Drawing: Terry Jones

Autographed drawing of actor, writer and director Terry Jones

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.”

The infamous line, listed in various polls as the funniest ever in film, uttered by Brian Cohen’s mother, Mandy to the gathering crowd, after her son, born on the same day as their neighbour Jesus, is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah in the cult 1979 religious farce MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN.

Regarded as the British comedy troupe’s masterpiece, and by a number of critics as the best comedy film of all time, the cutting-edge, controversial movie was banned in Ireland, Norway and several parts of Britain, securing its a place in cinematic history. It was directed by the late Python, Welsh genius Terry Jones, who also appeared as Mandy, as well as various other roles including a saintly passer-by, and an alarmed crucifixion assistant.

Sadly we lost Terry last January at the age of 77. In early 2016 he directed the world premiere of JEEPERS CREEPERS , Robert Ross’ play about the life of comedian Marty Feldman at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. After drawing this quick portrait sketch of Terry and as Mandy Cohen, I caught up with him at the venue during rehearsals, where he was happy to sign.

Drawing: Pam Ayres

Autographed drawing of poet Pam Ayres

“Pam Ayres is absolutely essential to British humour, reminding us all to be tickled by the small joys and ridiculousness of everyday life,” wrote the Daily Mail in 2018. Considered one of England’s living treasures, the poet, comedian and songwriter was inspired by Bob Dylan to write poetry based on simple everyday subject matter.

Her idiosyncratic delivery is enhanced by a distinctive North Berkshire accent. She is one of the few authors who has had books in the Sunday Times bestseller charts in almost every decade since the 1970’s. In 2004 she received an MBE from the Queen.

Pam was a guest on Graham Norton’s BBC Radio 2 show last September, where she signed my sketch for me.

Drawing: Neil Simon

Drawing of writer Neil Simon

Proclaimed by TIME magazine as ‘the patron saint of laughter,’ writing colossus Neil Simon passed away in late August 2018, aged 91. Considered the most popular playwright since Shakespeare, I drew this sketch of Neil and sent it to him a year earlier, hoping to have it signed, but it was returned with a letter form his office saying that Mr Simon was no longer able to fulfill requests for autographs, but did appreciate my letter and drawing.

Neil dominated Broadway like no other playwright over the past half-century. In the New York Times obituary, Charles Isherwood wrote “Mr Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.” Hardly a year passed from 1961 to 1993 without a new Simon production. His unparalleled career spanned four decades, with over 30 plays and musicals, starting with COME BLOW YOUR HORN in 1961 until 45 SECONDS FROM BROADWAY in 2001. He also wrote as many screenplays, mostly adaptations of his theatre scripts.

His breakthrough play was BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1963), followed by a string of smash hits, THE ODD COUPLE (1965), PLAZA SUITE (1968), THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE (1971) and THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1974). His final play was ROSE’S DILEMMA in 2003, produced off-Broadway and in Los Angeles. From 1965-1980 Neil’s plays and musicals racked up more than 9,000 performances, a record not even remotely touched by any other writer of the era. In 1966 he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously.

His arsenal of sarcastic wit with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living involving typically imperfect characters, unheroic figures who are at heart, decent human beings were the hallmarks of his work. He has more combined Oscar (4) and Tony Award (17) nominations than any other writer, winning three Tony’s for THE ODD COUPLE, BILOXI BLUES (1985) and a Special Award in 1975 for his overall contribution to American Theatre. His Academy Award noms were for THE ODD COUPLE (1969), THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1976), THE GOODBYE GIRL (1978), which did win a Golden Globe and CALIFORNIA SUITE (1979). He also won four Writers Guild Awards and received four Emmy nominations among his many accolades that included the Pulitzer Prize for Drama LOST IN YONKERS in 1991. He was the only living playwright to have a New York theatre named after him in 1983.

I was very fortunate to collect Neil’s signature a few years ago, when he signed and dedicated a poster from his 1988 farce Rumors for me.

Drawing: Roddy Doyle

Autographed drawing of writer Roddy Doyle

With eleven novels, two collections of stories, a memoir of his parents, eight children’s books, a number of plays and screenplays and an opera translation, Roddy Doyle is firmly established as one of Ireland’s best-loved writers. Described as ‘an entertaining evening of sprawling conversation’, his UK and Ireland speaking tour arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on London’s Southbank just days before the coronavirus lockdown.

The website provided a nice, concise summary: “From THE COMMITTMENTS to THE GUTS there’s no mistaking the rich humour, authentic dialogue and contemporary crossover of Roddy’s writing with a knack for perfectly and intimately portraying everyday Irish life in a remarkably concise form of prose.”

Initially his first three novels were written while he worked as an English and Geography teacher. THE COMMITMENTS, set in Northside, Dublin was published in 1987. It tells the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, a young music fanatic who assembles a group of working class youths to form a soul band named ‘The Commitments’. Roddy wrote the screenplay for the 1991 film version with established comedy duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, winning a BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay. The acclaimed musical-comedy-drama, directed by Alan Parker has achieved cult status. From 2013-2015, a stage version played the West End at the Palace Theatre.

THE COMMITMENTS was the first of The Barrytown Trilogy series, followed by the equally successful THE SNAPPER (1990) and THE VAN (1991). Both have been adapted for the screen. In 1993 Roddy became a full time writer. That year his novel, PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA, looking at Dublin life in 1968 from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, won the Booker Prize.

I met Roddy at his signing session after the March speaking event, where he kindly autographed my portrait sketch.

Drawing: Louis Theroux

Autographed drawing of documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux

It just so happens that while as I was contemplating my next post subject today, (20 May) it’s Louis Theroux’s 50th birthday, so what better reason to select him. After graduating from Oxford University, the British-American documentary filmmaker and author moved to the US and worked as a journalist, before becoming a TV presenter on Michael Moore’s satirical news magazine series TV NATION, providing off-beat cultural segments. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1995.

This led to a series of BBC Documentaries- LOUIS THEROUX’S WEIRD WEEKENDS (1998-2000) following mostly American subcultures and WHEN LOUIS MET… (2000-2002) accompanying a British celebrity, interviewing them during their daily lives. He won a BAFTA Award for each. He’s currently podcasting a BBC Sounds series called GROUNDED, speaking to celebs under covid lockdown.

Louis was a guest on Graham Norton’s BBC Radio2 show in September last year at the programmes studio in London’s Wogan House where he signed for me.

Drawing: Mike Figgis

Autographed drawing of filmmaker Mike Figgis

One of the most innovative filmmakers in the business is Mike Figgis, the British director, screenwriter, musician and composer. After initially working in theatre as a director and performer he made his feature film directorial debut with the neo-noir thriller STORMY MONDAY in 1988 featuring Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting and Melanie Griffith. Six years later he directed Terrance Rattigan’s THE BROWNING VERSION based on Terrance Rattigan’s 1948 play with Albert Finney in the lead role. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a BAFTA for Mike’s screenplay.

The following year he received two Academy Award nominations for Direction and Adapted Screenplay for the romantic drama LEAVING LAS VEGAS. Nicolas Cage starred as a suicidal alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death after being fired from his LA law firm. It was based on the semi-biographical novel by John O’Brien, who shot himself two weeks after signing away the movie rights. His father said the novel was his suicide note. The low budget film was shot on 16mm with Mike composing his own musical score. Nicolas loved working with the smaller camera, said it was less intimidating and allowed the actors give more relaxed, nuanced performances. He won the Best Actor Oscar.

TIMECODE (2000) is an experimental film with a ensemble cast that included Salam Hayek, Stellen Skardgard and Holly Hunter. Four continuous 93 min hand-held takes were filmed simultaneously by four cameramen beginning at 3pm on 19 November in 1999 with the cast improvising, using a predetermined structure. It follows a group of people in an LA office, prepping a movie. The screen was divided into quarters to show each take.

Since 2008 Mike has been Professor of Film Studies at the European Film School, teaching summer seminars in Saas-Fee in Switzerland. He is also an Associate at the London Film School.

Mike signed and returned my quick portrait sketch after I sent it to his London-based production company, Red Herring.

Drawing: Greg Jenner, ‘Dead Famous’

Autographed drawing of public historian Greg Jenner

Greg Jenner’s new book, ‘Dead Famous’ is launched today. The public historian and University of York Alumni is known for his entertaining and engaging communication of history through pop culture and humour. He is the consultant on the HORRIBLE HISTORIES books and TV series and the BAFTA-nominated HORRIBLE HISTORIES: THE MOVE- ROTTEN ROMANS. He also wrote the action-packed bestseller ‘A Million Years in a Day’. Greg is also an Hon Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London.

His latest publication, researched and written over the past four years, ‘Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity, From Bronze Age to Silver Screen’ is a romp through the story of fame and fanhood. It explores the notion of ‘celebrity’ –which he claims is not a recent phenomenon– from its beginnings 300 years ago to the 1950’s, packed with anecdotes of famed individuals. He insists he’s ‘an historian of celebrity’ and not a ‘celebrity historian’, a term used in his Wikipedia page, which he is uncomfortable about.

Fara Dabhoiwala’s review in The Guardian said, “Jenner is equal parts wide-eyed historical buff and sassy polemist… who can’t help but entertain you, even as he’s pouring facts down your throat.” One chapter is entitled ‘The Fandom Menance’ and he describes Lord Byron as a “talented, pouty shag merchant with lustrous hair,” or Florence Nightingale as a “badass epidemiologist with a perch ant for pie chart innovation.” He even includes one of the Europe’s biggest celebrities, a 5,000 pound Indian rhino called Clara in the 1740’s. Greg’s personal favourite is alcoholic and celebrated Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, who was nearly murdered by his own audience in the 1820’s.

My wife Frankie, who’s a big fan of Greg’s BBC Sounds podcast YOU’RE DEAD TO ME, and I joined a freshly hand sanitized, pandemic aware audience at the impressive Southwark Cathedral near London Bridge last week to hear Greg deliver an illustrated intro to ‘Dead Famous’ and sign advanced copies… as well as this quick sketch I did of him.

Drawing: Ben Elton

Autographed drawing of writer Ben Elton

British writer, actor, director and comedian extraordinaire Ben Elton is currently back on a live stand-up tour of the UK, his first since 2004. Ben’s style has been described as left-wing political satire. He was part of the ‘alternative comedy’ movement in the 1980’s, which made a conscious break with the mainstream comedic style that often incorporated racist and sexist material and avoided the reliance on a standardised structure of a sequence of jokes with punch lines.

Early in his career he became the writer for two successful TV series; THE YOUNG ONES and BLACKADDER, often appearing in them, while continuing stand-up on stage and screen. He has written 16 novels, most of which have appeared in the UK’s Top 10 best seller lists, including six No.1’s. He writes in the dystopian, comedy and crime genres, winning awards for POPCORN (1996) and HIGH SOCIETY (2002). POPCORN was adapted for the stage, winning an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

In 1985 he began a writing partnership with Richard Curtis, creating BLACKADDER II, BLACKADDER THE THIRD, and BLACKADDER GOES FOURTH with Rowan Atikinson in the title role. All became international hits, winning four BAFTA’s and an Emmy. He appeared in his own TV shows in the 1990’s, including BEN ELTON: THE MAN FROM AUNTIE (a take on the popular 1960’s MAN FROM UNCLE series and ‘Auntie’ is a nickname for the BBC) and THE BEN ELTON SHOW.

In 2016 he returned to television, writing the Shakespearean parody UPSTART CROW with David Mitchell as the Bard. He followed that with two more series and a stage version, which opens early next year at London’s Gielgud Theatre. Ben has also written two West End musicals; the Olivier Award-winning WE WILL ROCK YOU in 2002, featuring the music of Queen and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, LOVE NEVER DIES in 2010.

As part of his current UK tour he stopped off in London for a night, a couple of weeks ago at the Lyceum Theatre, where he also kindly signed and inscribed this quick portrait sketch for me.

Drawing: David Mamet

Autographed drawing of writer David Mamet

Prominent American playwright David Mamet was in London earlier this year to direct his contentious dark comedy BITTER WHEAT at the Garrick Theatre. Based on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which sparked the MeToo movement, it run from June to September, featuring John Malkovich’s return to the West End after thirty years, as Hollywood studio boss Barney Fein and his fall from power. David attracts frequent debate and controversy, and was once quoted, “Being a writer in Hollywood is like going to Hitler’s Eagle Nest with a great idea for a bar mitzvah.” Often described as the prime chronicler of the macho males and power struggles, his distinctive writing style, involving cynical, street-wise dialogue has become known as ‘Mamet speak.’ David’s 1983 play about four disparate real estate agents, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, which premiered at the National Theatre in London, won the Pulitzer Prize and the subsequent Broadway production was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Four years later SPEED-THE-PLOW also won a nomination for Best Play.

David has written a number of major screenplays, including my favourite, THE VERDICT and WAG THE DOG, both Oscar and Golden Globe nominated. He also wrote the script for the 1992 film version of GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS.

David signed my portrait sketch as he arrived for the BITTER WHEAT press night at the GarrickTheatre.

Drawing: Salman Rushdie

Autographed drawing of writer Salman Rushdie

Indian-born British author Sir Salman Rushdie’s career has been both celebrated and controversial. His second novel MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, written while he was still a copywriter at the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather ‘catapulted him into literary notability’. It follows the life of a child, born at the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, who is endowed with special powers and a connection to other children during the birth of the modern Indian nation. The novel won the 1981 Booker Prize and was selected as the Best of the Bookers from all the previous winners at both the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the prestigious award, the latter was voted by the public.

His most controversial work was his fourth novel THE SATANIC VERSES, also shortlisted for the Booker, published seven years later. It was seen by some as an irreverent depiction of Muhammad, resulting protests in many countries and death threats were made against him. His books often focus on the role of religion in society and conflicts between faiths and non-faiths. He combines ‘magical realism’ with ‘historical fiction’ based on the connections between Eastern and Western civilisations.

Sir Salman’s fourteenth novel QUICHOTTE, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes classic work DON QUIXOTE was published this year and also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He joined the five other finalists for a reading at London’s Royal Festival Hall the day before the Prize announcement, where he signed my portrait sketch for me.