If anyone can pull off a one-man punk musical about an ill-fated 1930s airship, it’s rambling comic Simon Munnery. David Vincent caught up with him as he prepares to bring his latest show to Birmingham.
“Do you know why he was called Joe Strummer?” asks comedian Simon Munnery. “He couldn’t play chords and I’m with him all the way on that one. My playing is primitive, it’s rudimentary…”
Munnery is dragging out his guitar for Hats Off To The 101ers, And Other Material, his latest touring show, the title of which refers to both doomed British airship, the R101, and Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash combo, The 101ers.
“It’s a six minute punk rock musical about the R101,” he says, adding that he initially had plans for a full hour of music and words dedicated to the plight of the luxurious airship, the largest of its kind, which crashed in France in 1930, effectively ending Britain’s airship programme.
“I live in Bedfordshire and there’s a village nearby called Cardington where there are these giant sheds where they kept the R101, and the R100. I’d seen them and wondered what they were…,” he says of the source of his inspiration which led him to plan an ambitious show, complete with flying model airships, props and scenery. Sadly, his own experiments with airship construction (coincidentally) also concluded in disaster, with models crashing into trees and melting on stage, forcing Munnery to scale down his ideas, though some scenery does make it to the show.
“I have an arch built out of lattice, which is kind of like the interior of the R101, which I hang cardboard animations from,” he says proudly.
Taking to the stage in the mid-80s while at Cambridge Uni, Munnery later appeared in The Dum Show at the Edinburgh Festival alongside Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, before establishing himself as a major Brit comedy figure. His character, Alan Parker: Urban Warrior, won him a 1996 Sony Gold Radio Award, while The League Against Tedium’s move to TV, Attention Scum (directed by pal Stewart Lee), was nominated for a Golden Rose Of Montreux Award in 2001. Though never achieving the mainstream stardom of some of his contemporaries, Munnery’s remained an ever present cult figure on comedy’s fringe, continuing to perform sell-out shows with his mix of absurdist, Spike Milligan-esque humour, verse, song and characters, and making all too rare TV appearances (including Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle).
Attempting to describe his style of performance, he says: “Comedy, theatre, art … music is music, stuff is stuff, I don’t know what I do, I don’t think about it. I can’t.”
Though he’s toured the UK almost continually for 20 years, Hat’s Off To The 101ers, And Other Material is surprisingly only Munnery’s second tour under his own moniker.
“But there are several different characters in the show. There’s a bit in the show where I do this imaginary conversation between two thieves by the cross that Jesus was on,” he says.
“There’s three monologues, 25 minutes of stand-up, some poems, a song at the end and the nine minute dialogue between the thieves, so with the R101 musical, it’s about an hour. There’s no theme linking them, although I guess travel is a sort of a theme. They’re just a series of pieces. I also have a hat with bubbles coming out of it. That keeps me amused, everyone likes bubbles, they’re like entry-level fireworks – puts me in a good mood.”
A room full of soapy spheres might raise a smile, but off stage, Munnery’s increasingly concerned with the state of the nation: rising unemployment, riots on the streets, economic turmoil…
“I keep thinking about Alan Parker,” he says of the outspoken character, currently in retirement. “Alan seems more appropriate at the moment, and I keep getting a tiny trickle of material in that voice. I haven’t decided yet, but I might do him again at Edinburgh this year. There definitely feels like there’s revolution in the air, with the distrust of bankers, distrust of the government, there’s a need for Alan, but I need to think about it, I have to hope [the material] comes.
“The trouble with Edinburgh is that you have to decide what you’re going to do there in March. I could perhaps do some new Alan material and use some old, unused material or adapt some so it’s more relevant … but I don’t know yet. You never know what’s going to happen. Last year I was obsessed with the R101 and thought I could do a whole show about it, but it turned out to be six minutes!” he laughs.
While Alan Parker’s reappearance is still ‘TBC’, Munnery confirms plans to revive and rework his absurdist conceptual art piece, La Concepta.
“La Concepta was a restaurant with no food. Its catch line was ‘all the rigmarole of haute cuisine without the shame of eating,’ and I served art instead of food,” he says of the intimate performance piece he took to Edinburgh last year. “It was a thing to do for four people, although I’m planning on expanding it to eight and doing it in Melbourne and Edinburgh later this year. There’s an innate theatre to restaurants – you don’t meet the chef, the person who actually prepares and cooks your food, the way the waiter acts, how you’re given your menu and the order’s taken, it’s very theatrical, staged. But this is a restaurant with no food, so you don’t need a licence or have to worry about hygiene.
“I planned to do it in Bedford and have a trolley in tow, behind a bike, but it proved to be unwieldy, so I tried it as just a sketch before doing it last year as a show at Edinburgh. If you did a [traditional stand up] show in front of four people – and I have done shows in front of four people – it can be awkward. But we’re used to the format of a restaurant, of the waiter and the maitre’d, so it doesn’t feel awkward at all, it takes you in, it works. Several groups at Edinburgh said it was the best thing they’d seen [at the festival], so I think I’ve opened up a whole new seam for mining. It’s a 25 minute show for four so I’m going to try and work it up to 40 minutes for eight people. It’s a long way to the stadium route but I’m whittling away. It is awkward for one person, but it worked fine with two and three was good … so eight is do-able.
“Hopefully, I’ll be welcoming more people in the audience for the R101ers tour than four though,” he laughs.
With several radio, TV and literary ideas in the pipeline too, Munnery’s also finding time to make his own comedy shorts, which could crop up in the live shows soon.
“The film I’m making at the moment is about a wheelie bin that’s escaped into the woods. We have a circle of seven wheelie bins all hooked up with pulleys about to spew rubbish all over the place. When it’s finished I might show them as part of a show. I do sometimes show little films I’ve made if the venue has the facilities to show them, it gives me a tea break, time to have a sit down…”
Simon Munnery’s Hats Off To The 101ers, And Other Material is live at The Glee Club Studio, Birmingham, this Friday (March 23), from 8pm. Tickets are £10-12 from www.glee.co.uk, or call 0871 472 0400.
Words by David Vincent