Interview: Phill Jupitus
Known to many from his longstanding role as team captain on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Phill Jupitus’ self-confessed low boredom threshold has led him into a wide and varied career. Over more than 20 years, he has immersed himself in performance poetry, stand-up, improvisation, TV work, script and book writing, and musical theatre.
Ahead of his forthcoming appearance in Spamalot – the musical “lovingly ripped off” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail – at Sunderland Empire, Elliott Clarke spoke to Jupitus about politics, progression, and pantomime.
EC: Before immersing yourself in comedy you did political poetry, didn’t you?
PJ: Well no, the politics was part of it, because it was the early 80s – we were 5 years into the Thatcher administration, and it was almost impossible not to touch on politics. Culture always reacts to the political climate at the time. I never set out to be political, but once I had a platform to shout from I realised I had things I wanted to shout about. While I was touring with Billy Bragg, his manager Peter Jenner assessed my role as – and I quote – “a bit of shit and piss fun before the band came on.”
EC: How did the Labour party tour with Billy Bragg come about then?
PJ: It was the first time a band had done anything directly in parallel with Walworth Road, and Peter Jenner was instrumental in the movement. We toured the campaign for Neil Kinnock, with Billy, the Style council, me, and some other comedians. Billy set up Red Wedge after the Jobs for Youth tour, and I think that’s what put me off organized politics.
EC: Would you go so far as to say you’re now a-political?
PJ: I’m not a-political. I always try to keep an eye on local politics, what’s going on in the local area. People can make an impact on a smaller scale, but as I’ve got older I’ve realised there’s no point shouting at the big guns. I mean, the coalition is just the same crap in a different bag.
EC: How has that realisation affected your art?
PJ: Art is too big a word for what I do. My most satisfying work is done when I don’t think about it. I keep a broad portfolio: I’m writing a book, and now I’m doing musicals, like Hairspray and Spamalot – I try not to think too hard.
John Hegley is art. Daniel Kitson is art. Simon Munnery is art. Those are probably the only 3 people, within the area where I work, that I would call genius.
EC: Why did you make the decision to enter the comedy circuit instead of continuing with the poetry?
PJ: One of my big heroes growing up was Steve Martin, but you can’t be Steve Martin. You just can’t imitate him. Poetry was the catalyst for me, because I knew I could do it. You study poetry at school; you never study stand-up in school.
I called The Comedy Store and when they asked my name I said “Porky the Poet”. They just told me they didn’t do poetry, and that was the end of the conversation.
It wasn’t until James Brown, who later became the editor of Loaded, came to a show that I decided to ditch the poems. He said, “The poems are alright, but what you said in between them was really funny”, so I learnt how to talk to a lot of people without the paper in front of me.
EC: You came into the comedy scene in the 90s, and had acts like Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan and Jack Dee as contemporaries. Your impressions of Izzard give the feeling that you had a mutual respect and friendly rivalry – is this the case?
PJ: Eddie gave me my first regular gig, so he was very much in on the ground floor with me. He ran a club in Soho called the Raging Bull, but he got too big and was always doing gigs around the country, so he called me in as the regular compere. We’re still good friends, he actually called me about 18 months ago and asked why I don’t do stand up anymore – he was quite angry about it.
EC: So why don’t you do stand-up anymore?
PJ: I’m going to write a show for Edinburgh and do a show again this year. I’m not sure if I still remember how to do it!
EC: You are the only act to have appeared in every episode of Never Mind Of The Buzzcocks. What drew you to the show, and why have you stayed?
PJ: It was really the music and comedy tie-in that interested me in the first place, and I’ve stayed because it’s a lot of fun. The original team with Mark and Sean was fun, but Sean left and Bill came on board. With Bill it was even more fun. Since then Simon and Noel have been involved. I often get moaned at by fuckwits on the internet because I laugh a lot – I mean, why wouldn’t you laugh at what Noel Fielding says? I’ve always thought, “If it’s no fun don’t do it”. The chemistry is what keeps me there, I really love it.
Some people may think I’ve outstayed my welcome, but look at the Rolling Stones – they keep doing what they do regardless.
EC: Do you feel that the chemistry is still there in the Buzzcocks studio?
PJ: I think it’s improved. Noel’s brilliant, he’s really keeping things fun. And the guest hosts as well – the Terry Wogan episode is the only show I’ve ever asked for an unedited copy of. I have it at home, over 2 hours of it. I think it’s the best of 14 years of the show.
EC: Do you prefer working with other people, improvising, appearing on panel shows and podcasts?
PJ: The thing is, after doing a one-man solo show for so long, working with other people becomes a luxury. I don’t sit down and write routines, I just talk and work on what comes out. Having the structure there is really exciting for me.
EC: You must be enjoying touring the Spamalot musical then?
PJ: The structure is there, and it’s great the way the nuances change from night to night. I’m a massive fan of Monty Python, and the Holy Grail has been with me since I was 14. I interviewed Eric Idle and Terry Jones, and that interview shows how much of a Python nerd I am. Even the dancers, who are really young, are aware of the legacy, and pay deference to that.
EC: Finally, what can we expect from the show? Have you made any changes to the classic Graham Chapman character of Arthur?
PJ: Eric Idle wrote the script, but he left gaps for me to improvise. I’m slightly in awe, but you have to put your spin on it. There are “Phill Jupitus” moments where I have space to do my thing, but Graham Chapman is my “Arthur” that I try and emulate.
The show is what Americans call a triple threat: fans of Monty Python will know the lines; musical fans will love the parody – the music really kicks chorus line in the balls; and it’s just a great night out. Jim Davidson claims to have invented the adult pantomime, but this really is the ultimate grown-up pantomime!
Spamalot plays at Sunderland Empire Theatre from Feb 28th to March 5th. Tickets are available from here.