Cult Q & A: Jem Roberts

­­  Comedy historian and hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is.

“My greatest casting fantasy is seeing Stephen Fry, Tom Baker, Brian Blessed and Miriam Margolyes fight it out on-screen – more of a sitcom team than a movie one, and I’ve decided the only way you can justify that amount of hammy bombast is if they all play Gods. But what an experiment in noise that would be.”

Jem Roberts is an author, storyteller, performer, editor, comedy historian, songwriter, veteran games journalist, voice artist, compére, ukulele player, kazoo virtuoso, and folklorist, whose work has appeared in publications as diverse as The Guardian, Rolling Stone, BBC History, The Independent, Geeky Monkey, History Revealed, GamesMaster, The Telegraph, SFX, Xbox World, Disney & Me, Total Film, BBC News online, ImagineFX and many more.

Jem’s best known as the official chronicler of the nation’s favourite radio comedy, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – and also, the nation’s favourite sitcom, Blackadder. His third book, Douglas Adams: The Frood – the Very Official Story of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – is in shops now, and the fourth is the official, authorised Fry & Laurie celebration, Soupy Twists – published through Unbound. Jem has recently launched Tales Of Britain, creating a campaign to revive and celebrate the British treasury of tales, finally unveiled to the public.

Hi Jem, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you’ve written so far?

Yes, I am a big lad and I done some books: jemroberts.com.

To be more specific, I’ve worked in magazines (mainly games) since I was a kid in the early 90s, been performing comedy since 2000, and those strands sort of came together when I wrote the official I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue Bible ten years ago Since then, I’ve written the ultimate official Blackadder guide, The True History, and become official biographer for Douglas Adams and Fry & Laurie – but now I’m crowdfunding the most important book I’ve ever written, Tales of Britain.

What were you like at school?

Annoyingly similar to how annoying I am now. Constantly attempting to stage awesome comedy shows that never quite came off. Again, like now.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A dustman – up early, all done before midday, and back to bed, that was the plan. Either that, or Brian Cant.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Don’t listen to your future self. He’ll only try and get you to avoid eventual girlfriends.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Best? Sincerity, for professional purposes – I only make books I passionately believe should exist, it’s never about money. Worst? Never having any money.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Long story, but I had a month at a jam factory in Tenbury Wells before university – during a real heatwave. I was the assistant to the lowliest underdog, who had to clean up all the gunk, rotting chemical flavourings, mollasses etc. Sweat, stickiness, dust, 14 hours shifts, hot sun, wasps, tears.

Who were your heroes growing up?

Fry & Laurie, Vic & Bob, Cook & Moore, Morecambe & Wise. It’s a wonder I’m not schizophrenic.

“The end of Blackadder Goes Forth is the most powerful comedy moment of all time, and showed me what comedy can actually do, as an artform”

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

Clip shows have certainly marred its magic, but it absolutely has to be the end of Blackadder Goes Forth – it’s certainly the reason I’m filling in this Q&A now, it’s the most powerful comedy moment of all time, and showed me what comedy can actually do, as an artform. Ghostwatch is a close second.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Only when it’s on and you’re watching or listening to it. Or reading one of the books. Otherwise, not especially.

What was the last film that you watched?

Baby Driver. Not as macho and dull as it looked, but needed more cornettos.

What film could you watch every day?

I suppose you’d have to pick something very short, because it would be interminable whatever you chose. The live action Yogi Bear is only 80mins, the internet tells me, so probably that. I have 4 equal favourite films – Wicker Man, Yellow Submarine, Bedazzled (1967) and American Werewolf, but I love them too much to watch every day.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

I have a soft spot for Four Weddings & A Funeral, but that’s pure nostalgia – listened on a loop on walkman cassette in the summer of 1994. It’s packed with great songs, too, though. And that Wet Wet Wet one, sadly.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

My greatest casting fantasy is seeing Stephen Fry, Tom Baker, Brian Blessed and Miriam Margolyes fight it out on-screen – more of a sitcom team than a movie one, and I’ve decided the only way you can justify that amount of hammy bombast is if they all play Gods. But what an experiment in noise that would be.

Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?

Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur – I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest, but it is, as Roger Ebert would say, ‘unadulterated shite’. And they continually refer to Arthur’s Kingdom as ‘England’, despite the fact his legend only exists because of the struggle to keep out the invading Anglo Saxons.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Ocean Colour Scene, Mosely Shoals. On cassette. If they didn’t like it, I’d know they were a tosser.

Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

The White Album. Happy to just have it as a folder of mp3s, though.

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

The True History of the Black Adder. I have a Bible given to me by sadly deceased grandparents, but I have to be honest. I just wrote the book I always wanted to read.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

A piece of entertainment which inspires intense appreciation from a minority of consumers? That’s a bit of a robot definition, I know.

What are you reading at present?

Just got a few pages left of Bridget Christie’s A Book For Her, then I move onto Frances Pryor’s prehistoric Britain exploration, Home – extra inspiration for Tales of Britain.

You’ve made a name for yourself as an official chronicler of some of the cornerstones of British comedy such as the Blackadder series, cult radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and the life and work of Douglas Adams. Can you tell us a little about how this journey began?

Ultimately, I write books on comedy because I used to buy and read books on comedy, and was often infuriated by the high-handed, pompous authorial tone – it’s all too easy to strip the joy out of comedy by writing about it, but I felt I knew how to avoid that trap, and equally avoid being too cute and attempting to be funny all the time yourself, which is the other trap. With Clue giving me the biggest, hardest laughs I’ve ever experienced, back in Humph’s day (no shade cast on Jack Dee, it’s still must-listen stuff), I was TERRIFIED that one of the worst comedy non-fiction authors would see the need for a guidebook, and spoil all Clue’s precious gags – Mornington Crescent, Samantha etc. So I wrote some fanzine pieces for Kettering, Barry Cryer liked them, and it sort of snowballed from there – Graeme and the teams knew I could write about the show without spoiling it, so they gave me their official stamp, and I’ve gone on to do the same thing for other comedies I’m passionate about. Hopefully there will be more!

What were the most daunting and exciting aspects of writing The Frood, and what was it like being handed the key to the Douglas Adams archives as part of your research?

I was afraid of disappointing the Hitchhiker fanbase, above all, and getting a pan-galactic molotov cocktail through the window – some sci-fi fans can be weird like that. I’ve only seen one or two mewling responses to The Frood, from people who patently wished that they had got the gig – in which case, it would have been an interminable slog of cutesy H2G2 references and dull detail. I’ve always loved Douglas Adams’ work, ravenously read, saw and heard everything, but it was never ‘my thing’, in a fandom, convention-attending sense, so I had a pretty good fersh new angle on Adams’ oeuvre.

As for exploring the archives at St. John’s, that was obviously the highlight of the experience – a week of solid hard work, just going through everything, hoping I get to snap every crucial piece of paper in the allotted time. We only used about 8% of the incredible discoveries I made there.

Your current book is Soupy Twists, a long overdue celebration of the cerebral silliness of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, crowdfunded by Unbound Books. It’s received the endorsement and support of the great men themselves; what’s that been like?

It would never have existed unless they wanted it to be official – I only do official books, and I hope that remains the case. Nobody in showbiz works harder than Stephen and Hugh so I can’t pretend it’s been all lolling around in punts reminiscing – sadly I’ve not yet had the chance to shake Hugh’s hand, but he did call me back for numerous very long phone calls, so he’s done his bit! Stephen’s been far more hands-on, providing incredible unseen sketches and the like, and we’ve ‘lunched’ a bit. I never thought any of this would happen, literally nobody on the planet – outside of my family – has influenced me more than Fry especially, and I never dreamed Hugh would ever give the go ahead for a biography of him, so it’s a great honour, obviously. But you have to wave that aside and get on with the job, so in an odd way you never quite appreciate just how exciting something is until years later.

Which other writers or performers have inspired you over the years?

See above! Fry first and foremost, and via him, Wodehouse. I perform comedy songs, and Neil Innes is the patron saint of what I do in an entertainment sense. Sadly people always compare me to Eddie Izzard because on stage, with no script, I subconsciously turn into him, and I wish I could do something about that.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

Very early on as an author, John Lloyd gave me a pep talk about ‘putting your head above the parapet’ and inviting attacks from other geeks, trolls, forum critics etc. – it was only a ‘suck it up’ bit of advice, but it does come back to me. Or there’s Brian Blessed’s advice: ‘What you’re doing is so worthwhile, KEEP AT IT!’

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

It depends on your heroes. If it’s Morrissey or Mark E Smith, probably. If it’s Stephen Fry and Neil Innes, definitely meet them, they will not disappoint. Or Richard Curtis! Nobody could be more Richard Curtissy.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

‘He died saving the world from arseholes from space. Cheers Jem’.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

It would be an interesting ale of some kind, but one pint is my limit these days as I don’t want to live in lavatories. A pint of lime squash will do me if I’m smoking.

What are your three favourite cities?

Towns beat cities any day, but I’ve lived in the city of Bath for 13 years and it still bedazzles me every day. London would have to come a close second – it’s mainly horrible, but I have a sentimental love for my old stamping ground in W12. Oh, and for a third, Cambridge is a truly mind-blowing place, it does not disappoint in any way. Special mention also to Liverpool, where I felt incredibly at home when researching The Frood at the University Sci-Fi Library.

What do you do to chill out?

Are you asking me for drugs?

Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?

No, I’m just like Fred Dibnah.

What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

The pinnacle is always finding new comedy material from the archives – Blackadder in Bethlehem, Douglas Adams’ One Spoon Too Few, Fry & Laurie’s OCEANS of unused sketch material. That’s what makes it all worth it.

What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?

See above for me answer about the burning house scenario. Blackadder is the reason I have had a lifelong passion for comedy, and I wrote the ultimate book for any true Blackadder fan, and couldn’t be more proud.

You’ve recently launched a new project, also through Unbound – Tales Of Britain: “The finest, funniest stories of England, Scotland & Wales, refreshed for the 21st century.” Can you tell us a little about that?

Aha! At last! Well this is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but potentially the most important as well. Hopefully by now, I don’t need to make it clear that comedy has always been my primary passion, but we really badly need a UK story treasury for the 21st Century, to save folktales from their crusty, academic, pretentious ghetto. EVERYONE should know and love these stories, not just folklore freaks. Plus, by going back to the roots of each tale you can undo the effects of centuries of puritanism, racism and misogyny – by launching Tales of Britain now we’re heading off the more nationalistic, UKIP-type approach which could have set the cause for British folklore back centuries. These are fresh, positive, progressive retellings, fileld with anarchic, Rik Mayall’s Grim Tales-style spirit. Oh, and every tale is rooted in the landscape, so it’s also a tourist guide and roadmap of lore. Check out www.talesofbritain.com to join Neil Innes, Cerys Matthews, Francis Pryor and many more in fighting for a better Britain, uniting us via out shared culture, do!

How can our readers find out more about you and your work?

Of course, you should go to TalesofBritain.com first – but there’s plenty of stuff on JemRoberts.com too, plus the usual Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, EgoBalloon.com and suchlike.

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us!

Fifity quid.


❉ Follow Jem Roberts on Twitter

❉ Follow  @TalesofBritain on Twitter – The finest & funniest stories of England, Wales, Scotland & the Isles, reclaimed & retold for 21st Century folk

❉ Visit http://www.patreon.com/jemroberts

❉ Visit http://www.talesofbritain.com

❉ Visit http://www.unbound.co.uk/books/soupy-twists

❉ Feature image:  Trevtography

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