Ray Peacock interview
Ray Peacock is a stand-up comedian from Warrington, who is best known as one half of the Peacock and Gamble double act. He came to prominence in the Big and Daft Comedy group, though you may also recognise him from TV appearances on Russell Howard’s Good News, Not Going Out, and Doctor Who.
In an extensive interview with Giggle Beats, Ray talks about his career to date, his Fubar Radio shows with Ed Gamble and Angela Barnes, new Edinburgh show Here Comes Trouble, and much more.
AD: Hi Ray. I’ve followed your work since 2007, but I want to go beyond that to the very start of your career. Your background’s in acting, isn’t it?
RP: I went to Bretton Hall, which now doesn’t exist but it was a well respected indie drama school, even though it was linked to Leeds University. It didn’t earn that respect by the way, at least not from my experience there – I basically spent three years using their theatres for free.
I was certainly the only person when I was there thinking, ‘Hang on, that theatre’s empty most nights. Can we use it?’, then I’d write stuff and put on my own plays. I was the only person who utilised the facilities, because they were free and I knew that in two or three years’ time I’d be paying £500 a week to hire it out.
But there were some pretty big names who’ve come out of there, like The League Of Gentlemen, and Mark Thomas I think. I ended up being a massive fan of The League Of Gentlemen, but my first knowledge of them was people talking about them at Bretton Hall, and my immediate response was, ‘I bet they’re fucking rubbish. I bet I’m better than that!’
Bretton Hall was the alternative to London drama schools I guess, so it was far more hippy-ish and far more chilled out and relaxed, and more about the art, and being a master of everything in terms of writing, directing, acting. And while acting was a big part of it, there was a heavy emphasis on being creative and producing your own stuff. In terms of that, it was the right place for me to go because I was already all of those things – which is perhaps why I didn’t get an awful lot from it.
AD: So what kind of plays did you write?
RP: I wrote comedy plays, really. The best one was one called Toilet Humour. It was set in a public toilet – that was the thing – but it was very character-driven. I was in it very, very briefly playing a robber who, because the tights over his head were too tight, had went into the toilets instead of the bank, so they were trying to hold up the toilets.
I read Keith Johnstone’s book Improv as a 17 year old, and was really taken by the idea that you could write whatever you want, if you just free your head up. That’s something I’ve carried through with me, and that means sometimes you go route one with your writing; sometimes you’re exceptionally creative, and often the more creative you are the shitter it looks. So I’ve always strived to write stuff that looks ramshackle, and stuff that looks like it’s not written, even with my own stand-up.
Professionally, it isn’t a great idea – because even though you acquire a certain fan base you always alienate industry because they just think we’re dicking about, and you want to shake them and say, ‘No, we’re not dicking about – look at the script. It’s all on the page.’
That’s a real skill to write that, a genuine skill, and I’ve always been very interested in coarse acting, which is acting deliberately badly – like Garth Marenghi. But I like to take that to the extremes, so it looks like you’re not even acting, and you’re not even trying to act. Certainly if you look at the Peacock and Gamble live shows, and the Big and Daft shows before it, it looked like we weren’t even trying to perform.
Every now and again someone would appear to step out of the nothing and do a turn. Like with Naughty Keith, I would step out of the conversation to do an act, even though the conversation was an act as well. It was all an act.
I’ve always had a great interest in all that, so a lot of what I wrote was like that – stuff that was deliberately shit in a knowing way. But what you run the risk of doing is people watching it and thinking, ‘No, this is just shit. They just haven’t learnt it, it’s not been structured right..’
It’s kind of frustrating, but you can’t really baulk against that too much because if you do you ruin your own magic. If you start shouting, ‘No, I have written it like that deliberately’ you kill it dead for people who do like it.
Another thing I liked… I was big into Beckett, so I always liked the idea of people killing time. I’ve always enjoyed people killing time; anything where people are trapped together. It’s now a comedy staple that is, like Richard and Eddie in Bottom or Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot, which is exactly the same thing – so like me and Ed on stage, or me, Rob [Rouse] and Jon [Williams] in Big and Daft.
Big and Daft was three people who had to be together, but three people who either created conflict or idiocy, or… Weirdly, in Big and Daft, we explained why we had to be together. The idea behind that was that there were three brothers who had been separated at birth and they only found out they were related when their father died, and in his will he stipulated that they had to live together to get their money – so that was why they had to be together.
But in Peacock and Gamble we never explained why these two people who infuriate each other were together – a bit like Cannon and Ball, we never explained it.
So yeah, I was always writing shit deliberately…
AD: So was the drama always intended to be a route into comedy?
RP: I didn’t really see stand-up as a job. I didn’t know it was a job. I was a big fan of Les Dawson and Cannon and Ball as a kid, and when Mayall and Edmonson and Ben Elton came to prominence in the 80s I hooked on to that while still maintaining a loyalty to Cannon and Ball. I liked them all.
But it was only when I saw Rik Mayall live for the first time I thought, in huge naivety, I could do that. That wasn’t undermining Rik because that was, and I tell you this to this day, the most I’ve ever laughed in my entire existence. I actually couldn’t breathe from laughing. I was a huge fan as well, so the excitement of it was massive – I was 14/15.
I watched this man run around, fall through curtains, do V signs to the audience, swearing, being apparently completely out of control – apparently that was going on. And after that I thought, ‘I would love to do that, and I reckon I could’. The fact of the matter is that I couldn’t, however that also interestingly feeds back into what I was talking about before about writing something that looks shit.
Rik Mayall’s stand-up act could be dismissed as just a bloke dicking about; it could be. But as an adult, and a working comic, I can now fully appreciate just how much work he was doing on that stage – because you can’t dick about for an hour.
Phil Kay does it and it only works some of the time. When it does work it’s amazing; when it doesn’t it’s a fucking car crash – which is also interesting…
That was the first time I thought I could do comedy, but I didn’t want to be a comic as a living because I didn’t know that was a thing. So I trained to be an actor, then I left drama school and I did two Chekov plays, The Bear and The Proposal in London, and I got to about five or six days in to a run of 40 and I was bored shitless. Fuck me, I was so bored.
It just fell away immediately, and I didn’t want to do the same lines every night without any improvisation at all. I’ve been directed, I’ve been told where to stand, I’ve been told what to do at each point – I could be operating machinery.
So I decided to set up my own comedy clubs that I would compere, and they were called Big and Daft Comedy. The first one was at The Torrington Arms in Finchley. It doesn’t exist anymore – it’s a Starbucks now – but Eric Morecambe’s brother or someone used to own it years back, and Eric Morecambe used to live there for a while. I only found this out after we’d finished there… But they had this really beautiful function room out the back; it was brilliantly kitted out and it was an ace room for any performance – it was great.
So we set up a club up there. I had no material, nothing. I had a couple of put-downs ripped off Bill Hicks and I just went out and blagged it, and that’s how I cut my teeth in performing. I was going out compering with nothing, and the first night it was me, Rob Rouse, Micky Flanagan, Stephen Grant – everyone who was on that first night is still involved and is successful in comedy. They all got a fiver by the way. I had no idea!
AD: Were they all working comics at the time then?
RP: We were all at about the same level, but they’d done more gigs than me. Micky had an act, some of which stayed until he was famous and was in his first show that broke him. I’m pretty certain he was doing ‘out, out’ at that point. I’m sure Micky told me that he’s still got that fiver. He framed it because it was the first time he was paid for a gig. But when I think about that now I cringe that I ever thought it was okay to drag someone across London to do a 20-minute set for £5. I can’t believe I thought that was all right, but I knew no better.
It was never massively successful, but that’s how me, Rob and Jon started working together [as Big and Daft]. Instead of me compering, we started doing little sketchy bits in between the acts.
I was not a successful comedy promoter by any stretch of the imagination. If I could go back and change it I probably would, but that was my way in to comedy.
Then we [Big and Daft] decided to go to Edinburgh, even though we knew nothing about Edinburgh – and made money in our first year. I’ve never made money since. We played The Wee Room in the Gilded Balloon, which isn’t The Wee Room that they have now, where the old Gilded Balloon was on Cowgate.
We sold out the room, and got a real underground feel. A lot of comics came to see it and everyone started really liking it. We got £50 from the Gilded Balloon at the end of it – that was our profit – which Rob Rouse, and I’ll never forgive him to this day for this, especially knowing how these venues operate, never cashed that cheque! He eventually gave us the money out of his own pocket because me and Jon were so cross, then he said he lost it, and he found it again a year later when he couldn’t cash it.
And we never made money again because we were a little bit successful. The second year Real Talent took us up – it was Colin Dench, who also looked after Ross Noble. They took us up, and I thought there wasn’t a contract. I remember Colin saying to us, ‘Lads, you won’t have to pay anything’, which we thought meant he was stumping up for it all. But what he meant was that we wouldn’t have to pay anything before Edinburgh. So we got back home and he said, ‘You owe us this much!’
The third year we broke even because we did a tour after it, and then I went with Avalon and haven’t seen a penny since – but they’ve seen a lot of mine!
Best case scenario, if I sell every ticket this year, I lose £6000. It’s speculating to accumulate, but it’s a massive con and I don’t know if I’ll go again after this. This year is my tenth show and that’s enough now.
AD: What made you decide to give up Big and Daft?
RP: I decided on stage, at the Komedia in Bath, that I was done with it. I told Rob and Jon that I wasn’t enjoying it, and that I didn’t want to do it anymore, and they were obviously a bit upset with me. The next week BBC London gave us a call and offered us our own show, so I had to go, ‘Okay, I will just do the radio with you!’ So we did that for a little bit, and then it came to a sticky end.
We also did Terrorville with the BBC. I don’t know what happened to that, but interestingly there was me, Jon Williams, Rob Rouse, Count Arthur Strong – the show was innovative, but it wasn’t good at all. Count Arthur Strong was amazing in it but we were awful. It was the first time green screen was used on TV and it was a virtual world; everything was digital apart from the performers.
The BBC deal got kind of ruined because we got management and we hadn’t been with the management when we signed the deal, so they were at loggerheads over that. Management were asking too many things of the BBC, and then management told us they were going to get us out of the BBC deal, to which our reaction was, ‘What?’
Huge mistake, but it happened and we went with it. We fell out with that management a year later.