Happyness

“Happiness….”, sang John Lennon in 1968, “is a warm gun.” But what Lennon didn’t know was that, in fact, Happyness is a new comedy festival that takes place in Inverness over the May bank holiday. I have just returned from its golden shores and am brushing the heather from my hair as I type (Auld Heather was quite a gal)

Happyness (the name was suggested I gather by Bill Bailey) is the brainchild of that formidable Femme de Comedie Karen Koren, mother of the Gilded Balloon, one of the Edinburgh Fringe’s great venues. Looking no doubt at the Kilkenny and the Machynlleth comedy festivals she has decided that Inverness could make a great addition to the comedy buff’s calendar – like those 2 areas of outstanding natural beauty Inverness is a handsome old town full of historical incident, surrounded by sumptuous mountains and lakes, with a canny, urbane populace.

It is true that the audiences were small but those people that did turn up to the dozens of shows on offer were appreciative and pleasingly vocal. I have no doubt that there will be larger numbers next year and that in five years time the town will be teeming with comedy lovers keen to laugh and to enjoy the fabulous landscapes.

My own sojourn began badly with a brutal dawn flight from Luton airport where I realised I had left my mobile phone at home. On arrival in Scotland however the sun was out and I was warmly welcomed by Karen’s tireless team of  attractive henchwomen so it was not long before I was feelin da happyness.

I was billeted at a hotel in the centre of town on the banks of the River Ness with all the other comedians, which gave a great opportunity to catch up with old muckers (big hellos to Jenni Éclair, Fred Macaulay, Janey Godley and Michael Redmond) and to take a look at some of the younger comics doing their stuff – I was especially impressed by Bec Hill, an Australian who draws her act as she does it, Daniel Simonsen a Norwegian master of Nordic gloom and Cornish comedy rap dudes Hedlov and Passman. As at the Machynlleth festival I was reminded of my early days at the Edinburgh fringe when all the performers would congregate at the Gilded Balloon after their shows, comparing notes and bitching about other comedians.

I MC-ed a couple of shows, did a turn at another and took over the Inverness open top bus tour for the afternoon. Some of the passengers were evidently expecting a more conventional tour and looked surprised when I talked about the laird of Poundland, revealed that the Loch Ness monster had been a double agent during the war and did a spot of Highland dancing on a roundabout.

Between gigs I pulled on my walking boots and took to the hills clutching my new OS map, stumbling through bogs, clambering up crags and gazing across at the dreamy horizon of not-so-distant mountains with their silvery highlights of snow. No mobile meant I was not distracted from the view by the need to take a photo of it or ring someone up to describe it.

As I passed a bush 2 deer stumbled out looking rather, er, sheepish. Inspired by the warm Scottish air, the prospect of summer and the certainty of the guffaws in the town far below me, I leapt onto one of the deer and rode it magnificently across the glens.  Hey you can’t say I didn’t – you weren’t there. But be there next year if you dare.

http://happy-ness.co.uk/ 

Machynlleth Comedy Festival

Warning: if you are not already wearing one, and are intending to read to the end of this blog, then you now need to go and find a hat to put on. Go on off you go.

Machynlleth, you may not be surprised to learn, is in Wales and accordingly takes nearly 150 hundred years to reach from London. If you go by rail the last century is liable to be spent on a train so packed and grubby that you may, like me, wish to tweet, ‘Going to cry me Arriva.’

On arriva-l, however, I was cheered at the compliment I received from a chap in the post office on my pronunciation of the name of his town. It wasn’t luck – I had taken a BBC course called Learn How to Say Machynlleth. The key 3 points are:

1. You need a lot of phlegm in stock to get the ‘ch’ right.

2. Say the ‘nll’ as you would the ‘ntl’ of the word ‘antler’.

3. Do not be afraid of the fact that the middle syllable sounds a lot like ‘cunt’.

The town playing host to the comedy weekend is a small settlement of slatey houses in Powys and contains no Starbucks, no WH Smith, no Macdonalds and no Tescos – just the beginning of its agreeable qualities. The inhabitants are a good-natured mix of friendly locals and free-thinking hipsters from around the country. It is very easy to find a nice cheesecloth shirt to buy and I did.

I was there to record proceedings for Radio 4 Extra’s The Comedy Club (of which I am a regular presenter) and to do my one man show. I was also hoping to sneek off for some quality time, rambling and smoking in the gorgeous, sheep-spotted surrounding hills. All these things I achieved with such great satisfaction that I am already planning a return visit next year. There were dozens of acts on in numerous venues of varying eccentricity and the population of the town doubled to 4000 during the weekend the festival was running, as punters, mostly alerted on social media, flooded into town and pitched tent in a handy field.

Machynlleth is not as other festivals for all sorts of reasons: the happy absence of agents, PR people, TV producers, journalists and all the other guff that goes to make so many festivals into corporate events meant that the comics were not fighting for attention or fretting about money and reviews. The atmosphere was relaxed and outdoors-y, seeming to encourage an air of experimentation and creativity. You could engage with your audience and with the other comics in a way that is not possible at big festivals.

Apart from my scheduled stuff, I got to take part in a nude art show, recite poetry on the hill overlooking the town (which, magnificently, displayed a Machynlleth sign a la Hollywood), see a showcase of brilliant young comics, get a tour of the town (once, long ago, the home of the Welsh Parliament), hang with the drunks at the Bowls Club, become embroiled in a hen party, flirt with the ladies in the café opposite the clock tower and do a turn on a shed artfully placed in the broad sandy estuary of the nearby River Dyfi.

Throughout it all, there was a feeling of solidarity among the acts that reminded me a bit of my early Edinburghs when it was still small enough that all the performers could meet after their shows at the Fringe Club and subsequently the Gilded Balloon in Cowgate. If the Edinburgh Fringe is now a pressure cooker, the Machynlleth festival is the sun coming out.

It was all dreamed up by Henry Widdecombe, a sometime stand up, who, upon first going to the Edinburgh Festival, made a list of all the things about it that he didn’t like, and then sought to eliminate them from his own version. So then I say, everybody…… to Henry and to Emma Butler, to all the volunteers they recruited, to Machynlleth and to all its people, I say…… hats off. Come on hats off!

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I was sad when it ended (never the case at Edinburgh) but pleased to stay an extra morning to take a hike into the hills. Enlivened, encouraged and enthralled by my weekend I put my iPod on real loud and danced on the summit of a Welsh mountain to the indifference of a dozen sheep.