Interview: Mark Rough
Having started doing stand-up over twelve years ago, Mark Rough has played over three and a half thousand gigs (and counting). But the self-proclaimed Mackem Motormouth came to notoriety on the circuit after Rough was charged with fraud back in 2000 for an incident involving his Fnrr Fnrr comedy club in Sunderland. Andrew Dipper and Mark Rough recently exchanged emails, and this interview is the result.
AD: Hi Mark. You’ve been doing comedy for a long time now – what made you want to do stand-up?
MR: I’ve been a professional Comedian for over 12 years, Christ! Is it that long? Sorry, I feel old now when I see the young whippersnappers on the circuit.
I’d always been a musician and in bands from the age of 12 and enjoyed the buzz of being onstage. When I got into my mid thirties I started to feel that being up there and playing guitar wasn’t exactly a job for a man approaching middle age. I’d always watched comedians with a real respect for having the balls to get up there and do it, however, growing up in Sunderland in the 60’s and 70’s I knew that I didn’t want to be like “them”, the frilly shirted racist, homophobic and sexist comics that I used to see on the wmc circuit. When what they used to call alternative comedy burst onto the scene in the early 80’s I lapped it up but never felt the urge to do it myself.
I found my voice in the mid to late 1990’s. I saw Frank Skinner and thought to myself that I didn’t have to be Oxbridge educated, I could actually write about what I am, a white working class Mackem. Once that became clear to me it was an easy step to actually grab a mic and say what I had to say.
AD: So can you remember your first joke?
MR: My first joke ever? I remember horrifying my Mother, God rest her soul, by standing up at my 10th birthday party and repeating a joke I’d heard on telly.
“Grape! Grape!, Surely you mean rape madam? No, there was a bunch of them”.
See, rapey gags were fashionable in Town End Farm in the 70’s; the spiky haired open spots of today didn’t invent them.
AD: So do the ideas for your own material come naturally or do you need to sit down and work at it?
MR: I work at it now! I was a horrific joke thief in my early days – in my defence I didn’t know it was a complete no no, I guess I just followed the examples of the comics I grew up watching. However I soon remedied that and started writing. Yes, every day things do influence me but as I try to keep my routine as a flowing story it’s sometimes difficult to fit a gag in; they stay there though, ready to wheel out should the situation arise. I still find I have to really work hard to produce new stuff, I’m a bit hard on myself and often feel that my act is stale then I listen back to a gig from 12 months ago and realise how much new stuff is in there.
AD: How difficult is it for a comic to go professional and really ‘make it’ in the comedy industry?
MR: Very difficult. For every gig there are maybe 20 other people who are quite capable of doing it so it’s a buyer’s market for the promoters of comedy clubs. I made a decision very early on not to just stick to doing the circuit. I realised that stardom wasn’t going to happen for me so I broadened the venues I played at and was determined to make a career out of being a sound and hardworking comic that can play to any audience, that’s happened and I often get phone calls from other comics asking for advice on how to play a certain type of “difficult” room.
I think the hardest part in being a stand up is going from having a good ten to having a great twenty, and then you have the job of selling yourself to the decision makers, persuading them that you deserve that coveted closing spot on their night. A lot of us are quite insular and shy so promoting our own talent doesn’t come easily.
AD: You do a lot of corporate work – how does that differ from working the circuit?
MR: It pays better, it’s lonely, the mileage is incredible and you have to be flexible, immediate and often louder than you would be on the comedy circuit. I missed it, I missed the green room gossip, seeing acts bomb, seeing people I liked storm it, just the general vibe of being with colleagues and peers. I came back to the circuit two years ago to celebrate ten years in the business. I only do a few club dates a month and generally at nights I enjoy or with promoters I like and respect. I’m lucky that I can do that. I’m also trying to do my bit to help the circuit by headlining small up and coming gigs, where the bill is often full of open mic spots, young comics finding their way in the industry. I’m taking either none or very little money for these gigs because I feel I owe it to comedy to put something back in and recompense for my past misdemeanour [see below]. Of course I’m not the only act doing that, I know that the likes of Jason Cook, Gavin Webster and Mick Ferry are unstinting in their support to young comedians.
AD: You mentioned comedians like Gavin Webster and Jason Cook – do you have a favourite act at the moment? Who’s the best comic you’ve worked with?
MR: Greg Cook and Gary Delaney are favourites of mine. I’d like to think of them as friends and not just colleagues. Most improved act is Chris Brooker and a couple that I really admire are Jamie Sutherland and Bill Woolland for their ability to play to just about anyone.
AD: Why do you think there have been so many good comics like Jason Cook, Seymour Mace and Ross Noble coming out of the region?
MR: There are much more than those names. Gavin Webster’s a genius; Mike Milligan is a veteran but amazing ability; Tony Jameson is going places; Steffen Peddie is so comfortable to watch; Barry Dodds is an awesome talent. Then there’s Chris Ramsey, Alfie Joey, Nick Cranston and er…..Sarah Millican!
Obviously our accent helps. People immediately feel relaxed when they hear a North East accent and, whilst I personally get sick of explaining that I’m not a Geordie and that I’m from the largest city in the North East, there is a belief that you’ve won half the battle when they hear you speak.
And also the North and East of England has always been a great breeding ground for comedy – my absolute hero and favorite comedian of all time is Bobby Thompson, a Wearside legend.
AD: You mentioned the top talent coming out of the North East, but your hometown Sunderland is a city that has for many years lacked a real comedy scene – why do you think that is, and how do you think it could be made better?
MR: Loaded question! I can’t be blamed for the total lack of comedy in the past in Sunderland – it‘s always struggled to attract a crowd. That’s changing now; the clubs that we have at The Empire, The Grinning Idiot gigs and Steff Peddie’s lovely one at The Theatre Restaurant on John Street are really starting to attract crowds. McIntyre turning up in Sunderland has helped too. By the way, didn’t The Empire look gorgeous on the TV? I was so proud.
AD: When you lived in Sunderland you promoted the Fnrr Fnrr comedy nights – what was your best memory of that?
MR: I guess I don’t have great memories of that time, but what is for certain is that there were some amazing nights there with a full house almost every time.
AD: It ended quite controversially with the Bob Monkhouse/ Lee Hurst situation, when you were charged with fraud – what can you tell us about that?
MR: Deep breath. I guess this is the interview everyone wanted but didn’t ask for. I was going to keep it for my book but I welcome the opportunity to put my side of the story.
I’m sitting in a Wetherspoons with my third coffee typing this and, despite having all week to think about it, it’s still not any easier to commit to words. I’m not going to be arrogant and blasé about the whole thing or try and justify it. What I did affected many people’s lives and I’m deeply ashamed.
So the facts are: I booked Bob Monkhouse and Lee Hurst when it was evident that they weren’t going to perform, I took the ticket money and disappeared. They are the bald facts and like everything there is a back story. This is mine.
The club was going well – I’d also ran the club in my adopted home town of Bradford with some success, and I thought Sunderland was ripe for a comedy club and I found the perfect venue. Smugglers was and still is a great little real ale pub on the beach with a reputation for putting live bands on. I wasn’t in such a good place, my comedy career was floundering, I was the perennial opening act and couldn’t break into headlining clubs. I’d sacrificed a lot to be a full time comic, including my long term relationship with a partner I loved but who didn’t want me to be in the business. I was drinking too much and taking the “showbiz” lifestyle to extremes and that includes the clichéd but very true substance abuse that was rife on the circuit at the time.
I remember coming back from the Edinburgh Fringe that summer and someone asking me how it was. My reply was pithy but spot on – “It was covered in snow” I said, and it was. I ran into financial difficulties and did what a lot of weak criminals do. I took a short term view and betrayed a trust that I’d built up. It was such a successful comedy club that the Landlord of the venue believed in me and trusted me to make decisions. I screwed him and his missus royally up the arse.
It was rumoured that Bob Monkhouse had turned up at some small comedy clubs to perform new material. I put the feelers out and I found out it was possible to book him. A Manchester agent gave me a price and details and I saw my opportunity. I bragged – cocaine makes you brag – that the club had such a good reputation that I could get any names they wanted. Two names were put forward that night, Bob Monkhouse and Lee Hurst. The evening ended up with me with a pocket full of money from people who wanted to guarantee seats for these events. When I woke up the next afternoon, I had no choice but to either admit that I’d been a big headed bullshitter and that they wouldn’t be getting such star names at their local or I could run with it and cancel the gigs when I had the money from my separation and pay everyone back.
As the days turned into weeks, I was still being back slapped, bought drinks and offered wraps, all based on this lie. I couldn’t, and to be honest didn’t want to, stop the rollercoaster I was on. Typical psychopathic behavior, short term rewards, no thought for the feelings of anyone including the victims, my family, my daughter. God! My daughter, she was due to go to the big school and I knew this would blow up in my/her face in September. I still carried on. No money arrived from my ex partner. I had nowhere to live and sort of fell into a strange relationship with an old school friend who was heavily involved in the running of the club – she would eventually turn me in to the police then come to rescue me from prison on her white horse, tying me into a guilt ridden relationship I didn’t want (or need) for a couple of years afterwards.
I should have fessed up. As time went on and we were getting nearer to the date questions were being asked. I faked two contracts purporting to be from the two acts agents. Then I vanished. The shit hit the fan and The Sunderland Echo crucified me. I was keeping up to date on an internet machine in the pub I was staying at. Fuck me, fame at last and it wasn’t the kind I’d craved.
When the police caught up with me I spent a month on remand in Durham Prison. My sentence was quite a heavy one but I escaped a custodial sentence. I got 3 years probation and a compensation order to repay the £2000 I’d stolen.
So there it is. I’ve no defence, I was a wanker and almost killed live comedy in Sunderland. I’ve paid every penny back and have used my Roman Catholic faith to help me become a better person and to never visit those greedy thoughts again. Greed, ego and avarice are a pretty strong drug.
AD: So do you think you’ve managed to salvage your reputation not only as a comic but as a man?
MR: Have I? I don’t think I have. People who work with me love and trust me. My wife and my gorgeous daughter love and trust me.
I’ve used the last ten years to not only repair my reputation but with a determination to help young up and coming comics and promoters. I’m answerable only to my God but I think I’m doing things right. I’ve got a wonderful wife, a daughter I’m so proud of and I live in beautiful house in the country. Life is almost perfect.
AD: So would you ever consider moving back to the region?
MR: I haven’t lived in Sunderland since 1993, but I gig regularly up home and am welcomed as a funny man that doesn’t shy away from my past. I’ve never had someone come up to me and challenge me on what happened. The internet….now that’s a different story. I walk around my home city with my head held high.
AD: Did you get any material from your time in prison?
MR: Not really, but I had an easier time because I was a comic. I was all over the media so people knew who I was the night I arrived. Being funny has always been the easiest way to get in with the big boys.
AD: Finally, when will you be performing in the North East next?
MR: I’m headlining some open-mic nights in Durham at The Jug on 13 October, Stockton Georgian Theatre on 27 October and Redcar on 17 November. Still trying to make amends.