Monday, 30 September 2013

OCD-avid


I’m a little bit obsessive-compulsive. It’s not debilitating – I haven’t washed my hands once since starting this sentence - but it definitely plays a part in my everyday life.

Incidentally, OCD would scan a lot better alphabetically.

Part of it probably comes with being an actor. It’s quite common to go through a series of little rituals before a performance; partly out of superstition, partly out of the necessity to warm up. I definitely do this - though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether my little pre-show routines fall more into the former or the latter category.
 
Sometimes it’s just about clearing your mind. When you’re onstage in a play, it’s very easy for your personal thoughts to intrude; the last thing you want when you’re trying to concentrate on what your character should be thinking. This is particularly common if you’ve been doing the same show night after night; I remember Hugh Laurie once describing this in an interview as being akin to an out-of-body experience: after standing in exactly the same place saying exactly the same thing day after day, week after week, you can start to step outside of yourself – and cease to have an accurate opinion of what you’re doing.

Having a personal routine can help focus your mind and prevent this from happening.
 
Glyn, Cal and I had a strange little ritual before every performance of our 2008 Edinburgh show ‘The Balloon Debate’. I don’t know how it started, but every night, just before they opened the house, we’d sing the line “You’ll have a gay old time” from Flinstones Theme, in three-part harmony.


We kept doing it out of habit - but if we'd forgotten to do it one night it would have played on my mind, and probably affected my performance.

Could somebody phone a medic? Thanks.
 
Occasionally, these routines are less to do with compulsion and more about staving off boredom. I once toured with the show ‘The Roy Orbison Story’, doing eight shows a week for about five months – and every so often, subtle little games would start creeping into the performance.


The show opened with a funeral scene (always a crowd-pleaser), with the cast standing solemnly, as if around a casket. Occasionally someone would decide on a theme for the congregation, and we’d all follow suit. Once we did it in the style of George W Bush, all adopting a suitably arms-outstretched, legs-wide-apart stance. On another occasion the mourners were all standing on one foot. 
 
We were backlit at the time, and upstage from the main action, so it’s unlikely that anyone would have noticed. I’d still like to apologise for being so unprofessional; I was led astray by a cast of older, naughtier actors.

On one occasion the cast even played a game of tag; subtly tapping each other on the shoulder from scene to scene, passing the lurgy around the stage. I’m pretty sure that no-one in the audience would have clocked it, but I seem to remember Roy and his manager being more tactile that night than in any subsequent performance.

I've veered a little off-topic; I'll try and drag myself back to the original subject.

I don’t just apply these strange rituals to my work.

My first job on leaving drama school was another actor-musician show called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven’, in which I was a lead guitarist. Once onstage I didn’t exit until the interval, so I always had to make sure I had plenty of plectrums in my pocket. This sounds reasonable enough – but ever since I've always had at least three plectrums about my person, and losing them can start a mild panic.


At least I'm always prepared for a jam.

The number three actually plays a big part in my neuroses: I always carry three folded tissues in my pockets – one in the front left, two in the back right – and there are a number of obscure little mantras involving the number three that I've been known run through when no-one's looking.

I won’t share all of them with you, for fear that someone will come to lock me up.

As the years have gone by, I’ve managed to phase out some of these little quirks. You soon realise that missing one occasionally doesn’t lead to disaster. I'm sure that most people have their own equivalent - or at least I keep telling myself that to act as a reassurance.

You don’t want to know how many times I check I’ve locked a door or closed a window, though.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Chav of Punctuation.

There is no quicker way to weaken a jokey statement than using an exclamation mark!

See, I told you.

For me, exclamation marks are akin to wearing a novelty tie or t-shirt; seldom justified and the 'joke' wears thin almost as soon as it's started. It's not that they don't have their place (if I was trapped down a mineshaft I'd probably use one) - but that place isn't at the end of an amusing sentence.
 
Doing this usually suggests you’ve lost faith in your own sense of humour, and have tacked on some rogue punctuation last-minute to hammer the point home; “Look, Mum. I’M BEING FUNNY”. You might as well have attached an MP3 of a swanee whistle, or a short GIF of you shrugging at the camera.

(I know all my computer terminology.)

If Michael McIntyre was a punctuation point he’d be an exclamation mark: a big, fat one in Comic Sans.

 

Sometimes, if I’m writing a text or an email to someone who doesn’t know me very well, then the occasional exclamation mark will slip through the net. I’m not proud of myself when I do this – but it saves potential embarrassment. Sometimes you can be a little bit too dry.
 
If I’m being informal, I’d much rather opt for a smiley or a winky face. This only applies to written correspondence, though; saving the appropriate facial expression to the end of a real conversation is not to be encouraged.

Also, never use more than one exclamation mark, unless you’re Brian Blessed.
  
I was once sat with a friend who'd just received an irate text from a work colleague. It was signed off with a string of question marks and exclamation marks alternating in a haphazard fashion. If the sender had tried to represent this emotion in person he would have looked like he was having some kind of facial seizure.

I'd quite like to have seen it.
 
As far as I'm concerned, the only other time an exclamation mark is justified is when jazzing up a one-word title of a potential musical. 

"Adolf!', anyone?
 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Didn't he do well?


Last night saw the return of Strictly Come Dancing to our now not-so-small screens; the eleventh series of the only reality-tinged TV show in which I’m ever likely to show an interest.

Since the beginning, Strictly has been hosted by the Light Entertainment veteran, Sir Bruce Forsyth – and every year, like clockwork, we get the Brucie Backlash. People line up on Facebook, Twitter and in the trashy press, calling for Bruce to retire.

I, for one, am having none of it: I love Bruce Forsyth.

The man is a legend. He has spent seventy-four years in the business (seventy-four years: Christ) - and in that time has worked with just about anyone of note. Worked with, and often shown up.

If you ever get the chance, track down and watch the clip of him dancing with Sammy Davis Jnr. It's incredible. 
 
Not many could keep up with an artist of that calibre. Brucie manages it. More than that: Brucie makes it look easy.


Despite being eighty-five he hasn’t lost his spark. So he fluffs the occasional bit of autocue. So what. There are plenty of presenters a quarter of his age that do that.

Earlier on this year I went to see him at the Royal Albert Hall. It was glorious. He was on stage for over two hours and had the audience in the palm of his hand from the off. He sang, he danced, he ad-libbed - and kept up energy levels that would put most younger performers to shame. 


Towards the end he performed a song on the subject of friends departed - and whilst he sang, photographs of him alongside many a legendary entertainer flashed up on the screen behind him. Nat King Cole, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe & Wise, Les Dawson, Ronnie Barker, The Goons...the list went on.

Each of them were his contemporaries. Each of them are no longer with us.

Why do we only afford these people the respect they deserve once they’ve departed? How about, just the once, we cherish something whilst we’ve still got it?
 
Have a look at the video clip below of him closing the show; if it doesn’t bring a lump to your throat then I suggest you check your pulse.


Friday, 27 September 2013

Right on queue.


Sometimes the briefest of conversations can cheer you up.

I have got into the habit of visiting my favourite coffee shop almost daily. It offers a change of scenery if I’ve got nothing else on – and I find it much easier to get on with any work that needs doing, or my writing, when I’m out of the house.

It’s also a good way of pretending I’m not waiting for my agent to ring.

I visit the coffee shop regularly enough to have a “usual”.  All I need is a Ted Danson-a-like behind the counter for the transition to be complete.

I’m usually in my favourite haunt by mid-morning. Today I arrived a little later – and, for no particular reason, was soon getting irritated by the woman in front of me in the queue. 

She had one of those old-fashioned shopping-bag-on-wheels things in tow (the elderly's trolley-of-choice) – and despite being tiny, she still somehow managing to fill up the entire aisle, leaving me no sufficient space to stand.

I like to get wound up by nothing; it’s one of my favourite pastimes. I quietly stewed in my own juices and waited my turn to be served.

After a moment I started to sense that she was looking my way. I subtly turned to check, and found her gazing up at me, beaming from ear to ear.

“I’m having the loveliest day”, she said.

All tension was swiftly diffused; you can’t really be annoyed with someone after that.

We had a little chat whilst we waited. She filled me in on what had made her day so lovely - nothing huge, really; just a little shopping – but the way she retold it made it all sound delightful. Then we shook hands, I said that I hope her day continued to be nice, and we went our separate ways.

Note to self: don’t be such a miserable git. Also, see if you can source one of those old lady shopping trolleys.




Thursday, 26 September 2013

Human catnip


I’m a bit of a cat-whisperer.

I live about half an hour’s walk away from the railway station; a route littered with potential feline assignations. There’s Timmy (the tabby one with the docked tail), Sid (black with white splodges), an as-of-yet unnamed black kitten – and, until a couple of days ago there was also Dally: the ginger cat with the high-pitched miaow, who liked to sunbathe in his front garden.

Non cat-lovers are permitted to reach for the sick bucket.

It’s safe to say that you’re either a cat person or you’re not. Correction: you’re either a cat person (Halle Berry), a ‘cat person’ (you like cats) or you’re not. I fall into the middle category; I’d look shit in a catsuit.

My comedy partner Glyn would probably plump for option three. He once memorably described cats as “pointless”. He’s mellowed over time (my cat Millie showing enough affection to make him feel sufficiently guilty) – but generally, they’re not of much interest.


A couple of years ago I asserted subtle revenge: I bought him a kitten-themed birthday card and scrawled the word ‘POINTLESS’ across the front of it.

Dally was one of the favourite parts of my daily commute. Even if I was running late, I’d always make time to stoop down and say hello – and my bad mood would be lifted. Dally had become a daily event.

Occasionally he’d follow me a little further up the street, yelping at me until I stopped and said hello again; he was a bit of a tart.

A couple of days ago a sign went up to say that Dally had been hit by a car. Call me a softy but I was genuinely upset. 



Today is a bright, sunny day. Dally would have loved it.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Ahoy-hoy.


Please don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s probably best to never phone me.

I have a gut-wrenching aversion to making or receiving telephone calls. I’m awful at it – and have been known to audibly groan when my telephone rings and I know I have to answer it.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some sort of recluse. It’s also never meant as a personal affront to whoever may be trying to reach me. I just hate the ‘forced-into-a-corner, you-must-have-a-conversation-right-now’ feeling that can only come with the sound of an unanswered telephone.

Stephen Fry summarises it better than I ever could, which is probably unsurprising. He says:

“The telephone is a fantastically rude thing. It’s like going ‘SPEAK TO ME NOW, SPEAK TO ME NOW, SPEAK TO ME NOW’; if you went into someone’s office and banged on their desk, saying ‘I WILL MAKE A NOISE UNTIL YOU SPEAK TO ME’, it would be unbelievably rude.”


For me it’s not so much a question of rudeness. It’s more the worry that a few seconds into our conversation the other person will catch me out; my well-worn mask of a normal, well-adjusted person will be temporarily lifted to reveal the quivering wreck underneath.

I’m surprised I even manage to dress myself.

Thankfully some of my closest friends are just as neurotic as me when it comes to telephonic conversation; we both know we’re uncomfortable with the situation, and this relaxes us enough to get past the awkwardness.

When I have to make a call I do my best to catch myself out. I’ll do it when I’m on my way to somewhere, or in a break when working, so I know that my brain is suitably distracted to forget how uncomfortable I am with the situation.
 
There’s nothing more blissful than the temporary reprieve of a call you didn’t want to make going straight through to answerphone. 


So if you want to catch up with me, it’s probably best to send me a text. Suggest a time when we can meet up in a pub or a coffee shop; I’m much better at functioning in the real world, than the enforced just-me-and-you-and-no-distraction world of the phone call.

Sorry for being such a dick.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Social media with a conscience.


Last night I tweeted that a contestant on BBC1’s popular game show Pointless looked like a tiny-faced Bobby Davro.


It was just a silly little joke – a prerequisite of my job: making silly little jokes – but within the space of a few hours, that silly little joke had been spotted, commented on and then retweeted by the contestant in question.


Now, I think it’s safe to assume he wasn’t particularly offended; the smiley face and subsequent retweets by him and his fellow teammate would suggest as much. He may even be enjoying the novelty of the temporary fame that appearing on a game show has given him. However, Davrogate does serve to illustrate that the nature of modern social media means you’re potentially just a few short internet steps from direct contact with the person you may be commenting on.

This is not the first time I have been stung by this - though thankfully, each incident has been fairly innocuous. A year or so ago I watched an excellent BBC1 documentary on the making of Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album, ‘Graceland’ – and noticed how, whenever the a cappella vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo spoke of their collaborator, they referred to him by his full name.

I tweeted as much, and within minutes, received the following reply.

 
Now it does beg the question how a group the size of Ladysmith Black Mambazo approach the updating of their Twitter account. Does every member personally sign off a potential tweet? Are they left in charge of a letter each? Whatever the answer, their response was pretty commendable.
 
Also, a couple of months back I posted a harmless one-liner about the singing coach Carrie Grant. Evidently she must search her own name on the social networking site, as the following day I got a response.



I am of the opinion that none of these examples are offensive. When passing comment on an individual, I am always careful not to make too personal an attack. Also, if a post is anywhere near-the-mark, I would never – NEVER – seek out and add their personal Twitter handle to it; that for me would be crossing the line.

The only time I’ve done that is when I’m making a joke I think they might appreciate.


 
Sadly, not everybody applies the same ruling.

Glyn and I know Michael Barrymore. He has always been kind and supportive of both us and our work - even going as far as appearing as himself in a reading of a sitcom that we had written. We follow each other on Twitter – and as a result I've witnessed the online bullying he is often on the receiving end of, despite certain charges never being brought against him. 

 
Thankfully, not everyone is like this; for every tweet of abuse there are plenty that follow in support. Michael has also spoken in interviews of how he is grateful for Twitter, for finally giving him a voice against his misrepresentation in the media – and often retweets the nastier tweets and articles that are sent to him to illustrate it.
 
Imagine having to put up with that at any time of day or night, though. I, for one, wouldn’t be able to cope with it.

I guess this is a new problem; society has never before been in a position to have such instant and immediate contact with people in the public eye. Perhaps in the process it can be easy to forget that they are real people as much as we are - and can be hurt and offended like anyone else.

This problem doesn’t just apply to celebrities.
 
I’ve watched a couple of episodes of Channel Four's ‘Educating Yorkshire’: a documentary focusing on the everyday lives of students and staff at the Thornhill Community Academy in Dewbury, Yorkshire. The programme positively encourages Twitter comment, bringing up the hashtag '#EducatingYorkshire' at the top-and-tail of every advert break. This makes me feel uncomfortable; is it good to put teenagers at the receiving end of this, knowing many of them are likely to scour the social networking site and read any abuse aimed in their direction?

Perhaps it's time to climb down from my soapbox.

 I have a personal rule when approaching comedy: never make a joke if you have to check the room first for people who may be offended. If a joke is only suited to selected company, then it's not likely to be a nice joke in the first place. Even though yesterday's Davrogate tweet was relatively innocent, I'll try and think a little more carefully before posting in future.

You never know who may be listening.