Monday, 26 September 2016

Socks, comics, classes, caricatures - a week of everything

So this would be me, in a cage, about to draw caricatures of a couple of hundred kids, in a basement 4 floors down in central London on a Sunday afternoon. All just part of the working week for a guy who, in seven days, has done a bit of pretty well everything he does.

The biggest novelty for me these days is getting to write and draw comic strips, but thanks to Bible Society I'm deep into the pencilling of my first full length comic book in ages - The Book Of Esther. I produced the Socks Go To Hollywood book last year (still on sale Socks fans) but that was a self-published job, the production of which stretched over more than five years. This is a proper commission, with a proper deadline, and 28 full colour pages, entirely devised, scripted, pencilled and inked (and lettered) by me. Well, the story was kind of knocking about before I got my hands on it, but I like to think my humorous take on the story will become the definitive version eventually.

As a result of having paying work to do at my desk, it's not so necessary for me to do Comic Art Masterclasses this month, so when the month ends, I'll have only done 4 days in schools, every one a gem. This was a rather odd one, being a Beano launch special day, paid for by The Beano rather than the school, in Three Bridges in Sussex. Rather than working with two classes of 30 who produced a comic together and all went home with comics and caricatures, this event had me working with 60 kids in the afternoon and 90 in the morning, far more than I can run a workshop with. But we did what we could (no caricatures and, as the Eagle-eyed will spot, no time for the pupils to add their contribution to the front covers) and everyone had fun, while getting a sneak peek at the new Beano logo and the new look Dennis and Gnasher.

The big event of the week was the return to the stage of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre after very nearly a month off. Since we packed up the set after the last night in Edinburgh, the Socks have resided in a bag and I've basked in the memory of how strong the Socks Do Shakespeare show was. I've edited up videos from the show and been busy promoting the tour. I've even started to talking to people about getting us on TV and radio. But the return to the stage had to wait until Friday night in Derby, opening the bill with a 20 minute set at the Bell Hotel in Derby. I learned, or was reminded of, a few things.

1) Edinburgh is not like the rest of the world. I made the mistake of trying to do mainly Socks Do Shakespeare material in this 20 minute slot in front of people who'd never seen the Socks before. When we popped our heads up and were greeted with stunned silence,as opposed to the rapturous applause that happened every night in Edinburgh, we realised we had a harder job to do than one does when the audience has paid expressly to see you. 

2) Be prepared. We had major sound problems. No technician, and no promoter or spare person available to play in the sound cues. This meant I had to plug in and sound check my iPod singlehandedly (for the Socks sound cues that run through any of our sets however short) then recruit a friendly member of the audience in the front row to play the tracks in for me. We've got away with this before, and in fact the biggest laughs of our set came from dealing with the situation that arose and talking to my makeshift sound engineers. But the bottom line was that the sound cues wouldn't play. Be it dodgy cable, dodgy operators or what, I couldn't get the opening I'm A Sock song (with which I can usually win the crowd round, and assess what kind of audience they are) to play. I also wasn't going to be able to get Michael Jackson's Earth Song, another banker, or Walk On The Wild Side, or Sweary Poppins. All my safety nets relied on sound cues, and without them the Socks could only do verbal routines. And - error of errors - I'd chosen to do Socks Do Shakespeare routines instead of the safest-of-safe banker routines. I hadn't brought the props for the Magic routine, and I'd decided not to open with Halloween. In short, I wasn't prepared to rescue us from the most challenging of situations (cold crowd, no sound) and we ended up bottling after only 15 minutes, having pulled off a pretty successful Richard III routine, and ending of applause. But it was far from a triumph.

So luckily for me I had another gig the following night, and this time brought the magic back. Well, literally, cos I brought the Magic routine back, performing it for the first time probably this year (it's all been Shakespeare round these parts this year). I was playing a short-notice gig at Badock Halls of Residence at Bristol Uni, part of their Freshers Week events. I had no idea how it was going to go, student events being an unpredictable beast, they could have been a rowdy drunken uphill battle. I could even have a repeat of the previous night's technical problems. So I spent a good bit of the daytime getting my practice amp out (used for smaller gigs), and getting all the plugs, leads, batteries and cables. And most importantly I lined up a different set.

It was to be a 30 - to - 40 minute set tonight (depending on how well it goes, one says for a corporate gig of this sort) and I was, at first, thinking I'd give them Shakespeare. But after the Derby experience, I learned the third lesson of the weekend:

3) Be brave enough to play safe. I went right back to the bankers. So the set opened with Loos, Hitchock, Excorcist and Zombies, then I'm A Sock - of course the sound was perfect tonight - then Halloween, Earth Song, Ship In A Bottle and Magic. By which time we were ready for a finale. I gave them a choice of Star Wars or Shakespeare, and they chose Shakespeare. So I gave them a rollicking Richard III. And, because they were enjoying it so much, we gave them Star Wars as well. The we ended with Sweary Poppins and went off having done a 45 minute set. And killed. It wasn't the biggest crowd, only about 30 in the end (apparently they were mostly burnt out after a week of partying) but the organisers were talking about having us back later in the year. Pretty well a perfect result, and the sort of gig you need to remind you that you do actually know how to do this job. If you remember the important lessons.

Then on Sunday we were up at the crack and off to that London for a very special event. The Beano Experience. A top secret, exclusive, can't-tweet-in-advance event, it took place in a basement 4 floors down in an exhibition space across the road from Madame Tussauds. There was a reconstruction of Dennis's bedroom then an entrance through a wardrobe of his jumpers, a gunge tank, a bouncy area, computer screen interactive bits, the two Nigels and Nika doing drawings and signings, a merch shop, food stands, and of course the drawing area which involved me in my cage drawing caricatures. An awful lot of staff in Beano shirts and Dennis jerseys, an MC, a DJ dressed as Minnie (whose name was, genuinely, Minnie), exclusive video reveals on the big screens, with lots of props and rigging, so it wasn't cheap to set up and run. And all the kids were in and out in 90 minutes. It'd make its money back if it was run as a paying event (probably not in central London). But the aim was to make a publicity splash, and hopefully it has. 

So, a week of pretty well everything I do. I've even uploaded a few videos (nothing brand new, but Magic's been dug out for the first time). And I worked through the weekend, Friday night (5 hour drive to Derby, did I mention? Then overnight with Mum), Saturday night, and all day Sunday. Onwards and upwards, back to the desk.

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre do Shakespeare on Tour through Spring 2017.

October 1st - Spread Eagle Croydon
Oct 7 - Ace Centre, Nelson, Lancs
Oct 19 - Angel Comedy, Islington, London 8pm
Oct 21 - Ropery Hall Barton
November 3rd - Canterbury Festival
Nov 5 - Watford Library
Nov 11 - Notts Comedy Festival 

Feb 15 - Buxton Opera House 
Feb 17 & 18 6.50pm - Kayal, Leicester Comedy Fest
March Glasgow Comedy Festival dates tbc
Apr 6 - Victoria Theatre Halifax 
Apr 8 - Rondo Bath 
Apr 13 - Hexham Queens Hall 
Apr 22 - Swindon Arts 
Apr 27 - Stroud Subscription Rooms 
May 5 - Artrix Bromsgrove
May 6 - Stafford Gatehouse
May 19 - Carriageworks Leeds
June 2 - Eden Ct Inverness
May Brighton Fringe dates tbc
Walker Theatre Shrewsbury tbc
Barrow In Furness Forum tbc

Many more dates to be added and confirmed. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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