Taking art and science into insanity – the Robin Ince interview

Monkey Puzzle: Incidentally, it’s BBC Radio 4 asking this question, not me (Photo: Richard Ansett / BBC)

Robin Ince, described on his website as ‘comedian, writer and that sort of thing’, was on his way to the Tate Modern for a meeting ‘about an idea’. He wasn’t letting on what, but added, “My life is filled with strange opportunities, very few of them in any way financially viable, but artistically interesting.”

He was between ‘kind of events’ at the time, one for a philosophy organisation that evening, then a Gerald Scarfe art launch the following day, back into what he labelled the ’home is an occasional attic’ scene. To tell the truth, the mobile reception wasn’t great, he may actually have said ‘acid’. After all, the acid house scene was better publicised. Rave on.

When he is home, it’s in Berkhamsted, a Hertfordshire market town ‘best known for being where Graham Greene’s father was a headteacher’, apparently ‘its alibi for having a festival’. He enlarges upon this, telling me, ‘these days every town has to have a festival’ and ‘imminently, the Graham Greene Festival will be rearing its head, the festival of Catholic guilt and Russian roulette’.

Whether you’ll find him there is another matter. He gets around, here and overseas, mostly doing radio shows – BBC Radio 4 and BBC 6 Music primarily – and live shows, be they with Professor Brian Cox or other comics, such as his friends Josie Long and Michael Legge, or on his own. For instance, last I heard he had an engagement at the National Botanic Garden in Carmarthenshire.

“I take part in a festival in Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas had his boathouse, and one year was asked along to help attract more people there. It’s a lovely place and appeared in Dr Who (The Waters of Mars, David Tennant era). We put on a mixture of science, comedy and mucking around, with various forestry experts and particle physicists – the normal way variety is nowadays. And it’s nice doing a gig where now and again you can go into a hothouse to see what grows in Western Australia, before stepping back into the rain.”

Sounds like perfect research for a comedian due back Down Under with Brian Cox – on the back of a 70-date record-breaking northern hemisphere tour that concluded at Wembley Arena – in November?

“We are! I was out there touring with my mate Josie Long in April and this time I’m with Brian, and I think I’m back in February for the Global Atheist Convention, with Salman Rushdie and various others. I’m very lucky like that. At the beginning of January I’m off to Canada to do some stuff with an astronaut, then I’m off to Oslo to fall on my arse continuously, because in January in Oslo the ice is packed and as we know, British people’s ability on ice is very fawn-like.”

Your namesake Robin Cousins might disagree, but you’re probably right.

“Well, there are blokes who are classically trained in their ability, but many of us genetically have not been made for this.”

Tour Mates: Robin Ince, Professor Brian Cox, and an infinite monkey, yesterday

If you’ve somehow missed out on Robin Ince so far, it’s worth mentioning a few awards that have come his way in recent years, including a Sony Gold and Rose d’Or for BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, a Time Out outstanding contribution to comedy, a Francis Crick science journalism award, and three Chortle awards. Yep – comedy with extra lashings of art, philosophy and science. Hardly Little and Large. But whether it’s with Brian Cox, his other comedy stage-mates or as a solo act, he’s trodden the boards many times these last couple of decades. Incidentally, how do Brian Cox and Josie Long compare as stage entities?

“Well, I don’t have to interrupt Josie because I think the audience are no longer understanding her. That’s one of the things. There’s Josie, my friend Michael Legge, and Brian, and that strange mix where I have a very solitary performing and creating system, but also various different adventures, impromptu double acts. You don’t even realise they’re double acts until others tell you. People talk about the relationship Brian and me have, but it’s something I’ve not really thought about.

“As long as all of you have your ego under control, it seems to me it’s down to naturalism. It’s the antithesis of the Mick Fleetwood/Samantha Fox Brits relationship, or any award ceremony where Tom Selleck would come on with Heather Locklear and compliment each other. As long as you can get away with impromptu and you’re united by different fascinations – artistic or political. Brian’s far smarter than me, but we’re united by certain kinds of philosophical ideas about how the earth should be.”

Do you ever forget where you are and who you’re with, maybe asking Josie about atom particles by mistake?

“I do that all the time, but very consciously! And she was in a lovely show, All of the Planet’s Wonders, on Radio 4. I think that’s what unites all the people I work with – they’re fascinated by a lot of stuff. Brian is to some extent limited to particle physics and show tunes – he loves a show tune – but Michael, Josie and me have no level of expertise and no expectations of being able to change the world, so can dabble in whatever we want.”

Ever tried to work out how many miles you clock up a year through live shows?

“I haven’t, but a few years ago I started to see new stand-ups knowing exactly how many gigs they’ve done. The year before last was probably the most extreme in terms of American and Australian tours, and with Brian doing the Arena tour and European and Scandinavian legs. I was in a hotel the other day thinking I hadn’t toured for ages … then realized, ‘Oh, apart from the beginning of September last year through to the Edinburgh Festival.

No Expectations: I’m not convinced Robin Ince and Josie Long attended the same photo-shoot for this publicity image, but what the hell.

“I had to fill in a form for a visa today and was asked who my employer was. I said, ‘I’ve never really been employed’. I’ve been self-employed since ’93. I’m constantly employed, but don’t know what I’ve done. There’s a moment of blankness, then you explain that you’re working every day of the year. Years ago, to be self-employed – especially in my world – was seen as very precarious. But the rest of the employment world now is so precarious that being a show-off for a living appears to almost be a very pragmatic choice. What do you do? ‘I dick around for a living’. ‘Well, that sounds a very secure job’.”

Was there ever a ‘proper’ job?

“I briefly worked in a children’s bookshop in Kensington. That’s it really. I’d just left uni, saw an ad, but I’d already started toying around with stand-up, knowing that was what I wanted to do. If I compared my expectations in 1992 to what I’ve actually done … I probably just wanted to be famous.”

You were in a band then, weren’t you?

“That’s right, but not everything it says on Wikipedia is entirely true. You presume there’s some path that’s best – needing to do crappy television and all these different things. Then you realise that arsing around, making the things you want to, is possibly the best way. In fact, the very thing that led to The Infinite Monkey Cage was a series of ideas that led people to ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I just felt it would be fun and interesting. Certain things I’ve done, like doing a musical with Su Pollard and Ted Rogers, or working with a bluegrass epi-geneticist and Alexei Sayle, have been seen as very strange career choices.”

Now there’s your Pragmatic Insanity tour, which I’m guessing isn’t just some take on the old office maxim, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’. Your press release mentions the show being about ‘a clash of two cultures, a joyous romp through favourite artists and strangest scientific ideas, 90 minutes fizzing with ideas about creativity in science and art.’ Tell us more.

“It partly came out of a great line by Philip K. Dick, echoed by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, that ‘It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane’. But it’s become two shows, one in each half, one about art, approaching it in the same way I have science – not to be fearful of whether you have the correct reaction or know the correct terminology. So I’ll look at art by Georgia O’Keeffe, Stanley Spencer, all manner of strange pieces of contemporary art, with stories of going around galleries.

“The other half involves a certain amount of politics and a look at the nature of hypocrisy, because one of the hardest things in the world of social media is that people are shut down so quickly after doing one thing wrong. I’ll also look at certain ideas of physics, and probably talk a bit about death. And the two shows do mix.

“I’ll probably start talking about art and the two years I was off doing scientific endeavours, involved in psychology and meeting psychotherapists, trying to learn more about the mind. And some will be about political experiences and how in stand-up it’s easy to be hypocritical – how you say you stand for something then you’re offered money to do something contradictory, and have to work out an alibi for why you’re suddenly advertising Strawberry Chews on Channel 4. Or indeed why it was so easy to turn down a show I was offered that would have involved working with Katie Hopkins. So I’ll have moments when I declare my heroism and others when I declare my villainy as well.”

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince mentally checks his itinerary, trying to recall if he’s flying out from Heathrow with Professor Brian Cox later that day.

You mention Stanley Spencer, known foremost for paintings of Biblical scenes transported to rural Berkshire. Having done so many years on the road, full-on at times, have you found many examples of heaven on earth?

“One of my favourites is a very simple one – Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, which almost seems to be teetering under its three-storey weight of second-hand books. I find it in many places, such as looking out of the window on a beautiful piece of railway on the way from Swansea to Carmarthen, or between Exeter and Newton Abbot, sat in a tea shop having a piece of cake with my new Oxfam purchases, and in conversations you end up having.

“You see the horror and see the delight of it all the time. Immediately after Brexit, I found myself in certain towns where there seemed to be a little extra level of violence and violent thinking, overhearing conversations. Luckily, because I travel around a lot I actually meet people who aren’t an avatar and have fleshy faces and can conduct conversations beyond 140 characters, and that helps dilute some of the unhelpful illusions we get between the current political divisions. But I also get to see towns that are just made of chipboard and are really struggling.

“I also get quite a broad audience. People always imagine a Radio 4 audience – who have just taken off their Marigolds and mowed their croquet lawns – but I get a lot of teenagers and a few elderly people, a lot of people who go back to that generation that built workers’ libraries in the towns they lived in. And when I was doing my art show in Edinburgh every afternoon someone else would come up with a different story of something they’d seen or someone they knew. That’s part of the delight of it. And working on the scale I work on, fortunately I like most of my audience. I’m never going to be playing the arenas – unless I’m there interrupting Brian Cox – it’s always going to be about the theatre sizes I play to now. I can’t imagine getting any bigger, nor do I want to.”

Was there a lightbulb moment one day when you thought, ‘I know what hasn’t been done before – you never hear Peter Kay talk about quantum theory’. Or did things just naturally gravitate to this format?

“I notice a lot of rather cynical television, and think audiences and human beings generally are constantly underestimated for their ability to understand and approach creative ideas. The National Gardens of Wales gig was a good example, with a very broad audience and people from lots of different backgrounds. And what they wanted to talk about and ask was so broad, and they had such an interest.

“One of the weapons politicians have is to try and persuade people they haven’t got the intellect. I’ve done shows where I’m told not to use certain words because of this horrible idea that ‘our audience’ wouldn’t go for it. I was told that at one science show and told them that two days earlier I played Reading Festival, in a tent with 4,000 drunk students, talking about evolution and quantum theory and dicking around with other stories. And these people have minds that are a lot more open.”

Talking of contrasting styles and deliveries, when you’re at Southport Little Theatre for the town’s comedy festival, Jason Byrne will be performing at the nearby Ramada Plaza. The local comedy fraternity seem spoiled for choice. I’m guessing the advice is to get along and see him the following night instead.

Close Quarters: Robin Ince gets up close and personal with Michael Legge

“Oh, definitely. Count me as his warm-up act and as the one who’s had the correct medicine that will mean you get the full benefit of seeing Jason. I love Southport. It’s so interesting. I first went there to go to the Lawnmower Museum, doing a piece for Richard and Judy, many years ago. I think those sort of seaside towns have an interesting history when you scrape the surface a little.”

That took us on to Barometer World, somewhere myself and a mate always said we should visit, which Robin reminded me was in Okehampton. Consequently, I asked its relative merits.

“Um … it’s no Pencil Museum”

Now I do know that’s in the Lake District.

“Yeah, and I love all those. Sometimes you think they could be just too specialised, but then you find out when they deal with the minutiae it can become quite enthralling.”

I see that argument, but am painfully reminded of a time in the early ‘90s when I visited the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, feeling self-conscious as my better half and I were the only visitors … and she wasn’t a L&H fan.

“Well, I can’t see how that relationship’s lasted more than 20-odd years. Laurel and Hardy for me would be a make or break deal. Actually, my wife’s also not keen on Laurel and Hardy, and I don’t understand that. When I do things like the Slapstick Festival in Bristol I get the chance to see them projected on to a big screen at Colston Hall. And if it’s good enough for Kurt Vonnegut, it’s good enough for me.”

At this point, Robin’s off on one, quoting lines from County Hospital, but soon we veer on to music and gigs we might both have attended when I was in Surrey and he was attending Royal Holloway College, Egham, taking in The House of Love, Lush, Fields of the Nephilim, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and The Cropdusters in no time at all. So what was Robin’s band, The Reg, like?

Six Appeal: BBC 6 Music presenter Steve Lamacq leans on Robin Ince for a little psychological profiling

“They were quite ‘now’. It was around the time of Bleach, the first Nirvana album, but we’d split up by the time of Nevermind. We’d do Adam and the Ants’ Never Trust a Man (With Egg on His Face) and a raucous version of (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)

Sounds like you may have been cheated out of world fame.

“Oh no. One now works in the city, and another’s in the financial industry in Australia. I bumped into him in Brisbane. I kind of joined late and left early, and think that was best for us all, artistically. I wasn’t cut out to be the front-man of a band.”

Weren’t you supposed to be giving this stand-up malarkey up a couple of years ago?

“I did stop and did very well, but then Brian asked if I wanted to come on tour and thought that would be a laugh. Then I thought I might as well go back to it. There was a point where I realised that as much I loved doing stand-up, I just wasn’t enjoying it, although I’d just toured America and Australia. If you can’t be happy when you get a chance to go to LA and have dinner with Steve Martin, something’s not quite right and you should go and sit in Berkhamsted for a while and think about what you’ve done.”

A good place to contemplate, no doubt. For one thing, I gather they have a Graham Greene Festival.

“That’s the thing. It’s got a canal, a castle, herons, and an art deco cinema.”

Did you say ‘herons’, or is it this phone line again?

“Definitely herons. And it’s lovely to see a heron when you’re coming out of the train station at one in the morning on the way back from a gig.”

Rather than via BBC Radio 4, my route towards the curious world of Robin Ince came via Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6 Music show, hearing your psychological profiling of listeners.

“Steve and me would see each other at places like Reading Festival and decided to come up with an idea. It’s been six years now. It’s not quite as regular as it was, as I’m away a bit and Steve has occasional celebrations of disco or whatever. And I’m not really disco enough.”

Old Dutch: Barry Foster as Van Der Valk, an early influence on Robin Ince, sort of.

With that radio feature in mind, what was the first song you remember hearing?

“It would probably be something like Eye Level. My Mum was a huge fan of the Van der Valk theme tune.”

Ah, the Simon Park Orchestra.

“Yeah, and there was a vocal version by … what’s he called, who did Amarillo?

Tony Christie? Actually it was Matt Monro, called And She Smiled, but I only sussed that out after looking it up later. Honest. I do recall a rather inspired advert for Oranjeboom lager using that tune though. Anyway, moving on, how about a song that’s never off your mp3 player?

“It would be a Nick Cave song. The last thing I listened to was Red Right Hand. Generally it’s a mix of Nick Cave and Savages … but it was not Morrissey’s new single.”

Fair enough. Finally, your next book, Erm … I’m a Joke…and So Are You, sounds like it could have been a Morrissey single. Is that title the best way to lure readers?

“I suppose not, but hopefully the fact that I accuse myself first, then merely make them complicit … Actually I’m finishing that now, as the Infinite Monkey Cage book is about to come out.”

Is that How to Build a Universe – An Infinite Monkey Cage Annual, your ‘celebration of the great and the good of British science’.

“Yeah, I’m now doing the final version of I’m a Joke … then it’s back to the psychotherapist for me.”

For all the latest from Robin Ince, including forthcoming live dates, radio show details, his books and links to his blog, head to http://robinince.com/

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince catches up on his reading, ahead of his latest live dates.

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince catches up on his reading, ahead of his latest live dates.

This year’s Southport Comedy Festival is billed as the ‘biggest and best yet’, extended to 18 days and involving more TV names, more venues and more events. It includes the return of the festival’s somewhat unique comedy pub crawls and its Children’s Comedy Festival, plus a star-studded line-up.

As well as Robin Ince, there are new shows from Paul Sinha from ITV’s The Chase, Jo Caulfield, Rich Hall, Gary Delaney, Jason Byrne (with an interview right here), Tom Binns (aka Ivan Brackenbury), Tom Stade, Patrick Monahan, Andy Askins, Mike Gunn and Britain’s Got Talent finalist, Daliso Chaponda. There’s also something of a scoop as long-time friend of the festival, Jason Manford, plays – like Jason Byrne – two nights, closing the festival with a ‘work in progress’ show as he prepares for a 2018 national tour.

From shows in restaurants (meals included) to those in marquees, comedy workshops, comedy bingo, family and children’s events, there’s plenty to savour, also including the Nando’s New Comedian of the Year heats and grand final. And many good causes benefit, the organisers raising money for Community Link Foundation, When You Wish Upon a Star, Friends of Bridge Inn and Duchenne UK. For full line-ups, more details and tickets visit the Southport Comedy Festival website and follow the action via  Facebook  and  Twitter.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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