Friday, December 26, 2008

9 Lessons And Carols For Godless People @ Apollo 21/12/08

Merry Post-Christmas! On the 21st I went to Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a secular Christmas event I mentioned a few weeks back. I want to recount a few personal highlights, but I won't go over the whole thing as it's already been reviewed by various publications, including, interestingly, the Independent Catholic News who have called for next year's version to be more offensive.

Robin Ince, the Geldofesque organiser of this event, came up with the idea after a discussion with Christian fundamentalist Stephen Green, who portrayed him as a miserablist who wanted to take "the Christ out of Christmas". Meeting Richard Dawkins backstage at a TV show, he was delighted when the world's most famous atheist agreed to speak at the proposed event. Gathering together friends and contemporaries from the worlds of science and comedy, he booked a date at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This and a second date rapidly sold out so they added a third show at the 4000 seater Apollo Theatre (the one I went to). I think this and the recent runaway success of the Atheist Bus Campaign are heartening - there's a clear pent-up demand for science and rationalism. I hope the British Humanist Association have scored a few new members of out of it.

The event's name parodies the traditional Nine Lessons And Carols service held by churches around the UK, but as many commentators (and Ince himself) have noted, it was more like a Royal Variety Show. The quality and mass appeal of the acts varied considerably. For me, the highlights were Dawkins, Stewart Lee, Dara Ó Briain, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Jarvis Cocker and late addition Tim Minchin.

Stewart Lee appeared early, riffing brilliantly about beginning to turn back to religion after doubting a creature as complex and intricate as Richard Dawkins could have arisen by chance. Beg, borrow, steal tickets to see this guy. He has mastered standup so utterly one of his best routines is simply discussing how much the audience are laughing at any given point. Simon Singh did a speedy version of his Katie Melua lecture where he gets Miss Melua to correct a scientific inaccuracy in one of her songs. Even at his most rapid-fire, his gift for clarity shines, and with the nerd heavy audience, he probably got more laughs for his science jokes than ever before.

Jarvis Cocker kicked off the second half with a plaintive acoustic version of his Something Changed followed by the most 'mean-spirited christmas carol' he could think of; Greg Lake's I Believe In Father Christmas. The crowd enjoyed this but reserved their biggest cheer of the night for the next guest: the one, the only Professor Richard Dawkins. The Prof read three excerpts from his books and his clear, beautiful prose showed his gift for metaphor and reinforced his main point: the universe is an amazing, wondrous thing in and of itself; the supernatural is superfluous. The pace picked up with Dara Ó Briain, who I've never seen, but is apparently on the telly a lot. He, like most of the artists, was preaching to the converted, but his energetic demolition of pseudo-science was hilarious.

Crusading boffin Ben Goldacre seemed unlikely to be as entertaining at this late stage in the show, but he reduced the capacity crowd to a poignant pin-drop silence as he passionately reminded us of the very real dangers of quackery and ignorance. He recounted his victory over Matthias Rath to rousing applause and left us with the concluding remark "bullshit is not harmless". This led into one of my favourite pieces of comic work in the last decade: Tim Minchin's 9 minute beat poem about a dinner party encounter with a mystical hippie chick. I'd seen it already in his Edinburgh show, but it was equally brilliant the second time around. Poetry, humour, pathos, story, wonder, polemic...all in 9 minutes. And, in the final few stanzas, my entire world view expressed in fewer and better words than I could ever conjure.

A long, sometimes tedious but mostly fun and satisfying night, and a great lead-in to the holidays. I hope that wherever you are you've had a safe and enjoyable Christmas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I attended the Friday so didn't see Dara O'Briain.

Lots of people who have written up an account of the shows single out Tim Minchin for special praise (including me). For those who didn't manage to attend the performances, there is an unofficial recording of Tim Minchin's Storm - the sound quality is poor and you don't get a sense for just how good the musical backing is but there are captions (taken from YouTube and being embedded in lots of places because it is that good).

As you say, it sums matters up so pithily that it is tempting to just play this rather than participating in the next conversation that starts shifting in this direction.