The Weakest Link presenter – a former colleague of his – is getting it in the neck as an afterthought in the conclusion of an interesting and colourful chat. He yells it after me, in fact, after we parted and I was on the way out the door. We had got ourselves on the subject of one of Brigstocke’s more (subjectively) controversial topics of conversation – Liverpool.
We were sat in the stalls of the Manchester Opera House with the express purpose of plugging his current role in Spamalot (of which more later). “Surviving Liverpool,” as he puts it himself, is something on his mind. He likes to pick on the place. A lot. And don’t get him started on Scouse hecklers. His attitude – “cowardice” – is no big reveal, as he’s spoken on the matter before.
“Every gig I’ve done in Liverpool, I’ve never felt I had the room with me,” he says, quite honestly. Detractors can add their own joke here. In his defence though, some styles of stand up are just more conducive to the theatre audience than the sometime bear pit of the circuit, and fair enough, a preference is a preference.
Brigstocke explains: “Scousers shout out more. Like Dublin. Everyone in the audience, quite rightly, is convinced they’re funnier than whoever’s on stage. And they probably do make their mates laugh more than me, but come up and do it on stage. The frustration I feel with that – like the craic in Dublin, or Liverpool banter – I just want to go ‘Shut. The. F*ck. Up’. I’m really, really good at this – and I’m not tooting my horn – this is different to how you make each other laugh.”
But for all the topical and intelligent subject matters he broaches, Brigstocke has been quick to stereotype the city – and its people. “All the jokes I’ve ever told about Liverpool are about how seriously the place takes itself and I get a delicious pleasure in doing so,” he says unashamedly. When Metro recently asked him “how can you tell if an audience is stupid?”, he replied: “The first thing you notice is a sign saying: ‘Welcome to Liverpool.'”
“You go to Birmingham and you don’t get that regional pride, you ask ‘what’s it like here?’ and they say ‘well, it’s a bit shit but we like it’. Liverpool, Manchester, Dublin, all have this sense of being the greatest city in the world. They’re not. They’re not even in the top 50. Anything I have to say about any city as a piss take I would stand by absolutely.”
[NOTE on July 20: Admittedly, the Metro review linked above was not ‘recent’, actually dating back to 2007 (my bad). And apparently it’s not true, either, as Brigstocke himself has been in touch on Twitter today to say just that. “FYI – the quote from Metro… Was not me, I never said it. And I suspect that matters. Shame as it seems likely to offend. I can’t be 100% sure – but it’s not my style (dull abusive gag) and I don’t remember saying it. Seems unlike me…” Taken in context with the ‘standing by any piss take’ quote, it seems you can take his word for it. Anyway, back to the interview…]
Well, he’s always been a like him or hate him kinda guy. He was once the subject of a damning essay in The Spectator subtitled “Marcus Brigstocke is a candidate for unfunniest man in the universe”. But, he’s also known for penning some classic gags – ‘I realised I was dyslexic when I went to a toga party dressed as a goat’ and ‘if Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music’ among them.
He switched from the usual observational whimsy to more satirical material in the run up to the Iraq war, and from there was satisfied that he had found his comic voice.” I had a big shift in style,” he says. “I did the circuit for a very long time, became a headliner – the top of the tree. But I was an ambitious, arrogant comic, and I’d walk off stage after an amazing gig and just feel like shit. It was all a bit easy – the difference between cats and dogs, men and women, I’ve seen this on the TV… Things changed in the build up to the Iraq war. I got booed off when the war started, but I felt much more engaged with what I was doing. Now, I don’t talk about something unless I care about it.”
And now for something completely different – Spamalot. What does seem genuine is that Brigstocke is a comic through and through, and this isn’t a cynical move into leaving the stand up behind and breaking through into luvviedom (he studied drama at university, but mainly went to meet writing contacts to get into the world of comedy). He takes on the role of King Arthur, made famous on Broadway by Tim Curry.
Convinced he couldn’t sing, with encouragement from the rest of the Spamalot team he found himself rising to the occasion. “In the end I thought, ‘no-one dies if you miss a note’. The thing I also loved about stand up and comedy is it’s win or lose. If people don’t laugh, you didn’t do your job and that’s it. Everything else, in performance, is open to interpretation, and this is the same beast.
“In stand up you have a very direct relationship with the audience. It’s just you and your material, if you fail, it is very much your failure. That’s why there’s something amazing about grabbing everyone’s hand and going on together.”
This touring version of Spamalot differs greatly from the “glitz” of Broadway and goes back to the sketchy, revue style of Python at its silliest and best, and therein lay its appeal. What comes next for Brigstocke, he says he’s never sure.
“I’ve been immensely fortunate in my career, in radio TV, performing. Friends will joke I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, but I don’t care as long as someone is employing jack.”