Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Resolutions 2017

Regular, loyal readers will know that every year I write 10 New Year’s Resolutions, then, at the end of the year, mark whether I’ve achieved these resolutions and make 10 more. It’s been my version of motivation all-bran – keeping me doing things productive in a world where I own a PS4 and Fifa 17 and there’s a kebab house 3 minutes walk from my front door. It’s also useful in that people read these and, sometimes, when the wind blow the right way, they become collaborative, or, at the very least I’m bullied into doing them where otherwise fear might have held me back.

So enjoy, comment on this post below, tell me yours or offer to collaborate. 2017 is here.

2016 Resolutions

  1. Finish a play and send to theatres and competitions
    DONE! So far 3 rejection letters but fuck it I sent it.
  2. Write and perform an hour long show
    FAIL! I followed up my 2015 epic show with fuck all.
  3. Direct and edit 5 short semi-improvised films
    Semi-Done! I made 10+ videos but they weren’t amazing.
  4. Write a solid 20 stand up set
    DONE! Musical comedy. Of course no-one still books me. But I did it.
  5. Go to Aberystwyth (this is because I’ve been watching Hinterland on BBC and I now want to go to Wales for some inexplicable reason – made even more odd by the fact that everyone in the series is a murderer)
    FAIL! Although I did get a new job in Wales, go to Harlech and Conwy and eat Bara Brith (sp?)
  6. Together with the other members of The Pete Turton Experience, perform a gig.
    FAIL! Pete’s fault.
  7. Write 5 new comedy songs (much reduced ambition).
    DONE with excess!
  8. Continue to do my work podcast (aiming for 20 episodes) but aim to interview: Mark Watson, George Egg, Ben Folds, Will Adamsdale, Dan Bye and Chris Stokes. Listen to it by clicking here.
    FAIL. HUGE MASSIVE FAIL.
  9. Run a half marathon (this is in every year and fails epically every year on account of my knee being screwed so I can’t actually run more than a mile…but still, it’s a tradition… see, i even just copy and paste the same tired status now…).
    FAIL – I am so unfit this is now a joke, a tragic joke at the expense of my clogging arteries.
  10. Visit the following people: Bren & Miri, Matt & Dom, Steve and Emily, Suz & Jamie, Dan and Emily, Paul and Fran (and anyone else who requests it!).
    2/6 Which is a poor show..

So there we go, a decidedly average 4/10. However I also moved towns, changed jobs and proved my Maradona style skills at comedians football. But as Newcastle fans will appreciate, we all have a bad year now and then.

2017 Resolutions

  1. Compere a gig regularly and get that key skill back.
  2. Create 5 short videos that are funny and, crucially, good.
  3. Write 10 new comedy songs and assemble them in an album.
  4. Write a new play, about cricket and murder and send to theatres
  5. Write a new hour-long storytelling show and perform it to wild acclaim.
  6. Write a new stand up projection show about truth and perform it to muted acclaim.
  7. Have piano lessons to make my songs better.
  8. Go to Aberystwyth (the new series of Hinterland is due out soon)
  9. Run a half marathon (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha)
  10. Visit the following people: Bren & Miri, Matt & Dom, Steve & Emily, Suz & Jamie, Dan & Emily, Paul & Fran, Rachel, Nigel & Holly and Robbie and Mrs Robbie.

So there we have it. Resolutions to be fulfilled and broken.

What are yours?

The Scarborough Boxing Day Tradition

Boxing day in Scarborough always seems slightly different to many places.

Not for Scarborough the simple consumption of excess chocolate and the remains of Christmas dinner. Instead we’re all seemingly lured by the call of the sea to walk around the seafront in sub-arctic conditions as lunatics paddle home-made rafts around the harbour. As hypothermia hits you might image that people retreat indoors, get a warming cup of coffee or tea, perhaps brandy to warm the cockles – nonsense, why have tea or coffee when you can get a cone of ice cream (half and half of course, I go lemon and vanilla) from the Harbour Bar – let that core temperature drop even further.

That is, they say, part one.

Part two is the Boxing Day night out. Very few places seem to have it. On Boxing Day people in normal places watch a film, or perhaps make a curry or stare at the socks they’ve been bought wondering if their personality is really so bland. Not in the ‘boro. In the ‘boro at 11am the pubs start to fill, they come from far and wide and get unbelieveably shitfaced. It builds like a wave, more and more people joining, energy building and building until carnage is unleashed at 2am and people walk triumphantly out of the Casino clutching the £4.50 they’ve “won” after spending a mere £20 on two pints and, for an unknown reason, a dry pork sandwich.

For many years I participated in this tradition. Chance to catch up with old friends, have moments with people I thought were bellends to nod and say hello while secretly wishing they’d fuck off and, of course, to dance.

It was eventful too.

There was the year I was punched in the face over a wall by a man on drugs who swiftly apologized, said he mistook me for someone else and ran off.

There was the year where deep snow fell and me and Chris McGraw played an epic game of dare to see who would walk the furthest on the frozen lake at Peasholm Park as frozen looking ducks observed.

There was Mick’s burger house (Hawaii burger with pineapple and BBQ sauce) followed by the 90 minute walk home in driving rain because taxis were booked for the next 2 hours.

Then the moment where someone I’d gone to secondary school (lots of shared classes) and sixth form didn’t recognise instead asking me if I was Chris McGraw’s brother. When I said, “no, I’m Sam” they looked confused and just backed away. It was an odd year.

Then last year came and I was too ill to do anything or go outside. The cycle had been broken. Almost.

This year was different. McGraw’s parents had moved to York, everyone our age has family and happiness, and so it was agreed that we’d move towns from Scarborough to York. What a difference a city makes. It turns out the tradition of the Boxing Night doesn’t exist in York and it was… it was… better.

Curiously quietly drinking a few pints before dancing in a packed salsa bar was really good fun. It was a nice change of scenery. It was relaxing, not pressured and a little less aggressive. It got me thinking about all the people who I used to see in that once a year moment in Scarborough and fundamentally whether it actually matters.

Here’s a thought. I have, somewhat ludicrously, 872 friends on facebook – some ex-colleagues, many friends, ex-teachers, ex-beerbuddies, ex-badminton partners and ex-ex’s (or simply ex’s) and then a huge batch of comedians – what’s interesting are the school and college friends on there who i’ve not seen for 10, 15 years, but for occasional glimpses of lives on that annual 26th Dec tour of Scarborough.

For my parents and grand parents generations this didn’t happen, i mean sure they might’ve seen people in the distance, might have heard rumours, but to have hundreds of lives a mouse click away… Lives would change, people would live, die, procreate and marry and they would be blissfully unaware. I wonder about the value of these connections, particularly ones that are lost to the past. Is it okay to let time take that connection away or is holding on a nice thing?

I’m torn. In one way I think I leads you to compare lives, to become retrospective and to immortalise people in your mind, a constant connection. The flip side is that a few years ago i reconnected, briefly with someone I knew at school and got on with them really well in a fascinating new way – i discovered a new them, the kind of discovery that can’t be made in self-curated photo album or bumper sticker status updates, but was made by going for coffee, hanging out and chatting. That moment, made me consider that those moments to reconnect can keep reappearing and that maybe social media is simply a tool to make those moments possible.

So here’s a challenge. You’ve got this far. This is over 800 words. Consider this – Should we go for a coffee or not? How much does the connection matter? And if you don’t find out how will you really know? And, ultimately, does any of it really matter?

I don’t have an answer. It might be no and that’d be okay. It could be yes and that’d be okay too. Or maybe it’s at some point in the future, when our paths next cross or when Boxing Day part two returns to Scarborough.

Rejection letters: what they say and what they mean…

I spent the last year writing a play.
It’s good.
I wrote it.
It must be.
Surely.

Sadly no-one agrees.

Lots of people say you should take rejection with a pinch of salt. I say no. Take that salt, add some lemon juice and squeeze it onto the gaping wound where you heart once beat. So here’s my guide to reading a rejection letter as a jilted playwright.

WHAT THEY SAY vs WHAT THEY MEAN

“Thank you for submitting your play”
“Thank you for testing our recently upgraded website”

“I’m afraid that on this occasion your play was not selected for further development.”
“Because we’ve already commissioned writers for the next 30 years we’ve no room at the inn.”

“we are not currently in a position to offer further feedback on your work”
“Christ alive, reading it was bad enough, I don’t want to have to consider your feelings. Also, if it turns out I was wrong I’ll look like a right dick”

“We ask therefore, that you respect a twelve month interval before sending us another script.”
“Please fuck off”

“Please be considerate of other writers”
“Please fuck off and get out of the way of writers who are better than you. Ones who we know.”

“We hope that you will not be disheartened by this decision”
“Have you considered killing yourself? That’s how we felt when reading your script, someone should pay for the 4 pages I read”

“We would also encourage you to send your script to other new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre”
“But only if you are based in London”

“We wish you all the best with your future writing.”
“Have you considered another career choice?”

“Firstly we would like to apologise for having taken so long to respond to you, it has been a particularly busy few months”
“Sorry, our role as a company devoted to new writing has taken a backseat to workshops”

“Whilst we thoroughly enjoyed reading your play, it is not one that we wish to pursue into production at this time”
“If this play was a person it would have a terminal disease. And be on fire. In a desert.”

“Best wishes, Admin Placement”
“Best Wishes, Admin Placement”

You won’t believe what he looks like today…

Seriously now.

Grow the fuck up and read the news.

Oh, and join my e-mail list.

Drowning under the weight of a thousand e-mails

When I first started writing this blog it was to have a voice. “I’ve interesting things to say” I thought, “on interesting matters”. So I started to write and it turned out very quickly that I had nothing interesting to say when I tried to write something interesting. Instead it came across as someone trying to write something profound and deep and, well, failing.

Then I moved on to writing reviews after I was offered a couple of things for free, that quickly progressed to ideas, then reviews of gigs, marketing thoughts and general musings. None of which particular interesting, but there nonetheless, building slowly to create a distorted picture of a digital me.

Part of the reason I kept the blog I think was from a sense of finding the process of writing about what’s going on in my life quite cathartic. Never with the intention of anyone reading it (which naturally begs the question “why a blog then?”) and certainly not as a cry for help, but more as a space for me to pop down what’s in my head and start that process of mentally building solutions. So if you’re reading this, then no, I don’t want to talk about it, the point of this is so I don’t have to (or have to less).

I’ve been struggling at work recently with a feeling of drowning, of being utterly overwhelmed. At first it felt like the natural beginnings of a new job but now increasingly feels like the norm. Part of the issue I think it the deluge of e-mail that we face on a daily basis. I had a moment today where i decided to try and clear my inbox. In an hour I cleared 23 e-mails. Unfortunately in that hour I received 24 e-mails. A net gain of +1 e-mail.

80% of the e-mails I receive are things that require a quick answer. It’s the 20% that’s the challenge. The ones that must be crafted, reworked to create something that causes least offense with the smallest chance of misinterpretation. It’s exhausting. Imagine writing 4 formal postal letters in an hour and you’d go mad, yet that’s what we do.

I’ve also been working away from my desk a bit in a separate office this week. It’s an odd experience being away from my team. I feel distant, but, at the same time, find i’m more focused and efficient and am able to tailor my working environment to suit me and work in a way that is best for my needs and style. The business world talks about the need for Open Plan lives, but I genuinely think that’s naive as a one-stop solution for everyone – it’s about making individuals work better to support the greater machine, rather than making the machine more uniform for ease of setting it up and our own sense of order.

I’ve been pondering if there’s a solution, a way to work more efficiently, and this is what I’ve, this evening, come up with (with help from the internet). Some of these require compromise, but all are about the greater good of getting more done in the time I have.

  • E-mail is meant to be fast and dirty so let’s make them just that, faster, quicker and shorter.
  • Offices are not bad things. Sometimes a closed door is what you need.
  • Send less e-mail. Only send an e-mail if it is strictly necessary.
  • E-mail shouldn’t be constantly on, that’s what your phone is for. Instead it should be 2 hours a day and switched off in between.
  • Voicemails are pointless. Let’s kill them off, people will ring back.
  • Ignore any e-mails cc’d to me. CC is for info, it’s not urgent. Put it on a pile for “in case it’s needed”
  • Triage e-mails into urgent, none urgent and general info.
  • Use What’s App Web or Google Hangouts for internal communications as a shorthand system to replace quick e-mails.

 

Gig Report #6 – Albion, Warrington

This is a gig I’ve done before (as compere and doing storytelling) and while I love it to pieces it can be a bit tricky sometimes.

The seating configuration is in thrust, so, as you’ll see from the video below there’s audience behind and in front of me. This means that delivery becomes harder – I realised that trying to offer nuanced facial expressions is part of where i get some laughs so I lost that a bit as well as good eye contact. I also found myself getting a bit distracted and riffing more than I should and bumping bits of material so I can hit the songs I want to test quicker.

I think the main thing I learnt was how important doing a sound check is (it was a bit unbalanced at the top) and being disciplined, it took me longer than usual to get them onside and even at the end it felt like by dicking around at the start I’d lost something.

I need a stronger song / set piece after my opening song Bestiality, it needs a follow up or something to contextualise it.  I have 3 types of songs, the crude big laugh, the smartly clever and the link. I always worry about the smartly clever and the quieter songs as they’re not belly laughs, but the addition of the link element (70s TV star here) really helps when it follow straight on, it moves from thoughtful to dark and provides a dynamic shift that I quite like.

TO DO:

  • 3 x big hitters, relatable, fun and probably a little filthy
  • 2 x smart quieter songs, more personal but poignant, maybe a waltz
  • Find another song link cycle (like 70s TV Star)

Here’s a bit of the video from the night.

 

Gig Report 4 & 5 and some stuff about theatre…

It’s been a week or two since I last put my gig report online so I thought it’d be high time to keep up and write up what’s been happening. Well, I’m now up to gig 5 of my return and I’ve still not died hideously on my arse…

Gig 4 was Danny Mc’s gig at Alexanders in Chester. I arrived horrifyingly early to discover that I was both the only act and only audience member. Turns out I was very, very early. A nice crowd of 25 people came down and it was a fun, nicely set up room. I tried a couple of new bits with some bits that I know are solid. So “70s TV Star” as a reoccurring theme was tested and seems to work nicely to keep people on their toes, although disappointingly I did the two setup verses and then entirely failed to do the big payoff punchline – if I remember to do it then I’ll be a happy man. My dialogue was a little too whimsical and I needed to develop the punchlines and throwaways that litter those sections more to get that gradual build to support the main punchlines. I ended with “I love you” which is replacing “David Cameron Song” as my closer at the moment. It’s not quite strong enough, but offers plenty of opportunity to play with the audience and demand their participation.

Gig 5 was in Bolton in a bar called Metro Rocks. The epitome of the “character building” gig, it was, nevertheless, really useful for trying some new things, albeit to a smallish audience. “Finger up my bum” works as a song, particularly if I play with the tempo. I also started playing more vocally, adding ticks and quirks to my vocals that just makes the songs more vibrant (if less musically good). I’ve noticed I’ve shied away from the quieter songs, mostly because they tend to be a bit longer, but also because they’re the more intellectually robust, Guardian reading sections of my set.

My next few gigs are Warrington’s Albion Pub this Wednesday, then Soderfest in Manchester and a gig in Wigan. I feel like I’m closing in on that point where I’d feel confident applying for paid middles, but I’m missing maybe 2 – 3 songs to get a robust 20 and also a better sense of some of the supporting material to ensure it’s rock solid. ALSO, I’m going to invest in a piano case with wheels because fuck me my back hurts from carrying kit. (If anyone wants to offer me a gig then please do, I’m also ready and probably won’t disgrace myself).

Meanwhile life in theatre land has been, well, pretty hard tbh. I’m having a period of feeling like I’m running at full pelt pretty much constantly but not actually catching up at any point. There’s a really interesting article in The Stage today by a designer saying that the boom in admin jobs has hit technical jobs. I don’t know why but my initial reaction was fuck off.

My second reaction however was more moderate.

I think there is a common lack of understanding across venue departments about what everyone does and the time it all takes. When I started in marketing the departments were bigger but since then the channels through which we have to market have increased while the resource has decreased. It’s about the understanding of roles and how we communicate what we do**.

I think what annoyed me was that I think it’s probably naive to assume that there is a singular cause and effect – that admin jobs have simply cancelled out tech jobs – it’s not as simple as that – yes that will be an effect there’s also an economy of scale, of outsourcing and competition, of changing technologies, of space and equipment that has mean that it’s happened, rightly or wrongly (I don’t know which), over the last few years. The comment is the kind that divides us rather than recognises that we are in an industry that is evolving and changing at a tremendous pace and that the effects are not limited to a single group.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a friend about theatre and he said that the problem with theatre was that it sees problems and considers that working harder is the only solution. He said that  working more efficiently would lead to better long term results but it’s often overlooked for the short term sweat. An inevitable effect of the grind, the constant churn of the day to day. I think that’s something we miss and need to find again. How do we complete our work more efficiently to create time, to enable us to ensure the quality of what we do is reflective of the great art onstage? To ensure that we are creative in a way to compliment the stage? To ensure that the day to day is automated and the important, life and business changing stuff gets the care and attention it needs?

That question is not one for 12:20am on a school night – but it’s one I’m going to ponder and get back to you about*.

Night x

 

*I wonder if I should write a blog about the 10 things to make us more efficient in theatres? Useful?
** Originally I wrote a pissy tirade in here about people saying they’ve not seen posters when shows aren’t selling. It didn’t seem that constructive in the context of the post.

 

Gig Report #3 – Pros & Coms, Liverpool

 

I was back at my old stomping grounds* down Liverpool’s Lark Lane to do a set at Pros & Coms. It’s a gig I have a long history with having compered it regularly for 2 years and it being my home gig. It’s moved venues since I performed there regularly to a bar called Milo Lounge. I have to admit, I was nervous in the first half. Not least because there was an audience of 4 of which 3 had said they “had to go at the interval”. I was on second after the break. So the break arrived, they promptly left leaving one, slightly bewildered audience member. Yet all was not lost, George, the promoter, had been raiding the street and brought in 14 willing audience members for the second half.

So how did it go?

Well, it was good. I used this as an opportunity to try 2 new bits and a regular callback of which all three worked well. The song, Finger Up My Bum, has audience participation potential and could maybe be a closing song. The call back, a repeated song called 70s TV Star which is mixed with me making comments about “them not all being guilty”, until it reached the 3rd time, I was pleased with a structural device.

It was a little odd having that structural device when I messed around with the order of the songs. So much, I realize, relies on understanding of pace, dynamic and ensuring that it has peaks and troughs**. The better and more intimate I make the drops*** then the bigger return I get from the more filthy or silly songs. I think I did around 10, aware that I didn’t want to overrun.

Did a bit of audience control which resulted in a drunk girl crying. She kept chatting, like when someone’s in the cinema and asking questions about what they’re watching and also saying things like, “it’s a song about sex”. So I shouted, comedically, this sounds bad, everyone laughed, and then she cried, but was very drunk, so although I don’t feel (too) bad about, I wonder if I should have put her down more musically rather than just yelling “shut up” like a deranged psychopath.

However, all in all a nice return to the old stomping grounds*.

 Gig rating: 7/10 – tried new bits
My Performance: 7/10 – trying new bits so not a planned performance, but okay.

*the phrase “stomping grounds” makes me sound like such a prick.
** this is the wrong word for this… I mean the quieter bits.
*** by which i mean troughs**

Gig Report #2 – Comedy Asylum

There are some gigs where you arrive and you think, “this is going to be fine”.

There are other gigs where you accidentally take a wrong turn on the way there forcing you to drive through (and pay for) the Mersey tunnel twice despite there being no need, to arrive, in Birkenhead, at a bar that looks like it’s been ripped from the set of Sons Of Anarchy.

The venue is a rock bar and I had trepidation to put it mildly. How would piano led comedy and songs work in a bar clearly more suited to rock?

It turned out to be better than fine.

Lesson 1 – Don’t judge a gig by everything you can see when you arrive.

I opened the night, always risky as you have to set the tone for the evening and I was really conscious of that. The need to be high impact, go at a furious pace and try to inject as much energy as possible into the night. I opened with “Now are you ready to rock” which, in a new development, I managed to play mostly right. It’s the simplest part of my entire set  but I seem to lose the timings quite a lot. I followed that with “beasteality” which worked really nicely.

Lesson 2 –  Make sure each song is supported by two “talking” punchlines or moments.

The set was probably one of the strongest I’ve done in the musical guise, with the opening particularly getting much better. I lagged in the middle, the songs lacking adequate supporting jokes or content to make it interesting. Missed out the call back with the “70s TV Star” AGAIN. I swear to god if I ever remember to do it it’ll be the best part of the set.

Had a lovely improv moment halfway through a song the audience were lukewarm about where I changed it to a song about an audience member. Caught people off guard and the unpredictability seemed to be effective.

Lesson 3 – Improv is good, but needs to be controlled to ensure it doesn’t just become an improv thing.

Ended with the Tory song (formerly David Cameron) which doesn’t quite work now it’s been rewritten. It needs a figure of hate more strongly in it. Also I failed to bring 2 x new songs with me that I wanted to try. Overall though a fun gig with lots of great feedback afterwards. Still, however, lots to work on before I ask for pro-gig trial spots or try it at pro-gig tryout nights.

Gig rating: 7.5/10 – fun for trying new bits
My Performance: 7.5/10 – much better but with a noticeable drop in the middle and a weak(ish) ending

 

Gig Report #1 – Tiger Lounge, Manchester

So I’ve started again.

I realised the other day that it’d been 12 months since I did a proper set, what with the excess MCing I’ve been up to, so I approached this gig at first with trepidation. I’ve put this as gig #1, in reality it’s probably gig #180ish, but it feels like I’m making a new start at stand up so hence the restarting of the numbering system. In reality though, the nerves weren’t really there, it was excitement and I felt mostly pretty at ease on stage.

The first time I did this I was, as a very new act, incredibly brutal, focused on my feelings lots and also, quite naturally had a complete lack of perspective. Every gig was life changing, a step down the road to going pro. Now I’m older, further along, my ambition as changed to not necessarily wanting to be a professional, but definitely wanting to be better than everyone else.

So the gig. It’s a lovely night run by Tuesday Tony with a huge amount of acts trying 5 min slots. I was in a section on my own as a “musical interlude” which either helped or hindered, it’s hard to tell, most likely made little difference. It was a mixed audience, one table quite hard work and then well supported by surrounding tables. Probably about 25 in.

I did a musical set and learned one thing straight away – keyboards (and associated kit) are heavy. I totted up the weight of kit and with cables, spares, stands etc it comes in around 30kg. My back now kills and I think I’ve pulled a tendon in my knee.

Lesson 1 – get a lightweight, fold-able keyboard stand.

The opening was pretty weak, I tried to do the clubland (“are you ready to rock”) and it didn’t really work. However when I improvised at the start around the audience I got them on board really quickly. It plays to my strengths of MCing and also being able to listen, assess and then improvise something short and sweet quickly.

Lesson 2 – improv song at the start is a good place to go from

The Bestiality song, needs to be 2 lines and that’s it – any more labours the point and actually it’s punchier and means I can talk nicely and get to know the front row. I followed this with the Racism song. This was far too early for this, it needs something bigger before it as it’s very quiet and reserved. The racism song works, needs more context to tie it together and make people listen – maybe i need to talk about me and breadmaking? It needs to be more delicate to really find the contrast in the songs otherwise they can meld together.

I followed this with I Love You (Like I Love Creme Eggs). Generally was okay, playing the pauses for people to have the gross out moment works well – didn’t play the last verse which is a shame as it ties it together. Ended with the new Wedding Song which worked beyond my expectations, not really a closing number but a solid middle item I suspect. The context again needs fixing, I forgot the accompanying material which was fine but it’s important to have it so that I’m heading in the direction of comedian who does music, rather than musical comedian.

I need to work out how to structure the songs so that there’s a flow and so I can be responsive in the moment. Tricky while I’m still learning them. I think I need them printed on card rather than in a notebook so I can play with the order as I go.

Lesson 3 – print out set on carboard.

All in all, fun and useful.

Gig rating: 7/10 – fun for trying new bits
My Performance: 6/10 – hit and miss but done with gusto

 

When Ideas Come Thick & Fast

I’ve just got back from a week at Edinburgh Fringe, supposedly a holiday, but, invariably the combination of sprinting venue to venue in the driving rain, up flights of steps, shoving teenagers flyering their student production of 4:48 Psychosis out of the way and into the path of oncoming unicyclists advertising their one man Lord Of The Flies show can, on occasion, be a little tiring.

It was a lot of fun, nice to see some familiar faces. It was also the first year that our viewing became much more heavily theatre rather than stand-up. In part it was where we were staying, closer to Summerhall than my traditional hangouts of The Stand. As most of you know I’ve tended to do a theatre show every couple of years to “keep my hand in” the creative side and so, as it’s been 2 years that urge is coming back.

I’ve been writing a play for about 6 months called Opposition which I’ve nearly finished that will scratch that itch, invariably until a huge pile of rejection letters cascades through my letterbox. To sell it slightly – it’s the story of a humble MP who against the odds become leader of the opposition, fighting their cause with honesty and integrity – it’s the story of how people can be broken and how power is concentrated so that the democracy we have is different to the democracy we believe we own. When I started writing it seemed to voyage into the land of fantasy, but gradually over the last 6 months that fantasy has become increasing more real to the extent where, unlike anytime in my life, I think I’ve written something in tune with the zeitgeist. Will it ever be produced? Probably not.

The trip to Edinburgh however was great as it opens your mind to things you could be doing, and it was there that thoughts kept popping in my head. I’d like to share a few of them here – maybe you want to talk to me about one, or be gently encouraging, or simply ask to read the first page.

  • A story cycle called “12 stories about love”. It’s 12 short 5 minute stories about love, all which link. Accompanied by a double bass and acoustic guitar, improvising a soundtrack to it.
  • Stand up with a keyboard playing silly songs.
  • A projection show about self, about who we are, perceptions of who we are and how we discover our faults. So about love then. And excel. And possibly about death and what we want to do before we die.

I’ve not really written about why I moved away from wanting to create work in the last 2 years. It was, in truth, a couple of reasons. Firstly it felt like opportunity wasn’t there – producing Gaffer on a shoestring was a lot of fun. It was the intention to do the Liverpool run and then, after a short break, tour the show. We had strong indications that it might be able to tour to Sweden and it felt amazing. Then the rights were pulled by the writer and that was that. There was no follow up, a change in artistic leadership shortly after and the trust you’ve earned as a creative to do that sort of project is gone, helped on its way my my own lack of fight I suspect.

I think I’ve always imagined that I’ve got a thick skin and can endure disappointment well, what I now realise is that creatively, whether it’s standup, theatre or storytelling, I also don’t believe that I belong there. This sounds like an incredibly negative post, but I think it’s about self identification and the bravery to say what you are when it’s not what you do.

A good friend of mine once, rather astutely pointed out that the difference between a normal person and a consultant is that the latter says they’re a consultant and the former believes it. This same person also, astutely (they were having a very astute day), noted that the difference between them and us is they do not say. Admittedly we were watching the football at the time, but still, the point stands. Artists describe themselves as artists and do. They don’t say they’re writing a book, they’re doing.

As I get older I wonder where I shall end up, why/how/should we make that jump to something that’s not where we’re at, should it be done with a safety net or without. I wonder about happiness and what it even is – it’s not like the movies nor is it a constant, but how do we know when we’ve peaked, or should we never believe that? Maybe happiness is raising your average contentment to a point where you’re indifferent and unwilling to break the status quo? I wonder where I am on that scale, and whether being on a scale is good or bad. All the questions life doesn’t prepare you to answer.

Or maybe I just need a holiday on a beach somewhere.

Night x

Edinburgh Fringe 2016

I thought I’d write up a little about some of the shows I see this year!

Chris Stokes: The Man Delusion
A nice show by a comedian I really rate and admire, he has a real like-ability that comes from avoiding the cliches of the ego-driven stand-up and instead being low key and incredibly humble on stage. His material is relate-able but also clever in sending you the wrong direction with some clever pull back and reveals and intelligent wordplay.

Growth by Luke Norris
A great play about a man finding himself in the face of a testicular cancer scare. Incredibly funny I think that Luke Norris writes some of the best, wittiest dialogue around (reminds me of Tim Firth sometimes!) and a clever way of playing with time and structure. I love playwrights who adhere to the get in quick get out quick mentality of writing but who don’t sacrifice character by doing it. Well acted and directed in Edinburgh’s most lovely venue.

Lucy Porter: Consequences
I’ve been watching Lucy Porter perform, I realised today, for over 12 years. This show (which we went to with my parents) was clever and while not world-changing or life-changing gave astute and hilarious observation, had a real connection with its older audience and had a genuine warmth about it.

David O’Doherty: Big Time
A mixed night really. I love David O’Doherty, he’s brilliant, clever, anarchic and silly. His new show is no exception with all the wonderful tropes and traits in this as have been present in his other shows. The venue however was disappointing (Assembly Hall) with poor sight-lines, high ceilings and a lack of connection for the full audience – you want each laugh to boom, to be all encompassing, the roll and echo – but although the show was as funny as ever the room didn’t work as well for me – that said, I’d gone to the wrong venue in advance (George Square not Assembly Hall), so maybe I was just a bit pissy.

Daniel Kitson
Work in progress for a show that will in all likelihood never happen. It was really interesting to see new material being workshopped. A very friendly room – I always have that question about the credit in the banks famous comedians have that makes testing material and getting an unbias opinion hard to come by. That said, I fucking loved it.

The Pianist
Probably my favourite show again – brilliant physical theatre for all ages about a man trying and failing to deliver a piano recital – had some minor changes since the last time I saw the show – superb.

Meet Fred
Some lovely puppetry damaged by bad writing, dubious direction and examining the over theatricality of the show – being meta I think it’s called – all in all it felt like some very talented people had created something that lacked conviction and clarity and was a piece by theatre folk, for theatre folk, with all the injokes that go with it.

4D TV
I’ve never taken crack. Or coke. Or ecstasy. This show was a little like what I imagine snorting all those would be like. The first half was a fake story about Marlene Dietrick the second half was the first half reversed telling the real story. It was utterly bizarre which had a huge amount of experimentation and technical ability but lacked precision, presentation, direction and clarity.

Showstopper!
A nice show where a new musical is improvised from scratch. Great performers and some brilliant vocals but I thought it suffered in the same way much improv can by feeling like it became too complex to resolve the story and occasionally a little self centred. Fun!

Max & Ivan
Probably my favourite of their shows since Con Artists, their show is slick, quick and clever with a real understanding of how story arcs work and how to build empathy while not losing the funny. Also the pants were very tight.

Phil Nichol
A best of show featuring extracts from all the shows he’s done in Edinburgh. Interesting and a bold, in yer face performer who has more nuance and acting ability that many actors I’ve seen.

The Duke
Storytelling by Hugh Hughes about the curious relationship between himself, the refugee crisis, his mother and a model of the Duke of Wellington. I really wanted it to work but it felt like it would benefit from being slicker and from a directorial eye – I kept wanting pace changes and the link between the two stories to be stronger and feel symbiotic rather than incidental.

Mark Watson: I’m Not Here
Quality show from the man I apparently look like – very funny, perhaps without the strength of narrative that his previous show had but incredibly funny and bold and with a clever device to raise the energy on 45 mins. Ace.

Empty Beds
A clever one-location show about three sisters going to visit their brother in a mental institute. Clever writing to capture those personality clashes and traits that occupy siblings, the effect on choices they make on their relationships and how we talk about mental health.

The Blind Date Project
A clever directed improvised show where a girl goes on a blind date with a different person each night. Our night she was set up with Nina Conti. It was a clever and moving glimpse that felt voyeuristic but also very cleverly performed. The key was that it was played as a team rather than any sort of oneupmanship and it was dynamic and oddly moving.

Love, Lies and Taxidermy
Another show in roundabout (my favourite Edinburgh venue). Fast paced storytelling from a shit-hot cast with really clever direction and technical support. The same cast as Growth, I preferred Growth as the subject matter appealed more, but this had a whimsical edge that raised a smile..

John Gordillo
A great stand up this at times felt like two shows – one about a man’s breakdown and the other about how data is mined and we assess the world around us. There is an amazing show waiting when these two are successfully linked but at the moment it felt like two separate shows without a strong enough sense of connection.

Things I also saw or heard good things about:

  • The Flanagan Collective
  • Bilal Zafar: Cakes
  • Brennan Reece
  • Zoe Lyons
  • Kill The Beast: He Had Hairy Hands
  • Austentatious

 

 

 

AMA Reflection 2016

It’s become a bit of a tradition that on the way home from the AMA conference I gather my thoughts and write a blog post about the events and things it has raised. Luckily this year’s conference was in Edinburgh so I’ve a full 4 hours until I get home to do “thought gathering” – I’m sure when the AMA is eventually held in Liverpool it’ll put a stop to this (35 mins is too quick a journey!). I want to start with a few thoughts about what was said at the conference and what thoughts I had as a result and then move on to the conference itself.

This year’s theme was “On A Mission To Matter” – a worthy theme – looked at organisational relevance. My thoughts however, although vaguely linked to the theme were more about the broader role of marketing and theatre itself. My notes from yesterday can be found by clicking here and there’s a few bullet points about today’s sessions below.

  • Plan or Canvas?
    Should we be creating plans that work on a 3 – 5 year basis or look at a more canvas approach which places values at the centre rather than the achievement of statistical or financial values? I’m not sure. I think there is probably an issue in the arts with the length of arts funding and how planning is achieved. It’s often said in politics that the first few years of a Presidency they can actually achieve something but then all their time becomes devoted to re-election. I wonder if, with a 3 year funding cycle, organisations can spend the 3rd year worrying about re-election rather than action – also whether the current revenue model where organisations are fulfilling requirements of the funders means that we have organisations being too broad in their remit to guarantee funding. Is specialism better than breadth? I suspect they should compliment but I’m not sure it’s seen very often.
  • Inclusiveness
    I wrote a lot of notes which were about breaking down barriers – both internally and externally. How do we keep those on-board happy but change effectively to make our artform or venue less scary. It made me think about classical music. I don’t attend classical music because when I read about it I feel stupid. I worry that I won’t understand what’s happening, what’s good or bad, what the difference between a sonata and a requiem is, or even if those words are real. How do we break that down?
  • Welcome & Inclusivity
    We should be welcoming (well duh!). When people arrive does a member of staff say hello, ask people if they’re okay? Do we take their coats? Smile? For those people who regularly engage with us do we differentiate between the artforms they see. If they watch only amateur work are they less valuable to us? I’ve always though there should be an equality with art – Shakespeare is no more worthy than standup, Classical isn’t better than folk. But do we see it like that? Do we treat our audiences like that? And if we want true equality then how do we balance this against the financial realities of our organisation? What does inclusivity for a 21st Century theatre look like? Is it just Am Dram? Is it Yoga, drama classes for the over 60s, a community music stage, open mic? Is it about having a stance and sticking to it? Theatre didn’t speak with a voice pro or anti Brexit (it’s tricky I appreciate with funding). Is that the leadership theatre should be offering? Social, moral, political, artistic leadership? Or at the very least how should we facilitate the debate?
  • Serious R&D
    I’ve written about this before – how do we give ourselves scope to experiment? Do we specify budgets for experimentation and R&D? The creative side of an organisation does this a lot? Scratch performances, commissions, open dress rehearsals – does that need to be a specific budget line in the administrative side? What if the organisation wanted to go cloud based? How would we test? How do we place organisational learning at the core of what we do? For a while I’ve wanted to visit other arts organisations internationally to find out how they work first-hand? What value would this bring long-term?
  • Digital Product
    We need more and it needs to be broader. Digital shouldn’t be hived away as part of the marketing mix. Podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, Q&As, Live Streams, Video, & Galleries online should be part of the programming mix as an acceptance that how we consume media has fundamentally changed and that provision of these experiences could develop audience of the future to connect with us? We need to be segmented and targeted in what we create too – we want young people to come to the theatre – let’s go for engaging digitally and then for bums on seats?
  • Are our audience dying?
    This was mentioned a few times. Do we regularly check our audience demographic? Is it getting younger or older? The younger generation, the one currently being screwed by the entire world, will have a lower disposable income and more opportunities to engage with the arts in a way that’s not sat in a theatre seat. We need enough of them excited about what we do and quickly. Consider this – over 60s get a discount – granted they’re not working, but they’re also time rich, are more likely to have better pensions, have lower outgoings, might own a house and aren’t bringing up a family, don’t have to pay for childcare, had free university as an option – but get a discount. Is age an appropriate line for discounting?

And the conference… Well, I’m going to copy and paste what I wrote last year.

The conference was, I must say, a little disappointing, despite what I have written and learnt, that’s not to say bad, just a little underwhelming. It felt a bit tired at points, a little traditional and a little slow paced.  However I thought it was worth going to. This seems a little negative, but, I still gained ideas and felt refreshed (in a work sense) by the conference, and that is of great value in itself.

What would make it better? Shorter seminars (90 mins is a stretched 45 mins – let’s be concise) and more of them, 8 seminar sessions should be a minimum over 2 days – which would also help with networking. Short sharp keynote speeches – an hour is too long to be consistently inspirational, funny, empathetic and dynamic. Round table events on key subjects, issues, groups (touring companies round table) – perhaps programmes & strands of work? Maybe even exhibitors sharing seminars – let’s seem them fight it out.

This year the same applied. If I could change it then I’d add the following sessions…

Down the Pan: Learning from Failure
2:30pm – Thursday – (40 min)
Four Marketing Director’s talk about their greatest failures. From creating totally white leaflets to papering all but one seat, we talk about the errors, what happened next and what advice they’d give.

Now That’s What I Call Adwords
11am – Wednesday – (40 min)
A blast through Google adwords, running your first campaign, the difference between display ads and search, and some of the features you never knew were there.  When I say “Ad” you say “Words”!

Survey ManKey: A quick guide to the perfect survey
4pm – Wednesday – (40 min)
All the Artistic Director cares about is whether they enjoyed the show – what else should we ask? A guide to questions you might ask, information you might receive and things you might change as a result.

Little By Little: Top tips for a marketing oasis.
11am – Thursday – (45 min)
What are the tiny changes that can make a big difference – bring a notebook as 10 top marketing professionals give you 1 minute quick fixes for your organisation. Top tip #45 – Never use the phrase “world-class” to describe something shit.

Obviously I’ve written them to be funny(ish) but on a serious note, I’d go to all these and might even run one or two..

AMA Conference Notes & Thoughts – Day #1

I’m up in Edinburgh for this year’s Arts Marketing Association conference which is this year about relevance, or, as they’ve catchily titled it, On A Mission To Matter. I’m going to write up more extensively once the conference as ended but here’s a few bits and pieces I’ve thought about today.

  • What is the role of theatre?
    In the subsidised work is it acceptable for our mission to be purely art-form focused. Certainly many organisation have something that’s about giving (or inflicting) the arts upon people, like a harsh matron, forcing children to have their medicine. What if the art was more secondary – as a tool for social cohesion rather than social cohesion being a side effect of the arts. How would that effect process, roles and responsibility and how art is created?
  • Impact statements?
    It seems we write endless statements – mission, aims & objectives, artistic – the impact one, what we want to do to the world around us seems like a more progressive version that places the greater good above organisational and individual need.
  • What does good look like?
    How can we use data to monitor sales more effectively and use conditional formatting to help focus departmental attention – its one where I have a few reports that do this but one combined one would be great.
  • Audiences
    Our main focus should be to identify what puts people off about our organisation and fix them. That sounds dead simple. I wonder if sometimes we forget that.
  • Marketing isn’t flyers, marketing is dead?
    Lots of individual conversations about how marketing depts are changing the role of what it means to do marketing to enact organisational change and the barriers that come up (“it’s not your department”) – how do we use data to drive decisions and how do we manage organisational improvement in a practical way – there’s also a lot of talk about understaffing and unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved and also the quality level that can be achieved. Seems we need a chat about efficiency and using technology and IT systems to enable workflow rather than disrupt it.
  • Come in
    How do we welcome people into the theatre. Interesting how in restaurants if we’re not doted upon and shown where to go we get pissy but often in theatre we leave people to their own devices and intuition. Should we have a maitre dee (sp?) role to meet, greet and seat people?
  • Tonica
    Look like a really good company to get working on digital analysis. Do we spend too much on design and function while failing to pay for robust evaluation and analysis. How many theatres have someone who does solely analysis but across the entire organisation? Is it the missing link?
  • Dashboards
    How do we create and use dashboards to monitor organisational performance and how do we make these easier and simpler to assemble? I did one for Unity Theatre while working there and am wondering if it’s time to look at one for Theatr Clwyd.
  • Audiences
    Do we appeal to ego and the idea of aspirational living enough? How do we analyse space and function to find the best fit. For example if you’ve a stunning view is that where the tables for daytime food should live?
  • Food
    Simple question – would people instagram their meals? If not then it’s possibly not good enough?
  • Rules
    How do we identify the unmentioned rules that we abide by, challenge them and then, if necessary change them? Is it about personnel shift or is it about the way organisations operate in a less siloed way?

Dear David Cameron

Dear David,

I rent a house and the wall outside was chipped, cracking and looked a state.

So I sanded it down with the help of a friend, removed the dirt, the flaking paint and weeds. I bought paint and painted it so it looked fresh and new. My next door neighbour saw me outside painting and said “oh have you bought the house?” “No” I said, continuing to paint “we’re just renting”. “Is it worth it if you’re renting” he asked looking a little confused. I paused for a second and then said “Just because I’m passing through doesn’t mean I can’t make it nicer on the way”.

This will be the last time I write to you I’m afraid, our acquaintance must come to an end, I fear you, like many of your contemporaries will be consigned to the history books, mere headings, subtitles and footnotes in the annals of politics, talked about in hushed, nervous tones. But I want you to know that you won’t be forgotten, time may weary you, the years may pass, but I will remember you and what you have done and stood for.

Now I know that the chances are you will never read this – I know this because I monitor the people who read my posts and I know I have a core audience of about 13 people – it’s statistically unlikely – in many ways simply writing this would be a waste of time if it wasn’t so cathartic, so freeing, so important to say the things I’m about to say.

I want to ask you what you have done with my country.

I was brought up to believe this was a country where knowledge, learning, education was incredibly important. Instead I find a nation where the young are burden with mountains of debt from trying to achieve more, better, to reach higher. Where experts are not listened to and unsupported opinion reigns strongly while fact and critical thinking is left to die by the wayside. Where education is increasingly narrowed, where the only thing between a joyless experience of learning is the dedication of overworked, underpaid, under appreciated teachers. Where initiative, innovation and experimentation are taken from the hands of expert educators.

I was brought up to believe that we were an inclusive nation. Where we cared for those less fortunate, where we opened a door to help a neighbour, where we comforted those downtrodden and offered them safe haven. I thought we wanted to help people get off the streets and into safe, secure homes rather than put people there. I thought we’d look after the poorest, rather than take away all they have while scapegoating them. I thought we believed that every member of this country was equal, regardless of whether they lived in a Conservative, Labour or Liberal area. That everyone deserved the best, not those simply in the right constituencies.

I thought we were dreamers. A land of James Dyson’s, Clive Sinclair’s, of eccentrics who wanted to push the barriers. Make the air cleaner, roads safer, land greener and sky bluer. But all I see are huge corporations sucking, draining country. All I see are obscene amounts of money passing from state to individuals. All I see is the bullying tactics of media moguls, changing the very direction of travel with a headline, a poster, a hateful word.

We fought evil. Racism had no place, we thought in bigger pictures, we thought about ideals, about how the greater good was the unity of all, to help bring the liberalism and British beliefs to other shores, not to lose them on our own. We would challenge lies feverishly and without mercy. We were the nation who recognised the early signs of right wing racism and offered support, helped, we never thought we see it here.

I thought that Britain’s place in the world was to make the world a better place – to make it happier, safer, more caring and stable – all achieved with a stiff upper lip and a fundamental belief that if we all worked for the betterment of others then our own happiness would be secured.

So what went wrong?

Maybe those beliefs were all lies. Maybe it’s an imaginary view of an imaginary place that never really existed. Maybe I was the only one who wanted them, maybe society isn’t ready to work out what comes next after the greed, the selfish self-gratification and capitalism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I know the answers, I’d just hoped we were prepared to try and find better answers rather than fall backwards to the failed solutions of days gone by.

And so I ask you David, what did you do, what did you really do? In that rose-tinted world where experts, facts and truth were cornerstones of British values – did you leave this place a better place than you found it?

So David, if you want to chat, have a coffee, talk about it all, then tweet me @mrfreeman1984, let’s work out what you do now to make amends, or maybe we could just sand and paint a wall and leave it a little better than before – just see how that feels.

Best, Sam.

Brexit: What next?

It happened.

I woke up this morning and felt sick, a wave of almost grief coming over me, that was swiftly followed by anger and then sadness. The UK has voted to leave the EU. It feels like the worst decision that has ever happened, it quite likely is a massively bad decision, but it is a decision nonetheless.

My immediate thought as the markets crashed were, selfishly, how will it effect me, what for the future and what should we learn from this.

There is a reality that the UK is considerably more conservative and right leaning than many people generally think. While this is a devastating result we should, perhaps, not be terribly surprised. Bare in mind that while UKIP only has 1 seat in parliament (0.2% of the seats) they received 12.7% of the popular vote at the last election. Certainly the first-past-the-post system has insulated us from this right-leaning part of the nation. We should also be aware that more people voted for UKIP than the Lib Dems, SNP and Green Parties – they are the third most popular party in the UK.

However, and I say this with an incredibly heavy heart, what we have witnessed is democracy in action – yes, we may hate the result – yes, the older generations have forced change on younger generations they didn’t want – yes, Nigel Farage is still being a smug, arrogant, arsehole. But democracy has been served – elected officials placing the fate of the nation in their own hands – rightly or wrongly – the people have spoken.

So where do we go next? My initial thought was back to bed, screw the lot of them. But that’s not terribly helpful and despite everything I still have to go to work. I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.

  • While there is conservatism strongly represented in older generations, younger people are more liberal than ever which gives me hope for the future.
  • UKIP have been a single issue party. There is a huge question about where they go next? Without a convenient scapegoat will they disappear? And if they do (and God I hope they do), who will take those voters.
  • There will be considerable economic impact as a result of this vote – this will undoubtedly effect the poor and young working people. But it will also hit the older generations, pensions, housing and more. There will, possibly be a reduction in house prices across the UK – whether there will be any jobs for people, or if inflation goes wild, that’s another matter. Eventually, everything will balance out. Simply put business works better in stability so stability is key.
  • We should examine the core of what our democracy is and how we conduct it. We rejected Alternative Vote and voted in one of the most right-wing, anti-poor, aggressive governments of the past 30 years. We also rejected accepting the considered views of our elected officials to put this subject to referendum. Was that a good idea? We won’t know for years.
  • I’ve read that lots of people said “I’ll leave the country” or have suggested that Scotland or Northern Ireland should hold independence votes. I desperately hope that doesn’t happen. I still believe we’re better together – the question is can we find a shared vision of the future that describes what we want to be in positive, aspirational tones, or are we stuck in the blame game with no exit in  sight.
  • We need to address the issues of misleading the public and hate crimes. Both have been committed by leading Brexiteers (and a few Remainers) during this hateful campaign. Will those people be brought to justice. When we ignore overt racism and the twisting of fact (or just bare-faced lies) where does that leave our nation?
  • The media must take some blame for this – again, when papers can publish lies and hate crimes, when they can aggressively destroy people, and take sides, we should ask the question about where news (impartial) ends and entertainment begins and how we and the masses can ensure the difference is obvious.

This is the start of a new journey – a new and terrifying journey. For hundreds of years we have been Great Britain, the United Kingdom. We need politics to find a new message, a new goal, perhaps even a written constitution so that we stop making a mockery of the words Great and United and live them.

Today is a hard day, the start of many hard days, it can seem bleak and dark, but it’s our duty to find that light, find our future and make our nation everything it promises but doesn’t yet deliver.

TV Review: Community

Viewing habits have completely changed.

Whereas once upon a time we’d anxiously plan our forthcoming unmissable shows in the Radio Times, carefully highlighting the key programmes and negotiating with family members for sole use of the television, and, or VHS, now we’re all on-demand, streamed and downloaded.

We’ve also lost, to an extent, that long drawn out process of watching a series. No longer do we (with a couple of exceptions) patiently tune in at a set time, watch and then curse that it’d be a whole week until the cliffhanger was resolved. Now I binge watch like a terrible addict, unwilling to sleep, desperate to know the next twist, a culture of “just one more episode” or “I’ll be up to bed after just… oh yes, another hour gone.” We overlook that we can pause shows, the whole story arcs have to be taken in, we’ve moved on from Last Of The Summer Wine to a world where episodes are episodic as part of a broader narrative rather than stand alone.

In the past 12 months I’ve watched the following shows: The Bridge (amazing), Hinterland (amazing), Line Of Duty (amazing), Making a Murderer (intriguing), Love (overrated but still good) and Breaking Bad (amazing). However I felt like I was needing a break, after all there are only so many shows about murder, deception, corruption and despair you can take, sometimes you need something fun.

Let me introduce Community.

It was one of those shows that popped up on Netflix, the type which looks like it might star Adam Sandler and thus be of no inherent value*. It wasn’t helped by Netflix’s categorisation of the show – “suggested for you” – no, fuck you Netflix, you don’t know me, I make my own choices in this world and don’t need your help.

Apparently I do.

Community is a show about an arrogant former lawyer (Jeff), fired from his job for faking his degree and qualifications, going to community college to retake the exams and, well, get back to lawyering. It’s about the study group he becomes part of and his journey towards humility**.

Let me start by saying the first 4 episodes are slow burners. There’s a lot of character work, the progression seems slow and the apparent lead, named Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) is unbelievably unlikable. It all feels very staged and a little bit like a sitcom by numbers. However don’t let that draw you into a false sense of security that this is another shit American TV comedy. Once you get past episode four you hit a clever, rich and silly series. It’s not serious, deep or going to change the world but it’s funny and experimental and is so heavily littered with pop-culture references that it constantly surprises.

The point where it really flies is where the focus moves from Jeff to the other cast members and becomes a more ensemble show. The cast includes Chevy Chase (who nails the role as the unintentionally racist, homophobic, elderly rich guy), Gillian Jacobs (who, despite having a story that starts around her being wooed by Jeff, develops a really interesting and rounded character), Danny Pudi (as Abed, my favourite character who acts as the vehicle to bring film and TV references into the series) in a great double act with Donald Glover (the ex-sports star) with reoccurring cameos from Ken Jeong and John Oliver.

So why watch?

It uses physical comedy better than many shows out at the moment – at a time where someone falling over is generally not added as a joke here it is included – included and done well. The film references – so far I’ve seen Apollo 13, Dawn Of The Dead, Battle Royale and Mean Girls – all clever, not always subtle, but always respectful of the source add a cool, weirdly alternative dynamic. It’s also fun, and light. It’s the pudding of the TV world. You don’t need it, it’s not going to fill you up or give you nourishment, but everyone will be happier with it.

*harsh, but he is criminally badly used as an actor, someone get him doing realism and he’ll be great.
**this is in no way a spoiler, it’s pretty damn obvious.

To EU or not to EU (that is the question)

This last weekend I did the usual things people like me do. I went to Waitrose wishing I’d brought my Aldi bags so people would regard me as “dangerous” and “a maverick”. In my new found capacity as a garden-renter I pulled up some weeds, watered some inexplicably expensive plants I’d been forced to buy and used some mint from my new herb-garden to add something extra to my boiled potatoes. I also wore shorts, with converse and socks. Like I said “dangerous”.

It was all going rather well, I’d read The Guardian, Independent (sport only) and then flicked around on Lifehacker.com to discover how I can become, well, even more me when the doorbell rang. It was a Leave campaigner.

The bald 60 something man was very jovial and he, like me, expected that the interaction would last less than 30 seconds. He’d ask me if I could help, I’d lie and say I’d think about it and then he’d leave happy that a tiny step had been taken. It’d be like the Oxfam people all over again just with less guilt about children dying as a result of wanting to get back to, well, anything.

“Hello, I was wondering if you knew which way you were voting in the upcoming election” he said, smiling and handing me a flyer. “Oh I think so” I replied with a knowing smile. “Right” he said, taking out his clipboard on which a list of houses with either ticks or crosses was fixed, “can I ask which…” It was at that point that something broke in me, I looked down at this flyer in my hands, at the lies printed there for all to see, at racism and mistrust disguised as fact and I thought, no, not today, we’re going to talk about this.

The conversation lasted 20, maybe 25 minutes, all conducted on my doorstep with both of us feeling irritation but, towards the end, perhaps admiration towards the other.

It didn’t start well. After he’d explained that he’d lived in Spain for 15 years after buying a house over there with a carrier bag of cash (it’s how they do it), and how he’d never heard anyone speak Spanish once (I didn’t ask if he’d in fact moved to Essex) and how it was better we left because of the USSR (not sure about this one, it just came up), we chatted about how the EU had offered protections to workers that UK governments were against in the past, how tenants were better protected than ever (at which point he told me he was a landlord…), how only 12% of our laws were really influenced by Europe and they tended to protect worker rights, and y’know, do good stuff.

We chatted about how the £350 million figure was clearly not true and that the EU helped regions that would never get the support of central government (particularly Tory governments who have a habit in not investing in a place unless you vote for them). We talked about how everyone who is a respected, analytical, intellectual thinks remain is a no-brainer.

We talked and nothing changed. He told me about how the problem was immigration (apart from the good ones) and how it was the English language that was the problem. Being the best at music and culture had taken its toll, encouraging people to want to live here (said the man still tanned from 15 years in Spain). He left convinced that I was an idiot firmly putting a cross on his form and shaking his head, asking to take his leaflet as he shook my hand.

I realised that the arguments I’d given for staying in the EU however were those largely given by the media and started to think about the reasons I believe we should stay in the EU. So, here they are – agree or disagree, that’s your prerogative, comment below if you’d like.

My five reasons for voting to stay…

  • I believe that bridges are better than walls – I want to live somewhere connected, friendly, where access is easy and simple. I don’t like nationalism but I like cultural differences. Walls breed nationalism, fear and hate and I don’t like it.
  • Many of the EU’s laws protect me, in work, from the UK government, from multinational companies. The powers of the future are not nation states but global corporations who can buy and sell influence. A group together is stronger than an individual.
  • I resonate more strongly as European than as an American. Yes we share a language, but I believe in universal healthcare, socialism (not to be confused with communism), a less litigious society, a world of us rather than me, also I really like nice Italian and Spanish tapas.
  • I like to think that we are a nation that helps people. There was a celebration of a man who died who during WW2 organised Kindertransport to save hundreds of German Jewish children from certain death. They were refugees. I’d like to think as a nation we still have that will to help those less fortunate – if only we could see through our insecurities.
  • We live in a more connected world than ever before. Technology is changing how we interact globally. It’s breaking down barriers. So why erect more of them? Both reform and leaving are hard to do. But reform offers a chance to work collaboratively and that’s where great ideas happen. The best creative and innovative work I’ve seen has been cross-cultural and cross-age. That’s where invention happens, where dreams, ambitions and change happens. But it needs to be incubated, supported, and I think that is in the EU rather than alone.
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