CinePunked presents a special live recording of the touring show A Comedy of Madness – an exploration of comedy, and mental illness, with an emphasis on male mental health. Devised and presented by acclaimed comedy historian Robert Ross and film historian Robert JE Simpson with special guest, comedian and actor Tony Slattery
The heritage of comedy is a troubled one – littered with the shells of those whose genius is inextricably linked with mental health struggles. From Spike Milligan to Marty Feldman, Tony Hancock to Stephen Fry, Kenneth Williams to Robin Williams, their comedy pushed boundaries while they struggled in their private life. From sectioning to suicide, debasement to depression, this show explores the genius and instability of some of our comedy legends. Of changing attitudes to mental health language and treatment and the challenges of owning conditions of the mind in the public gaze.
Sleeve notes are below.
With Robert JE Simpson, Robert Ross and Tony Slattery
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Episode URL: https://player.whooshkaa.com/episode?id=663651
If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in the programme, please do reach out. There are specialist organisations around the world, you don’t have to be alone.
In Northern Ireland please check out MindWise.
For anyone under 19 in the UK, visit Childline.org.uk or phone them on 0800 1111
If you are in despair, Lifeline is available on 0808 808 8000
The Samaritans are available 24/7 365 days a year on 116 123.
If you are concerned you may hurt yourself or anyone else, please phone the emergency services – 999 in the UK, 911 in the US, and 000 in Australia.
This is a marathon of an episode – at over 150 mins its our longest published episode to date – but its also a special conversation, an intimate recording in front of a live audience at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast as part of CinePunked’s mental health strand, and is a companion piece to the last podcast – an interview between Simpson and Slattery.
We’ve never shied from “issues” here at CinePunked, and so we’ve been integrating mental health topics into our discussions from the start. We set about planning a number of shows for 2019/20 on mental health back in summer 2018, combining popular titles and names with hard-hitting conversation.
I’d started talking to Robert Ross about ideas for shows back in summer 2018 at the Edinburgh Fringe, where he’d been working with Tony on a conversation show. Over the next few months, as arrangements were put in place, we ran through a number of presentation possibilities, before settling on a slightly less ambitious format of two mental health-themed shows running on consecutive nights. With the heavy content of both shows, and their unscripted nature, it was important we built a safe space around ourselves so we could decompress and support each other in between. With Tony due to do his in conversation event with me on the Thursday, we decided to run our comedy and mental health event on the Wednesday, with Tony, and perhaps others, making a guest spot.
Robert Ross is no stranger to CinePunked having appeared already on the podcast, and involved in some of our other in-development projects. Rob and I have been friends for years, and this would mark the first time we’d ever worked together on stage. His exhaustive knowledge of British comedy has resulted in numerous books and broadcast appearances, and we share many of the same heroes. We decided to adopt the format he uses for some of his own shows, and one I’ve adopted in my own workshops – a selection of clips, accompanied by analysis of the excerpts and the performers involved. The clips and broad topics were discussed in advance, but the actual conversation would be spontaneous – it keeps it fresh each time.
By the time the show came around, Sundog Pictures were to accompany Tony to film him during his Belfast trip for use in the BBC Horizon documentary What’s the Matter With Tony Slattery?, and they would be filming both shows – with a section of the second night making it into the final film. With the doc crew there, and Tony in good spirits, we invited him to take part in the whole A Comedy of Madness show. He brings to it a unique insight based on his own experiences as performer and someone dealing with mental illness. The conversation should be listened to in combination with the interview show, because there are real insights in each.
On the Wednesday afternoon we popped down to Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue to promote the shows on the Lynette Faye Show for BBC Radio Ulster, with Nuala McKeever standing in. The slightly offbeat chat aired that evening, with Nuala (the experience of comic performance and mental illness informing her) asking some very interesting questions.
The small audience allowed for a more intimate setting, and we were able to treat this a little more like a work in progress – testing material and topics out. We’ve run the show subsequently, much pruned, so this version is quite a treat. It is at times very raw, with some surprising admissions from all.
I hope listeners wont be put off by the lengthy run time. It remains a show I’m deeply proud of, and I hope we’ll be able to run some version of it again in future. If you’d like us to come to you, get in touch!
Once again, a number of thanks are due. Firstly to Robert Ross, for getting on board and supporting and making the whole thing possible. To Tony Slattery for being so damn honest and engaging with very little notice. Also to Mark Hutchinson, Clare Richards, Kate Fish, Sundog Pictures, Pete McCloskey, and the Crescent Arts Centre. Huge thanks also to House on Botanic Avenue, where we based ourselves between shows – the staff we met couldn’t have been more helpful.
Note on the recording
Dialogue was recorded with stage stick mics and mixed in post in May 2020
Excerpts are included from the following broadcasts and films – these have been used in the spirit of fair use, but if any owners object to their inclusion, please contact us.
The Case of the Muckanese Battlehorn, directed by Joseph Sterling. Released in 1956 by Archway Film Distributors. [On YouTube here]
The Dustbin Dance from A Show Called Fred, episode 5 directed by Richard Lester. Broadcast on ITV in May 1956.
Peter Sellers interviewed on The Today Show broadcast by NBC in 1980. [On YouTube here]
Tony Hancock in Hancock: ‘The Bedsitter’. Directed by Duncan Wood. Broadcast 26 May 1961 BBC.
Tony Hancock in Face to Face, interviewed by John Freeman. First broadcast by BBC 7 February 1960. [On YouTube here]
Robin Williams in Patch Adams, directed by Tom Shadyac. Released 1998 by Universal Pictures.
Paul Currie in Live At the Electric, broadcast BBC 3 on 4 July 2013. [On YouTube here]
Marty Feldman in Augenblick mal… Wer ist Marty Feldman? Broadcast by NDR on 3 Nov 1974 [On YouTube here]
Kenneth Williams in Comic Roots. Broadcast BBC on 2 September 1983. [On BBC iPlayer here]
A Comedy of Madness was recorded live at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland on 6 November 2019.
Engineered and edited by Robert JE Simpson, with additional mixing and EQ by Ben Simpson and first published on 29 May 2020.