Alex Horne interview
Alex Horne likes a challenge. In 2009 he went Birdwatching in an attempt to spot more birds than his father; a year later he went Wordwatching, hoping to get a word in the dictionary; and this year Horne hopes to replicate the entire life cycle in an hour with his new show, Seven Years in the Bathroom. Starting with the seven years spent in the bathroom, he tries to represent the average life in an hour…proportionately and alphabetically. So while Horne steps out of the shower, Radio Teesdale’s Peter Dixon caught up with him to talk about the new show, the challenge of raising a young family while touring and his time with the Cambridge Footlights.
PD: Hi Alex. I was hoping to talk to you about the Cambridge Footlights. It’s a group that has so much history, but I was wondering what it was like for you….
AH: I’m afraid I was a typical student, and students tend to be pretty blinkered; you notice your immediate surroundings and little else. I knew the people who come before me – I was a bit of a Monty Python fan and people like Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were my heroes. The Footlights is a strange beast. I think people have this strange impression of it – punting down the Cam. It’s just a pretty normal comedy club, really. The strange thing about the Footlights, though, is that nearly every year it produces these amazing talents. I’m not including myself in that bracket, but before me there was Mitchell and Webb and just after me there was The Inbetweeners. There’s always people coming out of there and they tend to be very current, and not the Oxbridge type you might expect.
I like to think comedians should be good writers and good thinkers, but I definitely don’t think you need any kind of university degree to be a comedian. I think sometimes if you get a seventeen year old who is bright and has an interest in comedy then they may apply to Cambridge rather than Oxford because of the Footlights history. I don’t know what it is, though; I think it’s mainly luck so far. For every university you can track great comedians but I think Cambridge just got there first.
PD: You’ve got quite a varied back catalogue; from your stand-up shows to the likes of The Horne Section. You must be pleased with how everything’s come together?
AH: I am, yeah. I was quite surprised, really. The Horne Section was just a fun night my friends and I put together and took up to Edinburgh; and then a couple of years later we found it on Radio 4. I grew up with two boys, who are now men, and they became jazz musicians at the same time I became a comedian. We always wanted to do a show together, so it’s lovely to do a national radio show with two of my best friends.
The Edinburgh show really allows us to be creative and give people a different experience every night. It’s myself and five jazz musicians – we improvise quite a lot and invite comedians along too to do whatever they want but with the band playing along too. So we’ve had Tim Vine doing his one-liners but with a jaunty jazz backing or someone like Tim Minchin doing his songs but boosted by a five-piece band. It’s boisterous and fun and silly – and quite unlike my other shows.
There’s a rehearsed framework, a beginning and end, but we’re quite keen never to rehearse with the acts because I think the joyful bit of it is that the audience know it’s a unique moment that won’t be repeated. We want it to be properly improvised because I think that’s what musicians are particularly good at and they don’t often get to explore that talent. People tend to want to see rehearsed things but I’m not sure that’s always the best way.
PD: Improvised comedy can certainly be a challenge; and a lot of your shows are about challenges too. You’ve done Birdwatching (Alex’s 2009 Fringe show) and then Wordwatching (his 2010 follow-up) – I was wondering whether that’s a mechanism to produce a show or life imitating art?
AH: It’s a bit of both. I think I’m quite lucky that I have a job where I can find an idea and follow it through. I think if I wasn’t a comedian I wouldn’t necessarily have attempted those challenges – I like to think I would have – but it’s nice to think I can get paid to do them. I am, like most males, competitive to a degree and I really do like setting myself a challenge and following it through; even if it’s later revealed that that challenge isn’t as strong a comedic idea! I don’t know what the answer is. I hope they’re not just challenges for the sake of it; I hope there’s a point to it and not just completely whacky.
PD: We mentioned The Horne Section before; you tend to do lots of different shows at the Fringe and have a lot going on. It must be hard work?
AH: I think it’s very hard work for my wife. I have two young children, so any excuse to get out of the flat, really! It genuinely is really hard work for her and she’s very supportive. I think at festivals, especially the Edinburgh Festival, it’s an amazing opportunity to get out there and have fun, really. You have all these comics there and audience members wanting to see exciting things, so I try to throw myself into anything I can without killing myself.
There’s always the danger of you diluting yourself that way – people will come and see one of your three shows – but I don’t really do it for them, I do it for me. The success I’ve had, not that I’ve had much success, has always come from the Edinburgh Festival. It’s the only place you can really pitch ideas like a show about bird watching or a jazz/comedy hybrid. I look forward to August every year.
PD: You’ve got a lovely poster for this year’s Fringe of you almost getting drowned. What can you tell us about it? Is it all about being in the bathroom?
AH: I think about 1/10th of the show is about being in the bathroom. It’s about your life and how you spend your time. There’s that statistic banded about that the average man spends seven years in the bathroom, so I’ve taken that and run with it. I’ve tried to represent the average life in an hour proportionately; so there’s five minutes of the show in the bathroom, then cars, getting dressed, eating. I’m doing it alphabetically. It’s very silly – a bit like spinning plates.
It’s a slightly odd show in that there’s a very tight structure to it. It has to last an hour and each section is timed specifically. But within that there’s a lot of mucking around and the audience hopefully get involved too. There’s a lot of audience participation which I put in because it keeps the show interesting for both me and them. It means it’s different every night and I’m kept on my toes. I hate the idea of a show that is word for word every night.
PD: You’re coming to the North East soon with your new show, but what are your plans after that?
AH: I am indeed. I went to Darlington on my last tour and my uncle, who lives in Newcastle, come along and was very impressed with how cool the venue was; I’m looking forward to returning there. After that, I’m only doing two weeks in Edinburgh this year because I’ve got another child on the way, but I’m doing a big room this year: the Grand. We’re also doing a small kids show as well, trying to entertain kids with instruments. It’s our new and daring plan, partly because my own kids don’t find me funny in the slightest.
The good thing about having children, though, is that it makes other things seem less important I think. If things aren’t going too well on stage it’s okay because I’ve got children waiting at home. It’s a nice thought to have in the back of your mind.