Saturday, 11 June 2011

God and Wittgenstein before Reese Witherspoon

If it weren’t for the Sunday telephone calls from Reese Witherspoon’s people, Sang Cha, once a high-flying Hollywood agent, might not be where he is today.

Where he is, precisely, is in the draughty manse adjoining St Mungo’s Parish Church in Alloa, a chilly, 14-room cavern he shares with Wittgenstein, his border collie pup. It is an unpromising setting in a tough little industrial town, and the contrast with his past life could hardly be more vivid. Ten years ago this newly ordained Church of Scotland minister was immersed in a world of scripts and casting couches, working 80-hour weeks and bending to the whims of stars such as Witherspoon, Juliette Lewis and Sandra Bullock.

“The hours I didn’t mind but church was important to me,” he explained yesterday. “I got paged twice on a Sunday, which has always been a special day for me. There was a casting call in NYC, for Sweet Home Alabama, with Reese Witherspoon. Something happened and I had to deal with it on a Sunday. That was breaking point.”

In this corner of Clackmannanshire they refer to Mr Cha’s epiphany as the biggest conversion since St Paul took the road to Damascus. Even the Reverend himself sounds a little perplexed by his change in circumstances and admits to feelings of “fear and awe” at the prospect of the future.

His trepidation is understandable. In its Victorian pomp, 700 communicants squeezed into St Mungo’s pews, and his predecessors in the pulpit have included five Moderators of the Church of Scotland. These days attendances have dipped below 100, and the church is at crisis point.

Mr Cha, 34, said he is steeled for the fight. His weapons are a PhD in theology, an engaging preaching style, a sense of humour and the wiles of his Tinseltown past, which he will rely on to woo the lapsed Presbyterians of the Forth Valley.

At 21, at the William Morris Agency on Wilshire Boulevard, he endeared himself to the legendary John Burnham, the agency’s head of motion pictures, by smoothing the feathers of a ruffled Sean Penn.

He soon found himself booking restaurants and buying cigars for A-list film stars and hotshot producers.

“When you are on a desk as an assistant to Burnham, you have to figure things out, like how to get your clients into Spago or how you can get hold of a box of Cohibas at short notice,” he said.

“You have to be an operator. That skill set I picked up will be invaluable in Alloa, making something out of pretty much anything. Making things happen, that’s part of churchmanship.”

Mr Cha was born in Seoul, a third generation Presbyterian, whose grandparents had been converted by John Ross, the Scottish missionary who translated the Old Testament into Korean. His family moved to New Jersey on America’s East Coast when he was 8.

He went on to study business at the University of Pennsylvania, and on graduation moved to California and into the movie business After three years he had tired of the fleshpots of Beverly Hills and signed up for Americorps, a national community service organisation. Not for the last time, Mr Cha found himself at a crossroads, awaiting a posting.

“I was thinking Hawaii, they sent me to Alaska,”

There, in Anchorage, he worked in a prison, teaching basic English to inmates who could barely read, and worked at an after-school club.

“During that time I seriously reflected on what is happening to us as people, and I knew I had to do something,” he said. That something was a divinity degree at the University of Cambridge, and a further theology degree in Edinburgh.

Mr Cha was happy in Edinburgh but when the vacancy in Alloa came up, he heard God calling. He was appointed to the post by a presbytery vote of 133 to one. He jokes: “What does it say in Corinthians? ‘I will flush out the unbeliever among you’.”

Humour will serve him well. The fear, too, will keep him sharp, he thinks.

“People say fear is a bad thing, but sometimes it hones and clarifies a purpose of who we are,” he said. “I am aware of the size of the task ahead. If I don’t as a leader rally the troops and turn the ship around with the help of the parish, there will be no more St Mungo’s. Everybody knows that. It is the most interesting fight in town. That’s why I joined it.”

* How good is the photo by Tom Maine? Superb

Friday, 10 June 2011

Arthur Smith's sober look at celebrity

Ten years ago at the Edinburgh fringe, a group of stand-ups and journalists were glumly discussing the imminent demise from alcoholism of the comedian Arthur Smith, when a strangely familiar cadaver walked into the bar.

“Arthur?” said a voice in disbelief. Smith held his thin arms wide and proclaimed to the disbelievers: “I have arisen, but the jokes remain the same.”

This year, alive, well and on the wagon, Smith returns to the Edinburgh for a new show - “maybe my 25th” - which is built around the drinking habit that nearly killed him. The title speaks for itself: Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show.

The format will be familiar to television viewers of Parkinson, Wogan, Norton et al, but the rules will be radically different from mainstream on-the-couch entertainment. Smith, 56, the host, will be stone cold sober (as he must be, one drink could kill him). His interviewees will be breathalysed to make sure they are drunk.

The compere already has some of his guests lined up, and has been surprised at the very positive reaction he has received from his friends in comedy.

“It’s an excuse for them to be drunk I suppose,” said Smith. “People generally are quite drunk when they go on late night chat shows in Edinburgh. Normally they would try to be sensible. In this show, they’ve no need to be. In fact it would be disappointing if they were sensible.”

The show features stand-up mixed with with facts and figures about alcohol and its consequences, before Smith leads his audience into the main event: his celebrity drunk.

He said: “I figure that if someone starts on a long rambling drunken story I can interrupt and give a commentary: ‘You’ll notice the drunk here is doing the classic manooeuvre of embarking on a long-winded, boring story, repetitive and without any punchline...’ before turning back to the guest, and saying, ‘Please, carry on.’

“Drunk pople often say more interesting things than they do when they’re sober, or chained up by a PR girl. In vino veritas, I refer you to Pliny the Elder.”

After a lifetime on the razzle, Smith almost died of acute necrotising pancreatitis (“when you have the necrotising in the middle you are in real trouble - my pancreas was consuiming itself”). He was seriously ill for four months. Now a diabetic, he looks askance at his drunken past.

There’s a comic path running through all this, which appears to lead to the moral high ground. Smith admits as much.

“When I first quit,” said, “I thought, ‘how stupid is drinking?’ It’s such a dangerous thing, yet it's treated like our jolly friend. I used to go out at midnight and look at the drunks weaving up the road near my house, and thought ‘Jesus, they look so strange’. People absue it so badly. I’ve so many friends who have fallen foul of booze.

"But I wouldn’t want to adopt a moralistic tone. Everyone’s funnier when you've had a drink. If there was no drink there would be no stand up."

Not all of Smith’s fringe shows have been hits. Sod, the follow up to his hit show An Evening With Gary Lineker, caused at least part of his audience to fall asleep. Another production - the title eludes him - was meant to be staged halfway up the Pentland Hills, south of the city. The buses bringing the audience were unable to climb up the dirt track and the show had to be performed instead in a nearby beer garden.

This year’s offering at least has a certain commercial logic. Edinburgh boasts more bars and restaurant per head than city in Britain, and has a legendary drinking culture. With it’s broad-minded fringe audience the box office should be good, or at least that how it seems to the unbefuddled comedian.

"Edinburgh’s like a little cocoon during the festival - it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t matter,” he said. “Audiences are genuinely up for something, they’re a pretty sophisticated bunch."

They have to be sophisticated for this? “No. Yes. They’re sort of open, aren’t they? Goodness knows what the show will be like, to be honest. It might be terrible.”

* Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show, Pleasance Somewhere