The city is an onion

I was cycling over Blackfriars Bridge when I felt a tinge of anxiety. Am I being remade by my work? Is this who I am now? How do others perceive me, and how do I perceive myself?

I had recently started a new part time job as a cargo bike courier, to supplement my dog sitting, comedy promotion, and writing things no one will ever read based lifestyle.

In terms of status, pay, and likelihood of being trapped in a meeting with someone pretending to be an expert on a topic they only learnt about that morning, this job is inferior to working for a national newspaper.

In other regards – physical exertion, meeting a wide range of people, exposure to sunrises – it is better.

In more nebulous and philosophical categories, like “is this useful?” and “is this a good use of my education and talents?”, the answers are less clear cut.

On that first question, it must be said that the tasks vary wildly.

All involve lugging loads that, a few years ago, would likely have been shifted by van or lorry, with internal combustion engines doing infernal things to the air and the climate. So: an unalloyed “good”.

But within that, a day may involve, say, helping out at an east London food bank (good), delivering coffee to a bunch of independent retailers (probably fine), and bringing huge amounts of sushi to hungry, desk-bound venture capitalists (should have poisoned it).

But I am an artist and a writer, without means or property, and sometimes I must give up my time to do things I don’t agree with.

I suppose.

What all this means is my body is becoming fitter and stronger, and my lips blister even in the weak February sun. I have joined the huge ranks of London’s bringers, servicers, and facilitators.

Those I interact with are often designed to be invisible: the “dark kitchen” chefs in basements and under railway arches; the loading bay security men you deliver to far out of sight of the shiny corporate lobby; the catering staff financial analysts avoid eye contact with, as they wheel out packaged salads to the 15th floor chill-out area, with its sofas, snacks and occasional table tennis tables.

These people are invariably friendly, funny, and kind.

What I am learning about myself through this work remains unclear; but what I am learning about the city is legion.

As someone of peripatetic lifestyle, who has lived all over and cycled to get there, I thought I knew most of London.

I was wrong. The city is an onion, and its layers make me cry. From anonymous industrial estates in the marshes off the Lea valley, to ancient alleyways near Fenchurch Street station, I am seeing new bits of the city every single day.

I am extremely grateful for everything and anything I had never seen before.

And yet.

There is, inevitably, plenty of repetition and a great deal of passing through haunts ranging from the recent to the ancient. Like a lot of people, I have an extremely geographic memory, and so each shift is one of constant remembering sparked by cycling through the past.

Flats of ex-partners; cafes of regret. Picking up empty beer kegs from places where I fell in love. All are seen and vividly experienced daily, and the beauty and the curse of cycling is the focus, the clarity, and the constant motion.

Is this who I am now? How do others perceive me, and how do I perceive myself?

As ever, I’m trying to become less obsessed with the former and treat the latter with more understanding and kindness.

Next Level Sketch with Hel MacCormack and Shelf Comedy

In cricket there is a mysterious affliction known as “the yips”, whereby a bowler can no longer bowl. Due to some unfortunate confluence of physical quirk and mental anguish, the ball will no longer come out of the hand as it is supposed to.

On Tuesday night I felt I got the comedy yips. I was tired from cycling all day, and spooked by a small audience trickling in, which for some reason i find scarier than a sold out show.

It’s something about feeling bad, as a promoter, on behalf of the guest acts, for not providing them with enough people to perform to.

Like you’ve somehow tricked them into turning up.

Like you’re a total sham.

And the performers, professionals who have performed to far smaller crowds, are of course absolutely fine and don’t for one minute think you’re an imposter.

Or do they?

From my usual pre-show zen-like calm, I instead felt I could no longer control any of my limbs. The world around me, from lovely people I care about very much, to the passage of time, and the requirements of urination, all became foggy and distant.

So thank you, first of all, to the wonderful Hel MacCormack, who bounded in early, was immediately hilarious, and was so open about her own anxiety that I felt a bit better.

And second of all to Nadine for checking in on me, for being reassuring, and helping out with the tech set up while I was wandering around in circles trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing.

It turns out what I was supposed to be doing was hosting the show, and that side of things went quite well, proving once and for all that worry is pointless and you should never do it.

We had a nice crowd in the end – not massive, but all tables filled – and after some basic comedy admin, I warmed them up by asking what birds they liked.

Penguins, mainly.

The show was ready to begin!

Next Level Sketch were both battle hardened from their tour of the provinces but also slightly under-rehearsed, with the vagaries of Covid and geography = only Zoom practice available.

Still – most of the material had been road tested and we knew, absolutely, that it worked; but it didn’t quite get the audience response that I had hoped for.

But sometimes, in comedy, that happens. And though I was nervous and fluffed a few lines, the rest of the troupe – Paul Creasy, Nadine Bailey, Roderick Millar, Dan Smith, and a returning Rebecca Diez – were on fine form.

I was especially heartened to see Diez back on stage where she belongs, a natural performer who can make any line sound both the most logical thing in the world and extremely stupid – a beautiful skill for a sketch comedian.

Interval. Pint of courage. Ukulele prop. Time to introduce the second half, starting with the aforementioned MacCormack, friend of NLS veteran Luke Rollason and dweller of a spooky abandoned care home.

Hel MacCormack.

She was magnificent. Without giving too much away: funny songs they are actually funny, filthy and honest material, and beautifully timed asides. Go see her! Go see her now!

Our headliners were returning champions Shelf, with exactly one half of their new show. And when I say exactly half, I mean exactly half: timed ruthlessly, ending abruptly, and extremely charmingly.

Useful signs from Shelf.

There are songs. There is lesbian science. And most of all there is beautiful rapport between two funny people who have known each other forever, complement each other beautifully, and make the world better simply by existing on various stages around the country helping us all understand this crazy little thing called life.

Shelf and human mic stand Nadine Bailey.

Thanks so much to all the performers, and to Darren performing miracles on tech. The next Next Level Sketch is on 29th March. We shall let you know the guest acts once we’ve figured that out. And, in the meantime, I’ll be busy practicing my bowling in the nets.

J x

Creasy’s attempt at a post-show selfie.
On “Instagram” with the poster.

Lads on tour: Next Level Sketch perform at Up The Antic, Bristol and the Leicester Comedy Festival

Upstairs at The Globe for the Leicester Comedy Festival.

A few weeks ago, my sketch comedy collective emerged from their Omicron slumber to do their first ever non-London gigs.

This was a Big Step. Audiences in the big smoke are known to be honking idiots who will guffaw at anything, even a crude drawing of a sausage taped to a wall. But how would we fare with the aesthetes of the provinces?

Bristol

Our first show was to be at Up The Antic in the beautiful environs of the Bristol Improv Theatre. This gig was secured for us by the fantastic Flex, who has many a finger in the city’s assorted comedy pies.

We were to be on a shared bill alongside a stand-up comedian and the night’s own Improv team. Would we be able to hold our own? Or would our unsophisticated London jokes go down like buckets of lukewarm angel delight?

The venue begins to fill.

I did not lack confidence. And with good reason.

We had a superb cast – this guy right here, as well as the magnificent Flex Toomey, Vic Dry and Dan Smith.

We had some brilliant sketches. We went for the Greatest Hits approach, as – get this – we at Next Level Sketch have recently discovered that comedy acts often REPEAT the same jokes and material over and over again, rather than attempting to come up with 45 minutes of entirely new material and going mad in the process.

Who knew?

With a great cast, sketches that played to said cast’s undoubted strengths, and the four of us all managing to either live in or travel to Bristol in time for the show, spirits were high for the rehearsal, which took place, helpfully, at the venue itself.

And what a venue. It the largest space I had ever performed to. We had an entire CURTAINED OFF AREA for our props, rather than a small table. Can you imagine such luxury?

Rehearsal complete, we went to a pub across the road to eat chips, where Nadine joined us for moral and logistical support. Nerves, at this point, started to jangle within certain cast members, though I still felt mysteriously calm. “It’s because I’m dead inside,” I explained.

Pre-show nerves.

The show was a sellout. We waited in the bar until just before the start, and were then ushered to seats to the side of the stage. The compere worked his magic, before welcoming on the stand-up act, who careered and meandered the way to the end of her sexually explicit set.

And then, suddenly, it was an interval, and time for US. We all hid behind our curtained-off prop palace. Nervousness was now certainly kicking in, although again, not for me. I was extremely calm. As I keep explaining to people, I’m perfectly comfortable performing. It’s when I’m not on stage that all the problems start.

The compere returns. We are introduced. Dan and Flex head out to begin the first sketch, which hinges, very much, on my arrival dressed in character. They are being funny, and loud, their performances amplified by the energy of the expectant and receptive crowd.

And then I make my entrance, and the place explodes.

I have never experienced anything like it. Without giving away what it was about my outfit that made everyone lose their collective shit, it was a combination of my character being a surprise but also exactly what they wanted, and everyone in the audience realising that they were getting exactly what they wanted, all in the same moment of joy and relief.

Dan Smith and myself on stage at the Bristol Improv Theatre. Photo: Nadine Bailey

And from this moment on, everything went perfectly. I already knew these guys were good, but they absolutely nailed every joke, every line, every facial expression.

Vic Dry as Wonderwoman at the Bristol Improv Theatre. photo: Nadine Bailey.

Probably my favourite moment was for a sketch written by Flex, a two and a half minute character study worthy of Alan Bennett.I stuck it in towards the middle of the set because, well, I thought we would have earned the audience’s trust to do something a bit more subtle by then. And my god, had we. They loved it.

Flex Toomey and the author on stage at the Bristol Improv Theatre. Photo: Nadine Bailey.

Suddenly it was all finished, and I was introducing our troupe to the applauding humans. And then it was time for the second interval, and talking to my cousin, and Nadine, grinning, with a pre-bought pint in her hand.

After the show. Some hours after the show.

Leicester

Yarrrr. The cast for Leicester.

A few days after this triumph, it was time for the east Midlands. Now, as a son of Nottingham, I have longstanding and only partially ironic contempt for Leicester. At least it’s better than Derby, I would think to myself, despite never having been in twenty years.

It’s seen better days. Austerity has not been kind.

Still, this was us making out comedy festival debut. Two nights booked in a room above the oldest pub in town, arranged many months ago.

With London’s Vault Festival cancelled only a week or so previously, we knew that this one was going to be tricky, audience wise. But we were going to do it anyway. And I’m so glad we did, because it was a wonderful couple of days.

Our poster on display downstairs at The Globe. Poster design: Nadine Bailey.

Nadine was nominally leading this leg of our tour, which is entirely unfair: Up The Antic were a regular night, with their own audience, and we had links to the place. All this considered, I can take little credit for it being a sold out affair, even though I’m happy to say it was all down to me if it means they book us again.

Leicester was trickier. And a few days before we were due to go, we didn’t even have a tech person.

Step forward Shruti, irrepressible associate of Nadine’s from her latest stand-up course She agreed, last minute, to do tech for us, and was generally a ball of optimism and can-do attitude who lifted the whole touring party.

WooooooOOOOOOOooooooo. With Shruti after our second triumphant show.

We had a line-up change from Bristol. Roderick Millar came in for Vic, and Nadine also joined the cast. We had 45 minutes to fill rather than half an hour, but we kept a LOT of the sketches from Bristol, because, as mentioned earlier, it turns out that doing the same sketches over and over again is a good thing and other people do it too apparently.

Roderick and Dan in a Leicester cafe.

Ticket sales were not strong, but in such a small space above a pub midweek, it mattered less than we all expected. The performances were, somehow, even better than at Bristol, putting paid to my “feeding off the energy of a busy room” theory.

With such confidence in and knowledge of the material – we now knew that people outside London found us funny – there was even a bit of improv-ing as we went, and even better milking of the audience’s responses and those glorious little moments when they laugh at the bits you’re not expecting them to.

Over two days we did lots of extremely awkward flyering, ate some terrible food, met some lovely audience members, stole some rocks from Richard III’s grave, visited a gay bar (aka the only place in Leicester open late on a Wednesday night), and went bowling in a former railway station.

Sorry Dick.

Much thanks to the cast, my fellow producers, and the good people of Leicester for having us. One thing is certain: we will do more festivals this year.

Watch this space.

J x

p.s. here’s our next London show

Newsletter / Don’t Look Up / Boiling Point

January is nearly over and I’m only just easing into it.

Like a Victorian gentleman emerging from a preposterous bathing contraption, I suppose I will eventually dip my toe into 2022. But I remain wary.

I’ve just written my latest newsletter, promoting all the various comedy things I’ve got planned over the next few weeks. This includes sketch shows in Bristol and Leicester, another attempt to win Comedy Virgins in Stockwell, and the return of Factually Inaccurate, with scarcely believable headliner Isy Suttie off the telly.

Come along!

Please subscribe to the newsletter if you haven’t already. It’s mainly reviews and plugs for shows, and as such the version of me who writes it is slightly more cheery than this, the Eeyore of WordPress still trapped inside the lockdown of the mind.

It is interesting how different aspects of one’s character emerge depending on what one is writing. For example, I find it impossible to do any correspondence with a company / public entity without dredging up the version of me who would still be writing green inked letters to the local newspaper, if the local newspaper still existed.

Postcards to friends are closer to the real me, unless I’m writing them to Geoff and addressing them specifically to his parents’ house, in which case a new set of rules come in. New as in different to other forms of writing, not new as in new: I have been writing postcards to Geoff’s parents house for a quarter of a century.

What else? I have seen precisely two (2) movies, one on the tellybox and one at the cinema. I lack the energy to give either a proper review, but both were interesting.

The first was the much-discussed Don’t Look Up, Netflix’s celebrity-infused climate change denial allegory. It begins as farce and ends as tragedy; this tonal shift is well handled, and despite the presence of distractingly over-famous Leo DiCaprio in the chief scientist role the film works well.

It has received criticism for being too broad, largely by exactly the liberal journalists this film delights in mocking. I would say these critics doth protest too much. In a post-Trump world, you can never out-parody the wealthy idiots driving us to destruction.

Meryl Streep steals the show as an unexpectedly subtle Palin-esque President, and the last fifteen minutes or so lingered in thought and in dream a lot longer than expected.

The second was also stressful, but in a completely different way.

Rather than contemplating the end of the world, we were trying to get to the end of the night, via a frenetic, one-shot, restaurant-set ninety minutes.

Boiling Point is not for the anxious. It follows the head chef of a trendy Dalston restaurant, convincingly played by Stephen Graham, as he battles a personal and professional life on the edge of collapse.

I found myself gripping the seat as the various ducks – both actual and metaphorical – are set up amid a busy, stressful, claustrophobic professional kitchen. We are not overloaded with characters, which means that those we see are given space to breathe even in such a confined space.

I particularly loved Vinette Robinson, whose performance as Graham’s number two was perfect, the competent and steely ying to her boss’ barely keeping it together yang.

And I also appreciated the economy in focusing on only a few of the customers: a smarmy celebrity chef, a racist bullying dullard, some instagram wankers, and a young man whose proposal to his girlfriend is definitely going to go extremely smoothly.

There were a couple of narrative choices that were a bit on the obvious side, but in a strange way I was grateful for this. I was so invested in the characters that it was actually a relief to be brought out of the believability bubble.

I would give both films four ish stars; definitely catch them if you have the subscriptions or cinemas available to do so.

REVIEW: Clean Living under Difficult Circumstances: Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism, by Owen Hatherley

As the title implies, Owen Hatherley is trying his best in trying times. This collection of his essays covers everything from tributes to Black Box Recorder to shop signs in Walthamstow High Street, from early blog posts to recent essays for the London Review of Books, as Britain staggers from late Blairism to coalition austerity and on to the nightmare of eternal hyper-Toryism.

What’s remarkable is how the author’s cool, mildly ironical style alters not one jot throughout, as though he emerged, fully formed, from the primordial Southampton soup.

Hatherley came to prominence via the mid-noughties blogger clique of London-adjacent intellectuals. K-Punk, aka Mark Fisher, took him under his establishment-averse wing and perhaps helped Hatherley to avoid the fate of death by a thousand coffee table tomes.

Indeed, here he shows a certain regret for his part in making modernism groovy again. His city-essay series, initially for Building Design [1] and collected in two wonderful books [2], eviscerated the New Labour and early coalition additions to our urban landscape. An article, included here, from 2013 on the state of Britain’s libraries reveal the turn of phrase that made those books such a joy.

Here, for example, is Cardiff Central Library: “A quote on a plaque from the Manic Street Preachers – ‘Libraries Gave Us Power’ – is far less prominent than the sign for Wagamama”. After eight further years of austerity, the question of whether civic spaces should be dominated by chain restaurants seems almost quaint, in a bittersweet way.

And there, beautifully put, is Adam Curtis’ descent into self-parody: 

“The mission of educating and informing – and making coherent arguments that could be conveyed in a multi-part series – was gradually replaced by a diffuse, intentionally disorienting approach that replicates the bafflement which Curtis argues is deliberately created by those in power. The tics remained the same, but something had shifted.”

Hatherley writes best when considering what we’ve lost and why it didn’t have to be that way, so it’s unsurprising there is an air of yearning melancholy amid the sarcasm, particularly when dealing with housing and architecture in places not quite along the neoliberal road as Britain, like Warsaw and Vienna. The sadness is knowing what comes next.

I wish he’d explore the personal more, in fact. His take on the decline of public conveniences, The Socialist Lavatory League, is enlivened both by the knowledge of the author’s own Crohn’s disease and his anger at how the British love of the scatalogical prevents editors and commentators alike from taking this shit seriously.

This collection ends with a review of Fisher’s posthumous collected works, translated here from the original Russian. 

The two men were once close. Hatherley’s skewering of Fisher’s more adolescent tracts [3] and frustration at the wasted years and occasional ideological contradictions feels like something he wrote never expecting it to see the light of day in English. This frankness and expertise adds weight to his analysis of the older man’s brilliance and importance as we all figure out a way to emerge from this Boring Dystopia. 

Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, with its explorations of what it means to live in a world where an alternative to neoliberalism is beyond the cultural imagination, was a life changing publication for many on the left of my generation. And as Hatherley reveals, he was working on a follow-up at the time of his death. 

He is much-missed. And as a humble blogger, I hope the author won’t mind my quoting the conclusion to his K-Punk tribute in full:

“So much of this book is about the memory of having your own world transformed, your world in Loughborough in the 1970s, completely transformed and turned upside-down by a record, a children’s programme, a TV play, which has beamed in from another dimension and taken you elsewhere, and offered you one of Herbert Marcuse’s moments of prefigurative utopia.

“Expanded out of his own head, out of his own time, Mark demands that everyone have access to this experience, and not as individuals struggling with their own ill-adapted mind and body – but as a collective, as a social body, as communism.”

Owen Hatherley’s Clean Living In Difficult Circumstances is available via Verso Books

[1] the kind of trade mag that once had the budget for original writing and is now an algorithm and listings based mess

[2] A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak, for New Labour and Coalition era landscapes accordingly

[3] such as: why did he think Nolan was ever an interesting director? Is the eroticism stuff a bit beneath a man then in his late thirties? Does he regret self-spiking a piece for The Times by quoting his own editorial brief in the copy?

Granary Square

I am a frustrated writer. I am frustrated by how little I write.

The first sentence is the hardest, as an old lag might say. There are so many competing demands on one’s attention, from social media to existential dread (or, to give it its more common name, social media).

And then there’s depression, anxiety, undiagnosed ADHD. The occasional need to eat. Messages from loved ones. Obligations. Online board games. The cricket (another source of existential dread).

As the year shudders towards its end and we’re told to hunker down yet again, I find my mental reserves are running extremely low. I suspect I’m not the only one.

The concept of another lockdown terrifies me, but even without it, my world has become so small. The biggest impact of this pandemic, at least from a personal perspective, is the lockdown it has enforced on the mind.

I’ve lost touch with a lot of people since March 2020. Of course, most of them still exist – in the debilitating rectangle of my phone. Technically a message away.

But friendship and relationships don’t work like that, no matter how much we store them on digital devices.

They are things of contact, communication and intimacy, and the past couple of years have been intensely damaging to them.

This blog is like the opposite of Granary Square in King’s Cross: I sometimes forget it isn’t private.

This is your fault. If my readers were more like security guards in cheap uniforms, swanning around making sure I don’t stage some kind of protest, then I wouldn’t end up writing so honestly.

I hope everyone out there is doing alright, and that I may see some of you soon.

J x

REVIEW: Everything, all the time, everywhere, by Stuart Jeffries.

I was an undergraduate during post-modernism’s golden age. It was 1998 and things, we had recently been assured, could only get better. 

Warwick uni was the quickest to embrace New Labour’s neoliberal reimagining of higher education. Private security goons stalked campus roads to nowhere. Treatises as brazenly unserious as Francis Fukuyama’s End of History were discussed seriously by expensively educated people destined for jobs in think tanks, consultancies and international monetary funds.

Post-modernism was the thing to pretend to believe in, just as Blair was the guy to follow as he could convince anyone that up was down and sell you a PFI contract while he was at it.

And yet, looking back, post-modernism was treated as a joke even then, even by its ultra-ironic acolytes. Did these people, many of them history students, truly believe that there were no truths, only interpretations? Really?

Reading Simon Jeffries’s rollicking, pop-history of almost half a century of this crap, I wonder whether being in on the joke – and, crucially, never truly believing in anything – was kind of the point.

As Buzz Aldrin might put it, post-modernism comes right after modernism. Its proponents rejected and blew raspberries at the old postwar consensus certainties that were fraying during that most surreal of decades, the 1970s.

As a delightful, retrospective quote from David Byrne puts it,

“Like many others I felt [modernism] had both strayed from its idealistic origins and become codified, strict, puritanical and dogmatic . . . Besides, as lovely as it is, modern furniture is cruelly uncomfortable. If postmodernism meant anything is allowed, then I was all for it. Finally! The buildings often didn’t get much more beautiful or the furniture more comfortable, but at least we weren’t handed a rulebook”.

Post-modernism, suggests Jeffries, “was exuberant, fun, irresponsible, anti-hierarchical, and had lost faith in progress.” He argues, compellingly, that it was both handmaiden to and gleeful deconstructor of neoliberalism. Post-modernists not only wanted to have their cake and eat it, they wanted to make a lot of money while doing so.

Bouncing cheerfully from Bowie to Baudrillard, we learn that everything is a mask and everything is left open.

Punk’s expertly marketed nihilism is argued here as a gateway to Thatcherism – Branson and McLaren’s boys a cynical exercise long before Johnny Rotten started selling butter. “Punk didn’t shatter the mask of the dominant culture; that was simply Marcus’s unreliable grand narrative. In the post-modern era, the dominant culture accommodates whatever is thrown at it”.

There are some missteps here. Jeffries’s takes on queer theory and video games veer dangerously towards Guardianista canards: Grand Theft Auto is an easy target but one that shows the author’s lack of understanding of the art form. Similarly, he conclusions on the appropriation of cyberspace by consumerism is true, but there are still other possibilities out there. Netflix standing on our face, forever, is not the inevitable end game, as insidious as its algorithms may be.

The most fun passages are on the theorists and the architecture. Prince Charles’ Poundbury gets a deserved and amusing kicking; Damien Hirst responding to 9/11 with “you’ve got to hand it to them on some level” gets funnier with every re-reading. Compared to the twin towers, who needs half a shark?

But post-modernism survived the age of terror and the forever wars against ideas. Eternal debt, virtual money and NFTS are our current realities. We’re all still within this era of eternal unseriousness. What is post post-modernism going to look like?

In the forthcoming age of climate change management, resource wars, and a very real desert rather than the desert of the real, the most terrifying answer of all may be “not a lot”. But at least until then we have poor Jeffries, trawling through the many words of post-modern pseuds so we don’t have to.

Next Level Sketch and IMDp

Hello! Join me on a journey through time, as I write a rambling, diary-style blog post. Its intention is to remind whatever future version of me that might exist that these things happened. You’re welcome.

Tuesday was the final Next Level Sketch of the year. I was not involved, as I was at an audition at a very cold church hall in King’s Cross. I arrived early, from an unlikely geographical location (let’s call it Lincolnshire, to save time), and discombobulated.

Over the previous two days I had heard many troubling things, and my head was metaphorically elsewhere. All these excuses are preparation for the fact that I was very shit in the audition and I am doing my best to blame factors other than my own (lack of) preparation and competence.

From this, I rushed to Next Level Sketch, the first that I have not hosted or acted within. I arrived during the interval, so I missed our own show but am looking forward to seeing it on video in due course. Euan and the cast look like they did a fantastic job, judging from the many photographs.

I think I had two sketches in this one – my popemobile driving test from forever ago, and a new, specifically festive sketch about Cliff Richard. This latter one is notable mainly for how I wrote it – I just recorded the entire thing into voice memos, from scratch, while cooking, then wrote it up pretty much as is. It’s a miracle it made it to stage. A Christmas miracle, you might say.

The second half was the two fabulous special guests I had booked, Legs Comedy, trying out some new material, and Just These Please, bringing their world-slaying million-viewed songs and sketches to a small room in south London. Both were fabulous, both featured trains in their sketches. This made me happy.

Yesterday I returned to The Miller, but this time I actually managed to go on stage as part of the Improvised Movie podcast.

I had been on once before, during lockdown, but this was my first ever attempt at improv on stage, IRL, in front of a genuine paying audience.

The way it works is you, the guest, plays a director of a film, the title of which (and the name of your character) are revealed to you as you’re sitting there. From this, you can go pretty much wherever you want, and guided by legendary interviewer Martina Minnow, if that is her real name, I concocted a tragic tale of emotion, explosions, and artistically compromising funding arrangements with the Stevenage tourist board. Scenes from this film are then acted out by some fantastic improvisers, while I sat on stage, full deadpan, trying to stay in character.

The whole thing was recorded and will be available on the internets some time in January.

Film Review: Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Never has escaping a giant sand worm been less interesting

“Today’s mega-Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what is not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”

David Foster Wallace

I’m currently reading “Everything, everywhere, all the time”, Stuart Jeffries’s fun pop-culture polemic about how post-modernism has taken over both the world and our souls. With excellent timing, I have recently seen the Dune remake, which, in its spectacle and emptiness, might have been made specifically to prove Jeffries’ point.

I’m usually wary of reimaginings, but Villeneuve’s belated Bladerunner sequel was not hated by people I respect. I went into the cinema expecting something visually striking, moody, and at least a bit more thoughtful than the usual modern day Hollywood fare.

What I got was a hot mess.

I have a soft spot for David Lynch’s 1984 attempt at Dune, even though it was a failure at the box office. The hope that this would be the next Star Wars seemed hopelessly misplaced, as we were presented with garish sets and costume, excessively complicated galactic politics, and a scantily clad Sting.

Villeneuve’s Dune tones down the colour palette but is unexpectedly loyal to the Lynch interpretation. Before the film started there was a trailer for the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, permanently eating and referencing itself in the finest postmodern tradition.

I was not expecting the feature film to also be a text about a text about a text. Parts of this were almost a love letter to Lynch’s creations, but with the humour and the visual inventiveness turned to -11. Yes: this is a neo-biblical space opera about chosen ones, vast landscapes, and intergalactic intrigue. But did it have to be so empty?

In Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation [1981], the classic postmodern text, we learn about the desert of the real.

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory . . . It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.

The CGI desert of the remade Duneseems almost a parody of the above. As the film’s boring royals buzz above in poorly rendered insectoid helicopters, the computerised Arrakis sands below are more brazenly fake than any of Hollywood’s 1950s epics.

This film, if anything, is an anti-epic. It shrinks the sprawling, ludicrous multi-worlds and factions of the novel (and the Lynch adaptation) into three planets and some brick-like spacecraft. There’s even some awkward attempts at the novel’s political allegory: the Fremen are announced, glibly, with Arabic-sounding music; hey, did you guys ever hear of the war in Iraq?

But this film is most trite in its reimaginings of Lynch’s most striking scenes. Paul, the Skywalker / Jesus / messiah character, is played here by a plank of wood. In the reimagined “stick your hand in this box, it’s probably fine” scene literally nothing happens. Anticlimax piles upon anticlimax.

What was Villeneuve’s intention here? Was he making fun of the Lynch interpretation? Was it a nod to it, like how the JJ Abrams Star Trek remakes depend on nostalgia? How do postmodern references even work when the film you’re nodding to was a notable bomb?

At one point, a character makes what passes for a joke. It isn’t a very good one, but the audience laughs, out of relief. Behind me, a guy has been on his phone since the start.

The only mercy of this film is it is only two hours or so. As the narrative peters out into some dull wanderings and a knife fight with all the gravitas of a brawl outside Grantham Wetherspoons, we are reminded, with horror, that this is only the beginning.

This is Dune: the remake, I. Presumably the intention is to make a II and III. And perhaps a prequel, where we see the giant sand worms when they’re just starting out.

One more generous interpretation of postmodernism is that it is freedom. But as Jeffries points out when considering our new masters the algorithms of Netflix: ‘the Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment, we have only ‘the freedom to choose what was always the same”’.

Dune is exactly this. In capitalist realism, we can imagine anything we like, so long as it doesn’t challenge the dominant worldview. This film is culture for pseuds, saying nothing, signifying nothing; it’s a parody of what art is supposed to be. At least the marvel films wear their cultural imperialism openly on their tshirts; this, instead, aims higher and finds only nothingness.

Review: Legs comedy present Logs, Soho Theatre

This review first appeared on Phoenix Remix

I’ve seen Legs Comedy do Logs twice in one week. Does that make me a Logs ultra? The first time was a mere ten minutes of wood at ACMS.

Tonight was the full, burning, forest of their hour long show at Soho Theatre, at the pleasingly wild time of 9:15pm (forests are primal places, and this ludicrous show makes more sense the closer one gets to the witching hour).

Due to a phone / bar geographical mistake, we arrived late and so missed the show’s opening, whereby our players make their way through the audience, breaking any ice or indeed distance between performer and audience with their mantra and their tingling of tiny bells. 

We heard this from the other side of a determinedly shut door, which if anything added to the sense of anticipation undercut with a mild dose of hysterical foreboding.

All this, merely from three people saying bits of the word “logs” a lot nearby.

Julia Masli, alongside brothers Robert and Andrew Duncan, are Legs Comedy, whose show was a hit of the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe in the before times. 

For months now, they have been Logs, this beautiful creation about science, nature and puns so terrible but so beautifully presented they become profound. Or at least, profoundly stupid.

Either way, we laughed. A lot.

I don’t want to give too much away, as they’re performing the show til Saturday and my intention writing this is to encourage you to see it. But to psychologically prepare you, there are some things I can reveal.

First: there are costume changes, props, and laughs from mere looks or deadpan statements. Masli, who mainly plays the eponymous log through seasons and tragic revelations, is a playful, understated clown, who can elicit a laugh from a hesitant glance or an intentionally awkward smile.

One aspect of this show I love is how intentionally ramshackle it is. There are bits within that are clumsy, scenes that seem designed to be awkward, or to go wrong in a way that’s as funny as can be. 

Andrew, for example, as a pointy headed log scientist, drags out a Pratchettian scene far longer than he has any right to, aided only by some crude drawings, moderate audience interaction and a determination to take stupid thoughts to their unnatural conclusions.

The assorted costume changes are held together by the reassuring presence of Robert, as much as someone can be reassuring with a log cabin on his head. 

He explains technology or ecology or how the whole show was a terrible whimsical accident with real charm and a skill for awkward-clumsy audience interaction, as well as a rare timing for improvising around random noises, arrivals, or accidents.

There is also an extremely stupid scene of brotherly rivalry which exploded our audience into genuine awwwws amid the laughs.

I can’t recommend LOGS enough. If the rumours are true, this week is the last chance you’ll get to see these three inspired idiots dressed in these particular stupid costumes.

We wood strongly urge you to head on down to Soho and em-bark on a magical and stupid voyage (on a ship, also made of… oh, you get the idea).

Legs Comedy perform Logs at Soho Theatre on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th November

***** out of *****