Given how few shows around London make it to their decennial, talent soiree Cheese ‘n’ Crackers is on its way to becoming a cabaret institution. We speak to its producer, Paul L Martin.
There’s busy and then there’s busy. When he’s not performing solo or compering one of the most high-profile supperclubs in the West End, Paul L Martin is the ever-smiling face behind Excess All Areas, a talent agency which produces the annual London Cabaret Awards and two monthly shows – showcase Cabaret Confidential at the Pheasantry and talent show Cheese ‘n’ Crackers aboard the Battersea Barge.
On Thursday, the latter show celebrates its tenth year of presenting some of the finest (and some not so fine) acts around, one of which every evening goes on to win the eponymous prize. Here, Paul L Martin gives us some exclusive insights into what makes this long-lasting show tick.
Let’s start at the beginning. How has the show changed its first outing in 2004?
Hardly at all, which means I must have done something right, right? We have played with doing a little interview with the acts after their slot, but most of them hated it. The amount of acts on the bill have fluctuated and still does, and of course, we have got through nine comperes!
Nine? Oscar Wilde would no doubt have something witty to say about that. Who stood out amongst them?
The wonderful Sarah-Louise Young hosted Cheese n Crackers for the longest stint, and really helped to build its reputation. We owe her a great debt. Over that time, she had three hosting partners, including myself. Jamie Anderson was kind enough to step in to host the very first show as I was called away at quite short notice to perform in New York, despite having planned to launch the show personally.
Where did the original idea for Cheese ‘n’ Crackers as a show come from?
I devised the idea myself as a low-risk way for newcomers to try out and for established acts to trial new work. Over the ten years, I bought my agency and then the show become integral to being able to meet and see performers live when we are first introduced to them.
How much did it cost to get into the first shows?
I think it was six quid – it hasn’t changed much! It was originally part of a season of shows called “The Weekend Starts Here” which rotated each Thursday at the barge. The other offerings were a monthly residency from my old mate Dusty Limits, a comedy show called Ladies’ Monthly by the hugely talented Sam Sanns and Bea Holland, a version of which went on to be televised, and my own musical collaboration with Michael Roulston, SleeveNotes, where we took a different music album each month and we performed the entire playlist. Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill in cabaret-style was a barrel of laughs, if I remember rightly.
We’ll take your word for it. Now, to still be around after ten years is a hell of an achievement for any show around London. Why have you kept running it after all this time?
There is a demand from performers to have such a platform and, with the very useful tools of email, Youtube, Soundcloud etc, it is a way to engage at least once with acts that approach us for representation. Our clients value the fact that we’ve had that opportunity and can feed back on it.
Cheese ‘n’ Crackers aside, how do you feel about talent shows in general?
I’d like it noted that my show has been running longer than Britain’s Got Talent. I hate them. They call me every year. Twats. We try to be extremely professional and organised with our participants and show gratitude for them coming to take part. I’m proud that we have countless testimonials saying exactly that. We also do not inject Grandma sob stories to try and find a winner.
Apart from a brief stint in the basement of the Leicester Square Theatre, the barge (moored near Vauxhall station) has been the show’s permanent home. I guess you must be used to the place by now.
The barge is my spiritual home. I shall probably be buried there, under the stage – or the chemical toilet. It is unique and beloved and, just as with my annual panto there and more recently the summer Murder Mystery, it adds a magic all of its own that we could never re-create elsewhere.
Having gazed occasionally at the fabled prize from afar with licked lips and not a little food envy, we have to ask: where do the cheese and crackers come from?
They come from our sponsor, the lovely people at Good Taste, which is a very classy cheese and wine shop and bar in Crystal Palace, where we recently moved our offices. It turns into a wine and cheese bar in the evenings at weekends and the staff at very knowledgeable. As far as I know, only one winner has not been able to eat it due to dietary constraints. Happily, most winners share the platter with the other participants and also sometimes the audience.
And finally, it can’t all have been plain sailing aboard the barge over the last ten years. Yes, pun intended.
It’s no secret that, because they are not vetted in advance, some of our acts are funny for the wrong reasons. The 80 year-old sword-swallowing man who did it butt-naked and didn’t speak a word of English; the drag queen who went on for 20 minutes instead of seven and kept saying minge until I dragged them off-stage; some sadly unfunny comics who were rather miffed it was a variety night, and the man who – although extremely talented – did an act which was basically balancing on a medicine ball, which is bloody tricky if the tide is high and the barge is rocking like a f***er. Luckily our marvellous audiences tend to be good-hearted and see the fun side of most things. I hope we have never laughed at someone rather than with them unless they were a real twunt.
Want to be part of the next “marvellous” audience this Thursday? You can book your tickets here.