The Return of the Master of Mirth!
At the beginning of August I began putting the finishing touches to a brand new series of comedy sketches featuring my alter-ego, Ben Bernard. This deluded and egocentric character had been haunting me for a number of years, pretty much since I decided to bury his remains in a storage box marked “Ben Bernard, RIP”, but the time was right to resurrect the old blighter.
For those of you unfamiliar with the self-styled “Master of Mirth”, Ben Bernard was first created for a University project by a team including myself, fellow writer partner Paul Speed and filmmaker Ian Burnett. It was ‘no-budget’ production (unless you count the £90 for new tyres on Mr Speed’s Ford Fiesta after we were stopped by the Police at a random check-point), and took us a day to film on location in Cleethorpes. That short film turned out rather well and never failed to raise a smile – in extreme cases I’ve witnessed viewers falling out of their chairs, or keeling over in an edit suite the laughter was so strong! I felt I’d found something really special in Mr Bernard and was keen to develop this wonderful character, a struggling seaside entertainer who resolutely refuses to accept that he’s one of life’s failures. We entered the film and series outline to ‘BBC Talent’, and even received an encouraging telephone call from them – however, they simply wanted to confirm we’d sent a VHS and the scripts as they’d somehow parted company upon arrival at the BBC. I often wonder what might have been had that VHS not gone missing… Despite an initial rejection I started work on a sitcom, extending our short film script and developing new scripts around the series outline I’d plotted with co-creator Paul Speed for ‘Stand Up And Be Counted!’. Writing it solo was tough, but tremendous fun, although I missed my former writing partner and the opportunity to chuck around ideas and have a good laugh at Bernard’s antics. Buoyed by support and terrific feedback from colleagues in the media I wrote a new pilot film and teamed up once more with Ian Burnett for a second ‘no-budget’ production, again filmed on location around Cleethorpes. Lightning struck twice and this second film had the desired outcome…a lot of laughter. Sadly, despite great feedback and support from the likes of presenter and cartoonist Geoff Motley, broadcaster James Alexander Gordon, magician Paul Daniels and the late composer Derek Wadsworth, the BBC rejected my scripts and series outlines – not once, but three times! Of course the last rejection was the most damning, coming as it did from a Trainee Script Commissioner – they even had someone else “PP” their signature! Somehow it was the most fitting end to my efforts at getting Ben Bernard to the small screen.
I made a small switch to audio for my next attempt to bring the “Master of Mirth” to the attention of the media. ‘Blog Off Ben Bernard!’ was a series of ten audio blogs, or podcasts, featuring the luckless comic regaling his listeners with bizarre tales of his everyday life. Encouraging rumblings followed as feedback suggested I was on to a winner, and so I put together some CD’s and despatched them to broadcasters and production companies across the UK. The silence was deafening! And so, I took the decision to put poor old Ben Bernard to sleep, and laid the scripts, props and his wig to rest in that battered old storage box.
In the years since the cardboard funeral I have toyed with ideas to further the cause of Ben Bernard, but nothing ever quite worked. I still believe 110% in the character and the wonderful ideas I’ve had for him – the world needs Ben Bernard. It wasn’t until a dear friend and Bernardian became unwell that I decided to really go for it and invest more time and effort on this beautifully funny creation. My prime motivation was to at least make my friend smile, in the spirit of laughter being the best medicine. However, I believe the resurrection of Ben Bernard some fifteen years after his first “Ooh, ‘ello!” is well timed and worthy of as much effort as I can muster. And so, the costume was dry cleaned, the make-up went on, and I once again teamed up with Ian Burnett to create more modern day mirth as Ben Bernard. Low budget instead of no-budget, we filmed five new shorts in a wonderful day of location shooting in Cleethorpes. We were joined in our efforts by another talented film maker, Craig Briggs, who also played a couple of supporting characters. I had a ball writing and performing these little gems, and if you wish to take a look you can check them out on my YouTube and Vimeo channels (see the links on my website www.richardusher.com for more details).