Illustration of Robin Ince by Jenny Robins.
It was only thanks to Professor Brian Cox on twitter that I discovered Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children May Ball – Module One. Not intended for children “this event will contain some swearing” and most definitely not featuring any dancing, Robin Ince’s quirkily named nights feature a mix of comedy alongside lectures from eminent and *cute* scientists. How on earth would this work? Well, the championing of rational scientific research was the binding factor of all the participants in the May Ball, be they comedian or scientist. Throw in some crowd participatory music and we did indeed have ourselves a ball.
Robin acts as compere of these evenings, and on Friday night he apologised for his frazzled persona, the result of election night lack of sleep and a preoccupation with the results, which was to become a theme of the evening. Despite incipient madness he was very funny indeed, whether jealous of his toddler son, who can happily eat crisps whilst sitting on the potty and watching television (he cannot), or reading an excerpt from a letter sent by Richard Hawkins following a debate over whether aliens are responsible life on earth.
The first act, Martin White, gave himself the hugely tough job of proving that any tune will become catchy if you repeat it over and over again. Or not, as the case may be. Through audience participation we arrived at a title, Napalm Death, for a tuneful little ditty consisting of some awkward minor chords and daft lyrics. All in ten minutes. It was an ambitious but entertaining way to start the evening, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand as we sang heartily through the finished piece.
Next up Susan Vale wandered on with a tatty plastic bag. “You’ve got no idea who I am have you? But you think I might be Susan Boyle, right?” Unfortunately for her, she had a point. “Normally I just do gags about quantum physics and end with a joke about nobs, but I can’t because Brian is here tonight,” she told us, before instead talking us through her musical obsession with The Fall via a wobbling stack of CDs on a stool. I wasn’t the only person for whom it occurred that this was a very male thing to do – when Robin reappeared he commented on her possible autistism. I was in slightly uncomfortable stitches the whole way through, especially when she wobbled her belly fat at the men in the audience. “See, I was feeling self conscious about it, but now I feel empowered.”
Gurning aristo by Lou the Illustrator.
Andrew Collins bounced on stage to a huge projection of a gurning aristocratic holding aloft a dead squirrel by it’s tail. Apparently the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership is hell bent on wiping out the grey squirrel by any means necessary, and Andrew likened this to racism against immigrants. Funnily enough these commandos are still less keen on a deadly hybrid of the grey squirrel – the even more virile black squirrel. The irony is that the upper classes were the ones who introduced the greys into Britain – as pets – in the first place.
“Bally Immigrants” by Gareth Hopkins.
Illustration by Marta Alvim.
NB: I’m joking, clearly there are no deadly gun-toting squirrels in the UK.
However, the main theme of Andrew’s lecture was birds, and more specifically the things he would like to do with them; the first being to get a robin to feed from his hand, the second to be kissed, softly on the cheek, by a duck, and the third to walk down the street as if in a relationship with a pigeon.
Illustration by Jonah Fazel.
Andrew with pigeon girlfriend. Illustration by Sandra Diekmann.
Disclaimer: whilst I envisaged the pigeon as Andrew’s girlfriend, he would like to make it very clear that it is merely a friend. “I never considered it might be a girl.”
Illustration by Sandra Diekmann.
All dark floppy hair and passionate enthusiasm, Brian Cox entered stage left looking not a day over 25, just as he does on the telly. He opened his lecture with a few scary looking graphs demonstrating how little cash is currently allocated for scientific research compared to the amount used to bailout the banks, and showing that expenditure in the UK is well below the average spend of the developing world.
Illustration by Helen Harrop.
A dedicated Liberal, Brian Cox is clearly worried about further cuts under a Tory government. Few celebrities are happy to state their political allegiances in public, and I really respect that Brian is, as his presence on television during election night made clear. He then bust out a map showing global temperature rises “for any of you idiots out there who still don’t believe in climate change”. He never really mentioned climate change in the Wonders of the Solar System, so I could’ve hugged him for this: it’s just a shame he was preaching to an audience of the already converted. He quoted Carl Sagan, who described the earth as an incredibly fragile and special “pale blue dot” and showed a series of spectacular slides to back this up, including one showing the Milky Way pulsing in a semi circle like an archway above the mountains in Chile.
Illustration by Farzeen Jabbar.
We then went on a whistle stop tour of the birth of the universe which descended into some equations that Brian swore were simple (maybe for the scientists amongst us… of which I am sure there were many in the geeky audience.) Despite losing the point on occasion it left me gasping in awe (at the wonder of the universe, not Brian, I know what you’re thinking.)
Brian Cox by Claire Pinegar.
A break – loo situation in the Bloomsbury Theatre: bad, had to rush out during second half for wee due to extreme queues – was followed by a passionate lecture from Adam Rutherford, science writer at The Guardian and Nature magazine. Having read the Metro earlier in the day (I love the way that the Metro always has a simplified science page. You never got that in London Lite did you?) I was well up on the news that scientists have just discovered that most humans are in fact part Neanderthal – rather than pure bred Homo sapiens. We also learnt that Neanderthals were red haired… there’s no gingers in my family but I’ve always thought my dad has a very pronounced beetle brow.
Comedian Marcus Brigstocke took up the baton, likening our current political situation to our relations with the Neanderthals, where the Tories are likely to mate with the Lib-Dems, shag ‘em senseless and then eat them afterwards. (we were probably cannibals back in the day) An unmitigated Green, he spoke ecstatically of the news that Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has gained a seat in office.
Illustration of Marcus Brigstocke by Jenny Robins.
Gavin Osborn was another funny musician, who performed a specially created ode to Brian Cox describing how his wife was suddenly nowhere to be seen on Sunday nights. Simon Singh has famously challenged the efficacy of the homeopathy industry – and has just won a libel case against the British Chiropractic Association. He whizzed through a series of photos from the case highlighting the presence of Dr. Evan Harris in each shot, before deferring to Ben Goldacre, a surprise appearance, who came on stage to explain just how much Dr. Harris has done for the cause of science and free speech. On May 6th he lost his Lib-Dem seat in Oxford to an evangelical Christian, helped into office by a relentless smear campaign. Sadness at this loss was mentioned throughout the evening and Ben made everyone stand for an ovation, whereupon it soon became obvious that Evan himself was seated in the audience.
Illustration by Hayley Warnham.
Robin had saved special surprise guest Australian comedian Tim Minchin for last. “I’ve just been cleared of a speeding fine in Pontypridd. True,” he told us as he grabbed the top off the piano and barefoot, bespectacled, took his seat. “I don’t need eyeliner when I wear glasses.” Not being an aficionado I didn’t know what he was talking about but a swift visit to his website confirms that Tim normally sports thick emo-esque makeup, but I much preferred him without.
“Minchin Strikes” by Lazarou Monkey Terror.
We were treated to the first public performance beyond the rarefied confines of YouTube of the “Pope Song“, which pillories the Catholic penchant for small boys with copious usage of the word ‘motherfucker’. A fantastic musician with immaculate comic timing, I would really like to see him again.
I’m all for making science more accessible and using comedy is a brilliant example of how to do this: over the course of three hours I laughed solidly whilst also learning a load of incredibly geeky and interesting stuff. I vow to see more comedy of this kind in the future. Robin Ince, I salute you for bringing this vision into reality.
You can read excellent reviews by Lucy Peel here and Jo Sue Gee here.
Robin Ince’s next evening of fun takes place on Thurs 24th June. Sadly I’ll be missing out on this one because I’ll be at Glastonbury with Climate Camp.
Adam Rutherford, aliens, Andrew Collins, Ben Goldacre, Bloomsbury Theatre, Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, Caroline Lucas, chile, Claire Pinegar, Dr. Evan Harris, emo, Farzeen Jabbar, Gareth Hopkins, Gavin Osborn, Green Party, Hayley Warnham, Helen Harrop, Homeothapy, Homo sapiens, Jenny Robins, Lazarou Monkey Terror, Lib Dem, Libel, Lou the Illustrator, Marcus Brigstocke, Marta Alvim, Martin White, Metro, Nature Magazine, Neanderthal, Oxford, piano, Pigeons, Pope Song, Professor Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Robin Ince, Sandra Diekmann, Simon Singh, Squirrels, Susan Vale, The Guardian, Tim Minchin, Tory
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