Godless

Supernatural deity Robin Ince has spoken. What he described as his “folly” (“it was meant to resemble the Royal Institute lectures, but ended up more like the Royal Vairety Show”) was made flesh on Thursday and Friday at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, where Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People and Nine Lesson and Carols for Godless People took place. The venue holds 500 people; he sold the Friday out, added the Thursday, which also sold out, forcing a third date on Sunday at the Hammersmith Apollo, by which time Ricky Gervais had been officially added to the sprawling bill of comics, non-comics, scientists, musicians and thinkers, and thus will attract a slightly different audience, I suspect. I was asked to appear on the bill for Thursday and Friday, but not Sunday, which is a blessing (if you’ll pardon the eclesiastical imagery), as I really don’t think I’m ready for Hammersmith, and would have got no sleep beforehand through nerves.

I was pretty nervous on Thursday – tired from overwork (ain’t it always the way the week before you promise to “wind down”?), gunning for flu with that tickly sore throat and filled with self-doubt. What the hell was I thinking agreeing to appear on a bill at a theatre? To do ten minutes on the secular nature of The Posedion Adventure? What if it was shit? What if I couldn’t do it in ten minutes? What if they hated me?

I have been granted a golden opportunity to dabble in a kind of non-stand-up stand-up this year, thanks to Robin’s unique patronage and encouragement. It’s all thanks to the catholic door policy (again, excuse the religion) of his School For Gifted Children nights, at which I’ve notched up five appearances this year, one at Battersea Arts Centre, one in Camden, and three at the School’s natural home, the Albany, each one less nervewracking than the one before. The idea is to talk about something you’re interested in, so I’ve talked about serial killers, disaster movies and the Mitford Sisters. It’s been an education, and a privilege to hang out backstage with the august likes of Stewart Lee, Dave Gorman, Will Hodgson, Josie Long, Jo Neary, Waen Shepherd and countless others, and then to see them in action at close range. I have also rubbed shoulders with scientists like Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, who gave interesting talks too. It’s not exactly the comedy-club bearpit of legend – the audience tend to be polite and partisan and interested to hear some stuff. They helped build my confidence as a would-be performer.

But the Bloomsbury? Because of the venue, Robin had lined up some even bigger names than usual, all given the same ten-minute ceiling, so as cram everything into three hours. Richard Dawkins – a God to the godless – gave a reading on both nights; Tim Minchin closed both shows; Robyn Hitchcock and Luke Haines played a song each; Martin White had assembled his orchestra, who played everybody on (I had Auld Lang Syne); Phill Jupitus and Mark Thomas played on Friday; my friend Richard Herring played on Thursday; also Natalie Haynes, Phil Jeays, Chris Addison, and alumni Singh, Goldacre, Neary, Long, Shepherd and Lee – plus the aforementioned Gervais, who did it as a favour for his friend Robin, and was the biggest name of all. He also did eight minutes.

Backstage was a gas. One big dressing room full of comedians and musicians and thinkers, lots of red wine, very little cold beer, some vanishing sandwiches, and running orders both up to date and out of date strewn everywhere to increase the tension. There were a lot of familiar faces, which helped relax me as I obessively read and re-read my notes. I was more nervous about overrunning than forgetting any of it. Because, on Thursday, the fabled red light to tell us when to wrap up either didn’t appear, or wasn’t noticed by anyone, everybody ran over, including our glorious leader, and because Natalie and I were on very late (at 9.50 and 10.00 respectively), we genuinely feared being bumped to make way for Tim. As it was, we picked up the pace after the interval, and because both Josie and Christina Martin came in at about four minutes each, we made it. From backstage and side-of-side, the evening felt like a conceptual and comedic success. Lots of educated, secular laughter at jokes about Ann Coulter, David Hume and the inaccuracy of Katie Melua’s lyrics. Because nobody was on for long, there wasn’t time for the audience to develop a dislike for anyone. It was great to see old pros like Mark Thomas and Phill Jupitus paring down their sets to eight minutes (Phill read out some poems, which was rather lovely). I have always loved being in the orbit of talented comedians, to soak up their skills, but only now am I doing so to try and improve my own.

I took the model of the SS Poseidon I made in woodwork in 1975 after seeing The Poseidon Adventure, onstage with me, as a prop and a security blanket, and this was a wise decision. It made me less nervous, and gave me my excuse not to take the mic off the stand, like comedians do. This is not a skill I have attempted yet. I’m better off standing in one spot. I believe the Friday night was filmed in its entirety by the godlike Go Faster Stripe, so who knows, you might be able to see it in the New Year. I hope so. It was tremendous to be part of it. Just another job of work for most of the professionals who took part, but an episode of Jim’ll Fix It for me.

Brian Logan reviewed the first night for the Guardian, and gave it three stars. He didn’t mention me, but did say that the second half was overloaded with “chaff”. Certainly, the interval was too early, making for a top-heavy second half, and that didn’t help.

An interesting year for me, all the same, topped off in spectacular fashion thanks to Robin Ince.

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