Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Show Biz Kids

I was listening to a panel of writers on the radio discussing the state of contemporary comedy, and had one of those unsettling "alternate universe" flashes.  I have to admit that I do love to talk, and I like to make people laugh, and -- if I had been better-looking, had more talent, a more ruthless ego, and less common sense -- I might have been tempted, once upon a very long time ago, to join the entertainment business.

There is a show-biz strand in our family.  Both my father and grandfather played drums in local dance bands, and Dad could hold a tune quite well at a microphone, in a Tony Bennett-ish kind of way.  My great-uncle had been a trumpeter in the Dragoons and, after retiring from the regular army, went on to be a Wardrobe Master at Ealing Studios in its heyday.  His daughter married an ex-Royal Marines trumpeter, Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, who became a professional musician with the Edmundo Ros orchestra.  The presence of Uncle Buzz added a grace-note of glamour to any family occasion.

For a time at college, I did rehearse with a band, but lacked the necessary sense of mission. Unlike another singer who was rehearsing at that time in Oxford with his band Ugly Rumours, two of whose members were friends of friends.  It has always baffled me why I don't remember ever meeting our Dear Leader; I'm sure he is similarly baffled*.  I'm told we were in the same smoky basement room when, on the day of release, a copy of Born To Run was ceremonially removed from its shrink-wrap and laid on a turntable, but my memory is terrible these days and, besides, everything Blair-related is smothered under a litigious blanket of silence, and I'm sure I couldn't comment, m'lud. 

My big opportunity for a show-biz career came when I was approached by a future kingmaker of comedy, Geoffrey Perkins. His name may not mean much to you, but if I say he produced The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and held Douglas Adams' feet to the fire to get those brilliant scripts delivered on time you get the idea. As a writer and producer, he was central to a whole generation of influential British radio and TV comedy.

When he died in 2008, pictures of him in his university days were shown on the news, and it all came back to me: how, one evening in 1974, the very same slightly goofy lad, wearing the very same silly tank top, had come knocking on the door of my college room.

"We hear you're quite funny," he said, "Would you like to write some stuff for the Oxford Revue?"
"Not really," I said.  It all sounded a bit establishment to me and, you know, poncy.
"Are you sure?" he said, "It could be a real opportunity!"
"Yes," I said, "Quite sure".

And that was that.

Thankfully.  It could never have worked.  By now, I'm sure, I'd be on my my fourth relationship and third course of rehab, struggling to find work, depressed and anxious about the pressure from younger, funnier, hungrier competitors.  Heard the one about the comedy writer who led a contented, productive, useful life, took early retirement, and had no regrets about the choices he'd made in life?  No, neither have I.

It is odd, the way we glamorise the Darwinian street-scuffle of show biz.  Like any conjuring trick, we are misdirected and mesmerised by the illusion (ever seen this video?), failing to see the heap of used-up lives, broken promises, and exploitation on top of which any successful performer is standing, occasionally stamping on the hands reaching up to pull him down.

I recently watched the films Man On Wire and My Architect, and it seemed to me that the lesson of both was that, if you value your ordinary life, you should stay well away from people committed to a personal vision, whether it be of high political office, grandiose architecture, wire-walking, or just the needy pursuit of laughter and applause.

Such people will hurt you without regret -- destroy you, even -- if they feel they have to.  Life has few fates more precarious than a walk-on support role in some monomaniac's personal drama.  If it doesn't seem to be working out -- not funny enough, not the right narrative arc -- they'll simply write you out of the script.

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don't give a fuck about anybody else


Steely Dan, "Show Biz Kids" **




* One of those Ugly Rumours friends-of-friends subsequently became a civil servant, and tells the tale of encountering Blair in a Number 10 corridor.  He was about to high-five and wassup Mr. Tony when he realised the dignified old chap accompanying him was Nelson Mandela.

**  If you have never heard the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" by Steely Dan, you really should get hold of a copy.  For me, it is one of the supreme achievements of the 1970s.

24 comments:

Martin said...

I came within a whisker during the early 80s, when Alan Bleasdale was guiding me in the craft of script-writing. Despite coming close, it never happened for me and, in a way, I'm glad. You're observation, "fourth relationship and third course of rehab, struggling to find work, depressed and anxious about the pressure from younger, funnier, hungrier competitors" is spot on.

Zouk Delors said...

'I recently watched the film[s] "Man On Wire"...'

We would all be that great hero, the Great Valerio, surely, Mike?

PS I had that Wayne Sleep in the back of my cab once. He's TINY!

Mike C. said...

Zouk Delors,

A very apposite song that -- suitably ambiguous about fame, too:

"I'm your friend until you use me
And then be sure I won't be there."

I confess I wasn't quite sure who Wayne Sleep is: Wikipedia says "At only 5'2", Sleep is famous for being the shortest male dancer ever admitted into the Royal Ballet School". Now that is tiny. He must look bloody ridiculous in most ballet roles.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Although that's a brilliant line, it's oddly discordant with the theme isn't it? The line which seems to chime with your own theme is:

"Who will help the tightrope walker,
When he tumbles to the net?"

Wayne Sleep is really very famous, and not just to ballet aficionados; he was recently mentioned on the highly amusing The News Now Quiz Show, a New Year comedy mash-up hosted by Rory Bremner, as the first (and only?) person to execute an entrechat douze. If you missed it, I think it's available as a podcast.

eeyorn said...

That's terrible Mike. To think you were a whisker away from tooting your flute and maybe convincing Mr Bliar to jump off the nearest cliff with all his mates is tantalising.

I suppose my greatest claim to fame is that I played fiddle for an expat Morris Dance team in Bahrain, and we performed 'English Country Gardens' and 'Jockey to the Fare' for Charles and Diana when they made a State Visit to the old King, Sheikh Isa. Fortunately my crimes against music have yet to be punished.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Sorry, thought I'd better re-listen to the song. Started with Linda T. on Bright Lights, then a nice live version with just Mr. T., then thought I needed to listen to the live version of Calvary Cross... Next thing I know it's nearly wage-slaves' bedtime.

It's a curiously ambivalent song about ambition, focus, spectacle, and "being ordinary", but then we need to bear in mind that RT is hardly a mere spectator -- he's Henry the Human Fly! Not to mention one of the best guitarists and songwriters alive today -- that must come at a cost.

Mike

Mike C. said...

eeyorn,

I've been happily tootling my flute, as you put it, for 35 years, thank you very much.

The height of the cliffs in Oxfordshire is much exaggerated. Reminds me of the stage direction in Donizetti's opera "Emilia di Liverpool" (no, really) which refers to "The mountains outside Liverpool".

Mike

eeyorn said...

Well if you'd care to go busking in the Witney area, you could perhaps convince Ca-Moron and and his chums to hurl themselves into Headington Quarry :)

Zouk Delors said...

I only know the Bright Lights version, one of my all-time favourites. I must give those other recordings a listen when I can.

I agree with your interpretation of the song, and perhaps that line I found incongruous is really the descent from the sublime heights of the heroics to the ridiculous real world of the ordinary mortals who gather to gasp at the spectacle. (There's a word for that, which I'm sure you can oblige me with).

Eeyorn told me you had a "thing" about Henry the HF, but due to an inexplicable lapse in short-term memory I forgot to enquire further. However, I heard a recent(?) interview with RT on R2 and, as far as I recall it, he has no regrets, has always enjoyed and continues to enjoy what he does.

Btw, did you know that the "wire-walking" guitar coda is based on something by Satie?

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Try YouTube -- a great resource for music.

I'm beginning to suspect that eeyorn has me confused with someone else... Mind, I do have a "thing" about most things: that's how you sustain a blog over 5 years.

No, I didn't know the Satie connection, though it doesn't surprise me, as the whole song uses some very Satie-esque moves, musically, which I lack the knowledge to describe.

Talking of which, I can't think of the word you want: sort of a sideways version of "hubris".

Mike

eeyorn said...

You were a great champion of 'Henry' which I believe you bought almost as soon as it came out. I don't tink anyone else in our circle were that impressed with it. You were right of course, it is indeed the 1st of a long line of fine musical offerings from Mr T.

eeyorn said...

RT seems to like circus imagery....'Walking on a Wire' is also one of his best (IMO) and 'Wall of Death' sounds great with the full band.

Mike C. said...

eeyorn,

Really? If I was a champion of "Henry" then I don't remember it now. Which is not to say it's not true. Maybe I'm confusing me with someone else.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Sorry to have come in so late to this discussion - too much family stuff over Christmas.

The Eric Satie piece is "La Balloncoire" from "Sports and Divertissements" - 21 pieces, of which this is the second:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSkVwfAthV4

I was fascinated to read that you were a huge fan of "Henry" and Zouk a fan of "Bright Lights" as when I knew you all it seemed that no one had any interest in RT other than me! In fact, I seemed to be an RT bore at the time. This includes me booking him at Stevenage College on 25/1/74 where he played "The Great Valerio" and explained the coda as the Satie piece. Which is where I came in I believe . . .

Dave Leeke said...

Oh and by the way as a coda to this . . . several of you may be interested to know that a certain Mr Fuke has just recorded a version of "Bright Lights Tonight" on his latest cd "Rambleaway" (see www.menageatrois.org.uk).

Mike C. said...

Dave,

Someone round here is very confused, and I won't deny that it may be me.

Where are we now?

Mike

zythophile said...

"I had that Wayne Sleep in the back of my cab once."

I knew the woman who was his personal secretary. She indicated he was a bit like that.

I was watching the Bruce Willis film "Looper" on my last flight back to HK and was delighted to hear the RT/LT version of "Bright Lights Tonight" come up on the soundtrack.

My nearest link to Tony Blair is being in the same politics seminars at Sussex University as the man who later became his "focus group" guru, Philip Gould. If you want to blame a man for New Labour, Gould was probably more responsible than Blair. If politics is, as someone said, rock 'n' roll for ugly people, Philip was probably not unlike Richard Thompson: hugely admired by a small set of people (the Tories admitted after he died in 2011 that they learnt a lot from how he had made Labour electable) but unknown to the vast majority. Politics, however, is just as difficult to succeed in as music, or sport, or comedy writing, or anything else: most people who try to get into politics don't even get to be a parliamentary candidate in a no-hope constituency, let alone go on to appear on Newsnight or whatever the political equivalent of Top of the Pops is. I was actually more involved in active Labour Party politics at university than the man who was to become Lord Gould was - but like you and rock 'n' roll, Mike, I found I lacked the mission to want to carry on a political life.

Martyn Cornell

Zouk Delors said...

Mike,

No, not hubris; it's a figure of speech (or summink) where you accentuate the high by juxtaposing it with the low, also used for humourous effect. I'm sure there's a Greek word for it but I couldn't find it at http://grammar.about.com/od/terms/a/rhetermstype07.htm, which seems fairly exhaustive (not to mention exhausting).

I don't remember ever hearing Henry, but according to internet sources it remains the worst-selling album on the label, despite being highly considered by many.

Dave,

Thanks for filling in the details on the Satie. I'll have to follow that YouTube link up when I get some wifi. Seems Mike was right about YouTube ("a great resource for music"): I'm surprised it's not more widely known.

Thanks also for the tip about RF. It was in fact he who did me a tape of Bright Lights in the 80's, so yes, I did come to it a bit late.

Btw, I was trying to explain to Eeyorn who you were and could only remember I met you through Rob, but not how you knew him. I've since learnt here it was at the FE College while you were social sec. I saw the original Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Steve Peregrine Took, there (but before your time I think).

Zythophile,

A bit like what? Liable to take unlicensed cabs driven by dodgy geezers?

Or a bit "the other way"? If the latter, I don't think it's any secret that he's more camp than an international Scouts' jamboree.

Does your Greek stretch to figures of speech, or is it strictly beer-related?

zythophile said...

Zouk: my Greek is limited to knowing how to transliterate μπουτίκ and the difference between μεγάλο and μικρό I'm afraid.

Martyn Cornell

Zouk Delors said...

Hey Martyn,

I'm glad you go shopping in Greece - they need as much help as they can get - but I reckon you're playing dumb on the figures of speech, because I've sneaked a peek
at your blog and although the subject matter in general is of relatively little interest to me now as an ex-beerdrinker*, I was delighted to come across a lively discussion on the difference between "beer" and "ale", in which you mentioned a large collection of books on language, I believe?

Your pseudonymic friend, Zouk

*Or should that be ex-aledrinker?

Zouk Delors said...

Hey Martyn,

I'm glad you go shopping in Greece - they need as much help as they can get - but I reckon you're playing dumb on the figures of speech, because I've sneaked a peek
at your blog and although the subject matter in general is of relatively little interest to me now as an ex-beerdrinker*, I was delighted to come across a lively discussion on the difference between "beer" and "ale", in which you mentioned a large collection of books on language, I believe?

Your pseudonymic friend, Zouk

*Or should that be ex-aledrinker?

Dave Leeke said...

Er, Zouk,

We were all at school together . . . (okay, I'm a year or two younger) and you're best mates with Jim Green - it's more likely that we met that way.

Glad the geeky stuff about Satie may be of help. I'm far more geeky about RT . . .

Zouk Delors said...

Sorry, Dave, but I'm pretty sure I first became conscious of you as Rob's sidekick. Where does JG come into it exactly?

I tried the Satie on YouTube today, courtesy of Tesco's free wifi, but like a lot of stuff there (YouTube, not Tesco's) it wasn't recorded loud enough for my tinnitus-stricken lugholes. Trolleys don't help, of course.

And I'm going to be listening to Henry very soon courtesy of some pirate I know.

Mike C. said...

OK, you guys, let's draw a line under this personal stuff, please, especially where it verges on unpleasant sniping.

Remember there are another 200-300 people out there who read this blog regularly, and they don't care about any of this.

I'm going to post some comment guidelines, and any future comment which -- even in part -- doesn't abide with them will be deleted.

Mike