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Saturday, 20 December 2008

REVIEW: Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People

Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 19 December 2008

This event promised a great deal.

By way of background, the rising and well-connected comedian Robin Ince had a bright idea a couple of months ago.

He would round up leading scientists and popular entertainers to do a secular and thoughtful London counterpoint to that worthy but dull Christian plodfest in Cambridge.

Last night (Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre was the original event, and I somehow got a couple of tickets.

Once advertised, however, interest in the event exploded.

Extra events were then organised: one on the Thursday before, and two more to come at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Ince, to his great credit, had hit on an unsatisfied demand.

And I doubt that any other impresario could go - from scratch - to four packed, big-name shows taking place in the week before Christmas.

Robin Ince
is a very fine comedian, but he also has a touch of real Geldof-like persuasion and organisational talent.

The show, however, was mixed. This was perhaps predictable for a first time, and the good stuff bears well for a repeat next - and every - year.

The main highlights were the scientists.

We were first inspired by a recording of the calm and wise Carl Sagan.

Simon Singh then took time away from being sued by the misconceived to tell entertaining and instructive tales of the Big Bang and Katie Melua.

Richard Dawkins - whose Oxbridge background perhaps made his contribution closer to the more conventional lessons and carols - read two beautiful and thought provoking passages from his own work.

And Ben Goldacre gave what was, in effect, a sermon. Describing how he had been sued by the dangerous Matthais Rath, and how Rath's bad medicine had been disastrous for South African AIDS sufferers, he ended by stating "Don't ever believe that bullshit isn't dangerous". I have seen Ben speak a few times now, but this was him at his most truly powerful.

To complement the scientists were comedians, singers, and other entertainers.

The most impressive was Tim Minchin, the last act, who narrated a brilliant and witty "beat poem" about an encounter with an earnest Woo dinner guest. Without notes, and with perfect pacing, it was a splendid performance. And, in doing so, he deftly articulated the worldview of many secularists and skeptics.

Also good were Joanna Neary, whose mime as "Pan's Person" made me cry and rock with laughter, and the extremely funny Natalie Haynes. The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra provided fun and well-played accompanying music and interludes.

In contrast, some of the other entertainers were a disappointment, or worse.

Phil Jupitas just looked bored, and Josie Long was unprepared (and told a rambling and confused anecdote about David Hume's famous deathbed scene, calling Samuel Johnson a Catholic, and mixing Adam Smith for James Boswell).

Ricky Gervais came on to warm applause and goodwill. It didn't last. He shared a sick and simply horrible joke about raping an old woman with Alzheimers. He left to substantially less warm applause, and a loss of a good deal of respect.

Mark Thomas joked about Norfolk inbreeding (radical, anarchic, yawn). And a chap called Andrew Collins slipped in a joke about putting Jews on trains; I rather hope his career declines markedly after this.

I am afraid the acts of Gervais, Thomas, and Collins did depress me a bit.

The secular alternative offered by the title and theme of the evening was supposed to inspire. But I really would rather be a misguided Christian than someone who enjoyed such bad material. Thankfully, their stuff was outweighed by the goodness elsewhere.

Overall, the event was enjoyable, and it has the genuine potential next year to be great.

Admittedly, the evening was crowded and over-ran. (Another reviewer - of the night before - has said the length was a test of one's faithlessness - see here.)

Pruned back, and removing the needlessly offensive and lazy acts, it would be more attractive and focused. And this would be a good thing.

After all, there is an important message to be told at this time of year.

The Universe is far more beautiful and intriguing than any religion can convey.

I hope Robin Ince repeats the show next year, and that it becomes a fixture at this very special time of year.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I saw the show on Thursday night. I find my self enjoying the Comedy put apart from Gervais, who could have done something better than he did. But the music I could have lived without, MFMO being the exception.

Generally bravo to Mr Ince and I hope theres one next year.

Crispian Jago said...

Sounds like you didn't enoy the show quite as much as me. Although I certainly agree that the less well known Tim Minchin and Jo Neary cleary outshone Ricky Gervais, Phil Jupitus and Mark Thomas. I did enjoy all of the acts but must confess to missing Mark Thomas' comment regarding Jews on Trains.

Hope you don't object to me leaving a link to my less critical review. But maybe I'm just more easily pleased.

http://crispian-jago.blogspot.com/2008/12/nine-lessons-and-carols-for-godless.html

Jack of Kent said...

Not at all Crispin, though it was Andrew Collins and not Mark Thomas that made that paticular "gag".

marmitelover said...

I like the idea of this. Us godless types need celebrations.

Part of HolfordWatch said...

Strongly agree with your review - we were even at the same performance.

I've always considered Gervais to be over-rated but suspended judgment on the assumption that he must be better when live - well, no, he wasn't.

The whole needed some ruthless pruning - it might have seemed that 3.5 hours for £20 would seem like extraordinary value, no matter how poor some of the acts but it just meant that there were some horrendously long downtimes.

It's good that it happened and parts of it were very fine and I hope that it is the beginning of a high-quality tradition.

Smarter Than The Average said...

And note to so-called comedians: when you're telling stories about genuinely interesting and amusing figures from history, you don't have to say "Imagine that happening these days! It would be like..." before leading into a much inferior spin on the tale. Tyco Brahe's elk ownership is funny in itself - you don't need to say anything more on the subject.

Oh - and that's as prepared as you're ever going to see Josie Long...

Smarter Than The Average said...

Andrew Collins is not a comedian, but an NME journo-turned-Radio Times film critic. He's a big fan of Gillian McKeith, believes water has a memory (he once said the principle of vaccination was akin to homeopathy) and believes in 9/11 conspiracy theories. He also wrote a "why does he have to be so mean?" review of The GOd Delusion. But, he's Robin Ince's mate, so rationalism goes out the window there...

Smarter Than The Average said...

And note to so-called comedians: when you're telling stories about genuinely interesting and amusing figures from history, you don't have to say "Imagine that happening these days! It would be like..." before leading into a much inferior spin on the tale. Tyco Brahe's elk ownership is funny in itself - you don't need to say anything more on the subject.

Oh - and that's as prepared as you're ever going to see Josie Long...