Stand-up Cymru: James brings his comedy home

Elis James is recording a new stand-up show in his first language, Welsh

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The Independent Culture

Elis James is a proud Welshman. Two weeks ago the stand-up, actor and XFM presenter made headlines around the globe when he was asked to appear on Radio 4’s World Tonight to comment on Wales’ Euro 2016 qualifier victory against Cyprus.

He replied to the request on Twitter with a brief, but polite explanation that he would be celebrating and in no fit state to do any such thing (“I will be shit-faced unfortunately”) and promptly went viral.

“I got off the plane and I had 1500 Twitter notifications and was on the news in Australia,” he says, bemused. “I appear to have become the acceptable face of Welsh binge-drinking.” 

That tweet is nothing, though, compared to his latest act of patriotism – performing an hour of stand-up in Welsh. James, 34, was born and bred in Camarthen and Welsh is his first language but he has rarely performed in the language. Growing up, his nearest comedy club was over 100 miles away, in Bristol. “There wasn’t even one in Cardiff. I thought comedians just fell from the sky and landed in London or New York.”

Even when he started gigging in 2005, in Cardiff at an open mic night, there was little Welsh circuit to speak of, and certainly not a Welsh-language one. Having won Best Comedy at the National Student Radio Awards in 2006, in time he landed in London, where he now lives in Crystal Palace with his partner, fellow comedian and Peep Show star Isy Suttie, and their 10-month old baby, Beti. They are bringing her up bilingual.

It was the Welsh channel S4C who asked him to record an hour-long live show in his mother tongue. For the past few weeks he has been putting in the miles – “I can’t really preview the show in London…” – playing gigs in an antiques shop in Machynlleth, Aberystwyth Arts Centre and a record store in his hometown, among other places to prepare for the recording at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff this week.

“I’ve done 3000-odd gigs in English over the past 10 years but you can’t turn off your first language,” he says. “I grew up speaking Welsh, went to Welsh school and Sunday School and it’s like I’ve lived a double life. There are all sorts of cultural references I could never explain in English, and there’s a lot of comic mileage in that stuff. It’s been great watching it resonate with audiences. It’s a privilege – there are all these observational open goals. No-one has done this stuff before.”

It is not just a matter of translating his best jokes from English. “You can translate an idea but you can’t translate a funny turn of phrase or punchline.” Instead he talks specifically Welsh things like his schooling, the Eisteddfod and teaching Suttie the intricacies of the language.

James is not the first stand-up to perform in both English and Welsh though – a star of BBC3’s Crims and soon to appear in Josh Widdicombe’s new sitcom, Josh, opposite Jack Dee – he is probably the most high profile. Tudur Owen and Noel James are other well-known Welsh speakers on the circuit and S4C’s stand-up series Gwerthu Allan (translation, Sell Out) features a number of stand-ups who perform in both languages. Other S4C comedy stars Barry Jones and Caryl Parry Jones are working on new series for the channel.

Is James more confident in his first language? “I did seven gigs in Welsh on the trot and then one in English and I couldn’t remember some basic words,” he says. “But I’ve also realised that English language stand-up has its own jargon, its own vernacular and stock phrases that you can fall back on. In Welsh there aren’t any yet.”

Welsh-speaking audiences are broadly the same, he has found, though less prone to heckling. “You have more goodwill at the top because they’re just so pleased you’re doing it in Welsh.”

In all, it has been an interesting, occasionally emotional experiment. “It sounds sentimental but I was driving home from one of my first Welsh gigs in Swansea and I punched the roof of my car in joy. It was the first time I had been able to talk about my childhood using the language I spoke as a child. It was a defining moment.” 

Elis James plays Bush Hall, London on Friday 18 September, and Greenwich Comedy Festival on Saturday 19 September (in English); his Welsh special will be broadcast on S4C later this Autumn