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Wednesday, 01 October 2014

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Cumbrian author aiming to set Edinburgh Fringe alight with musical drama

Among the 2,500-odd shows at the Edinburgh Fringe next month, a new superhero will be making his first appearance.

Keith Baty photo
Keith Baty

When mild-mannered Orville Williams dons his special costume he becomes Dan Kamikaze. And in his first adventure he sets off to rescue Lulu, the beautiful niece of his friend Professor Warlow – undeterred by the fact that she doesn’t actually need rescuing.

Dan’s other problem is that he is the one superhero who doesn’t really possess any superpowers.

The author of this new musical comedy drama, The Invective Dan Kamikaze, is Keith Baty, a writer and lecturer in English at the University of Cumbria. He points out that it is not based on a true story.

To have a play at the Edinburgh Fringe is a dream for any playwright and Keith is pleased with its success. But at heart he’d still rather be a rock ‘n’ roll star.

In the play he will provide the music himself, playing ukelele, guitar and keyboards.

“I’m proud of the play,” the 51-year-old admits. “You do some work that you’re not particularly happy with, but I’m happy with this.”

Keith’s work hasn’t just been writing.

In the past 30 years he has been a teacher in primary and secondary schools as well as the university, has made wedding videos and promotional films, has worked in radio and as an advisor with the Citizens Advice Bureau, has written a comic novel and completed a master’s degree – among other things.

And his varied career reflects his philosophy of making the most out of life. “Say yes to anything and see what happens,” he advises.

It’s not quite enough to satisfy him, however. With a slight hint of regret, he adds: “There’s still part of me that just wants to be in a Shadows tribute band.”

It was musical rather than literary stardom that was Keith’s first aim. He was born and brought up in the Denton Holme area of Carlisle, studied English at Lancaster University and immediately afterwards headed south to make his bid for rock ‘n’ roll stardom.

But if his rock ‘n’ roll dreams had come true he might never have met his wife.

Sitting at home in Port Carlisle – surrounded by bookshelves of music biographies and CDs and sipping coffee from a Cliff Richard mug – he recalls his early chance at the big time.

“I was lead guitarist in this band, and our big break was to support Bill Haley and the Comets. “Then Bill Haley died and the tour was pulled. We didn’t have any money and I had to beat a hasty retreat northwards.”

In need of a job, Keith returned to his university town to teach in a college for disabled teenagers.

A student called Deborah Boekestein came to the college as a volunteer helper and they started dating – and are still together 31 years later.

Deborah and Keith both became teachers but Keith’s twin interests of rock ‘n’ roll and literature led him to go part-time and fulfil another ambition, to write a book.

He and his friend Robert Graham co-authored a spoof biography of Elvis Presley entitled Elvis: the Novel.

“It was wish-fulfilment,” he explains. “We had seen the film This is Elvis and at the end we thought he looked terrible.

“So we reinvented the myth where he doesn’t come to a tragic end. We gave him the life we’d have liked him to have.”

Each author sent off six copies of the book, to 12 different publishing firms. “We got a reply from Collins saying they’d be interested in publishing it.”

The book first came out in 1984 and has been reissued since. But it did not make the authors rich beyond their wildest dreams, so Keith returned to full-time teaching, first covering maternity leave at Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton and then across the road at the primary school. “I really enjoyed my couple of years there,” he recalls.

At this time Deborah was teaching in Greater Manchester and the GCSE music course was just broadening to encompass forms of music other than classical. So Keith was able to use his rock ‘n’ roll experience to help teach it.

“I should never really have been a music teacher but I became one. It was interesting travelling around different secondary schools.”

Keith has yet another longstanding passion – for 1960s superhero comics – so he also signed up for an MA course in design at Manchester Metropolitan University.

It involved writing a thesis on the history of superheroes, from characters of Greek myth such as Hercules and Achilles through to 20th century versions such as Superman and Batman.

“That was when I developed my own superhero of Dan Kamikaze, embryonically.”

Keith was making wedding videos and other short films as a sideline and when Deborah got a teaching job in Cumbria he started lecturing in English at St Martin’s College in Lancaster – which was soon to become part of the University of Cumbria. He moved back to his home city when the Carlisle campus opened in 1998.

A year later Keith received devastating news. He discovered that a small lump in his neck was not the cyst doctors had at first believed – but cancer.

He made a full recovery but remembers: “It was a scary experience, as it must be for everybody. I think I was very lucky with my treatment and with the consultant I got.”

A life-threatening illness can often be life-changing for those who survive and he admits it did affect his outlook.

“You re-adjust your vision of life. I had always had a go at things but I thought it was time I had more of a go at some of them. I had a box of ideas upstairs.”

So he dug out the old superhero of Dan Kamikaze and some of the songs he had recorded in his rock ‘n’ roll days.

“I thought: ‘These songs are all right. Maybe I could do something with them.’” Many of them now feature in The Invective Dan Kamikaze.

He also returned to work at the university, became involved in some programme-making at BBC Radio Cumbria and helps at Carlisle Citizens Advice Bureau.

“The CAB were very good at giving advice about getting back to work, so I’ve been working there since as an advisor.”

But being back at the university was strange at first.

“I’d had my operation in Fusehill Street, which was still a hospital at the time, and now it’s part of the university.

“So I was in hospital in the place where I work. Even now it’s a bit odd going into the library and thinking: ‘This is where I used to lie in bed.’”

But rehearsals for the play are taking up much of his time at the moment. It is being performed at the eteaket tea rooms in Frederick Street in Edinburgh, each night from Wednesday, August 11 to Tuesday, August 17.

Performances take place at 8pm and last about an hour – which allows audiences to catch another show afterwards – and the admission charge of £5 or £4 includes tea and biscuits.

It is being directed by University of Cumbria graduate Hannah Stephenson and some of the cast are current students there.

“It’s taught me a lot,” Keith says. “Even if it all falls apart now and the cast decide they don’t want to do it, it’s been a great experience.”

And lately Keith has been rifling through his box of ideas again. “If it goes well there could be a follow-up.”

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