Monday, 24 February 2014

Interview - Lesley Joseph

MENTION Lesley Joseph and most people will immediately think of the ultimate tart with a heart, Dorian Green.
With her penchant for high heels, leopard prints and a complicated love life, she was one of the most iconic television characters of the 1980s and 1990s in the BBC TV sitcom Birds Of A Feather. She’s even been described as a national institution.
The hugely successful comedy ran for nine years and at the height of its popularity was pulling in 20 million viewers making Lesley a household name.
The series ended in 1998 before being brought back by ITV earlier this year but in between times Lesley not been putting her feet up.
In fact far from it. The 68-year-old, who exudes warmth and joire de vivre, has been incredibly busy, doing everything from Shakespeare to panto not to mention reality show Celebrity Come Dine With Me.
She is currently preparing to revive her character of Myra, one of four women in the smash hit musical Hot Flush!.
It is the third time she will have reprised the role and will be taking the show, which she describes as “outrageously funny” around the country beginning the tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre on Tuesday, March 4.
“It’s a fabulous show,” she gushes as we chat in a break from rehearsals. “It’s a musical and I’ve done it twice before. It’s outrageous and naughty – like a saucy seaside postcard,” she chortles.
“People just loved it which is why the producers wanted to bring it back. I’m delighted!”
The show features four women, all of whom have different lives, characters and sets of issues but whose lives intertwine with hilarious results.
Lesley plays Myra, a lawyer who she says behaves disgracefully. “She’s quite a ballsy character. Her son is having an affair with one of her friends and her husband leaves her for a younger woman.
“She’s great to play and I do have a lot of fun with her including singing one song which is actually quite raunchy,” she laughs.
“It’s really a series of sketches and vignettes where we see these four women go about their lives and all the funny things that go on. The audience gets to see them at their best, at their worst and everything in between and shares all these ups and downs.
“It’s not just for women – men will get a lot out of it too – but every woman will relate to these things and recognise aspects of their own lives in these characters.
“Things like losing your phone in your bag, hearing it ring and not being able to find it in time despite turning everything in the bag onto the floor - which is something that happens to me on a daily basis,” she chuckles.
“It’s very funny but quite near the knuckle,” she adds without pausing for breath. “But the best thing is that the audience will have a great time, laugh their socks off and leave on a real high. You can’t beat that for a great evening out.”
And is Myra anything like Dorian, I ask.
“There are some similarities but on the whole no,” she says. “Myra has a professional job and isn’t a man eater like Dorian!”
And she insists she doesn’t mind at all that most people will remember her for alter ego.
“Dorian is an amazing part of my life and she opened a huge amount of doors for me so it’s been a blessing. She is a life force!”
And when I tell her Dorian has been described as a national institution she roars with laughter.
“Do you know that’s such a lovely thing,” she says. “She’s not altogether a likeable person but it’s so nice people have taken her to their hearts.
“I love playing her and the three of us, myself, Linda [Robson] and Pauline [Quirke], were delighted when ITV asked to bring it back. We’ve had to move the characters on of course but it’s like slipping on old shoes. It’s been great fun.”
But although she is perhaps best known for Birds Of A Feather she insists theatre is her first love.
“I come from a theatrical background and always loved theatre,” she says. “It’s in my blood, it’s my first love and since Dorian I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been offered Shakespeare, Chekov and other theatrical roles including panto which I absolutely love.
“Even better most things I’ve done have been well received so I know that I can go on stage, do a show and entertain people – that’s important to me.”
And although she says she hopes Birds may be commissioned for another series, her focus is very much on Hot Flush!.
“We are all hugely excited, especially to be opening in Wimbledon which is such a beautiful theatre,” she says.
“I’ve performed there before in a couple of shows and I love the place. It has a real warmth to it. The audiences are always fantastic and know what they like!” she laughs. “We are going to have a great time.”

Hot Flush! Is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre on Tuesday March 4 and Wednesday March 5. Tickets from £22.40. Visit to buy tickets

London Sealife Centre

TAKING the kids on a journey to dive the world’s oceans is a non starter for most families. Despite being beautiful, fascinating and being home to some of the most amazing creatures on earth, they are not places where you can easily take small children.
Which is where the London Aquarium comes into its own.
Based on the South Bank next to the London Eye in the former County Hall, it is home to one of Europe's largest collections of global marine life all housed in a very pushchair and wheelchair friendly environment.
Although not cheap, it’s packed with 2 million litres of water housing 500 species of interesting sea creatures from sharks to seahorses, rays to rockpools, turtles to crocs and frogs in 14 themed areas over three floors.
It is also full of interesting facts and figures courtesy of information panels and videos not to mention advice about how people can support its conservation work.
As well as all this in the last couple of years it has been expanding its operation to include a section on the rainforest with a fierce looking caimen crocodile, piranhas, red tailed catfish and the Poison Arrow Frog, and the Antarctica exhibition which features the beautiful Gentoo Penguins.
Its latest exhibit, Claws, is no less of a crowd pleaser and as its name suggests, features some stunning species of crustaceans.
Although it’s only a small part of the overall experience it is pretty impressive and the gigantic Japanese Spider crab is undoubtedly its star billing.
These incredible and quite beautiful looking crabs live at the bottom of the ocean and can grow to an amazing 12ft long. They move very slowly and have very long legs.
It also features the blue lobster, pink shrimps and some slightly smaller crab species which visitors can see in giant tanks and through a tunnel display so they can be seen from every angle.
In common with other areas of the Aquarium there are plenty of displays detailing pertinent information about those in the tanks plus a giant mechanical claw which shows the inner workings of a crab’s claw.
Elsewhere, interactive features give visitors the chance to feel the hardness of the crabs’ shells and the sharpness of the serrations on their claws.
It’s a fascinating exhibition and added to the rest of the Aquarium experience will keep kids of all ages enthralled for hours.

The Sea Life London Aquarium is open seven days a week. Tickets are £21.60 for adults, £15.90 for children. Family tickets and special behind-the-scenes packages also available. Visit for more information.

Hannah - Unicorn theatre


PUTTING on a re-imagining of Marlowe's Dr Faustus for a young audience is ambitious but the Unicorn Theatre has done it well with its version, Hannah.
Hannah (Kae Alexander) is a normal teenager with normal teenage emotions and thoughts, hopes and fears. She lives with her mum, a scientist researching climate change, and her pet lizard Dave and confines herself to her bedroom most of the time.
However, when she wishes she was the centre of the universe, her pet lizard Dave (Ian Keir Attard) comes to life as the devil in human form and tells her he can grant her any wish her heart desires - for a price of course.
This "small" price is her soul, which we see downloading onto the computer, whilst Dave shows Hannah what she can have if she really wants it.
For some teenagers this would pose no problem at all but Hannah doesn't really want wealth, fame and absolute power. She is much more thoughtful and wonders what it would be like to have no wars.
It means Dave has to use all his cunning to trap her and Hannah, wide eyed and innocent, goes along with his plan.
It is an ingenious and clever script and beautifully acted by the four-strong cast. To add to the production there is a chorus who explains what is going on, as well as clever uses of magic, special effects and trickery.
And it is a powerful reminder, simply told, for the mainly young audience, that you should always be careful what you wish for.

Hannah is on at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street until Sunday, March 9. Tickets from £10. Call the box office on 020 7645 0560.  

Interview with John Taylor

IN 1978 a band from Birmingham burst onto the music scene. With their catchy synthesised pop songs, make up, lavish videos and pin up looks, the five young men that made up Duran Duran were a hit from the get go.
Number 1s in countries across the world, 100 million records sold, more awards than you can shake a stick at and a jet set lifestyle were all par for the course.
Indeed they epitomised the New Romantic era of British pop and the excesses of the 1980s enjoying huge financial and artistic success.
However behind all the glamour and fast living, for bass player John Taylor, things were not so rosy.
He was battling alcohol and drug addictions and by his own admission was behaving in a way he would never have done had he been sober.
But one day he realised he'd had enough and checked himself into a US rehab centre in Arizona. It was, he says, a turning point, and thanks to the centre's approach to tackling peoples' addictions, he's not looked back.
Now, 19 years sober and counting he has become patron of Mount Carmel, a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Aldrington Road, Streatham.
Headed up by chief executive Ruth Allonby, Mount Carmel has been running its successful and specialist detox management and counselling programmes for the best part of 26 years.
Offering family support groups, housing support and, crucially, free aftercare, the 18-bed residential centre also advocates the 12-Step programme John credits with turning his life around.
It has seen more than 1,000 people from all walks of life pass through its doors and boasts a success rate of about 65 per cent.
Yet despite its success, many don't know of its existence. They hope this will change with John's involvement.
"I was really struck by his infectious enthusiasm for the 12-Step programme when I heard him speak at last summer's UKESAD [UK/European Symposium on Addictive Disorders] conference," says Ruth.
"The story of his recovery from addiction was compelling so I was bowled over when he said he would come and talk to our clients and even more so when he agreed to be patron.
"He has been a few times and we've all been struck by how down to earth he is. He just speaks from the heart, and his own experience, and it's been an incredibly positive experience."
But although as we talk it's clear his passion for the work the centre does is real and genuine, John says he was initially cautious about getting involved.
"It wasn't an easy decision to say yes to," he says. "I was wary as it requires a huge amount of commitment and you can't do these things half-heartedly and I wanted to do it justice.
"But it's quite an extraordinary place. It's really down to earth, and does an amazing amount of good work changing peoples' lives for the better.
"I've been to speak to some of the clients there and was impressed by the warm and friendly atmosphere there. They advocate the 12-Step programme which I believe in and get results and the fact the staff care so much. So I'm really pleased to be part of it."
Warm, friendly and completely open about his past, the 53-year-old has a refreshing honesty and frankness about his addictions.
"I'm just one of those people who can't just have one or two drinks and then stop," he explains. "I wasn't in the gutter and drinking every day but when I did I just didn't have an off button and so ended up drinking to excess. It was the same with the drugs.
"I was just so miserable but hadn't put it down to the drugs and alcohol. I couldn't cope with life. I'd lost the map and was very unhappy," he remembers.
"It was isolating - I thought I had a string of issues but I didn't want to deal with them. You think you have got bipolar anxiety with all of these things going on but actually it's just this disease.
"It just got ridiculous though."
So he decided to get clean.... but he says it wasn't easy.
"It's one thing to check yourself in. It's quite another to come out at the end and be strong enough to start living your life.
"It's also very hard for family and friends because you come out a completely different person. And they have to deal with that change.
"You realise you can't rely on your family and friends. Very few people appreciate what it is to be a struggling alcoholic. It changes things. The family that has been begging you to get help is now struggling with the new sober you."
For John it ended happily which is why he's so keen to help promote the Mount Carmel programme.
"From my experience it's the only one that really offers that kind of turn around that people are looking for.
"It makes you acknowledge that drug and alcohol addiction are diseases which can affect anyone," he says. "It's important to buy into that. It enables you to put aside all of the blame which is very important. It took me a while to get that idea, partly as I was raised a Catholic and there are certain things you buy into and don't question.
"It made sense though because no one I knew was having the same issues like me. They didn't have a problem stopping drinking and had a degree of control. There had to be something different about me so it made sense that this was a disease. It's just part of my genetic make up.
"The 12-Step programme was my saviour in a way and has helped me live my life again."
But he rejects the idea that it's "culty".
"It does sound a bit culty," he laughs. "But it's really not. It's a programme that works. I'm living proof.
"It opens the door to healing which allows you to get on top of the other issues.
"It's about getting people through the door, bringing them out of the isolation they feel and connecting them with others who have the same problems.
"It's about abstinence. I am an all-or-nothing person and I feel abstinence is where it's at. It's a clean break.
"It's very challenging and a gradual process but you have to keep going," he adds.
"What's really amazing about Mount Carmel is they are with you every step which is so important.
"And afterwards they are still there to support you which is exactly what you need and it's so reassuring.
"There is such an enormous amount of information and a tool kit which are the resources to help you when you want to scratch the itch - when you've had a fight with your wife, lost your job, when life is just happening and you want to reach for a drink.
"Life is so challenging for most of us in one way or another so you have to have an alternative to reaching for that drink and that's what Mount Carmel teaches you."
And he's clear there need to be more places like Mount Carmel.
"Mount Carmel is a fantastic place. I am not a politician but I feel if the government is going to spend money on rehab or on people with problems they need to do it right," he says.
"People can offer so much and I think that's why if there was an argument for more money or government intervention it's that.
"It's a life change but it's so worth it. To get clean and begin again, build a sober foundation and have an extraordinary life.
"I can only say from my experience. People can become very useful members of society and it's in everyone's interests to help as many people to get sober."
And he admits since his stint in rehab, life has been good.
"Life is amazing," he says warmly. "I love my job, the band and my family and I'm working with the band on a new album which is great.
"I am a realist not a romantic but I feel like I got the golden ticket when I went to rehab. It's a difficult thing to communicate with people without it sounding a bit freaky," he adds laughing.
"I just want to tell people it's actually a tremendously noble step towards a better life. It's about debunking the negative mystique around rehab.
"I am hopeful though. Thousands of people have found a way. But people have to be prepared to pick up the phone and call Mount Carmel. No one can do that for you.
"You have to walk through the door and take that step yourself. It's never too late to turn your life around."

Visit for information.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Harry Hepple and Eric Kofi Abrefa in A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre

WRITTEN when she was just 18, Shelagh Delaney's "kitchen sink" play was hailed as one of the greatest taboo-breaking works of its time.
A Taste Of Honey was groundbreaking in confronting issues of class, race, gender and sexual orientation in mid-20th century Britain.
The centres on the character of Helen and her feisty teenage daughter Jo. When Helen runs off with a car salesman, Jo takes up with Jimmy a black sailor who promises to marry her, before he heads off back to sea, leaving her pregnant and alone.
Art student Geoff moves in and assumes the role of surrogate parent until, misguidedly, he sends for Helen and their unconventional setup unravels.
Now almost 60 years on A Taste Of Honey is back and in a new revival which has just opened at the National Theatre.
Amongst its star studded cast are two young actors from South London. Eric Kofi Abrefa from Stockwell and Forest Hill-based Harry Hepple, who play Jimmy and Geoff respectively. They admit the themes thrown up by the piece have meant it’s been a learning curve for both of them.
"It is set in a time where attitudes to everything were very different to how they are now,” says Harry.
"Life experiences were very different. People frowned on single teenage mothers back then but in many ways it was less about age and more about the fact a woman wasn’t married - that was the real crime.
"Now people don't bat an eyelid if a woman has a child but isn't married, and they aren't chained to the kitchen sink, but in those days there was definitely an expectation that any woman having a child would be married and she would look after her husband and kids."
To help put the issues raised by the piece into historical context, during rehearsals the cast was visited by women who talked to them about what life was like in the 1950s.
"It was a bit of an eye opener!” laughs Harry. "We were told stories about what life was like if you were black, gay or unmarried with a child. Some of the attitudes people had are quite shocking."
"I was also amazed about how big a deal it was to have a mixed race child,” adds Eric.
"They talked about mixed race communities and the myths that were purported at the time, for example if you had sex with a black man and sex with a white man and conceived a child there was still a possibility it would be mixed race. It's incredible to think it was only 50 years ago people had those views."
But they agree it's been a fantastic experience to be part of.
"It's a brilliant play, so well written and observed," says Eric. "It's a fascinating subject and we've learned such a lot from it.
"People still relate to it," he adds. "I was born and grew up in Stockwell and have seen attitudes change over the years. However there are still pockets of racism and there is still a concern about being gay, teenage pregnancy or being a single parent in some communities. Thankfully attitudes are changing though."
And for Harry it was groundbreaking in other ways.
"It's one of those seminal plays which I'm sure is responsible for some of the TV shows we watch today," he says.
"Coronation Street, Phoenix Nights and The Royale Family, they are really successful and groundbreaking in their own way. Nothing really controversial happens in The Royale Family - we just see them going about their lives - but it’s compelling and the characters are ones that people relate to.
"Although it was of its time A Taste Of Honey really tried to break the mould. What’s brilliant for me about it is that it’s about two women, the relationship between a mother and daughter, and we get to hear their voices.
"The male characters are satellites and that’s rare as normally it's the other way round and the men dominate the play.
"It’s nice to be part of something so different."
And both are excited to be bringing it to the National's Lyttelton stage.
"It’s always a privilege to be here,” says Eric. "And to be part of such an amazing piece of work is very exciting."
"There's a fantastic community and family spirit within the building,” adds Harry warmly. “When I was training it always looked quite daunting. You can’t easily see in because it’s a big concrete building, but when you are inside it’s really nice and everyone is lovely.
"It’s the epicentre of great theatre and a lovely place to work."

A Taste of Honey is on at the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre until Sunday, May 11. Tickets from £15. Call the box office on 020 7452 3000  

Isy Suttie in The A-Z of Mrs P at Southwark Playhouse

MOST of us who live or work in London will have at some point reached for a copy of the A-Z. Over the years this trusty tome has been adapted and updated but has remained the Bible for getting around this ever growing city.
But how many of us know its origins, or that many believe it was created by a woman who hailed from East Dulwich in Southwark?
Well, all that could change thanks to a new musical, The A-Z of Mrs P, which opens appropriately at the Southwark Playhouse on Friday (21st).
Inspired by her autobiographies the show charts the story of how Bohemian artist Phyllis Pearsall left her husband in Venice in 1936 and came back to London.
Putting down her paints and picking up a drawing board, she started working for her father, map publisher Alexander Gross, and began to follow in her father's footsteps to map the city by walking every street.
Billed as a musical fable it stars Crystal Palace actress and comedian Isy Suttie, perhaps best known for her her role as Dobby, the nerdy girlfriend on Channel 4's Peep Show, as Mrs P.
Taking a break from rehearsals the award winning 34-year-old says she has enjoyed not only doing a musical but also finding out more about Mrs P.
"I'd never really heard of her, didn't know her back story and so this has been a fantastic project to be involved in," she says warmly.
"I've been reading her autobiography while we rehearse. She had a fascinating if somewhat sad life as her father was quite cruel towards her at times.
"But she was very stoical and strong and I think that's what attracted me towards her and the part. She was cool, adventurous, witty and flirtatious at times but she went through an awful lot, including having to cope with rejection from her parents.
"She also embroidered a lot of things so no one really knows if she did actually walk every London street and was responsible for the A-Z but I'd like to think she was as she sounds like a great lady."
And she admits the A-Z has come in quite handy since her recent move to Crystal Palace.
"It's nice to find out about the lady whose book I use all the time," she chuckles.
"Crystal Palace is great and it's lovely being here and getting to know it," she adds. "It's poles apart from Elephant & Castle where I had been living. It's green and very villagey whereas Elephant is very gritty.
"But I love South London - I've lived all over the place from Peckham, East Dulwich and Camberwell. It's got a lovely vibe, lots of open spaces and it's so easy to get to the Southwark Playhouse for this show which is obviously very handy!"
As well as the ideal location, the production appealed to Isy because of its musical element.
Indeed, Isy actually started out as a composer after graduating from the Guildford School of Acting.
Since then she has gone on to do several highly successful solo Edinburgh shows, has appeared on TV, film and stage, has her own BBC Radio 4 radio series, Isy Suttie's Love Letters and along the way been nominated for numerous awards.
"I still do composing and I've been writing songs since I was 11," she says warmly. "My radio show is a mix of storytelling and music and I did musical youth theatre at school but this is the first proper musical I've done.
"After graduation I got obsessed with stand up but then ended up doing more TV. I haven't done much theatre - in fact I'd not done much since drama school so I was keen to do this. It doesn't feel too much of a jump. It's a great show with the most beautiful music so it's very exciting.
"Also, it has a four-week run which is really nice as it's quite lonely doing stand up sometimes - it's nice to actually be able to get to know people doing a job like this and go to lunch with them!" she laughs.
But despite her success and not inconsiderable achievements, Isy remains down to earth and modest.
"I've done some amazing things and winning the Sony Award was very cool," she admits chuckling.
"I just try and do my best but really I can't believe I get paid to do this - I have to pinch myself sometimes. I'm very lucky!"

The A-Z of Mrs P is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway from Friday, February 21 until Saturday, March 29.
Tickets cost £22, £18 concessions. Call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Dog Days - Theatre503

SPEAKING to actress Lashana Lynch it's not difficult to see why she's being touted as a rising star.
Bubbly, chatty, warm and friendly, she has an enthusiasm for her craft that is hugely infectious.
And with appearances in Fast Girls, ITV's The Bill, BBC 1's The 7.39, and on stage including at the National Theatre, not to mention scriptwriting, she has packed a lot in to her thus far relatively short career.
She is about to take to the small stage that is Theatre503 in Battersea in a new play, Dog Days and she couldn't be happier.
"I'm loving the variety of what I do," she says. "I've taken on some great and varied roles and have been in some fantastic productions since I left drama school, but this part is brilliant and I'm having the best time finding out and discovering more about the character I play."
Said character is Hayley, someone Lashana describes as a "ditsy 27-year-old South Londoner".
"There are two couples in the play, one quite young and the other a bit older and I play the younger woman," she says.
"She is great fun, a real hoot! She's very silly, speaks without really thinking, comes out with some classic observations, absolutely adores her boyfriend and is in the early stages of pregnancy.
"She's one of the most OTT people I've ever played and I'm sure the audience will think 'who the hell is this crazy woman?'" she laughs.
"But she goes through an interesting transition during the play. She's always depended on people throughout her life but is now trying to stand on her own two feet."
Written by Annie Hulley, the story centres on how the older couple, Cate and John, whose marriage is hitting the rocks, find themselves trapped in a nightmarish property limbo while they try and sell their family home.
But things get interesting when young couple Hayley and Tony see the house and fall in love with it.
"It's Annie's first play and it's amazing, really well written," enthuses Lashana. "She's executed it so well, with some really meaty characters and we all get our moment and chance to shine.
"What I love about it is that Annie's main point was to write something to represent older actresses in an industry that is very young. It's been very inspiring especially as I want to write more plays myself.
"But this is definitely a comedy," she adds. "It's very funny, although it has a real dramatic feel to it as there are so many subjects in it.
"There are tears of grief, references to Afghanistan and pregnancy, so it's a dark comedy based on really serious issues.
"I know audiences are going to love it!"

Dog Days is on at Theatre503, Battersea Park Road between Tuesday, February 25 and Saturday, March 22.

Tickets cost £15, £10 concessions and pay what you can on Sundays. Call the box office on 020 7978 7040.

Ed Byrne

Ed Byrne has been making us laugh for 20 years. Kate Gould speaks to the Irish comic about his new show Roaring Forties

HERNIAS, vasectomies and having young children. At first glance, not perhaps what you might think of as comic fare but for Irish comedian Ed Byrne they have provided him with plenty of material for his current stand up show Roaring Forties.
The 41-year-old is currently taking the show on tour across the country which includes two dates in South London - Fairfield Halls in Croydon on Wednesday, February 26 and Broadway Theatre in Catford on Friday, February 28.
It is, he says, a chance for him to look at some of the things life has thrown at him over the last few years as he has approached, and now hit, the big 4 0 and have a rant about it, in a humorous way of course.
Although best known perhaps for his regular appearances on TV shows such as Mock The Week and Live At The Apollo, it is also an opportunity for Ed's legions of fans - he boasts 301,000 on Twitter alone - to see him at his comedic best, as a stand up.
"I try and do a tour every couple of years or so but this one is a bit different as I had that big unmentionable birthday and I decided to take stock of my life," he explains as we chat ahead of his London gigs.
"It's a little catch up thing, a mix of one-liners and anecdotes. I'm a dad now, with two kids, and so there are plenty of things to draw on.
"A lot of them are quite medical, vasectomies and driving awareness courses not to mention recovering from a hernia - the usual kind of thing," he adds deadpan.
"I was thinking to myself while they were happening I hope there's some material in this!"
But hang on, vasectomies, driving courses and a hernia? Sounds serious.
"Ah," he says quickly. "I got the hernia from moving a compost bin. It wasn't a kitchen caddy but a big garden rotating drum version.
"I was moving it but it was too heavy and I felt something give. It was really really painful," he remembers ruefully.
"I mentioned it when I did a show in Barrow recently and there was one chap in the audience who said he'd had a hernia and was still suffering two years later! I took it as a personal insult he still had it and that it didn't bother him!" he jokes cheerfully.
As well as all the medical trials and tribulations plenty of other subjects will be covered including being 40, his kids and why Ed will be trimming down his list of friends.
"It's like a spring-clean of my life,” he says. "There are seven billion people on the planet. I'm married with two children and I don't have time to be friends with everyone.
"I now have strict rules about who I will be friends with and I have to choose carefully," he chuckles.
And he already has a long list of grievances and misdemeanours that will get you expelled from his Christmas card list.
"It's the little things that annoy me - people who don't indicate at roundabouts, people who use the phrase, 'touched a nerve there', or 'I'm just making conversation', people who don't introduce themselves... The list is endless," he laughs.
Despite these grumpy old man tendencies, he's extremely likeable and funny and has me chortling away throughout our conversation.
In fact far from coming across as angry, he is chipper and full of beans as he talks 10 to the dozen about the variety of subjects that get his goat, but that he can see the funny side of.
"Obviously, I also talk about turning 40 last year. I didn't want it to dominate the act but I do feel it's a half way point in my life.
"It's definitely more fun to be daft in your 40s than in your teens and 20s though. When you are 40 and acting daft people are befuddled by it - you can get away with things more easily which is obviously very pleasing," he jokes.
And given he's only just past the landmark birthday it's hard to believe Ed's been making us laugh for 20 years.
"Yeah, it's quite an achievement and I never thought I'd be doing this for so long," he admits. "But I quite like the fact I've got that level of experience in my career.
"I think it's different for the youngsters starting out now though. When I started out there were a lot more of the smaller comedy clubs which are great training grounds. Now there are less of them which is a real shame.
"A lot of comedians do arenas these days. I am not famous enough for that but I do see the appeal - not just for the money you make, but the experience of playing such a large crowd.
"That said, I do like to be able to see people so I'm pleased to be doing gigs in venues like Fairfield Halls and Broadway Theatre.
"They are a nice size and you can get a decent amount of people in without it being overwhelming. And you always get nice audiences."

Ed Byrne's Roaring Forties is at Fairfield Halls in Croydon on Wednesday February 26 and at the Broadway Theatre Catford on Friday February 28.

Visit for tickets.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Mark Steel

I'M just about to start interviewing Mark Steel when he stops me mid sentence with shout of "Oh no!". It seems tiles have fallen off his roof during the night leaving a gaping hole and he's only just realised.
Apologising profusely he dashes off. Ten minutes later though we are back on the phone and he assures me someone "who knows what they are doing" will be dispatched up a ladder to check the damage shortly.
"It's a disaster," Mark laughs loudly. "There's a massive big hole as though the Luftwaffe has been round! I'm absolutely useless at anything practical but this looks a bit serious."
Holes in the roof aside Mark is on good form and once he gets chatting there's no stopping him.
The 53-year-old award-winning comedian, writer, columnist and radio presenter is at his home in Crystal Palace for a few days before he resumes a tour of the UK with his hit show Mark Steel's in Town.
Based on his hugely successful Radio 4 series of the same name, said show sees Mark travel the length and breadth of the country chatting to his audience about the place he's visiting with a selection facts, humorous or otherwise about local notable people, landmarks and customs.
It also features anecdotes, historical information and Mark's own observations, delivered in his trademark affable and easy going manner.
And he insists rather than poking fun, it's a chance for him to have a "bit of banter" with the audience and shed light on and celebrate the town's more unusual and eccentric aspects and local idiosyncrasies.
"The idea is that I have to find out as much as I can about the place and talk about what I've discovered," he explains.
"It could be unusual, historical, but generally funny things. I love the quirkiness of each town I visit and the fact people are proud of their heritage. It's fantastic there are all these differences and we should celebrate that."
The tour will take him to Blackheath Halls on Saturday, February 15 and he says he's looking forward to it, not least because it's an area he knows a bit about already.
"I found out quite a few gems the last time I was in Blackheath including the fact it was the rallying point for Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt of 1381," he says.
"But I'm desperately trying to write some new material - or rather I was until I realised the roof had a hole in it," he jokes.
He says it has been a fascinating journey in more ways than one. Information comes from a variety of sources and he clearly takes the research seriously. Indeed he revels in the oddities he discovers.
"My house is stuffed with books like The Pavements of Kettering, The History of the Lamp Post and the Engine Shed in Walsall," he laughs.
"That really was about one engine shed. It got redecorated in 1927 or something and a bit of wood fell off in 1931 and then it got bombed in the war. It's all just fantastic stuff!
"One of my favourites is a book called The Railway Comes to Didcot which professes to be a history of the town's railway. But the opening line is a classic and says 'this is in no way a history of the railway of Didcot'. Priceless," he chuckles.
So what has he found out about Blackheath I ask.
"I'm not going to be short of material," he chuckles. "I know it reasonably well as I live just down the road and I've probably got a book about it somewhere."
"The nature of Blackheath is that it's very villagey. In a way it's not really London so there's that element.
"I read that years ago there were people doing singing workshops where expectant mothers learned how to sing to their unborn child. You can't sing just anything to your unborn child," he says in mock horror.
And don't be surprised if he takes to Twitter to ask his more than 83,000 followers to impart some nuggets about Blackheath.
"Forums and Twitter are great for information," he says aimiably. "The thing about Twitter is that you never know what people will say. I do get some brilliant replies and sometimes 20 or 30 people might mention the same thing.
"One I got last time I was in Blackheath was that Cafe Rouge wasn't so much a restaurant as a crèche where two-year-olds have already learned how to order," he chuckles at the memory.
Other things he says he may touch on will include poking fun at the establishment, something for which he is perhaps best known.
"Politics is becoming quite polarised again," he sighs. "The Tories clearly think the way to get re-elected is to repeat two messages - that we blame people on welfare and immigrants.
"I think young people are just bemused by that attitude especially in big towns and cities where they will have friends from all over the world so they don't buy that.
"But the government is doing things that are as unpalatable as Thatcher did."
He cites proposals to downgrade Lewisham Hospital as an example.
"It was an appalling decision," he says. "But the campaign against their proposals was brilliant.
"However, I got spotted on one of the marches just as I was passing Millwall's bus and was asked to have my picture taken on it with [club mascot] Zampa the lion - I was wearing my Crystal Palace scarf at the time so was slightly uneasy!" he laughs.
But he acknowledges the comedic landscape has changed since he came to the fore in the 1980s.
"In the late 1970s if you went to a comedy show there would be one comic on and then a juggler and then someone doing poems about feminism and then it would end up with a magician which was quite normal.
"At the Comedy Store in the 1980s if you did 20 minutes slagging off the government you wouldn't survive it. I was much less strident then than now. If you do your own show you can say what you like."
Which brings us neatly back to Blackheath.
"We've had the Olympics come to this part of London, it's where the Marathon starts and then there's football," he says.
"So there will be loads to talk about."

Mark Steel is at Blackheath Halls on Saturday, February 15. Tickets cost £16. Call the box office on 020 8305 9300.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Leading a Merry Dance

IF like me you have already abandoned the diet inflicted after the Christmas excesses, you are probably, also like me, wondering how to shed the excess pounds.
Well fear not because in the interests of public information journalism, I may have the answer.
It comes in the shape of a dance class. Salsa to be precise.
Salsa originated in New York in the 1970s and evolved from earlier dance forms such as Cuban Son, Cha cha cha and Mambo. It incorporates elements of Swing and Hustle and has strong influences from Latin America particular Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Combining catchy, lively and rhythmic music with intricate sexy moves it is very much a dance designed to raise a smile and make you feel happy. It also has the added bonus of potentially burning a considerable number of calories, making it a fun way to lose a few inches.
However, its happy vibe also makes it a great social activity and these days it is popular everywhere, nowhere more so than in Brixton.
Indeed, every Wednesday night at the Prince of Wales pub in Brixton Road people of all ages and abilities strut their stuff at a special Salsa night designed to get even the most two left footed of people into the groove.
Billed as the Real Salsa Sound of Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York in the heart of Brixton, the hour-long classes cost £9 a time and feature expert tuition from Elder Sanchez and fellow dance teacher Gabriella.
I have to admit at the outset, I love dancing and religiously sat down with my nine-year-old daughter on Saturday nights last autumn to watch the nimble footed antics of the likes of Susannah Reid, Abbey Clancey and Sophie Ellis Bextor on the BBC's hit TV show Strictly Come Dancing.
However, I acknowledge I am not the world's best and my contact with the dance floor is intermittent - the last was many moons ago.
But persuaded by my natural curiosity, and still buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm generated by the celebs on Strictly, I decided to give it a try and ventured to Brixton to see what it was all about.
Although many had clearly been before, and knew the drill, I was pleased to see I wasn't the only nervous first timer.
Once we were all assembled, the music was switched on and we were welcomed by the main man, Elder.
"Brixton was the birth place of the UK Latin scene in the 80s, specifically in La Crypta underneath St Matthews Church across the road, so we are delighted to be bringing some classes back to the area," he enthuses.
"We've been teaching here since October and normally we have between about 30 and 50 which is fantastic but we are always keen to welcome new people - whether they've danced before or not."
With more than 20 years experience teaching Salsa in the capital, Elder knows what he's about and with the more experienced members of the group dispatched to tackle some more advanced routines, he and Gabriella wasted no time in showing us beginners the first moves.
It starts with listening to the rhythm of the music and learning the basic steps - how to go sideways and then forwards and backwards, shifting weight from our toes to our heels.
Next it was mastering how to twist and swivel our hips and finally they showed us how to incorporate arm and upper body movements.
Once they were convinced we had mastered these individual steps and had gained some confidence they encouraged us to move faster before showing us how to combine everything we'd learned into an entire routine - definitely not as easy as it looks!
Although the classes are divided into beginners, intermediate and advanced, whatever your level, it requires a huge amount of concentration.
While the bottom half is going one way, your top half will invariably be going the opposite direction and by the end of the lesson I was utterly exhausted.
However, although it requires remembering which way to move, which foot goes where and quick reactions, it's great fun and very sociable. And afterwards there is a clubnight til midnight where you can practise what you have learned.
The real beauty is you don't need any special equipment - just a comfortable pair of shoes, a sense of humour and bags of enthusiasm.
And at £9 a pop it's not bad value for five hours of dancing, right in the heart of Brixton. Fantastic.

Salsa & Latin Dance Classes & Clubnight takes place upstairs at The Prince Of Wales on the corner of Brixton Road and Coldharbour Lane every Wednesday night from 7pm.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Grandpa's Railway

Grandpa's Railway - Unicorn Theatre

Thomas Frere as Grandpa

Thomas Frere as Grandpa and Belinda Lazenby as Grandma
pic credit lewis wileman

MODEL train sets have a certain fascination - for kids and adults alike. And one such features in a new show now on at the Unicorn Theatre.
Grandpa's Railway is a delightful story of moving on and letting go and has been brilliantly and sensitively written for young children.
Colin and Nita - Grandpa and Grandma - are packing up all their belongings from a lifetime of living in their home, to move closer to their young granddaughter Ruby who lives the other end of the country.
The task is going well in most of the house however, up in the attic it is a different story.
Here Grandpa is having real difficulty packing up his much loved train set - which he created as a young boy and which has been his pride and joy ever since.
It is beautifully set out with a station, tunnel, water tower and lots of people and as he uncovers it from its shroud of sheets there are gasps of wonder from the young audience.
As Grandpa tries to get on with the task in hand, he finds the engines and the track and inevitably gets distracted with his memories.
However, things are then made worse when Grandma tells him he has to get rid of the train set as it won't fit in the new house, something he hasn't appreciated and can't quite come to terms with.
It is a gentle, sweet show which will appeal to kids of all ages and to their parents, with lovely performances from Thomas Frere as Grandpa and Belinda Lazenby as Grandma. Best of all it features a proper working model railway and a bit of magic!

Grandpa's Railway is on at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street until Sunday. Tickets from £10. Call the box office on 020 7645 0560