Thursday, 17 December 2009


16/12/09, Bloomsbury Theatre

3 hrs. A curious evening for an audience of students (the Bloomsbury is UCL's theatre) and hardcore rationalists. And us. We went because A's daughter's boyfriend Steve was playing trumpet in the band.

Robin Ince, broadcaster, journalist and stand-up comedian, engaging and genuinely funny was compere. The idea seemed to be to celebrate atheism and to mock religion and other forms of superstitious credulousness (eg homeopathy). Most of the time robustly satirical, it lapsed at times into whimsy and occasionally veered towards the downright nasty. Each act got no more than ten minutes, notionally: the techies had apparently rebelled after the previous night, when it ran four hours.

Some of D's colleagues had seen it last year, when Richard Dawkins was in it, and spoke highly. Dawkins didn't appear tonight (he is promised for the big bang version on the 20th at Hammersmith Apollo); but was present in spirit (if that's the right term, given the context) in the shape of a giant cartoon on the screen at the back of the stage, parodying Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, which showed God the creator giving Dawkins as Adam the finger, and Dawkins giving him two back.

Not surprisingly, a curate's egg whose purpose I couldn't quite fathom. Not pure entertainment. Scarcely an exercise in proselytising. Some kind of ritual bonding, perhaps, for right-thinking atheistical folk in the face of a hostile superstitious majority. Except given the general irreligion of modern society it scarcely seemed necessary.

Acts included, in no particular order:

John Otway, tall, gangling singer of Elvis Costello-like ditties on scientific themes. The second, a parody of Disco Inferno (D says) which had apparently been on ToTP, came with a scratch choir of assorted performers and stagehands singing a chorus of "Burn, baby, burn" about Bunsen burners, with Otway not only singing but playing what I think was a Messiaenic Ondes Martenot (but the Guardian says was a theremin). Towards the end he ripped his white shirt open, scattering buttons and revealing a scrawny chest.

A (white) American rapper and improviser called Baba Brinkman.

Brian Cox, 41-year old CERN physicist and co-presenter, with Ince, of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (which resembled this in being an intermittently entertaining and stimulating but hard-to-categorise scientific romp). Cox showed us photos of the earth from space, getting ever smaller (one, spectacularly, showed a tiny earth seen through the rings of Saturn), and a Hubble telescope photograph of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of galaxies, reminding me at least of quite how profoundly, utterly, extremely, terrifyingly insignificant we are.

Richard Herring. Who read us some stories he'd written when he was six.

Simon Singh. Who resisted the temptation to talk about That Libel Case and instead, while referring us in passing to, rubbished some American fundamentalist's claim to have found hidden coded messages in the Bible by entertainingly demonstrating you could do exactly the same with Moby Dick.

Ben Goldacre. Who was rude about homeopaths. D thought he was dreadful; I thought he was amusing.

Stewart Lee. Who got lost in an improvisation about an evangelist turning up on his doorstep.

Johnny Ball, Zoe's dad and telly science populariser. Who got the tone wrong and patronised the audience but didn't get booed off like he did the night before, either because he overran (Steve the trumpeter) or because he rubbished manmade global warming (the Daily Telegraph).

Alan Moore. Who wrote the Watchmen comic book series, looked like Dumbledore and told us in a surprisingly dry and amusing deadpan style and Midlands accent why he believes in a 2nd century human-headed snake god.

Chris Addison.

An indifferent singer-songwriter-guitarist with a female accompanist on the musical saw: not something you see every day.

A man who did a routine about "dancing" on trains while listening to an iPod while making almost no movement.

Josie Long.

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