Interview: Mark Watson
By his own admission, Mark Watson has played “a fair bit” of the North East; Stockton, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Whitley Bay, Durham – but not Barnard Castle. However that’s all set to change on 6 September, when he travels to the Witham Hall for Funny Way To Be’s autumn comedy gala. “I always like to go to places for the first time; it’s a new experience for me and the audience,” he tells Radio Teesdale’s Peter Dixon, in a candid interview about comedy, that long-lost Welsh accent, writing a sitcom, leaving Edinburgh behind and more.
PD: Hi Mark. How’re you doing?
MW: I’m fairly fit and well. My son broke his leg on holiday unfortunately – he’s three – he’s at that age where he falls over a lot. My family are walking wounds at the minute but I’m all right!
PD: All sorts of things are happening in your career. For those who aren’t so familiar with you, let’s talk about the early days. You were a graduate at Cambridge University doing English; is this how you imagined your career?
MW: It’s not how I imagined it, no. I didn’t have a clear plan. These days people plan to become comedians. There’s much more of a comedy scene than when I was at university. It was only ten years ago but we’ve seen an enormous boom. My aim was to become a writer, really, and I had writing projects and ambitions and stuff; but I entered a couple of open-mic competitions, it went well and I got the bug from there, really.
It was quite a nice accident, I suppose you’d say.
PD: You mentioned ambitions there – you always seem to have a variety of projects on the go…
MW: I like to keep a variety of projects, but I’m more focused on writing, really. I’m happiest as myself. I’ve never had ambitions to do what you’d call proper acting, partly because there’s so many people who can do it. I feel like in sticking to my own act I can be the best at that. As soon as you start putting yourself up against the sort of people who concentrate fully at acting you’re at a disadvantage really.
I’d quite like to have one of those jobs where you pop up in a Dickens adaption or a silly role, but I don’t think I’m the next Doctor Who, put it that way – although I haven’t been told either way!
PD: When we first spoke to you a few years back you had a Welsh accent. I know your parents are Welsh and you were brought up in Bristol, but was that in some way an act?
MW: Yeah, it was, really. It was, as you say, an act that I had a slight trace of anyway, but it’s something that I wanted to do as a sort of…initially as a way of getting away from the self-consciousness you feel when you’re on stage for the first time and you hear your own voice in the microphone. It was helpful to have a character to hide behind. Gradually people came to know me as the Welsh comedian, and I just built on that, really.
I never expected it to take off, so it got to a point where I was sort of trapped pretending to be Welsh. I am half Welsh as you say, but it was getting more pronounced as I was trying to keep the character together.
It was getting to the point where I’d get a lift home from the other comedians after gigs and I’d have to keep up the accent because I was worried what they’d think. In the end I had to stop because I was going mad!
I faded it out gradually. I did a series of gigs where I’d spring it on the audience at the end. You can see early Mock the Weeks where I still sound Welsh, but on the whole I hadn’t been on telly that much in those days – and really people didn’t seem to care [when Watson dropped the Welsh accent]. I thought Welsh people might’ve been been furious, but they didn’t really care.
It wasn’t a big deal for most people, but it did feel strange to me doing it in my natural voice. It took a while to get used to it.
PD: I suppose you’re happy with that now then? You’re not going to create another character anytime soon, are you?
MW: Ha ha – no. It’s the only accent I can do!
PD: You’ve become known for doing long shows, most recently a 25-hour show for Comic Relief. Did it translate well for TV?
MW: All of it was streamed on the internet and that bit worked quite well. We’d never had that before, but this time there was a highlights package on Red Nose Day and everything, but the majority of it was done online. A lot of people got in touch and interacted with the show. It’s quite strange doing a show to an audience that is quite invisible to you, as it were. I found it a strange experience but in a good way.
Part of the exercise was about fundraising so I had to appeal to people at home, but my priority was always the people in the room. You really want to keep them on side. You’re basically in a hostage situation.
PD: How do you fit your writing in with the lifestyle of being a stand-up and a TV personality?
MW: It is quite a tricky balance. The way I wrote The Knot – and most of the books I’ve done actually – was on tour, at gigs, in hotel rooms, on trains. That works. I get the job done, but at the moment I’m just trying to concentrate on writing. It’s hard to burn the candle at both ends, which is what I’ve been doing for the past few years really.
I’m writing another novel now because I’m not on tour. Being stationary helped with that. But if you’re a touring comedian you’re always working – apart from when you’re in the bath.
With the amount of things I’m doing, you’ve got to write where you can.
PD: How are you finding the world of publishing? It’s not only a case of writing the book, is it?
MW: It’s a very lengthy process as you say. There’s an awful lot of editing, re-working; writing the book is only half the problem! The attention to detail is huge. The process is very long, and it’s quite different from comedy. If you’re touring people will tend to know about it; there’s a lot publicity and stuff. With a book the battle is getting it out there and in shops and stuff.
The literature world is low-key. Doing a book event is quite easy after stand-up comedy because all you’re doing is reading out. Very little heckling. Rather than making stuff up you’ve quite literally got a script in front of you. After stand-up it’s sometimes a relief to go into that world.
PD: Have you thought about other forms of writing? Like sitcoms, for example?
MW: I’ve always had lots of projects like that and very few of them come off. I’m written a play which is going to be on in London next year, and I’ve got a few other things like that. A sitcom is such a lottery, really. At any given time I’ve always got a couple of those projects on the go, but they always take so long to come to fruition. It’s a pretty precarious job. TV is a much more brutal world, really.
PD: You mentioned earlier about your young family; in terms of current stand-up, do you talk about them? I know a lot of comedians who shy away from that area.
MW: Yeah, I do kind of feel like that. I definitely talk about the family and it’s pretty hard to avoid it as a topic because it takes up so much of your life; but it’s about finding something interesting rather than rattling off cute stuff a kid has said – which anyone can do.
With stand-up people want something people wouldn’t hear in every day conversation. If you just sound like someone at a dinner party banging on about their children… Well, you don’t need to pay for that. You can get that anywhere. And that’s the same with all topics, really. You can talk about anything, but you need a different way to approach it.
PD: You’re not performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, but are you going as a fan?
MW: It’s the first time in years I haven’t performed there, and it’s going to be very nice to have a break. I’ll probably see a few people’s shows and take part a little bit, but on a whole it’ll be nice to avoid the place, really. I’ve been to Edinburgh every summer for years and years – every summer since 2000 – so in a way it’s nice to make a completely clean break from it. But as you’ve heard I’m still going. I think my car would just drive up there on its own if I didn’t go.
PD: Shortly after Edinburgh you’re coming to the Witham Hall in Barnard Castle [for the Funny Way To Be comedy gala]; do you know the North East well?
MW: I’ve played a fair bit of the North East; Stockton, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Durham. I’ve ticked off almost all of the North East on my tours – but not Barnard Castle; that’ll be new territory for me. I always like to go to places for the first time; it’s a slightly different experience for me and the audience.
You want to have support acts that you have faith in, and that’s certainly the case here. (Ed: Romesh Ranganathan, Matt Richardson, Tom Deacon, Eric Lampaert, Foil Arms & Hog and Nat Luurtsema are joining Mark in Barnard Castle.)
But you don’t want them to be too funny either! [Laughs] It’s a delicate balance.
Mark Watson headlines the Funny Way To Be comedy gala at the Witham Hall, Barnard Castle, on Friday 6 September. Tickets go on sale on Friday 28 June at 10am, priced £20. Click for more information on Funny Way To Be’s autumn programme. Watson also plays this year’s Latitude Festival.