The latest wheeze of one of Britain's most innovative comedians, Robin Ince, is a series of three shows that will bring together fellow comics Ricky Gervais, Stewart Lee, Chris Addison, Phil Jupitus, Mark Thomas and Dara O'Briain and musicians Luke Haines, Jarvis Cocker and Robyn Hitchcock with Richard Dawkins and science writer Simon Singh for a non-Christmas Christmas-time celebration of rational thought – a secular take on the festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
When I speak to Ince (the brain box behind innovative comedy club nights "The Book Club" and "The School for Gifted Children" where "bad and good" literature is satirised and celebrated respectively) about his three "godless" Christmas shows that aim to celebrate science over Bible stories, he is setting off to New York to avoid the Christmas party season in London comedy clubs by playing some of the hipper clubs across the pond. It's a nice synergy as when he returns his "godless" shows will offer a similar seasonal haven for "atheists, agnostics and the rational" in London.
Although Ince stresses that his gatherings of like minds is not about knocking religion ("I don't want it to be 'oh look at us, aren't we brilliant, we're atheists'") his initial reason for doing it came about after an appearance on a heated edition of the regional ITV topical show London Talking, where the subject was "Are they taking the Christ out of Christmas?" As well as having some run-ins with the hired mouths Richard Littlejohn and Nic Ferrari, Ince also crossed swords with the "censorious" Stephen Green of Christian Voice (the man who led the protests against the BBC screening of Stewart Lee's Jerry Springer: The Opera). Ince recalls: "I was saying that I don't have a problem with Christmas being celebrated and he kept saying 'I think he does'. So I thought I should prove that atheists, agnostics and the rational would enjoy having a big celebration [as much as Christians]."
The celebration, "a variety version of the Royal Institute Christmas lectures", will involve comics doing their best turns on matters ranging from the Big Bang, evolutionary biology, the human consciousness and the like. Ince says: "Hopefully by the end of the evening you will be slightly punch drunk."
Scientist, Bafta-winning broadcaster and author Simon Singh relishes the opportunity to do his bit. He says: "I tend to explain cosmology by electrocuting gherkins, but this is usually done within the relatively intimate surroundings of a laboratory or in a small lecture theatre. I'm not sure how experiments with gherkins will work in a 3,000-seat venue. On the other hand, I also use the music of Led Zeppelin to illustrate why scientific thinking is better than common sense, and a rock venue like the Hammersmith Apollo is ideal for this."
Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins, the big "non-comic" draw, will read not from The God Delusion but from Unweaving the Rainbow, which argues that the wonder of the world is enhanced by science, not diminished by its dissecting of it, and thus argues science is not at odds with the arts. Dawkins, who says he will mark Christmas "in the traditional way, as a cultural Christian in a traditionally Christian country" says that he took part in the show because he was "fed up with atheists being portrayed as Scrooges, trying to rain on Christmas. I thought it was a nice opportunity. It remains to be seen how significant it is. There are pagan precursors insofar as Christmas is already a hijacked pagan festival, complete with mistletoe and holly."
In the absence of Dawkins doing a turn telling "knock knock" jokes, he says what makes him laugh when he is not busy riposting irate Christians. "Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, PG Wodehouse, Michael Frayn, old British comedy films such as The Ladykillers, the real film with Alec Guinness, not the ghastly re-make, and Bedazzled, again the real film with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, not the ghastly remake," he says.
With his tastes, in relative terms, as old as the Bible but equally as popular, it will be interesting to see what Dawkins makes of his co-stars. But patronage from Dawkins is a minor concern compared to the challenge of making subjects such as the Big Bang, evolutionary biology and the human consciousness funny.
While comedy has always set out to satirise and debunk, and comics are almost all without exception doubting Thomases, these subjects do not instantly spring to mind as ones for comedy. Ince recognises that finding the funny in the work of populist scientists such as Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, for example, can be like trying to split the atom. "Physics is the tough one. Most of us who attempt to talk about it are only just grasping particle physics for example," he says. "Evolution isn't so hard for material. There are lots of weird evolutionary traits, things like the African orchid beetles of which the male is very short-sighted and has sex with African orchids, which help pollinate it," he muses.
Moving away from what he describes as sarcastic attacks on "irrational" targets, such as homeopathy (on which he had a long routine where he acts as if he is water running over various elements and remembering and forgetting them accordingly), Ince says you need to "talk about the marvellous things and not attack the silly things".
This applies even to the seasoned rabble-rouser Mark Thomas (who once joked about coming into Midnight Mass so drunk that his friend was waiting at the altar wondering when he was going to get served): "Yes, you have to remind people about the reactionary Christian actions against something like Jerry Springer: The Opera, but you also have to celebrate the humanist side. The thing is I love Christmas, I have a religious family, my sister is a vicar, I love carols, the Bible is a great book, Bach's St Matthew Passion is a fine piece of music ... but that's enough now."
Ricky Gervais, meanwhile, maintains that he knew "enough was enough" when he was eight, when he became an atheist, and that science was always his first love: "From about the age of five I was fascinated with the physical world. I did physics, chemistry and biology A-levels, and actually studied biology for a few weeks at university before changing to philosophy – the mother of science. It never knew its father." In playful mood, he jokes: "I'm worried that it's very trendy now to be an atheist comedian, so I may become a Christian just to buck that trend."
Gervais describes his 2002 show, Animals, in which he methodically debunks Genesis and the idea that God created heaven and earth in the dark ("He went 'that's everything [mimes turning a light on], let's have a look ... brilliant'. Well, there's pride in your work, then there's arrogance") as an example of "the old cynical me". The "godless" shows will, he says, be "great practice ground for my new tour, Science, which is an exploration into the rational and non-rational."
Gervais intends to capitalise on his chance to rub shoulders with Richard Dawkins: "I'm going to interview him for a podcast and put to him the idea that we should try to get a copy of The God Delusion next to every Gideon Bible in hotels."
'Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People' is showing at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1 (020-7388 8822) on 18 and 19 December, and at the Hammersmith Apollo (0844 844 4748) on 21 December. Robin Ince: Bleeding Heart Liberal, will be touring from 14 January to 15 April, see www.myspace.com/robinince
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