It’s interesting to see what funny people make of unfunny things | Russell Kane on Evil Genius, as it transfers to TV

It’s interesting to see what funny people make of unfunny things

Russell Kane on Evil Genius, as it transfers to TV

Russell Kane’s Evil Genius makes the leap from podcast to TV series next week, when he brings the panel show reappraising the reputation of major historical figures to Sky History. Here he talks about the origins of the show – and why he’s chosen comedians to discuss these weighty topics…

Where did the original idea for Evil Genius come from?

I had a meeting with a Radio 4 producer a few years ago, where we discussed some ideas for shows. It went really well and then as we were packing up our stuff at the end I told her that I’d watched a film the night before with my wife, and the credits at the end said it was produced by a disgraced producer. 

I was saying how weird it was that we don’t listen to the music of certain disgraced singers, but people still watch this producer’s films, despite what he did. It was a throwaway comment, but the Radio 4 producer said the concept of talent tinged with a dark side would be a really good idea for a podcast, so I wrote it up in the taxi on the way home and the rest is history. It smashed the history chart because most podcasts in that category are academic at heart with some comedy sprinkled on, but we put the comedy first.

 Then I thought Evil Genius would make a good TV show, and so worked closely with the team at BBC Studios to develop it and Sky History picked it up. It’s crazy that this back of a fag packet idea has gone this far.

Was it difficult to translate the idea to TV?

Not really, because historical ideas lend themselves so well to archive footage, so I could go out on location, record short videos on location and meet historians. I could go to the exact place where Churchill was behaving like a fool and stand on that spot talking about him. Humans are primarily visual creatures so it works.

And then we set up an academic Evil Genius lair in a studio in London that just looks brilliant, so it was easy peasy.

How did you decide which people to include?

We're on Sky History, so we wanted truly historical figures, but also people my mum knows. It needs to be names that everyone on the planet recognises, big historical figures, and that shrinks the list massively. Everyone watching will know who Winston Churchill,Coco Chanel and Albert Einstein are.

I suspect there’ll be plenty of people on social media who will not want to entertain the idea that some of these figures are evil or geniuses, especially Churchill but on the day that episode was one of the easiest recordings. The hardest was probably Pablo Escobar because I'm trying to bring genius to someone who shot an aeroplane down just to kill a politician he didn't like.

What is it like sitting in the host’s chair – are you impartial?

I wouldn't say impartial, I would say I'm a barrister for the opposite of whatever the received opinion is. Everyone thinks Pablo Escobar is obviously evil because he was a cocaine dealing, mass-murdering psychopath. 

So I come as the barrister for his good. I’m objectively showing evidence for both sides in a measured way, but I'm always trying to confound, confuse and persuade the panel in the other direction, encouraging them to go against the grain.

That’s when I feel like I've won. When you find a killer piece of information to throw into the mix that’s amazing, and the fact-checking on Evil Genius is second to none, so I can relax about being stitched up by apocryphal facts. 

It’s glorious when you deliver revelations about these well-known figures, I love those pindrop moments.

Do you think we’re more reluctant to see the evil in people whose work we love?

Yes, there is a graph where the power of the person climbs and the value of the art tracks on the other axis. It’s about the level of fame and also about how elite their craft is. You're never going to bring Henry VIII down, despite everything he did (not least to his wives). Picasso will never be cancelled. Isn’t that messed up?

I also used to think that the closer the art was to the person, the harder it is to continue to enjoy the thing. So for example,Charles Dickens is not really in my head when I'm reading Little Dorrit, so it’s easy not to think of the things that Charles Dickens did. 

Going back to the producer example, most people haven’t stopped watching this person’s movies even though they are considered the most horrible person to ever come out of Hollywood, but there’s that distance there. Human beings are quite good at dealing with evil acts if there is some distance.

Why do you think comedy is such a good approach for dealing with these subjects?

It’s because they’ve never been handled in this way before. I always use comedians on the panel, so we turn the comedy up to 100 with the guests but they have to work with often unfunny material, and they’re forced to make something of it. 

It does produce stuff that’s not really been heard before. It’s interesting to see what funny people make of unfunny things. I just love that contrast between the dark and light.

Have you always been interested in history?

Literature and reading, is my main passion - you want me on your pub quiz team, let's put it that way– you wouldn’t know that by looking at my antics, but alongside the comedian there’s a nerd sitting indoors reading Jane Austen.  Chris Ramsey calls me a walking Venn diagram and I like that! 

But I've taken to history more recently and now I eat biographies for breakfast. Maybe it wasn’t sold to me properly at school, which is why I love shows like this.

You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about controversial historical figures – who would be invited to your ultimate fantasy dinner party?

I’d definitely have Charles Dickens there for the storytelling and I'd invite Boudicca, the most powerful, evil female that I've ever encountered, full of psychopathic bloodlust. She’s so powerful, she goes against all our conceptions of femininity. 

Gandhi would be there – I’d love to pick his brains. And then I think I would have to say Jesus Christ, even though I'm a complete atheist. Imagine that dinner party!

• Evil Genius with Russell Kane premieres on Monday November 20 at 9pm on Sky History, with the full series available on demand the same day. Interview supplued by Sky.

Evil Genius with Russell Kane episode guide:

Episode 1: Sir Winston Churchill

Russell is joined by Judi Love, Geoff Norcott and Charlie Higson as they debate the highs and lows of the man considered by many to be the greatest ever Briton. Historian and Churchill expert, Professor Chandrika Kaul, provides insights into the controversial and often violent politics of the young Churchill, his drunken and alleged naked antics, as well as the great man’s disdain towards the citizens of his beloved empire. 

Episode 2: Albert Einstein

Russell is joined  by Rachel Parris, Ria Lina and Rick Edwards to debate the merits and disgraces of the founder of modern physics. With insights from physicist and Einstein scholar Dr Mark Richards, the team learn about the accusations that Einstein plagiarised his wife’s work, discuss the Draconian list of demands that his spouse had to follow, debate whether Einstein was responsible for the atomic bomb and, more startlingly, uncover details of the harem that he allegedly ran

Episode 3: Pablo Escobar

Russell is joined by Jon Richardson, Alex Brooker and Ellie Taylor to discuss the highs and lows of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Alongside South American history specialist Professor Matthew Brown, the team delve into the life of the benevolent crime boss and discover that Escobar was an economic genius, and has even been considered a modern-day Robin Hood, building hospitals and roads for those less fortunate. He is also single-handedly responsible for Colombia’s hippopotamus population.

Episode 4: Coco Chanel

Russell is joined by Tom Allen, Kerry Godliman and Michelle De Swarte to discuss the life and times of the fabulous French fashionista. With the help of fashion expert Caryn Franklin, the team learn about the lies surrounding Coco’s impoverished beginnings, and how she survived the Second World War at The Ritz hotel through her relationship with a Nazi baron. Also explored are the recent revelations that Chanel was actually an operational Nazi spy.  

Episode 5: Richard Nixon

Russell is joined by Miles Jupp, Maisie Adam and Desiree Burch to discuss the life and legacy of the disgraced US president. Alongside historian and Nixon scholar Dr Kaeten Mistry, the team discover that the Watergate scandal might not actually be so serious by today’s standards, and that Nixon could even be the founding father of environmentalism. There’s also the fact that he’s considered by some to be among history’s greatest diplomats…

Published: 14 Nov 2023

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