This is where Rainer mouths off about anything that takes his fancy about life, music and comedy.  Click on the comment buttons to tell him what you think.  We'll post anything which doesn't involve swearing.


18th February 16:35

At some point I must have left a few boxes unticked or not been listening carefully enough to the pre-recorded message as I waited in some telephone queue because I am now on the mailing list for about three million different concert promoters. The Festival Hall London, St David’s Hall Cardiff - even the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid now thinks of me as a potential patron, apparently.

Apart from the implied whittling away of some South American rain forest, one thing that is striking is how far ahead these places are planning.  Par example I just got stuff for something called The Barenboim Project 2015 in which Daniel Barenboim will be playing his way through the Schubert pianos sonatas (at least the ones he can remember) running from Wednesday 27th May to Tuesday 2nd June 2015.   2015!  I might be dead by then.  Who has got a life so regular that they know what they will be doing on a particular day in fifteen months’ time?  I bet the only person who can be certain he will be there is Barenboim himself but then, at 71, not even he can be a cert.

Despite this objection, regular as clockwork, the concert junk continues to pop through the  letterbox.  Truth be told, probably not entirely without purpose. For a start, if I really was that incensed, I would make some effort to get myself de-listed.  And then, well yes, however unlikely I do at least give everything the quickest of scans in the millisecond it takes me to get it out of the envelope and chuck it in the bin.  And this is the point: direct marketing– tiresome, wasteful and irritating though it is – does work.  It is a time-honoured truth at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the spiritual home of the A5 flyer, that it is by far the most cost effective way of getting your message out.

That’s why, dear reader, if you are devoted follower, you might be receiving a letter and leaflet from SouthBank Centre this week proclaiming my forthcoming April Fools Concert with Rich Hall, Oompah Brass, Crouch End Festival Chorus and others.  It’s actually on Easter Monday, April 21st 2014– though that is not the joke.  And, if you do, please at least give it a squint before consigning it to the recycle bin.  It will be fun and unlike the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Festival Hall June 6th 2015) it is only in two months time.

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18th December 23:28

Why write a show about Christmas UK Chart number ones? The obsession with them is a peculiarly British phenomenon so I can't do it anywhere else.  In fact, nowhere on the planet is yuletide supremacy so fiercely contested.  Over the years, the battle has thrown up some brilliant baubles and terrible turkeys.  Who, for example, can forget Bohemian Rhapsody (1975); who wants to remember Mr Blobby (1993)?  Some, like Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody (1973), have become the very sound of the holidays (note: ‘Xmas’ by the way, not ‘Christmas’ – Slade’s habit of abbreviating their titles - Coz I Luv You - infuriated schoolteachers, little realizing that Slade had merely invented textspeak twenty years ahead of the mobile phone). 

What is almost as remarkable is the number of tracks left by the wayside: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday by Wizzard actually only ever got to number four.  Maybe what made us all blink was the horrible realisation what Christmas everyday might in fact be like: all the shops shut, a permanent state of turkey leftovers and your grandma forever in the front room, farting into the sofa. 

Anomalies like that are what attract me to this novelty of a theme.  Meantime, the musicians is drawn by the sheer musical variety – everything from the folk sound of Mull of Kintyre (1977) to the truly operatic ambitions of Queen.  Many of the great No.1’s seem to come from a golden age when rock musicians thought orchestrally and wrote accordingly.  It was the era of Prog Rock when what was essentially a piece of light classical music - the theme tune to Van Der Valk – could top the singles chart and no-one batted an eyelid.  The multiplicity has even inspired me to create my own, ultimate Christmas hit: ‘Hallelujah! It’s The Mistletoe And Cliff, Wherever You Are' Rhapsody.  Do they know it’s Christmas?  After my Christmas No.1's show, I ruddy well hope so - even if most of them only really celebrate Eid and don’t know Bob Geldof from Adam.

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15th July 15:47

“The world’s most famous concert gets its very first woman conductor – at last!” proclaims this month’s BBC Music Magazine – a reference to Marin Alsop, New York born and (shock) a woman who is taking charge of that most nationalistic of jamborees, the Last Night of the Proms, in six week’s time. 

Nothing against Ms Alsop but I can’t help being reminded of Beecham: why do we in England engage at our concerts so many third-rate continental conductors when we have so many second-rate ones of our own? Is it too much to expect such a British gathering to be presided over by a Brit?  There are countless hordes who would jump at the opportunity and do it  with appropriate charm and tongue-in-cheek authority (this is not a pitch). Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves we sing – waves of sea clearly, but not of baton.

That aside - the world’s most famous concert?  Sorry BBCMM but no.  I fear the Last Night is trumped soundly by the New Years Day from Vienna - watched by everyone from pygmies of Papua New Guinea to stateless super-snitches in Sheremetyevo.  And, forget the jingoistic cheering, ask the average concert-goer in the USA, say, what Last Night of the Proms actually is the last night of, and they haven't got a clue.  Mostly, they imagine it somehow tied up with the final days of High School (whatever that is).  This was presumably also the state of ignorance of Ms Alsop in the years before she became such a dyed-in-the-wool friend of the Promenade Concerts…er: 2006 (her Proms debut) that she was deemed worthy of anointing by them upstairs.  So, famous-ish as the Last Night may be, most people don't know why.  I expect even a good proportion of working British families without the interest, time or money would also struggle to describe what you do with a Proms once you get it home.

Meantime, although they can claim a worldwide audience reckoned in the quadzillions, one thing the New Year’s Day concert doesn't have is any women: hardly in the orchestra, never mind on the podium.  So “Das berühmteste Konzert der Welt erhält seiner allerersten Dirigentin” (The world’s most famous concert gets its very first woman conductor) Wiener Zeitung– that really would be news.

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30th June 2013 09:41

So our marriage has come to this - Mrs Hersch and I have taken up ballroom dancing.  We’ve been at it every Monday for two years (when I am not jetting round the world fanning my massive ego, naturally) and doing our best but it is, frankly, still more tripping than light fantastic.  On bad weeks we make Russell Grant and Anne Widdicombe look like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  There are ballroom medals you can take with names like Bronze Foxtrot and Silver Tango, which I once suggested we have a go at but our instructor laughed so hard that snot actually came out of his nose, so I think that’s a no. The cause is: I can’t lead (apparently) and she can’t count, so between us we’re jiggered.  While there is no doubt that were are choreographically challenged, there is another problem: communication.  Not between ourselves but between us and them.

‘Quick, slow, quick quick slow’.  ‘What!?  Run that by me again!  How long is a quick exactly?  Half the length of a slow?  A third?’;  ‘AAAaaand slide, together, slide, together’  ‘Sorry!?  Just so I am sure, what beat of the bar is that first slide?’  Blank.  They can’t tell you.  It turns out that dancers are musicians, Jim, but not as we know it.   Physical response is the thing - grubby, intellectual concepts like how long the bar is and what beat you come in on don’t enter into it.

Once you have been through this, the problems of accompanying dancers on the podium take on a new light.  I don’t mind admitting that I struggle, cheered only by tales of other maestros of the stature of Bernard Haitink being reduced to gibbering wrecks by dance masters shouting about tempo.   Never mind phrasing or the natural ebb and flow of the music, to dancers it all boils down to tempo - preferably just one.  These encounters have been distilled into the classic joke: conductor to choreographer ‘how do you want it today?  Too fast or too slow?’  It makes you doubly appreciate the genius of composers like Tchaikovsky who managed all that yet still produced music of such brilliance that it survives in the concert hall in its own right.

As for the Missus and me, I don’t think we will ever get there.  Last week we even talked about going on a Tuesday when they ditch the niceties of the Quickstep in favour of Community Dancing.  Mind you, even that isn’t without its problems.  The man who wrote the Hokey Cokey died recently, so the story goes.  The most distressing part was getting him into the coffin.  They put his left leg in...and that’s when the trouble started.

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8th May 2013 12.25

Let me start by mentioning the good things.  New Zealand is a beautiful country with wonderful people and communities which are passionate about the arts.  And Auckland is a lovely city – perfectly proportioned - which shares that winning combination of all my favourite destinations (Vancouver and Copenhagen are others) of being a great town right on the sea.  Like those others, the weather is neither too hot, nor too cold, the city is full of individuality and the surrounding countryside the stuff of holidays people plan once in a lifetime.

The downside is, I haven’t come here on holiday, I have come to do the Comedy Festival and of the fifty plus festivals I have performed at around the world I can say with confidence that it is the most expensive and the weakest event I have ever attended.  And no, this isn’t sour grapes because they didn’t like my show.  Actually, they loved it – I have had some of the most flattering reviews of my entire career over the last week (1, 2, 3, 4).  Hasn’t stopped my losing quite a lot more than $10,000.

For example, after a weekend which looked full of promise for a growing audience, on Monday evening I played to 27 people in a venue that seats 240 (360 if you count the balcony).  OK, it was a wet Monday evening but, I tell you now, that wouldn’t happen in Edinburgh – twice as wet and where a Monday evening really does make you feel like slitting your wrists.  Only four of my performances to date have recovered their basic daily overheads of $1,800 – that doesn’t include my flight and a host of other charges all loaded with the dreaded, unrecoverable 15% GST.  Here there is simply no roll in audience numbers – a happy, satisfied crowd yesterday is no guaranteeq of any crowd at all today.  Wednesday seven days in still had to be packed with freebies – a trick one only normally has to pull at the beginning of a run.

On the other side of the balance sheet, costs spiral: Venue $12,504; Piano Hire $1,085; Publicist  $4,000.  Not to mention flights, hotels, registration fees, ticket percentages and the business of living away from home for two weeks.  Then, just as I was choking on my flat white about the impending disaster, my venue (The Edge which runs the Town Hall) has the temerity to ask for $300 to do an emailing to promote my show.  An emailing!  This is the same venue that will be taking $2.10 from every ticket sold and in whose interests one might have thought it would be to shift as many as possible.  Never before (and here I include the major concert halls of the world whose boards I have been permitted to tread) have I been asked for money to press the return button on a computer keyboard.   But this attitude turns out not to be so unusual. For example - the weighted keyboard I have hired to practice on in my hotel room has cost me $300 (plus another $120 in taxi fares to pick it up and take it back).  Amazon is advertising the self- same used keyboard for $499 - except that I doubt the one you buy from them would have a broken key like the hire.  In the US, where I always hire a keyboard to stay in trim, I wouldn’t pay more than a hundred bucks.

At Edinburgh Festival, also expensive, one takes on the costs and risks because the industry is up there too.  Do a good, well reviewed show and you can be pretty sure that something will come of it – a tour, other paid appearances, maybe even some TV.  But at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival - no.  The flip side of the small population and all that individuality is that there is no significant entertainment industry here.  And what there is, is not coasting around the International Comedy Festival looking to pick up shows - even if you serve it to them on a silver plate.

This situation exists in other parts of the world in cities with comparable populations. But the festivals there are embraced by the community, not just ignored. In Edmonton, Alberta (population 812,000) for example, people actually take their annual vacation over the one or two weeks in order to attend performances. Here, as things stand, I have calculated that if I gave every member of the audience $10 at the door, I would have lost less cash than actually doing the show.

So, if you are thinking about coming to the Comedy Festival in Auckland, my advice is, think again.  Earn the money somewhere else and come to experience the wonders of New Zealand in your own time - on holiday with change left over to buy your very own kiwi.  And a first class flight.  And a really nice hotel.  And a team of people to carry you everywhere like a Maori king.

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24th February 2013 08.23

So the wheels are turning once again for another grand, grand spectacular: the third April Fools Day concert featuring a great lineup at a fantastic venue – the Festival Hall – my third time.  What a place. When you walk out to greet the audience, a tsunami of seats comes up at you.  The balcony goes off into the distance; the boxes too many to count.  I wonder if you ever get used to it? This time, however, I will be buoying myself with a cast of mates: Alistair McGowan, The Ukulele Orchestra of GB, Marc-André Hamelin, Lindsay Sutherland Boal.

I first met Al McGowan in the late eighties when we were both starting as stand-ups.  I remember clearly coming back on the tube with him from Ealing after a gig at West London University – Alistair with his then girlfriend whom I fancied.  It is a joke between us that I have fancied every one of his girlfriends since so, naturally, it is part of the deal that his fiancée turns up too and wafts around backstage. I would write 'current fiancée' but I think he would kill me.

The UOGB kindly appeared as guests at another extravaganza, when I had a residency at the Comedy Store ten years ago.  They have since gone even more stratospheric if that is possible with feats like their own Prom at the Albert Hall and selling out Carnegie Hall.  They are going to be doing Peter and the Wolf and the Ukulele Orchestras with Alistair narrating and me conducting.  All new – still crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s. (Note to self: must get the music to them).

Marc-André Hamelin, is god.  If you haven’t heard of him, Google it.  Meantime, here he is playing Liszt 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody like a bat out of hell.  A few years ago, someone told me he had my CD, which is like finding out  that, of your 15 followers on Twitter, one of them is Barack Obama. He is going to be showing off his piano skills as only god can. Woohoo!  Most pianist/muso types who have seen his name in the listing have assumed it was some kind of mistake

Lindsay Sutherland Boal is a really great soprano with a slightly unnerving ability to drop all that neat and tidy soprano stuff, get down on the floor and act dirty.  She will be gargling the Laughing Song amongst other things.  Don’t think Dame Kiri would do that.  In fact, I know she wouldn’t because I asked her once and she turned me down.

Then, holding the whole thing together are the London Firebird Orchestra – they make a wonderful sound, are as up for it as could possibly be and are young enough to still know all the best places to buy drugs - what more can you ask of a professional orchestra?

So come on down, why don’t you?  It’s all in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.   My aim is to get in with those people early so that they remember me when my career ends in penury.  Tickets and loads more info here

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25th October 2012 11.24

This is probably too frank for for a personal web site but I must admit, like a nice bust.  Of course it embarrasses my wife, particularly in public but I just can’t stop looking at them.  And if there is one place they come bigger and better than most, it’s at classical music venues.

Perhaps a little clarification is called for.  I’m sure you know those little models of composers you find on pianos. The sort of thing Victor Borge was referring to when, pointing to his middle he would say “as many of you know, Mozart was only from here up.  And the scholars insist that, in spite of that physical handicap, Mozart was fairly happily married.  But Mrs. Mozart wasn’t”.  Well, that’s what I mean: sculptures. I don’t think any of them are very true to life –like portraits of the saints, you can only really tell them apart by their accessories: little round spectacles, it must be Schubert; some kind of wig - Bach; long nose, consumptive-looking - Chopin.  Busts seem particularly popular in 19th century Europe: staring down from the Vienna Staatsoper and L’Opéra de Paris inside and out - some of them familiar, some you have decidedly never heard of.  At the Concertgebouw, it’s effigies outside, just a list of names in and, if your mind wanders during the concert, you can quietly tick them off: Bach - OK, fine.  Beethoven - yup.  Wagenaar – is that how they spell it in Holland?  Jacobus Clemens non Papa – who!? Sounds like something to do with a paternity suit.

What fascinates me is what these assemblies say about the transience of fame.   One moment you are deemed well known enough to be immortalized in stone, the next you are nowhere.  And genius as it turns out is not a truth universally acknowledged.  Whether you think this or that person belongs to the pantheon of the greats is a question of your nationality as much as anything.  If the statues adorning major concert halls are anything to go by, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven may be certs, but Sibelius, Elgar and even Bruckner are just local heroes.  Sorry – don’t shoot the messenger.

This might all be might be why no-one dares put up a building with busts these days – how would you choose the living composers, without looking like a bit of a berk for having lauded someone nobody recognizes in a hundred years time?  I suppose you’d just choose someone massive and hope for the best.  Someone whose likeness can be abbreviated so we all get it peering up from the street.  Realistically it’s just short-list of one.  I can see it now: round face, holding a wad of fifties – must be Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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8th August 2012 09.27

As a Londoner, I have been gripped by Olympics fever like everyone else.  Long Jumps, team sprints, uneven bars – events and apparatus I hardly knew existed two weeks ago I now tune in to watch every evening as if my life depended on it.  The buzz has been so great that when a member of the Serbian party appeared in his team track suit at the end of the road a couple of days ago, the news whizzed around the neighbourhood faster than Sir Chris Hoy on a Rally Chopper with a bee up his bum.  He was probably just there to check up on his gun-running business.

Outside the stadia, there is another, less well reported Olympic event taking place – Olympic Ticket Buying.  This is truly an endurance race.  The website, though which all competitors have to pass is absolutely terrible, coming up with ‘No Tickets Available’ every time you try to check out with your booty, however expensive (£750 in some cases). This means multiple attempts lasting hours at a time.  That said, I have been inspired by Team GB’s grit and fought my way through to some spectacular triumphs: North Greenwich Arena (for gymnastics), Wembley (football) and the Copper Box (handball).  Nothing at the Olympic stadium despite my best efforts.  Why I am so keen to get there in particular is a mystery because, all through my teenage years I positively loathed track sports: the 10,000 metres means running for half an hour – I couldn’t even bear to stand for half an hour.  Field events faired slightly better - at school I even once managed a commendation for my efforts in the High Jump.  Unfortunately the words ‘High Jump’ at the end of my report read like ‘Rainer is in for the High Jump’ and were the source of more parental consternation than praise.

Of course, watching it almost continuously since July 27th, one tends to get a bit blasé about what is involved.  The classic armchair athlete, you hold your breath for the jumps and twitch your feet for the sprints:  “COME ON! – Doh! How could you miss that!?”.  I think, for these moments it would be good if there were, what I am calling to myself, comparison lanes at all events.  In the swimming pool, say, there should be seven lanes of highly trained, highly dedicated athletes each ready to give it their all. In the eighth: some fat bloke from Chorley who has never done it before.  That might instil a touch of sobriety. 

Inspire a generation is the theme for London 2012. On TV, one of the competitors was described as the grandfather of his team as he was 39 years old. 39 and still up there - a marvel! So, oh dear, whichever generation they mean to inspire, I don’t think they mean me. But I can still be top of the tree - the best there is. Select me as a Team GB comparison competitor and I will make even a Saudi womens beach volleyball team look like champions.

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14th May 2012 18.42

I am not completely sure where the term reality TV came from. It seems to me there is nothing remotely real about it. I am referring, of course, to the BBC’s latest conducting competition Maestro Goes to the Opera. Usual reality format: a cast of extraordinary characters is thrown in at the deep end and made to look slightly daft. Trouble is, I can't work out if the characters in question are the contestants, the judges or the people who cooked this show up.

Let's start by getting one thing straight, this is a conducting competition, which is not about conducting. Can’t be. Says it on the website: “neither the BBC, nor the Royal Opera House, thinks that anybody can become a qualified operatic conductor in ten weeks”. Well, thank goodness for that - the series almost began with hopeful Josie Lawrence announcing “I don’t read music in any shape or form. I mean, how am I going to know to turn the page over?” Ha ha! Classic.

So what is it about? Well, whatever they say, Maestro Goes to the Opera is just about TV. TV is so dominant, people will do anything to get on it – even, as it turns out, the Royal Opera House. Scoff all you like - with minimal exposure and pathetic viewing figures for broadcasts of actual performances, I don’t begrudge them grasping the nearest alternative. Unfortunately the imperative to entertain always makes TV mangle the very thing it claims to present. Conflicts are created where none exist and the boring bits, the bits where the actual work is done, are just cut.

That said, I was entertained. Who could resist Sir Mark Elder’s face when competitor/DJ Trevor Nelson announced “Conductors are probably just posers, aren’t they?" He looked like someone had just set fire to his favourite baton. Less entertained by soprano Leslie Garrett who popped up to soliloquize on the wonders of opera - so scarily intense, it made me want to hide behind the sofa with my fingers in my ears going 'la la la la la'.

And then it was all over. Short, sharp, nobody the wiser – least of all the contestants. Behind the scenes, I know that the ROH had considerable trouble persuading disgruntled patrons to sit through a repeat of act two in a performance of La Boheme so Maestro’s winning amateur could take over and conduct it as their grand prize. The production team were going to do it at the end of the evening until some bright spark realised that the opera house would empty once the show was finished and they would be filming an audience of no-one. I bet they won’t be telling that story in the final edit. Like I say, there is nothing real about reality TV.

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2nd May 2012 09.53

Well, it’s been an extraordinary few months and witnessed by my silence in these ruminations.  Sorry if you are a regular reader.  You probably gave up.

It started in January with a series of shows in Germany leading to the big ‘Quatsch Jubiläum Gala’.  Even if you don’t speak German, I think Quatsch Jubilee Gala comes over pretty loud and clear: a grand show to celebrate the 20th birthday of the Quatsch comedy club.  It took place in the Max Schmeling Halle – definitely the O2 of Berlin – in front of 8,000 people, was televised and you will be able to buy the DVD if you need something incomprehensible to give to a relative you don’t really like next Christmas.   Much hoo hah – I was in there to represent all the foreigners who have played at Quatsch over the years – then the glittering line-up: Twenty star comedians to mark each of the twenty years of the club.  Twenty stars, or should I should I say, nineteen stars and me.  I think I held my end up thank you very much but my overall experience was probably best summed up by the moment when I was about two-thirds the way across the red carpet before the show (there was one).  With the cameras flashing and lensmen jostling, three reporters shouted, almost in unison “who are you?” Well, you can judge for yourself and try out that O-Level German here.

Then there was the appearance on Today on Radio 4.  Now, if you are not a actually Radio 4 listener, the importance of this anointing may be slightly lost on you. To give you an idea what Today means to the nation, it was widely reported a few years ago that, in the event of a thermo-nuclear attack on the UK, submarines in the British fleet should check for signs of life ‘such as the Today Programme on Radio 4’.  Presumably, this would be after they had failed to make contact with their superior officers first and, yes, it is hard to imagine that the Admiralty would have been knocked out but not the newsrooms at the BBC.  Anyway…I think I must be on some kind of rolodex at the Today offices under the words ‘German’ and ‘Comedian’ because I was called on to pontificate about some new German comedy film in which Nazis who escaped the destruction at the end World War II were supposed to have established a colony on the dark side of the moon. Yes really. They finally decide that it is time to re-establish themselves and launch an offensive against earth…or something - 'the battle for earth is gonna get Nazi'. 

My place in this was to describe how the Germans are much more at ease with themselves about the war and that we shouldn’t be too surprised.  Somebody learned on the line from Cambridge said exactly the same thing but just using words containing twice the number of syllables.  It went well but, as with my previous appearance on Today (in 2002, I think), I came away rehearsing the answers I should have given – the pithy, intelligent responses that would have made the nation sit up and any listening nuclear submarine commanders realise that all was well in the home counties.

After this was Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge at the Jermyn Street Theatre.  Twenty-seven performances to, I am very pleased to report, very solid ticket sales and good to great reviews. The smallest gig, in terms of straight numbers was the matinee on Mothers Day but I think scattered crowd attending (mostly mothers with their grown-up offspring) must have all been on the sherry or something because they laughed like drains from one end of the show to the other.  They were only matched in this effort by the busloads of Norwegian teenagers who formed half the audience up a week later - guffawing and cheering everything.  Literally everything.  When I learned they who was in I thought the whole two hours was going to go down in flames but it was “the funniest show I have ever seen” according to one of them.  He was probably lying, of course, but I'm a sucker for flattery and it quite brought a tear to my eye nevertheless.

Only surprise about the Victor Borge run was how hard it is doing a matinee followed by an evening performance.  Hard?  Impossible; a gruelling torture is probably more accurate.  Sorry if you came on a Saturday evening. It is really an enormous task to pump it out alone on the stage for two hours then have to turn around and do it all again.  I tried everything to get it together between shows – snoozing, shopping, even having a massage but all to no avail, it was just extremely difficult.  People have said ‘well, why didn’t you take the matinees off?’.  The answer is - theatres in the West End will not allow it – you would have to pay them in lost bar and ice-cream sales to get out of it and many wouldn’t even consider taking a show that wanted to.   Anyway, next time you go to an evening show and notice that the cast has also done it in the afternoon...actually, don't go to a show where the cast has already done it once in the afternoon.

Finally the concert Queen Elizabeth Hall which, despite my fretting, was a considerable success.  Within a spit of being sold out and a lovely atmosphere.  The classics, mashed by me and the newly formed London Firebird Orchestra plus guests Omid Djalili, James Rhodes and Lore Lixenberg (as the Queen).  People have commented how relaxed I looked but then, after a month of strutting around the stage doing a Danish accent, it did rather feel like being let out of school.  On the way home, I realised I have now played all the venues on the Southbank Centre from the Purcell Room to the Festival Hall – I wonder if there is some kind of scout badge I am now eligible to sew onto my concert tails?  Must remember to consult my Akela

Now I am emerging – the debris around my work-room has thinned somewhat but not much.  And, in amongst the bits of crumpled paper, I have uncovered a wife and a dog.  What I can’t quite find, search though I might, is what the hell I should do next. Answers on a postcard.

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20th February 2012

Just wrote this article for London Time Out. It will be printed in the edtion on Febraury 21st.

"Who on earth is Victor Borge?  If you had asked that question forty years ago, it would have been like asking Who on earth is Frank Sinatra? so universal was the appeal of this Danish-born pianist and comic.  Unlike Sinatra however, his fame was not built on movies but mostly on sheer graft – for almost fifty years he toured every country where either English, Danish or German is spoken.  The rewards were no less rich – at one point he was the highest paid entertainer in showbiz.  Despite all this Who on earth is Victor Borge? was also a question I asked myself not so long ago when his name started to pop up in my reviews.

Like Borge, I started my career as a musician before taking a long diversion into straight comedy. After a few years of groping around the London circuit with the usual stand-up themes, in 1996 I decided to write a show about a subject I really did understand, classical music.  At the time this felt like a gamble because I thought the world of the classics was just too mired in snobbery for a comedy stage (it is, by the way, but I now know that is exactly what is funny about it).  The result was my musical outing in All Classical Music Explained.  For three weeks I trod the boards at Edinburgh Festival – telling gags, playing the piano a bit and generally taking the piss.  To my great surprise it worked – audiences responded as did the critics - and that’s where Victor Borge entered my life. Without fail, every one of their notices drew some kind of comparison - sometimes I was  better than Borge, sometimes worse but he was always in there somewhere.  As I often joke, at that point I was probably less interested in the man than his publicist – a person so brilliant they could consistently get their client into other people’s reviews.  Then I started doing some research - listening to CD’s, watching videos – and this began the first of my journeys with Victor Borge.

To discover his material for the first time is a joy.  For a start it is funny despite the passage of time - his classic routines Phonetic Punctuation and Inflationary Language can still reduce an audience to tears of laughter.  Then there is the man behind the smile.  His was a comic persona that audiences just loved.  The word love is important.  He exuded kindness like a favourite uncle who always somehow managed to make you feel better about yourself.

After this experience, I was slightly dumbstruck.  It felt like I had been hacking my way through a jungle only to come across a perfectly manicured path which someone else had carved fifty years before – like some  kind of musical Stanley and Livingston.  Then, when Borge died in the year 2000 at the age of 92 (performing almost to the end), BBC Radio 4 asked me to make a programme about him.  I travelled to Copenhagen and recorded interviews with old colleagues and friends.  This was my second Borge moment - finding out about his astonishing history.  Here was a Jewish man, forced to flee to America by the Nazis, beginning life there with nothing, not even English.  Within a dozen years the New York Times was hailing him “the funniest man in the world” – incredible.  It was a story of triumph against the odds but I was also drawn to the period at the very beginning when he had worked the cabaret and revue circuit in Denmark without piano.  I sensed immediately that this was the training that set him apart from other musical acts.  He wasn’t really the concert pianist gone AWOL he portrayed but rather a excellent stand-up and clown who just happened to be able to play the piano brilliantly.

I realised his was a story I wanted to tell and, over time, that inspiration turned into Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge my two-act play which I am presenting in it’s first London run.  In it I play both Borge, not all greyed-up and covered in makeup but simply trying to convey his great spirit, and me, Rainer Hersch, as narrator.  The result, I hope, shows off the best of both of us.  We come together on stage to tell his fascinating, occasionally moving but above all funny life story.  And of course all the great routines and piano gags also there – re-imagined by me for the 21st century.  Why am I doing it?  In the culture of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ celebrity perhaps I am saying that some people are really worth remembering.  And I feel sure that, even if the audience didn’t know his name when they bought the ticket, once they have seen the show they will not forget".

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4th January 07.31

It’s hard to work out why I hate talking about my job.   At a party; chatting with a taxi driver; on holiday:
“So, what do you do then?”
ME “I’m a stand-up comedian.” 
Rrealllly!?  My goodness,  that’s brave.” 
That’s how it starts.  My stomach turns, my heart races a bit, my palms become slightly sweaty – it’s all a bit irrational.  I have just come back from a two week cycling holiday (‘cycling’ and ‘holiday’ - two words which, by the way, do not belong together) with a group of people I didn’t know and have had plenty of time to think about why it stresses me so much.

The most obvious thing is that, while the conversation had previously been trotting along in a regular kind of way – a funny idea here, an observation there – when you get to the revelation that you earn your living by telling jokes, all that comes to an end.  The chat ceases to become a two-way experience and immediately starts to feel like some kind of interrogation. 
“So where do you perform?”; “Where get your ideas from?”; “What was your name again?”  (I didn’t concentrate the first time because I didn’t care less but now I know that you are a…Comedian.)

Harmless enough you might think.  What the hell’s wrong with you, Rainer?  Trust me, fielding the exact same questions over and over again, awkwardly correcting the same misconceptions just grinds you down a bit.
“Ha ha.  I can see what’s going to happen.  I am going to end up in one of your sketches!”
ME “I don’t write sketches.”
Just like the Borg, resistance is futile:
ME: “Come on now - tell me about what you do?”
“Oh, I work for local government and I bet that is going to end up in one of your sketches.”

Then there’s that thing about how brave it all is.  You sometimes see soldiers emerge from Buck House having been awarded a medal.  They have pulled their mates from a burning tank, killed 20 Taliban with nothing but a pointed stick, survived behind enemy lines for a month and all they can say is “I was just doing my job”.  I am absolutely not comparing myself to people who have actually risked their lives but in some sense I understand what they mean.  In the end it is just a job and, being a job, you get inured to the situation – in the case of a comic, standing in front of an audience with a microphone - and just get on with it.  After 25-odd years it ceases to hold the terror it would have for someone doing it for the first time.

There is also a range of remarks which are less than benign.  You feel like you might have thrown them some kind of challenge.
“Can you really earn a living doing that? “ - a friend of my Mum’s asked me this every time I saw him for fifteen years.
“You’re a comedian are you – well say something funny then.” - you're in local government are you - well, come round and plant a tree.
"When's your next show so I can come along and heckle" - what have I ever done to you? I am not threatening to turn up at the council and shout about what a lazy bunch of arses you all are.
Or the classic:
“I’ve got a really good joke for you” – some terrible racist or sexist yarn you couldn’t use in a million years.

What this rant probably boils down to is that I am only really that exciting character, a comedian, when I step onto a stage in front of an audience that has paid to see comedy.  The rest of the time I am something a lot less glamorous – a writer, an administrator, a driver just getting myself to gigs - and that difference is what I am really embarrassed about.  It’s why on the recent cycling holiday I lied and told everyone I was what I used to be, the Touring Manager of an orchestra.  It’s a job that is interesting but not interesting enough.  Didn’t make any difference, half of them ended up hating me anyway - especially a fat woman from Australia called Catherine with a chip on her shoulder.  Wish I had told her the truth, perhaps it might have got her respect.    Anyway, I will have my revenge.  I am going to put her in one of my sketches.

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9th November 17.56

I tell you who I feel sorry for – foreign people you sometimes see speaking English on TV with an accent so thick they need subtitles.   Think about it, they have clearly studied the language well enough to speak on TV but not well enough to actually make themselves understood.  All those years learning vocabulary, those tedious nights cramming irregular verbs.  If they knew that, after all that, some TV producer was going to put subtitles on them, they’d probably want to kill themselves -  might just as well not have bothered; could have spoken their own language and left the blighters to translate that instead.

It’s an odd thought because I don’t feel the same about opera. At the English National Opera, for example,  it’s all opera in English (of course) with the text repeated in surtitles as they go along.  ‘Absurd!’, ‘What a distraction!’ snorted the aficionados when this practise first started – overlooking the minor detail that there is nothing more absurd or distracting than spending fifty quid on an evening’s entertainment and not having the slightest idea what is going on.  It’s no use being told how you should be able to hear the words - put an operatic warble on any language, even your own, and it becomes unintelligible.  If you go for a night out and can clearly hear what they are singing all the way through that, my friends, is a musical.

The cachet of foreign-language productions per se has always slightly mystified me.  In London, it costs a hell of a lot more to go to the Royal Opera House where they are doing it in foreign - and there is more than a sneaking suspicion that the language alone is the reason.  The quality of the voices, the orchestral accompaniment, the production – that’s one thing but since we are hardly going to understand the words in any case, does it really matter what language they do it in?  What it really boils down to is that the snobs don’t like to be reminded how terrible a lot of opera libretti really are.  You know what? - I am going to put on a multi-language opera production: Don Giovanni, say, where the Don speaks in Italian and everyone else in English – only maybe a bit louder and slightly slower like you do on holiday.   I’ll take bets on how many people would even notice.

I realise what I am saying here about the grand art of the opera singer – all those years of being beaten up about their diction, the endless language classes – as far as I am concerned it was all a bit of a waste of time.  It’s probably enough to make them want to kill themselves.  Which they do, frequently, but not before first betraying their father, marrying their sister and singing about it for twenty minutes.

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9th September 10.25

This is going to sound really grumpy as I sit in a hotel room in North America but I’ve just realised, I can’t stand North American service.  “How are you today?” “Can I get you a drink to start you off?” “Coming rrright up” “How was it?” Even the vocabulary makes me groan: How are you today?  Today!  The today implies that this is some kind of ongoing relationship – yesterday I know you were terrible.  But today…

Let’s take the example of the restaurant.  It starts before you have even sat down. Over here you invariably have to wait to be seated in even the smallest joint, like it was some kind of special restauranting science which you could not possibly understand: I am on my own but I think I would like to sit at this big table set for ten.  This operation is carried out by someone who does nothing else other than seat people – already one person too many.  “How are you TODAY?”  A hollow folksy friendliness based on nothing.  Next comes the server. 

“How are  you all doing? My name is Cindy and I am going to be your server TODAY” (Cindy, love, if I wanted to know your name, I would have asked).  “Can I tell you about our specials TODAY?” (Well you could or I could just read them from the menu – but you probably need to tell them because reading is not one of your strong points).  “Our fish of the day is a pan fried salmon with garlic and blah blah blah and that comes with blah blah blah blah and chef’s signature dressing blah blah” - I am already squirming.  Too much detail, too much talking, too many indulgent terms, signifying nothing.  “Signature dressing!?”  Like the chef signs his name with that dressing?  Perhaps this marketing nonsense has become so commonplace that people don’t hear it anymore.  Certainly Cindy doesn’t – it comes out like a sales patter, too often repeated, all the smiles and nods written in. And whatever you choose is, naturally, a “great choice”. 

Then, throughout your visit she keeps popping up. “How’s everything tasting so far?” (What, is there some kind of rusty nail you are waiting for me to discover?) “Are you still eating” (What the hell does it look like?)  All in all it adds up to an intrusive relationship from a stranger who won’t shut up, getting in the way of the reason why you are there – either to enjoy a meal on your own or to enjoy a meal and chat with friends. I have lost count of the number of times a good conversation has been halted mid flow because Cindy demands attention. 

And when the last morsel has left your dish she apparently cannot wait to get you out.  Often each empty plate is whisked away without a thought that somebody in the party is still eating.  Similarly, the check arrives unbidden usually with a ‘thanx’ and her smiley signature on it (putting circles over ‘i’s seems to be part of the job description).  Not only has my experience been ruined, I have got to pay for it.

The concept behind all this is clearly that it indicates a willingness to offer assistance and thereby improves the experience.  In this philosophy, more is more and Cindy and generations of Cindy's before her have run with it.  In actual fact it slows things down.  The food does not come any quicker or taste any better.  Problems are not picked up any quicker or resolved any easier.  Quite the contrary – the scripted nature of the questions means that the individual is incapable of dealing with anything other than scripted replies.  If, once, to the enquiry “how are things tasting so far?” you grab your throat and make desperate choking noises, Cindy will look at you like an animatronic dummy thrown a command for which it has not been correctly programmed.  Eyes glaze over, hands hang limply at the sides and somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain there is a coloured circle spinning or an hourglass turning over.

I sometimes wish I could whisk North American restaurant servers away to a café in Vienna or somewhere for half an hour to show them how it should be done.  You arrive, sit yourself down wherever there is an table with the appropriate number of spaces.  A professional waiter approaches to give you a menu - no introductions, just that.  And, once you close it, that is the recognized signal for them to return and take your order.  If you ask their advice, they give it. You never find out their name, whether it is there birthday or hear their stupid opinions. They don't care, you don't care - it's a perfect relationship.  And, within minutes, whatever you have asked for is on the table.  Meantime you can actually enjoy the experience of being served in peace - read your book, stare blankly out of the window, even have a conversation with your neighbour about what an ordeal it is is eating out in North America.   And when the bill comes (after you asked for it) it is almost a relief to find that the service is already included.  My point exactly. 

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23rd August 12.21

Well folks, I have clearly been sleeping with the right people because I finally got to Bayreuth.  Forget the FA cup or the Last Night if the Proms this is a ticket hotter than La Fenice Opera the night it burnt down.  My British friends seethed, my Teutonic mates spluttered into their sauerkraut: “I have been vaiting ten years – zis is Germany, zere must be a law against it” they cried.  Eat my Siegfried, suckers – I’ve been there, seen that and am writing this wearing the T-shirt.

“So how d’you manage that then ?” I hear you ask.  Well, suffice to say that it was a plot thicker than pea soup and confirms what I always say – “getting ahead in life is all about networking”.  (Well, actually, it's not me who says that, it's a friend of a friend whose brother works for this guy who is a TV producer - and it’s him that says that).  I’ll grant you I wasn’t without doubts.  Right to the last minute I suspected an elaborate scam, that I would arrive to find that instead of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner at Bayreuth, I had purchased two tickets for  an episode of The Love Boat starring Robert Wagner in Beirut.

So – your questions answered: Yes the seats are hard – wood with cushions so thin they must have been sprayed on.  There are haiku poems with more padding.  And yes they do lock latecomers out and, yes, it does flit through your mind that, with all those hours before even a sniff at an interval, they might in fact just be locking you in.  The orchestra was great, the singing fab, there was oysters and bratwust for the breaks, merchandise from the shops and even a post office to send your specially franked 'we made it' postcard. 

And what about that famous acoustic?  Amazing, just as advertised - so round and clear I could bear every boo when the director appeared.  If I was a medical man, I think I might even have been able to identify what was wrong with the woman ten rows behind me who wheezed like an exhausted horse all the way through act one and snored through act two.  By act three her seat was empty – I can only assume she had been taken out and shot.

I have got friends who watch football.  It’s only recently dawned on me that I am collecting opera houses like they collect football grounds.  When you compare it to the sixty quid you have to spend to see Chelsea, it probably doesn’t cost me much more.  The Metropolitan Opera: tick, La Scala: tick, Sydney: tick.  Next in my sights is that one up the Amazon.  Fancy that, opera in the middle of the rainforest - like Glyndebourne only with more parrots and nobody sitting around pretending it isn’t raining.

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27th June 17.05

There is a shrine to music in my attic.  No, it’s not a life-size bust of Alfred Brendel surrounded by black candles but rows of boxes packed with black vinyl - four ruddy great bookcases worth.  The whole creaking edifice is pretty much as I left it ten years ago - slightly dusty but still in the same alphabetical order: Alkan to Xenakis (we all have our phases).  Here I worshipped as a teenager, there it now sits - freezing in winter, gently warping in summer - a ton of really bad Feng Shui.  I pass it every Christmas as I fish out the decorations and on Easter bank holidays, hunting for my drill.

What concerns me is not that a whole chunk of my history is now left to waste.  It doesn’t even worry me that the racks of CD’s that took its place will surely one day go the same way.  It’s the realisation that, as recorded sound gets more convenient, I have gradually given up putting aside time to appreciate it. These days, ninety percent of my listening is done on MP3 using headphones that came with the mobile – I’ll be walking the dog, typing emails, working on that bust of Brendel, anything but never just listening.  Meantime, the fancy hi-fi I spent so long choosing stands silent in the front room.  Its cables alone cost £500 – I wonder if one day I will use them to keep the loft door shut?

After all that hoarding, what seems incredible is that I don’t even own many of the recordings I now listen to - I pay a subscription to an on-line library.  In years to come, I will be able to dump my entire collection with a click of the mouse.  Getting rid of those old LP’s is another matter.  The charity shop won’t take them, the council won’t pick them up.  Is there some kind of vinyl sanctuary where they can be sent to live out their final years, still stroked and admired?  Perhaps I should take the whole lot down the dump and skim them one by one into the abyss like Oddjob in Goldfinger.

Years ago I had a mate, Woody Bop Muddy whose entire performance involved playing snippets of old albums and inviting the audience to vote by cheers or boos whether each was either a ‘saver’ or ‘nailer’.  ‘Savers’ went back into their sleeves to fight another day. ‘Nailers’ were unceremoniously ripped from the turntable, hung by a rusty nail and smashed to pieces with a hammer.  It was a gut wrenching end but at least one last moment of glory and, I suppose, one final play.  If I can ever work how to change my mobile from audio streaming, photograph-taking, on-the-go entertainment centre back to simply making calls, I’m going to phone him and ask whether he might want to spice things up one day with a bit Xenakis.

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16th April 08.16

Hard to prove, of course, but I think I might be the most untidy person on the planet.  My workroom is still littered with music from gigs I did last year just left in a heap.  There are computer cables all over the place, mostly for stuff I have never used and am never likely to.  Old postcards scraps of paper, cartons, a table tennis bat, two screwdrivers…on and on it goes.  I always mean to get it straight but, as a friend once described it, I am the sort of person who can be distracted from the job in hand by the pattern on my own shirt.  If cleanliness is next to Godliness, Prevarication is next to jumblation…or something.

Igor Stravinsky used to tidy his desk, sharpen his pencils and have everything just so or he couldn’t begin to compose.  If he had had to suffer my workroom, the Firebird would have been left unfinished and the Rite of Spring would have been two bits of paper – one with a highly worked, calligraphic version of the words ‘The Rite of Spring’, the other covered in doodles.

I have had a secretary from time to time, which means I have to get things in order but, if they are bad, they are bad and you just want to get rid of them.  And if they are good they quickly find something else to do which doesn’t involve tunnelling through a heap of A4 to get to the computer.

Perhaps this is a peculiarly male thing.  There is a guy I know who does video transfers – tape to DVD, NTSC to PAL, that kind of stuff.  He uses what was a shop in Acton as his office and, I kid you not, you can’t actually get in the door.  You push it and there is resistance - the sharp, angular resistance of large items of machinery.  In fact, it so full of gear, again mostly things that either don’t work or which have long since been superseded, that there is now only a narrow pathway leading from the entrance to the clearing where he sits. There is also no heating.  I once visited him in the winter and asked how he dealt with the cold.  He said “when I feel it getting a bit nippy, I just turn one or two more things on”. I would have him as the untidiest person on the planet but he has just got quality, I've got the quantity.

Despite all this, we hopeless cases always know where things are – or at least think we do.  It is a tribute to the amazing capacity of the human brain that you can spread a thousand different objects ranging from a plate commemorating the centenary of Chairman Mao to a programme for a 1994 production of Die Fledermaus into as many corners of a room and still be able find them afterwards.  I sometimes wonder that, wherever I go in the world, whatever I am up to, there are a clutch of my brain cells that have taken it upon themselves to remember where the Pritt Stick is.

That said, today, Saturday 16th April is the day  for the big Tidy Up.  By 17th April there will be a new order in here my friends: books away, useless cassette tapes binned, coffee stains cleaned from the Formica.  Just thought I would sit down and write this before I started.  So, what’s the time?  8.08 am.  OK breakfast then the tidy up.  OK, breakfast then the dog walk.  Then the article I have got to finish.  Tomorrow!  Tomorrow is the day for the big Tidy Up.  Hang on, tomorrow’s Sunday.  Then I have got that music I have got to learn…

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15th March 00.09

Comics know very well that the worst kind of audience is other comics.  If you do well they don’t laugh, if you do badly they still don’t laugh.  With that in mind:

I am just back form BBC Radio 3’s Big Red Nose Show at the Albert Hall.  Fun but (does this sound harsh?) not actually very funny (oops).  God knows it’s hard work making jokes out of classical music so they chose not to even try but instead intersperse bits of mildly amusing chat with straight, frankly a bit too straight, classical pieces.  Handel: Let the Bright Seraphim, Ravel’s Tzigane, some piece for cello by Frank Bridge that nobody but Julian Lloyd Webber has ever heard - the kid next to me had its feet swinging like pendulums under his chair in the first sixty seconds.  The only laugh out loud was Basil Brush frantically conducting the semiquavers in the Dance of the Comedians then throwing his baton in the air.  It's not going to make great radio.

At one point fifty – that’s a five with a zero after it – celebrities shuffled into choir seats to inspire the audience in its attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the biggest kazoo orchestra. Fifty!  At least I now know where I stand in the ranking of musical competent comedic types.  During the attempt theatrically serious looking ‘witnesses’ in black shirts spaced themselves round the hall to monitor.  Bizarre really – like referees at a Zimbabwean election.  I wouldn’t have liked to be the man that got up and told the four thousand odd attendees that ‘no, you didn’t make it’.  This was a thought the man from the Guinness Book of Records clearly shared because (surprise, surprise) we did, just, despite the fact that 1) the winning margin was probably within the statistical error of the count and 2) even a casual perusal of Wiki reveals that “on November 16, 1985 about 35,000 fans attending a Vanderbilt University football game in were given a kazoo and performed Elvira”.  Presumably what separates them from the 3,900-something at the Albert Hall was the absence of black shirted Nazi monitors and a lot of hype on Radio 3 in the weeks running up.

OK – you’re right, this is just churlish spoilsportism. The real point is that a lot more money was raised for a good cause than Classic Relief – now ancient history – which means more mosquito nets, malaria pills – all that.  I am just pissed off not to have got my hands on the BBC Concert Orchestra even for a few minutes. And Basil Brush still makes me laugh after forty years – can’t believe I even mentioned it.

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10th February 08.30

The morning after the Rose Theatre in Kingston with Borge.  7.30am - alarm clock goes off and I am up with a start after the reverie of Wednesday quickly turns to fretting about Saturday at De Montfort Hall with the Leicester Symphony Orchestra.

I only got round to mentioning at the end but I actually went to school in Kingston – ‘Kingston Grammar’ not ‘Tiffin Boys’, the neighbourhood alternative, which always sounded to me then and even more now like an institution devoted to teaching the finer points of tea time in the Raj.   Although my KGS connection was overlooked by anyone to do with the school (just as well because I loathed the place) there were enough people at the Rose to constitute a reunion of sorts – friends from university, junior school (!) and even a specialist physician who did for me a couple of years ago.

I have always thought, the only way I would attend a real school reunion is in hired Rolls Royce packed with dolly birds.  I would spend about fifteen minutes dressed in furs and bling, glad-handing it round the assembly then disappear in a haze of cigar smoke.

Well, it was wonderful to see them one and all.  Thing is, there is more to come: I am doing a gig in Lancaster at the end of the month (my old university) and Epsom in March (the college I went to between KGS and Lancaster) in March.  Weird.  It’s a veritable tour of almas maters (or is that almae matres?  Just the sort of thing we were taught at Kingston Grammar – I always thought it was pointless until now).  

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31st December 16.04

So, farewell then 2010.  It seemed to go quickly but then I am quite old and everything goes much quicker past the age of about 12.  The run up to Christmas was spent fielding the usual ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ questions.  The festives themselves were spent feigning surprise when opening the resulting presents.

One that didn’t come as a gift was my new wellington boots which I went for a walk in this lunchtime. I have ruined so many dog-walking shoes in the mud, I really don’t know why I didn’t think of wellingtons for the wish list.  ‘Hunters’ is the name of the manufacturer who also have a royal warrant from the Queen which means that they were absurdly expensive (£99 from John Lewis – I didn’t actually catch the serving assistant sniggering as I went to pay but I bet he was) and came with a small Users' Phrase Book including ‘Get off my land!’ and  ‘where did you park the Land Rover?’  They kept the mud off though (or ‘’manure’ as it was referred to in the instructions) so it was nearly a ton well spent.

Out on Ealing Common, Christmas trees had already started to assemble at the designated recycling points.  Once they were focal point of the celebration, now no more than unwanted clutter to be piddled on by passing dogs.  Well, Ted.  How the year passes.

But tomorrow is 2011 and I will begin it by watching the New Years Day concert from Vienna with a  glass of champagne in one hand and a mince pie in the other (actually, about 20 mince pies – we rather overestimated how many friends we have got at the Christmas party).  After that I will sit in a drunken mincy haze pondering resolutions, exercise regimes and what I want for next Christmas. 

Happy New Year folks.

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22nd November 10.11

My last day in Elgin and a final visit to Alexander’s, the diner across the way from my hotel where I have been eating.   There is no pedestrian route – I have to walk through the hotel car park, scramble over a grass verge, cross a three lane slip road and walk through a small stretch of wasteland to get there.   Like 95% of places in urban North America, arriving on foot is virtually impossible.

I sat down to breakfast and raised a smirk from the waitress when I ask for oatmeal (porridge) and a plate of fruit.  “That’s it?” she asks.  “That’s it” say I.  I have spent the last six days perfecting this order – pretty much the only combination on the menu which doesn’t involve eggs, pigs, cows or a lot of sugar (I say that – the fruit arrives with slices of fruit cake on top. The kitchen obviously can't help themselves). 

The way of eating is different in the U.S.  and it is hard to avoid piling on the pounds.  I am not judgemental or a health food nut, it’s just that I have a big propensity to do just that so, mindful of those ugly moments getting out of the bath when I catch myself in the mirror, I try to be careful.  Quite a few of my fellow diners this morning had the same problem but appear have given up the struggle long since.

Next to me a couple in their sixties were levering themselves out of their booth to pay.  They both had Zimmer frames  and moved very slowly.  They were also huge – the gentleman had to rock to and fro several times in order to develop momentum enough just to stand up.

Don’t get me wrong – to my British eyes, walking into Alexander’s feels like stepping into a movie set - but it clearly isn’t healthy to eat the stuff they serve all the time.  Couple that with no exercise – and I am also basically very lazy – and you end up with people who look like boulders on legs. 

Well, for today at least I am in the clear.  I’ve had porridge and fruit (plus a bit of cake).  I’ve also had two little drills in urban mountaineering – one to Alexander’s and one back.   Perhaps that’s what the town planners of North America had in mind.

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20th November 08.42

Elgin, Chicago, IL, USA.

Cut myself shaving just before the concert with the sparkling Elgin Symphony Orchestra yesterday.  Bad omen.  Though an even badder omen might have been that the gig was at 1.30 in the afternoon on a Friday.  Who was going to be there at 1.30pm on a Friday?  Well, lots and lots of High School kids and a load of people who had nothing else to do during the week that’s who (hang on –  * I * haven’t got anything to do during the week).  But they were a nice solid audience who laughed in the right places and, rest assured, will be remembered individually in my will. I hope they liked it.

Milling around the lobby of the Hemmens Cultural Centre afterwards, I met a couple who had driven all the way from Montreal to get there.  My jaw dropped.  Three days in the car – amazing.  Perhaps it was just a cover story and they were secretly drugs dealers.  Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that if I drove south for three days from where I live, I would end up in Africa – if I hadn’t first drowned in the Channel and/or the Strait of Gibraltar.   Gas (petrol) in N. America is cheap at $3 a gallon though that doesn’t stop folks hereabouts whinging about it (I can only assume that they are comparing it to a time when gas was essentially free).  Applying all the appropriate conversions, I have calculated that a US Gallon would cost me $7.20 in London.  With what I normally pay, I could afford to fill up my car and drive home.   Will be checking Google Maps later for the route and, maybe, Skyping Mrs Hersch (my wife) to tell her I will back just before Christmas.  2014.

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7th November 00.24

Just back from Headliners Comedy Club after two shows of velvet-lined luxury with some excellent turns, most of whom I haven't seen in yonks. Now I only have to pack my bags before Mrs Hersch (my wife) whisks us off to Paris for two days for my birthday (which has, technically, just started). Sounds glam until it turns out she has a business meet on Monday and my anniversary will ultimately appear as some kind of fudged expense. Also, with the time difference, my birthday is going to be shorter by an hour. I plan to write to the European Commission as soon as we get back.

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31st August 2010 13.20

Mrs Hersch (my wife) has just had her birthday. This is the start of the six week period when she is a year older than me and they are six weeks I make the most of. We were walking in the park, for example, when she remarked how autumnal it was. "Is that the season or your time of life?" say I. How she laughed. That and the jokes about whether she remembers rationing.

Whichever way I cut it, I too am getting obscenely old. I am now way past the point when I am reticent about saying how old I am.  In fact, I am starting to obsess about my mortality to the point where I am thinking of drawing up a list of composers ranked according to age at death so that I can tick them off as I overtake. If you want o think of yourself as a survivor, it’s a great group to compare yourself to: Schubert (31) would have been eating my dust long since, Bellini (33) was clearly some kind of amateur and, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, by the time Mozart was my age, he had already written 41 symphonies, 20 operas and been dead for twelve years (you do the math).  Studies show it - composing severely curtails your life expectancy.

What you don’t want to do is start measuring yourself against great conductors many of whom are still at it long after the rest of us are staring blankly out of the window, battered pension book in one hand, packet of Wether’s Originals in the other.  For a start there is Toscanini (89) and Stokowski (95).  Then, of course, Pierre Monteux who famously, at the age of 86, signed a 25-year contract as principal conductor of the LSO – with an option to extend it for a further 25 years after that.  It is clearly all that prancing around that keeps them alive.

On that point, I recently came across a great YouTube video of a man who has developed a workout based on conducting. His participants are all armed with little batons and urged to beat, cue and cajole like the maestros - the more energetic, the better.  The advanced class is also booked up to 2025, apparently, encouraged to throw tantrums and trash the music stand while shouting “why do you not use my bowings!” (OK I made that last bit up - but generally it’s hilarious.  On the day I first came across it, I had to stop work every now and then to laugh out loud).

Where does this all leave me?  Well, I conduct.  Unfortunately, I have also been known to compose - destiny is pulling in opposite directions.  But once I set up my list I will have some targets – initially to tick off Saint-Saëns (86) then Verdi (87).  And once I have passed them I promise you two things: 1) I will have a Zimmer frame made to look like on of those curved brass rails you get on the back of podiums and 2) I will end every performance by announcing in a loud voice “And I’m 88 you know”. And the best bit is, if I get the timing right, Mrs Hersch will be 89.

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31st August 2010 13.20

Back from Edinburgh and sitting in my office with my stuff around me, Ted barking at the postman as if he hasn’t been delivering letters every day since the pooch has been on the planet – order is restored.

Personal highlights were doing Front Row on Radio 4, Des Bishop’s show (see below) and dinner at the Café St Honoré with my German agent, Dieter and Mrs Hersch (my wife). And, apart from that, here is my attendance record.  Please mark and return.

Barockestra, New Town Theatre
My first attendance and at my venue.  Fun – a real show with dancers, singers – the works – thus, I suspect, a way of losing a lot of money very quickly.  Probably, as a way of increasing his losses still further, at one point the front-man Steve Grant played a guitar lick and foolishly offered the audience a prize of his drummer and entire kit if they could guess what it was.  Since the item in question happened to fall in my very limited range of expertise, I was able to blurt out the answer even before the words had completely left his lips.  Suffice to say that I burnt the kit to heat my flat and have been using the drummer for jobs in the garden.

Kit and the Widow “Oiling Up”, Edinburgh Academy
Two old thesps doing it right round the corner from where I was staying in Perth Street so it would have been indecent not to.  I did a 23-episode TV series with K&tW way back in 1997, it’s almost like we were married.

“Pip Utton is Charles Dickens”, New Town Theatre
Pip is part of the reason I did Edinburgh at all this year so he has got a lot to answer for.   Strangely, in the scramble to leave town at the end, I also bumped into him again at a gas station on Home Street.  While we were chatting, he inadvertently overfilled his tank which promptly proceeded to drip petrol and leave a large, dangerous-looking puddle.  I tried to attract Pip’s attention to it but he was already halfway over the horizon – a ball of flame disappearing into the distance.

Des Bishop “My Dad Was Nearly James Bond”, Assembly Rooms
Des is a star in Ireland.  I am so shallow, it wasn’t until he walked on stage I realised I shared a flat with him for two weeks in 2004.  His show was what I like best – stand-up with something else going on – in particular a screen aiding and abetting the comedy plus a strong, overarching theme.  Since the run is all now done and dusted I suppose it is not spoiling anything to say it was the story of his father’s battle with cancer – one that, malheuresement, he is going to lose.  While this probably doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, it was handled with skill.  At the final curtain call, although I don’t think this can have actually gone on all festival, Des’s Dad actually came out onto the stage.  Standing O – what else?

“Somewhere Over the David O’Doherty”. Pleasance
Another one I shared a flat with once.  Quirky, unmistakable.  A bit too youff for me but then I’m old enough to be his father.  Well, I would be if I lived in Devon.

Magdalena Kožená – Edinburgh International Festival, Queens Hall
The rather unlikely presentation of 1½ hours of renaissance madrigals.  Having bought the ticket months previous, when I realised what it was I was actually in for I rather groaned but it turned out to be the best thing I saw at the EIF by a country mile.  Lots of intensity from Magda – so much so you eventually sort of forgot how gawky she looked in front of an 8-piece early music group playing lutes, theorboes and what looked like an overblown dustbin lid.  I sometimes wonder how long it takes those theorbo guys to tune up – I wouldn’t want to be a passing cat when they break a string.  Meantime, Kožená is one of those east European names with so many accents (Jiří Bělohlávek is another) you feel you cold possibly move them all around and make another letter.  She is also Simon Rattle’s girlfriend, apparently.  After the concert, I was seriously thinking about fighting him for her.

Porgy and Bess – Edinburgh International Festival, Festival Theatre
Started at 7.15 but I arrived late because of my show and sat right over at the side thereby missing not only the first 45 minutes but most of the images and other distractions being projected onto the back of the stage.  A cast of black people but not a single black face in the audience.  On notable honkey: Simon Callow - sitting like royalty slap bang centre of the balcony – “hated it” so he confided later.  Oh yes, me and Simon – we two are thick as thieves.

Cleveland Orchestra Bruckner – Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall
Plus conductor Franz Welser-Möst (once famously dubbed ‘Frankly Worse than Most’ by some wit) whom I have never before witnessd.  Most of the Clevelanders appeared to have missed the plane in the first half as they did Charles Ives’s Variations on 'America' – basically an 8 min. piece for solo organ.  The ‘America’ in question, turned out to be ‘God Save The Queen’ played on the manuals with the Clevelanders’ contribution being a two-minute variation in the middle: 4 percussionists (on an equal number of tubular bells), 1 trumpeter, 1 trombonist - Franz doing the gestures.  Second half was Bruckner 8 which is pleasant but, at 1hr 20, excruciating if you don’t know it.  The man next to me starting looking at his watch after the first movement and by the end was almost beside himself.  Bumped into Ivan Hewett who writes for the Telegraph on the way out.  I once did Music Matters on Radio 3 when he was in charge.  Had a nice chat and a drink.  Oh yes, me and Ivan – thick as thieves.

Cleveland Orchestra Brahms – Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall
As before but this time with all of them all the time.  Korngold, Berg and Brahms 2 – an improvement from yesterday but still not exactly what you might call lollipops. By my calculation, each gig will have cost about £80,000.  All that effort to play to empty seats tonight.  Perhaps it would have been better if they had done at least one show which people vaguely liked?

Tim Vine “The Joke-amotive”, Pleasance
As advertised.  Moments of genius.  However, and sorry to be so gauche as to mention this, £16 a ticket.  The Cleveland Orchestra: there were ninety of them and they had come from darkest Cleveland, only £20.  Who says the Fringe got out of hand?

Neil Hamburger, Assembly Rooms
Got at least one of his CD’s somewhere.  An American character comedian whose proper, Wiki entry probably contains the works ‘post-alternative' or ‘neo’ or something.  More interesting than funny and definitely not for the easily offended. And I quote:
“WHHHHHY?” (they all began like that)
“WHHHHHYT do rapists not eat at TGI Fridays?  Because it’s hard to go raping when you have got a stomach ache”. 
Don’t shoot the messenger.

“Your Days are Numbered”, Assembly Rooms
Full at the Assembly Rooms on a Sunday morning which struck me as rather an achievement in itself.  Unfortunately what could have been a funny pseudo-statistical analysis of how many people die each year from tripping over their cat, being hit by hail stones and similar proved to be two people getting in one another’s way and spending at least twenty minutes stating the bleeding obvious.  Great idea guys but back to the drawing board (and cut the naff song at the end).

Carl Barron, Assembly Hall, Rainy Hall
Easy going Aussie humour though a tad low key the night I saw him but I remain a fan.  In his DVD’s he does a bit of piano playing.  This set included a bit about opera so I wondered if all that was a secret hobby.  Met him a couple of days later at Bar Napoli where, it turns out, it isn’t.  Oh yes, me and Carl, as thick as…

Laura Solon, Pleasance
Erm, disappointing.  Sorry.  I have heard her on Radio 4 where, of course, the physical performances doesn’t come into it.  Live on stage it just looked a bit amateurish.  A long, not particularly understandable plot with lots of characters, plus an owl.   Unfortunately - no staging, no lighting - the star just looked like an enthusiastic student.  Half way through I found myself thinking that the whole thing would be a lot better if she would just take her clothes off and do a dance.

Soap!, Assembly Hall
Cirque du Soleil in baths.  Enjoyable all the way through with some pretty amazing juggling and other feats.  Yes, that’s right, “amazing juggling” – just how amazing can jugging be you ask?  Well, when you get up to seven, that’s pretty amazing.

Midori – Edinburgh International Festival, Queens Hall
Violining.  All very beautiful but left me cold.  Strangely, the balance between the violin and piano never seemed right. Now I think about it, I seem to remember the same effect last time I saw her in London.  Note to self: no more Midori.

“The Boy with Tape on his Face”, Gilded Balloon
When outdoors comes indoors.  This was a very pleasant way to spend fifty minutes - good entertaining stuff which the crowd lapped up.  I also thought it had one or two moments of greatness but the truth is there are about 50 other guys on the streets of E-town doing the same kind of thing for nuthin’.  Don Ward from the Comedy Store was in, looking like thunder and like he wished he could be somewhere else.  Boy with Tape – don’t plan your career around that residency at the Store.

Nina Conti “Talk to the Hand”, Pleasance
Yeah, I do actually know her. I also think she is v. talented .  She needs to shake it up a bit and this was a good stab - 80% of her show thrown up in the air with impro of various kinds.  Didn’t always work but, hey – that’s impro: makes you appreciate the scripted stuff doesn’t it?

Well, that’s it ed..  To the offended: perhaps, somewhere out there, I feature on someone else’s list with an equally curt dismissal of my long-contemplated and extremely expensive Edinburgh offering.  It would serve me right.

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17th June 2010 10.53

Over the last few years, I have been the happy recipient of a lot of mail (well, some mail, OK, somebody wrote to me once) asking if I was going back to Edinburgh Fringe.  Well, folks [FANFARE] I can now tell you that, officially, ‘YES – I WILL BE TO EDINBURGH THIS YEAR!’ (though you might have already read this months ago on the Dates page).  This will be my thirteenth Fringe – a tradition and, as Mark Twain had it, “the less there is to justify a tradition, the harder it is to get rid of it.”  I am looking forward to it in a funny sort of way – the sort of funny way you absentmindedly look forward to opening what appears to be a really interesting letter but which turns out to be a tax bill.

Don’t get me wrong – the Fringe is, well, pretty extraordinary.  How I would love to go up there and wander the streets for a long weekend - do a few gigs, take in a few shows, come home.  The economics of The Fringe, however, simply don’t permit.  The overheads are so high, you’ve got to do the whole thing or not at all - sorry to be so ugly and commercial about it but, as people sometimes say about bodily functions, perhaps better out than in.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s have some figures.  They might make you blanche.  Ready?  Here goes:

Well start with the £390 Edinburgh Fringe participation fee.  You have to pay this to be in the programme.  If you are not in the programme you might as well not be there.
Then there’s £600 for printing – usually around 15,000 A5 flyers and a handful of posters.  If you have a big campaign, with a lot of posters and people to stick them up (see below) this can easily turn into thousands.
A nasty surprise for first-timers is: £1,000 (average) to appear in your venue brochure.  Each venue (i.e. theatre) likes to produce a little booklet to boast about the shows they are hosting. Guess who pays for it.
Let’s not forget the minor question of £1233 for a quarter page advert in the programme.  Do you really need that you might ask?  There are over 2,400 entries in the Fringe programme.  It weighs over half a kilo.  If you don’t buy the advert, your main access to your audience will be a tiny (and I mean tiny) listing on page 237 or something. 
To do the above and not have it look like a dog’s breakfast you have to pay a designer.  This comes in at about £500.
OK, getting into the big money now: £3,000 for, wait for it, a publicist.  Two to three grand is the standard fee charged by publicists in Edinburgh – people who allegedly get you more press/radio/TV exposure than you would otherwise.  Frequently they get you absolutely nothing.  Zip.  Zero. Nada.  Doesn’t stop you hoping and handing over the money just the same. I just have.
Of course, peculiar to me is £1,000 piano hire.  To avoid this particular rip-off, one year I actually bought a grand piano and sold it again at the end of The Fringe.  I made a small profit out of which I paid for the tuning.  It was a lot of hassle, however – involving going up there myself in advance, finding it, having it stored etc.  Wouldn’t do it again.
Of course, you’ve got to live somewhere, most performers are from London, thus £1,200 for accommodation.  This is not the Hilton, mind, but someone’s flat.  The good people of Edinburgh complain like hell about everything to do with the Fringe and Festival - usually over cocktails in the Maldives.
£1,000 Leafleters – to get your print out there.   Edinburgh is a place where the poster sites never dry - they are postered and over-postered before they get the chance.  Posters are less reliable and more expensive than fly-leafleting and the latter has long been held to be the only direct marketing that really works.
Naturally, you can't get away without: £700 for a technician – somebody has to turn on the lights and do the sounds for your show.  This doesn’t come with the theatre (of course not, this is Edinburgh).  Up there you either pay someone to come with you (including all their accommodation etc) or it’s £30 a show…
Adding insult to injury is £2,500 (approx) that appears on the statement of a moderately successful show for box off commission. If this makes you balk, it’s not the worst.  I was once charged 7p for the printing of each of my tickets.
Then [DRUM ROLL]  the big one:  £15,000 (approx) for hire of the venue (i.e. your theatre for the two hour time slot it takes you to get in, get out and do your show each day).  This figure is highly variable (can ba a lot more - this year I'm looking at £26,000) and is usually arrived at as a ‘percentage against a guarantee’ meaning that, if no-one comes, you still have to pay a guarantee and if lots of people come, you pay the percentage.  The guarantee is still a sizeable wad running into the thousands.  The percentages are usually 60/40 or 70/30 in your favour (hooray - but not that much of a hooray).

So, you see, The Fringe ain’t cheap – probably the understatement of the century.  And it ain’t cheap for the punters neither.  Casual audiences go up to Edinburgh thinking that they are going to see a few shows, have a few drinks and still have change for the taxi home.  Nope.  Fringe tickets cost around £12-14.  All of a sudden, paying for that expensive seat in a real theatre to see a genuine, recognised hit doesn’t seem that bad, huh?

So how does this all pan out in practice?  According to their own figures, in 2009 the Fringe sold 1,859,235 tickets for 34,265 performances. This sounds like a lot of sales doesn’t it until you divide 1,859,235 by 34,265 and come out with just over 54.  That means around 54 tickets were sold on average for each performance that took place in the 2009 Fringe. When you consider that bigger venues are packing in 400 and more (mine seats 250), it leaves a lot of people playing to no-one.  And ‘no-one’ means a big loss.  Even a healthy audience can be a disaster for your bank balance.  A few years ago a friend of mine calculated that if, instead of performing, he had stood at the door of his venue and handed five pound notes to everyone who turned up, he would have lost less money than by actually doing the run.  We are not talking about a couple of hundred quid here - there have been shows that sold every single ticket for three weeks and still lost ten grand.

So why do it?  Why on earth would you take on a proposition that, on the face of it, no investor would touch with a ten foot barge pole?  Edinburgh Fringe itself scrupulously avoids the word ‘Festival’.  “We are Edinburgh Fringe” they say, ignoring just how little sense those two words make on their own.  In fact, this actually adds up because The Fringe is conspicuously not a festival.  Certainly not compared to the events I have performed at in Canada and elsewhere.  Edinburgh is really a trade show.  This leads to the commonly held view that performers go up there ‘to be discovered’ - only partly true. Performers really go up there just to be noticed and hope that, as a consequence, work will come in to compensate them in the future.  And, yes, the one thing Edinburgh Fringe has got going for it (and this again separates from Canada) is that the industry is there.  TV producers, radio people, promoters decamp from London and come to see things up in, what Al Murray once described as, ‘England’s loft extension’. 

So if all the performers are from London and the people they are really doing it for are from London why doesn’t this also just happen…in London?’  The answer is simply – that’s how the thing has evolved. Since it was established in 1947 Edinburgh Fringe has developed into the one place in the UK where performers can show their wears, unfettered.  The Edinburgh International Festival (which The Fringe is the fringe of) was originally offered to Oxford but they turned it down. So what we're left with is this bizarre, annual schlep to the land of kilts and haggis. It really doesn’t make any sense but as we know, the less sense it makes...

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14th May 2010 10.14

Hello from Britain, birthplace of the New Politics but, mark my words, it will end in tears, it always does.  Amazing that the only person to have left 10 Downing Street in the recent past without first going through a process of miserable rejection has been Tony Blair – ironic really since he was the one that most deserved it (and I voted for him).

Well, though not exactly my politics, I marked this new age by spending about four hundred quid on tickets to the Proms (which start on July 16th).  Yes folks, that’s how egalitarian I am.  I had to be damn quick about it too mind, going on-line at the stroke of 8am when the Proms box office opened and even then finding myself number 2,858 in the queue (2,857 in the queue; 2,856 in the queue; 2855 in the queue – now that was a Tuesday morning well spent).

Chief objects of my desire were the two performances by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon ‘spider costume’ Rattle (see 10th Sep 2008) who are thoughtfully appearing in September, allowing me just enough time to scramble back from Edinburgh.  I’m clearly addicted to the Berliners and what’s more, this attendance will be the second and third such concert this year – the first being at the Sheldonian Theatre in the heart of old Oxford town at 10am on May 1st – a concert I managed to squeeze into at the last moment by dint of phoning “just as they had some tickets returned from the sponsors”. 

In the event, my guest and I were surrounded by empty seats – apparently more sponsors who simply hadn’t turned up.  Meanwhile there were at least two hundred plebs waiting for returns outside whose number in the queue did not gradually diminish.  Whoever it was that squandered such an opportunity should be shot.  Actually, it crossed my mind during the interval to go out to the crowd to either tell them where the empty seats were so they could stampede in or give out the names of the people who didn’t show so that they could stampede off to hunt them down.

That aside, exactly why the esteemed Germans had chosen Oxford is a slight mystery since all that happened was the London audience decamped to be there (most of them industry ne’er do wells who got comps and who could also be usefully caught in the crossfire if you ask me).  Although a beautiful setting, The Sheldonian was also tiny and basically unsuited to orchestral music.  For example, with no band room, there was nowhere for the players to go.  Mostly they hung around the corridors or went out on the street to do some mock busking.  Then, on my way to the loos during the interval, I actually passed Daniel Barenboim slouched in a corner, chatting.  On the way back I took the opportunity to shake his hand.  Didn’t wash.  I don’t expect to have the same opportunity in September with Simon Rattle but then, with the passing of New Labour, socialism is clearly dead and it’s back to every man for himself.

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16th April 2010 13.77

I think it was Woody Allen that said “ninety percent of success is turning up” and last night’s inaugural Party Political Leaders Debate on ITV was proof that life could indeed imitate comedy.  Frankly, if Liberal Democrat head honcho Nick Clegg won, it was not because he was more erudite, more personable or slightly better scrubbed under the fingernails; it was merely because he wasn’t either David Cameron or Gordon Brown.  As his gold tie came into focus for the (I’m certain) carefully monitored 1/3 of the airtime, the nation didn’t marvel at the revelation of hitherto undiscovered political truths but enjoyed a group exclamation of ‘well – look’e here – a new boy’.  Did he propose anything stunningly different (except ditching Trident)?  Nope.  For Lib Dems give me Vince Cable any day - who reminds me of my first (and, come to think of it, my second) step-dad.  Vince not only has some kind of out-of-print copy of Nostradamus in his attic enabling to predict financial disasters but also a twinkle in his eye suggesting he might conceivably have lost all his hair in a particularly bad acid trip before settling down and becoming a bit dull.

So Mrs Hersch, my wife, the pooch and I all watched (OK the pooch fell asleep) with interest to the bitter end, cheering and generally providing the kind of audience noises that was denied the actual crowd there present.  Our goat was only truly got by Joel, the slightly too precocious North London schoolboy sporting a Jewish Yamaka (a construction my word processor desperately wants to turn into ‘Jewish Yamaha’) who asked a question about education (too young, what does he know? get him off) and the anecdotes about this or that member of the Lumpenproletariat that each of the leaders seemed to have been talking to ‘only the other day’ from which folksy conversations they appeared to have derived most of their policies.

After the political equivalent of the Three Degrees (sort of Rhythm and Blues but without the Rhythm) came the News which, oddly for the channel that had just held the debate, led with another story altogether - the Icelandic Volcano which has now brought air travel to its knees. Can this really be the same unpronounceable tourist attraction that I visited with my friend Ray not two weeks ago?   We went in search of the Northern Lights which didn’t oblige, so took the opportunity to view the bubbling lava instead. 

Glacier travel being as awkward as it sounds, we were astride skidoos – Ray playing James Bond to my Blofeld – expecting to get only within five miles of some smoking crest.  In fact we were virtually on top of it.  After viewing from the caldera (I refer you to Wiki) we were taken to a place where molten rock appeared to be flowing down some kind of cliff and so toasty with it that our protective gear became hot to touch.  ‘Don’t’ take off your helmets’ advised the group leader ‘for fear of an explosion’ - though, truth to tell, I am not sure a crash helmet would help much in the face of a lavic spattering except, possibly, to preserve your teeth for later identification.

It occurred to me - watching the News –that if the volcano at Eyjafjallajokull were to stand for parliament in Heathrow Middlesex, it would a pretty good chance of getting in. My thinking is that its plume of ash has done what no amount of lobbying and public protest has achieved – offer the people of West London the ability to sit in their gardens without shouting over the roar of jet engines every thirty seconds. I went to Richmond park today where it hasn't been that quiet since, well, probably the invention of flying.  The volcano wouldn’t have to say anything, wouldn’t have to spend thousands on getting its airbrushed picture on billboards across the nation. It would just have to turn up. 

All of sudden, ninety percent seems like an underestimate.

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12th April 2010 11.27

That was The Smash Hit of 1453 that was.  Months of work (not just me you understand), interviewing, researching and writing - puff! – into the ether and away.  And if you heard my (ahem...our) latest radio programme go out - on the hottest Saturday afternoon so far, competing with the Grand National, shopping and feeding the ducks down the park – you are probably in a group of about six (sorry, seven – there is the continuity announcer at the BBC).  Even my wife, Mrs Hersch, fell asleep.

No repeat, just 3.30pm Saturday afternoon. This because the first transmission (a respectable Tuesday 1.30pm) was cancelled due to the an extended 1 o’clock news.  Strangely I take a quirky pleasure in being the very first casualty of the General Election. Definitely useable.

Undiminished, we were still selected for Pick of the Week on Sunday evening.  The Pickers made their selection on Friday, apparently, overlooking the fact that, by that point, nobody had actually heard it - work that out. Now, I'm not complaining.   PotW is an honour with which I have been very 'umbly bestowed eight times.  And, so rumour has it, when you get to ten times, you get a medal or the keys to the PotW loos or something.

Now somebody once told me that, since TV and radio waves not only travel outward across the globe but also upward into space, the first programmes broadcast from Earth are arriving at our closest stellar neighbours about now.   Probably, even as I write this, the little green men are settling down to listen to the first episode of Desert Island Discs or some such (castaway, Gordon of Khartoum).   Well, if they stay tuned, it is not too sunny and there are no big races on, they might just catch The Smash Hit of 1453. And, though it will be seventy years coming, we'll have that repeat at last. Hooo ha ha ha ha haaa.

If you want beat the green men to it, you've got until Saturday.

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4th April 2010 10.35

So I won.  Hooray!  And, in case you are one of the c. 58 Million people in the UK who didn’t listen (or c. 6 Billion people worldwide who couldn’t care less) I am talking about the celebrity edition of the BBC Radio 4 quiz show Counterpoint, which I took part in and which was broadcast two days ago.  Yes, Celebrity Counterpoint Champion has got a ring to it alright and I shall probably have business cards printed to remind people of my triumph for years to come.  Never mind that at least a clutch of questions were actually about us, the contestants (Q: “who recorded the last radio interview with Yehudi Menuhin?” A: “Me”) and the rest of it, well, if not exactly easy, had been modified from its original version.  It had been formatted to not make us sound too dim.  

To prove the point, I had two texts from friends straight after the programme went out, stating that even they had got the connection between The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov and The Entertainer by Scott Joplin.  (Er…the 1973 film The Sting starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman – well, I know that now).  Easy for them to say from the comfort of their own armchairs; harder to think on the spot, even if your interrogator is actually mouthing the correct answer while you look blank faced (not really).

I can shrug it all off now because, as I’m sure you are aware, it is not about the winning, it is about not looking like a complete arse.  And in that regard coming first is a hell of a lot better than coming a miserable third (“Catherine Bott 30 points, Kit Hesketh-Harvey 25 points, Rainer Hersch 2”).  Phew.

After the recording the entire assembly (minus the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra who played the musical quotations live in the studio) retreated to a Chinese restaurant in the vicinity to chew the cud (especially if you ordered the beef).  My companion, on my good side, was Paul Gambaccini – who hosts the show.  Just as well - God Almighty could have been on my bad side and I would have had to ignore Him.  We got into a conversation about surviving in showbiz – which he clearly has with appreciable skill  – and he was reminded something Radio 1 DJ David Hamilton once said to him at the beginning of his career: “never take top billing, you will last longer that way”.   Suddenly I found the smirk at my victory wiped from my lips.   How can I have been so stupid!  Celebrity Counterpoint Champion yes but for how long?  It can only be downhill from here.

ps If you get to it before 9.02pm on Saturday 10th April you can hear the recording here.

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1st March 2010 09.51

Have you ever heard those stories about rich businesspeople who want to become musicians? It’s probably the closest thing classical music comes to an urban legend and here’s the gist: bored businessman, say, realises that a life earning vast sums of cash has been to the detriment of his inner Horowitz. He can’t read music, has actually never touched a piano but decides he absolutely has to play the ‘Heroic’ Polonaise by Chopin. He finds a piano teacher, who should know better but needs the money, and gets taught it, literally note-by-note. A concert hall is hired and he fulfills his life’s ambition. (Yeah, right. But if you are already snorting in disbelief, think Maestro and perhaps this may not seem quite so bizarre). Now, I’ve never seen such a gig advertised but, if I ever do, I’ll be down there like a shot. It could be the perfect Chopin recital: One item, no encore (of course), home.

In my younger years I used to slave at those pesky Polonaises and dream of sitting down at the keyboard to toss off the lot. Then, summoned by the pleading of the crowd, I would nonchalantly drift back to rattle off the complete Chopin Études, rounding off with, perhaps, the Impromptus good measure. These days I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

You see, tennis matches have sets, Venn Diagrams have sets, (badgers have setts - ho ho), but the music in those yellow books of Paderewski Edition Chopin, which look to our complete-works culture so much like programming waiting happen, just don’t belong together. The CD player, where the pause button is close to hand, is one thing but in the concert hall it all blurs into one.

Not so long ago, I sat at the Wigmore Hall (sorry, ‘WIGMORE Hall’ - they have rebranded themselves sans definite article) listening to a quite brilliant (I’m guessing) rendition of the four Chopin Scherzos (first half) and four Ballades (second). It took about 15 minutes for me to leave the music far behind and start pondering questions like ‘do I think I could get from my seat to the stage without touching the floor?’ Pearls before swine. Now, if I ever see so much as all the Preludes being played together, I swear, I’m going to raise a white handkerchief. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter never played more than a handful of them together and...ahem...what's good enough for Richter is good enough for je.

As of today, March 1st, the Chopin Bicentenary has officially begun. He was my first love in music and those Études are what got me really into it. So, as Robert Schumann once said when first coming across him, "Hats off! - a genius". Unfortunately, I’ve got an ugly feeling it might be another couple of hundred years before I can bear to hear another note. "Hats back on! - I’m leaving".

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8th February 2010 06.23

Well, Woking sang all right – last night at the New Victoria Theatre – everything from the Hallelujah Chorus to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by way of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.  Congratulations to all concerned.  I loved it and hoped they did too.

Everything (apart from Ludwig Van) in the Queens own.  It’s funny, when you hear those big operatic tunes in something you can understand, you can at last make out just how naff the words actually are.  Thus, instead of “Va, til posa sui clivi, sui coli” the Slaves “tell the hills, tell the dales of their yearning” – oh yes, they’re Jewish but more Goole than Galilee.   We didn’t care and chanted our way through it just the same.  It’s one of only two choruses which the Metropolitan allows to be encored, apparently (Wiki).  We didn’t have to because we got it right the first time.

Special praise, laurel wreaths and shoulder-high procession through Surrey should be accorded to Ben Davies, the baritone soloist, who fought the bulls as the Toreador and rattled his way through “Modern Major General” as if to the manner born.  Afterwards, as waver of the orchestral big white stick, I met (had an audience with?) the lady Mayor who seemed well chuffed as they say up North.  Apparently, not only she but also a council chamber full (is that the group name?) of Mayors from other towns were also in presence.  Each declared themselves equally pleased and I was also extremely pleased that they were so well…er…pleased.  Come to think of it, I am pretty sure I think I glimpsed them all on the balcony, dripping with mayoral bling.

So now I have got up obscenely early, jolted awake by memories of the recitative at the beginning of Beethoven 9, to write this and fiddle with last minute packing as another adventure awaits: the Cayman Islands Festival (it's hard work folks but somebody's got to do it). Mrs Hersch (my wife) is very excited – she’s coming too (what a surprise) – has bought the book and everything.  As of yesterday, the pooch is sojourning at his dog sitters (where secretly he would like to live). 

Woking one day, the Cayman Islands the next - I think this is what they call living the dream.

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27th January 2010 17.39

Just came back from interviewing Peter Maxwell Davies for a radio show I am working on and feel strangely out of sorts.  Not to do with him personally – he was very charming, welcoming, almost the perfect interviewee.  It’s something to do him growing old (now 75 - I remember him being booed a the Proms - now, less enfant terrible more vieux homme gentil) and having an encounter with a man, which leaves one wondering what the hell it is you've done with your life.

We met in a flat at the Royal Academy of Music just off the Marylebone Road - him: dressed all in black, face craggy like the old man of the sea, hair still on (mostly); me: in the tow of Richard (producing said programme) and Merilyn (responsible for fiddling with the microphone).  His companion, Colin, met us at the door with glasses of white wine – extremely hospitable for 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and a remarkably effective way of nobbling the opposition. 

Sir Peter and I positioned ourselves eyeball to eyeball (Merilyn’s direction) on non-creak chairs and proceeded to discuss one of his early works the Missa Super L’Homme Armé (“oh yes”, I can hear you saying, “I know it well”).  Okay, suffice it to say that it was pertinent to the project in hand (trust me) and suffice it also to say that I have been immersing myself in things Maxwell Davies over the last week in order to render such a discussion possible without appearing a complete idiot.  Let's face it, he is also Master of the Queen's Music, so one slip and he could probably have me executed.

He wrote the thing in 1968 so I was half expecting to have to prompt him about it’s very existence but, it turns out, he has spent much of the intervening 40 years touring it around the world.  Not so good for me since, instead of being able to warm up on the basics: er...which instruments it was written for? how long it lasted? etc, we were straight into the philosophy and motivation. Thus, possessed of a quick mind and clearly used to halfwits like me grilling him about his efforts, Sir P. proceeded to deal with the first six of my carefully prepared questions almost in his first sentence.  As he was talking and I saw my carefully numbered points flash past like so many greyhounds out of the trap, I was overcome by a feeling that this could be the shortest interview in history.  “Erm…yes” say I, as he finally comes to a close “that pretty much deals with those” (scratching out Nos. 1 – 6 and, a bit confused, scrawling a quick Note To Self: never drink white wine at two in the afternoon unless it’s your stag do).

Well, after half an hour - and with a fair amount of hesitation, repetition and deviation – we were done.  Companion Colin, suffering from a cold but probably also bored out of his brains, had long since retreated to the next room.  So, after some chitchat chat about the island of Sanday in the Orkneys where he lives, Sir P. politely shows us to the door; still very warm but also clearly pleased to be left in peace.  Richard, Merilyn and I troop down the stairs, debrief in a café on Baker Street and go our separate ways. 

It was a good interview and I’m sure Max (to his friends) is, despite his fame, still pleased that people are interested and pay attention.  Only when I got home to wintery Ealing did the feeling of dissatisfaction creep in. I know how fawning this will sound but, if you are into the stuff he has done, meeting someone like that is vaguely akin to seeing a solar eclipse – it leaves you in awe and with sense that the few minutes it lasted were somehow not enough.  I think that’s how stalkers are born.

So, where is Sanday exactly?

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20th January 2010 10.10

I am a member of a London club.  It’s not the Garrick, though it does have membership requirements, there is no sport involved unless you count a bit of walking and there is a clubhouse but the club doesn’t own it.

On most weekdays, after a morning of aimless fretting at one keyboard or another, I bundle Ted the dog into his basket on the back of my pushbike, fasten the curved wire lid (to stop him either jumping or being bounced out) and set off the mile or so to his most favourite place in the whole world.  This sight alone is known to attract wide-eyed amusement, especially when (on cold days) the pooch is also sporting his padded, fake-fur lined coat and a particularly haughty demeanour: a little Lord Fauntleroy being peddled around the suburbs by his own personal slave.  Cars have screeched to a halt, photos have been taken.

Our goal is, of course, the park.  And, if there is a dog Nirvana, this is it: a thousand trees (a veritable British Library of smells), a perimeter of about two miles (as much as tiny legs can manage) and a well-maintained path that runs all around (so the slave doesn’t get completely caked in mud).  And, at the end of it, the club – a gathering of half a dozen ne’er-do-wells, dog-walkers all, who similarly don’t have anything to do at that point in the day when most people are hard at it.

Our clubhouse is a run-down café with a turnover, which must be entirely dependent on our daily visits.  Once, in the height of the summer when our usually deserted benches were occupied by mothers and bored children out of school, I heard someone complain to the café staff that dogs were running amok and something should be done.  The response was along the lines of ‘those people are here every day, come rain or shine.  Where are you when it’s pissing down?’  Group cheer from the dog owners – down with kids and Johnny come lately’s!  What a wonderful feeling to be that important.

The truth is we sit outside because the café doesn’t allow us to sit in.  Ironic really since, by my reckoning, we effectively own it.  That and the smoking – most of the club are puffing themselves into an early grave so couldn’t go in even if the ownership didn’t cite Health and Safety.  In France dogs seem to be allowed into every hotel and bar.  Is there something called ‘Santé et Securité’ in France?  I doubt it.

But there we gather every day for about 20 mins to drink tea, complain about the weather and try to stop the dogs humping each another.  The conversation doesn’t exactly bristle with Wildean wit, I’ll grant you, and lasts until our coffee is drunk, the fags are gone and whatever idle occupation calls us back. It’s not much but it gets me out of the house. I know that some of the members don’t see another soul the entire day long – apart, of course, from their hound.

Perhaps one day we will get organised: remember one another’s birthdays, issue membership forms and badges.  I haven’t done it yet but I can already see our coat of arms: St George looking a bit shifty (representing West London), two Terriers rampant (very) and, in the middle, the silhouette of a pooch looking haughty in a basket on the back of a bike.

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3rd January 2010 10.24

There is something perfect about the first of January and particularly this year:  01.01.10 – even if you are American and get all the numbers mixed up. 
(Coming soon:
8th September - 08.09.10
10th October -10.10.10
and, a day which will never happen in North America
20th October - 2010.2010
– there are must be astrologists out there creaming themselves).

The only being I know which is untouched by New Year or any such considerations is Ted the dog who is, even now sitting in the bay window at Hersch mansions sunning himself.  He knows no dates; doesn't know how old he is; has only a loose grasp on the time of day – though I have a suspicion think he can count because I have to say everything three times before he will do it. 

Well, this New Year’s Day was crisp and sunny – the sort that makes you want to sit down and write down a particularly absurd set of resolutions for the coming twelve months:
1. Go swimming five times a week
2. Take up the musical saw
3. Visit Laos
4. Earn a million
5. Buy a Steinway (note position: after earning a million)
6. Learn all the Prime Ministers of Poland (carried over from 2007)
Yes, there are some things that appear on my list every year.  There are some – the real ones - that are, frankly, so secret I dare not put them down.

The truth is, of course, that it doesn’t matter what the hell I write because, after the first ten days, the list will never be referred to again.  Certainly there isn’t any kind of organised debrief at the end of it all to see whether anything was actually achieved – a kind of Resolution Police: “Right, Mr. Hersch, would you mind stepping on the scales please and showing us your pictures of Phnom Penh?"

One item which has featured on my list, sometimes even at the top is:
“Be Happy”
This is not to say, dear reader, that I am unhappy but you know what I mean - be happy in a Robin Williams, "seize the day" kind of
way.  It’s an absurd and ironic thing to put such a thing down and especially over and over again because, if I ever did achieve that state of regulated bliss, there would be no more need for resolutions.

HNY


P.S. Watched the Concert from Vienna.  Is it me or was there a tad less sparkle?  There was certainly a tad more Roger Moore sitting with this heavily face-lifted wife looking like something out of the Adams Family. More swirling ballet please. Less visible lighting rig and crumbling plasterwork.

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7th December 2009 19.15

OK, let’s get this straight: I haven’t got it in for critics. I’ve even been able to piece together some great quotations from comments I’ve had off them over the years (“and…Rainer Hersch…big…success…” The Times). And this post is not the result of a recent run-in with the critical classes. But, and how can I put this without getting the crappest of crap reviews next time they come calling – critics are not normal people. And why not? Answer: they haven’t paid.

Paying for your ticket is the essential part of the audience/performer relationship. In fact, I would argue that it is what defines the audience. It represents an opportunity cost and a commitment. A real audience not only pays, it also plans to pay – sometimes with military precision: have you ever tried to get a reasonably priced ticket to Glyndebourne? It makes setting up the Large Hadron Collider look like a piece of GCSE Maths homework. Take all that blood, sweat and cash away and you are left with critics: consumers sans commitment. Knowledgeable, thoughtful, thoroughly even-handed consumers they may be (he writes, covering his back) but an audience they are not. We, the queuing, visa-debited masses reject them and throw them back to the seats-at-the-end-of-the-row-where-they-can-get-away-without-being-noticed they came from (that’s where they always sit, oh yes). If we hate the concert, we have to ‘excuse me’ our way past ten pairs of legs and as many muttered curses before regaining our freedom. If we don't like the CD, we have to go to all the trouble of taking it back and cooking up an at least faintly plausible excuse ("...er the dog won't stop barking every time I put it on") - we can't afford to just sling on top of the pile with the others like they do.

It’s money that heightens the ecstasy and deepens the disappointment. Regular readers of these ramblings will know that last year I went to the Merry Widow at the ENO (cheap seats £22) - loved every minute. Six months later I saw the same thing at La Scala (box €225) and hated every second (encouraged by the first experience, I even took Mrs Hersch, my wife, – another €225 - who actually started drumming her fingers on the handrail after fifteen minutes, I couldn’t even pretend I was enjoying it). Oddly the reviews for both productions were all middle-of-the road three star jobs whereas I could have cheerfully married the first widow and burned the second as a witch.

So who are you going to trust – the calm, detachment of the professional critic or the raving outburst of a fellow punter? It's a no-brainer and this is clearly a gap in the classical market – a customer review website like you get for pretty much everything else these days. As soon as I’ve finished this, I’m going to set it up. And the only question before you can post your comment: “Did you pay?”

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20th November 2009 11.00

"Christmas us coming, the goose is getting fat, London's full of concerts, which no one will be at" (children's rhyme, Trad).  

The festive season is almost upon us. Well, actually, if the windows at Hamleys are anything to go by, Christmas has been almost upon us since pretty much just before Easter. While the summer is the silly season for news ("Victor Meldew's Face Dicovered in Space", "Squirrels on Crack", "Cresta Run on a Tea Tray" – they have happened, oh yes) midwinter is a time when classical music metaphorically gets a bit pissed, puts on a silly hat and makes an embarassing pass at the office party.

"Make the Yuletide Gay" is at the Barbican, "Baby Loves Disco Christmas Party" is at the Southbank or, if you've got more money than sense, there's "Kiri Te Kanawa Celebrates Christmas in Style" (unprogrammed, expensive and short) at Cadogan Hall. But for me the highlights (lowlights?) are those supreme constructions of the marketing art, concerts by candlelight.  London is ablaze (in a dim, cedar-scented sort of way) with events offering that evocative, candle-lit setting - the concerts at St Martin's in the Fields are full of them.  And, to complete their embarrassment, musicians who should know better (but need the work) don full period costume and bow to one another, all courtly-like, on stage.

Quite why this is attractive is beyond me. Are none of these venues aware that every single historical concert hall and opera house in the history of the genre has at some point burnt down precisely because somebody accidentally set about the furnishings with a naked flame?  But the London Fire Brigade are clearly sweet-talked out of their objections because classical music regressing even further back in its history sells tickets. Can you imagine any other profession doing be same - the NHS offering amputations without anaesthetics for example?  Give it a couple of minutes and I am sure you will come up with a few of your own.

Next year, I am going to organise my own festivities - a real period event in which the audience sits in a freezing cold church, catches fleas off their neighbour and dies of smallpox on the way home. Now that's what I call Christmas entertainment.

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23rd October 2009 12.38

On long tours, there are a variety of techniques I apply to keep myself from running amok with an Uzi: 1) Poirot 2) Porn 3) Acquiring random CD’s.  Thus, in Australia a few years ago, I bought a disc called ‘Virtuoso Timpani Concertos’. 79 minutes 32 seconds of some bloke boinging his way through obscure baroque composers to the accompaniment of a chamber orchestra, who probably had to pinch themselves every five minutes to remind themselves that this was actually happening to them.  The complete disc is, of course, utterly intolerable but in small doses it remains one of my most reliable pick-me-ups: I can’t listen to the end of any of the orchestral introductions, when the boinging first comes in, without laughing out loud.

Five timp concertos - that has got to be all of them, surely?  Kettle drums have got to be a rank outsider in the concerto stakes.  But, watching the Leeds Piano Competition, which ended on the box last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  Of the six Leeds finalists, three played the Emperor Concerto by Beethoven.   Far from pinching themselves, I bet the responsible TV execs were burying their heads in their hands in despair. One of the things that devalues classical music is that, by and large, everybody is offering the same thing and watching young virtuosi trot through the same 40-minute piece is not going to draw in an audience.

The fact is, there might be a zillion piano concertos out there but only a relative handful ever get done.  Similarly, of the several hundredweight of violin concertos, the really useable number is, apparently, about six.  Promoters will say that this is what the audience wants but I can’t help wondering what came first – the demand or the supply?  Concerts in Russia, for example, where they always had to just take what they were given and like it, are full - and full symphonies and concertos you never even heard of.

Here things are different.  Three Emperor concertos is enough to make even the most ardent fan reach for the Uzi.  Fortunately, I have got the antidote.

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20th September 2009 22.08

I have just had an experience, which stabs at the heart of a perennial question.  Passing through Heathrow on my way to a gig in yet another exotic locale (cheery Basel), I was stopped at the x-ray security check.  A part of my luggage had failed it's examination by the security expert whose chosen job it was to stare at a TV screen while their brain was irradiated by a source of high powered emissions of the type that anyone with half an education (dental assistants - like the departed Jade Goody, say) make a special point of getting away from.  A second security official was dispatched to make enquiries:

OFFICIAL: "This your bag Sir?"
ME: "No, it belongs to my good friend Abu Hamza."
OFFICIAL: "Can I have a look inside?"
ME: "if you insist but I'm telling you: too much jogging around and you'll set off THE BOMB."

[This exchange is, needless to say, imaginary but I promise you - when I have got a clear 48 hours to sit around police cells - will happen]. Bag unzipped, contents dumped unceremoniously on counter.  On top are my batons.  "What are these?" asks the official. I explain.  "Well, you'll have to check them in, I'm afraid.  You could stab someone."

ME: "Well, yes, there are one or two brass players I have felt like stabbing with them but it hasn't happened yet." Then, panicking slightly, “they are musical instruments - even Ryan Air rakes musical instruments and they're not even a proper airline."
OFFICIAL: (delivering the coup de grâce) “Well, if there were musical instruments, Sir, you would be able to play something.  But you can’t so you are going to have to check them in.”  Ouch. 

What does a conductor actually do?  Many orchestral players would say ‘very little’ and, what is worse, they often get in the way of those with much greater skill than their own.  My Heathrow episode reminded me of this and provided me with strong evidence of the number of ex-musicians there must be working in luggage handling - when I got my little white sticks back they were broken, every one.

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2nd September 2009 07.56

Here’s an old joke: SCENE: interval bar, any London concert hall. PUNTER: 
“I’ll have two gin and tonics and this packet of peanuts. Sorry, I’ve only got 
a £20 note.” BARMAN: “Well, you’ll have to put the peanuts back then, I’m 
afraid.”

What is the point of intervals other than to be ripped off by some of 
the most expensive bars in the capital? I wouldn’t mind so much if you at least 
had time to enjoy it but, by the time you have crept from your seat to the bar 
behind some geriatric couple from Croydon; fought your way through the swarm and 
handed over an absurd amount of money for a tiny amount of booze, the bell goes 
and it’s time to glug it down and head back. Talk about institutionally induced 
binge drinking, it’s a wonder people who are exposed to this on a regular basis 
– orchestral musicians, say – haven’t been turned into a load of raving 
alcoholics. Hang on a second…


There is a serious point here. What would be so bad about extending the 
interval to a meaningful half, maybe even a whole hour? It might make classical 
concerts into a pleasanter social experience – heaven forbid. Come to that, 
what would be so bad about starting the concert itself at a time which actually 
fitted with people’s lives: 9 o’clock or 9.30 – at least on Fridays and 
Saturdays? While even cricket can change from white outfits to coloured attire, 
floodlit matches, all the rest, classical music trudges on offering essentially 
the same product in essentially the same way it did 50, even 100 years ago. 
What cricket seems to have come to terms with but which music regards as some 
kind of obscene smear is that it is first and foremost an entertainment.

Most classical organisations claim they want to reach out to new audiences but really 
just maintain the old guff that frightens off all but the committed middle 
classes. Concert halls remain like churches with approximately the same amount 
of time set aside to enjoy the wine. The difference is, of course, in churches 
it’s free. 


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11th August 2009 11.55

Yesterday - the full Glyndebourne Opera experience: Tristan and Isolde, picnic, rain. 

There is virtually no chorus in Tristan – offstage sailors perk up a couple of times in the first act but these were clearly down the pub so quickly they weren’t available for the curtain call.   Amongst the audience, however, was one constant, very audible refrain: “only in Britain”:  Wilfully ignoring the sheer insanity of it all; shrugging off the almost constant drizzle with plastered grins, we dressed in our black-tie finery and sat on imported deckchairs, munching our carefully prepared Tupperwared-treats under umbrellas.  My champagne glass filled with water – I think I must have emptied each one at least twice.  At one point I started to wonder if the spitting was somehow being coordinated with the intervals since it only seemed to start as we emerged from the auditorium.  The gods clearly don’t like Wagner – which is ironic.

That said, the production was v. good – some quite spectacular lighting changing the mood of an otherwise static, imposing cast and set; conductor, Vladimir Jurowski’s bobbing mane almost within grasping distance (from stalls C24) and a very moving bit at the end when Isolde sings her famous Liebestod (such an ugly, German name for such a beautiful moment) fading to blackout with a single, iridescent light playing on her dress.  What was that love potion they drank at the end of Act 1, I wonder?  Ecstasy?  Certainly Tristan looked appropriately shit-faced at the start of Act 3.

Every time I go to the opera I spot a once-famous politician among the punters: Norman Fowler at the Royal Opera House two months ago (Minister under Thatcher; left to "to spend more time with his family"); George Robertson ROH last month (Defence Secretary under Blair; left to spend more time bombing the Serbs [as Secretary General of NATO]); Steven Norris at Glyndebourne yesterday (previous Vice Chairman of the Conservatives; left to spend more time being beaten for Mayor of London by Ken Livingstone).  It has become such a regular event; I now start to look out for them.

Well, darlings, at the end of August, I am doing it all again: Tristan in Berlin - the guest of celeb friend, who has got freebies from somewhere or other.  No doubt there is a retired politician involved but if I hear the word picnic you’ll find me at the bar with the chorus.

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23rd July 2009 18.05

Since I’ve been to the opera a dozen times this year, I must count as a fan.  But I sometimes wonder what it is that keeps me going because, and let’s be completely honest about this, the opera is simply not a 21st century entertainment.  Opera originated in a time when life was slower and, frankly, a lot more boring. 

Take Rossini ‘William Tell’ – the whole opera that is, rather than just the Lone Ranger bit at the end of the overture - four hours.  Four Hours!  And, if you’ve never seen it, I guarantee, after the Lone Ranger, you will spend at least half that time either flicking through the programme, working out how much longer before an interval, or scouring the cast with any available binoculars to ponder which one you would most like to have sex with.

Incomprehensible, unbelievable plots distilled from obscure novels, long since forgotten, then set to music – it’s a recipe for confusion, poor story-telling and frequent mind-numbing tedium. The original audiences at least had a way out – eating, chatting, tossing the occasional orange peel into the orchestra pit.  In Mozart’s day they only shut up for the arias and even then only when being sung by one of the characters they had previously decided they would most like to have sex with.  We, shamed by the shushing cognoscenti are forced to sit in silence, like supplicants at a religious ceremony hoping that the meaning of it all will somehow dawn.  But it rarely does.  Actually, the less we understand, the better.  Here's my proof: there are two opera houses in London - it costs a lot more to go to the one where they sing in a language you don't speak.  Next time I want to be screamed at in a language I don’t understand, I should save time by having a slap-up meal at a restaurant in Chinatown only to casually discover that I have left my wallet at home.

And yet…and yet – I still go. ‘The Fairy Queen’ (4 hours) at the Albert Hall last night. Now it’s the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden that beckons – 16-odd hours of my life I will never get back. Have I really got such a lot of time on my hands?  Or money?  I could stay at the Dorchester for the price of two stalls tickets in Covent Garden and at least I would have a couple of towels bearing the word ‘Dorchester’ to show for it.

I hereby request my gravestone reads: “Here lies Rainer Hersch.  Sat through ‘Meistersinger’ twice - after which eternity doesn’t seem that bad”.

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2nd July 2009 18.40

I have just done the most unusual gig – 20 minutes’ solo stand-up for corporate clients in a restaurant at the top of the London Gherkin with, probably, the best view of London outside a helicopter - 180 meters in the air in a city not known for its skyscrapers.

Actually, I could have told you it was 180 meters without the endless hours poring through Wikipedia because my mobile is on the 3 Network and that was the first time I have had five bars on my reception…er…ever…but further reading revealed: 

Strangely, though it was designed by Norman Foster, a Brit (Hoorah!) it was actually built by Swedes (the nation, not the vegetable).  Odd that we should import Scandinavians to do the grubby bit for us – our Anglo-Saxon forefathers would have choked on their mead.   Is Sweden known for doing good buildings I wonder?  I thought, out there, it was all high taxes, ABBA and pornography.   The moment I would have liked to have seen was when Lord Norm first rolled out the blueprint for them: “So that is what you are going to be building, gentlemen: a giant, phallus-shaped object right in the middle of London” they must have thought he was taking the piss.

Anyway, armed with these nuggets and associated jokes, I sallied forth to perform, perched on a tiny platform in the exclusive restaurant, which boasts a 360° view of the capital and thus contravening one of the basic rules of comedy: ‘never stand in front of anything which is more interesting than you’.    This, I learned the hard way: I once did a similar corporate in London Zoo and, unbeknownst to me, behind me a couple of the monkeys started what I can mostly politely describe as abusing themselves.   I don’t know if you have ever presented something against a background of monkey masturbation dear reader? Suffice to say, it is hard to draw focus.

This time, no monkeys - just the occasional helecopter (come to get me?) and, afterwards, praise from a genteel audience. One or two asked me whether I had ever done a gig that high before.  Um…no.  ‘So you’ve reached the top?’  Yes, and I now know the limit of a showbiz career in London – you have to go through a hell of a lot of security, it takes two elevators and the food is not that great when you get there.

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P.S. To see the view go here click 'launch' and think of me slap bang centre in front of the glass.


18th June 2009 18.46

The Proms’is here…well almost.  By the next time I put fingers to keyboard for this esteemed forum, the Albert Hall will be alive with the BBC, sandal-wearing musos and new music with names like Sound and Light and The Genesis of Secrecy (true). What does this jamboree add up to? For the majority of the population, not much.  In fact, probably just three words: The Last Night (TLN).

Forget the new commissions, the Handel/Haydn jubilees, the learned interval talks on Radio 3 (maybe not that learned, I am doing one) TLN Plc is a brand with a turnover bigger than Pavarotti’s old pants drawer.  More amazing still, given it’s leaning on Britain’s past glories, it’s not just a British phenomenon – from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Wellington, New Zealand they are out there cheering, waving flags and wondering if those feet in ancient time, walked upon England’s mountains green.   I used to think that these were just old colonials, bleary-eyed at the memory of a good, Fortnum and Mason hamper until I came across a Last Night in Germany where, as it turns out, those words also guarantee a sellout: “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?” - yes, they do all speak fantastic English but clearly not well enough to realise that this is a Venn diagram subset they are not part of.

There used to be a ballot for tickets to TLN until the Beeb realised that this attracted a population which had nothing to do with the Proms season as a whole and decided to rethink the whole thing.  I admire and love them (a clutch of this year’s tickets are already waiting in my treasures box) but then I am a sandal-wearing muso who can’t believe that such an event is taking place on my London doorstep.  I wonder if the point they overlooked is that it’s actually the Proms season which hasn’t got anything to do with the population as a whole and it is the concept of a two month, middle-class orchestral shindig which needs the rethink.

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2nd June 2009 17.29

There is a scene in a number of films which I will call, for want of better, ‘the audition sequence’.  The set-up is this: our hero/heroine is establishing some kind of new enterprise - theatre, restaurant, male stripper troupe (The Full Monty) - and need a team.  They put an ad in the paper and we see a series of 10 second clips of the mad, bad and sometimes just lonely who tender their services to join.  It is this sequence on which the latest batch of TV competitions is based. 

What separates the film version from programmes like Britain’s Got Talent is that we are no longer watching caricatures played by actors but real people.  The audition has been itself been raised to a form of performance where the stars are not the artists but the judges and what keeps the audience on their seat is not the opportunity to see acts doing well but the chance to see good, decent people with the guts to get up there, brought low.

I have only ever watched Britain’s Got Talent in snippets (I can’t bear to watch any more) but I have seen enough judges throwing down their pens in disgust and public baying their disapproval to feel sick to the stomach.  Then, from mob disapproval, we are asked to move seamlessly to mawkish tears when Susan Boyle, a church worker with learning difficulties, turns out to have – let’s face it – a moderate voice when amplified. 

What do these programmes really set out to do?  Not find true, original talent that’s for sure.  They set out to raise viewing figures, whatever the cost; they set out to, and will, find people who can appeal to the lowest common denominator in 3 minutes and whose manufactured careers will last just as long - benefitting, principally, their producers. The exception to this is, as it turns out, Susan Boyle - a church worker with learning difficulties – whose career persisted long enough for her to be sent to a rehabilitation clinic.

Britain’s Got Talent and for that matter Dragon’s Den, The Weakest Link and so many others – these programmes are bought and sold on humiliation.  I am not bitter, I am not a snob, I just don’t call that entertainment. Forgive me for sounding like an old fart but whatever happened to common decency and kindness to others?

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14th May 2009 17.42

There is a choral society down the road from me in leafy West London advertising Carmina Burana from scratch next month.  Forget Deborah Voigt at the Barbican - I think this may be the gig of the month. 

What those two little words from scratch mean is that a bunch of have-a-go amateurs like me gather for a single afternoon and attempt to bring together one of the major works of the repertoire.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  But there are a couple of tiny reasons why I think it is more likely to be musical train wreck: 1. the music and 2.  er…the words. 

OK – I’ll grant you, it’s hard not to know the opening song of Carmina – ‘O Fortuna’.  What comes as a surprise to many is that it sits at the head and tail of a 60 minute, choral and orchestral songfest.   By the time our one and only rehearsal has wandered from ‘O Fortuna’ to, say, item No.7 on the agenda ‘Floret Silva’ – we are going to have to stop remembering how it goes on the CD and start reading the actual notes. And this would be a problem for every choir I’ve been in because - strike me down – the majority didn’t really read music that well.  To most, the printed score was not the unalterable utterance of a great musical mind – more a sort of graph: when the dots went up, so did they and the only real aid separating them from chaos was the certainty of the person next to them.  In anything ‘from scratch’, everyone is bound to be equally lost and thus all equally buggered.

Then there’s those words.  Quiz question: what language is Carmina in?  Answer [Wiki]: “Latin, Middle High German” (whatever that is) “…and bits of Old Provençal” (oh, as opposed to New Provençal in which I am completely fluent).  Tell me you can read that, all broken up into rhythms and pitch it without first sitting in a darkened room practicing for weeks and I know you’re lying.

For years I have done a routine in comedy clubs in which I hold up cards showing what I think they are singing in ‘O Fortuna’ while a recording blasts over the P.A.  It includes the memorable “There’s something loose/A great big moose/Sitting there with gonorrhoea” – and trust me, that’s exactly what they sound like.   Next month, for the first time, I have got a feeling I am going to be able do those words, live and in concert, without a hint of a pitch or the slightest blush.

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6th April 2009 15.00

Three days with the triumphant Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba, Canada.  I must have been to Canada twenty times and never seen snow before.  And writing that is equivalent to writing ‘I must have been to Berlin twenty times and never even thought about the war’ or ‘I must have been to Paris twenty times and never seen any dog poo’.  Fact is, it snows in Canada...all the time.   Snow is what they do and my missing it thus far is a miracle completely due to the fact that I have hitherto mostly toured summer theatre festivals when it is always baking.  Now, at last, Canadians make sense – the underground shopping, the pallid skin, the oversensitivity to bright light.

When I first went to Canada, I thought the electrical plugs permanently dangling from the bonnet (hood) of all cars was some kind of elaborate preparation for jump-starting the rubbishy N. American vehicle once the battery gave out.  Nope.  Turns out those plugs dangling from the hood (bonnet) are the visible part of a heater in the engine sump which has to be plugged in overnight to STOP THE OIL FROM FREEZING. And at what temperature does oil freeze exactly?  Allow me to propose that it is just slightly above the temperature at which the very core of your brain solidifies and slightly below the temperature at which it should dawn on you that people are not in fact meant to live here.

So it snowed – a blizzard on Main Street.  “Welcome to Spring in Manitoba” said everyone.  I asked what the difference was between this and Winter in Manitoba?  “Well, in Winter, it is minus forty”.  They can say just ‘minus forty’ because this is the temperature at which the Centigrade and Fahrenheit scales coincide - which somebody doubtless originally worked out as a sort of mathematical curiosity similar to ‘if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time it would cause a tidal wave’.  They probably thought minus forty might occasionally occur in space, perhaps.  In Canada, minus forty and more happens on a regular basis.  Actually, there are probably people in parts of Canada who think that when it gets to minus forty, winter is at last releasing her icy grip.

Looking out on the snow driven wastes of the three-lane motorway which passes through the centre of Winnipeg (Portage and Main – and Winnipegers wonder why no-one comes downtown any more)  I tried to work out what the hell was wrong with the scene.  There was some kind of mismatch in my British way of thinking.  By the second day I realised that it was simply this:  if that much snow fell in Britain (which it hasn’t since mammoths were hunted at Piccadilly Circus) the whole country would stop.  Nobody would even think of going to work; children - an automatic day off; nothing in the news except the weather.  Yet here were the Canadians gaily going about their day: driving, walking, working - just grateful that it wasn’t minus forty.  Jolly snow ploughs whizzed by every few minutes.  Rather: teams of snow ploughs - like so many blades on the latest Gillette razor – one got close, the  next even closer and the next you could hear the shovel rattle over the tarmac.

And, after some of the snow had receded (well, a bit of the snow, actually hardly any of the snow), three concerts with the band - me forgetting the music a lot of the time but Gwen and Karl (Concert Master and ‘Associate’ Concert Master - nice work if you can get it) saved me regardless.  Karl: “saving conductors is what we do”.    Karl is a saint and will be remembered in Concert Master Associate-Heaven.

By plane back to London.  Taking sympathy on my endless complaining, a kind soul at the orchestra gave me a homeopathic cure for jet lag called...er... No Jet Lag.  I tried it and it worked, I think (thought – see below).   Then, after two nights at home I hear the call of the Departure Lounge once more – this time to sell my soul for a corporate audience in Kuala Lumpur.    I accepted this proposition, naturally, only on the strict understanding that 1) I was paid an obscenely large amount of money and 2) I could do it all business class.

What business class effectively meant to me was the opportunity to look down on people whom I had only days before embraced as brothers in deep vein thrombosis.   Under their pitiful gaze I check-in in minutes, standing on a gloriously naff bit of carpet emblazoned with the airline logo, while they continue the tedious, slow conga of luggage trolleys, winding their way to the witch who can either upgrade them to First or chuck them off the plane on a whim.  At the gate I am invited to “board at my leisure” which means swanning   through a door, to all intents and purposes unused, while they queue for a theatrically camp airline employee to examine their passports and put the boarding pass through that funny reader box.  And, when I finally sit down - the holy grail - a seat which I could actually sit in without feeling the blood already pooling in my ankles threatening an imminent, untimely demise the moment I get up.

So, eleven hours later, almost direct from the frozen wastes, I arrive in Kuala Lumpur where it is very hot and, above all, humid.  A stroll out of the Hotel Shangri-La (pronounced ‘Sangeri La’ by all taxi drivers) and in minutes I am dripping.  After the gig (success) my lovely hostesses Claire and Elsie manage to procure three front row seats to the Malaysian Grand Prix the next day - one of the teams (Ferrari) is sponsored by the corporate client from Abu Dhabi I was brought here to entertain.  This, I feel, is appropriate since many of the taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi already think they are in Formula 1.  The last time I was there, I stayed in a hotel 28 Km from town.  That taxi ride was the scariest five minutes of my life. 

The Grand Prix is exciting – I really can’t say why.  It is, needless to say, an ecological disaster but somehow you get caught up.  I glimpsed Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari shirt parading up and down on the tarmac  examining the competition – a row of incredibly powerful cars.  Watching them drive to their positions, my  overriding feeling was how similar to Scalextric it all is and how I must get my set down from the loft when I get home.  Claire, Elsie and I are right on the start line from where, after much milling around, noisy revving, a practice lap (to warm up the tyres, apparently) they are off.   Then, after 33 of 56 planned laps, with my adopted favourite (Jenson Button) in the lead...the downpour. 

Again the mismatch – yes, we have rain in Britain but it is hard to describe the thick, coal buckets of water smacking down all around they get in Kuala Lumpur.  The effect on the race is dramatic - the cars start to trail a massive spray, there are a couple of ugly spins and a (minor) crash.  A red flag (race stopped) and, after some debate, it is all over (cancelled).   Jenson B.  is the winner but only gets half points.  I wonder if that also means only half a bottle of champagne to spray over his colleagues and half the number of scantily clad model types to dance the night away.

Strangely, the disappointment of the race is at least a return to normality.  Crap weather means that things stop and there is calm reassurance that a body is not meant to plough on regardless through torrential rain (any more than snow drifts six feet thick).  With this thought Claire, Elsie and I begin our own ploughing job - 2 ½ hours by taxi through the traffic back to the Sangeri La (it would have been quicker to walk).

Now all my recent efforts are done and dusted – from ‘The Last Night of the Proms...Ever’ in Colchester to the RFH with Brendel & co. to Winnipeg and Lumpy Kuala.  I am writing this in my executive business seat jetting back to the UK and retirement. The No Jet Lag pills did not exactly fulfil their claims in K.L. but then it was probably rather a strain on their powers going from GMT – 6 to GMT +7.  Since I never really got over the time change in Malaysia, I wonder if they are going to do no more than seal the jet lag in. 

I just glimpsed out of the window - solid cloud.  Ahhh, bliss.  Blighty: weeks of genuine no jet lag, the pooch, Mrs Hersch (my wife) and grey, grey London skies.

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9th March 2009 07.42

Did Classic Relief with the Philharmonia Orchestra and more stars than you can wave a stick at, at the Festival Hall on Saturday night to a very full audience and success. 

I thought I was going to be able to say that ‘it had been two years in the planning and two hours in the doing’ but in the event…ahem…there seemed a moment in which ‘two years in the planning and two years in the doing’ might have been appropriate. I now realise that the word gala is actually synonymous with the phrase goes on a bit for which, if too true on Saturday, I apologise.  Frankly it came as a bit of a shock to me also to come off stage and find that the first half had rundled on for a full 1 hour 20 mins - somehow I don’t notice the time passing and, of course, somehow hoped the spectatorship felt the same. All I can say is that, on paper, it all ran beautifully to time.

It goes without saying I am grateful to each and every bod that took the time, trouble and parted with their hard-earned cash to be there;  also to everyone who worked both in front and behind the scenes – mostly gratis and well, well beyond the call of duty – to make Classic Relief happen. One of my abiding memories will be looking from the podium over to Alfred Brendel at the piano (even if it was for just one chord) and wondering if it was all really happening. He could have (should have?) just said no, which I understand he often does.

My next-door neigbours D. and R. (names withheld but known to the police) who were in the gallery said that it seemed a shame that there was nobody on hand at the end of the evening thank me.  Theatrically, I understand that might be a hole but, practically, as the scriptwriter and makeshift charity impresario for the evening, it would have seemed a bit ikky to programme-in my own appreciation ceremony.   However, if you felt the same, here it is now:

ME: “On behalf of me, I would like very much to thank me.”
ME: “Thank me”

…see?  Doesn’t work.   The plain truth is I am happy with the memory that we actually managed to get off our arses and do something in our own way which will have raised a few quid for people out there who really need it– over which consolation I will be dribbling in my dotage (planned for the week after next).

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P.S. If you couldn't get there, or are are reading this in complete ignorance, the glories of Classic Relief will be audible on BBC Radio 3 next Friday afternoon (13th March) and visible (it was filmed) on the BBC iPlayer for a month after that. Or...come to Bridgewater Hall on Friday 13th to see us do it all over again. On second thoughts, maybe not all of it...


27th Feb 2009 00.17

On your marks, get set…go:

Just did In Tune again – BBC Radio 3 – to punt Classic Relief.  Thinking back, I realise this is my fourth time.  If I manage to get on again I think I might be due for some kind of medal – a lifetime achievement award surely.  Sean Rafferty, the mainstay presenter – white hair, round, smiling face like the Cheshire Cat – was charming and understanding as always and I did a translation of Mozart Queen of the Night to entertain.  A shame only a handful of old farts in the home counties will have heard it. 

During our chat I related how, two weeks ago, I got a phone call from Alfred Brendel about the Festival Hall concert: "Vat do you vant me to do?".  I have had a series of nervous phone calls from the notables who are appearing on March 7th over the last few days.  I think, though they all fell in with this idea months ago without demur, they have all just flipped open their March 09 diaries to ask themselves ‘what the hell is that!?’ 

Now, I have got a friend, Tom, who does great impression of Brendel and when I picked up Alfred's message, for about five seconds, I felt sure it was just Tom messing about.   Probably just as well I didn’t pick up the original call then.  I have actually kept the message on the phone and now played it to at least three people to prove that, yes, I had a call from Alfred Brendel. 

Unfortunately, while fiddling around a couple of days ago, I accidentally pressed the wrong key and called him back.  In my panic, I couldn’t cancel quickly enough and someone picked up – his wife I think.  Rather than simply apologise (“sorry, wrong number”) or explain (“hi, er, this is Rainer Hersch – sorry, I pressed the wrong button…”) I did the honorable thing and just hung up without a word.  Dang.  Luckily, no-one thinks to use last number recall in the Brendel household (apparently) so I am in the clear.  Unless, of course, he is one of the old farts that listens to In Tune (or reads this blog).

P.S. if you are Alfred Brendel, you are not an old fart really.  I am only saying that because it looked funny and I am only giving myself 15 minutes to write this without checking it over and over.  Please don’t pull out of my concert.

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17th Feb 2009 09.19

Since I seem incapable of writing this diary to any length over the last few weeks (in fact, since the start of this year), I have decided to try the 15-minute blog: My random rundling has to be done, dusted and up on the web site inside quarter of an hour.

This necessity has arisen largely because of my overriding fretfulness about my big orchestral concerts - Classic Relief - on March 7th and 13th.  Quite apart from the massive amounts of work – everything from the musical arrangements to the car park passes - I veer between elation: ‘this is going to be the best thing I have ever done!’ to complete mental breakdown: ‘what the hell have I done?' On the whole, however, I think it will be fanbleedingtastic – not only the advertised high jinx (William Tell Overture – ruined; Johann Strauss’s arrangement of tunes form Windows® XP) also The Ride of Valkyries on Massed Stylophones and Marimba and Leroy Anderson’s Sandpaper Ballet to name but two…

8 minutes of my 15 gone and almost no time to mention my other attempted blog entries (curtailed by a bout of administrative panic) which included my hilarious anecdotes around travelling to Halifax, Nova Scotia in January to conduct Symphony Nova Scotia.  Halifax was previously noted for two other disasters: The Titanic (many of the bodies found floating in the sea – the real life Leonardo diCaprio’s – were buried there) and the 1917 explosion of a wartime munitions ship which ripped the city apart. Fortunately, apart from calling the concertmaster by the wrong name all the way through the rehearsals and the subsequent gig, I managed to avoid catastrophe. Audience and reviewer gave it a thumbs up.

Charles Darwin’s recent 200th anniversary contrasted with my visit to the Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, Alberta (oh yes, really) and the recent Sunday evening watching Mark Knopfler play ten songs to 150 people at a grand old club for thesps and other ne'er-do-wells in London will have to wait…

16 minutes. Doh!

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24th Dec 2008 09.36

Last night, at the Cadogan Hall, mine eyes lay to rest on those of Kiri Te Kanawa and mine (good) ear on her fourteen carat warbles – a Christmas treat purchased (quite uncharacteristically) months ago (courtesy of Mrs Hersch’s credit card).  This foresight permitted the spectacle to be enjoyed from poll position: third row, centre – almost within spluttering distance had the performance ever reached such a pitch (which, alas, it didn’t quite).  As it was, things were very much more Nymphs And Shepherds - pleasant enough but couldn't stop me drifting in and out of wondering if ‘Kiri Te Kanawa’ is merely a north country version of ‘Kiri The Kanawa’ or if her (incredibly lanky) accompanist might eventually step on her dress during the frequent comings and goings.

I can't even tell you exactly what she sung because, just as when in restaurants the truly famous famously never order anything on the menu, so Dame Kiri t’ Kanawa offered no published programme.  This caused not a little consternation – not least from those who queued five minutes to buy a piece of glossy card which turned out to contain no more than her biography.  Her reason: “I am always being asked for programmes months in advance and, when it comes to the concert, I look it and say to myself ‘I don’t want to sing any of that!’ [chuckle, through gritted teeth, from the audience].

Thus she busked her way through two 30-minute sets of sweetmeats including Scarborough Fair, O Mio Bambino Caro, and White Christmas – clearly making some things up as she went along and resulting in one false start:
“# I’ll be home for Christma….# - no, we’ll do that in the second half” [more gritted chuckles].  At the end I wondered if we had spent longer shuffling to and from our seats in front of the multitude geriatrics (I include myself) than actually listening to the Great Dame.

Anyhoo, after this unthreatening brush with royalty, Mrs Hersch (my wife) and I strolled up the illuminated but empty Sloane Street to the Cadogan Hotel in whose room 118 Oscar Wilde was famously arrested before being carted off to prison.  This I have passed many times with refrain of John Betjeman’s poem on my lips (I have still got a vinyl disc in the loft of him performing it methinks):

A thump, and a murmur of voices
(Oh, why must they make such a din?)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAINCLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:
"Mr. Woilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.

Clearly, from this rendition, the TWO PLAINCLOTHES POLICEMEN might have origins close to those of KIRI T’ KANAWA.  Weeell, it’s Christmas and venturing inside, we settled down to drinks at the bar.  It’s one of the ‘leading small hotels of the world’, apparently, and at £11.75 a cocktail I now understand why Oscar chose to be arrested rather than paying the bill.

A happy Christmas beckons for me at home in (currently not so) leafy Ealing – interrupted only by walking the pooch and fretting about things I haven’t done for the concerts on January 7th and March 7th.  Wherever you are, I thank you for reading this and, hope you can somehow manage the same (without the fretting).

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16th Nov 2008 12.22

Apologies to the regular readers of this column (I know there are some…well, one or two….well, one) for the dearth of new entries over the last few months.  I have been working hard on two projects: my new orchestral show “The Last Night of the Proms…Ever” and “Classic Relief” (my comedy concert in support of Comic Relief - see the dates page or here for some jolly video).

The former is gathering music and material – including my current favourite, a version of Rule Britannia in which the audience will get to join in with choruses such as:

“Rule, Osama! Osama lives in caves
He’s got hardly any friends and ne-ver shaves”

I assume the resulting fatwa or whatever will be hard to enact when shared by audiences of a few hundred (as, I hope, in Winnipeg where we will be doing it three times with the orchestra in March).  The latter is also coming along with, now, an agreed broadcast by BBC Radio 3 of the concert as their Performance on 3 for that day (hoorah).

In addition, it has been a period of (what I thought was) grand extravagance – to wit: I have had a birthday.  I really should come clean about exactly how old I am but I currently rather like the idea of ending up like some of those much more venerable personalities who, when they die, nobody quite knows exactly how old they are: their agent says 75, their passport states 88 meantime their partner swears that they were 82.

Anyway, being a would-be member of the international glitterati, I invited Mrs Hersch (my wife) to celebrate the great day (November 7th) by flying to Milan, Italy and a night at the opera (La Scala) – yes, really.  Needless to say this was inordinately expensive and, you may be secretly pleased to hear, more than slightly disappointing.  Milan was great (but of course daaaarling) but the opera not so.  It was The Merry Widow which (being a would-be member of the opera cognoscenti) I absolutely bloody loved when I saw it in London - funny, colourful and full of good tunes.  In Milano, any charm and wit was crushed out of it as each set piece (the songs) was separated not by jolly, mindless repartee between the characters but by curtain down and some diner-jacketed, Italian bloke coming on and explaining the subtext of what we had just seen.  Result: disjointed tedium with me sitting there thinking “I have just spent £340 on these tickets [true, sorry] I should be enjoying this”.  Yes, the costumes were nice and the orchestra played all the dots (if not exactly with gay abandon) but I couldn’t suppress my overall feeling of having expected a bit too much.  Note to self: stick to the cheap seats at the English National Opera (fifteen quid).

Return to London and found that Christmas decorations are up.  What!?  After some reflection, I now understand the schedule to which they are working.  I used to think that it was my birthday that signaled the start of the commercial rush but realise that it is almost certainly closer related to Remembrance Sunday.  It is deemed unseemly to start putting Christmas trees in one corner of shop windows before the poppies have been taken down from the other.

And, later in the week, news of another birthday celebrant: Prince Charles – 60 on Friday 14th.  And all my extravagance in Italy suddenly seemed like a fart in a spacesuit.  As part of the celebrations, the Queen invited Charles’s favourite orchestra, the Philharmonia (who are…ahem…also playing at Classic Relief, above) to the Palace.  Ricardo Muti was due to conduct but dropped out at the last minute due to “logistical difficulties”.  Logistical difficulties, my arse.  What had been planned to be an orchestral concert had apparently been reduced by functionaries to “the national anthem and short piece by a British composer” (Andrew Lloyd-Webber?).  Muti, duly insulted, stayed in Milan.

More interesting still, my Philharmonia insiders tell me of a second concert the day after in which the management were required to provide the orchestra and sixty harpists (the harp being Camilla’s favourite instrument).  Can you imagine the din of sixty harpists?  The tuning alone would have taken then best part of a week, like painting the Forth Bridge – by the time they had finished with the last, the first would have needed doing again.

I wonder if Charles sat in the royal box, his face flicking between the mass of gold, twanging strings and the bored look on his wife’s face thinking “I should be enjoying this…”

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31st Oct 2008 10.53

Ok, let’s get one thing straight – I don’t like Jonathan Ross and I am not particularly keen on Russell Brand (though I detect a slightly more artful twinkle in his eye).  But the furore surrounding their prank phone calls is completely misplaced.

Comedy is subjective – much more so than any other form of entertainment.  You could put the audience from the symphony in front of a Metallica concert and (apart from the noise) I doubt that they would actually be offended by it.  They might not like it or get it but that’s not the point.  This doesn’t apply to comedy.  If the TV audience for Last of the Summer Wine suddenly found themselves as ticket holders in the Comedy Store late show, within five minutes most of them would be at the cash desk asking for their money back.

I have seen a transcript of the Ross/Brand answer phone messages and there is nothing obscene in there.  Nor racist.  They probably went too far but being cheeky and over the top is the job of a comedian.  Sometimes, like everyone, comedians get it wrong.  An apology should be enough – “sorry folks – we were trying to entertain you but got a bit carried away by the sound of our own voices and lost our sense of perspective”.   The editorial staff responsible for the programme are also trying to strike this balance and a similar apology from them should be enough too.

When the programme itself went out to the audience for which it was intended, only two people complained.  Two people.  At the BBC two people is zero people.  At least two people always complain at the BBC.  After my recent quaint programme about percussion instruments somebody actually complained that “the percussionists interviewed are serious people and should be allowed to express their opinion without Rainer Hersch butting in and saying silly things”.  The trouble is that the people who complain are the visible ones.  The people who just enjoy the show then turn off the radio and get on with their day you never hear from. This part of the broadcasting process is boring but you get used to it.

As soon as the Ross/Brand answer phone messages are picked up by the press and the gist of their doings (without specifics or context or any feeling for the programme) is repeated to the general population, the prank starts to be assessed by those people for whom it was never intended as entertainment.  Of course little old ladies in Bexhill are going to find it a bit off.  There would be something wrong if they didn’t.  The BBC is a massive entertainment conglomerate producing material for every taste and age group.  I am, frankly, equally offended that Open Country is on after the news every other bloody day on Radio 4 but I understand that I am not the intended audience so I don’t write a letter to demand that someone loses their job.

Now phone-ins are full of “if I did that sort of thing in my work as an [INSERT STANDARD JOB HERE], I would expect to be sacked”.  What these people miss is that being a comedian is not a standard job.  Sorry.  It is an extraordinary job and – sorry again – the people who do it are extraordinary too.  You cannot judge the actions of a comedian by what would happen to you if you did a similar thing in your job.  Can you really imagine getting away with suddenly standing up on your desk and going into a twenty-minute rant about flying? Such people want it both ways – they want to laugh and boast about great British comedy when the material works and demand that heads roll on the odd occasions where something gets through that doesn’t.

From experience I can tell you that the only lasting effect of this affair will that the back-watching, conservative instincts in the BBC will dominate for a period of between two and five years.  The red pencil will be out and people like Russell Brand who are capable of creating comedic moments that BBC bureaucrats and ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ couldn’t even dream of are in for a frustrating time.

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10th Sept 2008 20.30

A week in which I have been watching conductors on TV – a minority sport. 

BBC4 Sunday: The Berlin Philharmonic were rebroadcast playing Brahms and Shostakovich at the Proms under eye[s] of the spidery Sir Simon Rattle.  Actually, I still can’t make up my mind about Sir Si: part conductor; part praying mantis; part humungous daddy longlegs.  With this profile, I supose it's possible that he might one day catch sight of his own reflection in the one of the brass instruments and nibble off one of his own protuberances.

After the concert, BBC4 rolled on with a documentary about the Berliners on tour in Asia.  I saw this film being touted in cinemas in Germany to ticket-buying audiences, here Trip to Asia was given out free. Mildly hypnotic it was too - appealing juxtapositions and managing to sidestep the usual fly-on-the wall clichés.  Thus a farmer working in his field near Taipei witnesses the jumbo jet bringing the band to town; the bustle of Asian street life is set against Sir Simon Daddy Longlegs discussing the details of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with his cello section. 

Oddly, from these clips it turns that Rattle can’t actually speak a word of German – well he can but so poorly that it hardly made any difference.  One might say, so what? neither can most of the orchestra (many of whom come from places other than the Fatherland) but you would have thought that a musical mind such as his, an ear for sound (presumably), would pick up the details of a foreign language just like that.  Er, no.  Even in English, talking to camera, he was a bit awkward.  The only time he didn’t look mildly ill at ease was when he was up there waving his daddy longlegs but as soon as he stopped for any reason he transformed back into the awkward nerd.

This, as it happens suits the BPO because, as the documentary went on, it transpired that most of the band were also basically misfits who had turned to perfecting their instruments after society had somehow let them down.  One of them said repeatedly that she only played to be loved and that she knew that if she stopped playing the love would stop too.  Not the sort of person you want to get caught in an lift with (especially if she had access to sharp objects).  It seems there is a fine line between being the best second horn in the world and going on the rampage round campus with an Uzi.

BBC 2 Tuesday: the end of Maestro – a series in which celebs tried their hand at conducting to the pleasure or displeasure of a panel of experts.  In the final episode, the two contestants still standing: drum'n'bass DJ, Goldie, and comedienne, Sue Perkins, beat their way through the first movement of Beethoven 5th symphony while BBC Concert Orchestra played it at more or less the same time.  All very good with Sue Perkins clearly deserving to win – which she did.   The only tinsy-winsy omission in this process being that, since neither Goldie or Sue Perkins can read a score, they are going to have a lot of trouble applying their skills to a situation where the band don’t already know it.  This major snag notwithstanding, I thought the most revealing moments in Maestro were when the experts themselves took to the podium. 

To a man (and woman) they were completely rubbish.  Almost worst of all was chairman of the panel, Sir Roger Norrington, who looked like he had a prosthetic arm and was using it to point at flies with a toothbrush.  Now I will grant you that the gallop from the William Tell Overture doesn’t exactly much stewardship, but a bit of oomph would definitely not have gone amiss.  The only one amongst them who looked the part (and made it count) was Maxim Vengerov doing a Brahms Hungarian Dance – lots of starts and stops and gypsy character.  But here’s the thing: Maxim Vengerov is actually a violinist, not a conductor, and only turned up in the last episode of Maestro to add a bit of glamour.

All this goes to show that baton twirling is a very dark art indeed and not necessarily related to the ability to talk about it (in Maestro for example – much mouth, very little Do).  It is also wide open to charlatanry which, mostly, only the players themselves can detect but just have to put up with.  All except in the case of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who themselves vote in and out their chief conductors.  In Berlin, a conductor who couldn’t actually conduct would be eaten alive.  That is, of course, unless he managed to smother them in a silk cocoon first.

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24th Aug 2008 18.30

I am sitting in my hotel in Old Strathcona on White Avenue, Edmonton.  Something very unusual and rather disconcerting has just happened.

This afternoon I was performing  at the Westbury Theatre.  It was sold out, which means 311 people.  I was about half way through the show when I noticed that a gent on the right of the auditorium was out of his seat and had turned round to address to the person behind him.   A quick glance from me.  Too early to say what was happening.   They could just be irritated with one another - I have occasionally also been so pissed off by people sitting behind me tapping, nodding or otherwise disturbing my karma that I might have similarly turned in my seat to remonstrate.  Perhaps a fight was about to break out? 

I carried on but , turning back to that section of the audience, saw that it wasn’t a fight but that the man being addressed is elderly.  Hands square on his armrests, his eyes were closed, he was not moving and very grey, almost green.  This was something else.  I had got to the part of the show where I divide the audience up into sections as if they were an orchestra.  Even more than elsewhere I would have been talking directly to individual parts of the crowd and there on the right down towards the stage is an elderly man who, in that second, I think might have actually died.   

Mid sentence, I stopped the show and asked if any help is needed?  “Yes.  The man is in need of urgent help” says someone.  “Is there a doctor in the house?”  I ask (always wanted to say that).  Turns out the gent getting out of his seat and turning round is a doctor.  

Hiatus. Audience murmur. If this is part of the show, it is very dramatic.

I announce why I have stopped to those people who might not be able to see what is going on.   The whole first three rows of seats are moved away to give access,  paramedics arrive, the festival administration turns up and, at length, the rest of the show is cancelled. Clearly, there is no way I can carry on with my trivial jokes after somebody has been taken seriously ill. 

After the decision had been taken, there was a strange feeling of emptiness as the audience shuffled out in silence.  I went back to the green room to change.  Dommage but what can one say or do?  When I got back to collect my things from the stage, the technicians say that the casualty had not gone to the great waiting room in the sky but had suffered from some kind of exhaustion having been standing in the line-up in the sun.  He should be OK we hope.

Sometimes, when something peculiar happens in a show I am asked if it was all a set-up.  Not this time - I am definitely not that good an actor.

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18th Aug 2008 10.38

Back at the Edmonton Festival in Canada – my sixth appearance here in 14 years I think.  The festival site is, as usual, heaving and I am very grateful for my...coughFiveStar...review from the Edmonton Journal.   Difference between this and all previous visits to Canada is that after Edmonton I will be flying home rather than schlepping off to some other distant part of the country to set up shop all over again - I hope:

On a day off, last Saturday, I decided to go on a mission to discover those parts of Edmonton where I had not previously ventured (most of it).  So, after the usually pilgrimage to Long and McQuade  (a fantastic chain of music equipment shops whose staff amaze me every year with their cheerful helpfulness); a wander along the barren Jasper Avenue in search of anything worth buying (nope); I ended up at the Telus World of Science – a sort of privatised science museum in the middle of the sprawling metropolis north of the river.

In the tradition of science museums the world over, a fair number of the exhibits were no longer working at Telus World of Science – busted by overeager little hands spinning that wheel just a little too fast or rubbing that Perspex container with the cloth just a little to enthusiastically.  In addition to the normal exhibition rooms (three of them) upstairs an IMAX cinema showed a film about coral (which I enjoyed – I’m a sucker for special effects).  It being IMAX, and despite the film being ostensibly about coral, it managed to include more than a reasonable amount of low level flying – the camera narrowly scraping by sheer cliffs etc.  This mirrored the underwater sequences where divers, supposedly carrying out meaningful research rather than just making a film for the plebs, dived here and there to examine ‘ze dyin corrall’ (de rigueur French accent) before narrowly scraping by sheer cliffs etc.

For another $20 a body could also visit Body Worlds – that touring anatomical exhibition featuring human bodies.  Real human bodies mind you – poor people with a post-mortal exhibitionist streak who chose to be dried out and plastinated (their word) rather than buried.  This freak show is the creation of professor Gunther von Häagen Dazs or something who came up with the idea and is now claiming to have advanced the frontiers of anatomy as only Burke and Hare before him.  Looking round Body Worlds fills you with a mixture of marvel and morbidity – amazement at the detail and the function of all these gooey bits; depression at the reminder of your brief span.   

In the taxi home my dark feelings made me wonder what happened to all those other fringe performers who used to come to Edmonton when I first visited all those years ago.  They were the household names of the Fringe in them days: The English Suitcase Theatre Company, Sensible Footwear, Forsight Theatre.  Reflecting again on the Body Worlds show I realised that one or two of might actually be in it.  You are not supposed to be able to identify the bodies but I am pretty  sure I could pick out the guy who used to do McHomer (the only one in a kilt) and some of the other faces looked mighty familiar.  And was it my imagination or did I see one or two of the attendants suddenly eye me up and down when I mentioned I was in town at the Fringe?

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7th Aug 2008 11.47

The Proms have started and BBC4 is suddenly full of classical music.  Funky introductory music; camera opens out to a studio that looks for all the world like a commentary box at a footy match.  On one couch are the musical worthies - for which read: Charles Hazlewood, Suzy Klein (who?), Sara Mohr-Pietsch (sorry, do I know you?).  On the other are celebs who once heard a classical CD, once, pontificating about the ins and outs of the Bruch Violin Concerto and Strauss Till Eulenspiegel.  Thus, John Savident (aka Fred Elliot in Coronation Street): “of course, in a funny way playing the Bruch Violin Concerto is probably very much like being Fred Elliot in Coronation Street…” ETC.

To keep up the momentum, ..the programme is clearly cut together to exclude the boring rearrangements of the stage and long, tedious slow movements.  So, miraculously, in a matter of a minute, we go from the end of the Bruch to: “Sorry John, I’ve got to stop you there because we are going back to the Albert Hall for more action from the Hallé Orchestra”.  All this makes it even more reminiscent of Peter Schickele’s commentary on Beethoven’s 5th symphony as done by two football commentators:

GRAMS                      BEETHOVEN 5TH SYMPHONY

COMMENTATOR     (VOICE OVER) “AAAnd they’re off with a four note theme…the beginning of a symphony is always very exciting – don’t you think so Bob?....and it looks like they’re coming up to a cadence folks…” ETC.

Meantime, starting this Tuesday, 12th on BBC2 is Maestro – a new reality TV show in which “celebrities compete for the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in front of a live audience of 30,000 at this year's London BBC Proms In The Park event” (where nobody will be listening because they will be too busy scoffing cucumber sandwiches and mixing the Pimm’s).   One by one the unfortunates will be voted off – not by the public of course because hardly anyone will give a toss - but by the orchestra and a panel of experts (probably Charles Hazlewood, Suzy Klein, Sara Mohr-Pietsch with an occasional John Savident popping up to tell us how “you know…conducting an orchestra is very probably very much being Fred - the character I used to play on Coronation Street…”). 

I will grant you that all this is at least an attempt to up the energy quotient in your average classical music broadcast but who, frankly, can be bothered to watch a classical concert on TV whatever they do with it?  Speaking for myself as a more than averagely engaged classical punter, classical music on TV just bores me to tears.  It hasn’t got the immediacy and excitement of the live gig nor can you do something else while you are watching it (such as pick your nose and stare blankly out of the window) like you can when you are listening to a radio/CD.

As for a reality show about conducting – they have got to be reaching the bottom of the pile of reality TV show pitches by now, surely?  Maestro can only be one or two submissions above the reality TV show in which “celebrities compete for the chance to slaughter 100-head of cattle using a bolt gun”.  Actually, thinking about it, isn’t 12th August the start of the shooting season?  Perhaps they could combine the two and just have the one brilliant episode in which a series of minor celebrities were lined up and put out of their misery.  Now that I'd actually pay to see.

Ahem…you may be thinking that I am just bitter that I am not somehow involved.  

And you’d be broadly right.

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11th July 2008 12.42

Once, years ago, I recorded a stand-up set on German TV.  On the day the programme was shown I got a call on my home number in the UK from two girls in Schwerin (northern Germany, about 120km from Hamburg) who had decided that there couldn’t be that many Rainer Hersch’s in the London telephone directory (correct) and who looked me up.  Flattered, shocked and faintly scared I chatted to them for half an hour before making my excuses, asking them not to call again, and ringing off.

So, last Thursday, I am creeping towards central London on the Piccadilly Line, reading everything of interest in the free newspapers (which takes a full 30 seconds) when the mobile rings.  I glance at the display and the incoming is number 0049….
Germany.
Bollocks!  Who is it now? Two builders from Bremen? Students from Stuttgart? Because, apart from my in-laws (both in their 80’s and who have seen mobile phones but think they work by connecting to the electricity supply) I know nobody in Germany who has got my mobile number – a few drug dealers; Cologne central police station maybe but, really, that’s it.

Well, it turns that I am more detectible than I imagined.  On the other end it’s Detlef - the manager of the Lindener Spezial Club (“Lindener Special Needs Club” – only joking) in Hannover, Germany.  I have won a prize!  And not one of those “congratulations, you are the one millionth person to access this web site!” prizes neither, but a real prize.  The audience voted my gig there in March the best this year.  Me!  Won a prize!  Stone the crows. The only other prize I have ever won was one at the wrap-up party at Winnipeg Fringe Festival where the only criterion for winning was cheering louder than the others when your name was read out from a list.

Detlef wanted to know if it was...er OK to come back to Hannover to do another gig and collect my cash in February.  “Cash!?”  say I.  “Yes, you get an engraved beer glass (it’s a beer company that sponsors it) plus €2000?”  “Bloody hell. €2000 - that’s £1600 in real money.  But of course”.  I couldn’t suppress a quiet cheer as I scrabbled for the diary to write 'Tuesday, February 24th 2009 HANNOVER' in thick red pencil, making the 'E' of HANNOVER into a '€' for good measure.

Bit of a result then. Bought Ted the dog some special treats to celebrate and made a note to self to win more prizes.  At €2000 a pop I could use the money to employ a secretary whose sole job it was to field weird phone calls.  Actually, with enough prizes I could even employ a secretary to start making them.

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1st July 2008 10.38

A rumination backlog no less...

Friday 20th June
I hear from my producer that Gershwin’s Horns – my radio programme about whacky orchestral instruments (anvils, taxi horns etc) made it onto Pick of the Week on Radio 4.  Hoorah!  Frankly, after all the effort of pitching the idea; recording interviews; writing and recording the script you start to wonder if you haven’t just spent a month creating a load of old poo.  So that's poo to the contrary.

The original broadcast and the “obscenely long” repeated excerpt on PotW took place while I was in Oz.  I didn’t report in this journal at the time that at the appointed hour (+ 9) I tried to listen to it on-line in the bar of my hotel in Strahan, Tasmania (the only place with high-speed Internet in…er…Tasmania, probably).  Having spent an hour crouched over my laptop downloading the umpteen necessary updates to BBC RealPlayer, the said bar promptly shut.  “Sorry, mate, I can’t let you stay here but you can get the Internet in the corridor” says the barman (one of the last Australian barmen left in Australia since the rest must be living in bed-sits in Earls Court).  More crouching – this time in the freezing corridor – until my high-speed Internet credit ran out after about 15 minutes of the programme.  Bollocks. And the bit I did catch sounded like a load of old poo.

Saturday 21st June
Did a solo show at Woolpit Festival - a wonderful little village in the heart of Suffolk with half-timbered buildings older than America (actually - 14th century - older than the U.K. for that matter).  Makes you proud to be British…or should that be English.  After the gig amongst many cheery plaudits I meet the actor Ian Lavender who is somehow associated with Woolpit (owns sheep?).  Almost crashed the car on the way home phoning my mother to tell her.  Ian Lavender, for the uninitiated, was the youngest character, Pike, in Dad’s Army.

U-boat Captain: Your name will also go on the list! What is it?
Mainwaring: Don't tell him Pike!
U-boat Captain: Ah Pike!

...how we laughed.

Suffice to say that, 35 years on, he now doesn’t look anything like Pike.  In fact, half way through our conversation, I felt like asking him if he really was Ian Lavender and not a bearded Ranulph Fiennes.

Friday 27th June
Went to Alfred Brendel’s last recital at the Festival Hall.  Standing ovations, much cheering, hats in the air et al.  As he walked off for the final time, I had more than a slight sensation that we had reached the end of an era since, like many musos, I feel that I have sort of grown up listening to him.  Being slightly more fanatical than most, I might claim slightly greater reasons for nostalgia:

When I was in my teens, wandering aimlessly around the Southbank with a friend (Tim) one afternoon (as you do), we realised that Alfred Brendel was playing a Beethoven concerto that evening in the Festival Hall.  We sneaked past the cordons, let ourselves into the hall and there he was doing some final practice all alone on the stage.  After he finished, Tim and I approached  and pledged the undying troth of teenage fans.  I remember him saying in his Germanic rumble “follow me” whereupon he took us into his green room in the bowels of the Festival Hall, signed our hall events programme and asked us questions about which of his recordings we had heard.  Since most of these didn’t actually belong to us, we rather fumbled our answers I remember but left elated nonetheless.  I have still got the signature somewhere upstairs in box of treasures.

Suffice to say that in the ensuing 30 years I have become friendly with the younger Brendel clan, though I can’t honestly say that I know the great man himself.  Adrian, his son, has asked me to do a comic tribute to him at a private concert in Dorset in July 19th.  I’ll probably mention my autograph story but will doubtless botch the ensuing questions about recordings just the same.

Ted Tears
Ted the dog’s conjunctivitis is much better – thanks for various concerned emails.  Unfortunately, having spent two weeks dabbing his eyes with various drops and ointments, now I’ve got it. What else can I catch off him I wonder? Let's not even go there.

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10th June 2008 09.32

Somehow, deep down, I always fear going away from home.  Between the moment of departure and the safe return to my comfortable bed lie all the vagaries of poorly maintained airplanes, foreign taxi drivers, exotic diseases.  Then, of course, are all the bad things that can happen to my humble abode while I’m away – chiefly (I imagine) at the hands of local ne’er-do-wells who, are going to break in, nick my computers and trash the place. It's a deeply felt feeling of Ying and Yang - you can't have a good thing without it being balanced somewhere with a disaster.

In travelling to Australia, my fears about the bad stuff probably have less foundation than otherwise.  For a start Qantas is the only airline never to have had an accident (is that true or merely traveller’s legend?).  Meanwhile, the taxi drivers there speak English and don’t drive like their crashing or not is merely an expression of the will of God’s will.  Finally, apart from the occasional venomous spider, I am pretty sure my GP can at least spell the names of most things that are likely to kill me. And, the good stuff? Australia - packed with top quality experiences which I will be able mull over when I finally slump, dribbling and incontinent in my future old folks home - the sights, the sounds, the simple chance I am given to casually zoom off somewhere that some people never manage to get their entire lives. Quite a lot of Ying not much Yang then.

Well, now it is all done I can report that I survived with no ill effects.  And to boot managed to have fun.  The concerts were great – ending up in Toowoomba with the Queensland Orchestra.  (The word ‘Toowoomba’ is to British ears emotionally equivalent to ‘Ouagadougou’ but, suffice to say that, the back of beyond it is not.  Most surprising of its many worthy chattels is a fab art-deco theatre seating 1,500 and packed to the rafters with an audience up for a good time).  Add to that my own wanderings with Mrs Hersch (my wife); Koala bear cuddling in Cairns; the dingoes on Fraser Island (not cuddled) and general lazing around hotels way above my price range, the result was a growing feeling that being away from home just ain’t so bad after all. So what's the payoff?

Twenty six hours later, back in Blighty, and it turns out that the household has not fared so well.  During my absence, Ted the dog has developed some kind of galloping conjunctivitis which none of his sitters seemed to have noticed; a leaking tap in the upstairs bathroom makes it look like one of the ceilings may now come down and the always over-sensitive fuse box tripped out on day 3 cutting power to the building and reducing the contents of our freezer to a mouldy mess (including a carefully preserved tier of our wedding cake).  Bugger.

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19th May 2008 02.30

Hello from Tasmania, Australia – about as far as you can get away from leafy Ealing before you start coming back on yourself - three flights; five titchy airline meals and enough jet-lag to still wake me up at 2am a week later (it’s 2am).  The aim: three concerts with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Burnie, Launceston and Hobart.   All done and dusted now with great success (methinks) including a standing ovation in Burnie – the first ever there according to all reports (hoorah).

The Tassie’s are great and full of vigour.  Beautiful countryside and interesting buildings – ancient by Australian standards though many postdate the average kitchen extension in the UK.   This history is due to the convict era which established the original colony here, reminding me of that old standard about Australian immigration.  Question: “Do you have a criminal record?”.  Answer: “Didn’t realise that was still a requirement to get in”.  Oh how we laughed.

Naturally, I enjoyed the banter with the audience at the top of the show, gradually developing my routines disparaging whichever town we had performed in last.  Thus, in Launceston: “bloody Burnie, talk about Darwin’s Waiting Room at one point I asked if anybody had been to London - one hand went up.  One hand, six fingers etc” [CHEER/APPLAUSE].  In Burnie: “The good news is, I think someone is trying to burn down Launceston (there is a hell of a lot of wood smoke around town)  – we heard on the radio that there had been a fire there which has already done over $200,000 of improvements etc” [CHEER/APPLAUSE].  In Hobart: “Yes, we just came back from what we have been calling the hillbilly tour – Burnie and Launceston.  Have you seen the monkeys in City Park in Launceston (a troop of about 20 kept in a special enclosure)?  I bloody loved those monkeys.  But, reading the notices, I couldn’t work out whether they were the gift of Launceston City Council or whether they were Launceston City Council etc” [CHEER/APPLAUSE]. 
All good clean fun.  The Queensland Orchestra next.   I can hear it now:  “Just came from Tasmania – they have a big problem once a year down there – Father’s Day etc” [CHEER/APPLAUSE]. 

Come on people – it’s my job!

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5th May 2008 09.09

Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi - all great gigs in front of audiences who were completely up for it.  However, there a reason for this: there is bugger all else to do in Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.  And they know it. 

This, for example, is a joke that goes down very well at the top of a stand-up set in Qatar:
“So we arrived today at twelve o’clock.  We got picked up and were given this big sightseeing tour round everything there is to do….and by ten past twelve we were in the pool at the hotel.”  [BIG LAUGH/CHEER]

On Day 2, fellow comic Owen O’Neill and I ventured out of the hotel on a pedestrian safari across town to find little except dusty streets.  What pass for highlights are: a desperately uninteresting waterfront promenade (known locally as the corniche – the only other corniche I can think of is the one running around Monaco and the Côte d'Azur, Qatar ain’t); a museum of Islamic Art (closed) and something known as the Old Iranian Souk (picked up a retired couple from Baghdad for a fiver).  Two thirds of the population (900,000) are expatriates but being sent there seems to me an odd kind of prison sentence.  Abu Dhabi (the Milton Keynes of the Emirates) is not much better.  Only Dubai offers a spark of variation though it will only be really interesting when it is finished (never). 

Don’t get me wrong, the people are great. Also the tour organizers (Duncan and Gayle: much love and praise be heaped upon them for their professionalism, friendly help and encouragement).  I also enjoyed myself very much though didn’t manage a return trip to the famous, sail-like hotel the Burj Al Arab for tea ("the world's only seven-star hotel" - makes a nonsense of the system, surely?). You know there are rooms in the Burj which go for $50,000 a night.  For $50,000 the Sewing Kit is this little Chinese lady who sits in the corner, darning.  And if you want to watch a soap opera, they fly the actual actors in…

Now that I’ve got to see.

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2nd April 2008 18.27

I have just an on-line interview with Time Out Dubai (to whose jurisdiction I am jaunting off next week).  Naturally, it is a pleasure to have my opinion asked about anything but my inability to just answer the bloody questions and hit send mean that a task which might take me 15 minutes, tops, ends up absorbing the best part of a morning.

What we are talking about here is the “what’s your idea of happiness”; “tell us your best joke” style of journalism.  The resulting column is fun to read and about my level on a bleary Sunday morning but there is clearly also a bit of lazy-arsed filling of column inches going too. 

I must have done about ten of them in my time.  Some are fun, some are simply preposterous.  “Tell us your best joke” sails in that direction.  Let’s face it, even if I had one really good joke I am not going to piss it away, free to be presented completely out of context in a listings magazine.  There my so-called best joke can be read and dismissed: "hmmph. Best joke! that's not very funny". I laughingly call myself a professional comedian.  The key is in the word professional – i.e. for money. 

In etreme cases, a solution I have found is to simply be equally preposterous.  To a South African newspaper in 1999: What are you looking forward to in the new millennium: Living in it. What are you not looking forward to: Dying in it.  I mean – what the hell do they want you to write?  A summary of putative highlights over forty years?

Ahem...well, in case you don’t happen to be a subscriber to Time Out Dubai and so I get at least some other use out of it…herewith my latest effort For best effect, print it out and read it with a throbbing hangover over tea with a boiled egg and toast soldiers.

Tell us your funniest joke
 Q. What’s grey, got four legs and a trunk?  
A. A mouse going on holiday
Q. What’s brown, got four legs and a trunk?
A. A mouse coming back from holiday.

…that’s two jokes. Not necessarily mine or the funniest but they work on my five-year old nephew.

Describe a funny...

...audience ice-breaker
Setting fire to the curtains 

...personal experience
Sitting in a traffic jam and seeing one of my four step-brothers in a car next to mine but not recognizing him.  I must add that I have had two step-fathers in my life and I have hardly met the most recent clutch of step-siblings.  He started honking.  I opened the window.  Me: “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?” Him: “MY FATHER IS MARRIED TO YOUR MOTHER”.

...but terrible moment as a comedian
Doing a guest-spot at the comedy store and hearing a version of your best joke being done (quite coincidentally) by the guy on just before you. 

...person
Victor Borge.  I made a programme about him for the BBC and got so interested in his story that I felt compelled to write a one-man play “Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge” which I first did at the Edinburgh Festival and have subsequently toured in North America and Australia amongst other places.  Borge managed to combine comedy and classical pianism in a way which was completely new and which entertained a very wide audience whether they cared about classical music or not.  Although the peak of his fame was in the 1960’s, he is still unbelievably fondly remembered – a testament to the aura he generated on stage.  I also met him once (very briefly) in 1996 backstage in a concert hall in Stockholm of all places – a moment which I have to recreate in the play.  He died in December 2000 aged 91.

...place
The CN Tower in Toronto where the floor is made of glass and you can see right down to the ground

...word
“some spoiling of the tile nibs” – this is the one phrase that I can remember from the surveyor’s report on my first house in Brixton.  I have still no idea what it means

...animal
Ted the dog.  My dog.  ‘Ted’ is an abbreviation for “insTed of children” 

...song
Leporello’s list song Madamina, il catalogo è questo from Don Giovanni.  In it he describes how many women the Don has slept with.  And they include: 91 in Turkey; 100 in France and over 1,300 in the county of Essex to the East of London.

...sound
The sound of someone else laughing uncontrollably on stage or at the microphone.  Corpsing is frowned on by the acting profession but I don’t understand why.  It is a rare moment when you get a glimpse of the real person.

...celebrity
Sir Les Patterson (the alter, alter ego of Barry Humphries - aka Dame Edna Everage). In the silent movie era I believe there were similar camps: fans of Charlie Chaplin and fans Buster Keaton.  For me, Sir Les trumps Dame Edna and I am pretty sure most comics would say the same.  Why? I don’t know: the teeth, the spitting, the glass of whisky – the fact that he is cultural attaché.  I just have to think of that character and he makes me laugh.  I am wiping away tears of laughter just writing this (really).

...crisis
Not sure that I have ever had a funny crisis.  I generally just put my head down and get on with it.  I am not good in situations which involve conflict.  I seek my wife’s advice when dealing with those - unless it’s her that I am in conflict with, in which case I defer to the dog.

...fellow comedian
Plenty of people.  To mention any by name would seem sycophantic or worse.  Once, at a Comedy Store party in London, I decided that I would be genuine and just tell a certain comedian how much I liked what he did – that I thought he was funny and original.  “OK….thanks” says he, awkwardly before moving away.  With hindsight, I realised he thought I was trying to chat him up.

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8th March 2008 09.44

Living in London can be like being a member of a very expensive gym you never actually visit.  You fork out monthly, daily, in the form of more expensive housing; expensive travel; generally inflated cost of living - meantime the facilities lie there untouched.  Over the last few days I have been gripped by a desire to exercise my rights.

So:
Saturday, March 1st: Tosca at the Albert Hall.  Tosca is the one where everyone dies including the eponymous heroine who chucks herself off the battlements at the end (at which the music…just ends which I have always found a bit strange).   Never seen it live.  Performing that suicidal stage dive has become one of the great causes célèbres of operatic dramatics and source of many disaster stories.  And I quote:

(Dudley Moore’s Musical Bumps, 1986)
“In one production a group of students were recruited to play the chorus – in this particular opera, mainly soldiers.  As usual, the producer was more concerned with the principals, and left giving the soldiers their instructions until a few minutes before the curtain. ‘You march on as a firing squad, line-up here, and shoot’.  When they asked how they were to get off the stage, he told them ‘Oh…just follow the principals.’

In the third act, the firing squad came in on cue, but instead of aiming for her lover, they pointed the guns at Tosca herself.  None of the signs she attempted  to give them were understood, and they fired at her.  They were rather perturbed when a man standing some distance away fell down dead, while the person they had ‘shot’ continued singing even louder than before! But even worse was to come.  As far as they could see, Tosca herself was the only principal left onstage.  So, when she threw herself over the battlements, they looked at each other and with a shrug walked towards the same spot.  The curtain came down to the sight of a platoon of soldiers throwing themselves - lemming-like – over the edge”

… better than the usual trampoline under the heroine yarn, but clearly hokum (you mean they had the orchestra and all the singers but no rehearsal when they went through the whole thing?).

In our production, Tosca threw herself most convincingly, approximately 4 meters into a specially designed pit behind the orchestra.  Mrs Hersch (my wife) was full of admiration ("zat vas a hell of a long vay" - Mrs Hersch is German) until I pointed out that singing Tosca had been cleverly switched for plunging Tosca seconds before it happened: she momentarily passed a covered area out of the audience’s sight (thinking of Dudley Moore, I had been keeping a beady eye out). 

Unfortunately also, this moment was the highpoint in more ways than one.  Watching opera in the vast, circus-like space of the Albert Hall is disconcerting.  For a start, everything has got to be amplified (including the orchestra) which gives you the faint feeling that it wouldn’t really matter if they just mimed it.  Meantime the singers seemed lost in the space – tramping here and there amid their rather naff scenery. 
4 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 4th: Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia at Tate Modern.  Mrs Hersch (my wife) is a particular fan of modern art and, being a paid-up camp follower of every gallery in London which offers it, frequently marches me around as her modernist cultural consort. 

Marcel Duchamp and company mean Conceptual Art - not to be confused with Concept Art or ‘Art de Concept’ (bastards! see the People's Front of Judea) - and Conceptual Art means the idea of the thing takes precedence over it’s actual execution: I draw two flowers on a piece of cardboard (badly) to illustrate that I hate flowers rather than to present you with the image of two flowers on a piece of cardboard done badly.  Geddit?  Not sure I do.  Such constructions often lead me to the feeling that it would save everybody a lot of time and effort if the artist just told us about what they were going to make, instead of going to all the time and trouble of actually making it.  If someone sent me a piece of paper describing how they had thought of screwing thirty deckchairs to the ceiling to highlight our false understanding of beach volleyball, for example, I could read and consider it over breakfast, then move on with the rest of my day.  As it is, I have to schlep into Tate Modern to nod and say "I see, they have screwed thirty deckchairs to the ceiling”.

Be this as it may, I have grown rather fond of walking into rooms full of Wellington boots/cows sawn in half/ticking metronomes etc.  The only problem is that when you’ve had enough  you’ve had enough.   Once you are tired of the new ideas, there is nothing else to look at and in this instance (as often at the Tate) I realised I had spent far too much time absorbing the details of Rooms 1 to 4 – little realising that there were another 20 still to go.  And, yes, the experience of actually seeing Duchamp’s famous signed urinal was just the same as being handed a piece of paper with the words “I am going to sign a urinal and put it in a gallery as a piece of art”. However, fun while it lasted.
6 out of 10

Friday, March 7th: Dealers Choice by Patrick Marber at the Trafalgar Studios.  There was a time when I knew Patrick Marber and those that similarly remember him from the London comedy circuit with his puppets and songs (really) are amused/amazed at his rise to the position of celebrity playwright.  All of that serves only to show what a small minded world the London circuit is and how, if you have got any sense (and I don’t think I have) you do it to grab what you can and move on.

I enjoyed this evening, though there was a slight feeling at the end of it that I had seen something meaningful acted out in front of me but wasn’t quite sure what.  I remember the same sensation at another Marby offering - Closer - which I saw in on tour in New Zealand in 1999 (oddly.  Perhaps I couldn’t get tickets for London).  The action focuses on one round of a weekly poker game, played by the staff of a London restaurant, though the central story is a complicated father-son relationship (the restaurant owner and offspring).  All very well acted (but acted – nobody ever actually speaks like that) and with a developing tension which kept us entertained and involved. Money well spent.
8 out of 10

(And by money well spent I might even mean the more expensive housing; expensive travel...).

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22nd February 2008 10.20

My sister has just written off the third car in her driving career: an unfortunate case of an unexpected early morning bollard at 30mph.  I am loath to gloat that I have never yet had an accident since I regard that as more luck than anything else.  Come to that my Dad never had an accident but saw loads in the rear-view mirror and that doesn’t include the time he mistook forward for reverse on his (automatic) Humber Imperial, smashed through the back garage wall and ended up in the sitting room.  Driving is dangerous and, the older I get, the less I like it – especially on motorways.

Not too far from me in Chiswick, West London is the headquarters of something called the Institute of Advanced MotoristsWhat’s that Rainer? Well folks it’s an…institute…for…er…advanced motorists.  Apparently, apart from a generally superior attitude, they have special test for people who feel they need documentary proof that they are truly a much better driver than all those other arseholes.  Once you pass it you pay less on your insurance and get a little sticker to put in your window (I suppose two fingers up under the Institute’s motto: If We Crash, It’s Your Fault).

Yes, the purpose of taking the test is to reduce your chances of having an accident by…well, I don’t really know by what but I am sure the Institute of Advanced Motorists have got statistics to show that it does.  What I do know is that during the test you can choose between either doing a running commentary to the examiner about the situation presenting itself so that they can hear how you are thinking ahead to avoid early morning bollards; not squish small children and slow down on the motorway as you pass the police OR you can just let the examiner deduce how observant you have been by dint of the fact that you have not wrapped your headlights round some concrete pillar, killed an infant or been arrested.  From what I understand, the biggest problem with the running commentary approach is that, when do encounter a diffucult patch (that oncoming Articulated Lorry in the middle of the road) your natural reaction is not to calmly announce to the examiner “oncoming lorry, I am changing to second gear and preparing to die” but either just shout expletives or shut up.  Either of those, I understand, is a fail.

Ahem.

All this is an incredibly long winded, vague and (probably) self satisfied-sounding way of explaining my blog silence over the last few weeks.  As it turns out, all my oncoming Artic’s all passed by without disaster for which I am truly grateful.  They culminated in a performance with the excellent Leicester Symphony Orchestra at De Montfort Hall as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival on February 16th. Prior to that there was my hosting of the Welsh Contact Centre Awards at City Hall in Cardiff and prior to that the unfortunate case of an unexpected early morning piano recital (Bach, Chopin, Liszt) at the London College of Music – the less said the better.

Now I am cruising on the open road with only the entertainment of my teenage nephew on the horizon.  He’s on half term this week and so, metaphorically, am I.  Thus, instead of fretting over the piano or practicing my conducting moves in the mirror, I will be idling away this (Friday) afternoon at the cinema with Harry watching Juno "a funny, savvy, feel-good comedy that reminds you why you fell in love with movies” (sounds rubbish already doesn’t it?) His Ma can’t take him owing to a minor episode with her motor.  Whatever.  You can now expect my full, blow by blow report in these pages…

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6th February 2008 10.24

There is a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine about visiting his parents in Florida (“my parents didn't want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that's the law”).  He’s in the hot tub - a U.S. domestic institution judging by the number of times I have heard it mentioned in stand-up sets.  Around him are his Dad and his Dad's friends and, looking at all this geriatric flesh, Seinfeld feels like asking them “what the hell happened to your body?”.  What started out as regular contours has become a mess – droopy, wrinkled with hair that has somehow migrated from the top of the head to inside the ears (I am paraphrasing here but that’s the gist). 

Now, I am not repeating this from a position of snooty superiority:  I’m in my 40’s, struggling to hold on to my hair and deaf as a post.  It goes without saying that getting older is about subtle changes which, over time, result in a fairly ruinous transformation.  I once read in a colour supplement (so it must be true) for example that throughout your life your ears keep growing.  Meanwhile the sensitivity of your hearing declines markedly after the age of sixty.  This, I suppose, is why you end up with a hell of a lot of old people with massive ears who can’t hear a ruddy thing.

On January 11th I went to a New Year’s Day concert (yes, you read that right) in Leatherhead, promoted by a friend: A thirty-piece orchestra running through Strauss waltzes and polkas; a thin, Slovakian geezer with a colourful waistcoat playing the cimbalom; soprano doing cheeky songs in languages nobody understood; at the end: Auld Lang Syne - pushing a point I think. The audience average age was about 70 - not a word of a lie.  It was a sea of white hair and comfortable shoes, smelling of lavender.  I looked around me at one point and realised that Mrs Hersch, my wife, and I were the youngest people there by twenty years, at least.  

Like Seinfeld, I felt like turning round to the ancient couple next to us and asking “what the hell happened to you?  What the hell are you doing here?”  They, quite reasonably might have asked me the same thing.  But it is enough to make you wonder.  Is it picking up an old age pension which suddenly starts you listening to classical waltzes?  Or have those people always gone to naff concerts at their local theatre and they can't help themselves.   Either way, when those people die out will another wave of old fogies replace them or is that it? 

I haven’t got the answers but it troubles me that classical music is so deeply un-hip.  More hip replacement. My (75 year old) mother used to worry that, being an itinerant entertainer I didn’t have a proper pension.  I used to say that I had a comedian’s pension: every month I set aside two jokes which I can use to support myself in my old age (you scoff but it worked for Victor Borge). Now I realise that I may not actually need a pension at all.  By the time I get to 70, I will have more work than I can handle. And have the pick of the laaadies. Eurgh! It's enough to make me choke on my Werther's Original.

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10th January 2008 16.11

As the year creaks to a start, I have had confirmation of a gig conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at London Festival Hall on 7th March 2009 in aid of Comic Relief.  It’s called Classic Relief and will be so totally awesomely fab I can hardly contain myself.  Guests include Alfred Brendel, Nicola Benedetti and Paul Lewis – all doing funny things. It goes in the Southbank big brochure this time next week; tickets on sale from April 2008 - yup, classical music listings cheer you up about your chances of getting to March 2009 hale and hearty. I believe Luciano Pavarotti had gigs up to 2012...

You read it here first.

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2nd January 2008 15.56

2008 began on stage at Birmingham Symphony Hall with the London Concert Orchestra (not to be confused with the London Chamber Orchestra, the London Community Orchestra, the London Charity Orchestra, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra or Lara Croft Online).  The hall was packed and glorious, happy and glorious in fact though the National Anthem was virtually the only rousing air missing from the programme.  At the stroke of midnight Mrs Hersch, my wife – looking glamorous - even managed to join me on stage for the singing of Auld Lang Syne after which we repaired to the hotel, two cocktails and a pocket full of mini sewing kits stolen from an unattended cleaning trolley. Oh yes, 2008 bodes well alright.

Now back in luxuriant West London (with every loose button firmly returned to its place) work on my resolutions has begun in earnest with the tidying of my office which has been looking like a kick-boxing match has been held in it for as long as anyone can remember.  I am hoping that, if I can finally get my old computer from under the desk and down to the dump, warring parties across the world with settle their differences in wonder.

Hoping you are full of the same spirit...

Happy New Year!

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24th December 2007 09.29

The last horrendous Christmas stand-up gig is now under my belt.  For the record it was Roehampton Sports Club – audience of about eighty (composed of employees of the club) split at 180º to the right and left on large circular tables, meaning that half of them are, by definition, facing the wrong way; free, meaning that nobody had committed to being there by handing over some of their own hard-earned cash; no raised stage and no lighting, meaning that there is no difference between us and them.  I was on first and survived only by standing on chairs (to raise myself enough above their heads to be noticed) and shouting.  The second act walked out and the closing act (the much fancied Reginald D Hunter) arrived too late after the disco had started to even make the attempt (very clever, Reg). It goes without saying that the disco is what they really should have had in any case.  Oh yes, it was comedy alright (but not art).

Now, the holidays...

The best analogy I have ever come across for Christmas is the massive cathedral on Mexico City's central square (the Zócalo).  When the Spanish arrived in (now) Mexico they found an enormous Aztec temple where that building now stands.  They plonked a cathedral over it in order to encourage the heathens in their religious associations with the site while cleverly diverting them from Aztecism - or whatever their bloodthirsty headchopping routine was called - to Catholicism.  Brilliant really.  So, also, the early Christians overtook Yule – a previously existing pagan festival celebrating the change of seasons - and made it the “remember the real meaning of Christmas” story we are made to feel guilty about today. Actually, according to research (and trust me on this), Christ was probably born in the spring in what we would now call 4 AD.  So, dear reader, eat and drink all you want without a shred of doubt that fattening up for the long, cold nights ahead is really what it is all about. No offence meant to Christ but I am sure he is big enough to take it in any case.

This observations has the added spin-off that the difference between 0 AD and 4 AD means we were all not born in the year stated on our birth certificates but four years later.  Thus we are actually four years younger than previously advertised.   Now that is something I really want for Christmas.

Sorry, Yule.

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17th December 2007 21.30

20 years ago exactly – and by that I mean 20 years ago to the minute -  in the function room of a pub in Sydenham, South London, I made my first ever appearance on the London comedy circuit.   The setting was the Rub-A-Dub Club, one of the many occasional comedy clubs around town.  I appeared doing a guest-spot (an unpaid five minute appearance) in a double-act called Stepping Out with the Tebbits - later abbreviated to just The Tebbits  and, even later, abbreviated to Rainer Hersch, formerly of The Tebbits.  My partner in crime was Peter Wylie and old friend from Lancaster University with whom I had written a student review.

It goes without saying that we were absolutely rubbish.  The central part of our performance was a sketch which I had written at Lancaster about Barnes Wallace and the Bouncing Bomb – 'nuff said.  It had been hilarious in front of our student victims but in the setting of a grimy pub in South London the joke was not quite so transparent.    We entered with clipboards and acted out our story.  My abiding memory is not of the confused indifference with which we were received but of a very weird moment in the action:

I had been to Glasgow that day on some sort of task for the London Festival Orchestra (my last office job).  I met Peter at the pub before the gig for a final run through before chancing our arm and we found an odd storeroom full of stuff upstairs for the purpose.  During the rehearsal, I realised I was missing a pencil which I needed as a prop.  Failing to find anything  pencil-like amongst all the junk, I substituted the mouthpiece of a trumpet which just happened to find lying around.  (At this point I hope you are thinking ‘this is so bizarre it has to be true’.  It is).  So my enduring memory of December 17th 1987 is of being on stage at the Rub-A-Dub Club in Sydenham so nervous that I when I looked down at my hands to write with my pencil I was actually looking at a trumpet mouthpiece, clutched between forefinger and thumb literally shaking uncontrollably before my eyes. 

Only a few times in my life have I ever experienced fear quite like it.  One notable other was when I conducted an orchestra for the first time having had no more than a two minute lesson from the presiding conductor who was taking the rest of the concert.  That episode, I’m afraid to say, didn’t go to prove my innate musical genius but that conducting an orchestra on just a two minute lesson can’t be done.  The best part about it was when I stopped.  People do bunjee jumps to achieve the same sensation I believe.  I had the same experience - quicker and without the intervention of some Australian hippy a bridge and a precipitous gorge.

The Rub-A-Dub was the scene of other first appearances - I remember clearly bumping into at least one other such debutant  in the course of my travels though I can’t remember who precisely.  Where are they now I wonder? In therapy? In cyberspace writing their blog?  (cheaper but the same thing).  Perhaps he has gone on to develop some kind of hilarious trembling trumpet routine and is even now storming the Sydenham club scene.

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13th December 2007 16.47

A couple of weekends ago a large picture caught my eye in the inside pages of the Sunday Times: “Mozart autograph under the hammer for £100K”.  An accompanying picture showed a half sheet of manuscript paper in fading ink sketching out the cadenza from the first movement of Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.  This was the same piece that Maxim Vengerov and Lawrence Power did at the Proms last year with Vengerov hushing the audience between movements - like it mattered.

Anyway, it turns out that Sotheby’s was having an auction of signed manuscripts and other musical bits and bobs at which this scrap was going to be one of the highlights.  At £100,000 for half a piece of paper, this would make it more valuable than gold.  In fact, there are probably auctions of moon dust that command less interest.

I have always fancied exploring Sotheby’s but, by the time I have worked my way that far up Bond Street, I am so intimidated by the ridiculously expensive jewelry shops with their permanently locked doors and Armani security staff, I have never ventured further than the foyer. Feeling like this might be my one opportunity to ruin an important musical artifact by inadvertently dribbling on it, I set off for the viewing.

Sotheby’s is a labyrinth.  The small shop front belies a Dr Who-like interior full of passageways and little rooms, mostly packed with stuff that just looks like it should be in a museum, not participating in a rich man’s Flog It.  Actually, I had anticipated this by trying to look smart and, parking my duffle coat and Bay City Rollers scarf in the Garderobe, approached one of the many security guards to ask “where the auction was”.  “Which one?” say he.  “There’s more than one?” Surely taking £0.1M for a half a piece of paper would be enough turnover for the Sotheby’s week?  But, it turns out, not - the music auction was but one of the many, and a small one at that.

And so it is I enter a room lined with cupboards and a few display cases on the downstairs floor.  In one of the cases the Mozart scrap is exhibited under glass (thus thwarting my dribbling schemes) along with a (completely illegible) letter from Beethoven - allegedly to a friend though, frankly, it could have said absolutely anything including “no milk, Tuesday”.  Having marveled at these, I moved on to a table where a handful of ne’er-do-wells were examining other items under the scrutiny of one security guard and two old ladies who were responsible for dishing them out.  The whole thing had more the feel of a village fete than a multi-million pound extravagance. Most surprising of all -  the examination process was completely unregulated.  Letters from Puccini, signed photos by Liszt, a manuscript by Schumann – all these could be rifled through at will without recourse to white gloves or any form of accreditation other than a scribbled note with your address on it (in my case, in pencil).  I sat myself down and had a good hour-long brush with the masters, all the while checking against the sale catalogue (itself £22) which gave lavish information about each and every slip.

This was all fine and dandy until I came to lot 149 “Tchaikovksy, Piotr.  Fine photograph signed and inscribed in French”.  This was a 24 x 18.5 cm photograph of the one who wrote the music for Everyone’s a Fruit and Nutcase in an old, light wood frame and signed clearly “P. Tschaikovsky Moscou 19 Janvier 1885”.  This I had to have.  I had visions of it sitting on my piano.  Every visitor from now to eternity would be casually drawn to my front room to examine my SIGNED PORTRAIT OF TCHAIKOVSKY!  “Yes, the real Tchaikovsky.  The one who wrote the music to Everyone’s a Fruit and Nutcase”.  OK, granted there was the minor snag of the £4,000 - £5,000 guide price but, hell, what is money for?  It would be an investment.  It can’t go down in value - there aren’t going to be any more.

With this joyfully filling my mind I stumbled home to Mrs Hersch, my wife, to convert her to my new vision and do a bit more research about how to actually enter the auction (the next day) and bid.  And this, dear reader, is where my scheme started to fall to the ground.  It transpires that the hammer price is not the price you actually pay – on top there is something called, euphemistically, Buyer’s Premium which, for items from £1 - £10,000, is 25%.  25%!  Then there is the small question of VAT.  All this means that, where an item might sell for £4,000, you will actually end up paying….let me see….4,000 x ¼ x 175 ÷ 100 = Jesus! £5,875!.   All of a sudden, my signed picture of Tchaikovsky is not looking quite so attainable.  £4,000 is an investment; £6,000 is verging on madness.  I don’t know why but some sort of loony-thinking barrier has been crossed.

Still, by now I am committed to my dream.  Next day I return.  It’s the same room sans glass cases but now with chairs occupied by about 40 people and Sotheby’s staff manning the phones (just like the movies).  I sign up for a paddle (the device with a number on it which permits the auctioneer to distinguish a head scratch from £2000) and huddle at the back.  As the lots progress, a man next to me ticks them off in the catalogue while muttering “Jesus Christ” under his breath.

  • Letter from Beethoven explaining “No Milk, Tuesday”: £17,300 – “Jesus Christ”.
  • A signed picture of Mendelssohn: £60,000  – “Jesus Christ”.
  • Haydn manuscript part from Symphony No.90: £66,500 - “Jesus Christ”.

And…

  • Lot number 149, Signed portrait of Tchaikovsky: £10,625 - “Bollocks”.

Needless to say I did sort of pathetically stir my paddle at £3,500 (which was where the money started) but it was all to no avail.  The bidding soon outreached even my most deluded ambitions and I left with only a catalogue (donated by one of the old ladies from the day before from her big, unused pile).  The Mozart scrap went for a total of £110,900 to John Eliot Gardiner who was the only worthy I spotted amongst the crowd. 

Ahh well.  Fact is, to afford that sort of stuff you have to be rich which, with one or two exceptions, means being old.  They were all old in there – John Eliot Gardiner is a relatively sprightly 64 but he was an exception.  So my one consolation is that they will die soon and it will all come up again.  Well, let’s face it, if you were an executor sitting on a £110,000 piece of paper, what would you do?

Dammit! I’ve just got to get rich enough to have my ten years of ownership before that ink fades to nothing.

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27th November 2007 16.27

Up and down the motorway, improving the post mortal prospects of Victor Borge.  All done and dusted now with mixed feelings.  A great story and marvelous man but it takes energy, focus and a bit too much piano practice for my liking. That said, remarkable moments include:

A standing ovation at the Beck Theatre Hayes on an otherwise miserable, rainy, shitty Monday evening in October only attended by a core of diehards.  The theatre, in a gesture almost perfectly complementing the weather outside, managed to spell my name wrong on their big What’s On board (er…didn’t anybody look at the poster?).

Buxton Opera House.  In the audience twenty students from the Royal Northern College of Music who have (apparently) listened to my All Classical Music Explained CD until the groove was worn flat.  (Who am I kidding?  They burned copies and sold them round campus for a quid a time).

Aberdeen Arts Centre and the hospitality of Jane and Alan Franchi at their home.  After the show, we had one of those late dinner parties I have read about: a few interesting people gathered around a table to talk artily in a discreet baize-feel dining room.  Amongst our small number turns out to be the great Buff Hardie from Scotland the What?  I, in my Sassenach ignorance, wander into a conversation with him about touring during which, by casual reference to this big sold-out theatre run or that awarding of an MBE, it turns out he is an absolute bloody Scottish legend.  If William Wallace had been alive, I wouldn’t have got out of there without being daubed in blue paint and with a sporran stuffed up my arse. Sorry Buff - the honour was mine. Thank you Jane and Alan - that wine stain in the carpet is mine too.

Colchester Institute: More kids.  They are the future…of pizza delivery.  Only joking. It’s like a warm bath (see below).

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – two shows, both sold out.  I loved them – especially since the Yvonne Arnaud is what my mother would call a proper theatre by which she means one in which Penelope Keith has appeared.   After the first gig, I hung around to greet punters (actually, pitifully begging for compliments).   Instead, a  lady, possibly so ancient I think she actually mistook me for her son, came up and said “I hope you are going to go home now and someone will give you a good, hot meal”.  Do I look ill?

Rondo Theatre – and adios Borge after two continents and four months.  A lovely venue and well run.  This performance was probably most notable for that fact that nobody told them I needed a piano until about 30 minutes before the show.  “You’ll have to hire one” mumbled the production company in charge and whose balls-up it was.  Er…yeah.  It’s about Victor Borge, not David Copperfield.

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8th November 2007 16.07

It’s been a blur of stand-up an solo shows including, last week, a return to my old haunt – Swinbourne Hall at Colchester Institute (my sixth time in about eight years – four solo shows, twice with orchestra).  In addition to the mandatory ‘getting mildly pissed at the pub after the gig’ I contrived to sell seven CD’s without them actually being on sale (I had left them in a box backstage).  Mais naturellement, this is highly satisfactory from the point of view of providing some ready funds - all devoted to drinking as it turns out.  The Colchester students are brilliant - enthusiastic and friendly - but the best part is they are actually required to attend my concert as part of their coursework.  Hoorah.  What’s next? Compulsory cannabis cultivation?

Oddly, the educational vibe has overcome me also this year in that I have signed up for courses in composition and piano at a Thames Valley University  which has a campus round the corner.  I’ll be honest that, although this might sound grand, it this hasn’t yet involved a hell of a lot of work since TVU is so disorganized that at the time of writing they haven’t got the composition coursework out and I haven’t even seen my piano tutor.  But the process promises the opportunity to learn a few tricks and play pieces I have always wanted to play while surpressing the urge to turn round to the audience half way through and go “TARAAA!”.  You never know, I may even end up getting a gig out of it and so become part of my own homework.  Work that out.

All this reminds of a similar course I once did in Philosophy.  First essay: I disproved the existence of my tutor after which I never went again.

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18th October 2007 13.43

At last, a week with no gadding about required.  In its place - much walking with the pooch, piano playing and TV.  Also: movies on the home cinema.  This production is achieved by attaching my data projector to the DVD player while a mass of wires, hanging like mating Garter Snakes from an amplifier, send 5.1 surround sound to assorted speakers.  The picture shines massive on to the wall while Mrs Hersch (my wife) and I ensconce ourselves on the sofa with glasses of beer on one side and a massive bowl of popcorn on the other.  When I first got this arrangement together I thought ‘I am never going to the cinema ever again’ and so (except on tour) it has proved.

All this idling doesn’t stop my diary wallah from busying himself with schemes, however.  So, instead of relating the plots of the special-effect filled cobblers I have been gawping at like retarded seal pup, herewith some news:

News The First: Following my audacious sortie into Germany (see below) this week I have been invited back by assorted clubs and theatres for March 08.  Yes, really, invited as opposed to me crying down the phone. More fool them perhaps (didn’t they read my thing about how impossibly difficult it is?) but eleven shows in two weeks are not to be sneezed at.  Suffice to say that there will be nothing I don’t know about Braunschweig in Lower Saxony by the time I am done.

News The Second: Just heard this morning that my latest radio iron in the fire has been well and truly farted on by the Radio 4 Commissioning Editrix.  A Short History Of Jokes - it would have been great.  Cow.  It now joins the mass of other rejected radio proposals on the 200MB E drive of my computer (leaving approximately 3K of free space). However, I continue to spend odd moments on my programme about wacky instruments in classical music called (provisionally) Gershwin’s Taxi Horns – to be recorded and broadcast next year.

News The Third: (which makes News The First and News The Second look mildly embarrassing small potatoes) I am working on two orchestral concerts in March 09 in aid of Comic Relief – one in London (Festival Hall) and one in Manchester (Bridgewater Hall).  The idea is that two major orchestras and a smattering of famous soloists let their hair down to raise money for the needy - me in charge.  Hoorah! There is a hell of a lot still to be discussed but, if it does come off it would be fab.

You read it here first. 

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11th October 2007 12.48

A week in which I have continued my thrusting career in the Fatherland with a weekend of gigs at Quatsch Comedy Club in Berlin.  Oddly, the Fatherland is appropriate here since my Old Man was born in Berlin and I feel a certain circularity by going back.

Quatsch takes place in the small theatre of the Friedrichstadt Palast – a slightly industrial looking citadel of entertainment in former East Berlin [if you are not laughing, you vill be shot].  Here, then, English is about as much use as a chocolate teapot since, if anything, all the East Germans learned Russian.  After the club opened in 2002, many a Brit comic crashed and burned on its stage before the management ditched the idea of English and reverted only to German speakers.  Thus, I also am forced to do it all in German which is a slightly out of body experience.  I speak German fluently and well (I hope) but it is one thing talking the lingo and quite another getting inside their heads. 

For a start - translating jokes into German is not easy.  German grammar often requires verbs to pile up at the end of the sentence.  A phrase like “you should have seen how well I could drive” becomes “Ihr hättet sehen sollen, wie gut ich fahren konnte” = (literally) “You have seen should, how good I drive could”.  The essence of a punchline is keeping the salient bit right to the end, thus providing the punch.  But in German the punch is often half way through the sentence with still a bunch of past participles, infinitives and other assorted verbal detritus to wade through.  They say that Italian is a natural is the natural language of song, German is not the natural language of comedy (who would have guessed?).

Secondly – There are some joke forms which the German mind doesn’t recognise as jokes, no matter what.  “I am not gay, nothing against that, I am not Jewish and my hair isn’t permed.  Recently, I was talking about all of that with my partner Helmut…who’s a hairdresser from Tel Aviv”.  Nothing.  I came to the opinion that they simply didn’t connect the second part of this joke with the first part.  At its worst it can mean that the German audience will laugh at the set-up to a joke and not at the punchline.  What the hell is going on there?

All this doesn’t stop me wanting to take over Germany (going through Belgium, naturally).  Actually, it makes me even keener to try and solve the problems which are posed to me as someone who writes in English. Contrary to everything you may have heard there is also a big comedy scene there and it is growing.  In fact, Berlin is such a happenin’ place, yet still relatively cheap, that it even crossed my mind (for about a nanosecond) to move there.  Mrs Hersch, my wife, and I could quite easily rent out our palatial abode in leafy West London, rent a flat and live off the excess without ever again lifting a finger.  This would also make the circle complete: Hersch Senior leaves Germany, marries an English woman and moves to London; Hersch Junior leaves London, marries a German woman and moves to Berlin.  Spooky or what?
Was
Should
Have
Could
Is
Up.

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3rd October 2007 17.31

Farewell then Ned Sherrin who died on Monday.

I first did Loose Ends in November 1996 and stayed on it for seven years.  Over the last couple of days it seems to have almost become a cliché to say that Ned Sherrin was generous and kind - but so he was all the times I saw him.  Most of the people round the Loose Ends table were half his age but he was never patronising or dismissive.  For example, whoever you were, when you first appeared on the programme he would send you a note in his own hand to say thanks – he had no need to do it and many in his position would either get a secretary to p.p. some kind of generic letter or just not bother.

The one time his patience appeared to slip was at an outside broadcast in Cardiff in 2002 (I think).  We all schlepped up there because it was Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre or something (very Ned).  To mark the occasion I gave the one and only performance of the five-minute classic Sherrin! The Musical.  The pianist and I had researched his life, rehearsed hard and we did it, live, to the assembled Loose Ends audience and the nation.  It went well – actually I think the producer was rather taken aback at the amount of effort we had put in.  But afterwards in the bar when I asked Ned what he thought he said, slightly critically, “a minute too long”. 

A few days later one of his notes popped through my letterbox – in his own hand, as always, and sent from his flat in Chelsea.  After leaving the bar he felt he had been rather ungenerous, wanted to thank me for the musical and take back his mildly grumpy remark.  I think this was one of Ned's quirks - although he knew he inspired affection, he felt uncomfortable if any display became too ostentatious. The show was supposed to be an entertainment for the listening audience, not a private club.

So I’ll keep this one short. Goodbye Ned.

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24th September 2007 05.32 (I am still jetlagged)

And so back home to London after…
2 months
2 train journeys
2 ferries
7 flights
29 performances
24 standing o’s (really)
1 cancelled show (Vancouver 11.45pm – no one came.  If I hadn’t been in it, I wouldn’t have been there either)
1142 pages of War and Peace
…and more carbon guilt than can be worked off in a lifetime. 

That was my last big tour across Canada that was.  I have done it pretty consistently since 1994 and, although I may go back to do individual festivals, never again the big chunk of time away – I miss my comfy bed, Mrs Hersch (my wife) and the pooch scrabbling at the door.  However, the Canadian Fringe movement is the most amazing thing and I really feel privileged to have stumbled across it.  Mais naturellement, I love all the places I visited otherwise I wouldn’t have gone back.  But in the meantime:

Best Restaurant: Winnipeg – Sushi on Bannatyne Avenue.
Worst Restaurant: Edmonton – A Vietnamese where I found a small black beetle (dead) in the rice.  The rice was white, the beetle was black – it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it.  I pointed it out to the waitress who, without a word, took it away and came back with some more – clearly from the same beetle-infested batch – which I politely declined.
Best Piano: Vancouver – A Steinway Model B from Tom Lee Music.  Muchas Gracias Tom Lee.
Worst Piano: Victoria – In the middle of one show, a tragic bit, the F above middle C stuck and wouldn’t come up. The piano, however, came gratis from the theatre and I wasn’t going to complain.
Biggest Technical Balls-Up: Winnipeg - My slides starting changing of their own accord behind my back.  Actually, this happened more than once and was due to the fact that I had forgotten to switch off the virus checker in my laptop.  Or something.
Best Review: Edmonton – No really, I couldn’t.  Oh go on then.
Worst Review: Winnipeg – See below.  Something to do with the slides.
Biggest Shouting Match: Edmonton – With the Director, Technical Director and Artists’ Liaison Officer after my show overran by 10 minutes.  Oops!  But did it really need three people to tell me off in front of the (departing) audience?
Biggest Audience: Edmonton - 600 in two shows back to back on 23rd August
Smallest Audience: Vancouver - 2 on 7th September. Cancelled (see above). Wonder why I am not going back.
Most Scenic Pint of Beer: Victoria – looking out over the harbour, watching the seals and the sea-planes taking off (the sea-planes, not the seals).
Best Side Trip: Las Vegas! – filling in five free days between shows in Vancouver.  I saw six shows (including David “Christ I’m bored with this” Copperfield).  No gambling apart from three hours of the most innocuous poker one afternoon at the end of which I was precisely one dollar ahead (I gave the dollar to the dealer as a tip).

I have quoted this so often that I now think it must be true, though even apocryphal is probably unlikely: On their 25th anniversary Charlie Watts, drummer of the Rolling Stones, said that “Yeah…it had been 5 years’ playing and 20 years hanging around in airports”.   Oh yes, life on the road isn’t all beer and skittles. 

I’m sure you are in tears.

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8th September 2007 19.12

It is a pleasant part of what I might very loosely describe as being in the public eye that, from time to time, I get to meet old friends.  In some cases very old friends. 

It’s happened quite often: I’m in the green room relaxing after a show with a few busty women, a stiff glass of whiskey and a small plastic bag of Class A drugs (only joking, I can't stand whiskey - ho ho) when through the door comes someone I haven’t seen for yonks: a long forgotten school friend, old neighbours, my mother. Sometimes, instead of this personal visit, I have had notes left at the stage door saying things like: “Are you the Rainer Hersch who should now be about 40 years old, whose family used to live in Thames Ditton in Surrey, the UK: Father German, Mother English…?” (this once happened in Johannesburg).  Of course there is a bit of me that just wants to write back “No.” but, actually, I always respond.  It is nice to see old faces and find out what happened to them – it’s like having your own, personal Friends Reunited. 

Anyways, here in Vancouver it  happened again – Tim F, whom I haven’t seen since we were at Kingston Grammar School together, pushing thirty years ago.   He lives here now did me the honour of coming to see my tawdry play after which we spent a few hours gassing.  And, here’s the thing, despite all this time I recognised him immediately: not only his face but all his self-effacing mannerisms.  In some ways this is slightly scary – firstly: that, when it all comes down to it, we don’t change that much and secondly: how many faces and self-effacing mannerisms are we carrying around in our memories exactly.  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Every person we meet for any length of time? In this Tim has a slight advantage since I must have knocked around with him pretty continuously from ages 11-18.  But still. 

I enjoyed our chat.  My school days are a dim memory but, in the company of such an old acquaintance, it is also amazing how much can be jogged out.  In particular the behaviour and motives of school teachers who once held sway over every part of our daily lives.  With the experience of the years, it’s great to go through them one by one and realise that they were mostly arses of the first order who, if I met them now, I would ignore (I think).

Of course, if you were really famous, such occasional meetings might extend to seeing women who, in some earlier life, turned you down.  This is probably the main reason why some people want to become famous – I know it is mine.  And it is probably proof of how not famous I really am that, in fifteen years of professional comedy, not a single member of this (in my case) enormous sub-group has ever appeared backstage to say hello.

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28th August 2007 11.37

Another two weeks have passed in Canada with wonderful audiences and indifferent weather.  I wouldn’t trouble you with trivialities like the weather, dear reader, except that every email I receive from home mentions the continuing rain.  This is now not rain, it seems, but a flood (or should that be fludde).  What’s next?  Locusts?

Edmonton is a big city and appears to have shrugged off any implied association with its namesake in the UK – a nondescript suburb of North London.  This habit of North America for reusing names from the old country can throw up such anomalies.  The original settlers who (I suppose) decided on the names clearly wanted to leave their shitty lives behind but felt sentimental enough to remember their origins in the title of their new abode.  Thus: London Ontario, Paris Texas, Moscow Idaho….and so on.   But I wonder how many modern New Yorkers are aware that Old York is a rather grim industrial wasteland in the North of England for example.  Similarly, that Boston is a tiny village in Lincolnshire with no particular saving graces and that Frankfort (Kentucky) has been misspelled.

Then, of course, there are the places which have been named after worthies: discoverers, politicians, Indian chiefs – you name it.  This seems to me to be tempting fate - how many small German towns had to hastily take down their “The Village Of Himmler Welcomes You” signs after the war, I wonder?  Apparently chief Seattle originally objected to the use of his name on the grounds that his eternal sleep would be interrupted each time a mortal mentioned his name. The conflict was resolved by Seattle's levying a small tax on settlers as advance compensation for the disturbance.  Very American.

Now, I read somewhere once that Brazil was named after the nut and not the other way round.  I like this idea so much I don’t dare Google it to see if it is true.  Naming places after what you find there is a great rule but then a this would mean whole swathes of middle America called things like: Nuthin’ Nevada, Zip Iowa, Null Points Nebraska (and worse – don’t think they didn’t cross my mind).

The fact is it is just hard thinking up new names or just a bit pointless when you know you have stash of old European names up your sleeve.  So I shouldn’t be too critical.  At all events, from Edmonton (London suburb) on Sunday I caught the incredibly picturesque train through the Rockies to Vancouver (Captain George 1757-1798) to Victoria (1819–1901) British Columbia for round three of my tour.  Since Queen Victoria’s only memorable utterance was “we are not amused”, on a number of levels this doesn’t bode well…

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17th August 2007 18.20

Winnipeg Festival is now just a dim memory as is virtually every penny I made there – courtesy of a two week holiday in the Canadian Rockies with Mrs Hersch who flew to Calgary especially for the purpose:  The Banff Springs Hotel, Emerald Lake Lodge…no effort was spared to strip me of my ill gotten gains and force a return to Edmonton Fringe festival in attempt to earn some more - from where I am now posting this missive.  At this rate I will have nothing left to start up that gun-running business I have been saving for.

All Rockies (and Smoothies) were, naturellement, absolutely stunning.  The geology alone – massive mountain ranges heaved up from somewhere with twists and turns in the rock strata all visible from miles.  It all serves to remind a body that we are mere specks in the great wobbling enormity of it all.  Actually, not even specks but specks on specks: Look on, ye creationists and tremble. 

And, just to rub your nose in your complete insignificance, there is the Burgess Shale way up in Yoho National Park.  The hike to get there (which had to be specially booked and supervised) featured 20km of struggling up and down wooded paths to the accompaniment (on the day we went) of rain, hail and finally snow. Once there you can then spend a triumphant hour fossil hunting and touching the ancient remains of long dead (545 million years) soft bodied evolutionary dead-ends.   We returned, crippled, but with a strange feeling of achievement (even if is just to watch my David Attenborough Fossil DVD and shout “I’ve been there!” at the appropriate  moment).

Apart from this, my other great discovery was a gradually defined rule concerning the inverse relationship between the price of hotel and quality of service.  As our trip progressed, and – clearly – with nothing better to do, I started to get completely obsessed by this feature of our stay.  By the Fairmont Hotel, Beauvert Lake (near Jasper) I had even started to distract myself from my inner fury by actually timing the wait staff. Shit, I should get out more. The results for Wednesday 8th August in full:

15.10              Mrs H. and I arrive and sit down at a table in the afternoon tea area.
15.25              We are (finally) noticed by one of the wait staff who comes over to clean the table and tell us that our waitress will be ‘right along’.
15.30              The waitress comes 'right along'.  We order two soups and sandwiches and a pot of tea.
15.45              Tea arrives.
15.50              Soups and sandwiches arrive.

…in other words the time between our sitting down and actually getting our fangs into something edible was a full 40 mins.  Was this some kind of test?  If so, it was repeated more often than I was able to count.  After I have been greeted by The Greeter, seated by The Seater, had my order taken by the waitress and served by The Server I am starting to wonder if there are just too many links in the chain.  But then how else could they contrive to charge $23 for a soup and a sandwich? 

Thinking about these episodes later, I realised what really upset me was not so much the crappy service but the unfailing, enforced affability of it all.  These people are no longer your Greeter, Seater et al. but a collection of the best friends you never knew you had: “Hiiiiiyaaaa…how you guys doing this evening?”, “One soup…coming rrriiiight up” etc.  This probably says more than anything else about how the average stiff-lipped Brit feels about life: you can charge him through the nose, spit on his food, dawdle all day but, please, no first names.

Deep breath...look out of the window and admire the view....

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28th JULY 2007 15.10

I have just read the funniest review of any I have ever received.  I have rarely laughed out loud at any review but this is a classic. 

Uptown Magazine is “Winnipeg’s News and Entertainment Weekly” and  it calls itself a magazine despite the fact that it is clearly printed on newspaper (perhaps times got hard).  It is also free (quelle surprise).  The reviewer, one Grant Burr, clearly hates me and, apparently, regularly comes to my shows in Winnipeg to remind himself just how much.  But the best bit is, Grant also appears to be a bit of a computer man on the side - writing for a free magazine, I suppose, you’d have to be.  And I quote:

“Nothing spoils a good Powerpoint joke like a Powerpoint punchline that pops up too soon. Why people continue to enjoy Rainer Hersch's amateurish multimedia presentations is beyond me. Of course, it is music, not Powerpoint, that is his forte. So, either I would suggest more time spent at the keyboard or an upgraded version of Microsoft Office. It has some wonderful new templates and many performers are doing far more interesting things with a projector than white backgrounds and san serif fonts…"

Since we are being pernickety, doesn’t he mean “sans serif”? and isn’t it “PowerPoint”? – at least that’s what my spellchecker always insists.  Grant goes on to pay some grudging compliments but finishes with a flourish:

“…While it seems the piano man can do no wrong, this Uptown man is once-again unimpressed – GB”

With journalism of this order – who gives a toss what you think?  If this review had appeared in PowerPoint Presentation Monthly it would be spot on but this is the hallowed pages of Uptown Magazine – perhaps Grant didn’t spot the “News and Entertainment” tag. 

Now you may think I am just being bitter here so, just to show that it is not just me, here are two quick excerpts from different reviews of the exact same show.  The Winnipeg Sun:

“The hour-long show is a multi-media affair, and while a recent weekend performance was plagued by technical difficulties, Hersch was unfazed, nimbly righting wrongs without missing a beat”.

CBC:

“Supported by a keyboard, projector and period costume, Hersch incorporated some technical difficulties from his slides well, improvising in character and further endearing himself to the rapt audience. If you've caught Rainer Hersch's act before, this show doesn't stray from what has made Hersch a popular ticket in the past.”

…and these are just paragraphs taken from otherwise very positive reviews, not the focus of the entire friggin’ article.

Now, I really have had far too many reviews to be worried about what Uptown Magazine thinks or doesn’t think.  The general point is that all large festivals present the local media with a feast that they are completely unable to digest.  Edinburgh, for example, is a city far too small to cover the amount of activity presented to it in August/September from within the ranks of it’s regular journalists.  The result is that the Scotsman (Scotland’s heavyweight daily) starts fielding people like the gardening correspondent to cover performances of modern dance and tits like Grant Burr to do shows whose ilk they clearly dislike.  In Edinburgh this can blight the life of the creative artist who might well have laid out ten thousand pounds to be up there.  Across the Canadian fringe circuit it results in a quality of reviewing is patchy at best and, at worst, downright bizarre.

P.S. Grant, if you are reading this: Font: Georgia Times, Point Size: 12, Text Colour: #333333, Macromedia Dreamweaver 8.

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25th JULY 2007 17.20

CBC review Mozart and are encouraging . I realise there are some words I have got to stop using on this blog: hoorah and 'yes, really'. Yes, really.

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23rd JULY 2007 16.50

So that’s a week down at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and everything is happy after some struggles.  Herewith, the last seven days day by day…by day, day (in reverse order, which seems a little bizarre now but I can't be bothered to change it)..

Sunday 22nd
I have developed this idea for a new rule at fringe shows:  The audience can unilaterally declare the play over but just starting to applaud.  They can do this anywhere – even after five minutes – if enough of them can see that it is going to be rubbish and join together to signal that they want out.  The applause, by the way, shouldn’t be an ungracious, slow hand clap but completely enthusiastic – just as if the show had been the best thing they had seen.  Sometimes, I have sat watching things so bad that the only way I have been able to get through them is by creatively visualising the actor(s) taking their bow at the end.  My proposed new rule is, I think, my way of converting that into something practical.  OK, this does mean that we would occasionally clap off something great which just starts slow but I would rather risk that than be taken hostage for an hour.

Late show.  Too late: 11.45pm.  If I hadn’t been in it, even I wouldn’t have been there.  Nobody clapped half way through, so I did it to the end.  But don't think I'm not prepared.

Saturday 21st
More work and, for the first time I feel the show comes together.  Hoorah!  In particular I have now decided to get other fringe performers in at the end to do cameos in the sketch “How Mozart Did Die” .  This picks up the momentum at a crucial moment when it previously went on a bit of a holiday.  I go down to the King’s Head to celebrate by drinking one too many Fort Gary Dark Ales (one), banter and recruit assorted other turns to come and be cameos: Keir Cutler and TJ Dawe say ‘yes’.  I also determine to ask Kevin Prokosh if he’ll do it in the final show.  Drumroll.

Friday 20th
Jet lagged but now getting up at 5.30, rather than 4 – I work the whole day on the show: adding bits, taking things out, making new images for the slides.  Most things work and, during the performance, I go off on my own private festival of camping it up but the overall result is still not quite what I am after.  This is the performance that the Winnipeg Free Press attends (has there ever been a Winnipeg Press in Chains I wonder) and it turns out that my performance is not quite what the reviewer was after either.  The subsequent review begins with the words “Can it be that the great Rainer Hersch is treading water…” or something.  I don’t really mind what the reviewers say but there is a problem here:

Once you get any body of work behind you, people start to review your stuff not on its own terms but in comparison with everything else of yours they have seen.  “I liked this…but I liked the other one more”.  And, as with many things, the past is always a better place.  I comfort myself with a line from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in which a burned-out movie director, suddenly finds himself face-to-face with a descending spacecraft.  As the super-intelligent extraterrestrials greet the human race for the first time, the filmmaker says: "If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything, for that matter?" "We like your films," say the aliens, "Particularly the early, funny ones."

Thursday 19th
The first show.  Sold out – hoorah.  It is fun and, I hope, everyone has a good time.  A few people stand up at the end, though I am unsure if this is an ovation or just a good, old fashioned scramble for the door.  This kind of thing is, of course, immensely cheering but doesn’t stop me going over every line in the script as soon as I have left the stage.  There bits which aren’t just working as well as I thought they would while sitting in my garret in leafy Ealing, West London.  Thus, a quick drink down the King's Head then back home to start fixing them (I clearly still think it is 10 in the morning).

Wednesday 18th
Fiddle with the script – typing it out so that the technicians can follow it (big boxes show which cues should happen where; ‘X’s in the text mark the exact moment).  I have learned how to do this much better since the Borge show (2004) when a director put my scribbles and other daubs into some kind of logical order.  Prior to that, tech rehearsals were a nightmare.  Down at the Warehouse, Randy and Mike (the technicians) cope manfully but cannot hide their slight "oh shit" when they realise that mine is a four-hour tech and that, yes, we have got time to go through the whole thing once more…and with feeling.

Tuesday 17th

Jet lagged.  Up at 4am (as is always the case coming this way across the Atlantic).  Read my book (War and Peace – a frigging brick and I may be dead before I have got to the end, in which case I will leave it to my executors to finish). Get up: eat a piece of pie; drink some tea and fall asleep again until 9.30am.  Then, down to the Fringe Office where people are friendly as always - must be the sun.  Visit my venue – The Warehouse (air conditioned – this one fact is enough to guarantee at least ten people a show) - and chat to the technicians. This is my seventh Winnipeg Fringe in 12 years. 

Monday 16th

Checking in at Gatwick Airport and flying to Winnipeg.  The new cheapo airline on the block, Zoom, offers travel straight to the prairies rather than first pirouetting round the luggage belts of either Toronto, Montreal or worse.  This is great for the Winnipegger in a hurry and, despite the fact that I live near Heathrow and Gatwick Airport is miles away,  I went for it also.  Service on board all very pleasant (if you paid the extra hundred quid for ‘Economy Ultra’ or whatever they call it). However, I do get into the, now, compulsory argument with the check in man about excess luggage.  Him: “I have checked five hundred people into this flight and you are the biggest pain in the arse”  Me: “listen my friend, if you got some decent qualifications together, you could get yourself a proper job.  Don’t take your minimum wage frustrations out on me!”  Clearly he hadn’t seen that I was an ‘Economy Ultra’ customer and wasn’t going to take any shit.  Net result: excess baggage £30 (actually, quite mild) but I still hate airports and anybody who insists on doing their job thus perverting my insistence that I have everything all my own way.

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15TH JULY 2007 21.24

Henley Festival July 14th conducing the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  Probably the most prestigious group of grumpy musicians I have waved my hands at to date.  (The general weariness and cynicism of many orchestral musicians is, by the way, entirely understandable but that doesn't make me feel any less like slitting my wrists as I go through the introductory “Hi guys…what we are going to do is some comedy…” moment.  Here, I am down to do 12 minutes as part of a gala also including a young violinist some Carmen variations, a pianist (Warsaw concerto) another violinist (Meditation from Thais), Wayne Marshall improvising at the piano, Katherine Jenkins singing and assorted rousing orchestral classics...all introduced by that doyen of the continuity cock-up, Henry Kelly.  As say hello backstage, almost my first words to him are:

“It's ‘Ray-na Hursh’, not ‘Rie-na Here-sh’". 

It goes without saying that this turns out to be a futile gesture as am introduced as ‘Rie-na Here-sh’ just the same.   I don’t care and the rambling is, after all his style (is it a style?).  

Come my bit, I have it easy because, by the time I get on, the crowd warmed up but faintly inured to the spectacle and ripe for a kick in the arse.  Thus, I get a great response I am pleased to say - also from the musicians and other n’ere-do-wells performing that evening which leaves me feeling rather shell shocked.  Shell shocked that is until I catch the eye of Stewart, the festival director (who is also lurking backstage), looking edgy. My 12 minutes had migrated to 25 minutes and this overrun has resulted in the cutting of the last item – a spectacular involving army drummers and goodness knows what else in the Ravel Bolero.  (I can’t remember if the score of Bolero requires six drummers and goodness knows what else but, no matter).  Mild dissatisfaction in some areas therefore but tempered by the pragmatic consideration that the evening has, after all, been a success. I apologise - stage-hogging not intended. I clearly like the sound of my own voice far too much.

Afterwards  I retire to the Club Marquee Stage for a (very) late night bout of All Classical Music Explained finishing at 1.30am.  This, naturally, is way past my bed time and is equivalent to going on last at a Comedy Store late show which has somehow, mysteriously, become packed with women in skimpy frocks and men in DJ’s.  Despite this and the rain, the crowd rocks and, inspired by our new leader I "try my utmost".  Home nickedy-nacked at 3am.  Pooch distraught as he had been on his own since 6pm - poor poochly boy.

Canada now beckons.  By this time tomorrow I’ll be back on the plane to Winnpeg where, internet facilities permitting, I will be ruminating as usual and with slightly greater frequency than of late. Sorry for the interruption of your service while I bash assorted shows into shape. Until then. R x

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1ST JULY 2007 16.39

My latest activities on “Mozart: Ze Komplete Hystery” (Mozart: “22 operas, 41 symphonies and a hell of a lot of film music – just goes to show what a genius I was”) inspired me to go fly to Austria and spend a touristy weekend snooping round Salzburg.  So it was that last Friday week Mrs Hersch, my wife, and I shook off our sleepy heads at 3.45am (yes really) and drove out to London Stanstead, there to do battle with Ryanair and the masses.  Stanstead is, as any budget traveler will know, not in London at all but closer to Cambridge.  The cheap fares they offer are basically a scam since 1. If you book them as late as I always do they virtually the same price as a proper airline and 2. By the time you have driven all that way, paid for parking/food/drink/luggage (there is a charge for checking anything in) you have more than spent the money you have saved.  This is not to mention the minor business of being treated like cattle and having to mix with plebs.

Despite this, all went well and my fears of some trumped-up Ryanair excuse why we couldn’t fly (“Sorry Sir, wrong photo ID“; “We’ve clean run out of planes”; “Leaves on the runway”; “I couldn’t help noticing a cheeky smirk while you were queuing”) all turn out to be unfounded.  Thus, we arrived at 9.15am (including the one hour advanced time difference) and by 9.30am were sound asleep in out hotel room – snoozing until 11am  and thus wiping out all advantage of the gruesome early start.

This said, our subsequent three days turn out to be very nice and include visits to all the Mozart memorabilia; a performance of the Requiem at  the Collegiate Church (done twice a week for the benefit of the tourists but atmospheric and not bad for all that); Don Giovanni at the Marionette Theatre (my Mum would have cooed with glee) and a hell of a lot of cream cakes.  

The weather, indifferent on Friday and Saturday turned all blue skies on our last day.  Having previously observed that the house where Wolf Amadeus was born would only be in the sun early in the morning, I ventured out before breakfast to take some well lit photos.  Salzburg: deserted.  After clicking away for a good twenty minutes (the Mozart House from the front, the Mozart House from the side, the Mozart House from the back but you can just see the side), I looked round to find that I was not alone – a Japanese tourist was busy on the same mission.  Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I asked him (pointing and grunting) to take my picture.  After some reflection, he then pointed and grunted that I took his.  Then, more grunting, that I should supplement his record with a photo of me on his camera.  Him, then, on mine.  Anyway after two hours and a whole world of sign language later, it turns out that he traveled to Salzburg from Tokyo/Osaka on a company called “Wyanair” and is writing a show called “形容動詞ご飯が熱い。Mozart!”.

What are the chances?

(All true up to the bit about Tokyo/Osaka).

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18TH JUNE 2007 20.14

Saturday (wrote Mr Kipling) – (and that's Saturday a week ago) an extremely pleasant outing to Trent College in Nottinghamshire for a bout of All Classical Music Explained.  The audience was reassuring in the extreme - especially to me on finding that one or two readers of this column were among them.  Hell fire!  In praise and grateful remembrance I have had their names tattooed on to my knuckles (in full).  They had even braved the 60 mile round trip (from Leicester) and the public school setting to witness the event.  Tattooing actually seems inadequate.  Perhaps I will etch their initials into my DNA.

Sunday day: a double match at my local croquet club (yes really).  You may find this implausible, dear reader, given my unbelievable hip withitness but I am a fiend with the mallet, hold a number of trophies and am even, on occasion, summoned to represent the local team.  My first opponent (who I am pretty sure won’t read this) was an old fart with such a high handicap that giving him any greater number of free shots would have rendered the entire rules and tactics of the game redundant.  After more than two hours of watching him plod round the lawn, whacking my ball hither and yon with an ability clearly greater than that suggested by his massive advantage, I became struck with the bizarre notion that he was just too boring to lose to.  I determined to pull my finger out, which I did and won.  Hoorah.  Down with old farts.  (Won the second match also thus saving the team from disgrace.  I am the croquet king).

Sunday evening: a bath to wash off the sweat built up by whipping old men at croquet followed by a short drive to the Paul Lewis concert (see 3rd June, below).  The last three Beethoven piano sonatas movingly played - the man is a friggin’ genius.  Afterwards, by dint of the connection to Paul and his chums, Mrs Hersch and I mill around in the green room of Wigmore Hall making polite chitchat to the assembled and storing up their names to drop later…AHHHEM: Edward Fox, AHHHEM: Julia Somerville, AHHHEM: Roger Vignoles, AHHHEM: Imogen Cooper, AHHHEM: Alfred Brendel.  Quite what Edward Fox was doing there I never did find out.  Presumably researching his next film in which some upperclass toff character mills around the green room at Wigmore Hall (as opposed to his other film portrayals – The Day of the Jackle, for example, in which an upper class toff character attempts to assassinate De Gaulle or Edward and Mrs Simpson in which an upper class toff character can’t decide if he wants be king). 

High on croquet victory I chatted away – even summoning the courage to speak to Alfred Brendel whose son AHHHEM: Adrian Brendel, himself a top notch cellist, has graced the audience at a concert or two of mine in the past.  My ulterior motive was, of course, to get him involved in an orchestral performance of mine.  Here’s the plan: In the middle of a concert I announce that we are going to be joined on stage by the great Alfred Brendel.  Audience erupts.  Enter Brendel who seats himself at the piano.  He fiddles with the stool, prepares himself, nods that he is ready.  I conduct the opening of a piano concerto (two or three minutes).  The music….reaches a climax….and closes before Brendel has played a note!  Brendel gets up, padding his forehead with a handkerchief.  ME: Ladies and Gentlemen – ALFRED BRENDEL!  He bows, we shake hands and he leaves, never coming back.  The audience - incredulous: I DON’T BELIEVE IT! THEY HAD ALFRED BRENDEL AND THEY DIDN’T GET HIM TO PLAY!  Thus comedy.  In the green room of the Wigmore Hall I actually went as far as to suggest this to him and he liked it (really) parting with a subversive smile and “I look vorvard to our kollaboration”.   I, meanwhile, look forward to dining out the story (at McDonald’s probably).

All this reminds me of my other attempt to blag a legendary instrumentalist into participating in my schemes.  Years ago I interviewed AHHHEM: Yehudi Menuhin for Radio 3.  One anecdote I particularly wanted to extract concerned Arturo Toscanini.  Before the war Menuhin and Toscanini were apparently rehearsing the Beethoven Violin Concerto in a hotel in New York – Menuhin playing the violin of course and Toscanini at the joanna.  While they were playing, the telephone rang.  Toscanini ignored it.  A few minutes later, the telephone rang again and again Toscanini again ignored it.  The third time it rang, Toscanini got up from the piano, went over to the telephone – which in those days was a big box number attached to the wall – ripped it bodily from its fixings, threw it to the ground and returned to the piano as if nothing had happened.  This story was a favourite of YM and supposedly illustrated the nature of Toscanini’s temper and his absolute focus on his art.

Now this is where I wanted Menuhin to do a bit of comedy.  In fact I wanted to be Menuhin’s only ever comedy script writer.  My plan was for him to tell that story and at the end of it I would ask: “who it was that kept ringing?” and I wanted Menuhin to say: “it was the telephone engineers to say that they had got the line working again.” 

Sadly it was not to be – Menuhin was too pressed for time to get involved in my ridiculous sketch - and it was somehow forgotten about.  

But I did challenge him to a game of croquet and won by a mile.

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8TH JUNE 2007 11.11

An on-line review of my performance at the Red Hedgehog  appeared today. Naturally, I am cheered by the encouragement (especially after such a technically difficult, depressing gig) but also left in resigned agreement with the author’s analysis of who exactly I am doing such shows for.  

I have often classed ACME as a stand-up performance which just happens to be about classical music. Why the hell not do stand-up about a subject which fancies itself so deeply? In the process, I hope it proves that it is possible to be genuinely funny in front of a non-expert audience while still entertaining those people who (think they) know it all.  However, from the marketing point of view, classical music is deeply un-cool and overcoming that image is an uphill struggle, no matter how amusing you are. Quite who is responsible for this parlous state of affairs I don't know but, as soon as I find out, they will be shot - though finding enough people to make up the firing party might be difficult. Probably be quicker just to shoot myself.

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3RD JUNE 2007 19.46

Returned from the Elgiva Theatre in Chesham where a good time was had by all, I hope.  Two people should be mentioned in dispatches:

Master Matthew Appleby – a young gentleman, six years old, who lives in the area.  I evidently flogged a copy of the ACME CD to his parents a while back on a previous visit to the Comedy Festival there and they made the grave mistake of allowing him access to it. The result - he now listens to it every night as his going to bed CD (no, really).  Feeling touched and faintly privileged, I couldn’t resist the invitation to visit before the show – nominally for a quick cup of tea, actually to see what kind of twisted mind I had effected in one so young.

Back to the theatre for the gig, after which I am yet more amazed and touched to meet in the foyer none other than Paul Lewis – virtuoso pianist (and hobbit look-alike), protégé of Alfred Brendel and currently on the final leg of his complete Beethoven piano sonata series at the Wigmore Hall.  He is playing the final three sonatas there next weekend – twice, because one sitting is not enough to fit the audience that wants to see him do it (which, tragically, quite a lot more than can be said of my audience at the Elgiva).  He lives in Chesham and, clearly not having enough practice to do, decided to fritter away his Saturday evening watching me rundle on.  His monumental achievements make me feel like a bumbling charlatan (sorry, even more like a bumbling charlatan).  Despite my misgivings, he also bought a CD leaving me with the faint hope of visiting one of his kids with acute ACME syndrome in the years to come.

I will be there on Sunday to see him complete his marathon - at least the London leg of it. I have been to two complete Beethoven cycles in the past: Roger Woodward (Queen Elizabeth Hall, late 70's) and Bernard Roberts (Wigmore Hall, early 80's). Having sat through all 32 sonatas, those trills starting up in the last movement 0f op.111 are the most moving thing. It is moments like that which put comedy well and truly in its place.

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31ST MAY 2007 19.50

A very shitty, wet and cold weekend punctuated by sodden walks round the park with the pooch. Saturday evening light relief was intended by a visit to see The 39 Steps – a comic, live adaptation of the film of the book at the Criterion Theatre in ’eart of Lundun’s West End.   Having got the cheapest tickets at the last possible moment (my favourite) off we trudge, by tube as it turns out because the weather had filled the streets with cars.

The Criterion Theatre is an oddity.  It’s right on Piccadilly Circus and was home to the tedious, tedious Complete Works of Shakespeare – Abridged which staggered on for years despite the fact that the cast had clearly lost the will to live (noted weekly by a standing, appalling review in Time Out and others).  The venue itself - a subterranean gallery with faint sense of claustrophobia seating 600 – has an above ground entrance right opposite the statue of Eros providing the best billboard in London and key to the outward success of some of the tripe that appears there.  It was originally intended as a concert hall (apparently) and, as you descend, elaborate tile work includes the names of composers thought worthy of ceramic encapsulation in 1870 when the building went up (or…er…down). 

I like such features because there are the perfect example of the transcience of celebrity. As you make your way down the stairs you come across a series of names - some of them familiar, some you have decidedly never heard of:  Beethoven (OK, fine)….Purcell (yup)….Sullivan (as in Gilbert &…OK, I’ll go with that)…Mackenzie (who?).  Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) "author of assorted oratorios, violin and piano pieces and works for the stage" as it turns out but I had to Google him to find this out. I recall there are similarly forgotten careers enshrined around the walls of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and even in oil paintings at the Great Hall at the Moscow Conservatory.  In the Amsterdam the list includes all the usual suspects as above...then: Alphons Diepenbrock (ooooh yes…I know his work), Cornelis Schuijt (try pronouncing that to his face without being punched) Jacobus Clemens non Papa (name probably the result of a paternity suit).   I’m not making these characters up - check out Concertgebouw for a full list of the unknowns there. How long before people say "Mozart...who?" I wonder? I don't want to be glib but the point is that, one moment you are deemed well known enough to be etched stone, the next (geologically speaking) you are nowhere.

Anyways, having descended into the depths of the Criterion, Mrs Hersch and I squeezed into our impossibly restricted view seats to (restrictedly) view the performance which turned out to be…well… a bit lame – not quite the rip roaring cavalcade of witty repartee and sight gags I had been led to expect (“I…laughed…it…was…good…” The Times etc).  The 39 Steps, rewritten, turns out to be four actors hamming it up with minimal staging standing in for assorted grand moments in the film, complete with chase along the Forth Bridge et al.  Perhaps our spirits were too depressed by the weather but I had a distinct feeling of having seen it all before.

The rest of theweek was onward and upward, mostly with Mozart:

MOZART [THICK GERMAN ACCENT]:  “People say that music cannot be described in words.  Yes it can: ‘long’ is a word that describes a lot of classical music very well...”

Then, killing time on the Internet, I come across an absolute bloody classic: Zhu Feng Bo – a Chinese traditional singer doing Schubert’s Die Forelle and The Lonely Goatherd from the Sound of Music, take your pick, in traditional Chinese fashion. Trust me, it's a must.  If you have iTunes, look her up on the iTunes Store where you can hear 30 seconds of the tracks gratis or buy the entire album for £8.69.  Yes, that's sixty minutes of unadulterated kitsch for less than the price of one cramped seat at the Criterion Theatre Piccadilly – enough to brighten the gloomiest weekend...

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25TH MAY 2007 18.18

A few things:

These pages are not, I discover, a blog (it’s certainly not literature – Ed).  I reached this conclusion having checked-up on the on-line rundlings of a friend - Clive Davis - journalist and, it turns out, serious blogger for the Spectator.  In his column today, May 25th, for example, there are 6 (that’s naught with a six after it) entries between 9.20am and 1.20pm.  Who has the time to do that kind of pissing about with computers? – has he no work?  After a rough tally , it comes out at nearly a thousand words in four hours.  I could never do that because, with such a massive volume you’d have to just post the first thing that popped into your head and that would quickly reveal what a twisted, illiterate bigot I really am.

On Monday night (late) BBC2 TV aired their tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich.  Not being a cellist, I never knew that much about him so I tuned in: Clearly, Mstislav was an intense, passionate man plus brilliant cellist but with such a thick Russian accent that, in the archive interview, I actually had to turn on the freeview subtitles to make out what the hell he was saying.  This was compounded by a rather lax attitude to English grammar: “I play…excellent…Shostokovich…ask the cello and I play” etc.  I’m paraphrasing, but not that much.  A noticeable sigh of relief every time a colleague appeared to sing his praises rather than hearing from the genius himself.  Also, was it just me or was his manner was deceidedly camp? Not that I have anything against that as such but it struck me as rather out of kilter with the rest.  “Ben Britten, cheeky sailor boy, write me beautiful…beautiful sonata and very, expressively wonderful theme” etc.

On the subject of outrageous foreign accents, I am working again on Mozart for the summer – this time in the guise of a one-man show called ‘Mozart: Ze Komplete Hystery’ in which, to quote the (my own) publicity,  “Salzburg's greatest son returns is back with ze truth about his life and death and to ask what happened to all the royalties?”.  As with all new things, my mood fluctuates between certainty that this is the funniest thing I have ever done and an absolute conviction that it is complete cobblers.  I end up with pages of notes to wade through and the big difficulty of separating the wheat from the chaff – there’s a good show in there somewhere, if only I could find it.  Anyway, one of the joys is that I will get to rant (ruminate?) about anything, musical or not, on the grounds that it is not me but an 18th century Mozart saying it:

MOZART [THICK GERMAN ACCENT]: My wife is like every other wife.  She complains about everything and I can't concentrate on nothing. Now I know why God was not married. Genesis: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested”.  Then Mrs God spoke unto him saying…“If you been a bit quicker hadn’t wasted so much time creating tree yielding fruit on the third on the third day, we could have had the whole weekend to ourselves”.  And God said “But I created the weekend!”.  And Mrs God replied “You do one tiny thing to help in this universe and you go on and on about it…”.

See what I mean about twisted bigot? (the spelling's only correct because I did it in Word first).

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16TH MAY 2007 20.28

Returned from Winnipeg – a round trip of 7,830 miles/12,602 kilometers but only 6,800 nautical miles (according to a calculator device I have consulted).   On this showing, it seems that getting there by boat means you travel the shortest distance.  After umpteen hours staring at the back of the next airplane seat, I arrived back knackered (exhausted) yesterday at 7.30am.  I went to bed at 11pm.  This morning I woke up at 11am.  A record.

Well, I am pleased and flattered that everyone seemed to enjoy the concert.  A glowing report and 4 ½ stars (easily Photoshopped up to 5) in the Winnipeg Free Press and enthusiasm all round.  The musicians are, of course, the real stars for submitting to my ridiculous schemes without demur.  I thank them and shall remember each one in my will.  Lindsay Sutherland Boal, the soprano, too – she shall have a special shrine erected in my work room. Her laughing song was a triumph.

Apart from the shows, highlights of the trip were a meal at a most incredible steak house ‘529 Wellington’ invited by Lindsay and her partner, Larry.   Top of the menu - a 22-ounce porterhouse, begging the question ‘who on earth has the capacity to eat 22 ounces of steak?’ Come to that, ‘who on earth has the capacity to eat 22 ounces of anything without being sick?’  Such abundance only means that one is forced to scour the list for the smallest item, not necessarily the most luxurious.  This, however, proves to be perfect just the same.  Before we start, I am also entertained by the little piece of theatre put on by the waitress: a crash course on beef cuts, immaculately rehearsed and unwaveringly upbeat, with display examples carefully loaded onto plates and covered in cellophane.  Makes me want ask something stupid like if I can have the lot, on one plate, covered in lichees.

Then, hiring a car, 0n Saturday I drove with a friend to Gimli on Lake Winnipeg (a town clearly named after one of the characters in Lord of the Rings while fantasizing about worthier, Nordic, roots).  Here occurred one of the most amazing coincidence of my life – shopping for a hat in a local store, I bumped into TJ Dawe, author, actor, director and all round fringe hero.  As fellow solo performers, we have a lot in common and there is nobody I would have rather seen.  Winnipeg is not a big place and such chance occurrences are not infrequent amongst Winnipeggers.  The thing is that neither TJ or I live in Winnipeg.  He is from Vancouver and I am from London 4,712 miles (7,584 km/4,092 nm) apart.  That we should literally run into one another in a village on Lake Winnipeg is truly unbelievable.  A very special afternoon of chat which I will remember for a long time. 

Or…possibly…until I see him again at the Fringe festival in July when I am trekking back to the Peg to do 'Mozart: Ze Komplete Hystery'.  A grand London-Winnipeg-London-Winnipeg-London total of 15,660 miles or 25,204 kilometers but, strangely, only 13,600 nautical miles.  Hmmm.

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5TH MAY 2007 17.45

Amazingly, I find myself ahead of the game with my preparations for Winnipeg next week.  It is Saturday afternoon – I am leaving on Monday at midday  - and, rather than feverishly messing about with music and/or raking round Google Images for some picture to include in a joke, I am writing this and loading Schubert Songs on my iPod (a massive three-box set that I have had for years and hardly touched).   I intend to consume some of these while lying in the bath at the hotel, surrounded by empty whisky miniatures.

Since I have been trying to do less of it, these days going away has the effect of making me want to tie up every singe loose end in my life from the VAT return to vacuuming the stairs to clearing the entire loft (a massive job I intend to leave to my executors).  Apparently, I am not alone - I have journalist a friend who now obsessively goes round his house double-checking the locks.  Hey, I am weird, but not that weird.

Anyways, being so über prepared, has allowed me to relax and start forward to it: WSO - Round Tw0.  Only thing is the Friday and Saturday between the concert at Winnipeg and Brandon.  There are only so many times a man can wander through Portage Place and not get arrested.   If any Winnipeggers reading this have suggestions…

Suffice to say that I will be thusly off the air until my return on May 14th by which the truth about my 1977 New Year’s Day Concert will be finally out.  Fingers crossed.

Time to have just one more look at those locks.

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4TH MAY 2007 15.00

So Mstislav Rostropovich has gone to the big green room in the sky.   “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls” etc.  However, I always felt that the name ‘Mstislav’ was missing one or two letters.  Shouldn’t that be ‘Mustislav’ or ‘Mustislave’?  Then there is the question of what he exactly died of.  This is a most important detail which is almost always missing from obituaries.  If you are lucky, it is sort hinted at in a kind of code which I am too dense to interpret – like they use in cryptic crosswords, which I can’t do: (“had been ill for some time” = cancer; “died suddenly” = heart attack etc; “mauled”= on holiday in Africa etc.).  Mostly there is nothing - just something like “he is survived by his wife and their two daughters”.  Bollocks to that.  I survived him too and I want to know what symptoms to look out for.

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26TH APRIL 2007 17.28

Now, this probably more information than you required but the truth is, the older I get, the more I enjoy reading in the bathroom.  Somehow a stack of books next to the toilet just wasn't permitted when I was a kid.  Now I am in charge of my own affairs (ambiguous pun intended) I regard reading material as an essential to life on the bog.  The bathroom is the best place for many of those ‘didn’t-know-what-to-get-you-so-I-bought-you-this’ literary Christmas presents.  For a start they are often perfect, lightweight reading and, secondly, when whoever gave them to you comes a-calling, they will see first hand that you have made use of their gift.  Thus: - what better site for a book of Gary Larson cartoons, The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations, Butterworth’s Law of Tort?  Let’s face it, if you kept that kind of stuff anywhere else in the house it would be read once, maybe twice before being carted off to the nearest charity shop.  Next to the loo it has  the chance of being thumbed and re-thumbed for years – gradually collecting a layer of germs of which any biological warfare programme would be proud.

All this is leading to my toilet sheet-turner – a book called ‘This Book’, the sequel to a similar volume (which I haven’t got but want badly) called ‘That Book’.  ‘This’ and ‘That Book’ (both real: ISNB 0593 053446) are, basically temples of trivia.  Completely at random:

“SOS doesn’t stand for ‘Save Our Ship’ or ‘Save Our Souls’ – it was chosen by a 1908 international conference on Morse Code because the letters S and O were easy to remember.  S is dot dot dot, O is dash dash dash.”

“Nicolas Cage was 28 before he first went abroad (to a screening in Cannes).  He employs his won pizza chef an has a special pizza oven in his house.”

“Abba’s former name was ‘Festfolk’. It was under this name that the foursome of Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid made their debut in a Gothenberg restaurant in November 1970.”

…see what I mean?  Did you know that pianist Simon Barere died on stage at Carnegie Hall playing the Greig Piano Concerto? Or that Anna Kournikova hasn’t cut her hair since she was seven? Neither did I. But it’s all there and the great part is, there’s no plot, no character development – you can just pick up where you left off.  In my case, as a man who suffers from colitis, about five minutes later.  Recently, I have been poring over the list of those people who died before the age of 40 who include (and I quote):

King Louis XVII of France (10); Sid Vicious (21); Fletcher Christian (29); Patsy Cline (31); Eva Braun (33); Marie Antoinette (37) and Malcolm X (39)…

On bad days, this can be quite cheering.  Ever thought of drawing up a list of famous people you have lived longer than, and ticking them off one by one as you pass them?  Now you know where to start.   Probably more pertinent is the list on page 415: Famous Men’s Last Words which include:

“Never felt better” (Douglas Fairbanks Sr.)
“Don’t let it end like this.  Tell them I said something” (Pancho Villa)
And
“OK, I won’t” (Elvis Presley, after his girlfriend told him not to fall asleep in the bathroom)

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25TH APRIL 2007 08.28

I understand that some valued readers from Manitoba had been misled by this website into thinking that my first concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on May 10th was taking place at Centennial  Concert Cavern – sorry, Hall – on Main Street.  In fact, the venue is the Burton Cummings Theatre on Smith Street.  Sorry for any misunderstanding.  The details have now been changed on the Dates page and those responsible have been shot (again).

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13TH APRIL 2007 13.37

I love Easter.  It’s like Christmas with better weather and less family.  This year, completely on a whim, Mrs Hersch, my wife, plus pooch and I sojourned on the Isle of Wight – a diamond mass within shelling distance of Portsmouth which, if there were any justice, should have been claimed as sovereign territory by the Argentinians long ago.  On Thursday I was idling round the Internet.  By Friday we were esconced in Seaview – a village in the north of the island - whose name seems faintly redundant given that there is nowhere on the Isle of Wight where you can’t in fact view the sea.  ‘Noseaview’ would make the place remarkable.  This circularity aside, we had a great time: wonderful weather and two fab nights at the Seaview Hotel which I have determined to buy with my next lottery win.  It’s a bizarre effect: being on an island, even if it is only two hours away from London, gives a feeling of getting away from it all.  At Easter this means the crowds, the cars, and – above all - Classic FM’s countdown to their annual Hall of Fame.

For those that are not familiar, Classic FM is a commercial radio station.  Actually, the premier commercial radio station in the UK with 7M listeners (BBC Radio 3, by comparison, has just 1M and 100K of those are the controller repeatedly turning his radio on and off).  I…ahem…have been on it a few times and had my own show for a while (expunged).  Each Easter they invite their listenership to elect their three favourite pieces of classical music in a poll.  The figures become the Hall of Fame.  Clearly, going for a weekly or a monthly classical hit parade is out of the question since not enough of Classic FM’s listeners die in such a short period to alter the figures. 

And the winner?
(Drumroll). 
Thee most popular piece of classical music in 2007…
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE LARK ASCENDING!

¿Que?  In thirty years of going to concerts I have only once heard the Lark Ascending.  Endless Tchaikovsky Violin concertos, Bach double concertos, Beethoven violin concertos but only one Lark Ascending.  I remember it well (really).  Since it hardly ever gets played live, how come it has sneaked up there to outdo every other known piece of classical music in the history of the planet?  And the answer…we are clearly not listening to Classic FM enough (I am still awake for a start).

The Hall of Fame is merely a self-fulfilling play-list (if not just a massive fiddle).  Pieces that get on it or change position are merely the tunes that Classic FM itself has played most often the previous year.  Naturally, this has to be manipulated since it would be a bit embarrassing (and a commercial balls-up) if the Bruch Violin Concerto just carried on coming up trumps. (It did for the first three years. In 1996 Alisdair McGowan and I did a spoof Classic FM half hour on Radio 4 as ‘The Two Henry Kelly’s’, constantly introducing and reintroducing the Bruch Violin Concerto.)

What really makes me laugh are some of the later entries.  Coming in at 23, for example, ‘Handle: Messiah’.  What!? the whole frigging thing!?  I think not.  With all the commercials it would take two months to get through.  What they really mean is: At number 23 ‘Handel:  Hallelujah Chorus’.  Ditto at 33 ‘Bizet: The Pearl Fishers’ - by which they mean ‘Bizet: that famous tune off the TV commercial.  No one has ever heard the whole of the Pearl Fishers – probably not even (dead at 36) Bizet himself.

Unfortunately, like it or lump it, with 7M listeners, Classic FM is classical music in the UK.  I was recently asked by a librarian if I was the Rainer Hersch who used to be in Classic FM. I didn't know whether to be flattered or go home and burn some ants with an enormous magnifying glass to work off the distress. Since I was expunged (probably, ironically, for being too BBC) I can’t stick the Classic FM smulch for more than a few minutes at a time but, since the only alternative is Radio 3 with its ubiquitous, irritating know-all git Rob Cowan, I am sort of stuck.  Time to tune back to Radio 4.  Coming back from the Isle of Wight we listened to Desert Island Discs. My luxury item probably wouldn't be a radio.

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2ND APRIL 2007 11.21

I have been slightly off the air over the last ten days.  I would like to report that I have too busy been mud-wrestling naked twin nurses but it is not so.  Mud-wrestling, yes:

As a few valued readers will know, from 1996 to 2003, between Christmas and New Year I used to do shows at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank.  After one such performance, in which I performed my piano sticks routine, I was introduced by a mutual friend to a pianist of oriental extraction,  Hyung-ki  Joo who was doing some kind of comedy turn with a violinist friend he had met while they were students at the Yehudi Menuhin School.  They call themselves Igudesman and Joo. In the green room I make polite noises and think nothing more about it.

Last week, 2007, I started getting emails through this web site reporting that a pianist and violinist double-act are doing a routine very similar to the piano sticks.  They had uploaded a video of their recent performance on YouTube.  It was attracting rave reviews and comments.  I investigate and find, blow me, it is a rearrangement of my material.  They do it well, no question about it, but it is clearly my idea.  The name of the pianist - Hyung-ki  Joo. 

All this galling to the point of fury when I see that their posting has attracted almost 400,000 viewings and, amongst the comments left by the viewers, this exchange:

 

YouTube User: "My question is who thought this up?

Igudesman: "Well, we thought it up together. Borge is a huge inspiration for us. but why not go further, right?"

 

....Excuse me while I puke.

So, deciding to point out to some of the 400,000 that Igudesman and Joo are not quite as brilliant as they might at first seem, I put my own video on YouTube - the 1996 ITV recording of me doing an early version of the sticks routing which you can view here (I look about 6 years old): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-5HysFJ7SU

This, of course, attracted venom from the supporters of the plagiarists ranging from “you can’t have thought this up because I’m sure I saw a video of someone else doing it…er…somewhere…at some earlier time” to “you’re just jealous”.   I answered to some of these and deleted the rest.  Now I have turned the comment facility off so that I can get on with my life and leave the thieves to stew.  But the general and overriding point is - this is not about performance but about ideas. Great, original ideas are like gold dust.

Igudesman and Joo fit a mould – that of musicians doing slapstick.  There are plenty of groups like this, particularly on the European continent.  These two have absconded Austria where, presumably, the valiant but restricted English language skills of their audiences covers up the persistent problem with such performers– the lack of ability to relate to the audience other than through their instruments.  In my opinion, this element is precisely what separates Victor Borge from the rest.  Borge was, first and foremost, a stand-up comedian.  There was even a stage in his career where he acted as the MC at a club in Copenhagen without even having a piano on stage.  His later stage persona might have been that of a classical pianist gone AWOL but reflect for a moment that his two best known routines, Phonetic Punctuation and Inflationary Language, are not musical but verbal. Just playing an instrument well is not enough.

I doubt that Igudesman and Joo will be deterred.  They have already invested too much in their plagiarized routine (their web site even features a picture of one of the piano sticks).  But they must now constantly look over their shoulder and I will pick my moment.  Despite his genius, Victor Borge had his: He kept it a dark secret that he didn’t actually write Phonetic Punctuation. As I mentioned in my play about him, he nicked it from a Norwegian scriptwriter when he encountered the routine in a revue before the war. Borge took it to America, translating and rewriting it in the process.  Nevertheless, he was later sued in Denmark by the originating scriptwriter and was forced to make an extremely large payment out of court to settle.

Be all this as it may - what has really amazed me is the power of  Internet.  400,000 viewers! – BBC4 TV dreams of that many.  Thus, having laboured to put my video repost, I have decided to both beat them and join them.  Enjoy this now... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ddTpzSnl1M ....so that you recognise it when some other thieving musicians claim it was theirs.

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22ND MARCH 2007 15.09

OK, so it’s not all discos and lager louts on the Costa del Sol.  Quite windy though.  And populated by a hell of a lot of Brits who are there for the weather and to spend the fruits of their assorted bank jobs and insurance swindles in peace.  Checking-in to come home at Malaga airport, I nearly choked on my last Piña Colada when I saw that the temperature in London was a 2°C. It was 18°C in Spain.  Roll on global warming I say.

Highlights: The Alhambra Palace (tiles and Araby), Ronda (a precarious bridge separating competing coachloads of tourists) and the Reales Alcázares in Seville (see Alhambra Palace).  In Seville (definitely not the Costa del Sol) we also took the opportunity of dropping in on the cheeky, Spanish pied-à-terre belonging to our interesting and cheerful next-door neighbours, D & R (names withheld but known to the editor (and police)). 

D speaks fluent Spanish, thus making it possible to enjoy the novelty of  going into a tapas bar and actually getting what we wanted - instead of just pointing at the menu, grunting and ending up with (what consistently looked like) bulls' balls on chips.  Now we know where D & R sneak off to for months on end while the porn they ordered off the Internet piles up outside their front door.   (If they read this – only joking.  I order it and collect it from their doorstep under the pretext of being a good neighbour). 

Since the only Spanish phrase I can muster with confidence is ¿Dónde están los servicios por favor? (¿where is Stan? the service is like they are doing you a favour) I am not in a position to tell you if tapas is a word which is always plural (as in pliers, tights, tongs, Japanese tourists etc).  Is there such a thing as a a single tapa I wonder?  Not in any restaurant I've ever been in. But it looks like I'll just have to go all the way back to Seville to find out for sure... (it has just started snowing outside my window. It's March the friggin' 22nd).

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12TH MARCH 2007 20.30

A last minute scramble to finish jobs of work before exiting to Spain for six days. Of course, I would like to pretend it is to do something important like open a major public building but the truth is much more mundane. More truth - we are flying to Malaga, but a chicken kebab's throw from the Costa del Sol. We...sniff...are to stay at a friend's appartment in the hills and, naturally, will be keeping the windows firmly up as we drive past the discos on our way to the Alhambra. If I get into a drunken brawl on Saturday night with a bunch of art connoisseurs out to admire the ceramics, I'll let you know.

Adios then until next week.

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8TH MARCH 2007 11.50

At the Barbican last night to see the Berliner Philharmoniker (the Berlin Philharmonic as was, but that pr0bably felt like pandering to the plebs) conducted by (Sir) Simon Rattle.   I ummed and ahhed about spending fifty-five quid on a ticket but, come the event, was glad I did.

Sold out with, not exactly, a programme of Smooth Classics at 7 – Dvořák Symphony No.7, Janáček Sinfonietta and a new piece by the darling of the composing classes, Thomas Adès –probably chosen for the night because he also has funny accents on his name.  Fact is that the Berlin Philharmonic (sorry, Philharmoniker) could play an evening of random scratchings by my dog and still fill up. I had even dug out my recordings of the of the Dvořák and Janáček (a piece once used, incredibly, as the theme music for a daytime TV drama) on the grounds that, at fifty-five quid, I was buggered if I was going to sit there and not recognise the tunes. 

The BPO are great – full of commitment and seeing all of the sections playing together as a unit is quite something. I even got pleasure out of Simon Rattle's ballet - peaking at the Dvořák symphony, particularly the third and fourth movements.  Meanwhile the Barbican had a real sense of occasion and after the concert I felt grand - noble and uplifted.  Didn’t take long, of course, to drift back to the ignoble and downright cheeky…

For one thing: He looks glam on his publicity shots but, on stage, Sir Si's DJ is slightly too tight for him.  Someone should tell him it doesn’t quite suit his age and manner on the podium. He comes across like some kind of giant, lanky spider or (in combination with his, now, slight stoop, grey hair and mild bald spot - hooray) an account clerk out of Dickens - just the next desk along from Scrooge and Marley.

Then: after the interval came the Thomas Adès – a UK premiere: Massive orchestra; Jingle jangle…slightly lost me.  This sort of thing, of course, makes one feel a bit of a berk when, at the end, others are up on their feet shouting ‘bravo’.  I thought bits were beautiful but I would want to hear it again a few times before deciding that I had to get on my feet and shout ‘bravo’.  There were two factors which may have affected my immediate recognition of Adès Tevot as a masterpiece:

One was the Japanese businessman in the seat next to me, clearly bored by the second half, distractedly lifting his programme up and down (he fell asleep in the Janáček).  I could have asked him to stop but, frankly, it was borderline irritating and the disturbance of intervening might have been greater than the intrusion of the offence.  The other, and much more fun, was spying a player on the back desk of the cello section who had clearly lost his place.  In the programme note, Rattle earnestly announced that Adès “…has had to invent new time signatures to cope with the rhythms in his head”.  Must have been one of those.  The victim stopped playing for a minute or so and turned a perfect shade of crimson.  Absolutely bloody riveting.  Afterwards, as Rattle was ushering the composer on to the stage, I was watching the joking and ribbing amongst the cellos - probably along the lines of “Ho ho ho - Dietmar ballsed up ze 13 ½ / 23 bar.  All ze pissy English biers are on him tonight etc.”.

So there you have it.  Just goes to show that from heights of Mount Olympus, where dwell the Berliner Philharmoniker, to the grubby depths of Morely College SE1, where I have conducted (and played in) what is described as ‘the worst orchestra in Europe’ – there is always somebody at the back desk of the cellos who can’t count. Usually, in the case of Morely College, me.

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4TH MARCH 2007 12.22

It cheers me up to get messages from people who use this column to fritter away odd moments at their computer when they are supposed to be doing something better.  If I’m honest, that it gets written at all has precisely the same motivation.  Be that as it may, for a few extra moments of complete inertia, try this scheme, which I have just idled up:

Go to the address line of your Internet Explorer and type in ‘www’ then any three initials plus ‘.com’. (www.abc.com; www.qlc.com; www.gbw.com...) Ninety percent of the time it comes up with a web site.   Try your own initials.  Try your Granny’s initials.  Mine work out as www.rwh.com which turns out to be some kind of holdall Internet search site whose first subject is, and I quote:

Romance: Dating, Chat, Personals, Romance, Weddings in Las Vegas, Love, Matchmaking, Christian Singles, Jewish Singles

…fun isn’t it?  For about a minute.  But that is a minute’s less work during which time you can give whomever is hanging over you the impression that you are doing some sort of research.  Incidentally, it has to be three initials.  Two, even one, don’t seem to work so well – which is odd because, I suppose, statistically, there are less of them so you would have thought they would all be filled.  I wish this to become known as ‘Rainer’s Conundrum’.

This sort if scheme is, of course, faintly reminiscent of the way in which you create your porn name.  And, for the uninitiated,  that is:  For your first name you use the name of your first pet; For the surname you use the name of the first street or road that you lived in. Thus: Bonzo Sunshine, Rusty Treetops, Lady Rabbit Warren.

Now,  when I do that, I end up with ‘Rockhard Penis’…because my first pet was a tortoise and I used to live in Penis Avenue.

Really.

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2ND MARCH 2007 15.30

I am informed that my web site has just done the equivalent of Windows' Recovering From A Serious Error - probably the "Award Winning" host forgot to put money in the meter. I had trouble updating the Ruminations and you may have experienced frustration when trying to access these glittering pages - in which case, apologies. Those responsible have been shot.

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1ST MARCH 2007 11.14

OK, the denouement of the Hatto tale

Mr Hatto has come clean.  Writing to the chief of one of the companies from which he lifted the recordings, he says he started just using bits of other peoples discs to “cover his wife’s grunts” and “ease the editing time”.  One thing led to another and, before he knew where he was, he was copying whole albums and issuing them under her name.  Of course!  We’ve all done it at some time or other haven’t we?

According to what I might loosely describe as an industry insider – the deputy editor of Classical Music Magazine whom I met at a launch at the Albert Hall on Monday - none of the injured recording companies are going to do anything about it on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to get hold of the Hatto.  They should check out eBay:

Even as I write, someone from Godalming, Surrey  is flogging their Hatto recording of Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto on for three hundred pounds.   It’s listed as “The Real Joyce Hatto” as opposed, I suppose, to “Vladimir Horowitz passed off as Joyce Hatto” – under which title I might be more encouraged to make a bid.  I wonder if the mystery seller is, in fact Joyce Hatto's recording lable secretly making few quid.  They are, after all, the only ones who would know that it was her actually playing.  So, it turns out that she is a collectors item after all – everyone should be happy...?

Nope.  Too much egg on face.  Too many pompous classical cognoscenti not able to see the funny side.  Like: some of the conductors and orchestras listed in the Hatto concerto catalogue don’t actually exist.  The label even went to the trouble of creating fictional biographies for them.  Such attention to detail, it’s too good to be true.  All this story really illustrates is that the vast majority of classical music is screwed. Two recordings of the same piece – nobody can tell them apart.

You will have gathered that I just can't see what the fuss is about. As far as Mr Hatto's excuse is concerned - what’s wrong with grunting?  Never did Glenn Gould any harm. These days, I understand, it is possible to electronically filter out grunting.  That would take a hell of a lot less time than writing fictional biographies.   Alternatively, at the flick of a switch, you can electronically filter out the piano music and just have the grunting.  Now, there is something that would be hard to copy.

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18TH FEBRUARY 2007 09.51

I was entertained to pick up the paper today and read the story of Joyce Hatto – a pianist whose recording company (run by her husband) has been issuing CD’s under her name which turn out to be thinly disguised copies of commercially available recordings by other artists (all the gory details).  According to The Guardian, the scam was only uncovered when some muso-journalist put one of her discs in the computer and had iTunes identify it as being by someone else.  Doesn’t sound like the work of an evil genius, criminal mastermind to me.  Previously she had been hailed as an undiscovered phonemenon; her retiring from the concert platform (1976) and kicking the bucket (2006) was always and excuse why she never actually did it on stage.  Shades of Milli Vanilli.  Much huffing and puffing in the press.

I am not affronted.  Jocye Hatto simply shows up the complete interchangeability of 21st century classical pianism.  What makes me laugh it takes iTunes to discover what, if there were any real difference in the work of classical musicians, should be utterly apparent to the listener from the first few bars.  A fair number of the recordings listed on her web site are pretty obscure – it’s not like there can be that many performances of  Liszt’s transcription of Verdi’s I Lombardi (Salve Maria de Jérusalem) to compare hers with. 

Anyway, suffice to say that I will be bucking the trend and now buying every Joyce Hatto disc I can lay my grubby hands on, on the basis that it will be a cheap way of acquiring a load of good music I haven’t got.   Also, you can watch this space for my upcoming release of the complete Liszt Transcendental Studies.  To preview my performance, click here.

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15TH FEBRUARY 2007 12.15

Ok, so did the TV thing (see below) and we WON.  Not at all sure if this was the point but who cares?   Katie Derham was on my side and looked fantastic ( I am secretly hoping she reads this so that we can elope).  Rory Bremner was very entertaining, though we only managed to stagger through Modern Major General when it came to it as there wasn’t time to rehearse - it’s a hard number to bring off even if you aren’t doing it with rewritten words in the voice of Gordon Brown (half an hour completely to ourselves beforehand would have probably saved some poor bugger half a day in the editing suite).  Steven Isserlis plus Stradivarius provided the class (though the jugging Pizzicato Polka cut, malhereusement - particularly for him as he had spent the previous afternoon practising it).   I thought he was great but I think he was pissed off because he didn’t WIN (like we did). And I quote (his email):

“…don't worry about having been part of my total and utter humiliation, the loss of any reputation I may once have had, the nadir of my LIFE.  In fact, to show that there are no hard feelings, I shall recommend that you entertain the audience at my memorial service when I kill myself.  Haha.”

…well, that’s at least one gig in the diary.  I shall be reading the obituary columns closely over the next few weeks.  He is clearly a mad as well as being a genius (just look at the hair).

On to the next thing…

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7TH FEBRUARY 2007 11.29

A few days of activity are on offer to take my mind off The Blue Danube which I have been fiddling with for the past few weeks – an arrangement, improving the version I did at Colchester in December (at least I bloody hope so).  I have now finished it but it has almost driven me mad…(madder).

Today I catch the train to Dartmouth, Devon.  They have decided to host their first ever comedy festival and I am kicking it all off, apparently, with a performance of All Classical Music Explained.  Dartmouth is very beautiful according to all reports but such a hell of a long way I have to leave today since there isn’t time to get there, rehearse and do the show tomorrow.  Hopefully the 220 odd miles will be enough to relearn the script…

Assuming the snow (promised for tonight) doesn’t bring Transport Britain to a halt, I’ll make my triumphant return on Friday to take part in a BBC4 TV pilot classical music quiz show, now renamed Face the Music 2007 (this is to encourage those ancient souls who remember the first TV series of that name in the 70's).  In the performance round, I will be playing Beethoven in the Style of Scott Joplin;  accompanying Rory Bremner in I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General (in the voices of assorted politicians) and conducting Steven Isserlis by juggling (my idea).  Should be fun.  Howard Goodall (composer and Singing Champion) is no longer in it. Too famous probably. In preparation for this event, I have been re-reading a book of musical anecdotes – feeling that I should probably have a few of them up my sleeve. This one is familiar but I like it nevertheless:

“An aspiring composer called on Rossini clutching two compositions he had recently finished.  Would the great man listen to them both and say which he thought was the better?  Against his better judgment, Rossini agreed to adjudicate.  The young man sat at the piano and enthusiastically played thorough the first c0omposition.  Just as he finished it, Rossini held up his hand: ‘You need not play any more,’ he said.  ‘I prefer the second piece.’.

And this is the most touching story I have come across:

“In Impressions That Remained, the English composer Dame Ethel Smyth recalls a conversation with Edvard Grieg: ‘I ventured to say that the coda of one of the movements was not quite up to the level of the rest.  “Ah yes!” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “at that point inspiration gave out and I had to finish without!”’

...needless to say, I may be using that.

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1ST FEBRUARY 2007 14.00

Over the last few days, I have been going to concerts.  Hell, it’s almost like I was a man with too much time on my hands...  Thus: The Marriage of Figaro at English National Opera on Saturday; Earnest Read Symphony Orchestra doing Schubert on Sunday; concert at the Royal College of Music coming up on Thursday.

Opera people clearly value not having the faintest idea what is going on.  There are two opera houses in London - English National Opera and the Royal Opera.  Look at the ticket prices:  ENO (singing in English) £81; ROH (singing in a language you don’t speak) £170.   Just to make doubly sure, these days the ENO not only has the words in English but simultaneous surtitles in English (at the ROH it’s probably singing in Italian and surtitles in Greek to weed out the plebs). This, of course, acknowledges that all languages become completely incomprehensible when they are sung. However, the English-English development meant that, for the first time, I actually understood what the hell was going on in the last act when all the characters are fumbling around the garden at night dressed as one another. I also laughed out loud at some of the jokes but then I'm easily amused. Surely this is an improvement.  How many people have sat through The Marriage of Figaro (3 hours 20 mins) just willing it to end?

The Earnest Read lot were performing in a church near Waterloo under the direction of Peter Stark.  From time to time I have stood in Peter’s flat in Willisden Green conducting thin air while he offers advice.  Picture me standing in the middle of a small room beating time and encouraging an imaginary orchestra.  Peter, sitting on a swivel chair at his desk: “No, no, no!”. I stop, start again but this time with slightly greater emphasis on the third beat.  Peter: “Yes, yes!  Good …” etc. There is proably an avant-garde screenplay in this.

Anyhoo, the concert was just 8 quid to get in, a great venue and high standard of playing but...probably only marginally more people in the audience than there were in the orchestra (about 70).  This is frankly distressing but what can you do?  The Four Seasons by candlelight? It has crossed my mind to present the Four Seasons by candlelight – just one candle.  I wave my hands around, the musicians squint in the gloom and leave at the interval after which I conduct a CD.

Meanwhile, the concert on Thursday is in the support of the oppressed peoples of Burma.  Maureen Lipman will also be appearing.  I like her but feel uncertain about her activism – she was once described in the New Statesman as “a promoter of selective good causes”.  Entertainers getting involved in such issues somehow seems to reduce the seriousness of an issue rather than increase it. Quite apart from which, has anybody considered if the oppressed peoples of Burma actually care for classical music?  I thought there it was all cymbals and nose flutes.   For myself, I think I will start some sort of campaign for basic human understanding.  I'm going to do a massively well-publicised Four Seasons by candlelight to raise money. Let’s face it– if we could all understand one another, there would be no opression in Burma and if we could all understand what exactly was going on at the opera, we wouldn’t go.

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22ND JANUARY 2007 15.42

I have hardly watched it but felt compelled to participate in the Big Brother vote on Saturday (info).  I stood up against insulting bigotry and racism - thassright: I voted against that piggy-faced, thick piece of talentless white trash, Jade Goody.

Actually, I became so obsessed by the whole Big Brother saga over the weekend, I spent a good hour on Sunday reviewing the offending footage on Youtube (view). My favourite pronouncement is from chavscum.com, chronicler of low-brow life, as reported in the Sunday Times:  “This is what you get Channel 4…when you put borderline retarded racist chav scum on live television”.

Enough to warm the cockles of your heart.

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17TH JANUARY 2007 16.19

BBC4 TV have confirmed that we are to record the pilot for a new classical music quiz show on February 9th.  This should be fun as I like taking part in quizzes, though preferably the ones where they give you all the answers in advance.  This, sorry to disappoint, applies to every quiz show on TV and Radio including Just a Minute on Radio 4 (where the panelists actually get the subjects a week in advance – yes, really).  Being BBC4 however, they intend to keep the answers from us until the cameras are rolling – how very unsporting.  Co-participants are Steven Isserlis, cellist, and Howard Goodall, composer of the theme tune to Blackadder amongst others.  Howard Goodall has just been named "Singing Champion" by the government – responsible for promoting singing amongst schoolchildren.  It’s an odd title isn’t it?  Does this mean that if I challenge him to a singing competition and win I will be the new Singing Champion?  I must remember to ask him.

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17TH JANUARY 2007 13.30

I have just had the shock of looking out of my office window to see two men from the council arrive and chop down the apple tree in the street in front of my house with a chain saw.  Leafy Ealing is now one tree less leafy.  In the thirty seconds between my looking out and their chopping it down, I could conceivably have done something but instead...I just gawped in amazement.  In the thirty seconds after that, the two men had successfully passed the entire remains through one of those massive tree eating machines and reduced it to matchsticks.  Feeling faintly responsible, I went down to ask them why they had chopped down what appeared to be a perfectly healthy, mature tree.  "Root mould" they mumbled.  The tree is now a stump and didn’t look at all mouldy. Bastards. 

In a sort of related way, this morning I got news of an offer to conduct the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2008.  Such engagements are usually so slow in coming that a sloth with an inhaler would look speedy by comparison.  It has taken only six months to talk them into it - so I should be grateful.  However, with global warming I have started to get seriously middle-class concerned about my…ahem…emissions - even to the extent of looking up what I will do to the planet by flying to OZ.  And it is to increase carbon emissions by 10.4 tonnes of CO2, apparently. The web site I looked didn't actually explain what a tonne of CO2 is, but this sounds a lot. I should have run downstairs and wrapped myself round that ruddy tree but then conducting an orchestra without any arms could be difficult.

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9TH JANUARY 2007 11.00

Is it worth making new year’s resolutions?  Discuss. 

The year has begun in earnest with Connie off to work and my mooching around the house watching the occasional David Attenborough DVD.  This can lead to a feeling that I'm just not getting on with improving my life.  But it’s an odd thing to work from home – especially when you do something as nebulous as comedy.  You have to make your own timetable and assess, completely unaided, whether time you spend on anything adds to the value of your business (writing this column included).  One of the problems is that, as a comedian, anything…everything can theoretically be labeled ‘work’, ranging from watching David Attenborough DVD’s to idling through videos on YouTube to just staring out of the window.  Who knows when some idea is going to strike, right?  This is set also against a background where, apart from the occasional hotspot whenI have to actually produce something new, there is a overpowering tendency to just coast.  This is where my new year resolutions might come in. A new year’s resolution might put some resolve into those moments when I feel that I am doing nothing make my life better.

“My New Year’s Resolution this year: ‘live every day as if it is the last day of your life’.  And here’s my advice: don’t try it.  At the end of the first week, I am completely knackered.  I am pissed out of my head; I owe £4,000 to Visa and I am now facing a court appearance having been arrested for wanking in Tesco’s on Day 1.”

A joke I have now been telling on stage for the best part of 15 years.   I rest my case.

The honest truth is, I don’t have new year resolutions.  In the first week of January I have habitually written down a list of ‘desirable aims to improve my life’ though, granted, this sounds a hell of a lot less assertive.  Trouble is, whenever I analyse it, there is only one truly desirable aim and it is– forgive the immodesty – TO BECOME FAMOUS.  Exactly what this means I don’t know except that, being in showbiz, it is something I feel I should be aiming at it so that is, more or less what I write down.  But I have started to think that this is completely wrong headed. Let me explain by way of a story:

A businessman is on holiday on a Greek island.  He is walking around the harbour on a sunny day and sees a fisherman fishing.  Always thinking like a businessman, he speaks to him.  “Why don’t you pay someone to do the fishing for you?”  The fisherman, reeling in his net says “I don’t have the money and in any case it wouldn’t make any difference to me”.  The businessman says “go to the bank and borrow the money”.  The fisherman says “what difference would that make?”  The businessman starts to lecture:  “With the money you could buy the boat and employ people to go out fishing for you much more than you could just working on your own. You will make money and with it you could buy another boat and pay more people to go fishing on that”.  The fisherman is unimpressed but to the businessman it’s obvious: “Then you buy another boat, then another, then another.  Eventually you could have a whole fleet of boats.  You could manage them from an office.  After a while you could even pay someone to run the office – you wouldn’t have to be involved”.  The fisherman is confused. "So what?”  The businessman replies “So what!?  So what!? You could be your own man, do whatever you wanted with your life”.  The fisherman: “Such as?”.  The businessman thinks for a second and replies: “Well, I don’t know…go fishing…”.

Granted, this does sound a bit Biblical - talk of fishermen etc. It might also be an excuse for never doing anything. But there is a germ of an idea here.  Perhaps my life doesn't actually need improving. Perhaps an existence in which I get to mooch around, play the piano as much as I like and watch David Attenborough DVD’s just aint that bad.

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2ND JANUARY 2007 14.54

Back at my desk after ten days and, whaddyaknow? it's 2007.

The Christmas week passed with mixture of entertaining my family and feeling slightly ill (not connected - that cold got worse and I am still not over it). My principle presents turned out to be a proper, back-saving office chair (which I am sitting on) and a collection of expensive undergarments that I am too stingy to buy myself in the normal run of things (ditto). One notable highlight - on December 27th, feeling cosmopolitan in the extreme, Connie and I trained off to Paris for three days, there to spend a shed load of money (fortunately, mostly hers).  Thusly our grand excesses included performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Opéra Bastille (not convinced), an unbelievable meal at a restaurant in the Rue des Grands Augustins (petit fours with gold leaf) and shuffling round the Louvre to double-check that the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa hadn't been nicked (no). 

It's actually twenty-odd years since I last did battle at the Louvre.  The Mona Lisa, which is continuously surrounded by a herd of about 300 (I include myself), now sits behind what appears to be bullet-proof glass and a specially built, semi-circular wooden stall.  Museum attendants keep the mass moving: no-one is allowed to dally or take photos; children are ushered to the front, presumably on the grounds that they are the herd of the future.  Strangely, I became more interested in the spectacle of the squinting horde around the picture than the picture itself. However, my attempts to photograph the effect using my mobile phone attracted special admonishment from an attendant whose job it was to head off just such flaunting of the rules - set on large signs everywhere and in every conceivable language. He approached and spoke loudly. I had no defense other than to look mildly subnormal.

Then, two days after our return, 2006 grinds to a halt.  New Year's Eve is an odd moment when it is possible to feel both warm about the past and galvanized about the future at the same time. Pondering the sea of raised champagne glasses, I had not altogether pleasant flashbacks to 2006 as a year spent in a series of organised panics: the second series of All the Right Notes for Radio 4, touring ACME, rewriting Borge, the first show for orchestra, Mozart’s Back, the second show for orchestra…They all came off well in the end (I hope) but whether the effort made any difference to anyone is not quite so clear... Meantime, I was cheeared that I do already have one or two jolly things to l0ok forward to in 2007:  a return to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in May, conducting the City of Birmingham  Symphony Orchestra in July and the Manchester Camerata in October are a few.  Beyond that, I shall stick to my usual mottos:

The first I once saw pinned to the inside of his work cabin in Dawson City by the writer Robert Service “Don’t worry, just work”. If this fails, there is the second - what I think is referred to as Lazlo's Chinese Relativity Axiom - "No matter how great your triumphs or how tragic your defeats, approximately one billion Chinese couldn't care less."

Happy New Year from me to you! Or should that be 漢字 / 汉方块字!

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CHRISTMAS EVE 2006 10.54

All gigs done for the year.  The last in Ilkestone, Derbyshire (pronounced Illson, Daarbisha – how inbred is that?) on Friday.  Every time said the name incorrectly – which I was doing on purpose by the end – the crowd roared the correction, which, being completely deaf, made absolutely no difference: “Illstone?”, “ILLSON!”, “Illton?”, “ILLSON!”…Could this have something to do with why I had to be escorted from the building?

Now I have only to contemplate my navel and obsessively watch The World at War on the UK History Channel before the year’s end.   Quite why I find The World at War so fascinating I don’t know.  Twenty-six black and white episodes, many of which I must have seen five times, narrated in doom-laden tones by Lawrence Olivier.  I console myself that I can’t be alone since repeating the whole ruddy thing seems now to be as much a Christmas tradition as mince pies. Actually, I covertly have similar warm feelings about The Battle of Britain – also with Olivier (as Air Chief Marshall Dowding: “…the essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one…” – bloody great).  My Dad escaped Germany in April 1939.  Perhaps there is a Jewish/German gene in me that has to check compulsively that Hitler still dies in the end.  (We are not – by way – a Jewish family now. Strangely, my Grandad appears to have quietly dropped it in Berlin in the '30's).

This being Christmas Eve, there will be some German-style present giving.  Connie (who won’t read this before the end of the day) is getting a digital camera and a pearl necklace she spotted in a shop window in New Zealand and which I later went back and bought for her.  Ted (who won’t read this because he is a four-year old Miniature Schnauzer) is getting a comfy bed for sleeping by the piano (it’s sanded floorboards and I have to bring his other one in from the living room if he insists on sharing my painfully slow progress with Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody).  He will also get a toy ball which I bought on a whim online with the bed. Apparently, it has the ability to record his master’s voice and play it back to him when he chases it round the house.  Not sure if this is a good or bad thing but I am sure that what starts as highly entertaining will end with my wanting to find that blasted toy and break it (if he hasn’t himself by then).

I really have no idea what Father Christmas has in store for me.  There are two parcels sitting downstairs under the tree.  Perhaps the complete World at War on DVD plus a book on how to pronounce English place names?

Happy holidays.

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21ST DECEMBER 2006 11.06

At last there are signs that we are, indeed, approaching the festive season: I have a cold; John Wayne is on the television and  the rubbish (garbage) men have called round for their Christmas bonus.  Try as I might I can’t avoid any of them.   Whereas the cold is probably my fault, John Wayne made over 200 films so it is a statistical certainty that any random sample is going to contain a handful of his, the garbage men are just being cheeky. 

Doorbell rings; dog goes off.  Me, in dressing gown (it is 11am, one of the perks of the job):  “Yes?”

Garbage man in black donkey jacket and fluorescent waistcoat:  “Just wondering if you would like to remember the lads over the holidays?”

“Remember them?  How could I forget them?  They leave half the rubbish strewn over my front garden and the other half they won’t take because ‘it's in the wrong bag’.  Piss off and do your job properly like everyone else.” 

Door Slam.

Now, while this is my perfect exchange with these ne'er-do-wells (sorry, salt of the earth) the fact is that they have got you over a barrel.  What little service they provide is effectively on a one-to-one basis – lose their goodwill and you might as well start digging a landfill hole in your own back garden.  Complaining about them means going to their employers - that other dominion of the unmotivated, box-ticking idler – the local council.  Thus, Rewind:

Doorbell rings; dog goes off.  Me, in dressing gown (it is still only 11am – OK, closer to 1pm): “Yes?”

Garbage man in black donkey jacket etc.:  “Just wondering if you would like to remember the lads over the holidays?”

“Certainly.  Three of you?  Here’s £5 each.  And, oh yes, there are a couple of bags of garden clippings (which have been there since August ).  If it’s not too much trouble…?”

“No problem.  Merry Christmas!”

Door Slam.

I am a, sort of, socialist (at least I always vote Labour at elections – probably the last bastion of my innate conservatism which I am too right on to admit) but there is clearly a principle at work here – I pay £15 and get the job that I want done.  Wouldn’t it be more effective if I just paid the same £15 every time I needed my garbage removing rather than handing over £1,000 + over the year in the form of Council Tax in order for it to be just left outside my house in various states of unpacking?  Perhaps, after all, it is a shame Christmas does only come once a year.

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15TH DECEMBER 2006 11.50

A good week with one big dip…

On Thursday, still in a state of shell-shock after the concert, I perform at the Comedy Store in Leicester Square.  I am on at the end of the first half, which suits me fine and all goes very well.  Afterwards, I have a long chat with Don Ward who owns the Store and who has brung it up from nowt to the empire it is today. 

I am flattered to have been on good terms with Don ever since the days of the German Comedy Store in 1996.  This was an adventure in which the Store name, logo and acts were rented out to a new entertainment complex in Oberhausen, near Dusseldorf.  All might have been well with this had not Oberhausen been the German equivalent of Redditch (slight intended) where hardly anyone was fully lingual, let alone bilingual.  This resulted in months of empty houses and restless audiences until the venture was wound up. At Oberhausen, each show ended in German fashion with a line-up of the participating acts.  At this point in the proceedings, after one particularly grueling weekend, Jeff Green famously grabbed the microphone and proclaimed to the audience “Don Ward – you owe me three days of my life”.  Anyway, since I speak German I MC’d the Oberhausen Comedy Store frequently and once or twice acted as Don’s translator in some small dealings – thus, amongst other things, our friendship.

Don mentioned that he is going to get rid of the battered old upright piano which sits in the utility room behind the stage.  It has been with him since the very first Comedy Store opened in Soho, twenty-seven years ago.  This immediately struck me as a waste since a piano with such a history would be bound to attract interest on Ebay.  Surely there is some comedy nerd out there that would want to take on an instrument which has been taken apart on stage by Adrian Edmondson and pounded by everyone from Richard Vranch to Robin Williams?  I have frequently practiced on it myself (though, granted, this might have a deflationary effect) playing Beethoven while a few feet away the show roars on.  Don, thinking of the money, seemed quite taken by the idea (he would donate it to children with special needs - his).

Then Friday and my death on stage.

I am summoned to a Christmas show at Jongleurs Camden for a company called Aquiva.  Quite what Aquiva did or do, I still don’t know (or care – though, I acknowledge, this might be part of the problem).  However, Jongleurs Camden is full with two hundred and fifty of them, all wearing Santa hats and getting pissed.  This might in any case be a difficult gig because, well, the good people of Aquiva are there largely to enjoy one another’s company in a setting away from work.  Crucially, they are there as a job lot, not a set of individuals who have separately decided to attend a comedy show and committed themselves by shelling out money for a ticket (this analysis applies to all corporate and similar group events).  Thus, the show is largely incidental and even, to some in the audience, unwelcome.  However, this particular event is made more difficult by the fact that the Managing and Finance Directors decide it would set things off nicely if they went on stage to draw a raffle.  This turns out to last 25 mins, is rambling and disorganized and, from my point of view, tests the audience’s attention span. After this, the MC – Kevin McCarthy – does an admiral job (10 mins) of refocusing the audience and introducing Ricky Grover (25 mins).  Kevin then goes back on (3 mins) and introduces me.

It is a probably a warning when, in the minutes before he introduces you, the MC – even with a 1000 Watt PA behind him - struggles to be heard.  Kevin does funny material and is professional but the audience has had enough (1 hr 3 mins).  At this point we really should cut to an interval or simply cut the show.  Instead we cut to me.   “Welcome on to the stage…RAINER HERSCH”.

When they find out that you are a comedian, people like to know if you have ever died.  The answer is always ‘yes’.  Every comedian has died on stage.  Harry Hill, Reeves and Mortimer, Lee Evans – I have seen them all die and sometimes horribly (Audience: “off, off, off, off, off, off”).  Some people are brilliant at it – they so tease the audience that, miraculously, they go full circle and come out the other side.  In my analysis, what saves them is that they are forced off their material , which the audience doesn’t relate to, onto dealing the situation which is enveloping them, which the audience finds extremely pertinent.  If they can do that and reveal their true comedic reflexes, they might sometimes save themselves.  But it’s rare.

In my case, I do not so much die since this presumes that you have at some point lived.  The audience just carries on chatting.  I am performing, not to boos but to indifference and, after all these years, I am not mortified but strangely amused.  I smile, laugh, joke with those one or two who are giving me attention.  I have resigned responsibility and am now just concerned to stay on stage for an appropriate amount of time, which– according to my vibrating stopwatch – turns out to be exactly 20 mins 15 seconds (though, in fact, the 15 seconds was more than enough).

Afterwards, I realise that the phrase I died is misleading.  People don’t treat you like you have died but as if you had been bereaved.  Like someone else has died.  Everybody is ultra polite: “how are you feeling?”; “do you want a drink?”; “can I help with your stuff?”  The worst part of the dying is dealing with this when, really, it hasn’t affected you all that much.  Being a professional comedian, of course, means that you treat it as a job.  Like any other job, parts of it are fun and creative, other parts are purely technical.  With experience you are able to examine a death in terms of those technical aspects (the way the show is set up; your energy on stage; what happened directly before you went on) and stop yourself spiraling into despair: I storm the Comedy Store on Thursday and die at a Christmas party on Friday with exactly the same material.  What changed?

This all sounds good doesn’t it?  All quite reasoned?  I am now typing with my nose - an empty bottle of whisky in one hand  and a revolver in the other. Those bastards. Don't they know who I am? I've been on the radio and everything.

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7TH DECEMBER 2006 09.48

Just discovered a little video clip of me on-line from a programme called The World Stands Up .  I recorded in  The Clapham Grand in May 2005, I think.  Rather entertainingly, a German flag is entered next to my name in the index and the words

Rainer Hersch
Germany

pop up in the lower left hand corner while the clip is running.  This, presumably, to increase the international quotient and provide the producers with the novelty value of listing a comedian from Germany in the credits.  Take a butcher’s: The World Stands Up.

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7TH DECEMBER 2006 08.53

The morning after the outing of a new orchestral programme At Last the 1977 New Year’s Day Concert at Colchester Institute in Essex.  This project has been occupying me, more or less full time, since coming back from New Zealand and it was…a success (I think) - perhaps even a big success.  Forty-two professional musicians plus soprano (the one and only Susan Gilmour Bailey) in a two hour show with my conducting, piano playing and assorted high jinx.  I am, though, now completely and utterly knackered.  However this may be the result, not so much of the concert but of staying up until 3.30am playing poker on-line once I got home.

The orchestra is great fun and the reception from the students at Colchester is a joy (I have been there many times to do and try out shows).  However, when you get forty plus people involved, each comedy gesture requires a hell of a lot of effort. In this case, every crochet, every dot, every dash for every orchestral member has at some point to have been put on a piece of paper.   This is not to mention the ugly business of organising and taking rehearsals, transport, props and the even uglier business of paying for the whole ruddy thing.  But after you have been through all that you end up with something which I honestly think no-one else is doing in the world - and that is a good feeling.  Forgive the immodesty.

That Programme in full:

FIRST HALF
Strauss II: Fledermaus Overture
Various Arranged Me: Cinema Sounds
Tchaikovsky: Waltz of the Flowers  from The Nutcracker
Strausses Arr. Me: Pizzicato Polka
Smetana: Dance of the Comedians from The Battered Bride
Me: Commercial Music
Me: Windows Sounds and Waltz
Strauss II: Thunder and Lightning Polka
Strauss II: Ohne Sorgen Polka
Me: How the great composers got their ideas
Saint-Saens Arr. Me: Fossiles  from Carnival of the Animals

SECOND HALF
Strauss II Arr. Me: Perpetuum Mobile
Strauss II Lyrics by Me: The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus (with Susan Gilmour Bailey)
Offenbach: Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman (with Susan)
Strauss II: Roses from the South (with video of me ballet dancing)
Anthony Rolf Forkin: “Those that the Lord loves most…”
Me: Kareoke Classical Music
Strauss II Arr. Me: The Beautiful Blue Danube

ENCORES (there were some)
Gershwin Lyrics by Me: “By Strauss” (with Susan) – accompanied by moi on piano
Strauss I Arr. Me: Radetzky March

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29TH NOVEMBER 2006 09.37

Just found out, yesterday, that I am going to be investigated by the Inland Revenue again.  This will make the third time in about fifteen years.  I phoned the name at the bottom of the Revenue’s letter who appeared to be quite genuinely taken aback that it was my third time: 

“I can assure you it is completely random”.

“Yes, well you can completely randomly select someone else then can’t you?” 

My accountant is more forthcoming:

“Yours is a cash business”. 

“I hardly ever get paid in cash”. 

“Well there is a lot of cash flying about”. 

There is a lot of cash flying about - this argument in favour of my need for investigation is on a par with that of insurance companies who won’t cover performers because…well, I’m not entirely sure why not.  I think that whoever sets insurance rates reads The News of the World and decides that insurance should be more expensive for entertainers because they are off their faces on drugs most of the time and, if charged the same, would simply use it as an invitation to drive into the nearest brick wall and claim the money.  I once phoned up to get a quote for car insurance.   On hearing that I was an actor (I always say actor instead of comedian which sounds like I am about to make fun of them) the girl at the other end asked, in all seriousness, “are you famous?”.  This, of course, strikes at the very nucleus of my insecurities.  I mumbled something about BBC1 and Radio4 but the truth of the matter is that, if she has to ask, I am clearly not.  There is no use replying to such a questions by shouting “what the hell has that got to do with it?” because “what the hells has that got to do with it? (shouted)” is simply not recognised as an answer by the Norwich Union computer.  The same rules apply, incidentally, if you want to insure your stuff.  Some companies won’t even touch it - if you are an actoooor.

Anyway, my forthcoming third investigation is honestly not, dear reader, the result of some devious financial dealings.  I declare every penny,  have never co-operated with Nigerian officials who need help transferring enormous sums out of Lagos – I haven’t even been shoplifting (recently).  My theory is that it is because I employ people – musicians mostly.  Orchestras don’t come cheap and, if I do a series of gigs with one, the sums mount up.  Thus the Revenue investigate me to find out who I have paid so that they, in turn, can investigate them.  Well, that’s my theory and I’m going to stick to it.   There is probably even one more layer to this – musicians’ cleaners across the capital BEWARE.

The fact is that when I am investigated no-one comes to my office to trawl through my receipts.  Nobody seems to question anything very much absolutely.  Income is a fact - you can't argue about that - but expenses: half the time, whether this or that thing is allowable against tax is just a matter of opinion.  Of course, if find that something is excluded, as a professional comedian I just have to write a joke about it and it is back in.  What actually seems to happen, practically, is a long and tedious exchange of letters between the Revenue and my accountant after which my income tax is adjusted by about £200 and the accountant charges me £1,000.  All this doesn’t, however, stop it 1) being a pain in the neck and 2) arousing my feelings of persecution by the Inland Revenue. I will be writing to my MP in the strongest possible terms…

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26TH NOVEMBER 2006 12.30

Ted, my dog’s, birthday.  He is now the big ‘0’ ‘4’ – not that this seems to make the slightest bit of difference to him and he carries on licking his nuts.  (There is a picture of Ted sitting on my piano in the Photo Gallery).

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21ST NOVEMBER 2006 16.00

Odd that, a few days after hearing about Leonid Hambro, I come across a box set of three DVD’s called “The Victor Borge Show Collection” in HMV.  These are TV shows, sponsored by Kellogg’s, that Borge recorded in the early 1950’s – that is, before his big success on Broadway which really made him a star.   The blurb on the back includes the headline “If you think you’ve already seen these shows – think again”.   Sounds good…

What a disappointment.  I am a Borge fan (I might claim expert) but this is very poor: dirt cheap mastering introduces 405 minutes of grueling black and white TV with every tedious Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial left in [Housewife: “nothing makes a mother more happy than knowing her family appreciate the little things you do to make each meal interesting and different.  Sometimes it brings extra trouble and other times (reaching for Kellogg’s Variety Pack) it’s just plain easy…].  Christ, after watching just one of these five minute stints with Kellogg’s ideal housewife, I want to put strychnine in the cornflakes and eat the lot.  

After you have waded through these (there are three per show) the sketches are plain awful with clunky 1950’s production and actors, including Borge, who look like they are just making their long, aimless scenes up.  Were they really so desperate for entertainment in the 1950’s?  The only decent material clearly comes from Borge’s stage act – all of which we very much have seen already.

Frankly, this set just convinces me that Borge's repertoire, even when taken over his entire lifetime, was limited in a way that no working comic could get away with now. That headline on the back actually tacitly admits the fact. The piano solos alone (excerpts from Rachmaninov 2nd piano concert0, Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto, Claire de Lune) are the same as on all his other, later, output - you would have thought an active musician would get bored playing the same tunes for 50 years?  “The Victor Borge Show Collection” is a last attempt to screw money out of the Borge name and does him no favours.

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15TH  NOVEMBER 2006 19.51

I just heard that my friend Leonid (Lee) Hambro died in New York on October 23rd aged 86.

As well as being a transcendental pianist in his own right, Leonid Hambro was Victor Borge’s first collaborator and suggested many of his piano routines, including the Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody duet that I did in my Borge show.  It was my privilege to know him in the last two years of his life – we were introduced after one of the performances of the Borge.  I will keep fond memories of his many stories about the great musicians he had met and worked with: Jascha Heifetz, Arturo Toscanini, Paul Hindemith – the lot.  He once told me he gave a lesson on a Prokoviev Sonata to Vladimir Horowitz – and I believe him.  I last saw him on June 25th this year when he came for lunch with his wife Barbara.  We ended the day playing Mozart duets.  There is a full obituary of him at www.telegraph.co.uk. Goodbye Lee.

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11th  NOVEMBER 2006 23.42

Returned from Jongleurs, Oxford after closing the show there today and yesterday.  It’s a long time since I have done a Jongleurs gig and I had slightly forgotten the atmosphere – mostly young(ish) people out on the piss: raucous, crowded and with a lot of comedians saying ‘fuck’ (including me) thus, unmistakably, a good night out.

Both shows were very good though in the first and for one awful moment, the power to my keyboard seemed to flicker and fail.  Needless to say this would leave me without an act at the mercy of some quite drunk people who had paid to be entertained.    I quietly fiddled with the flex and whatever internal wiring magically reconnected – lights back on, salvation.  This must have something to do with me dropping all 25 kilos of the ruddy keyboard on its end the other day.   It is a giant and, in it’s flight case, weighs 32 kilos which is 12 kilos more than your baggage allowance on a regular plane (part of the grounds for my loathing of airports).  The reason for its great mass is the fact that the keys are weighted (i.e. have the feel of a real piano rather than just being plasticky and with no resistance to the fingers.  If you are used to a normal piano the latter variety is almost unplayable).  Anyway, the audience didn’t seem to notice or care about any of this.  As I was groping around on the stage, collecting my things together on the Friday, an older man approached me:

“You are the funniest person I have seen in five years”.

I shook his hand, tried to sound suitably modest, continued grappling with 32 kilos of keyboard.  And, by the time it had occurred to me to ask whom he had seen six years ago that was so bloody brilliant, he was gone.

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8th NOVEMBER 2006 12.42

The day after my birthday which I spent, like last year, as a tourist in London.  I have found that this is an excellent way for people with too much time on their hands to pass such anniversaries – visiting all those sites you should have seen but somehow never got round to.  I often think that  - across the world - tourists probably know more about local points of interest than do the locals themselves. 

This year my merry scramble involved a visit to the Wallace Collection on Manchester Square (often glimpsed, never gone in, free as it turns out); a tour of the Globe Theatre (never even knowingly seen); a trip on a Thames Clipper (a sort of fast water bus); the Visitors Gallery a the House of Lords (might I suggest a touch more red velvet?) followed by dinner with friends in a room at a Hungarian Restaurant on Greek Street (not a Hungarian in sight).  However, all this was preceded by a very enjoyable lunchtime concert given by ‘O Duo’ at the Wigmore Hall.

‘O Duo’ are two likely looking blokes, Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell, who perform a variety of original and purpose-written music plus arrangements on percussion instruments: rhythmic numbers on assorted drums, melodic items on two massive marimbas and vibes.  This kind of stuff is right up my street – not only because I like such arrangements but also because, in performing them, the pair also brought a clear sense of theatre to the performance: it was clearly, joyously virtuosic, their movements suggest a dance to the music; they interact with one another as they play; their commentary between pieces was self effacing and entertaining.  A treat. Great. It also contrasts with so many other experiences of serious, serious music. 

For example…what did Maxim Vengerov think he was doing, hushing the audience between movements of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante at the Proms this year like we were observing some kind of religious service?  Why is it the current fashion to sit like monks in meditation watching until the end of all pieces?  I think it is exactly this kind of po-faced reverence that puts people off trying classical music.  It’s also just not natural – if you have seen or heard something good, you want to express your appreciation.  What’s the hell is wrong with clapping between movements?  These days a piece like the Beethoven Violin Concert is treated like a religious relic.  When the Beethoven Violin Concerto was first performed, the man who played the solo part entertained the audience between movements by playing his own sonatas on the violin, on one string with the violin held upside-down.  Now that’s what I call entertainment. Why can't we get back to that? Or at least loosen up a bit?

The spirit of ‘O Duo’s’ concert did something to dispel this attitude but that didn’t stop the Wigmore Hall being only a fifth full and that mostly with old farts.  My greatest distress is the thought that, with an increasing number of birthdays behind me, I might be gradually becoming one of them.

And, with that thought, this story:

 In October 2004 I dashed to the Barbican to see the final of the Donatella Flick conducting competition.  Keen to catch every bead of sweat and quake from the contestants, I bought a ticket right at the front, directly under the podium.  It was a surprise that the concert hadn’t actually started.  As I walked in to the hall, the entire audience got up.  Naturally, cheered, I straightened up and made my way as regally as possible to my seat…arriving just in time to turn and see Charles and Camilla just reaching their positions on the balcony above (thus the audience’s servitude and the late start). 

I was enjoying the concert – two contestants in the first half, one in the second - Fabien Gabel, who eventually won it.  During the interval, I mooched around on my own looking for entertainment – part of which involved spending a few minutes glancing into the enclosure where the royal pair were being entertained to see if I could catch sight of them.  As I made my way back to my seat again in good time for the second half, I found myself suddenly flanked by (what turned out to be) a couple plain-clothes policemen.  “Please accompany us sir” they say, roughly bundling me into the doors of a side exit.  Then, aggressively:

“Have you got a ticket for this concert?”

“Of course” say I.

“Can we see it, Sir?”

“Naturally.” 

I then begin the a futile process of fumbling in every pocket, certain that I had just dropped it somewhere as is my usual. 

A minute or so passed. 

Tense silence - me still fumbling and the policemen reporting on their radio that they had detained someone (scouting the place waiting for an opportunity to assassinate the heir to the throne). 

Me, now quite nervous: “When I find this, I hope you are going to apologize?”  They were being quite hostile.

If you find it, Sir”.

Then: triumph!  In my back pocket, already three times searched, I feel a stub.  Not some old underground ticket but, hoorah, the remnants of a ticket for the gig: Row A, Seat 16.  I produce it and, with my expression demand my apology. Policemen, mumbling, releasing me from their grasp:

“Sorry for any inconvenience, Sir.”

Returning to my seat, I felt affronted.  The bloody cheek!  But afterwards, once the sting had worn off a bit, I actually felt strangely proud.  Yes I was a classical musician.  Yes, bought tickets to sit in the front row of conducting competitions .  But I clearly still looked out of place.  I was still not quite one of them.  Yet.

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1st NOVEMBER 2006 13:00

Halloween last night.  Kids calling at our door all evening and I am pretty sure that many had previously never seen a grown man naked.

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19th October 2006 14:30

Back in the UK after a total of 34 hours traveling – door to door.    This is confirmation that New Zealand is, and I think intends to remain, a hell of a long way away.   Nevertheless, it was one of my most enjoyable trips ever and contrasts with my first tour there (in 1998 I think) when I spent five weeks but saw nothing but the insides of theatres – which, and with good reason, never feature on visit New Zealand videos.

My last few days were performing in Nelson – apparently named after Admiral “Ships? I see no ships” Nelson.  Nelson is just across the Cook Strait from Wellington – apparently named after the Duke of Wellington.  This leads me to wonder which servile self-seeker went round New Zealand naming towns after historical British successes?  I didn’t see a town called ‘Agincourt’ or ‘Wembly 1966’ but I’ve got a sneaking feeling it’s there.

I must mention my overnight in Blenheim (named after Blenheim, birthplace of Churchill – I rest my case) where I overnighted at ‘The Manor’ – a colonial style, single-story pile decked out in native timbers and developed into a top notch B&B: through Blenheim, down a lane, round a bend and there she blows.  I picked it out at random from the leaflets at Kaikoura visitor information centre, little realizing that it had just opened for business and I would be only the second person to stay.  This must be what it is like to be royalty – new sheets, unworn carpet and the faint smell of fresh paint.  I drove away the following morning after a good night’s sleep wondering how I could create some kind of diversion in the main road to ensure that I would also be only the third person to stay in a year or so’s time.

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12th October 2006 9:30

Stopped off on the long drive from Dunedin to Nelson - later to Christchurch, then in Kaikoura but first to Moeraki to view the boulders.

The Moeraki boulders are, according to the information panels "a crystallization of calcium and carbonates around charged particles in muddy undersea sediments". They are also alarmingly spherical and sit around on the beach like so many oversized canon balls - probably astounding the Maori who originally came across them and leading to the appropriate number of myths and legends. In thinking about this I realise I really can't give a toss for myths and legends - I want the facts. I realise this might sound disrespectful to the Maori but it is just the way I am. Since the story that some ancient culture has come up with to explain a phenomenon like those boulders has clearly popped out of someone's imagination at some time, it carries equal weight in my mind to any story that I might think up to explain them. To prove this point I march up and down the Moeraki beach for half an hour muttering invented explanations to myself (mythical giant birds, eggs etc) thus drawing concerned glances from other tourists. (This, I must admit, probably did look a little odd - on the streets of London you can get away with such behaviour with the simple understanding that you are either mad or on the phone). Be that as it may, I challenge you to put 'Moeraki Boulders' into Google Images and tell me I'm not making this up.

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8th October 2006 23:30

Just finished three performances of All Classical Music Explained in Dunedin - the second time I have been here. "According to my agent you play Dunedin twice in your life - once on the way up and once on the way down...it's nice to be back" (Malcolm Hardee). The weather is extremely changeable - hot and sunny on Friday, on Saturday morning it is so cold I can see my own breath. Hot, cold, hot, cold...Dunedin is going through the menopause?

The Steinway at the Glenroy Auditorium is beautiful and makes me think about setting up some kind of fund to replace my Yamaha C3. Sell 50 CD's after the show and wonder if this might be the beginning of the fund (until four days later when I realise that I have managed to blow the lot on trinkets and fine living).

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5th October 2006 21.00

Arrive in Dunedin by way of Invercargill (there is NOTHING in Invercargill), Bluff (a town perched on a hill overlooking an ugly port whose chief claim to fame appears to be one of those multi-directional signs - New York 15008 km, Tokyo 9567 km etc - I suppose suggesting all the possible directions you might take to get out of Bluff) then a strip of extremely beautiful native forest and rugged coastline called the 'Catlins' (though stuck in my own in the car for hours on end I had metamorphosed this word into various versions including the 'Catakins', the 'Catscans' and the 'Catskins').

The Catlins/Catakins/Catskins is/are my ideal countryside - on the coast, very exposed and remote. At Curio Bay a fossilised forest becomes exposed at low tide - fascinating. I prance around taking photos and wondering how how creationists can look on such things and still conclude that the earth was created in 4000 BC. Then on to my favourite place of all: Nugget Point - a steep headland with a lighthouse at its tip and views of the sea all around. I dream of buying it and building a spectacular house with a grand piano overlooking the sea - like in Betty Blue (complete with Béatrice Dalle wandering around without any clothes on).

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3rd October 2006 22.00

Picked up at 07.20 and driven by coach to Milford Sound – four hours through the very picturesque countryside and narrated all the way by the (female) coach driver. Most interesting and relaxing. Rarely…never, have I enjoyed a coach trip more. The Sound itself, where it normally pisses down, was bathed in sunshine: steep sides of a glacier-scraped valley, flooded with sea water and full of tiny waterfalls. Boat crew equally informative and friendly. A treat which I will not forget. Back to my hotel by 20.15. Nosh. Emails, bed.

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2nd October 2006 11.30

Pick up the courtesy car that has been lent to me by Toyota, Nelson. I am due to drive it, first to Dunedin and then back up to Nelson. I think I was expecting a fantastic four-wheel drive land cruiser, befitting my status as a… ahem… comedian/musician of some renown. What turned up was a rather smelly, not-quite-estate car – dirty and with a sticky steering wheel, befitting my status as a rather smelly individual with no fixed plan. Thus began my 470 Km journey to Queenstown with the purchase of an air freshener and fluffy steering wheel cover. Would have bought fluffy dice to match but these, oddly, don’t seem to be popular here.

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1st October 2006 13.30

Said goodbye to Mrs Hersch (my wife) who is flying back to the UK to get on with her real job while I stay in New Zealand to perform at Dunedin and Nelson Festivals. As her taxi disappears out of sight I feel myself mysteriously and inexorably transformed from the happy-go-lucky tourist into a street itinerant, needing a shave and eating pies out of a brown paper bag. Married men somehow loose the ability to look after themselves (or is it just that they now realise how low their standards are when left to their own devices? Discuss.) To subdue my feelings of abandonment, I go to the cinema and watch (in succession) ‘Flight 93’ and ‘Thank You For Smoking’. I can’t remember the last time I watched two films in succession except on a plane.

Eat two pies out of a brown paper bag.

Bed.

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18th September – 30th September 2006

Holidaying in New Zealand with my wife (Mrs Hersch). Arriving Auckland; driving to Russell (pleasant and sleepy); the West Coast via Dargaville (godforsaken); Waitomo (glow worm caves); Lake Rotoiti (bubbling pools) – Christchurch - TranzAlpine to Greymouth; Driving to Franz Joseph (spectacular helicopter flight and marching around on the glacier – without falling in); Punakaiki (very striking rocks); returning to Christchurch.

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17th September 2006 12.30

Arrive Auckland. Usual checks for contraband fruit and dried meat. The sniffer-dog got so excited about an apple in my coat pocket it completely overlooked the two kilos of cocaine I had stuffed down my pants.

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15th September 2006 22.00

Fly Heathrow to Auckland. Twenty-four hours in the air. I have heard it said that if you put mice in the same relative proximity for the same length of time, they eat one another. Pondering this nugget, I nibble mice-sized meals, watch mouse-sized television and...incredibly…manage to get an elephant-sized amount of sleep (this, however, care of some serious pain killers I am taking for my colitis and three Bloody Marys. My specialist would throw a fit – though, granted, he would have easy access to the appropriate pills).

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13th September 2006 11.17

Part two of ‘All The Right Notes, Not Necessarily In The Right Order’ is going out tonight at 18.30 on BBC Radio 4.  Part one went out last week.  Part three…er...next week (…I’m sure you’ve got the hang of it by now).  Rather frustrating: neither my producer, nor the production company thought to let me know about these repeats – the first I heard of them was a text at 19.00 last Wednesday from a friend as I sat in La Trompette in Chiswick with Mrs Hersch (my wife) celebrating our wedding anniversary.  Had I known, of course, I would have arranged for the R.A.F. to drop leaflets all over London advertising the fact.  As it was, I just phoned my mum (too late to listen of course).

18.30 on a Wednesday is drive time when people are listening.  This makes it  a much better slot than the original broadcast time of 11.30 on a Tuesday - when only a handful of retired antiques dealers in the home counties hear it as they buff up the French polish on unsold coffee tables.  Knowing this, the Beeb in their goodness have decided to send the series out again since…ahem…every programme got on ‘Pick Of The Week’ when it was first broadcast in January, thus making it a big hit.

People have been asking if I get a repeat fee for such transmissions.  Er…no.  The Beeb get to send it out twice as part of the original contract.  Rarely would it go out a third time on Radio 4 except, perhaps, ‘In Memoriam Rainer Hersch’ by which time the whole question of residuals is less pressing.  When BBC7 get their hands on it, it is another matter and I look forward to observing the face of the cashier at HSBC as I hand her a cheque for 65p.

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12th September 2006 18.18

Thanks to Dusan a shifty, 30-something geeza from Yugoslavia who has spent more time than is good for him in his life fiddling around with web sites, www.rainerhersch.com is now splendidly re-launched.  I have celebrated by going on tour to New Zealand – about which many ruminations to follow no doubt.

(I know that Dusan will ask me what a “geeza” exactly is.  Fearing an outbreak of Anglo-Yugo hostilities, I preempt with www.urbandictionary.com: “a word used to describe a male, independent of race or creed, a bit like “bloke”. Used more so in the south of England (i.e London)”.  (what’s a “bloke”? – Dusan)

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Copyright ©2009 Rainer Hersch. Comedian and Classical Musician from Britain. rainer-info@thecomedy.biz