Rachel Pronger

Interview: Robin Ince

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“The interview you’re getting now might be quite insane,” Robin Ince warns me on an icy Wednesday afternoon from a station platform on route to Wolverhampton.

Given my dodgy mobile, passing freight trains, several unexplained alarms and an insomnia wracked Ince, this does prove to be one of my more chaotic interview experiences. Nonetheless he is a charming and apologetic interviewee, even when forced to call me back several times due to a dodgy signal. The insomnia appears to be a recurring problem and Ince confesses he feels awful today. “I’ve had two weeks of it now; this morning I just wanted to cancel the whole tour. Thank heaven I was never put in Abu Ghraib or anything like that, I’d have given away all my secrets pretty quickly!”

Of course, Ince doesn’t really mean it when he mentions giving up on the tour. Clearly a hard worker he has spent the last two decades writing and performing, quietly carving a comic niche. He first garnered real attention supporting friend Ricky Gervais on tour, but his own material is very different from Gervais’s tabloid baiting, self-consciously egotistical stand-up. Starting out in more general observational comedy, Ince is now best known for combining stand-up with a passion for science, with the most well-known example being Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage in which he teams up with physicist Brian Cox and other comedians and scientists for an irreverent look at scientific issues.

Like a top notch secondary school teacher, Ince’s geeky enthusiasm is infectious as he hurriedly outlines the concept of his latest tour Happiness Through Science. “I think it’s basically a celebration of human imagination and where science has gotten us,” Ince explains, “the whole of our scientific universe and the way we do it now is built on the brains and minds of scientists, human imagination. So a celebration of that and kind of having a go at some of the charlatan bamboozlers and nincompoops who get in the way of the ideas. Mainly it’s a celebration of grand ideas about the universe. I’m not saying I understand them – I just want to make that very clear as well – but I’m attempting to understand them.”

This conscious decision to engage with big ideas in his comedy seems to have initially stemmed from dissatisfaction with the mainstream stand-up that dominated the early noughties. Along with the likes of Josie Long and Stewart Lee, Ince has played a significant part in the recent resurgence in intellectually-engaged comedy that seeks to provoke thought as well as entertain.

“I think mainstream gigs have becomes so mainstream that audiences who would have been going to alternative gigs in the 80s, those kinds of people seek out things that are a bit different,” Ince explains. “All of that I think has to find the right audience. And certainly I think in the last few years the number of people excited and interested to sit down and try and understand quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology has increased. People are always hungry for interesting things, and television etcetera had had a few years of being quite banal so I think there was a kind of reaction really. People started to want more than just Big Brother and singing shows, so that helped as well. I think in some ways having that level of mediocrity out there has helped for the live stuff.”

As a kid Ince was inspired by the 80s alternative comedians such as Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton, as well as old school slapstick from the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Michael Crawford – and this combination of wilful silliness and big ideas is a hallmark of his work. Despite amateur enthusiasm, Ince is quick to point out that he is no expert and he is always on the side of the audience.

I wonder if he ever feels intimidated appearing next to mega brains such as Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh. “Not really, what I always think is that I am an idiot. Every now and then  I get asked to do things where I have to explain to people, I’m not a PhD or anything, I’m just a bloke who’s interested. I envy their brains sometimes and I find their work quite wonderful to behold”

Along with the radio show and stand-up tours, another of Ince’s popular projects is The Book Club. Starting in 2005 as a weekly fixture at The Albany in London, The Book Club was initially a showcase for experimental new material, named after a regular segment in which Ince read aloud from dubious second hand books brought in by the audience.

“It really came out of spending so much time in charity shops when I was touring around, and I’d always find these wonderful and bizarre Westerns, Mills and Boons, self help guides and novels about giant killer crabs which have become the main basis of The Book Club,” Ince explains. “So I used to sort of talk about them at the beginning of the show whilst I was on tour and it just seemed to expand and expand and expand until it became a show in itself.”

Something of a cult hit, The Book Club toured the country, won a Time Out award and even spawned a spin off book.  Now Ince is reinventing The Book Club to focus on bad science books and he admits he relishes the trashier side of culture. “I like trash culture and I like the high brow; it’s the middle brow I generally avoid. So working with people like Brian and Ben and Simon and all that lot, that deals with the highbrow ideas of science, and I’ll also dig down to lowbrow terrifying jungle romance novels from the 1950s.”

Although Ince started out as a writer – working on shows like Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression and V Graham Norton and even co-writing a feature film, low budget Brit flick Razzle Dazzle, in 2006 – it is clear that performing is his real love. “With writing, it’s that whole Douglas Adams thing of ‘I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they’re flying past your ear,’” Ince explains. “Once you’re onstage you’ve got no choice, you’ve got to start. You can’t um and ah around and go on Twitter for the first ten minutes.”

Many people will have first stumbled across Ince as a performer supporting Gervais on tour in the mid-noughties, as The Office and Extras were securing Gervais celebrity status. I wondered if the two would ever work together again now Gervais is cracking Hollywood, but Ince admits that it’s unlikely. “We’re still friends, we haven’t fallen out or anything like that. I really don’t think I’ll ever support him on tour again. That was quite an insane mental rigmarole. I really would describe him as being like a kind of child emperor, getting in a terribly bad mood because no one’s brought him chicken, or just screaming in your face. So yeah, the last tour he did I said no to supporting that one because I thought oh no, he’ll drive me mental. I nearly did go insane on that occasion. Also I suppose where I’ve gone to now, there’s a lot things that I don’t do anymore, I’m really specific about the science agenda now.”

The next year looks to be another busy one for Ince. There’s the next series of Monkey Cage, another book, further touring and a documentary about Charles Darwin all in the pipeline, although he insists he is trying to do less. Despite Ince’s eclectic interests, it is touring that seems to enthuse him the most – even though he admits that the process can be a little chaotic. “Sometimes when you’ve got insomnia and you’ve got a really heavy backpack and you’re going to Wolverhampton, sometimes you think I’d rather not go. I think the older I get the more I’ll be like the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Except I won’t be a millionaire and I might not wear tissue boxes on my feet either. Sometimes you just don’t particularly want to leave the house. But when you get up on stage…” he tails off wistfully.

Ince concludes with quiet self-assurance: “This is the most fun I’ve had. I’d just like to say that I love doing this show. And it plays to such a mixed audience. I think it’s the best show I’ve ever written.”

Robin Ince brings his show Happiness Through Science to the Newcastle Stand on Tuesday 28th February. For full tour dates, see: robinince.com