Seventy Two.

The Gig: Soap Box Stage, Kendall Calling Festival, Penrith, Cumbria.
The Date: July 30th 2010
The Line Up: Guy Thomas MCing for Phil Ellis’ Big Fat Comedy Quiz featuring Sue Vale & “George”, Will Duggan, Phil Chapman, myself and Andy Watson.

Clockwise on the M60. Yep. I’d set off from home with my head full of other things and followed my satnav like a chump. As a result it led me on a merry chase through rush hour stockport and then dumped me on the M60 heading in the direction that I swore blind I’d never go a again. The traffic ground to a half near The Trafford Centre and crawled along at a pace more suited to the time when cars needed a flag-waving manservant in front. I was annoyed in the way that people only get annoyed at situations where they only have themselves to blame. A futile, simmering crock pot of impotent irritation aimed in no particular direction. I wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with but, then again, I really only had myself to blame for that too.

An hour before I headed out I received a call from one of my peers on the comedy circuit. Cutting to the chase, the comic how upset the description of their MCing in a previous diary entry had been. Initially I didn’t even remember what it was that I’d written, the entry being several months old. That said I’d always maintained that if someone was unhappy with anything I’d written about them that I would remove it immediately without so much as a murmour. I told the comic in question that I would edit it immediately, affirmed that I meant no disrespect or malice and apologised. I then kept my promise and made the changes immediately. Hopefully that would do the trick, smooth things over and we can remain cordial. No avail. The act texted, said that my comments were completely out of order and, in a parting shot, said “You and me are through”.

You and me are through?

As a point of context I should point out that this isn’t someone I especially considered to be a close friend on the circuit. It’s not even as if we gigged together frequently or relied on each other for work. That said, it would appear that our relationship, such as it was, was over. I was tempted to reply with a glib “We’re through? But… But what about the children?” but decided not to poke the hornets’ nest. Instead I confirmed that the offending prose had been removed and that there wasn’t much else I could do. I’m a big, soft bastard at heart and really dislike upsetting people. I also felt that my words on the offending diary had been taken to heart far too easily. That said, that’s easy to say when it’s not my name up there. Well, it is. It’s my diary but you know what I mean.

I felt a little annoyed that my attempt to keep the peace had been thrown back in my face so completely. Still, I did what I could and that’s pretty much that. Nonetheless I wasn’t feeling especially perky after this exchange. Couple this was slow moving traffic and absolutely hideous weather and I was in a dark, dark mood as I crawled my way up the M6 towards the Lake District. I’d left the house at four, aiming to be there for seven at the latest. As it was, it took four hours; twice as long as it normally would. That said, fifteen minutes of that was a delay caused by my purchase of two haggis pies, some sausages and a lemon pudding from Westmoreland Farm Shop at Tebay services. I tell you, the traffic around that deli counter was murder. What’s that? Yogurt coated banana chips? Don’t mind if I do…

A trip to a deli makes everything better. This finally and completely confirms me as being middle class.

As it turns out, the short stop at Tebay was the turning point of the journey and the arrival of a much more positive mood. Even the weather seemed to give me a break as the clouds lifted just as I turned off the M6 towards Penrith and the site of the Kendall Calling festival. Driving through the valley I could see low cloud clinging to the tops of the hillside to my left. I wished I had a decent camera and someone to use it so I could have captured the moment without writing my car off.

As I pulled into the festival site and wound my way along the road through the increasingly pleasant greenery of it’s surroundings I had a call from Phil Ellis. Phil, for the past few months, had been running a show at The Frog & Bucket in Preston called “Phil Ellis’ Big Fat Comedy Quiz”. Clearly a man attempting to exorcise his own ongoing identity crisis. Every month Phil, along with co-conspirators Susan Vale and George Cottier, would present a quiz where off the wall comedy took precedence over anything as mundane as scores, winning or losing. Phil was quizmaster, Susan his foul-mouthed glamorous assistant and George was… Well, George was George. He was a sombre, silent presence sat at Phil’s right hand as the final part of the show’s outlandish trinity. More than the sum of it’s parts, it was already building a cult following. A cult following and a slot at Kendall Calling.

Except, as it turns out, there was trouble in paradise. George was currently caught in the midst of the hellacious traffic that I had managed to get through. It looked unlikely that he was going to make it in time to be a part of the show that night. In George’s absence, would I be able to fill in? Absolutely, sounds like fun. That said, the clock was ticking and I had one last obstacle to overcome.

“Nope, we don’t have you on the list mate.”

As something of a festival novice I’d forgotten about the challenge involved with just getting through the front gate as an artists. (Yes, an artist. Comedy is an art. It’s official.) As I’d only been booked as a replacement a few days previously I was nowhere to be found on the sheets of water-damaged A4 that read like a checklist of suspcicious aliases. I stood and waited by the entrance watching festival-goers file in. A young man in Insane Clown Posse make-up was searched, stopped and then hauled off by the police. Presumably for some sort of substance issue rather than a call from the ICP’s lawyers concerned with gimmick infringement. Fortunately, my willingness to answer to the name Mike Wilkinson for the evening got me through the front door and on my way to The Soap Box, the tent from which humour would spill forth later.

After wandering aimlessly in a circle for a bit I managed to find the correct venue. My attempt to be there in time to catch the circus show had failed almost entirely. I got there in time for the last act, a rather attractive woman who emerged from a casket and removed her clothing. I suspect Jerry Cottle was not in charge of programming the bill on this night. Suffice to say I couldn’t really take time to enjoy the display of burlesquery as I had to convene with Phil and Sue to discuss my role in the quiz. Sue, in particular, looking fine in her full-on outfit. Phil went through the outline of the show with me and, fortunately, my job was very simple with no lines to learn. Just as well I was subbing in for the strong, silent type of the team.

I did, however, think I looked a little too conventional at this point. Seeing as I had a spot to do less than an hour later as myself I figured it might be a good idea to emphasise “George” (I was dubbed with the same name…) with some identifying characteristics. That way people might grasp it wasn’t just me sat on stage looking miserable. I pulled a trick out of the 1999 Chris Jericho playbook and tied some of my hair up on top of my head in a topknot type ponytail that got in the way constantly. Second, for that extra classy look, I took off my tee-shirt and did my hoodie back up with nothing underneath. I looked classy beyond belief. Assuming that classy is another word for scary.

The quiz kicked off and, under instructions, waited until Phil had warmed them up a bit before I walked onstage without a word and sat next to Phil on his ladder. Yes, a ladder. Like a cross between a tennis umpire and someone on a claims direct advert. There I sat stoney-faced for the duration of the quiz. I didn’t realise I had so much stoicism in me but I managed to avoid corpsing entirely, even if I came close a couple of times. I even stayed in character for the entire time I was in the tent. I’m, like, so method.

I had four jobs to do besides displaying the emotional attachment of a waste-paper bin to anything that happened around me. My first job was to play tug o’ war with Phil using a blanket. I took hold of my end, locked my hands in and, without expressing emotion, played the role of immovable object while Phil failed to budge me at all. I was then called up for a subgame called “How Awkward Is This?” whereby Phil, Sue and eventually myself would go and stand in an audience member’s personal space. I even undid my hoodie to reveal my pasty, toneless flesh. So much for never exposing myself at festivals again. My impression of Frankie Howerd went down a storm as did mine and Phil’s recreation of the Ezekial 25:17 scene from Pulp Fiction. I was surprised at just how much of the dialogue I remembered. The quiz wound up… Someone won something, everyone else lost but the real victor was comedy.

Oh and Sue, having drunk from a prop bottle of cheap liqueur throughout, was absolutely hammered by the end. Yep, she’s method too. There was something of an exodus from the tent towards the end of the show but that was less to do with the onstage happenings and more to do with the act starting on the main stage. Numbers would dwindle somewhere from then on…

After a short break the slightly more orthodox stand-up sets began. Will Duggan kicked off the proceedings and, fair play to him, took one for the team as the crowd were a bit sparse, a bit quiet and didn’t seem to know what to make of things. I like Will a lot, he’s got a lot of promise but tonight his role was more that of coal-pit canary. Go out there and risk your life for us. Phil Chapman was up next and, with his energetic delivery, took advantage of the slowly warming crowd that was gradually swelling in numbers as people noticed something was on. Phil’s set came to a close and then it was my turn…

They were, it had to be said, a little hard to guage at the outset. Nonetheless I took the eyes and teeth approach, continuing on unabated at the modest response my opening salvoes received. The sound was not carrying around the tent well and I had to walk the line carefully between projecting well and merely yelling into the mic. Jonathan Mayor’s voice resounded in my head like a slightly camper Alec Guinness. “Vary your volume…”. I did this as I made my way through my set. Sure enough, a change in tone would bring people in more effectively than trying to batter them into submission. I’d made subtle changes to some of my material’s delivery as I went through, tonight I tried to apply that logic throughout. It worked like a charm.

By the time I hit the closing stretch of Word In Game followed by Dance/Wank it felt like I had the audience completely. Via a stroke of fortunate timing the main stage artist had wound up and people were starting to file in as my set progressed. By the end of the my set the tent was full, the people were five deep outside and the atmosphere was more like a rock concert than a stand-up gig. It was brilliant and I loved it. Wrapped up to a big cheer, great personal satisfaction and walked off stage wishing I had more gigs like that. Clearly 2011 is going to be a big festival year if I have anything to do with it.

Andy Watson took to the stage and seemed to be on his way to a belting gig. I thanked Guy and Nick Fraser for the gig, made my excuses and headed out. Now all I had to do was find my car. Fortunately the rain had come on hard as I’d managed to wear entirely unsuitable footwear for traversing the route to the car park if it had turned into a mudslide. Picking my way delicately by the light of my phone, I got to my car and, after two attempts, found my way off the festival site and back onto the road.

That was a lot of fun and a shame I couldn’t stay for the weekend. With a gig on the Saturday I couldn’t afford to stay the night and essentially spend what I made on booze and overpriced falafals. Still, hopefully I made a positive enough impression that I might make first string choice for Kendall Calling 2011.

I stopped again at Tebay service station on the way back for a meat and potato pie and a bottle of Lilt. Clearly the festival’s spirit of anarchy had rubbed off on me.

Gig Score: 7/10 Could have been stronger at the start.
Lesson Learnt: Play it bigger at a festival. Not neccesarily louder but definately bigger. That varying volume thing works like a charm.

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