Saturday, January 30, 2016

Big Night Out

In the 1980s, I used to watch a lot of stand-up comedy at venues around south-east London, such as the Tunnel Club in Greenwich, Woolwich Tramshed and Deptford Albany. One night at the Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross, I saw an act I had never heard of before who was billed as Vic Reeves: Britain’s foremost light entertainer. I would like to say that I was ahead of the game in spotting a nascent comedy genius but, in the interests of truth rather than myth, I have to confess I was completely unmoved. In an age of hard-edged political stand-up, I found a man in a suit with a toy monkey unfunny, childish and silly. Hey, ho: we cannot always be right.

When Vic Reeves reappeared a few years later on Channel 4 – now with Bob Mortimer - in Big Night Out, the surrealism, the repetition, the ridiculous characters and, above all, the playfulness with language, were a different proposition entirely. And then, with The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Shooting Stars, the duo became part of the British comedy pantheon. They then branched out into television drama and sitcom with Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Catterick and, most recently, House of Fools.

Last autumn, the pair were set to celebrate 25 years of their partnership with a large venue tour of Britain when the trials of middle-age intervened. Bob Mortimer, complaining of chest pains, was admitted to hospital and underwent triple bypass heart surgery. Having made a swift recovery, the tour has been re-scheduled to start tonight in Leeds. Last night, they played a low-key warm-up show at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre and, as they took the stage, Mortimer checked his heart rate. Reeves assured him, however, that he would be fine as long as it did not exceed 1,000 bpm.

In a two hour performance, with interval, many of the favourites from across their shows appeared: The Man with the Stick, Graham Lister and Novelty Island, Mulligan and O’Hare, Dr Shakamoto, The Dove from Above and – my personal favourite - frying pans. There is something about seeing Tom and Jerry cartoon violence made flesh and I thought I was going to be sick with laughter as they repeatedly smashed each other in the face with (almost) impeccable timing until Vic pummelled Bob to the ground with a fire extinguisher. Bob, of course, emerged from behind the desk with a massive and distorted head.

It was not all nostalgia for the largely forty-something audience, though: new sketches were projected on to the back screen during costume changes. One, sending up urban free running, was hilarious: “Banksy! Bollards! Graffiti! Stairwells!” With physical comedy that is almost as energetic as it was 25 years ago, I do hope Bob will be okay on their hectic 15-date tour that finishes in London the day after their St. Valentine’s gig in Brighton. As long as he follows Vic’s sound medical advice, he should be alright.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fruit Punch

In a week that started badly for those of us that value artists and performers who exemplify difference, experimentation and innovation, I needed confirmation that, despite the fall of its brightest star, music can still produce mavericks who go against the grain of dull, formulaic and accepted trends. On Tuesday night, at a sold out Teen Creeps promoted gig in Brighton, I got exactly that.

Kiran Leonard is a 20-year-old musician from Saddleworth and his performance to a packed audience in the room upstairs at the Price Albert was like a sock on the jaw. Currently on a tour of modest venues ahead of the release in March of his new album, Grapefruit, Leonard and his three-piece band sound like everything and nothing you have ever heard before: one moment there is tender ambience, the next splenetic bursts of prog-punk; another moment there is virtuoso guitar playing, the next vocals of howled anguish. And on opening song, Pink Fruit, all of this is present in one magnificent 16-minute magnum opus.

Not all songs are sprawling epics, however. Oakland Highball, he tells us, is short with fast lyrics so he explains what the song is about. His explanation is longer than the song, which is delivered at breakneck speed. It is a wonder that the band manage to keep up with Leonard at times as he writhes and spirals around his left-handed guitar, leading the irregular time signatures and disjointed rhythms. Indeed, the stage is set as a duelling ground with Leonard stage left, side-on to the audience, facing the band who are stage right looking back at him.

If Kiran Leonard is a wunderkind, he is an unassuming one. Before he took the stage, I saw him slip into the room in his parka and rucksack and move through the audience unnoticed. And from the stage he praises support band, Let's Eat Grandma. He hails the Norwich duo as the "best band in the world"and cheerfully admits to enjoying being upstaged by support acts. The young pair are similarly unafraid to sit outside of convention but, on last night's showing, it would be hard for anyone to upstage the originality and energy of Kiran Leonard.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Libraries Gave Us Power

One of my most vivid and abiding memories of childhood is walking with my sisters, on cold winter evenings, through the estate where we grew up, to the library at its centre. It is more than likely that my mum simply wanted us out of the house at a time of year when early darkness prevented playing out in the street. I was grateful to be banished from the house, though: the library was a magical place and I can still recall the thrill of being issued with my own borrowing card for the first time.

As I got older, the library became even more important to me: I often think that, because of the chaos of my 1970s comprehensive school, I received a better education in my local Council-run library. It was from there that I borrowed books by Dickens, Greene and Orwell that my dad had suggested to me. We were a reading family and there were always books at home when I was growing up but most of them came from the library; as in most working class families at that time, the only books I was bought were for birthday or Christmas presents.

Today, technology has made reading more accessible and books are cheaper to buy but, for a lot of people in austerity Britain, they are still relatively expensive. When there are mouths to feed, spending £30 on three of four books is a luxury. That is why our public libraries are just as important as ever, particularly for the young and the elderly. Whenever I visit my local library in Hailsham it is always busy with people accessing books and information technology.

However, since the massive cuts to local government spending begun by George Osborne in 2010, libraries have been under attack all over the country. The Daily Mirror reported yesterday that, in 2015, the equivalent of two libraries were permanently closed every week and spending on library services was cut by £50 million. With the exception of Pevensey Bay library - closed a year ago due to flooding and, mysteriously, still not re-opened - so far in my area, libraries have not suffered from large-scale cuts. However, that might be about to change.

As part of £90 million of cuts over the next three years, Tory-controlled East Sussex County Council wants to reduce library spending by £500,000 this year by cutting opening hours at all 24 libraries in the county by 25%. Although no closures are planned yet, with a further £1.5 million of savings to be identified in the following two years, this is clearly the first step in diminishing the library service in East Sussex and should be opposed; libraries should not be sacrificed in the name of austerity. Consultation on the proposals begins tomorrow and you can find details, and have your say, here.

It is important to fight to protect our libraries as they are transformative places: for those who are isolated, they provide a connection to the world; for those who realise the value of education and knowledge, they are empowering; for those with seemingly limited opportunities, they are a gateway to a better life. And they have great books.