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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Before your very eyes

Back in the day, it used to be different.

Back in the day, conventional wisdom said that you'd toil for years, decades even, on the road. Leaving flopsweat footprints on creaky stages across the country, setting up that nightly payment of your dues, making friends and enemies, finding and losing lovers and agents, as you criss-crossed the map doing your thing. Squinting through cheap spotlights at a fresh set of faces in the darkness every night, and, if you were good, if you were lucky, sending them back home as fans. Slowly, you changed minds, made strangers into believers, one half empty auditorium at a time, until you got the call. Then, with your pedigree proven and your suit pressed, you got a shot on telly.

Your colleagues would suck at their teeth at the news, knowing, as did you, that you were faced with a choice. Did you do your best stuff, the song that had almost become your catchphrase, the trick that people clapped you on the back and shook their head with disbelief at, and, by putting it in front of so many gogglebox-fixated eyeballs, render it useless for future live work? Or would you only give 'em your B-material – don't run the risk – save the good stuff for the crowds that had made you, and that would see you into another few years? Would you dance with the one that brought you, or do the old switcheroo?

But here's the thing: I'm pretty sure that conventional wisdom is wrong on this one.

Television is often cited as one of the main contributing factors to the death of music hall and variety, and I think it's pretty obvious what a crock this is. For a start, it's fairly well documented that greedy venue managers started to realise that they could book a couple of these new-fangled rock & roll bands into their hall, paying just for two acts, rather than a whole mixed bill of performers, and by doing so, attract a younger audience. Bands would work for less, because the more fans they could create, the more records they'd sell the next week. That was the killer heart punch to variety – the re-purposing of the stage as a place to promote another product, to a whole new market, the teenager.

But surely TV didn't do any good? Well, all I can really do is relate my own experience. I've done one of my signature tricks on some pretty high profile shows, and my live work is going better than ever - although there has been a discernible change in my audience reaction, and I think its very telling. A few years ago, before my reverse-tablecloth trick had infected your screens quite as extensively as it has done since, I'd pull the cloth, get the applause, and as I'd prepare to put the cloth back on, they'd be a nice feeling of happily confused expectation in the audience. They knew something was coming, but they had no ideas what. When it happened, it was a surprise. These days, in pretty much every crowd I work to – at least in this country – as I get ready to put the cloth back on, there is – and I promise you this is true – a completely tangible feeling from a section of the audience of “Oh shit, it's that guy” - they realise, in a split second, that I'm the guy a few of them have seen on TV do that trick, and then they realise that they're about to see it live, and they get excited.

And that's the key. I think, these days more than ever, when people see a million incredible things on youtube before lunch, that to see one of those things live – before your very eyes – has gained in value. I imagine those people telling their friends - “You know that guy we saw do that tablecloth thing on youtube? He was at the show last night! He did it right in front of me!”. I think that the more opportunities to see things on screens there are, the more prestige there is in seeing something right in front of your nose.

Screens didn't kill variety, but they are helping revive it.

Which is why I've been enjoying making some little bits of video to put up online. It's a fun, creative process, and people who enjoy the videos might well seek me out in a live show. And besides, we're supposed to be makers right? It's possible to make little movies with cheap equipment you can put in your pocket. Why would I not want to do that?

In only slightly unrelated news, I was told recently that a fairly well-known burlesque and cabaret producer thought the only thing I did was pull tablecloths. I'm currently touring my third hour-long one man show, which is full of bottles, hats, canes, electric carving knives, yoyos, bowling balls, and no I don't, so far, have a routine with a kitchen sink but it can only be a matter of time. I work pretty hard at creating new pieces and pushing the boundaries of my art form as much as I can, so I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't frustrating when someone who, frankly, should know better, writes me off as a one-tricky pony. Not that I'm not proud of that bit of business, you understand. So I guess that's another reason that I'm enjoying infecting the internet with little video calling cards – hopefully it'll remind people the breadth of what I do. Anyhoo: whinge over.

It's been a great month – did my last few 2014 tour dates in a beautiful spiegeltent at the Canterbury festival, and in some gorgeous venues around the Lake District. My mind is still happily boggled when I walk out on stage and find a room full of people who have chosen to spend their hard earned money on a ticket to my show. I couldn't be happier when that happens, and hopefully it'll happen a lot more next year: “Showman” comes to the Purcell Room in London's South Bank Centre in late January, (Which is INSANE) and plans are in place for some more tour dates in spring 2015. Can't bloody wait.

Between now and then, I'll be popping up at lots of burlesque and cabaret shows, supporting the brilliant Puppini Sisters at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, oh, and if you're in Germany, you'll be able to see me do my hat & cane routine as part of the Rire Sur La Ville comedy gala which will be broadcast on RTL sometime over Christmas. It was full of very famous Europeans, who I didn't know, so it felt weird, but the lighting was gorgeous, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it looks!

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