It was ‘early doors’ and stand-up comic/actor/performance poet/cartoonist/radio presenter/TV stalwart (perm any two from six there) Phill Jupitus was in Leeds, preparing to head to his next gig, 230 miles south in Tunbridge Wells. But he was at least set for a stopover at his Mum’s in Essex after his Kentish date.
I was going to ask if – like his friend Billy Bragg – he’d be taking the A road (the OK road that’s the best, remembering of course to turn off before Shoeburyness). But that seemed kind of obvious.
Phill, doing the rounds for his Juplicity show, was until recently based in Leigh-on-Sea, but home is Edinburgh these days. Was that move inspired by his many annual appearances at the city’s internationally-renowned festival?
“It’s just one of those things. My children have grown up and left home now and I’m at that point lots of parents get to in their lives, thinking about where they really want to be. You get to an age and time where the options broaden out, and I’ve always loved Scotland.”
It’s been a gradual move north of the border for Phill, whose daughters are now 27 and 24. Not as if he’s set to see too much of his family these next couple of months, you’d think. I made it more than 50 dates in all between South Molton’s George Hotel in early September and Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre three months later. Is it a case of ticking off engagements as he goes?
“No, there’s no point. Each gig is treated in isolation and the tour is a complete, evolving thing. And I like seeing the shape of the show change with each city. When you do stand-up, it’s about the energy of the room and the ability of the crew to adapt. When you’re travelling on your own, your ability to control your environment is less.
“It’s not like with Lee Evans, who takes his own people – sound, lighting and catering crews. His gigs – apart from the shape of the room – are identical every night, working with people doing all that for him. I start from ground zero every show, with a new crew to talk to and get things sorted out with, a new half a dozen people every day.”
Chorley Little Theatre is one such fine example, a voluntary-led venue I know fairly well (as featured here in January 2016), manned by volunteers. And he’s happy to return there.
“I’ve played there once for Ian (Robinson). There are a couple of theatres like that, such as in Richmond, North Yorkshire – the Georgian Theatre Royal – I did the other week, an absolutely extraordinary theatre run by volunteers – like Chorley.
“There’s a different energy in a room when it’s run as a labour of love, a different feeling about a place. There’s a very similar vibe at City Varieties, where I was last night, with real knowledge about the venue from the people there.
“Alan, their front of house, has been in that role since I first played there in 1998. I’ve been bumping into him nearly 20 years there. That’s something that grounds your experience – it’s not only you as a performer in the business so long, but the people at the venues too – like Ian at Chorley, Alan at the City Varieties, and the crew at the Georgian.”
You may think of Phill foremost for TV work, not least 19 years as a Never Mind The Buzzcocks team captain, plus regular appearances on further BBC 2 success QI, and Alan Davies’ As Yet Untitled for the Dave channel, plus a brief role in Mike Bassett: England Manager, small screen credits for Doctors and Holby City, and various voiceovers.
Then there are the BBC Radio 4 shows, such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth, and past presenting for the BBC’s GLR (1995/2000) in London and BBC 6 Music nationally (2002/07), the station’s first breakfast show host, as chronicled in 2009 memoir, Good Morning Nantwich.
But theatre work has loomed large for an entertainment giant who started out as Porky the Poet, and not just in stand-up, as those who saw his Bottom in the Bath Theatre Royal production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream will testify.
He’s appeared in touring productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (as Baron Bomburst and Lord Scrumptious) and The Producers (Franz Liebkind), both alongside fellow comic Jason Manford, and in Spamalot (King Arthur) too. Then there was Urinetown (Caldwell B. Cladwell) and Hairspray (Edna Turnblad) in London’s West End. So was drama ever considered a way of life when he chewed over options with his school careers officer?
“I always enjoyed it, and had a propensity for it, but it was never on the radar. That’s the thing, it’s very much drummed into you that the arts are somehow only a luxury. As proved time and again, they’re much more important than people give them credit for. Yet we live in a time where the arts have been downgraded possibly to the most minimal extent ever in my life.
“It’s weird talking about it in a global sense, but it’s that whole ‘Hollywood elite’ thing Trump keeps saying – people involved in the arts have a voice, and that’s why he doesn’t like them. The achievements of a society are not measured by its financial acumen, but the culture of a society, with the arts, literature, visual arts and theatre a part of that. And comedy – recently, the Arts Council finally agreed that comedians are artists too.”
In a parallel sense I know you got behind the campaign to save BBC 6 Music when it was up for closure due to funding cuts, something you passionately fought.
“Yeah, although that was more an accident, having a friend of a friend at The Guardian who knew I was no longer there and wanted my take on it as no one at the BBC was talking. Whenever there’s a leak like that, the BBC goes into an immediate shutdown. But as I wasn’t tied to the Corporation I could talk.”
I was thinking back to when I first saw you, and it was when you supported Billy Bragg at my old local hall, Guildford Civic.
“Oh right … that would have been March 1985.”
When I checked later I was impressed – Phill was spot on. But at the time I couldn’t confirm that as my computer had frozen, losing my prompt questions in the process. And his response?
“Well, don’t worry about that – improvisation will get you a long way!”
I had another pre-Buzzcocks memory of Phill, from my Captains Log music fanzine writing days in the late ‘80s, receiving a compliments’ slip with something shipped out from the Go! Discs label, signed by a certain ‘Porky’. I’m not quite sure where that ended up, I told him, but it must be around somewhere, having survived a couple of house moves over 30 years.
“Ah right. I’m a bit of a hoarder myself! But it’s odd looking back when you’ve done so many things. A guy at a gig the other night in Cambridge came up after the show, asking me to sign a copy of West Ham fanzine, Fortune’s Always Hiding, for whom I was cartoonist. I hadn’t seen one in 15 years.”
When Phill was at Go! Discs, the label’s roster included Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, and he went on to be the latter’s press officer and compere, also appearing in the 1986 promo video for Happy Hour. And while Phill left Go! Discs in 1989 to concentrate on the comedy circuit, there were many music-related dream moments still to come, not least directing Bragg’s Brits-nominated video, Sexuality, and Kirsty MacColl’s All I Ever Wanted in 1991. And later he appeared live with Madness at Wembley Arena, worked with Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads (for their 30th anniversary tour) and even The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (part of their 40th anniversary celebrations).
“If there was one area of the arts that had the most powerful magnet for me, that’s it. I’ve worked on the fringes but in quite an involved way, and via that got into all this – in at the deep end. As it was, I worked in the music business for five years and toured with six bands, sang and played in bands, appeared on albums.
“I think it’s something I didn’t do properly, but when I look back I did a lot. What I wish I’d done was write a proper album and have a band. I suppose the comedy suppresses that need to be in a band. You’re on stage in a similar sense, you’re just not playing songs.”
When Phill got involved with the Red Wedge musicians’ collective in the mid-‘80s, he said he did so 20% because he believed in the cause, 30% because he loved Billy Bragg, and 50% because he wanted to meet Paul Weller. Did it meet his expectations?
“It did. The ideology pulls you in, but having worked at close quarters with the day-to-day functioning of politics, you realise you need so much commitment. I also found that everyone who works for a political party has an agenda they’re pursuing. When people talk to you or interact with you, they’re looking at you not for your views, what you’re saying or your hopes and dreams, but how much you as a commodity will help their agenda.
“That’s why I don’t really get on with politics. There are so few people who do it with a good heart, and you have to interact with people where you’ve got to really tip-toe around them. It’s just exhausting.”
Then again, a public soundbite from someone in the public eye like yourself is perhaps worth more than from some hardened activist prepared to knock on 200 doors, isn’t it?
“Maybe that’s what they see. Again, that’s why the Labour Party climbed on board with Red Wedge, which was really just a very elaborate, glamorous, brilliant to listen to, leafletting service.”
Before your career properly took off, you worked for the Department of Health and Social Security for five years. Was it anything like Mick Jones’ experiences, as chronicled in The Clash’s Career Opportunities?
“Well, you did get memos about being aware of certain things, such as ‘Can you smell almonds?’ ‘Are there wires?’ ‘What’s the postmark’ …”
I didn’t mean the danger of opening letter-bombs so much as that feeling of being trapped in a job you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.
“Well, I used to sing that song, and you’d have seen that. Obviously that resonated with me, and I’d add a line live about the Youth Training Scheme, which the Government were pushing at the time. But you don’t really known until alternatives present themselves. If my life had taken a different path I could still be with the Civil Service, thinking about retiring now. You might not be talking to me.
“Life’s built on a sequence of such infinitesimal accidents. What if I’d not met Billy (Bragg)? What if I’d not gone to see Attila (the Stockbroker), Joolz (Denby) and Benjamin Zephaniah that day? What if I’d never seen John Cooper Clarke?”
While working at the DHSS, Phill was writing political poetry and drawing his cartoons, going on to leave the day-job in 1984 to concentrate on his big dreams, working alongside organisations such as Anti-Fascist Action, making a name on the ranting poetry scene, approaching bands, offering himself as a support act.
Subsequently, he toured all over, with the likes of The Style Council, Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, supporting Bragg once more on that Labour Party-backed Red Wedge tour in 1985, before getting a chance to help out at Go! Discs, which by then had the latter two acts on board. So, can he tell me more about the very first Porky the Poet performance?
“I think it was October 1983, at a pub on Portobello Road I can’t recall the name of. I was cartooning for that fanzine and happened to have my folder with me. I’d carry all my work around – doodles, cartoons and poems. Attila saw the poems, and said, ‘You’re going to perform these now. Go up before me and do those!’ That was it. For the first time ever, I stood up and performed them … because of Attila. And it was nice to reconnect with John (Baine, the past writewyattuk interviewee also known as Attila the Stockbroker) for the first time in a very long time this year at Edinburgh Festival.”
Skipping forward a dozen or so years, I guess when you took on Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 1996, you couldn’t have imagined it lasting so long.
“When I got that show I remember a comedian I worked with, Mickey Hutton, phoning, saying, ‘I’m so happy for you’ then telling me, ‘Here’s a word of advice from one friend to another.’ He told me, ‘It’s just a bit of telly – don’t think your life’s changed,’ and told me about a comedian he knew who got a TV show, went and bought a flash house and car, spent all the money in one go. Then the show didn’t get picked up again, and he was screwed.”
Phill’s ‘non-showy’ approach certainly came over in his spell as a presenter at GLR then 6 Music. And in Good Morning Nantwich he mentions the influence of ‘less is more’ late great broadcasting legend Sir Terry Wogan, and imagining you’re talking to a few mates rather than a vast, adoring nation.
“Yeah, and every evening I try to remove the showbiz from my stand-up. If you come along you’ll see for yourself the structure – I’m just Phill, not a brand. It’s very anti the normal structure of a stand-up gig.”
At the same time there must be moments when you get awe-struck by the company you keep, not least when you’re sat in the company of Graeme Garden or Stephen Fry, or in a lift with Terry Wogan.
(Please note, dear readers, that lots of name-dropping follows during the next couple of Jupi-quotes. Look away now if you feel you can’t handle that)
“Well, when you’re working with someone you idolise … and when I look back at people I’ve worked with and now count as friends – like Graeme (Garden), Weller, Billy, Kirsty was a mate, Jo Brand, Alan Davies …
“Eddie Izzard too, one of the reasons I started doing stand-up again. After Hairspray, I felt maybe I was more cut out for something like musicals. Then one day I was in a Waitrose car park, the phone went and it read ‘Eddie’. I assumed he’d pocket-dialled me, but then he asked (cue a rather accurate Izzard impersonation), ‘What’s this I hear about you giving up stand-up?’ I told him I was thinking about it and he proceeded to berate me about why I shouldn’t.
“Within a couple of months I was interviewing Chris Rock for the Paramount channel and said I really missed stand-up, and he said, ‘You do realise it’s what you really do, don’t you? Rather than all the stuff you do around it, telly and radio. You should do it again’. Then I had a chat with Stewart Lee and told him if I did it again I wouldn’t know where to start. And he said, ‘Book a room for the Edinburgh Festival, then you’ll write a show. Trust me.’
“That was it. I committed to Edinburgh that year, eight or nine years ago now, for Stand Down. I realised that’s what I do, but you need to step away from stand-up to see things differently. I like to go away and do other things, and focusing on Buzzcocks was no bad thing – it doesn’t demand much of you other than your own speed of thought and energy.”
Isn’t that what stand-up comedy is anyway?
“Well, it’s like being out at a dinner for me, being at a dinner party where you’ve got two mates and you meet three new people – that’s what Buzzcocks was like.”
As music’s played an important part in Phill’s story, I reprise the question I asked fellow ex-Buzzcocks regular, Noel Fielding two years ago. If he could go back in time and appear with one band above all others, who would he choose?
“The thing is … I’ve already done that! Go on to YouTube, type in ‘Jupitus Madness TFI Friday’ and you can see me. And there’s something about being up there with a band – be it with Weller, Costello, Billy, sharing a microphone with Kirsty MacColl, or singing Drop Down Dead on the last Housemartins tour.”
Seeing as you mentioned Billy again, I’ve a complaint – I can’t hear the wonderful Sexuality now without thinking of your spoof version, Bestiality.
“Ah, now someone told me the other day they were at a gig where Billy did my version for a laugh … and after I first did it for him, when he played Sexuality live he’d often get the words wrong, sing mine instead. The audience are often a little bemused, especially if he’s on tour in America, as he sings, ‘I look like Johnny Morris, I love a penguin and her name is Doris.’
Phill Jupitus’ Chorley Little Theatre show is sold out, but you can book for Saturday, November 11 at Southport’s The Atkinson (8pm, £15 plus booking fee, 01704 533 333), with details here.
Footnote: a few days after speaking to Phill, news broke about the passing of his friend and fellow ex-Never Mind the Buzzcocks captain Sean Hughes, aged just 51. I had the pleasure of seeing Sean live at Preston Guild Hall in 1994, also regularly catching his shows on GLR and BBC 6 Music during the same era Phill was there. This feature is dedicated to his memory.