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21 December 2018

Simon Amstell: The refugee crisis shows up how ridiculous we are

The comedian on a taste of working behind the counter, and what is next after Carnage. 

By Julia Rampen

“It wasn’t even a full day – 11-5 – not even a full working day,” says Simon Amstell. “After that I thought ‘God, imagine having a job.’” The comedian, TV host and film director is explaining how he came to be spending an afternoon putting in a shift at a busy shop in London’s Carnaby Street.

The shop in question is no ordinary one, but Choose Love, an outlet where shoppers can “buy” items that are then donated to refugees. It was set up by Help Refugees, a charity that emerged in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. Many British comedians have championed the cause since.

Yet Amstell, who says he struggled to connect with TV footage of the refugee crisis, stumbled upon the issue almost by chance. He came across the Choose Love shop in 2017 while hunting for Christmas presents. “I was going to go in and buy what I thought was a bobble hat,” he recalls. Once inside, he learned who the bobble hat was really intended for, and ended up buying his boyfriend a mental health support package. “I thought, he might think ‘where is my gift?’ But he felt good about it.”

Some months later, he attended The Jungle, a play about the Calais refugee camp written by former volunteers in the camp and starring refugees. “It really affected me, in a way that I am not usually affected by plays,” he recalls. “It was like a kind of empathy machine.” Once again, though, chance played a part. “I remembered my friend Toby [Regbo] lives with someone who started Help Refugees.” Amstell requested a meeting. “I just said ‘I’ll do anything you want me to do,’” he recalls.

And so it was he found himself standing outside brandishing a banner on a December afternoon. “It was quite helpful being recognised on Carnaby Street because while they were talking about some jokes they liked, I could drag them towards this shop.”

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Amstell, who first became known for his off-beat interviews on the Noughties show Popworld, insists his main interest is human relationships (his latest film, Benjamin, is about the personal life of a film-maker). Nevertheless, in 2017, he wrote and directed the mockumentary Carnage, in which commentators of the future look back on the outlandish, animal-eating customs of the early 21st century. Amstell is a vegan, but now he is also a Help Refugees volunteer. So is there a Carnage for the refugee crisis?

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“Whatever the creative spark that is in you, it doesn’t respond to that request,” he says. “Carnage came from one line of stand up.” Nevertheless, he sees nothing incompatible with the subject matter and comedy. “In terms of my stand up, most of it has been very personal and sometimes about depression and anxiety and difficult relationships. All that stuff didn’t start funny. When I got dumped by someone – that isn’t initially hilarious.”

He finds the humour in the ludicrousness of the situation. And there are parallels. “Carnage looked at the future of humanity and how ridiculous we have been. With the refugee crisis, I suppose you could talk about how ridiculous it is that we perceive people with the same eyes, limbs and hair as so separate and often less than us.”

This denial in the face of the accident of birth is, he points out, underlined by the fact the monarchy still exists. “As absurd as that is, there must still be an idea that the Queen deserves to be in that place, while other people deserve to be homeless, on the street,” he says. “There’s probably something funny to be made out of that.”

Choose Love items are available at the online store or in the shop at 30-32 Fouberts Place, Carnaby Street London, W1F 7PS until Christmas Eve.