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Hovis in Wonderland

Nicola Mostyn looks for forward to a play based on the late Bolton poet’s works

Published on April 1st 2008.

Hovis in Wonderland

Hovis may have left the building, but everyone’s still talking about him.

It was a shock to many when Bolton wordsmith Hovis Presley died of a heart attack aged just 44. Hovis (real name Richard McFarlane) was a much loved performer on the North West circuit and at one point looked set to conquer the country, too, as his 1997 Edinburgh show ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Hat’ was tipped to win the Perrier. But, freaked out by all the fuss, Hovis quit the show mid run, returning home to Bolton where he continued in his usual way, performing, doing charity gigs and supporting other, up and coming wordsmiths until his tragically early death in 2005.

Hovis’ work was somewhere between poetry and stand up comedy; his clever, colloquial wordplay, witty use of puns and shambling delivery was a combination which was distinctively Hovis; once seen, never forgotten. Which might explain why, three years after his death, the writer and performer is still seemingly never far from people’s thoughts.

And while he didn’t quite gain national acclaim in life, that prospect is far from an impossibility. In February slam poet Elvis McGonagall, armed only with Hovis words, won the Totnes Dead Poets Slam, seeing Hovis voted “overwhelmingly” over Ginsberg, Elliot, Auden and Hardy.

Last month fellow Boltonian and friend Mark Radcliffe presented a programme on BBC Radio 4, Hovis Has Left The Building, in which the likes of Badly Drawn Boy, Johnny Vegas and John Hegley paid their respects to Hovis’ great talent.

And then there’s the Hovis Presley play. Following the poet’s death, Bolton’s Dave Morgan and Kevin Bates created Hovis in Wonderland, a play for voices, drawn in part from his brilliant anthology, Poetic Off License. Aiming to promote and celebrate Hovis’ works, the play appeared at several venues in the UK last year and here returns to The Royal Exchange on Friday April 4, showing for free as part of the theatre’s Special FX series.

Poetic Off License is a book everyone should own: It’s incredibly intelligent, hilariously funny and small enough to keep in your pocket, so you can whip it out on buses, in dental waiting rooms or when you suspect you’ve been stood up and console and amuse yourself with Hovis’ wonderful way with words.

It wouldn’t take long. Hovis’ titles are funnier than most people’s entire poems (take away that woodstain and don’t darken my door again) while even his shortest works, such as ‘double edged ode’ (I was my own/ worst enemy/until I met you, and ‘ex’ (as good things go/she went) are enormous in their way.

Then there’s his brilliantly prosaic paean to love, ‘I rely on you’ – often used by fans in place of traditional wedding vows: “I rely on you/ like a handyman needs pliers/ like an auctioneer needs buyers/ like a laundromat needs driers/ like The Good Life needed Richard Briers/ I rely on you.”

Taking such works as its cue, Hovis in Wonderland features first a year, and then a day, in the life of the poet and features him meeting some of his own characters, great stuff considering these could include a “struggling contortionist” who “couldn’t make ends meet” a Frugal Dougal who’s looking for “thrifty ways to leave (his) lover” and a man who paints go faster stripes on his kagoule

For those who were not fortunate enough to see Hovis Presley perform his own work (and, really, you haven’t lived if you didn’t see the poet gaze at a woman on the front row and say “You look like my first girlfriend. Do you want to be?”) this is a great opportunity to hear his lines read aloud, though there is a certain irony that the fuss Hovis tried so hard to avoid in life pursues him nonetheless. Just like his namesake with the jumpsuit, Hovis may have left us but his talent lives on.

“everything that doesn’t kill me

makes me stronger.

fell off my bike by the dog chew factory

now I can hold my breath for longer.”

Hovis in Wonderland, 6pm-7pm, free, Royal Exchange Great Hall, St Ann's Square, Manchester, M2 7DH. Box Office: 0161 833 9833 Fri 4th April, 6pm.

The Poetic Off License anthology and a studio recording of the play are available from hovispresley.co.uk

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