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 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *