Gavin Webster interview
(c) Andy Hollingworth Archive
He’s one of the funniest stand-ups in the UK, but Geordie comedian Gavin Webster never thought he’d win a comedy award. Yet on Christmas Eve, he did just that. Gavin, whose hard-edged routines can – he admits – split critics and audiences alike, was named the 2014 comedian’s comedian in a poll by his fellow stand-ups. He talks to Andrew Dipper about the award, over two decades as a stand-up comedian, his short stint on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, thoughts on new acts, comedy reviewers, cracking the Edinburgh Fringe and more.
Hi Gavin. Tell us how you found your way into comedy…
Sort of by accident, really. My mate Les Stewart [a.k.a Eric Scarboro] invited me to a night at The Cumberland Arms in Byker in the summer of 1992 because we’d started working together again. There was established comedians doing new stuff – well, sort of established – and newcomers that had hardly done a gig before. The place was rammed and it had a feel of what Red Raw at The Stand is like now. When it finished he said to me, ‘Next month we’re going to go on and do a double act’, and I suppose that was it.
What were you two working on together before that then?
He was a welder and I was an apprentice fabricator – well, a trainee fabricator (I’ll not get bogged down in the diluted semantics of that successful de-skilled British workforce) back in about 1988-89. Anyway, he got me a job in 1992 demonstrating photocopiers with him while he was waiting for his teaching jobs, and I was in my polytechnic holidays. I was in the middle of an engineering diploma at the time. It was only a temporary job.
So that first gig – did you and Les sit down and write sketches together? Did you wing it? Can you remember any of the material you did?
Les wrote all the stuff, I didn’t want to do it. He explained to me what my lines were. It was just me being incredulous at his outrageous rants. A bit like a Peter Glaze to his Don Maclean but with swear words. We winged it to an extent, but we were both awful performers. No chemistry or magic. The bits at the beginning with Les on his own were better, in fact; those bits weren’t bad at all, he had a burgeoning style. He called us Scarboro and Thick – you know, like an antithesis of Morecambe and Wise. The material I remember was him going on about how much he hated the French and me saying he was racist. I remember one or two lines.
What made you go back and do another gig after that?
We did three or four at The Cumberland Arms every month and then, unbeknownst to me, Les had decided to open a comedy club in Gateshead at the Barley Mow starting in February of 1993. The first I knew about it was when the compere Anvil Springstien announced it onstage at the Cumberland. I always remember that I was an afterthought on his big announcement. ‘The new club’s going to be in Gateshead no less and it’ll be run and compered by Eric himself and…erm, er, erm, er, Thick.’
It sounds like you were bullied into being Les’ double-act partner! So you worked with him on the double act until 1995 – is that right? Had you grown to enjoy stand-up by then?
Well that was pretty much it, he was desperate for a sidekick. He wanted me to do all sorts of stuff. Thinking back a lot of it was proper out there hatstand stuff that could have been really funny. Maybe we could have gone down that road, but I don’t think we would have clicked as writers. As time went on he began just doing stuff himself with props and cartoons and that.
I did my first stand-up on my own in February 1993 at the Barley Mow in Gateshead at ‘Reckless Eric’s’. I was still called Little Ernie Thick then and, I was for most of 93. By the time I was flying about all over the place in 94 I’d changed my name to my real name and curiously Les was still, and still is now, even in a social sense, Eric Scarboro.
I still wasn’t earning money then. At the last ever Crack Club at the Cumberland Arms I remember getting a fiver off Paul Sneddon, it felt great. And yes, I remember that being a great night so I probably was enjoying it by then.
So it’s been over 20 years since you first started doing stand-up? Have you changed much?
Aye, 23 years since I ever got up, and I suppose 22 since I first took to the stage on my own as a stand-up. I suppose I’ve evolved rather than changed. I was just a lad – about 23-24 – when I started, now I’m sort of a middle aged man with a mortgage and a family and aches and pains whenever I play football. I always used to get up and bellyache about everything; I suppose that hasn’t changed.
Also, though, British life has evolved. Attitudes and the way people behave, particularly in the North East, have changed so much since the early 90s, mainly for the better in all honesty.
What about the comedy circuit? How do you think that’s changed? Has it changed?
It has changed an awful lot I reckon. It’s slicker and more professional. It’s a bit like the Premiership or The X Factor; the whole ethos and intellectual scope of the industry is arbitrated by a few public school-educated, middle aged men. There’s so many unwritten rules as to what you do and don’t do. There’s some funny acts out there, but most new acts I see are very underwhelming. They might think I’m shit so I’m sure we’re even all around. There’s a couple of great acts round this area, mind you.
What do those new acts not have?
Where do I start? Most of them, it’s not their voice, it’s not what they think, you’re not getting a bit of their past, their hopes and dreams, what they hate, what their take is on Britain and the world, and what their foibles are. Above all, it’s not what they think is funny, it’s what sort of stuff is working these days and ‘let’s try and make it as near to that as possible and it shouldn’t fail’. Add to that a bit of networking in the right places and there’s a good chance you could go a long way.
Depressingly, it tends to work. It tends to be the DVDs they’ve seen, and how they can take other comics from around the world and adapt it in order to make a living. Some modern comics are actually actors playing the part of a stand-up comedian.
Again, some of these people probably think I’m shit, but I can take that. I don’t take it very well but I can stomach it.
I’ve spoken to comics who have a five year plan. Do you have a plan? Have you achieved everything you want to?
I’ve never had a plan as such. I’ve always wanted to earn more money. I wanted to be great; I still do. I think I’m sometimes good, and always at least trying to be good, but it would be great to be great if you know what I mean. You know, like inspiring every time I got up. I might never get close to that but at least I’m trying to get there. Comics with five year plans? That’s a bit depressing don’t you think?
If by great you mean held in high regard by other acts, and to have your own fanbase, then you’re sort of on your way there. I suppose it’s all about being happy with what you’re doing. Richard Herring said a few months back that he’d rather be skint than perform other people’s material and rake in the cash from DVD sales. You seem to have a similar outlook.
Aye, he does his own shows every year and has a great following. He’s a good bloke as well. Him and Stewart Lee have been footnotes in British stand-up comedy history alongside Dan Kitson, and maybe Ross [Noble] and Eddie Izzard on the more populist side of the coin. Actually, that’s a bit unfair; both Ross and Izzard are really influential and inspirational. I didn’t see his last tour but I saw him at the [Newcastle] City Hall in 2012 or 2013 and he was really funny – really spit your beer out. I wish he would take up drinking, though.
What else makes you laugh?
Funny jokes, funny sketches, having a laugh with funny people. I suppose it almost becomes emotive as to what is funny with some people. Andy Clark and Lee Kyle are both fantastic, and so unlike the type of person I just described. Very funny people. Nicola Mantalios Lovett is very original as well.
Who are your comedy inspirations?
Groucho Marx, Spike Milligan, Monty Python, Bilko, Jimmy James (with Roy Castle and Eli Woods), Les Dawson, Chic Murray, Hector Nichol, Car 54 Where Are You, Ken Goodwin, The Goodies, George Roper, Woody Allen, The Young Ones, Fawlty Towers, Alexei Sayle, Sean Lock, Dylan Moran, Bobby Thompson, Peter Kay, I’m Alan Partridge, Jerry Sadowitz.
There’s many many more. Pete and Dud, Derek and Clive, Alas Smith and Jones and, of course, Tommy Cooper and French and Saunders were good in their day. Oh aye, and all The Comic Strip Presents. Some people have done very memorable routines and some have written a great joke.
I wanted to find out a bit about the way you write comedy. You always say on stage, ‘These are proper jokes’, but do you sit down and write or do they come to you as half formed ideas that you work out on stage?
I just think of them as I’m living my life; reading signs in the street, watching the telly and having a laugh at things I see in the paper or what people say on the radio. A bit like every comedian I suppose. I do spend a lot of time in rehearsal studios rehearsing my routines especially before an Edinburgh run or a one-off theatre show.
I wanted to talk about Edinburgh at some point. There was a point, maybe four years ago, possibly longer, when you were ready to give up on the Fringe. Why was that?
I couldn’t get an audience of any kind.
You seem to have attracted the label of being a ‘controversial’ comedian, mainly because of your Fringe show titles. Is that fair?
I don’t think I’m controversial – do people say that? I’ve never intended to shock or get any kind of notoriety, I’ve just tried to do interesting titles that I think are in the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe and then do a show that reflects the title and try and make it funny and have a vaguely polemical point.
Some people – well, critics – have got their trousers on back to front about them, though. It’s not like they get to like or dislike my shows or the titles or the sentiments or even give an erudite critique of the content or the performance , it doesn’t seem to even get to that, they just say ‘how dare he even think about having a show like that’ and then attempt to character assassinate me for having the audacity for thinking such things. I really think it’s a class thing in all honesty.
A reviewer said that I called my last show A Controversial Title In Order To Sell Tickets because I couldn’t think of a decent title. If that’s what Jay Richardson thinks then I’m sorry for him intellectually, I really am!
You mentioned not getting praise from critics, but you were just voted 2014 comedian’s comedian by your fellow stand-ups, which I imagine is much more rewarding for you…
It’s great to be appreciated by other comics, yes. Mind you, I’m sure there’s plenty who didn’t vote for me. Some critics I think really like what I do – well I hope they do – others genuinely think I’m like a junior Stan Boardman. It’s their intellectual right to think what they like of course but I know that some don’t want me and my ilk at the Fringe or anywhere near Radio 4. Tough shit like, cos I’m a frequent visitor to both places.
Pictured: Gavin and Glenn Wool about to do Edinburgh Nights with Sue Perkins in August 2014.
Are you going back to the Fringe this year?
Not sure. They’ve got to want me first. It would have to be at The Stand. I can’t afford to hemorrhage money elsewhere and the Free Fringe isn’t for me I don’t think. [Last year] I did okay, I’ve got a loyal audience in Edinburgh but not a very big audience; most days were nice. Back in 2008-09 they were largely bad.
Why was that?
Just because I hadn’t got myself a certain type of audience. Bad numbers didn’t help either. 2 for 1s and free tickets don’t help, it is the epitome of a false economy.
What kind of people do you get coming to your shows? Have you found there’s a certain type of person who particularly gets your stand-up? Is there a type of person who doesn’t get it?
A certain type come to my shows in Newcastle every year. I can be as surreal as I like and they go for all that – the flights of fancy and crash bang wallop set pieces. Some of the professional Geordies like it but not all, I think they prefer Sunday For Sammy where they constantly get told how great it is to be from Tyneside every two minutes.
I do know that some people come and then never come back. I’m not for everyone, but over the years through not compromising, my Tyne and Wear following is a great bunch of comedy fans. Matty Reed supported me last year and said it was his favourite gig of the year.
Are you doing a Tyne Theatre show again this year?
I don’t think I’ll be at the Tyne this year, but I’ll be at the Whitley Bay Playhouse on 20 November.
You’ve got a new monthly show starting at the Live Theatre in February. Is it the same as what you’ve been doing at The Stand? [Gavin compered a regular stand-up show called Gavin Webster’s Northumbrian Assembly]
Hopefully a bit more to it. I’ve got a little while to write stuff for the show. Hopefully the Funny Team people will chip in with a few sketches. Hopefully they’re there to stay. Depends how the gig goes I suppose. They’re very good, like.
Are you writing new material every month for the Live Theatre shows?
Yes, hopefully. It’s difficult, like, but I’m going to try and do as much varied stuff as possible.
Why do you think the show never quite took off at The Stand?
I wouldn’t like to say. Maybe I could tell you clearer if the All New Assembly show works out or doesn’t. It didn’t happen, I kept my part of the bargain, I tried as hard as I could to do good shows but too many things were directly up against me. But you move on. Gigs are struggling a bit [all over the country]. No one owes me, you or any other comedian, promoter or agent a living, but it’s all about give and take.
If you search YouTube there’s clips of you on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, which some people might be surprised about. How did you find the whole process of doing TV?
That was many years ago. I didn’t enjoy that show. I did a Channel 4 show the year before in 2002. I was a bit of a regular. I wasn’t a team captain but people have said that I was because history always gets re-written. I called Daisy Donovan a hard-faced hooer on national telly, I suppose it’s some kind of feat! I’m glad I didn’t become a panel show regular, it’s all become a bit banal and not in the slightest bit subversive. I can’t watch them on telly – they’re cringeworthy.
You’ve had a lot more success with Walk On The Wildside, which is a totally different beast of course. How did you end up working on that?
Jason Manford got in touch and asked me if I wanted to do the pilot, and then all of a sudden it became a series, so just an out of the blue thing I suppose.
You write on the show as well – is a lot of that ad-libbed while you’re all in a room together, or do you do that from the comfort of your own home?
I wrote a lot of stuff on series two, I didn’t do any writing on series three. On series one and two we did get the freedom to mess about and change things round even the stuff we’d written ourselves but by the third series they were a lot more rigid.
It was a great laugh though, we played a lot of cards and went to the pub a lot at nights. Me, Steve Edge and Jon Richardson spent many a night drinking, playing darts and having some great crack. Happy days.
Do you know if there’ll be a fourth series?
I don’t think there will be, no.
Final question, then, since it’s January; do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
No, not really – but I am determined to work harder. Will that do?
Gavin Webster’s All New Northumbrian Assembly launches at the Live Theatre in Newcastle on Thursday 12 February at 8pm. Tickets are on sale now, priced £10 or £8 for concessions. Click for more information and tickets.