The End Of The World Show

Gig review by Steve Bennett

As the face of astrophysics, Professor Brian Cox is used to thinking in terms of unimaginably long timescales, spanning the history of the universe.

Such concepts surely help when co-hosting Robin Ince’s epic End of the World Show – a night so seemingly interminable, even Ken Dodd himself might think it ‘going on a bit’ as it enters its fifth hour with no clear ending in sight.

Ince’s booking policy for this science-variety extravaganza seems to be to invite his entire address book, and see what happens. The result is something akin to a one-night Glastonbury for geeks, with academics rubbing shoulders with musicians, comedians, poets, rappers, and the uncategorisable. Like a festival, the audience samples a lot that’s unfamiliar, happy to take the inevitable rough with the smooth.

And Ince certainly produced some headline-grabbing surprises on the night.

Hugh Grant, fresh from settling his phone-hacking claim against the News Of The World, appeared to play top homeopath Peter Fisher, in a recreation of a Commons select committee appearance that drove another nail into the credibility of the quackery-based ‘treatment’. His fellow Hacked Off cheerleader Steve Coogan showed up, trying hard not to slip into Alan Partridge mode as he introduced a mash-up of footage from Leveson. Eric Idle called in via Skype to tell us that, living in California close to Mayan territory, he would be the first to know if the world was ending as foretold – before the connection went worryingly dead. And as the apocalypse failed to show up for its slot on the bill, Cox got the old band back together for the suitably anthemic show-stopper Things Can Only Get Better.

Perhaps more surprising were the things we learned, courtesy of the packed bill of scientific communicators that mixed such stalwarts of these events like Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Richard Wiseman with some less familiar names. We heard, for example, that some women can see millions more colours than most people – but no men can; the unpalatable truth about figs and dead baby wasps; how computer pioneer Alan Turing was so instrumental in winning the Second World War, how the Mayan counting system worked; how to baffle your opponents in American Football; and how the mutating-neutrino based plot of disaster movie 2012 is bullshit.

That last, unsurprising, fact came from scientist-turned-stand-up Dara O Briain, the perfect man with the perfect routine for this occasion. It may have been an old one, but it’s a wonderful piece of angry, rationalist deconstruction – and his aide memoire for the difference between astrology and astronomy went down a treat, too.

Representing comedians elsewhere, Stewart Lee made an early appearance as Mayan death god Ah Pukuh, insisting that his policy of the annihilation of all things was still on track, despite some setbacks, in a wonderfully laboured parody of David Cameron. Josie Long entertained with a witty reading from Charles Darwin’s letters, revealing his unscientific approach to the exotic animals he encountered on his travels. And another former scientist, Ben Miller, read supposed extracts from his 2012 diary, which managed to boast of all his year’s career achievements, while disingenuously thinking them not as glamorous as scientific endeavour... funny, but the joke rather repeated itself with each journal entry.

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd – aka musical comic Helen Arney, Blue Peter science expert Steve Mould, and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker – really impressed, with a love song illustrated with appropriate charts and equations, an ideal match for this audience and wonderfully witty. They can surely expect a steep peak in the graph of their sales figures for their 2013 tour on the back of that fine showcase of their respective talents.

And Jon Culshaw came out, first as Tom Baker’s Doctor Who morphing into Brian Cox himself; and later as Sir Patrick Moore, as part of an obituary praising his work in making astronomy accessible.

As well as the house band, musicians and the odd spoken word artist, also punctuated the show. The acoustics weren’t crisp enough for rapper Scroobius Pip, and generally the other musical interludes, from earnest anti-capitalist singer-songwriter Grace Petrie to Johnny Berlinner’s internet song, were the less memorable elements of the night.

And though the show was driven by rationalism, it wasn’t exclusive. The audience applauded fire at one point, thanks to a section from chemist Andrea Sella. Not that anyone will remember the chemistry, only the size of his test tube. And even ‘self-proclaimed wizard’ and comic-book artist Alan Moore got a look-in, espousing his belief that the universe is but a hologram.

It all made for an eclectic and unrepeatable four-and-a-half hours of education and nerdy entertainment, delivered with a certain sense of occasion. It was a lot of fun – and we can say that with a five-sigma level of certainty.

Published: 22 Dec 2012

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