John-Paul Stephenson

Interview: Richard Digance

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Comic singer-songwriter Richard Digance, known for his TV specials and appearances on Countdown and at folk festivals, is making his Fringe debut with a solo show and his children’s musical, War of the Worms. In this interview, he talks about his challenge to perform 22 different shows across 22 nights, his decision to leave Countdown, and his Autumn tour with Jim Davidson.

JPS: You’ve been performing on stage and television for about forty years now. Why are you making your Fringe debut this year?

RD: I wanted a bit of challenge. I’ve always wanted to do Edinburgh, but it always conflicted with the folk festivals like Cropredy, so it was hard to commit to three weeks.

JPS: You’re aiming do 22 different shows across 22 nights. How does that work?

RD: The whole essence was that I was not going to stand there and do the same thing 22 times; that isn’t my style. I’m not being arrogant, but there are not many people who could actually do 22 different shows rather than bashing out the same gig every night. If people enjoy it, they might come again because they know it will be a completely different show.

But I did not want to be seen as a cobwebbed performer who had been around since the ark. I didn’t want that image. I wanted to go there with something a little bit different.

JPS: So how are you going to work out which material goes in which show? Is that something you decide on the night?

RD: I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do each night because I rely on the audience. What I do know is that I have a wealth of material that will see me though 22 different shows.

I’ll make a note of what material I’ve done each night, so I can keep a note of what I’ve done rather than what I’m going to do. If we get an audience that are up for a real laugh, I’ll turn on the comedy stuff. Some audiences like to hear a bit of ragtime guitar, while other punters only know me from Countdown and want the silly poems. They don’t know what they’re going to get, and I don’t know what I’m going to give them.

JPS: You do have wealth of material that you can draw upon…

RD: I think you should boast something like that. In this industry, you get pilloried for getting older. In America, you’re a legend till you drop. It’s not like that in the UK, especially with TV. The younger execs probably haven’t even heard of me and I totally accept that. But, it doesn’t mean that someone like me would be washed out, it just means that you have a sell by date. I can live with that; it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

It gives me a chance to widen the audience a little bit. I’ve got a nice loyal audience in most parts of the country, but I’m hoping that it’ll open a few more eyes and ears.  Fringe audiences have a lot of shows to choose from, so let’s make sure that if they come to mine that they bloody enjoy it.

JPS: There’s quite a big nostalgia element at Edinburgh.

RD: The nostalgic element is great for me. The older people will remember me from the TV specials, and they’ll also remember the 19 years of Countdown. The demographic of Edinburgh is about 35. That suits me down to the ground. The acoustic guitar is still pretty cool and might impress teenagers but I don’t think my sort of humour is what they are used to in the modern world.

I don’t necessarily want to play to my standard audience, as much as I welcome them being there. This is me stretching myself to new boundaries: how good is my humour? How well will it travel with a much wider age group than I’m used to? It’s a massive challenge for me. I’m going to make sure that people say, “I’m glad I went.”

JPS: Countdown is popular with students too…

RD: And also with prisoners. I did a gig at Dartmoor prison; I am actually the only British act ever to do a TV show from a prison with a prison audience. They all knew who I was because they take their recreation at 4pm, and they all sat down and watched Countdown, so it was like Springsteen or Lennon going there, he said jokingly, because they knew me from Countdown.

I made the conscious effort to pull away from Countdown because I felt 19 years was enough, and I’d written so much for it; it was a very taxing gig. As the various presenters came and went, to be brutally honest, I lost a lot of interest in it, I quite enjoyed the ‘vintage’ Countdown; it felt like family, and we used to go out drinking with everyone behind the scenes. It lost a bit of that for me, and I felt that I could move on.

JPS: So can we expect some greatest hits? The Jungle Cup Final was a particular favourite of mine.

RD: I couldn’t possibly do 22 shows of new material; I’m not that much of an intellect. I’m going to enjoy doing some of that stuff. I’ve only got to rehearse it for about 20 minutes or so and it all comes flooding back. The brain’s like a little filing cabinet, with drawers you haven’t opened for years. When you do open them it’s quite surprising what still exists there.

Every performer likes to think that their material is timeless. I would like to say the same, and I think the Fringe will be a confirmation of whether it is or whether it isn’t. We’ll see how many people are there at the start and how many people have walked out by the end. People are more willing to take a chance at Edinburgh because the gigs are usually only about an hour long. It’s like hopping on a bus.

JPS: You’re listed in the Fringe programme in the music’ section rather than comedy. Are you looking to do the more serious material?

RD: I was a little disappointed that I’m not listed in the comedy category, but I’m not sure that it matters that much because word spreads in Edinburgh. It was odd I was listed under music because I’ve had a BAFTA nomination for comedy. As long as I’m at my best, I think the word will spread.

JPS: You are performing two shows at the Fringe this year; your evening show, and also a children’s show in the morning. Some comedians are now performing more than one show each day to make the Fringe more economically viable for them. Was this a financial consideration for you?

RD: No. I’m on a deal with the theatre, so I can’t possibly lose money. A lot of people who lose money hire their venues.

JPS: So how did ‘War of the Worms’ come about?

RD: The New Town Theatre was looking for a children’s show, and I told them that I’ve a children’s musical that I’ve always loved but never had the opportunity to put through its paces.

Years ago, I did children’s series for the BBC called the Animal Alphabet. We couldn’t do that at the Fringe because it was a little bit crass, and you can’t patronise modern children. I wanted to inspire myself to do something I’ve never done on stage before. The morning show is me with guitar and sing-along songs for the kids, with my daughter, Rosie, narrating the story. That’s better than churning out old poems form the 1970s.

JPS: Thinking to the other side of the Fringe; you have your own solo tour, and also a tour with Jim Davidson…

RD: We did gigs in the most inhospitable of places, like the Falklands. I haven’t worked with Davidson for the best part of 15 years, but I don’t like the dark place he’s in at the moment; I wanted to rally a little bit because he was the guy who got me on TV all those years ago. And, if I’m brutally honest, it gives me an opportunity to get back into the really big theatres I left behind when I walked away from the telly. I can’t pull 1500 people anymore, although I love the smaller gigs like at the Customs House in South Shields.

JPS: There is a contrast in styles. Jim is… ‘antagonistic’ is a good word.

RD: In every football team, you need a good striker and a goalkeeper. You can’t have two blue comedians on the same show. I’m nothing like him as a person; he’s very black and white – you either like him or you don’t. I’m not like that, so I don’t know how well I’ll go down with Jim’s hardened fans. I’ll report back in December if I’m still alive.

He’s still under arrest until October, although he has not been charged, we must emphasise. That’s his issue, not mine. My personal view is that there’s a bit of a witch hunt going on. I could make mincemeat of it all, but I’m not involved. If I were, I’d have my guns loaded.

Richard Digance is performing at the New Town Theatre 2-25 August (not 9/10). His children’s musical, War of the Worms, is also at the New Town Theatre, 2-25 August (not 9,10,20). His 2013/4 tour dates, solo and with Jim Davidson, are here.