Next Level Sketch, with special guests The Free Mondays

Socially distanced tables at Hoopla Impro.

Tuesday saw the return of Next Level Sketch to our spiritual home, Hoopla Impro at The Miller in London Bridge.

It was another important step on the long road back to normality, as this time we weren’t obliged to do two sets to two different audiences. We had actual special guests in the form of the wonderful Free Mondays.

Compering duties.

England had defeated Germany shortly before our doors opened, and downstairs had been part of the great national psychodrama of knock-out football. I’m not sure what the Venn Diagram intersection is between sketch comedy and Southgatians, so I hedged my bets by coming on stage to Three Lions and then making a joke about… the cricket.

In past shows, we’ve tried to introduce what we do with a sketch, the logic being that the rhythm of sketch is different to that of other comedy, and it’s a good way to ease people in. But this stand up approach felt much more natural, and I was able to relax the audience into What Was To Come.

Dan Smith and Flex Toomey in Aga-Who.

The cast were incredible. We did a quick tech-run through before the doors opened, which felt a touch nervy. But everyone upped their game eight thousand percent in front of a live audience, feeding off the energy of the crowd and each other to deliver some memorable performances.

“A waste, to leave a caravan unattended”.

It’s tricky to figure out which sketches are working the best when you’re performing, particularly with the limited capacities allowed at present.

“It’s time for you to shit or get off my grandmother” – Paul Creasy’s Mixed Metaphor World Championships.

But I really enjoyed Flex Toomey’s Alan Bennett-ian “We Love Our Caravan”, based on her own grandparents’ no-nonsense appreciation of chemical toilets and three-sided shower cubicles, a sketch of boiling underground tension and coordinated tea sipping; Paul Creasy’s Mixed Metaphor World Championships, in which myself and Daniel Smith got to fire off baffling jingo with liberating abandon while Rebecca Diez was on gleeful commentary duties; my own Fantasy Meets Tripadvisor chaos of flying octopuses and warm porridge, brilliantly performed by Madeleine Kasson and Greg Davies; and the surreal lunacy of Horse Holiday, in which horse passports and horse radio one were mere background detail in a tale of an average, family horse having a nervous breakdown on the way to Magahoof.

Euan Brown’s horse holiday.
Greg Davies and Madeleine Kasson.

After the interval came the excellent Free Mondays, whose professionalism, performance, and writing were all a joy to imbibe from my seat at the front.

A special mention must go to Phoebe Lewis for her performance as a terrifying mother on the phone to the Peppa Pig who lives in her own head, Luke Behan as Boris Johnson applying to join the cast of Sex in the City, and the whole cast for their sublime, physical performance as the band on the Titanic.

Next Level Sketch returns on the 27th July, with another fun special guest and lots more ridiculous sketches.

www.nextlevelsketch.com

Cycling in Kingston

Desperately trying to memorise words, I took a walk around Kingston Upon Thames yesterday, repeating things to myself and attracting curious glances from passers-by. Was I mad, or had hands-free mobile technology reached the invisibility stage?

The council has made assorted efforts to encourage more people to walk and cycle around town; if you’re on a bike, or a mobility scooter, or a skateboard, Kingston is a better place to be than five years ago. But fundamentally, the approach is frustrating, because unless you’re in a car, one still feels like an inconvenience to be dealt with, rather than a human whose active travel choices should be encouraged.

Here, for example, is a view towards Bentall’s and John Lewis, and of the gyratory that tears the town in two and turns much of a medieval town once feted for its beauty into an urban motorway.

If you’re squinting and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do if you’re on a bike here, the answer is: wait at several traffic lights, cycle on shared use paths, then use one narrow strip of cycle lane before being deposited amid the buses and taxis between the Bentall Centre and Waitrose. And yet this is *after* money has been spent on new infrastructure.

The problem is Clarence Street, where bikes are banned despite it being the obvious direct route from any cyclist arriving from New Malden or Norbiton trying to make it to Kingston Bridge, a crucial and popular destination due to bikes being notoriously difficult to handle in rivers. The logical route would be this:

But due to the determination to treat people on bikes as a nuisance, the prescribed route is this:

The route in red takes you along a shared path on the busy pavement outside Wilko’s, turns into a segregated cycle lane for a few hundred metres outside Pryzm nightclub, makes you wait to cross two sets of shared use traffic lights over the thundering urban motorway that surrounds and maroons Kingston station.

A shared use path outside Wilko’s

It then sends you merandering up Fife Road (with motor traffic heading in the other direction) before curving around the outside of the Bentall Centre before joining the scene outlined in the first picture.

The blue link offers a minor, more pleasant short cut along pedestrianised castle street, but this is another shared use path thronged with outdoor cafe tables and shoppers: most cyclists I saw here chose to dismount, and understandably so.

Below is the view towards the river along the pedestrianised Clarence Street. This was once an extremely car-clogged road, and with Kingston known as a place to shop above all else, you can see why the council are nervous about irritating shoppers by putting a cycle route through here. But to achieve significant modal shift, you need to think big.

Clarence Street

People in Surbiton, New Malden, and Norbiton should find it easier and more pleasant to cycle into town than to drive. At the moment, the mixture of indirect routes and shared space paths ends up pleasing no one.

It’s not all bad. To the council’s credit, a new cycle parking facility has been built by the station, though with apposite irony they’ve built the thing with stairs rather than ramps.

You wouldn’t get this in the Netherlands.

They’ve also made it a great deal more pleasant to cycle to Surbiton, with a genuine segregated path along the river and a pleasant, LTN-style backstreet route to the west of the Fairfield.

But in a climate emergency, it’s not enough. The car is still king in Kingston, and if you’re not in one, you still have to play second fiddle. During the pandemic, a lane of the A308 became a temporary cycle route, and people on bikes were treated equally to car drivers in terms of directness, safety and capacity.

The lane has long since been removed. Putting it back, and planning a safe east/west route through the town, would prove that this affluent corner of south-west London is serious about moving people out of their cars. Local Lib Dem councillors such as Banquet Records impresario Jon Tolley are refreshingly open on social media: here’s hoping they continue to back significant change and perhaps make this once lovely old town a beautiful place to be once again.

Blagdon Road Car Park

Following the death of my grandmother, I have been spending some time back in New Malden. The old house, the focal point for my Dad’s family for as long as I can remember, now sits quieter than it has in decades. No aunties turn up for afternoon cups of tea; no Irish cousins appear, unannounced, for story and song.

Unsettled by the silence, I went out for a late night walk between the rains, and ended up at Blagdon Road multi-storey car park. The concrete behemoth is a symbol of another age; of postwar prosperity, individualism, and the freedom of the open road. New Malden High Street is behind the times, and sits clogged and choked by the traffic infrastructure such as the car park was built to encourage.

When I was younger, the car park was kept open all night, and I would take the occasional insomniac wander up its ramps to its open roofed view over the suburban night. But now the ramps are closed at dusk, and any cars parked within are trapped til morning.

I liked this little office, built into the entrance ramp. I imagine it once housed an employee, a kettle, a heater, and a transistor radio. But now it looks distinctly unloved.

I headed around the back of the car park, which was an industrial, faintly dreamlike area when I was a kid. There was once a tv studio there, where one could watch daytime staples like Ready Steady Cook being recorded.

Going further back, the studio was also once the base for Jeremy Beadle’s “Beadle’s About”, a candid camera show in which the longtime You’ve Been Framed host would mastermind gentle pranks on the Great British Public. One was filmed on Blagdon Road itself: an early memory is of a car with a double yellow line painted all the way over its room and bonnet.

But perhaps I imagined the whole thing.

The studio is gone, and is now flats, and yet more car parking – this time underground. In 1973, I can understand how a place to store oodles of cars would get planning permission. In 2021 it seems bafflingly archaic.

As for the Blagdon Road Car Park, it has a certain beauty still, if you’re a fan of concrete and modernism, which I most certainly am. It would be lovely if it became a community space, with cafes and bars, rehearsal spaces and workshops, public libraries and performance areas.

But instead, I would guess that its inevitable fate will be the same as the office tower next to it: conversion to more housing that barely anyone can afford, few cousins or aunties visiting, and no stories told or songs sung in its empty deposit boxes in the sky.

What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it

I’m struggling to sleep, so I’m up in the small hours thinking about what it is from today that I would like to remember.

Writing a journal is an act of claiming something back from otherwise wasted days, if nothing else.

As I close my eyes, I move through the tape of the day. Slowly at first, and then in fast forward. A lot of it was spent on my phone, typing into blank spaces below depictions of my friends’ faces, many of whom I have not seen in years but I carry with me in a little black rectangle, a direct and immediate link to their consciousnesses.

Some of these conversations were throwaway; others were insightful and made me think of things in a slightly different way than before. But writing about other, more ephemeral writing feels reductive, or at least tiresome. So let me think of something else.

I think from today I just want to record the smell of summer, the panic of memory, and the calm of the early hours of the morning in suburbia, when all is dark, all is calm and the only trains one can hear are the trains returning to the depot for a few hours of the rest.

Also, I want to remember fairy lights reflected off evening cheekbones, chilli oil on Italian pizza, and a cup of tea that tasted like home.

Wading through the Content Mines

Time is endless and passes in the blink of an eye. I’ve had loads to write about but I haven’t been sure where to begin; the problem with journalising is it’s easy to fall out of the habit, and when you fall out of the habit you fall off a cliff. But if someone fails to update their blog in the forest and there’s no-one around to read it, did they… and so on.

Before I see where else my sentences take me, I’d like to carve some facts into this entry. Some solid things I have done, before they disappear into the ether. This is difficult, because some of them are OF the either, like podcasts. But if someone… oh, no, not this again.

Next Level Sketch is back as a going, physical concern. We went on stage and we did some sketches, and later this month we’re going to do it all over again, this time with different sketches. And there’s a good chance we’ll be different humans too.

The main feedback from NLS’ live comeback is that performers are remembering how to be performers, but audiences are also remembering how to be audiences. I think this phenomenon is heightened in a venue like The Miller, which has done a superb job opening back up, with its cabaret style tables and strict social distancing; but it’s a small room, with a greatly reduced capacity, and when you’re spaced out it’s much harder to give oneself the permission to laugh than it is when you’re in a packed, sweaty room of seventy.

Unfortunately if appropriately, laughter is a contagion, and groups of people are gloriously unpredictable creatures. That alchemy of when a bunch of individuals becomes a *crowd* is more difficult to achieve under these circumstances, but my lord we’re going to keep giving it a bash regardless. And our capacity will increase as the rules relax and the pandemic recedes…

On that note, my new night, Factually Inaccurate Stand-Up, has its debut show on Wednesday. And, hey, tickets are still available. Come along? I shall be MCing, and our varied special guests are all interpreting our rather woolly brief in several very different but no doubt extremely entertaining ways. As I say when selecting from one of twelve child-friendly reactions before a race in Mario Kart Online: I’m using motion controls! I mean: I’m excited.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/factually-inaccurate-stand-up-charlie-vero-martin-felix-trench-and-more-tickets-156907300961

Here are some other bits and pieces I’ve been in recently.

  1. The IMDP podcast, in which I overcame not knowing EITHER of the films I was supposed to be riffing off by making my director obsessed with the impossibility of accurately portraying duck explosions via CGI.

2. Barmy Nonsense from OMF Theatre

I helped write, record and produce this AGES ago but only now are the episodes popping up on radio and on YouTube. The latest one is available below.

3. Hey it’s Next Level Sketch! The podcast! I’m so proud of this thing, and how we’ve kept things ticking over throughout assorted lockdowns and down-downs. Our latest episode is set in a FANTASY REALM, and I think we’re getting funnier and funnier. And odder. Definitely odder.

And that’s it! Hopefully see some of you other humans on Wednesday. And I shall write MORE BLOG POSTS soon. I have many exciting projects in the pipeline for this summer, and I will launch them as soon as I remember how to get out of bed.

J x

Suburb on the Edge of Forever

I’ve been throwing out #content in various directions lately, but have been neglecting my blog, so here I am writing a post to remind myself of all the stuff I’ve been doing and to try and push me to write something every day, no matter how dry and dreary. Which seems like a strange thing to be writing on a rainy morning.

First up: I finally started a newsletter. I ummed and ahhed and ummed some more about its theme, but finally settled upon “the city”. I call it Suburb on the Edge of Forever, and you can subscribe below if you would like. The latest post is about the demise of the Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham, and how the council has a unique opportunity to redefine what town centres are for (and are hoping they don’t screw it up).

Next Level Sketch, the comedy night I produce, comes back on May 25th, at The Miller in London Bridge. An actual physical event! With jokes in it! Tickets are available here (7:30 show) and here (8:45 show): we’re doing our show twice in the same evening to small-ish capacities due to the Covid rules, but will hopefully be able to increase our audiences as the summer rolls on. We’ve got lots of exciting guest acts booked in, so I would be very grateful if people could go get their jabs and ensure that this is the kind of thing that can actually happen.

We’re also still doing podcast episodes – the latest one is below – but we’ll be releasing them less frequently now that we have a stage show to worry about too.

I am also starting a new stand-up night, also at The Miller, with my friend and fellow NLS human Maddi. After doing my stand-up course earlier in the year, I realised that the only way I would keep up my writing in this format is if I set up a date in the diary when I absolutely had to perform, so logically the only option was to set up a night. Not, you know, just booking an open mic, or performing on Zoom, or something. Oh no. That would have made far too much sense. No: an actual club night, with real comedians booked and me compering. It’s the only way. Sink or swim! Cake or death! And so on.

Our first night will be in June and there will be more details about this when we have figured out what they are.

Whew, what else. Well, in human journal / diary news, I have had my first anti-Covid jab, as Lambeth seem to be a bit ahead of the rest of the country in letting 40+ humans have the vaccine. I could make lots of jokes about how Bill Gates’ nanobots are running free through my veins and I now have lots of positive feelings about Microsoft, but this is too serious a topic for that.

I also had a haircut, so I no longer look quite so shaggy, and can reduce the overall percentage of time spent wearing hats.

It might sound weird, but psychologically I am feeling a little wary about the end of lockdown. There not being a future to speak of has had the effect of allowing me to focus on the present, and I have been unusually productive creativity wise (see above). Now that the future is available again, I suppose I have to carve out what that looks like. And that makes me nervous, because I don’t have a good track record in this area.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

It is late but I am not quite ready to give up on my crazy dream of writing an entire new blog post every single day. So! Here I am with fresh bedding and a lively mind with some statements and observations on day 876 of lockdown III. [1]

I just watched the first of the new (ish) Adam Curtis documentary, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head[1]. As with classic Simpsons and 70% of all culture, I’ve already seen the parodies before I got through the episode, but I enjoyed it immensely despite its occasional whimsy and laugh-out-loud segues.

Episode 1 of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head jumped between 1950s America, Britain and China.

Whatever you think of Curtis’ politics or the points he is making, there’s no denying he creates memorable and haunting television. The archive footage is, as always, magnificent, particularly the juxtaposition of dreary 1950s England with the atrocities of its dying Empire in Kenya. One shot in particular, of red jacketed huntsmen with their dogs and horses moving across fields in front of a looming and bleak industrial landscape of chimneys and factories, will stay with me.

What else happened today? Well, I applied to be a train driver. I once dated someone with a father who drove trains for Chiltern Railways, whose main piece of advice was, “never become a train driver”. Given the many thousands desperate for jobs, I am not expecting to become a train driver, but I applied without irony.

I had a phone call with my friend in Istanbul, who is understandably unsettled by Turkey’s descent into fascism. It says many things, and none of them good, that if she leaves, she absolutely will not come back to England.

I managed to write a sketch that I’m pretty happy with, despite being one of my more outre efforts. It was inspired, very indirectly, by The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and the question of what happens when all of reality bends to one person’s will, and also that person is running a pub quiz.

I wrote and recorded a theme tune for my friend Rachel’s new improv / baking podcast. It is quite catchy and manages to express a profound ignorance of baking, so I’m pretty happy with it. 

Ah yes, and I wrote a Twitter thread about cycling, which was roundly ignored, so I’m posting it here too, just in case it’s of interest.

Footnotes

[1] As I wrote that sentence, I was distracted by a post-it note coming loose from the wall and fluttering, moth-like, to the floor. What does this augur?

[2] I also heard this very good Kylie song in the supermarket earlier, while buying muesli and marmite. Did hearing the song remind me to watch the documentary? Curtis would say yes.

Illustrated Banality

I am trying to update my blog every day at the moment, which is a project as doomed to failure as the poor coriander plant desperately seeking the limited light of the kitchen window.

Nevertheless, we persist!

The problem is that the days are so packed full of incident and life, and the desire to document every single detail is very strong in me, even though that is impossible as one would need to stop from experiencing and doing things every so often in order to write them down.

I really love hourly comics, where once a year online artists draw what they’re up to over the course of the day. I find the illustrated banality charming. But I suspect my readers – and I know you’re out there, like the aliens pretending to ignore Jodrell Bank – wouldn’t be impressed if I took up the same approach to blogging.

Today’s news is as follows. Now is the time to start playing breaking news music in your head.

1) Samira Ahmed likes my album! She’s been a lovely associate since she stumbled on my New Malden blog many moons ago. I really appreciate her both buying it AND tweeting about it, the kind of double whammy my other so-called friends could learn from [1].

2) It sounds like I might be setting up my own stand-up comedy night. This is both a terrifying and thrilling conceit, at this stage, that needs to be turned into an actual event for when we are actually allowed to have actual events.

There have been many terrible things about lockdown for so many of us, but one unexpected advantage is it has at least helped me stay in the present a little bit, rather than dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. Because, well, lockdown is a kind of eternal present, isn’t it? It’s hard to worry about the future when you’re not sure when it’s going to begin.

But now it’s getting a bit warmer and the humans are getting more optimistic, I need to think about what events I want to put on, and how to go about it. I think we can all agree that the world needs more laughs at the moment.

3) Our sketch comedy podcast is going to be rebroadcast on a community radio station. I find this tremendously exciting, but as with 2), this is a nascent thing rather than a big, details and posters announcement. But after the joy of hearing a song of mine played on the radio; it would be a similar pleasure to hear me pretending to be a pirate.

4) I did a helpful thing, and was rewarded with a sausage roll. This is the kind of society I like. It’s what Ursula Le Guin would have wanted.

5) It was also a frustrating day because my mind had been flirting around like a moth all day, and I’ve found it hard to make myself do tasks, like a dog who knows absolutely that his dog is calling him but has detected a really fascinating smell and frankly the human stuff can wait. I am hoping that tomorrow I will be more successful at achieving the boring, practical tasks I failed to do today.

6) I have new glasses!

[1] This is cod passive aggression, but it reads like actual passive aggression. Therefore, it made me laugh and I kept it in. Behold: the writing process!!

Diagnosis: clown

I burned myself last night. I was half reclining on the sofa, like a Roman, and spilled hot tea all over my chest.

I quickly removed my T-shirt and jumper, and got in the shower and poured cool (but not freezing) water at myself while checking the NHS website to check I was doing the right thing.

Twenty minutes later I stopped, climbed out, and resigned myself to a topless evening, like George Costanza on the shitter.

This life has been an increasingly klutzy one. Pre lockdown, I went on a spate of leaving things on trains, from glasses and hats all the way up to backpacks. Now we can’t go anywhere, I’m limiting myself to smashing receptacles and tripping over things, like Kramer ending every scene with a perfect few seconds of slapstick.

I wonder if I should see a doctor, but I’m worried I’ll be diagnosed as a clown.

Swells reviews my record from beyond the grave

I do like writing songs but I’m not very good at promotion. If this was 1994, I’d sign to a major label, despite all my protestations at being “alternative”, just to escape the anxiety of writing to people asking them to listen or give coverage to my work.

A few more nice things to report, though. John Kennedy was kind enough to get in touch to say he liked “This Can’t Go On Forever”, so maybe he’ll play it on the radio. And the nice human behind the Phoenix Remix did a song-by-song review, comparing me to some artists I never expected to be compared to.

My pal Geoff found himself wondering what Steven Wells would have made of Ruthless Window.

Swells was the anarchist bulldog of the NME, never happy with a song unless it was by the Asian Dub Foundation and specifically about freeing Satpal Ram. He would often tear my favourite bands a new collective arsehole, but he’s almost invariably be very funny while doing so. I miss that kind of music journalism. To be honest, I miss music journalism in general.

Swells died a few years ago, sparing him even the unlikely chance of coming into contact with my twee-pop record. But Geoff had a go at divining what he would have thought:

“I think he’d approve of your make it up as you go along approach to lyrics and the idea that spending more than a day on an album was excessive.

“However, I can’t help but think the use of a ukulele would be a provocation too far and would take up most of the word count.

“The singer from Los Campesinos described getting torn apart by Swells as one of the highlights of his career. It was a given he would hate their music but he felt it was a rite of passage for an indiepop band to get a kicking from him.”

Mildly irritating Mark Beaumont just isn’t the same.