Driving Home from Christmas

Well that’s it. Christmas is done. I went home to my parent’s house in Blackpool for 5 days and now I’m home again. It’s been a bit of a funny festive season for me this year; I just haven’t felt very, well, Christmassy. And even Christmas Day didn’t feel very much like Christmas. I think it’s partly because I’m at university and not working so I didn’t have any of the usual decorations in the office, secret Santa and getting far to drunk on a Christmas night out that I usually have. Added to that, because I was in London for 9 days and then only home for 3 before I went to Blackpool I didn’t bother putting up decorations in my flat – I’ve just got some Christmas cards up and that doesn’t provide much of an atmosphere.

When I got to my parents’ on Wednesday the tree was up and the lights in the porch just like every year but still that Christmas excitement didn’t hit me…maybe this is what being a grown up is all about? My brother and his wife turned up on Christmas Eve and we all went round to some friends of my parents (my godmother and her husband), their kids were home for Christmas too with associated spouses, aunties, uncles and cousins. It was actually really good fun. My Auntie Lesley (godmother; not real auntie) clearly knows us well, because after a lovely buffet of salmon, baked potatoes and various other stuff, she got out the Duplo for us to play with! It was much fun – we made a train track, and then did what you should do with any kind of Lego; see how tall a tower you can build!

After the Duplo fun, me and my brother instigated a game of No More Women, a game created by Mark Watson, Tim Key and Alex Horne for the BBC Comedy blog. I had been trying to get Mark to play it with me for ages and he never would but it went down really well. I recommend you play it with all your friends – at your New Year party perhaps. 

I have a bit of a tradition of being so hungover on Christmas Day that I can’t drink, and my Christmas dinner is usually a bit of a struggle. I didn’t want to let myself down this year, so despite being pleasantly tipsy when we got home from the festivities I decided I should drink another whole bottle of wine. I think I have a bit of a problem with booze…I can go weeks without drinking with no problem at all but when I do drink I just don’t seem to know where the off switch is. I’m not one of these people who can say ‘well, that’s it, I’ve had enough now’. I just carry on until I fall asleep. I did manage to make it to my bed though so that’s always a bonus.

We got up fairly late on Christmas morning and did the present thing (accompanied by fresh baked croissants which were lovely). I didn’t get much, because I hadn’t asked for (or given) much this year, what with not having a job and being a poor student. I did get a slow cooker, which I’d asked for and which surely is something only a middle aged person would want (there goes that being a grown up again). I also got Tim Key’s book, signed no less, which you can get from The Invisible Dot and which I would thoroughly recommend for plenty of giggles. I’d love to get inside Tim Key’s mind, Being John Malcovich style, just to see if he really thinks in such an abstract fashion all the time.

The theme of this Christmas being a bit odd continued on Christmas Day. My brother’s wife, Becca, was with us (they have spent alternate year’s with us and Becca’s parents for the last few years) and as much as Becca is like one of the family now it’s always a bit odd having someone new there when until fairly recently Christmas Day has always been exactly the same in our family. My parents have lived in the same house since I was five so even that has never changed. This year was then doubly odd because for the first time since I can remember we didn’t have at least one grandma present. My Mum’s Mum always used to come for Christmas until she died at the grand old age of 94 about five years ago. For a few years before my Grandma died, and in the years since, my Dad’s Mum has come for Christmas dinner along with my Iranian step-Grandad who is like an Iranian version of Frank Butcher…he’s a Catholic who hasn’t been to Iran for 48 years but still has a really strong accent, and wears enormous sovereign rings. Oh and he has about three stories which he tells every year, one of which involves meeting one of The Supremes (not Diana Ross) at a wedding. Anyway, this year my Grandma and step-Grandad decided they were going to Spain for Christmas. As it turned out they never made it there because of the snow but they went to their neighbours house for Christmas dinner instead. Which made for a very relaxed Christmas day in the Williamson house – with no-one on Grandma entertainment duty we could all just do our own thing. Lovely, but somehow it still didn’t feel like Christmas. 

I did have a traditional afternoon snooze while watching a film, and we watched Dr Who. My brother and Dad were rather excited about this event. I, on the other hand, haven’t watched any of the new Dr Who (apart from the Christmas special that Kylie was in a few years ago). I know I should, I hear it’s very good and I was named after one of Dr Who’s companions after all but it’s just one of those things I’ve never got round to watching and the more I didn’t watch the less motivation I had to watch. Michael Legge, if you are reading this, I’m sorry – I hope this won’t affect my podphile status? Anyway, I quite liked Dr Who, even though I had no idea what was going on. I may well even watch the second part on New Year’s Day.

Christmas Day concluded with a game of Trivial Pursuit. It didn’t even last that long. I nearly won too – me and Mark both had all our pie pieces (or cheeses, or wedges, or whatever you call them in your family) but he made it to the centre and got a question right before me. Bastard.

On Boxing Day we went for a traditional walk along the sea front in Lytham (the posh bit South of Blackpool). Lots of people had the same idea, it was nice but cold and did it’s job of blowing away some cobwebs. As you can see, it was a really clear day and we could see all the way to Southport which was pretty cool.

Boxing Day evening saw us in the pub with some of Mark’s friends (who I have know as long as he has, which almost makes them my friends too). I was delighted to discover the pubs we went to sold my new favourite drink; Kopperberg Mixed Fruits. It tastes just like apple & blackcurrant cordial made with lemonade instead of water. Booze that tastes like juice always wins in my book.

And today I drove home. It was cold and slow, and there’s still quite a lot of snow up here. But I made it. So that’s it. Without it ever really feeling like Christmas, it’s over. Tomorrow I really have to do lots of work on my assignment for university which I have pretty much failed to do any of up to now. And seeing as I’m going to London again on Wednesday (for one night only of London Comedy Improv) I really should get a move on. If only essay writing was as easy as blog writing. But then my blogs are full of crap – and I don’t think that will get me a pass somehow.

Godless Christmas (Take Two)

On Saturday 19th December I went to the fifth and last of Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows at the Bloomsbury theatre. (Although there was another show on the 20th at the Hammersmith Apollo). I had met up with Linzy, Shell, Kate, Simone and another Sarah for some dinner and with an exchange of cards and gifts, and tiny crackers with pictures of puppies wearing Santa hats on them,  it was the most Christmassy I’d felt so far this festive season. We made our way in the freezing cold over to the Bloomsbury and took up our front row seats. I was really looking forward to the show despite having seen it 4 days earlier. There were some different acts on the bill (no Johnny Ball this time!) and still plenty to get excited about.

After another introduction from curator and compere Robin Ince (and another musical intro from Martin White’s wonderful Mystery Fax Machine Brass Band) the first act took to the stage. None other than the closest thing many atheists have to a messiah, Richard Dawkins himself! Dawkins gave us a continuation of the Jeeves & Wooster pastiche which is his contribution to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, the recently published book edited by Ariane Sherine (the woman behind this year’s Atheist Bus Campaign). It was slightly odd if I’m honest but mildly amusing and Dawkins has one of those voices that you could listen to forever, and I’m glad I got to see the man himself in flesh.

Next up was Richard Herring, who did the same set as Tuesday night but was still very funny. His childhood stories are even funnier with repetition and reminded me of the stories I wrote as a child (I still have my ‘Work Sample’ book from primary school in which I had to do a piece writing and some sums at the end of every school year… it contains gems such as ‘The U.F.O’ (1987), ‘The Ghostly People’ (1988) and ‘Lost in the desert’ (1989)). After Herring I’ve lost track of the order the acts came in but there was more from Chris Addison (again the same set as Tuesday but his T-Rex impression never fails to be hilarious), Jo Neary (as Pan’s Person) once again gave us her interpretive dance to Cat Stevens’ ‘Moonshadow’ which was just as funny even when I knew what what was coming. We also had Robyn Hitchcock again. He played one of the same songs as on Tuesday with some great accompaniment from the MFMO. He then got some of the other performers up on the stage (including Barry Cryer, Ronnie Golden, Jo Neary, Gavin Osborn and Jimbob from Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine!) to join him in a rendition of his song Olé Tarantula, made even more hilarious by Robyn giving instructions to his impromptu backing singers (and the band) between each section. I really enjoyed Robyn’s set this time round, it seemed a lot more fun and in keeping with the rest of the evening than it had on Tuesday. We also had the BHA Choir again, with what looked like a few additional members this time, and another delightful version of Tom Lehrer’s Christmas Carol.

In addition to these we were also treated to some acts that I hadn’t seen on Tuesday – a high tempo and very enjoyable song from Philip Jeays (although I can’t remember what it was about!), science writer Marcus Chown gave us his own, very entertaining, science awards for those who have never been recognised to the extent he believes they should have been by mainstream science, and finally, truly awe-inspiring stuff on particle physics and the creation of the universe from physicist (and former keyboard player with pop band D-Ream) Professor Brian Cox. Brian is currently working at CERN with the Large Hadron Collider and although I didn’t entirely understand everything he was saying he has a great way of grabbing the attention of the audience and making what he is saying accessible to everyone.

The first half was rounded off by Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden with another outstanding performance of their song Peace and Quiet and they were once again joined by a variety of backing singers and the Mystery Fax Machine Brass Band.

Mr Ince continued his excellent wrangling skills into the second half which began with a brilliant song called Angel Strike from Jim Bob (of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine fame) all about (unsurprisingly) what would happen if the angels went on strike. I have to give special mention to Martin White at this point because the accompaniment once again was outstanding and just shows Martin’s talent in arranging orchestration to other people’s songs. There was more from the MFMO later in the second half with the ace song Thank You For Not Discussing The Outside World. Also returning from Tuesday’s show were Simon Singh with his Bible Code stuff,  Josie Long and her What do ghosts eat? cracker-joke based set, John Otway with his Bunsen Burner song, and Baba Brinkman with the excellent Rap Guide to Evolution. We also saw the return of Ben Goldacre, once again speaking faster than I have ever heard a man speak, but this time with fascinating stuff on the power of the ‘nocebo effect’ whereby people in trials experienced side effects even when taking a placebo and that people who were given a muscle relaxant but told it was a stimulant showed the same effects you would expect to see had they actually been given a stimulant! You can read more about the study here. 

One of the new acts for the second half was Howard Read (Big Howard) and his cartoon sidekick Little Howard. The Howards, both Big and Little are the stars of a show on CBBC but the act they gave us certainly wasn’t suitable for the kids. I’d never seen or heard of the Howards before but I found their act (involving an invisible duck called Lenny and a made up invisible bear) to be very funny and one of the many highlights of the evening. 

Another comedian who I hadn’t seen before was, star of Peep Show; Isy Suttie who joined the ranks of guitar players on the bill with her very funny (and remarkably well sung) song about how there are plenty of cunts in the countryside. It was just a shame that there was only time for her to do one song. Lastly (although he didn’t appear last) we had Gavin Osborn, the man I had been very disappointed not to see on Tuesday. Despite talking about a new song he had written about William Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley for the occasion, in his backstage interview with New Humanist magazine, Gavin actually performed his song Glow in the Park (about sex and the stars) which I had seen before in Edinburgh. Although I would have liked to have seen the new song, I was still very happy because the song we heard is played on ukulele and when I saw it in Edinburgh it was before my own uke playing adventures began, so this time it had a whole new dimension as I tried to work out the chords Gavin was playing.

So there you have it – another wonderfully entertaining evening courtesy of the tireless work of Robin Ince. I was disappointed to miss the Hammersmith show but apparently it’s going to be on BBC4 in the new year so keep your eyes peeled for that. You can also see all the backstage interviews on the New Humanist YouTube channel

Nine Lessons and Carols For Godless People (or Johnny Ball in climate change denial shocker)

Last night was the first in a five night, sell-out run of Robin Ince’s ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People’ at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Robin ran three of these nights last year which were billed by The Times as ‘(a) unique mix of variety night and Royal Institution Christmas Lectures’. Along with the Rationalist Association, Robin gathers together comedians, musicians, scientists and even a choir to provide an evening of entertainment and education in celebration of a rational Christmas for a secular audience. 

Mr Ince takes on the brave task of trying to wrangle an enormous number of acts on and off the stage and keep the show running to a reasonable length. At the last count there were 18 acts last night, most of whom did pretty well at keeping to their allotted time on stage (and one in particular who didn’t, but more of that later). 

After an introduction from Robin the first act on stage was one of my favourite comedians of the moment, bouncy as ever, Chris Addison. I’m struggling to remember what Chris talked about, other than some very funny dinosaur impressions and from somebody’s comment on Twitter it was material he had used at a similar evening in June but it was new to me and a great start to the evening. I should add that Martin White and his six piece Mystery Fax Machine Brass Band (a reduced version of the usual Orchestra) were on stage throughout the show and provided entrance and exit music for all the acts as well as musical accompaniment on a number of occasions, and a song of their own somewhere in the show.

Next up was science writer Simon Singh who, as I’m sure you are all aware, is currently be sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association and is at the centre of the campaign for libel reform in the UK. By the way, if you haven’t already signed the petition you should do it right now at http://www.libelreform.org/sign. Apart from a brief plug for the campaign Simon didn’t talk about his current wranglings with the law, instead he gave us a fun and interesting set about ‘the Bible Code’ and finding hidden messages predicting the future in the bible – or in fact, due to the laws of probability, anywhere you care to look!

Iranian Shappi Khorsandi was next to take the stage and despite professing to know nothing about science she did manage to crowbar some jokes about her heritage and DNA into her set. Shappi was followed by pyschologist Richard Wiseman who did some stuff on magic and pyschology, some of which I had seen at Robin’s science show ‘Carl Sagan is my god…oh and Richard Feyman too’ in Edinburgh, but which was still entertaining nontheless.

After Wiseman we had music from Robyn Hitchcock, interpretive dance from Jo Neary (which was hilarious!), more music from the excellent British Humanist Association choir, all interspersed with more from Robin Ince (who told his only physics joke – which I reckon I’ve heard nearly every time I’ve seen Robin but which still makes me laugh). The first half finished with John Otway (who I also saw at the same science show in Edinburgh) with a rousing rendition of his ‘Top 10’ hit song Bunsen Burner, accompanied by the MFMBB and with (unrehearsed) backing from the BCA choir.

To this point the show was going pretty much as expected with minimal chaos despite the number of acts and entertaining and informative sets all round. It was only later in the second half that things took a turn for the slightly surreal…but I’ll get to that shortly.

Due to what came later, I’m struggling to remember the order of the acts in the second half but there was definitely, at some point in the proceedings; a very funny set from Richard Herring in which he mostly just read out his childhood stories (which I had already heard on the Collings & Herrin podcast but which were still very funny), an endearing set based on one cracker joke from Josie Long which provided plenty of giggles, The Rap Guide to Evolution from Canadian Baba Brinkman (another thing I had seen in Edinburgh but was definitely worth seeing again), and seven minutes on the ‘MMR hoax’ from a somewhat distracted Ben Goldacre who should have been at home revising for an exam he had today!

Next came the man that we had, arguably, all been waiting for – childhood hero of many a science nerd, Johnny Ball. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with Ball before we even got to the climate change stuff. He had a few outdated gags and didn’t really seem to be saying much of anything…more embarassing Dad at a teenager’s party than the enthusiastic populariser of science and maths that I remember. Things looked up when Johnny launched into his George Formby style song on John Dalton’s atomic theory complete with visual aid. But then came the, already much commented on, rant on climate change. According to Ball, with some bizarre stats about how for each person in the theatre there are insects weighing the equivalent of seven African elephants in the world (I think I’ve got that right!) and that these insects eat (and fart) so much that they contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than all the humans and so we can’t possibly be contributing to climate change….or something like that. The audience tolerated Ball for a good 10 minutes (in something of a stunned silence) before it just got too much for some and the jeers of ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ and ‘get off’ started, accompanied by a slow hand clap. I have to say though, despite some reports, it seemed to me that this was only coming from a minority of the audience (the rest were sticking with that stunned silence) and when he finally left the stage after overrunning by 13 minutes he still received a polite round of applause. What amused me during the rant was that from my seat on the front row I could see Robin Ince just off stage in the wings literally pulling his hair out! And I should add that although Johnny Ball’s opinion on climate change was clearly at odds with the majority of the audience, a lot of the dissent was also due to Ball over-running so much and so reducing the amount of time for the acts we still had to see. As I write this, Robin has just confirmed that Ball will be back at the Godless shows tonight and tomorrow as billed, although with a different set. I’ll be very interested to hear what happens.

It fell to Peter Buckley Hill to bring the audience back from the brink which he ably did with a song about Xmas (the X being deliberate there). After PBH came the ‘big name’ of the night, Dara O’Briain who completed the rescue with some great material about what just happened with Ball – in O’Briain’s mind, the equilvalent for a child of today would be if Iggle Piggle came on stage and started masturbating, and then if Upsy Daisy came and joined in! O’Briain then carried on and gave a storming set, talking even faster than usual (trying to make up for Ball’s overrun?), with hilarious tales of his experiences of pre-natal classes with his surgeon wife. I’ve not really seen much of O’Briain’s stand up before but if this was anything to go by I really should make an effort to see some more.

The night was finally rounded off with the brilliantly simple, yet very funny duet from Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden of their song Peace and Quiet, with added audience participation.

So there we are, some things I’d seen before, some I hadn’t, and some that I’ll probably never see again! I’m going back for more Godless action on Saturday – some of the guests will be the same, although I wouldn’t be surprised if things have changed by Saturday. My only real disappointment of the whole evening was that there was a distinct lack of Gavin Osborn. I don’t know where he was but I missed him and I really hope he’ll be there on Saturday.

Culture, Cabaret and Comedy

After fog in Edinburgh having me worried that my flight would be delayed I managed to make it from Gatwick, to Bloomsbury then back, South of the river, to Stockwell for An Event Of Some Kind hosted by H Anthony Hildebrand of Junior Ministers. It was a really fun evening; music was provided by Witness the Beard and Don’t Tread on Spiders, and comedy from Eric Lampaert and Tom Basden. I have only seen Tom once before, and that was in Edinburgh, so I was delighted to get the chance to see his incredibly funny musical whimsy again. As at every AEOSK there was an audience drawing competition. The challenge this time was to draw two people (or animals, or things) kissing under the mistletoe. I was very proud to win a Junior Ministers CD for my picture of my two favourite fictional Christmas characters – Father Christmas and the Baby Jesus. After the gig I made my way back to my (quite) posh hotel in Bloomsbury which I was only staying at because I’d managed to get a cheap deal on Lastminute.com!

I had been at AEOSK with Kate, Shell and Simone. I met up with them again on Saturday afternoon at Sadler’s Wells Theatre where we were going to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. The tickets were quite expensive but we had booked them so long ago that it was almost like it was free – I often trick my brain into thinking this when I’m justifying spending a lot of money on shows I’m not going to see for ages. In fact I think we booked the Swan Lake tickets when I was still working and before I’d even applied to go on my teacher training course!  I really love Matthew Bourne’s style of choreography (I went to see his production of Dorian Gray in Glasgow a couple of months ago, which was excellent) and I grew up dancing to the music of Swan Lake so this was a perfect combination. Bourne manages to inject plenty of humour into what is really a powerful and moving story, and the athleticism and grace displayed by the two lead male characters (The Prince and The Swan) and the ensemble of male swans was breathtaking. I would highly recommend this production, even if ballet or dance isn’t usually your thing.

After some catching up over diet cokes in the pub (rock and roll I know) and a delicious Turkish dinner, we made our way over to the Roundhouse in Camden for our second show of the day – the indescribable La Clique. The show, set in traditional, in the round, circus-style is ‘a heady cocktail of cabaret, new burlesque, circus sideshow and contemporary variety’ according to their website. I had a vague idea of what to expect but it is really difficult to describe, other than to say you almost definitely won’t have seen anything like it before! I think my favourite act was the daredevil trapeze artists, The Wau Wau Sisters but all I can really say is go see it for yourself and make your own mind up.

After my first experience of a London night bus (uneventful) and another night in the (quite) posh hotel (comfortable) I managed to get up in time for breakfast, spent the early afternoon in the Apple Store and the O2 shop trying to get the 3G sorted out on my phone (successfully) I met up with my brother and Shell to see Stewart Lee at the Leicester Square Theatre in his show ‘If you prefer a milder comedian please ask for one’. I had already seen the show in Edinburgh  but neither Mark or Shell had and I was looking forward to seeing it again, without having to endure an hour on an uncomfortable bar stool in a boiling hot venue. Mr Lee certainly didn’t disappoint. After an early, hilarious, mishap with smoke distribution (while trying to have a rock’n’roll entrance the smoke machine just kept on going, meaning we couldn’t see Stewart and he didn’t even know if he was facing the right way), the show got under way. There had been a few additions since Edinburgh, and some material which I’m guessing had been added that day after Lee lost out to Michael McIntyre as ‘Best Live Stand-up’ at the previous evening’s British Comedy Awards. Lee is definitely one of my favourite comedians at the moment although I suppose he does have that marmite quality for some people. I’m glad I got the chance to see the show again and I hope he comes up to Edinburgh with another new show next year.

So that’s the first 3 days of my London Christmas Comedy Adventure. I’m back at the Leicester Square Theatre again tonight to see the recording of the last As It Occurs To Me, Richard Herring’s latest comedy/podcast venture and I’m looking forward to bumping into a few familiar faces. I’ve then got a ticket for Mark Watson’s ‘Work In Progress’ show at 9.30pm so I’m hoping Herring doesn’t get too carried away, what with it being the last AIOTM tonight.

There’s plenty more comedy (and science from Robin Ince’s ‘9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People’) to come in the rest of the week so I’ll try and keep blogging. It’s more for my benefit really – if I don’t I’ll never remember what I’ve seen and when. Ah…it’s a hard life sometimes.