Interview: Danny Wallace
Having done his first work placement at 13, Danny Wallace has always had a plan. Now an author and presenter, he talks to Dan Poole about his education and career so far
Friday 26 September 2008
Danny Wallace is a man of many talents: an author, comedian, television presenter for BBC and Sky, radio presenter for Xfm and a columnist for Shortlist magazine.
He went to the University of Westminster where he did media studies, specialising in radio production. Putting two and two together, SSG decided that all of this amounted to a chap that would be well worth grabbing for a chat; the result of that bit of maths was a very entertaining four.
Did you do a good job of balancing work and play while you were at university?
I was mainly working hard on the practical stuff because I went there to try to learn a craft: I really wanted to know how to make radio programmes. Essays just aren’t my thing: no matter how hard I tried, it seemed I was always a bit average. But when it came to actually making stuff, the university gave me a lot of support and let me do my thing, so it was great. I probably did play a bit more than my parents would have liked at the time, but that’s all part of the experience.
You were proactive when you were younger though weren’t you, doing work experience from the age of 13…
When I was at school we had to do some work experience. I got offered the chance to dig ditches or file some stuff in an accountant’s office, but by chance I happened to have seen this video-games magazine that was made just down the road. So, I harassed them, asked if I could come in and alphabetise things that didn’t need alphabetising and make tea, and they let me. Then one day a reviewer got ill so they let me review a game. So, it all started because I liked games, then I stopped liking games so much and started to like writing more and more instead.
When you were considering going to university, had you always wanted to focus on radio production?
The good thing was that I had taken a year out before university to work on some magazines at Future Publishing in Bath. Had I not taken the year out I would have ended up doing something I wasn’t really interested in: studying geography in Cardiff or something along those lines. Just having that little break meant that I could take a step back from things. Then I found this great course at Westminster. The good thing about university is that you develop these interests as you go along, and things that wouldn’t have interested you at all in the first place suddenly become the most fascinating thing ever.
How did you get started on your career once you graduated?
A job came up just in time for me: a traineeship as a producer in radio comedy at the BBC. It happened to be virtually on the day that I was handing in my last essay so I just applied, and before I knew it I had a traineeship. Suddenly I was able to use the stuff that I had learnt at university to start actually making programmes. What was interesting was that when I got to the BBC they were still making programmes from tape to tape; you had to use a razor blade to cut the tape and splice it together! I was thinking, “ What the heck? The BBC isn’t as advanced as that cupboard where we made programmes at university!” So, it took the BBC some time to catch up, which was really weird. Very old school. Far too old school, in fact.
You do so many different things now – how has that happened?
I don’t know! It kind of all happened by accident. I think if you’ve got a good idea it will stand out in one of the different mediums.For example, something might happen to me today and it could be something to talk about tomorrow on the radio, or I can write about it, or perhaps it will be best suited to telly.
The books you’ve written are like a student’s dream: you’ve started a cult, said yes to everything that comes through the letterbox, gone off and found your old mates…
It is, it is! Anyone reading this magazine is in for a great time. They’ll work hard but at the same time they’ll have so much fun and that’s a massive part of university: they should really, really, have fun and meet new people and make friends they’ll have forever. I’ve tried to take that and stretch it over 10 years! But, you know, I’m 31 now and there comes a time in a young man’s life when suddenly he’s not a young man anymore – he’s just a man. Sadly, that’s the way things are headed for me.
On a cheerier note, any recommendations for good comedy venues?
The Stand, in Edinburgh, is a dark underground venue where they put on great comics all year round. In London, everybody should go to the Comedy Store at least once and have a great time. Then there’s the Amused Moose in Soho, which has a lot of good new people but also a lot of proper TV stars who drop by and try stuff out. You should also head for www.chortle.co.uk: it has all the listings, but also explains who people are, which is really helpful. I knew a lot about stand-up comedy when I got to London but then I realised that there are literally thousands of comedians, so it really helps if you can work out a name of someone you like and track them down.
So, have you got any new projects on the horizon?
Well, yeah, literally on Horizon! I’ve done a documentary about robots. It’s called Where’s my Robot? The reason being that when I was kid I was told that I would definitely, definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, have my own robot by now. So, I was due one and I was worried. Who the hell was working on it? Had someone forgotten? Turns out the robot is a little bit further away, but it is on its way. For the programme I just went around the world meeting roboticists saying, “Where’s my robot? What you doing?”
And finally, what would your advice be for anyone looking to get into all the various things that you do?
The only way to do it is to just do it. You have to start somewhere and it can be rubbish but then, once you’ve made a few friends and proved yourself valuable, and you’ve made the job of whoever is above you slightly easier, you’re in. Then it’s just a case of staying in. Write to people, do stuff, just get on with it, and the world will be yours.
Danny Wallace’s latest book, ‘Friends Like These’, is out now. ‘Where’s my Robot?’ will be on BBC2 in the autumn
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