Sunday Nibble #50: American vs. British brands

Long-time readers know that I’m fascinated by the differences between American and British English, two languages that are so close and yet so far away.

In some cases, each language has a very different meaning for the same word — joint, rubber, trolley. In others, the two words for the same thing are very different — stove and cooker; pacifier and dummy; trunk and boot.

One dead giveaway to origin is the word that comes after “different” in making a comparison. In American English, we’d say that “X is different than Y.” In British English, it’s “X is different to Y,” and that sounds so wrong to me that I can’t even explain it.

Perhaps it’s because the preposition “than” indicates removing from something, which is what we’re doing in making a distinction, while the preposition “to” indicates motion toward, which is the exact opposite of what we’re saying.

Interestingly, exactly the same difference exists in Spanish in Latin American and Spain. Here, the pattern is the same as American English — “X es diferente que Y,” although the preposition is closer to that than “than.”

Meanwhile, in Spain, the phrase is “X es deferente a Y,” which is a word-for-word translation of the British version.

It gets really fascinating in the case of brand names, or even stores. For example, the British Equivalent of America’s Dollar Tree is called Poundland, which makes total sense given the currency in the UK. Still, I’m sure many an American tourist has seen the name and giggled at the thought that it’s actually some kind of brothel or budget motel.

More mysterious is the name change of the brand TJ Maxx. In the UK, it’s the same company, but known as TK Maxx for very vague reasons.

At least that one would probably also be obvious. But when it comes to other brands, you might be lost in the woods when trying to figure out the American equivalent without a primer.

Say you’re cleaning up that vacation rental in London and need some Lysol to do the job. You’re not going to find that anywhere. What you want instead is Dettol, which is really just the same thing under a different name.

You might even sometimes hear it used as a comedy punchline when a character runs across something or someone really disgusting. “Ewwww. Ma, fetch the Dettol!”

Say you want to write a note to someone and you’re in the stationers in Hull. You’re looking for a Bic, because it’s your favorite brand, but if you ask a Brit to loan you a Bic, you’re probably going to get a blank stare. Instead, if you want a ballpoint pen, you’d need to ask for a Biro.

Named for its Hungarian inventor Lazlo Biro, it debuted in 1938 and, ironically, was produced by BIC Manufacturing anyway. So, to be honest, Biro is the real name and Bic was how they chose to market it in the U.S.

But oh no! While you’re writing that letter, you make a mistake, and you can’t erase ink. What do you do? Why, you grab the Wite-Out, of course! And, surprise — it’s also a Bic product! But of course, what a perfect pair.

This is probably a pretty well-known story by now, but Liquid Paper, the major competitor to Wite-Out, was invented by one Bette Nesmith Graham, whose son went on to be a musician with the made-for-TV band The Monkees.

But you’re not going to find this in the UK, either. Instead, you need to look for the Tipp-Ex, which was originally a German invention but took Europe by storm in the late 1950s.

Well, that was a lot of work, so how about some snacks? You’d grab a bag of Lay’s potato chips, but they don’t seem to be anywhere. What you’re looking for as you stroll High Street in Chesterton, Cambridge would be a bag of Walkers. Same brand, different name and flavors.

If you’re not into salty, there’s always sweet, but there’s a bit of a trap here. If you want an American Three Musketeers bar, you’re not going to find it. Instead, what you want is a British Milky Way, which is different than (to?) an American Milky Way. If you want an American Milky Way, then ask for a Mars Bar.

Confused yet? Well, keeping to the space theme, if you’d like some cold goodness from a Dove bar of any sort, over there, you’d ask for Galaxy. Again, same brand, different name.

If Dove ice cream isn’t your thing, then go for a Good Humor bar, although anywhere in the UK, you’d have to ask for a Wall’s. (Note: if you’re in the U.S., that link may just redirect right back to Good Humor, proving that it is, indeed, the same brand.)

Finally, if ice cream is too cold, pop open a pack of Starburst. In the UK, you’ll have to ask for Opal Fruits, which was the original name before the product was rebranded in the U.S. Of course, it was rebranded for a while in the UK, too, before being relaunched under its original name.

Now, you may have learned some different brand names in this article, as did I — but the thing I really learned was that, damn, the Mars company seems to control just about every sweet snack on the planet, and that’s just a bit disconcerting.

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Sunday Nibble #30: The joy of toys

I first ran across the Grand Illusions YouTube Channel I don’t remember how long ago, but was immediately taken in by the exuberant innocence of our host and toy master, Tim Rowett.

Tim is a jovial Brit who just turned 78 last month, and he has been collecting toys, games, puzzles, magic tricks, and other oddities for decades

He’s been making videos for a long time in which he presents curated groups of related objects from his collection, and an annual event is when he comes back from various toy fairs around the world to show off his discoveries.
Here’s one of the ones he did after the Nuremberg Toy Fair, not long before lockdowns and quarantines took over the world.

Of course, once everybody had to take precautions to avoid COVID-19, Tim became a one-man operation, moving from whatever studio space he had been using with a camera operator to his own kitchen.

That didn’t slow him down, though, because as we can see by the numerous cases all over the place, a large part of his collection lives with him. And not only did the change not slow him down — unlike his previous schedule, he’s been posting every day for the last four months.

Here’s a recent, socially isolated video.

I first found Grand Illusions through my love of magic, and started by watching all of Tim’s videos showing off the various tricks they sold, but very quickly I found myself binging all of his videos from start to finish until I’d caught up, and I try to never miss a post of his.

So, I’ll leave you to his channel for your Sunday morning, afternoon, or evening diversion. Enjoy!