As anyone who's ever glanced through the small ads that fill the back pages of actors' newspaper The Stage will be aware, there is a vast showbusiness netherworld out there - an army of unsung entertainers who gamely fill the stages of cruise ships, holiday camps and working men's clubs with pitifully little acclaim, money and, in many cases, talent.
This army of lookalikes, novelty acts, tribute bands and spangly singers are so far from the A-list that there just aren't enough letters to gauge their level of celebrity. Yet night after night they suffer indignity upon indignity, driven by the unshakeable belief that one day their turn will come.
Idealistic young comedians starting out on what's still called the alternative circuit will no doubt sneer at this parade of misguidedly optimistic no-hopers. In which case they might be surprised to find themselves as much a part of Martin Kelner's entertaining new book about this twilight world as Seaside Danny Wilde, flatulence artist Mr Methane or Benidorm's elderly vaginal magician, Sticky Vicky.
In common with many humorous writers, Guardian columnist Kelner has a barely-disguised hankering to be a stand-up himself, and that's why he throws himself into London's open mic circuit with the aid of the Laughing Horse clubs, its middle-aged compere Kevin McCarron - and a pile of gags he bought from a man in North Wales.
His experience on a tiny London stage in front of an equally tiny audience gives him a key insight into what keeps entertainers going. "The bizarre thing is," he writes after his one and only gig, "I want to do it again it's quite a heady feeling."
Mostly, though Kelner prefers to observe than analyse, allowing his subjects to offer glimpses into their motivation - and often quite substantial failings - through their own words and deeds. And he makes a sympathetic interviewer; as well as his own mild desire for fame, he clearly admires those with the unfailing dedication to pursue their own dreams, regardless of any level to succeed. At least these people are grafting, serving their apprenticeship in fame, rather than looking for a reality show to propel them, fleetingly, into the spotlight for no obvious reason.
As a critic, Kelner is discerning, yet refreshingly unprejudiced. While subjecting himself to a litany of dreary old-school comics on the Costa Blanca, he is happy to identify talent when he sees it, even if the performers are saddled with tired old material.
The inspiration for this book - as much travelogue and social commentary on a certain working-class culture as it is an expose of showbusiness obscurity - initially came from parade of novelty acts Peter Kay invented for Phoenix Nights. And Kelner's tone is similar, giving this fascinating world an affectionate, almost admiring, ribbing, rather than a relentless savaging.
Maybe one of the people Kelner profiled will one day be famous - though the odds are probably stacked against it. If they do, a hundred more will join the bottom of fame's greasy pole to try to follow them. This book might not be able to explain why, but it certainly covers the whos, whats, wheres and hows of a truly bizarre, but much-needed, subculture.
June 9, 2003