Interview: Marcus Brigstocke
by Jessica Waite
In preparation for my interview, I had read ‘God Collar’ during a lazy week-long summer holiday in Turkey after finishing Russell Brand’s ‘Booky Wook 2’. Informed by this first experience of comedic hilarity, I wasn’t then expecting to be plagued with existential anguish at the words of one of the UK’s finest comedians.
In the book, Marcus, a self-titled wish-I-wasn’t atheist, pens his experience of delving into the histories and cultures of the three chief Abrahamic religions in “the hope of filling his ‘God-shaped hole”. By the end, his ‘hole’ remains unfilled. Still, I’ve never known a failed attempt at spiritual fulfilment to ever be as funny as ‘God Collar’ shows Marcus’ to be.
I follow the comedian and his publicist into a backstage dressing-room, where he ignores all seven available chairs and instead invites me to perch next to him on top of a table. I wonder aloud whether his journey into comedy was as unconventional as his sitting habits.
“I tried to go to drama school and didn’t get in, so my best friend organised a stand-up gig for me to do and it was a competition [organised by Kiss FM in 1995.] I was terrified and – even though I was sh*t for the first half of it – in the end, I came second and I was like, “Oooh, hello – I like this.”
Knowing that from that point onwards, he wanted to be in comedy, Marcus went on to the University of Bristol to “meet like-minded people” and study Drama.
“I wore a green suit with quite a bold waistcoat, a tie and Doc. Martins. I looked extraordinary. I knew what I wanted, and I had cards printed with my phone number on them – and when I saw a few people that I thought were funny (on stage, obviously! Not just random people in the street), I approached them asking how to get into comedy.” Marcus dons a macho, confident voice: “Here’s my card!”
One of the recipients of Marcus’ cards was Dan Tetsell, who teamed up with Marcus and his friend Danny Robins to form a sketch group called Club Seals, which later made the transition to TV in the series of short programmes We Are History. He performed at the Edinburgh Festival every year, and gigged as much as possible – doing, on average, ten shows a week. In fact, it was in Edinburgh that Marcus was nominated for BBC New Comedian of the Year Competition in 1996 – and won it. “From the end of my first year, I was a full-time comic. That ruined my degree – I never got it. I’m still waiting!”
Since then, Marcus’ career has taken off – in all directions. He’s released stand-up DVDs, captained the Red Team on Dave’s comedy debating show ‘Argumental’ and had a cameo role in the Christmas romantic comedy ‘Love Actually’. My brother knew him because he is a familiar face on the CBBC show ‘I’m Sorry I’ve Got No Head’. He is most-well known, however, for appearing on satirical news programmes, as a presenter on Radio 4’s ‘The Now Show’, BBC4’s ‘The Late Edition’ and the popular panel show ‘Have I Got News for You’.
“I’m careful, though, about my panel shows. I’m very regularly introduced as, ‘You’ll have seen him on ‘Mock the Week’ – but I’ve never actually been on it, out of choice. I don’t think they deal with the golden opportunities thrown up by the news to do what satire is supposed to do – comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. You shouldn’t afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable – Mock the Week too often blurs the line and literally mocks the weak.”
Marcus confides that this view of the BBC programme has changed more recently, and if asked, he would be keener to appear on it than he has been. “But I’ve really pissed the producer off by refusing to do it and occasionally being indiscreet about the programme…”
I wonder where Marcus feels most at home; on the stage, behind a panel, with a pen in hand? “I consider myself a comedian first and then second a writer – because I have to, not because I enjoy it.” So Marcus didn’t enjoy writing ‘God Collar?’ Everyone laughs, including his literary publicist – nervously. “No, I didn’t. I found it lonely and my neediness as a performer – which I was aware of, but not to that extent – came out. With comedy you write it, you say it, they laugh and then you know you’re okay. With a book, you write it, you put it out there and then you say” – (Marcus curls up on the table in the foetal position) – “‘Now judge me!’”
Perhaps the book was also difficult to write, given the genesis of the idea. Marcus’ crisis of faith came about when his aforementioned best friend, James Ross – to whom ‘God Collar’ is dedicated – died in 2006. “As an atheist, I didn’t know where to put him. ‘God Collar’ was about finding that place.”
I mention the fascinating passage in his book, where Marcus describes atheism as “an absence of a thing. It’s as potentially exciting as a blank canvas, waiting to be filled with whatever the creator chooses. It holds as much fear as it does excitement… An absence of belief requires you to build a philosophy out of what you can believe in.”
It seems to me, I tentatively suggest, that Marcus hasn’t found anything concrete with which to fill in his canvas. He agrees: “I’ve become aware, definitely, of the things in my life that I do that exist on that blank canvas… For example, when I write a new show and do it, and I feel it’s good and I’m proud of it and I feel validated by the enjoyment that the audience get from it, then I’m fulfilled. That’s the sort of person that I am. But, it would be nice to have something on that blank canvas that is a bit more permanent – that isn’t reliant on applause!”
From ‘tweeting’ Marcus directly about the possibility of conducting an interview at the Book Festival, I noticed that that his twitter page bears the Mark Twain quote, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education”. I’m intrigued. Is this Marcus’ own canvas-filling philosophy?
“My education was a failure for reasons complicated and simple. [Marcus struggled with an eating disorder as well as drug and alcohol addictions as a teenager]. The challenges I threw up stumped most of the people whose responsibility it was to educate me. I am one of the people who falls through the cracks of conventional education. The formal structure of education – not so much now, but certainly in my day – can prevent you from thinking and asking questions.”
Does this mean that Marcus felt that university, too, was stifling? “I knew that I was going to fail my degree, fairly early on… But then, quite quickly, I realised that for me, anyway, that wasn’t the point of it all.” What is the point then? “University is a holding pen for lunatics. People who are still discovering who they are and deciding who and what they want to be. If you come to university and you don’t join any society, you don’t take part in anything that happens at university other than what’s offered on your course, except possibly a drinking club where you hilariously collect wine bottles and decorate your bedroom with them, then you’ve missed it. You’ve missed it. It’s golden.”