Writing's a funny business for Jon
You might not recognise his name, but you'll know the guys who have told his jokes: funny men such as Lenny Henry, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry. STEVEN RUSSELL shares a laugh with comic writer Jon Canter, who has written his first bookJON Canter knew where his comfort zone lay: watching from a safe distance as comedians reaped the laughter raised by his jokes.
You might not recognise his name, but you'll know the guys who have told his jokes: funny men such as Lenny Henry, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry. STEVEN RUSSELL shares a laugh with comic writer Jon Canter, who has written his first book
JON Canter knew where his comfort zone lay: watching from a safe distance as comedians reaped the laughter raised by his jokes. Now, however, it's his turn in the spotlight.
It's a cliché that a first novel is largely autobiographical. It happens, usually, to be true. And it's certainly so in Jon's case.
But where to draw the line between fact and fiction?
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Both Jon and his narrator are Jewish and grew up in Golders Green. Both had a father in the legal profession. Both went to university in Cambridge. Both worked in bookshops. Both have relationships with painters. Both are more comfortable working behind the scenes than being the front man. Jon's worked with big names in entertainment; one of his main characters is a lauded talk-show host.
Seeds of Greatness traces the fortunes of two lifelong friends with completely different personalities. David Lewin is an intellectual paralysed by familial duty and a weakness for over-analysis. He has more or less settled for an undemanding job in a Suffolk bookshop.
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Jack Harris, in contrast, is a confident, streetwise, go-getter with chutzpah and a winning way with the girls.
Their lives bring plenty of opportunity for wry comic moments, lots of pathos and a few tears.
So, time to find out what's based on reality and what's imagined.
“The events are made up, but the emotions aren't,” says Jon, who lives in Aldeburgh with wife Helen and teenage daughter Nancy.
Born in 1953, he was brought up in Golders Green. His father was a solicitor (David Lewin's is a barrister) and he admits that “some of the stuff about the narrator's parents is amazingly close to my own experience” - so much so that he felt he couldn't have written the book while they were still alive.
He was an academic lad, and even at 15 recognised the differences that defined his two main characters.
“The boys in my North London Jewish background were either scholarly or incredibly worldly. You could tell, even at that age, they were going to achieve a lot.
“That's one of the main reasons for writing the book - I wanted to do the story of that idea, and show the divide. Every so often I'd open a newspaper 25 years later and see the name of somebody who had become the chairman of a football club or something. So Jack personifies that kind of person - desperate to get on in the world and make his mark.”
It was virtually pre-ordained that Jon would read law at Gonville and Caius in Cambridge, but he didn't take to the subject. “I still can't see why you would want to be an 18-year-old student studying the law of property, learning about mortgages. It seems like a waste of a particular period of your life!” But he stuck with it, as one might have expected. “I did it out of respect for my father. That's another issue I wanted to bring out in the book: being a parent-pleasing personality.”
From his first law essay, pretty much, he knew he was going into showbusiness. Writing and performing comedy had interested Jon since he was about 13 - he started by imitating his hero, Peter Cook. Was it deemed acceptable to like comedy? “Yes. I tell you what it was. The Monty Python team wrote almost in an intellectual way. They were definitely coming out of the university world.”
Jon got involved with the legendary theatrical group for undergraduates the Cambridge Footlights, serving as president in 1974. Contemporaries included Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson.
Was it daunting swimming with such urbane and witty sharks?
“No. The thing about Griff and Clive Andersen was that they were suburban sharks - actually, more like dolphins,” he laughs. “They weren't scary. Douglas (Adams, of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) was the most ambitious, but then he had a bigger vision - combining science fiction with comedy. He was somehow ahead of us.”
Jon concedes he must have had some drive himself, “yet I also remember being appalled by other people who showed ambition. Douglas Adams went down to London to interview John Cleese for a university paper, and I was appalled. This was not done! I come from that particular time when you didn't want to be too overt about being pushy”.
Jon worked in a bookshop for six months after graduation, then wrote blurbs for a scientific publisher. “That was hilarious. I was simply précising what the author said, all day long. The book would be called Advances in Microbiology, Volume 13, and I would just say what the author wrote.”
In the late 1970s came a move into advertising as a copywriter. “It all came back to wanting to prove I could be worldly, and advertising sounded sufficiently scary. And it was.”
He wrote the words for numerous MFI furniture centre newspaper ads, “for teak-style veneered wardrobes and things like that”, and even won an award for the Capital Radio Ad of the Month. Jon thinks it was for Fosters lager, featuring the voice of actor Paul Hogan.
He'd been writing (“unmade”) plays in his spare time. It was time to take the plunge. Jon became a freelance scriptwriter in about 1980. He describes his decision, self-deprecatingly, as “self-unemployment”, but he did secure a year's contract with BBC Radio 4 Light Entertainment (“on not much money!”) and wrote for comedy shows such as Week Ending.
“I did a lot of work in radio and bits in TV, like the News Huddlines and The Jason Explanation - a little-remembered half-hour show that would explain different subjects, such as money, sex and crime. You'd write stuff and hope it would be included in the final edit. It was often recorded in the middle of the day in front of an audience of, predominantly, old ladies who weren't quite in tune with the humour of a 25-year-old.”
Four or five years later he got involved with a company called Talkback Productions, which was started in 1981 by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. “John Cleese had realised there was a demand for comedy-based training films. Talkback did a similar thing.”
Jon penned lots of material based on the duo's famous head-to-head format and customised for clients' events, such as a pet food salesmen's conference. “You'd do 10 minutes of comic material about what they did - 'and by the way, the managing director's a Millwall supporter and the marketing director drives a Capri.' You would be asked to crowbar in some jokes in about Derek Smith and his Capri. It was like being a tailor. But I enjoyed it. I liked being given a brief. It protects you from the fear of the blank page.”
In the 1980s, Jon provided material for comedians such as Alas Smith And Jones and A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. More recently he co-wrote Posh Nosh, starring Richard E Grant and Arabella Weir as pretentious TV chefs Simon and Minty Marchmont, who exhort ordinary people to “learn to relax an avocado, bamboozle a parsnip or shave a fennel”.
In between was a fruitful collaboration with Lenny Henry that took in several series, one-off specials, and Christmas shows - and the no-place-to-hide challenge of live performance, including part of an Australian tour.
Jon explains that in the early 1990s, via a mutual friend and out of the blue, he got a call from the comedian, who needed someone to help him with his stand-up show. “So that was five or six years mostly devoted to being Lenny's right-hand man for his live shows. That was fantastic. I loved the live performance; travelling round with him. With constant working of the material, you could predict with really pleasing accuracy that it would go as well in Manchester as Melbourne. He's a fantastic live performer, with huge energy and a winning way with an audience.”
For the partnership to be a success, Jon had to think himself into the mind of the comic storyteller. Lenny teased him a lot about the set-up: a white Jewish guy sitting in Suffolk and trying to write in the voice of a comedian of West Indian descent who was brought up in the West Midlands!
“The way it would work is that Lenny would sit at his word processor and type 15 pages about what it was like to grow up in Dudley and then send them to me. I would reshape it and add things of my own. He needed a pen man, if you like” - a swot to Lenny's charismatic stage performer.
It must be an interesting kind of relationship. “It is incredibly close and intense, and you'll make yourself vulnerable. You'll constantly be presenting to the other person things that aren't funny. And you can't be offended or take it personally. You've got to look after each other. You have to be in a metaphorical huddle.”
Luckily, there were no fallings out. “Lenny is a very warm-hearted character. He would naturally look after me in a brotherly way,” smiles Jon.
He would like to emphasise, though, that his character Jack is not Lenny. “There's a self-destructive gene in him that Lenny doesn't have. But where the parallel does come is that my narrator always has someone else lodged in his brain; and if you're writing for a comedian, if you're sitting in your room in Suffolk, imagining you're Lenny Henry, it is a) an odd way to make a living, and b) letting someone else be in your head. That's the job. It involves putting someone else's voice in your head and writing.”
The trick in being funny is staying in touch with your inner failure. “It all comes from inadequacy and things going wrong, so you've got to open yourself up to the possibility of things not working out. Think about the gap between your aspirations and your achievements and you're in the right area.
“That's why I admire Ricky Gervais so much, because even after becoming one of the most well-known comedians in the world he's still tapping into the same anxieties and the gap between what the world thinks he is and what he thinks he is. He still knows where the comedy lies.”
Working with Lenny occupied five or six years. “Then I moved on to my 'writing unmade film script' years,” Jon laughs.
All were comedy, including a sequel to The Full Monty, “which never got made because the head of the studio decided they didn't want a sequel to The Full Monty”.
So, how did the novel come about?
“I'd written a film treatment based on the idea of a friend of a famous man moving into the house of the famous man and finding it very difficult to leave. I couldn't get anywhere with that in the film world, but I thought it would make a novel. So I combined it with my other idea about the way teenage boys divide, with one destined for success and the other destined to work in a bookshop in Suffolk for 14 years.
“But, my god, it took time to reach this stage - because I was already 51 or something!”
Narrator David Lewin, who by design and inertia has not done much with his life, is not based on anyone in particular. “In order to advance, you need people who have that drive and ambition and aren't so self-conscious all the time. So he may take pops at them, but the point of the book is that he desperately needs them or he's not going to get anywhere. Without Jack, he couldn't advance.”
Are any of the author's traits mirrored in his main character?
Jon recognises he dates from a time and place where over-ambition wasn't highly valued, “but then I worked in advertising, so there's a bit of Jack in me as well. So there's a bit of me in both of them but not all of me in either of them. That's the best way to put it”.
Just as Jack isn't Lenny, and David isn't Jon, so painter Jess - the narrator's girlfriend - isn't Jon's wife.
He and artist Helen met in 1991. Jon, living in Hackney, made the move to Orford. “She couldn't come to me because I didn't have a studio,” he laughs. After Nancy was born in 1993 they moved to Aldeburgh.
Book number two is well under way. “Writing the first was an absolute joy. I know that sounds like a line, but it was a joyous experience. I think the fact I knew it would be published” - a deal was already in place - “meant I had none of those agonies I had writing film scripts when you know it almost certainly won't be made. The vote of confidence meant I felt confident. And, also, I had a lot of material - half a century's worth! I had the opposite of writer's block! I had writer's unblock. Writer's sewer!”
More than 30 pages of Jon's second novel are finished. It's about a barrister who commits a crime and can't come to terms with the fact he has.
“I made a decision that I would no longer mine my own life,” he says. “It's good to be hard-headed about it and say that you must find a different tone; a different voice. In this one the narrator is far more arrogant. He's a barrister - which in itself gives you a clue! He believes he's right about everything, and in the course of the book we're going to discover he's not. Don't worry; he's going to pay for it!”
(blob) Jon Canter will be reading from Seeds of Greatness, and signing copies, at Aldeburgh Bookshop at 5.30pm on Good Friday, April 14. For details, call the store on 01728 452389 or email firstname.lastname@example.org