Monday, December 10, 2012

The Way of Dodgy - interview with Math Priest for Lights Go Out

THEY may have recently been described by the NME as “the Chuckle Brothers of Britpop” (a compliment any day in my book), but reformed 90s pop warriors Dodgy were always far more than three cheeky chappies up for a giggle on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. For a start, they have their own philosophy - the Way of Dodgy; at least one commandment on every recording; now numbering in their 30s. They have a pale ale named after them. And a beer. Beat that, Chuckle Brothers.

On top of all that, Dodgy care. A lot. They care about their fans; they care greatly about the music (new album Stand Upright In A Cool Place, out now!), and they care about the way it is presented to their fans in its myriad forms. Let us worship at their feet and allow drummer Math Priest to tell us more...

LightsGoOut: Who does your artwork, and where did you find them?

Math Priest: A psychedelic warrior called Russell Hardman ( Like most things to do with this album, we started working together in quite an organic way. Besides being a cosmic pioneer, he's also an art teacher, and he used to teach the daughter of a great friend of ours, Robin Evans, who helped produce the album.

Russell was a big fan of ours when he was a kid and I think we helped form his psychedelic mind, if you know what I mean ,*wink*.

My brother was the designer for the band back in the 90s and Russell is a massive fan of his work. so we made sure that my bro was on hand for inspiration and approval 

LGO: How much input into the look and feel of Dodgy’s artwork do you have as band members?

MP: Well, everything has to be approved by all of us, which can be a shitty process for the artist as two of us could like something, and then it gets rejected by the third member.

It happened with the cover for Stand Upright In A Cool Place. Russell had designed this really unique-looking sleeve with a penguin on the front and we all approved it, but then Nigel [Clark, singer] changed his mind a few weeks later. This quite understandably infuriated Russell, but Nigel was right to question it as Russell came back with an even better sleeve. I'd even go so far as to say it's an absolute classic album sleeve. One of the greats.

LGO: Nowadays have you got more control over artwork and suchlike than you did back in the 90s when you were on a major label, or did you always have an input? 

MP: We've always had final say on the artwork but as my brother, who was a highly regarded designer back then, was doing the design, we kinda trusted him. He'd known the band from the beginning and totally understood our ethos and where we were coming from. In fact, his ideas and designs were integral to the whole image and vibe of the band.

Within the band, Andy [Miller, guitarist] is very artistic, he has a good eye. And quite an attractive forearm. 

LGO: Which are your fave album and single covers from your catalogue?

MP: My fave album cover has to be this new one, I can stare at it for hours, in fact I have. You can meditate with it. Closely followed by the sleeve to the Ace A's and Killer B's best of; we employed a horticulture school to plant the flowers - it took a bit of planning that one. Sad times, though.

For a single, nothing beats our first-ever sleeve for Summer Fayre/St Lucia back in 1991.

LGO: Your CD booklets have often been quite fun [1994’s Homegrown aptly featured instructions on how to build the perfect spliff] - do you think the CD format is one that works well with good artwork, or do you prefer good old vinyl-size covers?

MP: Of course nothing beats an old LP sleeve but the trick with CDs was about being creative with the restrictions. I like discovering new things every time you pick up the CD.

LGO: Tell us about the Way of Dodgy.

MP: My brother was always a spiritual soul, always trying to find some kind of inner-peace, though he did used to search for it in the strangest places :-)

The Ways of Dodgy appeared on every release since the single Water Under The Bridge in 1993 and were started by him really, so he could dispense some of his little aphorisms. Some made you think, some were just plain silly. We used to chip in with quite a few, my favourites were:

The Way of Dodgy No. 2: The only thing that you should worship, is the ground you walk upon
The Way of Dodgy No. 18a: The only nation you should have pride in is your imagination

LGO: Seeing as you’re appearing in the hallowed pages of LightsGoOut... are you a little bit punk?

MP: Absolutely, Nige was a punk. That's how we bonded in the early days - I would introduce him to lots of soul like Sly and The Family Stone and he would introduce me to The Clash and the Ruts. I had to draw the line on some of the stuff he liked as I felt you kinda had to be there, like Crass, Subhumans etc. But that mistrust of authority that Nige got from punk has certainly permeated everything Dodgy has done.

As for a modern punk band, I fucking love Cerebral Ballzy. Are they punk? [I dunno... Mr T, are they punk?]

Catriona Reeves

  • First published in Lights Go Out issue 17, June 2012. To buy a real papery copy and for loads more punk zine fun, visit

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Small, and very funny - interview with Roman Stefanski, producer of Charlie & Lola's Best Bestest Play

THE HAYMARKET in Basingstoke is currently bringing Lauren Child’s much-loved characters Charlie and Lola to life through the magic of puppetry for a pre-Christmas treat for under sixes.

The director for the BBC Worldwide and Polka Theatre production of Charlie & Lola’s Best Bestest Play, ROMAN STEFANSKI, told CATRIONA REEVES how he took on the challenge of bringing the delightful siblings’ visually lush and “very funny” world view from the page and television screen to the stage.

CATRIONA REEVES: How did you go about adapting such beloved stories for the stage?

ROMAN STEFANSKI: Playwright Jonathan Lloyd and I knew that we wanted to create a show which was an exciting and engaging piece of theatre and one which was instantly recognisable to its young audience. Children can be the most demanding and the most rewarding audiences but they do know what they like and you don’t mess around with their favourite stories.

Having said that, children are also sometimes more adventurous than adults – for example, they instantly accept that you see the puppeteers as well as the puppets.  Seeing an actor behind a puppet doesn’t stop youngsters completely entering into the world of the show – children call out to Charlie or Lola, comment on the action, warn them what’s about to happen and so on.

CR: The show has been created for the under-sixes who know Charlie and Lola from the Lauren Child books and CBeebies. How do you ensure that they identify the puppets as “their” Charlie and Lola?

RS: One of the big decisions we made, early on, was to use a recorded sound track which was created by the child actors who voice the tv show.  Again, it’s all about recognisability and those two voices are the ones which thousands of Charlie and Lola fans identify with.

CR: Do the puppeteers enjoy working on the show?

RS: We’ve been doing it for four or five years now, and over time quite a few actor/puppeteers have worked on it.  They love the show and the reaction they get from audiences and quite often they’ll work with us for a while, then go away and then come back again. For example, Ruth Calkin, who is Bat Cat in Basingstoke, went off to work on a big tour of In The Night Garden but has come back to join Charlie and Lola.

Puppetry requires a very high degree of skill – not just dexterity but acting skills as well – if you don’t enter into the spirit of the show, and the character you’re presenting, it wouldn’t be a success.

CR: Is it particularly challenging to produce a show for very young children?

RS: The show works on all kinds of levels – the older children see more subtleties and recognise stories they know but often we find parents bring along young siblings who just enjoy the lights and the music, even if they don’t fully follow the stories.

We do include one slightly scary story, from the books and the tv series – the story of Lola and the Ogre – but it all ends happily!

Charlie & Lola’s Best Bestest Play, presented by Watershed Productions, runs at The Haymarket until Friday, December 15. Tickets are priced £10 and £12.  Discounts are available, including for parents and childminders who may wish to attend as a group.  For more information or for tickets, call the Anvil Arts box office on (01256) 844244,  Or use the Anvil Arts website

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on December 7, 2012

Nights to remember - review of Arabian Nights at The Watermill Theatre

Arabian Nights at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Thursday, November 22 2012 to Sunday, January 6, 2013

ABSOLUTELY everything that children and grown-ups could wish for from a Christmas show is at play in The Watermill’s production of Arabian Nights. Storytelling, music, audience interaction, jokes, stunning costumes and scenery and plenty of sparkle are combined into a mesmerising two hours of pure entertainment.

Based on the collection of Arabian folk tales of the same name, the six cast members played King Dara Al-Saeed, his unfortunate wife Princess Cyra (based on the royal couple Shahryar and Scheherazade in the original text), The Hakawati (storyteller), and the princess’s three slaves. Locked in a dungeon on her wedding night, Princess Cyra (Amanda Wilkin) and her entourage tell stories to the king (the stunningly handsome Tarek Merchant) in the hope of saving their lives and melting his ice-cold heart.

Lesser-known tales from the Nights, such as The Fisherman and The Jinni and The Prince & The Tortoise (with its undertones of Cinderella and culinary educational facts about roz bil halib - “a delicious rice pudding flavoured with pistachios) were presented along with the better-known Aladdin (pronounced authentically as Ala ad-Din). This story provided an opportunity for some self-referential pantomime moments, with the princess taking on the principal boy role,  characters being transported by Jinni to “the most desolate place on earth - Swindon” and the audience being encouraged to boo the baddy, before being slapped down sharply with “this isn’t The Corn Exchange”.

The princess, storyteller (Kit Orton) and slaves (Morgan Philpott, Rosalind Steele and Samantha Sutherland) threw themselves enthusiastically into their playlets (as you probably would if you had a potential death sentence hanging over you), scrabbling for props in the surprisingly well-stocked dungeon to bring the tales to life, and bickering over their roles. Princess Cyra was prepared to take the role of the “large and ugly” tortoise who found herself married to a prince, with her handmaidens relishing the parts of the preening sisters-in-law who mistreat her. It appears that all are equal when your head might end up on a pole.

As with many Watermill productions, the cast members played their own instruments, performing rollicking songs by composer Simon Slater (the musical director was King Dara himself Tarek Merchant. Talented as well as handsome...). The palace set was relatively simple, giving ample space for the story tellers to create their tales, and there was less scenary-clambering than in some past Christmas shows; but nothing was lost for this, and much was gained.

Arabian Nights (written by Toby Hulse and directed by Robin Belfield, returning to The Watermill for his third Christmas) pulled together a myriad of themes - many nods to the original text’s alternative title of One Thousand And One Nights (telling the whole story would have made for a very long performance); the power of storytelling to allow the listener to discover themselves; the fact that we are all in a story of our own; and the richness of the legends and traditions of a part of the world which may hold some trepidation and misunderstanding for some children.

Overarching all though, is a sense of fun and mischief, and it is never forgotten that this is a treat for all, albeit one that is as rich, nourishing and satisfying as the roz bil halib - so “loved throughout all Arabia”. If I dare say it, having seen a fair few of The Watermill’s Christmas shows over the last decade, Arabian Nights is among the best ever. A shimmering box of eastern delights worthy of a place in Aladdin’s cave of wonders.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on November 29, 2012

Packham in - review of Chris Packham

Chris Packham Goes Totally Wild at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Monday, November 19, 2012

HE may have a rather worrying fondness for poo, but naturalist Chris Packham has a passion for wildlife, a talent for photography and a way of conveying his love and knowledge of nature with infectious enthusiasm.

Packham’s touring show focusses on a collection of his latest photographic images: some taken in the most stunning of environments, such as Antarctica and the South American rainforest; others in his own garden and nearby countryside in Hampshire. 

Even these aren’t exactly the easiest of images to capture though - in a bid to transform common British birds into ornithological pinups, he set up various contraptions and scenery  to capture them at their most stunning - using a garden hose to create “rain”, breaking a hole in a glass sheet and training a blue tit to poke its head through by tempting it with peanuts.

And his attempts to capture starlings at their most stunning end in frustration time and again - “this would be a fabulous picture if it wasn’t for that bird’s wing getting in the way...”.

Packham isn’t a proponent of getting back to nature in all its most basic forms: “Why would anyone want to camp in the New Forest? There are some lovely B&Bs...”, and his stories of the various discomforts of communal living while on location with various scientists, naturalists and film crew; none of which seem to be as fussy as him about keeping things civilised, kept the stories lively.

Saying that, Packham isn’t adverse to putting himself through some discomfort in a bid to pull off the perfect shot; as demonstrated by his five-day shoot immersed in chilly water, photographing damselflies - “I would like to have taken longer over it, but I had other work commitments”. The resulting images were breathtakingly stunning, and combined well with some pretty interesting observations about damselfly behaviour, partly gleaned through the “friendship” Packham formed with one particular male during his stakeout.

Packham confessed that he was a perfectionist who was critical of his own photographs and would never be truly satisfied with any single image; being particularly obsessed with the search for symmetry. He admitted that occasionally he has resorted to digital trickery to help nature along a little - such as in a stunning photograph of a pure-white snow petrel flying past a swag of icicles in Antarctica - and he is quite happy to encourage creatures to perch exactly where he wants them in order to get the best focus, angle and background.

But of course, nothing in nature can be dictated to, and it is clearly this element of uncertainty that provides the challenge that Packham so relishes. I rather hope that he never takes his perfect photograph - it would be a pity if he then gave up the quest.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on November 29, 2012

Noises off - review of Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes: Life Becomes Noises, at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, on Saturday, November 17

IF ever a comedian could change the way he is perceived by his audiences, Sean Hughes has succeeded with his current show, Life Becomes Noises. In fact, revisiting my rather snotty review of his rather disastrous 2010 stand-up visit to Newbury (when his selection of a wholly inappropriate local news story to lampoon drew complaints), I could barely believe that this was the same performer.

The catalyst for Hughes' current show - a staged production rather than pure stand-up - was the death of his father last year, inspiring Hughes to dissect his thoughts and feelings regarding his father and their relationship, the manner of his passing, and his own life and mortality.

Hughes said that rather than the show being a cathartic exercise to help him deal with his grief, he wanted it to be his tribute to his father presented in a format - ie comedy - that would have made him proud. 

Possibly not surprisingly though, it was comedy with a very dark edge. Apart from the gallows humour with which the very subject of death is naturally tinged, Hughes did not shy away from presenting his father with the foibles that made him human - a hard drinking gambler whose return from the pub was not always fully welcomed by his family.

And then there was Hughes' introspection into his own sense of being - a man in the image of his father, both physically and in essence of being, there were flashes of his own inner demons, and struggles which may not have yet been fully concluded.

As on his last Newbury appearance, Hughes was sometimes candidly frank with his audience, not just about himself, but regarding issues he has identified with individual audience members. It’s as if the inner voice that says “Sean, don’t say that” is missing - or he’s just really good at ignoring it.

The difference this time round was the manner with which he dealt with these more challenging utterances - more apologetic if he felt he had gone too far, he dealt out gentle high fives and hugs with the acerbic asides. The approach seemed to be about celebrating the failings that make him, and all of us human- and identifying and embracing those “kettle in the garden” moments when our minds go a little off-piste; and we find ourselves standing in the garden, with the kettle in our hands, wondering what we were inending to do with it.

Challenging then, in parts, the show was also life-affirming and emotive as a reminder of mortality and the acceptance of loss - and that we should all tell our dads that we love them while we still can. 

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on November 22, 2012

Piff, paff, puff - review of Piff the Magic Dragon

Piff the Magic Dragon at New Greenham Arts, Newbury on Thursday, November 8, 2012

IS he a magician? Is he a comedian? No... Piff is a dragon. The clue is in the name. Durrr.

He’s a rather grumpy dragon as it happens: emotionally scarred by his ex-wife; a petulant assistant on community service, and a love-hate relationship with sidekick Mr Piffles, an adorable Chihuahua, who gets far more attention than poor beleaguered Piff. And don’t mention his famous older brother - Steve. Sore point, that one.

Piff (real name John Van der Put - that took a bit of Googling to find out) performs magic mainly with two aims - firstly, to snare his very own princess (the dream of all dragons) by submitting an audience member to various fairy tale challenges, and secondly, to subject Mr Piffles to any number of death-inevitable stunts without invalidating his life insurance.

Piff is pretty good at the old magic thing, particularly when it comes to card and close-up tricks - as anyone who saw him attempting (and only just failing) to fool Penn & Teller on their ITV show could testify. He can also make the ever-obliging Mr Piffles disappear, and then resurrect him as a two-dimensional postable version.

But it’s the incongruous combination of his dragon get-up and a deadpan comedic style that makes Piff a little bit special. The children’s entertainer veneer of his act seems to make audience members particularly willing to participate both on stage and off, and even add to the comedy with their own responses to the whimsy. However, this is by no means a children’s act, with Piff having a distinct dark side as he enacts revenge on his ex-wife, and treats both Mr Piffles and stroppy assistant Amy Sunshine with weary disdain.

Piff didn’t find his princess in New Greenham Arts; his quest continues. If you see him on his travels, you’re welcome to give the delightful Mr Piffles a pat on the head - but do give Piff a little tickle under the chin as well. Dragons thrive on the attention. 

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on November 15, 2012

Really Wild - interview with Chris Packham

WITH Autumnwatch wrapped up for another year, and the rest of the BBC Natural History Unit preparing for hibernation, the whirlwind of naturalist energy that is CHRIS PACKHAM is Totally Wild out on tour. CATRIONA REEVES tracked him down walking his dogs, to discover more about this rare and exotic creature.

CATRIONA REEVES: A week after Autumnwatch is off our screens, and you’re on a live theatre tour. Didn’t you fancy a bit of a rest first?

CHRIS PACKHAM: I don’t stop working - you’ve only got one life, and I plan to sleep when I’m dead and eat just before. 

The theatre show is a talk about various species I have encountered and experiences I have had, all illustrated with photos I have taken in various parts of the world; exotic species from pole to pole, from Antarctica to the rainforests, and some in my garden, and within 20 minutes of my house in Hampshire.

Ultimately, when it comes to photography, the best subjects are on your doorstep. I enjoy stretching myself to take the most imaginative pictures possible in my back garden.

The New Forest is where my heart is; it’s where I grew up and where I am most comfortable in the environment. I enjoy exploring but I am made of this place. It’s where I foraged as a kid and learnt my trade as a naturalist.

CR: What started your love of nature as a child, aside from the local countryside?

CP: When I was young, I was given a set of Brooke Bond tea cards featuring tropical birds that my grandmother had collected, and it became a great source of inspiration and longing to see al the weird and wonderful birds featured on the cards.

If we want to continue to ignite this sort of passion young people we need to get them out into the  countryside to see it, smell it and touch it. Kids these days are not allowed to fall out of trees or make camps for fear of what might happen to them. We’ve turned the countryside into a dark, dangerous place, where kids are extinct.

There’s an element of risk involved in everything we do, and if we don’t let them explore, it’s going to have a massive negative impact in the future.  If you really don’t feel you can let your kids out on their own, then get out into the countryside with them, and discover it together.

CR: Do you already see that restriction on freedom to explore impacting on the next generation of naturalists?

CP: I’ve met naturalists who’ve been to university but can’t identify every British butterfly or common bird species . Universities have to run identification courses to teach their students the basics. It’s terribly sad, but it’s not their fault - it’s their parents’ fault.

As we speak, I can hear a blackbird chattering - I happen to know that there’s a tawny owl round here, so that’s probably what’s disturbing the blackbird. I got that knowledge because of spending so much time out here. There’s so much that you can’t learn in the library or on the internet. Skills and knowledge will die off.

CR: You have been at the forefront of the current campaign to prevent the proposed badger cull in order to prevent the spread of TB in cattle - are you relieved that plans have been put on hold?

CP: In my heart, I hope that this is a way of easing us into another u-turn, and the cull will never happen - if it isn’t, I will pick up the baton again, and continue to campaign against it.

If the cull was going to work, I would grit my teeth and let them get on with it, because we need to support our farmers and agriculture. But science shows that it won’t work.

We need to focus on finding a vaccine for the cattle that works, and allow vaccinated produce to be sold. We should have been doing that for the last 20 years. But instead, to do something wholly destructive to British wildlife that won’t even stop TB in cattle is absurd. If the cull goes ahead, it will be a triumph of ignorance.

CR: Are you concerned about the ash tree dieback that’s currently killing ash trees across   Europe, and has now spread to the UK?

CP: I think we will lose ash trees to the disease, just as we lost the elm trees a few decades ago, because the fungus that’s destroying them knows what it’s doing. But nature is dynamic, and there will be winners as well as losers - woodpeckers and wood burrowing beetles will have a bonanza for a few years. And as long as the dying trees are allowed to rot - which takes about 50 years - rather than cut down and burnt, they will provide a great ecological advantage to the environment.

It’s very sad that we will lose such characterful trees, but nature is a constant and active struggle.

CR: Oh dear, this is all getting a bit gloomy - can we end this interview on a cheery note?

CP: One of the things I’ll be talking about in the show is my trip to Brazil last year to make a video for Velvet, the toilet tissue manufacturer, which has a ‘Three Trees Promise' to plant three trees for every one that it uses. Two of the trees are planted in Scandinavia, where they harvest, but in the third one is planted in Brazil, where they are working with the government to  replenish huge areas of rainforest.

The scale of it is amazing - three million trees planted in one place.It’s a great piece of corporate co-operation with conservation. Much as I feel that I have a duty to comment when things are going wrong, I also like to show that we do have the ability to put things right.

  • First published on Newburytoday (, November 2012

Old Hamilton's game - review of Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, September 8, 2012

HE’S a little bit taller than Sandi Toksvig - that isn’t saying much; but comedy performer and writer Andy Hamilton has a big personality that effortlessly filled the sold out Corn Exchange with much amusement and pleasure, perfectly targeted at an audience mainly comprising Radio 4 listeners.

Starting with an apology and explanation of why he had to reschedule his Newbury date from May - “I had viral gastro enteritis - I could have done the show, but only if a live feed could be set up from my toilet”, Hamilton’s show was certainly worth the four-month wait.

Possibly best known for playing Satan in his long-running BBC Radio 4 sitcom Old Harry’s Game, Hamilton’s show was entitled Hat of Doom (referring to a hat filled with random topics which he could then talk about during the show), but in person, he is extremely un-satanic, conveying much warmth with his wit.

There was a little bit of audience participation, but nothing too uncomfortable (apart from the inability of anyone in the room willing to attempt an impression of a taser gun being fired - giving Hamilton much amusement at our parochial naivety), some fun and games, a silly song, and a Q &A session (I am kicking myself for forgetting to ask him to do his Dr Elephant voice; the character he plays in Peppa Pig). 

All lovely stuff; that's not to say that a little bit of politics didn’t come into it, but the show wasn’t as overtly topical as those who know Hamilton from various radio and television current affairs panel shows might expect - it was more like a anecdotal performance of the sort of true stories and experiences which inspire his radio and television scriptwriting.

In particular, his musings on family life suggested that he didn’t have to look too far from his own home in the writing of BBC sitcom Outnumbered; with the tale of the little girl who picked up more than grouting tips when playing “builder’s mate”, and a wonderful relaying of an unfortunate experience when he and his wife were faced with an angry hippo in Kenya.

But you can’t keep an acerbic topical wit suppressed entirely, and there were some wonderful, gossipy nuggets thrown in unexpectedly, including a fabulous titbit about Jeffery Archer which I would love to repeat here, but won’t - Hamilton is already in enough trouble with the Cornish for something he said about them on a panel show, so I don’t want to make things worse.

With this being Hamilton’s first ever touring show (I wouldn’t have guessed), he has nearly 40 years as a comedy writer and performer to draw material from; and the random elements mean that it is quite likely that seeing him again could draw out an entirely different set of anecdotes. I am seriously tempted to see him again at The Concert Hall in Reading on September 30 - although that is another show rescheduled from May, there are still tickets available. If you weren’t able to see Hamilton at The Corn Exchange on Saturday, I urge you to go. Especially if you’re a Radio 4 listener.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 13, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

A woman who wobbles but doesn't fall down - Interview with Francesca Martinez

STAND-UP comedian FRANCESCA MARTINEZ is witty, pithy and a little bit “wobbly” - and she’s on a mission to get people asking “What The *** Is Normal?!” She spoke to CATRIONA REEVES about how she uses comedy to get across a serious point - but why it’s still important to have a laugh.

Catriona Reeves: In creating your show, do you think you’ve come to a conclusion about what is “normal”?

Francesca Martinez: The show is pretty personal; being born “wobbly” [Martinez has mild cerebral palsy] I’ve always had a really intense relationship with “normal”. It particularly haunted me during my teenage years, when I desperately wanted to fit in. 

Eventually, I realised that I’ve never met a “normal” person in my life - where are they?  That realisation changed my life. We are all different, and different is normal. I’m interested in challenging the labels we stick on each other. 

There’s so much pressure on people to fit  in; the media encourages paranoia so we go out and buy stuff  we don’t need. If we were happy and fulfilled, we’d realise that a handbag won’t change our lives. Everyone kind of knows that it’s all rubbish, but it’s hard to resist unless you fully question society’s values. My show is an antidote to that way of thinking.

The best thing in my life is my family. They always told me to think for myself, never considered me disabled, and were never disappointed or in mourning for the “normal child” I “could” have been. But despite that, I began to adapt society’s view of me. Eventually, I realised that I had to make my own mind up. I realised that that I’m not wrong, I’m not disabled - I’m just me.

The nature of standup encouraged me to think differently, because strangers are paying to listen to me - I still can’t get over that; it’s a privilege in a way. I want to leave them with something beyond laughter. That’s why I love comedy - you can say really important things that challenge people and allow them to leave with a more open mind.

CR: If you had the choice, would you rather not be “wobbly”?

FM: That’s an impossible question to answer. It’s more than just a physical thing; it’s like asking if I would want to be someone else. Everything in our lives affects us, and a huge part of my personality has been shaped by being wobbly. So, no - I like who I am and what being wobbly has given me. I’m also very happy not to have to do the housework.

I think that developing a degenerative condition or becoming suddenly disabled is more challenging than my wobbliness, because for me it’s predictable and I’ve never not had it. I find people with those other conditions incredible because they so often retain such positivity. Disability brings out the choice in you to appreciate life and get as much out of it as possible, or to lie in a heap on the floor. I certainly had that point in my life where I made that choice, but I can only talk about my own experience.

CR: You’ve made some strong points in the media since the Paralympics about the Government’s approach towards disability. Are you still incensed about the issue?

FM: All this positive talk is a bunch of lies, when at the same time they are dismantling benefits and condemning a lot of disabled people to a life which is harder and scarier. We need to stand up against it, as it’s an issue that could potentially affect everyone - anyone could be hit by a bus tomorrow.

Disabled people can lead useful and productive lives, but they often need help or support to get there. I want to see my taxes funding the NHS and benefits, things that make the world better, not weapons of mass destruction.

It was so galling seeing their attitude during the Paralympics; they didn’t seem to consider that most of the athletes probably needed State help at some point to get where they are.

CR: You appeared ‘on the panel of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz recently. How scary was that?

FM: I wasn’t scared at all, actually. Standup is a really good training for giving anything a go, so after years of doing live comedy, anything else isn’t hard in comparison. Getting booked for The News Quiz was a great chance to show that I can be funny when talking about other stuff, not just about disability.

Everyone was really friendly - I’m good friends with Jeremy Hardy, who was on with me, anyway, and he was lovely. It’s not rocket science, having a bit of banter about the news. I found it really fun. What I do isn’t really working for a living; I always try to have that perspective, and that helps with not being nervous.

CR: Would you like to do the television panel shows? You started out as an actress on Grange Hill in the 90s, and have been on television since then in various acting roles and as a serious commentator on disability issues - but you haven’t yet made that breakthrough into TV comedy. Is this a bit of a bugbear?

FM: As the first wobbly woman in comedy, the doors to TV seem to be shut because they haven’t had to be opened before. I can get on serious shows, but producers seem to have a problem with seeing comedy and disability mixing, because they see disability as a “serious” subject. But I’ve spent my whole adult life doing comedy, and I think that the producers are really underestimating the public, who only actually care if you’re funny, and also like it if you’re a bit different.

It’s true that comedy is still very male dominated, but the live circuit is a lot more diverse than TV comedy, which has a very narrow representation of that. There’s still quite a long way to go. The Paralympics showed that people like diversity; emotions were heightened and it was more unpredictable than the mainstream Olympics. People are fascinated and curious - they want to know more. It’s human nature, and TV hasn’t grasped that quite yet, and is still wary.

CR: The theme of your current live show means that the issue of disability runs through it - do you think that you’ll ever write a show that doesn’t mention it?

FM: I always thought that I didn’t talk about disability; I talked about my life experiences and views. I’m always going to be wobbly, and I don’t want not to mention it. Disability covers a huge range of issues, but I don’t so much talk about them as just talk about myself, the same as any comic would do. I’ve never thought that I don’t want to be honest about who I am.

My last show was very political and a lot less personal; more about politics, religion and the media. I enjoyed talking about things that have nothing to do with my life, but I’ll always cherish the element of being personal because that’s where the real power of comedy lies.

In this current show, there’s a lot about me falling in love for the first time, and that’s nothing to do with me being wobbly; it’s just about me.

* Francesca Martinez brings What The **** Is Normal?! to Pegasus Theatre in Oxford on Saturday, November 17.

* First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 8, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Poptastic fun - Frisky & Mannish review

Frisky & Mannish at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on October 3, 2012

I HOPE Frisky & Mannish realise that they impressed me so much on their first visit to Newbury, at New Greenham Arts last October, that not only have I broken my own golden rule about not seeing the same act twice within two years, but I have actually planned this write-up within 12 months of the last one specifically to spread the word about their twinklesome fabulousness. I even missed Red Dwarf legend Norman Lovett at Arlington Arts on the same night for this pair Now, that’s devotion.

This all for a musical comedy twosome who I first dismissed as a “bit pants” on seeing them as part of BBC Three’s Edinburgh Fringe coverage. But lo - on seeing them live, the scales fell from my eyes, and I realised that well known pop songs reworked by a delightfully flamboyant pair of Oxford University graduates (Laura Corcoran and Matthew Floyd Jones) is not only the future of comedy, but the future of pop music.

Their current tour, Extra Curricular Activities, sees an upgrade of venue size - in Newbury’s case, from NGA to The Corn Exchange - and a setlist which mixes the best bits of their previous shows with some new material which proves they still have their fingers firmly on the pop pulse. While their previous tour, Popcentre Plus, had something of a cod-educational bent to it, Extra Curricular Activities goes all out for greatest hits-style fun; cramming in as many pastiches as possible, from Cheryl (Cole, as was, until she recently decided she was famous enough to drop the surname entirely) to Karen Carpenter, and Dizzy Rascal to the Bee Gees.

F&M’s talent (apart from the chameleon-like vocal talents of Corcoran, Floyd Jones’ snake-like hips, and an overall fantabulous sense of style, of course) is spotting the similarities between performers or songs from entirely different genres, making them unlikely musical bedfellows, and then taking the idea and running with it until the audience twig that they were in fact right all along, and in fact the link between the disparate performers should be blindingly obvious. And so, the Phantom Of The Opera-like “mentor” of sultry poppet Lana del Rey was revealed to be the barrel-voiced singer of Canadian one hit wonders Crash Test Dummies; and “X Factor reject” Diana Vickers to be the unexpected vocal lovechild of 90s Community Service dodger Mark Morrison.

The F&M concept of “pop” was widened for this show with an educational glimpse into the world of Made In Chelsea for audience members who hadn’t seen it (all but one, it turned out; and the F&M precis was more than enough), and an insightful interview with Cheryl (the one who was Cole). Lots of life-affirming fun, enforced audience dancing and game-for-anything volunteers. Everyone should have a little bit of F&M in their lives; and on Saturday night, The Corn Exchange certainly did.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on October 18, 2012

Show me more - Chris & Pui Roadshow review

The Chris and Pui Roadshow, at The Anvil, Basingstoke, on Saturday, September 22, 2012

CHRIS Jarvis and Pui Fan Lee have been stalwarts of the BBC channel for under sixes, CBeebies since its launch in 2002, and worked on pre-school programmes before that (Lee was Po, the red Teletubby); so they are a dead cert when it comes to knowing exactly what makes little people tick.

As a result, their live show - featuring toys and characters from their current CBeebies programme Show Me Show Me - grabs and holds the attention of pre-schoolers for far longer than most theatrical productions. Unusually for a show aimed at very young children, it even had an interval - and yes, the audience did come back for more.

Fast paced, but not terrifyingly loud or colourful, the show crammed in seemingly hundreds of nursery rhymes, songs, counting, charactes and costumes, presented with such tender care by the extremely likeable Jarvis and Lee (or “Show Me and Show Me”, as my two year old calls them) that the concept of two television favourites appearing live on stage in front of them didn’t seem to phase the young audience.

I have a bit of a personal aversion to nursery rhymes, but there’s something so appealing about this twosome that I found myself joining in with the actions to “The Wheels On The Bus” and “Wind The Bobbin Up” with more enthusiasm than I expected; and with plenty of panto-style cheesy jokes thrown in for the grown ups and older siblings who may have come along, I found myself as involved as  the little ones.

I’ve seen plenty children’s shows over the years with my son, and with my daughter having the attention span of a gnat, I wasn’t particularly desperate to start it all again too early. However, if the sparkling quality of Jarvis and Lee’s live show rubs off on other productions for pre-schoolers, I’ll be more than happy to brave the theatre with her on a regular basis. She spotted a poster for a live Ben & Holly production on the way out, so I suspect I’ll be back in an auditorium with her before the year is out.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on October 4, 2012

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A funny valentine - review of Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Saturday, September 15

COMEDIANS often rave about the warm and friendly atmosphere at The Anvil, but Sandi Toksvig’s visit  generated such a tangible glow of love radiating towards her from the audience, that she probably could have spent the whole show explaining the rules of Mornington Crescent (the unfathomable parlour game played on I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue) and still have been adored by every person present.

In fact, Toksvig gave us much more than that. Entitled “My Valentine”, the loose theme was a love letter from Toksvig to life; what inspires her to still find “delight in the day”. Much of her daily pleasures arise unexpectedly via her wholehearted love of books - not just literature of quality, but the fun to be had from dubious book titles, and a gem about the rules of golf during wartime, found while thumbing through an old golfing almanac (“A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty, one stroke.”)

It is no wonder that Toksvig has little trouble finding ideas for her novels, the most recent of which is Valentine Grey, and she explained the various inspirations for the plot, including the several women who are known to have disguised themselves as male soldiers (and many who were probably never discovered), and the horrors of the generally forgotten Boer War at the turn of the 20th century.

Toksvig’s anecdotes included touching tales about Toksvig’s late “showbiz husband” Alan Coren “We used to lie on his hotel bed eating burgers... it was like being an old married couple without the sex - hang on, that is being an old married couple”, her long-term friendship with John McCarthy, dating back to before he was taken hostage in the Lebanon, and her parents, who met at the BBC - “I have the BBC running through my veins”.

It was interesting to hear in Toksvig’s voice, not just the hint of Denmark of her birth which I always suspected bubbled just under the surface of her clipped English accent, but also the broad New York drawl which she brought to the UK as a teenager after years living in the USA. Such a globetrotting past hasn’t stopped Toksvig from becoming a truly British institution, but her description of Danish as a “peasant language with one word to describe one thing - although we have lots of words for ‘herring’” may go some way to explain her love of the intricacies and delights of the English language.

However, it was fun to learn some Danish essentials - if I am ever in Denmark to find that I have been made king, and need to convey my love of strawberries, I am sorted. There was also audience participation with a Q&A session, a silly little history quiz (I say “silly” only because I got knocked out on the first round) with the prize being not the expected signed copy of Valentine Grey, but a Moleskine notebook, beloved of many writers, to allow the winner to begin her “own writing journey”. 

The evening’s fun rounded off with a mass audience conducting of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, commissioned by The Philharmonic Society of London in 1817 for £50 - “surely the best 50 quid ever spent”. I suspect everyone in the audience felt the same about the £18.50 they spent on their tickets.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 22, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Show and tell - interview with Chris Jarvis

LOVED by pre-schoolers and their mums alike, CHRIS JARVIS has been a stalwart of CBeebies since its launch, alongside current Show Me Show Me co-presenter Pui Fan Lee. CATRIONA REEVES spoke to him about the pair’s live tour, The Chris and Pui Roadshow

CATRIONA REEVES: Show Me Show Me reminds me of the classic Children’s BBC show Playschool - is that intentional?

CHRIS JARVIS: Completely - Show Me Show Me is the direct descendent of Playschool, which led on to Playdays, and then Tikkabilla. It’s the longest show on the channel, and fulfils the remit of presenting a variety of items, giving more time to explore them. When I was a kid, there was only 20 minutes of pre-school programming a day - now they have a whole channel, with the variety that offers. But I still think that there’s a place in there for a show like Show Me Show Me.

Show Me Show Me is about showing, exploring and encouraging children to think about the world; because of course, everything is new to them. It’s a real challenge; it may look simple and daft, but the educationalists involved in the science behind it are amazing. My parents were teachers, and I find that side of things fascinating. CBeebies is truly a centre of excellence in the BBC; it’s chock-full of talent and knowledge.

CR: You and Pui have worked together since CBeebies was launched in 2002, first as the main channel presenters, and now on Show Me Show Me. Why do you think you work so well together?

CJ: Pui comes from a drama school and acting background - she was Po in Teletubbies - while I came from performing at Butlins - a great training ground - , via the Broom Cupboard [Children’s BBC’s tiny presenting studio in the 80s and 90s]. I enjoyed that, but felt that pre-school television was more in my comfort zone than interviewing popstars. I was really lucky to meet Pui, because she’s brilliant, and brings an entirely different set of skills, so it works really well together as a professional partnership.

CR: You’ve written quite a lot of songs for various CBeebies shows over the years. Is that something you particularly enjoy?

CJ: I’ve always liked songwriting, but in the early days of CBeebies it was done out of necessity because the budget was so small. I’m writing this year’s CBeebies panto at the moment, and the BBC Philharmonic are involved, which is really exciting.

I’m not the greatest musician, but I think it’s so important to have music and people playing instruments  and showing how they work, to light that spark in children. What we do on Show Me Show Me in general isn’t necessarily educational or informative, but it creates those poetic attachments to things. I wanted to play the piano in the first place because I saw Jonathan Cohen regularly on Playschool and Playaway when I was young.

CR: Parents might be a bit nervous about taking very small children to the theatre to see your show; is it challenging to create a live experience for that age group?

CJ: We assume that children coming to see us are coming to the theatre for the first time, and it can be quite weird, so we try and create a friendly environment. We keep the house lights up for the first part of the show, and it’s got a slow, gentle start to make them feel comfortable - it can be incredibly quiet in there. After about 20 minutes or so, when the children have seen us and the characters, the penny drops, and by the end the are all joining in.

This is our third proper year of touring a big stage show together, but we’ve had years of panto and live experience before that to learn about what keeps very young audiences interested. They don’t need big sets - they need new stuff to engage them every few moments.

After the first part, the show is very fast moving - we have 100 props, and all the toys from Show Me Show Me - but it’s not really noisy; it’s not a rock concert for toddlers. There are some quite sweet moments. There are things we can do on stage that we can’t do on TV, and vice versa, so it’s very interactive.

Children are very welcome to bring along a teddy or cuddly toy so they can join in as well - as long as they look after them; we don’t want any lost toys left behind!

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 22, 2012

Thursday, September 06, 2012

For whom the bell tolls - review of The Bell by Periplum

The Bell, presented by Periplum, in Newbury Market Place on Friday, August 10

AFTER the uplifting oddity of The Berkshire Giant earlier in the summer, The Corn Exchange’s Outdoor Programme took a darker turn on Friday, when performance theatre company Periplum brought together an international cast and local volunteers to present The Bell, the tale of hope arising from war and death.

Crammed into the Market Place, spectators were fully part of the action as a ragtag band of brothers, speaking in English and Spanish, fought an evil force set on devastating their unnamed land. Fires burned as demonic, inhuman invaders swept their way through the crowd, causing fear and mayhem as they passed.

Hooded torchbearers drove paths through the crowd, splitting it asunder, as fireworks shot into the sky and bloodied bodies hung from scaffolds, while a soloist pronounced her pure song of peace from the Town Hall balcony.

Eventually, a sign of strength arose from the ashes, as flags were thrust into the hands of strong-armed spectators and a massive rocking structure was brought across the Market Place. On it, a fiery bell was forged and raised, representing the resilience and hope of the defeated people.

While The Berkshire Giant was devised specifically to be performed locally, Periplum have been presenting The Bell in international settings for a number of years. However, such thoughtful use of the Market Place setting, excellent lighting and staging and the intensity of being among the action created a unique experience from which everyone present would take their own emotions and sensations.

As thoughts turn to Autumn, the final two events in The Corn Exchange’s Outdoor Programme for 2012 are the anarchic Halloween Hullabaloo on October 28, and the Festival of Light Lantern Procession on December 16.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on August 16, 2012

Hearts and Bones - interview with Sandi Toksvig

WITH her fifth book out on September 6, radio comedy doyenne SANDI TOKSVIG is launching it with a touring show direct from Edinburgh Fringe mixing in stand-up, storytelling and hopefully some hot gossip centred around her career and her love of writing. CATRIONA REEVES spoke to her about her historical novel Valentine Grey, and the live show it has inspired.

CATRIONA REEVES: Your new book, Valentine Grey, is about a girl who dressed as a man to enrol as a soldier in the Boer War. Did you enjoy writing it?

SANDI TOKSVIG: Very much so. It’s taken about four years in total, and has involved a massive amount of research - probably too much, but it helps give a three-dimensional feeling to the book. I became totally immersed in its world; I even broke down in tears because I killed a character.

It’s a very odd feeling now that I’ve finished writing it - I’ve been working on it for such a long time, and I’ve had stuff all over my desk to do with it, which I only finally tidied away yesterday

CR: Part of the story focuses on Valentine’s cousin Reggie. She disguises herself as him to join the fighting, leaving him free to stay with his male lover in Victorian London. Was it important to you to have gay characters in the book?

ST: The gay element to the story wasn’t central to it to begin with - that evolved later on. I started with the central story about Valentine, but then I became interested in the character of Reggie as well, and his own battle developed. I find that happens with character; they take over and create their own story.

CR: Your live show is called My Valentine - is it all about the novel?

ST: The show does involve me talking about the book, but there will also be jokes and silliness; I’ll look at why people write and what they write about, and there will be a bit about silly book titles. It’s a mix of sensible and silly.

There will also be a question and answer session - I’ve got some good gossip if people ask the right questions.

CR: Do you consider yourself to be mainly a writer, performer or comedian?

ST: I like all of it - I get to do so many different things; writing the books,the radio shows [Toksvig is chairman of Radio 4’s The News Quiz] and television [she is a regularly panellist on QI]. I’ve got a play opening soon, and a new quiz show for Channel 4... I like the variety. I do also love writing; in a room on my own, enjoying the peace and quiet.

CR: You pop up quite regularly on the BBC comedy panel show QI, but not many women do - why do you think that is?

ST: I really don’t know - I think they must fear us. I’m good friends with some of the other women who appear on QI, including Jo Brand, but they never put us on together. It’s very rare that there are two women on the same panel. It’s odd, because there’s lots of women who appear on the News Quiz.

CR: You’ve had a long and successful television and radio career, but a lot of people in their 30s or so fondly remember you for your time on No. 73, the 1980s ITV Saturday morning show. Did you enjoy being involved in children’s television?

ST: No 73 was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on. I was fresh out of uni, straight into a TV job that lasted six years. I didn’t particularly aim to work in children’s television - I never really had a career plan. I’d been in Footlights at Cambridge, and joined The Comedy Store Players [an improvisational comedy group based at London’s Comedy Store club]. Whose Line Is It Anyway? [Channel 4’s long-running improv show] came out of that, and one thing led to another.

My secret is that I never say no to anything. Well, it has to be of a certain standard; I avoid anything with “celebrity” in the title. I was asked to do the dancing one, but I decided that I’ve coped so far without learning how to tango, so I can probably live without it.

Sandi Toksvig will perform My Valentine at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Saturday, September 15.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on August 23, 2012