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Why playing live music is like jumping from a plane

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Chris Hawkins and Pagans SOH singer Marcus Lesycsyznski-Hall

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Chris Hawkins and Pagans SOH singer Marcus Lesycsyznski-Hall – whose Cortisol levels shot up during the performance.

A new Radio 4 documentary tracked the stress levels of musicians as they took to the stage. Presenter Chris Hawkins explains why they found the experience can be addictive… and dangerous.

Lots of singers have a ritual before heading on stage.

As a DJ, I’ve seen the group huddles, the performers who go quiet and the ones who get nervous – but I’ve never appreciated the sheer toll live performance can take on the body.

As part of Radio 4’s new Art of Now series, Playing Well, I’ve been talking to musicians about mental health – and when we were given the chance to measure the stress involved in playing a gig, we got some surprising results.

By carefully measuring the responses of singer Marcus Lesycsyznski-Hall, scientists from the University of Westminster found stress levels which were comparable to a sky dive.

Mark Wetherell, professor of Psychobiology of Northumbria University, designed the experiment and has carried out extensive studies into stress.

He told me: “If you’re anticipating any kind of challenging or stressful event your body mounts a response to help you deal with it.

“You release adrenaline, and people associate that with fight or flight response. Slightly longer-term, you also release a stress hormone called cortisol.

“That makes it sound very negative but these responses help us prepare for the demand that we think is going to happen.”

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Chris Hawkins with Professors Mark Wetherell and Catharine Loveday, who specialise in stress and music and the brain respectively

Our guinea pig Marcus, from the band Pagans SOH, had to agree to a testing regime that involved giving 12 saliva samples on the day before, the day of the gig, and the day after.

“Interestingly, the day before the gig was very normal, which is a great sign for Marcus it means he’s healthy,” said Professor Catharine Loveday, who led the study. “He woke up and his cortisol went up just as it should do.

“The day of the gig, already in the morning it was quite disrupted [and] after the gig it shot right up by about seven nanomoles. That’s really quite a large leap.”

The cortisol level was not back to normal before Marcus went back to bed at 3.45am – but this was influenced by the fact that Marcus went on to a second gig of the night in Liverpool.

The professor explained that the next day’s cortisol was “flat”, with less of the typical morning spike, but it was back to normal by bedtime.

The comparison between playing a concert and jumping from a plane was possible, by the way, because Professor Wetherell has carried out similar tests on skydivers.

Marcus couldn’t help but offer a “wow!” when I rang him with the results. He did, however, say he should probably reconsider playing two gigs in a night.

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Bowen and Joe Talbot from Idles talk life on the road with Chris Hawkins

What the experiment showed us is that our bodies are often well-suited to the sudden, stressful demands of performance.

But what about the long term?

In an industry which has placed an increased emphasis on live work, musicians may run into difficulty when a punishing schedule offers their cortisol levels little chance to settle down.

Professor Loveday included “recovery time” as one of her five tips for looking after your mental health in the music business – all of which are included in the documentary.

Interestingly, one of the others was “hang on to your friends outside of music” – as being grounded is a crucial way to stop the intensity of the business affecting you negatively.

In the second episode of the series, we speak to musicians on the road, including Idles, Wolf Alice, Bill Ryder-Jones, John Grant and She Drew The Gun about how they manage the intensity of touring.

But in the first, we consider a recent tragedy – the death of Frightened Rabbit’s lead singer Scott Hutchison.

A life in music is obviously a dream for many, and we tend to take protestations of suffering from rock stars with a pinch of salt.

But as politicians and sports stars increasingly discuss their mental health, I hope lots of performers hear the frank discussions about well-being in the series – and perhaps reflect on the idea that lyric-writing is not the only way to display your emotions.

The Art of Now Playing Well series starts on Tuesday November 5 at 1130 with “Frightened Rabbit”.

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Frank Skinner: ‘I’m all for a bit of moral menace’

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Frank Skinner played ukulele at the Queen’s 92nd birthday celebrations in 2018

“The edge of inappropriate is the spiritual home of the best stand-up comedy,” proclaims Frank Skinner in the programme notes for his new West End show, Showbiz.

It’s also, he jokes, “the name of my country house in Gloucestershire”.

The 62-year-old, who has made a pretty good living walking the tightrope of comedic taste, is about to ride the bus (using his over 60s travel card) to London’s Garrick Theatre, as he speaks to the BBC, for the first night of a five-week residency, having road-tested it around the UK last year.

Loosely-based around celebrity anecdotes he’s acquired over the past 25 years working as one of the country’s most cherished comedians, Skinner’s show is littered with poetic and funny filth about his decaying body, lessening libido and late arrival to fatherhood in his mid-50s.

In an era when critics have called “wokeness” – the modern day political correctness – the death knell for comedy, the veteran stand-up still trusts his instincts.

“Sometimes when you start improvising on stage, which I do a fair bit of, obviously you haven’t planned it. But to be honest, it’s not like I’m one of these blokes who is sitting at home pouring it all out and then does a different thing on stage.

“I think the line between me on and off is fairly blurred”.

In other words, if a joke is good enough to tell down the pub, then it’s fit for the stage too.

‘Lightness of touch’

The Royal family, Bruce Forsyth and the ahem, “cursed” Strictly dancers all find themselves on the receiving end of Skinner’s dry wit in the show, which The Guardian said finds the “statesman of stand-up shows” showing “no sign of stiffening”.

“It’s rare to see such fast-thinking wit deployed with such a sense of joy,” added The Times’ Dominic Maxwell.

Skinner declared on-stage during Wednesday’s press night that “a lightness of touch” is required when tackling certain topics (mostly genitalia). He allayed the fears of an apparently worried-looking audience member named Linda that she needn’t worry about an accent he was about to attempt.

“When I started doing comedy,” he adds, “We were very much what was then called ‘alternative comedy’ and the two great centrepieces of that was non-sexist, non-racist.

“That was that was the big thing, which now seems absolutely basic, page one, but then was revolutionary.

“I did mainstream working men’s clubs in Birmingham, and you would not believe the racism, for example, was absolutely the norm [for] friendly middle-aged entertainers.

“We were at the beginning of that and I think we started to expand it. So then you think, ‘Well what about homophobia?'”

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BBC/Avalon TV

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David Baddiel and Skinner presented TV shows Fantasy Football League

While he jokes woke culture means he’ll no longer help attractive young women with their heavy suitcases, Skinner believes the new normal parameters are “a sort of a militaristic approach to kindness”.

“Unless you force people to do stuff, most people won’t do it. So I think you can make a few interesting dramas about sexual predators, but the best way to stop it is to say to people, they’ll lose their job.

“So I’m all for a bit of moral menace, as it were”.

US President Barack Obama recently spoke of his distrust of righteous online trolls, while US comedian Dave Chappelle made a whole stand-up special about cancel culture. Satirist Armando Iannucci said last week he thinks people are “losing the appetite to engage in argument” for fear of causing offence.

“I think it can be annoying at times,” Skinner goes on, “It can empower idiots on occasion, and when it becomes like a parlour game where people sit around saying, ‘Oh, you said that, and you shouldn’t have said that…

“I grew up going to football matches where people threw bananas at black players and we didn’t have to sit around and debate whether it was racist or not. But I think it’s one of the major social advances of the last 60 years.”

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Frank Skinner

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He anchored the TV show Room 101 from 2012-2018, before the BBC bosses put the show in there itself, but still hosts a weekly show on Absolute Radio

He believes that in the age of Twitter, it would be hard for any comedian harbouring suspect personal views to fake it for long anyway.

“I got in one night and my partner said to me, ‘What were you doing in Superdrug?’ And I thought, ‘This is it now, this is East Germany!’

“All my philandering in the past would be impossible in the modern generation”.

Fellow British comedian Ricky Gervais criticised celebrities at the Golden Globe Awards for mere virtue signalling and Skinner would tend to agree, noting “there’s only one thing more embarrassing than the celebrities talking about politics; and that’s politicians talking about anything other than politics”.

‘Best shot’

The working class millionaire confesses to have started preaching from the pulpit himself lately, to an audience of one: Seven-year-old son Buzz.

“The other day I gave a little speech at home about the fact that we shouldn’t see Frozen 2 as girl film, that there’s no such thing as a girl film.

“I don’t know whether I really believe that or not, but I felt it was important to say so!”

Dad and lad recently went on a history-themed trip to Rome, where the Catholic comedian managed to wangle front row tickets for an audience with the Pope at The Vatican. This time through his church connections, not his showbiz ones.

Another family trip saw Skinner make a deal with his partner of 19 years, Cath Mason, not to swear for the first five minutes of his set at Latitude Festival so the youngster could see his old man at work.

The star, who suffered a bad bout of pneumonia in late 2018 (“it’s great for the cheekbones!”), says he’s giving the late dad thing his “best shot”, mindful of how many younger men have made mess of it.

“If I’d have had kids in my 20s it would have been nightmarish”.

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Getty Images

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Frank – whose real name is Christopher Collins – alongside long-term girlfriend Cath Mason

Skinner was in his 30s when he decided to give stand-up a shot, while working as an English lecturer, and he soon found himself winning the coveted Perrier Award at Edinburg Fringe Festival in 1991.

In the 1990s he became a household name, flying the flag for the (slightly) more intellectual end of lad culture alongside David Baddiel on the cult TV show Fantasy Football League, en route to getting his own chat show.

The teetotaller admits he used to live it up when he first got famous but says the effects soon wore off, and as a result he now has few actual showbiz friends as a result.

For this he blames his “lack of Class A drugs credentials” during an era of mass hedonism in British pop culture.

Although he didn’t fully large it up like the Gallagher brothers he did have similar chart success thanks to the England Euro 96 football anthem Three Lions, which he wrote with Baddiel and Lightning seed Ian Broudie (both of whom stepped out to see their old pal perform this week).

As his beloved England made it to the 2018 World Cup Semi-Finals, the song broke a chart record by returning to the top for a fourth time. Sadly though it broke another one soon after, by becoming fastest-falling number one of all-time, dropping to number 97 after Gareth Southgate’s men were knocked-out by Croatia.

Through bleary eyes, Skinner – who thinks England’s Euro 2020 forwards look “deadly” – was at least equipped to see the funny side.

“It’s beautiful that it was by 96 places. Couldn’t be better.”

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Getty Images

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Three Lions was written by Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel

Frank Skinner’s stand-up show Showbiz runs at London’s Garrick Theatre until 15 February

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Disney culls ‘Fox’ from 20th Century Fox in rebrand

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The 20th Century Fox logo will lose a word but retain the same look, according to reports

Disney executives have cut the word “Fox” from their 20th Century Fox film studio in an apparent bid to distance it from operations of the previous owner, Rupert Murdoch.

US media suggests Disney does not want to be associated with the media mogul’s highly partisan, right-wing Fox News network.

However, Disney has not clarified its reasons.

It bought the studio, with other media operations, in a $71bn deal last March.

20th Century Fox is known for producing some of the biggest films of all-time, including Avatar and Titanic.

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Variety magazine, which broke the news about the name change, said it had spoken to an unnamed Disney source, who said: “I think the Fox name means Murdoch, and that is toxic.”

Hollywood is known for being liberal, unlike the Australian tycoon.

Disney has also renamed Fox Searchlight Pictures, the arthouse arm, as simply Searchlight Pictures.

Staff emails were changed on Friday, from @fox.com to @20thcenturystudios.com or @searchlight.com.

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Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has been a cheerleader for Donald Trump

The original 20th Century Fox company was formed in 1935 following a merger.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought it in the mid-1980s, and the Fox News channel was created in 1996, growing to become most-watched in the US.

News Corporation was later split into News Corp and 21st Century Fox – which Disney acquired as the parent company of various film and television studios, including the renowned 20th Century Fox.

The Murdoch family retained the news outlets in a spin-off company, Fox Corporation, which is run by Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachland.

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Variety says the 20th Century Fox studio’s well-known fanfare theme and searchlight logo will be retained.

Disney also runs 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios. Any changes to their names have not been announced.

Disney is already a dominant force in US news, as the owner of the ABC network. It is also hoping to challenge Netflix with its own streaming service Disney+, which launched in the US last year.



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Jack Reacher author Lee Child passes writing baton to brother

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Lee Child has written 24 Jack Reacher novels

The author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels is handing over the writing duties to his younger brother.

Lee Child, 65, reportedly considered killing off the 6ft 5ins vigilante hero, who is played by actor Tom Cruise in film adaptations.

But the writer said: “I love my readers and know they want many, many more Reacher stories in the future.”

His brother Andrew Grant, 51, who will write under the pen name Andrew Child, is already an established author.

Child, whose real name is James Grant, said he felt he was “ageing out” of being able to produce more of the books.

He said: “So I have decided to pass the baton to someone who can.”

He described his younger sibling as the “best tough-guy writer I have read in years.”

“We share the same DNA, the same background, the same upbringing,” he said, adding: “He’s me, fifteen years ago, full of energy and ideas.”

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There have been two Jack Reacher films starring Tom Cruise

The Coventry-born author said they would work on the next few novels together “and then he’ll strike out on his own”.

Child started writing after being fired from his job as a presentation director at Granada Television in 1995.

His first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, was published in 1997.

He has since sold more than 100 million books and Amazon has announced it is adapting the series for TV.

The novels, which are set in the United States, have been translated into 40 languages and adapted into two movies starring Cruise.

The protagonist of the book series is a former major in the US Army military police who roams the US investigating suspicious and dangerous situations.

Grant said he had been “blown away” by his elder brother’s first Reacher novel.

He said: “The more time I spent with him in each new adventure, the more I craved the next. So I know what it’s like to wait for the new Reacher novel.”

He added: “I understand what Reacher fans want – because I am one. And I’ll do my best to deliver for them.

“I’ll have to. Because my big brother will be watching.”

The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher novel, is due to be published on 29 October 2020.



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