Saturday, 9 September 2017

I also like how disappointed they look.

Yesterday, I watched the 1941 Leslie Howard film 'Pimpernel Smith', a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel set in 1939.  I was delighted to find it has what must be at least an extremely early example of a particular type of joke:

That's pretty good, isn't it? Forty years before Ted Stryker met a trombonist in a bar, or Homer Simpson met the Springfield Philharmonic in the woods. Does anyone know of an earlier version? The Goons did it a lot, of course, but not until the '50s. 

I recommend the film, by the way- it's on Netflix at the moment (in Britain, anyway), and has some good jokes in it, and an excellent (and excellently cast and costumed) comedy Nazi. 

- 'No, no, no. Shakespeare is a German. Professor Schußbacher has proved it once and for all.'
- 'Dear me, how very upsetting. Still, you must admit that the English translations are remarkable.'

(I know, I know... I will do the rest of the Double Act blogs eventually. Probably.) 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Double Acts - The Queen's Speech

Well, I have finally finished writing this series of Double Acts - only five weeks after they started going out -  and so have time to write something about Double Acts. The first of the series, The Queen's Speech, starring Stephanie Cole and Kerry Godliman, is still available on iPlayer for the next five days.

There really was - and is - a short recording of Queen Victoria speaking, which you can hear here. (Skip straight to 1.19 for the most cleaned up version, but don't expect to able to make out much.) 

And it really was made at the end of a demonstration of a newly invented recording machine - not the  phonograph, but the graphophone. For a full account of this demonstration, and the fate of the wax cylinder afterwards, read Paul Tritton's 'The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria'. In it, you will find that there is a (remote) possibility that another cylinder exists, in which Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India blurts the word 'tomatoes', because someone is pointing at some tomatoes. The grandchildren of the inventor of the graphophone had memories of a different version which they listened to - without much interest - as children. 

Even if it never happened, the idea of a Victorian inventor gravely indicating some tomatoes in the hope of provoking a comment from the Queen seemed like a promising start.

This one was one of the three research-heavy episodes of the series, and a surprising amount of it is true, or based in truth. Victoria really did have what she referred to as 'treats' - performances by conjurors, singers, and even comedians in the afternoons at Balmoral or Osbourne. She really did try to learn Hindustani from her 'Munshi', Abdul Karim; and the phrase she quotes: 'Anda thik ubla nahi hai', meaning (supposedly) 'The egg is not yet boiled' is one of the ones in the pocket-book the Munshi made for her, along with 'The poor boy has a bad pain in his hand', 'The tea is always bad at Osbourne', 'You will miss the Munshi very much' and... 'Hold me tight'. I'm sure there's a perfectly innocent explanation.

Other true bits: Inventors really were a bit at a loss about what possible use a machine that records sound could be, and Mabel's daftest suggestion is lifted straight from the real inventor of the graphophone, Henry Edmonds:

Oh, and Victoria really did both dislike Gladstone, and find him very dull. And perhaps with reason. Here he is writing to her in the year The Queen's Speech is set, trying to say he's glad it didn't rain in Liverpool:

Of course, the moment I began to write Queen Victoria as a character, there was only one actor I wanted to play her. In the first series of Double Acts, producer David and I deliberately chose not to use any of the actors who had appeared in Cabin Pressure (apart from me, obviously), because we wanted it to have a chance to establish itself as its own thing. For the second series, however, we  felt able to abandon that restriction - with great relief - and indeed someone who appeared in C.P. appears in all six episodes. Although one of them is incredibly hard to spot...

So, anyway, we crossed our fingers and asked Stephanie, and thank God she said yes. She's truly wonderful in it. As is Kerry Godliman, one of the very few actors in the world who could hold their own against Stephanie Cole squared by Queen Victoria. Of the shadowy figure who played Gladstone and the Sergeant, though; little is known. I mean, where would I find someone who could do both Victoriana and Shouting...?

A final note on the machine: I am informed that David Tyler, who co-edits the show, as well as producing, directing, and script-editing it (it's basically more his show than mine) never wants to hear another treadle as long as he lives. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Pain, Nitrogen, and the shops.

From Ascension Island. Do you think their stamps only feature things that ascend? 

Hello, Earth! You have seven days left to hear the glorious, hilarious, moving, peculiar joy that is Time Spanner, by Simon Kane. Plan those days wisely, because you'll want to hear it at least twice. Simon has done many marvellous things, but readers of this blog may know him best from Double Acts (playing Luke in The Goliath Window) and Souvenir Programme (playing The Train Manager, Mr Hyde, Quasimodo, Thomas The Tank Engine, Prof. Daniel Fahrenheit, First Tentacled Creature, Lt-Gen Sir Hugo Hushhh, Rob, Sam, Ed, Ben, Sam, Joe, Rob, Rob, Sam, The Black And White Stripy Jumper I've Had Since School, and the Sun. Among others.)

Anyway, this is the first episode of - paws crossed - the first series of Time Spanner; and it is beautiful and wonderful and bonkers... except it's not bonkers, not really, that's just something people say about things like this, when what they (I) mean is that the author has an imagination, and isn't afraid to use it. I'm in it, playing a dead dog like normal, as are David Mitchell, London Hughes, Belinda Stewart-Wilson and Jeremy Limb.

Simon's been working on it, in one form or another, for at least ten years; and it's been such a pleasure and an education to watch him refine it from a dazzling explosion of ideas and jokes and characters and umbrella-headed monks to this intricate, beautifully plotted half hour with a love story at its heart - without losing any of the wild creativity, great jokes, and frequent poetry that made it so exciting from the start. Truly, a watch made of swans.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Quick stop at the ego massage parlour...

I had rather a strange- but lovely- day yesterday, in which first this happened:

...and then later on, this happened:

Yes, I have henchmen now...

So, thank you very much to the British Comedy Guide (and to you, if you voted for us!) and to the Writers' Guild. And of course to Ed, Lawry, Margaret, Carrie and Simon for Souvenir Programme; and to David Tyler, Rebecca Front and Beth Mullen for Double Acts.

 Now, off to buy some new hats. All mine have suddenly got too small.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Souvenir Programme, Series Six, Episode Three

Possibly should have mentioned this before, but Souvenir Programme is back! It's going out at 6:30 on Tuesdays. The first three episodes are available here, and the next three will go up there too in due course.

Random thoughts on today's episode:

The Pachelbel sketches (One Hit Wonder and Loose Canon. I still give sketches names, even though only Ed and the cast ever see them) were written for Radio Three's anniversary last year, on the condition I was allowed to re-record them and use them in my show too. Susannah Pearse arranged and played the canon, of course, while I sat next to her, miming, and at one point helpfully knocking the music off the stand, as she played, live, on Radio Three... (For non-Brits: Radio Three is the big serious classical music station.)

I do genuinely own all those shirts, and that jumper I bought in the sixth form, which as one of the cast kindly pointed out to me means that it is older now than I was when I bought it. The pineapples on the pineapple shirt are subtler than the ones you're probably imagining.

The first policeman sketch was inspired by Line of Duty, which is why I asked Simon to do a Northern Irish accent, in honour of Adrian Dunbar.

Apparently, the reason we can get away with saying Coca-Cola is made of dissolved children's teeth is that, to prove it was defamatory, they would have to a) argue that a reasonable person might think it is, and b) reveal their secret recipe to prove it's not!

The parrots sketch came out of Silly Voices Day*, and was Lawry's idea. The Save the Children sketch last week did too - that one was inspired by a perfectly nice woman one of the cast once worked with, who had a witch-y voice. I want to say which member of cast, but perhaps I shouldn't, just in case...
(Just in case the woman somehow reads this and is offended, I mean. Not just in case she actually is a witch.)

Ol' Vine Leaves, Baggy Grey, and Pineapples. See? Subtle. 

*It occurs to me this could probably stand some elaboration. Every series we have a Silly Voices session about half way through the writing process, where Ed, the cast, and I get together, and I pitch half-formed sketches which I don't yet know how to make work; and also quite literally get everyone to do silly voices in case that inspires something, which it often does. Other sketches that began at Silly Voice Days include: Basking Sharks, Kirates, the family reunion one with everyone being older than the person before, the slow-talking emergency briefing one, and many more.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Dry Spell

The national football team of Niue has never scored a goal.

Niue is a small island nation in the South Pacific, with a population of 1,600. And their national football team has in fact only played two matches in its history - both in the 1983 South Pacific Games. It's not as if goals weren't scored in those matches, however. Niue lost 14 nil to Tahiti, and 19 nil to Papua New Guinea.

At this point you may be thinking, well, so what? It's a tiny nation with the population of a village. Of course their sports teams are going to get thrashed by far, far bigger countries like Tahiti or Papua New Guinea...

In May 2015, the national Rugby League team of Niue played South Africa. They won 48 - 4.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Three poets who did not want to go to a party.

Vers de Society (Opening Lines)
Philip Larkin

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours; perhaps
You'd care to join us? In a pig's arse, friend.

Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914
Walter Alexander Raleigh

I wish I loved the human race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I'm introduced to one
I wish I thought "What jolly fun!"

On Mundane Acquaintances
Hilaire Belloc

Good morning, Algernon: Good morning, Percy.
Good morning, Mrs. Roebeck. Christ have mercy!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

All that glisters is not gold.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a rich gold strike near the Mexican town of Tlalpujahua meant that for a few years in the early twentieth century, it was the largest producer of gold in the world. The mine was a huge industry, and the population grew to a quarter of a million. Then, in 1937, a major landslide buried the mine, and much of the town. The mine closed, and the townspeople were forced to go elsewhere in search of work. Within ten years, the population was under a thousand.

One of the men who left was Joquaín Muñoz Orta, who in the fifties ended up in Chicago, working in a factory making artificial Christmas trees. When he returned to Mexico, he set up a workshop making first trees, and then baubles to go with them. The baubles were far more popular, and the workshop grew into a factory... which is now the fifth largest producer of baubles in the world. There is also a second bauble factory in the town, as well as over a hundred small family workshops. The population of Tlapujahua is now back up to about a quarter of a million... and around 70% of the town's economy comes from bauble-making.

I just thought that was nice. Happy New Year.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy New Year!

Here to see it in: a Christmas cracker I made for a friend who is Welsh, but now lives in China...

Sunday, 11 December 2016


Just when you thought number five couldn't be more off-putting... lo, it has been made flesh. Well, plastic, anyway.

Friday, 9 December 2016



Thursday, 8 December 2016


This is a different sort of place-holder, in that it's a work in progress, a first layer, and when (if) I finish it, I'll replace the image and delete this text. But for now, and who knows, maybe for ever, here's the undercoat.....

Tuesday, 6 December 2016


You know when you see the clock-tower of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, and you can't stop thinking about how it looks like some mad early twentieth century monarch of a minor Balkan state?

...Oh, don't you? I mean... No. Me neither. 

In other news, the English For Pony-Lovers episode of Double Acts has been nominated for the Writers' Guild Award for Radio Comedy.  Hooray! So, concentrate on that. Forget that nonsense about kings and clock-towers. 

Monday, 5 December 2016


I'm sorry to do this to you, so early on...

Sunday, 4 December 2016


Saturday, 3 December 2016


Friday, 2 December 2016


Thursday, 1 December 2016


Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Probably best just to tell your insurance company you work in a cubicle.

Ancient Assyrian careers advisor: 'So, to sum up... you like working with your hands, you don't mind enclosed spaces, and ideally you'd like to work with animals. I think I may have just the thing for you!' 

Ancient Assyrian school-leaver: 'Ok, but will it be boring? I don't want a job where I'm bored all the time.'

Ancient Assyrian careers advisor: 'Do you know what... I really don't think that will be a problem.' 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Over my head

Wittgenstein, enjoying a joke.

This is from a memoir of Ludwig Wittgenstein by his former pupil Maurice Drury:

'After tea Johnson played some of Bach's Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues. Wittgenstein told me he admired Johnson's playing. On the way back to Trinity he told me that at one of these afternoons Johnson had played badly, and he knew it himself, but the audience had applauded loudly. This annoyed Johnson, so by way of revenge he gave as an encore the accompaniment only of a Beethoven violin sonata, which of course was meaningless without the violin part. This gesture seemed to please and amuse Wittgenstein.'

Ways in which, had I been there, I would have failed to get the joke which pleased and amused Wittgenstein:

1) I wouldn't have noticed Johnson was playing badly.
2) I wouldn't have noticed the audience were applauding indiscriminatingly.
3) I might have noticed Johnson was annoyed, but I wouldn't have known why.
4) I wouldn't have recognised the Beethoven violin sonata.
5) I might have noticed the piece sounded odd, but I wouldn't have known why, or that it wasn't meant to sound that way.
6) Even if I had understood all of the above... I don't think I'd have realised the choice of the sonata was intended as a rebuke to the audience for clapping the player's previous poor performance too enthusiastically. That seems to me quite a... subtle point.

I suppose what's happening here is I'm coming to the shocking conclusion that Wittgenstein was a cleverer man than I am. And also that I slightly regret not living in a world in which people take their revenge through their selection of Beethoven sonatas. Though, of course, the above shows that quite possibly people around me are doing things like this all the time, and I have simply never had Wittgenstein around to explain them to me.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ahoy hoy!

This week I was honoured to make my first appearance on Radio 4's comedy warhorse Just A Minute, now in its astonishing 75th series, and which I've listened to and enjoyed all my life. It was enormous fun, and the regulars were very kind to me.

Here it is on iPlayer , for the next three weeks or so.  


Thursday, 19 May 2016

Lines imagined to be written by Galileo Galilei upon demonstrating that, contrary to Aristotelian thought, the ratio of gravitational mass to inertial mass is essentially unity.

Whether they're large or
Whether they're small
Has no effect on
The rate that things fall.

But whether you choose
To accept this or not'll
Depend on your faith
In that fool Aristotle.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The A, of course, stands for 'avoid thinking of envelopes'.

Like everyone else, I used to confuse the words 'stationery', meaning materials to do with writing; and 'stationary', meaning not in motion. And like many people, I now tell them apart with the mnemonic that the E in 'stationery' stands for 'envelopes'. 

But it only today occurred to me to wonder why two words with such different meanings should be so similar. So, I looked it up... and it turns out that the first stationers, in the Middle Ages, were scribes and paper merchants given licences, typically by universities or law courts, to ply their trade from permanent booths- or stations- as opposed to their competitors, who were itinerant peddlars.

So, pleasingly: stationers sell stationery because their stations were stationary. 

I thought you'd like to know. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Emu's debut.

Something a bit different today - I've written a crossword. If you're in Britain, it's published in today's Times, on page 54 of the Saturday Review section. It's also available online here, although it may be behind the Times' paywall. And here's a picture of it.

As you can see from the extra instructions at the top, The Listener is a bit more complicated than most crosswords, with extra rules to follow, messages to find, and an overall theme to discover. Personally, I think that makes them far more rewarding, but they do take a bit of getting the hang of, so if you haven't tried cryptic crosswords at all before, this probably isn't a good one to learn on. If you do give it a try, bear in mind another thing that makes The Listener tricky is that the setter has license to use any word or abbreviation found in The Chambers Dictionary, however obscure; which makes the puzzle difficult, if not impossible, to solve without using that dictionary as well. On the plus side, if you use this site, then you can search for words using ?s as wildcards, so for instance typing ?R?S?W?R? will return 'crossword' (and indeed 'brushwork'). Some purists might call this cheating, but not me. I think it's fine.

If you do tackle it, let me know how you get on...

Friday, 12 February 2016

You're just in time to miss the last episode!

So... the fifth series of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme has been going out!

Featuring this pile of idiots. 

That's... that's definitely the sort of thing I should have been posting about here. Oh dear. Well, the last one was broadcast yesterday, but that does mean that there is now a two day window - today and tomorrow - where all six episodes are simultaneously available on the BBC iPlayer.  On Sunday, the first one will drop off, then a week later the second, then... well, I'll leave you to work the rest of the system out for yourself. Anyway, sorry for being so rubbish at publicity, and hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

24 Doodles - 16 to 24

What, did you think just because I started a series called '24 Doodles' on December 1st, it was some kind of advent thing? Well, I don't know where you got that idea. I'm sure I never said so. No, the idea was always to post one every one or two days for about a fortnight, and then the rest all in one splurge on New Year's Eve. So here, as part of the plan that was definitely the plan all along, are the other nine. Happy New Year!

16. First try at a young Ezra Pound, July, British Library, working on 'English For Pony-Lovers'.

17. Second shot. July, BL, E for P-L.

18. Tiny little doodle that I'm rather fond of, London, November, working on Souvenir Programme

19. Little girl looking for fish in a pond. With, as you see, some success. (It was a very low fence, by the way. She's not a giant little girl.) St Albans, September, working on Souvenir Cabin. 

20. Victorian gent in a photograph on a pub wall. Durham, February, working on the thing that later became Wysinnwyg.

21. Statue. Leros, Greece, April,  working on another element that later became Wysinnwyg. (Wysinnwyg gave me the most trouble of all the Double Acts.)

22. Man off the telly. London, February, working on an idea for a Double Act later abandoned.

23. Weather house people. London, November, during the recording of Hot Desk.

24. Your guess is as good as mine. But I wouldn't want to meet it on a dark night.  Dorset, December, working on Souvenir Programme. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

24 Doodles - 15

Two people who passed my window in November, while I was finishing The Goliath Window. (The woman was carrying a white bag, by the way; she's not dressed as a French maid...)

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

24 Doodles - 14

...and here's the more stylised version.

(The red stains on both come from a drop of candle wax, which fell on the second page, and then, next time I left the book in the sun, melted and seeped through to the first page as well. I rather like the way that, purely by chance, this makes the second stain look like a stylised version of the first.)

24 Doodles - 13

Here's my first attempt at the Edwardian paterfamilias in a photograph hanging in the room in which I was working on Hot Desk in August...

Sunday, 13 December 2015

24 Doodles - 12

You know I said a while ago sometimes my doodling is extremely literal minded? Well, here's half a page of notes from Dorset in September on Red-Handed. Yeah. It's not exactly wild, creative, free association, is it?

(By the way... I would just like to make it clear that I'm not putting these - any of these - doodles up because I think they're good. They're all genuinely what I was doodling in the margins while I was working, and so most of them are rubbish- these hands certainly are. This is not 'Behold - pages from my sketchbook' it's 'Look what nonsense my hands got up to while my brain was trying to solve plot problems.')

Saturday, 12 December 2015

24 Doodles - 11

Here is a marginal piglet from Tuttlingen in Germany in May, in a pleasant Gasthaus where I ended up doing so much useful plot work on English For Pony Lovers that I set the episode there in its honour.