Write what you know: Part 1
‘Write what you know’, is standard advice for when you get the infamous writer’s block. What I ‘know’ was one of the oddest jobs I ever had – being employed to be scary.
In 2003, following a period of employment as one of the very nicest people – Father Christmas – I passed an audition and found myself in a darkened room waiting... while standing extremely still... for strangers to walk up to me and see if I was real, at which point I would suddenly move and attempt to terrify them. Overall, it was quite an unreal experience, enhanced by the organisers farcical belief that tourists would understand the tatty-looking six-foot man dressed in a straitjacket going ‘Aaaargh!’ was only an actor who would not harm them. The posted warnings did not stop them hitting me... repeatedly.
My face was even chosen to advertise the contradictory Ghosts Alive! attraction. A green-tinted 100ft-high close-up of me in a semi-Silence of the Lambs mask adorned the Madame Tussauds dome for three months that year and was all over tube stations and buses. Fame at last. Fame did in fact beckon for one of our original group of 15 ‘scare artists’, who went on to play a self-opinionated bad actor with delusions of adequacy and make a fortune (I assume) on TV. He and others departed, I stayed put. Staying still in many ways (but still having to leap out and shout ‘boo!’).
It wasn’t all remaining rigid and being punched by American tourists looking for ‘John The Ripper’. During my time being a scare attraction (and drinking after work in the Wetherspoons by Baker Street tube) I made some good friends, some of whom I ended up doing a number of live sketch shows with in Kilburn a year or so later in Freak Weather Conditions and Aroused & Confused. The guy who became Ron Weasley’s stunt double showed me how it wasn’t dangerous at all to climb all the way up the fake plywood Victorian Ripper Street wall and just jump on to unsuspecting tourists who weren’t expecting an attack from above.
Celebrities came to see us. The Cheeky Girls popped round and I think I made one of them scream. Tara Palmer Tomkinson ‘stayed overnight’ at the Chamber and I remember she sent her PA through first to work out where the performers would jump out from. We of course changed our positions when Tara walked through the ‘scare floor’. We got £50 extra and a free hotel stay for that. It eventually ended though. I went off to be the ghost of Sir Fulke Greville at Warwick Castle for Tussauds and when I came back, the team had changed and I’d got fed up with taking abuse from tourists. My time as the serial-killer-with-his-head-in-a box on Ripper Street was over.
Jobs like this though rarely leave your memory and I would often after a pint or three repeatedly share the above stories and more with friends, family and total strangers. After a few years I thought that maybe to stop the noise of rolling eyes each time I went off with my Tales of being an Actor, I should do maybe something with all this.
I’d already put together various sketch shows in Kilburn, and I’d also met my ongoing writing partner Mark Keegan when he cast me (in desperation I think) as the lead in his play Apocalypse? Wow! at the Canal Café. By this stage we dreamt, as do all writers, of being a Fringe Sensation. Edinburgh? Unlikely it was too pricey, so Camden would do.
At this point Mark and I were doing a semi-regular double act show Phew What A Scorcha above a pub in Kingston and in the Camden Fringe which featured game show spoofs with my character Ted Syrop, unlikely lightsaber fights between loser celebs and an inexplicably popular sketch about Dalek porn. I wanted to go see a show I had been following online – a surreal set-up called The Electric Head. They’d built a strange world that had wowed me on the web, but in person something didn’t work. It was a noisy nonsense affair which failed to connect to the audience. Afterwards like all arrogant writers, Mark and I sat and discussed loudly in the pub (or quietly if we saw the cast walk by) how we could do a much better show than that.
I felt our current show had jokes and sketches, but they were all separate. What we had seen that night had featured a whole world. I’d got really into the Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords and my love of the slightly peculiar and the mix of the real and surreal is pretty well known. Immediately I started to think back to the far-from-normal time I had had being scary, and the deeply odd self-referential world inside the basement of Madame Tussauds. A place populated by strange characters and even stranger members of the public. A place with its own language and rules. Something deeply odd but that most people would have heard of. Somewhere fake scary and real horror could intertwine. A sitcom set in a scare attraction.
I grabbed one of the leaky biros in my pocket and scribbled down the word ‘Screamarama!’ then paused. Where was I going to set it? It couldn’t be in the real Tussauds. Partly because they’d sue me and partly because people thought of Madame T’s as being a slick classy operation. It wasn’t... behind the scenes it was tatty backrooms, half-broken dummies and the scariest thing that had ever happened to me there was Paul Daniels falling out of a wardrobe during a training session.
Dummies...bad dummies! I suddenly remembered a trip to the waxwork museum in Great Yarmouth. A terrifying experience filled with faces that looked like no one from Earth, let alone the celebrities they claimed to be. Much as I love the place, Norfolk was already comedy shorthand for ‘a bit weird and a bit crap’ thanks to Alan Partridge. Definitely somewhere you might have a really terrible and peculiar horror attraction. This idea was warming up ‘Screamarama: The horror of Norwich’, ‘Fear and Loathing in Great Yarmouth’. One of those would do.
So, I had a title and a strong idea with a lot of material in my head just waiting to transform from anecdote to script. I was pretty sure I could find somewhere to put it on. All I had to do now was write and populate this world. Who would work at the Screamarama? Why were they there? What was going wrong there? What kind of show was it going to be? Could I get Matt Berry to star in it?
Coming up in part 2.. the answers to most of those questions which may or may not surprise you (depending on how well you know me, and if, for example you were in one of the various iterations of the show, or if you *are* Mark, who was still patiently waiting in the pub while I burbled about terrible waxworks).