Nine highlights from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People
The best bits and the inside scoops from three years of our seasonal rationalist jamboree
Who: Evolutionary biologist, author of The God Delusion, high priest of not believing in God.
What: The star of the first-ever run, Professor Dawkins, having done away with monotheism, re-enchanted the world with a reading from his own Unweaving the Rainbow: “On a moonless night when the stars look very cold about the sky and the only clouds to be seen are the glowing smudges of the Milky Way, go out to a place far from street light pollution, lie on the grass and and gaze at the sky. Because of light’s finite speed, when you gaze at the great galaxy Andromeda you are seeing it as it was 2.3 million years ago when Australopithecus stalked the high veldt. You are looking back in time.” Like, wow.
Inside story: On the very first night Dawkins read two pieces, the first his sub-Swiftian satire “Gerinoil”, comparing religion to a lethal virus. When it fell rather flat he realised that it was only possible to tell that the title was an anagram of “religion” when you see it written down. On the second night he dropped it.
Who: Gangly charity-shop dandy, Parisian, Michael Jackson-botherer and former lead singer of Pulp.
What: Invited along to the first year finale at the Hammersmith Apollo, a be-tinselled Cocker brought some sceptic-baiting indie-cred and seasonal razzle dazzle with his version of Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”.
Inside story: Though he is a non-believer, Cocker revealed in a backstage interview that he really likes Christmas, especially the “coloured lights reflected off a rain-splattered pavement”. Aaah.
Who: A bizarre cast of odd-ball characters jostle for attention inside the body of this musical comedian.
What: For the 2008 shows Waen brought out from retirement “Co-lin Watson”, one-time member of a legendary ’60s surf group with his brothers, and in no way a satirical portrait of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. His marvellous, silly song “Me and You, a Monkey, a Teddy, a Deaf Kid and a Shoe” provided welcome relief from all the “smug, illiterate scientists and fat, middle-aged comedians” (Christopher Hart, The Times) that comprised the rest of the show.
Inside story: Not everyone realised that Co-lin was a character. Some seemed concerned that he was a little unsteady on his feet, and didn’t twig even when he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to call my brothers Ro-bin and De-nnis to the stage … but I can’t because they’re dead.”
Who: Legendary children’s maths-explainer and presenter of any number of TV shows including Think of a Number, and a number of others.
What: Warmly welcomed to the stage by generations of people who had learned basic algebra from his TV shows, Johnny Ball left the audience a little perplexed with his end-of-the-pier shtick and off-colour banter, before losing the room entirely with a George Formby-influenced climate change denial song, which segued into a lecture on the “fallacy” of man-made climate change (it’s the spiders and insects wot did it, y’see), leaving the stage to boos, jeers and a slow handclap.
Inside story: Johnny’s outburst was widely reported in the press: “Veteran children’s TV presenter Johnny Ball booed off stage by liberal atheists,” reported the Telegraph, “Fossil fuel? Spider f**t does Earth more harm: Johnny’s shock rant,” said the Sun, while the Daily Express ran with “Johnny Ball’s climate good sense convinces top scientists to change minds, apologise”.
Who: Lugubrious honey-voiced king of the anti-gag, Lee was a has-been on the road to nowhere until Nine Lessons saved his career, and landed him a BBC2 series, wife and lovely child. Is he grateful? Is he hell.
What: Though he’s usually doing his own sell-out London shows Lee has never yet failed to make it to at least one night of Nine Lessons. He began with what he claimed to be the first joke he’d ever written – “I’m going to be talking to you tonight about how my tragic and ultimately fatal addiction to various forms of illegal Class A drugs has helped me overcome my previous dependence on born-again Christianity” – and went on from there to shamelessly plunder material he had written himself in the desperate, albeit increasingly successful, pursuit of laughs.
Inside story: Lee has been a leading voice in the wave of outrage that has accompanied what he calls “the creeping commercialisation of the secular Christmas show”.
Who: Comedian, writer, actress and mime, Neary has done more Nine Lessons shows than some of the other people who have done fewer, or less. No, definitely fewer.
What: As her one-woman interpretative dance troupe Pan’s Person, Neary brought the house down with her suicide-laden rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “I Can’t Live (If Living Is Without You)” in 2008, but special mention should also be made of her 2010 set, Nervous Lady Gives Sex Advice, complete with hand-drawn illustrations.
Inside story: Neary’s portrayal of nervous embarrassment was so convincing that when her trembling sex adviser said she needed a glass of water, one of the other performers had to be restrained from running onstage to bring her one. Who says theoretical physicists don’t have feelings?
Who: Tousled-headed medico and the Guardian’s fearless campaigner against Bad Science.
What: A three-year veteran of the shows, Goldacre has developed a fine line in breathless rants against charlatans and fakers, many of whom have tried to sue him, with no success. He’s taken on snake-oil vitamin-pusher Matthais Rath and vaccination sceptic Andrew Wakefield, but his piece de resistance was an extended dissection of celebrity colonic irritation Gillian McKeith.
Inside story: Contrary to rumour Ben did not raid the Dr Who wardrobe for his array of natty tank tops – they are from his own private collection.
Who: The Peter Andre of Particle Physics (© Robin Ince), D:Ream-boat and go-to-science-pundit-pin-up du jour.
What: Once, far in the distant past, there was a time when not everyone knew who Brian Cox was. For the audience of the 2009 shows, he could have been just any old handsome, trendily dressed, Manc-vowelled nerd explaining the wonders of space and time ... who are we kidding? The boy’s a star and everyone could see it.
Inside story: Following the phenomenal success of his BBC series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe Cox was signed up as a science columnist by the Sun, who like to describe him as “Sun Professor Brian Cox”.
Who: A former lumberjack (well, tree-planter), rapper Brinkman specialises in breaking high culture down for the street with his rap guides to science and literature.
What: Bringing some much needed ghetto-stylings all the way from the streets of Vancouver armed only with a beat, a microphone and a masters in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature. In 2008 Baba dropped science big time with his Rap Guide to Evolution classic “I’m An African”, while in 2010 he rocked da house with a hip hop version of Beowulf.
Inside story: Baba’s Rap Guide to Evolution has been running Off Broadway throughout 2011. So far there have been no group bookings by the Tea Party, although Glenn Beck has been spotted in the area.
Nine Lessons by numbers
Years running: 3
Tickets sold: 20,000
Past performers: Robin Ince, Al Murray, Simon Singh, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Waen Shepherd, Shappi Khorsandi, Issy Suttie, Gavin Osborn, Martin White and the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, Ben Goldacre, Alan Moore, Simon Singh, Marcus du Sautoy, Brian Cox, Matt Parker, BHA Choir, Malcolm Middleton, Jarvis Cocker, Luke Haines, Robyn Hitchcock, Mitch Benn, Helen Arney, Jo Neary, Josie Long, Richard Dawkins, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Jim Bob, Mark Miodownik, Darren Hayman, Lady Carol, Chris Addison, Ben Moore, Barry Cryer, Ronnie Golden, Dara O’Briain, Adam Rutherford, Baba Brinkman, Frisky & Mannish, Chris Cox, Nick Doody, Ed Byrne, Richard Wiseman, Natalie Haynes, Jon Otway, Marcus Chown, Jim Al Khalili, Howard Read, Tim Minchin, Peter Buckley-Hill, Christina Martin
Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 18-23 December 2011. Sold out, returns only: contact the Bloomsbury Theatre for details.