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.