Amelia’s Magazine | Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children May Ball – Module One: A Review

robin ince -  jenny robins
Illustration of Robin Ince by Jenny Robins.

It was only thanks to Professor Brian Cox on twitter that I discovered Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children May Ball – Module One. Not intended for children “this event will contain some swearing” and most definitely not featuring any dancing, diagnosis Robin Ince‘s quirkily named nights feature a mix of comedy alongside lectures from eminent and *cute* scientists. How on earth would this work? Well, seek the championing of rational scientific research was the binding factor of all the participants in the May Ball, be they comedian or scientist. Throw in some crowd participatory music and we did indeed have ourselves a ball.

Robin acts as compere of these evenings, and on Friday night he apologised for his frazzled persona, the result of election night lack of sleep and a preoccupation with the results, which was to become a theme of the evening. Despite incipient madness he was very funny indeed, whether jealous of his toddler son, who can happily eat crisps whilst sitting on the potty and watching television (he cannot), or reading an excerpt from a letter sent by Richard Hawkins following a debate over whether aliens are responsible life on earth.

The first act, Martin White, gave himself the hugely tough job of proving that any tune will become catchy if you repeat it over and over again. Or not, as the case may be. Through audience participation we arrived at a title, Napalm Death, for a tuneful little ditty consisting of some awkward minor chords and daft lyrics. All in ten minutes. It was an ambitious but entertaining way to start the evening, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand as we sang heartily through the finished piece.

Next up Susan Vale wandered on with a tatty plastic bag. “You’ve got no idea who I am have you? But you think I might be Susan Boyle, right?” Unfortunately for her, she had a point. “Normally I just do gags about quantum physics and end with a joke about nobs, but I can’t because Brian is here tonight,” she told us, before instead talking us through her musical obsession with The Fall via a wobbling stack of CDs on a stool. I wasn’t the only person for whom it occurred that this was a very male thing to do – when Robin reappeared he commented on her possible autistism. I was in slightly uncomfortable stitches the whole way through, especially when she wobbled her belly fat at the men in the audience. “See, I was feeling self conscious about it, but now I feel empowered.”

Lou the illustrator squirrel Reesdale
Gurning aristo by Lou the Illustrator.

Andrew Collins bounced on stage to a huge projection of a gurning aristocratic holding aloft a dead squirrel by it’s tail. Apparently the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership is hell bent on wiping out the grey squirrel by any means necessary, and Andrew likened this to racism against immigrants. Funnily enough these commandos are still less keen on a deadly hybrid of the grey squirrel – the even more virile black squirrel. The irony is that the upper classes were the ones who introduced the greys into Britain – as pets – in the first place.

“Bally Immigrants” by Gareth Hopkins.

Squirrel Marta Alvim
Illustration by Marta Alvim.

NB: I’m joking, clearly there are no deadly gun-toting squirrels in the UK.

However, the main theme of Andrew’s lecture was birds, and more specifically the things he would like to do with them; the first being to get a robin to feed from his hand, the second to be kissed, softly on the cheek, by a duck, and the third to walk down the street as if in a relationship with a pigeon.

Jonah Fazel
Illustration by Jonah Fazel.

andrew collins sandra diekmann
Andrew with pigeon girlfriend. Illustration by Sandra Diekmann.

Disclaimer: whilst I envisaged the pigeon as Andrew’s girlfriend, he would like to make it very clear that it is merely a friend. “I never considered it might be a girl.”

brian cox sandra dieckmann
Illustration by Sandra Diekmann.

All dark floppy hair and passionate enthusiasm, Brian Cox entered stage left looking not a day over 25, just as he does on the telly. He opened his lecture with a few scary looking graphs demonstrating how little cash is currently allocated for scientific research compared to the amount used to bailout the banks, and showing that expenditure in the UK is well below the average spend of the developing world.

Brian Cox Helen Harrop
Illustration by Helen Harrop.

A dedicated Liberal, Brian Cox is clearly worried about further cuts under a Tory government. Few celebrities are happy to state their political allegiances in public, and I really respect that Brian is, as his presence on television during election night made clear. He then bust out a map showing global temperature rises “for any of you idiots out there who still don’t believe in climate change”. He never really mentioned climate change in the Wonders of the Solar System, so I could’ve hugged him for this: it’s just a shame he was preaching to an audience of the already converted. He quoted Carl Sagan, who described the earth as an incredibly fragile and special “pale blue dot” and showed a series of spectacular slides to back this up, including one showing the Milky Way pulsing in a semi circle like an archway above the mountains in Chile.

Illustration by Farzeen Jabbar.

We then went on a whistle stop tour of the birth of the universe which descended into some equations that Brian swore were simple (maybe for the scientists amongst us… of which I am sure there were many in the geeky audience.) Despite losing the point on occasion it left me gasping in awe (at the wonder of the universe, not Brian, I know what you’re thinking.)

briancox claire pinegar
Brian Cox by Claire Pinegar.

A break – loo situation in the Bloomsbury Theatre: bad, had to rush out during second half for wee due to extreme queues – was followed by a passionate lecture from Adam Rutherford, science writer at The Guardian and Nature magazine. Having read the Metro earlier in the day (I love the way that the Metro always has a simplified science page. You never got that in London Lite did you?) I was well up on the news that scientists have just discovered that most humans are in fact part Neanderthal – rather than pure bred Homo sapiens. We also learnt that Neanderthals were red haired… there’s no gingers in my family but I’ve always thought my dad has a very pronounced beetle brow.

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke took up the baton, likening our current political situation to our relations with the Neanderthals, where the Tories are likely to mate with the Lib-Dems, shag ‘em senseless and then eat them afterwards. (we were probably cannibals back in the day) An unmitigated Green, he spoke ecstatically of the news that Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has gained a seat in office.

marcus brigstocke - jenny robins
Illustration of Marcus Brigstocke by Jenny Robins.

Gavin Osborn was another funny musician, who performed a specially created ode to Brian Cox describing how his wife was suddenly nowhere to be seen on Sunday nights. Simon Singh has famously challenged the efficacy of the homeopathy industry – and has just won a libel case against the British Chiropractic Association. He whizzed through a series of photos from the case highlighting the presence of Dr. Evan Harris in each shot, before deferring to Ben Goldacre, a surprise appearance, who came on stage to explain just how much Dr. Harris has done for the cause of science and free speech. On May 6th he lost his Lib-Dem seat in Oxford to an evangelical Christian, helped into office by a relentless smear campaign. Sadness at this loss was mentioned throughout the evening and Ben made everyone stand for an ovation, whereupon it soon became obvious that Evan himself was seated in the audience.

Illustration by Hayley Warnham.

Robin had saved special surprise guest Australian comedian Tim Minchin for last. “I’ve just been cleared of a speeding fine in Pontypridd. True,” he told us as he grabbed the top off the piano and barefoot, bespectacled, took his seat. “I don’t need eyeliner when I wear glasses.” Not being an aficionado I didn’t know what he was talking about but a swift visit to his website confirms that Tim normally sports thick emo-esque makeup, but I much preferred him without.

minchinstrikes Lazarou
“Minchin Strikes” by Lazarou Monkey Terror.

We were treated to the first public performance beyond the rarefied confines of YouTube of the “Pope Song“, which pillories the Catholic penchant for small boys with copious usage of the word ‘motherfucker’. A fantastic musician with immaculate comic timing, I would really like to see him again.

YouTube Preview Image

I’m all for making science more accessible and using comedy is a brilliant example of how to do this: over the course of three hours I laughed solidly whilst also learning a load of incredibly geeky and interesting stuff. I vow to see more comedy of this kind in the future. Robin Ince, I salute you for bringing this vision into reality.

You can read excellent reviews by Lucy Peel here and Jo Sue Gee here.
Robin Ince’s next evening of fun takes place on Thurs 24th June. Sadly I’ll be missing out on this one because I’ll be at Glastonbury with Climate Camp.

Categories ,Adam Rutherford, ,aliens, ,Andrew Collins, ,Ben Goldacre, ,Bloomsbury Theatre, ,Brian Cox, ,Carl Sagan, ,Caroline Lucas, ,chile, ,Claire Pinegar, ,Dr. Evan Harris, ,emo, ,Farzeen Jabbar, ,Gareth Hopkins, ,Gavin Osborn, ,Green Party, ,Hayley Warnham, ,Helen Harrop, ,Homeothapy, ,Homo sapiens, ,Jenny Robins, ,Lazarou Monkey Terror, ,Lib Dem, ,Libel, ,Lou the Illustrator, ,Marcus Brigstocke, ,Marta Alvim, ,Martin White, ,Metro, ,Nature Magazine, ,Neanderthal, ,Oxford, ,piano, ,Pigeons, ,Pope Song, ,Professor Brian Cox, ,Richard Dawkins, ,Robin Ince, ,Sandra Diekmann, ,Simon Singh, ,Squirrels, ,Susan Vale, ,The Guardian, ,Tim Minchin, ,Tory

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Amelia’s Magazine | An interview with ace comedian and Latitude regular Robin Ince.

A new era in food shopping could have dawned a few weeks ago as The People’s Supermarket in Holborn opened its doors for the very first time.

It’s ultimate aim? To bring an end to the big supermarket chains one potato at a time of course! At least that’s what team ‘People’s Supermarket’ believe; chef, online visit Arthur Potts Dawson — already known for his Acorn House restaurant in King’s Cross and London’s first eco-restaurant, the Waterhouse Restaurant in Hackney; retail consultant, Kate Wickes-Bull; and self proclaimed social entrepreneur, David Barrie.

So what’s so special about The People’s Supermarket (TPS)? Well, modeled largely on the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, established in 1974, it will work as a totally nonprofit venture. Run fully by teams of volunteers, all profits will be invested back into stocking the shop with great food at minimal prices and TPS hopes to help families and low income groups in the community along the way by providing work experience, training, and low cost shopping. A sign outside listed the number of members as 124 on my trip but I can imagine this will soon start to rise, and anyway Potts Dawson reckons they need at least 300 members for the shop to actually become a sustainable business. Anyone can shop at TPS but the team hopes that as customers visit this unique project and see the quality of produce and with the added incentive of getting great discounts they might become a member — pledging to work at the shop for a few hours every month and paying a £25 annual membership fee. The website promises, in Marxist-like terms, a supermarket that is “run by the people for the people, selling the best food at the lowest possible prices.”


Located on Lambs Conduit Street near Russell Square tube, TPS doesn’t stand out as exactly being a glamorous shop, nor has it in anyway been made to look trendy as I was half-expecting — seeing that this is the natural habitat of posh delis, coffee shops and boutiques. Instead TPS doesn’t appear to look much different to the private local supermarket that went before it, and originally belonged to the enemy — Tesco. Now the place has been spruced up by an army of helpers — all volunteers of course, but the main decoration is the addition of posters to the walls – which, although sadly lacking images of Lord Kitchener, famous for appearing in YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU posters – appeal to customer’s philanthropic side, stating in block capitals, “The people’s supermarket needs you, join today”. All this does go to show, however, that TPS is serious about saving money. Instead of investing in funky counters and arty light fittings, TPS has clearly poured all available funds back into stocking the shop with the best produce.

The fruit and vegetables, which are laid out on old second-hand tables like in a market or old-fashioned green grocers, are sourced from some of the best farmer’s markets around. There are also selections of handmade breads and cakes as well as most of the usual foodstuffs you would expect to find in a small local supermarket. But if it turns out that there is something that isn’t available customers can simply scribble a note of it up on the blackboard for the managers to see — grapefruit juice, curry powder, lentils and ghee were among the omissions when I visited on Saturday 5 June.


Todd was store manager when I made a trip to TPS on Saturday. Delighted at how quickly word of the store was spreading Todd said they had been really busy since the shop opened on Tuesday 1 June, so he was quick to make an appeal for more staff — then he could have a decent lunch break, he told me jokingly. Todd was also happy about TPS’s reception in the local area too, saying that he really felt the whole community was getting behind the project.

Which is good because the setup will make the greatest difference to those who live or work near the shop who will be able to use it fairly often and make the most of the discounts, after paying the £25 membership fee of course. There might be another reason why people will volunteer to work for free at TPS though — an added bonus for some maybe? The running of the shop is to become the subject of a new prime time Channel 4 documentary, which I’m sure will put a shine on the prospect of volunteering for any self-promoting types out there. There are also plans for a cookbook, packed full of recipes for dishes made with ingredients from the shop. I guess lentil curry is out for the time being then!


Perhaps the best thing about TPS though, is the whole ‘niceness’ of it all. There has been a wealth of comments on the twittersphere about the enthusiastic staff, the smiling customers, and the general buzz in the air that something new and exciting is happening. Certainly while at university I used to pop along to a small fruit and veg cooperative each week and I remember the more grass roots approach to buying and selling food being an enjoyable experience. And it seems the tweeters were right — the same pleasant atmosphere is already in full swing in Holborn. Katie, a student from the nearby University College London, spotted me taking some pictures outside, “It’s great isn’t it?” she said, “I think it’s the atmosphere which is nicest, I came in on opening day and people were chatting to each other. Chatting to complete strangers — I mean that doesn’t happen in London very often does it?”

Chatting to strangers, volunteering in a supermarket and reaping the benefits and all while being filmed for Channel 4 — I don’t think that happens anywhere very often.

Robin Ince by Sayaka Monji.

I will not tell a lie – I first encountered Robin Ince only last month, clinic when I attended his School for Gifted Children at Bloomsbury Theatre. Yes. I’m a comedy novice. But I do remember that the comedy and literary tents were the very best thing about Latitude when I went two years ago. I really want to go again this year, visit so it seemed a very good idea to catch up with Robin Ince, website like this a Latitude staple since the beginnings of this ever popular Suffolk festival.

Hi Robin, can you tell me how long the Book Club has been involved with Latitude?
We brought the Book Club to Latitude in it’s very first year when it was much smaller and there were not as many things going on. It didn’t have a reputation at that point so it was very quiet and the organisers must have lost a fortune but then everyone left and told their friends how great it was and things grew from there. This is now the 5th year we’ve been going to Latitude.

Did you ever imagine that the Book Club would be so successful?
To start with the it was a bit of an experiment – and in fact when it became a phenomenon so early on it became a bit of a problem. Lots of journalists said very nice things about how it was at the forefront of the “new alternative” scene that had splintered from the mainstream clubs which meant there was a lot of pressure right from the start and if one performance didn’t go well I would worry that I was tarnishing the image of a whole movement. It was sort of the same thing as happened in the 1980s: if one female comic was bad all women comedians suffered reprisals. Soon there were lots of other shows with a similar agenda and I didn’t feel that ours was up to the standard it had been. It got so bad for awhile that I stopped doing the Book Club except at Latitude and as a solo show, and replaced it with the School for Gifted Children series, which brought together scientists and journalists to celebrate great ideas, rather than laughing at weird books such as Mills and Boon from the 1970s. Nowadays the School for Gifted Children has become the main thing I do but I’d like to turn the Book Club into a more regular show again, although I need to think of a new idea.

Illustration by James Wilson.

How do you find the Bloomsbury Theatre as a space to perform? I found the lack of toilets hard work because I had to miss part of the performance.
Yes, I’ve heard they’re a bit short on loos for ladies – maybe we should do a fundraiser for extra cubicles?! But I really like performing there because the people who run it are so nice and I get asked to do things in other odd places like the Tate Modern and the British Library. I like good spaces to work in – we did a run at the Museum of London last year and we had ten different things going on all at the same time. There was someone sitting in an Anglo Saxon hut singing and playing the lute whilst someone was performing in the Lord Mayor’s carriage, and so on.

Who can we expect to see performing at the Book Club at Latitude this year?
I have very little idea so far apart from the usual group of people, which includes comediennes Josie Long and Joanna Neary, the singer songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and Kevin Eldon – who did the Big Train sketch series and works with Chris Morris a lot. Steve Pretty will be there with his brass band the Origin of Pieces and we will be joined by other musicians as well. We try to keep it as loose as possible although we usually have themes, for example I am sure there will be a late night section about pulp novels. Last year Robyn Hitchcock instigated an impromptu hour long musical about crabs on the rampage, featuring a trumpet, violinist, and opera singer. It was the first time I worked with him but I think there will be something similar this year.

Crab Attack by Gareth Hopkins.

How do you pull everyone together? Is it a case of grabbing performers at the festival?
I like to encourage people to work together and festivals offer those rare occasions when you’re all sitting behind a marquee then one person has an idea which can be created on stage with 5 or 6 performers, but can’t be replicated again elsewhere. I love working with such a disparate group of people – musicians, poets, mime artists, people who hang off trees…. it means we can build a performance around lots of different skills. I hope to meet new people each year; sometimes someone will just come up to me as I’m wandering around the fields and we’ll sit down briefly, have a chat and put on a show. I feel like what we do is in the grand tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – we put on a big show just like they did in the 1940s.

How many shows will the Book Club put on at Latitude?
In the first year at Latitude we did far more performances, but we usually end up doing it five times a day now because more and more people want to perform at the festival so we’ve lost control of the literary tent! But I will be bouncing back and forth, running around the site. I tend to get to bed at 4am after finishing the last show at 3am, then wake at 6am because the sun is turning me into a baked potato in the tent. So I usually get about two hours sleep and then I forget to eat so my blood sugar is really low.

Does your two year old make matters even more hectic?
No, he is such a ray of joy. He’s been to every single Latitude festival since he was born and he loves it. My wife looks after him whilst I’m performing and every now and again he starts to wander towards the stage but she won’t allow him near it – she’s seen what it’s done to me and she doesn’t want it for our child! He loves to do a bit of dancing though.

Illustration by Natasha Thompson.

What acts are you looking forward to seeing at Latitude this year?
Well, I haven’t seen Belle and Sebastien live for a few years and I absolutely love Kristin Hersh, who is ex Throwing Muses. Last year Nick Cave played an absolutely blinding set on Sunday evening. I’ve never seen Laura Marling but I hear she’s very good live so I’ll try to see her this year, and I want to find out if Dirty Projectors are good or just make an annoying cacophony. In the cabaret tent I look forward to Frisky and Mannish who are an entertaining musical act, and Laura Solon who does a really good character act and won the Perrier (in 2005) This year I’m on the look out for some good dance acts because I don’t feel there’s enough in my own performance. I love that the Bush Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have a presence at Latitude, though I never have enough time to see them. I try not to go and see lots of things I know unless they’re very special and because I don’t feel under pressure to get my £150 worth of fun I like to shift around the corners of festivals, which is something I learnt very early on at Glastonbury. I like wandering into a tent and discovering something new or being drawn to a noise in the woods. Because I go to so many festivals I usually have the chance to see a performance in another field in Cornwall or Wales if I miss it first time around. It’s great – there used to be three festivals during the summer and all the comedy clubs closed down, but now there’s so much going on.

Are you going to Glastonbury this year?
I’m only spending two days at Glastonbury this year, Saturday and Sunday. For a moment I was a bit worried when U2 cancelled because I thought they might be replaced with a band that I actually like (on Friday night). But I’m not too excited by the Gorillaz so that’s okay.

At this point dear reader I was able to persuade Robin Ince to join us at the Climate Camp tripod stage whilst he is at Glastonbury! Don’t forget to come and visit us above the Green Fields to find out when he will be performing over the weekend. This inevitably led to a conversation about Climate Change.

What are your feelings about promoting the issues behind Climate Change?
I’m not tremendously well informed like someone like Marcus Brigstocke, who’s been on trips around Cape Farewell and seen the evidence face to face – so I have to be quite careful what I say because I don’t know as much. I know that (generally) alternative thinking is very under represented in mainstream media and whilst large numbers of journalists will follow a carefully run PR campaign it’s not the same amongst scientists.

Robin Ince by Gareth Hopkins.

There are obviously things that I worry about, and things that annoy me in life, and I try to address these without giving hectoring lectures. I don’t think there are any grand solutions so I’m not about to say “now I know the truth” but I hope that my style of a performance can open up an idea. I guess part of my agenda is to make people question things, to open up a dialogue – because if you hear about something from someone who is passionate about it you might then be inspired to go down to your local bookshop and find out more. Whether it is about particle physics, evolutionary biology or whatever.

What about the comedy/liberal/science community that you seem to be so much a part of – do you all hang out together outside of performances?
Yes, we all get on, and for instance I will pop around to Ben Goldacre‘s flat to talk about stuff – but one of my favourite things is when we are all backstage in the green room and everyone is excited to learn things from everyone else. It’s just so great to have people like cartoonist Alan Moore and the musician Darren Hayman (who was featured in Amelia’s Magazine fact fans) handing out with all the scientists. One of the best things about what I do is learning new stuff, and I love the cross fertilisation that happens. It can be quite bleak as a comedian but the positives definitely outweigh the downsides and it’s far better than a “real job” because you can make your own opportunities. I hate that within most forms of art the main aim is fame, which is about the most negative aim you can have; you must love what you do first of all – for example Josie Long has got more and more passionate about the importance of feminism.

So, twitter. I know you’re a big user, and a lot of comedians seem to be. What is your view on the power of the tweet?
Well, you can easily become accidental friends with people and then end up meeting up with them, which is great. It’s very good for getting ideas out there, for instance every single day the people I follow post articles that I would have missed, but I think that people should be careful when campaigning against something, and make sure it is an important issue or twitter will cease to become a good tool of rebellion. I also think it’s easy to get a very partisan view of things on twitter because we usually talk to those who are like minded so it’s easy to think that everyone agrees. Essentially I’m all about ideas so I like to be bombarded with them every single day so that by the time I go to bed I am thoroughly confused.

You can read a previous review of the School for Gifted Children here, and catch Robin Ince off on tour around the festival circuit this summer, including of course Latitude and Glastonbury. You can book tickets for his next School for Gifted Children performance on 14th July at the Bloomsbury Theatre here.

Categories ,Alan Moore, ,BBC, ,belle and sebastian, ,Ben Goldacre, ,Big Train, ,Bloomsbury Theatre, ,Book Club, ,British Library, ,Bush Theatre, ,Cape Farewell, ,Chris Morris, ,Climate Camp, ,comedy, ,Crabs, ,Darren Hayman, ,dirty projectors, ,festival, ,Frisky and Mannish, ,Gareth Hopkins, ,glastonbury, ,James Wilson, ,Joanna Neary, ,Josie Long, ,Kevin Eldon, ,Kirsten Hersh, ,latitude, ,Laura Marling, ,Laura Solon, ,Marcus Brigstocke, ,Mills and Boon, ,museum of london, ,Natasha Thompson, ,Nick Cave, ,Perrier, ,Robin Ince, ,Robyn Hitchcock, ,RSC, ,Sayaka Monji, ,School for Gifted Children, ,Steve Pretty, ,Tate Modern, ,Throwing Muses

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