• Dorian Cox in Conversation with Simon Donald • 20.05.18
Updated: Sep 8
We sent Dorian Cox to interview Simon Donald in a bar in Manchester Preamble: Almost immediately, the interview is interrupted by the wife of a friend of Simon’s. He glances over at me with a look I recognise as: 'I can’t remember this lady’s name!' I attempt to step into the breach and introduce myself in order to ascertain the lady’s name, but I am roundly ignored. From here on in much of the interview is sidetracked. Simon pre-warns me that he tends to get tangential and talk nonsense about irrelevant topics. Well, so do I...
"What are you drinking?" In my standup act, I tend to slip some bad jokes in—my dad is where I got a love of shit jokes from. Someone with long hair: "You still not going to the same barber?" Anyone wearing tartan: "You pay for that by cheque." The trouble is, trying to explain what a cheque is to youngsters. Another comedian suggested I use the line: "If you're too young to get that joke, the punchline it should be with you in the next three to four working days." I’d love to credit the guy but I can’t remember who it was! Doing this character, Barry Twyford, who works in market research - I didn’t wanna do characters but got talked into it—became a bit of a curse 'cos I was now, sort of, stuck with this character. So, I did a show at the Edinburgh Festival with him called: 'Barry Twyford Isn’t Meant...' He’s still doing his market research, but tells you about his life ‘cos he’s a bit bored, you know. I came up with the idea that Barry had gone up to the Edinburgh Festival to do market research outside venues but there’d been some mix up so he’d accidentally booked himself to perform, all because some jobsworth has filled out the wrong form, so he’s pleading with this guy saying no Barry Twyford isn’t meant to have a show. And the guy says that’s too many words so that’s why it becomes 'Barry Twyford Isn’t Meant'. "... I tend to use those memo books where you can tear each page off and I get rid of an awful lot of pages. But, there'll always be one or two ideas worth revisiting... What was her name?!" There's a new show that’s like a Barry Twyford chat show... He’s in a blind panic 'cos he doesn’t know what to do so, he pleads with the audience to get someone up on stage but then realises he doesn’t have any questions to ask them. He just ends up just ranting about his own life, and having a bit of a nervous breakdown as he recounts how his left home when he was a child—whilst they’re sat there awkwardly. "A, B... E...??... ... Oh, sorry mate... Yeah, that's my coat, yeah, no worries." If I’m asked who my favourite Viz character is, my answer is always Sid, because once the character was created it kinda wrote itself. It was just a case of observing stuff in pubs and and just putting it into one person. It was based on a guy Graham I still kno—who didn’t know for twenty years that Sid was based on him, he only found out when my brother wrote about it in his autobiography. He was a mature student, a real brain box, but he didn’t have great social skills but that wasn’t the end of the story, I mean a mature student with no social skills would have made a great character as it is, but... he was incredibly shy around women, to a point where nowadays he might be described as high functioning on the Autistic spectrum. He was very gifted in one respect, i.e. maths, but the reverse of that was a complete lack of social skills—the thing that brought it together as a great character was that he answered phones at the bin depot when he wasn't studying. So, he was hanging around with a load of bin men who had a proper rough-arsed Geordie sense of humour and an overtly alpha way of behaving—when he’d be in the pub with us he’d tell us the latest great chat-up line or whatever that he’d heard. One day, he comes 'round and he’d fallen for this girl and thought the best person to get advice from was me and my brother (Chris, whom I started Viz with), you know, a couple of teenage boys who spent all their time in their bedroom drawing comics and eating Quavers. He came 'round to ask us how we thought he should ask this lass out. We were, well, a bit embarrassed but I’d heard this gem which was: "Don’t worry, 'cos even if she rejects you she’ll be dead flattered, you know?" So, I told him this, and we were telling him other chat up lines we’d heard and he said: "No, naw that wouldn’t work..." We suggest he goes 'round and asked her, which he wasn’t up for. We’d given him as much advice as we could and he’s poo-pooing it all and your thinking, 'we’ll come on man, whaddya want, we’ve given you as much advice as we can...' So, conversation switches, he then produces this little scrap of paper from his pocket and says: "Do ya think this’ll work?" It said on it 'Dear Sandy, I’d really like to take you to the pictures, if you’d like to please ring me on this number... from Graham'. What he’d done is he’d written this backwards in mirror writing. He thought it would impress this lass—a man who could write backwards, right? So... it was terribly embarrassing, but we said: "Well, if that’s what your comfortable doing then go for it." Eventually, he leaves and walks down the path. He left the house all timid, like a mouse. About halfway down the path, he turns round—chest all puffed out and brandishing these scrap of paper—shouting: "Ee, tell ya what, this piece of paper's gonna pull us some fuckin’ totty tonight." I just went back to my bedroom and Sid The Sexist was written there and then, y’know?
Crockery crashes from the kitchen area. Cheers from the punters. "F? Nah... G..."
We did an anniversary issue where we called on all the original artists. Sid, thirty years on... all the characters thirty years on. Almost a where are they now. It begins exactly the same as the first ever Sid strip with him sat at home thinking, 'aye, I think all gan oot on the toon tonight, get on the lash', so he rings his mates up. But, by this time Sid is bald and fat. So, he rings one mate, saying: "Come on man, we’ll gan owt, have about fourteen pints there, like." He says: "Sid man, I cannae, with all the drinking I’ve been diagnosed as an alcoholic." He rings his other mate, Joe... "Come on Joe lad, lets gan oot on the lash..." It cuts to a shot of Joe and he’s there with an oxygen mask on and says: "Sorry, Sid with all the tabs and that, I’ve ended up with chronic emphysema and I cannae walk away from the hoose." So, he rings up Baz: "Howay Baz, you’re not fucked an all are you?..." "No, no man, I’m in the best of health but I cannae come out cos I’ve got a game of squash, I’m waiting on the child-minder and I’ve got a big interview tomorrow with the boss about me promotion, like." So, the last scene, Sid has hung the phone up, and you just see his legs hanging from the rafters with his mam coming in with a cup of tea and plate of biscuits... "H? No... I?" Every Sid chat up piece was taken literally word for word—girls would tell us stuff blokes has said to ‘em: "D’you fancy a pizza, I could just eat a pizza you." You know, just dreadful stuff. The most fun I had with Sid was using all the stuff you heard lads saying, like: "I’m off for a piss." "What’s up? Got a teacup bladder, like?” All these unwritten Rules Of The Pub: - There’s no excuse for a soft drink. - Your not allowed to go for a piss unless you’ve had ten pints. There’s a bloke in the bar, bought a half... Let’s gan and sort him out. He’s had a piss, he’s only had two pints! Our Chris used work with this guy at the department of health and social security... This guy, he wouldn’t go for a piss until he got home, it was like some moral crusade—he wouldn’t piss it out in the place he bought the drinks. It was like: "Why should they get it back." On Tyneside the point at which you’ve had enough to drink doesn’t exist. I do a piece on stage where there’s a guy lying flat out in the street, he’s been arrested, he’s fallen in the gutter, he’s unconscious, he’s pissed himself, he’s been sick, he’s in a pool of blood, he’s shat himself. The paramedics can’t get anything out of him. I act out his mate relaying these horrors one at a time back to the other lads, he’s in tears: "There’s nee sign of life, man!" So, one of the other mates says, quite blandly "Right, I’ll just get him a lager then?" "J, no... K!" In the background: "You will never break the chain (never break the chain)..."
So, there was this pub in a rough bit of Gateshead, I was about nineteen-years-old. A pub between two tower blocks. My girlfriend at the time had a mate who was having an engagement do in the function room in the pub. At the time, if we went for a drink in the toon, I’d always have a couple of bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale but then I’d change to a tap beer, like a Stones or something. Now, in this function room, there was no tap beer so, having already had a couple of bottle of Newky Browns I though, 'alright well, I’ll stick with that'. They had tap beer downstairs but I didn’t wanna go down there 'cos it was a proper sketchy boozer and quite busy, like, so it was just easier. I’d never just drunk Brown Ale all night, right, and they call it Journey into Space—it’s a common Geordie expression. In fact, the ex-Spurs footballer Martin Chivers cornered me at some corporate thing one time and said "Oh aye, the Newcastle Brown Ale stuff, bloody hell, had some right nights on that, a Journey into Space, innit?" So, anyway, at one point I’m coming back from the bar with a tray of drinks for everyone at our table and, I remember, I walked across the dancefloor and somebody had a microphone and I made some silly, pithy—but I assumed amusing—quip into the mic, and when I sat back down the whole table... It was like looking through a kaleidoscope with all these angry faces at the end of it, and I’m handing people they’re drinks and everyone’s just scowling at me. I couldn’t work it out. The next day, I ring my girlfriend, she says: "Have you got no idea what happened last night?" "No! I’ve got no idea how you got out of there alive." It turns out, when I staggered back from the bar, the DJ was standing in between the couple who were getting ready to announce they’d become engaged, and I ended up bowling through them with this tray of drinks and said in to the microphone: "Big tits." So, I've never touched Newcastle Brown Ale since! I think I must have got away with it 'cos they thought, 'well, he’s mortal drunk...' "Christ alone knows how we ended up on this topic, hahahahahaha... ... L, no... M??"
After hearing Derek & Clive and Monty Python, me and Chris made these little spoof radio shows. Just on cassette for our own amusement. There was always an element of brutal violence in them—mainly because after the initial premise we often didn’t know where to take the sketch. Python showed you that, more often than not, there was a better way to end a sketch than with a punchline. I mean, even Pete and Dud always ended with a punchline, and it was often a disappointment. Whereas Python just seemed to go, 'fuck it, let’s move on to the next bit, we’ve done as much funny as we need to here'. That influenced a character we created call The Fat Crusader who goes around attacking his enemies in more and more grotesquely violent ways, like Itchy & Scratchy type stuff.
"... Aye, it's a funny old, terrifying world when you look that closely..."
The first place we sold Viz was at a place called The Gosforth Hotel, which I was just talking to Mr. Sting about - the other day - that was where he first performed n’all. They’ve renamed it The Gordon Sumner Suite. It’s a room above a pub, you know? Hahahahahahaha. "N? No... O?" We’d do interviews with the bands playing locally in Newcastle—in like a humorous style—just to be able to say to people at shows: "Ere, buy our comic, the bands playing tonight are in it." We knew early on that there had to be a Viz style. You couldn’t just have a serious piece suddenly, it had to be done in our irreverent style. A lot of the lads in local bands on the scene drew bits and bobs for Viz in the early days. Some of the bands would go away on tour to places that seemed miles away, like South Shields, and sell some comics on our behalf. People would also drift away to university and sell the comics in the uni bookshop, so a little network started up. Brian, who ran a—sort of—teenager subculture shop called Kard Bar sold the mag for us and early on said: "You need to do advertising to take it to the next level." Which seemed against the initial ethos. Brian said: "Well, I’ll pay you for an advert and you can write it, just write whatever you want." Kardbar sold all things that teenagers would use to define their existence: records, badges, patches - all that. He knew Viz would become one of those things. So, he helped us get the advertising off the ground and we founded some Viz advertising rules, which were...
- We will design and advert for you in the Viz style. - It will slag your product off in some way. - If you don’t like it and refuse to pay, we will just go ahead and print it anyway. There was this punk shop in town called Phaze, the guy who ran it was called Keegan. We did an advert for him and he hated it because we slagged his shop off - saying it was out of date and all this - he said: "I’m not bloody paying for that!" But, we just put it in anyway. But, what happened was, these punters started coming in the shop saying: "Eh, we love that advert, mate, right funny.” And then the penny dropped. Advertisers started knocking at the door.
"P? No. Not Q... R then?... ... And my mates pinned it on me. But, the teacher didn't believe it was me 'cos he said: "Simon can draw better than that...""
In terms of physical sales, the annual still sells well, yeah; I’ll get it as a stocking filler every year. The magazine always does well at airports and motorway service stations for some reason. Once, I was going on holiday and went into the shop at Newcastle Airport with the family, just as they were unloading the delivery of Viz. It took up a quarter of the shop... Which was utterly insane. A proper photo opportunity. But, yeah, you have to count your blessings. The NME's gone, the Dandy’s gone. But, around 1991 we were the third biggest selling magazine in the country, only beaten by the Radio Times and the TV Times. It's crazy to think that our childish level of humour connected with so many people. That’s a magical moment for me.
With stuff like, The Day Today and Vic Reeves Big Night Out, there was a time when the surrealism of Viz was part of the mainstream, aye definitely. Obviously Vic and Bob did the Top Tips and there was a fall out with the producer over that cos he fannyed about with it, adding stuff and taking stuff out, and generally not trusting our judgement. I said: "Well, the proof is in the fact that we do this week in week out, what’s your background?" And he said: "Well, I used to write material for Russ Abbott..." Fuckin’ Russ Abbott! Vic asked me to do the warm up for his autobiography launch at Durham Labour Club, that was great, so we’d go for a pint and what have ya. They’re great, I mean, Bob is - shall we say - more user friendly. Whereas Vic is a bit more eccentric, and a genuine 'man of mystery'.
"S! It must be S, or T."
Capturing that uniquely North-East sense of humour was important. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was on the BBC: they interview someone out of the crowd piling off a train for the derby match [Glasgow Rangers vs Manchester United], they ask this one Geordie guy if he thinks they’ll be any trouble... He just looks straight at the camera and says: "Nah, we all just hope every cunt’s gonna get on..." It’s just sheer poetry! On the BBC teatime news, no less. Stewart Lee made a brilliant point to me about the Oxbridge types who run the BBC, they'd rather have somebody pretending to be working-class than some one whose actually working-class, 'cos they don't understand it..." The thing is, ‘cos me and Chris were born somewhere between working and middle-class it meant we could take the piss out of both types of person without coming across as cultural tourists in the Common People tradition. When we were writing these characters we weren’t just surreptitiously peering in from the door of the pub for an afternoon here and there. These were people we knew. These were people we socialised with. These were, in many cases, friends.
"... Not U, or V, no... ... A guy who I still get ideas off [Alex Collier] was a guy who, when he was a young lad, his teacher sent us some of his stuff and he came to do work experience wth us, if you can imagine such a thing—a fifteen-year-old lad doing work experience at Viz! I mean, he's gone on to do Dangermouse and some new Mr Bean stuff... But when he gets chance, he'll sort of chip in.
I remember you telling me about when you ended up in some pub in Newcastle and the saloon doors kinda swing shut and all the locals are staring you out, then as soon as you sit with a regular they become your best mate and you’ve got a table full of pints of watered down Carling to wade through...
"Can I get you two another drink?"
I’ve had it when I’ve been at a PR agency in London and the post boy comes in, who’s a Geordie, and he invites me out with his Geordie mates to watch the match that night. So, I’m out and of course they’re all washing machine drinkers set on a spin cycle, you know where once they’ve started the can’t turn it off... another pint, another pint, another pint. One of ‘em looks at me and says: "Ere, Simon, I think you’re a bit of a cheeky cunt you, I think I’m gonna have to fill you in." So I kinda rode that out and a bit later he puts his arm round me and says: "You’re alright you are, Simon. You’re a good lad." It was just like a sketch straight out of Viz.
... And if your northern and you go to London, you're automatically assumed to be salt of the earth working-class, whereas in Newcastle I might be seen as slightly posh, for example... But as soon as you get off the train at Kings Cross, it's like everyone's expecting you to walk around with this cap doffing attitude, y'know?... ... Could it be W? It’s not X, or Y, or Z."
Do ignore me, Dorian, I have a habit of going off on a tangent at the drop of a hat... Actually, that’s a good idea for a new character: Tommy Tangent... Terry Tangent... A guy who diverts the conversation away from the original issue as soon as possible.
[Author's note: When this appears in Viz, I’m claiming a writing credit.]
"This is my mate... *dictaphone crackles*... Oh, we saw your wife earlier..."
Afterword: I first met Simon when were both singing at a Fall tribute-night, in the wake of Mark E. Smith’s last orders. Me, I performed Rowche Rumble, Simon tackled How I Wrote Elastic Man. He was good enough to pick me up after I had had a fight with the drum kit towards the end of the night - I’d been drinking the long draught down for a little too long. We spent a good amount of time backstage chewing the fat about flat-roofed pubs in Gateshead, Gazza and The Wonderful & Frightening World Of The Viz.
My introduction to the Prole Art Threat of Viz was during the early 1990s—I would spend Saturday’s at my father’s house. He'd have copies of the magazine in his bathroom, much to my mum’s consternation, noticing it as she did when she would come round to snoop through the windows to see in what kind of state dad lived in... She confronted him, arguing that it was inappropriate for a 10- year-old boy to see, let alone my sister who was four years younger. Meanwhile, I found it hilarious; amongst the childish profanities was wit, satire and Top Tips... "Pretend you don’t live in Tottenham by walking around Tottenham with an A-to-Z Guide and asking people for directions. ~ Simone Glover, Tottenham."
// End. © Dorian Cox, 2018