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Interview - Robin Ince

David Cox

Jul 26, 2023

Ahead of this years festival we spoke to the wonderful Robin Ince, who tells us about his history with the Fringe, what to expect from his two shows this year and the (very good) reason why Brian Cox has told him not to mess with time.

"So, Robin, thank you for your time. Well, another Edinburgh festival approaches. Do you still get excited (we do, and I have been coming since the 1980s)?

I was the most excited teenager in 1987 - wandering around Edinburgh alone with my summer job money paying for tickets to Jeremy Hardy, Jenny Le Coat and the Diamantes, Raw Sex and Helen Lederer (and that show also included Kathy Burke) and so much more - YES, I am still excited to be coming to the festival and, on the last ten years, I have become more and more excited to perform. I tour relentlessly - from theatres to libraries to primary schools (and sometimes arenas when I tour with Brian Cox) and I think I am beginning to get the hang of it. I am not jaded.

You are presenting two shows this year, " Weapons of Empathy"! and "MELONS: A Love Letter to Stand-Up Comedy"). What can we expect from both?

Both shows are about love and both are ultimately very positive - I think we are living in bleak times, betrayed by so many with power or seeking power and I really want people to feel fueled and revived by the shows, Hate and indifference are easy, love and joy take work and it is work I want to do.

Are they both fully-written or will they evolve during the run?

Rather than write I work out ideas by performing - I have down three previews of each show and both have been 60 to 70% different on each night. I aim to start Weapons differently every day whereas I have just worked out how I will start Melons and that will be the same every night, but then what happens after that will be different. I want both shows to be fireworks - my mind makes a lot of connections rapidly and, when I was younger, I would fight against these tangents but now I embrace them.

We follow you on Twitter (or whatever it's called this week) so we know how much you love books and bookshops. I currently have 9 different books (ranging from novels to reference books) on the go. What books are you currently reading?

I am reading anarchist historian Howard Zinn’s Artists in the time of War, The Sun Doctor, a novel by the great actor Robert Shaw, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys, Sleep it Off Lady, and rereading Lucy Nicholl’s Don’t Call Me Snowflake.

How many books do you have in your house and what percentage have you read?

It is probably around 10,000 - I would say 60% have been read in some way or other but probably 10% have been read in their entirety - I leap in and out.

Given the choice would you prefer to read a new book to you or re-read one of your favourites?

A new book due to the excitement of the potential - what may lie within and what will it do to me.

What book have you read the most?

I return to John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine a lot and his KLF book, Alan Moore’s Disease of Language, Edna O Brien’s The country girls and Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, Janna Levin’s How The Universe Got Its Spots…

What have you tried the most to read but never finished?

The obvious, Infinite Jest and Ulysses - and I have always enjoyed what I got from them even if I left the ride too early.

How good are you at throwing out books?

I usually take a reasonable number to charity shops or donate to prison libraries - but I think more comes in than goes out.

We first saw you in 2011 in " Carl Sagan Is My God". One of your guests that day was John Otway singing " Bunsen Burner". How good is your memory of previous shows?

I remember incidents but jettison material quite quickly and once it is gone it is elusive - I remember John telling the story of how he always did his daughter’s science homework and was very excited to find out what marks “she” had got.

My first show was in 1986 seeing a Midnight performance of Rowan Atkinson. What shows can you remember from your first festival?

Jeremy Hardy - it must have been a day or two since the shootings in Hungerford - Jeremy clearly felt that the audience were not very responsive and said, “god, some nights I feel I should just bring a gun and start shooting at you” - then his face dropped as he remembered the news . I bought one of his posters from him after the show and he signed it (all money to a local AIDS charity) - a few days later I accosted him on Princes Street and asked him what I should do to become a comedian like him.

August in Edinburgh can be an endurance. We only normally manage a week, what are your tips for surviving the fringe?

Remember you can get drunk at other times of year too and take a few nights off - avoid hanging around with narcissists and people who only talk about their own shows. I always feel sad when I see acts only plugging their own shows on social media, as if any recommendation might mean the possibility of a lost ticket sale.

Do not hang around with people who say, “oh, sorry to see that two star review, seems so unfair because I’ve heard your show is great’. When the sun is shining in the park. Realise that what might seem like failure might actually be a step to success (this is partly what Melons is about).

How will you structure your day?

I have a 1.00pm show and an 8.35pm show - I have said yes to a few afternoon gigs, but also have plans to have some book picnics after Weapons of Empathy on sunny days - so anyone who has been to the show or just wants to join in can come and sit in the park and share stories of favourite books. I will also do a few bookshops crawls.

After the evening show I would like to get to some music gigs - I will be going to Cud and the Captain Beefheart tribute band at Bannermans but hopefully will find lots more when I am there.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

I always love seeing Gavin Webster’s show, a hugely underrated performer, I hope to get to see Lulu Popplewell, Eleanor Morton, Bennett Arron, 52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals sounds very intriguing (and it contains no monologues), Circus Sonas, Aidan Goatley’s 10 Films with my Dad, Alice Fraser, Will Adamsdale’s Melanjolly, Tom Ballard, Still Life: A Gallery in Motion, Sooz Kempner - and I’ve not opened the fringe brochure yet.

Finally, looking at the young faces in the brochure do you feel like a veteran or would you prefer to be starting out now?

I am very old and that is fine by me - Brian Cox told me I cannot manipulate time and if I do I may create an anomaly that would mean Rik Mayall was never born and that would not do - so I am happy.

Thanks Robin, have a great festival

As mentioned Robin has two shows this year:-

Weapons of Empathy runs daily from 2nd-27th August

at Gilded Balloon at The Museum (tickets)

MELONS: A Love Letter to Stand-Up Comedy runs from 2nd-27th (not 15th)

at The Stand's New Town Theatre (tickets)

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