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In which I think about Heathcliff and Isabella and what makes a hero

Is Heathcliff a romantic hero? He’s dark and brooding and he dominates Wuthering Heights even during the long sections where he’s not on the page. And wherever two or three romantic authors are gathered in one place, his romantic hero status is a topic that’s highly likely to come up for discussion. And it’s one where I’ve always been firmly on the ‘Hell, no!’ side of the argument.

Team Romantic-Heathcliff will argue, quite rightly, that he is horribly mistreated and ostracized as a child and his adult anger is firmly rooted in a childhood of neglect and abuse. They’ll point out that Cathy is just as much at fault for the horrendous omnishambles of their relationship as Heathcliff. They’ll point out that he always puts Cathy on a pedestal and idealizes her throughout the story. And they’ll be right. They’ll generally go a bit quiet when we get onto discussing the whole ‘digging up her corpse’ thing, which even for the most ardent Heathcliff fan is tricky to sell, but generally all the points above are entirely correct.

But.

But I still can’t see Heathcliff as a romantic, or heroic, figure. And it’s not because of how he treats Cathy. It’s because of how he treats everyone else, and specifically how he treats Isabella. Without over-spoilering either Wuthering Heights or The Heights, let me gently remind you that Cathy isn’t Heathcliff’s only romantic entanglement. He also gets involved with Isabella Linton – when I reread Wuthering Heights before starting writing on The Heights, Isabella was the character that most resonated with me. Heathcliff doesn’t love Isabella. He doesn’t care about her at all actually.

And I think you can judge people by how they treat those they’re not emotionally invested in. I am completely comfortable with judging people in real-life based on how they talk to waiters and shop assistants. And so far as Heathcliff is concerned Isabella’s physical and emotional wellbeing is about as important to him as that of a waitress who once handed him a coffee and was never seen again. And he treats her horrendously – he brutalizes her – which can’t be excused because she’s not the love of his life. Excusing Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella by claiming that he treats Cathy better is in the same territory as defending a serial killer cos he was nice to his mum. I mean great for the mum and everything, but even she would probably have preferred the ‘not murdering’ option.

For me Isabella is the real heroine of Wuthering Heights and she’s a heroine for the #MeToo world we live in now. She’s the only character in the story who clearly recognises the abusive nature of her situation and takes definite steps to change it. If you come to Wuthering Heights looking for heroism, I don’t think Heathcliff has much to offer you. Isabella on the other hand is heroic. She tries to change her situation and she tries to protect her child. Whether she’s successful or not is something you’ll just have to read a book to find out…

 

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

The Heights is available now in ebook from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Google Play, and in audiobook.

In which I wonder about writing what you know

‘Write what you know’ is a common piece of writing advice. The modern interweb isn’t even really sure where it originates. It could be Mark Twain, but most quotable nuggets could, at least according to the internet. If it ain’t Shakespeare or the Bible it was probably Mark Twain. Other corners of the web think it was Hemingway. He definitely did say ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ which includes many of the same words but is not, really, the same at all.

At face value the idea that you should ‘write what you know’ is silly. It would require all crime writers to engage in light serial killing, all sci-fi authors to actually build that damn time machine, and all rom-com writers to only ever settle down with a single partner for the gap between books, before throwing themselves headlong into yet another humourous love triangle when the next first draft starts.

But on another level the advice to ‘write what you know’ makes total sense. Your time-travelling sci-fi heroine might be doing plot stuff that’s way outside your own more pyjamas and sofa based lifestyle, but her shock, fear, determination and enthusiasm can be mined from the seams of those emotion inside your own experience. Maybe rather that ‘write what you know’ we could say ‘write what you know to be emotionally true.’ Which is less pithy but possibly more useful.

But even that is limiting. If you’ve never lost a partner or a child, does that mean you can’t you write the grief of a character who loses both? If you’ve only ever been in love with one person at a time, can you write the conflict of a character torn between two lovers? Well writers do, so I guess the answer clearly is, yes you can. You might not have lost a child, but you have experienced loss – grandparent, parent, friend, relationship, job – it would be an extraordinarily charmed life to never have lost something that mattered to you. So as a writer you try to distill those feelings and magnify and redraw them through the filter of the character you’ve created. ‘Write what you know to be emotionally true’ doesn’t have to be the precise emotion you’ve experienced – writing is an act of imagination twinned with empathy for the person you made up.

There are two more issues that spring to mind when I think about writing what you know: cultural sensitivity and what people will think you know when they read what you wrote. So…

Cultural sensitivity covers a whole universe of issues, but essentially comes down to the problem of one group of writers (or artists or directors) depicting a group they’re not part of, often in a way that screams of a lack of cultural knowledge or understanding. Given that publishing generally tends towards the white, the able-bodied, and the middle class, there is a problem here when those voices overtake and overwhelm all others, meaning that other experiences aren’t depicted at all, or are depicted in cringeworthy cliche. We’ve all read examples of an author writing outside of their own experience really badly – the male-authored heroines who spend weird amounts of time considering the perkiness of their boobs, the female-authored heroes with a tendency to notice what shoe designer the heroine is wearing before anything else, the white-authored black man who talks like a ‘My First Gangsta Rap’ how to book – those are the products of writers writing what they don’t know, and not recognising their own lack of knowledge.

Personally I don’t hold to the view that white, middle-class authors should only write white, middle-class characters. I think that adds to a boring homogeneity of output, and cultivates the sense that we are all intrinsically different rather than striving to find the truths that are universal. My advice to writers would be to remember that your character is an individual first. Being gay or straight or bi, or being able-bodied or disabled, or being black or white or asian or mixed race – those things all affect our experience of life. But alongside them we might also be stubborn or naive or brave or scared. People are individuals first – write what is true for that individual. (And also, if you’re white and middle class and you’ve managed to make it as a published author, remember that however hard it was, it’s probably harder for others, so don’t pull up the drawbridge behind you. Because, purely from a self-interested perspective, writers are readers too – and more varied, more diverse books makes for more interesting reading.)

My last little bit of this particular round of wittering on is about readers and what they will think you know from reading what you write. My next book, currently titled All That Was Lost, is out in September, and I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I know that there’s stuff in that book that some readers, the readers who know me a little bit but not that well, will think is autobiographical. The novel is about a young woman growing up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. I grew up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. My character, Pat, rebels against that experience in a fairly extreme way and we see that life through her eyes, which isn’t always a flattering point of view. I, on the other hand, had a very positive childhood. I loved the sense of belonging and community. So I’m writing what I know, but filtered through the point of view of a very individual character.

Will readers see that or will they assume that Pat is me and I am Pat? I don’t know. And ultimately I can’t control that. Once the book is done and published it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to readers. They get to draw their own conclusions about whether what I wrote was emotionally true, whether I’ve trampled all over someone else’s cultural experience, whether I sound like I know what I’m writing about. And some of them will assume that Pat is acting out a rebellion I wish I’d had. Which I can live with. And if some of those people give my parents a touch of side-eye because they’re wondering if Pat’s horrible, messed-up family life is based on my own, then very sincerely I am sorry mum, but, this time, I really did just make it up.

In which I think about why I’ve had such a long blog break

I used to be a jolly enthusiastic blogger. Not always reliable in the posting every week on the same day sense, but I posted moderately frequently and could generally come up with something to pontificate on at relatively short notice.

And then I sort of stopped. I didn’t stop dead. I stopped over months, or possibly even years. The posts slowed down, and by the middle of last year they’d all but dried up.

And now, it being January, and the year being all fresh and new I’m thinking ‘I shall get back into the habit of blogging in 2018.’ And as a first step I’m thinking about why I stopped.

I think that ultimately having an opinion on stuff started feeling a little bit pointless. I’d say I’m economically generally pretty left-wing and socially pretty liberal. And there have been moments – quite a lot of moments – where it’s felt like those things were fairly pointless things to be in recent years. It’s been easy to feel like the world us hippy liberal types thought we were building is slipping away. The morning after the Brexit vote I felt physically ill. The only reason Donald getting elected was any better was that by then I’d sort of conditioned myself to expect the worst.

Now, I’m a liberal leftie who grew up in the north of England during the eighties so I’m by no means unused to the feeling that the political tide is sweeping away from me. That happens. But this feels worse. Possibly it is worse. Possibly it feels worse because there are millions of voices all over the internet magnifying the horror.

And the magnification isn’t just people I disagree with shouting loudly. It’s people I agree with shouting loudly too. It’s the fact that on the internet so much of the time we’re all set to transmit. We listen only in order to work out how we’re going to argue against, rather than to try to understand. And that makes being just another voice set to transmit feel like a very bad thing to be.

But maybe in that context quiet voices, popping up once a week, and muttering ‘I think it’s a bit more complicated than that,’ or ‘You know those two points of view your vociferously arguing from aren’t actually mutually exclusive,’ or y’know ‘Hey guys! Why can’t the farmer and the cowman just be friends?’* are even more important.

So in that spirit I’m stepping back into the blogosphere. Be warned – it will, as ever, be eclectic and random. Posts will be based solely and entirely on what shiny thing has caught my attention in the current second. And 90% of the time the conclusion will be either ‘It’s complicated,’ or ‘Everyone just play nicely,’ and sometimes I will break my own rules about not just shouting into the abyss and get a little bit ranty. Apologies for those weeks, but even in those weeks, I think I’ve decided that it’s better to engage and converse (even on a tiny corner of the interweb that barely anyone will ever see) than to sit quietly and feel overwhelmed by the dark.

 

* Extra musical-theatretastic brownie points for everyone who gets that reference.

In which I think about Wuthering Heights (again)

Yesterday was publication day for The Heights, my first collaborative novel, co-written with Janet Gover. And in it’s honour I’m blogging for the second day in a row! I have definite strong intentions that in 2018 I will definitely blog at least once a week. But we all know that ain’t gonna happen, don’t we? So I’m taking the two in two days as a small victory for now.

Anyway, The Heights is an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and is the third adaptation I’ve written so far, after Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams.

Rereading Wuthering Heights when we were planning this novel was a strange experience – I wittered on a bit here about that. So why write a whole novel based on a book you have a love-hate relationship with?

Well largely because of that love-hate relationship. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating book. It’s not at all the book that we think it is in our shared popular imagination. It’s a book that’s encapsulated in many people’s minds by the image of Heathcliff and Cathy running towards each other across a misty, atmospheric moor. But that image doesn’t in any way sum up the book. Really that image doesn’t even sum up the Kate Bush song.

Wuthering Heights is about Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s also about passion. But I don’t think it’s about love, at least not in the sense that most stories that we’d describe as love stories are about love. If it is about love, it’s about love gone wrong, turned bad, turned in on itself. And it’s about families that go the same way. And about abuse, and the way that abuse ripples through generations.

And those generations form a whole chunk of Wuthering Heights that’s often forgotten. Cathy, the wild beautiful heroine, isn’t even in the second half of the book. That’s all about her child, and Heathcliff’s child, and Hindley’s child, and how the toxicity of their parents’ lives reverberates through the next generation.

Wuthering Heights is a big, unconfined, almost indefineable, beast of a novel. It ranges across time and across themes. In writing it Emily Bronte achieved a staggering feat of imagination. Her novel is almost infinitely open to interpretation. And maybe that’s what made us want to write The Heights – because when something is that unconstrained and open to exploration and reimagining, you need a whole novel’s worth of words to try to understand it.

Adapting an existing story forces you to identify the central theme and plot. Those become your touchstones, your pillars that can’t be messed about with. Very early on in the process Janet said to me, ‘This is a story about obsession.’ And that became our watchword, our obsession if you like, while we were writing. But it’s fascinating to think that another author could take the same ingredients – Wuthering Heights, Thatcher’s Britain, the miners’ strike – and write a wholly different book, simply by fixating on a different interpretation of what the story is about. If you set off on an adaptation of Wuthering Heights thinking ‘The story is about loss,’ or ‘this story is about abuse’, or ‘this story is about family,’ or ‘this story is about love,’ then you’d be just as right as we were when we landed on ‘obsession’ but your story would be quite quite different.

Emily Bronte’s genius is that her story manages to be about all those things.

The Heights is out now on kindle, iTunes, kobo and Google Play.

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.’

In which it is publication day and I have a whole new name

It is a new year. A new day.* And I have a new book out under a whole new name. Which, frankly, is a lot of shiny newness to get one’s head around.

So let’s focus on the new book and the new name. And I’ll do that by telling you all a little story of the birth of that new book and new name…

Once upon a time, in a land far far away** the Romantic Novelists’ Association held a conference and I did get up at that conference and give a little talk on adapting classic literature into contemporary fiction.

Adaptation talk
Me talking. With PowerPoint. And excitable hand gestures.

After the talk I was chatting to Janet Gover who said, ‘I’d like to adapt Wuthering Heights but they’re all Northern and I can’t write Northern.’ (Because she is from Australia which is a really very long way South.) And I thought ‘Lawks!’ and also ‘Aha!’ Because I am from North Yorkshire which is very much more North than Australia. So we agreed we should write it together. We were only joking of course, but then we drank quite a lot of wine which made the whole thing seems like an absolutely marvelous idea.

So we did it. And we finished it. And the lovely publishing people at Harper HQ thought it was a marvelous idea too. But they looked at us closely and noticed that there are two of us, and decreed that a new joint penname would be a jolly good idea too. So here it is –  a new book and a new name – inspired by an absolute classic of an old story:

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

The searchers took several hours to find the body, even though they knew roughly where to look. The whole hillside had collapsed, and there was water running off the moors and over the slick black rubble. The boy, they knew, was beyond their help.
This was a recovery, not a rescue.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

 

So that’s The Heights. You can buy it right here for your kindle. Also available from iTunes, kobo, and Google Play. I’m super excited for people to read this book. Wuthering Heights is a book that still inspires fierce debate – is Heathcliff a hero? Is Cathy a heroine? Is the story a romance? The Heights is our interpretation – our version of Heathcliff and Cathy, and I can’t wait to see people discussing how our idea matches up with their own.

*A new Wednesday to be specific.

** Telford. It was near Telford.

In which I offer a shout out to a Girl in Trouble

My excellent writing chum Rhoda Baxter has a shiny new book out today. Here’s what it’s all about: Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn’t need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren’t that reliable anyway. She’s got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn’t need to settle down, thanks.
Walter’s ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he’s losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she’s pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he’s ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart?
Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you’ll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot’s Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.

So obviously you should all run along and buy it. Off you go (and then come back and read the rest of my witterings).

*drums fingers*

*waits*

*Looks at a picture of Rhoda’s lovely cover to pass the time*


OK. Hopefully you’ve all done your buying and are back now for the wittering. Rhoda has thoughtfully handed out prompts to steer the book-celebratory blogging. Which is good. At the very least it should stop me from becoming distracted and talking about cheese. Mmmmmm cheese.

So here goes:

In Girl in Trouble the characters experience changes that they thing are bad, but turn out to be positive. Have you ever had a blessing in disguise?

Erm. Probably. *thinks hard*

It’s easy to think that probably change is bad. Favourite restaurants declaring a New Menu is always, absolutely and without exception bad. Pretty much all forms of political upheaval at the moment seem to tend towards the horrendous, horrible, terrible nightmare end of the spectrum. My favourite boots have a hole in – I am already pretty much 100% sure that whatever new boots I end up with will not be as good.

But current perfect favourite new boots were once the replacement for previous perfect favourite boots. Favourite burger place closing and being replaced by a plethora of trendy hipster* burger places, can lead to the perfection of the perfect burger in one’s own kitchen. And America electing an orange-skinned idiot show that…. No, sorry. On that one I’ve got nothing.

What is definitely true though is that change will happen. Old things break and fade away. Some of them we miss; some we’re delighted to see the back of. And that can be a useful thought to hold onto on days when everything just seems a bit too miserablist. This too shall pass, as a wise person once said.** And sometimes the really great things from the past come back and they’re better because you’ve had time to miss them. The Paddington movie, ballroom dancing on telly, actual left-wing politics – all things we might have thought we’d left behind, and all back retooled and reworked for the 21st Century. Now we just need to add simple burgers (bun, burger, slice of tomato, sad piece of lettuce, cheese, bacon maybe if you’re feeling fancy) to that list and life truly will be good again.

In the meantime, go read Girl in TroubleThere’s a good sausage.

 

*Trendiness has no place in relation to burgers. Some things exist beyond fashion. Having a trendy burger is like having a trendy roof. It just makes no sense to anyone attempting to claim any level of sanity.

** A wise Persian person apparently according to Wikipedia. Who knew?

In which I have been to the Edinburgh Fringe 2017

So it’s time for the annual ‘What I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe’ post. You can read previous incarnations of the same here, and here, and, indeed, here.

This year we saw 30 shows in six and half days. As always, there was a neatly worked out official record of the events, which only has a small to moderate greasy stain on it.

And as there are still 5 days of the fringe left, I thought I’d offer some reviews and recommendations, and to do this I’ve broken down the shows we saw into arbitrary and essentially meaningless categories. They really are senseless categories. Some things appear twice. At least one show doesn’t appear at all. It really hasn’t quite worked out. Anyway, here we go…

 

Best Musical

Shortlist – Showstopper!, Into the Woods, Baby Wants Candy

Straight away we see the insanity of the categorisations, because two of these shows, Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy, are musicals wholly improvised by the cast and band on the spot, whilst the third was written in advance by Stephen Sondheim, who presumably was sitting down in a room with thinking time and the ability to cross stuff out and try again. Already it’s not a level playing field.

Judging them just on their merits as musicals then, fairly unsurprisingly Into the Woods is the category winner. And it’s actually a very good production – really strong performances in terms of both acting and vocals, and it whipped along a nice clip. I love Into the Woods, but the second half can drag a little bit. Here it didn’t. Definitely worth going to see.

Honorable mentions nonetheless for Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy. I really enjoyed them both. I’ve seen Showstopper! twice before, whereas I was a Baby Wants Candy newbie. Both are hysterical and the musical and lyrical talent to improvise a whole 1 hour musical is jawdropping. For me the Showstopper! cast have a little bit more range and precision in their adoption of different musical theatre styles, so if you’re living the sort of hellish existence where you only have time to see one improvised musical, that’s the one I’d go for.

 

Best Improvisation

Shortlist – Showstopper!, Austentatious, Rhapsodes, Baby Wants Candy, Folie a Deux

So now Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy appear again. These categories really are a mess, aren’t they? And we’ve already established that I liked Showstopper! the best of those two, so unfortunately that means Baby Wants Candy are out of the running in this category too.

The other three shows in the bracket are: Austentatious – a whole improvised play in the style of Jane Austen; Rhapsodes – Shakespeare/poetry based improvisation (which is way way funnier than that makes it sound); and Folie a Deux, which is a two-person improvised sketch show sort of a jobby thing (also way funnier than that makes it sound). And these three are really hard to separate. For technical wonderment Rhapsodes are hard to beat – they improvise scenes and poems in the styles of Shakespeare, Pinter, Poe and Chaucer (again it’s way funnier than I’m making it sound). Folie a Deux’s show is surreal and funny and I left believing that one day I might grow up to be lacrosse champion of the world. Finally, Austentatious, improvise a play in the style of Jane Austen based on a title suggested at random by the audience. The day we saw them the title selected lumbered 90% of the cast with having to do the whole thing with Belfast accents, with varying levels of success, embarrassment and horror.

For me Austentatious just sneak this category, for pure number of laughs per minute combined with an almost coherent plot, but the Folie a Deux performers also perform with Austentatious, and the Rhapsodes team are also part of Showstopper! So in short Austentatious and Showstopper! are both brilliant – take any opportunity to see both or to see their members’ other shows.

 

Best Sketch Show

Shortlist – Cambridge Footlights, Oxford Revue, Ingrid Oliver, The Canon, Folie a Deux.

Ingrid Oliver is sort of a wild card here, because hers was a one-woman show rather than a classic sketch show, but she does different characters in different settings so I’m calling it a sketch show. (What’s that you say? These categories are insane? No. No. I think they’re fine…) The characterisations were spot on, particularly the sub-Katie Hopkins phone-in host and the Student Union President with the no-platforming dilemma.

Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue are both student shows. Unsurprisingly that means you get a bit less polish and in both shows, particularly Oxford Revue, my writer brain was itching to get my hands on their script and attack it vigorously with a red pen. There were some good ideas in both, but there were more laughs to be squeezed out of those ideas and there was some flab that could have been cut more vigorously.

The Canon is a literary-themed sketch show from ‘By No Mean Feat’. What they brought was the polish and the editing that Footlights and the Oxford Revue lacked in places. Their re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet to the Taylor Swift song was a highlight, as were their skits on Macbeth and 80 Days Around the World. This is a tight category between The Canon and Folie a Deux. The Canon obviously benefited from editing and rehearsal, so as with the musicals, we’re not comparing like with like. Folie a Deux were hysterically funny though. Aaargh… I can’t call it. The Canon and Folie a Deux are joint winners here.

 

Best solo comedy (with singing)

Shortlist – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evans, Tim Vine, Rachel Parris

Yeah – I’ve arbitrarily broken the solo comedy shows down into ‘with singing’ and ‘without singing’. And technically I’ve not even done that right. John Robins does do singing, but no instrument and no backing track so I didn’t count it. Random, but my blog, my rules.

Five of the acts here really impressed me – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evens and Rachel Parris (and those last two are Showstopper! and Austentatious performers respectively – see I told you there were good). Mitch Benn and Pippa Evans are, I think, the only two acts we’ve seen every time we’ve been to the fringe, which is a strong recommendation, but unfortunately it means that they are kind of known quantities which makes it hard for them to push into ‘wow factor’ category winner status. The act that most surprised me was Michelle McManus – she was a bit of a random pick, because it’s important to have some random picks in your fringe schedule – and she was joyful and self-deprecating and very very funny.

My category winner though is Jan Ravens. Her Difficult Woman show felt like a show from a performer really coming into her own and claiming centre stage. She’s helped, as an impressionist, by the unprecedented number of high-profile political women around at the moment, and she ‘does’ Teresa May, Diane Abbott and Nicola Sturgeon to good comic effect. On paper I don’t think she was the highest scorer in the category but her show stayed with me, so she sneaks the top spot.

 

Best solo comedy (without singing)

Shortlist – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Mark Watson, Tom Allen, Viv Groskop, Fred MacAulay, Shappi Khorsandi, James Acaster, Ellie Taylor, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere, Mark Thomas, Matt Forde, Ingrid Oliver, John Robins

AKA the ‘everybody else’ category. Too many acts to go through them all, other than to say there was nobody I’d actively advise you to avoid. I loved many of these shows – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Tom Allen, Fred MacAulay, James Acaster, Mark Thomas and Matt Forde could all have been contenders, but it’s a crowded category, so I’ve got to be tough.

My even shorter shortlist then is Mark Watson, Shappi Khorsandi, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere and John Robins. On paper Ed Gamble is the only perfect 20 there, so he should win. Worth noting that he was a perfect 20 last year as well, which on the greasy paper/napkin based scoring record is no mean feat. For me he’s a comedian you have to see live to get the full impression – on TV I think he’s good, but in the room he’s great.

Mark Watson and Shappi Khorsandi are two of my favourite stand-ups – I’ve seen them both multiple times before, and will see them again whenever possible, and neither of their shows this year disappointed at all. Shappi Khorsandi’s had the additional benefit of being about Lady Emma Hamilton who is one of my favourite historical figures.*

The two new performers (for me) were Neil Delamere and John Robins. Both of their shows have a personal dimension – Delamere talks about his father and the end of an era in their relationship, and Robins talks more literally about the actual end of a relationship. More personal/confessional stand-up shows can be horrendous. There’s a risk that it becomes an awkward navel-gazing self-indulgence. Both Delamere and Robins avoid that by remembering that it also has to be funny, and they are both very very funny.

I’m struggling to choose between these five acts but, again in direct contradiction of the scores of the greasy paper, I’m giving it to John Robins. The phrase ‘display lentils’ will forever be shorthand in our house for particular type of wanker.

So there you go. The best shows at the fringe, entirely scientifically and not arbitrarily or randomly at all, are Into the Woods, Austentatious, The Canon, Folie a DeuxJan Ravens and John Robins.

You’re welcome.

 

*Stand by for that blog post in a slow week ‘In which I list my favourite historical figures…’