Character comics at this year's Fringe explain how far they'll go to have a fictional person seem all-too real.
If there's a comedy character whose success and relevance taps ever-increasingly into Britain's apparent insularity, it's the Pub Landlord. A boisterous Little Englander, he's been around for more than 20 years, hosting TV and radio shows, authoring four books, and even standing against Nigel Farage for Thanet South in the 2015 general election (where he accrued 318 votes). He's a character whose fans can go either way: most grasping his xenophobia with the irony it deserves; a few skipping this altogether to read a real truth into what the Landlord is touting.
Yet, Al Murray, the man behind the satire, has some issues with any notion of 'truth telling' in comedy. In an interview with The List earlier this year, he pointed out the apparent decrease in character comedians over the last decade or so, and pointed to a move towards truth-telling in comedy: 'there was very much this idea about being truthful and that turned into having to talk about yourself: comedy as the confessional where you reveal something about yourself.'
Despite this feeling that recent comedians rely more on looking inward to tell their stories, the appeal of people taking on one particular mantle and wearing that for the entirety of a show is more popular than ever (at least, according to this year's Fringe programme). As well as Murray, there's Colin Hoult's Anna Mann (who managed to rid the world of depression at last year's Fringe and is turning her wrath upon the fascists this time), not to mention the enduring popularity of Simon Brodkin's Lee Nelson and his FIFA-bothering Jason Bent.
Colin Hoult's Anna Man Among the throng of character comedians in Edinburgh this August is Sarah Thom, whose Gillian Beak leads earnest acting workshops and masterclasses. 'What I'm interested in is the truth / fiction blur,' she says of Beak Speaks. Thom admits that although the 'truth is stranger than fiction' thing is a bit of a cliché, when it comes to working on a character the concept rings more true than usual. 'There are elements of truth in my show, but Gillian is definitely a character. I quite like it where people are thinking, "is this real or not?"'
Described as 'the essence of the Fringe: she lives, eats and breathes Fringe', Beak is based on overly arch practitioners of 'the craft' that Thom has met through her years working in devised and alternative theatre. But she freely admits that she's taking the piss out of herself as much as anybody else. 'I get more detailed comedy from things that have actually happened to me. Some of the exercises I'm doing in the masterclass are things people have asked me to do over the years during daft auditions.'
Simon Brodkin's Lee Nelson While Thom's inspiration can be gleaned from her time at the legendary Lecoq School in Paris ('on my hands and knees trying to be a spider'), Simon Brodkin (Lee Nelson) is a few miles further from his 'cheerful chav' character. Brodkin uses fellow doctor-turned-comedian Harry Hill as an example of blurring the lines between not only characters and real people, but stand-up and character comedy, too. 'That's not his real name, that's not how he talks or what he wears, yet people would argue that he is a straight stand-up comedian,' states Brodkin. 'Do straight stand-ups always tell the truth? No, because they're trying to eke out a joke. I guess it's a sliding scale of truth.'
Pointing out that people tend to believe what they're presented with, Brodkin recalls some near misses he's experienced while mistaken for 'Lee Nelson' (including being threatened with a knife while pretending to graffiti someone's van), but doesn't think that this confusion is necessarily a bad thing. 'I think it's a compliment. I've always loved character comedy when you feel like you're watching another person in front of you, rather than the performer behind the character.'
Michael Stranney's Daniel Duffy
A great performer is not just drawing from their own personality to flesh-out a character, but is also able to address an audience without all eyes on the 'real' person. Despite having years of performing behind him, Michael Stranney (whose Daniel Duffy is a country bumpkin from rural Northern Ireland) was recently at a loss when asked to do a best man's speech. 'Paradoxically, it's very much against the grain for me to stand up in front of an audience. I'm naturally quite awkward without the mask of a character, without those rhythms and beats. Having a character is a mask I can don that allows me to be funny.'
This is a common theme among the comedians I talked to, some of whom have tried straight stand-up and realised it wasn't for them. Rob Carter has an established character called Christopher Bliss, an author who pens three novels a day and is also the shell for an exploration into an incompetent person's overconfidence.
'I've done stand-up, musical comedy and storytelling,' says Carter. 'I've always found it easiest to have a character or a guitar in front, something other people would say to "hide behind". But I don't see it like that; it's just an easier way to express myself.'
Besides this, another running theme from our character comedians is silliness, surreality and, ultimately, fun. Carter certainly takes his Fringe character to another level, finding joy in throwing himself entirely into Christopher Bliss by tending to Twitter and Facebook profiles dedicated to him, as well as having a mobile phone he uses throughout the Fringe on which members of the audience can call or text at any time.
'I love the way a character develops around your Fringe show, and I love jumping into it. I love the idea that these characters are real, so I want people to think about Christopher outside of the show. With all the best characters, I think you imagine that they really do exist somewhere.'
Al Murray: The Pub Landlord's Saloon, Assembly George Square Gardens, 17–27 Aug, 6.15pm, £19.50. Beak Speaks, Underbelly Cowgate, 5–27 Aug (not 14, 21), 4pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £6.50. Christopher Bliss: Writing Wrongs, Voodoo Rooms, 5–27 Aug (not 14), 2.55pm, free. Colin Hoult / Anna Mann in How We Stop the Fascists, Pleasance Courtyard, 5–27 Aug (not 14), 4.45pm, £9–£11 (£8–£10). Previews 2–4 Aug, £6. Lee Nelson: Serious Joker, Pleasance Courtyard, 5–27 Aug (not 14–16), 9.20pm, £16.50–£17.50 (£14.50–£15.50). Previews 2–4 Aug, £14. Michael Stranney: Welcome to Ballybeg, Pleasance Courtyard, 5–25 Aug, 6pm, £7.50–£10 (£6.50–£9). Previews 2–4 Aug, £6.
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