Tom Wrigglesworth interview
In turns heart-wrenching and hilarious, Tom Wrigglesworth’s new show, Utterly at Odds With the Universe, takes him on an emotional journey from childhood to adulthood, exploring the poignant and profound relationship with his granddad.
The two frequently taped themselves interviewing each other and it’s in these early conversations that Tom comes to fully understand the influence his granddad has had on his own life.
Radio Teesdale’s Peter Dixon talks to Tom and finds out more about the show. Along the way we find out what Tom’s family think of his comedy, whether he gets discount on Virgin trains, and news that his Radio 4 show, Tom Wrigglesworth’s Hang-Ups, has been given a second series.
PD: I wanted to ask you about your early days as a comedian. You’re a Sheffield lad born and bred, and I wondered whether there was anything in Sheffield that particularly got you into comedy…
TW: I do find people from Sheffield hilarious. Whenever I go back I realise that I’m not that funny at all – I’m quite normal. It’s a personal taste, really. When I was at Salford University I used to watch open-mic comedy. I remember thinking, I could definitely be as bad as this. And I was as bad as that – comfortably. I guess I got better.
PD: You’re about to go on tour with your new show, which has a fantastic title; Utterly At Odds With The Universe…
TW: Well that title comes from something my granddad said to me before he died and it stuck in my mind as an amazing sentence really. So I thought I’d use that for something. After my granddad died we moved my granny into my mum and dad’s house because she was getting older – so we moved her into the basement of my mum and dad’s house.
Interestingly when we did that I noticed, when I went back to visit them, I started to become aware of the eccentric, almost panicked lifestyle of my parents, who lived their life at breakneck speed, constantly confused, constantly messing everything up, constantly playing catch-up but never achieving anything.
Downstairs at my granny’s it was a peaceful, tranquil oasis of calm – and I never really noticed the difference before until they started living together. And that observation turned into the radio series I did called Tom Wrigglesworth’s Hang-Ups which was based on me phoning my mum and dad and getting annoyed with their madness and then speaking to my granny and realising that everything will be all right in the end.
But you see, when we moved my granny I discovered a box of cassette tapes that had not been touched for years, covered in dust. Then I had to find a tape player – that was no easy task. And on those cassette tapes were interviews between me and my granddad when I was about six or seven – and that’s how the show starts with these interviews being played, and stories about my granddad.
The whole show is a reflection on the fact that I am who I am because of him, really. As a result a lot of people leave the show crying.
PD: You say they were interviews – were you interviewing him or was he interviewing you?
TW: Bit of both! They weren’t Parkinson-style interviews, nor were they done with any understanding of how poignant they might turn out to be. It’s only 30 years later that they take on a kind of meaning of their own. Some of the tapes had deteriorated, but most of them I salvaged and put them on my computer to polish them up for the show.
PD: It must have been a lovely experience going back and listening to your granddad, but I imagine it was a bit of a shock at first…
TW: To be honest I’d got the tapes and I knew that my granddad would be on them because he got this tape player in the mid-eighties and he used to take it around everywhere with him, recording brass bands or anything. He used to be constantly recording, so I knew he’d be on there recording.
It took me several months… I blame it on not having a tape player, but it took me a while to get my head around that I was going to hear his voice – from years ago as well. I remember sitting down with a cup of tea and pressing play and thinking, this is going to blow my mind. And it did. Obviously I’m glad I did it.
PD: How did your family react to it – it must have been stranger for them because it was more of a little project for you?
TW: Yeah, well they’re fine. When I did the radio series – which has a similar starting point – my mum and dad were scared about that because they were going to be on Radio 4! They were a bit concerned about that, but they liked it in the end and understood it was more of a caricature.
My niece came along to see this show and I told her that she might get a bit upset at the end, but she didn’t really believe me because it was comedy. But she was in absolute bits because it was her great granddad you know. A lot of people leave wanting to leave wanted to get in touch with their loved ones a bit.
PD: A lot of comedians do radio shows, but you’ve done a lot of radio and I wanted to know why you’ve gone down that route and why other comedians don’t…
TW: I do love doing it, actually – it’s much less pressure than TV. And as they say, the pictures are better on the radio, aren’t they? My favourite is live performance. I think that’s the most fun for everyone involved. But it’s great to do radio, though, because you get a topic or a task and you’ve got to produce half an hour of jokes about it that’s to be kept and recorded forever – which is terrifying really.
Television, you know, it’s just a nerve-wracking, stressful situation that’s too much to bear. So radio is the perfect compromise between live and TV.
I’m quite happy just being recognised on the train twice a week… I’ve got friends who are very famous comedians and when I go out with them it’s a nightmare. People just gawk and it’s quite stressful.
PD: Do you like the whole process of getting on the road – do you mind the travelling and moving about?
TW: Well sometimes you wonder whether your agent has a map… Dundee then Plymouth? It’s great touring around, actually, because a lot of places respect the fact and appreciate the fact you’ve travelled to their venue. In this day and age where entertainment is just a button push away it’s still nice to see people respond to live comedy. It’s great – you see some crazy places you might not think to visit. Durham is the exception of course being a massive tourist attraction.
The truth is, I’d have never made it if I didn’t have a sat nav. If I was a comedian 20 years ago I could’ve been the best comedian in the world but I’d have failed because I couldn’t get back on the motorway.
PD: Do you drive then? I guess when you’re touring nowadays you’re more or less on your own…
TW: I am, yeah. I’ve got a bag of props that make up my set. It’ll be a mixture of car and train. I’ve got a bit of history with the train.
PD: Do you get discount on Virgin trains now? [Tom’s 2009 Edinburgh show, Open Letters, was about his dispute with Virgin].
TW: I don’t, no. I’m extra careful now, especially with Virgin, to make sure my ticket is valid. I had a situation on the train a few years ago where there was a woman on the train who got into trouble and had to buy a new ticket and it cost her a fortune. I had a whip-round and then I was met by the police because Virgin tried to get me arrested for begging. And I’m absolutely sure they’re still trying to put one over me. There’s absolutely no flies on me at all!
PD: At what point did you realise you could write a show about that?
TW: I think it was that night. I was talking to my agent and a couple of friends and they were just in disbelief, and the story just got longer and longer, so I thought I’d write it into a full-length show. It was only when I started telling people that I realised people were interested in what I had to say.
Tom Wrigglesworth: Utterly At Odds With The Universe, The Hyena, Newcastle, Thursday 13 November, 7pm, £12/£10 concessions. Buy tickets.