I am not an arena comic, but for the last 22 days I have been an arena sidekick.
I’ve been a Sid Little to Brian Cox’s Eddie Large. Except it has been Brian looking plaintively at me, as I run around and do stupid voices, with an air of “stop interrupting, I just want to do me cosmology.”
It feels odd that it doesn’t feel odder to see a lecture on astronomy in a 9000 seater.
It is rare to observe silence from so many as they watch Brian with his excessively powerful laser pointer guiding the multitude through his favourite nebulae. It is a laser with Freudian Jedi ramifications.
Nine years ago, when I first put on a science jamboree show at Hammersmith Apollo, some by-standers were sceptical, which is obviously a good start for a science show. In a handy piece of synchronicity, this was just before the dawn of Brian Cox morphing into the sexy face of particle physics. Fortunately, due to the radio producer Alexandra Feachem, we fell into a double act of wisdom and excitability. I focus on the latter. Know your limitations and make the most of them.
We were both wary of moving up from theatre to arena, but by the end of the first show, in a former livestock market in Peterborough, it seemed utterly normal. To attempt to encapsulate the Universe, surely an arena is the least you need.
The screen was remarkable, technology that was the star of the show, but which required an academic ease of an astronomical ringmaster.
Each night, to the dying strains of REM’s Man on the Moon if the show was running to time, we would walk up a steel incline towards the enormous bank of monitors that would be responsible for projecting photons that made up rainbows, bluebells, star systems and Maxwell’s Equation into the audience’s eyes. Brian would be well-tailored, I’d be wearing a nearly new cardigan. On most night’s, I’d be dressed as the scatter-brain scientist and he’d be dressed as the Moorcockian playboy.
The lights would lower. A series of images and quotes would appear on the screen while the music of Brian Eno, obviously, played. Each night, I had got into the habit of turning to him when least expected and repeating the Spinal Tap line, “have a good show, yeah.”
Then it began. As if by magic, though as we know, there are equations to declare there is no such thing, he would be centre stage and the whooping would begin, with the occasional cry of “Brian!” from an audience member in case he’d forgotten.
And it would begin, not with Tonight I’m Going to Rock You, but with a wistfully delivered line of “Welcome to an evening of cosmology and astronomy”.
What surprised us both was that the arena audience’s were even more silent than the theatre audiences of the previous tour. The nearest to a fracas was on the Friday night in Glasgow where a fight started to break out during Brian’s explanation of the eukaryotic cell. It was quelled.
Each night, we had around 500 questions tweeted to us.
The most popular questions were:
Are we living in a simulation? (if we are, it doesn’t matter).
What is the other side of a black hole? (there isn’t really another side)
Aren’t you hot in that woollen jacket and waistcoat? (it’s not really a jacket and waistcoat, it’s just a sort of zip in liner that creates that illusion)
As well as plenty about Planet X, Tabby’s Star and Missions to Mars.
The youngest questioner was seven, the eldest eighty nine.
Being of a self-loathing disposition, I feared that moving up to such scale could lead to social media abuse and people angry that I had disturbed their view of eye and mind candy.
As it was, the response was delightful. I have not sought out reactions, so I am merely talking about what I have seen. Three negative criticisms came my way, one from an energetic anti-semite and two from people who just didn’t really think the night turned out to be their thing.
I heard some rumblings from the outside that this was turning religion into science, so which prophet does that make Michael McIntyre? It was encouraging that after each show we received many follow up questions and queries of where to go next to find out more. Quite a few people left the building feeling insignificant, but positively insignificant.
And now my arena days are over, as I return to my usual rooms to do my solo shows, but hopefully this was not the end, or at least it was “The End of Brian Cox Live, but Brian Cox will return in The Particle Physicist Who Love Mu.”
I am at the Edinburgh Fringe with two shows in August and also doing a hotch potch of our dates around the UK.
I will be touring with Brian across Australia (and with our first New Zealand date) in November. Latest Book Shambles is with the great science communicator, Dr Karl.
And thank you to Amy, Giles, Adam, Ash and everyone who made our UK tour brilliant.