The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hound of Death (1933)

The Hound of DeathIn which we discover something totally different! Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. No Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot here, so it feels like a total departure from anything Christie had written so far. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, which has since been adapted into just about every media you could imagine.

The collection was not published by Christie’s regular publishers, William Collins & Sons, but by Odhams Press, and was not available to purchase in shops. If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it was part of a promotional deal where you collected coupons from The Passing Show, a weekly magazine published by Odhams, during October 1933. This was just one of six books that you could exchange the coupons for (plus a cost of seven shillings too). That’s why the book was never available in the United States; the short stories within it were published as part of other volumes in the US, variously between 1948 and 1971. Apart from that, some of the stories were published in The Grand Magazine, The Sovereign Magazine and Sunday Chronicle Annual between 1924 and 1927. Others do not appear to have been published before the book itself. One story, The Call of Wings, appears to be one of Christie’s earliest written pieces, probably shortly after the First World War, but it was rejected by all the magazine publishers to which it was sent. Read on, and you’ll realise why!

The Hound of Death

happy_cartoon_dogThe first story, whose name lends itself to the entire volume, concerns a refugee nun who left Belgium following the 1914 invasion by Germany. Her convent was destroyed, not by explosives, but by a lightning bolt that the nun had somehow created through her own faith and belief in other powers. All the soldiers there were killed, and on one of the two surviving walls there was an unexplained mark, in the shape of a giant hound. Now living in Cornwall, she is visited by Anstruther, whose sister had given refuge to the nun, by name Marie Angelique. A young doctor, Dr Rose, wishes to write a monograph on her, fascinated by her continued hallucinations; but it soon becomes clear that Rose’s motivations and involvement with the case are not all as they might seem…

It’s an intriguing and intricate little story, delicately written, that sets a high standard for the rest of the book. For a short story, the characters are engrossing and well-shaped, and the outcome of the story is unexpected. It’s set in the town of Folbridge in Cornwall – there is no such place, of course, but perhaps it is inspired by Falmouth. The only other thing I had to look up was – during the explanation that the convent was destroyed – was the mention of Uhlans; they were one of four cavalry regiments – German, Russian, Polish and Austrian. You live and learn.

The Red Signal

Red signalHaving said these stories are not whodunits, this one almost comes close. It’s a really meaty tale that centres on that feeling we sometimes have when we sense that danger is lurking, even though there’s no real reason to be concerned – that’s the red signal. Dermot West tells a story about how he narrowly avoided being murdered in Mesopotamia and it was only because he recognised the red signal that he survived. What he doesn’t say is that he’s feeling the red signal again at this very moment. There is a séance, at which one unspecified person is told it would not be safe to go home tonight; and what follows is the discovery of a death and a very intriguing revelation of who killed them and how it was done. To give further detail would be to give the game away, and I don’t want to ruin the story for you. Suffice to say, what appears to be supernatural isn’t exactly all it’s thought to be.

Sir Alington West is described as an alienist. If you’re not sure what that is, that was the contemporary term for a psychiatrist. Dr Thompson, in The ABC Murders, which would appear three years later, is also an alienist. By the time of publication, the term was already falling out of popularity.

I’m often struck how unforgiving Christie’s characters and her own language can be when it comes to matters of mental health. In those days, it wasn’t given the recognition it is today – although there’s plenty of scope for more, of course. Sir Alington and another guest, Mrs Eversleigh, approach the topic from different perspectives: “At what particular spot […] shall we erect a post and say “on this side sanity, on the other madness?” It can’t be done, you know. And I will tell you this, if the man suffering from a delusion happened to hold his tongue about it, in all probability we should never be able to distinguish him from a normal individual. The extraordinary sanity of the insane is a most interesting subject.” Sir Alington sipped his wine with appreciation and beamed upon the company. “I’ve always heard they are very cunning, “remarked Mrs, Eversleigh. “Loonies, I mean.”

I did like the observation by Claire Trent that “we go through life like a train rushing through the darkness to an unknown destination” – I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling at some point in our lives. Finally, the Grafton Galleries, which feature in the story, are a real location – an art gallery in Mayfair. Their heyday was in the Edwardian and early Georgian period when they mounted influential exhibitions of impressionist paintings. By the time this book was published, the Galleries were probably closed. 8 Grafton Street, which was the address, now houses a suite of managed offices. How the mighty are fallen.

The Fourth Man

four menFour men occupy a train compartment and three of them – a canon, a lawyer and a physician – begin to discuss delicate issues of mental health, including dual personality disorder and the suggestion that the body can be home to more than one soul. The doctor tells the story of one Felicie Bault, who was alleged to have had no fewer than four personalities, and whose life ended in strangulation, apparently at her own hand. But the fourth man in the compartment stirs at this tale and introduces himself as Raoul, brought up at the same orphanage as Felicie, and also tells them about Annette, another girl there, whose life was also inextricably linked with Felicie.

It’s a bit of a wayward tale, this. It starts very promisingly and with much intrigue but at the end rather falls apart without much of a punchline. Suffice to say, there might be another explanation for Felicie’s personality disorder – and on the other hand, there mightn’t. There aren’t any interesting references to look up – the only thing that stood out for me in the narrative was the intriguing concept of the body being a residence, that may pass through several different hands during the course of a life. Raoul turns that image on its end with his departing comment, which might give you pause for thought. But then again, it might not…

The Gipsy

GipsyDefinitely the best story of the collection so far, this slightly unnerving tale of a man who had an illogical fear of gipsies, but who met and grew quite close to one – Mrs Haworth – who has a firm ability to see both into the future and into the past. She warns the young man against certain actions, but he doesn’t heed her warning and therefore has to face the consequences; his friend also meets her and is entranced by her charisma, and agrees to see her again – although she has a brief vision that the second meeting will not happen…

I really enjoyed this tale, with just the right amount of supernatural undercurrent mixed with one foot firmly placed in reality. Considering we only know her through the confines of a short story, just ten pages long, Mrs Haworth is a memorable character, well fleshed out through Christie’s descriptions and language. I did actually guess the twist at the end of the tale, but that doesn’t really matter – and unlike many of the other stories, it actually has a happy ending. By writing this story, Christie was able to exorcise a condition that she herself had – in her autobiography, she expressed an irrational fear, not about gipsies, but about a gunman who would often appear out of nowhere in her dreams and terrify her.

The first sentence: “Macfarlane had often noticed that his friend, Dickie Carpenter, had a strange aversion to gipsies” doesn’t fill the reader with much hope that Christie will avoid the pitfalls of latent racism – but she does. Even the description of Esther Lawes as “six foot one of Jewish perfection” merely gives you a visual impression of the character and no more. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the language of this tale is the fact that Mrs Howarth’s first name is Alistair. Today we associate that as being purely a man’s name – and the current Oxford Dictionary of First Names only has it as male. It seems that it can be used for a female too – although extremely rarely!

The Lamp

lampA rather traditional ghost story, full of gloom and doom. A family move into a cheap house whose rent is low because – it was said – it was haunted by the ghost of a child. No nonsense Mrs Lancaster isn’t scared of ghosts so she, her father and her son set up home there, and all was well until the son started reporting that there was another child there, alone and unhappy, with whom he wanted to play. Similarly, her father could hear the crying and footsteps of another child in the house. Would the four of them get on well as a household together?

It’s set in the cathedral town of Weyminster – well your guess is as good as mine as to where that might be. Winchester maybe? And the verse that Mr Winburn quotes in the story is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, very popular in the early part of the 20th century.

It is quite an atmospheric and spooky story with an inevitability about the ending which, perhaps, isn’t quite as tragic as you might suspect. It’s very short and not very demanding, but rather gripping in its own way.

Wireless

WirelessAn enjoyable story about an old lady, whose nephew, in order to keep her entertained and diverted in her old age, arranges for the installation of a wireless set, much to the lady’s fear at first, but when she discovers there’s nothing to be scared of about it, she really enjoys it. That is, until one day, the sound from the concert she’s listening to breaks up and she hears the voice of her dead husband, talking to her through the ether, promising her that he will shortly be returning for her. At first she ignores it, sensing it is a warning of some sort, but what could she do about it. But it happens again and again, making her more and more anxious each time…

A deeply moral tale that could have been written to illustrate the old proverb, cheats never prosper; Christie delivers it with a lightness of touch, and although you can second guess the outcome, it’s still a rewarding and satisfying little yarn. It’s another of those stories where it seems like a supernatural event is taking place – whereas in reality, it’s only man’s deviousness at work.

No particular themes at work here; I liked how the old lady is scared of the “waves” of the wireless set, rather in the same way that a number of people were scared of mobile phones when they first came out, that somehow the invisible waves were going to fry our brains, or worse if we kept the phone in our trouser pockets. There’s also the use of the word “josser”, which I’d never heard of before. It meant (indeed, means) chap or fellow, particularly a foolish one.

Elizabeth, the maid, was originally in line for a £50 inheritance. In a fit of generosity, the old lady increases it to £100. In today’s values, that’s the equivalent of doubling £2500 to £5000. In all seriousness, that’s not that generous.

The Witness for the Prosecution

BarristerThis famous story has lost none of its power and ability to shock and surprise, even though it’s now over 90 years old. Leonard Vole stands accused of murdering rich widow Emily French, but he has an alibi – at the time he is alleged to have committed the murder, he is at home with his wife. Can the lawyer Mr Mayherne use his powers of persuasion to convince the jury that his alibi is watertight?

Much of its power comes from the courtroom settings and lawyer/client interview background – no cosy drawing rooms where middle class people sit and reminisce in this story. It also stands out in this collection because there is no pretence to anything supernatural about it – it is pure legal interview, detection and courtroom scene, and any misdemeanour that was committed, was done in cold blood. No wonder this went on to become one of Christie’s most successful individual pieces of writing, spawning plays, films, TV adaptations, and so on. Christie was unhappy at the immorality of the original story and changed its ending for the play, so that the guilty party does pay the ultimate price.

The £200 demanded by Mrs Morgan for vital evidence would be the equivalent of £10,000 today – no wonder Mr Mayherne was reticent to give that much. And her facial scarring was caused by vitriol – or as we know it today, sulphuric acid; the same fate that was to await Tommy (of Tommy and Tuppence fame) in The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger, part of Partners in Crime that had been published four years earlier.

The Mystery of the Blue Jar

Blue JarAn enjoyably written, inventive tale about a young man, living in a hotel, who appears to hear a delusional voice in his head crying out “Murder! Help! Murder!” at the same time every morning whilst playing golf – but when he tries to find out who is calling, he can find no one who either called it, or heard it. An eminent doctor also living at the hotel tries to reassure the young man that there is bound to be a natural – rather than supernatural – explanation for the voice, and the doctor tries to discover the secret behind it….

However, the more you think about this story the less it adds up. Christie doesn’t give you the comfort of a full explanation for how the young man hears the voice, nor why he in particular is singled out. Suffice to say there is subterfuge at play, but the perpetrator of the subterfuge was either incredibly lucky, or it was planned around information that is not shared with the reader. So my reaction to this story goes from an initial buzz of enjoyment to a rather disappointed low caused by a feeling of How Could They Have Known About That.

It is very nicely written though. I did enjoy the opening passage particularly, describing the young man’s dilemma: “it is hard when you are twenty-four years of age, and your one ambition in life is to reduce your handicap at golf, to be forced to give time and attention to the problem of earning your living.” The golf course is said to be located at Stourton Heath – Stourton is a village in Derbyshire but it doesn’t play host to a golf club.

There is a valuation of an antique in this story – £10,000 minimum. At today’s rates that would be a humungous half a million pounds.

The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael

CatUnhesitatingly I suggest that this is altogether one of the silliest stories I have ever read. I’m not going to say anything much more about it, in case you like it much more than me – and there’s not a lot I can say about it that doesn’t give the game away (although I think it’s pretty obvious as you’re reading it); but I couldn’t believe how fanciful, in a most ridiculous way, it is. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the stories where there are no traces of its having been published before.

A character (I think I can call it that) is killed using Prussic Acid, a sign that Christie the Poisons Expert is at work. Today we know it more as Hydrogen Cyanide.

The Call of Wings

wingsThis early story bears the hallmarks of a writer with a good imagination but still with a very heavy-handed style, as yet properly formed. It’s the story of a rich man who gains an awareness that some form of spirituality is the only way to feel “lifted” – as though on wings – and how he manages to achieve a kind of contentment. It’s actually quite a tedious story to read and if Christie had written it, say fifteen years later, it would have had a much greater lightness of touch. Consider the heaviness of this description: “a battered derelict of the human race rolled drunkenly off the pavement”.

Much is made of some music that reminds the narrator of the overture to Rienzi. This is an early opera by Wagner, rarely performed nowadays. And the main character offers a shilling to a busker. Was this generous? A late 1910s shilling today would be worth about £1.80. So I suppose that’s not an unreasonable sum, even for a millionaire.

The Last Seance

seance2A rather thrilling and totally supernatural tale of Simone, the tired medium having to face one last séance with the demanding Madame Exe, who wants to be reunited with her child Amelie. Raoul, Simone’s intermediary (and lover) insists that Madame Exe must not touch the medium at any time because it could be dangerous for her. Just how dangerous? Well that’s the tale. An unexpected little nugget, with no hidden meaning, clarification or explanation – you just have to take it at face value. At one stage I thought the scene-setting for this story was really preparing the way for an obvious crime to be committed – but the story fools you and goes in a completely different direction.

The character of Raoul Daubreuil shares his surname with characters in The Murder on the Links; there doesn’t appear to be any additional connection between the two stories. There’s also a Raoul in the earlier story in this volume, The Fourth Man. It was obviously a Christie favourite.

SOS

car in rainThe final tale of the book is an atmospheric story of an isolated house, a slightly weird family and the outsider who has to take shelter overnight as his car had two punctures in an eerie storm. Elements of both The Mousetrap and Rocky Horror come to mind. The house is believed to be haunted and that may account for the mysterious message written in the dust on the furniture in the spare bedroom… or it may not…

It’s actually quite a clever story that gives Christie the Poison Expert a chance to shine again; another of these seemingly supernatural tales that are explained by criminal reality. The sum of £60,000, that the outsider overhears the head of the household discussing would be worth approximately £3 million today.

All that remains is for me to give The Hound of Death an overall satisfaction rating of 5/10. Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down – like The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael and The Call of Wings. The disconnected nature of the stories also means that there is no particular impetus to keep reading. It never goes beyond being wryly entertaining. I doubt whether you’d find this book in anyone’s Top Ten favourites.

Murder on the Orient ExpressWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is one of the Big Ones, Murder on the Orient Express, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!

Review – Rob Brydon, I Am Standing Up, Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2017

Rob Brydon I Am Standing UpWe’d seen Rob Brydon before, back in 2009, when he last toured the UK – it was just before I started blogging so I can’t easily check back to see how much we enjoyed it – but I do remember thinking he was good fun and so I was perfectly happy to see him again almost 8 years later, to see how he’s getting on. Of course, his career has gone from strength to strength since then, with endless panel games, guest appearances, loads of voiceovers, and so on; when we first saw him, the third series of Gavin and Stacey was still getting its first airing on TV. Even so, he’ll still break into a rendition of Barry Islands in the Stream at the drop of a laverbread.

Scott BennettBut before considering Mr Brydon’s role in the show on Saturday night, the first twenty minutes were spent in the company of a supporting act – Scott Bennett. He’s a bright and breezy Yorkshireman who wasted absolutely no time in making the most of his introductory slot, with lots of very good material about family relationships – especially with his dad, Roy. Roy’s the kind of guy who has a structural plan about how to get the most food onto your carvery plate (start with the meat first as your base layer and work your way up). Good comedy of recognition that – because if we ourselves are not the person who tackles a buffet strategically, we all know someone who is. I also liked Mr Bennett’s observation of people out on a romantic meal date night – each on their separate phones, Facebooking the people they should have married. He was very funny and got a really good reception, despite the fact that he wasn’t Rob Brydon.

Talking of whom, Mr Brydon is essentially a very funny man, with a delightful sense of comic joy about almost everything he does. He’s so self-deprecating which is always an attractive trait – like when he’s asked if James Corden still rings him; answer, yes he does, which gives rise to a joke that’s both anti-Brydon and anti-the town in which he’s performing; but it’s very cleverly done. When something particularly funny happens or someone says a great one-liner – even if it comes from the audience – he will break off the routine and rush over to a little table and write the joke down in a notebook, saying that next week’s show will be amazing with all this new material – thereby implying that this show, and his comedy hosting skills, aren’t as good. It always gets a laugh when he returns upstage to jot it down.

Rob BrydonHe has that ability that the best comics have of being able to weave together separate strands from different members of the audience and come back to them later in the show from a new angle. Towards the end he creates songs that mention all the individuals with whom he’s spoken earlier on. Again, very cleverly done, very inventive and always very funny. In our show Mr Brydon explored comic possibilities with George and Lucy – clearly the young middle class couple – and encouraged them always to close the loo door if they want to keep romance alive; we met Cynthia, the Elvis fan who’s not as young as she said she was, and who was in for a particular treat right at the end; and we met Tim and Lisa, bravely sat in the front row; she’d stoically worked for Mr Kipling for 32 years, woman and girl, never complaining and always ‘umble, which gave rise to Mr Brydon from then on referring to her as a Dickensian Woman, doing wonderful impressions of a dowdy drudge with mock-19th century language. Totally bizarre, but it really worked.

As you might expect, he does a prolonged sequence when he’s impersonating celebrities out in the jungle, Ant and Dec style, which is very good but I think he overplays the Tom Jones impersonation. It isn’t really quite as good as he seems to think, and he makes him into a grotesque that I don’t really feel is justified (but, hey ho, that’s just me.) He did a Ronnie Corbett as a request from the audience, brilliantly conveys the essence of Ken Bruce by just mumbling with the occasional 88 to 91 thrown in, and tells very funny stories involving Steve Coogan (roar). Towards the end he gears the subject matter towards the Welsh language so that he can sing All Through the Night in the original Welsh, Ar Hyd y Nos. Where’s the comedy in that? It’s when he then gives you the Google Translate version; thus proving it’s always worth paying for a proper translator. There were reminiscences about Uncle Bryn, and dealing with how weak your wee stream is when you get to his age (I’m five years older, so I totally sympathise), and there was even a charming brief hark back to the golden days of Blockbuster. It was all very lovely.

Rob Brydon againBut, do you know what, gentle reader? I kind of wanted more. I needed something a little more challenging. It was incredibly cosy, incredibly comfortable, a veritable Black Forest Gateau of delectation; and if that’s what you’re after, you’ll get it in spades. Maybe I ask too much. You don’t expect Rob Brydon to be all caustic and cynical, and I don’t think I wanted that either. It was all just a little too easy. I’m probably way out of synch with everyone else on this, because he went down extremely well. It was just, ever so slightly, insubstantial. He’s clearly a really nice guy and extremely funny, so I feel a bit mean criticising him like that. But I have to be honest, don’t I? His tour continues throughout March all over England – and if you haven’t already booked your tickets, it’s probably sold out.

P. S. Either inflation is higher than I thought, overheads have gone up, or someone’s stock is rising; top price stalls seats for Rob Brydon in 2009 cost £19.50 each. In 2017, virtually the same seats for the same show in the same theatre cost £32.50 each including my friends’ discount. Interesting, no?

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2017

Screaming Blue MurderWe’ve attended 77 (yikes!) editions of Screaming Blue Murder over the years but this one was something different for me at least – because instead of being accompanied by Mrs Chrisparkle, I was one of ten guys out on a stag do, in honour of my future stepfather-in-law (Sir William) in preparation for his forthcoming nuptuals with my mother-in-law (Lady Duncansby). As well as some of Sir William’s old pals, also present were my three stepbrothers-in-law-to-be, and one of my future stepnephews-in-law. Debrett’s are going to have a Field Day. Naturally, like all good hen and stag parties we hogged the front row, placing Sir William in the centre so that he could get the full attention of the comics. However, unlike most hen and stag parties, our groom is the fine old age of 74, and at least three of the four people on stage that night did a double-take when they saw him. Good on him for taking it all in the best possible spirit, which is what he’d been drinking solidly since 5pm.

Dan EvansDan Evans was in charge as usual, and on fine form as he traded banter with some vociferous youngsters on our left, explored hairdressing options (like his follicles, few and far between) with a young female barber, and got thoroughly confused as to the ages of Sir William’s sons. Towards the end he revealed that he hadn’t made one member of our party crack a smile the whole evening, to which the latter responded that he had enjoyed the show, but as Dan noted, just kept his enjoyment to himself. We could have told Dan that he always looks like that.

Wendy WasonOur first act was Wendy Wason, whom I’ve seen once before and she’s a thoroughly enjoyable act. She’s bright and breezy, just a little bit posh, and full of confidence as she shares her parenting experiences and a host of middle class neuroses. She had lots of good material involving sex but I was grateful that none of it was too rude; after all, sex humour doesn’t always have to be in the gutter. Last time we saw she was absolutely filthy! She gained an excellent rapport with the crowd and went down very well.

Robert WhiteOur second act, in a change to the advertised programme, was Robert White. Mrs C and I have seen Mr White several times and there is possibly no better comic to handle a stag do. I say handle advisedly, as he combines his Asperger Syndrome with his continuous gay double entendres, some of which he converts into on the spot made up songs. At his best Mr White can be unbeatable; and indeed he was last Friday night. He got Sir William up on stage and, after using subterfuge to check out his backside, they shared a joint rendition of I’d Do Anything, where – well you can guess the shenanigans that Sir William agreed to get up to with Mr White. Fortunately, it wasn’t just the stag party who found him fantastic, he gauged the mood of the room perfectly and we were all shaking with laughter. A brilliant set.

Nick WiltyOur final act, and also one we’ve seen do successfully many times before, was Nick Wilty. Unfortunately, when Mr White is on fire like he was last Friday, any act that follows him is at a disadvantage, and Mr Wilty’s understated self-deprecating delivery, like Ray Winstone with a headache, just didn’t have the attack required to make an impact. If he and Mr White had swapped places it would have worked so much better, because Mr Wilty’s material is really funny once you “get” his style. We still laughed – but just not as much we’d have liked.

For various inconsequential reasons, we can’t go to another Screaming Blue now until 21st April. You’ve no excuse though – the best value comedy around!

Review – Shazia Mirza, The Kardashians Made Me Do It, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2017

shazia_mirza_2016_tourAs you may know, gentle reader, I am always willing to risk a punt on a comic I’ve never heard of in the hope that they might create some comedy gold. I’d never heard of Shazia Mirza before, although one look at her Wikipedia page tells me that I am out of kilter with the rest of the world – she’s done so much! I must have been living in a hole in the ground.

I had read in advance that an evening of comedy with Shazia Mirza is not necessarily a fluffy one. She has both challenging material and a challenging style. If you’re seated in the front row don’t expect her to pander to your ego, or whisper sweet nothings in your ear – although, to be fair, at the beginning of the second half she brought a little warm air heater onto the stage and pointed it into the auditorium as we’d all spent the first half in our scarves and coats – the Royal auditorium is a Victorian delight but sometimes it can be bloody freezing. That was a kind act – it didn’t actually make us any warmer, but that’s beside the point.

Shazia MirzaApart from that, Ms Mirza harangued the two ladies in the front row for being Guardian readers (she’s no time for such wimps) and lesbians (even though I’m pretty sure they’re not). Every time a subject matter arose that related to left-wing politics or liberal thought she’d turn on the two women and blame them for the state of the nation. She also pointed out a gay couple in the second row, who looked decidedly uncomfortable at the recognition; and then at a straight couple accusing them of being the weird ones – in London where she lives, it’s lesbians and gays all the way. So, an interesting, if not entirely conventional, start to a comedy gig. It’s almost as though she’s been to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (we’re going in April) and has already started to play Get the Guests.

This is definitely a show of two halves. The first part consisted of the usual comic/audience badinage, with the added spice of Ms Mirza being the type who doesn’t hold back from criticising her audience if she thinks we deserve it. Much of the discussion was about Brexit and fortunately I was on the right side of the argument as far as Ms Mirza was concerned. In fact, when asked, no one dared put their hand up to confess they were a Brexiteer. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have put my hand up either, you’d probably have been subjected to a tirade of totally justified humiliation. There were times when things became a little uncomfortable – when Ms Mirza would ask the audience a question and we were reticent in replying; it didn’t help that we were a very sparse audience – it would have worked better in the relative informality of the Underground at the Derngate rather than the formal Royal theatre.

shazia-mThe second part (an hour and a quarter to be precise) was really where Shazia Mirza got into her stride with her subject matter. She talked about her own family background, the racism she has encountered (we all admired the intelligence of the line “Oi, Paki, why don’t you go back home to India?”) and the time she was asked to “Muslim up” her Radio 2 Pause for Thought. But her main topic of discussion is the three girls from Bethnal Green who flew out to Syria a couple of years ago to be Jihadi brides. Their motivation, their method, and the overall outcome of what they did have all been the subject of much debate and indeed much fascination. Ms Mirza has a simple hypothesis for why they did it – they were horny. They’d had a very protected and traditional (and decent) Muslim upbringing, so weren’t allowed to go out and let their hair down (so to speak). Ms Mirza thinks they probably saw one of those ISIS videos and thought to themselves, those guys are hot.

We know for a fact that two of the girls are now dead – the probability is that the same fate has met the third. Their parents, their families, their friends will never be able to get over the awfulness of what happened to them. So, as Mrs Chrisparkle asked as we were walking home, is it entirely tasteful to base a comedy show on three underage children who made a tragic misjudgement and died as a result? Good question. The answer lies in Shazia Mirza’s own approach to the show. She herself says that we’re used to exonerating children because they know not what they do, and we normally blame parents or bullies, online grooming or peer group pressure; but, in her opinion, sometimes the children are to blame. She also describes her show as part jokes, part truths – and our job as the audience is to sort out the jokes from the truths, laugh at the former and consider the latter. And, as pointed out earlier, she’s got no time for the lily-livered Guardian reading do-gooders; so to conclude, I don’t think Ms Mirza believes the show is tasteless in any way.

shaziaIt’s a very interesting and thought provoking performance; in the final part she reads texts from the Koran that describe the kind of people who work against Islam, who are evil, and who are not following the word of Allah. Then there’s a video that shows the ISIS terrorists, doing precisely those things that the Koran says are wrong. It’s an extremely effective piece of theatre that damns ISIS to smithereens without actually having to say a word.

Somewhere during the second part of the show it stops being stand-up and starts being something of a lecture – and the join between the two is imperceptible. Whilst I found there was a lot to laugh at in this show, there was also something lacking on a personal level. It lacked a sense of performance joy, that indefinable something that passes from the performer to the audience that lets you know that both of you have had a great time. I didn’t sense that Ms Mirza did have a great time; maybe she sees her mission is primarily to impart her serious subject matter so that, in the end, levity is of lesser importance. Still, she did say the show was part jokes, part truths; doubtless it would have felt funnier with a larger audience. Nevertheless, it was an engrossing show and it sure gives you loads to think about. Her UK tour continues till the end of May.

Review – Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester, 25th February 2017

johnny-vegasFor our final splurge on Comedy Saturday we thought we’d go for broke and see Johnny Vegas fronting a Comedy Club special, with him as the compere and three or four acts all doing their own thing. None of us had ever seen Johnny Vegas live before and didn’t know quite what to expect. I’d seen him on TV of course – guesting on panel shows, being one of the best things about Benidorm, and playing a surprisingly effective self-combustible Krook in the BBC’s Bleak House 12 years ago. I don’t think I was prepared for someone so eloquent, creative, unpredictable and thoroughly naughty as he proved himself to be on Saturday night!

kevin-dHe told us that he’d already done an earlier show – not compering but proper stand-up – which had gone off at a tangent because of one particular audience member, but which hadn’t really gone well because the audience didn’t come with him on his flights of fancy. That must be a really awkward situation; because just ten minutes in the company of Mr Vegas tells you that flights of fancy are the order of the day, and any pre-prepared material is probably there just as a backup if all else fails. He’d barely been on a few seconds when he started picking his way through the front row looking for suitable quarry – and there were two guys. The first guy started to bat back the questions in that semi-confident, taciturn but I can handle this way; and then he caught sight of his mate. 99% of the audience didn’t get a look at this guy because we were all sitting behind him. But he obviously appealed to Mr Vegas’ sense of nurturing the oppressed, because this guy had obviously allowed himself to grow the most appalling, all-over-the-place apology for a beard, so that he looked a disgrace and Mr Vegas was not going to let him get away with it.

guz-khanWhilst this was not Mr Vegas’ only comic tack of the evening, everything did seem to revolve around Useless Beardy Guy. There was no end to the gentle humiliation heading his way during the course of the night, which grew in complexity and status as Mr Vegas ended up encouraging a member of the audience – a rather mouthy lady (perhaps not inappropriately) – to (and I quote) w*nk him off for £500. Others, not all of them with female voices, attempted to undercut this offer, but Mr Vegas wasn’t holding a Dutch Auction. After the next act, the original volunteer had slumped forward in her seat in a paralytic stupor** but Mr Vegas had made an onstage promise that the w*nking would take place. Naturally troubled by this, it culminated in Mr Vegas holding an uncomfortable phone call with his late-night lawyer, where he was concerned that he might now be contractually obliged to cause Beardy Guy to climax in his (Mr Vegas’) hand, in a council-run property (and he admitted sotto voce that he didn’t really want to) and would he need a licence for this? The whole thing was absolutely hilarious and I was shaking with laughter.

paul-mccaffreyIn amongst all that shenanigans Johnny Vegas introduced three special guests, all of whom were on absolutely top form. First up was Kevin Dewsbury, whom we have seen many times before, most recently about four hours earlier as the TV chef-cum-walking disaster in Kev’s Komedy Kitchen. Mr Dewsbury took us through his embarrassing St Patrick’s Day moment and his marvellous routine about enunciating foreign words perfectly – I’m so guilty of that myself. He had a whole load of new material as well, perfectly suiting his matey, blokey persona and he got a great reception from the audience. Our second guest was new to us, Guz Khan, still a teacher until two years ago. He is a real find, with a superbly confident stage presence (I bet his kids paid attention to his lessons) and great material that didn’t shy away from the tough subjects like ISIS and Morning Assembly. He absolutely aced the crowd. Our final act, also new to us, was Paul McCaffrey, with some great observations on the wisdom of the fitness guru who recommends replacing chocolate with raw veg, and, whilst on holiday, eschewing licking shots from a nymphette’s belly button in Ibiza in preference to playing cards on the balcony with the wife (“after all, we went to the pub last night…”)

heres-johnnyBut it really was Mr Vegas’ night. He has such a quick mind and the ability to winkle something humorously ridiculous from the most banal of situations. He’d have you believe he was raising money for some spurious charity, or that he needed to quickly nip backstage to check he hadn’t left a camp stove on whilst leaving Useless Beardy Guy singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for our amusement. He created a wonderful visual image of applying his backside to the TV screen during This Morning so that it looked like Piers Morgan was rimming him; and he had a battle with his braces, before the third act, causing slowly descending trousers, from which he produced tons of hilarious physical comedy. The next morning all six of us kept on remembering varied elements of his reckless night’s entertainment; it was officially fabulous. As was our entire Leicester Comedy Festival experience, and we’re hoping to make it an annual event, when we all return and throw ourselves at the festival for an entire weekend. Here’s to 2018!

**She said she was a teacher so Mr Vegas wondered if it was the SATs and not the alcohol that had sent her off to sleep.

P. S. I discovered later that Mr Vegas doesn’t really have a late-night lawyer with whom he can discuss such delicate topics – it was Kevin Dewsbury on the other end of the phone. I’m embarrassed to say though that it didn’t occur to me that this was a stunt; if anyone is going to have resort to a late-night Comedy Lawyers 4U contact it would be Johnny Vegas. He must need this kind of advice all the time.

P. P. S. The show started at 8.30pm and was due to finish at 10.30pm. Shortly before midnight you could see the promoter agitatedly standing near the stage trying to get Johnny Vegas’ attention so that he would wrap it all up. I did tell you he was unpredictable.

Review – Kev’s Komedy Kitchen, Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester, 25th February 2017

kkkFor our second show on Comedy Saturday, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the gang to see Kev’s Komedy Kitchen, a show we’d already seen in Edinburgh last summer, which we both found knock-out funny, and was in fact the recipient of last year’s Chrisparkle Award for Edinburgh Best of the Rest – which is rather a graceless title that I think I need to alter. It appears that this was probably the last ever performance of the show in this format, so any spoilers I reveal in this review, aren’t really.

Kev's Komedy KitchenYou’re greeted by Floor Manager Will who explains that it’s a recording of a TV show and warns us not to wave at the cameras. As if we would. He also advises us to laugh at anything Kev says that’s funny – or thinks is funny; and whilst happily reminiscing over Kev’s successful tours in the past, he reminds us not to mention 2012… as it wasn’t a good year. Naturally, the only person who mentions 2012 as the show progresses, is Will; but there is a limit to which even he can keep up that chirpy positivity when you’re dealing with a bunch of pensioners watching the recording of a show that is pure bumf, and featuring guests with the social graces of Sooty and Sweep but with none of their sense of humour. By the time the show’s started he’s already dissed Kev for attracting nothing like the number of punters as Stephen Bailey had the previous night, and as for that Romesh Ranganathan….

kevin-dI digress (like he did). Will’s introductory speech totally sets the scene for what’s to come. Even before we’ve met Kev we know a) he’s not as funny as he thinks he is, and b) his life and career had a big tumble which he hasn’t come to terms with. You just know that during the course of the next hour we’re going to see this guy start to (apple) crumble and watch his career go down the (hot) pan. If that sounds rather sad – well, it is! But that’s the strength of the show: watching Kev kling to the wreckage as his guest celebrity turns out to be po-faced, patronising and thick as two short fish fingers, as his guest comic gets more laughs than he does, thus building up Kev’s resentment against him, and as his high-flying guest chef lets him down at the last minute to be replaced by Marco Pierre Shite. It is the comedy of cruelty, played straight to emphasise the seriousness behind the laughter, but always with the accent on the comic rather than the cruel – until it descends into a semi-apocalyptic free-for-all at the end.

will-hutchbyRather like when I worked in Contracts Management for the local council, anything that could go wrong in the recording of Kev’s Komedy Kitchen, does go wrong. The pre-prepared meal for them to taste is inedible because Josh the assistant forgot to put the oven on, (or rather, in the case of Saturday’s performance, he says he did put the oven on, much to Will’s surprise – nicely handled, sir) the po-faced celebrity refuses to try any of the food, the celebrity chef’s cordon bleu creation is a Sainsbury’s Scotch Egg and the guest comic returns at the end to physically assault Kev for being such a knob.hannah-blakeley All the while Kev is progressively getting more and more inebriated as the po-faced celebrity refuses to sample the Chardonnay, which is really all the excuse he needs to gulp it all.

It’s a genuinely hilarious comic creation that, once started, is a crash course to oblivion for our Kev with no way out. mike-newellBeautiful performances from everyone, with Will Hutchby positively effervescent with enthusiasm until the sequence of disasters makes him tear his hair out, and Hannah Blakeley is spot on as the ghastly Grace Loretta, whose freakish Orwello ends up writhing all over the stage mad as a box of frogs. She had me at Halloumi (you had to be there). Mike Newall brings all the vibrant personality of Liam Gallagher on a downer to his dour celebrity chef, and, as the guest comic, Liam Pickford wiped the floor with his erudite gag about how a Southern fried chicken baguette mixes cuisines of two origins and therefore could be seen as cousins who might kiss at a Christening.liam-pickford He also wiped the floor with Kev once he’d slung him a few left hooks. Plus, of course, Kevin Dewsbury brilliant as the eponymous Kev, brave in the face of adversity, prickly when his professionalism is doubted, conducting hilariously awful interviews, pushing old puns to the limit and beautifully portraying that day in a person’s life when, as one disaster follows another after another, they just reach the conclusion: f*ck it.

As suspected, our fellow comedy-goers loved it too. Even though the original Komedy Kitchen has now gone to that great Aga in the sky, it will be back in a new format as The Second Cumin and I for one can’t wait to catch it in Edinburgh later this year!