Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My learned friend, Walter Zerlin Jr

The recent and untimely death of Rick Mayall brought to mind the considerable talents of one of my brother's colleagues who back in the 70s was doing the comedy circuit along with other young hopefuls including a very young and inexperienced Rick Mayall.

Robert Conway, a barrister by trade was a member of my brother's chambers in Lincoln's Inn. But by night he would exchange his barrister's wig for stage make-up and acquire the stage name, Walter Zerlin Jr. (A name taken from his late father who had sung in opera under the name Walter Zerlin.) Besides trying out his comedy material in pubs and advising the young Rick Mayall, he was an astonishingly prolific writer of comedy, and together with writer and producer David McGillivray, wrote ten farces in a riotous series under the deliberately convoluted title: The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Productions. These were staged versions of classic plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens butchered in the most amusing and inventive ways by a group of amateur thesps, of whom the young Julian Clary was a member.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert on only a handful of occasions. The first time was at a lawyer's party in Sloane Square hosted by one of the members of the Poet's and Peasants' Cricket Club, a club for whom I was the resident number 10 batsman. I remember little of the party other than being entertained for the entire duration by one of the funniest and instantly likeable characters I have ever encountered. Robert may have been a barrister, but he clearly had little time for legal talk and couldn't bear pomposity. Indeed, he spent much of the time at this party gently poking fun at his learned friends.

Following this encounter, I was fortunate enough to see two of his hilarious Farndale Productions: A Christmas Carol at the Edinburgh Fringe and a Murder Mystery at the Donmar Warehouse. The production in Edinburgh played to a packed house and Robert and his family occupied the front row. (I can still hear him guffawing at his own lines.) The farces have since become a huge hit with amateur groups around the world and have been performed no fewer than 2,500 times.

In 1980 he wrote Running Around The Stage Like A Lunatic in which he played all 17 parts including a one-legged nun - the largest cast ever played in a theatre by one actor. And for this he won an Edinburgh Festival Fringe award and got himself onto the Russell Harty Show.

As a barrister, he was later to defend John Cleese on some minor driving offence, and Cleese was so taken with him that he asked Robert to be the legal adviser on A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese was to later recommend his services to Marlon Brando who needed advice on court room scenes in A Dry White Season.

There is little doubt in my mind that Walter Zerlin Jr would have eventually hung up his barrister's wig and made his name in comedy, in much the same way as Clive Anderson has. But tragically, this was not to be. In early 2001 he suddenly became ill with cancer and passed away in November, leaving a wife and two young daughters.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Lovely hotels, terrific food and charming personal guides. The only downside: it's North Korea.

Way back in the 90s I was the Best Man at a cousin's wedding: a classy do in the grounds of a historic country house somewhere in Colchester. This particular cousin was and remains something of an intrepid traveller and is in the habit of traipsing off to some of the world's most far flung corners at the drop of a hat.

The spotlessly clean metro resplendent with chandeliers.
Following an incredible lunch, I was called upon to regale the assembled throng with the usual embarrassing anecdotes that is the Best Man's prerogative. I don't remember much of the speech other than my first line, which I've always thought a rather good opening line. If memory serves me correctly, it went something like this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

"Today marks a very sad day indeed...  for the economies of Bhutan, Madagascar and outer Mongolia. For I fear that now my cousin has tied the knot, his delightful wife will put an end to her husband's intrepid jaunts with his photographic paraphernalia, which have for so many years helped sustain these third world economies."

As it turned out, I couldn't have been further from the truth. Admittedly, my cousin and his good lady wife do take the usual holidays in civilised parts of the globe. But these are supplemented by regular jaunts to areas the average human being wouldn't touch with the longest of barge poles; expeditions that my cousin embarks on alone.

His most recent escapade was to that very peculiar country, North Korea; a country that the late, great Chris Hitchens described in the following terms:

'Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: this horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.'

Hitchens, as you can gather, was not a big fan. But my cousin, having already taken trips to South Korea, was keen to see her Northern cousin with his own eyes.

In the unlikely event that you were interested in following in his footsteps, there are just two travel agents in the UK that can arrange such a trip: Lupine Travel and Regent Holidays, both of which deal with the Korean International Travel Company.

Once my cousin had arranged his trip he had to fly to Beijing to pick up his visa and then board a train - the K27 or the K28, which is a sleeper that goes all the way to Pyongyan. It's an extraordinary line that also connects China with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam, and this particular section is used chiefly by Chinese diplomats.

On arriving at Pyongyan, my cousin was met by his two guides: two very courteous and and well dressed ladies who were fluent English speakers. They would have been members of the most privileged section of North Korean society. And for the following seven days these two would accompany my cousin everywhere except his bedroom and bathroom. Needless to say, the guided tour had to be rigidly adhered to; one could not venture off the beaten track. To do so would result in immediate repatriation at the very least. A couple of months ago a 24-year-old American was arrested for "rash behaviour" when going through customs, and he hasn't been released as this post goes to print. Sadly, his is not the only case. Kenneth Rae, another American has been held for more than a year for conducting a religious service, a crime for which he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for "subversion."

Apparently, the first thing every foreign visitor has to do before taking the official tour is to purchase at his own expense a bouquet of flowers, place them at the foot of the enormous 22 metre bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, and take a deep bow out of respect for the 'Dear' departed leader who lies in state here.

From then on, the tour was clearly a sanitised one. My cousin did not encounter anyone with anything other than a cheerful countenance. There was no evidence of starvation, severe poverty or human rights violations. But then, this, of course, is nothing more than a piece of state propaganda. In 1944 Adolf Hitler chose to show the world how nicely the Third Reich was caring for its Jews by housing them in a place called Theresiestadt. The film shows its inhabitants laughing and joyful, healthy and well-fed. Little did the world know then that Theresiestadt was in fact a death camp.

So on this sanitised tour my cousin was to be shown Kim Il-sung's birthplace; a captured American spy ship; the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; the gloriously lavish metro system with chandeliers large enough to have impressed Liberace; the Mangyondae Children's palace where kids from the age of five study and perform music and martial arts with disturbing precision; the infamous demilitarised zone, which my cousin found strangely friendly; and the International Friendship Exhibition where you can view vast, cavernous halls housing gifts given to Kim Il-sung by world leaders including Gaddafi, Castro and Arafat.

So if you're looking for a holiday that can provide five star comfort, outstanding cuisine and a most courteously and attentive personal service at all times, North Korea certainly ticks all the boxes. But if you want to see the real North Korea, for heaven's sake don't go there, because it's just possible you'll never come back.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds