Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Given his festive first name you might expect Robin Ince to attempt something special at Christmas – and curating Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People certainly allowed him to indulge two of his favourite passions: rational atheism and packing in far too many acts on one bill.

The idea started as one night in central London’s small Bloomsbury Theatre, then a second was added, and finally this performance in the 3,000-seater Hammersmith Apollo, run by Britain’s biggest promoter of comedy tours, Phil McIntyre. ‘If there’s one thing I hate,’ Stewart Lee wryly noted, ‘it’s the creeping commercialisation of the secular Christmas event.’

The line-up was as bloated as a postprandial Christmas Day glutton, with 19 musical, comedy and academic turns joining Ince over three hours, more even than the literal title promised. Though in reality, we could have done with fewer: no one would have missed some of the earnest singer-songwriters, while any off-topic act who didn’t celebrate the empirical at the expense of blind faith was sure to go down less well.

This fiercely partisan crowd gave their uncrowned king Richard Dawkins a bigger cheer ahead of his brief talk about spider mating rituals than Ricky Gervais received after his bad-taste gag about paedophilia. The old adage ‘know your audience’ was certainly true in this devout crowd of self-confessed geeks and nerds, intrinsically bound to the performers through a common cause. ‘What is e to the iπ?’ theoretical physics graduate Dara O Briain asked, in the sort of banter that’s unlikely to work at Nottingham Jongleurs on a Friday night. A decent cry of ‘-1’ came back, baffling those who hadn’t a clue what he was on about.

Musically, we had Philip Jeays with a powerful performance of a deathbed rant against the world; former Arab Strap frontman Malcolm Middleton with his miserable anti-Christmas song We're All Going to Die; long-time Ince collaborator Martin White leading an soothing audience harmony; and Jarvis Cocker performing a slightly wobbly version of Something Changed and a cover version of ‘the most mean-sprited Christmas song I can think of’, Greg Lake’s I Believe In Father Christmas. Elsewhere, Darren Hayman and ex-Auteur Luke Haines and were just plain baffling, with songs about Peter Gabriel stuck at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and Garry Glitter spoiling the reputation of the Glitter Band respectively.

After Ince, Lee got the comedy ball rolling with his brilliantly off-beat and slyly subversive routines about John Paul II lollipops and his planned antidote to the sugary March Of The Penguins, featuring nature’s gang-raping necrophiliac, the mallard, hitting the perfect note.

Science writer Simon Singh’s Big Bang chat proved that he is as entertaining in person as he is in his hugely accessible literature, after which Isy Suttie and Gavin Gavin Osborn sang a witty duet about a love affair that quickly faltered when religion got in the way.

Celebrated atheist Gervais was the biggest name of the night, and he used the occasion to work out some new material for his forthcoming tour, Science. He started by bemoaning, under the usual cloak of irony, the Oxfam charity gift someone had sent him. The ungracious sentiment seemed over-familiar, but his execution – and payoff – was exemplary. The retelling of an off-colour dinner-party joke, however, was less assured, simply an off-the-peg gag to which he’d added his trademark embarrassment. Something actually about science might have been a better choice.

Mark Thomas, claiming the credit crunch is the fruit of his lifelong campaign against capitalism, waffled about how the Church is virtually a family business, but redeemed himself with the tried-and-tested anecdote of the Mother Teresa line he ill-advisedly came out with at a Belfast gig, back in the day.

Then came the double-whammy of Cocker and Dawkins, the latter receiving a warmer ovation than the rock star who preceded him. Where else would that happen? The professor treated his followers to three readings from the books of Climbing Mount Improbable, A Devil’s Chaplain and Unweaving The Rainbow, as much about his day job as an evolutionary biologist as they were about cheerleading the atheist cause. But the message rang out loud and clear: the world is just as wonderous without faith in the guiding hand of a supernatural creator.

Joanne Neary was next, with another out-of-place routine: her very literal interpretive Pan’s Person dance of Nilsson’s Without You; while Chris Addison’s animated, lecture-like monologue about evolution was well-received, probably more for its attitude celebrating reason and learning than anything else.

But Addison’s vibrancy was nothing to that of Ben Goldacre, campaigning writer of The Guardian’s Bad Science column. He was mesmerisingly passionate in his bitter diatribe against the scientifically unfounded diet-supplement industry: specifically snake-oil salesman Matthias Rath who condemned hundreds of thousands of South African Aids victims to death because of his stance that they needed not lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs but his useless supplements. As a speaker, he had the huge audience hanging on his every word as he retold this shocking scandal, which he believes is tacitly supported by the rest of this bogus industry.

Josie Long equally engrossed the audience with her thoughtful story about secular Enlightenment philosopher and groundbreaking empiricist David Hume, which she then deftly subverted. She was followed by Waen Shepherd in the guise of Colin Watson, a thinly disguised caricature of Beach Boys casualty Brian Wilson. His routine might not have been on-topic, but his surf-pop parody is upbeat and entertaining.

Though it was getting late, Dara O Briain has the energy of a large hadron collider. The increasing threats to rational thinking have also given him renewed passion in his stand-up, and his breathlessly fast-paced routine attacked psychics, nutritionists, creationists and all the newspapers, magazines and broadcasters that give space to their crackpot views ahead of scientifically proven reasoning. If anyone perfectly captured the spirit of the evening, it was him, with this hilariously relentless, and well-aimed, attack on quackery in all its forms.

How to follow that, but with a nine-minute beat poem? Thankfully it came not from some earnest philosopher, but the reliably excellent Tim Minchin. This exquisitely constructed rhyme recounts his encounter with a drippy hippy chick, babbling on about auras, astrology and other hocus-pocus, and cleanly took up the baton of reason from O Briain. Minchin’s artistry is always impressive, and never more so than when it has a point – and good jokes – as it did here.

It was the perfect conclusion to a night less about preaching the atheist gospel than celebrating the science of evidence, deduction, learning and questioning over unthinking faith in anything supernatural. The show had its ups and downs, almost inevitably for such mammoth line-up, but a hearty amen to its raison d’etre.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, December 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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