Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Morning Warship Issue 3: Funny business

Back in the lads-mag days, over ten years ago, one of my regular tasks was sitting by the side of our regular contributor, author Norman Parker, to make his words fit on a Quark Express page layout. He didn’t trust sub-editors to carry out this simple task – and rightly so – so we’d sit together and make sure he was satisfied with every sentence. We’d have to trim a few words or add a line or two, then we’d print up the piece and Norman would sit in the corner of the office, with his glasses on, and have a silent read-through. His stories were pretty spectacular, so you can understand why he wanted to get his published words spot-on. He’d travel up-river in Colombia and locate cocaine kitchens, things like that – really dangerous projects.

Norman was – and probably still is – keen as a Jack Russell, a small bloke, but he exercised at 6am every morning and you could almost sense, by osmosis, the power in his chest. He was well into his fifties by this point and would often impart advice and wisdom to the rampaging males on the magazine team, all wrapped in a direct Ipcress File-era London accent. What was interesting about Norman was his own rampaging past and deliverance.

In 1970, Norman was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a criminal – or should I say, fellow criminal. Norman was a figure in London’s underworld in the Sixties, but even before the murder conviction, he’d served a six-year stretch for manslaughter. Norman Stanley Fletcher, he wasn’t. Norman served 24 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, in a variety of locations, most notably Parkhurst. While incarcerated, he attempted to escape more times than was sensible, rioted a fair amount and also went on hunger strike. Norman was not a happy camper.

Realising all this excessive expenditure of energy was getting him absolutely nowhere, Norman opted for an alternative survival strategy – education and fitness. He studied hard and earnt an Open University degree (later, around the time of my tailored sub-editing sessions, he also got an MA in criminology, although I had to find that out – he didn’t leak the information). When released from clink in 1994, Norman mentioned that the one major aspect of British society that had changed was that everybody had become a comedian. “By this, I mean people have got to have the last word, the last laugh,” he explained.

This had a profound effect on me. I realised we were living in an unplanned, unscripted, mediocre sitcom, where everybody had the starring comedy role. For the young, office-based Lukes and Joshuas who had entrusted themselves as guardians of modern humour, wisecracks had become part of conversation structure, and the more I observed, the more I realised we had a comedy catastrophe on our hands.

The soft-lad gobs***eism of New Football, with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner as joint-managers, was a major conduit of this grotesque state of affairs. In fact, I blame Baddiel and Skinner for many of society’s ills, and strongly suspect that Baddiel’s studenty Mary Whitehouse Experience mob has irrevocably transformed this nation into a safe refuge for the criminally unfunny. The term “British comedian” is now something that means “indescribably dull”. I listen to BBC’s Five Live radio station a fair amount, but on Sunday it’s been completely upended by masters of the naff wisecrack from the stand-up world. You should switch off after Tony Livesey.

Our stand-up comedians are failing miserably at the one job they’re supposed to do, which is to take comedy forwards. We’ve stalled with humour; our current crop of stand-ups are like Lukes and Joshuas with a loudhailer. They’re accountants that have overcome stage fright. Cynically, they’ve discovered that the best way to make tons of cash is to aim their blank humour at the average bank employee, people who send links to each other about cats. Today’s comedians give a constant stream of below-par observational gags powered by a shouty voice and rapid movement from stage left to stage right. Sweated jokes for a DVD-buying public.

I don’t wish to name names, but the worst culprits are Marcus Brigstocke, Rufus “It’s Always Movember” Hound, Michael McIntyre, Jimmy Carr, Dom Joly, Alan Carr, Rhod Gilbert, Russell Brand, Shappi Khorsandi, Shazia Mirza, Gina Yashere, Lucy Porter, Sue Perkins, John Bishop, anyone on Mock The Week, and that self-obsessed, feel-sorry-for-me, I-don’t care-what-we-talk-about-but-can-we-talk-about-me Humpty, James Corden. It’s as if they know they’re not funny, but, y’know, what the bloody hell are they going to do – work for the council? These people that send pictures of cats in sombreros and Santa hats to each other, they lap up this mediocrity and share it with other likeminded lost souls. Peter Kay’s had his day, as well. Jokes of schooldays, Spangles and the past? It’s a very Nineties outlook, that.

The worst of all modern comedians is that sparkly-eyed soft-soak Jack Whitehall. For him, there ought to be a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style disappearing, where not only does he no longer exist, but he never existed. I saw him on The Graham Norton Show last year and he was slobbering over that leather jacket-wearing, clingfilm-wrapped crooner Michael Bublé (who looks like a regular in a Coventry nightclub), snuggling up to him like he was in love, touching his trousers.

“My ideal night these days,” said Whitehall, “is to go home, run a bath, light some candles, open a bottle of Shiraz, put on a little bit of this gentleman’s music [Bublé] and have what I like to refer to as a ‘Bublé bath’.” Is that it? That’s your big gag for the watching millions on a Friday night? “Bublé bath”? I couldn’t turn the telly over quick enough. I feel sorry for Whitehall’s girlf, the actress Gemma Chan. She should have dumped him by telephone live on air – although she must have a slate loose for dating him in the first place.

The thing is, the Nineties wasn’t a bad decade for comedy. Father Ted is the best sitcom ever made, but you also had One Foot In The Grave, Bottom (which, yes, was an extension of The Young Ones, but worked), Black Books, Brass Eye, The Royle Family, The High Life and Alan Partridge. I like the fact that without swearing, Father Ted could easily be a kids’ TV programme. There’s no dirt, no muck, and the priests are little more than children themselves. There’s just epic embarrassment, confusion, danger and shame, the sort of situations that made Fawlty Towers such a winner. I prefer the utter absurdist escapism of Father Ted to John Cleese’s long-legged discomfort; like Harold Steptoe, Ted needed to escape but is thwarted at every attempt.

Much ground is covered in a Father Ted episode – The Simpsons is similar in that respect. Storylines provide a trellis for the vines of dialogue to grow through. It was the ridiculous conversations that provided Father Ted’s hilarity, whether the inhabitants of the parochial house were entering the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called “My Lovely Horse” or getting lost in the jungle-like surroundings of Ireland’s largest lingerie department.

Ted: “Do you remember when he [Father Jack] gave you a big kick up the B-O-T-T-Y?”
Dougal: “Hahaha, yeah, and do you remember that time you were bending over him and he held your nose so tight that you had to open your mouth and then he dropped a big spider in it, hahahaha.”
Ted: “No, that wasn't funny, Dougal. It was funny when he kicked you up the arse, it wasn't funny when he put the spider in my mouth.”

I’ll never tire of that scene from “New Jack City”, where Father Jack contracts hairy hands syndrome (level six out of a maximum of 12). At the Prisoner-inspired Festival No 6 in Portmeirion this September, I’ll be putting a few questions to Father Ted director Declan Lowney in front of a live, deckchair-seated audience. Declan’s also the director of the new Steve Coogan film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – so I’ll have to get off my B-O-T-T-Y and see that flick before the Q&A.

I met Declan, briefly, at Festival No 6 last year, so there’s a linearity at play. He arrived as part of the extended New Order entourage – his wife’s a friend of New Order’s PR lady, Jayne. I was in Portmeirion specifically to see the band and our tents formed a sort of media plaza in our backstage field of mud. Declan failed to mention his comedy credentials, but he let slip some facts a few months later at a party hosted by Jayne in Brighton. Over too many glasses of quickly consumed red, we decided a return to Festival No 6 ought to be attempted, especially if we could get in for free. It soon became apparent that the only way to guarantee a gratis return to that North Wales idyll would be to work for our passage.

At last year’s Festival No 6, me and the wife camped together for the first time. She was more keen than I was; I didn’t fancy the prospect of dew-covered pyjamas every morning. Critical to our canvas-covered stay would be controlling the toilet problem of outdoors living. No way was I traversing to the edge of the camp in the dead of night to expel frothy jets of foaming beer and wine. So we developed “PU1”, a novel system for the removal and storage of urine (P – p***; U – unit; 1 – the first in the series). I can’t believe that nobody else has ever tackled this camping conundrum. Within the warmth of your own tent, you wee into a funnel; this collects in an old ice-cream tub; you then transfer the warm, fragrant trickle into old milk containers. It’s recycling in action! Very alternative, very festival, and for a short time, the plastic bottle acts as a “radiator”.

In the mornings at last year’s Festival No 6, it was my job to traipse to the nearby hotel and deposit the previous day’s collection into the public toilets (rather than pollute Friesian pasture). Between us, we were producing six pints of effluent a day. It was like a military process, but crucially, we’d tamed nature. There was a bit of a problem on the final morning. I hiked up to the hotel with six pints of p*** in my backpack – which is really heavy – and just as I was ducking into the toilets, Gillian Gilbert from New Order leapt in front of me and said, “Oh hi, did you enjoy the gig last night?”

With my back straining under the weight of efflux, I had to provide a positive account of The Prisoner-themed New Order performance from the previous evening. Not easy. Obviously, Gillian had no idea what I was carrying, otherwise she might have given me the cold shoulder – which I was already suffering from.

When I mentioned this tricky tête-à-tête to Declan, he naturally hijacked the narrative and gave my story an inevitable Father Ted spin. He said that the bottles had exploded on my back and New Order’s synth-playing, soft-voiced, guitar-playing mum-of-two was covered in the chilled remnants of lager, red wine and Prosecco. It became clear that Declan’s brain is hardwired into Father Ted and I suspected that he only listens to the build-up of stories and always provides a calamitous climax. As for PU1, I remain very proud of that invention; me and the wife will shortly start work on the slightly improved, uprated PU2.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Morning Warship Issue 2: Factory/Disney communications

When you reach an advancing age, the prospect of an almighty night out leaves you feeling as nauseous as if you’d actually had an almighty night out. If you’ve got young kids, humdinger evenings are pretty much off the agenda anyway, and if you’re a writer, like what I am, it’s best to keep your head in some form of working order; as Bobby Byrd said, “If you don’t work, you can’t eaaaat”!

This doesn’t mean I shy away from alcohol. Far from it. Nothing cuts through a day’s devilment like a large glass of red when the kids have climbed the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire. Saying that, we live in a flat, so it’s more like Lincolnshire. This year, I’m a huge fan of Casa Luis Caranena Joven, a Spanish plonk that’s spearheading Asda’s courageous three-for-£10 range. At £3.33, you’d expect it to be a dog wine but it glides down the oesophagus on silken wings. The bottle comes in gold netting, and as we all know, if a bottle of wine has got netting round it, it tastes better.

I’m not saying I don’t like big nights out – I like them very much, but on my terms. Occasionally – twice a year – planets, stars and comets converge in a straight line, meaning that me and the wife have the opportunity of an almighty night out but with no kids the next day. We can hide in bed till 3pm and slowly come to terms with how mercifully ill we feel. And cos you don’t feel like eating much the following day, you lose 4lbs. Weight Watchers could learn much from this novel approach to slimming. Big nights out are essential for recalibrating the soul; you have to get them out of your system.

It’s better to put your own nights on so you don’t have your bi-annual boozathon ruined by a dubstep DJ who’s live-streaming mixes through Soundcloud on his HTC One. We plan these nights well in advance. New Year’s Eve was the last one, and a resounding hit, even though one of the revellers approached the decks and poured a full pint of lager directly into one of the CD players. We’ve had a few sparsely attended get-togethers in the past, but we’ve got high hopes for this Friday, especially because its location couldn’t be any more central if we’d tried – New Oxford Street, W1. Even so, if the partygoers don’t spend £1,000 at the bar, I lose my deposit. So if eight people turn up, they’ll each have to drink £125 of ale or five bottles of rough champagne.

The exotic mix of dance, indie, soul, disco, 80s, 90s and modern leftfield pop is supplied by an in-group of DJ wannabes, masters of the merge rather than mixing, whose ages range from 37-52. We’re all media slags: writers, sub-editors, designers. None of us are Skrillex, but we’ve trained ourselves to be able to press play at the correct time in seriously sozzled states. John Peel-like mistakes naturally occur but as these events are often private get-togethers, you won’t be fined for playing “The Liquidator” by Harry J Allstars twice in ten minutes.

When you arrive at a fresh venue, the equipment will be totally different to any place you’ve DJ’ed before. Manning the decks is like flying a spaceship, what with all the flashing lights and shiny readouts. You may as well do that hammered as sober. At least you’ve got an excuse for a poor performance. I once did a day’s DJ course to try and grasp the basics but didn’t learn a damn thing other than the need to count through records in fours and eights. I’d rather just enjoy the track on its own merits and make the odd cock-up than put myself through a maths exam. I’ve enough counting to do when I’m totting up my outgoings every month.

The major problem with playing to the public is that they approach and ask the most inane questions. I used to DJ monthly at a soul night in London and lost track of the number of times I was asked to play Take That. One time, a woman staggered towards me and said, slurring, “Got any Take That?” I replied, “We’re not running that sort of operation.” She said, “Right, I’m getting my boyfriend.” You’re then faced with the prospect of getting your teeth knocked down your throat for not owning any tracks by British pop’s Walter The Softies – although there’s a clear link between northern soul and Take That. Ian Levine, a DJ at the Blackpool Mecca in the Seventies, was co-producer on the ice-cream headache Take That debut LP Take That & Party, from 1992.

Hopefully we’ll remain free of violence and Take That this Friday. There’s a theme: Factory/Disney. This reverts back to a text conversation I had with a friend prior to a wedding – my wedding – last month. “What’s the theme of the afterparty?” he wondered. I tapped back, “Factory/Disney”. There wasn’t a theme at my wedding – a wedding is theme enough – although the idea carried on when a female co-organiser suggested a dress code for our upcoming shindig. At a committee meeting, in a pub, I suggested – in jest – Factory/Disney, and before I could explain myself, the motion was carried.

It’s a tough look to pull off… what do you go as, Mickey (Stephen) Morris? Bez Lightyear? Minnie Moscrop? I’m going as Bernard Sumner in the narrow hinterland between Ian Curtis’ death and the birth of New Order – maybe the eve of New Order’s first gig at the Comanche Student Union in Manchester on Wednesday, 6 February 1981, with support from Stockholm Monsters and Foreign Press. I’ll probably wear a Dumbo badge on my navy tie to keep folk happy. It’ll be a big night, even with eight people in attendance.

I once asked Ian McCulloch, the singer from Echo & The Bunnymen, what was the wildest night out he’d ever had. You’ll notice that I namedrop a lot here – I do that in real life, too. “I nearly died in Cincinatti,” Macca revealed. “Early tour, 1983. We flew to Cincinatti and it was like, ‘Can we get some of the old doodah?’ I’m sharing a room with the tour manager – those were the days! Mick disappears to meet this dude who looked like an elongated Harrison Ford, with red-leather jacket and diplomatic immunity, from South America. He’s got this briefcase full and we’re doing, easily, gram lines. Like, swoosh, ahhhhh. Bangin’! It makes you go mad. And it hurts. And the back of your neck, in one, it’s like, ‘And tonight Matthew, I’m gonna be Stephen Hawking.’

“Seven of these lines later, still felt a little bit moreish, ha-ha-ha-ha! I was in for a long haul, here. It was scary and then you realise... aaa-aaahhh-aahhhhhh, I’m swallowing me own tongue here. I should have done more in the right nostril. It was a bit lob-sided. So I go back to the hotel and carry on. It’s like, I don’t know how many grams I did that night, but it was easy ten. I was bongoed. So anyway, I went to me room that night, and the tour manager wasn’t there. So I’m lying in bed, and I’m like, ‘This is it, the big woooo.’ So I phone up me mate, and I said, ‘I think I’m gonna dieeee. Could you bring a wet flannel?’ And he just mopped me brow, me feverish brow, for hours. And it’s like... it’s fair enough having one or two, but ten! And the following night, back on it!

That interview was well over ten years ago now. In 2012, when I was writing a career retrospective about the aforementioned Sumner for GQ, I asked him the same question, and realised that my almighty nights out are piddling in comparison. “There was a party in America,” Sumner recalled. “I think we did a festival with De La Soul. Some special friend from Texas turned up with some special gear, and I remember being so off my face that I was dancing and I was convinced the devil was on my back, with his arms wrapped around me and his legs wrapped around me, and if I stopped dancing he was going to devour me. So I was terrified of stopping dancing. And then when I eventually did, I had the most horrible night. Of course, I had a gig the next day. That was pretty hard core. I eventually realised I was being paranoid.”

Alt.pop stars – just pace yourself! Well, that’s enough reminiscing for one week. My long-term intention is to make the last paragraph of Morning Warship a bit like the end of Open All Hours, where shopkeeper Arkwright, played by Ronnie Barker, looks up into the Doncaster sky and speaks to God. What a classy production that show was – I loved it. Best comedy ever? We’ll come to that next week. Fer-fetch me cloth, G-G-Granville. Cue credits in traditional FTY Skorzhen typeface and playful brass-band theme.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Morning Warship Issue 1: No packet required

Morning Warship: Issue 1

One day, I’m determined that I’m going to write the history of the biscuit. It’s a fascinating subject and barely touched upon by the mass media. Magazine editors won’t touch articles on biscuits for fear of upsetting their fashion advertisers, which is strange, as we prefer eating biscuits to wearing suits. Let’s have more biscuit ads and less fashion ones! Before we start, I’m not intending for Morning Warship to become a biscuit bulletin, although we may come back to biscuits at frequent points.

We’re big biscuit aficionados in my office, and the UK is the only nation in the world that gets the biscuit recipe right. Most people in my office travel the length and breadth of the world and will often bring back a biscuit from whatever nation they’ve visited. France and the Low Countries have terrible tea-time fancies – all soft and ostensibly flavoured with almond. The American cookie is a better option, but even they can’t top the traditional working-class biscuit of the British. We’re talking bourbons, custard creams and fig rolls here. Yes, fig rolls are basically Bonios with a currant filling, but they deliver a fantastic sweet punch mid-morning.

I once had to write a large, bitty feature for a dolly bird-obsessed lads magazine about the more unusual aspects of British design, things like “trough lollies” – those fragrant cubes you find in men’s urinals, bookie’s pens and chip trays. It was right up my street, actually. The aim was to celebrate the uncelebrated, paying respect to the normal, which is a great idea in itself, and the magazine definitely had the right man for the job.

The Crawford’s Pink Wafer was one of the subjects I was asked to include. This, I found controversial. Those dry flamingo fingers were a mistake of mankind and should have been retired as soon as rationing ended in 1954. I think they sold on colour alone, pink equating to an extreme sweet experience. Even our dog would reject Pink Wafers in the Seventies, such were their universal, pan-mammal lack of appeal.

For the lads mag story, I rang up United Biscuits (who own the Crawford’s brand) press office to try and get a product history, but was told, “I don’t think we make them any more.” I looked at the packet in front of me, that I’d purchased earlier that morning, and wondered if I’d located a “warehouse find”, an errant batch that survived a Crawford’s cull and ended on the shelves of Sainsburys by some fluke of distribution. The press lady didn’t believe me when I told her I’d just bought a packet. She did her best to find a Pink Wafer timeline over the following week, but all details of that foul fancy had been lost, although she admitted they were often pushed into a Rover selection tin, seemingly to make up the numbers. I ended up having to unearth facts myself – and even then struggled.

When I wrote the piece for that s***-for-brains lads mag, which must have been around 2006, United Biscuits seemed to be running down operations of its traditional range, including the fig roll and garibaldi. However, these museum relics are bouncing back – probably fuelled by my office – and recently, United Biscuits re-packaged its 69p price-marked packs (trade: PMPs) to celebrate Crawford’s 200th anniversary. We’ve sometime to wait before fashion brand Hugo Boss marks its 200th year, and even then it will be keeping details of its far-right Nazi past under strict control. Formed in 1924, Hugo Boss used slave labour in the war, and Hugo himself was a driven fascist fanatic. Just think of that next time you’re shelling out £130 on your regular-fit, regular-kind-of-guy, SS stormtrooper Boss Orange jeans. Get a brown shirt while you’re at it!

Sadly, every single word of my lads mag story was changed by some dopey staffer – I mean every word. When I came across a copy of the six-page piece, I went into a rage, obviously. Such was my anger that I ran onto the street and deposited the publication in a municipal bin. I couldn’t have it in the house. My piece read like I was some sex-crazed, porn-obsessed monster who spent most of his waking hours watching pole-dancing. Obviously, I was straight on the phone, and should really have sued for damages, but didn’t, instead choosing to never work for Maxim ever again. I think it’s closed now.

I used to buy my biscuits at a newsagents on London’s Grosvenor Street, simply because it was the nearest biscuit emporium to my workplace. It’s nice to have a screen break around 3.15pm and no manager in their right mind is going to protest to your 15-minute absence if you return with a pack of McVitie’s Hobnobs – which are a fantastic creation. The newsagents was a dear option, unless you chose to buy biscuits that had the price as part of the package design. You could get Hobnobs for a time for 99p, and not the preposterous £1.75 that they’re now on sale for – I’m told: I don’t go in any more. On my final visit to that mixed-goods establishment in 2011, the proprietor, who sits on a highchair all day behind the till, ignored me when I held my hand out for 1p change from a quid. The longer I held out my hand, the more he ignored it.

The newsagent then did the unforgivable. He served the person behind me in the queue. I pulled my hand back and said, “Like that, is it?” I flew to my desk and said, with much fury, “He’s just lost my biscuit account.” For the sake of 1p, he must have lost somewhere in the region of £500 in biscuit sales. I now buy my haul from a Sainsbury’s Local first thing in the morning. And at 55p for a block of bourbons, it makes sound financial sense. Every penny counts; I hope my arrogant newsagent is starting to understand that fact.