The Secret Diary of Samuel Pepys, aged ten & three quarters

Ever wondered what it would be like if the great diarist Samuel Pepys had kept a journal as a boy? Wonder no longer!

My new forthcoming book is The Secret Diary of Samuel Pepys, aged ten & three quarters, a fictional re-creation of the great Pepys’s childhood. A comic adventure story for 8-12’s set in the heady early days of the English Civil War, the book is a sparkling humorous romp through the England of the seventeenth century.

More updates soon – but in the meantime here is what the critics are saying! –

“Well.. nothing, because it hasn’t been published yet. But it sounds good,” – Arbuthnot Mellotron, Carpet Monthly.

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The Cream of Galton & Simpson – a personal selection of their finest work

For my own personal project – and for those who perhaps haven’t heard or seen much, or indeed any, of their work  – I’ve drawn up a list of what I think is the cream of Galton & Simpson. They wrote 600 scripts of radio, TV & Film, so to dive in to an ouvre as vast as theirs with no guide can be somewhat daunting.

So here’s my guide. I’ve whittled it down from 600 to 60-odd – a gigantic task.

Very personal, very partial, but each one is a comic delight, and each one – astonishingly – is a masterpiece.

HANCOCK’S HALF HOUR RADIO

The Poetry Society

Sunday Afternoon at Home

The Last Bus Home

Hancock’s War

The Childhood Sweetheart

The Elopement

The Wild Man of the Woods

The Last of the McHancocks

Hancock’s Happy Christmas

The Christmas Club

Almost a Gentleman

Hancock in the Police

The Emigrant

The Unexploded Bomb

The Americans Hit Town

The Threatening Letters

The Sleepless Night

Fred’s Pie Stall

The Diary

Visiting Day – Hancock in Hospital

HANCOCK’S HALF HOUR TV

The Bedsitter

Twelve Angry Men

The Missing Page

Sid in Love

The Oak Tree

The Babysitters

The Economy Drive

The Two Murderers

Lord Byron Lived Here

The Big Night

The Cold

The Reunion Party

The East Cheam Centenary

The Poison Pen Letters

The Radio Ham

Succession – Son and Heir

The Bowmans

The Train Journey

The Lift

The Blood Donor

STEPTOE & SON

The Offer (pilot – Comedy Playhouse)

The Desperate Hours

Divided We Stand

The Piano

Wallah-wallah Catsmeat

A Star is Born

Without Prejudice

Robbery with Violence

Live now P.A.Y.E. later

The Siege of Steptoe Street

Oh What a Beautiful Mourning

Back in Fashion

Men of Letters

Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs

The Bath

A Musical Evening

Two’s Company

Tea for Two

Cuckoo in the Nest

FILMS

The Rebel 1960

The Bargee 1963

The Wrong Arm of the Law 1964

Loot (adaptation of Orton’s play) 1970

FORGOTTEN CLASSIC SERIES

Clochemerle (adaptation of Gabriel Chevallier’s novel) 1972.

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Alan Simpson, 27th Nov. 1929 – Feb. 8th 2017

Have you noticed if you stare long enough at the wallpaper you can see faces.
Really?
Yes, faces. Look, just above the serving-hatch. A man with a pipe.
I can’t see anything.
Yes you can, narrow your eyes. See?
No.
Of course you can. Squint, man, squint! Don’t shut ’em!
I can’t see anything.
Oh shut up. You wait till you want me to see something.

Years before Seinfeld, a show about nothing. And like Seinfeld, George Costanza, Elaine and Kramer, the dysfunctional household of Hancock, Sid, Bill & Miss Pugh were amiable losers adrift, eccentric, a non-nuclear family in a world that revered gentility and respectability. There are no jokes in Galton and Simpson – it’s comedy hammered out of the commonplace. (When Hancock asks Bill to pass him his letter-opener, it’s not just a letter-opener, but a swordfish letter-opener. Delight at the mundane, poetry of the ordinary).

And what of the later Hancock? A man stares out of a bedsit window, alone now, his friends from Railway Cuttings gone. He struggles to understand the work of Britain’s most eminent philosopher, fails to get a date, lies on the bed, stares up at the ceiling. He may have left East Cheam for a new life but he’s still staring at the wallpaper. Is this a sitcom, or something more profound, the kind of stuff serious playwrights and novelists were trying to do? Is this Galton & Simpson saying to John Osborne and Harold Pinter – look at this, mush, TV comedy can be art too, you know. (As Hancock says, ‘People respect you when you don’t get laughs.’)

And Steptoe & Son? Two men shouting at each other in a filthy house; scavengers, always dreaming, never far from starvation, swearing at each other, crying, making up. Can this be comedy? At first glance not the stuff of sitcom, and not a scenario most of its audience would have experienced, but Steptoe & Son touched a nerve in the British psyche, gave us a glimpse of the truth that even in the Swinging Sixties and the Sunny Seventies none of us were really that far from living at the bottom of the ash-heap, that all this affluence could vanish in a puff of smoke, and that for some living in a shadowy corner of England it had never happened anyway. Above all, the series had humanity, empathy, and the fact that it was watched by 28 million proved that they had empathy too.

We take quality for granted. Those of us who lived through the decade of the Beatles grew up assuming they were the default standard for the soundtrack of our lives, that all subsequent bands would be as good as them; then the decades pass and the bands became ok and quite good and ‘derivative but still a good listen,’ and ‘have you heard so-and-so? – their second album’s not bad, shame they split up after that,’ – then a few more years go by and you realise that Help wasn’t just a top ten tune and Day in the Life simply trippy but the art of its time and suddenly your daughter is coming home from school and telling you that today they studied The Beatles for ‘A’ Level.

It’s the same with Galton & Simpson. At the time it’s standard fare. It’s ‘what’s on the box,’ it’s a funny sitcom. There are lots of sitcoms. You love them all. You love sitcoms. They’re the highlight of your week, this funny encapsulation of British life wrapped up in half an hour. You’re so glad adults invented them. You don’t know who invented the sitcom but you assume it always existed, like your weekly comic. You go to school and you impersonate Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in the playground.

Only in hindsight when you examine its peers and its heirs do you realise it is extraordinary literature, up there with Dickens, Wodehouse. Harold Steptoe even speaks with the vot and vy of Sam Weller from the Pickwick Papers –‘vot on earth do you fink you’re doin’ Dad?’. (Even the actors, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Brambell, sound like they’ve sprung from the pages of Hard Times).

Time refines the normalised into genius. But what, precisely, was Galton & Simpson’s genius? Many cite their injection of ‘social realism’ into sitcom, their cementing of the template of the half hour one-act comedy as conflict, the characters trapped; all this is true, but even this is not enough. The genius of Galton & Simpson, in my view, was the language. They invented a Galton-and-Simpson-ese unique to them, inimitable. When other writers attempt it, it’s forced. They forged a poetry quite their own, instantly recognisable like Betjeman, Alan Bennet, Dylan Thomas. It’s a language we will never know the crucible of, for none of us were ever in the room when Ray & Alan paced, spoke, typed: it has such a richness of vocabulary, a denseness of rhetoric, that it is no surprise that having to learn half an hour of it each week drove Hancock to drink. I would surmise it grew out of the lower-middle-class 1930’s childhoods of its authors, the rough street-speech of South-Londoners refined by Aunts and Uncles attempting to drag themselves up by their boot-straps by adopting a classier tone, enriching their vocabulary to impress neighbours, relatives, bosses: both Hancock and Harold Steptoe are what my grandparents would describe as ‘hoity-toity,’ with ideas above their station and an accompanying high-flown rhetoric – ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand the outlook of an intellectual like me,’ ‘You’ve held me back all vese years, Dad – you and vat stupid horse out vere.’ I think Hancock, Sid, Harold & Albert are all Galton & Simpson’s relatives – the grandiose Uncle who boasted of his military service, the Grandfather who in his cups recited a music-hall monologue and said he ‘could have been a Shakespearian actor, but never really fancied it.’

I can never prove it, but after years of listening to and watching their work, I suspect that when they were writing Alan Simpson played the Hancock and Harold Steptoe character, and Ray played Sid and Albert. In their interviews together you can see Alan was the benign dreamer, ever-hopeful – (“No, Hancock didn’t reject us, this is where Ray & I differ – he was breaking with the agent, not us,”) and Ray the scowler, the realist, the hard-edged go-getter (“Well, when he left us I thought, good luck mate…”)

Many genius sitcoms have come since, and will always come, but there will be a place in history for the work of the two men who started it all off, who made the extraordinary artistic journey from the 50’s music-hall of Happy Go Lucky to Steptoe. It was a journey that straddled an age: through it Galton & Simpson grew up – and made British Comedy grow up with them.

Their friendship lasted seventy years – their comedy will last forever.

RIP Alan Simpson (1929-2017)

 

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 POMPIDOU – EARLY DRAFT SCRIPT 

THE DUMB SHOW – PILOT SCRIPT DEPT. STORE SEPT 2012 – PDF

Before the TV series Pompidou went out lots of people asked me ‘How do you write a script with no dialogue?’, ‘How do you write a visual comedy script?’, & ‘Please post a script up to the BBC Writers-room’ etc. (For those not in the business, the Writer’s Room is a BBC website encouraging aspiring writers).

Initially I was reluctant – and for obvious reasons I couldn’t do it during transmission – but now the series has aired I thought it might be of interest to writers, and indeed anyone interested in comedy and the TV industry, to see how a script without dialogue is written, also to see how a series can change in the process from script to screen, even from the script that secured the series commission in the first place. The draft I’m posting (CLICK ON PDF LINK ABOVE) was an early draft totally written by me so I’ve given myself permission to post it. (Later scripts obviously had the credit ‘Created & Written by Matt Lucas, Julian Dutton & Ashley Blaker).

When people asked me ‘how do you write a script without dialogue?’ I was always a bit surprised. I would reply – well, you just write all the action you want to see on-screen, down to the minutest movement of a hand, the precise timing of a cut to an object etc. You have the idea of the joke or the routine, you visualise it, then set about describing it in the best way possible. Most action screenplays – for example Speed, or Gravity – undoubtedly consist of page after page after page of stage description. Well, a visual comedy is exactly the same, except with jokes.

The script I’m posting is the first script of the show that was written. Initially it was written just by me, as a spec script. Matt Lucas’ company took it on, then me, Matt and Ashley Blaker sat down to rewrite it before submitting it. When we submitted it to the BBC we agreed I’d written 70% of it, Matt 15%, and Ashley 15%.

As a result of reading it the BBC commissioned a series and we wrote five more scripts. At this stage it was still the same template as my original script – a cluster of character-narratives, day-in-the-life, with building routines, slapstick for young people, visual gags and experimental gags for more mature viewers. We wrote 6 scripts along these lines, involving Pompidou visiting different settings – a Dept. Store (script 1 – the one posted above); a Country House, a Hospital, a Fete, a Campsite etc. Significantly, the structure did have a narrative but not in the same way as a traditional normal verbal sitcom: because in a physical comedy a physical event/problem is plot: for example, when Mr. Bean is locked out his hotel room naked, not only is that an event, it is also plot. ie. gradually escalating jeopardy, just like a drama script except funny. Our Mcguffins (devices that drive plot) weren’t as crude as ‘getting a toe stuck in a bath,’ (no insult to Eric Sykes, who I love) but basically involved Pompidou finding himself in gradually complicating sticky visual situations of his own making.

So six scripts were written along these lines – sort of ‘day-in-the-life’ half hours, quite Tati-esque, with Pompidou having a main ‘plot’ and the other characters as garnish having their own little running gags. There were special effects, surreal gags, gags of perspective etc. It was basically an ‘outsider in the modern world’ comedy – quite abstract, a bit of Tati, a bit of Marty Feldman. Matt was going to play all the characters, like Alec Guinness played everyone in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

How the series ended up on-screen was very different. A few  months before filming each script was altered and it became much  more of a traditional sitcom: gags were shed in favour of story and the focus switched from visual comedy and gags to a central performance and the interplay between Pompidou and his butler Hove. Hove, who’d started off as a minor character in early drafts, became a major element. So instead of a ‘solitary eccentric facing the real outside world’ being the engine of the comedy the emphasis moved to character interplay. Additionally, the whole series was moved much more towards being a kids’ show. Which is fine – family comedy is extremely rare. Also all the supporting characters were cut. So the series that viewers ended up seeing was very different to the original scripts.

So here it is: it may be of interest to somebody – comedy archaeologists of the future, aspiring writers who might want to see how a visual gag is written or a running gag developed or a building routine constructed. Needless to say all the material is under copyright so cannot be nicked!

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WHY STEWART LEE IS WRONG ABOUT SLAPSTICK

As BBC1 begins filming the first silent comedy TV series for nearly twenty years – “Pompidou!” starring Matt Lucas –  Julian Dutton takes a look back at the rich heritage of the sight-gag.

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       With more than a soupcon of their customary darkness Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton proved last week (in episode 2 of their magnificent series ‘Inside No. 9,’ BBC2) that far from having died in 1927 when Al Jolson first belted out ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,’ silent comedy is very much alive and – if not kicking – then definitely twitching. In a plot worthy of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy (though with considerably more blood) two crooks attempt to steal a painting. A simple story elevated from the pedestrian by being entirely enacted in dumb-show. The Chaplin leitmotif is highlighted by the inspired inclusion of the great comedian’s Grand-daughter Oona in the cast.

       And with BBC One about to start filming a forthcoming six-part ‘silent’ series, created by Matt Lucas, myself and Ashley Blaker (for silent read visual – there’ll be plenty of sound in it, just no talking) entitled ‘Pompidou,’ does this herald a new wave of slapstick to our screens?

Visual comedy’s never really gone away of course, though one might be excused for thinking comedian Stewart Lee wishes it had. In his TV series ‘Comedy Vehicle’ Lee pours scorn on a ‘Funniest TV Moment’ clip show that voted Del Boy’s fall through the bar as #1. “Is that really what we’ve come to, Britain? Del Boy falling through a bar, and Trigger making a face?!” Significantly, many of the other top clips in the same survey were also sight-gags – Cleese’s silly walks, Fawlty’s goose-step, Dawn French collapsing into a puddle… With sound technology supposedly having vanquished ‘silent’ comedy way back in 1927, it seems that eighty years later we still favour the sight gag over the verbal. Why?

Lee’s hatred of the BBC1 comedy mass-appeal visual moment is not surprising, occupying as he does the position of comedy’s enfant-terrible, an intellectual stand-up with a persistent distrust of the mainstream. He is one of the few original rebel artists working in comedy today. His critique is akin to John Cleese’s cameo in ‘The Goodies’ when the Python pops up as a genie, blows a raspberry and denounces the knockabout trio with two rasping words: ‘Kid’s Programme!’ Lee occupies a firm position at the end of a long line of Oxbridge satirists from Peter Cook to Armando Ianucci whose humour is committedly verbal, intellectual, satirical, reflective. Visual comedy, slapstick, that’s what our less-educated non-university Grandfathers laughed at – it is both old-fashioned and infantile.

But is it…?

On Easter Day in 1956 ageing comic Buster Keaton was driving his dark blue Cadillac up through the Hollywood Hills. He wound past Charlie Chaplin’s estate, past Harold Lloyd’s mansion Greenacres and along the dry hot avenues towards Mary Pickford’s decaying mansion, ‘Pickfair.’ Pickford had been one of the greatest stars of the silent era and, now in her late sixties, was throwing a reunion party for everyone she’d known, on and off-screen, from those lost decades.

According to Keaton the gathering was a melancholy affair, a regrouping of the old guard whose careers had been brought to a juddering halt when Al Jolson first squeaked out his famous line. Pickford’s mansion was full of shadows and memories, drifting butlers, a sense of lost time. But one thing Mary said to Keaton that day stuck in his mind: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way round.”

Pickford’s observation was not merely that of an unemployed actress bitter at having been cast aside by her industry – it was an astute assessment of the aesthetic of film. Sound technology was, despite what we may think, not an advance in the cinematic art, it was a setback. It is only because silent comedy predates verbal comedy in the history of film technology that we mistakenly view spoken comedy as a progression. When sound technology first appeared cinema was approaching a peak of artistic excellence it has seldom reached since: Fritz Lang, Chaplin, Eisenstein, Keaton. Free-flowing cinematic drama and comedy was exploding onscreen in the mid to late 20’s – then suddenly along came dialogue, and both camera and actor were bolted ruthlessly to the floor (when you next watch an early 30’s movie see how no one speaks and moves at the same time). Comedy became the static fast-talking two shot and the endlessly inventive long-shot visual routines of the silent decades became a faint memory. Ever since, visual comedy has been wrongly perceived as ‘old-fashioned,’ an act of nostalgia, looked down on as an idiot cousin to its more refined and literate elders, satire and observational humour. The very word ‘slapstick’ connotes a lack of sophistication – the Three Stooges, the Chuckle Brothers, Futtocks End, The Plank – we may have laughed at that kind of stuff when were kids, but well, we’ve grown out of it now…

But between 1949 and 1967 a French mime artist called Jacques Tati made a sequence of four comic (near-silent) screen masterpieces – ‘Jour de Fete,’ ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,’ ‘Mon Oncle,’ and ‘Playtime,’ and in so doing proved that sound technology did not mean that purely visual comedy was consigned to oblivion: it could be modern, sophisticated, experimental, creative – in a word, new. Tati’s work was not an act of nostalgia but a recognition that pantomime is a genre capable of endless innovation just like the sound picture, and that non-verbal humour can be as profound a critique of human life as the most lauded satire – cf. Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ and his own ‘Playtime,’ – far deeper indeed than many a verbal comedy.

And it wasn’t just Tati who carried the flame of pantomime forward into the age of sound – Norman Wisdom (a far more subversive comic than people remember), Ernie Kovacs, Jerry Lewis, Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Mel Brooks, The Goodies – right up to Lee Evans, Rowan Atkinson, Rik Mayall & Ade Edmondson, Harry Hill, Vic & Bob … – and now, briefly, Shearsmith and Pemberton: all have proved that visual comedy not only survived the advent of sound comedy, but on many occasions has surpassed it.  If I can come up with a theory of comedy at all (come on, we’ve all tried) I would say that it is this: “We are all pretending to be able to operate successfully in the adult world. Inside, none of us actually are. Comedians – the great comedians – are not pretending. They fail on-screen in front of us, all the time. That’s why we love them: they are showing us the truth.” And with purely visual comedians, the failure of course is more stark, visible, blatant. That’s why we love visual comedians more than any other – viz. Laurel & Hardy, Keaton, Chaplin, Tati…

Certain practitioners have been nostalgic, to be sure – Ronnie Barker perhaps, and Eric Sykes – but it is my belief that soundless film and TV comedy, far from being old-fashioned or childish, is still capable of being innovative, new and surprising. And is ripe for a comeback.

Which is why Matt Lucas, Ashley Blaker and I have created the first ‘silent’ TV comedy series for nearly twenty years (the last Mr. Bean TV episode was made in 1997). The time is right: since Mr. Bean a new global internet audience of billions has arisen, hungry for language-less humour. Laudable though Eddie Izzard’s goal is to unite international audiences by performing stand-up routines in French, German (and quite possibly Swahili) the real international language of comedy has been there all along – the sight gag. The web has been awash for years with pantomime – it’s time mainstream TV caught up. Who was the chief comic performer at 2012’s Olympic Opening Ceremony, playing to planetary viewing figures? – silent comedian Rowan Atkinson. We live in a world saturated with dumb-show – on our CCTV’s, our I-phones, on you-tube. Which is why our new series ‘Pompidou’ will be far from being nostalgic or retro – indeed, there could be an argument for calling it avant-garde! ‘Pompidou’ will aspire to the tradition of Tati, Wisdom, Chaplin, Sykes, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, and Rowan Atkinson, but will also try to break new ground. In the series Matt Lucas (one of the most inventive comic actors working in the world today) portrays an archetypal loner and a loser: like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Tati before him, his character is a Beckettian clown, a ‘gentleman’ fallen on hard times in whose drab, mad company we drift as he fills his day confronting the modern world. As the creator of some of the greatest comic pantomime on-screen in the last ten years (one need only think of the Lou and Andy routines in ‘Little Britain’ as well as the great visual sketches in that series) Matt Lucas has already joined the pantheon of internationally-acclaimed and beloved comics.

So why is Stewart Lee wrong? Well, it’s quite obvious that Del Boy’s fall through the bar is far more than slapstick. It is, in fact, one of the most complex and richly persistent gags in world culture – the undermining of the male peacock, the crumpling of male vanity, the puncturing of the deluded male ego: in short, the perennial comedy of the mating game. The South London trader plummeting to the floor as he attempts to look cool is a lens directed powerfully at two thousand years of human cultural history. It is Britain’s Funniest TV Moment because it is a huge, ambitious joke – not small, local and culturally-specific like the material of most stand-ups and satirists working today. And because it is dumb-show it will be understood and laughed at in a thousand years’ time, all over the world, while every single gag of every single stand-up working today will be meaningless, pointless gibberish. The sight gag will have the last laugh.

Julian Dutton is the co-creator and co-writer of ‘Pompidou,’ starring Matt Lucas, filming now for broadcast on BBC 1 later in the year.

 ‘Keeping Quiet: The Story of Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound,’ by Julian Dutton, will be published later this year.

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February 17, 2014 · 6:20 pm

BRAND NEW SERIES FOR BBC R4 COMMISSIONED! – “LEWIS MACLEOD IS NOT HIMSELF.”

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Hurrah! – and other expressions of ecstasy. A pilot radio show I’ve written for the fantastic impressionist and voice-meister LEWIS MACLEOD has been commissioned as a series by BBC Radio 4.

One of the finest vocal wizards in the country, some of the many, many shows Lewis has starred in over the years include Harry & Paul, the Blagger’s Guides, the Secret World, Newsjack – as well as providing the voices on international movies like Star Wars etc. etc. – and the iconic Postman Pat!

An impressions show with a difference – (no satire, no moaning, just sheer vocal craziness combined with unbridled joy), “Lewis Macleod is Not Himself” will be the first show with his name in the title – and is much, much deserved.

The show will be written by me along with the inestimably talented Duncan Wisbey, of Dirty Fan Mail Fame, with Lewis M. – and will star the eponymous Mr. Macleod along with Messrs Wisbey and Dutton, et al…

We will keep you posted with recording dates, transmission dates etc. on the BBC website and the British Comedy Guide!

Hurrah! Cannot wait!

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The London Snuff Club

This article is one of many from my book, the “Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – a miscellany of 50 of  the world’s oddest organisations & strangest societies… available to buy from Amazon here….!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

NEW CLUB BOOK COVER JUNE 23RD 2013

“Give me wine, women and snuff, until I cry out – hold, enough!” Not, perhaps, as profound or as well known as his ruminations upon the nightingale, but nevertheless penned by Keats himself. For Adonis too, along with such diverse figures as Queen Victoria and Grimaldi the Clown, was a lover of that nasal stimulation we have come to know as snuff.

‘Snuff ? You mean that strange brown powdery mixture we used to see our Grandfathers taking as they sat in their big floral armchairs, in a strange ritual involving the extraction of a small shiny box from their waistcoats, a soft click!, a pinching of stubby thumb and forefinger, a loud snort, followed seconds later by an elephantine sneeze ? Nobody takes snuff today, surely!’

Wrong. For according to the proprietors of G. Smith & Sons Snuff Shop, Charing Cross Road – London’s oldest purveyor of powdered nasal excitement and the occasional venue for the meetings of the shadowy London Snuff Club – the habit of inserting this (perfectly legal) substance into one’s nostril cavities is not only still indulged in but is growing rapidly in popularity, in particular with the under-forties. To understand why, I paid a visit to this cramped, Victorian establishment squeezed crookedly between dusty bookshops on the Charing Cross Road.

The shop door closed behind me with a muffled tinkle of brass bell. The noise of the West End receded. And with it vanished the twenty-first century.

I found myself in a dark, sallow, tobacco-coloured shop facing a dark, sallow, tobacco-coloured shop assistant – straight out of Dickens.

He smiled and bowed slightly like Uriah Heep,

All around me were exhaled the gentle, slightly sweet perfumes of snuff jars and tightly packed Abdullah cigarettes imported from Turkey. On the walls were what at first glance looked like faded Victorian circus posters, but which on closer inspection were making the proud boast that G. Smith was a leading “Importer of Havana, Mexican, Indian and Manila Cigars.”

“Tobacco Year Books” from 1940 sat alongside, incongruously, the works of Longfellow. Huge pot-bellied bell-jars stood stacked on the endless shelves, each packed with a powder of different colour and texture – rusty brown, ochre, fawn, earth-dark, pale wood-thatch. And the names, like a litany of spells from some old tome – Macouba, Old Paris, Santo Domingo… brands of a bygone age – Cafe Royale, Princes Dark, Wild Strawberry – each boasting its own scent – Saville, a dry light snuff flavoured with orange;  Attar of Roses for the lover of sweetness.

“We sell pounds of the stuff,” boasted Uriah Heep, whose real name was Andrew Watson; “and I mean pounds in weight. Sometimes I look at all these big jars and think to myself – every bit of it’s going to end up in someone’s conk. Hard to believe really. Was that two ounces sir?”

He scooped a small silver trowel into one of the jars and deposited a few ounces of Spanish S.B. (I don’t know what the S.B. stands for, but you can bet it’s stronger than your plain Spanish) into a twist of paper. A businessman in navy blue pinstripe popped the small pyramid in his breast pocket and sidled furtively out of the shop.

Golden Cardinal, Dr. James Robertson Justice, Mortlaix… Despite its romantic soubriquets, snuff, however, still suffers from an image problem.

“I suppose it’s still a bit odd. It was never as glamorous as smoking – at least, the way the old movies made smoking glamorous. Though it’s less anti-social and, some say, less harmful.”

Indeed. There have been articles defending snuff in the ‘Lancet,’ no less.

Yet you rarely see anyone taking it. But according to G. S. Smith & Sons, this is a boom time for snuff. From the eager tone of the retailer I chatted with one fully expects it soon to be traded on the stock market along with oil and pork bellies. Snuff millionaires will have houses built in Essex in the shape of huge noses. The ban on smoking in public places has resulted in a boom.

So where are all these new snuff-takers ? Obviously doing their snuffing in private. Or in the back-room of the shop, where the meetings of the London Snuff Club take place. I am not permitted to pass through the door to the club-room. Perhaps it is a door that opens into a secret magical Edwardian kingdom.

And there’s the rub. There’s still seems to be something vaguely exciting, vaguely illicit about snuff-taking. It smacks of opium dens and Edwardian detectives, secret societies and shadowy villains. Even some of the slogans on the posters: “Bordeaux – piquant and refreshing, it never cloys and is a favourite with the heavy user” – suggest an affinity with substances plainly more illegal.

So maybe that’s the reason for snuff’s growing popularity. In an age when you can stroll down the Brixton High Road puffing brazenly on a joint, confident that the worst you will receive is a ‘tut-tut’ from a benign constable and the gentle wagging of an admonitory finger, then perhaps the ritual of snuff-taking offers a more esoteric high.

It’s time to try some. My nasal tutor is gentle with me, proffering a simple pinch of Café Royale, reputedly the most expensive snuff in the world. Manufactured from a special blend of North American and Oriental tobaccos, it is perfumed with pure coffee essence. The effect, I have to say, is rather akin to shoving a teaspoonful of Maxwell House up your hooter. For a few minutes my eyes are watery, my brain ablaze. It is like having a small firework going off inside your head. Uriah brings me down from my coffee high with a small twist of Wild Strawberry, a light medium milled snuff designed for the novice. It is a bit like having dessert after the coffee. I ask him if there is any beef flavoured snuff, enabling one to make a four-course meal of the thing. He doesn’t reply.

I snort my way across Europe and the Americas, from Old Paris to Santo Domingo. While the wine-taster spits between sips, the snuffer blows. I make a mental note to destroy my handkerchief afterwards.

By the end of the session I am light-headed yet strangely vibrant. In the dim quiet of the shop, I feel like a fin-de-siecle rake who has tasted the sinful pleasures of a limehouse opium den.

Which is maybe the whole point about snuff. As Uriah Heep bids me goodbye and I re-enter the twenty-first century din outside, I muse that in ten years time when we’ve tired of being able to purchase a neatly-rolled joint at Starbucks along with our espresso macchiato, then perhaps we’ll be lured into seeking the darker, more romantic domain of the Snuff-Café.  Londoners will sit hunched over their chrome tables, alternately sipping frothy cappuccinos and entertaining their conks to a selection of snuffs just as varied as the coffees.

I pat my pocket. Secreted there is a small round box full of Smith’s Kendal Brown and a membership application form for the London Snuff Club. Seduced by the salesmanship of G. Smith & Sons, I am determined to spearhead snuff’s glorious revival.

All I need now is the wine and the women.

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Snuff is renowned for imparting a pleasing, attractive temperament to the user.

Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – available to buy here…!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

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