Penny Dreadfuls Interview

[Written for Noises Off at National Student Drama Festival 2008.]

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to completely lose your shit – the Penny Dreadfuls are in town. Swashbuckling rapscallions that they are, the Pennys are playing NSDF with their 2008 Edinburgh Fringe show, “Aeneas Faversham Forever”.

The show continues the terrific trio’s plundering of the 19th Century for comic material inherent in Victoriana, steampunk, upper-class twits and lower-class urchins. After all, if you’re looking for a moustache to twirl, you’d better go somewhere with good moustaches. I emailed them some questions, and they kindly took time out of doing Facebook memes to do almost exactly the same thing in the name of promotion.

So, exactly why are they so awesome? Thom Tuck sent this answer:

“In both mathematics and art, there is a ratio which is believed to confer special beauty, or meaning, on the works where it is exhibited. As far back as Euclid, thinkers have known it as a mark of transcendent quality. It is roughly expressed as being the ratio where a+b is to a as a is to b. It is called the golden ratio, and applies precisely to our heights.”

Obviously. Thom is a veteran of two NSDFs. He was part of the ensemble for Chris Perkin’s “Like Skinnydipping” in 2003 and then took on the titular role in Justin Butcher’s “Scaramouche Jones”. David Reed also came to NSDF03, but in the more lowly position of “Hillock Creator”. Being a Yorkshire lad, though, he has fond memories of Scarborough from his childhood. “My brother and I used to trawl the arcades along the beach front for hours trying to find the side-scrolling Simpsons game. If I remember rightly, Smithers had kidnapped Maggie because she had swallowed one of Mr Burns’ diamonds and so you had to plough your way through an enormous number of aggressive Springfieldians to get her back. We never played as Marge. She had a hoover for a weapon.” Any ideas why the Penny Dreadfuls are so awesome, Dave? “There’s not a night goes by I don’t lose sleep over that question.”

Humphrey Ker has never been to Scarborough. “Never been,” he says, “Psyched to add it to my repertoire.” He has a more insightful position about why the Penny Dreadfuls are so awesome: “Early to bed early to rise.”

They formed the Penny Dreadfuls after appearing as part of legendary Edinburgh University improvisers The Improverts. Although their scripts are meticulously plotted with quote-to-your-friends-funny lines, I wondered how much improv helped them to write…

David: “It’s certainly helped us to get away with rehearsing less. We tend to let the audience’s response to what we do be our director, so we rehearse very little, apart from learning the lines and the most basic of blocking.”

Humphrey: “So much of the fleshing out of characterisation is best done by an element of improv, it’s often in those moments of spontaneity that you find the really fun stuff.”

Thom: “It certainly helps us come up with thousands of flimsy and poorly thought through characters, yes. Is that what you meant?”

I suppose it was, yes. Having met at university, I wondered if there were any lessons on progressing through higher education they would like to impart to younger generations:-

Thom: “I do regret not getting a better degree. I have a 2:2 in a wonderful subject (philosophy) from a great university (Edinburgh), but could and probably should have done better. Plus sleep with loads of hotties, yeah?”

Being at Edinburgh University, they were ideally placed to conquer the Edinburgh Fringe – and conquer it, they did, with nine five-star reviews for last summer’s “Aeneas Faversham Forever”. Yet, “Forever” was a departure for the Pennys from the sketch shows of 2006’s “Aeneas Faversham” and 2007’s “Aeneas Faversham Returns”, in that it is a single episodic story. What prompted the change? Is it a clear distinction in style, or just a structural change from the individual sketches of “Returns”?

Humph: “We didn’t want to go back to Edinburgh and do exactly the same type of show we had done the last two years.”

Thom: “It’s a huge change in terms of style. There are belly laughs and a structural cleanliness to which you do not have access generally in a sketch format. People will only care if we shoot someone in the face if they’ve seen them on a journey. If you’ve shot someone in the face who’s only just walked on it’s only ever mildly amusing.”

Dave: “We much prefer telling a story now, but our scenes are still very much in the sketch mould.”

Any advice on approaching the Fringe for people taking shows?

Humph: “Preview, preview, preview. Do a good show. If you are seeking to get anything out of the festival, there’s no point in going off half-cock. Take it seriously and you will be taken seriously.”

Dave: “Don’t bother standing in statuesque poses on the Royal Mile, dressed in only a bed sheet and face paint, holding out flyers. No one will come and see your show. Instead, talk to people who walk by politely and genuinely. They’re more likely to come.”

After their stints at the Fringe, they were lured to write their own radio show – BBC7’s “The Brothers Faversham”, which was later re-run on BBC Radio 4, placing them in quite august company…

Dave: “I listen to everything on Radio 4. Apart from the fucking Archers. Oh, I could kill to stop from hearing that”

With the move into radio, could they ever see themselves giving up live performance for recorded media?

Humph: “Nothing beats performing to a live audience. The immediate response is a terrifying and intoxicating thing. That said, I’d like my career to reach the point where I had the option to give it all up and go and live in a mansion lighting cigars with a fifty pound notes.”

And with Thom having attended two festivals before, has he got any advice for new Festgoers? “Get up early, and go to four or five workshops. Try at least one new thing. Try not to miss a show as it might just be the best/worst/most talked about thing of the week.”

To which I say, don’t miss “Aeneas Faversham Forever”, as it may well be the best/worst/most talked about thing this week.

But not the worst. Because they’re awesome.

Quick Questions with the Penny Dreadfuls

Who are your favourite people from the Victorian era?
Thom: “Sir Joseph Bazalgette, creator of the London sewers – what a dude.”
Humph: “Soldiers. Invariably my favourite people from any era.”

Which director, living or dead, would you want to direct a Penny Dreadfuls film?
Humph: “Edgar Wright.”
Dave: “Terry Gilliam. He’s awesome. He’d get it. And we’re already influenced enough by his work as is.”
Thom: “I wouldn’t mind David O. Russell, Terry Gilliam or Hitchcock. But my choice would definitely be P. T. Anderson (the Magnolia one, not the Aliens vs. Predator one).”

Who is the best cook?
Dave: “Thom is the best cook.”
Humph: “I’m going to award this one to Thom.”
Thom: “At the risk of sounding arrogant, definitely me.”

Who are the nicest people you’ve met in comedy?
Humph: “Pappy’s Fun Club, Pippa Evans, Dan Kitson, Josie Long.”
Thom: “Almost every sketch group is lovely. Something about having to work in a group anyway makes you open and smiley. Standups can be a diffident kettle of fish. Kitson’s very nice, though.”
Dave: “Without wishing to name drop like a bitch, the uber-famous ones tend to all be incredibly lovely. Turns out money does buy you happiness. Who knew?”

What’s the worst sketch you’ve ever written as a group?
Humph: “We did one at our first ever gig about a court that punished people for being stereotypes.”
Thom: “A joint first place between “Chalky Cox” and “Clockwork Frog”.”
Dave: “It’s a toss up between Clockwork Frog and Chalky Cox. My God they were both awful. I could describe them to you, but isn’t it far more fun to imagine for yourselves?”

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