Two weeks ago, I was playing the Union Chapel, a benefit for Dignity in Dying MCed by Jo Brand. While on stage, I started to suffer from pulpit envy. I wanted to go in and spout Darwin, but I knew the rules. Swearing was fine on this sacred ground, but the pulpit was strictly off limits. I have played a few large London churches and you can see why these priests do it. The stone slab walls create really good acoustics for banging on about redemption, justice and heavenly delight. I am disappointed when I see a miked up preacher. The mere act of having a microphone seems to persuade the priest to mumble more, so the amplification just creates a tinnitus of smothered words and garbled instruction. I expect my vicars to have the robust delivery of a smoked Shakespearian ham.
My family tree has vicars dangling from it. Was it not for my atheism, I think I would have enjoyed being a vicar. I remember being confused for a priest on a few occasions when I was young and black turtle-necked. I delighted in replying to the question, “are you a priest?” with, “no, I’m a mechanic”. A line of dialogue filched from Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, one of my favourites in the Long Island independent American movies genre.
A few years ago, Brian Cox and I put on a show in one of Shoreditch’s big churches. Darren Hayman sang Alan Bean and we projected deep field images from the Hubble Telescope , the photons that didn’t quite hit the screen illuminating the edge of the stained glass window behind instead. Those holy architects knew how to design a good space for contemplation.
I have only been in a church pulpit once, though we did have a pulpit at the End of the World show last year for crying havoc with Richard Feynman’s lectures and Steve Jones talking about natural selection, then some angels and D:ream entered stage left. The churchly pulpit I spoke in was the one I had known since being a child, probably the first pulpit I saw. It did not remain the church of my childhood, I think my father had never thought much of the vicar, something to do with a flashy car or his attitude to the poor. There had been a parish council battle, like Midsomer Murders, but without the bloodshed. The vicar had declared the graveyard full, with only enough space for the Duke of Bedford’s family. This became a story in The Sun, “’no poor people in my churchyard’ says Vicar” and an agrarian class war almost broke out. They never got around to fashioning the ploughshares into spears. I recall a phone call from The Times or Express at 11pm who wanted to find out more, and hearing my dad tell them to go away with language that would later be used by me many times on stage, especially during the trickier gigs. It was the only time any event in the village I grew up in became a sketch on the topical Radio 4 show, Weekending.
I was glad to go to the other church. There were interesting looking old men there whose medals clanked on Remembrance Day as they rang the single bell that called the congregation, and the Sunday School was run by Granny Forwood, mother of Dirk Bogarde’s long-time companion known in his autobiographies simply as Forwood.
My time in the pulpit was for the funeral of my Brother in Law, a high pressure gig. I have sweated over the opening lines for gigs before, but this had me pacing until I walked in past the font. Apparently, the vicar had more nerves than me, and stated his worry to my sister that, having found out what I do, I would take to the pulpit and start swearing and blaspheming. I had thought ahead and long ago vetoed my “Nietzsche was right” speech. I had been told to make it as jolly as possible as my brother in law was a man of inordinate good humour, even when things weren’t going so well.
So I talked of his fashion sense, his clumsiness when hauling in boats and other slapstick events, and of a Christmas ruined by a hiding Dachshund. Afterwards, one of my nieces told me off for making it serious at the end as she had to do the reading immediately afterwards and she was determined not to cry. The oddest sensation when it was done was the feeling of it as a gig. Frankly, as eulogies go, I had stormed it. The entertainer ego was buoyant when, in reality, someone had died leaving a widow and four children without a dad. A peculiar clash, as people congratulated me and asked if I would speak at their funeral, I had the happiness of a job well done, and the guilt and confusion that I should think that on such a day; a reminder of being a shallow human.
I am off to Manchester, Brighton, Birmingham, Havant, Oxford and East London & many more, sometimes on my own, sometimes with Grace Petrie and Josie Long. also Hammersmith Christmas shows with Brian Cox, all info HERE
Happiness Through Science DVDs incl Brian Cox commentary HERE