Interview Phill Jupitus
Simon O'Hare meets the Never Mind The Buzzcocks star as he takes a break in rehearsals for Big Society! A Music Hall Comedy
Photo by Phil Moody
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It’s not every day you find yourself sitting in a canteen chatting with Phill Jupitus and members of Leeds alternative rockers Chumbawamba. They’re taking a well earned short break in the middle of their rehearsals at the Yorkshire Dance HQ as they put the finishing touches to Big Society! A Music Hall Comedy, the new show written by the band’s frontman Boff Whalley and with the TV comic in the lead part.
I ask Jupitus how he came to be involved in the show. "It’s weird, I think the best jobs you take are the ones that are a happy accident. The timing was right and I knew Chumbawamba’s work and I played City Varieties three times as a stand-up so I was familiar with the venue, and loved the venue. It is one of the best spaces in the world, it just is. It’s a perfectly constructed theatre. And they told me about the refit and everything, and it all just seemed too good to resist."
Was it also the script that persuaded him to take part? " When I was asked, it wasn’t even written," he laughs. "From what I understand, Boff had me in mind for it as George Lightfeather. And if you’ve got a physical, big, blustery, showbizzy type who you can use like that… he was writing it around me and what my skillset was and what my personality is to people. Music hall in 1910 was the television of its day, and what he’s done is he’s gone for someone who’s got a known presence in television to play an equivalent character from music hall. I think it would’ve been a different show if I couldn’t have done it, and they’d have had to go in a different direction with it."
Before breaking into showbusiness, Jupitus worked as a civil servant for five years ("I was in a job centre. At a time when there were very few jobs. So it was an odd, odd position to be in"), and it’s clear that early experience sparked a desire to ensure that he’d never again feel as though work would become a never-ending routine, a daily grind. Even as a presenter at BBC 6 Music, Jupitus instinctively knew when things were starting to get stale there: "I loved it and it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done, but I’m like, this is a desk job in a big building in London, the only difference between me and the people in the City is I’m playing pop records and they’re fucking with people’s savings. It was still behind the desk, form filling."
And so it’s clear why a project like Big Society! – working with a passionate leftwing theatre company in the north of England – so appealed to him. "It’s the something new, the freshness and the newness, which is why this process of working that Red Ladder have got is so great, because it’s something I’ve never done before," he says.
"Every day you’re doing something you’ve not done before, it’s a day of learning, it’s a day back at school. And I quite liked school, I like to learn stuff, and the group I’m working with here are so bright and talented." You can see why this passion and drive for something new and meaningful struck a chord with Red Ladder’s creative director Rod Dixon, who back in the summer of last year at the Big Society! media launch said: "Art shouldn’t be enchanting, it should be provocative. Because enchantment is escape, and that’s what the Tories want us to do… I hope that our theatre shakes you by the lapels and goes ‘wake up!’ and gives you a good night out as well."
Given the politicised nature of the company and the show, the topic of my conversation with Jupitus moves on to the current state of the country. Interestingly, when I ask him for his views on the coalition and the economy, he responds with an eloquence and anger that’s aimed not at the current government, but at the Tory governments of the 1980s and 90s. The ultra free market policies unleashed by Thatcher were so damaging, he believes, that only now are we feeling the true extent of their impact. "You see the thing is, for all of the awful things that the Thatcher administration did, the current financial crisis [is] the worst one. Not enough people are saying that this what we’re in now is Thatcher’s fault, her deregulating the banks. It’s her fault. And not enough people say it. It happened on her watch. The shit that we’re in now is because of her, and not enough people are saying it."
I put it to Jupitus there’s an old adage that says you mellow with age. Is that true in his case? Not exactly is his reply, although he does admit "the young me would hate me". In what way? "It’s just that a pragmatism starts to creep in and you start to compromise more. And then, you know, it’s when you start arguing with your kids and there are other opinions to entertain. What I don’t like is certainty, and people saying that there are answers, and this is how things should be. Because it’s grey. The one thing I’ve learnt about life is that it’s grey. It’s very, very blurry at the edges. And if I was as certain as I was when I was young, I might have killed myself by now with depression."
Jupitus says he isn’t one of those comedians who has struggled with depression ("not at all… not in a clinical sense") although he did once try therapy before concluding it was "kind of bollocks" when the therapist persisted with the suggestion he was using showbusiness to compensate for something else lacking in his life.
Why did he go for therapy, if not for depression? "It was just… just… you just start to get questions when you get older, when you’ve got kids of your own and you realise that you’ve not got answers, and then you just feel a bit out there and vulnerable when you’re a parent, after about five years of it. The thing is as well," he says, "is you think that you’ll have kids and then learn to be a parent and get better and better at it, but what happens is in the first year you’re a parent, they’re one year old, ‘right ok, I can just about handle that… no, fuck, now they’re a two year-old…’ and it’s the classic goalpost moving. So I’m…" Self-questioning? I suggest. "I think, yeah, I just entertain doubts too much in my life. But I think it’s good to question things and, well, what if?, you know. But the odd moment of clarity and certainty’s certainly refreshing. And this" – he looks around at the Red Ladder paraphernalia on the noticeboards on the walls around us – "these people are in the right place and doing the right thing and they’re asking questions, and that’s what you want, ask questions. You know, this show doesn’t give you the answers; it makes you ask questions. All the best drama should do that. You should leave with a sense of curiosity and inspiration after this show."
Posted on Wednesday 4th January 2012
Swan Street, Leeds, LS1 6LW
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