Category Archives: Interviews

Onion Talking: Paul Kaye on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

This weekend sees the long-awaited launch of BBC One’s fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on the best selling book of the same name, and adapted by the makers of Wallander, Sherlock and Dotor Who.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars in an alternate England where magic was once commonplace, the show focuses on two very different men who are drawn together by their talents in the art, and an ancient prophecy may just be their making, and their undoing.

The top notch ensemble cast including Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, Enzo Clienti, Alice Englert, Charlotte Riley, Marc Warren and TVO regulars Edward Hogg and Paul Kaye, and the result is an intelligent, magical drama that’s definitely got ‘smash-hit’ written all over it.

As Paul Kaye just so happens to be one of TVO’s biggest supporters, we were itching to catch up with him to talk Strange & Norrell, and we were naturally delighted that one of the busiest men in the industry was very keen to tell us all about it, and offer up exclusive images from his archives for good measure. Enjoy…

© Paul Kaye

Exclusivinculus.

In a world where magic, at least real magic, is long thought lost, two men are forced to form an uneasy alliance to protect the realms of men – and each other – from the darker side of forgotten secrets that have been brought to the surface.  In our world, where genre television for adults, at least good genre television for adults, is long thought of as a mostly American thing, the BBC has forged ahead with an seven part adaptation of Susanne Clarke’s epic novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell.

With a dynamite cast spearheaded by Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel, and also featuring the likes of Enzo Cilenti, Charlotte Riley, Alice Englert and Marc Warren, and both a screenwriter (Peter Harness) and director (Toby Haynes) having cut their teeth on prestigious productions such as Wallander, Sherlock and Doctor Who, and it’s safe to assume that expectations for Strange & Norrell are high.

For The Velvet Onion’s part, the impressive talent in front of and behind the camera is augmented not just by the presence of the brilliant Edward Hogg, but by a regular stamp of quality, in the form of designer turned musician turned comic turned hugely-in-demand actor Paul Kaye as the street magician and accidental prophet Vinculus.

A man of many talents, Kaye’s work on the whole over the last two decades has quality imbedded right down the middle like Blackpool rock, and – in this post Game of Thrones world, when seemingly everyone and their cousin wants to cast Kaye in their production – to actually bag the man himself is usually a sign of a production worth investigating.  This time around, however, it was remarkably easy to get Paul involved, given his admiration for the source material.

© BBC / Todd Antony

Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) & Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) © BBC / Todd Antony

“I’ve only seen Episodes One and Two, so far,” he tells TVO as we grab a few moments in a rare bit of downtime between roles. “I was a big devotee of the book, and they’ve done a extraordinary job of visualising it and squeezing it all in. It took me a while to read it, because it has all these footnotes, which were really annoying to begin with” He refers to the near two-hundred additions to the novel made by Susanne Clarke, which illuminate her alternate history and provide an entire fictional body of magical scholarship, should you wish to engage with the book in a more ‘enlightened’ manner.

“Slowly but surely they grow on you,” Paul reveals. “You start to look forward to them. If there isn’t a footnote on the next page, you’re disappointed. They substantiate everything, and enrich it. And that book was on set every day. It was like the Oracle. Everybody loved it, and was determined to do it justice.  ”

Having never read the book, TVO is keen to point out that the series stands on its own two feet – taking the source material as a guide, but never a crutch. The first episode builds slowly, with our guide into the world of magic a curious admirer of the practise, John Segundas, played by Edward Hogg, still perhaps best known for his incredible leading performance in Bunny and the Bull. It is through Segundas that we meet Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who is reluctant to demonstrate his knowledge publicly, until he realises that his skills could be of great value to the ongoing war efforts, and moral duty gets the better of him.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

Vinclus meets Childermass (Enzo Clienti) © JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

However, the connection between Norrell and his titular companion Jonathan Strange is made by Vinculus: a street magician who prophesises the two men will form an alliance, as fortold by the mysterious Raven King hundreds of years previously. Played with Paul’s usual vigour and punk-infused zest, Vinculus has the keys to the engine room as the story ramps up a notch, stealing materials from Norrell’s servant to persuade Strange to pursue his destiny.

Watching Kaye on screen a Vinculus, stealing almost every scene from some of the nation’s finest actors, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which he wasn’t the ideal choice for the role.

“I was playing Vinculus in my head when I read it,” Paul reveals. “I was obsessed with chapter 67, The Hawthorn Tree and read it over and over. But I never imagined I’d ever, ever get to play the part.  I love the way Vinculus floats through the story. He’s such a contradiction, because he is a charlatan, no question about that. And yet there’s real truth about him. He’s carved out a reputation and a repertoire on the street, which includes conjuring up the ‘spirit of the River Thames’!  He lives a chaotic life, he blows with the wind and he is unquestionably full of shit, but he has been blessed.”

He laughs, and deadpans: “That last bit’s not a bad description of myself, really.”

LEFT IMAGE: © Paul Kaye | RIGHT IMAGE: © HBO

Dennis Pennis & Thoros of Myr LEFT IMAGE: © Paul Kaye | RIGHT IMAGE: © HBO

Of course, in recent years, Kaye’s stock as an actor has risen tenfold. Where once the shadow of a certain loud-mouthed, red-haired former alter-ego would precede the very mention of his name, these days he is far more likely to be referred to as ‘Game of Thrones star Paul Kaye’, following his six episode stint in the sprawling fantasy epic, which may just about be the biggest show on television. “I think you’re being kind,” he laughs when TVO mentions the shift, “‘cos I’ve read on several occasions that it’s ‘Dennis Pennis’ who’s is in Game of Thrones, not me.”

Nevertheless, Paul’s been busy of late, spurred on by settling down from his wilder days to raise a family and write TVO random emails in the midle of the night to keep us updated. Recent activities have included parts on radio (including Tracy Ann Oberman’s Mrs Robinson, I Presume), and in Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton’s superlative Inside Number 9, playing Richard Two Shoes in The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge. “Those guys are on another level,” he states. “It was a writing and performance masterclass working with them.”

This week, he’s filming on Sky’s new adaptation of Fungus the Bogeyman alongside Timothy Spall, Victoria Wood, Andy Serkis, Keeley Hawes and his longstanding friend and occasional collaborator Marc Warren – who also appears alongside Kaye in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

Marc Warren as The Gentleman © JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

“I love working with Marc,” Kaye tells TVO, proudly. “No-one does dark like Marc. He was Mike Strutter’s lawyer, for fucks sake! He’s got such an extraordinary energy on set. We’ve got this great scene together later on in the show, and on the day, his intensity pushed me into doing it in a completely differently way to how I’d planned on playing the scene. I had no choice, he just turned from being a mate into a monster on a sixpence and he spooked the shit out of me.  I remember seeing him in Oliver Twist [the 1999 BBC prequel series] on the telly and it was one of those Gary Oldman moments. He turns up on screen and I think: “Who the hell is this guy?” He blew my head off, and within 24 hours of seeing that I bumped into him in Tescos, and I had to say something to him. We became great friends after that.”

Warren isn’t the only familiar face for Kaye in the production, having worked with both its leading men on previous productions: Eddie Marsan on the sublime Radio 4 series Love in Recovery, and Bertie Carvel in Tim Minchin’s highly acclaimed musical adaptation of Matilda at the RSC and in the West End.

© Jean Goldsmith

Kaye & Carvel, 2014 © Jean Goldsmith

“It’s great working with Bertie again,” Paul states. “We shared a dressing room on Matilda The Musical. That was our first taste of magic together. And Eddie,” he quips, “Dear Eddie is just about as lovely and adorable as a Tottenham Hotspur fan can be. Bertie and Eddie’s relationship in Strange and Norrell has wonderful echoes of Mozart and Salieri.”

TVO wonders if the familiarity allows for a more rewarding experience on a shoot. Kaye thinks for a moment, and suggests the reason Strange & Norrell worked so well was that all involved had a shared goal. “You feel like you have an obligation,” he states. “And a duty to bring it to life in the best way possible. I know Bertie had read the book 10 years ago and felt he was born to be Strange! Toby Haynes fought so hard to direct it as well, and he was such a joy to work with. Such incredible enthusiasm. Marc Warren was told he was destined to play the Gentleman by Richard and Judy! When everyone’s pushing in the same direction for the greater good it’s like being part of one of those ginormous balls of herring, which might be my favourite thing in nature!”

Next time you see Paul going hell for leather in a role, think of those herrings. There’s a delicious moment in the first episode of Strange & Norell where Vinculus is awoken from his slumber under a bush. In a matter of moments, he manages to completely befuddle and bewitch Jonathan Strange in equal measure, before tumbling off into the distance, dancing a merry jig of his own design in the middle of a field, all by himself. It’s a moment, TVO opines, that perhaps only someone with a spirit as fiery and energetic as Kaye could pull off.

“There’s a scene in episode 6 I think,” he reveals, chuckling, “where I fell backwards and landed badly on this rock. Everyone on set thought: ‘That’s it. He’s out’, but I groaned for a while, dusted myself off and carried on. It reminds me of when I used to hurt myself at school sports days doing the high jump. I’d do the Fosbury flop onto a fucking sand-pit! I’d wind myself after every jump but it was worth it because I could jump higher using that technique than the other kids who did ‘the scissors’. I loved all the drama and attention of doing a great jump, getting injured, recovering heroically and then doing it all over again. Bit of a twat, really.”

© Paul Kaye

Mike Struter live on stage © Nickie Divine

“Basically,” he affirms, with all the wisdom of a man who actually broke his neck pratfalling with a hat during the first run of Matilda The Musical, “I always thought that if I didn’t put myself in A&E on a shoot, I hadn’t worked hard enough. Things have changed now slightly. The titanium bolt I now have in my neck post-Matilda has sadly meant I’ve had to knock things like the Mike Strutter Group on the head.” Kaye’s live punk-rock cabaret carnage featuring his alter-ego of the same name was a huge underground hit five years ago, with celebrities in the audience and Oram & Meeten’s Wingnut as regular guests. “I miss it dearly,” Paul explains, “but you can’t be fronting a car-crash band anymore if you’re not prepared to go through the windscreen”.

Following Strange & Norrell, Kaye will be seen in Gareth Tunley’s secretive movie debut The Ghoul, alongside Tom Meeten, Alice Lowe and Waen Shepherd, but more on that another time. He also makes a glorious cameo in Kayvan Novak’s new comedy Sun Trap. Again, we’re keeping schtum on that one for now! Perhaps most excitingly, following that, Kaye will next be seen on our screens making a two-part guest appearance in Doctor Who. Whilst his role is understandably shrouded in secrecy, Paul was quick to sing the praises of its production team.

© Olivia Hemmingway

RIP, Walter Sabchak © Olivia Hemmingway

“They’re so committed and passionate about that show ” he reveals, “Peter Capaldi is just the warmest man, right from the read through he gives you a big hug and you feel really buzzed about being part of it all.  I had one of those moments when I walked past my first Dalek in the corridor and thought “Jesus Christ, I’m in Doctor Who!” It was quite odd because one of the locations we filmed at was a huge semi-deserted army base out in the Welsh countryside. As we were shooting this rather intricate scene, there were territorial army guys running after fake ‘insurgents’ in robes and keffiyehs accross the hilltops. I don’t know about national security, but it looked like a Benny Hill sketch.“

And should Susanne Clarke ever finish her sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is set to focus on Childermass and Vinculus, would Kaye return to his role?

“Finish it?” he asks. “I’m not sure she’s started it yet, has she? But in the event of that happening…” He pauses for a moment and grins. “Oh yes,” he confirms. “With a trillion bells on.”

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell begins on Sunday, 17th May at 9pm on BBC One and is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 15th June. The show also airs in the US from Saturday, June 13th from 10pm (9pm Central) on BBC America, and you can read our preview of Episode One now.
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Onion Talking: Tom Davis on Murder in Successville

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.

8503896-high_res-murder-in-successvilleThis week sees the launch of brand new, madcap BBC Three comedy Murder in Successville, with Tom Davis right in the middle of it all as tough, uncompromising hardman of crimesolving, DI Sleet.

Each week, a celebrity guest is made rookie partner, and asked to solve a murder in a town where famous faces have alternate lives, and are all played by top notch comedians.

Naturally, we’re very excited, and in the middle of an almighty press campaign, we quickly caught up with the busiest man of the moment, Tom Davis, to find out more.

Hi, Tom. Welcome to TVO. First off, how would you describe Murder in Successville to someone who has no idea what it’s all about?

It’s an immersive, improvised comedy centred around the town of Successville. The town is made up of weird celebrity impressions, every week there’s a murder and me and a celebrity sidekick have to solve it. Simple? It’s funny and bat shit crazy.

Your character, DI Sleet, is the epicentre of the madness. Is he someone you’ve been working on for a while?

The character has grown over time. We’ve been working on him for about three years. He’s gone through many changes and grown into what you see today. I love playing him. I spend about three months a year, talking like him, acting like him… it’s a lot of fun. 

You get to say all sorts of things to your celebrity guests. Does it feel good to baffle them with comedic gold?

One of favourite parts of the show is that twist. The show works because all the guests were willing and up for the ride. My job is to pretty much pull the rug from under their feet as soon as they think they have worked the show out. 

© BBC / Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© BBC / Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Do you have a favourite guest?

That’s like picking your favourite child or pet, they’re all great in their own way. We wanted a mixed bag, each of them brought something brilliant to the show that gave every episode a unique feel. Their personality is driving the show most of the time, none of them disappointed. 

The show is almost like a fusion of Star Stories and that old 90s telly version of Cluedo done properly. Did you and the writing team have any inspirations you drew upon to make this world work?

Both of those shows for a start were, but there’s a wide scope of inspiration. The writing process is a fun one. Alongside the brilliant writing team we have a production team that are very creative. Our director has a brilliant eye and has created this amazing look for the show. Added to this the cast are superb and all bring their own vision to it.

How much of what you all say is scripted? There are some dynamite lines in there!

We work through every scene with the writers beforehand in an intensive rehearsal. The scripts are all top notch and give us a point to jump of from. The nature of the show means that it changes from scene to scene. Sleet’s relationship with the rookie can change, which ultimately means so can individual lines and the feel of the show. As much we work through and prepare, nothing can ready you for Deborah Meeden going rogue on Cariad as Cheryl Cole (or whatever her new name is.)

One thing we really loved about the show was how many familiar faces are involved. How was it improv sparring with the likes of Tony Way, Cariad Lloyd and Colin Hoult?

I love it. The cast on this are immense. All of them completely smashed it, committing to character. That’s what makes the show for me. The “celeb” “rookie” has to feel like they are completely in that moment. We usually only have one or two takes so nothing can go wrong. Surprise is a big part of the show: the moment they come face to face with the impressionist for the first time is the reaction we want and the reaction you see. 

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

Of course, you’ve been working with familiar faces so often lately we’ve kind of adopted you. Gooblegarble one of us, and all that. Does the world of comedy feel like a big family to you?

Yes, for the most part it’s a supportive world. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with most of this cast on other bits. I did Cariad’s sketch show, I’ve done a few bits with Jenny Bede and I did one of my first jobs with Tony Way. He played an arm pit and I was a big alien on some crazy kids show. 

Recently you’ve managed to be in several of the more high profile shows of the year, from The Keith Lemon Show to Cockroaches and House of Fools. Are you starting to get recognised more frequently?

Not really, I like that the characters all look so different. Sometimes people stare and ask for pictures and I think they must recognise me, but then it turns out they just want a picture with a giant.

With any luck, people will be quoting Sleet at you before long. Any particular requests for the line they’ll shout across the street?

GREAT MEN DON’T SHIT THEIR PANTS…

© BBC / Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© BBC / Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Tom Davis, thank you. Murder in Successville starts Wednesday, 6th May at 10pm on BBC Three.

Onion Talking: James Cook’s Adventures in Ausland

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION AND RELEASED IN TWO PARTS

© James Cook / Media Curve

© James Cook / Media Curve

If you’re a die hard fan of The Mighty Boosh or a lover of alternative music crafted with care for the details, chances are you’ve heard of James Cook. If you haven’t, then perhaps you haven’t been reading TVO properly these last five years.

With his new album out now, Cook has returned to the London music scene in recent months, and sat down to talk to TVO’s editor-in-chief Paul Holmes, about his past, present and future in a revealing two-part interview, ahead of the next round of his club night, Outsiders, on February 26th. The initial results are below…

The story of any cultural movement that shaped the course of an entire industry is always fascinating to hear.  Some stories, however, have yet to be told in any real detail, such as the birth and subsequent explosion of the new wave of alternative comedy and music that existed in tandem at the turn of the millennium, focused primarily in the heart of North London.

One major player in all of this was James Cook – former frontman of cult favourites NEMO, collaborator of Chris Corner and regular guest star with The Mighty Boosh.  For the last six years, Berlin has been Cook’s base, and thanks to large amount of travel, he knows his ‘way around’ LA, Montevideo and Prague, too. But London will always be his real home. 

© James Cook / Media Curve

© James Cook / Media Curve

“This year has definitely felt like some sort of homecoming,” he tells TVO as he strolls the cold streets of a capital knee-deep into Winter. “It feels like home, really. I was born and grew up in Luton and Dunstable, but London was somehow embedded in my subconscious. It was the teenage dream for a musician and songwriter, to head into the Big Smoke!”

Now following a period of several years spent living abroad, Cook has returned to London to make it his permanent home once more, and has already begun finding his feet again with a new regular live night in the works.

Indeed, as TVO caught up with Cook, he was filled with enthusiasm for the opening night of Outsiders – his alternative pop cabaret at Aces & 8’s in Tufnell Park. “The room was completely full,” James exclaims, full of joy. “The audience was great and the night was fun and exciting – for the band as well as the crowd. It was a lovely way to begin the live side of things again.”

Outsiders features Cook hosting a night of, in his terms: “music and nonsense, with a bit of classic pop dj-ing from yours truly”. It’s also an opportunity to see his ever expanding live band, plus special guests every month. Fifteen years after NEMO began their career as part of legendary club night, The System, there’s a sense that his journey has come full circle.

© James Cook

© James Cook

A whole decade has passed since those heady days, when NEMO ran The System as an electro/indie club night of their own.  “It was unheard of back then,” James states.  “The scene blossomed. Robots in Disguise, Chris Corner and Sneaker Pimps… who later became IAMX, The Mighty Boosh, Imogen Heap, Graham Coxon… they were all regulars.”

“We all used to hang out together as friends,” he continues.  “We’d go to each others events, get drunk together, perform, collaborate, and guest in each other’s shows. I remember once performing a song onstage at the Hen & Chickens with The Mighty Boosh, and Julian Barratt pretending to ‘fancy’ me after seeing me perform. He tried to snog me!” He bursts out laughing, and adds: “Much to Noel’s annoyance!”

Cook subsequently shared a flat in Angel with Barratt and violinist Anne Marie Kirby, with whom he still works to this day. “That was between 2003 and 2007,” explains James.  “So it coincided with my touring with IAMX, NEMO’s rise to infamy, and the writing and filming of all three series of The Mighty Boosh.  They kept calling me in for some weird and wonderful cameo…” He adopts an impression: “James Nemo? Are you available to come to shooting 8am tomorrow morning with the Boosh? Today you will be a blue alien nomad. Can you play this Oud?”

Indeed, Cook’s cameos on the show are numerous. He was one of the Ape of Death’s bodyguard mandrills, a Mod Wolf, a mutant postman, magical shaman, dying hipster, a blue tennis player (The Blue McEnroe, no less), and perhaps most delightfully, Kevin Rowland, searching for the New Sound.  His biggest role in the show, came as a blue-faced nomadic minstrel, slave to Rich Fulcher’s Blue King Alan, who is composes a song about Vince Noir being ‘The Chosen One’.

© Baby Cow Productions

© Baby Cow Productions

“We seriously wrote that song together five minutes before we shot that scene,” James reveals.  “Shooting the Boosh was a bit like that. There was always room for people to put themselves into the role, add lines and improvise. That was the reason for so much laughter and hilarity on set. They were truly magical times.”

It is perhaps hard to believe that it’s now over seven years since the third series aired, and almost eight since the Boosh team were making new episodes – a fact that Cook is all too acutely aware of.  “It still feels very recent,” he tells TVO, “but everyone involved has been so creative and busy that it also feels like forever.  So much amazing material has gone out into the world from that little scene of comedians and musicians.”

“I was so glad when TVO came along,” he adds passionately, “to help join the dots for people. In the early days I felt like I was the one constantly talking about the collective hive mind we had. That family feel. We used to go on holiday together, make short films…” He trails off as a near-forgotten memory rises to the surface.  “We made a legendary silent horror film which we shot in France.  It was called ‘La Rose D’Envie’, and featured Julian Barratt, Chris Corner, Sue Denim and myself. Never even released!”

© Baby Cow Productions

© Baby Cow Productions

The creative family has widened, remoulded and become increasingly fluid in recent years, yet at its core will always be two inter-connected groups – that of Ealing Live (a comedy troupe featuring Alice Lowe, Richard Glover, Oram & Meeten, Katy Brand, Simon Farnaby and many, many others), and the Boosh/IAMX collective across the city.

“When you started to write about it in TVO,” James enthuses, “I was relieved that someone else had noticed the connections and references. It means it has been initially documented and recognised, but the full story can and should be fleshed out properly one day.”

“There was so much creative overlap,” he continues, “between the comedy shows, music nights, albums and tv programmes. The energy was bursting out of North London at the time. A lot of it is captured within the art, but there are so many little notes and stories…” He pauses for a moment, then adds with determination: “I would love to write some sort of memoir about it one day!”

James Cook returns with Outsiders on 26th February. His new album, Adventures in Ausland is available now via Bandcamp. Part Two of this interview will follow next week.

© James Cook / Media Curve

© James Cook / Media Curve

If you’re a die hard fan of The Mighty Boosh or a lover of alternative music crafted with care for the details, chances are you’ve heard of James Cook. If you haven’t, then perhaps you haven’t been reading TVO properly these last five years.

With his new album out now, Cook has returned to the London music scene in recent months, and sat down to talk to TVO’s editor-in-chief Paul Holmes, about his past, present and future in a revealing two-part interview, ahead of the next round of his club night, Outsiders, on February 26th.

Part One was shared with you in mid February, and you can read the second part of our discussions below…

History tells us that the most famous of men named James Cook sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe, mapping lands from New Zealand to Hawaii to an unprecedented level during his voyages of discovery.  There’s a sense of irony in the way his namesake – cult musician James Cook, formerly of NEMO, has traversed the globe over the past decade.

“The last ten years have been pretty crazy to be honest,” Cook tells TVO, as we continue our first in-depth catch-up since James performed at The Velvet Onion Live night almost three years ago.  “I started touring in 2004,” he continues, “when I was the guitarist in IAMX for about a year. We travelled across Europe, Russia and the USA – a rotating line-up featuring Chris Corner, Noel Fielding, Sue Denim, Dee Plume, Julian Barratt, Julia Davis and myself.  It was an amazing year, and the first time I started earning money from music.  Unfortunately,” he adds, “I couldn’t remain in IAMX because I had to concentrate on NEMO.”

© James Cook

© James Cook

NEMO were the electro-tinged indie darlings who released three albums in four years, concurrently with the televisual run of The Mighty Boosh, with which they were closely linked.  While they never cracked the mainstream in England, the band were particularly successful across Europe, taking James to Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.  However, James decided to disband NEMO in 2008, and move to Berlin.

“I started touring solo,” he recalls, “with just a laptop and electric guitar. This actually enabled me to be even freer with my movements, so I continued my European travels as well as venturing further away to the Americas, visiting Uruguay, Argentina, New York and LA.  I was mostly invited to these places, or I knew people there and sought out gigs and travel. Myspace allowed NEMO to have fans all over the world, so it was a relief and a dream come true to be able to travel through music.”

All of this travel enthused his latest record, Adventures in Auslandnamed after the German word for ‘abroad’. “It can also mean ‘outside’,” Cook notes. “Or ‘otherness’.  Wanderlust is addictive. Once I had a sniff of that lifestyle, I was hooked! There was no question of me not taking every opportunity to escape the comparative confines of London, and the experiences gained from all this travel fed directly into the new album. Songs were written and recorded across several years in LA, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Genova and London, now I’m based here again.”

© James Cook

© James Cook

Adventures in Ausland marks James’ second full length solo album, following 2012’s Arts and Sciences and 2013’s covers EP Reverse Engineering.  With three NEMO albums and the full-length record by side-project The Dollhouse behind him, however, the album is technically his sixth complete record, and arguably his best work yet.

“The feedback has been great so far,” Cook states, “which is obviously why you continue releasing new material. The aim is to constantly improve and grow, and hopefully never repeat yourself. I think I am physically unable to repeat myself artistically. I never make the same album twice, and have never even used the same method and techniques twice. I always use new and different musicians and instruments, and the process of recording is as important as the writing stage. It’s basically a series of filters, like distilling alcohol like some sort of electro/chemical process.”

Well, quite. Indeed, the album adds brass elements to Cook’s impressive canon, The usual degree of classy strings and James’ curious ability to sound both impassioned and distant at the same time remain, but this album feels less immediate and more mature than ever before.  James’ natural influences – Lou Reed, David Bowie, Scott Walker – remain at the heart of his work, and as the years have progressed, other artists have crossed James’ path and made an enormous contribution to his style. TVO notes that there appear to be strong traces of Neil Hannon’s work across Cook’s catalogue, and James is quick to own up to an admiration for the songwriter.

© James Cook

© James Cook

“It’s hard to disguise formative influences,” he notes, “and the first two Divine Comedy records were definitely a big influence on me, and it took me a while to shake the influence off! I initially discovered them whilst living in Paris and was blown away by something that seemed to me to come from another universe. I then investigated Scott Walker and Jacques Brel as a result of listening to them, so I owe Mr Hannon quite a debt!

The mention of Brel draws conversation to an intriguing aspect of Adventures in Ausland: Cook’s voice has often been compared to Marc Almond, and the album features a new interpretation of Brel’s magnificent Jacky, which was infamously given a camp disco makeover in the early 90s. James was aware that this could draw closer comparisons to Almond’s work, but his love for the original song overrode any reservations he had. It was time, he suggests, to finally do it justice.

“Brel was one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters,” James explains. “People like Scott Walker brought his amazing songs to an English speaking pop audience in a way he could never have done himself. However, as a university student of politics and French, I became obsessed with how badly his songs are actually translated into English. Most of them totally miss the point, or just simply don’t make much sense, and it is perhaps impossible for anyone who doesn’t speak French to understand that.”

“They’re very satirical songs,” he continues. “Very personal, very dark and very funny, so doing a proper translation is really no mean feat. I had always dreamt of doing my own modern translations of his song. Scott Walker’s version of Jacky was my main reference, but so was Momus 1986 version, Nicky.”

“People have been saying I sound like Marc Almond for years,” he sighs. “I’ve never really been a fan. I think that first Soft Cell record is great, but I think it’s more that we had a similar music and cultural upbringing. We definitely share similar tastes and influences in our music, so that’s probably where it comes from. But Marc Almond’s version of Jacky is pretty crap and pointless really, so I decided to pluck up the guts to go for my own version. It’s a very personal song, so you have to make it about yourself – which is why my version is called Jamie, after my childhood name. Then you have to have the appropriate cultural references, and requisite irony, correctly translated and updated. When I sing it live, I update the words to fit current situations. That’s how it should be done.”

© James Cook

© James Cook

We’re suddenly touching on ground that has come up in the Cook’s work previously: a sense of frustration about the abandonment of art and discovery, hand in hand with the rise of technology and the era of disposability. It is something TVO is only too acutely aware of, and James shares our frustration and apprehension about the way society is headed.

“Without sounding too depressing,” he explains, “I genuinely feel we are in some sort of cultural nadir right now. Technology should be allowing us to create more and more insanely mindblowing art, but all we seem to be doing as a collective community is tweeting nonsense, and posting up pics of ourselves, our food and our pets. The idea that we have all the information known to man inside our pockets, is something that would have been inconceivable even fifteen years ago.  Somehow that potential access has frozen us in fear, mediocrity and narcisism.”

“Music has been devalued to virtually nothing,” Cook continues. “Disposable, vacuous art permeates popular culture. Narrative creativity seems to be anachronistic. Attention spans are at an all time low. Our technology is controlling us right now, rather than the other way round. Let’s hope we snap out of this dystopian Orwellian nightmare and take control of our lives and collective destiny!”

TVO proposes that one way independent artists are trying to do exactly that, is by abandoning traditional release structures, and turning to pledge culture to release their work via fundraisers and special releases. Could the future for James involve making albums through this method?

“I am open to it,” he suggests, considering the angles. “I’ll try anything and everything I can with my future releases. I’m currently working on three new albums, and must find new ways for people to experience them. Unfortunately, I have a small fanbase, and am not really very good at self-promotion or asking for money when it comes to my own music. Those Kickstarter type situations seem unappealing to me, somehow, but I’m looking into them.”

There’s an interesting honesty about Cook. He is perhaps, his own worst critic, yet acts also as his own personal champion. Proud of his achievements, but keen to downplay his abilities, there’s a sense of an artist who still has so much left to give and an awful lot more to say. As conversation moves briefly onto science fiction, and Cook and TVO share a mutual moment of Doctor Who admiration, he teases about a treatment he is working on for an animated time-travel detective spy thriller. There’s a sense that he has so much more to give, and TVO could listen to him talk about his plans for hours. Sadly, it is time for James to disappear into the early dusk of a Winter’s day. Before he goes, however, TVO suggests that, in an ideal world, Cook would be utilising his delicious string arrangements, cryptic lyrics and silky smooth vocals on the next James Bond theme. “Oh, god, yeah! That would be another dream come true,” he beams. “But I guess I’ll have to join the queue for that one!”

James Cook returns with Outsiders on 26th March. His new album, Adventures in Ausland is available now via Bandcamp

Onion Talking: Sarah Kendall on Touchdown

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION

© Sarah Kendall

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

Acclaimed stand-up comic Sarah Kendall returns to The Soho Theatre with the final run for her smash-hit show Touchdown this week, running from Tuesday 24th to Saturday 28th February.

With her follow up show, A Day in October, due to launch at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in March, this felt like as good a time as any to finally book ourselves some time to talk to the gifted storyteller, masterful standup and full-time mother.

Editor in chief Paul Holmes caught up with Sarah to discuss about her career so far, and the effects her life beyond it have had upon her outlook, with the following insightful results…

At the turn of the millennium, Sarah Kendall made a huge decision. Already a regular on the Australian stand-up comedy circuit, two years after her initial flurry of success, she packed up her bags and moved to England. By 2003, she was ready to take on the Edinburgh Fringe, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Flight of the Conchords, Gary Le Strange and Adam Hills. The following year, she was nominated for the Perrier Award’s main category of Best Show alongside Chris Addison, Reginald D Hunter and winner Will Adamsdale (best known internationally for his role in The Boat that Rocked).

As the years went by, Kendall built on this initial success, gaining a cult following through heavy touring, countless festivals, and numerous, award-winning live shows. In 2008, she stretched her wings and took on sketch-show comedy, with a role in the short-lived E4 show Beehive, and has spent the last four years voicing Libby McKenzie alongside Sally Philips, Nina Conti and Liza Tarbuck in the long running Radio 4 comedy Clare in the Community.

Recent years, however, have seen Kendall’s extra-curricular activity dry up, as she became a mother and, quite naturally, shifted her workload accordingly.  As TVO calls, she is in her London home with the kids tucked up in bed and a slightly burnt warm-up shepherds pie in the oven. Greeting us fondly, and stressing she isn’t the kind of person to make her own  shepherd’s pie, she confirms her eagerness to talk by exclaiming: “I’m going to stop doing the dishes and give you my full attention. That’s how serious I am, I’m walking away from the dishes. Fire away!”

© PBJ

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

Naturally, the conversation turns firstly to motherhood, and TVO wonders exactly how having children has changed Sarah’s career plan. “Gosh, that’s a good question,” she says, thinking about the answer for a moment. “It’s a really big answer too. I suppose I’m not really at my sparkiest late at night, so you know, most gigs…” She trails off, laughing. “I generally need to go on early. I can’t do a late night. And I can’t do huge amounts of travel, either. I don’t wanna be away for weekends. I don’t wanna be away for a week, you know? It’s changed the practicalities of work.”

“But I think from a creative perspective,” Sarah continues, “when I do get that time to myself, and I do get that time on stage, I really wanna make it count. I suppose I don’t fuck around as much as I used to. Cos I suppose when I have got that time to work, and to be creative, it’s actually really special ‘me’ time. God, I really relish it. I think when my day wasn’t quite as occupied looking after little people, I’d just go and do a gig and not really think much about it. Now I wanna make that time count. I wanna do the very best material I can do.”

That material at present is Touchdown – the 2014 show she toured around Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe amongst other places, and is reviving for one last shebang at The Soho Theatre across the last week of February.  As with her previous show, it focuses on particular events in her teenage years, rather than Sarah’s life at present, a factor which may be a subconscious reaction to having to grow up and take responsibility for what Sarah endearing refers to as ‘little people’.

“Also, I think,” she suggests, “I don’t want to get on stage and talk about what I’m doing now. That’s only because if I went on stage and whinged about it, it wouldn’t be right. I don’t want to whinge about it, but I also don’t want to stand on stage and say how much I love my children. That’s not particularly hilarious.”

“I’ve been looking into different times of my life,” she adds, “reflecting on them, and thinking about them differently.  I suppose to me, I do regard those years quite differently now that I’m a mother. The thing is, that sounds really boring, but it changes your perspective on the whole time. I find that creatively it’s really energising. I really enjoy writing about it.”

© PBJ

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

Kendall’s comedy has morphed from its early days of quick-fire stand-up into a more intelligent, thoughtful brand of storytelling that connects with anyone who was ever the slightly awkward kid that didn’t quite fit in, but wasn’t unpopular either. The gags are obviously still there, but it’s wrapped up in intellectual reasoning, emotional resonance, and the odd moment of childish humour for good measure.

“I think, ultimately, I’m a little bit of a whore for a laugh,” Sarah reveals. “Anyone who goes into comedy has to be. I don’t like to leave it too long without one. My training is as a stand up, so I do always look for the gag. I try not to do that at the expense of the story.”

“If it didn’t fit with where the story was at, I wouldn’t do it. But I try to make it a punchy show. I don’t think I’m precious about that sort of thing. I do want people to laugh and have a good time.”

If there’s one thing Kendall could never be accused of, it’s being precious about her work. There’s a remarkable freshness to talking to someone who, unsullied by the PR machine that affects so many in the industry, is completely open and honest about her work, right down to the point of Touchdown’s premise being the reality behind the fabrication of her previous show.

“I had this joke that I’d been doing for years,” Sarah discloses. “I knew in my heart what the real story was, but I’d made it into a good joke. I’d always been slightly plagued by the fact that there is a much bigger story behind it, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I didn’t think it belonged in a comedy show. Then I just thought: sod it. I’m gonna write about what really happened because it is a good story, and an important story. It means a lot more to me now that I’m older, and now I know how to tell it, and I’m not afraid of the serious or silly parts of the story. I think if you do something that’s got a bit of a darker edge to it, you’ve gotta be confident that you can treat it respectfully enough that you’re not gonna panic and try to make a joke out of it.”

© PBJ

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

“It was a surprise for me,” she notes, in regards to Touchdown’s now deconstructed predecessor, Get Up, Stand Up.  “I enjoyed telling that story every single night I performed it. Generally during a festival there comes a point where you say: if I have to say these words one more time, I’m gonna fucking kill myself. I found that with this show, I never got to that point. I really enjoyed taking the audience on that journey.”

Thankfully, Touchdown offered a similar vibe. “This is my favourite show that I’ve ever done,” she states, firmly. “I was really crestfallen at the end of the festival because I kinda felt it was over. I knew I’d probably do a run at the Soho, but it felt kinda like the end. By the time I did Edinburgh, I’d already done quite a few other festivals, so I knew that was the end of that festival circuit. And I was quite sad.”

TVO notes that, given how precious Sarah’s time has become, this feeling may have been intensified, and it’s something that we’re seeing more and more of. When we began, five years ago, our thirty-something regulars were still riding high on their initial flurry of success, gigging around the clock and constantly making new and exciting things. Recently, there’s been a marked slow-down in the activity of some of them, as they’ve reached the age of having babies and settling down, just like Kendall.

“I suppose you kind of go through this huge sea of change when you have a family,” she suggests. “You do start to look back on events with fresh eyes. It can be a good and a bad thing. Sometimes you go: Ah, shit, I wish I hadn’t done that thing. I really regret that thing that I did.”

Such feelings came to the fore last year, when Kendall wrote a piece for The Guardian about her somewhat flippant handling on stage of a genuinely disturbing moment in her career, when a drunk heckler threatened her with anal rape at a gig. Whilst the routine was funny, as time went by it had increasingly made her feel uncomfortable.

“I hate looking at clips of myself,” Sarah confesses. “Someone sent me that clip and asked for permission to use it, and as I watched that piece of material, I was so struck by how untrue the emotions were that I was portraying on stage. That’s something that would never have entered my mind ten years ago. I would have just gone through and made sure all the jokes were strong without offending people. But I just thought: That is so not what happened. That is so not emotionally what that experience was like, and I have brought none of that to that piece of material. I think it would have been a much more interesting piece of material if I had discussed that.”

© Tiger Aspect Television

© Tiger Aspect Television

Another potentially difficult blip on her career came with the hugely divisive E4 sketch show Beehive in 2008. Designed by committee, it nevertheless gave a platform to Kendall on television, alongside Alice Lowe, Barunka O’Shaughnessy and Clare Thomson. TVO has previously waxed lyrical about the merits of the show: in spite of its obvious flaws, there’s a hell of a lot to love in there too.

“I haven’t watched it since we did it,” Sarah tells us as conversation moves on to the troubled production.  “It was incredibly rushed, from the commission to filming. My memory of it was thinking: This has been rushed. It was four people who’d never met each other, thrown into an ensemble and given a fairly small amount of time to turn a show around.  It’s one of those things where I did it as an opportunity, but in hindsight it could have been a lot better had we had more time. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have had a heck of a lot of alarm bells going off as it progressed.”

Kendall is genuinely touched by our admiration for the team, and the bits that worked really well, such as her magnificent Elizabeth I routine, in which Sarah portrayed the monarch surrounded by bullying lackeys, or the flat sequences with swearing lessons, special robots, love affairs with pot plants and confusion over Spiderman’s true identity. Sadly, the show was buried by E4 before it even had a chance to build an audience, splurged onto television across a couple of nights with no advertising, and never repeated.

© Tiger Aspect Television

“I don’t really know how it happened,” she sighs, “or how it works. I don’t understand who decides these things, but it just felt rushed through. I had a really good time doing it though. I loved working with Alice, Clare and Barunka. They’re such powerful, funny women, and it was such a pleasure to work with them. I don’t want to piss anybody off, but it just didn’t feel like it had a lot of backing.”

Despite the circumstances of its troubled production, Beehive did allow Kendall a break from being ‘herself’ when making people laugh. TVO is curious if she’d do something similar now, given her present work/life balance. “God, that’s a good question!” she explains, and thinks for a moment.  “I think when I was younger I would say yes and just fuck it and see. I think now it would have to be something that I’m really passionate about, because I don’t have a huge amount of spare time. It would have to be something I could really put 100% of myself in. I’d be slightly more selective at this stage.”

The one bonus of the show was that It introduced Sarah to a whole new set of collaborators – some of whom she has continued to work with sporadically whenever possible. In 2010, for example, she played a fellow mum in My First Baby – the Jackal Films short featuring Rich Fulcher as Alice Lowe’s very oversized toddler. A few years later, she cropped up in James Bachman & Tom Meeten’s BBC Nought project, during a spoof on The Apprentice. Evidently, she’s still a part of the family, even if her time with them is sporadic at best.

© Jackal Films

© Jackal Films

“We don’t see each other as much as we used to when we had more spare time,” Kendall explains. “Certainly, not as much as I’d like to. The funny thing about London is you kinda get into your borough. But they were people I really learned so much from working with. There were such a variety of skillsets that were brought to Beehive. I felt they were all quite accomplished actresses, whereas I didn’t come from that background, so every day was a learning curve.”

Thankfully, in this internet age, a buried show doesn’t have to stay buried forever. The dvd release still chugs away on Amazon, the episodes are still viewable on 4oD, and TVO will occasionally bring it up. It still finds an audience. “It’s extraordinary,” Sarah states. “It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally I will get someone recognising me from Beehive, which is just really weird to me. It kinda got buried over three days on television, and yet it does still happen. It’s nice that you don’t live and die by whoever does the programming.”

Nevertheless, the show is firmly behind Sarah Kendall. Her comedic concentration right now, beyond remembering the finer points of Touchdown, is writing her 2015 show, A Day in October. Set to premiere at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival at the end of March, the show will tour the festival circuit before arriving in Edinburgh throughout August. To that end, Sarah’s already seemingly come up with an enthusiastic manta, when the subject of the new show is brought up.

“March 27th is opening night,” she says, rigidly. “The show will be finished by opening night. I will have a show by March 27th.”

As laughs erupt on both sides of the phone, TVO inquires as to how close that process is to becoming a reality. “I would say a third of the way into the writing process,” Sarah reveals. “I think I have a fairly confident idea of where the story is. It’s another story about my teenage years. It’s about a friendship I had with a guy and we went to a pool party one October, and the show is about the knock-on effect that pool party had on us throughout the rest of his life and my life.”

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

With the deadline looming, it would be understandable for many comics to leave some of the details hazy, and let them arrive naturally as the show goes on, but not for Sarah. “This show and the last were quite heavily written shows,” she affirms. “There aren’t patches where I fuck around with the audience or bits where I think I’ll ad-lib that on the night. Because they’re stories, you do have to bring all the disciplines of storytelling to it. You do have to have structure, and you do need to have a big thing happening in the third act. All those things you don’t have to think about when you’re doing a standup set, but I find with a story if you just let it happen you can end up with a spectacular mess on your hands. I do tend to write them quite carefully.”

There’s also the potential weight of an unwanted baton to consider. To TVO, and we’re sure to a great many people – a comedian is a comedian, and that’s that. Yet as the debate about women in comedy continues to bubble to the surface, there’s an alarming amount of pressure put on female comedians to be funny for their gender, rather than their vocation.

“I think I used to feel that way,” Sarah considers. “But I think things have got so much better. I’m not saying they’re ‘good’. We’re nowhere near a situation that is equal. But things are so much better than where they were twelve years ago, even though they’re not great. I take real heart in the fact that I’ve seen more and more female talent coming through as the years have gone by. And it’s great female talent I’m really proud to work with and associate with. I do think it’s challenging, and it’s still there, but I think it’s unfortunate, but the media do play it up.”

“On the live circuit,” she continues, “people are out in the club and they want a laugh, and you will get bad audiences and the occasional knob heads, but generally speaking they just want you to be funny. The real problems I’ve faced and have seen, are really in media circles, and tv commissioning, and the people who book talent for shows. The live circuit isn’t really the problem, but there are people who genuinely seem to not want women on television.”

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

© Sarah Kendall / PBJ

Male comics, TVO notes, are judged purely on their ability as comics. Female comics, however, are judged as ‘female comics’ for good measure. Sarah agrees, and adds: “I also think with social media there are a lot of voices. The really negative voices tend to get heard a bit more. For a hundred thousand people to go: She’s really good, she’s really funny, you’ll get a small proportion of people who just say something really vile, and that draws more attention.”

Not that Kendall will have seen most of this online, as the last few years have seen her maintain a relatively low profile. “I didn’t mean to!” she protests, laughing. “Our Twitter conversation today is the first Twitter conversation I think I’ve ever had.”

TVO explains that, if it wasn’t for Patrick Bustin at PBJ (the management company who handle a sizable chunk of our roster) casually mentioning her Twitter profile, we would have no clue that Sarah was even on there – and we take extra care to try and make sure we’re following everyone we need to in order to keep tabs on events.

“Oh yeah,” she says firmly, and a little guiltily. “Look, I know. I have been so not interested, and so busy. But I was talking to another comic who said: You really need to sort your shit out on that front, cos you’re off the grid man. I thought: Oh, really? I just sort of had my head buried in the sand for five years. I’m learning it, and you know, I’m gonna have to just get in there and do it.”

“It’s extraordinary, though,” she continues. “You do a couple of tweets, and suddenly you get all these pinging noises, and suddenly you’ve got twelve or thirteen new followers, and I just think: What the fuck? To me it’s very curious. It’s a very interesting, weird experience. And I know there are a lot of people who can’t remember a time before it, but I happen to be a billion years old.”

One thing that Kendall does have a lot of time for, however, is Jaws 4. No, really.

“I don’t know why,” she says, as she tries to justify the number of times she’s sat through it.  “I think I just like watching really good actors in terrible films. It’s like a schadenfreude thing. I just really enjoy seeing Michael Caine in this explicably awful movie. I can’t look away. I really like good actors in shit films. It’s like my favourite genre. It makes you feel better about yourself too.”

“I saw a movie with Henry Fonda in it called They Swarm, about bees attacking civilisation. It’s this great actor in this really weird horror film, where he’s being attacked by bees. I love it. It’s a fantastic film, I enjoy it thoroughly. Everyone’s just pulled together to get the product finished. I love that. I like the nose to the grind attitude. They’ve just thought: We’ve gotta bring this thing to life, and we’ve only got 50p. Let’s just use the car park. Fuck it.”

That attitude enthuses Sarah’s work, but is matched by her perfectionism and professionalism, and above all else, her genuine charm as a personality and a performer. As TVO bids her a fond farewell, so she can get back to her dishes and shepherd’s pie, we can’t help but feel that we’ve just spent a good half an hour being delighted by her company, and as a comic whose livelihood depends on storytelling, that can only be a good thing.

Sarah Kendall: Touchdown is at the Soho Theatre between February 24th – 28th 2015. Sarah Kendall: A Day in October is at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival between March 26th to April 19th 2015. Sarah will be at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2015. For more info on future live dates, keep an eye on her Twitter page… hopefully!

Onion Talking: Dan Skinner, Daniel Simonsen and Ellie White on House of Fools

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION

Next week sees the launch of Series Two of House of Fools – the brilliantly surreal sitcom from the minds of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

L-R: Daniel Simonsen, Dan Skinner, Ellie White © Pett TV / Christopher Baines

L-R: Daniel Simonsen, Dan Skinner, Ellie White © Pett TV / Christopher Baines

To celebrate its return, TVO sat down with the main cast during the filming of Series Two to discuss the show. Yesterday, we gave our chat with Vic & Bob themselves. Today, we bring you our catch-up with Bob’s regular house guests, Dan Skinner, Daniel Simonsen and Ellie White.

“Has Bob left his dinner?” Dan Skinner asks, incredulously, pointing at the remains of Bob Mortimer‘s potato-based dish in a polystyrene tray on the table in front of him. “Jim’s left his fags as well!” he adds, prodding Vic Reeves‘ packet on the table as he sits down to chat with TVO, alongside co-stars Daniel Simonsen and Ellie White. TVO explains that the pair were in a bit of a hurry, on a shortened lunch-break slash press-junket after an over-running shoot. “Nah,” Dan grins. “They leave things everywhere they go.”

Like the figureheads at the helm of House of Fools, time is short for Skinner, Simonsen and White this evening. A problematic afternoon shoot would soon be followed by a swift and smooth second run, nailing another episode of the superbly ridiculous sitcom. Now, as they tuck into their rather unappetising looking lunches, they’re happy to discuss what’s new this year for their characters.

“I’ve changed my character, completely,” states Skinner, chuckling. Completely, TVO asks. “Yeah. The twats are still there, though.”

“I talk about diarrhoea a lot,” chips in Daniel, before scooping some of the canteen slop into his mouth – mere seconds before his co-star is about to inhale a forkful of sickly brown curry. “Thank you mate. Just as I’m about to tuck into this! Oh – and Erik’s got a girlfriend!”

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

He points at Ellie with a big grin, who grins right back at him. A relative newcomer, both to the show and to comedy in general, White made her Fringe debut alongside Oscar Jenkyn-Jones in 2013, before returning with her debut solo show, Humans, as part of last year’s Free Fringe. The show garnered rave reviews from The Independent and Time Out, and the doors opened: taking part in Newsjack on Radio 4, developing her own sketch shows for tv and radio, and then the House of Fools came a-knocking.

In comparison, her nearest countpart in the show, Daniel Simonsen, may only recently be gaining traction in England, but he’s been performing stand-up in his native Norway since 2004. TVO knows, of course, that the entire cast of House of Fools are warm-hearted, wonderful people, but playing devil’s advocate somewhat, we ask how Ellie feels fitting herself into their already established world for this second run.

“It’s really scary,” she admits. “Very intimidating, and very daunting! But everyone is incredibly nice, and I’m learning a lot. It’s nice to be with Daniel, really. I just sort of based myself on him. He’s given me loads of tips.”

“She’s learning, yeah,” states Daniel, in full on deadpan mode. “It’s really hard to be as cold as you are, isn’t it?” asks Dan. “It is,” he replies. TVO tries to confirm this isn’t all just an act, and Daniel stares into our soul, replying: “I’m very damaged.”

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

Moving on – half for time, half for fear of possession by the Norwegian wonderboy, conversation turns to Vic & Bob’s role in providing a platform for new and emerging talents. The duo took Dan Skinner under their wing when he was still part of sketch troop Dutch Elm Conservatoire alongside Rufus Jones (set to appear in House of Fools this series), Stephen Evans, Jim Field Smith and Jordan Long. His character Angelos Epithemou, first brought to life as part of DEC, became a regular guest on Shooting Stars, before taking over point-scoring duties following the departure of Matt Lucas.  This in turn led to his own show, a hugely successful podcast with ‘Barry from Watford’, and Dan becoming one of the most in-demand comic actors around.

“Jim [Moir – Vic’s real name] and Bob have their own audience,” Dan explains. “They’re very, very loyal. And anyone that they add to their world is accepted pretty much straight away by their audience. But they’re usually right, too. They find really interesting people.”

“I swear, I’ve spoken to so many people,” Ellie adds, “who say the first thing they ever did was Vic and Bob. Esther Coles, who played Mrs Moody today – she was a serious actor, and the first comedy she did was with Bob.”

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

It’s true: Coles, a former Peak Practise regular, turned up in several episodes of TVO favourite Tittybangbang. For those who don’t quite recall, that show starred Lucy Montgomery, Debbie Chazen, Tony Way, Katy Brand and loads more – and it was in part, written and directed by Bob Mortimer, as well as being made by Pett Productions: the company Reeves and Mortimer set up with Lisa Clark to make their own shows, and the ones they wanted to see made. That same company is behind House of Fools now, and Esther is back working with Bob all these years later.

“Bob’s really, really good at sending the lift back down,” Dan states. “He goes to find other people and brings them to Vic. Then when executive producers chip in and ask: ‘Are you sure?’, they’ll both go: ‘Yeah’.”

“Like Romesh [Ranganathan] today,” suggests Daniel. “And Tom Davis. They’re also quite new. It’s just what they do.”

They’re also keen to allow these new talents the chance to experiment and develop within their own world. As one of those who has had prime opportunity to do exactly that, Skinner is perhaps best placed to summarise their outlook.

“They’re pretty confident with what they do,” he tells TVO. “They’re got their own brand, and if they like you and think you’re funny, they’ll let you swing it any way that you like. They’re artists, essentially.”

Simonsen is quick to back this up. “I think it’s a very seldom thing to do,” he confirms. “It’s rare. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but today I didn’t even know my lines.”

Ellie chips in. “We rewrote out scene ten minutes before we went on,” she reveals. Dan is pragmatic about the situation.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

“That’s the good thing about Jim and Bob,” he states. “They’ll let you do that, you know? They’ll invite you onto their show, and then go: Do what you want. Within reason, obviously. If it’s not funny, they’ll say you can’t do it, but as long as you make it work, they’re happy for you to do what you want. It’s a nice freedom.”

TVO is sensing that time is running short. Like Vic & Bob before them, the trio have a show to get back to, and could really do with getting a bit of a break beforehand. So, we figure there’s just enough time for a round of our brand new game: Rent/Mortgage/Evict. As we explain the rules, and the uncanny similarity to Snog/Marry/Avoid, Dan, Daniel and Ellie’s eyes light up at this most glorious of concepts.

“Wow!” Daniel exclaims as they take a moment to think about the sheer magnificence of the game at hand.

“Well,” Dan begins, cautiously. “I think I’d rent with Vic, cos he’s my brother in the show, though I don’t think we ever mention it in the second series! So, you know, he would have to forgive everything. What’s the next one?” TVO reminds him it’s Mortgage, which Ellie notes is for a serious relationship, and Dan changes his tactics.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

“Can I just say then,” he asks, pointing at Daniel, “that I would rent with this one? I reckon I could manipulate him. Mortgage with Vic, and avoid probably living with Beef. Loose cannon that man. Loose cannon.”

As laughs erupt around the table, attention turns to Daniel’s thoughts on the matter. “With Rachel, of course,” he says, smiling. Ellie smiles back. “So loyal…” she whispers.

“Oh yeah,” Daniel confirms. “That’s the mortgage.”

“Hang on,” interrupts Ellie. “It might be a bit early to mortgage.” Daniel considers this for a moment.

“Yeah,” he decides. “Probably Vic.”

“Oh yeah,” Dan chips in. “You like him don’t you?”

“I like him a lot,” Daniel confirms. “Seems like he has a lot of money. He’s got his stuff together.”

“Who would you avoid, Dan?” asks Dan to Daniel, confusing our name situation a little.

He replies with rapid fire precision.

“Beef. It’s a risk.”

“You’d avoid Bob, surely,” suggests Ellie, “cos you hate him?”

Daniel turns to her, and with his deadpan style intact, looks her in the eye and says with no degree of uncertainty: “I could probably use him, though.” Queue huge laughs from Dan, Ellie and TVO, while Daniel turns back to us, still straight-faced and adds: “I’m his child, so… You can’t expect a child to pay a mortgage.”

“How old are you meant to be?” asks Ellie, the thought seemingly crossing her mind for the first time. Daniel doesn’t know, but the table agrees he’s probably about 29, before we move onto Ellie’s turn.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

“Er…” she thinks. “I would rent with Eric.” Dan approves. “I don’t really know,” she adds. “I haven’t really established any kind of relationships, yet.”

“Well, this is going to be much harder for you, then!” Dan exclaims, laughing.

“I’d evict Bob,” Ellie considers. “Cos I hate him. And maybe mortgage with Vic.”

Dan is surprised. “Everyone wants to mortgage with Vic,” he notes, before adopting a Mockney accent. “He’s got somethink anhe?”

“It’s a kind of stability, I suppose,” Ellie opines. “I’d feel safe with Vic. He’d be like a father figure to me.”

Dan grins, and in full on Bosh-mode, sums up: “He’s a good lad, is our Vic.”

And with that, it’s time for the trio to go back to work for the evening’s record session. As both incredible talents and genuinely good people, TVO can’t help but be sad to see them go, but after a few quick words on what they’re up to next so we can keep our usual tabs on events, we’re sure that we haven’t heard the last of them yet.

House of Fools returns on Monday 16th February at 10pm on BBC2. The first series isavailable on dvd from 23rd February.

Onion Talking: Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer on House of Fools

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION
© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

Next week sees the launch of Series Two of House of Fools – the brilliantly surreal sitcom from the minds of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

Co-starring Dan Skinner, Matt Berry, Morgana Robinson, Daniel Simonsen and Ellie White, the show also features cameo appearances from  Reece Shearsmith, Rufus Jones, Tony Way, Tom Davis and many more.

To celebrate its return, TVO sat down with the main cast during the filming of Series Two to discuss the show. Today, we bring you our catch-up with the legendary duo at the centre of it all: Reeves and Mortimer.

Television listings describe House of Fools as a sitcom. Which, by definition it is, but there’s far more to the multi-camera, studio-audience enhanced end product. In today’s climate, even mainstream fair like Mrs Brown’s Boys breaks down the fourth wall, slyly winking to the viewers at home as well as those in the studio just how absurd the traditional sitcom format is.

So when the mainstream is doing exactly what the alternative was doing twenty years ago, it falls to the alternative to do something, well… ‘Alternative’ once more. Thankfully, Vic Reeves (real name Jim Moir) and Bob Mortimer have grafted for over 25 years doing exactly that, and their long-awaited move into sitcom territory is as utterly unique as it is delightful. It was only natural, then, that it’s superb first series would be followed by a second run.

Of course, the tropes of sitcom are there, but the duo have always taken the traditional and run with it in their own inimitable style: their natural chemistry and love of the hyper-surreal carving out a legacy of incredible programming. Big Night Out, The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer, Bang Bang It’s Reeves & Mortimer, Shooting Stars, Catterick… even their underrated turn at drama in short lived fantasy series Randall & Hopkirk {deceased} has a charm quite unlike anything else seen on British television in the last few decades. Truly, they stand apart from their peers, even as they rub shoulders with them, and inject everything they do with a high standard of professionalism beneath the on-screen madness.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

That said, today’s House of Fools recording, isn’t going too well. The sheer complexity of the show requires for a number of shots to be pre-filmed before the audience arrive: and the more of them there are, the more it cuts into camera-rehearsal. Filming in Salford, but rehearsing in London, the camera-rehearsal is crucial to locking down the show as it will eventually appear on screen, and the lack of one causes (the admittedly still hilarious) filming to overrun – the entire end sequence left unfilmed as the cast and crew take a break before the day’s second recording block has to get the job done.

“Were you down there watching?” asks Bob Mortimer nervously, as he and Jim Moir, the man behind the public persona of Vic Reeves, settle down to talk and grab a well-deserved bite to eat in a somewhat condensed lunch hour, less than five minutes after shooting was forced to wrap up. TVO assures him we were, and in spite of the problems, what we saw was still working really well. “We ran out of time,” he continues. Jim chips in. “We had so many things on the pre-record, and there’s lots of camera moves.”

“It is weird, when you haven’t done it in front of the cameras, isn’t it, Jim?” asks Bob. “Yeah,” Jim replies. “We’ll see how the second run goes.”

Bob continues: “The thing is we’ve got so many props and pre-records,” he states, “you’ve got to be ahead of it. You can’t come in on the day and say: ‘Can we have this prop?’ There’s no time to do anything new. Rehearsals change what, Jim? Twenty or thirty percent?”

“We do change little bits here and there,” Jim adds. “But it’s all there in the script. If you can’t do your lines, someone jumps in front of you and you’re in trouble.”

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

With the option to stay and watch the second studio record later that day, TVO sticks around, and the transformation is incredible.  What was a hilarious, if somewhat jumbled first run has been replaced by a smooth, well-oiled production, which, although overrunning due to only one chance to film the complex end sequence, ably demonstrates the skill with which the pair, and all of those around them, craft these episodes. They may have had a tough afternoon, but it’s a fun evening ahead of them.

Not that Jim and Bob are aware of this as we talk, and fearing we have perhaps dwelled on the negatives for too long, TVO decides to lighten the mood.  First off, who amongst the cast is most likely to fluff their lines, we ponder.

“Fucking me,” Bob blurts out, laughing. “Shit,” he adds… “You can take that answer and run with it!”

With the vibe improving, we suggest a quick game of Snog, Marry, Avoid, reworked in keeping with the House of Fools theme by asking who the pair would Rent with, get a Mortgage with, and Evict. We’re sure you’ll all be playing this by Easter, especially as the thought gets the approval of ‘Reeves & Mortimer’.

“I wouldn’t wanna live with Beef,” considers Bob. “I’d throw Beef out. Dirty man.”

“Vic Reeves is mentally inefficient,” states the man himself, firmly removed from his stage persona. “I think you’d probably want Bob to rent with.”

So, no mortgage for the duo?

“You’re asking if we got a house,” Bob clarifies, “would we get a joint mortgage?” He bursts out laughing as Jim props his chin up and grins that mischievous grin that only ‘Vic Reeves’ can. “Great question,” he adds, and pauses for a moment. “Yeah, we probably would. We’d probably get interest only as well.”

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

Perhaps, TVO opines, they could open a bistro of their own, just like their neighbour Julie has in the new series. Bob decides it could be called Vicky Manhattans, before Jim fires back the suggestion of George Bensons. Bob immediately changes this to Benson and Hedges, as they start giggling to themselves: that natural chemistry that has fuelled over two decades together in full force.  Some things never change, even when the ideas around them do.

House of Fools for example, was a first for the pair. Though they had dabbled in the sitcom world with their dark comic drama Catterick back in 2004, the closest they had ever come to a studio sitcom was the running Slade in Residence sketch from The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.  In recent years, the studio-sitcom has been somewhat dismissed by alternative comedy, with only The IT Crowd really shining as an example outside of the mainstream. Jim and Bob’s reasoning for doing one now is surprisingly pragmatic.

“I think it’s something we always wanted to do,” states Moir. “I think the days when you’re kinda forced into doing a quiz show went away, so we said: ‘This is what we want to do.’ We spent a long time thinking about it, and working it out. It was quick to start with, and we had a lot of advice, so we knew it was going to work. If you put enough work into something, it’ll work out in the end.”

“In a practical sense,” Mortimer adds, “we bumped into someone from the Beeb, and told them we were going to write a sitcom. And they said: ‘Alright, if you do, give it to us and we’ll have a look’. That was quite quick, wasn’t it? We wrote one in a couple of days, did a pilot. The procedure’s never really that grand, is it, Jim? It’s more like bumping into the right person at the right time.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the initial set-up, however, was the casting of the supporting roles. While ‘Vic’ and Bob play heightened versions of themselves, they are ably backed up by regular collaborator Dan Skinner as hapless Bosh, as well as new collaborators Matt Berry as randy randomer Beef, Morgana Robinson as frankly bonkers neighbour Julie, and Norwegian stand-up Daniel Simonsen as Bob’s reclusive son Erik. This year, they are also joined by Erik’s girlfriend, Rachel – played by relative newcomer character comedian Ellie White.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

Then there’s the guest roles, filled across the series by the likes of Reece Shearsmith, Sally Philips, Rufus Jones, Tim Healey, Tom Davies, Romesh Ranganathan and Tony Way, to name but a few, with the latter three filming today’s episode as a dance gang. It’s that combination of established names that Jim & Bob know so well, and the encouragement of up and coming talent that has traced its way through their career ever since they were established enough to call the shots somewhat. Let’s not forget, it was through Reeves & Mortimer shows that the likes of Matt Lucas, Rhys Thomas and Tony Way got their big breaks.

“Tony was like sixteen or seventeen on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer,” remembers Moir. “And then he was in The Club [a running sketch in Bang Bang] as well.” And dancing with you both in the studio, TVO points out. “Yeah,” Mortimer laughs, “with a firework up his arse!”

With a track record in providing a platform for new talents, TVO wonders if the pair consciously elect to nurture fresh faces. “I think we give them a chance,” Jim begins. “Then it’s up to you…”

We’re suddenly cut off, by loudspeaker announcement, as the audience for the evening session is about to be let into the studio. “Attention please,” it says, drowning out Jim in mid-thought. “Ladies and gentlemen for House of Fools. We will be going into studio in approximately ten minutes. We will call you in by the colour…”

“Of your skin!” yells ‘Vic’, gleefully, and the pair erupt with back and forth banter once more, before Bob straightens up.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

“The thing with Daniel [Simonsen] is…” he trails off, trying to find the right words to say. “We’ve been wanting to do something with him for ages. And Ellie was just a friend of a friend to come in and read lines during rehearsal, but she was great.”

“These things kind of evolve a bit,” Jim adds. “They have to evolve naturally, and then you work on it after that.”

“It’s brilliant,” Bob states, smiling. “When you use Dan, and you use Daniel, and you use Matt and Morgana, you just know they’re comfortable with the way we work, and they’re comfortable with us. So they’ll lob their own stuff in and bring it to life. We knew what to write for them, and what would work because of that shorthand. But it’s more about the story than anything.”

After all of this time, it would be easy for Reeves & Mortimer to fall into a generic pattern, relying on old gags and goodwill to get by. Instead, they’re pushing the limitations of what can be done in a studio sitcom, with a cast who get what they do and strive to help them make the best show they can. Three episodes into recording the second series, the pair are confident they’re onto a winner.

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

© Pett TV / Christopher Baines

“Last week’s was fucking great!” Bob enthuses.

“And Christmas was good as well,” chips in Jim. “They’ve all been really good, I think. Better than the last series, up to now.”

“I’ve no idea what this one is like, though,” adds Bob, seemingly with the worry of the looming record drifting back into his mind.  TVO can’t help but hope there’s more to come, and perhaps a slightly stripped back version of the show could be taken on the road, too?

“I think it’s great fun to do,” Jim sums up. “If people want it, we’ll keep doing ‘em.”

“Everyone involved in it, would like to do a run in a theatre, wouldn’t they, Jim?” asks Bob, as his partner in crime nods. “I don’t know whether that will happen, but we’d all like to do it.”

TVO is sure it would work, and notes that the chemistry between the gang, and between Reeves & Mortimer themselves, feels so natural it would be a shame for it not to happen.

“Well,” notes Jim, with a knowing wink in his eye, “That’s acting!”

And with that, they’re off to do more of it. That episode won’t record itself.

House of Fools returns on Monday 16th February at 10pm on BBC2. The first series is available on dvd from 23rd February.

Onion Talking: Adam Kay on Crims

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.
© Adam Kay

© Adam Kay

This week sees the launch of Crims – BBC Three’s new sitcom starring Elis James & Kadiff Kirwan.

We sat down with one of its co-writers: cult stand-up and former Mongrels writer Adam Kayto discuss the gestation of the series, and his plans for its future.

Imagine the scene. You go to pick up your girlfriend’s brother, only to find he’s committed a bank robbery, and you’re now his getaway driver.  More accurately, considering your stationary and surrounded by armed police, his getting-caught driver.

Such is the plight of Luke (Elis James), whose situation is made all the worse when he is confined to a Young Offenders Institution for 600 days, sharing a cell with said girlfriend’s brother – the hapless Jason (Kadiff Kirwan).  The result is Crims, BBC Three’s brand new sitcom from the pens of Adam Kay and Dan Swimer.

“It’s a huge privilege to be trusted to write a few hours of comedy on telly,” Adam tells TVO following a sneaky peak at the first two episodes, “and everyone worked very hard to make the best product we could.  Though, the progression of a comedy writer is to write on sketch shows, write episodes of other people’s shows, script edit other people’s shows, then work towards someone trusting you to write your own rulebook. So if it’s not funny, I can’t say it’s because I was told a character couldn’t say that. It’s because I fucked up. I can blame every other show I’ve worked on for not being funny on other people.” He pauses for a moment and ruminates. “I guess I could still blame the actors on this one.”

Kay needn’t worry. Crims is hysterically funny. Set in a world slightly detached from reality, it features prison guards who are obsessed with urinal cakes, gang leaders with an allegiance to Team Edward, and regular discussions about wanking rotas.  One character goes by the name of ‘Black Elton John’, for no apparent reason than his need of spectacles. It’s that kind of show, and TVO loves every second of it.

© BBC / Adam Lawrence

© BBC / Adam Lawrence

“The show found its feet as we were writing it,” explains Adam. “It didn’t feel out of place in the world to chuck that sort of weird stuff in. You never want to break the world with something outlandish. When people suddenly take stock and realise they’re just watching telly, it’s never good. But we peppered these crazy moments in without making it seem mad.  The temperament of the show allowed us to throw in those moments.”

Every character has something inherently likeable about them – even those who would typically be portrayed as purely negative stereotypes. For Kay, this was a natural decision to make. “You’re inviting people into your living room,” he states, “and the characters are not the most hyper-real on television. We’ve tried to give everyone enough fallibility and relatability to be enjoyable. There’s no real villains. It has to be more complex than setting up a goodie and a baddie, because no-one is really like that in real life.”

It also helps to set the series apart from the shows it will inevitably be compared to. Whilst no-one bats an eyelid at sitcoms set in shops or offices, you only have to look at the way Hyperdrive was dismissed before it even aired as a Red Dwarf knock-off to suspect that Crims will be unfavourably compared to Porridge by some, much as Dead Boss was before it.  Thankfully, Adam isn’t worried.

“I’m happy for anything I do to be compared to anything else,” he asserts. “Porridge casts a very long shadow, and rightly so. But in general, it’s less helpful thinking of a show in terms of the precinct it’s based in. A show is essentially the characters that are part of the world. We’d come up with the characters of Luke and Jason, and their relationship, before we came up with the situation they would be in.  I don’t feel constrained by it. I would happily write a sitcom set in a hotel. We could have set this in a retail bank, and it could have had the same vibe. But as soon as we plonked them in a prison, everything slotted into place.”

© BBC / Robert Viglasky

© BBC / Robert Viglasky

Part of what makes Crims stand apart from most recent comedy shows, is that it all seems to be coming from relatively new blood. Kay has spent years as a musical comedian, regularly selling out at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you may have heard his viral favourite London Underground. His first major television writing gig was crafting songs for the second series of Mongrels back in 2011. Co-writer Dan Swimer cut his teeth co-writing Grandma’s House with Simon Amstell, and has also written for shows as diverse as How TV Ruined Your Life and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Despite their talents, neither man could really be defined as a household name just yet.

This vibe extends to the cast, too. Elis James is an up-and-coming stand-up with occasional sitcom acting credits to his name, with much of the rest of the cast made up of relative unknowns. Comedian and actress Cariad Lloyd (Cardinal Burns, Fit) plays Prisoner Officer Dawn, the only sane voice in the whole place. Former Dead Boss and Him & Her star Ricky Champ plays fellow warden and hapless idiot Creg. By far the more diverse CV on the cast-list is that of Theo Barklem-Biggs, who plays Twilight-loving thug Marcel – and who you may recognise from his appearances in productions as varied as The Inbetweeners Movie, Silk, Moses Jones, A Touch of Cloth or The Fades.

“We were certainly never put under any pressure to fill it with names,” Adam states. “Everyone just set about making the best possible show.  Cariad is brilliant. Ricky Champ’s been in a huge amount before and he’s always brilliant, likewise Theo. And there are some who’ve done smaller roles or we’re bringing them to the screen for the very first time. It’s exciting.”

This certainly isn’t your typical BBC Three starring-vehicle, though it could have ended up very different indeed.

 © BBC / Robert Viglasky

© BBC / Robert Viglasky

“Lots of people were seen for the show,” reveals Adam, “Some with large amounts of profile, some with even less profile than these guys. The casting director put huge numbers of people up for it. But not only are Elis and Kadiff individually really great actors, but we knew their chemistry would show on screen from the moment we tried them together.  Ellis has been gaining profile of late, but I think this is the start of a long comedy journey for Kadiff in particular.”

One familiar face does turn up in Episode Two, however – in the form of Doctor Who legend Sylvester McCoy. As Luke tries to impress his girlfriend by getting an A-Level on the inside, he meets a daffy old Latin teacher, and the two bond over the true meaning of life, the universe and everything, with delightfully charming results.  Which, given Sylvester’s track record for delightfully charming everyone around him, is no surprise.

 © BBC / Robert Viglasky

© BBC / Robert Viglasky

“I can tell you now,” Adam beams, “he was an absolute joy. Sylvester was a huge presence and source of energy and enthusiasm. We had a puppy on set that day, and normally the puppy gets all the attention on a set, but Sylvester stole its limelight very much, which is pretty unheard of.  He does it really well, too. It’s a very unusual part, and he gets away with it with just the right amount of mad.”

So what does the future hold for Crims? “At the start of every episode,” Adam tells us, “is the number of days they’ve spent in the prison. By the end of Episode Six we’re a couple of months in. If time continues at the same rate, we’re not going to be limited by their sentence. We’d rather keep doing it while we’re all enthusiastic about it enough to want to write more. You know how comedy works. If we were commissioned for Series Eleven, and we wanted to do it, we’d find a way.”

But is there a moment in this first series Adam is most proud of? He has two.  “Episode Six,” he grins, “where Creg is eating a sandwich. That’s a plot construction I was extremely pleased with.  And there’s one thing that Luke says, as a very sarcastic character. In a moment of annoyance to Jason, he asks: “Isn’t there a yourself you can go fuck?” I’m waiting for a chance to say that in real life.”

TVO suggests the slogan could end up on t-shirts. “You’re in,” Adam retorts. “You get 10%.” Deal.

Crims airs from 10pm on Thursday 8th January on BBC Three.

Living In Rock: Simon Day & Rhys Thomas on life with Brian Pern

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

This week sees the launch of Brian Pern: A Life in Rock on BBC Two.

The mockumentary focuses on prog-rock singer Brian Pern, as he attempts to adapt to life after fronting one of rock’s biggest bands.

Featuring a host of big name guest stars, the show is an absolute treasure, and TVO was lucky enough to talk to its creators, writers and stars, Simon Day and Rhys Thomas about the life of Brian.

Brian Pern is many things. Former frontman for prog-rock legends Thotch. Jukebox musical writer. World music inventor. Campaigner for WiFi-afflicted moths. He’s also the brainchild of Fast Show and Bellamy’s People veterans Rhys Thomas and Simon Day, who first brought the character to life in a series of YouTube videos for BBC Comedy, before Pern was unleashed on a wider audience via his debut tv series earlier this year.

That show, The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, was a critically acclaimed smash, jam-packed with celebrity guest stars as it used the medium of the music documentary (for which Thomas has previously won awards including an Emmy and a Rose D’or), to poke fun at the ridiculous nature of classic rock.

Now Pern is back with a brand new series, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, which takes the character out of the clip show, and into a living, breathing world of his own. As Rhys explains, this was an easy decision to make.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

“To do another series like the first,” he tell us, “would be difficult. Harry Hill had twenty people all watching television at the same time to keep up for TV Burp, but for the first series it was basically me and Simon, hunting through the archives looking for all those funny clips. It would take us about a year to do it again, so we got rid of all that. The money we would have spent clearing archive footage we’ve now put into…”

“Rick Wakeman,” interjects Simon.

Wakeman is one of many guest stars in the new run, which expands Brian’s world by focusing on his day to day life, and the challenges he faces trying to get projects off the ground.  In Episode One, Pern and his former Thotch bandmates plan to launch their own jukebox musical, Stowe Boys, with Martin Freeman and Jack Whitehall in its cast and Kathy Burke on directing duties.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

Elsewhere, the second episode sees Brian attempt to play a charity gig, for the aforementioned moths, at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, whilst the third and final episode focuses on Brian’s attempts to record a charity Christmas album with a string of fellow rock stars including Roy Wood, Chrissie Hynde, Rick Parfitt and Melanie C. Oh, and his live-in assistant and world music protégé Pepita, played once more by Lucy Montgomery.

“To take him forward,” Simon explains. “We knew we had to have him living his life, meeting up with his manager, Pepita living in his house, and how he relates to the outside world.  Then we throw crisis at him in each episode.”

“His whole raison d’etre,” he continues, “is to stay very calm, so that nothing can go wrong. But he’s put under this intense pressure, and hopefully that’s where the joke is.”

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

The expanded world – which also features Tony Way as Brian’s driver Ned, Michael Kitchen as his Jim Beach inspired, yacht loving manager John Farrow, Paul Whitehouse and Nigel Havers as his former bandmates – takes a character that could have seemed like a one-trick idea, and beds him into a believable world, much like the transformation of Alan Partridge over the years.  Yet Rhys is determined to spell out the differences between the two characters.

“He’s not like an Alan Partridge,” he states, firmly. “None of it is ever played for laughs. What you’re laughing at is that he’s a foil to his own ideas. When he’s trying to put on a concert to save moths in Africa, if it was a concert for ebola, it wouldn’t be funny. It’s the idea that it’s wifi affected moth’s wings that’s the joke. A silly idea dealt with seriously, and played naturalistically.”

© BBC / Neil Barnes

© BBC / Neil Barnes

“It’s like the similarity with Peter Gabriel,” adds Simon. “Brian’s based on Peter Gabriel, but Peter’s actually a much nicer person with a really good heart. I just took him a baseline, and run with it, really. Brian’s just a pompous child at heart.”

Indeed, the new run harks back to the duo’s previous collaboration, Bellamy’s People, and it’s radio forbear Down the Line, which focus on heightened realism to base increasingly silly comedic ideas upon.  The later ran for five series on Radio 4, but the former was shunned by the Beeb after only one series, a decision which still baffles comedy lovers nationwide.

“It should have carried on, really,” notes Simon. “It’s a shame various events conspired to stop it. But it did use up a lot of characters, which I suppose we could go back to. We still have fond memories of it, but it’s a shame it never really took off.”

Rhys is less philosophical about the experience. “The problem with it,” he suggests, “is that it’s part of that time where comedy series started dropping off with audiences for the first time. Episode One got 1.58 million viewers, but then it tailed off each week. That’s what everything does now, but we were one of the first ones to do it. Something like Toast of London gets something like 450,000 viewers on Channel 4, which is so small for something that great. Ten years ago that would have got five million.” He pauses for a moment, then adds the prophetic: “Christ, people just don’t watch telly like they used to.”

It’s certainly true. When Simon and Rhys first started working together, it was on the hugely acclaimed, ratings grabbing sketch show The Fast Show, which shockingly began airing over twenty years ago now, and still returns sporadically, most recently in the form of online videos for Fosters Comedy converted into full episodes for BBC Two. It’s lasting legacy, apart from establishing a huge network of comedy talent, is that it remains as beloved today as it once was.  Simon Day puts this down to canny decisions.

Simon & Rhys in Fast Show spin-off Swiss Toni. © BBC

Simon & Rhys in Fast Show spin-off Swiss Toni. © BBC

“They never sold it to a channel like Dave,” he explains, “where it could get repeated on a loop. It never really has been repeated. They want to but Paul [Whitehouse]’s holding back. People have dvds and videos of it, but that’s it, so it’s held up in people’s memory without them getting sick of it.”

“And also,” he adds, “lots of people watched it. Back in the days of four channels, no internet, no Twitter, it really took off. We didn’t do too many – three series and a couple of Christmas specials – so its preserved itself quite well.”

“The third series was the best…” chips in Rhys. “You’re only saying that,” Simon retorts, “cos you were in it!”

Two decades on, and both Simon and Rhys are still working with the same people.  Fellow Fast Show veteran Paul Whitehouse stars in A Life in Rock as Thotch guitarist Pat Quid, whilst Rhys is married to co-star Lucy Montgomery, and went to school with Tony Way (Ned) and composer Steve Burge. Many of those involved, as with a number of their projects, have genuinely known each other for decades, making the show something of a family affair.

Steve Burge & Tony Way © Burge & Way / United Agent

Steve Burge & Tony Way © Burge & Way / United Agent

“Oh, we really do feel like a family,” enthuses Rhys. “I like the idea we all work together better anyway, cos we’re all friends and it ends up being more fun.  You can do what you want and don’t mind making a fool out of yourself.”

“When I did Star Stories,” he reveals, “I didn’t know anybody. And you turn up, and it’s all a bit competitive. Everyone’s trying to get one up on each other. I like everyone there, and I ended up making friends with them all, but these days I’d rather not do that again, and just work with people I know.”

If this sounds like comedic nepotism, it should be pointed out that these choices are also made because said actors are brilliant at what they do. And besides, TVO itself is based on a continuing trend of recycling the same talent in new ways, as part of one big comedic family.

Tittybangbang © BBC

Tittybangbang © BBC

“There’s this thing with television,” Rhys explains, in reference to this, “where someone will get famous, and then they’re endlessly in everything.  We’re sort of not using the same faces as everyone else.  Commissioners decide they want a funny actress, say, so they just ask the same people over and over. I like using people like Lucy and Tony. Even though Tony’s been in Edge of Tomorrow, in terms of comedy television, people will still think: ‘Oh, let’s get James Corden instead.’”

Indeed, knowing each other for such a long time has further benefits, in that there’s an innate sense of reliability that allows everyone to do the best job possible. Steve Burge, who was part of comedy trio Stay Alive Pepi with Thomas and Way, was put in charge of most of Brian Pern’s musical back catalogue.

“I would say to Steven: I need a song like this,” reveals Rhys, “or a piece a bit like that. He would then go off and write something brilliant, and I knew he’d deliver it in time for us to write the lyrics.  Then there’s songs like Simon’s written, like Black Christmas.”

“Which I sold,” chips in Simon. “I sold it to Westlife.”

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

Rhys laughs, straightens himself up and states: “You know, Simon and Steve remind me of each other, cos they don’t think like anybody else. They won’t come up with what you predict, but they’ll find something funny. Tony too… he came up with the version of Little Donkey we gave to Chrissie Hynde to sing. They’re so good. But they never put me in their fucking things!”

“Who?” asks Simon, perplexed.

“Tony or Steve,” Rhys answers, as Simon erupts with laughter.

Not that Rhys is short on work. Since he persuaded Brian May to write the theme music for his sitcom Fun at the Funeral Parlour, he has been working on dvds, blu-rays and award winning documentaries for Queen. His last piece, The Great Pretender won an International Emmy and a Rose D’or, no less, even though it very nearly didn’t get made.

© Queenonline

© Queenonline

“I wasn’t going to direct that,” Rhys reveals. “Just produce it. But the director I had said it wasn’t going to be any good, cos it’s boring and about an opera singer. So I did it myself, and I’m glad I did!”

Part of the joy of Brian Pern is that the show uses Rhys’ background in documentary filmmaking to look authentic. “I’ve got the same editor I worked with on the Queen documentaries, and the same cameraman,” he tells us. “So it has the right look. When people try to make spoof documentaries with cameramen who haven’t come from that field, they make it look shoddy on purpose. Real documentary makers try to make it look as good as they can.”

“We thought about doing something after this about crime,” adds Simon. “Sending up gangsters and the whole middle class obsession with it. But getting real people to talk about it.”

Rhys agrees. “I think it’s better than having people pretending to be real people,” he suggests. “You look at Spinal Tap, and it’s brilliant, but it’s just taking the piss out of idiot heavy metal bands. It’s not taking the piss out of the documentary form itself, and we could have a lot of fun doing that.”

Perhaps this is what the future holds for Brian Pern?

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

 “If there’s a desire for it, he’ll be back,” states Simon. “If the channel want to do it, cos people like it, we’re never going to say: ‘No, we’re killing that off.’ Though, I don’t think it’s something you could do for a hell of a long time.”

Could we even see Brian take to the road? A live tour of his classic hits, perhaps? Simon is most definitely keen. “YES!” he enthuses, when the suggestion is put to him. Rhys is a little more pragmatic: “As long as it does well,” he opines, “it’d be a nice thing to do.”

Brian Pern: On Tour. Here’s hoping.

Brian Pern: A Life in Rock airs from tonight at 10pm, Tuesday 9th December on BBC2. Thank you to Simon Day and Rhys Thomas for talking to us, and to Abigail Johnson at BBC Comedy for arranging our discussion.

Brian Pern on a Life in Rock

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION. A VERSION OF IT WAS ALSO FEATURED ON MUSIC NEWS. BOTH FEATURED NEWLY WRITTEN COMEDY BY RHYS THOMAS, AFTER MY SUGGESTION THAT AS WELL AS A REGULAR INTERVIEW WITH HE AND BRIAN PERN CO-CREATOR SIMON DAY, WE COULD SPEAK TO BRIAN HIMSELF…

This week, prog-legend Brian Pern returns to television in A Life in Rock, directed once more by TVO regular Rhys Thomas.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

The show, a follow up to Pern & Thomas previous documentary saga, The Life of Rock, follows the former Thotch frontman as he undergoes three new challenges in his life: the opening of the Thotch musical starring Sherlock megastar Martin Freeman, the staging of his epic musical saga The Day of the Triffids and the recording of his new Christmas album.

We were lucky enough to be put into contact with Brian through the good folk at the BBC, and he agreed to answer some questions via email.  This is how it went down.

TVO: Hi Brian, thanks for talking to us. Are you well?

BRIAN PERN: You will have to forgave me as I have in fact broken my rists in an acksident that I cannot disguss dew to leegal reezons so Ned, my driver is typing this for me. he is a little slow at typing as he is a simple minded kind folk and his spelling is shiv.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

TVO: You’ve been appearing on stages around the world for over 40 years. Does the heydey of Thotch still feel like yesterday?

BP: No it doesn’t feel like yesterday, I am much older, fatter and balder now and at times I get very depressed.

TVO: Of course, your first documentary series with Rhys Thomas, The Life of Rock, brought your music to a whole new audience, culminating in the limited rerelease of Spirit Level: The Best Of. Have you seen a change in the fans approaching you in the street?

BP: No. No one reconizeses me in the street anymore I don;t look the same as i did and i don’t reeely want to go around with face paints on an out lanbddish owtfits

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

TVO: Recently, Thotch have turned to making a jukebox musical about their life story. How’s that coming along?

BP: You will have to watch the program but it’s not happening. there is talk of a film with the man who did Interstellars. but i thought it was long and i don;t want my life in space. i like babadooks director, maybe they will do a god job, can you pass me the straw for my drink ned a thicker one the lumps of banana keep clogging it from the smootheee – don’t tupe that but – what are you doing oh you idiot. i might get siri to do it.

TVO: You bagged Martin Freeman to play you. He’s a big, big star now. What’s it been like working with him?

BP: Not easy as actors can by tricksy. i was a big fan of nativity 3 which he wasn’t in. apparently 1 is good. kermode said so.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

TVO: Rhys knows Martin from his comedy days, of course. Did they enjoy reminiscing about those days?

BP: Dey talked for about 3 hours about the time dey were both on Does Doug Know with Daisy Donovan and how the format has been sold to the USA for 29 million $.

TVO: You’re also no stranger to pushing into new territories. You’ve quite a few firsts under your belt, isn’t that right?

BP: what is under my belt is none of your beeswax. ned don’t write beeswax i wouldn’t say that just say business.

TVO: You’re also a keen supporter of charity work. What draws you to plights few seem to have noticed?

BP: I do it because I have a lot of money and I think it’s not fair to keep it all. redistributiin of welth. ned get the phone. i can;t pick ir up/.

TVO: Has Rhys got involved with the charity work too?

BP: No, he’s not rich enough. he works for bbc and is still on the make, he can’t afford. to give money away.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

TVO: There’s a few other new projects on the horizon, too. I hear you’re releasing a Christmas album?

BP: yes. It’s out already.

TVO: It’s not the first foray into Xmas music for you, Brian, is it?

BP: no i did 2 of then and episode 3 is all abowt that. its on 22nds of december after never mind the buzzards with Peter Jupitis.

TVO: You’re also working on your long mooted Day of the Triffids album, is that right?

BP: i recorded it in 1977nand now its coming out yes you can see it all on bbc in episode 2. how many more of these i need to have a bath

© BBC

© BBC

TVO: There were bootlegs doing the rounds a few years ago of the Triffids demos. How do you feel about illegal downloading of your work?

BP: i don’t care really. I have made enough money i think if fans want to listen great – is my fawlt for not finishing it

TVO: Presumably your manager has something to say about it.

BP: yes and it would envolve a swear word.

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

© BBC / Rory Lindsay

TVO: You’re also keen on encouraging new talent in what they call world music. Why is that?

BP: i like the sound of voices from other cuntrees its better than todays bvabds in uk like kasabian,

TVO: Finally, I have to ask: do either of you think a full blown Thotch reunion is ever likely to happen?

BP: I never say never say never so never say never, ever – no.

Brian Pern: A Life in Rock starts on Tuesday 9th December at 10pm on BBC Two. Our thanks to Rhys Thomas for setting up this interview – we’ll be speaking to him and collaborator Simon Day later this week, so stay peeled.

Onion Talking: Gus The Fox

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.

© Gus the Fox

Today sees the release of the Gus The Fox Scrap Book – the first publication from the salacious vulpine.

A friend of the stars and a Twitter legend, Gus has persuaded Noel Fielding to write the forward for his book, which offers a miscellany of snippets and scribblings from his own personal collection.

As such, we caught up with Gus behind the bins of a nightclub haunt somewhere in North London & cajoled him into chat about the book, his foxy rivals, and Chris Packham’s misdemeanours…

Hi, Gus, thanks for talking to us.  Now, you’ve sort of taken on the mantle of Most Wicked Vulpine in North East London following the demise of The Crack Fox. What qualities do you bring to this role?

I wouldn’t really describe myself as the most wicked vulpine in North East London. Most of my mates are just as bad as me if not worse. My mate William Plunge is particularly naughty. I remember once we went for a walk up the canal and I said it might be funny to untie all the canal boats so that they floated away. William agreed but thought it would be funnier to murder all the swans using his penis. When he finished he strung them all up on an elaborate system of winches and pulleys and used them as puppets to perform a reenactment of Schindler’s List with added racism. He received a Laurence Olivier Award for an ‘Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre’ but had it rescinded when everybody found out that he spends his weekends sneaking into people’s houses and tattooing the faces of famous serial killers onto the chests of new born babies. He’s a cheeky so and so.

© Dave Brown

© Dave Brown

I used to know Jermome (the crack fox). He came over to my disgusting pit a couple of times. One time we got into a heated argument about which company produced the best hinges for industrial wheelie bins. Jerome got so angry that he shaved all my fur off and embroidered it into a tapestry inspired by the poster for ‘Jurassic Park 2:The Lost World’.

Your predecessor had plans for world domination. Is this something you can get behind?

Not really. I think if you smoke that much crack then at some point you’ll start travelling inside your own mind and acting like an arsehole. I’m not really that ambitious really, I only care about a few things. As long as I’m not being bummed up against a skip by a gang of bin men and I can find something better to eat other than my own testicles then I’m usually pretty content (unfortunately both those things happen on an unbelievably regular basis). I’ve got a book coming out so I’ve already achieved more than most foxes. Trying to catch a break when you’re a fox isn’t easy because everyone thinks you’re a cunt. My dad murdered my mum in an argument over a parsnip and then my dad was shot and turned into a really posh hat. Life’s just really difficult when you’re a fox. I think the day that a fox rules the world is still pretty far away. I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime. Read the rest of this entry