Just Comedy Friends; Ed to Follow

Broken Down on the M25 Wednesday, the Devizes Arts Festival comedy event, Ed Byrne and Friends unfortunately altered to just friends.

 
Then the mobile rang…. A call from Beano artist Kev F. On any other occasion this would’ve been a most welcomed call, but I was rubbing my forehead on a plush street in Bath when I was supposed to be setting up a table at the Bristol Comic Expo. My debut stand at a convention, the next evolutionary stage of comic glory, rather than the usual sauntering the site, lugging a bag chockful of my smutty outpourings, chatting and hoping to flog a comic or two.

The curse was an egg-shaped black rubber ring, which I held in greasy fingers while frowning in abundance. Like an elephant’s trunk suspended on an earring, this was, I’d just discovered, what supported the exhaust pipe of my VW Polo, which now dragged along the road beneath the car. Bit of a design fault, I was eventually informed, fortunately from a ‘mechanic’ passer-by, once the ring bent out of shape, the exhaust dropped.

He eavesdropped my apologies, as I explained the situation to Kev. We talked of my destination, and because of the interest he exhibited, I gifted him a comic, hoping he’d fix the car. I then ventured underneath it, an attempt to assign the ring back onto its bar, and hopefully attach the exhaust pipe; breakdown services for losers! Needless to say, the effort futile. I appeared from under the car to the sound of the mechanic giggling; the guy engrossed in my homemade publication! “No,” he explained the aforementioned design fault. Humm, I see that now. “Thanks for the comic,” he acknowledged, and whistled off on his way.

A wedge of abandoned broken bin held it, not quite long enough to make it to Bristol, but after a few pitstops I arrived, fashionably late. Tense, irritated and in no mood to greet people with plastic smiles and laughs, I spent the day hoofing and sulking. My point to this anecdote, other than I’ve not much of a review to write about Ed Byrne and Friends? When vehicles breakdown on an imperative assignment, nothing is more frustrating. Therefore, to the hundreds sitting uncomplainingly in the Devizes Corn Exchange Wednesday, perhaps it’s best Ed Byrne didn’t make it.

Rescheduled for September, if he had of made it, would he have been on top form, would comical genius spurt from his mouth? Yeah, he’s professional, suppose. Still, I’d favour the feverishly brilliant observational comedy routine, the like we’ve come to expect from Ed would be best served cold. An odds-on at the bookies he’ll open with the tale of his primary attempt to make it to our backwater. Not everyone could conjure an amusing story of being stuck on the M25, I bet Ed could. That’s why these people rule the comedy circuit. See above, I’m capable of writing a comic tale of woe, but I’d never acquire the valour to perform it before an audience; it takes guts and a chunk of lunacy.

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Chris Stokes Image: Gail Foster

The support acts then, did a grand job. Opening act Chris Stokes vastly different in style to David Hadingham, who followed. Akin to a lovechild of Mickey Flanigan and Bill Hicks, I’d argue David had the posture, the visual comedy, and through crazy expressions could, just, carry off a corny gag. But his style akin to a working-man’s club, was coarse, banal but often hackneyed. References to masturbation and psychedelia pigeonholed him as outrageous, though the quality of the jokes have to match that panache.

For me, David started off brilliantly but declined somewhat, while Chris, more stiff and static to begin with, especially considering he had to break the ice after the devastating blow Ed may not appear, by joking about said devasting blow, grew in wittiness. Through local observations of his bus journey from Chippenham, to a set routine about his Black Country homeland, he improved with each laugh that passed, and importantly, had  incomparable originality. Thick and tough those laughs hailed through the Corn Exchange.

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David Hadingham. Image: Gail Foster

No doubt both these guys were remarkably funny, easing the blow dramatically, yet I’d argue Chris was the better of the two, as he played to the mostly, conventional audience. Well done to both for covering the absence of Ed, an unfortunate turn of events. Least, I think, we’d be set for a better performance from him in September than one after a car breakdown.

 

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You Can’t See the Join; Eric & Little Ern at Devizes Arts Festival

Youngsters may ponder how we survived times of yore with just the three TV channels. Certainly, children’s shows stopped at six, new-fangled video recorders were expensive commodities and presented their users with a horrendous relay, poor sound quality and the tedious labour of rewinding. Yet we had something which barely exists today, an eminence of shows designed to entertain a family; can you think of similar today?

Variety performances outclassed anything you might deem akin today. Simon’s Cowell’s amateur talent contest TV shows remained firmly in the holiday camps, professionals reigned weekend viewers which style and panache. Contemplating it, The Simpsons is perhaps the only show the entire family enjoys, as while I’ll watch Britain’s Got Talent, one eye squints.

Ant and Dec are no replacement for The Two Ronnies, arguably the only duo to come close to the sovereigns of weekend family entertainment, Morecombe and Wise. If you never thought you ever see anything like their magic again, think again.

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Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens are Eric & Little Ern, a remarkably accurate tribute that has to be seen to be believed. Spotted the posters of their Devizes Arts Festival’s event on 14th June I thought “yeah, right.” But no still image can summarise the precision of “An Evening of Eric & Ern,” you have to check these videos out.

Away from my theories, do Ian and Jonty think Morecambe & Wise are still popular today?

“We have been asked, many times, over the years what is the lasting appeal of Morecambe and Wise?” says Ian Ashpitel who plays Ernie “I think that it’s a combination of many things; they grew up with each other and had an instinctive timing that is hard to replicate. They were friends first and foremost, closer than brothers. They grew up learning their craft together. Making mistakes together, finding what works and doesn’t work as they played clubs and theatres for over 20 years before being seen on TV for the first time. They were likeable and people could relate to them, to their sense of humour and their comedy. Working class gentlemen as someone once told us. Eric was one of the finest comics Britain has ever seen and, with the perfect comedy foil at his side, it was a truly magical combination. Having played Ernie, it’s made me realise just how good he was. His timing was immaculate and they had a trust in each other that flowed effortlessly through their performance.”

“Exactly” says Jonty, “They were so relaxed together on stage, so funny, that everyone felt safe in their company. They were brilliant because they appealed to everybody, all walks of life, men-women, young-old, everybody found them funny and it’s very hard to do.”

Their catchphrases now engraved in our language, the songs and gags will never fade with time. So, in their show, it’s Ian and Jonty’s aim to replicate Morecambe & Wise’s live theatre shows, with the famous songs and sketches from their TV moments, as well as a few surprises and a guest singer.

 
Ian and Jonty first met at drama school in Birmingham in 1983 where they became firm friends. Even back then people would ask ‘are you a double act?’ to which the boys would answer, in unison, ‘No.’ Jonty is a brilliant mimic; Eric was one of many impressions he would perform from an early age. He’s a self-confessed Morecambe & Wise anorak and it was his knowledge and love which proved to be the bedrock of their story.

 

Now jobbing actors and members of The Stage Golfing Society, in 2002 Ian and Jonty would put on a review/show. They performed a five-minute sketch and were instantly told ‘you must do something with this’. It has to be said by now nature had taken its course with Jonty’s hair and Ian had fully developed the short fat hairy legs!

 

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During the run of the initial show, which had moved from Richmond to the Edinburgh Festival, Eric’s son Gary Morecambe saw the show and loved it. Support and approval from the family were massively important to Ian and Jonty and continues to be so. The show then went on a hugely successful tour, which culminated in its first West End run in the Christmas of 2013 at the Vaudeville Theatre.

 

The show was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2014. Another tour and a Christmas run at the St James Theatre London followed. Devizes has a grand chance to witness it from the comfort of their own town, one of many highlights of our Arts Festival. Tickets are £21 here.

 

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Melksham Assemble!

I’m standing on the stage of the Melksham Assembly Hall…. have no fear people of the Sham, I’m not about to burst in song, leave that to the professionals. On Friday, direct from London’s West End the UK’s biggest George Michael tribute, Fast Love, will take my place. Right now, a Tuesday afternoon, the hall is being used as exercise for stroke patients, an indication to the diversity of events at this Council facility, a range Deputy Facilities Manager, Bruce Burry is proud to express; that’s why I’m here.

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Bruce worries about space, the tribute act requesting four dressing rooms when they’ve only two, and a video wall which may not fit, yet the hall is grand on scale for a market town with a capacity of 450, and I cannot help but feel, unlike some prestigious venues, it’s being used to it’s full potential, thanks to the team behind the scenes. And while it’s contemporary design may not aesthetically topple a Bath theatre, with a central location, free car parking and excellent disabled access, it is functional and practical.

 
Yet surely, it’s the quality of event which maketh the night, and while I note there’s a preponderance of tribute acts, they’re all eminent, first-rate, tried and tested. Bruce informed me the Fast Love tour is taking around the original George Michael saxophone player; always a good emblem to take a former original in a tribute act.

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“Tim will vet them,” Bruce explained, “and possibly go see them. We try to get original bands too,” he stated, “we’ve had loads here.”

 
“You recently had the Searchers?” I rudely interrupted.

 
“Yes, I think they come once a year,” Bruce continued, and was keen to point towards comedy too. “I mean, we’ve had Des O’Connor, Lee Evans, and Rich Hall, most recently.” Bruce provides an anecdote on Rich Hall, wandering through the town, getting a feel for the place; inspirational for local observational comedy methinks. The current pamphlet displays Cornish favourite, Jethro on the cover, who is here Friday May 3rd.

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As well as Fast Love, in just the forthcoming months, There’s tributes like Bon Jovi Forever on 13th April, The Ultimate Stone Roses on the 4th May and Kast Off Kinks on the 9th May. Yet I must remind myself, I’ve been here on a handful of occasions, recently for the Legend, Bob Marley tribute, which was dazzling, it flipped any qualms of tribute acts I had clean on their head.

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Bruce was keen to point out the full kitchen, “we do dinner clubs and Sunday lunches when there’s nothing on, or on really big events it’s a bottle bar, taking the strain off the main bar.” The hall is often converted into a cinema, a roller disco, and is home to regular events like the Melksham Rock n Roll Club, West Wilts Model Car Club, The Arts Society, Historical Association, and 55+ senior forums. The annual charity fundraising Female of the Species gig is another memorable gig I attended here, and it’s one of many fundraising events held here. With all this variety and the future development of the old Football club as recreation grounds, it’s simple to see how the Assembly Hall is a community hub we should envy here in Devizes.

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I remind Bruce about the Melksham Comic Con, hitting a high point when although another comic con is doubtful in the near future, he expresses a love of sci-fi and ponders the chance of such a convention. Newly appointed events apprentice, Alex excuses herself while the subject digresses to Daleks temporarily, then we’re onto scanning posters of former events.

 
My tour finishes with a cup of tea in the lounge, and this aforementioned mountain of posters of previous shows which adorn a table; there’s great variety, from male strippers to big bands, and pudding clubs, Only Fools and Horses styled meal where the character lookalikes serve you, to beer festivals and significant and impressive acts of past, which shows no sign of declining.

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The Assembly Hall goes beyond the reach of its town, and deserves to attract from Trowbridge, Chippenham, Devizes and beyond. But while experienced Tim Cross is head Facilities Manager here, Bruce also coordinates The Melksham Party in Park and has been doing so for ten years, before joining the team. The event spans two days, July 19th and 20th. Saturday being the Party in the Park, a pop-orientated family festival at King George Park, which alongside Take That tribute, Take @ That, Kirsty Clinch, and Six O’clock Circus are confirmed this year. I ask of the importance of booking local acts. “I try to keep it local actually,” Bruce nodded, “until about half-past ten when we have a main act.”

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ParkFest is the Friday evening, which started as a warm-up, but has equalled in importance now, “if not taken over it,” Bruce expressed. AND, with live PA tribute FunBoy 2, brilliant local ska band, Train to Skaville, and The Neville Staple Band headlining, it’s easy to see how this event is the more mature option, and is tickling my taste buds!

 
While I’ve been kept busy exploring the delights Devizes has to offer, entertainment wise, it’s great to hear how well our nearest neighbour does too. Only a stone-throw away, The Melksham Assembly Hall is worthy of a visit, providing great variety. Devizine will continue to add their events to our calendar and notify you of them, but you can check the website here, Facebook here.

 


And as for the Party in the Park and Parkfest, more info here.

 

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Feeling the Force of The Devizes Arts Festival

If there’s a stigma among the typical denizen surrounding the Devizes Arts Festival that it’s all rather pompous and geared toward the elder generation, all walks and organ recitals, and that sounds like you, then I bid you look closer at this year’s newly announced line-up.

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Devizes Arts Festival has pulled a colossal rabbit out their hats for this June’s festivities; really, I don’t know where to begin. Yes, some of it conforms to the customary Arts Festival bookings, such as an audience with international journalist and veteran reporter John Simpson (Corn Exchange. Friday 31st May) and an organ recital by the Sub-Organist at Durham Cathedral, Francesca Massey (1st June St Johns.) There’s even a two-hour festival walk; Historic Devizes (2nd June. Devizes Town Centre,) guided by experts from the Wiltshire County Archaeology team, and a Civil War Battlefield walk at Roundway Down on 9th June.

 
Now, don’t get me wrong, while there’s no bad about any such events, and chatting with organiser Phillipa Morgan, who is keen to point out, “we had fifteen sold-out events last year,” there’s many-a darn good reason to cast off this erroneous label.

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I assure, many acts are set to blow some interest in the direction of those who’d not considered the Arts Festival before. Ska, for instance, (you know me, fancy picking on this one first!) with Skamouth favourites, Coventry’s (the home of Two-Tone) Barb’d Wire (1st June Corn Exchange) who boast legendary and original rude boy himself, Trevor Evans, combined with local songwriter/singer Lloyd Mcgrath. This is certain to raise a few eyebrows; perfect for the 40th anniversary of Two-Tone.

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You can zip your soul boots too, for seventies pioneers in funk, The Real Thing are confirmed, (8th June. Corn Exchange.) Known for legendary hits “You to Me Are Everything” and “Can’t Get by Without You,” Devizes is sure to feel the force!

 
Wiltshire’s own Nick Harper is at The Exchange, 13th June, contemporary Congolese and Cuban music 15th June at the Corn Exchange with Grupo Lokito, and experimental prog-rock with CIRCU5 (16th June. Cellar Bar.)

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The brilliant radio, television and stage comedian Ed Byrne (12th June. Corn Exchange) was the other to immediately catch my eye. Joined by special guests, David Haddingham and Sindhu Vee, this one promises to “have you rolling in the aisles.” With sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, and the West End, it reminded me of a conversation I had with some organisers last year, about how they travel to Edinburgh to source acts for the Arts Festival. This dedication has paid off, it seems, and we’re set for an explosively good year.

 
I asked Phillipa if this stigma was something the committee addressed, as it certainly is a line-up of variety. “Classical music is still there but we’ve tried to broaden the appeal. I think we’ve just moved in that direction as a result of an awareness that the requirement is changing and we’re trying to be more inclusive.”

 
So, what else is up for grabs this year? Children’s author Clive Mantle will be entertaining youngsters with illustrated readings from his time-travelling, Himalayan adventure and talking about his writing and his own travels in Nepal (1st June. Devizes Town Hall 2:30pm.) Although familiar as an actor to audiences of Holby, Vicar of Dibley and Game of Thrones, Clive Mantle is also now a successful children’s author: his first book “The Treasure at the Top of the World” was short-listed for the People’s Book Award and a second book in the series is due out in June. This is suitable for eight-year-olds and above.

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Also, for young-uns, Blue Peter Award winning author and performer, Gareth P Jones presents Aliens in Devizes! (8th June. Town Hall) Pet Defenders, a secret organisation of dogs, cats, rabbits and rodents dedicated to keeping the Earth safe from alien invasion. Suitable ages from six to nine, but sounds like fun to me!

 
The best jazz violinist in the country, Christian Garrick and John Etheridge, one of the most stunningly versatile guitarists, presents Strings on Fire (3rd June. The Exchange.) Meanwhile, two siblings that make up the exceptional violin and viola duo, String Sisters, Angharad and Lowri Thomas String Sisters are at St. Andrews Church on the 5th June. Multiple award-winning musicians, who’ve played with Alfie Boe, Michael Ball, Paloma Faith, Marc Almond, Boy George and Robbie Williams.

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2nd June at The Bear Hotel Ballroom, there’s a quirky, funny and poignant award-winning solo show about Nick Drake; a celebration of music, photography, life, coincidences and the legacy of one of the most influential singers/song-writers of the last fifty years.

 
Competitive improv as you’ve never seen it, The Shakespeare Smackdown (4th June. The Exchange,) is from the creators of Olivier Award-winning “Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.” Britain’s favourite celebrity organic gardener and Gardeners’ Question Time star panellist, Bob Flowerdew has An Audience with on the 5th June at Devizes Town Hall.

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From Atila singing the Nat King Cole Story (6th June. Town Hall) to the dark comic and eclectic music of Moscow Drug Club (7th June Corn Exchange) and from An Audience with grand dame of English literature, Fay Weldon (8th June. Bear Hotel) to Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to motorcycle around the world (8th June. Bear Hotel) no one can deny the quality and variety is extraordinary this year. Talks on Sci-Fi influences on evolutionary linguistics, a homage of renditions of Eric and Ernie, author Clare Mulley’s on her third book, “The Women Who Flew for Hitler”, open mic poetry session with Josephine Corcoran, in fact there’s too much here to list in one article, my wordcount exploding and I fear you’ll be bedazzled by it all.

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So why don’t we regroup tomorrow, when we’ll highlight, in particular, the free fringe events? Phillipa, in charge of the fringe events, notes surprisingly, that although “the fringe events are subsided, for some reason they don’t seem to attract that many people, compared with ticketed recent events such as Rick Wakeman at £45, which sold out.” I think this is down to the aforementioned stigma, and here at Devizine I’m dedicated to prove it wrong. So, same time tomorrow then?

 

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