Stand-Up, Le Mans and a Pyrrhic Victory – Chapter Seven of The Bernician Chronicles

M O'B Leicester Polytechnic 1999

M O’B at Leicester Polytechnic in February 1991, when he began his stand-up comedy career at the Phoenix Arts Centre.

STAND-UP, LE MANS AND LONDON CALLING

Whilst I always knew I would become a stand-up comedian, I was to a certain extent motivated to do so at the earliest juncture, by events that transpired during the final year of my degree.

Despite the arty farty nonsense permeating our experience of the first two years, in the third year we were given complete creative control over our work. This suited me down to the ground.

In January 1991, I performed my stand-up comedy show, ‘Dad Wouldn’t Mend My Tractor’, in the wake of Thatcher’s government falling and Bilderberg puppet, John Major, taking her place.

The only one who saw the show beforehand was my best mate, Guy, with whom I was now living in a two bedroom shit-hole in Highfields, Leicester, just round the corner from our favourite pub, The Imperial.

Whilst Guy told me I had a potentially barn-storming show, we both knew there was still something missing. Luckily, I already knew exactly what that missing ingredient was, but to be sure I had to keep it a secret from him.

Grade Two Skinhead

A hour before the show, Guy headed for the student union bar, to give me the space to properly prepare myself.

However, as the door closed behind him, I was already on my way to the nearest barber shop, where I had all my hair shaved off at grade two.

When I returned to the theatre, Guy was already there with his girlfriend, Joanne, who was helping him run the lights and sound for the show.

As they turned and looked at me when I came through the door, they both burst into laughter.

“Mike…” said Guy, “…that’s it. That’s what was missing.”

Then my girlfriend at the time, the lovely Siobhan, a dancer from Barnsley, unexpectedly entered the theatre to wish me luck. Before she could, she took one look at me, her jaw hit the floor and she said:

“Oh my fucking God! You’ve had a skinhead!”

Sinead O'Connor

Dad Wouldn’t Mend My Tractor

Standing backstage, I could hear the raked theatre buzzing in anticipation. When the doors closed and darkness fell, I made my way to centre stage to take my position.

Then the lights came up on me, sitting on a bucket in the middle of the stage. I was dressed in short, white dungarees, knee-length black socks, Dr Martin boots and a trench-coat, with three pink plastic dolls in my arms.

As the initial giggles of disbelief subsided, I delivered my first line:

“Hello, my name is Sinead O’Connor. But if I put on a nice dress and grow me hair long, I’ll make somebody a lovely wife one day.”

The set-up did not get the laugh I expected, so I held my nerve and delivered the punchline:

“Which reminds me, in the immortal words of Suzanne Vega – Duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh!”

The ensuing first wave of laughter was followed by a round of applause, from which point until the end of my forty minute set, every gag was met with belly laughs.

Scraptoft Stormer

Among the audience of around eighty people was head of the performing arts, Noel Witts, who had never previously seen me perform. He came along because he had heard great things about my stand-up debut at the gay cabaret, the previous February.

Jo Scanlan was conspicuous in her absence, but the head of drama, Nick Arnold, who hated me almost as much as Jo did, was present. In fact, as far as I could tell, he didn’t laugh once.

It was then that I learned an extremely important lesson about stand-up comedy – the audience doesn’t laugh unless they like you.

Nevertheless, the feedback I got from everybody else who saw the show was that I had followed my storming set the previous year with a completely different routine, which was just as hilarious.

A good friend on the dance course called Nuritza, and another called Stacey, both told me that they found it really inspiring to see me doing something that I am so obviously born to do.

Siobhan said much the same thing, although we probably would have stayed together for a lot longer than we did, were it not for the skinhead.

Not to mention the three stone I’d gained in weight, having long since given up my fitness regime and replaced it with drinking large amounts of cheap booze.

An Invitation I Couldn’t Refuse

The next day, Noel called me into his office to tell me how much he liked my performance. He then asked me if I’d like to take the show to the Euro-Theatre Festival in Le Mans, France, the following May.

Euro-Theatre was founded and managed by his long-time friend, a French-Czech called Jaromir Knittel, with whom he thought I would get along famously.

It was clearly an invitation I couldn’t refuse. However, I still expressed my concerns to Noel that the French might not appreciate my slightly surreal, political character comedy.

Nevertheless, Noel reassured me that he had every confidence that there was more than enough in my comedic repertoire to keep a French theatre audience happy.

One thing was absolutely certain – the long-time head of the performing arts was very much on my side. Jo Scanlan would never have offered me the chance to take my show to Le Mans.

This was confirmed when I heard that she had openly stated to Noel and others that she was disappointed with the show he chose to represent the drama department. She was reputedly even more pissed off when he refused to change his mind.

Le Mans

Old Town, Le Mans, France.

Red Carpet in Le Mans

Just as Noel Witts predicted, Jaromir and I hit it off as soon as I arrived in Le Mans, following the train journey from Leicester, which I took with two dancers from the year below, who were also performing at the festival.

Once we booked into the 4 star hotel, we made our way to the Mayor’s Gala Dinner, at which there were well over a hundred guests.

I sat next to Jaromir at the sumptuous banquet for all the performers at the festival. It soon became obvious that he was unable to stop staring at me, with a wide-eyed grin on his face.

When I asked him why, he replied, partly in French, partly in Czech and partly in English: “I knew the moment I saw you, if not the moment Noel told me about you. Michael Waugh is The Good Soldier Sveijk.”

As I heard those words, my heart missed a beat.

Hasek’s Classic Anti-War Polemic

My Dad used to take me to the library every few weeks when I was at St. Paul’s, where he would usually borrow Arthur C. Clarke science fiction books.

However, on one occasion, he borrowed the very book to which Jaromir was referring – ‘The Good Soldier Sveijk’ –  which I read and loved when I was eight years old.

Jaromir and I then proceeded to consume vast quantities of red and white wine, champagne, cognac, calvados and slivovitz.

By the end of the night, I had agreed to adapt the book for the stage and perform it the following year. This made him the happiest French-Czech in the world.

Little did I know that there had never been a successful adaptation of Hasek’s novel, despite several attempts by notable writers, including Berthold Brecht.

Or that Jaromir intended to book the play for a ten day run in the most prestigious theatre in Prague.

M o'B in Le Mans

M O’B doing his impression of Sinead O’Connor, in Dad Wouldn’t Mend My Tractor, at the Euro-theatre Festival in May 1991.

A Theatrical Success

By the third night of DWMMT, the entire run was sold out. I also got paid the equivalent of £360, every expense was taken care of and I was treated with the kind of respect that I had very rarely experienced in Leicester.

The city’s university English professor brought her entire class to see my show, delivered as it was with an exaggerated Hartlepool accent. Afterwards, they spent several reputedly enjoyable lectures dissecting the language.

During the wonderful festival, at which I performed ten times, I did an interview on Le Mans radio to publicize the show, after it was given glowing reviews by the French theatre press. 

Most notably, one journalist reviewed it thus:

“Even the French who don’t speak good English can laugh at the rapid-paced Northern English humour of Michael Waugh. This is because he skillfully expresses the language of universal comedy, which everybody can appreciate, anywhere in the world.”

Time For A New Name

Upon returning to Leicester, I already knew that I would begin my professional stand-up comedy career as soon as I completed my degree. For the purposes of which I needed a new name because my birth name was so often mispronounced.

After toying with Dalton and Johnson, I chose Knighton This was several years before a Carlisle United chairman with the same name tried to buy Manchester United and doomed it to long-lasting ridicule.

Shortly afterwards, ‘Michael Knighton’ was registered as a member of the actor’s union, Equity, after I secured contracts for stand-up work in two working men’s clubs and a summer holiday camp.

The least said about the two working men’s clubs gigs the better. Suffice to say, I was told by the doormen that most of the club audiences were only there for the bingo and the pie and pea suppers.

An Equity rep then saw me put in what he later described as “a very professional performance” at one such club in Manchester and I received my first Equity Card within a couple of weeks.

So I took the opportunity to cancel the job compering at the holiday camp the following summer, with a huge sigh of relief.

A Third Class Degree

At the end of the degree course, I was called in for a viva. This was essentially an interview with one of Jo Scanlan’s partners in the crime of the pretentious arts, who would arbitrarily decide my overall mark in my degree.

From the outset, he brutally criticized me for having the temerity to question Jo’s judgment and to take the piss out of what he described as “the form”, in my follow up to ‘Dad Wouldn’t Mend My Tractor’.

The show, in which Guy made guest appearances to hilarious effect, had headlined the Degree Festival at the Phoenix a few days previously. Another rapturous reception was received from a full house of all our peers. They especially liked the parts to which my inquisitor was referring.

He had no problem with me beginning the show dressed in a turquoise shell-suit and a silver wig, claiming that I was the son of God’s head, just a few weeks after David Icke’s infamous appearance on the Terry Wogan chat show.

The savage treatment of numerous celebrities and Tory politicians didn’t offend his sensibilities. Nor did my vitriolic tirade about Midland Bank’s claim to be ‘the listening bank’.

What bothered him so greatly that I felt the sincerity of his hatred, were the characters we created which were entirely based upon pretentious arseholes like him.

Wooster Sauce Performing Shed Theatre Company

The offending skit presented the Wooster Sauce Performing Shed Theatre Company, when Guy and I took the stage as Arse Carson and Carson Arse, dressed in black polo neck jumpers, to run a spoof ‘live art’ workshop.

This began with my character, Arse Carson, describing our new and exciting arts council backed installation to my collaborator, Carson Arse:

“Just imagine it Carson. A young goat, hanging upside down from a tree, with no clothes on. It is resplendent with colour and light; and so full of movement, beauty and form that I feel a workshop coming on!”

The deliberately provocative routine then culminated with Carson Arse and Arse Carson bouncing around a miniature Christmas Tree, chanting in unison:

“Bouncing round the tree, like a little bunny. Bouncing round the tree, oh it feels so funny. Bouncing round the tree, oh it feels so right. Bouncing round the tree, what a heap of shite!”

To put this satirical assault in perspective, two years previously, Jo Scanlan had collaborated with a former drama student in a ‘live art’ installation.

This comprised of the young woman in question hanging upside down and naked in a drama studio, for hours on end, whilst the audience walked around her.

Needless to say, after we delivered the punchline, the entire room erupted into laughter and raucous ovation.

Or should I say, the entire room except for Jo Scanlan and the black polo-necked turnip she appointed to sabotage the final mark in my degree.

Up The Viva Without A Paddle

At the viva, I told the real life version of Carson Arse that the performing arts are a perfectly legitimate target for comedians and satirists. I did so after he asked me the following loaded question:

“Why did you find it necessary to denigrate ‘the form’ in your degree show?”

It was therefore abundantly clear that I would be given a 3rd class honours degree, no matter what I said. This was despite having attained an average mark that was in excess of what was required to obtain a 1st.

Nevertheless, this outcome could not have been achieved were it not for Jo giving me an F for my dissertation on the comic genius of the John Belushi. The only piece of written work I have ever failed.

This was Jo’s revenge, no doubt about it, but she went on to bitterly regret her unscrupulous actions, to say the least; given that everybody in the entire performing arts faculty soon knew she and Nick Arnold had railroaded Guy and I, by unjustly giving us 3rd class degrees.

The Aftermath

When the results were posted on the faculty notice board, neither Jo, nor the oleaginous head of drama, Nick Arnold, had the guts to show up that day. Noel Witts was the only member of staff who did.

Less than a minute after reading that we’d been shafted, I stormed into his office and demanded that he answer one question.

“Do you consider me to be a 3rd class drama student Noel?”

To which he replied, with a sad smile:

“No I don’t Michael, but I didn’t mark your dissertation. Jo did.”

Noel was the only member of staff I respected [after the genial Geoff Bishop died of cancer the previous year]. So I told him that was all I need to hear and headed off to the student union bar, to get shitfaced with Guy and everybody else in our year.

An Entirely Corrupt Decision

As we walked through the campus, we contemplated how sorry Jo Scanlan would one day become for what she had done to us. We were understandably mad as hell about the way we’d been robbed of the degrees we deserved.

Then we both noticed that other third year students were averting our gaze when we passed them. But it certainly wasn’t because they were laughing down their sleeves at our misfortunes.

When we got to the bar, much the same thing was happening. So I sat down beside a beautiful Irish music student called Lois, who was looking forlorn, and said to her:

“What’s wrong, Lois? You look really sad.”

Lois looked up at me, tried to force a smile and said:

“I am really sad, Michael. I’m sitting here wondering how I’m going to explain to my Mum why I’m so upset, even though I got a 1st.”

Lois then looked at me, with tears in her eyes and sincerity beyond compare:

“I was so happy when I read it on the board. But when I saw the 3rd s next to your name and Guy’s, my heart sank. How could they give that to you? The best two actors by far.

I don’t know anybody who isn’t saying the same thing. It makes my 1st meaningless because when they cheated you out of what you deserved, they cheated us all.”

Pyrrhic Victory

Whilst I was deeply moved by what Lois said, I told her that it was only the drama department’s grading that was corrupt and that everybody knew she was fully deserving of a 1st class degree in music.

In truth, the conversation with Lois and others with dancers, arts administrators and musicians that day, still mean far more to me than getting a 1st class honours degree ever would have done.

I was also able to rely on the advice and support of Noel Witts, long after I left Leicester. In fact, he was instrumental in helping me put together my return to Le Mans with ‘The Good Soldier Sveijk’, in the summer of 1992.

However, something in my gut told me that Jo Scanlan had won an emphatically Pyrrhic victory and nothing more.

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