I have decided to kill off Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, or at least cryogenically freeze it. I have great fun, occasionally spiced with exasperation and stress, putting together these shows and I know for some people they have begun to become a Christmas tradition. They generally sell fast, people enjoy watching it, performers love playing it, what kind of fool would destroy it? I have a habit of this and I am a fool.
It is very hard to “kill your babies”, especially when the mere act of writing that phrase puts images in my mind of Meredith Meredew being force fed his poodles by wronged ham, Edward Lionheart.
It starts with stand up. Once you have a routine that works, it is the devil’s own work to stop doing it. In the last few years, I have performed hours of stand up and numerous different shows, but for the first eight years, however much I wrote, I found I had my comfort act. This was act I could rely on, even as the edges frayed and the human saying it was increasingly different from the near child who dreamt up the routines. Fear kept me in my place. There came a time when I saw the tatty corpse of the words and ideas that I was still forcing on the audience and I knew that a burial was required. It was nothing dignified, I left the routine on the rocks at low tide and let the sea take it, then I threw away all my old notebooks, they were hardly going to be published by Faber and Faber after my death.
I started The Book Club in about 2005. It was a hotch potch variety show that was a reaction against what I sometimes saw as increasing soulless stand up and the sense that things were becoming “product”. I had seen lots of wonderful, strange and inventive acts and troupes that couldn’t fit on the bills of most comedy clubs, and decided to attempt a variety show of sorts, populated by my favourite idiots. As comedy become bigger business and demand swelled, I noticed that audiences had become lazy in my eyes. At some clubs, they just sat back and said “entertain me with the minimum of fuss, I wish to feel no pain and sense of engagement. Do not attempt ideas, remind me of my worldview and say ‘fuck’ a bit”. There is nothing wrong with that, but I felt there was space for more. I thought of the excitement I felt when I went into subterranean rooms and heard Tony Allen talk of artists I had never heard of, or Frederick Benson (aka Andrew Bailey) in ghoul make up and showbiz glitter clamber over the audience and cut their hair, or Claire Dowie mull over political ideas that were fresh and strange to me, it wasn’t always about laughing, but I was usually engaged and intrigued and excited. We got great reviews, an excited audience, we were even nominated for a British Comedy Award, but by the end of year one, I already felt that it might have served its purpose. There were more and more clubs like it appearing, more spaces for oddities, and after a few more months and a small tour, it was taken to the seashore to be washed away too. Some of the ideas went on to become a book, and it is intermittently washed up again, but never in the form of condensed carnival sideshows collection it once had.
When I killed it off, there was one night left at the pub room that had been our home. I decided to put on a new show, School for Gifted Children, where people talked of their favourite ideas of science, art or album covers and some sang songs of philosophers and time. This grew into Nine Lessons and Carols for Gifted Children, the Christmas celebration for people who like Christmas, but prefer humans talking about particle movement while hula hooping than stories of a manger, though some like both. There is room for the two to survive together. It has run for six years, mixing up scientists talking about the big bang, aurora borealis or barnacle behaviour, with wizards telling tales of Northampton, songs of cryogenic freezing, jazz and laser harps (laser harps, it should be added, that did not work on the first night, but worked fine after the players mother in law prayed for it, so it goes).
I enjoy playing impresario, but I think it is time to shake things up again, to find a new way to deal with new ideas, we are losing the element of surprise. When I first suggested the idea, I was deemed misguided at best and an idiot by others. I believed it would work, and I am glad it has. Now this sort of thing is all over the place and TV people are working out different ways of filching elements of it, so it has done more than I might have hoped.
I have got lazy, I must kill the thing I love and start stitching together something new after purloining a dropped brain from a tissue archive. It’s not living if you don’t force yourself onto tenterhooks. I am not sure I am doing the right thing, but whoever is?
The final run of Nine Lessons will see guests such as Mark Watson, Phill Jupitus, Helen Czerski, Josie Long, Alexei Sayle, John Hegley, Helen Keen and many more. Details HERE
Details of Cosmic Genome science app and my Darwin/Feynman tour dates (Manchester,Dorking, Braintree, Edinburgh soon) are HERE