being as this is a 44-song playlist, the most bland and repetitive in all the world and any variation would blow our Group PD's head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: do I feel the need for an MP3 player instead? Well, do ya prefer punk?"

(Republished from the Radio Magazine Issue 899, 8 July 2009)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Farewell, funnymen

The problem with having heroes of humour who are in their 80s is that you keep losing them. The great demolition raconteur Blaster Bates passed away in 2006 and was included in Radio 4's Last Word - although the earthy nature of his tales meant that he received precious little airtime when he was alive. Never mind, the album sales made up for that - and continue to do so with CD reissues.

This time last year, Humphrey Lyttelton died. Before his operation, he told Barry Cryer 'If all goes well, this year's drama is next year's anecdote', a brilliant, inspiring saying which will itself be quoted for many years to come. (Incidentally, I think the BBC's idea of having former I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue panellists Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon taking it in turns to host the new shows is an inventive attempt at filling the gap left by Chairman Humph; it reduces the risk of regular listeners taking a dislike to one new permanent presenter but avoids having a long succession of hit-or-miss guest hosts, a practice which has sometimes affected the quality of Have I Got News For You. We will soon discover whether this experiment has worked).

In March, the death of the witty broadcaster Geoffrey Smith was marked by a feature on Gardener's Question Time.

I started regularly listening to Radio 4 when I was nine (any child who tunes in at an even younger age is probably like Stewie on Family Guy) so I listened to those guys for a long time but I'm now off to find some younger heroes because, as I said, the older ones have this infuriating habit of leaving just when you thought they could go on forever.

(Republished from the Radio Magazine Issue 889, 29 April 2009)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Where does it come from?

I was too young to appreciate Beyond Our Ken, the forerunner to Round the Horne, when it was first broadcast but I have listened to many episodes since then on tapes and on BBC7. One of the most popular characters played by Kenneth Williams had the catchphrase 'Thirty-five years!'

It doesn't sound quite as impressive if I go around saying 'Three years!' as I celebrate the third anniversary of beginning these fortnightly columns but I am surprised, both at how quickly the time has flown and the fact that I am have somehow come up with seventy-plus articles (and counting!)

You see, it all started out as a proposal for just one feature. Back in the late nineties, I rang the then editor of the Radio Magazine, the late Howard Rose, to ask if he would be interested in a one-off piece about the ups and downs of show prep writing. He said he was, and to send it in. But somehow, what with my speaking, teaching and other writing commitments, I never got around to doing so.

Fast forward to 2003 and I rang again. By now, Paul Boon was the editor, a very friendly chap who laughed at my humour on the phone and told me that if I had enough ideas, I could do it as a two-parter. Now that made things even easier - so why did it take another three years for me to actually sit down and write it?

When I did finally send the articles, I mentioned that I had also contributed to BBC radio comedy shows for twelve years, written a Radio 2 documentary about 10cc and been interviewed on air several times myself and that the anecdotes and observations from these might make a handful of further pieces. Paul said he'd have a word with his deputy, Collette Hillier, and see what she thought. The result was that I was asked to write a fortnightly column from that point onwards.

I had never realised before how much of my writing, whether for radio, live performance or publication, is fully-formed in my head before I ever put pen to paper or switch on a computer. Of course, there are times when I make notes and develop them, or compose from scratch on the screen, but so many of these columns have been conjured up while doing something else. This is fine - just as long as no-one can see you. It's one thing to devise material while lying in the bath but doing it in a public place like a supermarket means that people are sometimes amused/baffled/frightened by the inevitable facial contortions which accompany such intensive thought!

A few years ago, I was in a comedy club in Camden on my way back from speaking at a lunch in Beaconsfield. There was a chance to do an open mic spot and, as I hadn't done any stand-up for about five years and I was on a high from the speech going so well, I thought it might be interesting to have a go. I had a short time in which to put a five-minute routine together so I took myself off into a dark corner (actually, they were all dark corners in this particular room above a pub) to sort out some new material, try and remember tried and tested lines from years before, put them all into a logical sequence and mentally rehearse.

The resulting dancing eyebrows, jaw movements like a cow chewing the cud and twitching shoulders as I prepared myself soon led to the Aussie organiser coming over and asking in a very concerned way 'Here, mate, are you alright?' And I thought I was being so unobtrusive...

Another thing which has surprised me is how big a part radio plays in my life, not just professionally, so this supplies me with subject matter, whether it's the listening habits of Bournemouth taxi drivers I know or missing programmes during a power cut.

Today Collette is the editor, the Radio Magazine can now also be read in an online version and these columns seem to be delivered so much nearer to the printer's deadline than when I started. But the ideas keep coming.

It's called creativity. Some of the larger networks might like to give it a try.

(Republished from the Radio Magazine Issue 883, 18 March 2009)

There is life after radio

'Whatever happened to ---- ?' is a query you will often see posted on radio message boards. Answers arrive pretty quickly. Former national BBC presenters are often traced to decent time slots on local stations while big-name commercial jocks still usually tend to be working somewhere, either behind the microphone or even running a station. And then there are those involved in agencies, voice-overs, training...

When I was writing for multi-contributor BBC radio comedy shows, I knew that these would not run forever and I would sometimes look at my colleagues and wonder what they would do when the axe finally fell. Some were already just about to leave anyway as they had performing careers that were taking off or they had made the transition to writing for TV. Others were creating work by devising their own radio series and one or two even became producers. But what of those who would have no other comedy writing outlets, particularly the ones who never came to London but sent in their gags and sketches from all over the UK?

In my own case, I found myself taking on a wide range of freelance writing long before the BBC opportunities dried up. Not all of it has been humorous and these strait-laced commissions have hardly been in the same league as the broadsheet technology journalism that some of my fellow gagsters moved into but any writing work beats sitting in a call centre for little more than the minimum wage.

So, over the years, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I have written: part of a script for a video dating agency plus others for horticultural films for my local council; a press release for a day nursery; advertorial for a greasy spoon cafe and 'business thoughts-for-the-day' recorded messages (probably never used). But there has been comedy as well, ranging from my radio prep service through speeches of all kinds to material for ventriloquists and magicians (not for radio, obviously), pantos, greetings cards, stand-ups, impressionists, singers, a teenage strongwoman and a mind-reading goose (believe me, writing these columns is a doddle by comparison!)

But what happens to comedy performers who are no longer heard on the radio? As an example, I'd like to cite not some political stand-up or improv team but...the Grumbleweeds!

Formed in 1962, they moved from serious pop through children's TV to comedy sketches and impressions and then had their own award-winning Radio 2 series from the late 70s to the early 90s, produced by the BBC's small radio comedy department in Manchester. Even their long-running ITV series was called The Grumbleweeds Radio Show. So what are they doing now? Well, they've slimmed down from a five-piece to the original founding duo consisting of the naturally funny Graham Walker and the remarkably youthful and multi-talented Robin Colvill. They sent me a couple of DVDs a while back, including one of their highly successful cabaret act. OK, so I'd heard most of the jokes elsewhere but they were perfectly linked and executed. In their case, I can even relax my usual rule of not approving of impressionists impersonating other comedians' characters because they just do it so well. And Robin's impression of Cher is worryingly convincing! With a busy diary of concerts, cruises, summer season gigs and pantomimes, I hope they won't feel the need to go on some ghastly reality show to remind the public of their existence just yet.

But I bet they could do a really good sketch about one.

(Republished from the Radio Magazine Issue 877, 4 February 2009)