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Thursday, 27 October 2016

That time Hugh Laurie helped me steal something

In the early 90's when I was a fresh-faced whippersnapper of a juggler, mainly making my rent from street performing, I got my first proper agent. He was a lovely chap, with an office just around the corner from my street pitch in Covent Garden, which was festooned with 8x10s of bodybuilders, martial artists, mimes, and associated people who specialised in physical skills. As a young bouncy circus monkey, he saw some potential in me, started putting me up for castings, and indeed, landed me some fun jobs.

Yes. Me. Shut up.

Mostly, I ended up in late 80's/early 90's pop videos. Which means that if you scour YouTube for a couple of early Shakespear's Sister songs, and one particularly dirgey ditty by Sarah Brighman, there, more often than not under some fucking clown make-up, I am. The Shakespear's Sister ladies were delightful, and I remember playing with Siobhan's young daughter at the time, who made it into one of the video's dressed as a bumble bee. What most of these clips had in common were that they were directed by the brilliant Sophie Muller, and when she was prepping to direct the video for Annie Lennox's next single, I got another call.

The shoot for “Walking on Broken Glass” took place on location over a long weekend in London, but the cast all got called in the day before. It was, I guess, a homage to things like “Dangerous Liaisons”, so we all got plopped in front of a line of mirrors for complicated costume and powdered wig fittings. By the middle of day 2, those wigs felt heavy and painful, dragging on the pins that held them in place and giving everyone matching headaches.

The vibe was a party – cool and beautiful people, and staff serving drinks, and – hey – a juggler entertaining them! But as opulent and beautiful as the location and costumes were, all eyes were on the stars of the show. John Malkovich, kinda sorta reprising his role from “Liaisons..”, and Hugh Laurie, sorta kinda reprising his role from Blackadder. Malkovich took it all quite seriously, struggling a little, I think, to be able to have the kind of fun that Laurie was able to have. And my god, Hugh Laurie was amazing. And then there was Lennox. Draped in spectacular red velvet, gliding around serenely, and treated by everyone – correctly – like the queen. She radiated serene focus, and, at least for me, that became the feel of the shoot. And after the first take, when they'd hit playback and all the actors had heard the song for the first time, we all tried to make sure she saw us grinning at how good it was.

For me though, it was all about Hugh Laurie. I was already a fan, and a totally star struck at working in the same room as him (more so than Malkovich, I'm afraid). As part of the set dressing a harpsichord stood in the corner of the set, and between shots, the talented son of a gun just sat down and played it. There was a key scene where Lennox's character gets drunk and angry – in the final cut the camera cuts a few times to Laurie's face as he desperately tries to calm her down. I remember vividly when that was shot. They just put the camera on him, and let him go. For minutes upon minutes he improvised various different ways of trying to defuse the situation – firm, embarrassed, ignoring it, laughing it off, getting angry, being patronising... he just kept going and going, to a silent, rapt room of actors. When Sophie finally told him they had more than enough, everyone clapped.

Something else that the angry drunk Annie Lennox did in the video, and lets face it, the thing that really spoiled the party for everyone, was barge past the juggler. We shot it a couple of times with me just being pushed to one side and dropping my balls, and then I was asked if I would be ok actually falling down. I've always been very ok with falling down. It's one of my key skills. So, on the next take, she pushes past me, and I take a good old fashioned back bump to the floor. They finish the shot, cut is yelled, and everyone seems happy. Except for Annie, who hurries over to me, asking if I'm ok, totally concerned that she had accidentally, in the heat of the moment, actually thrown me to the floor. I tell her, yeah, I'm fine, it was a pratfall, they told me to go a little bigger, and then she's helping me up and telling me “oh, very nice, very good”. And although it only lasts half a second, and you can't really see it, that's the take they used.

On the second day, while they were shooting something downstairs, myself and a few of the other actors were sitting around on set, killing time, chatting about anything and nothing in particular. I mentioned that it was my girlfriend's birthday soon (she's now my wife), and I hadn't found a good main present. As we're talking, Hugh Laurie wonders in and sits nearby. We started joking that I should steal something from the set. Then we started joking a little more specifically, that I should steal the gorgeous crystal, gold-rimmed goblet that Annie Lennox uses in the video. Then we slowly realised that she'd finished shooting all her scenes with it. And then, Hugh Laurie is standing up, sidling over to the table, taking the goblet, walking back, and giving it to me, with a conspiratorial grin.

I stole it, gave it to Lesley for her birthday, told her the story, and to this day, whenever that video turns up there is giggling and pointing and yelling “Look! It's your glass!”

Sorry Annie Lennox. Sorry Sophie Muller. Blame Hugh Laurie.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Power Man

Here's how it would go:

I'd come out of my grandma's house, turn left, go to the end of the street, past the corner shop run by the Indian family, where the aroma of food on the stove out back melted into the smells of the sweets sitting out front to create a gorgeous heady mix that still, when I smell anything like it today, sends me right back to my childhood. I'd cross the street onto the main road and go to the newsagent that I didn't usually go to. My parents didn't ever send me there. It was small, fairly crappy, and staffed by a couple I was a little scared of, who sometimes shouted at each other. But. On a little plastic-covered wire rack on the dirty lino floor, they had American comics. Marvel comics. Remember – this was the mid 70's, way before the characters and stories contained in those rough, cheap pages had become mainstream pop-culture icons and cash-generating brand ambassadors – especially in the UK. Back then they were still seen as crass, cheap, sensational, primary coloured bad influences. I loved them. I love them.

I didn't love them equally though. Never had much interest in the Fantastic Four, the Hulk didn't hook me, neither did Thor. As I got older, I developed serious fandoms for Daredevil, Spidey, Green Arrow and others, but back then, when I was..what..7 years old? It was all about Luke Cage. Power Man. The hero for hire. He was my guy.

The black guy with the impenetrable skin, whose comics wove Marvels trademark outrageous characters and action, into stories of the inner city African American experience. Superhero blaxploitation. A leading character fresh out of jail for a crime he didn't do, who commits to his new powers by going into business as hired muscle, simply because, just like everyone else in his neighborhood, money was tight. Six or seven years before I discovered hip-hop, the Luke Cage comics taught me about an America that TV didn't often show, and alongside that, it showed me a New York that I dreamed of seeing for myself one day. I wonder if the people making these comics realised the bang-up job they were doing as an unofficial tourist board, because I can't have been the only kid entranced by visions of the USA thrown at me in low-quality ink. And it wasn't just the stories, the rest of the comic too – I poured over the adverts for mysterious things – Slim Jims! SeaMonkeys! I only know who Dr.J is because of his adverts for Spalding basketballs on the back page (Imagine my glee when his name cropped up in Run DMC's “You Be Illin” a few years later, and I KNEW WHO HE WAS).

These comic books were little culture bombs of exciting, edgy, loud, vivid, modern, counter-culture Americana. I was their target market. They hit me with deadshot accuracy, and I never fully recovered.

Flash forward to me as a grown-up, and Netflix announce that they're going to make four TV series, of four Marvel characters, and that those characters were Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. What's the word for a combination of excitement, nervousness and dread? That. But then they release Daredevil, and it was good. As was Jessica Jones. And they just dropped Luke Cage. And it's kinda great.

Thematically it feels like a pretty good update of the source material. A reluctant hero driven into action when local gangland violence and political corruption start to take away his safe places, and hurt those he cares for. It's clearly on a modest budget, but its shot beautifully, with warm colours and a bold visual style giving the excellent cast the frame they need to do really nice work. And essentially, there's plenty of room for discussions of race, power, and, in one key early scene, the N-word. It's not perfect by any means, but sweet Christmas, Mike Colter is Luke Cage.

And good god is it timely. The deafeningly loud symbolism of having a hero who's central power is that his black skin is bulletproof is painfully ironic in a country where an increasingly militarized and unaccountable police force seems to be killing unarmed black men with shocking regularity. That a comic character who was created during the black power movement of the 70's, now has a resurgence in the black lives matter era is perfect, and powerful. Colter himself has said that the show is consciously taking that movement into consideration, and that “It's a nod to Trayvon, no question”.

The other thing that's been said about it is that it's the hip-hop Marvel show, which isn't quite true. The whole thing is immaculately soundtracked, to be sure, but not just with hip-hop, but also old school R&B and jazz, alongside some featured live performances, which all contribute to an underlining of the importance of music in the world in which our heroes and villains live.

As a sidenote, I also watched the BBC4 documentary “The Hip Hop World News”, which, at the time of writing, you can catch up with on iPlayer. A bold idea, to look at politics and society through the lens of hip-hop creators, and one that, for my money, didn't quite work. There were some important mis-steps – discussion about the use of the N-word was clearly biased in favour of the presenters viewpoint, while ignoring the key reasons for its re-appropriation, and including obvious fallacies presented as facts. The deeply problematic representation of women was touched on, and this slim and shallow segment was the only time in the whole show that a woman was allowed to talk, and only then because she was an old friend of the presenter. That stank. These are big subjects that, when given the serious insight they deserve, explode and expand some of the cultural underpinnings of the artform, and can only help its understanding. They happened for reasons, and that's where the discussion is, but there was no discussion, instead, only dismissals and opinions in place of explanations.

Having said all that, the presenter in question, veteran British MC Rodney P, was passionate and genuine, and when he shed tears before meeting the great Chuck D, I was right there with him. Although flawed, this was, in general, a very enjoyable show, and one that I hope serves as a starting point for Rodney to bring his beloved world to the screen, rather than a one-off.

And after that show we changed the channel, and there was Jeremy bloody Paxman talking about fucking Victorians. An Oxbridge educated rich white guy basically doing cosplay of one of his old teachers, in a sea of similar looking faces doing similar looking things, and it became apparent how rare and valuable on screen talent - either fictional like Luke Cage, or real, like Rodney P, are.

Excelsior, true believers! 'Nuff said.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A solo performer in a cast and an only child in a family.

I first met Roses when she – and I'm using her own words here – stalked me for months, took me for coffee, told me that she wrote, directed and starred in some theatre shows, thrust a script into my hands, and told me she wanted to work with me. It was equal parts flattering and scary, like many of life's best moments.

I was doing a bunch of cruise ships shows at the time, and as they have a habit of sapping ones soul slightly, I was looking for something different to get stuck into. Something nourishing, challenging, fun, maybe. I took her script onto a plane to Miami, and by the time we'd reached cruising altitude I knew I wanted in.

That was seven years and two installments of her show ago, and last month I was happily roped into another episode of Roses' ongoing theatrical crazyness.

The Night Kitchen Cabaret isn't a cabaret show. Ok, well it sort of is. It's a play masquerading as a cabaret show masquerading as a play about a cabaret show that is really a play. Or something. I'll start again. It's a play about a woman called Ruby Kitchen. She runs a show from her East London home, which may or may not also be some kind of trans-dimensional tardis. Long story. She's surrounded by her family, friends and visitors from far away. Oh, and there's dance and circus and magic and puppetry and mime and music and monsters and and and...

What it mainly is, is virtually impossible to describe with any degree of clarity or accuracy. A multi-disciplinary tour-de-force that is exactly as concerned with slapstick and spectacle as it is with using delicate theatre to delve into some of the gentle, dark places that good art can be so good as illuminating.

I'm lucky. I had a couple of decades of living as a busker, hand to mouth, but these days I do alright. I get to bounce around the world doing my thing in interesting places. But I don't like to keep it too easy. I always want to be doing something new – doesn't matter if its a new gag, routine, venue, show – I always want to be concious, always want to be stretching myself a little, always developing and learning, because otherwise, what's the point? I'm also a solo turn. I function well on my own. Always have done. So spending a month in a rehearsal room (At RADA of all places) being a member of a cast full of way more talented people (or at least that's how my insecurities will always frame it, although holy crap, this cast was amazing), learning everything from heartfelt dialogue, to physical theatre choreography, to full scale Appalachian flatfoot dance numbers – well, that took me to a place where you couldn't see my comfort zone with military-grade binoculars.

I struggle to function as part of a cast. Habit, my inherent shyness, and probably a little fear-fuelled ego all combine to make me occasionally want to curl up a hide under a table. But over the course of rehearsals, we fuse together. Strangers become colleagues become friends, and finally melt into a single cast. Like an army unit – a collection of specialists who, together, make one thing happen. By the time we finally got to walk out onto our beautiful set, we had become the family we were portraying.

I always tell people that one of the things I love about my job is that with my skillset and experience, I can work pretty much anywhere. And sure, on the surface, that sounds like the kind of thing you tell an agent who isn't sure if you're right for a gig, and indeed it is, but it's also really true. My background in street performing instilled in me the ability/obsession to approach any space as a potential venue, and know how to make it work best as one. Still, if I'm in a new town and happen to wonder down the high street, I'll be unable to fight the voices in my head saying “Ok, you'd pitch up there, facing this way, so you're not blocking any shop doorways. Nice flow of people, but the street is wide enough that you're not going to cause an obstruction and get stopped by the police. Also you could stand on that wall to grab attention, and put your suitcase on top of that rubbish bin...”, this is a curse that I'm pretty sure every street performer has. When I recently talked to Eddie Izzard, who, decades ago, I used to share a street pitch with, he said much the same thing. He told me that he'd just played the Hollywood Bowl, and wouldn't have known how to approach that gig, were it not for his days as a busker. 

But this applies to the nature of the gig, as much as it does the venue. I think I'm pretty good at being able to slightly tweak what I do, and more importantly, how I do it, to suit the style of show I'm in. Punchy and improvy for street shows, slick and witty for cabaret, stylish and clean for classic variete. The Night Kitchen Cabaret though, was at the far end of this range. I wasn't even playing myself, I was Great Uncle Alfie. I'd played him twice before, and I love him. He's a juggler, sure, and a butcher. He's also – small detail – been dead for two hundred years. But when the family needs him, he always finds a way to visit. He's east end. Where I feel awkward and shy in a pub, he'd be right at home there, leading a singalong and buying everyone a round. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to take me down to Edmonton Green market. She knew everyone, so on the journey there and back, we'd bump into window cleaners, fruit and veg sellers, and all manner of central casting 1970's London types. I remember loving it, and when I'm Alfie, I play him like all of those people. The rough grinning chancers that would chuck me an apple and ask me what football team I supported, then take it back unless I said Tottenham.

I'm sure there will be more installments of the Night Kitchen to come, full of impossible to describe but beautiful things, so keep an eye out. Regardless of my involvement, they're something special, as is Roses, the creative genius behind it all. And I use that word very consciously indeed. Watch out for her name in the future. You'd be fools not to.

(All the beautiful photos on this post, courtesy of the brilliant Lol Johnson. Go check out her work)

Thursday, 7 April 2016


This week I've been mostly feeling empty. All my energy bars depleted. Desperately in need of a powerup. Veering wildly between panicky and desperate, and “oh, what's the point of any of it”-type resignation. There's been a decent amount of numb staring into space, a respectable number of whinges, and fairly regular confused crying.

Sometimes, when depression descends, it comes out of nowhere. You'll wake up, and in those first few seconds, you'll feel it and you'll know – nope – this ain’t going to be an easy day. Other times, there might be a trigger, something that pokes at your existing emotional wound and reminds you of it. This week, for me, there were a few things – some real-world triggers, exhaustion, and a cracked rib didn't help. All these things made me an easy target for the illness. And it came in strong this week.

Depression tricks me into measuring my success and happiness by all the wrong metrics. Judging myself by the standards set by those who I don't respect. But they shout their expectations so loudly sometimes, at least in my head, that they are hard to ignore. Of course, by all the valuations that count, I'm doing just fine. I get to go on stage and show-off, to act out the silly ideas I think up, and enough people seem to like it that I'm able to have a roof over my head, a wide selection of hats and ties, and get Wimpy whenever I like. This job has given me a life I share with so many awesome humans. One, particularly awesome.

And usually that's enough to keep me happy, and my keel even. But when my mood is low, when the black fucking dog is standing by the front door snarling and drooling at me whenever I try to leave the house, my perception changes.

I must be a failure. A loser. I'm not doing as well as whoever. I'm not selling as many tickets as I could be selling. I'm not in demand by the right people. I'm not in the cool gang. If only I hadn't buried Britain’s Got Talent so publicly and so often, maybe I could turn off my soul, bite the bullet and tilt at the windmill of a million instant extra twitter followers. But no. I made my bed, it's just that right now I'm finding it hard to get out of it.

I know, I know. There's always someone better, and there always will be. Prince didn't stop being Prince when he realised he'd never be James Brown. He concentrated on being Prince. There's always someone more popular, richer, younger or thinner.. It's just that when you're too busy with the dog to think straight, it seems like that someone is everyone, and it always will be, and you might as well give it all up because really, come on, what were you thinking? And when that dog is straining at the leash, I find myself with no answer to that question. Suddenly, in my mind and heart, I'm back to being the teenager with the different name who dreamt of being something like Mat Ricardo, but was too often told that it should remain a fantasy, or at best, a hobby. I find myself wondering if those people were right.

They weren't, of course. And here I am, at a coffee shop in Marylebone station in London, hunched over my notebook like a jazz pianist, scribbling this all down in the hope that the reasons that these people were wrong will spill out of me.


If I hadn't, on a Wednesday morning in the late 80's, swallowed my nerves and taken some tentative steps out onto the scarily large space of Covent Garden's West Piazza, I'd have none of this. I wouldn't have met the cool Welsh girl who's smart as a whip and packs a killer right cross, who became my wife. I wouldn't have a family of crazy beautiful people spread across the globe, who can do amazing things with their minds, bodies and hearts. And that'd be a shame.

I alluded to this earlier – my real name isn't Mat Ricardo. Except that isn’t quite true.

It's not the name I was born with. But that kid was shy, a timid loner who didn't have many friends and would always rather not do something, than do it. Becoming Mat Ricardo was my way of starting again. Being a different person. One I was more happy being. And I've been him since my late teens, so, that other kid, he's not me any more, and hasn't been for quite some time.

Except when the dog is here. He brings that timid kid along and taunts me with him. Tells me that however much I've moved on from him, he's never truly all the way gone. And I weaken. I start believing what idiots tell me. I stop listening to those I love and those that love me. I start being bitter. Mean. Sad. Jealous. Jealous – goddammit – of people who go on talent shows.

Well, fuck that.

I became Mat Ricardo for a reason. Because I wanted to be more confident. To not waste my short time here with insecurities. To not just leave the house, but to keep on walking. To have adventures. I wanted to make friends in bars, restaurants, street corners, dressing rooms and audiences. I wanted these people to help me find myself. I wanted to be inspired by the love and artistry of indie creators – people for whom making it isn't anywhere near as important as making something. And I got all I wanted. And I'm greedy for more.

“Don't forget what happened to the man who got everything he wanted”, says Willy Wonka, “What happened?”, asks Charlie, “He lived happily ever after”, says Wonka.

Well, sometimes it's not the getting what you want part that is the challenge, it's the living happily ever after. But that’s ok. It is what it is. One just has to remember, as they say in the fight game, to keep your hands up and your face pretty. And hit first.

I'll dress better than I need to, and work harder that I used to, and take the black dog with me on my adventures, and show it the fun I'll have.

That'll confuse the fucker.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Tell Bells and Broken Wands

It's been a bit of hard couple of weeks for fans of comedy, variety and pro-wrestling like me. We lost a lot of good ones. Paul Daniels sadly passed away (Something I wrote about for Chortle), as did the great Ronnie Corbett. British wrestler Kris Travis also left us, and all three were celebrated greatly by those who loved their work, and mourned by the same people who would have liked to have seen more of it.

And then, last night, as I checked my phone after coming off stage, I was told that Michael Pearse had joined them.

When I was in my teens, before I started performing professionally, I used to go to the Columbo Street sports centre in South London every Sunday afternoon. For a few hours every week, for years, there was a juggling workshop held there. The sports hall was crammed with pros, hobbyists and the curious, all trading tricks, stealing tricks, and eating crisps. When you're young and lonely, as I was, and have a crazy idea for a job, as I did, places like this are important. They show that there are others with the same crazy idea, and a few that are actually living that dream. They fill you with inspiration, ideas, fantasies and the knowledge of how good you'll have to be to compete in the industry you're dreaming of being a part of.

The people I met there became my peers, my influences, and in a couple of cases, some of my best friends, and none were more influential than the late Michael Pearse.

I was in the corner of one of the halls mucking around with my dirty yellow diablo when he bounded up to me, clutching his. “Show me yer tricks, will yer?”, he panted, as he untangled his strings, “Then we'll both know more tricks!”, and he grinned wildly. Can't fault that logic. For months, years afterwards, he'd always ask me to show him a new trick, and he'd always show me some of his in return, and in a hall full of sportswear-clad young men trying to see how many whatevers they could keep in the air, Pearse was different. His tricks were more creative, more interesting. He used household objects, sports equipment, props he'd made himself. I'd look around the hall and see pretty much the same trick being done over and over, and then I'd look at Pearse, and see a crazy, dapper old Irishman with a glint in his eye, showing me something I'd never seen before.

I immediately knew what kind of performer I wanted to be. I wanted to be Pearse.

(Oh, and you'll notice I'm calling him by his last name. That's how I knew him first. His name was Michael Pearse, but I knew him as Pearse Halfpenny, so that's how I'll always think of him)

I had the pleasure of booking him for one of my London Varieties shows, and of course, he brought the house down. I also took the opportunity to chat a little to him about his life. He caught the bug when he was 12, when, back in his native Ireland, he saw a juggler in a circus. All his skills were self-taught, and he worked off and on throughout his life. By the 80's he was working as a building site foreman in London, and in his lunchbreaks he'd go around the corner, to Covent Garden piazza, where he saw lots of young jugglers doing street shows. Pretty soon he was bringing in some of his props and showing the youngsters a thing or two under the church portico.

Seemingly he worked more and more as he got older, indeed, when Pearse was 65, Ken Dodd presented him with an award for “Best comedy newcomer”, which is as perfect as it is ridiculous.

He was working right to the end, and had dates in his diary for the future, too. Which is a fact that will make every performer reading this nod their head contentedly. That's how you want to do it.

He was fiercely original, always well-dressed, charming, witty, immensely skilled, and with a streak of beautiful craziness running through him that made anyone who met him never forget the event. I will miss him.

You can watch his act, as part of my London Varieties show, here. His bit starts at about 34 minutes.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Hong Kong II: Hong Konger

Would I like to come and perform at the Udderbelly, with these idiots, in bloody Hong Kong? No brainer. And yes, I did have my little issues with Beijing a few weeks earlier, but Hong Kong is a completely different beast, and fast becoming one of my favourite cities in the world, so sign me the hell up!

Four nights with the "Edinburgh Fringe All-stars" show, and we had lovely audiences for every single show. And as for the daytimes, well, when you're somewhere like this you don't want to waste a second, so me & the gentlemen from Abandoman hit Ocean Park, the huge (and I mean HUGE) theme park and immediately reverted to twelve year old versions of ourselves. Dolphins doing tricks! Sharks! Pandas! Rollercoasters! Log Flumes! An evil thing that winches you straight up really really high, then waits for a seemingly random length of pause, and then drops you in such a way that every synapse in your lizard brain is screaming "This only ever ends in death" at you, and then you're fine and want to do it again. It basically left us exactly like this.

Also found time to go and hang out with old pal, and diablo genius, Donald Grant, who was performing in a circus in town. Really enjoying hanging out with the trad circus gang, and meeting the dancers, each one of whom was introduced by Donald as "She's the best dancer". Smooth.

The circus show itself was great. I always get a bit emotional watching trad circus in a way that no modern circus has ever made me feel. There's something wonderful about the iconography, style, even some of the routines, being unchanged for so long. I saw the 2pm show. The first of four performances that day, so predictably - and this is absolutely no reflection on the quality of the show - the audience was a bit thin. But they gave it everything. Not a dead eye among the dancers. Not a lazy beat by the clown. And there's something that I, at least, find very moving and noble about performers literally, actually risking their life for their art, and for a handful of people at 2pm on a windy afternoon. Performing tricks and routines that have killed people in the ring, and probably will again. The size of the crowd isn't relevant. They are circus performers. They defy death, and beautifully. It's why they're here, and it's what they do. How many other art forms have that level of unquestioning commitment for their practitioners? I can only think of one similar, and that also takes place in a ring. Good for them, and yay circus.

As regular readers might know, I suffer from a fun little grab-bag of mental health issues - depression and anxiety disorder leading the pack. This means that in the past, while on gigs similar to this, I've often given in to those illnesses and stayed in my hotel room like a hermit between shows. Safe there. Controlled environment. And this is by no means any kind of judgement on people who do the same - you gotta do what you gotta do to be comfortable and stable. But I've been trying to play better with others recently, and I consciously tried to do it on this trip. Boy it paid off. Obviously going to Ocean Park with the Abandoman boys was brilliant. But also smaller things that I might not have done in the past - hanging out a bit with the cast and (wonderful) Udderbelly crew, going for lovely cocktails at the hotel rooftop bar post-show, stuff like that, which sometimes you have to work quite hard to make seem casual and inconsequential, when of course, it very much isn't.

So, thanks to everyone who's face I saw in Hong Kong. I had the most delightful time, and you all helped make that happen. What a fortuitous boy I am, to get the chance to chase these little adventures and meet so many excellent people.

 As per usual, I took my camera. Hope you like..

And now I have a couple of days of R&R, and then it's time to join the big Brian Conley tour. I was his support act a year and a bit ago and had a ball, so I can't wait to be go back on the road with him. 32 dates, all over the place. Wheee!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Colouring book. For kids.

So I was in my local museum the other day. Local museums are often interesting places, and usually not for the reasons they think they are. Anyway, I came across a childrens colouring book in the gift shop. And I bought it. because it was SUPER ODD.

Bear in mind, and I can't stress this enough, this is a childrens colouring book.

Ok, so here we go. Front cover. Seems pretty ok, right. British heroes - so we've got Lennon, Twiggy, Concorde, some armed forces stuff, a bus, England winning some kind of footballing prize, and, wait, is that a policeman strongarming a striking miner? Who's the hero here? Is it me, or does that not quite seem to fit with the other pop culture icons? Ok, well, anyway, lets ignore that and get stuck in..


Aaand we're straight into "colour in your favourite spy". Hey kids, forget your One Direction, all the cool tweens are into The Cambridge Five! Are you a Philby head or a BluntManiac?

Couple of pages on and there's a full page to colour in. A real rainy afternoon job here. And get out all your grey and green pens, because it's a depiction of the Bloody Sunday massacre. 

Again, this isn't some dark take on the current craze for adult colouring books. This is, to quote the front cover, "for kids with active minds". Active, terrified, minds.

Ok, things seem to have calmed down a little now. There's a page devoted to 80's fashion. So, Princess Diana, and a tiny Frankie Fan. Or is that a normal sized Frankie fan and a giant Diana? DIANA CRUSH.

Colour in Siouxsie Sioux! Black pens only, please.

Where are the titans of British industry and innovation? SORTED. 

And finally here's your big British TV colouring in quiz page. How many grotesque gargoyle versions of celebrities can you recognise?

Monday, 18 January 2016

And the world record for worst gig ever goes to...

They started it.

No, really, they did.

A major Chinese TV broadcaster, got in touch through my website and asked me if I'd like to come to Beijing and appear on their “Guinness world of records” TV show, and break a tablecloth-pulling-related record. That might be fun, I thought, so I said yes, I'd like to pull the biggest tablecloth ever successfully pulled. Fun, right? Right.

Over the next few weeks, emails flew to and fro from them to my agent to me then back to my agent and back to them. They repeatedly came up with other, way more complicated, ideas for a record. Could I pull a tablecloth from one table onto another, and then onto another, and another, each time the tables getting bigger? Well, unless you have a magically growing tablecloth, probably not. But also, I didn't want to be one of those people who has a record for something that was clearly just invented for someone to get a record in, y'know? Each time, I made it clear that the only thing I was really interested in doing was the biggest tablecloth ever. I figured it was a nice simple to understand record, a great trick, and a lovely TV visual. But they didn't let it lie. It was starting to get frustrating.

Finally, after dozens of emails, we settled on two records. I'd pull the biggest tablecloth, and also they'd have a line of a dozen or so smaller tables, and we'd see how many tablecloths I could pull and put back in a minute. The second challenge seemed a little bit cobbled together, but I guess they like time-based stuff, so I agreed. We liaised more about the construction of props and sizes of tables. I gave them web links to the exact items I wanted on the tables so they could buy them. All seemed complicated, but doable. I was going to go to Beijing to pull the biggest tablecloth ever, and I was going to come home with a genuine, bona-fide Guinness world record. Cool.
Here's how none of that happened.

Day One

So you know how when you're on a flight, after takeoff, once you get to cruising altitude, you can turn your phone back on in flight mode, so you can watch your carefully curated saved-for-the-big-trip folder of entertainment? Yeah, well not on Air China, because – and I'm directly quoting here - “CHINA LAW”. So, no wrasslin', no old Letterman shows stolen from YouTube, they wouldn't even let me listen to podcasts. BECAUSE LAW.

Sadly, I'd just necked a double espresso, so sleep wasn't an option for a while, and that, combined with their deeply worrying version of a vegetarian meal (Rice, something red and mushy in the corner, and a single cold carrot) meant that the first hour or so of my flight was spent in an entirely justified teenage sulk. I investigated the Vic-20 era seatback entertainment system interface (press button. Wait 4 seconds. Cursor moves. Not joking, I counted), and slowly scrolled through the available movies. Nothing of interest. Until the last page. There, tucked away where hardly anyone would have the patience to find it was a seam of pure gold. The Jackie Chan channel. Boom. So begun CHANFEST AT 5 MILES HIGH 2016. Police Story. Police Story 2. My Lucky Stars, and then, finally, sleep.

And then I'm in China.

I'm met at the airport by Peter, my handler, taken to the hotel, and immediately shunted into a private dining room for dinner. I meet some of the other performers – a couple of Ukrainian acrobats, a push-up expert from Norway and his trainer. It's odd. A bunch of people who can all do one thing better than anyone else, all jet-lagged and lightly confused, slumped around a big circular revolving table with bowls of food on it. They know I'm a vegetarian, so have prepared a large bowl of cabbage floating in warm water. I tell everyone it was nice to meet them and slink away to my room.

Day Two

I'm told that although I gave them the information about which crockery, trays etc to get weeks ago, they haven't got it. There's some vague and mysterious talk about it being held at customs. Hmm. So me and Peter have to go out to buy the stuff. This is a bit of a concern. As you might imagine, any manipulative trick like this, when performed at this kind of high level, needs exactly the right props. I'm going to have to try to find the closest things to what I usually use, in a foreign country, on a tight deadline. This worries me, but I swallow it down and focus on the task at hand. First stop is an IKEA, and as I predict, no dice. Then we drive to a shopping centre full of little shops all of which sell stuff for the restaurant and hotel industry. That's more like it. We find some stuff close enough to my usual props that there's a chance the trick will work, and sit in the shop waiting for a couple of hours while it gets fetched from the warehouse. During this wait, I chat to the family who run the shop, who are lovely and funny and give me a souvenir to take home as a gift, and some nuts. I also watch their TV, and you know who's got a frankly terrifying show on Chinese Television? Bear Grylls. And the stuff he does on Chinese TV is a little, shall we say, more hardcore, then what he does on your TV. I only watched it for about ten minutes, but I witnessed him tear the wings of live birds and tell one contestant that “I can't make the jungle safe, you will get hurt, but I won't let you die”. Not the most reassuring pep-talk, if I'm honest.

Then the props arrive and we pile back in the car to head down to the studio.

Slumped in the back of the seven-seater, head resting on the tinted windows as I try to constantly elude the grasp of jet lag. Watching the blank, beige, broken down and – lets face it – old school communist cityscape of Beijing cruise past. It doesn't have the exciting glowy, smorgasbord of stuff smushed together that cites like Hong Kong or New York or Tokyo have. Rather, it looks like they stopped building and maintaining stuff in 1980, and since then the cracks have just been papered over, the pipes gaffer taped back to the wall. No wonder the government heavily censor the internet and television – can you imagine growing up here and then finding out that not all cities are this shabby?

However jaded and cynical you try to be, its always fun walking into a big TV studio. Nondescript and industrial on the outside, but once you're through the heavy doors, its all lights and cameras and shiny fun TV stuff. And this, since its for a show with lots of stunts on it, is a big hangar of a studio, with grids of dramatic lights designed to flash and strobe and sweep and shine and remind everyone of the importance and excitement of what they're watching. I meet someone who I guess is a producer, or at least a high ranking member of the production staff, and she shows me the tables they've had made for my tricks. And I get confused. There's no big tablecloth. No line of lots of smaller tables. Just two, medium sized tables. I question this. She tells me, no, I'm not doing the biggest tablecloth pull. What they'd like, instead, is for me to attempt to pull one cloth between two tables, repeatedly, as many times as possible in 30 seconds. I tell her that I came here to do the trick we agreed on. She says they never agreed anything of the sort. “Well”, I think to myself, “This went bad quick, huh.”

We go up to her office and talk about it. I tell her that I'll do her challenge if I can also do the biggest tablecloth. That's the reason I flew five thousand miles, and that's what we agreed I was coming here to do. There's some raised voices. I calmly tell her that I won't do their challenge, unless I'm also doing my challenge. She calms, and agrees. We talk about how big the table should be, how big the cloth should be, how many things would be on the table, etc. We apologise for shouting. Things seem to have been yanked back from the edge.

I'm sent back down to the studio to meet the Guinness officials, to work out the rules for their two table challenge. We run it a couple of times, and figure out that what with the time it takes to walk around the table after each pull, I can just about make three repetitions in 30 seconds. After conferring, the Guinness guys tell me that I'll be expected to do four on the show. I explain that this is impossible. It's not a test of my skill, it's just how long it takes someone to walk around a table after each try. They tell me, yes, but four is a good number. Okay then. I figure I'm failing this challenge, but thats ok, I don't care about that one, I'm just here to pull the biggest cloth. If I get that, I'm fine.

Back to the hotel. McDonalds in bed. Jet lag adding unliftable weight to my eyelids. I fall asleep wondering what the chances are that this will all work out fine. Not good, I figure. Not good at all.

Day Three

Back to the studio. I'm supposed to be meeting the Guinness guys again to discuss the ins and outs of the big tablecloth pull so that, if I succeed, it's officially a record. I get put in a dressing room all day, and nothing happens until I get told to go back to the hotel. Hmm.

Well, I say nothing happens, but that's not quite true. I start to chat more to the other performers, and hang around on set observing things. I start to get a bad feeling in my gut, and it's not the bowl of soggy cabbage. Ok, perhaps its partly that.

I hang out with a gymnast who has come here to break the record for the highest side-somersault from the floor. Instead, they have him running up a sloping wall and doing a back somersault over a bar. Completely different skill. He's just going to give it a go, because what's the worst that could happen? Yikes.

I talk to an American circus performer who has come here to break the record for walking on the necks of free-standing bottles. She uses wine bottles back home, but she's arrived to find that they've given her beer bottles. Way harder, when that's not what you've been training with. Worse than that, there's a Chinese acrobat who's been brought in to compete with her for the record, and she's been training with the beer bottles for weeks.

There's an Italian acrobat who arrived to find that he, too, has had a Chinese performer sprung on him that he has to compete with, and worse still, the prop that they made for his stunt wasn't made correctly, and in rehearsals he badly cut his hand on it.

Then I remember in some of my emails with them, they very vaguely talked about the idea of a competitor. I flagged it up, and asked if there would be someone else doing my trick that I would be expected to compete with. Ohhh noooo, they said, noooo.

It started to really feel like this whole thing was a bit of a bait and switch. Performers being set up to fail, and worse, set up to be beaten in rigged challenges by Chinese performers. No. Come on now, Ricardo, Surely I was being paranoid. Sleep on it.

Day Four

I'm woken up by a phone call from the TV company. I'm filming my bit tonight. We haven't even talked to Guinness about the details of my record, but yep, apparently I'm filming tonight. Alright. I grab my suit, and off we go back to the studio. I share a ride with the bottle-walker, and another performer, who mentions in passing that yeah, he's done this show a bunch of times and they usually spring a surprise competitor on you, and change the record your attempting. Most people just go along with it because, y'know, TV.

We get to the studio at about noon, and we're rushed into make-up. Odd, since the show doesn't tape until seven. They give me a basic foundation to cover up the fact that I'm 46 ¾ and have lived a life, and then they go to work on my eyebrows. And boy do they. I walk out of the makeup room looking like a particularly startled Groucho Marx, and go right into the bathroom next door to wash off the borderline clown make-up. Odd.

Next is a camera rehearsal. We rehearse my entrance, walking down the stairs, waving to the imaginary audience, chatting with the host, and doing the trick. Doing their trick. No mention of the big tablecloth. No mention of the reason why I travelled five thousand miles. I bring it up. Everyone looks shifty, and confused, and shifty. I get told that we'll deal with that soon, that I'll talk to the producer again and we'll sort it all out, and then I'm told to go back upstairs and wait.

I've done enough TV to know that if something isn't covered in the camera rehearsal, it's not going to happen in the show, so once I'm back in my dressing room, I ask to speak to the producer. Sure, I'm told, she'll be right here.

I ask to speak to her every half hour. It becomes a bit of a running gag between me and the other performers. I use my grown-up “This is important” voice. Nothing. I say that there is a very real chance I won't be doing the show. Nothing. I spend my day sitting in a feezing cold dressing room, being ignored and not taken seriously.

Finally, at 6.45, literally fifteen minutes before the show is supposed to start filming, with a studio audience already filling the huge hangar downstairs, I get granted a meeting. I ask what about the big tablecloth trick. They immediately start shouting. What big tablecloth trick? There was never a big tablecloth trick agreed. You knew you weren't doing a big tablecloth trick. Why would you lie about this? The producer fixed me with a hard stare and told me that if I backed out of the show, they would cancel my return ticket, kick me out of the hotel, and “Your visa, perhaps not so good now”.


More shouting. In my face. Through translators. Midway through the yelling, I call my agent back in England. My wonderful, beautiful, alluring and fragrant agent., who, let's remember, didn't get me into this, but damn well got me out. I passed the phone to the producer who yelled down it for a couple of minutes and then passed it back. “Right. We'll take care of you and get you back home tonight. Get yourself out of there”, said the best agent in the world.

While I was still being yelled at by a room full of producers and translators, I calmly got up, and walked out, smiling sweetly. I think they thought I'd caved, that I was going to get ready for the show. They were wrong. I think they assumed that I'd feel pressured to just do the show on their terms, since by that point, the thing had already started filming. They misunderstood my ability to be a dick, when correctly inspired.

I went back to the dressing room, told the other performers, who I think were quite enjoying watching my story play out, what was going on. Packed my stuff, hugged them goodbye, and walked across the studio, and for the first and only time in my career, I walked out on a gig.

Out into an industrial estate on the outskirts of Beijing, on a freezing cold evening. The middle of nowhere. Shit.

The last few days had been a chaotic shambles, but now things were in sharp focus, and my task was simple. Get to the airport and get myself on the flight my agent was getting for me before they revoked my visa. I figured they wouldn't think I would be going right now, and besides, they were filming the show for the next few hours, and they'd be concentrating on that, so if I was quick, I'd be fine.

There was a little budget hotel across the street, so I went in and tried to get a taxi. No deal. Taxis don't come this far out of town, they said. Again, shit.

I crossed the street and went back into the studio, and found the youngest, coolest looking low-level TV employee, another talent handler. He wouldn't be doing anything until the show was wrapped, so I chatted to him, and bribed him 50 yuan to drive me back to my hotel. He went for it. Awesome.

Back to the hotel, pack my stuff, get a taxi to the airport, and by the time I get there, I'm booked on the 1.30am flight out of town. Nervous as I went through immigration, but my visa held, and by the time they had finished shooting the show I was supposed to be on, I was already in the air.

Escape made.

And the thing is, it's such a shame. The Guinness book of Records has been a childhood staple for everyone of my generation. A genuinely unique and treasured cultural object. I often got bought it for Christmas, and I think it was one of the first reference books I ever owned. A window into a world of weird, crazy, special, amazing people and things. I would have loved to have joined that club. I mean, if you're going to devote your life, as I have done, to learning some ultimately meaningless, ridiculous feats, then you might as well have the only authority that matters tell you that you're the best at it, right?

None of this was the fault of Guinness. It was the TV company that ruined it with their dishonest and disorganised approach, not just to me, but from what I saw, to many Western performers. It was absolutely shocking to be faced with a major broadcaster who were so ready to bring someone halfway across the world on false pretences, lie about what we'd agreed in dozens of emails, and then try to bully me into just going along with the whole sorry mess. What a pity.

Would I still like a chance to get that record? Hell yes.

Do I want to go back to work on TV in mainland China? Thank you, no.

Was it fun commandeering a car to speed across Beijing so I could get to the airport before the asshats revoked my visa? Yes. I did feel a bit like Jason Bourne. BUT SO WOULD YOU.