School For Gifted Children

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

The British Library is probably the spiritual home of the geekiest comedy night in Britain.

Under the intelligent design of Robin Ince, School For Gifted Children evolved from the now-defunct Book Club as a celebration of knowledge in all its forms in this dumbed-down world, and tonight’s Nerd Pride event covers everything from the invention of the printing press and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the Doha Declaration on copyrighted drugs. It’s not so much a set list as a list of specialist subjects for Mastermind.

Indeed, in moving away from traditional comedy-club fare, this night often moves away from comedy, too. Sometimes deliberately; other times less so – although Ince certainly does his bit to keep the laugh rate up.

His main weapon is indignant rage, inflamed by any example of wilful ignorance. A creationist’s letter to a newspaper, a documentary comparing Darwin to Hitler or a polemic book by American right-wing nutjob Ann Coulter provides more than enough fodder to set him on a righteous rant about their poisonously blinkered views.

Ince not so much comperes as curates, drawing together like-minded souls – although the line-up in this British Library special is lopsided, with an unfortunate bias against jokes. There’s not one, but two folksy singer-songwriters, two fervent campaigners and the folksy whimsy of Josie Long.

Martin Austwick provides some incidental music, plus a couple of numbers of his own: a song about Johannes Gutenberg that’s virtually a Wikipedia entry with added chords, and a dirge-like number inspired by the Tower Of Babel myth, which he admits has no humorous intent. It’s an odd, unfunny contribution.

Gavin Osborn, however, showed exactly how to meld erudition, wit and acoustic guitar, delivering tracks based on such topics as the sexually rampant bonobo chimps and an Iranian basketball player with delusions of immortality, whose real-life story is utterly fascinating. By day, this talented musician writes continuity links for the Discovery Channel, which seems apt given his love of obscure information.

Mark Thomas’s day job is dismantling the machinery of the capitalist military-industrial complex, and the latest target of his playful but purposeful sedition is the Coca-Cola corporation. He regales us with a few tales of standing up to their multinational might, as well as separately taking up cudgels for the right to freedom of speech.

He’s endearing and self-deprecatory; planning a subversive stunt then imagining all he has to do is sit back and watch the State crumble. Thomas boasts a great collection of funny class-war stories, but here gets rather too involved in detailed set-ups, when the night was crying out for more laughs, which he’s more than capable of generating.

Josie Long is quick to assure is that she is a comedian – and has a Harry Potter joke to prove it. But she admits she doesn’t like the pun, but prefers the slow, deliberate over-wringing of the idea that follows the actual gag. She must do, as she employs the exact-same trick on another feeble pun about Enlightenment philosopher John Locke later on. She earns kudos in this environment, however, for even embarking on such a subject, even if it ends in such agonising over-egging of weak wordplay.

Her references are, indeed, suitably eclectic, from a fictional pensioner’s ‘verbal history’ of the Second World War to the uncomfortable reaction Hieronymus Bosch must have received describing his warped visions of heaven. Long isn’t exactly as intellectually rigorous as Ince on such topics, instead letting her imagination run riot like an overactive child in a museum, overdosing on stimuli but barely taking any of it in. It means her routine relies more on winsome charm than rock-solid jokes. To use a fittingly nerdy analogy, she’s in need of a comedic Higgs boson to give her material weight.

Headlining what must have been his first comedy gig was Ben Goldacre - the doctor, if you don’t know him, who writes the Guardian’s brilliant Bad Science feature exposing quacks, charlatans and shoddy research.

Pooh-poohing doom-mongers like those who predicted the large hadron collider would turn the earth into a black hole might have proved grist for the comedy mill; but it’s clear he’s not here for comedic purposes. Instead, he’s here to talk about Matthias Rath, the vitamin pill magnate who denounces antiretroviral Aids drugs in South Africa, while promoting his products as miracle cures. Remarkably, his associates persuaded the government to adopt the same line, despite the disease claiming hundreds of thousands of its citizens every year.

Goldacre – with the help of even more courageous friends in South Africa – stood up against this lethal evil, and became embroiled in a gruelling 15-month libel nightmare, which ended only last week when the wheeler-dealer dropped his bullying case, which had cost the Guardian £500,000 to defend.

Goldacre was apologetic that he’s not a stand-up, but he’s the only one who seems to care. It’s a privilege to hear him. He deserves every platform he’s given to expose every phoney tricksters making damaging health claims based on flimsy evidence – and who aggressively threaten those who dare question their dubious methods.

His shocking story had the audience rapt; because here was a genuinely inspirational figure fighting for what matters a lot more than a whimsical song about chimpanzees (no offence, Gavin).

Mixing such people of intellect and principles with the more usual stand-up line-up should make the School For Gifted Children unmissable… if only the comedy element was a bit more funny.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
September 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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