Wednesday, 29 June 2011

My interview with John Cleese about Bath, his tour and sausages.

This interview originally appearted in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, June 16

There are many reasons why people say they love Bath and choose to make their home here.

The architecture, the history, the sense of community and the sheer variety of the city's cultural offering all feature highly when you ask people what brought them here.

For Monty Python legend John Cleese - who is about to embark on a five night stint at the Theatre Royal - many of the factors already mentioned come into play. But so too do sausages. Or at least a particular shop that sells them.

"One of the things I love about Bath is that although it isn't a very big city, it has some wonderful shops, " he enthuses

"You go into a store like Jolly's and you see people who've been doing the job for 30 years and really know their stuff and take care and attention with everything that they do. And then you look at the shop like The Sausage Shop and realise that it's a masterpiece of its kind. There can'tbe better one like it in England and I love it. You also have a jewellers like Mallory's which is such a classy, impressive place but is still very friendly. A shop like that in London would be really snotty but not here in Bath. These places are run and staffed by the Somerset people that I've grown up with and feel at home with and I really love being here as a result," he said.

It is not, of course, only the lure of shopping that has brought the 71-year-old star to the city. He has fallen in love with jeweller Jenny Wade and together they have a home on Royal Crescent. It is near the Royal Crescent hotel - a world famous hotel and one which is a million miles away from the now equally famous Fawlty Towers which bought Mr Cleese such rich comedy pickings in the 1970s.

Cleese says he currently only lives in the city for up to three months of the year for tax reasons. That is because he is currently towards the end of paying nearly $20 million in alimony to his American ex-wife and there are complicated and costly tax implications in altering his current arrangements. It is the reason why he unashamedly calls his one-man show The Alimony Tour as the proceeds will help him to pay off his huge cross-Atlantic debt.

"I do talk about my divorce in the show and the money I need to raise and that is why it was originally called The Alimony Tour. I think there's certain elements of relationships that must remain confidential but there are a lot of things that all people can relate to which is why I am happy to talk about it.

"I still need to pay $4.5 million to my ex-wife and I have to think about that a lot which is a shame because money is not and never has been my main motivation. To be honest if I was asked what is my favourite thing to do it is definitely writing. The only problem is there is not much money in it which is why I have to do all the other things such as touring, doing shows and travelling around. Still I am very busy and at the age of 71 I can't really complain."

Despite the fact that the winter cold is very much a turn off for the actor, he will definitely be in Bath on November 17 to switch on the Christmas lights as exclusively revealed in the Chronicle last week. It was an offer he said he couldn't refuse because despite those wintery shivers he said the Christmas he enjoyed in the city last year was second to none.

"I am delighted to have been asked to switch on the Christmas lights and I know this has become a very big thing for the city. I had the best Christmas I'd ever had in Bath last year thanks to Jenny and her family. They went out of their way to make sure I had a great time - and I did. So I am really looking forward to the switch on and having the chance to meet more local people," he said.

Switching on the lights will be the latest opportunity for Cleese to show his obvious public affection for his new British home. But what else - apart from those sausages of course - is it that appeals to the comedian about Bath?

"I love Bath because it feels familiar and comfortable and the people here are warm, friendly and open. They do take an interest in you which is nice but they are not too intrusive with it.
They're always polite when they recognise you and I feel comfortable with that as opposed to having people come over thrusting their hands at you and demanding a handshake. When that happens 20 times a day - especially if you are in the middle of a conversation - that is very intrusive. In Bath it doesn't seem to be like that - people just seem to be a lot more respectful."

It is because of all these reasons that Cleese is so pleased to end his tour at the Theatre Royal with five consecutive nights from Tuesday June 28 to Saturday July 2. So what can Bath people expect on those nights?

"The show starts off with a couple of minutes about the alimony and then moves into some autobiographical stuff before going through my career. It obviously focuses on the points that people remember most such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda but I also enjoy talking about some of the lesser known things that have happened in my career and the people I have been lucky enough to work with. The audiences have seemed to really enjoy it all so far which is very encouraging."

For a man who has been part of some of great comedy ensembles to be actually performing as a soloist could have been daunting. But over the years he has started to really enjoy the challenge and the fact that he is always warmly received is the best killer of nerves that he knows.

"I have worked in teams a lot so when I first started just doing one man shows it was quite difficult, especially as I wasn't sure how people would react to me. Now I feel far more confident because in a sense the audience has pre-selected themselves. They wouldn't want to come and buy tickets to see me unless they were interested in what I had to do so I always receive a good reaction when I come onto the stage and that sets things off to a fine start."

Although there are plenty more international one-man shows to come Cleese had always planned to finish the tour in Bath and the appeal of the Theatre Royal is not just that he can walk home from the show afterwards but that it is, for him, a perfect venue. Along with his former Python colleagues, Cleese has appeared in some huge shows but given a choice between appearing at a packed stadium or in a small theatre there is no question which one Weston-Super-Mare's most famous export prefers.

"I'm really looking forward to playing at the Theatre Royal because it's the kind of intimate theatre which I really enjoy. I couldn't imagine ever doing a large scale arena with my solo show because I like to have contact with all the audience and some of the best shows on my current tour have been to the smallest capacity venues.

"Eddie Izzard is a friend of mine and he told me how much he loves playing those stadium shows but I can't imagine going out in front of 10,000 people and having the same kind of impact as I hopefully can have in a place such as the Theatre Royal. That is why I'm going to do the official DVD of the tour in Bath because I wanted to record it in a venue that suits the show. I am already looking forward to it."

Tickets for the Theatre Royal show are now available and selling fast but if you aren't lucky enough to catch one of those nights then don't forget Cleese will be on stage in Milsom Street for the Christmas lights switch event on November 17. Oh, and before then you can probably also catch him in The Sausage Shop at some point.

Off to Glasto - but no longer as a 'virgin'

This first appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, June 23 - the day before Glastonbury.

This weekend I am off again to indulge in Somerset's biggest annaul party - the Glastonbury Festival.

I say 'again' because this will be my third annual trek which means I can now, thankfully, shake off the much sneered at 'Glasto virgin' tag while not yet, sadly, being able to join the league of those oh-so-cocky 'Glasto veterans'.

However, ex-virgin as I may be, from the feedback I received from writing about my pre-Glastonbury fears over the past couple of years I know there is likely to be the odd first-timer reading this now.

They will be looking for reassurance that they have made the right decision to risk life, limb and dodgy toilets for the sake of a bit of music played out in a farmyard.

Well, if that is you and you are looking forlornly at your camping gear and constantly checking the dreary weather forecast, then can I just say, 'relax'.

You are about to have a ball.

A muddy ball perhaps - but a ball nevertheless.

However, I still do know where those fears are coming from.

I remember as a camping first-timer - let alone a Glasto one - sharing my anxieties a few days before my first Glastonbury two years ago. I was convinced that I was the wrong age (40something) and, well, the wrong type of person (don't ask) to lie around in a field of mud no matter how much I was tempted by the music.

But, lo and behold, on my first visit I soon realised Glasto's greatest asset - it's total freedom. This means there is simply no such thing as a 'wrong' person for this party. And that is because:

  • It is impossible to be too old.

  • It is impossible to be too young.

  • It is impossible to wear the wrong thing.

  • No one cares a fig what you look like, where you are from or what you do.

  • No one cares a fig for anything other than having a good time.

  • The toilets are excellent.

And only one of those is a lie.

Of course, for all of us going down the no doubt jammed roads towards Pilton it is the music which is the greatest magnet of all and the festival has really pulled out the stops this year to get some top-class performers on the bill.

But, and I can't stress this enough, what will make the trip for so many of us is that Glastonbury is about so much more than what comes out of those speakers. Someone once told me you could enjoy Glastonbury without even seeing a band - I would not have believed it before but I do now because this is a multi-faceted event which provides a unique bonding experience for virgins, veterans, et al.

Oh, and if you are a first-timer and you are really worried about those legendary Glastonbury toilets, then bear this in mind. If you don't like one loo then there are no fewer than 3,224 others to try. Fear not.

So, on with the wellies.

And on with the show.

Yes you CAN write that book. Ask Moira.

This first appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursdsay, June 16.

It is often said that there is a book in everyone. That is probably right - but what is said less often is that in most cases it is a bad book. Just because everyone could potentially write a book doesn't mean that everyone should.

Despite that, there is no doubt that many of us dream of one day walking into a local bookstore and seeing our name on the front of a fiction or non-fiction bestseller. It must be one of the most commonly daydreamed ambitions we all share.

And that is why it is always a joy when you see someone's dream realised - and tonight in Bath I will get a chance to do just that.

When Moira Young first joined us here at The Bath Chronicle as a PA we all immediately warmed to her. Witty, intelligent and full of ideas she added a real spark to the room and it wasn't long before she said that, happy as she was to be working part-time for us, her real energy and passion was devoted to writing good quality children's fiction.

She told me she already had a good story in her mind and thankfully her tale was slowly coming to fruition on the page as well.

Over the weeks, Moira revealed more and more about her potential book and I could usually tell by her mood how it was going. She poured a lot of herself into it and agonised when it didn't seem to be going as she hoped. This book clearly meant a lot to her and she was determined to get it right.

Well, she did.

And how!

For as you may have read in theses pages previously, when Moira put her work of teen fiction 'out there' it created a virtual stampede from publishers.

It was snapped up for release in a number of countries and the fact that, in an almost unprecedented way, the legendary film director Ridley Scott said he wanted to buy the film rights for this (an as then unpublished work by an unknown author) only accelerated the general excitement for the work.

Now it is finally out and tonight Moira will find herself in Waterstone's here in her hometown Bath, signing copies. Lovely.

I am thrilled for Moira and I hope she goes on to huge success but I hope her tale also enthuses and excites lots of other people that if you do have a dream you should pursue it.

That applies to everything, of course, but I am particularly addressing all of those who think they have that book in them.

I am certain that applies to so many people, including many who have never admitted it to another soul.

Of course, not everyone can have their books published and indeed not everyone will get remotely near finishing the books they may start with great enthusiasm.

But some people will - and some people will get published.

And if you don't believe me then ask Moira. Ask her tonight at around 6.30pm when she is signing copies of Blood Red Road at Waterstone's.

Every epic journey requires that first step and every book requires that first word.

So what are you waiting for?

Write away.

Right away.

The joy of being a talent judge. An unbiased one of course.

This first appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, June 9.

Talent. It's such a small word but it is one as we have seen both locally and nationally recently which is incredibly subjective.

There is no scientific method of defining if one person is more talented than another and that is why anything that constitutes a talent show brings with it potential controversy and debate aplenty. That should be all part of the fun of course - although not everyone sees it that way as I will explain .. .

I have been lucky enough to have helped judge two talent competitions in recent weeks - Komedia's Bath's Top Talent contest and last Thursday's Song For Bath finale and both interestingly were in the same week as the Britain's Got Talent finale which itself filled acres of newsprint.

What united the verdict in all three competitions is that not everyone agreed with the end result. And that is fine. How boring would it be if we had?

Take the wonderful Song For Bath contest for instance.

I was one of a panel of judges that helped select the superb winner, The Golden City by Charlie Groves. It was one of ten songs in the final, all of which I think could easily have won. But after a totally fair and independent judging process we emerged with a victor and felt confident we had hit on a real, deserving winner.

However, by Monday morning our website featured a handful of critical comments from people querying the result.

The word "fix" was used because a couple of the judges had connections with the winner. The fact that between the judging panel we probably had connections with most of the losers as well seems to have been overlooked. Someone knew someone who had won - so it must be a fix surely?

Well, no.

The winner won because he had written the best song. And as such I think it is a shame that people who didn't agree with the verdict just could not accept that not everyone can have the same opinion.

As I've mentioned before in this column, due to the nature of my job as editor I have judged many kinds of events and contests and you may be surprised at how often genuinely arrived-at decisions are later queried or moaned about .

I can fully understand the disappointment of people that don't win who think they should - our newspaper has been up for some awards we didn't win and I have probably mumbled a few criticisms myself - but I always think that if you are happy enough to accept the plaudits of victory, you should be prepared to deal with the probably more frequent examples of defeat too. It's called life.

So I want to end this on a more positive note because the two local talent competitions I've helped judged recently have both been of a fantastic standard and they have proved that yes, Bath has got talent in all shapes and sizes. I've seen choirs, jugglers, comedians, rock acts and singers of all ages and it has been enormous fun to watch.

And, having sat through several tortuous hours of the Britain's Got Talent programme last week, I think we have got more genuine talent here than virtually anywhere else.

Or, perhaps, I am just biased?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

How I nearly fell out love with football...

There are not many things in my life which are cast-iron certainties but one of them is that I love football. Always have, always will.

Or, so I thought . . .

For, as the last ball of the season was kicked this week I realised just how much the past football season had actually passed me by and I wondered if I was alone among my fellow footil fans in feeling this.

The reason I think that this has been a season that I will happily forget almost instantly is that although I still regard this as the sport of sports and a truly beautiful game, the occasional ugliness it produces has really put me off.

For this, I don’t blame the teams that I follow myself – Nottingham Forest, Tamworth FC and now Bath City if you’re asking – but the game on a much broader level. It has totally tested my patience this year.

I think it was the World Cup that first started to dent my usually never-ending love affair. Like so many of my generation who are too young to truly appreciate what 1966 meant, I have had my hopes and dreams smashed and shattered so often by our national football team that I am amazed why I still keep believing.

So, at least year’s World Cup even though I wasn’t as wildly optimistic as in previous tournaments, I still harboured the secret belief that England could go against 40 years of evidence and win the big pot. The fact that they didn’t wasn’t really that much of a surprise but the way half-hearted multi-millionaires timidly screwed up my dreams in a ball and kicked them into the South African sun left quite a mark on me.

I watched our final German capitulation in the sun at Glastonbury and a quiet voice said in my ear me “never again. It’s not worth it”.

As the season duly began my enthusiasm returned a little bit – particularly watching the ultimate David’s (Blackpool) taking on the obvious Goliath’s – but then the world’s stage intervened again and the appalling way that England’s genuine and honest bid to host the 2018 World Cup was dismissed for all kinds of reasons (none of them footballing) made my enthusiasm sink again.

To see Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham smiled at by people who then stabbed them in the back made me think that football was sinking. And this week’s Stalin-esque ‘one man one vote’ reappointment of the always disgraced candidate in the election for FIFA President hardly helped. Football? Pah!


Just as I was beginning to think that my love affair with football was going to struggle to ever reach its previous heights, I saw two things this week that reminded me why I loved it in the first place.

I was sad to see a British club lose in the Champions League final on Saturday (and that is being honest, I am no stereotypical 'anti United' bore) but I felt nothing but admiration and respect for the Barcelona team that beat them. They truly played beautiful, inspiring football. Now THAT is what I call football I thought. And then on Monday the somewhat more humble Swansea – who also try to play football the right way – became our ‘new Blackpool’ and proved that unlikely dreams can come true in this splendidly infuriating game. Hallelujah.

So, England’s multi-million pound flops, FIFA and Sepp Blatter you nearly did it.
You nearly made me fall out of love with football.
But you failed.

Roll on next season.

Learn how to Skype or write a sitcom? Why not!

Learning, we are told, should be a lifetime experience. It should not end when we finally kick off the chalk dust from school or throw the graduation cap into the air. We should, instead, aim to be learning new skills for the rest of our lives.

Crucially, those skills do not always have to be career-enhancing, they can also be life-enhancing and that is why we need educational establishments that have got the nerve and imagination to give us opportunities to learn those things we may not even imagine can be taught.

And that is why I would recommend you all to take up a bit of light reading this weekend and get a copy of the Love 2 Learn prospectus which has just been released by the City of Bath College.

In this fascinating book you can find full details of the very serious courses that can help to grow (or change) your career including accounting, building, electrical engineering, plumbing, teaching et al. But, beyond that, there are hundreds of other courses which will fire your imagination and give you an opportunity to indulge an interest or a passion alongside like-minded individuals.

For, in a commendably bold move, our innovative college has invited many local enthusiasts to teach courses in subjects that go beyond the traditional academic scope. Fancy learning how to get started on Facebook? There’s a course for that. Want to learn about helping your baby to sleep or understand- ing the terrible two’s? Yes there are courses for that. Or how about learning what it’s like to be a member of an air cabin crew, how to drum, how to Skype, how to lip-read, how to cook the perfect mousse, how to taste whiskey (and no that’s not as obvious as it seems!) or even (and I have to confess this really appeals to me) how to write a TV sitcom.

Yes, courses in all of these and more are now available at the college and before people start screaming (and sadly one or two already did on our website when we told them about this story), this isn’t costing us the taxpayers a penny. For all the leisure courses you have to pay to be on them – and they will only happen if enough people subscribe. Simple.

Personally, I think this whole concept is laudable because we all want to learn new things and meet like-minded souls and colleges should be there to provide a service to the whole community. And this is certainly what Bath is attempting to do via this exciting and dazzlingly varied new programme.

Not convinced? OK, I urge you all to pick up a copy of the book and I would almost defy you not to find something that would interest you. There are courses that last just for a few hours right through to vocational ones that last several years but there really does seem to be something for everyone – including, and perhaps most importantly of all, those people who may well have thought that school and/or college had nothing more to offer them and couldn’t really teach them anything new.

Right, I’m off to fill in my application form. I look forward to joining my fellow would-be sitcom writers on March 10, 2012.