Simon Munnery’s “Fylm School” is doing a month-long Edinburgh residence. Image: YouTube
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Back to Fylm School: cinematic influences in comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

From Simon Munnery’s Fylm School to Adam Riches’ Coach Coach, there’s plenty of movie magic to be found live on stage.

During the week I’ve spent at the Edinburgh Fringe, I haven’t watched a single movie. That doesn’t mean, though, that film hasn’t informed or spilt over into the theatre and stand-up comedy here. The medium is most evident in Simon Munnery’s Fylm School, which has been running monthly evenings for some time in London, and now transfers for a month-long Edinburgh residence. Munnery is a permanently amused stand-up veteran, instantly recognisable with his beanie hat and his beady, scrutinising eyes. The concept is explained at the outset: to show that the camera amplifies the face in the same way that a microphone amplifies the voice; the stage is kept entirely bare throughout the show, save for a screen on which is projected a live feed from the back of the room.

At a desk sits Munnery, talking into a camera; the audience, seated in forward-facing rows in this darkened, improvised cinema, is aware only of what it sees on screen: that is, his face in close-up, with cutaways to various maniacally imaginative digressions in puppet form. On the night I saw the show, he performed a prolonged conversation between two skiing enthusiasts (paper cut-outs, in reality) whose fastidiously dull conversation graduated over ten minutes or so into a glorious and funny exchange of subdued heartbreak. Among the other memorable characters was a shy avocado.

Fylm School also incorporated spots for two gifted comics who had their own shows in the Fringe: Lolly Adefope, whose giggling, indiscreet, “I’m mad, me” character Gemma was acutely observed and sustained (even if it did owe a lot to Victoria Wood), and Rhys James, a darling of Twitter who has the skill and aplomb to exceed 140 characters.

Munnery’s simultaneous mastery of the scathing and the silly is always in evidence in his stand-up but the balance is tipped strongly toward the latter during Fylm School. What gives the evening its uniqueness is the tension between distance and intimacy. Stand-up audiences are accustomed to being confronted with raw confessionals peppered with gags. One impressive comic, Chris Stokes, performed a late-night set in the sweltering Pleasance Attic, straining to be heard over the rhythmic breathing of the indispensable air-conditioning unit. He had good reason to remark on the concerned reaction with which we greeted the material about his divorce, which had a high “ouch” factor. (The material and the divorce, that is.)

A few of the gags were killed, or at least stifled, by our empathy: they got an “ahhh” when Stokes was hoping instead for a “ha-ha”. But his surprise at this, feigned or otherwise, was built into the set nicely, so that it became partly a dialogue about our feelings toward him. (Nothing on the order of the masterful Stewart Lee, of course, whose show at the Assembly Rooms was as self-aware as ever. There was no response we could give, whether enthusiastic or otherwise, that he wasn’t able to turn on us, like Bugs Bunny twisting the barrel of a rifle until it’s pointing right back at Elmer Fudd’s face.)

What Munnery does with the Fylm School format, though, is to tease the audience with the implied closeness of a stand-up gig, without ever stepping out on stage. Cinema is always a dislocated experience: we’re watching light on a screen, nothing more, and often the people we are seeing died long ago. (“Dying” is possible in stand-up, too; perhaps the Fylm School camera, presenting the performer at one remove, offers some footling protection from that on-stage death.) Munnery is present as a disembodied voice but we are always keenly aware that he is in the room with us. It is perhaps the closest we can get to the experience of Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo – at any point, Munnery and his guests could step out from behind the screen (or at least from the back of the room) to turn the filmed image into flesh and blood.

Film was present tangentially also in Coach Coach, the latest vehicle for the muscular talents of Adam Riches. Past shows – the finest being Bring Me the Head of Adam Riches (which won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2011) and last year’s Adam of the Riches – have been collections of four or five character monologues, with an emphasis on artistic licence (he has played exaggerated incarnations of Sean Bean and Daniel Day-Lewis) and extreme audience interaction (a friend was hauled on stage at one show to give Riches a thorough lathering in an on-stage shower). For that reason, there was an air of trepidation as well as excitement hanging over the queue for this new show, which takes one of the performer’s earlier creations, the “Volfsball” coach Eric Coach, and builds around him a proper narrative, incorporating for the first time a full cast.

Several movie studio fanfares are played simultaneously at the start, promising the sort of recklessly cacophonous comedy for which Riches is renowned. The result, though, is his gentlest work yet. It’s essentially a US-style school sports movie, with clichés harvested from the likes of Teen Wolf and High School Musical. Coach Coach has a sporting failure to live down, and he might just get his chance during the Volfsball finals between the team he coaches, the Centaurs, and the opposing Lizards, who have recently acquired a mystery coach.

On one hand, the audience participation, which is confined largely to the final 15 minutes, would not be so effective if it was sprinkled liberally throughout, as it usually is. On the other, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t sorely missed. The characterisation from Riches and much of the cast is strong but it isn’t always as riotous as it could be. Many of the targets are easy, the references over-familiar. The moments that really took flight were the instances of incongruous daftness—such as a date between two sweethearts who wander among our seats, squeezing themselves needlessly into tight spaces. The show is an interesting new-ish direction from Riches rather than a fully-fledged success; it feels like a cleansing of the palate after the glorious overkill of his previous work.

The double-act Max and Ivan appeared with The End, another show with a strong visual sense. Unfortunately, their tale of life in the seedy, apocalyptic Sudley-on-Sea (a doctored road sign reads: “Please die carefully”) amounts to a string of superficially naughty jokes without a trace of resonance, identity or soul behind them. The show plays like The League of Gentlemen stripped of its barbs and fangs and remodelled slickly for a Live at the Apollo crowd. They’ll go far.

The Edinburgh Fringe continues until 30 August

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game