"Have you actually read the book? You're asking me a lot of questions about it." This was, quite obviously, no ordinary literature festival talk. How could it be, when the author in question was Count Arthur Strong?
Strong, a self-regarding, out-of-work actor from Doncaster is the comic creation of Steve Delaney. So it came to pass that Strong was being interviewed, in character, at The Independent Bath Literature Festival. Rather than appear at the Guildhall, the festival's rarefied central venue, he took to the stage at the Komedia, a wonderfully seamy, red-lit comedy club.
Over the course of the hour, he tried to raffle off his bookmark, sang a tuneless song about Doncaster and read badly from his masterwork, breaking off one extract midway through ("I'm not reading anymore, you'll have to go and buy it.") and offering another snippet of just two sentences. In contrast to the usual faux chumminess between chair and guest at book festivals, he ribbed his questioner, the festival's artistic director Viv Groskop, relentlessly.
When invited to share well-worn anecdotes, he either made them up (claiming to have been in a wartime band with Glenn Miller, Jeff Beck and Keith Moon, "or near enough") or became oddly vague. "One of my great acting roles was one of the kings in one of the plays by, I think it was, Shakespeare. They said it was a tour de france." It was surreal, hilarious, and an antidote to the sales-driven to-and-fro of most book festival talks.
Comedy and book festivals are a good mix. Not simply because so many comedians write books – the Bath programme features Jennifer Saunders and Mark Watson talking about their writing, among others – but because the lines between author and stand-up are becoming blurred. Another Bath speaker, AL Kennedy, has moved from novel-writing to stand-up in recent years, but even for those who have not taken to the club circuit, the act of appearing at a book festival is not dissimilar to doing a turn.
"Lionel Shriver calls it 'being a ham'," agrees Groskop. "There are so many book festivals now and authors realise that it has become much more performance-centric.
In Bath, the focus on comedy this year is largely down to Groskop, a stand-up by night, whose book, I Laughed, I Cried, details her nutty quest to perform 100 gigs in 100 days. Her programme fizzes with non-traditional book festival events. Lucy Porter appeared at the Komedia last weekend, with stand-up about her love of books.
And tonight is the main comedy event – a gala evening at Komedia featuring Mary Bourke – whose show, Muffragette, tackles modern-day feminism – Rachel Parris, Bethan Roberts, Ellie Taylor and MC'd by Viv Groskop. Mark Watson will be the one "token male", on the bill. Fancy that, a female-dominated line-up. Perhaps book festivals can teach the comedy world a thing or two, as well.
London is to get its first Comedy Museum, which will contain everything from Charlie Chaplin's cane to the Two Ronnies' spectacles. The museum, in the crypt of a Bloomsbury church, will trace the history of British comedy from court jesters to the stand-ups of today. It is an intriguing project and it is probably about time the art form got its own temple. Then again, London's Theatre Museum, in the heart of the West End, struggled to flourish and closed in 2007 due to a lack of funds. It's a tricky business trying to trap the glory of live entertainment in a glass case, but good luck to them.
What I Watched...
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is by turns hilarious and hateful in this tricksy relationship drama. Very much a talent to watch. At London's Soho Theatre to 30 March.
On BBC2. Simple but effective. Lee just sticks a camera on his stand-up and it's still one of the most inventive and memorable half hours of comedy on TV. Watch out for Chris Morris' return as his shady therapist.
Also on BBC2. This anthology of creepy stories from two of the League of Gentlemen is like nothing else on television. Although Steve Pemberton's booming thespian in this week's Macbeth-themed episode did have shades of Steven Toast…Reuse content