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Stalking Colin Blunstone at Butlins

Sowerby & Luff write…

After returning from our Hong Kong trip, (while writing “Sex Tips for Pandas”), we became more and more addicted to suitcases and hotel rooms. So we decided it was time we should take the podcast on the road again.  Clearly, what we needed to do was to start talking about what was going on in the outside world.

So, we scoured the listings magazines and newspapers for the most cringe-making and kitsch event we could find, and eventually plumped for a 1960’s weekend at Butlin’s in Bognor Regis. Believe me, until you’ve seen a seventy-five year old woman in an electric wheelchair, dressed as Cilla Black, you haven’t lived.

We drank weak lager out of plastic glasses and watched a succession of overweight, grey haired men in matching gold lamé suits, strum their way through songs that had propelled them into the pop charts forty years earlier. Then we recorded a podcast about it.  It was a mixture of genuine review and surreal exaggeration, and it got a great response. At one point I suggested that Georgina had disappeared around the back of the Bob the Builder house at Butlin’s with all five members of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich – and had “pleased them all in special ways.”

One night, Georgina and I wandered into one of the Butlin’s music venues and caught the end of a performance by a legendary band called The Zombies. I pompously explained to Georgina that this was, of course, not the 1960’s line up of the group, and that the band could only achieve the genuine sound of The Zombies if graced by the unique voice of the original lead singer Colin Blunstone. At which point a woman sitting at the table in front of us turned around and announced “This is Colin Blunstone.”  
“I think you’ll find it isn’t,” I smiled confidently.

Being too shy to walk up to the lead singer after the gig and ask him who he was, I asked Georgina to go into Butlin’s Customer Service the following morning and inquire “if there was a Mr Blunstone staying on site.”
“I’m afraid I can’t pass on that information for security reasons,” said the assistant.
“I don’t want to know his room number,” said Georgina. “I just want to know if it’s the real Colin Blunstone or a tribute artist.”
“You might be a stalker,” said the assistant.
“I am not a stalker,” said Georgina.  “Why would I want to stalk a man with dyed hair who is old enough to be my grandfather?”
“I don’t know,” said the assistant, who was now becoming a little annoyed.
“Look,” said Georgina, “If I was going to stalk Colin Blunstone, don’t you think I’d know if he was the real Colin Blunstone, or someone who sounded a bit like Colin Blunstone?  A stalker would know that kind of thing.”
“I’m sorry,” said the assistant, “I can’t help you. Anyway, he checked out this morning.”

In that week’s podcast we offered a Butlin’s teabag as a prize for anyone who could tell us if Colin Blunstone was currently appearing as Colin Blunstone in the UK tour of The Zombies, and one of the listeners sent us a link to the official Colin Blunstone website, featuring a photograph of him singing at Butlin’s that very Saturday night. We asked the listener for his address, so that we could send him the teabag, but he never replied. We still have the teabag.

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An Actors Life for Me

Brian Luff writes…

I like to think that my wildly caricatured impressions of Derek Acorah on the podcast are mildly accurate, but Georgina and I have always prided ourselves on doing impressions of celebrities that sounded absolutely nothing like themselves. Like Georgina’s wild stab at sweet Scottish actress Hannah Gordon, or my dreadful Ray Winstone, who sounds much more like Bob Hoskins.

I’ve never claimed to be able to act. It’s just “Brian trying to do a funny voice”. I did, however, go to Mountview Drama School in my late teens, though sadly not to study acting. I spent most of my time climbing ladders and burning my fingers while attempting to adjust stage lights.

But while I was at Mountview I met an actor who turned out to be something of a mentor in my life – and to whom I know I owe a huge debt in terms of what I’ve been able to achieve since. 

Forbes Collins is probably best known for his role as King John in Tony Robinson’s brilliant and innovative BBC childrens’ series Maid Marion and Her Merry Men. But back in those days Forbes was one of the most prolific fringe theatre directors in London, and a well- known face in many of the best-known television series of the day. Blackadder, Doctor Who, Lovejoy, Minder, Forbes used to pop up in them all.

Meanwhile, he had an extraordinary talent for persuading his fellow actors to take part in numerous hair-brained profit share shows. I think Forbes viewed me as a young prodigy, and he would invariably give me the job of stage manager on these theatrical events. Sometimes, if he was feeling generous, he might even dub me “producer” – but either of these jobs generally meant little more than being in charge of making the tea or going out and buying cigarettes for the cast. If I performed these duties well, I would occasionally be entrusted with the sound desk or even the lighting panel.

Forbes’s big house in Finsbury Park, The White Lodge was regularly filled with an unlikely repertory company of talented people. I can remember sitting wide-eyed in Forbes’s overgrown back garden listening to a seemingly never-ending stream of showbiz tales from his famous friends. Burt Kwouk chatted about filming Return of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers. Don Henderson told of playing General Taggi in Star Wars, and Forbes himself shared his experiences of working with the legendary Franco Zefferelli, in Lew Grade’s Jesus of Nazareth. Forbes actually had a Call Sheet from that movie framed and hanging in his kitchen. It showed his name, in a single scene, alongside Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm and Anthony Quinn.

I remember those days with enormous affection, and I’m sure I was inspired by them. One afternoon, during a break in rehearsals for a Forbes play at Hoxton Hall Theatre, I recall a young actor from the cast sitting at a piano and banging out a couple of songs he’d just written.
“What do you reckon?” he asked.
Everyone seemed to agree that they were quite catchy.
The actor was Richard O’Brien, and the songs were destined to become part of the score for The Rocky Horror Show.

After much nagging, Forbes eventually allowed me to play the occasional small part in his shows. I remember appearing as Nately in his extravagant fringe production of Catch 22, and one Christmas I even got a part in the panto. That holiday season it was Aladdin, and the reason I remember that year so clearly is because the panto was produced by Martin Campbell – a fresh faced lad who would one day direct the James Bond movies Golden Eye and Casino Royale.

So, it’s not difficult to see why I might have been inspired by those early days on the London fringe. For over a decade, Forbes produced spectacular, critically-acclaimed fringe shows with no budget whatsoever. No one ever got paid, and virtually everything on the stage was either begged, borrowed or stolen. But people loved those shows. They adored them because they were inventive and crammed with great ideas and great performances – and that’s what tends to happen with Art when there are no commercial pressures.

Forbes taught me that if you have a little imagination, and unstoppable drive, anything is possible. But the most important commodity on the fringe is the ability to bullshit.

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Memories of Radio Lanzarote

Brian Luff writes…

Ever since my hospital broadcasting days I’ve clearly had something of an obsession with radio. Even when Georgina and I went on holiday to Lanzarote, when we first met, I somehow become embroiled with that island’s curious little radio station.

One evening, we were sitting in the bar of our hotel, listening to the strangled stylings of a local karaoke singer, who we shall call Reg.  He was an ex-pat Brit who had escaped the hurly-burly of being an out of work musician in London, to become an out of work musician in the Canary Islands. After the gig, we got chatting with Reg at the bar, and he invited us to visit his “studio” the next day.
I’ve never been one to spend my holidays slumped next to a swimming pool. Georgina can remain inert for long periods of time, like a sloth on Night Nurse, but I can never keep still for longer than 5 minutes. The idea of relaxing next to a pool for 14 days is a form of torture for me. It was Georgina’s job to soak up the sun, mine to wear a knotted handkerchief on my head and abhor the heat. Close as we are, in many ways Georgina and I are the proverbial chalk and cheese.

The following morning I left Georgina snoozing on a sun lounger, jumped into our hire car, and bumbled off into town. Reg had converted most of his holiday bungalow into a recording studio and was scraping a living writing advertising jingles and emailing them to London. I’m always keen to find shared areas of interest with my drinking buddies, so I scoured my brain to try and find some connection between myself and the music industry.

The only thing I could think of was my own slim involvement in the writing of the theme song for my Channel 4 series, Pets. The subtitle of the series had been “Every dog has its day, but this isn’t it”, so I had suggested to the composers that they write a song called “This Is My Day”.  Andrew scribbled some lyrics, and the boys quickly came up with a brilliant pop track – not dissimilar to the theme music to Friends.

“I wrote a pop song once,” I said proudly to Reg, in the hope of impressing my new musician pal. “Wow,” he said, “What was it called?”
5 minutes later we had downloaded “This Is My Day” from the Pets website and were listening to it over a beer in Reg’s back garden. The track’s sunny, happy atmosphere sounded great in the hot Canaries sun, and Reg suddenly got very excited.
“You could get a big summer hit with this in Lanzarote,” he said. “Come on, I’ll drive you up to the radio station!”
“Can we pick up Georgina on the way?” I asked
“Sure,” said Reg.

UK Away FM was the local English language radio station for Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. “Where exactly is the studio?” Georgina and I asked, as Reg’s ancient car turned off road, and began to drive over increasingly large rocks and boulders.
“It’s up there” he said, and he pointed ahead towards a huge towering volcano. “The views are fantastic,” he said, “You can see the entire island from up there!” Georgina went very pale. “I’m sorry, I really don’t do heights,” she said.

I’d once tried to take Georgina to a press event in a restaurant at the top of a very tall building in London, and she had actually passed up the opportunity of free food and drink, rather than be in such a high place. She was genuinely terrified at the thought of it. It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
“Just drop me here”, she said and leapt out of the car.
 “A radio studio on a volcano?” I said to Reg. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s a dormant volcano,” he said and somehow that made everything normal again.

Half an hour later we pulled up outside a small white building on a sharply inclined red soil slope.
“Why does it have to be up so high?” I asked, almost gasping for oxygen. In reply, Reg pointed to a tiny radio transmitter on the roof of the building. As soon as we were inside, he introduced me to the Station Manager and Head of Programming, Phil.

Phil was a craggy-faced go-getter who got up at the crack of dawn every morning to present the breakfast show. He then spent most of the day bombing around Lanzarote and Fuerteventura selling radio advertising to small local businesses. Then he raced back to the studio and did the drivetime show. The man was practically a one man radio station and he seemed to be making a pretty good living from it. I think Phil may have inspired me more than I know during the formative months of Comedy 365, a few short months later.
Reg waved the CD he’d burned of This Is My Day. 
“I have in my hand,” he said to Phil, “the biggest holiday hit this island has ever heard!”
Phil slid the disc into a CD player. “This is great,” he said. “Can we play it?”
“I guess so,” I said, “As long as you pay all the usual royalties to the guys that wrote it. Including me.” 
“Oh we don’t pay royalties,” smiled Phil. “That’s how we stay in business.” 
“You’re pirates?”
“Of course we’re pirates,” he said. “Would you pay royalties if you ran a radio station in the middle of nowhere?”

I rang London and spoke to the guys who had written the song and to Stacey Smith, who had recorded it. The track had never had any radio play since appearing in the Channel 4 show, and they all seemed think they had nothing to lose.
“Where’s the radio station again?” asked Stacey.
“On top of a volcano in Lanzarote” I said.

An hour later, while Reg and I were driving back to my hotel, he switched on the car radio. Phil was on the air, and he was already playing This Is My Day. Georgina and I were in Lanzarote for another 10 days or so, and every single time we switched on the local radio during that time, they seemed to be playing This is My Day. I was the only record plugger on the planet to get a thousand radio plays and not earn a single buggering penny from it. But that track became the soundtrack to a great holiday. Not that Georgina saw very much of me. I was way too busy playing with my radio chums.

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The Office of the Future

Do you have a dull office job? Do you ever scan through the recruitment web sites, and look longingly at such exciting-sounding roles as Insight Analyst, Media Planner, or Online Strategy Consultant?

They sound thrilling, don’t they? Well, I can set your mind at rest. Because all of these people actually do exactly the same as you do. They sit at their desks all day, bored out of their skulls, in the Office of the Future.

In the Office of the Future people amble into work at precisely 9.34am to immediately discover that someone has either removed the chair from their desk or swapped it for a broken one. They switch on their PC and login as quickly as they can (to make it look as if they’ve been there for ages). Then they slouch off to the kitchen or the canteen and get a chipped mug of instant coffee.

They return to their desk, read a whole load of cc’d emails that are nothing to do with their own particular job, look at their Facebook page and Hotmail for a while, then they go and get another cup of coffee. Maybe a Danish. If they’re lucky enough to smoke, it’s then time to put on their coat and go and stand outside in the rain for ten minutes.

Then they sit down at their desk again and look at their watch, which now reads 9.56am. They check their emails again, discover that no further messages have come in, then look out of the window for twenty minutes. Then they go to the toilet.

Occasionally, a colleague they vaguely know walks past their desk, and they nod to each other, sharing for an instant a kind of universally shared dispair. There is very little conversation. Everything happens silently through the wonder of electronic communication. Because this is the Office of the Future.

Once or twice a day a select group of colleagues scurry into a meeting room lit by uncomfortable flourescent lights and sit talking about things they’re not very interested in, while their less senior colleagues huddle outside the room wishing that they were in the meeting too and wondering what’s going on inside.

In the Office of the Future lunch is taken sitting at your desk. A vacuum-packed sandwich from Tescos, a packet of crisps, and a can of coke. Less considerate staff bring smelly food into the office and fill the workplace with the pungent, lingering smells of fish and chips, tandoori chicken or Chinese takeaway. But no-one complains.

As a welcome lunchtime break from work, employees stare at their PC screens and read the newspapers online or visit any web site they can find that isn’t blocked. If they are really, really desperate, they read the company intranet.

In the Office of the Future it doesn’t matter what your job is because your day is the same as everyone else’s day. The world is filled with miserable people slumped at desks staring blankly at PC screens. Look at them closely. They are dead behind the eyes. Because human beings were not designed for this. We are supposed to be running around in our pants throwing spears at mammoths, not checking emails and staring blankly out of the window.

Before the Office of the Future was invented people still had boring jobs but offices were noisy, lively places. People talked to each other. Papers shuffled. Rubber stamps stamped. Phones rang. Typewriters clattered. Colleagues went to the cafe or the pub at lunchtime. A tea lady called Dolly came around with a cup of tea and a biscuit at 4 o’clock.

And this wasn’t actually very long ago at all. Less than a generation. The future is not as far away as you think it is.

If someone’s phone rings in the Office of the Future it’s usually their mobile. They quickly answer it and then, for some reason, walk as far away from their desk as they possibly can – cowering in a dark corner and whispering into the mouthpiece like a Cold War spy.

Unless that person is very important, of course. If they’re very important they answer their mobile and walk right to the centre of the office talking loudly into their phone at the very top of their voice so that everyone can hear their very important conversation and wish that they were very important as well.

In the Office of the Future many people work from home. Which means that there are often very few people there at all, leaving just a big room full of humming photocopiers and paper shredders. The Office of the Future has almost completely eliminated verbal communication and social interaction and soon it will eliminate people altogether. Which can only be a good thing.

I am writing this blog sitting in the Office of the Future. Someone at the other end of the room is quietly playing “KC and the Sunshine Band” at their desk. I don’t really want to listen to this and I don’t think anyone else wants to either. But no-one complains. Because this is the Office of the Future.

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Adventures with Anti-Depressants

Brian Luff writes…

Like many amateur depressives, I have frequently felt that the world was out to get me. Just me. I got annoyed when the flat was untidy and then even more angry if Georgina tried to tidy it up. I believed that the London Underground system was hot, overcrowded and airless specifically to annoy me. I knew that everyone else in London had to put up with the same thing, but I didn’t notice the other people. 

Life constantly got on top of me, and when I got depressed, I tended to eat way too much. Come to think of it, I tended to eat way too much even if I wasn’t depressed. During the podcast Georgina often made bitchy little sideways references to my weight – which annoyed me intensely, probably making it quite funny to listen to. I suppose deep down she only said it because she was worried. 
“I don’t want to lose you,” she said. Although how she could ever have mislaid a 230 lbs man, I couldn’t imagine.

Georgina used to say she’d love me whether I was 230 lbs or 330 lbs, but I was unclear as to where these very precise parameters come from. Did that mean she’d stop loving me if I tipped the scales at 331 lbs? Or that she’d have walked out on me if I suddenly dropped to a super trim 150 lbs?
“I want your body to have as much energy as your mind,” Georgina said to me once, while we were wandering around the boating lake at Alexandra Palace. “You can endure a mental workout, but you get out of breath running for a bus.”
She was right. I was getting horribly out of shape. But I didn’t think of myself as a fat person. Other people were fat. I was simply a bit overweight.
“You’re stubborn beyond belief,” Georgina said.  “You want everything in the world to be categorised, but you totally refuse to fit into any category yourself.”

Georgina was convinced that it was mainly the fact that I was overweight – my poor self image, if you like – that was one of the main things that made me depressed. I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with that, but Georgina knew me better than anyone, so I took what she said seriously.
What worried me, was if I stopped being depressed I wouldn’t be able to write funny stuff anymore. I’m told this is a common worry among writers with depression, and an awful lot of books have been written on the subject. The British comedian Stephen Fry made an excellent television documentary about it. I know that several years ago, when I briefly took a course of anti-depressant drugs, I was unable to write a word for months. I was at the back end of a particularly unhappy relationship, and I’d gone to see my local GP, who had diagnosed me as suffering from “non-reactive” depression. In other words, the doctor believed I was the kind of person who was liable to get depressed whether I was content with my life or not. It was just a chemical thing in my brain, he thought. I now believe this to be a completely incorrect diagnosis, because when I finally separated from that particular partner my depression lifted almost overnight. It wasn’t the chemicals in my head that had been making me depressed, it was the woman I was living with.

Believing I had a chemical imbalance, the doctor prescribed me with an anti-depressant called Seroxat. I’d never heard of it at the time, but the drug has since become notorious. Seroxat was one of the world’s biggest selling and most successful anti-depressants, and the doctor in question assured me that the drug was “completely non-addictive”.

He was wrong. I, along with thousands of other poor bastards around the globe, soon discovered that Seroxat had a very dark side – thousands of users getting hopelessly hooked on the stuff, and suffering horrific withdrawal symptoms when they tried to come off it. For many it lead to self harm and even suicide. But very little warning of these terrible side effects accompanied the drug. Even doctors, like my own local GP, were initially unaware of the drug’s potentially lethal effects.
Within a few days of taking the stuff, I was unable to work, unable to concentrate on anything more complicated than tying my own shoe laces, and I was as impotent as a eunuch. The last person in the world I wanted to consult was the idiot who had given this stuff to me in the first place, so after a few short weeks I took myself off the drug.

The following day I had to travel abroad for a meeting, and I spent my first night Seroxat free, on my own, in a Sheraton Hotel. It was like that scene in the movie The Wall, when the rock star character, played by Bob Geldof, finally goes completely insane. I chewed my pillow. I banged my head against the wall. I clawed at my own skin. I wept. I laughed. I screamed. I dribbled. For one brief instant, I toyed with jumping out of the window. Luckily the room was double glazed, and the window didn’t open.

I experienced those sensations for about four days afterwards. Even weeks, months later, I continued to suffer dizzy spells and felt sick. I’ve felt depressed many times since that occasion and there is no better incentive to snap out of it than to remember what can happen if you listen to a doctor’s advice and take anti-depressant drugs. I’m convinced that the doctor I visited nearly cost me my life. I’ve had a serious mistrust of all things medical ever since. Which is, I’m sure, far from healthy.