A tour date in a chapel, usually used for metal bands, above a brewery, in Nottingham.

 Photo by Jodi Whittle

Photo by Jodi Whittle

I’ve talked quite openly about my mental health issues in print, online and on stage, on many occasions, but still if this isn’t something you’re comfortable reading about, or interested in, that’s cool, you can skip this one.

The 48 hours prior to last Friday nights tour date in Nottingham wasn’t fun. For those couple of days, my brain chemistry was making me feel empty and desperate. Everything I saw and felt was colourless. Flat. Meaningless. I was working hard not to be unpleasant to those around me, and myself, and I was sometimes failing. All the usual things I do to trick, distract or subdue it didn’t work – it came strong this week.

I had a show to do, but I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do anything. The prospect of getting dressed, packing and prepping my show gear, travelling on a series of trains all the way to Nottingham to do an hour and a half in a venue where – honestly – I had not sold a huge amount of tickets, was all deeply unattractive. But I have never, ever, let my mental health get in the way of my work, so I got myself there. One thing at a time, making sure to leave early, so I wouldn’t have to rush and get stressed. Slow and careful. Moving in the right direction, figuratively and literally.

I arrived at the venue with my power bar empty. The fantastic festival staff asked how I was, and I lied. But, gradually, as I set my props and sorted out the tech for the show, I started to feel..lighter. Sometimes that’s how it happens. I assume it’s a slight change in the delicate balance of chemicals that dictate mood, but I can equally see how a religious person might feel it as a god, gently lifting them. I’m not a religious person, but the feeling was still there, of relief. That small gaps in my soul were slowly refilling.

In the green room – as beautiful and shabby as only a room above a pub can be – I prepared myself to do my show for a small audience. I’m totally OK with that – my training as a street performer taught me early, to be able to adjust and deliver the best version of what I do to whatever version of an audience I get. As I did, I could hear a few more people outside asking if there were still tickets available. By the time I hit my music and went on, the room was full, and somehow my energy bar was full, and all my special attacks were lit up and ready (Street Fighter II references for the win!)

They were a fantastic audience. Relaxed but enthused, big on laughing and clapping and whooping. Standing up at the back to get the best view. And you know what, I was pretty great too. They energised me. I found myself pacing around, yelling punchlines, giggling, in short, having a fine old time.

Afterwards, I went back to the green room as the audience filed out, and gave me a final gift. I heard a woman, as she shuffled out, say to her friend “That. Was. Astonishing!” – and I was done, the last little bit of monochrome had been coloured in. And it won’t last forever, but it’s lasting as I write this. And maybe it’s shallow that a good show can put a shine on a previously dulled soul, or maybe I’m lucky that I have that secret weapon against it. Perhaps both, who knows?

So, if you were there, then thanks. I hope you had a great evening from wherever you were sitting, I just wanted to let you know how it felt from where I was.

Next tour date is on Saturday the 24th of November, in Chelmsford

You can get info and book tickets by clicking here.

Bye bye gabys

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Forty nine years ago, as I was being born in North London, and my dad was buying a teddy bear to give me, which now sits on a shelf in my office, Gabys Deli was serving falafel and salt beef and the best latkas in the country. Twenty five years ago, I would sneak away from my street pitch round the corner at Covent Garden, with the girl who became my wife, and we’d huddle around one of the continually unbalanced tables in the back, surrounded by posters for West End shows, and share a baklava. Seven years ago, when it was under threat of closure, I, alongside much more famous customers like Vanessa Redgrave, Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes staged pop-up cabaret shows inside the restaurant to try and discourage its execution. And we did. It survived. We won.

A couple of nights ago, the girl who became my wife called me on her way home from work and said “Shall I bring home some Gabys?”, to which the answer, as it had been every other time it had been asked, was “Yes. Please”. Then she told me the bad news.

Gabys is closing at the end of this month. No fight to be had. It’s done. And I’m very sad about it.

It would be very easy to blame this on the continuing deliberate homogenisation of London. The obvious slide toward a city where the rents are so high that only global chains can afford retail space and only oligarchs, millionaires and investment groups have a chance at anything where someone could actually live. This blame would be easy because it is true.

I’m a Londoner. Never felt particularly patriotic to my country, it’s too complicated for me to love unconditionally. But London? I’m London. And so is Gabys. The perfect symbol of what a city like mine is supposed to be. An Iraqi Jew opens a café in the 60’s, serving food that, back then, would have been new and exotic. And over half a damn century it becomes somewhere that every possible kind of person gravitates to, because the food is good, and the people are nice, and the place is comfy and cheap and easy and did I mention how good the food was? Their target market? Their demographic? Bloody everyone. Go in there last week and you’d find west end stars carb-fuelling between shows, tourists getting a taste of a real London café, foodies instagramming their salads, families with kids digging into pitta breads bigger than their heads. I’ve never left that place without a smile on my face, and not just because after I did those shows to keep it open, I always got a couple of free falafel.

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Last night we went for one last meal there. It was packed. By this time next week it’ll be gone. Same as Maria's café in Covent Garden, where I had twenty years of full English breakfasts. Gone. Same as the Piccadilly café, where I’d go between matinee and evening shows when I was in the West End for a year. Gone. The places where I fell in love, learnt my trade, built lifelong friendships, had ideas, wrote jokes, sobbed and giggled. Euthanised as part of the ongoing redevelopment of London from a working, beautiful, melting pot city of small businesses, movers, shakers and lifeblood grafters, into a theme park version of itself, a façade of what investment consortia think a city looks like, a boring identikit theme park sham where the only places to eat or shop are the same places as in every other city in the country.

I’m a Londoner, but I moved out recently. I live by the seaside now. Somewhere not quite lucrative enough to have had the authenticity kicked out of it. I go to greasy spoons run by Jewish families, a coffee shop run by a German humanist, and buy way too many ice creams from a local company who came from Italy 85 years ago. I’m sad about Gabys. So sad. It feels like much of what I loved in my twenties has been closed up and erased. Except the girl who became my wife, of course. She still sits across from me in cafes and coffee shops and ice cream parlours. Goodbye Gabys, sorry that yours won’t be a table I get to sit across from her at any more. I won’t spend a penny in whatever takes your place.

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Just before you go.. I am currently halfway through a UK tour of my new, Edinburgh fringe sell-out, 5-star reviewed, one man show “Mat Ricardo vs The World”. I would, of course, love you to come. Remaining stops over the next few weeks are Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, Cumbria and Chelmsford. It’s a funny show about how I spent the last year of my life learning any trick suggested to me by strangers on the internet, and why I did it. Hopefully I’ll see you there. More info can be found by going to the tour page of this website.

Complimenti

Day One

In my pocket there’s a one way ticket to a TV show in a country I adore, that pays enough for me to be here, in Gatwick airport, letting a flat white slowly persuade me that 5am is a time I should be anywhere.

At this point in a trip, especially a trip to do a foreign TV show, there are almost always many loose ends. My OCD (Oh, and professionalism) likes to know exactly what will happen and when for every moment of the gig. Ricardo likes a schedule. But sometimes that’s just not how things are going to work, and all you have is an end point – me doing some cool tricks in front of cameras – and you just have to go with the flow in terms of how we get there. This creates in me, as you might imagine, not insignificant amounts of stress and anxiety, but over the years I’ve learnt to re-frame the annoying uncertainty as adventure, and to let that redefinition remind me of what a privileged and exciting position I so often find myself in. This, again, is the kind of life the teenage me dreamt about, so lets work hard on enjoying it as its happening, and not just in a few decades time as a happy memory, shall we?

I arrive in Rome, am slid into a large, comfortable, dark car, and off we go. I still have little to no idea what I’m actually doing today, so I ask the driver if we’re going to the studio or the hotel. “Studio”, he says. Alright then. I slowly boot up the version of Mat Ricardo that the studio will need, and power down the version that is currently running, which just wants a nap.

The last time I was in Rome I was also filming something, but that was a lifetime ago. 30 years back, they brought me here to perform in a station ident for Rai-2. I remember it being a very fun shoot. They had booked another British performer to be my showgirl assistant, and I played a juggler on a beautiful theatre stage, who kept having his juggling clubs stolen, mid-juggle. I remember that the guy they’d hired to catch the clubs as I threw them, who told them he was a juggler, was in fact, not. So I had to secretly teach him how to catch what I was throwing, so the rest of the crew didn’t realise that he was a bullshitter. We filmed in at CineCitta studios, and, one lunchtime, as we sat in our dressing rooms enjoying our on-set catering (And you haven’t experienced on-set catering until you’ve had it in Italy – fresh pasta, warm bread, tiramisu, and WINE), we were startled by a series of loud bangs and cracks coming from nearby. We poked out heads out into the corridor and saw that they were coming from behind a door labelled “Godfather 3 special effects”, which explained everything.

I was still a teenager when I was in Rome last, but here I am again, as a not-teenager, sitting in a makeshift green room, signing contract after contract, mostly in Italian. Then being shown to a dressing room and told that we were doing a full camera rehearsal. And in a blur of prop-setting and tech-testing, I’m on a huge shiny stage, staring out at an empty auditorium, supervising camera positions to best show my tricks. There’s a microphone hanging off my right ear, and a live translation earpiece hanging off my left. Whenever I move, they both bang around a bit and feel like they might fall off. And then there’s the language. When I speak, my words are translated live, over the studio loudspeaker, and when one of the hosts asks me a question, someone translates it in the earpiece in my left ear. This means that in a simple question and answer, there are four voices all talking at the same time, and I have to focus on the right one to hear the question, and then block out all the others, in order to give my answer. I’m a juggler – I’m supposed to be good at doing several things at once, but this is tricky. I realise I’m going to have to work really hard if I’m going to look cool, and not like a deer caught in headlights desperately trying to make sense of the tumbling cacophony of words swirling around me. OK then, well, at least I know what I’m in for.

We run my spot, and everyone seems happy with it. The producer who booked me tells me it was perfect. Strikes me that that’s something that someone says either if (a) it’s perfect, or (b) they don’t care if it’s not and want to move on. Guess we’ll see, huh.

And then I’m signing all the contracts again because apparently I did it wrong the first time, and then I’m finally cleared for the day, and in no time am sitting in a restaurant next to the hotel, across the table from my agent, and we drink wine and have pizza, and still don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing tomorrow. But at least we have wine and pizza.

Day Two

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The hotel is just across the street from the studios. I say street, but lets be frank - huge motorway. Because although technically we are in Rome, we’re actually in a bit of a no-mans land mini-sprawl on a ring road on the outskirts. So when they say, as they have, that they probably won’t need me today, but they might, so stay in the hotel just in case, it’s a bit frustrating. There’s very little here. And the wifi in my room doesn’t work. So me and my agent disobey the orders and go for a wander up the road to see if there’s anything to find. There’s not much, but we do have an espresso and some cannoli in the roadside “Big Ben Bar” – because when you’re in Italy, you want to find an authentic medium-sized reproduction of the houses of parliament to hang out in. Then, a little further up, we sit in the sun outside the “Dubai Bar”, which is totally lovely, although in the back of my mind, the whole day, is a little voice saying “At any point they might call you and you’ll have to go and do a crazy-ass TV show, the details of which are stunningly unclear”, so I’d be a liar if I said I was completely relaxed at all times.

Finally we get the call that I won’t be used today, and decide that it’s a waste to be in Rome but not actually in Rome, so we jump in a taxi and get it drop us off right next to the Coliseum. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a hell of a thing. We amble around it and come across some street performers. My people. There’s an opera singer in a red ballgown singing in the twilight to a crowd of people all sitting along a low wall. She’s singing a song that used to be the backing music to a trapeze artist I did some seasons with. I get a bit emotional. I’ve written in the past about the global brother and sisterhood of street performers. The international family of people I’m so proud to be a part of, who all share such a specific and unique life. Whenever I see a busker work, especially in a foreign country, I wish there was a way I could easily communicate that I have lived their life. That I understand it. Some kind of secret handshake that would signal that we’re part of the same hidden society. I gave her some money, and she had some business cards laid out, and I took one, so maybe I’ll send her a secret handshake that way.

We went to a nice, slightly shabby, café for dinner – recommended by both websites and friends – and it didn’t disappoint. Big heavy bowls and plates full of thick, gloopy, rustic, sticky, fresh, beautiful food. And then a gelati, of course, and then back to the hotel. The only information I have about my schedule is that they will probably use me tomorrow, but they might not. Well, alright then.

Day Three

Hard boiled eggs and swiss cheese in a soft roll for breakfast. Italy, I love you. But as I eat them, I still don’t know if I’m filming today or not. And If I’m not, then I’m filming tomorrow, and I have to go back home tomorrow, because a day or so later I have a tour date. Oh hello there, stress, won’t you make yourself comfortable?

Again, we get told that I might get used today, but I might not, so I have to stay in the hotel. They seem to have found out that we disobeyed yesterday, as they say it much more forcefully this time around. “You must stay. In the hotel. IN THE HOTEL. OK?”. Ok, sure fine whatever, mum. I’m coming down with a cold anyway, so I go back to bed. And that’s my day. Coughing and sniffing and reading, in my hotel room, all day. There’s no business like showbusiness. There are two bright spots – lunchtime, when my agent brings me a pizza from the restaurant next door, and late afternoon, when I realise that if I stand in the very far corner of my bathroom, by the window, I can get wifi. No business like it.

Day Four

I’m filming today, they tell us. Be at the studio, ready to go, at 11am. So, another big breakfast, and we’re checked out of the hotel and back in the green room. And so commences a long day of things happening to other people, and little happening to me, except a few feverish checks of the timings for my flight home, and increasingly worried thoughts about how in hell I’m going to make it. And then, mid-afternoon, somebody puts a brick on the gas pedal and everything suddenly starts moving fast around me. I’m in my work suit, checking and setting props, ensuring my tie is straight and my fly is up, and I’m slapping a smirk on my face and swaggering out on to that same shiny stage as a few days ago, but this time, I’m under hot lights, and being stared down by a few Italian celebrities and a chattering full house audience. Here we go then.

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I do my first couple of lines, and manage to cope with the three voices competing for attention in my earpiece. I do my first gag, and it gets a laugh. And I relax, and slide through the rest of the act. It feels easy and pleasant. The laughs come at the right places, and the tricks all hit their targets. My final bit is one of my new pieces, from “Mat Ricardo vs The World” – the routine with the knife. It goes good, and watching it back, their post-production really did it justice. Then I’m chatting to the celebs, and one of them wants to try the knife trick with her hand. The idea gets a laugh, so I gesture to the chair, as if daring her to do it. She takes the dare. Gets up and walks over to me. And my mind is racing, because I’ve thought about this being a nice extra part of that routine, but I’ve never done it. Never even tried. Not totally sure if it’s possible, bearing in mind the change in body positioning. But it’s happening, right now, on Italy’s biggest TV show, so, I think to myself, I guess its time to trust in my skills.

And she sits down, and she’s brave, and I’m good, and it works, and as I’m doing it, I’m thinking “well, this is some fun TV, right here…”

The celebs all say very nice things, unless the translator was lying to me. Many “Complimenti” and one “Terrific!”, according to an ipad that one of the hosts holds up, 92% of the audience thought I was great. I wave at them and blow them a kiss.

And then, half an hour later, I’m still sweaty from the studio, in a different suit, and in a taxi bombing to the airport. I get to my gate with just enough time to neck my last real Italian espresso for a while, grab a caprese and some fonzies, and buckle myself into my homeward journey. And breathe out.

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Just before you go.. I am currently halfway through a UK tour of my new, Edinburgh fringe sell-out, 5-star reviewed, one man show “Mat Ricardo vs The World”. I would, of course, love you to come. Remaining stops over the next few weeks are Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, Cumbria and Chelmsford. It’s a funny show about how I spent the last year of my life learning any trick suggested to me by strangers on the internet, and why I did it. Hopefully I’ll see you there. More info can be found by going to the tour page of this website.

Shoe in the fridge

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I’m sitting in a green room in the basement of a theatre somewhere in England. I say “somewhere in England” partly because I know this is the kind of sexy mystery you’ve come to expect from me, but mostly because I’m not, without checking my diary, 100% totally sure where I am. In the corner of the room there is a large foam Minion outfit, a broken clothes rail, and behind me, a fridge with, I shit you not, nothing in it but a single high heeled shoe.

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I am on tour.

I had a good Edinburgh fringe this year. It was only a month or so back, but seems so long ago that z-grade celebs should be doing pieces to camera about it on channel 5. I took the train up there feeling slightly scared, unsure of what I had to show, and uneasy about the competitive nature of a festival that, however much you try to avoid that side of it, bludgeons you with it from the get go. I set myself a couple of clear goals: Do work I was proud of, and don’t go too mental. I came back fairly sure I’d done some of the best work of my 30 year career (critics agreed!), with every single show selling out, and – excepting the occasional little blip here and there – I didn’t go too mental. It was exhausting but probably the most successful fringe I’ve ever done. I had a grin on my face like a boxer who’d got a black eye but won the fight. And black eyes are part of the game, anyway.

For the next couple of months, I’m bouncing around the country doing that same show in a variety of venues that range from small odd-shaped rooms in arts centres, to big-ass red velvet seat jobs. And I’m back to be being scared and exhausted again, but still mostly smiling. Because – yes, touring is hard work (I mean, it ain’t nursing, but stick with me) – I don’t drive, so the hours before you see me on stage are spent lugging flight cases full of dumbass props around the famously slick, pleasant and efficient British public transport system. I do this while worrying, as I have been for weeks before the date of each show, about how many people might come to see me. Maybe none will. I’m not famous, after all. This variety schmuck hasn’t been on any panel shows, or live at any Apollos. Any reputation I have has been earned by grinding. By leaving sweat on stages. Walking on to the polite applause of people who have no idea who you might be, and, ideally, leaving to the cheers of people who, now, damn well know who you are. That’s the job of someone like me, and that’s the challenge I relish.

And the nice part is, even though as I sit here, one hour from showtime, banging away on my laptop - achey back from the suitcases, hungry but without the time to get food, unable to find a coffee place that’s still open (BOOOOO!), and stressed about ticket sales - I’m still looking forward to what’ll happen 60 minutes from now. Because like I said, I’m not famous. Most people who spend their hard earned money on a ticket to my show have never seen me before in their lives. They’re taking a chance that I’ll entertain them. So who am I to half-ass that obligation? Times are tough. To have anyone at all spend their hard-earned on a ticket, come out, and sit in an audience to see me is a damn privilege – and the idea that anyone would do that is literally, actually, genuinely and exactly what the teenage me fantasized about. So now its real? Buckle the fuck up, because I’m motivated.

And that beautiful little magic spell of the background music fading out, the house lights dimming, and the spotlights revealing a stage full of props? That doesn’t just work on the audience. We feel it too. You know that, right? However tiring, or shitty, or anxious my day has been – at the end of it, I get to slip into into the protective bubble of a show. Where things are simple and fun and beautiful. That place I made where all that matters is to perform and be watched. The audience leave their worries in the lobby and I leave my stresses in the wings, and we spend an hour or so just..playing.

So, yes, I’d obviously love you to come and see my show. I’m doing dates over the next few weeks in London, Birmingham, Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, Cumbria and Chelmsford. It’s a funny show about how I spent the last year of my life learning any trick suggested to me by strangers on the internet, and why I did it. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

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Mat Ricardo vs The Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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It’d had been four years since I’d last brought a show to the Edinburgh fringe. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t just go every year, out of habit, just because it’s what people like me do. I’d only go back if I had something new to show. Well, I had something new to show. I had the idea for “Mat Ricardo vs The World” three years ago, but had ummed and ahhed about the details, until taking the plunge and starting the year-long “Everyone can challenge me to learn any trick” process last Summer. Once I’d started that ball rolling, there would be no stopping it from ending up in Scotland.

I got myself a nice intimate venue, well-suited to the intimate conversational nature of the show, and perfect for only just having room to do the bunch of brand new tricks I was bringing with me. Alongside that, after an 8 year absence, I fancied a return to street performing at the fringe, too. It’d be hard work, but fun work, and during a month where I sometimes find the basics of life difficult, busking has, through all of my adult life, always been a place of comfort and safety.

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Street performers have worked various pitches around the Royal Mile since wayyy before the Edinburgh Fringe Street Events Team was even considered. Years before the high street was a frenetic flyerpocalypse, a cacophony of competing publicity stunts, a jungle of sweaty cast members in matching branded shirts all desperate for your ass in their seat, before any of that, it was just a street. With self-regulating street performers, slowly, year on year, turning it into a place where, if you couldn’t afford to go see a venue show, or felt that it wasn’t for you, you could still see a show. The fringe of the fringe, perhaps.

But you know how gentrification works, right? Same way it always does. The artists find a place nobody is going to, and they make it cool and interesting. And people start coming to see what’s going on. And as soon as lots of people start going to a place, the non-artists move in to capitalise on that. Capitalise and monetise. They grab those crowds and sell them things they didn’t go there for. And then, after a while, the neighbourhood doesn’t look so cool and interesting any more. It looks like a TV channel that used to air good shows, but now is mostly adverts. And the artists start looking for somewhere else to go.

That’s how the Royal Mile feels to this street performer.

The street is full crammed full of stages on which venue shows can advertise themselves. The placement of those stages, and the performance pitches is made without any genuine input from those using them, and by people without the experience in crowd flow to place them correctly. This year, one of the best natural street pitches in the world – West Parliament Square – was a shadow of its former self. Its a beautiful spacious square, just off the busy high street, but thanks to the gorgeous architecture on three sides, miraculously quiet and placid. You could fill it with huge amounts of people, or pull them close and make use of the silence to do something intimate. But it had been broken. A stage had been erected on the pitch. Street performers use the street – our artform and the work we create is shaped by the unique environment in which we work. We create for the street. The stage took away some of that magic. It took away the street performers ability to define their own performance space, the size, the shape. Many buskers just avoided working it entirely. But the stage wasn’t put there for us anyway. It was put there for the occasional venue group who were offered spots to advertise their show. The street performers who had created that pitch, were sidelined in favour of, well, basically, anyone else. They were given a full PA system, which we weren’t allowed to use. They were given guaranteed timeslots, which we never have. They were given a stage and a backdrop, which made it harder for us to do our shows.

It made some of us feel, to quote John McClane, pretty fucking unappreciated.

And I’m not even touching on the huge fringe branding which, alongside some newly mismanaged pitch placement, killed any audience flow into the square. Or how all of this is done in association with a branding deal, which means street performers end up doing their shows in front of a logo for a corporation whose funding has made our jobs harder. A logo which was on boards that also suggested that people give us not what they thought each show was worth, but “wee change”.

But like I said, you know how gentrification works, right? Once the artists feel that they’re no longer welcome, they move on. That’s what street performers have always been good at. Being flexible, finding the pitches, growing something. There are more and more unofficial street pitches at the fringe, and more and more people deciding to use them. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years, you see less and less of the really great international street acts on the Royal Mile. They’ll be elsewhere in the city, growing a new pitch, just like they did before.

Rant over. But, y’know, it had to be said, I think.

That aside, my fringe was absolutely delightful. In past years, I’ve struggled to keep heart and soul together. There were a couple of years – one in particular – where the fringe broke me. In recent years, though, I’ve learnt more about the things that give me the best chances of keeping my mental health on an even keel, so I had more tools to use to give myself a better time. And I ended up having the best time. Not that it wasn’t hard work. Boy howdy, an hour on stage every day, followed by a 45 minute street show, and then a bunch of late night cabaret spots? That’s a trip to the gym, right there. But for 90% of the time I had a smile on my face and as much of spring in my step as I could muster. My new show worked. It became, quickly, pretty much exactly what I’d wanted to it be, in feel and style. I think it’s my best work and I love performing it. Additionally (and there’s no way to say this without sounding like a massive asshat, so I’m just going to steer into the skid..), the entire run was completely sold out. Every single show, full. Which has never happened to me before, and is patently ridiculous. At past fringes, I’ve performed to 4 people. More than once. So to open my venue door and see a queue stretched round the corner and up the stairs? Come on. Stop it.

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And there was hanging out. Lovely, lovely hanging out. With old pals – cabaret and busking familia who I’ve shared the fringe trenches with many times before, who understand each other in that unspoken way that bonds you through stuff. Plenty of new faces to cut out and stick into my mental scrapbook of nice times, too. Daytime whisky with Cory, Midnight chats with Colt, bad Italian food with Naomi, and of course, too many cocktails with Hannah. All helping to reassure this shy, solitary boy that I’m not, as I often feel, just a little lumpy meteorite drifting through space lucky to have not smashed into dust against something bigger, but rather, part of an almost impossibly complicated family of systems, all with neat, elliptical, intersecting orbits. Our gravitational fields pulling and pushing us into a balance that allows us to keep going.

And keep going I shall. I’m taking the new show  on tour, so if you happen to be in Milton Keynes, London, Birmingham, Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, or Cumbia, then do yourself, and, frankly, me, a favour, and grab yourself tickets right now.

America's radio sweetheart, boy detective

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About a decade ago, I was sitting on a beach in Italy. I'd done a gig there, and, as part of my deal, managed to wrangle a few extra days at the hotel, so that me and my wife could have a bit of a holiday. I'm not rich, have to continuously struggle to accurately describe exactly what I do well enough to get good work, but I'd be a liar if I didn't say that occasionally my job has peachy perks. Good burlesque name there, by the way. Peachy Perks.

Anyway.

I'd just started to get into podcasts, and had downloaded a bunch of something called “Jordan, Jesse, Go!” to try, after a haphazard chain of googling had led me to their doorstep. I loved it immediately. Now here's the thing, if you look at the stats, 84.12% of all podcasts are two white guys who assume they're naturally hilarious, sitting opposite each other, just talking for an hour or so. All of them are awful. It's astonishing that iTunes doesn't have a category labelled “Just, y'know, dudes who aren't as funny as they think”. Can only be a matter of time. But Jordan and Jesse were different. Genuinely funny, but also warm, smart, silly, and genuine.

I ended up spending a generous percentage of my time on that holiday, laying on the beach, earpods in, quietly giggling to myself. By the end of the week, part of my brains screensaver had become humming the theme tune to myself. I returned home from Italy, tanned, fatter, and a fan of Jordan and Jesse.

Over the intervening years I kept listening. They introduced me to more smart, sweet, fascinating people who I also became fans of – John Hodgman, Jean Grae, Paul F Tompkins. Often, in my career, I struggle with not being mainstream, not being easily categorised into the compartments people already know, and occasionally confusing that with feelings of failure. The more I listened to Jordan and Jesse, the more I discovered others who I felt I might have that in common with. People, like Jesse himself, who are savvy independent makers, happy to work outside the mainstream and find ways to make a living out of their own creative work. People who saw their idiosyncrasies as a selling point to be capitalised on, rather than a glitch that prevents one from popularism.

Jordan, Jesse Go! And many of the other great podcasts that Jesse's company, Maximum Fun, make continued to entertain and inspire me. Over the years, as I'd daydream, while listening to them on trains to gigs, and sometimes back on that Italian beach, I'd sometimes allow myself to gently fantasize about what it would be like to be on the show as a guest. Certain, of course, that it'd never happen. But we're allowed to imagine, right?

And then, a couple of months ago, I was in Los Angeles, performing a short residency at The Magic Castle in Hollywood (Which still does not, and never will, sound like an actual place that you can actually go to, in real life), and, somehow, thanks to the internet, and what I can only assume was a clerical error involving Star Trek Voyager actor Robert Picardo, Jesse invited me to come on the show.

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So I did. Off to McArthur park we went. Got there early to have a gorgeous lunch at Langer's Deli, which included a large pickle, with potato salad, which was actually and genuinely one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my mouth. Then a stroll over to the Maximum Fun studios, and.. it happened.

When you're a freelance showbiz schmuck like me, you mark your career by putting little mental bookmarks in moments. A life spent doing what I do has ups and downs, so you make a little folder in your mind, of memories to go back to when things are more down than up. Personal and professional achievements – things you can point at and say to yourself “Remember when I did that? That was something”. Well, that's what this was. A moment to bookmark for myself. A way of showing myself, on my less shiny days, a distance travelled. It was something.

Everyone was fucking delightful. My nerves evaporated, pretty quickly, and it seemed to go ok. I won't listen back to it, because I'd only hear the missteps – you know how us broken performers are – but I know that I had fun, and sometimes said things that made these two guys, Jordan and Jesse, that I had started laughing at a decade or so ago, laugh at me. That's a win, right? Right.

Also, that pickle was dope as hell.

You can listen to my episode right here.

 

Aaaaand...if you're around London, you can - and should - come to LONDON'S LIVE VARIETY CLUB - the West End variety show that I host and curate - next show is 18th of April and you can get more info and book tickets, RIGHT HERE!

 

The worst gig ever. Two years on.

Exactly two years ago, I experienced the worst, scariest, oddest gig of my career. I wrote about it back then, on my old blog, but I thought I'd repost it here, just in case any of you missed it the first time around.

Buckle up...

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They started it.

No, really, they did.

A major Chinese TV broadcaster, got in touch through my website and asked me if I'd like to come to Beijing and appear on their “Guinness world of records” TV show, and break a tablecloth-pulling-related record. That might be fun, I thought, so I said yes, I'd like to pull the biggest tablecloth ever successfully pulled. Fun, right? Right.

Over the next few weeks, emails flew to and fro from them to my agent to me then back to my agent and back to them. They repeatedly came up with other, way more complicated, ideas for a record. Could I pull a tablecloth from one table onto another, and then onto another, and another, each time the tables getting bigger? Well, unless you have a magically growing tablecloth, probably not. But also, I didn't want to be one of those people who has a record for something that was clearly just invented for someone to get a record in, y'know? Each time, I made it clear that the only thing I was really interested in doing was the biggest tablecloth ever. I figured it was a nice simple to understand record, a great trick, and a lovely TV visual. But they didn't let it lie. It was starting to get frustrating.

Finally, after dozens of emails, we settled on two records. I'd pull the biggest tablecloth, and also they'd have a line of a dozen or so smaller tables, and we'd see how many tablecloths I could pull and put back in a minute. The second challenge seemed a little bit cobbled together, but I guess they like time-based stuff, so I agreed. We liaised more about the construction of props and sizes of tables. I gave them web links to the exact items I wanted on the tables so they could buy them. All seemed complicated, but doable. I was going to go to Beijing to pull the biggest tablecloth ever, and I was going to come home with a genuine, bona-fide Guinness world record. Cool.

Here's how none of that happened.

Day One

So you know how when you're on a flight, after takeoff, once you get to cruising altitude, you can turn your phone back on in flight mode, so you can watch your carefully curated saved-for-the-big-trip folder of entertainment? Yeah, well not on Air China, because – and I'm directly quoting here - “CHINA LAW”. So, no wrasslin', no old Letterman shows stolen from YouTube, they wouldn't even let me listen to podcasts. BECAUSE LAW.

Sadly, I'd just necked a double espresso, so sleep wasn't an option for a while, and that, combined with their deeply worrying version of a vegetarian meal (Rice, something red and mushy in the corner, and a single cold carrot) meant that the first hour or so of my flight was spent in an entirely justified teenage sulk. I investigated the Vic-20 era seatback entertainment system interface (press button. Wait 4 seconds. Cursor moves. Not joking, I counted), and slowly scrolled through the available movies. Nothing of interest. Until the last page. There, tucked away where hardly anyone would have the patience to find it was a seam of pure gold. The Jackie Chan channel. Boom. So begun CHANFEST AT 5 MILES HIGH 2016. Police Story. Police Story 2. My Lucky Stars, and then, finally, sleep.

And then I'm in China.

I'm met at the airport by Peter, my handler, taken to the hotel, and immediately shunted into a private dining room for dinner. I meet some of the other performers – a couple of Ukrainian acrobats, a push-up expert from Norway and his trainer. It's odd. A bunch of people who can all do one thing better than anyone else, all jet-lagged and lightly confused, slumped around a big circular revolving table with bowls of food on it. They know I'm a vegetarian, so have prepared a large bowl of cabbage floating in warm water. I tell everyone it was nice to meet them and slink away to my room.

Day Two

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I'm told that although I gave them the information about which crockery, trays etc to get weeks ago, they haven't got it. There's some vague and mysterious talk about it being held at customs. Hmm. So me and Peter have to go out to buy the stuff. This is a bit of a concern. As you might imagine, any manipulative trick like this, when performed at this kind of high level, needs exactly the right props. I'm going to have to try to find the closest things to what I usually use, in a foreign country, on a tight deadline. This worries me, but I swallow it down and focus on the task at hand. First stop is an IKEA, and as I predict, no dice. Then we drive to a shopping centre full of little shops all of which sell stuff for the restaurant and hotel industry. That's more like it. We find some stuff close enough to my usual props that there's a chance the trick will work, and sit in the shop waiting for a couple of hours while it gets fetched from the warehouse. During this wait, I chat to the family who run the shop, who are lovely and funny and give me a souvenir to take home as a gift, and some nuts. I also watch their TV, and you know who's got a frankly terrifying show on Chinese Television? Bear Grylls. And the stuff he does on Chinese TV is a little, shall we say, more hardcore, then what he does on your TV. I only watched it for about ten minutes, but I witnessed him tear the wings of live birds and tell one contestant that “I can't make the jungle safe, you will get hurt, but I won't let you die”. Not the most reassuring pep-talk, if I'm honest.

Then the props arrive and we pile back in the car to head down to the studio.

Slumped in the back of the seven-seater, head resting on the tinted windows as I try to constantly elude the grasp of jet lag. Watching the blank, beige, broken down and – lets face it – old school communist cityscape of Beijing cruise past. It doesn't have the exciting glowy, smorgasbord of stuff smushed together that cites like Hong Kong or New York or Tokyo have. Rather, it looks like they stopped building and maintaining stuff in 1980, and since then the cracks have just been papered over, the pipes gaffer taped back to the wall. No wonder the government heavily censor the internet and television – can you imagine growing up here and then finding out that not all cities are this shabby?

However jaded and cynical you try to be, its always fun walking into a big TV studio. Nondescript and industrial on the outside, but once you're through the heavy doors, its all lights and cameras and shiny fun TV stuff. And this, since its for a show with lots of stunts on it, is a big hangar of a studio, with grids of dramatic lights designed to flash and strobe and sweep and shine and remind everyone of the importance and excitement of what they're watching. I meet someone who I guess is a producer, or at least a high ranking member of the production staff, and she shows me the tables they've had made for my tricks. And I get confused. There's no big tablecloth. No line of lots of smaller tables. Just two, medium sized tables. I question this. She tells me, no, I'm not doing the biggest tablecloth pull. What they'd like, instead, is for me to attempt to pull one cloth between two tables, repeatedly, as many times as possible in 30 seconds. I tell her that I came here to do the trick we agreed on. She says they never agreed anything of the sort. “Well”, I think to myself, “This went bad quick, huh.”

We go up to her office and talk about it. I tell her that I'll do her challenge if I can also do the biggest tablecloth. That's the reason I flew five thousand miles, and that's what we agreed I was coming here to do. There's some raised voices. I calmly tell her that I won't do their challenge, unless I'm also doing my challenge. She calms, and agrees. We talk about how big the table should be, how big the cloth should be, how many things would be on the table, etc. We apologise for shouting. Things seem to have been yanked back from the edge.

I'm sent back down to the studio to meet the Guinness officials, to work out the rules for their two table challenge. We run it a couple of times, and figure out that what with the time it takes to walk around the table after each pull, I can just about make three repetitions in 30 seconds. After conferring, the Guinness guys tell me that I'll be expected to do four on the show. I explain that this is impossible. It's not a test of my skill, it's just how long it takes someone to walk around a table after each try. They tell me, yes, but four is a good number. Okay then. I figure I'm failing this challenge, but thats ok, I don't care about that one, I'm just here to pull the biggest cloth. If I get that, I'm fine.

Back to the hotel. McDonalds in bed. Jet lag adding unliftable weight to my eyelids. I fall asleep wondering what the chances are that this will all work out fine. Not good, I figure. Not good at all.

Day Three

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Back to the studio. I'm supposed to be meeting the Guinness guys again to discuss the ins and outs of the big tablecloth pull so that, if I succeed, it's officially a record. I get put in a dressing room all day, and nothing happens until I get told to go back to the hotel. Hmm.

Well, I say nothing happens, but that's not quite true. I start to chat more to the other performers, and hang around on set observing things. I start to get a bad feeling in my gut, and it's not the bowl of soggy cabbage. Ok, perhaps its partly that.

I hang out with a gymnast who has come here to break the record for the highest side-somersault from the floor. Instead, they have him running up a sloping wall and doing a back somersault over a bar. Completely different skill. He's just going to give it a go, because what's the worst that could happen? Yikes.

I talk to an American circus performer who has come here to break the record for walking on the necks of free-standing bottles. She uses wine bottles back home, but she's arrived to find that they've given her beer bottles. Way harder, when that's not what you've been training with. Worse than that, there's a Chinese acrobat who's been brought in to compete with her for the record, and she's been training with the beer bottles for weeks.

There's an Italian acrobat who arrived to find that he, too, has had a Chinese performer sprung on him that he has to compete with, and worse still, the prop that they made for his stunt wasn't made correctly, and in rehearsals he badly cut his hand on it.

Then I remember in some of my emails with them, they very vaguely talked about the idea of a competitor. I flagged it up, and asked if there would be someone else doing my trick that I would be expected to compete with. Ohhh noooo, they said, noooo.

It started to really feel like this whole thing was a bit of a bait and switch. Performers being set up to fail, and worse, set up to be beaten in rigged challenges by Chinese performers. No. Come on now, Ricardo, Surely I was being paranoid. Sleep on it.

Day Four

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I'm woken up by a phone call from the TV company. I'm filming my bit tonight. We haven't even talked to Guinness about the details of my record, but yep, apparently I'm filming tonight. Alright. I grab my suit, and off we go back to the studio. I share a ride with the bottle-walker, and another performer, who mentions in passing that yeah, he's done this show a bunch of times and they usually spring a surprise competitor on you, and change the record your attempting. Most people just go along with it because, y'know, TV.

We get to the studio at about noon, and we're rushed into make-up. Odd, since the show doesn't tape until seven. They give me a basic foundation to cover up the fact that I'm 46 ¾ and have lived a life, and then they go to work on my eyebrows. And boy do they. I walk out of the makeup room looking like a particularly startled Groucho Marx, and go right into the bathroom next door to wash off the borderline clown make-up. Odd.

Next is a camera rehearsal. We rehearse my entrance, walking down the stairs, waving to the imaginary audience, chatting with the host, and doing the trick. Doing their trick. No mention of the big tablecloth. No mention of the reason why I travelled five thousand miles. I bring it up. Everyone looks shifty, and confused, and shifty. I get told that we'll deal with that soon, that I'll talk to the producer again and we'll sort it all out, and then I'm told to go back upstairs and wait.

I've done enough TV to know that if something isn't covered in the camera rehearsal, it's not going to happen in the show, so once I'm back in my dressing room, I ask to speak to the producer. Sure, I'm told, she'll be right here.

I ask to speak to her every half hour. It becomes a bit of a running gag between me and the other performers. I use my grown-up “This is important” voice. Nothing. I say that there is a very real chance I won't be doing the show. Nothing. I spend my day sitting in a feezing cold dressing room, being ignored and not taken seriously.

Finally, at 6.45, literally fifteen minutes before the show is supposed to start filming, with a studio audience already filling the huge hangar downstairs, I get granted a meeting. I ask what about the big tablecloth trick. They immediately start shouting. What big tablecloth trick? There was never a big tablecloth trick agreed. You knew you weren't doing a big tablecloth trick. Why would you lie about this? The producer fixed me with a hard stare and told me that if I backed out of the show, they would cancel my return ticket, kick me out of the hotel, and “Your visa, perhaps not so good now”.

Whoa.

More shouting. In my face. Through translators. Midway through the yelling, I call my agent back in England. My wonderful, beautiful, alluring and fragrant agent., who, let's remember, didn't get me into this, but damn well got me out. I passed the phone to the producer who yelled down it for a couple of minutes and then passed it back. “Right. We'll take care of you and get you back home tonight. Get yourself out of there”, said the best agent in the world.

While I was still being yelled at by a room full of producers and translators, I calmly got up, and walked out, smiling sweetly. I think they thought I'd caved, that I was going to get ready for the show. They were wrong. I think they assumed that I'd feel pressured to just do the show on their terms, since by that point, the thing had already started filming. They misunderstood my ability to be a dick, when correctly inspired.

I went back to the dressing room, told the other performers, who I think were quite enjoying watching my story play out, what was going on. Packed my stuff, hugged them goodbye, and walked across the studio, and for the first and only time in my career, I walked out on a gig.

Out into an industrial estate on the outskirts of Beijing, on a freezing cold evening. The middle of nowhere. Shit.

The last few days had been a chaotic shambles, but now things were in sharp focus, and my task was simple. Get to the airport and get myself on the flight my agent was getting for me before they revoked my visa. I figured they wouldn't think I would be going right now, and besides, they were filming the show for the next few hours, and they'd be concentrating on that, so if I was quick, I'd be fine.

There was a little budget hotel across the street, so I went in and tried to get a taxi. No deal. Taxis don't come this far out of town, they said. Again, shit.

I crossed the street and went back into the studio, and found the youngest, coolest looking low-level TV employee, another talent handler. He wouldn't be doing anything until the show was wrapped, so I chatted to him, and bribed him 50 yuan to drive me back to my hotel. He went for it. Awesome.

Back to the hotel, pack my stuff, get a taxi to the airport, and by the time I get there, I'm booked on the 1.30am flight out of town. Nervous as I went through immigration, but my visa held, and by the time they had finished shooting the show I was supposed to be on, I was already in the air.

Escape made.

 

And the thing is, it's such a shame. The Guinness book of Records has been a childhood staple for everyone of my generation. A genuinely unique and treasured cultural object. I often got bought it for Christmas, and I think it was one of the first reference books I ever owned. A window into a world of weird, crazy, special, amazing people and things. I would have loved to have joined that club. I mean, if you're going to devote your life, as I have done, to learning some ultimately meaningless, ridiculous feats, then you might as well have the only authority that matters tell you that you're the best at it, right?

None of this was the fault of Guinness. It was the TV company that ruined it with their dishonest and disorganised approach, not just to me, but from what I saw, to many Western performers. It was absolutely shocking to be faced with a major broadcaster who were so ready to bring someone halfway across the world on false pretences, lie about what we'd agreed in dozens of emails, and then try to bully me into just going along with the whole sorry mess. What a pity.

Would I still like a chance to get that record? Hell yes.

Do I want to go back to work on TV in mainland China? Thank you, no.

Was it fun commandeering a car to speed across Beijing so I could get to the airport before the asshats revoked my visa? Yes. I did feel a bit like Jason Bourne. BUT SO WOULD YOU.

Piazzas to Palaces

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It was, basically, just another gig. A cabaret spot at a private Christmas party at someone's home.

Except that the someone was HRH The Prince of Wales, and the home was St. James Palace.

So, totally just another gig. Basically. Totally. Sure.

So, after the kind of convoluted security checks that you'd expect (Although, notably, they didn't have an issue with the knives in my flight case), the armed police parted and through the gate I went, into a bloody palace. And, as you might imagine, a royal palace at Christmas is quite, quite delightful. The halls looking like a million images from childhood Christmas cards of evocative Victorian yule-porn. I was shown my stage, where I would be flanked by a grand piano on one side, and a teen foot high wooden toy soldier on the other. There were trees, twinkly lights, balloons, and inordinately expensive works of art. Basically just another gig.

For a lefty like me, being asked to do a gig like this isn't an instant yes. It took a little considering. My background in street theatre means I pride myself both on being able to perform to anyone, and being able to have anyone in my audience. I've done street shows in Dubai – a deeply problematic place – and looked out at my crowd to see millionaires standing next to slaves. There's something profound in that. That whoever – whatever – you are, when you're in my audience, everyone's equal. That feels important to me. You can't, and shouldn't, perhaps, be able to control who's in your audience, but you can show everyone the same amount of love and equality, and hope a little rubs off. It's not much, but it's something.

But also, I don't want to be a dancing monkey for anyone with enough money to call for a tune. I'm didn't get into this just to be a jester for anyone who needs one for their friends to ignore. I judge every booking individually, on its potential merits and pitfalls. By taking this gig, I got a little flak on social media. Mostly, I got support and shared giggly excitement from people who realised how ridiculous it all was, but a couple of people felt the need to tell me how disappointed they were in me. Here's my feelings on that: If you wouldn't take the booking, fine. But if your ego is so fragile that you feel the need to tell me that I shouldn't have, without knowing or caring why I did, then, well, judge not lest you get your ass blocked. You made it all about you, so I don't need to be involved.

So here's why I did take the gig, and it's a simple answer. I want to perform for people who want to see me. And Prince Charles falls squarely in that category. He's a renowned comedy nerd. He's a long time fan of variety. Goddammit, he's a member of The Magic Circle (Having auditioned just like anyone else, before being admitted). And you know what? He sat front and centre along with The Duchess of Cornwall, and they both giggled all the way through, and clapped like champs at the end. They were great audience members and the show was fun. And that's why I do this.

There is, of course, another reason I did the gig.

I'm a lucky boy. I get to live an often unexpected life. I run towards things I haven't done before. Blame my fear of death, my only child-ness, or whatever, but I always want the next thing to be a new thing. And this was a very new thing. How many times do you get the chance to wander around a palace? To chat to someone whose face has been in your brain since you were a child? It's odd, so yes please.

It was one of those moments that underline the journey I've made. In the map of my life, there's a pin pushed in at the moment I did my first ever show, and there's a string attached to it that stretches to a bunch of other pins, over the last handful of decades. And this was one of those pins. A way of showing me where I came from and where I am. And sometimes, when you're lost and feeling that you maybe haven't moved at all, or have been walking in circles, maps can reassure.

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After my act, I went to the back of the room. A couple of people came up on stage and delivered little speeches. And then The Prince got up. He thanked everyone for coming, complimented the food and made a couple of sweetly self-depreciating jokes, and then he started talking about me. And it was about as strange a feeling as one could feel. There, on stage, was such a ridiculously famous and important cultural being (and regardless of what you think of him, that's undeniable), and my name kept falling out of his mouth. He complimented me, and the performer standing next to me clapped me on the shoulder, and it all felt a little too not real.

I chuckled to myself, rolled my eyes at the absurdity of the whole thing, and let myself drift around the room next door. And as I did, the clock above the fireplace struck nine. And it produced one of the sweetest, most delicate and beautiful sounds I've ever heard in my life. I stood in front of it as it played its exquisite graceful little tinkly tune, and felt myself nearly cry at its beauty. It was only a bloody clock, but damn.

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And then The Prince came to say hi, and we chatted, and yes, I know meeting new people is his job, but he's really good at it. He was relaxed, affable and funny. The prince was charming. Sorry. And then I was in a taxi home from basically just another gig, thinking to myself, well, that was not just another gig. Not even basically.

And the next day there he was, on television, at a service at St. Paul's Cathedral for the victims of the Grenfell tower tragedy. And he was talking to people. As authentically concerned with the unimaginable pain of the attendees as he was delighted by his party the night before. Neither were fake. Both were his real self. And my opinions on the idea of a Royal family haven't changed, and you still don't know what they are. But my opinion of that one guy, as a human, did.

Big Day

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Often, when I have some kind of big gig coming up, the night beforehand, I'll be sitting on my sofa, relaxing, and every so often, I'll remember what I'm doing tomorrow, and a stab of cold anxiety will bloom in my belly. Then I'll breathe deeply, reassure myself, and it'll go away, only to re-shiv me twenty minutes later, as if to say “Hey, idiot. Don't forget that thing you're doing tomorrow, which could go horribly wrong, huh?”

But last Friday night, as I sat on my sofa, there was so stab of anxiety. No sudden shiver to remind me of potential failure. I felt, as the kids probably don't say, totes chill. Which was odd, because the next day was, indeed, a big one.

Somehow I had been asked to deliver a TEDx talk at Kings College London, on the theme of “Embracing Madness”. I'm a fan of the TED talks, so was genuinely thrilled to have been asked. If that wasn't enough, on the same day I'd be hosting another installment of “Mat Ricardo's London Varieties” at the Leicester Square Theatre, involving a couple of surprise guest acts, and half an hour of new material from me.

I talk about this every so often, but this is very much one of those days that, if I jumped back in time and told my teenage self about it, my teenage self would fix me with a side-eye and mumble “Nahhhhh. Bollocks”. But no, not bollocks. Actually happened.

If there's one thing I've learned from thirty years of being a juggler, it's that practice makes, if not perfect, then at least plausible. So I spent the two weeks leading up to my big day working hard – writing and rehearsing the TEDx talk, and the new material, until I was bored with both. The great juggler Trixie LaRue used to practice every trick in her act ten times before she went on stage to perform. If it didn't work every single time out of ten, she didn't do it on stage that night. I always think of her when I'm bored with rehearsal. Trixie would do it ten times, perfect. So will I.

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My talk was about the perceived madness of someone (me, in fact) dedicating their life to being a variety star, when, at the point of me deciding this, the health and popularity of the artform was at an all-time low. But what it really was, was a bit of a love letter to street performing. I talked about how the discovery of Covent Garden, my acceptance into a global family of street performers, and the countless things I learned from that world, saved my life, gave it direction, and gave me the validation that, up until that point, had eluded me. Without busking, I wouldn't have any of whatever it is that I've got. No question. I'll never not love that world, and it was my honour to get a platform to say it out loud. (It was filmed, and will appear on the official TED YouTube channel in a month or so, and I'll tweet about it when it does).

It seemed to go well, but I couldn't stick around. I said thank you for my souvenir mug, stole a handful of complimentary protein bars, and jumped into a taxi. There was time for a big bowl of gnocchi gorgonzola with some delightful people, and then it was back to work. I hid myself in my dressing room at the Leicester Square Theatre and carefully deleted the file in my head labelled “TED talk”, so that the script for tonight's variety show was front and centre in my brain. I warmed up. The other performers started arriving. It became apparent that the show was a sell-out. I was grinning without planning to.

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The first time I ever successfully pulled a tablecloth, it felt a bit like this. So much could go wrong. Should, even. But it didn't, and the cool thing happened, and, also, wow. The fact that any one single person would, on a Saturday night, in London, buy a ticket to my show? That still leaves me dumbfounded and flummoxed. That a whole theatre full of people did? Well, as my old pal Vinny would say – Behave.

The show was a blur. I was that giggly kind of frazzled. I'd been up since 5am, was full of too much coffee and out of my mind on endorphins. At one point, a stupid trick with a fidget spinner took a couple of attempts because my hands were shaking – not from nerves, but from tiredness and coffee. But everything else worked. And the surprise guest acts were both just perfect. You know you're onto a good thing, when whoever is on stage is being watched from the wings by all the other acts, grinning and clapping.

There was juggling, beautiful magic, ridiculous comedy, escapology, a psychic duck and a very real dove. There was laughter, applause and gasps. And in the middle of it all, was the beaming punch-drunk schmuck in the three piece tweed, who is writing this.

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I want to say thank you to everyone who helped make it such a memorable day. To the TEDx Kings College people for inviting me to speak. To my agent Hannah for making it happen, and continuing to understand this smorgasbord of well-dressed but complicated oddness that she represents. To the Leicester Square Theatre for always making me feel so bloody welcome. To the other incredible performers who guested in the show – Ada Campe and Oliver Tabor – nothing but love for these variety monkeys. And to everyone who bought a ticket to come see the show – best audiences ever, and I've seen a decent number of 'em.

There's only one more show of this season left. Saturday November the 25th. You know the deal – every show is different, and every guest is a secret until they step on stage.

Click here and book your tickets now.

Dropped jaws guaranteed.

And so begins what might be a very interesting year...

After 30 years of being the undisputed go-to guy for performing feats of dexterity live on stage, I've got a problem - I think I've done all the tricks I can think of. So, in what could be the dumbest move of my career, or the most fun, I'm issuing an open challenge for my next one man show.

I'm betting that you that you can't think of a trick that I can't learn.

Share the video, tweet me you craziest ideas, and I'll spend the next year desperately trying to learn the best ones. The resulting successes and failures will form my next theatre show "Mat Ricardo vs The World", which will premier at the Edinburgh fringe in August 2018.

There are a couple of rules, so watch the video for the details, and then give me your best shot and follow me on Twitter  and Instagram to see how my year develops.

Gladwell says I need 10000 hours to become an expert is any one thing, right? I've got less than that to learn whatever you people throw at me. This is going to be an adventure. I'd better make some coffee.

Spread the word - it's Mat Ricardo vs The World!

Canadian tour part 2: Prairies and Perogies

The next stop of my Summer tour of NiceMerica is Grande Prairie. A town that I only learned how to properly spell, on the day I was leaving. It's a small town, based on the booming oil industry, so although to my know-nothingly judgemental eyes, it looks blue-collar and small-time, there's money here. Money that is, apparently, being invested, in part, into the arts. Hence me. Hooray.

Outside my hotel window is a freeway, and parked along the sliproad between that and my room, is a line of huge, muscular trucks. Chrome caked in dusty mud, fenders somehow squinting into the sun, and gas hissing out of an exhaust next to a sign that reads “Venting is normal”. Tell me about it, mate. If this were my native England, then these trucks would be blandly ugly, and I wouldn't care, but its not, and so to me, they're iconic. My lack of knowledge of the world they represent making them mysterious and beautiful. Back on my side of the hotel window I turn on the TV and gawp at something called Timbersports, which seems to be some kind of extreme lumberjacking. There are profiles of the participants, CGI intros, pumping rock music, WWE style entrances, and then..they just hack away at a log with an axe. OK then.

We take a trip to an even smaller town called Beaverlodge, to do a promotional appearance. While the grown-ups set up the technical stuff, I go for a wander. Quiet streets full of low, wide, clapboard houses in pastel shades, each with a matching pickup truck. The dry warm breeze giving the dusty sidewalks the occasional little mini tornado. I find myself walking into “Golden Guns and Tackle”, the local gun store, and as the bell hanging over the door dings, I'm greeted by some very friendly women, who keenly chat to the man who is not from here. It's mainly hunting-focused, with racks and racks of rifles, both behind, and in front of the counter. Black ones, camouflage ones, and pink ones with flowers on for the kids. For reals. The lady behind the counter catches me staring at the guns, and asks where I'm from, I tell her, and I apologise, saying how strange it feels for a Brit to be in a shop with so many guns. She asks why. I assumed people knew that Britain doesn't have guns in the same way we know that some countries do, but I guess I was wrong. I tell her about our lack of firearms. She says “But y'all still have gun stores, right?”, “well, no”, I tell her. And she visibly recoils, her eyes wide, at the very idea.

Also, her store sold camouflage lingerie, because of course it did.

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The next morning I'm up early to appear on the local rock station 2DayFM. I like doing radio, it always seems fairly easy and fun, and as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm totally at home talking about myself. I meet Evan, the delightful breakfast show host, who has one of those awesome and perfect American-ish DJ voices both on air, and off. I also meet Justine, his co-host, who immediately points out that she's wearing slippers because the in-studio webcam can't see her feet. Justine values comfort, and who can blame her.

The weekend flies by, the whole town comes out, as does the sun, and the shows are lovely. The audiences really pay attention, and much of my more subtle material (I CAN BE SUBTLE, SHUT UP) gets bigger laughs than usual, which is unexpected and great. We end the weekend having dinner at one of the producers houses – tired, achey, heads full of the echoes of applause and laughter, eating potato salad and drinking root beer as the sun goes down over the prairies outside. Not bad.

And then the next morning we all pile back into the tour bus and drive ten hours, to our next stop.

 

We arrive at our hotel in North Battleford, excited. Not only do we have a couple of days off, but the hotel, we have been told, has a waterpark! Slides and a jacuzzi, just down the corridor from your room! What finer way for some variety idiots to spend some downtime?

Flash forward 24 hours and we're at a different hotel. Long story, involving massive bedbug infestation and surly hotel management, which ended with the frankly stunning achievement of moving all the performers, staff, and all of the show equipment out of the hotel without any of the staff noticing. We did quite the mother of all runners. And the water slide was broken anyway.

This town is much smaller than our previous stop. Shelley, the festival director, talks of wall to wall sky, and she ain't kidding. Everything looks wider here. And sparser. The town centre has little in it – mostly bingo halls and liquor stores. But ten minutes drive out of town, along the big highway that runs along the train tracks, is the retail park. Big box stores, each almost as big as the centre of town. These places are as if an alien had designed a town – there are shops, places to eat, roads – but it's still less than the sum of its parts. Functional and nothing more.

Its hard to walk around, as these places are not designed for someone not in a car. The paths are dusty and muddy at the same time. At one point I get surrounded completely by hornets, dozens of them, all doing laps around me. Dogs bark at me from behind a chain link fence when I get too close to their owners car. I stop in front of a shape on the side of the road, the same colour as the dust it lays on. I move closer. A coyote? Dead, for a long time. It's head intact and frozen in a yawn. Its tail and back legs splayed out. Everything in between is just a seething mass of maggots. I stand there, in my suit, hat and sunglasses, staring at it. Thinking what a long way from home I am, and how, to people passing in cars, I must look like a scene from a David Lynch movie.

When I go into shops, my suit guarantees that I get viewed with a mix of amusement and suspicion. Half “Where did this odd creature come from?”, and half “What the hell does he want with us?”

At night, huge trains roll slowly through town. Hundreds of freight cars pulled by four or five engines all stacked up at the front. They shake the town with low, loud honks as they move stuff from somewhere bigger to somewhere more important. They don't stop.

During the days before the shows start, I start to develop a creeping dislike for this place. Careful not to mistake not understanding something for not liking it, but maybe, slightly, that's what happens. It seems to me that when you live somewhere like this, you feel the need to either explore and push outwards, or to retreat inwards. I think my fear was that its always easier to retreat. That the wide horizon would breed a narrow mind.

Then the shows begun, and I was pleasantly surprised. As I set up my first show, I play with some kids – a gaggle of impossibly cute and scrappy children from a First Nation family. They're glamorous mums sat chatting in huge sunglasses while the kids competed to see who could show me the funniest face. They pull their ears, pop their eyes, stick out their tongues – blue from snowcones – and giggle back at me as I laugh at them. Other kids come to talk to me, and climb on me, and play with me. I stare out at the people waiting for my show – families of all colours, punk kids with crazy hair, young hipstery couples – and I see a diversity I hadn't predicted. I see the community that events like this are for. A community where kids go on adventures on their bikes and come back with scraped knees. A community small enough that things like this can make a difference.

Two teenage girls come to talk to me. One in a wheelchair with a cast on her foot. I ask her what she did to her leg. “Old injuries”, she says. “You're young – how do you have old injuries?”, I ask her. She shrugs “I'm a fucking klutz”, grins, goes back to sucking on her candy pacifier, and squeals as her friend spins her chair around in circles.

I discover, halfway through the weekend, that the town is also having its first ever Pride. In the park, across the road from my green room, there are a couple of little tents with rainbow flags, so I walk over. On the fencing around the park, paintings of rainbow flags, people holding hands, trans rights slogans, and other weepily great things, have been taped up. They notice me, and have seen my show, so we chat. It's their first year. They had a parade. I can easily imagine how hard it must have been organising this in such a rural small town. But like I said, towns like this are small enough that it's easier to make a difference. I come back after my shows with all the coins I got in my hat and donate them to next years pride.

This is a place that has seen better days. There's not a huge amount of money here. There's racism. I heard it. But that's a lot of the world, not just this town. And the world is big, which is why the intolerance and unpleasantness one can find in it often feels like an unbeatable foe. But in a small town like this, having a weekend in which people from all over the world come and do shows, and anyone is allowed to watch, regardless of background, income, or anything else - is a powerful weapon for good. It illustrates that if people who don't get along share a common goal – even if its just watching an idiot like me for half an hour – then they can get along. It's easy. It shows that if you have stupid dreams of getting out of your town, or being an artist, or being different – it's totally possible – because here are some people who all did it.

 

 

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Edmonton to Edmonton

I was born in Edmonton, but not this one. This one is currently scrolling past me as I sit on a bus with a handful of other performers, cruising out of town after ten days worth of festival. This Edmonton isn't in my native North London, but in Alberta, Canada, and, as my bus rolls past Humpty's Family restaurant and Hudson's Bay homewares, and slipstreams onto the freeway, just by where McDonalds and Tim Hortons glare at each other across the street, I thought I'd write a few thoughts about the last week and change.

I spent most of the flight here calm, chilled, but with irregular spikes of sudden panic. I don't do outdoor shows as regularly as I once did, and although they're still some of the most rewarding and enjoyable things that I do, there's always a little period of adjusting back to the medium. This period tends to involve random little jolts of electrified worry, spasming out of nowhere, and filling my brain with things I need to remember to do, things I need to remember to find out how to do, and twelve dozen different flavours of “what if...?”

It's like how sometimes, when you're drifting off to sleep and jolt yourself awake, you think you were dreaming of tripping or falling. That's not what happens. What happens is that, for whatever reason, your muscles spasm, waking you up, and then your brain scrambles to find a reason that your body did that, and fabricates a memory of tripping or falling. It gives you a plausible backstory to explain the feeling away. It's true. Crazy, right? Well, it's kinda the same with stress. I'm lightly stressed because I'm going away, leaving my two favourite ladies (ok, one of them is a cat), to do my stupid job, and from that point on, very little is guaranteed. What if it rains? What if nobody likes me? What if I'm no good at this any more? My brain tries to find reasons to explain away my baseline anxiety, but the bottom line is, it's a bit of a stressful job, but it'll probably all be fine. (Spoiler: It all turns out fine)

I get to the hotel and unpack. I'm very happy to find out that the hotel has a gym. Exercise and meditation are good for keeping your shit together when working away from home. I also brought my camera. I'm pretty shy, but having a camera gives me the inspiration to go out looking for interesting things to see, and the bravery to talk to people. It's sometimes a little easier interacting with the world through a lens.

Then its downstairs to the conference room and meeting all the other performers. I've written before about how one of the sad parts of my job can be that many of ones friends are scattered around the world, and part of your life for short periods every couple of years. The flipside to this is the joy of being in a completely new part of the world, walking into a room, and seeing a bunch of people that you love, as happy to see you as you are to see them. Quickly, we all catch up, new friends are introduced, and in no time we're a gang again. Stresses reduced by the simple knowledge that they are shared.

At one point in the introduction meeting, a local performer stands up, and addresses the people who have travelled from outside Canada. “Here”, she says, almost sternly but not quite, “We say thank you to the bus driver. That's just what we're like. So....”, and she fixes the room with a stare. This is Canada, dammit, and you will be DELIGHTFUL. Perfect.

On the morning of the first day of shows, news comes through the social media grapevine that one of our global family has died. Nils Pol was a street performer, juggler, clown. He had struggled with cancer for more than a while, and it finally put him to sleep. We were sad, of course, but being street performers, talk quickly turned to tales of silly things he'd done, shows, gags, and proof was instantly and effortlessly given to the theory that you live on through your work. There he was, living on. More than that, Nils designed the best juggling hat you could buy. We all use them. If you've ever seen me do my hat and cane routine – thats a Nils Pol hat. Every street performer who does hat tricks, used one of his beautiful hats, so there it is, he's been in all of our shows for years, and will continue to be, except now, whenever we look at the hat in our hand, it'll mean something extra.

On the first day I arrived I'd noticed a good looking diner. If you know me, you'll know I prize a good greasy spoon above most things in life, so I made a mental note to go back. Boy howdy did it deliver, when I did.

The Commodore Restaurant isn't huge, but it's big enough to feel spacious and calm. Tables run along one long wall, and a couple of curved counters flanked with stools along the other. My friend Fraser and I sit down and get greeted by Wilma, who presents us with the breakfast menu, which has remained pretty much unchanged since the place opened in 1942. More combinations of eggs and hotcakes than you might think were mathematically possible. When Wilma returns with my omelette, home fries and french toast, we chat some more. She hasn't been working there long, she says, just 33 years. Seven days a week. Never had a vacation. But her house is paid off, and she put her kid through college, and she loves hanging out with all her regulars every day. She's genuinely cheerful. It's not a “have a nice day” act, she's happy. Interested in the people she meets. Curious, and aware, completely, of the emotional importance of her job. I tell her how much I love places like hers, and how important they are, and a customer, eavesdropping, agrees.

The week passes. The more shows I do, the more the anxiety lessens. Like a boxer loosening up into the middle rounds and finding their rhythm, all the little nuances of my act come trickling back to me, and before long I'm bouncing around, having lovely show after lovely show. I enjoy telling my audiences I'm from the other, “slightly more stabby” Edmonton. I get laughs from saying that, yes, I've come all the way from London – the real London, not their cheapo Canadian knock-off. As often happens when I work places like this, the ex-pats come and chat to me after my shows, telling me where in the UK they came from, and how long they've lived out here. I get given free ice-creams, pose for selfies, and generally have a very fine time being reminded of what a beautiful transaction street performing is. Everyone leaves happy – me and them – win win.

It's mostly very hot weather. In one show I have two distinct dizzy spells. It's hard work. I like hard work. My skin is dry and rough from the sun. My throat raspy from yelling jokes at strangers. My circus schtick makes my back throb. There is no more satisfying kind of exhaustion. My moods swing, and I do all I can to keep myself stable, but sometimes you just don't have the tools. One morning I wake up feeling low. Screwy circadians from the jetlag don't help. I roll myself out of bed and convince myself to go to the gym. An hour of cardio later and it doesn't seem to be helping much. I sit down on the weights bench and start lifting, and my phones shuffle throws up a silly, hardly listened to, song, which is way too embarrassing to name (“Gettin' jiggy with it” by Will Smith), and the dumb bouncy positivity of the thing unplugs a valve in my head and suddenly I'm doing dumbbell curls while crying and laughing. Which is, of course, when someone else comes in to use them gym, sees me, does a perfect U-turn, and leaves. You never can tell what's going to convince the black dog to leave, right?

On the final night of the run, we take over city hall, and turn the spectacular seat of local government into our playroom for a night. Nearly a thousand people come and sit on the stairs, line the walls and watch all the artists do something different. I get to be a part of a hat juggling routine. Our own little secret tribute to Nils Pol. I'm also lucky enough to be the person chosen to open the show. A spotlight finds me two stories up, I saunter to the top of a long flight of stairs, and slide down the bannister, as the spotlight follows me. The crowd actually gasps. Then I do it again, down a second long staircase, sliding off the bannister onto the marble floor and taking stage centre as a thousand people applaud my coolness. It was, no doubt at all, one of the most pleasurable moments of my performing career. No real trick, no gag, just character, stagecraft, and the thing that my parents used to shout at me for doing. It was two days ago, and when I think about it I still feel a little butterfly in my chest. Thanks, theatre.

And here I am, on a bus scattered with dozing variety acts, watching the pine trees and flat yellow fields slide past as the drizzle draws its own roadways on my window. Signs for almost impossibly correct places zip by – Pelican Creek. Zip. Green view. Zip. Ridge Valley. Zip. Next stop, Grande Prairie, for another week of shows to a whole new town full of people. Lets go. Zip.

 

Aaaand just while I have your attention...

Tickets are selling fast.

They're going to be lovely, special, one-off shows.

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A Festival Of Fools

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The last time I performed at the Festival Of Fools in Belfast was in 2007. Back, then, by popular demand.

The magical thing about street performing, as I've mentioned before, is the way it unifies people. Nobody buys a ticket to see a street show ahead of time. It doesn't rely on booking celebrities, or how much your PR budget is. It's much simpler and more pure than that. For 45 minutes, there's someone doing something fun and exciting in the middle of town, and if you want to watch - no matter who you are, how much you're worth, what your opinions, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality or hat size is – you can. For a little while, everyone can be unified in watching an idiot like me do cool tricks and make dumb jokes. I love it for that, and of course, for a city like Belfast, with a history of pain built on the shaky foundations of clashing beliefs, something as simple as a busking festival that is for everyone, becomes all the more beautiful, profound and powerful. And fun.

The first morning's hotel buffet breakfast is spent catching up with old friends and making new ones. Fellow members of the secret society, whom I last spent time with in a selection of green rooms scattered across the world. Grizzled vets and keen young upstarts. Friendly ribbing and genuine hugs. Like an extended family coming together for a wedding, but with marginally less arguments and secret resentment.

We take a walk around the town to scout out the pitches. After a while, buskers develop the 6th sense of being able to walk down any high street and be able to see – matrix-like – where the pitch should go, where the people will walk, where they'll stop, any potential problems, street furniture that might be fun to play with etc.. As we wander around making mental notes, I realise that, perhaps, when I was here last, I didn't really appreciate how gorgeous this city is. Huge piles of handsome smooth stone from a dozen or so decades back sit dominating the corners of wide streets, spilling their weather-beaten sets of sharp steps out onto the pavement. The architectural equivalent of a stocky old geezer in a tweed suit who could still handle himself in a pub fight.

And of the less handsome buildings – every other one is tattooed with enormous, beautiful murals. Some subtly corporate sponsored, others perhaps less legal, but no less wonderful. Too many to catalogue. Look down a side street in the cathedral quarter and glimpse four-story high faces staring back at you. It's all rather splendid.

The first day of shows start. It was windy when I was here ten years ago, and its still bloody windy. And just like when I get booked to perform in a venue with a low ceiling, I love the challenge. The gusts blow my tablecloth almost off my table several times, and sends me vase of flowers clattering to the cobblestones so often I have to enlist a tiny little girl to pick it up and put it back whenever it happens. I also ask her to go get me a large latte with just a touch of cinnamon, and to get a receipt, but no dice. I love working in conditions like this, although I'd never let the audience know it. Finding yourself in a battle with the elements, shaking your fist at the sky in anger never fails to be funny. Problems, as they saying goes, are, to a clown, gifts. The art is in overcoming them just at the point when the audience think you never will.

Kids crowd me after each show, their flat and beautiful Belfast accents professing “You were really funny” with just a hint of considered surprise – because – to be fair – they've never heard of me, and TV has told them that if I was good, surely they would have. They thrust the festival guide into my hand, turned to my page, along with their mums pen, for me to sign. “Can you put that its your birthday?” one little ginger headed moppet requests. “How did you know it's my birthday?”, I ask. “My friend told me...”, and apparently everyone knows, and the guide-signing turns into an odd kind of reverse birthday card ritual. It's hilarious and lovely. More so, when, during my last show of that day, one of my fellow bukserados crashes my show and leads the audience in singing happy birthday to me. Dawwwww, you guys.

The thing about a three-day festival is that it's over to quick. The first day, you're finding your feet, warming up, getting the lay of the pitches and crowd. The second day, you're off and running, and then by the third day, it's all over and you're packing to go on to the next thing. But at least there's an end of festival party. Conversations with a wild-eyed and fantastic clown who talks of transmutation of energy and not being at all scared of death. Chats with variety legends about the difference between inspiration and theft, over the single malt that he bought you, drank from plastic hotel room tumblers. Overcaffeinated profundities and manifestos agreed upon. Anxieties shared. Love reaffirmed.

I'm at the point in my life now where I'm adjusted enough to know, and value, these times without becoming as doom-laden about the reality of them being finite, as I used to. I'm a lucky boy, and as I get older, I start to be better at enjoying the lucky work life I lead, rather than being obsessed with its temporary fragility. I'm learning, slowly, to “be here now”. And what a delightful now that was.

 

QUICK PLUG: MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES SEASON THREE RETURNS IN SEPTEMBER FOR A RUN OF (STRICTLY) THREE MONTHLY SHOWS.

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My latest chortle column is about performing for people you don't like

This months column for Chortle has just gone live. it's about the puzzling phenomena of having to perform for people you don't like. Something, I'd guess, every performer has questioned themselves about at one time or another. Are we just being whingey creatives, and should we just shut up and do our job, or is there something more complicated going on here?

hope you enjoy it - if you do, Chortle lets you leave cmoments, so that'd be peachy :)

You can read it here

Maria's

I washed up at Covent Garden on a Wednesday, in the late 80's. It was, at the same time, the last resort of my illogical and feverish performing fantasies, and the absolute best possible thing I could have done.

My first show – the “try out”, as they used to call it – was at 11am, and somehow, probably due to the brute force that youthful enthusiasm fuels in someone who doesn't know any better, I got a small crowd and made £16. And that was it. The day before I was a directionless teenager, but now I was a street performer, and I always would be. I'd found the thing that I could do just well enough to know that I could get a lot better if I put in the hours. And months. And years.

The buskers would arrive early each morning and divvy up the shows, and then most of us would go to Maria's cafe, just around the corner in Henrietta street, for long carb-loaded breakfasts. For the next couple of decades, I always looked forward to those breakfasts, even when I wasn't looking forward to anything else about my work day. For two hours every morning, in that cosy, poky little unofficial buskers green room, I received my lessons. Oh sure, the field tests were carried out around the corner, on the cobblestones, in front of strangers, but the theory study was held in Maria's, with friends, over eggs, chips and beans.

I had arrived at Covent Garden a shy, fairly reclusive teenager, full of pretended piss and vinegar and with a skin tissue-thin, who still lived with his parents. But breakfast by breakfast, I learned about my new found job, and learned how to live my new found life.

Sat in clattery chairs around formica tables, surrounded by my peers, strangers and heroes, I learned how to make a joke, and – eventually - how to take one. I learned how to be in a group – that was new for me. I took criticism, ridicule, encouragement and praise. By the time I stopped being a regular I had, in every sense, grown up. Its no exaggeration to say that I gained much of my social and artistic education in that quarter mile of central London, and Maria's cafe, along with the Piazza itself, was at the centre of my world.

For years, it hadn't even been called Maria's. She sold up and moved away a while ago, and the new owners changed the name to “Masters Diner”, but for me and my gang from that era, it'll always be Maria's. Every greasy spoon needs a mama-san, and Maria was perfect. Welcoming you in from the cold with a cheery, and heavily Italian-accented “'Allo darlin', sit down sit down!”, knowing your usual, and asking when you're going to bring back that nice red-head girl you've been hanging out with.

These places are vanishing, and it feels like an authentic version of London is vanishing with them. All my favourite London cafes, slowly fading away, one by one, as rents increase to the oligarch-only level, and whole blocks get forcefully redeveloped out of their souls, thanks to some crooked backhander in another postcode. The beautiful, exciting, higgeldy-piggeldy texture of city streets gets painted over with a dull tessellation of franchise logos. The spectacular Piccadilly Cafe in Soho. Diana's Diner in Covent Garden. The Stockpot. The Court Cafe in SE1. And now Maria's. All gone.

What I'd give for one more long breakfast with the buskers in the toasty warm Maria's on a chilly morning. Two hours or so of teasing, bragging, laughing and bullshitting. Paddy and Adrian half-reading the papers and telling us facts and opinions. Rob losing his temper half for comedy and half genuinely. Dave and me arguing over the ingredients of the perfect fried breakfast. Shandy talking about retiring next year. Vinny zinging people, loudly, and effectively. Alex really not enjoying having to be up so early, even though he's been doing it longer than any of us. A secret society.

The people sat around those tables have gone their separate ways. Some still busk, some work elsewhere, some found other callings, and more than a couple are no longer with us. Many, though, I'll be friends with for life. Bonded through busking and breakfast. We sometimes meet to catch up, and occasionally find a cafe to go to.

I've known for a while that those days are inescapably behind me, but the closure of Maria's makes it all the more final. There's no going back, even if I could. That chapter is closed.

Maria's was, for me, where luck lived.

That was where I had the luck to find people who helped shape me, inspire me and remain as close to brothers and sisters as I've ever had.

That was where, between shows, I was lucky enough to get know the red-head girl, who would go on to become my wife.

That was where luck gave me a place I could go when I was scared of the path I'd chosen. A place I could get some toast and a coke, and form my ideas, and gather my nerve before venturing back out to try to gather another crowd and find the rent money in that huge, empty, scary piazza that became my friend.

Maria's was the best cafe in London. I owe it.

15 Months

I nearly didn't do it. Fact is, I'd got myself into such a stress-fuelled whirlpool of self-doubt about it that I had a big long chat with my agent about how I didn't want to do it. We all agreed that if I didn't want to, there's no reason why I should. So I wouldn't. Nice agent.

And then, as soon as we'd all agreed that I shouldn't do it, I felt a heavy cold lump in my guts, and a big loud boomy voice that seemed to be asking me what the hell I was thinking. Of course I had to do it. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons why not – all the same reasons why you might not do anything – it's going to fail, it might not be as good as things you've done in the past, everyone will think you're rubbish, what's the point in trying? – but there was one big, loud, neon-lit, flashing-in-the-night-sky counterpoint that I couldn't ignore. I'm a maker. When faced with a choice between making something new, and not – you should always make. The success of something shouldn't matter – in the same way that a samurai never thinks about the consequences of a sword thrust – just about the perfection of the form. "Make something for the sake of making something because making things is what you do, and you're damn lucky to be able to, so shut up and do it", was basically my internal monologue.

So, right now I have a notebook with some ideas in. I have a couple of half-learned tricks, and ideas for a couple more. And most of all I have an idea for the show, that I think is quite fun, and that people might enjoy.

And I have about a year and half until I walk out on stage to do it.

I know what you're thinking – a year and a half seems like ample time to write a new show. And yeah, if all that was involved was writing, then you'd be correctamundo, but I'm a juggler, which means that half the show will involve performing new tricks. These tricks will have to work first time, and every time. That doesn't come easy, or quickly. So I'm looking at a strict schedule of writing, practice, prop-sourcing or making, and a bunch of other slightly more secret things, that will stretch over the next year and change. It's a big ol' undertaking, and as I start the preparations for the journey ahead, my emotional state flits between little jitters of nervous fear, and - particularly when a shiny new idea has just made a safe landing in my head - little satisfied giggles, as I imagine how an audience might like it.

The idea for the show I have at the moment might end up being nothing at all like the thing that gets performed next year. The rehearsal and practice process is there to warm the ideas through and make them soft and malleable, so their shape can be changed, as the show itself starts to take on its final form. It's scary and interesting and scary and fun and hard work and did I mention scary?

But I wouldn't have it any other way. My gut told me, as soon as I'd decided not to do a new show, that I'd made the wrong choice. So here I am – I have notebooks, sketches, a laptop, a slowly growing box of new props, and a long road ahead of me. Let's get to work.

Mat Ricardo's London Varieties Season Three! We're back!

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Yes. A couple of years after the last season of my hit London variety show, I couldn't keep away - so we're back for another season! Those of you that came to any of the past shows know what special nights they are - full of thrills, skills, spectacle and silliness - one time only moments, surprise guests and unexpected crazy stuff!

Every show is different, and every show is different from anything you've ever seen.

And if you haven't been before - well, take a look at the video below to get a flavour of what we do...

 

All your favourite things will be back - interviews, a new twist on the torture that is "Make Mat learn a new trick every month", and of course, some of the best variety artists on the planet. This time around we're keeping all the guests secret - but if you've been before, you know the kind of people who turn up - all I'll say at this point is BOOK NOW, either by clicking here, or calling the ticketline on 02077342222

A tenner will get you an hour of variety and comedy on a Saturday night.

Fun times guaranDAMNteed.

Trump Dollar

My latest column for Chortle is about how I got this in my hat at a street performing festival, and what it might mean. You can read it here

Hope you like it, and if you do, sharing is caring! ;)

New home

Hello!

So..this is the new home of my blog. The old one will stay up at its old location, here, but all new posts will be here, so update your bookmarks accordingly!

Hooray, and such.