Yorkshire Post Big Interview
The Big Interview: Richard Herring
By Sarah Freeman
Published on Monday 30 January 2012 00:00
When asked about past failures, career blips or outright flops, the response from most A to Z- list celebrities is disappointingly bland. Always with an eye on future opportunities, no blame is ever apportioned, no bitterness ever displayed and the nearest sign of emotion is a quiet shrug of the shoulders.
Richard Herring clearly missed that particular lesson in the school of fame.
Years before Little Britain made household names of David Walliams and Matt Lucas, there were Stewart Lee and Richard Herring.
The pair had met at Oxford University and, after being major players in the Oxford Revue, arrived in London as fully-fledged writing partners, working first on radio before being handed the holy grail of their own television show.
It wasn’t quite that seamless. Their first job was as writers on the Radio 4 satirical show Weekending where only 20 seconds of their eight weeks’ worth of material made it to air. But having been spotted by über-producer Armando Ianucci, they found themselves working with Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Patrick Marber and accepted among the new generation of talent.
Within five years of leaving Oxford, their Fist of Fun radio show had transferred to television. The sketches and regular characters won a cult following. But it was axed after the second series and a similar fate befell their next venture This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
It’s more than a decade since the door of the BBC was closed shut on the pair and Herring still feels they were badly treated.
“I wanted to be more successful, I wanted to keep on making television shows. I think what we were doing was really good and, yes, I did feel bitter about other people who were more successful. I’d see them and think, ‘Why isn’t that us? We have much more talent’.
“There was a lot of reverse snobbery. At the time alternative comedians ruled and the tide turned against the Oxbridge set. The fact that neither me or Stew had gone to posh schools didn’t seem to matter.
“When you’ve been on the brink of something big, it’s hard to suddenly find yourself out in the wilderness. Let’s just say it took a little time to re-group.”
Not much was heard from either, but then a few years ago, Stewart Lee was back in the limelight as the co-creator of Jerry Springer the Opera. Based on the TV tabloid talk-show, the show featuring tap dancing Ku Klux Klan members, won four Olivier awards and thanks to a sustained campaign by Christian Voice to get it shut down, it became a sell-out.
The pair remain good friends, but while his former writing partner – who recently returned to the BBC with his own show and put the past behind him – Herring admits he struggled to find his niche.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t successful. He’s written both series of Al Murray’s Time Gentleman Please and was the author of numerous books.
But when a film script he had been working on was already a year behind deadline, Herring’s thoughts turned to stand-up.
The result was The Twelve Tasks of Hercules Terrace, the show he took to the Edinburgh Festival in 2004. It was based on his attempts to, among other things, kill the Loch Ness monster and beat his nephew at tennis. It also drew a line in the sand.
“I’d never been entirely comfortable with stand-up,” he says. “The sketch format was always where I’d been happiest, but I thought maybe it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone – literally by doing a parachute jump, and mentally by writing a one-man show.”
Edinburgh, a second home for comics each summer, was an easy re-introduction. However, Herring knew that if he was to return to stand-up full-time he needed to start small and began by booking gigs in spaces like the Basement of York’s City Screen, a venue which holds less than 100 people.
“When I went back out on the circuit I wasn’t anyone. There were a few people who had liked Lee and Herring who came to see me, but I’m under no illusion that it was anything more than a cult show. However, little by little they kept coming back. I’ve now done nine different shows and there’s confidence which comes with that.
“At first, performing was what I did when I wasn’t doing something else. Now it’s not only my main source of income, but it’s what I think of as my main job. That’s a big turn around, but it’s taken a lot of hard work.”
Herring spends six months writing each show and much of the rest of the year out on tour. Having tried to reclaim the Hitler moustache for comedy and having revisited his childhood growing up as a headmaster’s son, his latest venture attempts to answer the question What Is Love Anyway? Having also graduated to larger venues – in Yorkshire he will play seven major theatres – the tour also represents something of a step up.
“It took me a long time to decide to play to a bigger audience and it’s always a gamble, but the response to this show has been great – partly, I think, because it’s about a subject everyone can relate to.
“A lot of comedians are afraid to admit their own short-comings, but the fact is we are all flawed. I guess I’ve found that if you admit your failings, an audience warms to you. People appreciate it, but it’s the way I’ve always lived my life.”
At 44, Herring seems to have finally settled down. Partly, he admits, it’s due to being in a stable relationship and it’s also down to the fact he’s found more outlets for his creative frustrations.
Nine years ago, he began a blog and true to his worth he has written an entry every day since. He reckons he’s written about two and half million words and the arrival of podcast has allowed him to create the kind of programmes he wants without interference.
Four years ago, he and the fellow broadcaster and writer Andrew Collins launched their own weekly podcast, described as a sideways look at the news and, as well as performing at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, Herring also recorded a daily podcast interview with other comedians.
“Trying to get anything off the ground on radio or television takes a long time. You have to jump through so many hoops that by the end, the idea you started off with has often changed beyond all recognition. Even panel shows are so highly edited these days. They need to have a joke every minute and everything even mildly offensive is removed. After the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross episode no-one was trusted to self-regulate and people were constantly having a quiet word in your ear.
“It’s calmed down a bit now, but podcasts give you an enormous amount of freedom and that’s why I started doing it. Past history shows that I’m no businessman – if they make money, then great but it’s not why I do it.”
It’s a format which also allows Herring to experiment – his most recent podcast, Me1 v Me2, sees him spending half an hour or so playing himself at snooker. It’s not been entirely well-received, with one review saying, “I am becoming increasingly concerned that I am not so much enjoying the career of a comedian as being an unwitting spectator to one man’s descent into irrevocable mental illness.”
However, that same reviewer also gave it five stars.
“The snooker podcast was born out of the idea that as kids everyone plays themselves at boardgames. I thought it had a certain theatricality and there are people who now either root for me, or the other me.
“Having said that, some people have been really annoyed by the deliberate stupidity of it. If someone was coming to my material for the first time, I probably wouldn’t recommend starting with the snooker.”
While Herring, who has watched today’s current crop of comics make fortunes from arena tours, says he has no desire to play in front of 50,000 people, the ambition of those early years hasn’t entirely been knocked out of him.
A new radio series, Richard Herring’s Objective, was broadcast on Radio 4 last autumn, he and Collins have reunited for a series of live gigs and he’s in talks to get a sitcom off the ground.
However, since he started performing professionally more than 20 years ago, he says the main lesson he has learnt is to appreciate the ephemeral quality of comedy. “If you looked at who were the big names of comedy 50 or 60 years ago you probably wouldn’t recognise any of them, but that’s what is great about comedy – it’s always changing. It’s the same with stand-up – every time you perform it’s different. You don’t go out there to create a piece of sculpture, you go out there to entertain. It’s as simple as that, but I think for a lot of years I was looking for some kind of permanence to it.”
The British Theatre Guide describes Herring as “one of the leading hidden masters of British comedy.”
A few years ago, he would have baulked at the idea of being anonymous, but it’s a marker of just how much he has changed that these days he almost revels in it.
“I think being mildly famous suits me. I can go about my daily business and listen in to people’s conversations without anyone bothering too much.
“If I look back at the people who were on the circuit when I started out, there are not many who have managed to stay employed and the best thing is that I feel I’m improving rather than treading water.
“Feeling comfortable with where you are comes with age and if I was still able to tour even tiny venues in another 20 years I’d be happy. I guess I’ve got it made. It would be massively churlish to complain.”
Richard Herring, What is Love Anyway?, York Grand Opera House, Feb 4. 0844 871 3024; Harrogate Theatre, Feb 22, 01423 502116; Sheffield City Hall, Feb 23, 0114 2789 789; Doncaster Dome, Feb 24, 01302 370777; Barnsley Civic Theatre, Feb 25, 01226 327000; Hull truck Theatre, Feb 26, 01482 323638; Leeds City Varieties, March 10, 0113 391 7777.