Regrettably: notes on ‘How To Win Against History’

How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.

“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.

While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.

In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.

But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:

(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.

But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.

(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.

Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.

The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.

Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?

Henry Cyril Paget and Seiriol Davies

I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.

But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.

And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.

But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.

Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.

Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.

I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.

However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.

I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”

 – Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017

Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.

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The heat-death of the universe – from Beyond the Fringe

Beyond the Fringe opened as part of the Edinburgh Festival on 22 August 1960. The earliest known performance of Jonathan Miller’s monologue below, however, was as part of Bright Periods, a revue at University College Hospital, in 1957.
The monologue is now available in One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016, a new collection of Jonathan Miller’s writing, edited by Ian Greaves. 

Some years ago, when I was rather hard up, I wanted to buy myself a new
pair of trousers – but, being rather hard up, I was quite unable to buy
myself a new pair. Until some very kind friend whispered into my earhole
that if I looked sharp about it I could get myself quite a nice second-hand
pair from the Sales Department of the London Passenger Transport Board
Lost Property. Now before I accepted this interesting offer I got involved
in a great deal of fastidious struggling with my inner soul, because I wasn’t
very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a
train going eastbound towards Whitechapel.

jonathan-miller

However, after a great deal of moral contortion, I steeled myself to the
alien crutch, and made my way towards the London Passenger Transport
Board Lost Property Sales Department in Portman Square, praying as I
did so, ‘Oh God, let them be dry-cleaned when I get there.’ And when
I arrived there, you can imagine my pleasure and surprise when I found,
instead of a tumbled heap of lunatics’ trousers, a very neat heap of brand
new, bright-blue corduroy trousers. There were 400 of them! How can
anyone lose 400 pairs of trousers on a train? I mean, it’s hard enough to
lose a brown paper bag full of old orange peel when you really want to.
And anyway, 400 men wearing no trousers would attract some sort of
attention. No, it’s clearly part of a complex economic scheme on the part of the London Passenger Transport Board – a complex economic scheme
along Galbraithian or Keynesian lines, presumably. So over now to the
Economics Planning Division of the London Passenger Transport Board
Ops Room:
‘All right, men. Operation Cerulean Trouser. Now, we are going to
issue each one of you men with a brand new, bright blue pair of corduroy
trousers. Your job will be to disperse to all parts of London, to empty railway
carriages, and there to divest yourselves of these garments and leave them
in horrid little heaps on the floors of the carriages concerned. Once the
trousers have left your body, your job ends there, and I mean that! All right,
now – are there any questions? Good – now, chins up and trousers down!’

And they disperse to places far out on the reaches of the Central Line.
Places with unlikely names like Chipping Ongar; places presumably out
on the Essex marshes, totally uninhabited except for a few rather rangy
marsh birds mournfully pacing the primeval slime.
And there in the empty railway carriages they let themselves separately
and individually into the empty compartments; and then, before they
commit the final existential act of detrouserment, they do those little
personal things which people sometimes do when they think they’re alone
in railway carriages. Things like…things like smelling their own armpits.

The Beyond the Fringe gang

The Beyond the Fringe gang

It’s all part of the human condition, I suppose. Anyway, it’s quite
possible they didn’t even take their trousers off in the compartments but
made their way along the narrow corridor towards the lavatory at the end
– that wonderful little room, where there’s that marvellous unpunctuated
motto over the lavatory saying, ‘Gentlemen lift the seat.’ What exactly
does this mean? Is it a sociological description – a definition of a gentleman
which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could
be a blunt military order…or an invitation to upper-class larceny…but
anyway, willy-nilly, they strip stark naked; and then, nude – entirely
nude, nude that is except for cellular underwear (for man is born free
but everywhere is in cellular underwear) – they make their way back to
headquarters through the chilly nocturnal streets of sleeping Whitechapel
– 400 fleet-white figures in the night, their 800 horny feet pattering on
the pavements and arousing small children from their slumbers in upstairs
bedrooms. Children, who are soothed back into their sleep by their parents with the ancient words: ‘Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the
gentlemen trot by.’

The new collection One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016 is published by Oberon Books and is now available to pre-order ahead of publication in March ’17. In keeping with Miller’s grasshopper mind, One Thing and Another leaps from discussions of human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, to analyses of the work of M.R. James, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Truman Capote, by way of reflections on directing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Olivier and opera.
Jonathan Miller is internationally celebrated as one of the last great public intellectuals. Read One Thing and Another to find out why.

Tips for Actors – the Book Fairies are Back!

On Tuesday 8th November, our new pals from last month’s blog – the Books on the Underground fairies – were busy sharing copies of Tips for Actors by Fergus Craig on the London tube network! Were you lucky enough to find a copy? Let us know on Twitter.
9781786820297

In the most important theatrical book of this or any other decade, moderate twitter sensation @tips4actors (unrestrained by a 140-character limit) gives you all the advice you need to take your acting to the next level.

Topics include upstaging your fellow actors, what to wear on the first day of rehearsals (leather jacket and cowboy boots if you’re male and over 40), and pretending to be an animal.
Individual gems include:

  • ‘Learning to act is like learning to ride a bike. The likelihood of anyone ever paying you to do it is very low.’
  • ‘Never read the script. Would your character read the script? No, of course not. For them the script doesn’t exist.’
  • ‘Posh? Auditioning for a working class role? DON’T take your butler into the casting with you. Tell them to wait outside’

This is an essential tool for any actor. Why? Because nobody else is brave enough to tell the truth like Fergus Craig.

Fergus Craig is an actor who’s been a regular on a number of TV series on BBC and Channel 4, and has written for Channel 4’s Cardinal Burns (Best Sketch Show at the British Comedy Awards) and a number of BBC Radio shows including Colin and Fergus’s Digi Radio. Most recently, Fergus has starred alongside David Hasslehodd in the Emmy-nominated Hoff the Record.

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Watch Fergus recording his Audiobook

You can get Tips for Actors from OberonBooks.com

Why is Removal Men at The Yard Theatre?

Removal Men is a new play with songs written by M. J. Harding with Jay Miller and published by Oberon Books. Set in an immigration detention centre, which makes for dark and unsettling comedy, Removal Men tells the story of Mo, a detention officer, who falls in love with Didi, a Druze detainee.
In this post, Jay Miller, Founder and Artistic Director of The Yard Theatre, where the play runs Tues 8th Nov – Sat 10th Dec, explains why they have made Removal Men.

Removal Men follows a short but determined tradition at The Yard Theatre of making work which allows us to look contemporary western culture straight in the eye. And what Removal Men sees there is our inability to love in a world of wire fences. A system of inequality that has left us brutalised and confused. A crisis of compassion.

removal-men

All this has been intensified by that other crisis, the one whose name has become so familiar as to be horrifyingly mundane: the migration crisis. In Removal Men, we set out to make a show which used an IRC and the broader context of the migration crisis to explore the idea of a systemic cultural ‘removal’.

This removal runs deep. It affects all of our collective decisions, creating indecision and confusion. And yet it does not seem to form part of a contemporary conversation. There are too few people examining the causes and consequences of a world where it has never been easier to communicate and yet we still cannot connect; a world where we are bombarded with images of suffering, numbing our empathy; a world in which hierarchies seem so entrenched that they render love (in whatever form that may take) almost powerless.

removal-2

Removal Men may at times be uncompromising, but it is not without hope. It is at The Yard Theatre because it attempts to look at the world we find ourselves in today, a world that is divided and scared, where love is distorted, confused – and confusing. And in this attempt, we hope to create conversation and feelings that may lead to a change.

Is this naïve idealism?

Probably.

But that is what is needed right now.

removal-trailer

Watch the trailer

You can buy tickets for Removal Men from The Yard Theatre’s website. you can buy the book from Oberon Books’ website.

How I Ruined My Career as an Actor

Fergus Craig likes to tweet about his job. He likes to make his tweets funny. Essentially, Fergus spends his spare time mercilessly mocking his colleagues, bosses and self online.
In this blog, upon the release of his book, the hilarious Tips for Actors, Fergus ponders whether this pastime has really been the best thing for his acting career.

At an audition, about a year ago, a casting director cautiously poked her head out from behind a plant pot, looked at me and said “I’m scared of you”. It was then that I became certain in my own mind that I have utterly ruined my own career. How? About twice a day, usually when sat on the toilet, I mock the job I still officially say I do – actor.

tfa2

I started a twitter account called @tips4actors. It has over 40,000 followers. That’s not quite Katy Perry’s 93 million but it does include a vast number of the people whom I rely on to give me acting jobs. So when I write things like…

Never read the script. Would your character read the script? No, of course not. For them the script doesn’t exist.

… I fear they think “Yes, yes, very funny, but in all seriousness we’d like to hire someone we can be absolutely certain will read the script.” When I write…

If you feel the director is spending too much time on other actors’ scenes – fake an asthma attack.

… they say “He clearly thinks he’s funny but he doesn’t sound like a team player”.

You may think I’m being paranoid but I have concrete evidence that not everyone is getting the joke. Thanks to that tweet about not reading the script I found myself in a twitter argument with a theatre director who insisted that ‘Actually, it really is rather helpful for me as a director if the actor reads the script so I can discuss it with them’. Instead of explaining that it was a joke and sending him my CV, I proceeded to call him “EMBARRASSINGLY WRONG!”. I made myself chuckle but I think it’s safe to say my name was crossed off a list that day.

tfa2My favourite debate was over the following tweet…

Actors have an enormous capacity to feel. An actor’s heart is on average three times larger than that of a normal human. Fact.

In stepped the now deleted account of @TrentAllen72 to set me straight…

…fact? If their hearts were three times bigger they wouldn’t be alive. That’s a fact. #ridiculous

I replied with a simple ‘WRONG.” assuming Trent would cotton on. Trent didn’t. He came back at me…

…yours isn’t a fact, there’s no way round it…

He was right. It wasn’t a fact. There was no way round it. Unless of course it was a joke and he was the kind of person who believed there were people out there who thought Helen Mirren’s heart is the size of a basketball. I looked at his profile which mentioned he was a medical student. I thought I’d give him a chance to work out what was going on…

…you’re well off the mark. Ask a medical student mate…

Rather than ask himself “why would he suggest I ask a medical student rather than a doctor?” he confidently replied as if he had the ultimate retort right up his sleeve…

I am one mate.

I came back…

Then you obviously haven’t got to the ‘actors body’ module yet. Whole different kettle of fish.

The conversation ended there. I’ll never know if he figured out the joke or was, worryingly, called to operate on a patient.

Having some fun on twitter may have proved harmless to my career. For the first couple of years I was entirely anonymous. But then I thought it might be a good idea to write a book, a book that for 200 pages screams to the industry I so long to be respected by – I do not take my job very seriously.

cover-tips

What was it that made that casting director, and I quote, “scared” of me? Perhaps she’s read the ‘Letter To A Casting Director” of my book. Here’s a brief extract…

Dear (insert name),

I’ve been watching you for some time. I like the way you move. I like the way you operate. I like the way you find a perfect balance between your work life and your family life. And may I say, what a wonderful family you appear to have. There’s just one thing missing in your life… me.

When Oberon Books commissioned me to write this book I was delighted. It didn’t occur to me that I was systematically destroying my hopes for a long and successful career as an actor in favour of a brief career as the author of a one off parody book. My first job after drama school was with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Do I really think they’ll ever have me back after reading my chapter on Shakespeare in which I recommend getting young audiences interested by adding swearwords into his verse? I’d love to do more West End theatre. What chance do I have considering my chapter on theatrical superstitions suggests that my own personal one is to snort a line of cocaine before every scene? I’ve done lots of comic acting on TV but would desperately love to be given the chance to appear in more dramatic roles. That ambition is surely well and truly scuppered now that my chapter on television acting suggests that I don’t really get into the swing of things until the 60th or 70th take.

And so, what was intended as a playful little side project may well become the last thing I do, before being forced to give up acting altogether and joining the rest of my family in the trawler fishing industry.

I hope you enjoy it.

You can learn more about Tips for Actors HERE.
You can follow @Tips4Actors on Twitter HERE.
You can watch more of Fergus’ comedy work online HERE.

See more of Fergus' work on Youtube

See more of Fergus’ work on Youtube

Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time…

N F Simpson (1919-2011) was said to be many things. During his near-century on the planet, he served as playwright, teacher, satirist, bank clerk, philosopher, a one-man-band English wing of the Theatre of the Absurd, army intelligence officer, father, translator, sketch-writer and poet. Coming to fame relatively late in life, his early successes A Resounding Tinkle (1957) and One Way Pendulum (1959) placed him in the company of Angry Young Men. These, however, were not his natural bedfellows.

N.F. Simpson

N.F. Simpson

As the writer David Benedictus once observed, Simpson had the misfortune to not be foreign like Ionesco or rude like Orton. His was a particularly restrained form of English humour, a precise extension of his personality. Simpson was certainly no self-publicist and, as a consequence, he became a marginalised figure: largely absent from the theatre after 1965, and with most of his subsequent work out of circulation. It falls, then, to a new collection of his work – ‘Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time’ – to fully restore this brilliant but neglected writer in the public consciousness.

Simpson had the pause before Harold Pinter, planted the seed of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and inspired the comic philosophy of Tom Stoppard. His beguiling plays were full of memorable set-pieces, endless diversions, upturned clichés and dark philosophies. His worlds were essentially ordinary, but worlds in which everything was equal and interchangeable – the private and public, animals and humans, biscuits and books. Comedy emerged from a determination to hold onto reason with whitened knuckles. To quote his introduction to Some Tall Tinkles (1968), his characters followed “a simple faith in the axiom that for those to whom life is an exercise in survival, the secret is in knowing how to ride with the punch.”

“Birth is the First…”

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In the five years immediately prior to his death, N.F. Simpson – or Wally to his friends – underwent what many artists enjoy only after they’ve gone: a resurgence of interest. There was a season at the BFI, a new play at Jermyn Street Theatre, revivals of A Resounding Tinkle at both the Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse, a BBC Radio documentary about his life and work, and the purchase of his papers by the British Library.

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The last of these was characteristic of a gradual effort to put his house in order. Working as researcher on the 2007 radio documentary, I soon found that Wally was keen to establish the whereabouts of all his work. This put me on a five-year road of discovery: archive upon archive, covering radio and television, stage and print. Part of this process resulted in the quite accidental discovery of Pinter’s lost sketch ‘Umbrellas’ at the British Library. Even as a big Pinter fan, however, I was slightly more excited to finally locate a copy of Simpson’s ‘Take It Away!’ in the same Nottingham Playhouse revue.

9781783190232The British Library’s invaluable Simpson papers – acquired in 2009 – gift us many treasures and insights. Oberon’s new, authorised miscellany of Simpson’s writings brings some of this material back from obscurity, including his first professional writing (for The Tribune in 1953) and a number of important, pre-fame pieces for Birkbeck College magazine The Lodestone. Thanks to this material, Most of What Follows…’ acts as the most complete map of his creative life, revealing its continuities and experimental diversity. Perhaps now we can all of us enjoy the many different facets of Simpson and, with one collective push, assert his true place in the canon of great English comic writers.

This article was first published by the British Library’s English and Drama blog
Ian Greaves is co-editor of Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time: Monologues, Dialogues, Sketches and Other Writings by N.F. Simpson

Click to watch the short film ‘Reality is an Illusion Cased by Lack of N.F. Simpson’. David Quantick presents a distinctive appraisal of ‘Wally’ Simpson and examines Simpson’s impact on the turbulent theatre scene of the late ’50s, the influence of his plays, his disappearance and his return to The Royal Court Theatre after 40 years with a new play entitled If So, Then Yes. Contributors include John Mortimer, Jonathan Miller, John Fortune, Eric Sykes, Jonathan Coe, Armando Iannucci, David Nobbs, Barry Cryer, Eleanor Bron, Ned Sherrin, and Simpson himself.

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