Cult Q & A: Robin Ince

❉ Robin Ince talks Tarkovsky, Wild Geese, Nick Cave, Rik Mayall & Robocop.

Robin Ince is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer. He is best known for presenting the BBC radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage with physicist Brian Cox.

Over the years Robin has written gags for the likes of Alastair McGowan, Graham Norton, The Sketch Show and Have I Got News For You. Robin continues his regular appearances on the Steve Lamacq show, using his vast musical knowledge to profile a listener – cold reading put to good use.

What were you like at school?

I had glasses, traditional NHS glasses, so I was marked out. My destiny was forged from my first days of myopia. I was always fascinated in horror movies. I bought Alan Frank’s Horror Movies on my 8th birthday so I was obsessed by Starburst magazine, House of Hammer magazine and all those things. I got into trouble with Mr Clifton when we had to do book reviews and I chose James Herbert’s The Spear. We had to read out a passage of our book to the class and I chose I moment when someone is found nailed to a door and gurgling. Mr Clifton went pale and insisted I stopped.

I was an inside outsider. I wasn’t one of the truly outcast kids who is utterly ignored, I was the one that it was ok to bully but sometimes the bullies would defend me if the wrong bullies tried to bully me. Complex playground politics.

I am thankful that school days were not the best, it has left me with little to look back on fondly and much to still look forward to.

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

From an early age, maybe 9 or 10, I wanted to be a performer. By the time I was 13, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t imagine I would have the nerve to be a comedian, but I obsessed over alternative comedy and there is still a cupboard of Betamax tapes with everything I could record – from any interview with Rik Mayall to Phil Cool and Hardwicke House.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

None. What if I gave that idiot advice and somehow that changed the path of his life. I survived so best not to interfere with the timeline.

I would tell me to not buy I’ll Go Blind Before I Stop by Meat Loaf , i only bought it because he sang it on Saturday Live. I’d also tell him not to burn his teenage diaries as now that mean I’ve just had to turn down appearing with Rufus Hound on a Radio 4 show about teenage diaries. Idiot.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Temper. I get very wound up, very quickly. The energy I use to create and perform shows has the downside of coming from a snappiness, an idiot who shouts at and punishes inanimate objects then has to explain why the kitchen is on fire and covered in broken glass. This is another reason I love Rik Mayall – that “Bloody hell. bloody hell. bloody hell!” stupid panicking teenager is still me.

I think my better quality comes from same energy of my filthy temper, which is when I get excited by an idea or the possibility of creating an event.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

One that really fucked me up was writing for Skins. I had a lot of fun helping script edit series 2, and then they asked if I’d write a full script for series 3 and I just didn’t get it right and I felt an overwhelming sense of personal failure. I was too old to understand the anxious party kids.

Who were your heroes growing up?

Clint Eastwood. Rik Mayall. Douglas Adams. Tom Baker. Boris Karloff. the usual.

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

it is a tie between The Singing Detective, GBH and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, all of which I rewatch regularly BUT as I type this, I realise it must be The Sopranos, after I finished watching that I didn’t know if anything else would be worth watching again. You can keep yer Breaking Bad, I think it is the most psychologically complex pieces of TV. You have to constantly recalibrate what you think of the characters and Gandolfini is just bloody remarkable. I don’t think I have ever felt so involved in a piece of TV.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Yes, especially the films. I have got to know Eric Idle a bit over the last few years, and every time I meet him, there is a spark of internal delight. Python for me was the films, the books and the albums more than the TV series which wasn’t on TV when I was young. I saw them at O2 and thought it was a delightful show. Brian Cox appeared on stage with them one night and said afterwards that you get a real sense of danger from Cleese when you are on stage with him.

What was the last film that you watched?

I have just finished watching the Nick Cave documentary One More Time with Feeling for the third time. He is a genius, the most remarkable creator and the documentary is a very subtle piece of fillmmaking about making an album in the shadow of something utterly terrible (one of his teenage sons died two years ago). It never offers the audience a simple moment where it says “and here is your moment to cry now.” Each time, I see something more. It is about people continuing in a life that will never be the same again and the subtle support of the band. Friendship, love, trust and tragedy, I am doing it a disservice with my frankly underwhelming words.

What film could you watch every day?

Films I have watched most often are probably Robocop (the original), Hana-bi and Songs from the Second Floor. I’d like to say Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which I adore, but it might end up being The Wild Geese. In perfect world, it would be Tarkovsky’s Mirror with Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger running about in the long grass of the background.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

I’ve been listening Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight which was used in Arrival. I love the music of Michael Nyman, End of the Affair is a favourite and I think Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to The Killing Fields is underrated. and I listen to John Carpenter’s Lost Soundtracks a lot.

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

Divine, Christopher Walken, Julianne Moore and Lewis Collins in one of those movies where the world seems deserted after an inexplicable event (like The Quiet Earth) or a sequel to Muriel’s Wedding.

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

Despite my sometimes furious persona, of late I have rarely been disappointed. I think my sense of what will let me down is sharper than it was so I manage to avoid it. I was a bit disappointed by La La Land because it started so flamboyantly and energetically and I wanted it to be that sort of musical all the way through. I did try to get drunk enough on a plane to enjoy the Dad’s Army movie but that didn’t work.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

I am surprised that more people don’t know about Meursault, their album Something for the Weakened is a magnificent mix of energy and melancholy. I also thought She Makes War’s Direction of Travel should have had more attention and I must mention my fabulous friend Grace Petrie who is great at mixing broken love and invigorating politics.

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

Having lost over 1000 vinyl LPs to a sewage flood, every bloody one of them. I used to love laying out all my Smiths 12 inches and LPs and just looking at the kitchen sink history of Britain (with a little Truman Capote too), but they became faeces-destroyed landfill. I think More Special may be the one. I had that with the free poster and remember the day I bought it when my grandmother took me to Pinner.

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

I imagine I would die choosing, my house is more book than brick. Probably the big retrospective of Diane Arbus’s photos or my son’s Beano annuals. Oh, and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film would be high up there too. And maybe Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, because that would keep me occupied for a while.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

I was brought up on Danny Peary’s Cult Movies and I still don’t know. I think it is something that has failed to prick the mainstream but instils passionate love in those that know it. That piece of art that when you find out a stranger loves it too you decide you must be firm friends forever.

What are you reading at present?

Lots of books about the artist Robert Rauschenberg. One of my Edinburgh shows is partially about him, so I am reading Calvin Tompkins’ Off the Wall amongst others. I’ve just finished Thomas M Disch’s camp Concentration too. I’ve also just started John Higgs’ Watling Street. I loved his books on why the KLF burnt a million pounds and Stranger than We Can Imagine about how quantum physics amongst other things removes human certainty from the twentieth century

How did your stand-up comedy career begin, and which comics have inspired you over the years?

First gig when i was 18 at a club run by Jon Ronson – I was terrible. then about one gig a year until I was 22. I did So You Think You’re Funny at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1992 and came second, then wasted the rest of the 90s doing stand up but never quite focusing properly. It was probably fun but it took until about 2003 for me to start to get some sense of what I should really be aiming at. I was so focused on being a stand up that I forgot to work out what sort of stand up I wanted to be. My influences are probably Rik Mayall, John Waters, Robin Williams and Alexei Sayle.

We recently did a Q&A with Iain Lee, whose career began with The 11 O’Clock Show, on which you worked as a writer and performer. Is late night topical comedy dead or merely resting?

I think the problem with much of the 11 O Clock Show was that it punched down not up. It lacked a sense of purpose. I don’t know why we can’t get topical comedy right. I don’t watch much TV, but I wonder if part of it might be because it is led by the content of our newspapers so it ends up being gossipy and light. I worked on a series with John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman and they had to battle hard to get their sharp, playful and rigorous ideas anywhere near the screen. Seems John Oliver has done okay since then. Andy Zaltzman is always worth listening to and when Frankie Boyle turns his jagged mind to politics it can lead to vicious destruction of our cherished things.

You’re best known for presenting The Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox, which has featured a range of guests including Richard Dawkins, Eric Idle and Patrick Stewart. Who would be your dream guest, living or dead?

It would be Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan because both were huge inspirations for creating the show.

Can you tell us a little about your book Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, how did that come about?

During a particularly brutal Edinburgh fringe run, where I found myself losing grip on my mind, I needed to find as many distractions from my failure. Danny Wallace had recommended Syd Little’s autobiography, Little Goes a Long Way (far superior to the reprint Little by Little) and I would read from it during the show with some Philip Glass music accompanying it. I went around the charity shops of Edinburgh and stocked up on odd novels, pulp fictions, autobiographies and magazines, and took to doing lots of late night gigs where I would read from lighthouse Mills and Boon epic, Stormy Vigil, or interviews from a 1974 TV Times with incongruous and epic music behind it. I also saw lots of great acts that were very funny but probably not considered suitable to what seemed to be an increasingly conservative stand up circuit. I started a night where I would stand in my frilly shirt, declaiming from my charity shop treats and then bring on acts like Gawk-a-Go-Go (creators of Ellie-Vis, the elephant man Elvis), Joanna Neary, Josie Long, Danielle Ward, The Trap and lots more.

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

It might have been Stewart Lee. I was telling him about a dud gig and he said, “but how many of that audience were the kind of people you’d want to hang around with?” I didn’t act on it effectively for years, but it reminded me that you shouldn’t create things that you guess an audience will like, you should create things you want to and hope you find the audience. If you’re starting point is “I reckon this is the sort of thing they’ll want” you may well be underestimating the audience and playing it safe.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?

Syd Little (for previously mentioned reasons)

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

No, you should just choose your heroes wisely. I have never been disappointed by anyone whose work I admired and I have made famous people who were dicks and thought, “I was right to be suspicious of your work.”

What would you like to be your epitaph?

“Dead as a strawberry.”

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Let’s have gin in memory of Mr Jolly – “Who dares gins”

What are your three favourite cities?

Oslo, Manchester, Deal (not technically a city, but Charles Hawtrey lived there)

What do you do to chill out?

Read in tearooms while looking through all the books I’ve just bought in a lovely secondhand bookshop (I recommend Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne) preferably with a piece of Victoria Sponge Cake.

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

No, it would ruin that carefully sculpted enigmatic carapace I have surrounded myself with, though I do sometimes wish i was Naunton Wayne

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

Going off on unexpected diversions during a show, i also love making radio documentaries.

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

I cannot single out one – I had a lot of fun recording a series of podcasts with Alan Moore and Grace Petrie, though three years on, they still haven’t reached the public. I have had a powerful kick from doing the Pointless Anger show with Michael Legge, when we were at our stupidest and angriest. He would watch in dismay as I, topless and with make up smeared on my face. would climb over the audience screaming “is anyone from telly, for fuck’s sake, what is the point of doing the Edinburgh fringe if none of you are from telly”, some of the Book Shambles with Josie Long, such as the one with Alice Lowe where her toddler stayed in the studio and ate some of my books, and obviously I love doing Monkey Cage. I am in a fortunate position.

Since 2015, you’ve been presenting the podcast Book Shambles with Josie Long. What’s it been like? Can you tell us a little about it?

We started doing a podcast together in 2007. Originally, it was called Show and Tell. The guests would bring in an object to show and tell and half the time we wouldn’t get around to it. Steve Merchant brought in some sexy salt and pepper shakers from Amsterdam. Then it became Utter Shambles, and we had guests such as Terry Jones, Billy Bragg and Tim Minchin, then it all stopped.

In 2015, we found a spare few days and a studio and thought, “we used to have fun, let’s do it again.” We reckoned it would be better to have some framework and, as we are both avid readers, we thought we’d base it around books and then see where it went. The hope is that we can talk about highbrow and lowbrow and anything else without it having to sound highbrow or lowbrow, just people talking about things they like and want to share. Sometimes it’s famous people and sometimes people who are interesting but not on the cover of the Radio Times so often.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I am currently writing a Monkey Cage book (deadline two months shorter than originally thought) and I am working on two Edinburgh shows, one about art and one about reality, hypocrisy and coping mechanisms (and maybe ghosts and Philip K Dick too)

How can our readers discover more about you and your work? (social media, website, blog etc.)

I am on Twitter, Facebook and I have a blog at wordpress.

Robin Ince is doing two shows in Edinburgh, Robin Ince’s Rorschach Test (2 – 13 August) and Robin Ince Pragmatic Insanity (3 – 13 August), and then off on a UK tour – See for details. 

❉ Brian Cox and Robin Ince (via BBC Radio 4 and podcast) continue their witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists’ eyes:

Robin and Josie Long are making podcasts with lots of nice authors and interesting people, talking enthusiastically about their favourite books, or just mesmerising topics. Find them over at the Cosmic Shambles site HERE

Robin continues his regular appearances on the Steve Lamacq show, using his vast musical knowledge to profile a listener – cold reading put to good use. 

And, you might find Robin at Twitter @robinince 

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