Who exactly is John Fleming? I know he organises the Malcolm Hardee awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, I know he put together a collection of short stories written by comedians called ‘Sit-Down Comedy’ and I know he does a blog everyday that’s features some great stories, such as, the time he worked with Steve Martin or when Kate Copstick bought African prostitutes vibrating cock rings. I’ve met him and drunk coffee with him on several occasions, and he was incredibly helpful when I was putting my book together and in publicising it. Apart from these things, I don’t know that much about him.
The one thing that always I’ve consistently thought after my encounters with him is “B*llocks, I should have asked him about…..”. So I made a list of all the questions I have been meaning to ask him, and John has answered them.
We’ll start with some biographical info. You’ve achieved a lot of stuff over the years and I’m not quite sure what you have and haven’t done in your career. Would you like to give us the highlights?
I worked as a TV researcher on ‘Tiswas’, ‘Game For a Laugh’, ‘Surprise Surprise’ and ‘The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross’. I got “typed” as a finder of odd acts and, on ‘The Last Resort’, was de facto head of sexual oddities, possibly because no-one else could face talking to the people.
Infantalism, now there’s a thing. Grown men who like to dress up as babies. There’s some money to be made in producing scaled-up versions of nappies and dummies for the fuller figure. After that, comedians seemed relatively level-headed and ordinary.
What about the low lights?
Arriving at ‘The Last Resort’ one season too late to deal with The Amazing Orchanté, an act who pulled string from his stomach. I wish I could have handled him – figuratively speaking. But I did bring Monsieur Mangetout over from Switzerland. He ate aircraft. It’s swings and roundabouts really. I remember a circus providing me with a one-humped Bactrian camel for ‘Tiswas’. I was not well-pleased. A child had written-in saying he wanted to ride between the humps of a camel. The circus guy swore blind to me that this clearly uni-humped creature was actually a two-humped Bactrian camel and it was just the way the humps were configured. The camel appeared to be as grumpy as I was. I think he had expected to be on a better class of show.
Are you 100% freelance these days?
I’ve been freelance since 1979. I’m 100% available for hire to do anything anywhere (at a price) for anyone, especially Baby Spice. Well, I might not charge Baby Spice.
‘Sit-Down Comedy’ is 10 years old this year. How did the book come about and how did you get involved?
I approached Ebury Press (part of Random House) with an idea for a book to be compiled by Malcolm Hardee et moi. The editor turned down the idea, but said he had been thinking of compiling an anthology of stories written by comedians and Malcolm obviously had the contacts to make it happen. The editor foolishly told me to let the contributors know they did not have to be funny, so the comics — of course — delivered stories about beheadings and all sorts of dark things, making the title ‘Sit-Down Comedy’ pointless. It should, perhaps, have been called ‘Sit-Down Comedians’.
Author’s note: I’ve had a copy of ‘Sit-Down Comedy’ in a pile of books on my bedside cabinet for about eight years and wasn’t until a few months after I first exchanged emails with John I realised it was the same bloke. I finally brought it up in an email to him mentioning that I liked the book and that my two favourite stories were Stewart Lee‘s and Tim Vine‘s. Only to discover that they were the only two stories in the book John hadn’t touched at all.
Tell us about the Stewart Lee and Tim Vine stories?
What was the biggest challenge with ‘Sit-Down Comedy’?
Getting the bastards to deliver. One now-famous comic kept saying he was going to give us a story over the course of a year. Two weeks before the final deadline, I had to (correctly) assume he was not going to do it. Coordinating 18 comics (19 if you include Malcolm) it really was like juggling jellyfish or spaghetti.
Ever thought about doing a follow-up?
No. It did not sell well, though it is now available to download as an e-book. To an extent, the problem was that bookshops do not have a specific section for short stories and did not know whether to put it under Fiction — and, if so, where to put it alphabetically… or Humour, where it got lost among jumbled books of cartoons and children’s stuff.
Are there any plans for reissuing ‘I stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake’?
If I pull my finger out, I will re-issue it (possibly in its original form) as an e-book and as a print-on-demand paperback. The original, much better version, was not totally chronological and each chapter ended on a cliffhanger.
What are your forthcoming projects?
This year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards. They will run until 2017 because I had all the trophies made in advance. An e-book of my 2010-2011 blogs. The autobiography of a Guinness record holder. The biography of someone who was a Soviet sleeper agent during the Cold War. And a couple of other things I can’t and won’t talk about because I feel it might be unlucky. At the moment, I have to write a speech for a man in Kiev.
You’ve kept up your blog for well over a year now adding to it daily. Is it difficult to keep coming up with stuff each day?
Not that difficult. I started in TV by writing daily continuity announcements for announcers on ITV. I hope I can write about anything. What I am trying to do is write blogs which are individually interesting but to insert running subsidiary characters and threads which will make them equally or more interesting if read chronologically in an e-book. That means I can justifiably leech off other people’s deeds, ideas and tape-recorded words.
Reading the blogs chronologically should be a whole different experience. They might occasionally be slightly too long as individual blogs. But they should be the right length when read as part of a single ‘story’ of interwoven threads. I would call them “Pepys into life in the early 21st century”, except that selling-line needs more work done on it and it sounds a bit too wanky for its own good.
That’s a very good question.
I fancy a sequel called “Killer Christ”. The selling line would be “He’s back – And this time he’s mad as hell!”
But quit while you’re ahead, I guess.
Most low-budget films are put together by the writer or the director. You don’t seem to have had anything creative to do with it, purely the financing of it. Why did you get involved?
I had worked with the writer-director Liam Galvin on-and-off over 20 years — he used to perform in the children’s show ‘Playbus’ as well as bits in ‘Game For a Laugh’. The cost was ridiculously low because he had his own camera, edit suite etc. If I were making that sort of film myself, I would not want interference, so I kept out of it; I just enabled it.
Any advice for wannabe movie producers based on your ‘Killer Bitch’ experience?
Reconsider. It used to be that low-budget genre films — sex, violence, horror — were pretty much guaranteed to make returns… Originally at drive-ins, then via VHS and DVD. But internet piracy is unstoppable and the core audience for low-budget genre films has the same profile as the people most likely to download movies from pirate sites.
You first visited the fringe in the 80s, although you attended the film festival during the 70s. How many have you been to now?
No idea. I started going to the Film Festival every year from around 1975, as a film reviewer; I guess I started going to the Fringe around 1982 or 1983. Shortly afterwards, alternative comedy shows started taking over from Fringe theatre productions.
Do you go every year for the full run?
Yes. If you can afford to, it is the only way to really experience the Fringe. I used to have relatives in Edinburgh, so the accommodation was free. The last few years, I have had to pay. I have to tell you that paying for accommodation in Edinburgh in August is not a pleasant experience for a Scot brought up among Jews.
What are your favourite shows and moments from all those fringes?
I did enjoy seeing Doktor CocaColaMcDonalds for the first time. And have continued to enjoy his shows.
When did you first meet Malcolm?
We could never remember. It must have been around 1985 or 1986 when I was a researcher on ‘Game For a Laugh’ and he was managing/promoting comedy acts. I went along to the Tunnel Club to see various acts which he put on and/or managed. From there it was a downward spiral of entrapment.
The Malcolm Awards branched out into debate shows in the last couple of years. What were the conclusions to last years question. Are comedians death obsessed masochists? Racist or sexist does it matter if it’s funny?
The conclusion was that it worked as a publicity stunt to get attention. I may eat guinea pigs in the Royal Mile this year.
One of the other one-off events you did was ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s The Malcolm Hardee Spaghetti-Juggling Contest – Year One’, did anyone successfully juggle spaghetti?
The juggler Mat Ricardo had a fair stab at it. It is, of course, not actually possible. But I have never seen a 100% racing-certainty guaranteed impossibility act as a deterrent to attempting to do something. As Malcolm Hardee used to say, “It’s a game, innit? Fuck it. It don’t matter.“
† Irrelevant footnote: The story ‘I’ll Only Go if You Throw Glass’ features a character possibly based on Ted Chippington