The Return Of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

It would be tempting to describe Robin Ince's now annual jamboree of rationalism as a veritable galaxy of stars of comedy, music and science. Though this is exactly the sort of gig where someone would point out that a galaxy contains something of the order of 300 billion stars, which is slightly more than even this packed bill.

And they’re an eclectic bunch of performers in style and in motivation; even without factoring in childhood favourite Johnny Ball’s bizarrely anti-scientific climate change denial that attracted the deserved scorn of the audience. On that, more later.

Despite its name, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People is more a celebration of scientific thinking than it is an easy bash at the God squad, although an atheist undercurrent is never far from the surface.

The key thing to note is that it is not a pure comedy event; indeed some of the comics seemed a little unsure of exactly how to play it, most trying something new with mixed results. In ambience, it’s similar to the Latitude outdoor festival – perhaps a Glastonbury for geeks that at times threatens to go on as long as the four-day rock festival itself; although more shambolic in its organisation.

As curator – the word ‘compere’ seems insufficient – Ince shambles on in the regulation pullover and distracted manor of a senior lecturer at a former polytechnic, sheath of redundant notes in his clutch. He explains that he’s a ‘polymath idiot’, eager learn but aware that every new nugget of knowledge opens up whole new horizons of ignorance. This set-up, in which he goes on to describe arguments with right-wing columnists such as Anne Coulter and Melanie Phillips, isn’t always that funny, but they do set out the ethos of the night, which is more important than any gags.

Opening act Chris Addison is a self-confessed dilettante, a liberal artsy type who doesn’t quite grasp science, which he proved with a silly jokes that started from an oversimplified idea of atomic theory, and involved several daft mimes of a frustrated T-Rex. Funny enough, though you could almost hear sphincters clenching at the mangled science.

Mind you, he made perfect sense compared to the jumbled banter singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock attempted between his two folky numbers, reducing the sold-out audience to a baffled silence.

Nine Lessons is probably one of the few gigs where scientists get a rock-star welcome, and the crowd was clearly delighted to see science writer Simon Singh, probably because he’s become a rationalists’ cause celebre since his dispute with chiropractors highlighted the stifling effect English libel laws have on free debate. He entertainingly debunked the notion that the Bible somehow contained concealed prophesies – put there like some supernatural wordsearch by the hand of God – by sharing another scientists’ research that equally prescient messages are concealed in that other holy book, Moby Dick. It’s the sort of witty, sharp, bullshit busting that was bound to play well with this audience.

Some of the comedians seemed overawed by that expectation, with more flustered delivery than usual. Shappi Khorsandi admitted that she was scatty – which she put down to being the mother of a young child – but eventually settled into some witty observations about assumptions people make about her race or religion, as if any of it really mattered.

After the British Humanist Association choir performed Tom Lehrer’s Christmas Carol came quirky psychologist Richard Wiseman, who was one of the highlights of the night; playfully exploding trickery with the aid of close-up magic and optical illusions. Even with examples that might be familiar, he’d add a sharp punchline – and another run-out of the preposterous ‘misheard lyrics’ to Carmina Burana is always a delight. Google Oh Four Tuna if you haen’t seen them.

The real lyrics of Cat Stevens’s Moonshadow were weird enough for physical comic Joanna Neary to mock by acting them out in a very literal dance routine, while genuine pop star John Otway brought the first half to an eccentrically rousing end with his Bunsen Burner song, his one hit and source of great pride.

After entertaining grumpiness from Ince, complaining about the lazy description of science as a ‘dry’ subject, tempered with his enthusiasm for bongo-playing physicist-cum-safecracker Richard Feynman, came Baba Brinkman, who flew in from Canada to perform an extract from his acclaimed Edinburgh show Rap Guide to Evolution, complete with call-and-response audience reaction. There aren’t many hip-hoppers who use words like ‘mitochondria’ and ‘phenotype’ in their rhymes – but Brinkman wasn’t just showing off for clever’s sake; this was intelligent, informative and, crucially, hugely entertaining.

Idiot savant Richard Herring began with his tried-and-tested routine about living his life unwaveringly by a random motto – an idea given added impetus given the atheist nature of the evening – before sharing some stories he wrote when a child of seven; a sweetly silly diversion from the science.

Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre then cracked through a sobering and illuminating mini-lecture on the lethal effects newspapers’ unscientific scaremongering about the MMR vaccine can have; the grim conclusions being sugared by Martin White And The Mystery Fax Machine Brass Band – who provided snippets of carols as walk-on music all night – performing a musical number about head-in-the-sand mentality.

Josie Long’s enthusiasm for facts perfectly reflected the mood of the evening, and her combination of breathless excitement at the possibility there might be something as wonderous as ghosts, combined with her pragmatic acceptance they don’t exist played out nicely with a silly experiment; though her adding a raft of punchlines to the playground gag ‘What do ghosts eat’ depending on who was telling it proved one of the most nuttily entertaining moments of the night.

But then things got weird, when Johnny Ball took to the stage, performing a mix of childish distractions and dated comedy (with the sort of gag that involve kilted Scotsmen and sixpenny ice-lollies), delivered with blustering enthusiasm but not always coherence. But doing a George Formby-style song about John Dalton’s atomic theory should have been the point at which he got off – both in terms of timekeeping and reputation.

But then he launched into a bizarre rant denying man-made climate change, at odds with not only the scientific community but also the ethos of the night that celebrated research over blind belief. Ball explained that farting spiders are the enemy of the atmosphere – I may have got his argument wrong, but that seemed to be one of his point – and that CO2’s not so bad because the carbon goes into plants and crustaceans’ shells. And was that a racist joke, I heard? ‘Crustaceans – and by that I don’t mean immigrants’.

He was patiently humoured for a while, then the audience were stunned into silence, until his assertion that leaked emails exposed climate change as a sham provoked the first heckle, which grew into a series of boos and slow handclaps.

Oh dear. Seems the night’s love of research didn’t quite go as far as checking out Ball’s credentials.

Peter Buckley Hill had to pick up the pieces of the fond childhood memories that had been shattered – and all credit to him, he did; even if his slot was truncated by Ball’s horrendous over-running. If anyone fits this bill, it’s PBH; not only has he the look of a mad inventor direct from Central Casting; he has a witty song all about Xmas and the scientific, mathematical and colloquial use of the 24th letter of the alphabet that just about wraps up every thread of Nine Lessons into one odd parcel.

Dara O Briain was another clear highlight, reflecting the audience’s obvious bemusement about the Ball outburst with skill and humour before launching into hilarious material about when his scientific mind comes into contact with some of the nonsense in the world; the midwives of the NCT pre-natal classes especially. This was all new material, but it’s fully-formed, hilarious storytelling with a pertinent point. If this is indicative of his 2010 tour, get your tickets now.

And to close – at a time when the audience was perhaps thinking it would never come – Ronnie Golden - Edinburgh Fringe 2016 at Chortle.co.uk">Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden singing their Peace And Quiet number that turns out to be anything but.

A weird night, courtesy of Johnny Ball, but one with the message intact. Curiosity has been celebrated, and the thirst for knowledge renewed in an audience already that way inclined. Shared values have been reinforced, and a community spirit reinforced – just like a real religious service; but without the…. Oh, never mind. This was never really about knocking that camp anyway. Now the climate change deniers, that’s a different story….

Review date: 16 Dec 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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