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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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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