Brighton Fringe 2013
My mother always told me that hard work brought results – and, do you know what? … she was right! We were on our way to see an early Fringe show, and suddenly there on the street, leaping out in front of us, was Ben Van der Velde, handing out flyers for his own show, which was going to be on two hours later. I don’t know how many audience members he pulled in that way, but I’ll bet it was more than just us three.
Ben doesn’t just rely on posters, or a listing in the Fringe Brochure; he’s out there in person, with a very engaging manner, and that approach gets results. It’s hard to be indifferent to a personal appeal – and that’s really the basis of Ben’s show.
When you write someone a letter it’s really personal. "Emails are just a series of zeros and ones. When you get a letter from someone, you get their actual handwriting. Inside, maybe you get a present: maybe some sweets – maybe a finger…".
Maybe I should have mentioned that Ben is a stand-up comedian – but now you know that anyway. He had about forty of us in a small dark room above The Hobgoblin and he talked non-stop for an hour. Absolutely non-stop, at high speed, cramming the words in to get his material across. He doesn’t just work hard out in the street – Ben Van der Velde on stage is a real motormouth.
And he can work an audience, too. He asked what handwritten letters we had received recently, and when someone mentioned a Valentine’s card, Ben was straight into a story about a little West Indian girl he’d liked at his primary school. "I didn’t really understand Valentines, that you put XXX for kisses. I thought that you would use the letter K to do a kiss…" He’s quite shameless, as well as very funny.
But this show is about more than just being funny – it’s quite poignant, too. Rachel, a friend of his, had got a letter from her grandmother whom she hadn’t seen for a long time, and it had ‘meant the world’ to her. Ben realised that, as a 29 year old, the last of the pre-digital generation, it was up to him to save the handwritten letter. But then the comic in Ben reminded us that – "It didn’t matter that the inspiration to save the handwritten letter had come from a Facebook status…"
His project to get people writing letters led him first to consider chain letters, and we got a potted history of the postal service. It’s an amazing the fact that if a chain letter was sent to twenty people, and everyone who received it sent it on in turn to another twenty people, at the end of eight days it would have reached everyone on the planet. Phew!
Ben wanted something a little more personal, though, and decided to write to a few people that he’d lost touch with, asking them to write a letter to someone that they in turn had lost touch with – and that Ben himself would deliver the letters. At the beginning it didn’t work too well, and the person Ben wrote to didn’t write on. – "I’d succeeded in carrying out the world’s shortest chain letter – of one link".
But he persevered, and his one-man postal service led Ben to Madrid, then through Nottingham, Leeds, Middlesborough, Belfast, almost to Minsk (as far as the Belorussian embassy, anyway…), back to Belfast and finally to Galway. There were anecdotes about each location – some of them very moving – Clare’s Gran in Middlesborough couldn’t send a letter on to any of her friends -"Because they’re all dead".
Finally, Ben read out a letter he’d delivered to Damian, in Galway. Damian had been Best Man at Paddy’s wedding twenty years before, and Paddy’s letter mused – "…What does seem incredible is the time that has elapsed, and how frightening it is to think of what we’ve done, and not done. So much of what we do is certainly not done by choice. … Mostly the humour’s still intact, but I do allow the dark clouds to crowd in, hopefully I’ll do that less in the future. … It’s good to be back in touch, old friend. Make sure you write back." There was absolute silence in the audience as Ben finished reading, and he looked a little blurred to me as tears began to well up in my eyes – not only my eyes, I’m sure.
The comedy had suddenly turned profound – maybe comedy’s ultimate role is to cover over just how fragile are our hopes and dreams – we’d just been allowed a little glimpse of somebody’s life, which obviously hadn’t been all plain sailing. Maybe, just maybe, Ben’s chain letter project had helped Paddy to turn some kind of corner; I hoped so.