Letters To A Young Comedian

Monday 12 September 2005, The Stage

When I first used to go up to the Edinburgh festival in the late seventies, I would come home exhausted, skint, hoarse, emaciated and with a hangover that lasted until November. However, I immediately had to report to whatever terrible job I was doing in London and try to book some overtime to claw my finances back into plausibility.

Now, however, I am able to benefit from my experience and the monies accrued from voiceovers and, accordingly, after the festival I like to spend September relaxing, holidaying and considering how the festival was for me.

So it is I find myself in Cornwall, walking through thunderstorms and mulling over my festival highlights. One of the most interesting events I attended was a performance by a boyish comedian called Mark Watson, who, in addition to his regular show, did a one-off gig which lasted 2,005 minutes.

Now, if you have no aptitude with figures, you may not realise the scale of this endeavour. It lasted 33 hours, which even Ken Dodd would have some trouble matching. Thirty-three hours of stand-up comedy without stopping. Bloody hell. Obviously Watson was allowed the odd visit to the loo and short break to eat and drink but, other than these brief minutes, he stood at the microphone, talking about the experience, chatting to the audience, referring to his backup team - who charmingly included his fiancee sat in an armchair smiling and indulging the great man - riding the dozens of riffs that arose and confronting the Brendon Burns question. The result was a joyful communal experience for Watson and his audience - some of whom had also stayed the full course - and a weird statement about time, laughter and endurance. I popped in twice, intending only to stay a few minutes, but found myself sucked in by the epic vibes and felt the need to return to witness his final triumphant hour.

My own show was called Arthur Smith’s Swan Lake and was billed (by myself) as “radical site-specific outdoor promenade theatre at its best”. I led my audience through a council estate where women in white sang and wee lads I had paid threw waterbombs. Let down the day before the show by the Burklyn Youth Ballet company, I was lucky to recruit the cast of a brilliant show called Rigged, who gamely performed a version of West Side Story, cavorted along in ever more imaginative ways and were generally marvellous. It’s a long sentence to give them a proper plug but the company was made up of students from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and the Drama Department of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (the world’s most glamorous students?).

They were responsible for my big finish. Addressing my audience from the foot of Arthur’s seat - ha ha, my bottom - I pointed up toward the top. There, far away and out of ear shot, cued by text, six swans danced. Mark Watson went large scale and, in a different way, so did I.

Bring on autumn.

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