The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Northern Lights

Just been on a brief holiday in Bonny Scotland. I don’t like to mention these things in advance because burglars might be reading.

Went up to Glasgow on the 19th. Pottered around the Necropolis, as seen in almost every episode of Sea Of Souls. Lots of interesting examples of tomb one-up-man-ship.

The next day we visited the Gallery of Modern Art, a small and not particularly inspiring collection which made such an impression on me I can’t remember a thing about it six days later. Then onto the wee underground railway they have there to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Lots to see, including stuffed animals, a mass of floating heads, suits of armour, and a lovely collection of Dutch paintings. I wasn’t totally won over by the Glasgow Boys paintings – my main impression was that you came away with a strong sense that the cheapest colours of paint were dark green and brown, so Scottish painters tended to concentrate on painting things that were dark green and brown i.e. bleak scenes of poor people eating mud under overcast skies.

Then across the park to the Hunterian Collection, which includes such marvels as Isaac Newton’s Death Mask. Then back onto the dinky train (actually constructed by Hornby) to pootle around the riverside development before meeting friends in town and heading to a rather lovely pub called Oran Mor, built in a disused church. Made me think of all those other empty, neglected churches around the country that could be converted into pubs.

Next day, we tootled off to Stirling, to look at the marvellous castle they have there. It was something to do with the Battle Of Bannockburn which, I’m afraid, I’ve only heard of because it’s mentioned in the ‘University Challenge’ episode of ‘The Young Ones’. We all have to get our knowledge from somewhere. Anyway, did a tour around the various halls, and saw a very good talk about Margaret Tudor. Oh, I am so middle-aged, with my visits to old castles and being interested in history (insofar as it was mentioned in episodes of 80’s sitcoms).

Next day, off to Edinburgh for the festival. The Royal Mile was a vision of hell. After dropping off bits, our first show was Kevin Eldon Is Titting About at The Stand. To digress briefly, last time I was at the festival I’d seen a show there and had a really miserable hour. The reason being, the comedian was someone I’d seen at university ten years previously who’d been very good – and now, here he was, ten years later, doing exactly the same material. Mentioning no names but it was Boothby Graffoe.

So with these shows there’s always the sense that they can go either way. You can see people you’ve never heard of being totally brilliant and people off the television die on their arses.

Or, in the case of Kevin Eldon, you can see people off the television being totally brilliant. His show was lots of bits of things stuck together – poetry, characters, songs, stand-up – but performed very, very accurately, and extremely tightly-written. Five stars out of five.

Next we saw Stewart Lee's Vegetable Stew. Stewart Lee’s one of those comedians who can go either way, sometimes he’s very good, and sometimes he’s one of those comedians who like to point out that Bible stories/English idioms/pop music lyrics don’t bear rigorous logical scrutiny at great length. And who likes lots of repetition. However, I thought this show was extremely good. I can’t remember any specifics but I recall quite a lot of it seemed to be about crisps. Anyway, that’s good, means I’ll laugh at all the jokes again when they turn up in his TV show. Five stars out of five.

The following day would up the comedy ante, if that makes any sense to you, as we would see five shows in one day. Five. Five shows out of five!

First we popped into a free show, because it was raining, and it was free, a revue-type-thing by three students (I assume) in a basement called Making Faces. For a free show, it was a basement bargain, and surprisingly good. I’m not sure the three students’ different styles really meshed together at all – one deadpan, one sweet, one excitable – but in maybe five years or so, after life has knocked them around a bit, they’ll write better material – basically, it came across as a show written in a week, when really you want each show to be the result of months of writing. They came across well, though, and had a great sense of fun. Five stars out of five.

Next it was time for education, and It Is Rocket Science at the Gilded Balloon, with Helen Keen. An hour-long potted history of rockets, from the first guys with beards writing down equations in a Russian university to the V2 rockets and the Apollo missions. All delivered with enthusiasm and a little, but not too much, home-spun whimsy. Have to admit, I fancied Helen Keen a great deal, but I’m married so ignore I said that. She could be the straight man’s Brian Cox. I enjoyed it a lot – and it was good for a show to concentrate on a topic, rather than just being about ‘space’ in general – so I award it five stars out of five.

After that down the hill to the Pleasance Courtyard. Someone once told me – probably Davy – that if you spend five minutes in the Pleasance Courtyard you will see everyone you have ever known walk past. Or is that a cafe in Paris? I forget. Anyway, within minutes of arriving I was getting flashbacks of people I’d worked with in the past, or been in BBC comedy meetings with. It’s a strange thing, and probably why I don’t like going there.

But we were there, to see Adam Riches Rides!. It was billed as character sketch comedy, but to be honest it was more like an hour of free-wheeling madness – it begins with Adam coming on as a centaur Pierce Brosnan and basically gets stranger from there. Lots of audience participation – oh dear god no – but thankfully someone else was victim-ed who not only took it in fun but also added to the show (a show which is reliant on the audience participants being willing and good-natured). I get the impression that a lot of sketch comedy nowadays involves comedians showing off how many accents they can do and how they can do an impersonation of their grandparents; Riches’ approach is to treat sketch comedy as a succession of fairground rides, or comic strip interludes, where it’s all about the props and the slapstick (which is great fun live, but unlikely to transfer well to TV). If I had to quibble, I’d say the PA system was annoyingly incoherent, and the routines could have had more variety beyond talking animals and cowboys, but I was laughing my face off throughout so I give it five stars out of five.

Then down the hill and to the left a bit to the Underbelly to see my mate Toby’s show Now I Know My BBC. I’d already seen a preview, but after a month the show is much tighter and more focussed, and moving and nostalgic and all those things. You come away from it remembering why the BBC is so lovely, and why having something that brings people together (unlike newspapers trying to make people fear each other) is something for us all to be proud of. There’s also a rather good Noggin the Nog joke. Five stars’ out of five.

And finally back to the Pleasance for Tim Vine’s The Joke-Amotive. One hour of puns, like watching your friend’s dad showing off at a children’s birthday party. I love Tim Vine; like Tommy Cooper, he makes a virtue out of the groanworthiness of some of his material, warning the audience that there’s more to come, letting them know when they’ve reached the half-way point and so on. But the relentless barrage of wordplay has a cumulative effect; the end result is that you feel quite punchline-drunk. Five stars out of five.

So there you go. If anyone wants to quote these reviews, my name is Tim Eout, make sure you get the spacing right.

And then we came home again.