Friday, 14 August 2015

The Man From The Man From Uncle



I was sitting at home. I can't remember what I was doing, but a safe bet would be either dicking about with a new trick or watching wrestling. The phone rang and a stranger started to explain to me that he had been tasked with finding someone who could not only do, but also teach, the tablecloth trick to the star of a new big Hollywood movie. Apparently my name had come up several times, so here he was. I said that yes, it's teachable, and he told me that he'd be back in touch with more details soon, and no, he wasn't allowed to tell me the name of the star or the movie or anything else.

Which is how I found myself, a couple of weeks later, standing in a hastily erected gazebo in the middle of a muddy field, next to a fully-laden dining table as Henry Cavill strode toward me, dressed in an all black special ops type outfit, covered in mud and fake blood, thrusting his hand out for me to shake with a confident and charming "Hi, I'm Henry, so what are we doing?".

My first thought as the heterosexual, long time married, professional that I am, if I'm being completely honest, was, "OMG he's gorrrrgeous" but I swiftly regained my composure. But heavens to betsy: hunktown.

So we spend a little while talking about the trick, and picking props, and working it through, and by the time we said goodbye, he'd pretty much nailed it. Everyone seemed very happy, and the plan was that I'd be on set for the duration of the shooting of the relevant scene to help wrangle the props, keep Henry up to speed on the trick, and generally make sure that my part of the scene ran as smoothly as possible.

So, couple of weeks later, Monday morning, and I'm in a car being driven to Goodwood racetrack, where a city of trailers, production trucks, hair and makeup units, stunt teams, catering and famous folk have gathered to film a couple of scenes for Guy Ritchie's reboot of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."



Exciting.


Here's how four of the five days of my week there went. I arrive, go get breakfast from the cheery and expansive catering truck, and go sit in a bus. I mean it's comfy and nice and warm, as has sparkly showbiz lights running around the walls, but it's still just a bus. And I watch movies on my tablet. And then, at lunchtime, suddenly there's the sound of stampeding support artists, and the bus suddenly fills with chattering extras, all dressed in the most beautiful cool 60's duds, inhaling as much lunch as they can. They talk and gossip about what they've been doing, and I pick up on a few overheard details, trying to build a mental picture of what the scene actually looks like. Then they're gone, and back to work, and I'm left with the bus to myself to watch more movies and graze more snacks, until, at some point around 4pm, a nice lady will pop her head in, say "Ok, you're clear Mat, your car is ready when you are", and I'll go home.

That's how it was for four days, but on the fifth day, things got a little more involved.

It was my first time actually seeing the set, and holy crap. A huge cocktail lounge had been built, filled with dozens and dozens of extras, barmen, waiters, cool countesses and hipster dudes, through which our heroes would saunter, before stopping at a balcony, outside of which actual genuine vintage racing cars would zoom by, and beyond the track, another hundred or so extras watching the race. This is the kind of scene that, had I seen it on screen, I probably would have assumed was largely CGI, but no, real people, real racing cars. Only the cocktails were fake.

I chatted to Henry, we looked at the props, he practiced the move a couple of times and all was well.

Then Guy Ritchie introduced himself to me, thanked me for being there, said how great my trick will be in the scene, and was generally very affable and blokey. He walked over to talk to some film folk, then, across a set filled with actors and crew, he turned and yelled across the hubbub at me. "Mat, mate..", he said, "So apparently you can put the tablecloth back on the table too? Is that right?", I told him, yeah, I can, and that I was the first person in the world to learn it. "You wanna teach Henry that, too?", he yelled.

That kinda put me on the spot. Changing the terms of a deal, on set, in front of everyone. Ballsy fucker, I thought, but then again, it is his house. "Sorry", I yelled back, "My contract is for pulling it off", then I chanced a little ballsyness of my own, "You're not paying enough for putting it back on"

Genuinely, and I promise you this is true, there was a silent, and seemingly way too long pause. Until Mr. Ritchie broke it by grinning and saying "Fair enough.", another long pause, "FUCKING great trick though!"

I said thanks, and took a long deep breath out, and everyone went back about their showbusiness.

The rest of the day was spent hovering behind cameras, watching the scene over and over, watching Henry nail the trick pretty much every time (Good teacher), and generally enjoying being on a major movie set. Even if you're a jaded and cynical old showbiz grunt like me, big movie sets are still incredibly exciting places to be. The crew are like a military unit - everyone a specialist, working as a well-oiled team to push the overall thing forward.

After a long day of repeating the same thing a zillion times, we wrapped and I was cleared to go home. One last firm manly handshake with Henry and a couple of crew members, and I was in a car, having signed a piece of paper saying that I couldn't talk about any of this, or post any of the pictures you see here, for nearly TWO YEARS.

Yep, this all happened in Autumn 2013, and only now am I allowed to admit my involvement. Almost like being a spy.


The movie looks like it's going to be pretty fun. Stylish, witty, and paying tribute to the source material, which I'm a bit of a fan of. I can't wait to see it, and not just to be the only person in the cinema cheering a tablecloth.

---

Oh, and if you're new to this blog, have no idea who I am, and have come here via "Man From Uncle" related mullarkey - here's a little video that'll show you what I do...




Feel free to follow me on the various social media stuff listed on the right panel :)

Monday, 3 August 2015

Cilla


In the late 1990's, somehow, I found myself a semi-regular cast member of "Cilla Black's Moment of Truth", a big Saturday night shiny floored game show. It was originally adapted from a Japanese show called "Happy Family Plan", and ended up being cancelled because people thought it was too cruel to the contestants, but it ran for four seasons and I cropped up every so often in all of them. There I am, in the picture above, looking like a Lidl Derren Brown.

My job on the show was to devise and demonstrate a physical challenge that the contestant had to learn within a week, and perform on the show in front of a live studio audience, in order to win big prizes. It was a fun thing to be involved in, and I ended up pulling tablecloths, flipping spoons, throwing hats, stacking glasses, flinging cocktail shakers, and all manner of possibly learnable skills.

The best part of being involved, though, was getting the chance to work closely with Cilla Black. The first part of each challenge was a pre-taped outside broadcast. Cilla would arrive at some poor unsuspecting schmucks house, with me in tow, and genuinely knock on their door unannounced with a TV crew. The rest of the family would know what was about to happen of course, but the one doing the challenge would be blissfully unaware. It never stopped being huge fun watching someone answer their door on a drizzling wednesday evening to find Cilla bloody Black standing there all smiles and "'ALLO CHUCK, BET YA DIDN'T EXPECT THIS, DID YA? WELL? GOING TO INVITE ME IN?"

Of course by that point the post-Blind Date Cilla revival had fully happened, and she was basically the queen of ITV. Totes an icon, but still, to the public, a brassy working class girl. People would recognise her, be totally starstruck, but at the same time feel completely fine about yelling something friendly and saucy at her, safe in the knowledge that she'd grin and yell something back, which she always did. Good quality to have, that.

I was even less of a nobody than I am now, but from day one she was warm, friendly, and fun to work with. When she could see I was nervous, she was encouraging, and when she could see me getting cocky, she'd say something to tease me back down to size. She taught me the right way to kiss her hello on camera, and, wonderfully, by season two, when I was becoming part of the team, started calling me "Our Mat".

When you're filming, especially on location, there's a lot of standing around, so we'd occasionally chat. I got to tell her that her version of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" was one of my wife's all time favourite records, and she was genuinely pleased to hear it, telling me that some people had forgotten that she was a singer. I was glad I got to do that.

Click this and watch a beautiful young Cilla belt it live, and remember her for what she was truly born for, and I'll remember her for the time she watched me perform a trick live on the show, in front of an audience, perfect first time, and then, when we went to commercial, telling the crowd "It didn't bloody work once in rehearsal! Luck!", before shooting me a huge wink.


Always loved this portrait of her by one of my favourite photographers, Jane Bown.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Cold call



So, I was in my office this week when this happened..

<Phone rings>

Me:    Hello?

Her:    Hi, yeah, just updating our database and we see that you've been involved in a road traffic accident recently, is that right?

Me:    Well, I killed those kids.

<silence for a few beats>

Her:    Are you fucking with me?

Me:    Well, you started it.

Her:    No I didn't?

Me:    Yes you did. You scam-called me.

Her:    It might not be a scam.

Me:    Did you just say "It might not be"?

Her:    It might not be.

Me:    But it is, isn't it?

Her:    How do you know? Have you been involved in a road traffic accident?

Me:    Well, I don't drive, and have never been in an accident, so no.

Her:    Oh

Me:    Yes. Quite.

Her:    Ah. But. Ah. You see. What sometimes happens is that someone with the same name as you WAS involved in a road traffic accident, and gave your number instead of theirs. That sometimes happens.

Me:    Wait. You're telling me that someone with my name, just happens to be carrying around the phone number of someone with the same name as him, so he can give it to the police if he's ever in an accident?

Her:    Um, yes? You never know.

Me:    You don't think that it's, perhaps, more likely that your evil boss just bought a bunch of phone numbers from some awful company that sells peoples private info for a quick buck, and you're just trying your luck?

Her:    Could be.

Me:    Are you on commision, or on a wage?

Her:    Oh, I'm on a wage.

Me:    So you don't care how much time I waste of your work day?

Her:    God no.

Me:    Ok. Hi!

Her:    Hi!

Me:    You must get some shit from people you call, doing this job, right?

Her:    Oh god yes. Had death threats, people saying they'll kill my whole family, that kind of stuff..

Me:    You know why that is, right?

Her:     Oh yeah.

Me:    You do an awful, bad job, that isn't necessary, and people hate it.

Her:    Yeah.

Me:    Well, I'm not on a wage, so I'm going to say goodbye now.

Her:    Ok! Have a nice day.

Me:    You too. Don't let the shit get you down, but also, y'know, change your job.

Her:    Yeah. Good idea. Bye!

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Dusty



I was standing in the lobby of a theatre this week, about to go and see a one man show by another old vaudevillian, Jim Dale, when twitter told me the very sad news that Dusty Rhodes had died. For those of you not familiar with the world of pro-wrestling that I sometimes talk about here, this will mean little, but the rest of you will know what a huge loss this is.

One of the greatest stars of the 70's and 80's, and an important figure afterwards, he didn't have the jacked-up look of a modern wrestler, but instead, portrayed the big, rambunctious, blue collar badass everyman. The kind of dude who'd be the life of the party, but also be first in line to hand out an ass-whuppin' if things went sideways.


And boy could he talk. That's what I first loved about him. Working-man poetry delivered in a lisping Texan drawl that was made for people to do impressions of. If you've ever seen one of the final shows in any of my runs, then you would have heard his words, as I always end the last show of a run by thanking the audience with my favourite of his lines:

"I have wined and dined with kings and queens, and slept in an alley eatin' pork and beans"

Earlier this year, my friends William Regal and Robbie Brookside took great delight in telling me that Dusty had been watching some of my stuff on youtube, and loved it. Brookside said that they'd shown him the reverse tablecloth trick, and he'd looked at him sideways and said (and please start your Dusty impressions now) "Where's the gimmick man? Where's the gimmick?"

There's a very special feeling to hearing that someone whose work you love, enjoys yours back, and just as it happened with Regal and Brookside, when it happened again with Dusty I was a bit bowled over. Along with the aforementioned Brits, he was instrumental in the success of the brilliant NXT show, and I started talking about the possibility of going over to Florida where it's filmed to hang out, and see a show. And part of the fun of that idea, undeniably, was the chance to meet Dusty.

It's a testament to how loved and respected he was in the wrestling world that on the day of his death, dozens of wrestlers - big, testosterone packed behemoths, tweeted about the last time they stopped by his office for a hug. How wonderful.

It makes me very sad that I'll never get to meet him, but I'll keep on using his beautiful words, I'll keep on doing my awful Dusty impression, and I'll be grateful that my friends that were his friends made that connection.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Gearing up for the big one



You find me, dear reader, mid-tour. And it's a very happy place to be. Other, more jaded and cynical comedy schmucks might moan about the lonely hardships of touring, and sure, criss-crossing the country dragging two suitcases full of tricks behind you on the ever-unreliable public transport network, while not seeing your loved one as often as you might like, can be a downer, once I get to the show, it balances right out and then some.

I am, as I say towards the end of "Showman" not a famous person. I'm not on any comedy panel shows. My artform is still, despite my best efforts, pretty damn niche. But that's kinda good. It means that while I have to bust my ass to get the word out about my shows, and work hard to seduce people into buying a ticket, once I have them, I can deliver. My mission at the moment is to change minds. People look at my poster, maybe read something about me, perhaps look me up online, and they take a chance on me, and that's all I need. I'll work as hard and as funny as I can, and send them out at the end needing to tell their friends about me.

My most recent stop was at the newly created Birmingham Cabaret Festival (and Birmingham peeps - there's still time to catch some awesome stuff in the fest, so GO), and I had a hell of a lot of fun there. I was also lucky enough to get a rather nice review, which I will, if you'll permit me, quote a little of here..


Who doesn't like being called a rock star? Nobody, that's who. Thanks Birmingham :)

But the next date in my tour is the big one, the grandaddy. On the 3rd of June I'll be performing "Showman" for one night only at the London Wonderground. A beautiful spiegeltent slap bang on the South Bank, right next to the Thames. I cannot wait.

This is and important one for me personally, and I'll tell you why...



There's me, grinning like a loon at my own billboard, as Al Murray gurns down at me menacingly. I wanted that picture taken for one specific reason. The Wonderground, my venue for the show, and the location of the billboard poster, is literally thirty seconds walk from where, not that many years ago, I used to do street shows. Every weekend, I'd lug my gear in from South London in the early morning, get in the queue of performers and sit on my suitcase for hours until it was my turn. Then I'd battle apathy, violent breakdancers, and the great British weather, to try to earn enough to pay the rent. It was simultaneously a beautiful way to make a living, and often a heartbreaking one. No feeling as good as going home with a backpack heavy with money from hats, and no feeling worse than knowing you cant pay the rent that month because, after waiting all day for your spot, it rained.

So it's about as literal a signifier as I could wish for. By returning to my old stomping ground, it literally shows me how far I've come. My wonderground show will be special, and it's my only London tour date for the rest of 2015, so please come, and bring your friends, and spread the word.

Let me change some minds and drop some jaws.










Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Holy Shit!

It was that time of year again - WWE was in town, and lately that has meant a couple of things. Number one: Overly excited nights at the O2 arena with Mrs. Ricardo watching people beat the tar out of each other in variously entertaining and impressive ways. Number two: Getting my annual hang out with British wrestling legend and pal William Regal.

This year he was doing one of his spoken word shows in London and had asked me to open for him, which I am always very happy and honoured to do. One of the lovely things about being "a turn", as regal would call it, is the ability to work anywhere. God knows I've done that - from the Palladium, to the lobby of a Tescos, I've been booked to play everywhere you could imagine, and to every audience. Very few audiences, however, are as great as a wrestling crowd.

Conventional wisdom states that in a basic wrestling match there are, in fact, four, equally important, participants - two wrestlers, the referee, and the crowd. They all talk to each other, and as a group, decide how the match goes. Wrestling audiences, when they're on form, can exhibit an amazing kind of group wit (As an example: in one of the shows at the O2 this year, when one of the grapplers was injured and was taken out on a stretcher, the entire audience started chanting "NHS! NHS!", which was, frankly, a hoot).

What this means is, that a wrestling audience realises that they can play with the performer. This isn't heckling - their goal isn't to stop the show, or steal the attention for themselves, but rather to add to it. So, during my spot, when I chastised an audience member for being too vague, the whole crowd started chanting "BE SPECIFIC! BE SPECIFIC!" at him, before dissolving into laughter. And then, when I put up one of my signature tricks, this happened. Which was great.

Anyway - thanks to everyone who came to see the great Mr. Regal - I hope you liked me too! If you did, please do come and see my one man show "Showman", I'm in Brighton, Birmingham, Gateshead, London and Yorkshire in the next few weeks - full details at the bottom of this post. Jaws dropped, GuaranDAMNteed. ;)

In the meantime, a couple of words about the WWE shows.. Notably enjoyable, these days, is watching current WWE womens division goth badass Paige, who I first met when she was a tiny child running around backstage while I performed in an odd little comedy show with her mother, the equally feared and cool Saraya. Paige has both her mothers good looks and ferocity, and it's great watching her do so amazingly well on the big stage. It was also a pleasure to watch NXT star Neville do his stuff in his home country. I'm a huge NXT fan, and remember watching Neville, when he had a different name, in a couple of British shows years ago. I think NXT has reinvigorated a lot of slightly jaded fans love of wrestling - that's certainly a little true for me, and it's amazing to see the talent that it's both attracting and developing.

Here's a few things my camera saw over the weekend...










And just before you go...



Here are the next few dates - click each one to be taken to the relevant info and booking page...


MAY 8TH - BRIGHTON FRINGE SPIEGELTENT
MAY 16TH - BIRMINGHAM CABARET FESTIVAL
JUNE 3RD - LONDON WONDERGROUND
JUNE 13TH - JESTERVAL COMEDY FESTIVAL, GATESHEAD
JUNE 16TH - HOLMFIRTH ARTS FESTIVAL

And here's what you can expect from the show...



If you like what I do, spread the word!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Warm bath


After the ridiculous cocktail of anxiety and happiness that framed my run of "Showman" at The Purcell Room (And thank you so much for coming, if you did), it's was an easy pleasure to slide back into a weekend of doing some spots at a few London cabaret shows. Short sets are still my bread and butter, but you never know what you're going to get - they can be lovely and welcoming as a warm bath, or lary and unpredictable like a Jackie Chan fight scene. Luckily for me, I was at the Cafe Royal for Salon Des Artistes, and Kettners for Ruby Deshabille's High Societease - both completely gorgeous, classy and uncomplicatedly pleasurable shows.

They both share similar vibes, too. Sometimes cabaret shows try, I think possibly a little too hard, to be edgy or dangerous or sexy, and often end up coming off like a French teenager on a day trip to London pretending to smoke a fake cigarette to look cool (An image that every other ex Covent Garden street performer will instantly recognise). Salon and Societease don't bother with that, instead just presenting assured, quality, grown-up bills of intimate high class cabaret. And by doing that, they create the gently evocative atmosphere of illicit fun that gives this artform its character. A pleasure for those both sides of the curtain.

I threw my camera into my prop case just before I left the house, so here's a few of the things it saw..





I now have a signature cocktail! My work here is done.

Abi Collins slays her fellow performers




...and that's how you end a show.

Just before I sign off, it behooves me to mention that the first set of tour dates for "Showman" have now been announced. If you're not a Londoner, then maybe there's somewhere near you here, and if not, keep your eye on my twitter, as there are more dates added all the time. Oh, and if you're a Londoner who missed out on the Southbank Centre shows, never fear, plans are brewing for something fun in London this Summer.




"SHOWMAN" 2015 Tour dates

    30th March - Farnham Maltings, Surrey
    1st April - Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury
    2nd April - Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington
    7th April - Devonport Guildhall, Devonport
    8th April - Devonport Guildhall, Devonport
    10th April - Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax
    11th April - Swayfield Village Hall
    8th May - Brighton Spiegeltent
    16th May - Birmingham Cabaret Festival, Old Joint Stock Theatre
    13th June - Jesterval festival, Newcastle
    3rd December - Overpelt, Belgium
    4th December - Geel, Belgium

More info than you could possibly need, at my newly repainted website.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Life and death and Jojo's


Things die and other things are born and stuff evolves and that's the way of things. And, to be honest, usually I'm one of those people who kind shrugs and takes the stance that if one is going to like new things, then sometimes old things are going to disappear because that's just how life is. But sometimes there's a little more at play that natural evolution, and when it comes to city planning, there almost always is a lot more at play, and it's far from natural. I was part of the movement that successfully saved Gabys Diner from being swept aside to make way for a chain restaurant, but that kind of protest rarely succeeds. My treasured New Piccadilly Cafe is no more, victim of redevelopment, and now, a similar fate has befallen the wonderful Madame Jojos.

Much has been written about how a violent incident involving doorstaff was what closed it down, which is technically true, but you don't have to listen to hard to pick up the whispers of possible dodginess. Well, I've never been much for whispering, so I'll say it out loud. It stinks. Some of the key door staff in the incident didn't even work for Jojo's, they came from neighboring businesses. Jojo's were told to change the management and take on a whole new, council approved, door team - which they did. And yet, even after complying with all demands, their license was still revoked, swiftly and without debate. Put this together with the fact that public records clearly show a plan to demolish Jojo's and replace it with new, lucrative retail units that was drawn up long before the incident ever happened, and it doesn't take Woodward and Bernstein to figure out that this whole affair looks exactly as crooked and cynical as you'd expect. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's just my cynical paranoid mind at work. Or maybe a Tory council and real estate developers just ain't the most ethical of motherfuckers.

Either way, it's done. Nail hit. Coffin door secured a little more firmly.

A spokesbot from Westminister council is quoted thus: “Westminster is rightly proud that Soho is now a safer area for people to live, work and play. It is not something we will apologise for.”. Well, I don't doubt their reticence to apologise for anything, at all, ever, but I think this says, perhaps, more than was intended. Here's the thing, cities should have areas that are a little..rough. It's part of the fabric of a city. There should be places that aren't ideal for kids. There should be a couple of streets that are mainly for grown ups - that offer grownup pleasures, grownup thrills, and sometimes grownup dangers. It's cultural texture. If you make a whole city family friendly, then you become like a parent who smears anti-bacterial gel all over their kid, every time they touch anything that fell on the floor. You think you're doing the right thing, but as soon as that kid catches a cold, they're going to drop dead. Allow the exaggeration, to make my point, won't you?

On top of that, I adore the fantasy that chain stores and high end dining = safer. Like nobody's ever been mugged outside a Wahaca, that shit only happens near McDonalds. Such low-grade misdirection that the council hopes will take our attention away from the gorgeous new linings of their pockets.

Oh well. It's tragic, and boring, and shite, but the shows will go on, have no fear about that. Just like always, the travelling circus will just find a new place in which to pitch its tent. Crowds will follow, and the shows will thrive. We're flexible, like Bruce Lee's water, and that makes us strong.

For me, I played Jojo's pretty regularly, usually as part of the excellent Magic Night, but also, over the years, with the lovely Folly Mixtures, or in Bete Noire, or with the mighty Chutzpah and Hagen, and I never had a bad gig there. I'd bounce on stage, get my first laugh by noticing the low ceiling, and we'd be off and running. It was such a strange shape room, you could play the people in the pit right by the stage off against the folks way back by the bar, to the amusement of the people sitting down in between. The crowds were always lovely, but just on the cusp of considering the possibility of being lary, which meant you couldn't sleepwalk through your set, you had to deliver. I do love that in a venue. I knew I'd done good if I could stare through my own reflection in Andy's sound booth to see him cackling away. That was a nice feeling.

 

We had a..well..there were differing labels attached to it..was it a protest? A procession? A vigil? A funeral? Whatever it was, it was good, and a couple of hundred retro and reprobates, dressed in their finest, paraded a coffin through soho. I figured many passers by might have thought it was a genuine funeral of a soho character, at least until the coffin was upended and dumped in Jojo's doorway, where, hilariously, the lone security guard inside started freaking out that he might be trapped inside. Lols were had.

Then there was drinking and chips and chatting in a pub nearby and the sense of family that often exists in this little community was felt. And I didn't get a chance to tell Abigail O'Neil what a great job she'd done organising it all, so I'm doing it now.

And then, as if to re-enforce the fact that the show must, indeed, go on, I jumped on the tube and got myself over to Acton to perform at The Aeronaut. Packed house, cool acts, lovely (and quite new) venue, and snakes! One venue dies, another thrives. So there is, at least, that.