Edinburgh 2013: Mitch Benn talks stand-up, science fiction snobbery and Doctor Who


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The Independent Culture

I meet Radio 4 comedian Mitch Benn outside Piccadilly Circus tube station, where he’s slouched against a railing checking his phone. Passers-by ignore him, presumably because, in his own words, he “isn’t on telly properly”.

We slope off to a nearby bar to chat about Edinburgh, the success of his debut novel Terra, and the future of Doctor Who.

Benn, who’s off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month at seven o’ clock the following morning, asks for a black coffee and waits patiently while I wobble over to the table with our full-to-the-brim drinks.

“The thing that makes Edinburgh unique is there’s no committee,” he says, once we’ve settled down.

“You don’t have to be invited to perform. Basically, if you can get your s*** together to be on, then you’re on.”

This year, 43-year-old Benn is taking his show Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle to the festival. Growing up in Liverpool, he went to the same school as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and tells me that Ringo Starr used to follow his mum around when they were children.

“By that rational, I’m probably, like, the 29th Beatle,” he chuckles.

Benn’s childhood dream was to become a “proper actor”. He went to university in Edinburgh and became a prominent member of the Edinburgh Theatre Company, spending most of his time in the theatre with only the occasional nod to his academic studies.

“You don’t meet many stand-up comedians who are pursuing their cherished boyhood ambition by being a comedian,” he says.

“Most of us got side-tracked into it while we were trying to do something else.”

Despite this, Benn has gone on to become a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4‘s The Now Show and has released seven studio albums, performing at various music festivals and comedy clubs across the country.

“I suspect there will be humour in everything I do,” he says. “There’s humour in everything I love. Even the stuff which is not ostensibly comedy has got a bit of humour in it, you know?”

While we talk, Benn performs little skits, wise-cracking in his exaggerated Radio 4 voice and waiting for me to laugh politely. At one stage he even starts beat boxing.

As well as comedian, actor, and musician, Benn has recently added author to his curriculum vitae.

His debut science-fiction novel, Terra, was published in July to rave reviews. When I ask how he writes, he replies, “extremely well”. Clearly delighted, he tells me Waterstone’s have already sold out of the book.

“I mean, it could be that they only ordered thirty in the first place,” he grins. “But they want more of them, so that’s good!”

The second book in the trilogy will be out in a year’s time and Benn is currently writing the third and final instalment.

Eyes bright with excitement, the comedian is clearly passionate about his writing. He can barely sit still as he talks about the novel, gesturing enthusiastically as he explains mythologies, spaceships, and alien languages until I- somewhat shamefacedly- admit science fiction “isn’t really my thing”.

“I think there’s a lot of snobbery about science fiction,” he says, looking dismayed and slightly bewildered.

“Following the exploits of made-up characters in a real world setting is somehow OK, but the minute it’s fictitious characters in a fictitious setting it’s, ‘Oh, it’s stupid, it’s for kids.’”

I’m quickly forgiven when I tell him I make an exception for Doctor Who and soon find myself embroiled in a heated debate over who’s in the running to fill Matt Smith’s bow tie. Interestingly enough, Benn tells me Peter Capaldi would be a fine choice.

As our interview comes to an end, Benn visibly relaxes, dropping his comedic persona almost as soon as my pen is put away. 

Shoulders slightly slumped, he leans forward in his chair and we gossip about Doctor Who for another ten minutes. Off duty he’s still funny but his booming voice and theatrical pauses have been replaced by informal chit-chat.

I wonder whether, in an age where comedians are rarely off our screens, where we follow them on Twitter, eager to read their 140 character witticisms, Benn feels under pressure to be funny all the time. 

“There are some guys who only crack jokes,” he agrees.  “But I like to give little bit of myself. Twitter’s a blank slate. It's just a conversation. And I like conversations.”