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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Calender Girls

What had Tony Blair done to  upset the Women's Institute (WI ) in 2000? A nicer bunch of women you wouldn't want to meet. They are absolutely lovely.

Last week I had the utter joy of spending 3 days at the WI's Denman College in the extremely expensive village of Marcham just outside Abingdon which itself is a few miles from Oxford.

I was going to drive down but with my hand in plaster that didn't seem such a good idea. I booked my train on line and discovered that if I phoned up the College they'd put on a taxi to pick me up from Didcot Parkway. Brilliant.

My trip from Paddington was trouble free arriving at Didcot Parkway, a station that has all the charm of a 1970's British Rail cheese sandwich. It was pouring with rain and I was early so I sheltered in the taxi rank. I was joined by an upright, well bred woman in her later years. I was disappointed that when asked if she was for Denman she said she was waiting for her daughter and moved away preferring the torrential rain to my company.

The taxi was majestic. An '09 Merc, with sat nav and wood trim. The taxi driver was a loquacious fella keen to discuss his hobby of metal detecting and finding lost Rolex watches in the area. Clearly Didcot has hidden depths.

Arriving at Denman, I signed in and was given an electronic key to my room, with my name and course on it - in case I forgot. The room was pretty impressive. Two huge windows over looking the massive croquet lawn: and two single beds! After unpacking I was in time for the "Introduction". There we all were  "newbies" waiting to meet our tutors. "Follies, Grand Houses and Gardens", "Machine Embroidery" and "Comedy Sketch Writing".  I tried to figure out who were the other budding sketch writers on my course. I couldn't - I had to wait until 8:15 pm for our first class.

The missus had warned me about Denman. It was almost impossible not to put on weight there. Clearly the college founders did not believe in skimping on the calories. One had just enough time to nosh on a three course Evening Meal with lashing of tea, coffee and alcohol before we headed off for our first session.

Luckily we didn't do that much the first evening, besides learning about our fellow budding writers. There were seven of us and I was the only male. I thought calling me "Boy Barry" a bit redundant given that fact: but they insisted. Most lived in villages, usually miles from anywhere: but they seemed happy with the deprivations. No MacDonald's, No 99p shops or strip clubs, just village halls, churches and if they were lucky a village shop and a pub.

Worryingly, they all had experience in putting on WI pantomimes. They were unfazed in having to write a 2 hr script, direct, build the sets and sell tickets at tea and cake evenings. They were on the course to get new material. And they were very funny. I think our tutor was rather fazed by that.

As I mentioned I was the only man in our group. I think I was one of four or five men at Denman. Not all were on courses. Some came down with their wives, and while the little lady was doing her Advanced Reflexology with Flower Arranging hubby would sneak off into Oxford and other sinks of depravity or else curl up with a good book and a bottle of scotch.

Alcohol appears to play an important part at Denman. There's a well stocked bar and the consumption of wine at meal times is positively encouraged. Apparently the profits from the bar pays the wages of the lady who cleans the carpets....

Much of the conversation revolved around who was to buy the next round. There were clearly two types in the bar on the first evening. The Gin and Tonic brigade and the Merlot and Chardonnay fraternity. The G&T's tended to be older, more formally dressed than the younger M&C bunch. I imagined the G&T's meeting regularly in the manor house or rectory for a late afternoon glass or two. The M&C's would have to do with the village hall or meet in one of the worker's cottages so tastefully renovated.

The next day dawned crisp, clear and full of promise. This was when we got down to writing lines of funny dialogue and imagined our first pay cheque from BBC Light Entertainment.

After a hearty, full English: fried egg(s), bacon, black pudding, mushroom, tomatoes and baked beans, with a couple of slices of toast and butter -we waddled our way over to our class room: - to watch telly.

On my way out of the dining room I noticed a defibrillator: clearly, they were prepared.

Actually, we first listened to Bob Newhart's "Tobacco", where Sir Walt Raleigh is trying to convince someone in London over the phone of the benefits of tobacco. We were all old enough to have heard it the first time around and it was greatly enjoyed as was a "Two Ronnies" and a Victoria Wood "Aged Waitress and Plates of Soup" sketch.

We then wracked our brains trying to pinpoint why they were funny. It was not easy. We had just about enough time to make a few notes before the mid morning coffee break. There waiting for us as well as tea and coffee was Denman's famed home made short cake. I didn't get my hands on one: being too slow.

The rest of the morning was taken up with tricks to get us thinking about comic situations, how to start them and how to finish.

Then lunch: soup, main and pudding, with a two hour break either to tour the house or take a well earned nap after an exhausting few hours of study.

After a refreshing snooze it was back to learning all about comedy, and beginning to write sketches. We'd been given a few tools: mind mapping, structure of a sketch, building a range of sketch ideas etc. We were to take one of the ideas we'd hit upon during the mind mapping exercise and write a sketch with no more than three characters and on no more than two sides of paper.

Some of my group decided that this exercise was best carried out in the comforting surroundings of their rooms. I decided against that since the temptation to curl up on a very comfortable bed would have been irresistible. Instead I stayed in the class room with the tutor and thereby gaining massive "Brownie points" over my fellow sketch writers.

I thought I'd hit on a great idea. A very vain Prime Minister, getting prepared to make a major speech at some conference or other. He's being made up by a nervous young make -up girl. And he encounters a Bolshie tea lady and all hell breaks loose. The PM ends up with lip stick and tea all over his face and a large chocolate eclair stuffed into his mouth. Off stage you hear "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland..."

Brilliant I thought. More "Brownie points" and I started preening myself. Except our tutor didn't think much of it. All rather limp and flaccid was his view. I knew he didn't like me....

I had the thought of an extra large evening meal to console me. I went to my magnificent room to freshen up and thence to the bar to order a large glass of house wine.

On the first evening I rather went overboard being told that it was cheaper to buy wine by the bottle and that way you had a wider choice. I chose a cheeky little Australian number and taking the bottle and a large glass into the dining room, lavishly lubricated my pulled ham starter, baked halibut main and cheese and biscuits to round things off nicely.

After the evening "work" session I returned to the bar. I'd put my name on my bottle and settled down to a relaxing session before bed. I got chatting to a lovely mother and daughter from somewhere near the Wash. The mother's hubby was game fishing while his partner was riveting beads onto cloth, alongside her daughter. Daughter and family were something big in the local church with two adult children having moved away from the parental home to live in deepest Plymouth.

I may have got some of the details slightly out of order, because by the time I climbed to my extremely large (double) room I was a bit worse for wear. The missus picked that up immediately when I called to "Give her a god light biss, and bish her a very murrey mint Cawhismouse" . After a fond farewell I stumbled into bed.

So on the second evening I was considerably more circumspect. Over the meal I sat opposite a delightful 78 year old who ran the local cooperative shop. She also lived in the depths of the countryside in a rustic village somewhere in darkest Somerset. She was extremely lively and I learnt all about her Professor of Physics son who she had recently visited in Albany, up state New York. Also her daughter was a conservationist at the Tate Gallery or was it the National? Anyway she was extremely proud of her kids.

After evening meal it was back to the serious work of making people laugh. We were further entertained by radio sketches from  "Goodness Gracious Me" and "News Jack", and discovered the wonderful website provided by the BBC for budding comedy script writers. You could even up load your sketches to be read by some poor intern who has to plough through pages and pages of extremely bad jokes before being rewarded with one line of genuinely funny dialogue.

We were warned that the final morning session would be taken up with finishing off our sketches and reading them out to the group. I think I can say with some confidence that we all were rather dreading the next morning. I returned to the bar and consoled myself with another large glass of house red and continued my conversation with the Mum and her daughter who were getting on famously doing their industrial machine embroidery.

Given the arduous task ahead, the last morning saw me plunge into a hearty breakfast. I was too pre-occupied with thoughts of what to write to waste time on fruitless conversation. Having packed my bag and stowed it safely down in the lobby,  I checked that I had a place in the cab returning to Didcot Parkway and I rushed over to our class room.

We all had the same idea.They were all there. Gone was the jovial, happy go lucky banter of the previous day. Instead bent over lap tops or writing screeds of words onto paper. And our tutor hadn't even finished his breakfast!

Some of my fellow creative class mates were fine tuning the pieces they had started the previous day. For one or two unfortunates the creative juices were in short supply. These were ladies who had raised children, put up with husbands, baked cakes and roasted whole hogs; taking it all in their stride. Now they faced a blank screen or sheet of paper with a blank mind and were transfixed with terror.

OK I might be exaggerating slightly. Luckily our tutor arrived to lend a hand and slowly the eyes brightened, the smile returned and the juices began to flow.

I had by now hit on another fabulous idea. Just two characters only one speaking and a sketch only a page and a half in length. It couldn't fail.

A tea and coffee break, with the fabled Denman short bread followed. I was quicker that time. And then it was the read through.

With much clearing of throats, some false starts the comic masterpieces were unveiled to the waiting world. And by golly they were not at all bad. One sketch took the theme of self cooking restaurants to its logical conclusion; another was an extremely visual sketch centred on a Dating and Shopping event at a local supermarket. Then there was the poor patient and bossy doctor, followed by a snotty Prime Minister in his limo off to be interviewed. I can't remember the others. However, they all got laughs and were commended by our tutor.

Mine? Oh, you don't want to know. It was good naturally and like the others received a well deserved round of applause.

And so to our final lunch. This time we sat together, said our fond farewells, and that was it. All over. Just the taxi ride to the station, a 50 minute journey to Paddington, a tube ride across London and home.

I had a great time. As I said right at the beginning, Tony Blair must have done something outrageously bad to have upset the WI in 2000. A nicer bunch of ladies you wouldn't want to meet.

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