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The awful stand-up gig rescued by an obnoxious Stag and his former English teacher

Nothing annoys a self-styled alpha male more than a friend saying: “He’s got you there mate.”

I was performing at a weekend booking of gigs at Pryzm in Bristol. Think Oceana, or Flares, or whichever other cattle market you get your neon-coloured shots from. Tiger Tiger maybe – a place so predatory they named it twice.

Pryzm is a great venue for clubbing: high ceilings, loud sound systems, bars everywhere. These, however, are not good things for a comedy night, not least because they’re attractive features for stag- and hen-dos. And for some reason a group of sexually frustrated, drunk people still thinks the best way to celebrate a weekend is to fill up on stimulants in the form of cocaine, taurine and Jägermeister, and then attempt to sit down and listen to jokes and some social commentary. It’s like having a rollercoaster in a library.

Tonight: we have a 15-strong stag-do in, all wearing black polos with Tony Montana embroidered on them. So we know their stance regarding drug use, and also comedy: eavesdropping on their conversation, I find out their intention, between lines of Colombia’s finest, to “ruin the comics” that come on stage as they’re “the real funny ones”. (I feel at this point that I should explain that I’m using the toilet; my nerves get to me before shows, and I respect my comedy colleagues enough not to make the green room uninhabitable.)

The night begins. The first act (whose name I shall protect, because it’s not pertinent to this anecdote, and we’ve all been there) opens with a line ridiculing Ukip, to illicit a sense of unity amongst fellow patrons of performing arts in their rejection of Ukip’s racist ideology. He is wrong. The stag party, lead by a particularly loud stag, begins to chant “Ukip! Ukip!” enthusiastically. The first act understandably struggles, and departs for another gig, leaving the compere and me to sort through the rubble.

I begin my set before a crowd that’s being held hostage by this stag party. Heckles such as “Buyakasha” (thanks Sacha Baron Cohen, on behalf of all black men) and “What ghetto you from, bruv?” are directed at me.

I then ask the loudest stag what makes him the ringleader within his group. He replies: “I’m Sperm Donor,” turning round to show the lettering on the back of his shirt. The problem is, he’s spelled it “SPERM DONER” – as in kebab. As in, a kebab covered in man-yonnaise, or gar-dick sauce. I’m saying these puns now because I didn’t get to at the time. Instead, I said: “I hope nobody you love gets sick, or needs your help.”

The audience is now in hysterics, and the gig feels like an actual gig, thanks in part to Sperm Doner and his former English teacher.

Then, the icing on the cake. Nothing pisses off a self-styled alpha male more than a friend saying: “He’s got you there mate.” The Doner’s racial slurs are drowned out by laughter. Security kicks them out to continue their awkward night. And, like that, one of my greatest hecklers commits comedy suicide. 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear