Marcus Brigstocke gets collared for a chat.
Who wouldn’t want a gap year being Marcus Brigstocke? It could include performing on Have I Got News For You and QI; acting in Spamalot and Love Actually; snowboarding in the Alps and – if that is not cold enough – catching different snow in the Arctic for a first-hand look at the effects of climate change. To be accused of being “on Radio 4 more frequently than the shipping forecast,” he must have both brains and charm.
When I asked which part of this varied life Brigstocke enjoys most, he replied, “At the risk of being evasive, it’s whatever I’m doing at the time.”
He had half a mind on the series of Argumental that he was about to record, but settled on stand-up. “I’m touring the God Collar show and I’m really, really enjoying it,” he enthused, adding that stand-up is the most directly personal thing he does. “I research the show, I write it, I test it out and I go and do it on the road. If they laugh, I’ve done it well, and if they don’t, I haven’t.”
But it is well recorded that a comedian’s life is not all fun. Brigstocke had for some time experienced the frustration of dyslexia, and in his teens went into rehab for an eating disorder and drug and alcohol addiction. More recently, bereavement left its mark on him, as his larger-than-life friend James died from a heart condition. This tragedy is the heart of his God Collar show.
“He was a very, very funny bloke, who I’d known since I grew up,” Brigstocke told me. “We did all manner of appalling things together. He didn’t drink because he had a heart condition and I don’t drink because I’m an alcoholic, and we used to go out clubbing. We’d go out at about half-past ten and come home at about eight or nine in the morning, very, very often, completely sober, neither of us on drugs, having had an absolutely fantastic night.”
The larger the character, the larger the hole they leave when they go. James’ death had a huge effect on Brigstocke, but he found no framework to deal with his grief.
“When he died, I was doggedly atheist. I had recently read The God Delusion and when you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it – game over. There was just no way for me to deal with it. It was awful. It wasn’t that at any point I wanted to turn religious, but I did feel a much stronger and clearer yearning at that time for something to hold onto, that I felt I didn’t have.”
The resulting show became a form of grieving. For a man who put football into Room 101 when he was on the TV programme, Brigstocke ironically produced a classic ‘game of two halves’ with God Collar.
The first half rails at all systems of belief from Christianity and Islam to agnosticism and atheism, because they failed him, when he needed to deal with James’s death. He opens the show by picking up on the atheist bus slogan, stating, “There’s probably no God … but I wish there was. I’ve got some things I need to ask him.” As well as having a pop at the easy targets – terrorists and paedophile priests – Brigstocke puts his inimitable spin on the idea of a God-shaped hole. He also earths the set with stories about his own experience, such as the insensitive, sandal-wearing vicar who embarrassed him by singing in the vestry during marriage preparation.
He freely admitted, “I will trample all over the beliefs which some people hold incredibly dear, and are very important to them. I am deliberately disrespectful to the political dimensions of belief systems that I believe to be offensive. But in the second half of the show I go to great lengths and give away a lot of personal stuff about myself and my family and what I really, really care about in order to explain, ‘Look, this is why this stuff matters.’”
The biggest surprise was his observation on atheism. His reading showed him that “Atheism isn’t a thing, it’s an absence of a thing; it’s saying, ‘I’m not that.’ So if you are an atheist, that’s a blank page. You have to decide: what’s going to go on that? Where are you going to put your beliefs, which seem to me to be integral to human beings?
“Maybe I was reading The God Delusion for the wrong reasons”
“Maybe I was reading The God Delusion for the wrong reasons. There seem to be three reasons why people read it. The first, for most people, is so that they are well-armed in their next argument with somebody religious; the second would be because it’s a best-seller and it’s an interesting book. The third – my reason for reading it, and probably the worst – is to see whether it would offer some better and happier way of living your life. For me it absolutely doesn’t.”
While his show takes some very personal pokes at Dawkins as a self-satisfied character (the smugness of The God Delusion turned Brigstocke from an atheist to an agnostic) he still respected Dawkins’ work.
“If the reviews have said that I have a pop at Richard Dawkins, that’s not exactly what it is. I’m just saying, ‘Look, if you thought that all of the answers to any sort of spiritual yearning or questions that you might have about religion lie in the pages of The God Delusion, then you are missing it by fucking miles. The book is very impressive, and what he’s doing is amazing, but actually, as a basis for a philosophy for living, I think it’s bollocks.”
Unusually in the realm of religion, Brigstocke appeared to be asking, rather than telling. Once he had conceived the show, he got stuck, because it had no resolution. When he explained this to fellow comedian Daniel Kitson at an Oxford benefit gig, Kitson “turned round and said, ‘Everyone’s used to hearing you blasting off on one subject or another and claiming to know everything there is to know. You should do a show where you have none of the answers. Make that the core of the show’.”
Brigstocke was even-handedly complimentary and cautious about faith. “What’s good about religion? That’s what I want to explore in the show. What’s actually benevolent? There’s loads, but I go to great lengths in the show to say, ’Look, if you choose to bank with Barclays, you are investing in something that’s connected to all manner of bad things. I feel the same way about that as I do with religion: there’s lots worth preserving in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, but – you’d better know what the politics attached to what you believe in actually are.
“What I seek to do – in the first half especially – is separate belief from politics: any religious group needs to seek to disentangle the beautiful nature of belief itself from the retarded, old-fashioned, hideous, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, racist politics that are attached to most of the belief systems that are out there.”
Brigstocke ran the show past both believers and non-believers before finalising the script, and it is testament to his balance that he has faced different reactions to the show, “Some non-believers try to rescue me from what they see as a flirtation with belief; and some believers have tried to rescue me from what clearly is my angst about the world in which we live. All of which is good natured and very sweet.”
Brigstocke is no stranger to big issues. He was incorporating climate change into his act several years ago and showed enough concern about Earth’s fate for Greenpeace to take him on two trips to the Arctic. The project, named Cape Farewell, put selected musicians and comedians together to experience the effects of global warming first-hand, trusting them to take the message out to others.
He explained, “They took me because I’d done stuff on the radio, specifically about the journalists who refuse to admit that it may have anything to do with mankind. Whether you think it’s all mankind or it’s a combination, to write or – like Martin Durkin did – to do a documentary that suggests that it has nothing whatsoever to do with us, that no effort we make is worthwhile, is irresponsible and so stupid, and comes from a place of moronic, ugly self-interest.”
This was an example of Brigstocke, who described himself as “gobby,” talking passionately about things that concern him; and when he gets animated it often comes from a concern for people. The highlight of his more recent Greenpeace trip was meeting Inuit people on the west coast of Greenland, whose version of events impressed him by being non-political and based purely on experience.
He recalled, “They just say, ‘When I was born, this looked like this; now it looks like this. You tell me what’s going on.’ They give you such a stark and basic version of events that I found very arresting. I do actually understand the simple end of the science of climate change, but there’s nothing as straightforward as meeting the people who live there and are on the front line.”
Initially he found the experience depressing, but became concerned to make a difference. “I incorporate material about climate change into my stand up, and it features in most of the other work I do, just to keep the narrative going. I think it’s important for a lot of people who are concerned about it to know that they’re not alone and not weird, yoghurt-eating, corduroy hippies.
“Actually, most people are concerned about this. You’re not a freak if you look at the things you buy and are concerned about where they’re from; you’re not a freak if you take the time and effort to sort out your recycling; and you’re not a freak if you refuse to get in a car and you walk or cycle to where you’re going. The emphasis has shifted. The cool people are not Jeremy Clarkson and his mob – they are now in the minority and in my view look increasingly foolish.”
Dealing with such an impending disaster helped him to prepare for God Collar, because the tone of both was so difficult to get right. Predictably, nobody found it funny when he tried to get people to take on the climate message. “They were able to laugh at the specific jokes I’d created,” he recalled, “but they weren’t able to come with me in terms of the tone of it – whereas this is funny. Yes, it’s scary; yes, it’s serious; but the solutions are funny, the obstacles to the solutions are funny, the consequences are funny.
“God Collar is clearer and more succinct than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s also much more personal.”
While Brigstocke had taken in Dawkins’ views from The God Delusion, he had not yet looked at the counter-claims of Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion. “The only reason I haven’t,” he explained, “is that I have read some of the reviews about what that and several books like it are seeking to do.
“Part of the problem that I have with The God Delusion is not that the arguments that he makes against religion and belief fall down, but the central thrust of it – which is, ‘Why can’t the existence of God be placed under scientific scrutiny like anything else?’ – misses the point. For me it’s not about proving whether God exists or not; what’s interesting is, why do people believe? Because very often, people who believe are acting against their own best interests, and that’s astonishing! That’s what interests me, so trying to unpick The God Delusion is not what I’m doing.”
While he may not attack Dawkins’ work, Brigstocke depicts the author himself in the show as being somewhat self-satisfied.
It fascinated me that the comedian should portray that, because with no other interviewee has the word ’smug’ so often cropped up in research as with Brigstocke himself. I had to ask him whether he considered that to be a valid description of him, or whether the personal vulnerability of his show’s second half reveals a maturing comic who has left smugness behind.
“I’m very, very opinionated.”
“I’m very, very opinionated,” he freely confessed. “If you want some basic psychoanalysis, I did really, really badly at school for a number of complicated reasons, which I have since sorted out. I don’t claim to be hugely intelligent, but I am bright, and I am increasingly well-read. As each year goes by I am catching up on a very, very slow start. So when people say that I am smug, if I come over as smug, then I am smug, and that’s it. But for me anyway, it’s not that I feel like ‘Ooh, look at me! Aren’t I clever?’ It’s more, ‘Wow! Look at me – I’m doing this now!’ I get this stuff, I’m reading these things and you wouldn’t believe how excited I am by them!”
He convinced me. I found Brigstocke to be a very personable character with a bright, enquiring mind. Unlike the comedians who get cheap laughs from religion, he took time to understand the importance of faith as an issue and had the honesty to admit the selflessness of many believers. What believers need to appreciate is the other side of that same honesty, which objects to the misogynistic and homophobic types of flaws that he sees in organised religion of various shades.
Intriguingly for Christians – many of whom will abhor the same things that he picks holes in, from paedophile priests to singing Kum ba Yah – Jesus himself never comes in for criticism; it is always the way that believers get it wrong that winds up Brigstocke. God Collar hardly contains what you would call ‘Sunday morning material,’ but it is a very worthwhile – and fun – show for Christians to experience, to get an outside view of how the church manages its priorities.
This piece is based on my article published in Third Way, with extra material from a parallel interview published in Church of England Newspaper and other quotes exclusive to this site. Thanks to Marcus and CEN for their permission to re-print.
On a personal note, there were two interviews over recent years that I was not looking forward to. One was Gilian Tett – I am a part-time journalist, so interviewing the Journalist of the Year, who had broken the Credit Crunch catastrophe, and getting my head around the technical financial background, was inevitably daunting.
Marcus Brigstocke was the other. He had famously ranted for minutes on end about religion (Dawkins posted one such video on his own blog) and is probably far quicker-witted than I am. I could see a car crash coming. Actually, the conversation was a real pleasure. Marcus was charming, bright, personable and clearly had thought deeply and fairly about his material. I left with immense respect and just wished he was local – we could have had several stimulating evenings in the pub.