The Door Will Soon Open for me, but not for them – an afternoon in prison

18 months ago, I went to talk in a prison. I wrote 950 words about it on the train home and then it lolled around in a some nano gates of memory for “political reasons”.The chum who invited me through the gates has now asked me if I’d put it up as governors and politics change. I have rewritten nothing. I haven’t even reread it. This was my immediate reaction, bad grammar and all.

Today, I went to prison the first time.
My wife was obviously impressed when I told her that I was going to Leicester prison for Valentine’s day.
I have never been in prison and my meetings with former prisoners have been few. The most time I have spent with one was the two weeks I shared a flat with Malcolm Hardee in Johannesburg.
It was after a gig in Northampton that I was asked if I would come into Leicester prison and talk to some of the men there about whatever I could manage to talk about, writing or shouting or making a living being a dick. I said yes, then worried about it afterwards as usual. It wasn’t visiting a prison that I feared, it was having anything relevant or useful to say to those serving time. What would this middle class milksop have to say of any purpose or use?
Entering the prison felt surprisingly run of the mill. I thought some middle class antsy, pale foppery would make twitchy, but fortunately not. I went through hefty metal door after hefty metal door, the rattling of a multitude of keys, just as my cliched imagination foretold.
And inside, it looked not far off Porridge of 40 years ago.
I obeyed my OCD and popped to the toilet before the final few doors, knowing it would be something of a rigmarole of echoing iron and further keys once in the library.
About here, I suppose I should write, “I was nervous, what would these convicted criminals, with their scars and tattoos and slang and knowledge of intimidation and snooker balls in socks look like? My mind ran wild. The fear turned to sweat”.
But I am not so naive to imagine these examples of humanity would be so different to the ones I had just seen on the Leicester streets a few minutes before. By avoiding cod psychology and newspaper hoopla and screeching, I didn’t think I would see faces that betrayed some criminal gene. How easy it might be for those who wish to say intelligence and criminality are all formed in the womb. Education could be for those whose mouth swab reveals the anointed order of ACTGs and crime could just be declared destiny.
I was pleased to Randal Keynes‘ Creation (AKA Annie’s Box) was on the counter of the little library, I thumbed through it, seeking the “chaos of delight” quotation that I have repeated as a Darwinian mantra on so many occasions. On another shelf, I was Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes
The first men came in. One was writing poetry, and asked me what I thought of John Cooper Clarke, a man he had just found out about a few days ago. I recommended him highly and couldn’t help but recite, “You’ll Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express.”
I wondered how long he had written poetry. It sounded as if it had been his secret, real men don’t write poetry, but now he was happy, maybe proud, that he was creating stanzas.
I told him about John Cooper Clarke reciting poetry at punk gigs and how Oscar Wilde was a good boxer. He had been a boxer too.
Eight more joined us. We talked for a couple of hours. I probably talked too much. Brevity eludes me as usual. A few jokes were told.
I saw a rose made of bread. It had intricate details and vivid colour. A lump of dough that had been scrupulously sculpted. The sculptor had only started creating them a few weeks ago. He was filling his pad with them, and making them for others, as valentine’s gifts. (I found out they were now pads, not cells).
They told me of their feelings of incarceration and of parole boards and uncertainty.
Some say that prison is a holiday camp, but you could escape from even the most Stalinistic Butlins.
You might have a telly, as if that will compensate for all else. It seems there is a desperate lack of imagination in any mind that thinks access to ITV2 trumps an ability to walk out of the door and see a panoramic sky. Can Dancing on Ice make up for the touch of your family? Think of the fury and edginess you can feel when your mobile phone runs out of battery mid journey, then think of the scarcity of phone calls inside prison. When I walked through the gate of that prison, I knew I would be out again in a matter of hours. I don’t think I would be much good at anything much lengthier. Free will may be an illusion, but I like exercising it, whatever a fraud it might be.
These men had found creativity, poetry and art. Before I left, as they were sent back to the cells, one was given a couple of extra minutes to read me his poem. It was direct and heartfelt, with clever flourishes. In the reading, his sense of achievement was clear.
It was his work from his mind, and it expressed something about his predicament and how he wanted to change it. It had a humanity sadly lacking in much daily and political discourse.
It’s a popular party conference pleaser to say, “it’s time we thought of the victims” and then some Draconian legislation is mooted and the papers write furiously about the story of a convicted pickpocket who was given a chocolate biscuit. If we really thought about the victims, then we’d be looking to make prison and its aftermath as effective as possible in creating people who are not repeat offenders. What I saw today were people working hard to work out a route.

I am off to the Edinburgh Festival in August with two shows, one on art and one general upbeat rant on reality and madness. I’ll then be taking a confusion of the two shows around the UK on a small tour from Barnard Castle to Bath with 17 stops on the way (Dartmouth, Salford, Leeds, Hull, Bristol etc.) Might be some details at robinince.com

You can also find an interview with Peter Capaldi and speeches by Helen Czerski and me from March of Science here.

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The Return to Mach

The lid is off.                                                                                                                                       The id is out.                                                                                                                                         The superego will mop up the aftermath.
The fumbling failure to cease performing stand up is over.
In the time off, I think I have been able to gain some perspective.
It gave me a chance to spend almost every weekend going on adventures with my son for a year.
It severely cut the tweeting about frustrating train journeys.
It allowed me to put on weight due to the loss of that two hours of nightly flailing and gesticulating.
Disembarking at Machynlleth, this was the official termination of my disassociation from stand up.
I have started typing two new shows, something I haven’t done for a long time.
The last few solo shows were scribbled on postcards and structured via failure in front of small audiences.
I currently have 30 pages of notes and two exercise books full of numbered ideas that may gather the moss of a routine or will die on the vine.
The Rorschach Test of Robin Ince is somethingorother about art and I have decided to class that as spoken word. This is not due to fear of failure to find the punchlines in a Picasso, but to broaden out from the necessity of everything leading to a joke. It will not be joke-less by intention and I plan anything that that doesn’t have a punchline to be interesting enough to divert the audience.(That will be at the Museum of Scotland during the fringe).
Pragmatic Insanity, inspired by both Philip K Dick and RD Laing’s thoughts that sometimes insanity is the correct reaction to reality. This will be in one of my favourite smaller rooms on the fringe, Stand 2, and I plan on that being a looser collection of ideas, though death and quantum physics are cropping up quite a lot.
I was intending to collate some of the ideas in the exercise books on the train to Machynlleth, but I bumped into Alexis Dubus and we talked about the KLF and Robert Anton Wilson instead. At Wolverhampton, Bridget Christie, and we all agreed to put our heads down and work on our shows.
So.
We ate grapes and crisps and talked about comedians and critics and the problems of being distracted from writing new shows.
At Machynlleth, we sat in the Quarry Café and ate soup and talked of science fiction book covers, Josie Long and James Acaster’s near “death by logs” experience of some years ago, and how we’d soon be going off to write our shows.
Getting to Y Plas, I found more people to talk to about how we were all about to write our shows for the weekend.
Eventually, I sat at an asymmetrical bench and started writing on postcards and trying to order some words on paper and in my head. As usual, I was under the illusion that I could regurgitate 50 or 60 ideas that I’d only just written down for the first time. I see me standing before the crowd like a sociology teacher played by Alain Delon, delivering with gravitas salient points with subtle and potent punchlines.
When I got into the venue, I found out there was a projector I could use, so I quickly made a powerpoint of things I liked, including Georgia O Keeffe’s paintings of pelvis bones and Divine in Pink Flamingos preparing to declare her manifesto of “kill everyone now!”
Having been AWOL from comedy, when I do find myself alone at the side of the stage, it is a little more alien than usual.
I have to remind myself what I intend to do.
The music faded and I walked on with a new opening line freshly formed in my head, by the time I reached the microphone, that had been unconsciously discarded and something different came out. It was chaotic. It was twenty minutes longer than it was meant to be.
Some of it required having spent a few days in my head to understand it.
Sometimes five ideas came out at once, sometimes none at all, but still there was noise.
I hope it was entertaining for most people.
It was passionate, even if it was at times more meaningless than intended.
I had a lovely conversation with an audience member who apologised for being complimentary in that lovely way where people think you may be bored by people saying they enjoy what you do.
I am a little more sure that I have the makings of two new shows in my exercise books, now it’s up to my frontal lobes to pick the right words and intone them correctly.
I have new faces to make publicly.
And thank you again Machynlleth festival, your existence is a magnificent achievement.

I will be at Museum of Scotland and The Stand for first two weeks of Edinburgh Fringe and then doing a slight tour (mixing up both shows) including Salford, Barnard Castle, Colchester and Bath.

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Doctor Who and The March for Science

It appears that there is a condition of “Doctor Who fanboy by proxy”. Arriving at the Science museum to take part in the London Science March, there was Peter Capaldi.
It was the beat that my heart skipped.
Not for me, for my son.
He was at home.
He had done his march for the year.
Halfway around on the Women’s March, he had been told to try to be less bored.
‘I am 9 years old, you’d have been bored on a march when you were 9,” he told my wife.
You couldn’t fault his logic.
My son didn’t spot any noticeable or notable Timelords on the Women’s March (though some were there I am told), just a Gandalf, and he hasn’t got into Middle Earth as yet.
I was embarrassed, but there was no choice.
I felt I had to get a photo and an autograph for my son.

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I have been fortunate to work with on shows with many icons, including a James Bond and USS starship captain. I have not asked for their signature.
The last autograph I felt I had to get was Peter Andre for my niece in 1998. By the time I got her the signed piece of paper, she’d moved on to other popstars.
Vanessa Furey, one of the organisers of the march, kindly guided me over, and brokered the signature on a T shirt and photo deal.
Clearly, I am still not in showbiz.

Peter Capaldi took part in the march, happily mixing in a crowd that was trying to come up with chants that were both scientifically accurate and catchy.
Freethinking scientists are not used to this sort of thing, which might explain why there was a sad lack of well-known scientists and science broadcasters in attendance.
Some were apparently fearful of appearing “political”, isn’t it too late for science to shy away from the Westminster fray?
Sadly, vaccination, climate change and research budgets are political issues.
Andrew Steele, of Science is Vital, Brenna Hassett of Trowelblazers, and me of some kind of Monkey Cage, set about composing chants.
“What do we want?”
“Cats in a superposition”
“when do we want them?”
“Until observed”
didn’t catch on.
“Science – good at asking questions
Not so Good at slogans”
made it as far as Trafalgar Square.
“Science not silence” and “What do we want? Evidence based policy. When do we want it? After peer review”, made it to Westminster. (I missed this one – “What do we want?” “Climate change!” “When do we want it?” “Over geological timescales!”)
There were 12000 people there.
12000 people concerned by the rebuilding of walls around curiosity and national boundaries stymying the scientific adventure.
12000 people eager to encourage everyone around them to be scientifically curious.
12000 people worried that the charlatans I trying to drown out scientific endeavour.
12000 people who savour looking through telescopes on a clear night and lying on grass looking at the night sky as a multitude of stars increasingly come into focus.
12000 people who want the lives of human beings to continue to improve.
I thought about how science fiction had educated me.
I thought about how Doctor Who’s stories have so often incorporated ideas of tolerance and understanding those that may seem odd.
Francisco Diego’s speech reminded us all of the shared heritage of all humans on earth.
How slight is the difference in our codes, how hastily we leap on these minor surface differences and declare them reasons for animosity.
Tolerance and curiosity are achievements, we need to find as many ways and times to celebrate this and to work out the most effective way of fighting for it.
There are many vindictive “contrarian” creeps who delight in increasing unhappiness, who are tottering lickspittles for money interests that have little human interest, they are not keen on curiosity and delight, it makes them nauseous and uneasy. Sadly, their ugly, unmannerly thoughts and gestures are rating bonanzas and revenue enhancing clickbait. There is a clammy cluster of scientific naysayers who are so busy sneering they haven’t noticed that they’re not dead from smallpox or cholera.
We need to find new and more effective ways of showing that fascination and delight are more potent and rewarding.
Talking to someone born in 1939 who was critically ill, they express their concern that they may have lived in the best time to be a European human, a time when they didn’t have to fight in a war, where medicine made enormous leaps, hot and clean water was readily available, and technology was creating all manner of machines of wonder. I don’t want to be in the first retrograde generation.
I want my son’s life to be better than mine just as mine has been better than my grandparents and I don’t want to have to use a TARDIS to make that possible.

I am on tour in the Autumn including Barnard Castle, Salford, Leeds, Nottingham, York and more. I will also be doing two separate Edinburgh Fringe shows – Pragmatic Insanity and Rorschach Test. Oh, and I have a book out in September.

Here is Brian Cox’s Chaos of Delight .

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These Hipster Cookies Are Not For You, Sir.

It is almost two years since I offered my resignation from the world of stand up from a hotel room in Brisbane. Insomnia and an exciting but relentless and solitary tour schedule had started to tip me and I wanted to find my balance rather than fall into the abyss. I really meant it at the time, but I also knew that I have the ability to feel certain and then retract, so I gave the proviso that I had no idea of how long my good intentions to be utterly avoidable would last.
As it was, I didn’t too badly. I said yes to most benefit gigs, plus an event with an astronaut in Toronto, and a few book festivals. The crack showed after the first year, when Professor Cox asked if I fancied joining him on tour in Australia and The UK. This did not count as stand up, this was just professional side-kicking. I started to get ideas for solo shows. Then, a Leicester comedy festival venue, the feisty Cookie Jar, asked me if I’d do a solo show. So I did, on my 48th birthday.
As I left the train station with a rucksack on my back and a carrier bag full of notes, I felt the sensation that said, “ah yes, this is you as you are meant to be – a lone stranger in a dark city dreaming up hopeful sentences that may be released into an audience in a few hours. I heard the them to The Incredible Hulk play in my head. Within 48 hours, I am booked in to two separate runs at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, the one in the smaller room billed as comedy, the one in the bigger room tagged as “spoken word” just in case.

Ego played a part in my attempt at resignation. I was aware of so many superior comics, I was stung if tickets didn’t sell well. I have decided it is time to be comfortable with other people’s superiority. In the interim I have been writing a book about creativity, social anxiety and stand up comedy. In the last seven days, this has given me the chance to watch and interview interesting and risk taking artists.

On Tuesday, I went to see Sofie Hagen’s work in progress. Her previous tour had actively dealt with social anxiety, on stage and through arrangement of the auditorium, this one did not. Arriving near start time with my elderly friend, Michael Legge, the hipster on the till looked judgmental. Why were grey men coming to see this young woman with a young woman fanbase? He continued to judge us with each action. After buying some beer, we went into the busy room. Without any seats available, we unclasped the rope at the back that protected the final chairs.
“Hey guys, that rope is there for a reason.”
We explained we knew it was. It would be stop people choosing to sit at the back. But our choices had been removed by every other seat being filled with a human. Begrudgingly, he accepted the grey men had not tampered with his velvet rope out of an act of rebellion, but as a necessity.
Later, I attempted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Michael he insisted that he was a dick.
We have reached the age where we can appall by existing. I have gone into cafés where the barista looks scornful and dismayed that I will be ruining its credentials of boho chic and utter soullessness. “Please don’t sit at the window, you might soil our Instagram account.”

Sofie was very good. It was a personal show about ogreish, patriarchal relatives and fatphobia. Aftewards, we met a man from Cambridgeshire who told us about a terrible murder.

The next day, I went to Brighton to watch Monkey See Monkey Do. I had missed Richard Gadd’s show in London and I was happy to take a 150 mile roundtrip because his idea fascinated me. This time I went with Mark Steel, who is both older and far less grey than me. We walked into a pub that looked at us with disdain, but we sat in the window anyway. I imagine it has been closed down now.
We both agreed that Richard’s show was utterly superb. It was a frenetic journey into his inner monologue as he ran ten kilometres and wondered about his manliness. Like Sofie, he was a potent reminder of the possibility of stand up and how it can be utilised to do more than deliver jokes. Today, I interviewed Barry Crimmins and Eddie Pepitone. I am not sure what the hipster cafés would think of them should they dare to order a bespoke brownie, but I do know that both are brimful of humanity.

The process of writing the book, the chance to interrogate younger and older comics has reminded me why my failure to leave well alone was inevitable.

The book is out in September.

The Barry Crimmins documentary, Call Me Lucky, is something you must see.

And Eddie Pepitone’s too.

Richard Gadd is on tour.

Sofie Hagen is doing shows around the place.

I am off to Australia and NZ with Josie Long.

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Birthday Cupcakes Never Shared With Kurt Cobain

It is strange to look down at my hands and realise they are now older than Mick Ronson’s ever were?
I share a birthday with Kurt Cobain, though I have celebrated twenty-one more than him now.
What have I managed to achieve in the years that he has not had?
I was certainly more violently booed at Glastonbury than he would have been if he had appeared there in 1998.
“Teenage dreams so hard to beat…”
I don’t believe that mid-life crises are caused by a new awareness of your proximity to death, but in the knowledge that you are further away from the self you imagined when you and your friends would lie awake, late into the dark, and imagine where you would be when you had the freedom to be who you wanted to be.
It’s 29 years since I was a teenager.
The problem with childhood dreams is that you see the poster with your name on, or the partner with the ring you gave them, but you don’t see the intricacies. This is why pop stars can whine so much when they seem to have everything. They imagined if they achieved idol status, then they would metamorphosise into a new being, but they are still stuck with being themselves except when the drugs are very strong.
My feet have walked for more than two decades longer than Otis Redding.
I have had the time, but not the inclination, to kill for five years longer than Ted Bundy.
I stopped writing poetry by choice, mine and other people’s, while younger than Lord Byron’s death age, but had I continued with the twelve years extra I have had so far, I still don’t think I’d be of interest to Faber and Faber.

When I lay in that bed, wondering who I would be, I hoped I would be a stand up comedian.
That happened.
By 25 years old, it was my life.
Sometimes I try to lift up this parochial cosmological shutter and see what else I could have been, but I don’t have the imagination to see any alternatives.

I have a child now, who I’ll try not to fuck up.
And a wife who I’ll try not to upset too much.

I once saw Barry Humphries performing as Sandy Stone, the soft suburban man of gentle melancholy, he spoke of trying to find time to tell his wife he loved her, but he was always too busy saying sorry.

Samuel Beckett becomes observational comedy at 48. It becomes funnier the dustier you become.

The modern mid-life crisis requires a different disdain for contemporary culture. It was the aggressive choppy guitars of rebellion or remixed beats per minute that disturbed the middle aged of the mid to late twentieth century. Some could curse the cacophony by explaining that they had fought a war for you and the imagined noise of youth in the Foxhole was never Sham 69.
Now the middle aged are angry about the mundanity of TV and the insipid tunes of conformity and computer generated lost love lyrics.

It’s not what they watch so much as how they watch it, heads down, earphones in, striding blindly down the high street.

It’s harder to curse the youth because the elders do it too.

My nostalgia was nostalgia when I saw it first. Sitting with my dad, watching The Avengers or Callan or trying to name the actor between Cecil Parker and Alastair Sim on the boating pond.

When I was at school, I would have a horrible dream in the first week of the summer holiday. It would be over already and I would be saying, “no no, we’ve only had a week, it can’t be time to go back yet”. I would wake up with an incredible sense of relief after I checked the school bus wasn’t waiting by the stop. But then I’d stop observing the days and suddenly they really would be gone and it really was the end. It was like the crash zoom final shot of a horror movie. And that is how it feels now. Will I stop paying attention and suddenly be weak-legged and on a drip.
During the holidays, I try and make myself bored so the time went slower, but then a tree would look particularly appealing to climb, and then it was toast toppers and another day done.

I am fortunate, my life is rarely boring, which is why I don’t like the sense of missing it as it goes by.
Tonight, I will engage with it by doing my first solo show for sometime at the Leicester Comedy Festival, and then I’ll panic over a book deadline. These are things I hoped for when i was young and now I have them. Lucky.
I won’t drink too much because I have reached the age where there are things to be done. Well, I might have a couple of extra shorts. I wonder what Mick Ronson would have been doing tonight?

I will be touring Australia and New Zealand with chums, including Josie Long. Dates and details are here http://www.cosmicshambles.com (you can also find recordings of the live Q&As Brian Cox and I did on tour in 2016)

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I coulda been a milliner – Jo Brocklehurst at The House of Illustration

Comedians are rarely sartorially flamboyant, it can deliver too much information before you open your mouth. There are exceptions. The dazzling garb of Julian Clary is part of the show. When I first saw him it was basic rubberware and blonde extensions, but as his earnings went up, so the glitter increased. Until he revealed himself as a transvestite, Eddie Izzard dressed in a bloke on the circuit manner. On the first night of his first west end run, where he discussed his transvestism on stage, he was drab in a grey A line skirt. The flamboyance came with later shows. Noel Fielding is colourful, but that is the perogative of an arch absurdist and occasional Dadaist.

But as a whole, the comic is not fit to grace the catwalk. They like to blend back in when the show is over. It could be any man in a grey suit jacket and jeans. Before I was a comedian, I once had to help find David Baddiel a carrier bag to take his vast rider back from the student union. We charged him 4 cans of lager for it. He was not impressed as it only left him with 20 for the 40 minute train journey home. When I told him I wanted to be a comic, he advised be to lose my exuberant quiff. I have now lost it due to the gene sequence that rewards you with baldness.

I grew up suspicious of the excessively stylish, perhaps from envy. I was quite aware it could never be me. The clubs where new romantics preened looked vacuous to me, did they stand for anything more than dandyism? Whenever I saw the now grown up habituees of those clubs, they all seemed to have become hat designers. I projected vacuity onto them, the sort of opinion that Robert Elms would scold you for holding.

They are in the House of Illustration, in pastels and in front of themselves.
I am looking at the work of Jo Brocklehurst, who chronicled in pastels the club girls and fetish boys and created tightly corseted and fiercely strapped visions of the population of Wonderland. The images remind me of Egon Schiele, but with a greater rainbow at her disposal and feistier subjects.
It is a bold slash of a culture, some in clubs, some on the street, some in theatre and some mainly resident in her imagination.

It can be annoying when someone hogs a painting and won’t move on, but those glued to the canvas here are glued because they are seeing themselves again, twenty, thirty, forty years on.
It is intriguing to see these blitz kids next to their pastel rendition. Is it agony or ecstasy? There is bald man in late middle age, bald and dressed as any IT worker would need to be for smart casual do. Next to him is the zig zag hair and now buried cheekbones of the boy who lived for club night, who palmed lipsticks in boots, who cut a dash with a razor blade. He seems entertained by it all, he seems happy with his past and his present.

While looking at Eve Ferret, I am grabbed by Eve Ferret. I first knew of her as an actor in Absolute Beginners, and then as vivacious and entertainingly verbose guest on late night chat shows where teenage cults are born. Her painting is striking just as she must have been on that stage in 1978.
“40 years ago,” she says, “40 years, and she didn’t catch me as I was, I can see, she saw me as I am now”. She is an entertaining guide to her own portrait. Was this a Dorian Gray which was waiting for Eve to catch up with, but now she can remain the same forever?

Sometimes, the past you only just missed seems more alien than the past that is far before you.
These were intriguing walls with an incredible energy in their representations of the found models. I left wishing there had been even more, but that is the wonderful thing about the House of Illustration, you leave wanting to investigate further, and I always leave wishing I could draw too.
Yet another reason I could never be a milliner.

The Jo Brocklehurst exhibition is HERE.

Book Shambles has reached its 50th Episode – check out back catalogue from Stewart Lee to Noel Fielding via Chris Hadfield and AL Kennedy, and front catalogue is being made right now. (also loads of other stuff on our Book Shambles site including behind the scenes on Brian Cox tour)

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“Pretending to be other people is my game” – on John Hurt

I can’t pinpoint when John Hurt became one of my teenage obsessions.
Was it when one the school bullies talked loudly about how he was so moved by The Elephant Man that he burst into tears?
Was it when I was allowed to stay over at Matthew Newman’s house to watch the first screening of Alien on ITV?
Maybe it sprung from a vanity when, for a few years in my life when I thinned down, someone commented that I looked “like a young John Hurt”. The John Hurt below.

It was probably The Elephant Man. Film magazines fetishised Christopher Tucker’s process of transforming John Hurt by printing numerous spreads of the painstaking process.

When I went to see the film, I probably expected a horror movie. I left wondering if I had seen a dream. It was as if someone had really taken us into the nineteenth century and, at the centre of it, an unrecognisable actor who, severely limited by latex, projected the humanity behind the disfigurement. As an audience, we were briefly awed by the make up, but soon moved from being sideshow freak voyeurs to troubled and empathetic spectators of the man, John Merrick.
I most recently watched the film on the day of an eclipse in a Leicester Holiday Inn. It has lost none of its power, it is a masterpiece with a genius at its centre. It is in the eyes. It is in the delicacy of the struggling voice. Almost every one of his spoken lines breaks your heart.

“I’m not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman”

Having understanding and compassion for outsiders is so much easier when we see it in a film.

I was told that when John Hurt returned from filming the underrated drama about the Rwandan genocide, Shooting Dogs, he got in a taxi at Heathrow and told them to go straight to Amnesty headquarters. He wanted to immediately volunteer to do whatever he could to help in situations of oppression. Apocryphal perhaps, but believable.

When I read 1984 again (and aren’t we all reading it again now?), it is John Hurt’s Winston Smith I see. With other adapted books, I can rid my self of the on screen version, but Hurt’s Smith does not leave me as I read. John Hurt is perfect as the haunted realist who cannot fall for the choco ration lies and briefly risks a dream, but is then tortured to betrayal. We watch and wish to imagine we would be more heroic, but Hurt makes us see that we may well found ourselves pushed onto the same path as Winston. Again, it is the yes. It is the voice.

He was the greatest actor at portraying the fragility of being human, sometimes broken, betrayed and weak, as with Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place, at others, struggling, but surviving by being splendid, as with both his portrayals of Quentin Crisp, “blinded by mascara and dumbstruck by lipstick”. Traditional Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with him, so he found himself in the rightly forgotten Ryan O Neal vehicle, Partners.

Hurt was also the funniest thing in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, reprising his role of Kane in Alien. Drinking at a bar, a creature bursts from his chest again, looking down at the mutilated cavity he mutters, “oh no, not again”.

The malevolent, gleeful evil of Caligula in I, Claudius, the sad beauty of Hazel in Watership Down, the creepy outback drunk with a fly crawling across his eyeball in The Proposition, I started to make a list and then I realised that you might as well just look down his IMDB entry, in almost every film he offers something remarkable, something that traverses the screen. Last week, at the Slapstick Festival, we watched the first banana scene from Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan, few eat a banana with quite such compelling necessity and ultimate doom.
And Old Man Peanut, in 44 Inch Chest, leaves you open-mouthed at this bravura channeling of a brutal Steptoe. I am glad a new generation, too young for most of his recent work, have been introduced to him as The War Doctor.

A friend told me of a party not so long ago where John Hurt demonstrated how acting worked. They sat back as he made a moving, stirring, enigmatic speech that captured all around the table without using any real words at all. Christ, I wish I’d seen that.

When John Hurt found out that Brian Cox’s tour was not coming to Norwich, he berated him and demanded he did. We planned on putting on a smaller version of the tour show at a Norwich theatre which would be titled Because John Hurt Told Us To, I hope we still do it. If John Hurt told you to do it, then you should.

I think I’ll work backwards from Tinker, Tailor now…

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles continues with latest guests including Noel Fielding, Alan Moore, Alice Lowe, Alice Roberts…HERE

I will be at Leicester Comedy Festival on 20th February and The Bill Murray Pub, London on 22nd February.

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