Friday, 19 June 2015

Dennis and Paul

My first impression of Dennis was of his being a naturally aggravating character, and my second was that he was kind of an idiot - conclusions which upset the delicate balance of my established theories regarding men named Dennis. My initial hypothesis had been formulated at the Royal Mail sorting office in Chatham back in 1988, postulated in order to explain the continued existence and unpleasant character of Dennis Landers, whom I regarded as a tosspot. Consulting with my friend Carl, we realised that neither of us had ever encountered any individual named Dennis who wasn't an arsehole by one definition or another.

'Why would you even name your kid, Dennis? ' Carl scowled as though in the presence of sour milk, invoking the image of some gurgling newborn. 'Baby Dennis,' he offered bitterly by way of illustration, lending the name the same sort of cadence by which one might identify Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson.

Then a couple of years later I encountered a succession of two other men named Dennis whom I actually liked and came to hold in high regard. Now here was yet another Dennis, the fourth to emerge during my ongoing investigations. Unlike his two predecessors, he was initially easy to dislike, and yet unlike the founding Dennis, he wasn't actually evil. My theory of Dennis was in tatters.

Dennis the Fourth was a great hulking Bernard Bresslaw of a man, approaching middle-age, balding and very loud. He always seemed to be laughing, singing or joking, but the songs were usually out of tune, and the standard of joke was generally pitiful. Another annoying factor was that close inspection revealed that Dennis was basically a nice guy, just a very annoying one, and his annoying qualities were therefore unfortunately subjective; in other words, if you didn't like this latest Dennis, it was your problem and probably meant you were a bit of a miserable fucker. Having previously established my being in certain respects a miserable fucker, I concluded that I should try to avoid Dennis and do my best to keep from becoming aggravated by him, which was difficult given that he was essentially a big, happy dog in human form for whom mere eye contact was sufficient to initiate lifelong friendship. If he'd finally figured out some joke he'd been told back when he was six, and had decided that you too might get a chuckle out of what the big chimney said to the little chimney, he would move heaven and earth to make sure you got to hear that joke. Some days the canteen became a no-go area due to his presence, howling and hooting with laughter over his egg on toast as he related another hilarious incident from the morning's delivery.

The little dog had been yapping and jumping up to get the mail as it came through the letterbox. This much could be seen through the window to one side of the front door. Dennis had pushed the mail through the letterbox in such a way as to sail the envelopes up onto the window ledge to one side of the front door. The little dog had continued to bark and jump up, but was unable to reach the mail.

It took him fifteen minutes to tell this story, and ten of those were taken up with the punchline - the little dog being unable to reach the mail now safely atop the window ledge - which he couldn't get out because he was himself laughing too much, crying with laughter and incapable of forming words.

We all sat there watching, drinking our tea, bewildered.

When Paul the Actor started at our office, he immediately compared Dennis to Homer from The Simpsons. As an observation it was both funny and accurate, but by this point, although Dennis was clearly an idiot, some of us felt strongly that he was our idiot. Additionally, it could not be denied that he was a hard worker, which counted for something in a working environment built upon having to do someone else's job for them at least half of the time.

Paul was of presumed Turkish extraction and he spoke like Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G character, a nasal whine punctuated with plenty of innit. He was, as he explained to absolutely everybody who stood still long enough to listen, a professional actor and film director temporarily obliged to deliver mail for a living. Naturally the first question in response to this information was usually if you're an actor, then what have you acted in?

'I was on The Bill a couple of times innit,' he would tell us, later seemingly contradicting this claim when announcing 'I need to finish work early innit because I've got an audition for The Bill. If I could just get a part in The Bill that would be so good for my career, yeah?'

No-one bothered pointing out that half the population of East Dulwich had appeared in The Bill at one time or another. His story seemed fluid and was subject to daily revision, so most of us lost interest after a while, or at least the novelty wore off. Whilst it was clear that some element of truth informed the tireless self-promotion, it was anyone's guess what that truth could be.

One element which seemed fairly secure was that Paul had experienced a less than idyllic childhood, suffering terrible abuse at the hands of a domineering and possibly criminally-inclined father. The evidence for this was roughly that Paul's account, brief as it was, really wasn't the sort of thing you would make up. Paul had used his own story as the basis for a feature film named My Heart is Broken. Lacking funds, the film wasn't completely finished, but was probably going to be a big deal on the independent cinema circuit when it was ready for release innit. He showed us a publicity photograph, a still from the film, the boy chosen to portray his younger self.

Kingsley was keen to get involved and so Paul lent him the one existing VHS copy of the film. I was roped in to provide the soundtrack music which it was thus far lacking, producing eight or nine instrumental pieces following Paul's instructions. He said they were okay but needed work, which pissed me off somewhat. Sue agreed to help with shooting the new material the film would require prior to release, and it all began to feel suspiciously like school children planning their own television show. Paul seemed to have some kind of professional training, but we could never quite work out what it had been.

'What's it actually like?' I asked Kingsley when he bought the videotape back.

'It's good,' he said, himself clearly surprised by the fact.

I wanted to watch it, but Terry was next in line.

At the time my friend Paul A. Woods had become a regular contributor to a fairly well known magazine called Bizarre, mainly covering film and television. I mentioned Paul the Actor to him, and apparently in such intriguing terms as to inspire Paul A. Woods to write a two page feature on my fellow postman, focussing on the lad's efforts to complete My Heart is Broken and to get it released in some capacity, so Paul the Actor made it onto the newsstands despite Paul A. Woods not actually having seen his film.

'Give your mate a dig in the ribs,' he would suggest on the phone. 'It would be great if I could help him out, but I really need to have a look at the fucking thing, you know?'

'Okay,' I said, wondering what kind of film maker only had the one VHS copy of his masterpiece. Terry had watched it and brought it back into work, but now someone else was borrowing it.

'What's it like?' I asked Terry.

'It's better than you might expect,' he explained, clearly as surprised by the fact as Kingsley had been. 'It seems very professional.'


'The only thing is it's quite short, so I'm not sure if you could really call it a film.'

'It's short, you say?'

'It's about ten minutes.'

Somehow I wasn't surprised. I had begun to expect something at the level of the young filmmakers' competition which used to run on Screen Test when I was a kid.

As the single VHS tape slowly worked its way around the sorting office, Paul asked me to paint his portrait, something he could use for publicity material. He brought in some photographs of himself on stage in some amateur production wearing a pith helmet, safari suit and holding a rifle. I painted him as requested against a backdrop suggesting colonial Africa. He was going to pay me, but like the elusive VHS tape of My Heart is Broken, the money never materialised. It didn't really bother me because I had anticipated disappointment.

I don't know if the painting was ever used as publicity material in any form, or if it replaced the postcards he'd printed and had handed around at work. The photograph showed him holding that rifle - presumably a replica - and pulling a moody face. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels hadn't been in the cinemas very long, and it seemed clear that Paul would be happy to audition should Guy Ritchie be about to embark on a sequel innit.

'Ere Paul,' Dennis called out across the office, 'you got any of them cards left, mate?'

This was the first time anybody had actually requested one, and of course Paul was happy to oblige.

'Thanks, mate - I'll stick it on the mantelpiece when I get home,' Dennis admired the card as he returned to his bay. 'Keep the kids away from the fucking fire!' - and for the first time ever, he completed the full sentence with a straight face before collapsing with laughter. The jokes continued for the next half hour or so as Dennis worked at his bay sorting the mail, not exactly funny, but loud enough for everyone in the building to hear and we were all on his side after the keeping the kids away from the fire remark. He was on a roll.

Mark, working on one of the frames around the back began to call out in response to each brainless gag, mostly retorts concluding with you stupid, fat cunt! Then suddenly, before any of us really had time to process what had been said, Dennis struck back with an unexpected succession of three razor-sharp zingers, the details of which were lost behind the glare of our collective astonishment. It was as though a dog had burst into song. Mark had been silenced by Dennis of all people as belly laughter erupted all around the office.

I looked at Dennis.

I could hear the laughter all around.

We all looked at Dennis, speechless, and I asked, 'Did he really just say that?' I turned to Darren. 'You heard it it too?'

'Yeah!' Darren was wide-eyed, awe-struck. 'Dennis said something funny!'

'Fuck! Nice one, Dennis!'

As with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, no-one who was present when it happened will ever forget that historic day.

Paul eventually vanished from the picture, briefly resurfacing about a year later as star of a television documentary following the basic training and first days on the job of a newly recruited driver working out of Camberwell Bus Garage. Footage of Paul in the cab, frowning with concentration as he pulled out onto the main road was narrated with the voice-over account of how he saw his future career behind the wheel, and how if anything it would probably complement his work on stage and screen. The shot segued to Paul sat upon the grass of what was presumably Camberwell Green. He was explaining how all the lads at work had jovially taken to calling him George, which wasn't, he insisted, due to his full name being Paul Clooney.

'They say it's because I look like him innit.'

He had the eyebrows, but it was hard to believe that all the lads really called him George for this reason, or even that they called him George at all given that his surname wasn't even Clooney, contrary to whatever he'd been telling people since he finished with Royal Mail. He was a nice enough guy in his own way, but you always had the feeling that as he spoke to you, he was trying to imagine how you would one day feel, recalling this conversation with Paul way back before he hit the big time. Ten years have passed, and if Paul has since hit the big time in any capacity, then it's under yet another pseudonym and one I would not know to submit to a Google search; on the other hand if he's out there and still no more famous than any of the rest of us, he should at least take comfort from the fact that we all remember that day when just for a few seconds Dennis cast him in the role of Ernie Wise to his own Eric Morecambe.

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