Lady Margaret writes

LADY MARGARET’S FALL

No, not that kind of fall, though goodness knows, what with the state of Bath’s pavements and my poor old knees (and with the aid of a glass or two of the White Hart’s* finest Prosecco I hear you say) I’ve come dangerously near a cropper practically every time I’ve stepped from the Rolls these last few months.

No, fall as in the term our cousins from over the pond use for this gloriously golden season. I’ve gone all Yankee Doodle ever since I heard Widcombe’s very own crooner James Lambeth deliver a selection of songs penned by the fabulously prolific Johnny Mercer in his show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Accentuate the Positive had me rethinking my life choices (I’m selecting curtains for my vestibule at present), and Moon River sent me straight to the chocolate cupboard, naturally. Of course, one doesn’t have to go north of the border, stay at an excruciatingly expensive hotel and over indulge on luxury shortbread as I did to hear James’s silken tones. I’m told he frequently performs at the Ring O’ Bells of a Sunday eve. Tapas and tunes anyone?

There’s such a lot of talent about in Widcombe, not least in the form of my good self. Though I’m not turning on the Christmas lights this year, having been usurped by Her Majesty the Queen, no less. That’s on December 1st, and after one has admired the glittering trees and shopped in the plethora of glittering Widcombe shops, I’m told one can attend a glittering cabaret at the Widcombe Social Club (compered by my good friend Ralph le Bonbon I believe). Me? Well, I’m hosting a series of posh bingo nights (or nites in the common parlance) at the Abbey Hotel’s Igloo venue, starting on December 13th.

Anyway, back to the season in hand. Let’s hope the autumn sun continues to shine on Widcombe’s burgeoning café society. Such fun to sip one’s al fresco skinny latte macchiato while shouting abuse at the occasional SUV driver who has yet to realise the traffic flows the other way these days.

Have a happy fall and may you not be troubled by the wrong kind of leaves!

*other fine hostelries are availableLady_Margaret_JulianHouse022_high res_print

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Bath Comedy Festival 2016 – in review

From Cilla Black to Kevin the Lamb, it was a lorra lorra laughs!

It says much about the wide appeal of Bath Comedy Festival 2016 that one of the most popular ‘performances’ was that given by Kevin the bald headed lamb. But more on that cuddlesome creature later.

Seeing our esteemed director Nick Steel sweating profusely as he dashed from guiding The Wine Arts Trail’s big red bus around the secret corners of Bath to presenting Peter Richardson of Comic Strip fame with the festival’s prestigious Bath Plug Award on stage at the Little Theatre Cinema showing of Red Top, and then hot-footing it up the hill to the brand new Widcombe Social Club to introduce that night’s stunning performance of The Rise of Mighty Voice by Jess Robinson illustrates perfectly the hands-on approach the organisers apply to bringing fun and laughter to our staid and often po-faced little city.

This year, as always, the focus wasn’t limited to big starry names, though there were some pretty famous faces knocking around – Stephen Frost, Mark Watson, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Sean Hughes and Arthur Smith to name a few.  The emphasis was refreshingly placed on new work, up and coming artists, quirky presentations in formerly unknown spaces, Edinburgh previews, works in progress, female performers (the festival is rightly proud of its F-rating) and, improbably, having previously mined German humour and helped to put Henning Wehn on the map, a dash of Norwegian comedy in the form of the brilliant Dag Sørås.

Whilst The Wine Arts Trail was, as usual, reassuringly expensive (and an instant sell-out), there were acts to suit all pockets, including a plethora of free and pay-what-you-feel performances featuring the likes of Nick Doody, James Dowdeswell, Stephanie Laing and Zahra Barri.

Meanwhile, the cheap, cheerful and totally delightful Kids’ Comedy programme proved to be a boon for the buggy brigade. What could be nicer than to spend an hour or so in the company of King Pumpypants and three very special princesses, namely Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel? A dream photo-op for any tiny tot. And a perfect use for the sparkling and kiddy-friendly Widcombe Social Club!

Helping to set aspiring young comics on the path to possible stardom is an important part of the festival’s ethos. After several heats played out in the relative safety of Bath Brew House’s bijou upstairs venue, a huge, expectant and it has to be said very supportive audience gathered at the Social Club for a fantastic final of the now nationally acclaimed New Act Competition. The acts included a female vicar of a certain age, a comedy trombonist and a gentleman with a nice line in self-denigration. The award was eventually presented, to deservedly tumultuous applause, to Pav Rao for an act that demonstrated superb timing and originality. He joins a gallery of watch-this-space winners who have gone on to greater things including Larry Dean, Matt Richardson and Joe Lycett.

An Arts Council assessor once accused The Wine Arts Trail, the festival’s flagship immersive event, of having not enough art and too much wine. Said rep also expressed disappointment that the alternative city tour didn’t include such famous set pieces as the Royal Crescent but instead ended up in a reclamation yard. Well, this year there was even more wine, and as well as affording the tipsy punters on the big red bus a brief sideways glance at said salubrious cres, the magical mystery ride took in a specially staged exhibition at the Bath Artists’ Studios, a participatory painting by numbers of Caravaggio’s Bacchus, a revival of a virtuoso classical music spoof by the original cast of the Natural Theatre’s 1985 show Scarlatti’s Birthday Party, who re-learnt the act in just two hours, and visit to Arthur Smith’s Sock Museum, hosted by the man himself. You can’t get artier than that.

In addition, the tour utilised the splendid Hollywood style staircase at the Hall and Woodhouse bar and restaurant (generous sponsors of the festival, we might add) for a musical number by Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Cilla et al in the astonishingly talented form of vocal impressionist Jess Robinson.

Oh, and Kevin the new-born lamb, who, starved of motherly love and warmth, huddled too near to the heat lamp and singed himself a bald pate, and who played a starring role in the Wine Trail finale at Rainbow Wood Farm, presiding as he did over the raffle draw for the giant jar of Bill Smarme’s pickled eggs. Such was his appeal his owners promised he will never be paired with a pot of mint sauce, a promise proven by the online video which shows him gambolling merrily into teenagerdom in the green fields of Combe Down.


Bath Comedy continues to entertain with some shows during Bath Fringe Festival and Edinburgh previews in July, followed by an Autumn season here in Bath, as well as further afield in Bradford on Avon and Bristol. Keep your eye on http://www.bathcomedy.com and sign up to the e-newsletter for more information.

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Bath Comedy Festival 2016

Just a reminder, now you have recovered from the recent surfeit of chocolate and bunnies, the Bath Comedy Festival 2016 kicks off tomorrow, Friday April 1st. The flags are going up in Widcombe as we welcome back the intimate upstairs venue at the Ring O Bells and  even more exciting, the brand new Widcombe Social Club, where the opening April Fools Showcase is taking place tomorrow 7.30 doors open, show at 8pm.
www.bathcomedy.com/whats-on?id=508

Those of us lucky to have been at the Social Club members’ preview or this week’s public Open Day were highly impressed by the modern, spacious and welcoming atmosphere at the club. Big queues formed as existing members renewed their subscriptions, whilst at the Open Day over 120 new members signed up.

You don’t have to be a member to enjoy the facilities as the premises operates on a pub licence, but members can use their swipe card to get discounts at the bar, on room hire and occasional ticketed events. Plus, unlike the old days when members and visitors were banished to the basement when events were taking place, there are now two super spaces, so there will always be a comfy public bar to retire to during opening hours. So, remember, the club is only a ‘club’ in name, it’s free entry to all, and a rather fabulous addition to the Widcombe village ‘scene’. Indeed, Mick , the landlord of The Ram reported that on Open Day practically everyone going to the club popped in for a pint, and practically everyone coming back from the club popped in for another!

The Comedy Festival takes place all over town, not just in Widcombe. There are free/pay what you like events at The Bath Brew House and additional comedy to suit all tastes at The Rondo, The Mission Theatre, St James Wine Vaults, Sleight Bar, Hall & Woodhouse, The Bell, Komedia, and even on the streets. Most events have walk-up tickets still available, but it is advisable to book in advance just to be sure – see www.bathcomedy.com

By the way, The Wine Arts Trail on the big red bus is completely sold out, as usual. Book now for next year’s tour!

And my pick of the week? The Character and Sketch Comedy Showcase 6pm for 6.30pm Sat 2nd April at Widcombe Social Club. Real scripts, real acting, real punchlines…possibly even a bit of scenery… proving the festival is not just a showcase for top-notch stand-up. Hancock lives! “This is everything sketch comedy shows should be” The Mirror
www.bathcomedy.com/whats-on?id=528

And if that wasn’t enough brilliant comedy, stay on in the club, have a swift gin and tonic and then see Steve Frost’s Improv Allstars at 8.30pm for 9pm starring regulars from the original British version of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ …possibly the most successful comedy series ever.
www.bathcomedy.com/whats-on?id=524

For once I’m pretty certain I haven’t made any mistakes in this update, so see you there everyone. And I mean…EVERYONE!

Best wishes

Ralph Oswick
Patron, Bath Comedy Festival 2016

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Charlie Ware

Eulogy delivered by Ralph Oswick on the occasion of the funeral of Charles Ware 21/7/15

In 1972 the Arts Workshop, already a major creative force in Bath, was holding a meeting about the next Bath alternative festival. The usual faces were there, but lurking silently at the back was a snappily dressed long haired gentleman. After much discussion about tents, stages, street theatre and face painting…all essential ingredients of an alternative festival, the gentleman spoke up. “I’d like to help. I can lend you a whole empty hotel as a twenty-four hour venue. If you want it.”
Stunned silence.

What a spiv I thought.

But it was true. Charlie, for it was he, did make an entire 60 room hotel available for what Sir Michael Tippett, on a flying visit from the rather straight main festival, said “was everything a fringe festival should be”.

The Cleveland Hotel, in Bath’s grandest street, awaiting conversion to apartments, became Cleveland Circus. The Arts Workshop and others created a cinema, a theatre space, an art gallery, a restaurant, the famous Upside-down room and countless happenings, discos, installations and rock concerts.

The thing about it was, the place was in a sort of glorious limbo, as fully operational as a hotel as on the day its former owners left. There were kitchens, still with ham in the freezer, and beautifully furnished lounges including the exquisite Golden Lounge with its gilded pillars and mirrored shutters. Even the bedrooms came with crisp white sheets and bedside lamps and Gideon bibles in the drawers. Spending weeks in residence preparing for the event, we dined nightly on instant mashed potato purloined from the basement larder!

During what was known as The Other Festival, my mum stayed in one of these bedrooms and famously at 2am marched into the room occupied by heavy rock merchants Hawkwind in her Winceyette nightie and told them to keep the noise down as she was trying to sleep. They shut up immediately.
The following year, astonishingly, Charlie lent us the Theatre Royal. That bastion of straightness, also awaiting renovation, hosted off-beat choirs, spoof rock bands, community variety shows, a bird impersonator and even a concert featuring beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

All part of one of the most exciting and artistically innovative periods that the creative glitterati of the city had ever seen. And though I’m sure some people thought Ha, here’s some rich bloke flashing the cash, I’ll have some of that, it was actually quite hard to get money out of Charlie.
What he did was facilitate. He looked at suggestions, opportunities and cultural /creative deficiencies and matched what he had with those needs. Theatre company desperate for storage space? I’ve got a row of empty houses. Need to raise funds? Why, Roxy Music owes me a benefit from way back, let’s call in the option. Need a spectacular space for an event? Borrow my house in the Royal Crescent. Staging a publicity stunt? I know someone with a helicopter. Perhaps most excitingly, you want to take the festival to the outlying suburbs? Let’s build a series of temporary domes around the city!

And so on and so on. It seemed that everyone was working with Charlie or working for Charlie on one of his restoration projects. And jolly exciting it was too. One moment one might be digging wet clay out of the Georgian basements of the derelict but now glorious Kingsmead Square, the next arriving by Rolls Royce all glammed up in a stunt that took the wind out of the sails of the official relaunch of the Theatre Royal by the Duke of Kent.
The Natural Theatre Company arrived minutes before the royals, in a better car and wearing better frocks. Later the chief of police told the Bath Chronicle ‘I started to suspect they weren’t a real royal party when they got their own red carpet out of the boot!’
There are so many great stories to tell. And Charlie was invariably the catalyst. He showed the way for a new attitude to the preservation and use of Bath’s sadly crumbling terraces and also unlocked myriad creative possibilities in this staid old maid of a town.

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Oui Patron! (Final Episode)

BATH COMEDY FESTIVAL PATRON RALPH OSWICK TAKES A LAST LOOK AT THIS YEAR’S EVENT

What better way to end this year’s highly successful Comedy Festival than with a performance of Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen at Bath Cricket Club? And with our esteemed critic otherwise engaged it falls to me to review the show!

And what a show! We all love Arthur’s somewhat shambolic style of humour, his gravelly voice and elastic features. As a co-patron of the festival he’s led us on many a merry jape, from the Widcombe Easter Egg Hunt, to last year’s more complex animated guided walk around Alexandra Park which involved a bevy of local performers in increasingly daft situations. In addition, our Arf has twice guested on the famous Wine Arts Trail big red bus as celeb clippie.

But it seems we absolutely adore this more focussed personification. Backed by the incomparable (and highly glamorous) Smithereens he took us on a roller coaster journey through comical tales about his dad, tear-inducing accounts of his mother’s gradual  descent into dementia, hilarious childhood reminiscences and a string of jokes ancient and modern. All held together by superb renditions of Leonard Cohen’s best and most spectacularly miserable songs.

This could so easily have been simply a spoof on the master songsmith’s lugubrious oeuvre, which would be perfectly acceptable as a cabaret turn. But in this case the songs gained a new relevance, becoming a commentary on Arthur’s life story as it was laid before us.

This show has been around for a bit in various versions, gaining great reviews at Edinburgh Fringe. It has been broadcast on BBC 4 (which necessitated an explanation for listeners by Arthur of its purely visual and very rude ending). I’m really glad this newly extended and even more miserable version was brought to Bath and it gives me great pleasure to confer five stars upon its bare bottom (there, that’s a spoiler for the ending). If I had six to give, I would.

As his distinguishedness the Mayor of Bradford on Avon was heard to comment on leaving ‘Effing brilliant! Better than anything the Theatre Royal ever put on. And in an effing cricket club!’

I’m sure he’d be happy for you to quote him on that, Arthur!

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Oui Patron! (Part 4)

Comedy Festival Patron Ralph Oswick’s occasional festival diary

People can behave very strangely in audiences. This week I’ve seen a couple in the middle of the front row who remained stony-faced throughout and then were heard saying how much they enjoyed themselves. Not sure the comedian, who was all of six feet away, felt overjoyed at having them stare him out for an hour.

In the same show an annoying chap next to me constantly checked his emails, while occasionally looking up and laughing uproariously. A new slant on multi-tasking?

I’ve done a show where a pesky kid who’s seen the show before shouted out all the punchlines seconds before I delivered them. In a musical show with Natural Theatre, they wheeled in a paraplegic lad on a trolley.  His breathing machine clicked and hissed completely out of time with most of our songs. Really hard to adjust, but we managed it and the young fellow enjoyed the show immensely.

In a show called Scarlatti’s Wedding I was required to pass along the front row and engage directly with members of the audience and receive the wedding gifts they had brought along. In a particularly cramped German theatre I couldn’t get past one chap. His wife cracked her knuckles on his knee and cried out ‘Vooden leg! Vooden leg!’  I did my best and clambered over.

Once, we had a message to say that a woman in the stalls had died.  This was in Germany too, and true to form the audience remained politely silent.  Hiding behind the set, we heard the ambulance arrive and the paramedics rushing in.  The sound of the siren fading into the distance indicated that the poor woman had been taken away. But no message came through from front of house that the show could start again or had perhaps been cancelled.

After a very long, silent wait, I said, well, lads, I think the show should go on. But none of us could remember exactly at which point it had stopped. Being the director I decreed that we should start vaguely in the middle of the act and speak really fast for the first five minutes so the German audience would be as confused as we were.

It worked and we got our usual standing ovation. And it turned out the woman wasn’t dead but had suffered a seizure and was recovering in hospital.

By the way, concerning the aforementioned wedding gifts, people really did bring all sorts of things. I can remember novelty teapots, a hot water bottle, his and hers tea towels and of course condoms. Lots and lots of condoms. Yawn. One chap presented us with a whole four place dinner service, while in Berlin we were pelted with gift-wrapped chunks of the Berlin wall.

Mind you, we had to be careful to ask for presents, not gifts. Gift in German means poison.

Weird audience members apart, I have enjoyed everything I’ve seen in the festival so far. Yes I am a patron, and I do my duty by being a bum on a seat when required, but stand-up is not totally my thing so I’m not a push-over. I particularly enjoyed Diane Spencer in the intimate and subtly sparkling surroundings of the upstairs room at the Ring O Bells. Despite my own efforts to murder the front row in many shows in which I have appeared, I don’t like being too near the action. But this little venue is just right, and Diane’s true account of her struggles to write a show for Nancy Dell ‘Olio had everyone in fits. She’s a great story teller and her show, with a bit of honing, will be a hit at Edinburgh Fringe later in the year I’m sure.

 

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Oui Patron! (Part 3)

Bath Comedy Festival 2015 Patron Ralph Oswick’s occasional festival diary.

The Bath Comedy Festival’s famous big red bus outing, The Wine Arts Trail went off without a hitch on Palm Sunday. Apart from the odd hurricane force wind, a temporarily lost harpist and a badly parked car here and there, a lady abandoned in the toilet and at least one confused (pissed) punter wandering off. As promised, 140 participants were treated to a series of mystery destinations, hilarious happenings and infiltrations, all awash with fine wines and witty banter.

Seems a simple thing to arrange, but preparation this year, the eighth appearance of the tour, was particularly fraught. Our main comic act for the finale foolishly double booked himself and had to drop out. That not being quite enough trauma, the actual final venue, a pub, suddenly closed and an alternative had to be found. Then the Natural Theatre’s youth team had to retire from the fray due to lack of youth availability.  Following this, another of the acts had to withdraw for ‘personal reasons’ and the snazzy sports car booked to transport the winners of the en-route Easter bonnet competition was suddenly no more.

Frantic phone calls found replacements. (It’s surprisingly easy to get people to agree to say yes to things late evening in the pub. Followed by the inevitable ‘what did I agree to do?’ phone calls next morning) and the dust settled. Then, whilst distributing the plonk to the venues we realised that only half of said wine had been supplied. Yours truly hadn’t read the delivery note. I’d just signed and paid. Luckily the wine merchants were still open and rustled up another stack of wine cases on sale or return. Phew, relaaax everyone!

It was pretty brave of the passengers to down their first glass of Prosecco at ten fifteen on a Sunday morning. Especially as due to the clocks going forward, it was really nine fifteen in the morning! But it set them off nicely, and four stops and five glasses later, the bus was completely steaming, in both senses of the word, and rolling down Milsom Street with everyone on board delivering a rollicking chorus of Roll out the Barrel. Followed by My Old Man Said Follow the Van. And when I suggested that something slightly classier might be appropriate for what is arguably one of the finest thoroughfares in the land, Nessan Dorma broke out on the lower deck. Led it must be said by our irrepressible celebrity clippie, the wonderful Lorraine Chase of Luton Airport fame.

We’d wandered the cloisters of the exquisite Romanesque St Alphege’s church in Oldfield Park, an overlooked gem in the hierarchy of Bath’s architectural heritage, while the aforementioned harpist’s fingers froze to the bone, bless her. We’d experienced the unique vibe of the House of His Majesty, the Edwardian pile in Lower Weston where the Emperor Haile Selassie lived in exile.  This section was hosted by the gorgeous Loraine of Morgan-Brinkhurst Consultancy, who is working with the trustees to raise funds for the building’s restoration as a community asset. Loraine kindly supplied red and white wine. And nibbles! Food on the wine trial? The gannets descended and within seconds nary a Cheesy Wotsit to be seen!

Various artefacts from the time of the Emperor’s residency were on display, including his harmonium, but his chapel consecrated in the former conservatory was said to have been flown lock stock and barrel back to Ethiopia with His Highness. English Heritage would never allow that these days. I wonder if it still stands, a little bit of Bath in the middle of Ethiopia?

In the lane at the back of the royal mansion, we came across a somewhat inebriate vicar who claimed to be delivering UKIP leaflets. As his wobbly bicycle and even wobblier knees deposited him in a conveniently placed yew hedge, a gullible lady was heard to ask ‘Do you think he is real?’

Ever onwards, and much wine-drenched fun was to be had in Wood’s restaurant as Marie Antoinette’s couturiers, played by the ladies from Amuse Bouche Theatre Company, looking for all the world like escaped mannequins from the adjacent Museum of Costume, judged the Easter Bonnets. The hat full of chocolates naturally won those greedy judges over and the winners were whisked away for a tour of the real sights of Bath by a very game driver from Gemini limousine hire who at the last minute had been prized away from his Sunday dinner to participate. Thanks Ade!

Meanwhile, the bus rushed ahead, if a lumbering Routemaster can be said to rush, in order to deposit the rest of us in a screaming, flag-waving horde on the steps of the former Empire Hotel. As the hat winners alighted from the limo, the passing tourists might have been forgiven for thinking royalty had arrived. As it was, the guys had picked up a friend on the way who bore an eery resemblance to Olly Murs. We all chanted ‘We love you Olly!’ I’m sure some Japanese visitors went off happy to have snapped their pop idol!

Onwards into the somewhat subdued atmosphere of the former ballroom of the Empire, now a Garfunkel’s where the truly outrageous, ludicrous and totally wonderful Tina Turner Tea Lady gave us her all (which is a lot!) (a real lot!).  On being asked by Tina what one does when one is dry, the answer being drink tea, an inebriated old lady cried ‘Lubricate!’ It was all downhill from then on. The two lone diners and the nonplussed staff seemed unmoved as we did the conga back to the bus, led by Tina in a fright wig, a pair of unfeasibly high heeled pink shoes and little else..

Finally, we staggered into the charming converted Methodist chapel, the prettiest building in Twerton on Avon after the new Morrison’s Local, which houses Capture the Spirit Photography. There,a camp society photographer and a genuinely hugely pregnant Miss Product Placement, (Natural Theatre stalwarts Ginny and Neil), her floral swimsuit bursting at the seams, was discovered in mid-photoshoot. Miss P P, who is not averse to draping her body over any person or product in the cause of marketing, helped Ms Chase to crown the person judged to have been the best wine critic on the tour.

And so back to the start, where the victims…sorry, participants…for the afternoon tour were already assembling, staring soberly at the morning crowd literally falling off the bus.

An Arts Council assessor once asked why there was so little art on the Wine Arts Trail. I had to explain that the word ‘arts’ was there simply to enable the acronym to spell T.W.A.T.

Childish really, but it sounds hilarious after six glasses of wine.

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