Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Monday 20/08/2007
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Wednesday 22/08/2007

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Tuesday 21/08/2007

Reviewed today: 7 Spies At The Casino, Captured, Dai (Enough), Irn-Bru: Phenomenal Advertising, The Mitch Benn Music Club , Pam Ann, Woody Sez.

I couldn't find an angle that got both the head and the udders in a single shot. Sorry. There! See? It's a tent shaped like an upside-down purple cow. Told you. Anyway, moving on.

If you've been reading closely over the past few days, you may have picked up that this is my first wireless Edinburgh. In previous years, these reports have been hurled out onto the web via a variety of internet cafes. However, since 2005 I've acquired a wireless laptop (two, actually, but the details needn't concern you here), and this year I'm discovering the delights of wi-fi access. Edinburgh, unlike London or all those European cities I was whizzing through a few months ago, seems to delight in offering free wi-fi for the price of a coffee in one of its many cafes and bars. I'll pull together a list of useful venues for you by the end of this week, because I don't believe there's one on the web already. Having said that, one of today's first activities is to find a proper old-fashioned webcaff so that I can print out the first few days of the Edinburgh Diary for the benefit of Spank's Pals. A return visit to my favourite internet cafe of the 2005 campaign, Cleopatra, does the job, reminding me in the process just how bloody expensive laser printing is no matter where you go.

From there, it's more or less a day of snap decisions on what we see. My original plan was to spend today investigating the huge increase in free events at this festival, and to attempt an entire day's worth of entertainment without paying a bean for it. But when I finally ditched that idea late yesterday, that opened up the whole of Tuesday - apart from one pre-booked film event, the rest of the day is now entirely available for anything I choose to see. It's a curiously exhilarating feeling, and makes me think I should leave more days free for impulse viewing in the future.

Our first port of call is the Udderbelly, that huge purple cow you can see at the top of the page: or, more accurately, the Cow Barn annex next door. It's the venue where Woody Sez impressed the Muses yesterday, so much so that a few of us are going along today to see what the fuss is about. Eve has already given you the basic details: David Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and Andy Teirstein have assembled an hour-long show around the life and songs of Woody Guthrie. Lutken takes on the role of Guthrie himself, talking you through the ups and downs of the Depression and war, and how he travelled round the USA meeting people and learning all about them through their songs.

It's a hugely entertaining hour, driven by the excellent musicianship of the cast in general, and the homely charm of Lutken in particular. The narrative structure is a good way of tying the songs together, even though strictly speaking Guthrie's life doesn't have much of what you'd call a dramatic arc - apart from the bookends of his mother's disease and his own, it's more along the lines of "and then I travelled to here and did this," making the show the musical equivalent of a road movie. But who doesn't like road movies? According to the box office staff at the Udderbelly, "even people who aren't fans of the songs are loving the show," and you can see why.

After a somewhat bungled lunch - Monster Mash appears to have a permanent waiting list that stops anyone walking in off the street, while Doctors literally runs out of food just after we've paid for it - we need a quick choice of something nearby to fill in a 4pm to 5pm slot. We end up picking Captured, a sketch show by female comedy duo The Cakes. God, I wish we hadn't. The premise for the show, according to an opening tape played at such a low level that the audience nearly misses it, is this: in 2003, Roisin Conaty and Caroline Ginty purchased a second-hand video camera, only to find it had had nine previous owners. A tape inside the camera contained recordings made by all of those owners, and the sketches we see here are recreations of those recordings. A pair of agoraphobics send a message to their worried parents: a poet recites her latest epic on the subject of her bowel movements: and an attempt to record a sex tape goes messily wrong.

An interesting idea, crippled by the fact that the writing is so utterly terrible. Conaty and Ginty are obviously having fun creating these characters, and there are certainly a few giggles to be had in the initial stages of each sketch as the premise is set out. But over and over again, the sketches fail to develop beyond that premise. It's hard to tell whether the shorter sketches come off best because they're more tightly constructed, or simply because they don't last as long: but the solo pieces work a lot better than the dialogues featuring both performers, which tend to drag on for ten minutes or so without hitting any sort of punchline. In fact, at this performance two of the sketches just stop, to zero audience reaction - and when one of those sketches is the final one, requiring someone to announce over the PA that the show is over, then you know you're in trouble.

Onwards to our one scheduled event of the day - the free Film Festival event that initially planted the idea of investigating free stuff in the Festival generally. Presumably, Irn-Bru: Phenomenal Advertising is free because nobody at the EIFF believed they could charge money for a 90 minute show discussing TV adverts. But if you believe the BBC news, tickets for this went faster than for any other event. (Although, be honest, doesn't that story look like a plant by a PR company to you?) Anyway, we get 90 minutes of entertainment in a Cineworld for nothing, plus a goody bag of Diet Irn-Bru related merchandise (presumably the 'diet' bit of that explains why I now own a pair of pants and a t-shirt that are both several sizes too small for me), plus a couple of cans of the stuff itself.

I've never really got the appeal of Irn-Bru: as far as I'm concerned, they may as well just call it 'Tizer, Except For Viewers In Scotland Who Have Their Own Drinks'. But in Scotland, it's had a huge level of appeal for generations. At this event, a panel consisting of three people - the commercial director of AG Barr Soft Drinks, plus a couple of creatives from The Leith Agency - discuss the challenges involved in creating ads that simultaneously sell Irn-Bru to a Scottish audience (who would probably buy it if you just showed a 30 second pack shot) and an English audience (who need a little more persuading). Jonathan Kemp of Barr's takes us through the history of the Irn-Bru adverts from the early nineties, around the time that they were realising that the slogan 'Made In Scotland From Girders' really didn't play all that well south of Hadrian's Wall.

Kemp's very good at taking us lay people though the process by which adverts are commissioned. The starting point is a statement of brand equity: a one-word pitch that describes the unique appeal of the product. For those people who've always suspected that ad execs don't know what the hell they're doing, it's gratifying to see Kemp's frustration when he asks the audience what that one word would be for Irn-Bru, and he gets answers like 'Scottish' and 'orange': in fact, what he's looking for is the word 'phenomenal', which has been at the core of their campaign for the last couple of years. (As nobody can really explain what's so good about the drink, let's just hurl a superlative at it, and one that sounds good in a Scottish accent to boot.) From there, it's a question of defining the character of the brand - 'likeable maverick', in case you were wondering - and then passing it over to the creative teams for them to find ways of expressing that character in visual, funny terms.

The Irn-Bru ads have always been known for their sharp humour, and their willingness to cheerfully poke at the boundaries of what's acceptable in advertising: this illustrated talk takes us through some of the key campaigns of the last 15 years, culminating in the universally acknowledged highpoint of last Christmas' Snowman, as seen embedded here. Even a film as charming as this one had two controversies associated with it. Firstly, it was touch and go as to whether they could get the rights to the music (fortunately, the original composer of Walking In The Air thought the new lyrics were hysterical): secondly, there was concern over whether people would think the lead character dies at the end of the ad, and several versions were produced with different solutions to that problem. The clips themselves are very funny, and the discussions around them are fascinating for those of us who aren't in the industry. For me, the most surprising revelation of the night concerns the complex thinking behind the advert for the Irn-Bru 32 energy drink. The brief was not only to sell it to the people who buy energy drinks, but also to tell people who don't like energy drinks that this is an energy drink, and therefore they shouldn't buy it...

The Belated Birthday Girl went down with chicken pox late last month. She had to take two weeks off work, looked unpleasant and felt worse, but at the end of it there was no permanent harm done. When chicken pox struck Noel Coward's holiday home in the early sixties, all of his house guests had to spend a month in quarantine, including the actor David Niven. As a result, Niven missed out on the auditions for Dr. No, and the role of James Bond was given to "some milkman from Scotland". Which was a blow for Niven, as Ian Fleming had always told him that he'd be the ideal actor for the role. Happily, Niven managed to play James Bond in a movie some years later: unhappily, that movie was the atrocious 1967 version of Casino Royale. 7 Spies At The Casino is a one-man show starring Paul Lavers as David Niven, telling us the story of how that film fell apart in production.

Niven identifies two main culprits. The first is producer Charlie Feldman, a man normally associated with star-packed sex comedies, who through a chain of circumstances finds himself owning the rights to the one novel in the James Bond series that the Broccolis don't want. He has a lot of contacts in the film industry, and his strategy is to cram as many of them into the film in the hope that at least some bits of it will work. (Hence Casino Royale having five directors, each of them working on independent sections of the film.) One of the stars Feldman brings on board is the hot young comedian Peter Sellers: an actor Niven has very little time for, having already watched him steal The Pink Panther from under his nose. To hear Niven tell it, Sellers' continual playing around with his role was the second factor that doomed the film.

But as he admits himself, he's not the most reliable of narrators: and this is what elevates 7 Spies At The Casino from a film buff's gossip piece to something much deeper. The stories behind the making of Casino Royale are legion, and writer James Goss assembles them into an entertaining monologue. But he also includes a neat subtext, where Niven realises as he's telling the story that his era is coming to an end - there was a time once when he would have been considered the ideal romantic lead in a movie, and he can't understand what someone like Sellers is doing taking up screen time he could be using more profitably. Nevertheless, being the archetypal Englishman that he is, he's too polite to say so. Paul Lavers manages to nail all of this in his performance: not giving us a note-perfect impersonation of David Niven, but getting the spirit of the man down perfectly. It's a beautifully realised piece of work, and deserves a bigger audience than it's getting.

Mitch Benn. Spelt with a 'B', like 'bollocks dangling freely underneath his kilt just out of shot'. The day's minor celebrity spot is combined with the best overheard conversation of the day: Scotsman critic Kate Copstick explains the spelling of her surname to one of the performers at the Udderbelly. "It's spelt with a 'C', like 'cunt'." Copstick, like us, is queueing to get into The Mitch Benn Music Club: yesterday's taster at Mervyn Stutter certainly did its work.

As Benn says at the start, his shows tend to have a bewildering demographic: there are old people who know his musical parody work from his various appearances on Radio 2 and Radio 4, and there are young people who recognise the artists he's parodying. (Though it has to be said, the oldies are winning at this particular show.) The few times when I've seen Benn before, he's been performing solo with a guitar: this show allows him to work with a three-piece band, giving the songs a gratifying amount of extra weight that, if anything, makes the lyrics even funnier.

In a show that lasts two hours (including interval), he's given the chance to stretch out splendidly. We have the boy band number that The Belated Birthday Girl has been singing ever since Stutter ("And we all sing the chorus together / ' Cause we can't do harmonies yet"). We have a rock opera adapted from one of Benn's favourite books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We have Macbeth rewritten as an Eminem-style rap, one of those things that lots of comedians think they can make work but very few can. In the middle of all this, we also get a couple of anecdotes from Pink Floyd session bassist and 'rockonteur' Guy Pratt, who accompanies Benn on a surprisingly credible version of Comfortably Numb. It all makes for yet another civilised end to an Edinburgh day. We really should do something about that.

Notes From Spank's Pals

Old Lag - Pam Ann's One World Alliance was a big sold out show at the Assembly Rooms, about the world of air hostesses. The audience seemed to find it riotously funny, but it left me cold. Fairly repetitive, it was jokes about the national stereotypes of foreign air hostesses. The customer service style and sexual proclivities of different UK airlines, video film of uniforms, the odd song, and cocaine jokes. Did this really cost £14?

Diane - Dai (Enough), written and performed by Iris Bahr. This one woman play had been  recommended to me by people in London who had just returned from Edinburgh naming it their show of the festival, and it didn't disappoint.

Iris Behr, who also wrote this show, demonstrates her ability as an actress by playing all the parts and convincing us in every role, male or female. The premise is that a British journalist who has been accused of pro-Palestinian bias goes into a cafe in Israel, and interviews various customers to redress the balance and get the Israeli point of view, before a suicide bomber strikes.

Characters include an elderly male kibbutznik waiting to meet his son, a gay German student awaiting his Israeli ex-boyfriend, an American film actress doing research for a forthcoming role in an Israel/Arab love story, and a young female soldier in the Israeli army. Each character's story is sharply and brutally brought to an end by the sound of the bomb exploding.

Bahr's characters are all intriguing and have different stories to tell. Most are tolerant and just want to get on with their lives, with the exception of one hard line orthodox mother of six who has no time for the peace process.

On the whole, this is a human story rather than a political one. The suicide bomber is killing a group of people with disparate views, who are going about their everyday lives when they meet their fate. Iris Bahr has created a powerful drama which is a great showcase for her acting and writing skills. I'm sure this show will have life beyond the Edinburgh Festival, so do go if you get a chance.


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