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This page features interviews with Robert Newman. The other pages feature
articles mentioning him and articles written by Robert Newman.
From The Guardian, by Lisa O'Kelly
9th August 1998
Out of the wilderness
He wants to be a serious
writer. So why is Rob Newman making his comeback as a stand-up?
"So I suppose youre all wondering where Ive been for
the past few years," Rob Newman said to his audience at the Pleasance
in London a fortnight ago. He supposed right: its a good question.
So, too, is the one he wasnt arrogant enough to ask: why was he
at such a tiny venue? And why on earth is he schlepping up to Scotland
to spend the next month proving himself on stage in Edinburgh?
Newman used to be a superstar or as close to one as a stand-up
can get. Millions watched him on television with David Baddiel in The
Mary Whitehouse Experience and Newman and Baddiel in Pieces. His sepulchral
good looks appeared on magazine covers. And with Baddiel, he became the
first comedy act ever to play at the 12,000-capacity Wembley Arena. The
video of the show, during which umpteen pairs of teenage girls knickers
were lobbed onstage, sold 100,000 copies within days. The world was at
However, in December 1993, the day after Wembley, he split up with Baddiel.
Relations between them were notoriously strained, so in many ways the
news came as no great surprise. Baddiel, whose gags centred mainly on
pornography and "shagging", went predictably mainstream, becoming
televisions Fantasy Football king with Frank Skinner. But Newman,
the more introverted, philosophical half of the act, disappeared. He surfaced
briefly three years ago with an experimental novel that sold well
despite its authors public admission that he hadnt a clue
what it was about and, somewhat improbably, won the Betty Trask
Award for romantic writing ("There were at least a couple of love
stories in it," he said). Since then, nothing.
Newman was emphatic when he broke up with Baddiel about having had enough
of performing. "Im a natural big-mouthed show-off, but Ive
done that now. God put me on the earth to write books," he said.
But now, at precisely the time his second novel, Manners, is to be published,
Newman has decided to return to the stage. Just as his appearances at
the Pleasance and other small venues over the past few months have been
a warm-up for Edinburgh, so his run there will act as preparation for
a nationwide tour.
Why the change of heart?
He ponders his reasons over lunch at an upmarket cafe in east London,
gnawing on a lamb chop. Instead of the dandyish frock coat that was his
trademark, he wears combat trousers and a sweatshirt, with chest hair
creeping over the neck. No longer a gaunt and unapproachable "teenage
sex icon" (the Sun), he is cuddlesome and tactile, grabbing my arm
when he hits on the right thing to say.
The theatricality of the Big Comeback, he admits, appeals to him. "I
love bands like Prefab Sprout who go away for five or six years and then
come back and do something brilliant." He has also missed being able
to give vent in public to his obsessions and frustrations, which have
become increasingly political.
"I think doing stand-up will be better for me than shouting at the
TV news." His only performances during his sabbatical have been benefit
shows for strikers such as the Liverpool dockers and the sacked Magnet
workers. "Thats made my act more politically aware. I feel
Ive got more to say now."
Nonetheless, wont the Fringe seem horribly anticlimactic compared
to Wembley? "I prefer small venues," he counters. "I like
rapping with the audience. I like making a note of the ones who say the
best things and thanking them at the end. They almost become the stars.
A couple of days ago, I said something at a gig about surgery and this
guy took off his prosthetic arm and threw it up on the stage. The audience
cracked up over my complete inability to think of anything to say. It
was the oddest heckle."
He doesnt regret Wembley, which earned him and Baddiel black marks
for flashiness amongst their fellow comics. "It was a laugh, quite
a cool, show-off thing to do, but I wouldnt do it again, mainly
because I dont like being on the telly and I think you have to do
telly to be able to fill somewhere like that."
Nor has he ever really regretted splitting up with Baddiel, he claims.
"There have been moments when Ive wobbled, like when Ive
gone along to picket lines to give them support and theyve no idea
who I am," he says with a grin. "And there was a time, about
a year into the space I had cleared to write the second book when no ideas
were coming. That was panicky." However, he had enough money to act
as his own "patron", as he puts it, for a few years. "But
its started to run out now, so Im very relieved to be earning
a bit again."
However, writing is what means most to Newman. "Ive never
felt like a proper comic, and Im sure most of my audiences would
agree on that, but I do feel like a writer. Writing feels like my proper
job." He has wanted to write novels since he was a child, he says,
and is far prouder of his latest novel than his first. But despite planning
to make his act more personal "Sean Hughes told me I should"
he would feel uncomfortable using his life as raw material.
For Newman, character is all important. His Edinburgh show will resuscitate
Jarvis, the posh pervert first seen in The Mary Whitehouse Experience,
who is trying to reform, but not very successfully. And he has created
a new character, Eric Catatonia. "Hes an 83-year-old who lives
on his own at the top of a tower block and is suspicious of everyone and
proud of having outsmarted them all, but has just made himself very lonely."
Newman is not quite sure "what the angle is" on Eric, nor why
he is drawn to older characters (remember "History Today" and
its two warring professors?).
"Its one of the things I worry about, getting old and being
alone. Hopefully, I can become a major writer, a kind of Saul Bellow figure
who can pull younger women in his sixties and seventies." His over-the-top
impression of a lascivious writer gives the lie to that idea. "No,
what Id really like would be to move to the country with a nice
plump wife and become a Pop Larkin type with loads of kids. That would
to the top
From the Electronic Telegraph
15th August 1998
It's great to be back in the green room
Rob Newman is returning to the stage in Edinburgh. Kate Bassett met him
REMEMBER Rob Newman, that gothically handsome "rock 'n' roll"
comedian of the early Nineties? He is making a comeback in the Edinburgh
Festival (at the Assembly Rooms, until August 31), after "several
years in isolation", as he puts it.
You will probably recall Newman as a youthful waif with long hair, a
dandyish frock coat and a stash of jokes about drugs. Or else you'll picture
him in a silly, dusty wig with his ex-partner David Baddiel, playing an
insult-slinging don in the duo's celebrated "History Today"
Newman and Baddiel were a meteoric phenomenon.
The former grew up in a Hertfordshire village, the adopted child of working-class
parents. The latter was a middle-class, London public-schoolboy. But both
read English at Cambridge, teamed up at a BBC writers' workshop, and rocketed
to stardom. Starting with The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1992, they
moved on swiftly to their own television series, Newman and Baddiel in
Pieces. By the winter of 1993, they'd become headline news, playing to
more than 10,000 screaming fans at Wembley Stadium.
"I really enjoyed being famous," Newman reminisces. "It
was a right laugh, a right buzz." He insists, however, that it wasn't
exactly rock 'n' roll. "There were no drugs on that tour, it was
cups of tea, and that stuff about groupies throwing knickers - they just
wanted to give us their poems and were all being taken home by their parents
Whatever his experience of mega-stardom, it was short-lived. Straight
after Wembley, Newman and Baddiel broke up, with much acrimony reported
in the press. Baddiel described Newman as insecure, paranoid, and hurtful
in arguments. Newman's retrospective version of events doesn't sound so
hostile. "We just came to a fork in the road and wanted to go different
ways. We parted on the most excellent terms," he says. "We bump
into each other occasionally and it's really warm. You know I'm really
fond and really proud of him."
For a man accused by some journalists as having a grotesquely inflated
ego, Newman is very generous about other comics, and his conversations
are an unstable mix of self-bolstering comments and habitual self-deprecations.
"I'm so proud to have some tenuous connection to David's song,"
he says, referring to the football anthem, Three Lions.
After their split Baddiel teamed up with Frank Skinner and has easily
sustained his fame with BBC2's Fantasy Football. Newman, meanwhile, was
consigned to history - or very nearly. "I only had cult fame, and
you've got to chuck it before it chucks you," he says. He quit the
comedy circuit and holed up, writing books. His second non-comic novel,
Manners, is published by Hamish Hamilton next month, following his relatively
well received debut, Dependence Day.
"All I wanted to do since I was a child was write novels,"
he tells me. "And you can't be famous and write. Norman Mailer -
not that I'm comparing myself with him - admits that the massive fame
he had totally messed him up. Graham Greene said that too." His conversation
is curiously student-like, strewn with big literary names and dropped
I meet Newman in a Camden cafe. He's a burly thirtysomething now, with
a grungy woolly hat tugged down over his brows. He's clearly very nervous,
bothered by my tape recorder and talking at high speed, sometimes almost
incoherently. Yet his eager manner is endearing, like a schoolboy who
genuinely wants to be friends and share his enthusiasms. "I'm really
looking forward to this interview, because I've been in isolation, yeah,
and, and. . ." he stutters, "it's good to get out of the house."
Newman has a loner image. He apparently never quite fitted in at home,
with his mum and hairdresser sister. His adoptive father died when he
was nine, he hasn't traced his natural parents, and he didn't enjoy Cambridge.
But, actually, Newman's not such an isolationist. He says he makes and
sees more friends now than when he was at the height of his fame. He has
also been been out and about, "going around with a police patrol
squad up in Archway and Holloway". This was part of his research
for Manners, which is the story of a north-London policemen suspended
from duty for accidentally killing someone.
"I thought the police would have all this jargon," he grins,
"so I was saying, 'Hey, what's that called?' and they'd say, 'That's
a radio.' "
Newman is back doing stand-up, partly, he says, "because I started
doing the odd benefit gig and enjoyed the camaraderie again." In
fact he now sees his novel-writing and stand-up as catering to two sides
of his character. A novelist is self-effacing, he observes, "you
have to be implicit all the tie rather than explicit. Like Turgenev, where
the meaning comes through the characters' actions. But sometimes I just
have this urge to rant.
So I started doing gigs again and it's really helped.
"I've got something new to say, too. My act is much more political
now. The basic premise of the political section of my new show is that
if the Labour government thinks free market capitalism is so great, why
don't they just go and live in Russia?" This sounds positively militant.
"Yes, I've been boring my audiences to death in my try-out gigs,"
he laughs. "Funnily enough someone mumbling about Chomsky's views
on elite corporations is not everyone's idea of a good time. I don't understand
it," he says, feigning outrage, mercifully more in the style of Groucho
than Karl Marx.
Newman would like to make his books as popular as his television comedy
was. Whether the stand-up will have mass appeal is another question. But
maybe a part of him dreams of being a rock 'n' roll comedian once again.
"I admire bands like Prefab Sprout," he says, "who go away
for years then come back with something brilliant, and people are really
fond of them. Well I've done the going-away bit - I've just got to do
the coming-back-with-something brilliant bit now."
to the top
From The Scotsman Online, by Barry Didcock
Newman in search of board, no lodgings
MOST Fringe performers want it all: fame, fortune and a five-star review
in The Scotsman.
Some even want a flat that doesn't have a student theatre company sleeping
in the bathroom. Comedian Rob Newman just wants his skateboard. Seems
he left it behind in London and had to plead with a friend to bring it
up at the weekend. And yes, he is serious about using it.
"Apparently Livingston has the best concrete skatepark in the country,"
he enthuses. "I'm more into the old school skateboarding, surf-style,
though I do have a modern board."
Newman's Assembly Rooms show marks his return to stand-up from a three-year
layoff, and gives audiences a taste of what they can expect when he kicks
off a national tour in October.
He also has another reason to be in Edinburgh - a second novel which
needs plugging. "It's called Manners," he explains. "That's
the name of the central character, but it's also a cockney word - if someone
is under manners it means they're being warned. And there's a poncy reason
for it being called Manners too, which is about belief systems."
The novel is published in September, but, naturally, "a few"
advance copies are on sale in the Assembly Rooms this week.
to the top
From Epigram Edition 102
16th October 1998
It's all getting a bit tricky
Rob Newman and the stars of the The Mary Whitehouse Experience were the
faces that launched a thousand school-ground catchphrases. Then they split.
Now Robs back with a book, a tour and (apparently) a more stable
outlook. Kate Freeman goes into regression...
Mention that era of The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Wembley Arena
to most students today, and the nostalgia starts to flow. At that delicate
age - about 14 - if you didnt want to do him, you wanted to be him.
Go on, deny you went through a phase where most insults ended, "Thats
you, that is". Or when every possible opportunity was taken to declare,
"Oh, no, what a personal disaster !".
As I dial the London number, Im really nervous - oh, God...
Rob answers, and we have just established that, unlike when he first
went solo and his name grew mysteriously, he doesnt care whether
people call him Rob or Robert, when he gets distracted: "Oh ..."
Hmm? "Oh, can you hold on ..." There follows about half a minute
of clattering and banging around in the background. He finally returns,
"Right, Ive just got my first coffee of the day" Hes
just got up (its midday), and he explains to me the importance of
starting the day in this manner. "OK, its just in front of
us now ... youre from Epigram? Is that Bristol University? Cool,
Right, so: how does it feel to be back in the public eye again?
Oh, well, I dont know if ... Im not back in the public eye,
but - its nice doing stand up again ... Ive just got to do
my lighter again ... (pause) Ive got two lighter shaped objects
in my pocket; one of thems
chewing gum and the others the lighter..." I wait while he
sorts it out and promises that he will then become "the most fluent,
eloquent interviewee you ever had... Ah, coffee..."
Despite the mumbling, he sounds much more positive than he used to.
The angst and self-criticism that used to characterise his act are less
evident now, and hes enthusiastic about his new projects: "I
gave up a few years ago, stand-up, but now Im really enjoying it,
having something to say. Theres a new, more political angle and
... Im trying to ... um ... you must say what is at your heart".
He tries another approach, "you have to look at the technical side
... Im not making sense..." Not really, no. The technical side?
"When you start off, your interest is technical: how to make people
laugh, how to shape a joke, but now, having gone away and read more politics,
I can be trying to get a laugh and get issues across"
However, he still enjoys the personal material, and wrote another 15
minutes worth after selling out in Edinburgh.
His first book, Dependence Day, criticised the criminal justice system.
Does the new book, Manners, have very political aims too, then?
"In a way, it doesnt. The books more concentrated with,
like, 80% spiritual stuff and 20% politics. One of the things when I was
writing it was ... sort of ... how ..." Yes? Yes? "Im
slowly warming up ... how social structures are responsible for the corrosion
of character, like how the police start out as law abiding communities
and become criminals". He breaks off, "Its like a bloke
I used to know who had an old Lambretta which he always had trouble trying
to start. Im just cranking up now. Sorry, I just woke up and I ran
next door to get my coffee and cigarettes".
As in 1994, his book release coincides with a solo stand-up tour. Does
he prefer one, and use the other to support it? "No, I really enjoy
both of them, and they feed into each other. With stand-up, you have to
communicate, it teaches the writer to connect with people. The British
novel can be elitist, but stand-up reaches more people. Its symbiotic,
because novels encourage the stand-up to be more sincere and from the
heart. Before, I used to do stand-up as a frivolous distraction, but now
its more part of my nature".
He asks about the Bierkeller, where he will be performing on 28th October.
I mention that he might like to check out one of their lapdancing nights
- "No, not me love! But if it doesnt go too well, I could always
put ten pounds in my supports garter belt and have him writhe around
for a bit"
Time for the obligatory David Baddiel question, and Im going for
the big one: Would he say that Baddiels sold out? "Not really,
we both started out doing comedy on the telly and hes still doing
that. You cant level a great charge at people whove started
out with a completely different agenda. I dont think so at all.
Has he sold out? The word successful is the word youre looking for;
hes being funny."
"I dont like being on the telly ... if I could do just live
gigs and write, I would. They treat you like an idiot on the telly: someone
with a clipboard will come into your room before the show and say, 'Youve
got two hours before it starts. Youre not going to go anywhere,
are you? Like Ill be sitting there and hear an ice-cream van
go by, and theyll find me two hours later wandering round a shopping
What exactly was he doing since the last tour? Was it mostly a break?
"Ive been working pretty constantly, although there was a bit
of breakage. Ive also been writing a screenplay, which has done
a tour of some of the best waste paper baskets in Soho. The carousel was
fun, but a bit too fast. Im quite a slow person, as youve
witnessed". Thats alright, Rob. Can he see himself going the
same way as Ben Elton and writing scripts for comedies? The reply is definite:
"No, Richard Curtis wrote Blackadder, Ben Elton wrote the fart jokes
... it was funny stuff, but very odd ... no, theres no real comparison".
He perks up noticeably when I ask him about home. He used to say he disliked
living in London - "Yeah, Im moving out!" Any ideas where
to? "My friend lives near Brighton, so I might go there. I was about
to buy a place in Ireland, but they sold it to someone else. They didnt
want me there". Oh, Rob ... but Brighton? "I want to live near
a river ... then ... (he starts mumbling again, presumably immersed in
visions of idyllic cottages perched on riverbanks) ... yeah ... yeah,
Um (worth a try) - Bristols a nice place - does he know it well?
"Not very well, but I remember spending a really nice weekend in
Bath; I just wandered around for a while. I was there for a regional book
conference about six months ago, and I was speaking to people from the
different bookshops, and I ended up promising to do signings for all of
them, but Ive found out I can only do it for one. Im not sure
which..." I think its Blackwells, "Well, hopefully
all the others wont be too annoyed at me". Dont worry,
Rob, Im sure they wont.
I thank him for his time - ten minutes more than promised, "OK,
Sorry I was rubbish". Thats all right. I just spoke to Rob
Newman. That's you, that is.
to the top
From BBC FUNNY Talk: 26th August 1998
Rob Newman's pretty happy with the way his new festival show's been going
so far. "It's nice to be doing stand-up again. I'd taken a few years
out to write my new book. It's not that it's a particularly hard book
to write, it's just that I'm not all that bright and things like this
take time. But the show's been going really well, people seem to like
it and every night's fun," he tells me over an incredibly strange
Assembly Rooms fruit cocktail. "I look forward to every show."
From Student Magazine 1998
Where've you been then?
Ben Martin asks Rob Newman
the obvious question
When you mention to people that you're interviewing Rob Newman, the stock
reaction seems to be "Where's he been? What's he been doing?"
as opposed to "Who's he?" which would seem more likely considering
he's been well out of the public eye for the last three years.
But everyone knows Rob, it's easy to recall the gothic, pasty white figure
from The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Newman and Baddiel in Pieces in
which he appeared alongside ex-partner David Baddiel Five years back,
Rob was at the top, he was a cult star, and that's not "cult"
in the sense of tiny viewing figures. Newman and Baddiel in Pieces averaged
6 million each week, it's cult in the sense that huge numbers of 16-21
year olds tuned in to watch the likes of upper class pervert Jarvis and
"History Today," in which a couple of dons burbled insults at
each other for five minutes.
Rob and David Baddiel became the first comedy act to sell out 12,000
seater Wembley Arena, the video of the gig went on to sell 800,000 copies
in 3 days and won the title of "Best Comedy Video." This is
when things went wrong.
The day after Wembley, Newman and Baddiel parted company. Rob says that
the split was not as sour as Baddiel later painted it, but are they still
friends? "we're not best mates or anything, but we'll run into each
other occasionally, and he'll pop into my house sometimes when he flies
over in his helicopter." Baddiel went on to more mainstream TV work
such as the highly successful Fantasy Football League, which he hosts
with Frank Skinner.
He started writing, which he says is what he has always wanted to do
and, in the autumn of 1994, released his first novel "Dependence
Day" which met with okay reviews, and made it onto the best-seller
list. His second novel, titled "Manners,"has just been published:
"it's about a Policeman in Holloway who accidentally kills someone,
he then he goes slightly off the rails and edges towards a nervous breakdown,
he carries on wearing his uniform even though he's been suspended and
he really starts to loose it. I spent three years writing it, I think
I rushed the first a little" explains Rob.
The Edinburgh Festival has provided the stage for his return to stand-up;
"it did go really well" he says, "I've got more political
stuff now, though I still have a few characters in there; Jarvis is trying
to reform unsuccessfully and there's a new character called Eric Catatonia"
(an 83 year old who lives at the top of a tower block and is suspicious
of everyone). He's now recovering and psyching himself up for his upcoming
36 date national tour which he seems to be looking forward to - 20 consecutive
sell out nights in Edinburgh appear to have bolstered his enthusiasm.
Rob's looking forward to his great comeback, it occurs to me that maybe
it all came too quick the first time round, "I don't want to do anymore
TV if I can avoid it, I'm happier with the smaller gigs I've been doing.
I'm going to carry on writing mainly, I've already got an idea for a new
Because of his past success with TV, Wembley sell outs and massive video
sales, you tend to assume that he wants it all back again. He doesn't.
Instead, he is enjoying making it on his own, in the way that he wants
to. He is doing what he feels is right, he's more comfortable with small
crowds ("it's more fun") and he's a success. There were fights
outside the assembly rooms in Edinburgh for tickets to Rob's gigs, "it
felt good, it was really flattering."
I expected Rob to be a little arrogant, difficult to talk to and I was
prepared for frequent uncomfortable silences. He's not like this at all.
Instead, he's extremely likeable, self depreciating, very passionate about
his work and seriously fun.
to the top
From The Evening Standard by Zoe Williams
2 December 1999
Newman fights new battles
I had it in my head that Rob Newman might be interesting to talk to because
of his wrangle with David Baddiel. You remember, they used to be chums,
appeared at Wembley Arena together, then fell out and hated each other.
I met Newman in a greasy spoon in Camden. He didn't talk about that.
He had other things on his mind. In descending order of importance, they
were: how corporate globalisation destroys human rights; what he, and
others, could do about it; and what he was planning to eat for lunch.
The third one has an easy answer: chicken. The first two, rather more
tricky, are preoccupying him today more than ever. This week, he's in
Seattle, covering the events at the World Trade Organisation's conference
for Channel 4. His reports were to be deliberately partisan, I gathered.
Certainly speaking to him it's impossible not to discover that his sympathy
is with the demonstrators' point of view.
"I think it's just so important to make the connection between our
local problems and the corporate world," he says, "because if
we don't make those connections clear then others will attribute them
to other things, like refugees or immigrants or whatever."
Politics, he complains, has been trivialised to the point of nonsense.
While we are all being fed Hello-style Westminster gossip and White House
soap opera, the Director of the Washington Centre of Strategic and International
Studies is admitting: "In the final analysis, what really matters
is how effectively the surrender of governments to the global market is
He warms to his theme. Criticising big businesses for being greedy is
ludicrous, he continues, since greed is the sine qua non of global corporations.
Corporations are tyrannies, steadily reversing all the progress democracy
and human rights have made over the past century. Evidence for this, he
says, is available wherever you look. "The US has taken out a patent
on basmati rice - that's like India taking out a patent on fat Bon Jovi
fans with mullets!"
He quotes Major Ralph Peters at the office of the US Deputy Chief of
Staff for Intelligence, who apparently said recently that "the de
facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our
economy and open to our cultural assault - to those ends we will do a
fair amount of killing."
"It's a race to the bottom at the moment," says Newman, "because
countries try to outbid each other and none of them has any sense of environmental
responsibility. It can't go on. People will do something or we'll be living
in tyranny and, sooner or later, even that will collapse because of what
they're doing to the earth. It just won't survive."
His views on the state of emergency in Seattle were broadcast last night;
he's due to appear again on Channel 4 News on Friday. There's one thing
on which he's clear: there's no point just saying you're against globalisation.
"It's like, everyone's against homelessness in the same way as everyone's
against sin. You've got to ask why? Who owns the land? Who runs the building
industry? Go to the source."
When he returns from Seattle, he'll continue his spoken-word tour, in
which he discusses his unfinished book - about globalisation - with an
audience. "It's a collaborative approach, where you ask the audiences'
opinion seriously and then you can go and have a curry and a think, and
when you get home you've got another chapter.
"People all over the world are seeing connections, people are much
more hip to what's going on than you think," he says. "I don't
know what's going to happen, or when, but that's impossible to predict.
No one could have predicted the end of apartheid six months before it
Then he gets all shifty about his table-thumping. "I'm optimistic,"
he says. "I've bought myself one of them whiteboards and some coloured
pens. In time, I tell you, it will be the blueprint for the shaking of
the foundations of the whole rotten edifice."
to the top
When resistance becomes fertile
ROB NEWMAN, the left
wing comedian and writer, is speaking at the globalisation and resistance
counter-conference in Brighton on 24 September. He spoke to HELEN SHOOTER
about comedy and political inspiration.
Do you think comedy has changed over the past few years?
I THINK what has changed is people's response to political comedy. People
are angrier, and so more receptive to it, than they used to be. I think
audiences are dissatisfied with the standard fare-people talking about
the difference between cats and dogs, or flying on aeroplanes, all that
SO HOW does your comedy reflect that change?
I WAS very political when I was younger, then less so. But I'm more political
since I've been working on my own after Newman and Baddiel. In the changing
political climate we're in now you're able to put more complex ideas to
an audience and still get laughs
At the time of Newman and Baddiel I was more interested in the spiritual
and personal effects of what capitalism does to people. But I feel now,
over the last five years and more and more with each new piece I write,
that I'm able to be much more myself on stage. It's down to things I've
got involved in.
I'd given up stand up comedy and got back into it through doing the benefit
tour for sacked Liverpool dockers with a couple of them as my tour managers.
They wanted me to do a speech and I was very nervous but I found I really
That re-excited me. I was also getting increasingly angry with the political
situation and spending an enormous amount of time shouting at the TV news.
I thought there must be a more mentally healthy way to react, so I went
back to stand up. There seems to be a new form of comedy about now.
People like Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy do it - kind of
halfway between story telling and lecture, a kind of stand up monologue.
It's not limited to getting a laugh every 20 seconds, which cuts against
putting across radical ideas.
Comedy is an angry art. You can reveal the naked absurdities in the capitalist
system and that's when it gets really funny. During the Edinburgh Festival
I did a show called Resistance is Fertile in the evening, and in the day
I did free lunchtime lectures. One was on corporate propaganda.
What I'm doing now is oddly funnier than what I did before, which I think
happens when people find their own groove.
What excites you politically about what is happening at the moment?
Many things. I think the next ten years are the most crucial in human
history. I think more and more people are realising that, even in the
face of imminent ecological collapse, capitalism cannot change its ways.
We have to make historic decisions - either we finally take control of
our own lives or the planet dies. There is nothing in between. That to
me is very exciting. There is a massive vacuum for a radical movement.
I'm excited by the potential I saw over the three weeks I was in Seattle.
I saw a broad mass movement. Usually the press ghettoises protesters
as "they're not like you", but it was impossible for them to
do that. It was such a broad cross-section, from the Raging Grannies,
local black youth, dockers and Teamsters to Earth First!
Do you think that the spirit of Seattle can continue into Prague?
YES. WE want to link the trade unions, the direct action movement and
non-affiliated people. We want to make it really broad - get your mum
involved if she isn't already.
I think Prague will be different to Seattle but it's dead important lots
of people get there. I think it's ultimately a very inspiring thing.
* Rob will be speaking at the opening rally in Brighton with George Monbiot,
journalist and campaigner; Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review;
and José Villa, Bolivian Union Solidarity Committee.
to the top
From The Sunday Times, by Stephen Armstrong
22 September 2002
With much thanks to Lucy
Comedy: History man
That's me, that is: a troubled Rob Newman explains why he is serious about
If comedy was ever rock 'n' roll, then Newman and Baddiel playing Wembley
in 1993 was Oasis at Maine Road, or, with a more accurate head count,
Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park. When the duo left the stage, however,
they walked off in different directions. David Baddiel turned right, discovering
the revenue- generating powers of football and Frank Skinner, while Rob
Newman turned left and, for a little while, vanished completely.
There were rumours, of course. An unhealthy combination of hedonism and
self-doubt figured in most of them. A novel appeared ("The first
seven pages are fantastic, but it went downhill fairly sharply from there,"
Newman now says) and the odd small-scale live show. Then, in 1998, Newman
was on the bill for a benefit for Liverpool's striking dock workers. For
some, this was baffling. Newman and Baddiel's material hardly kicked over
the barricades in incandescent rage. When it spoke to students, it eschewed
situationist slogans in favour of History Today's "Your mum's a slag".
Newman, however, sees otherwise.
"Fame is a very clumsy beast," he reflects. "By the time
we did those gigs, I think I'd been on telly six times. Fame bounded up,
I patted it a couple of times and it retreated. But I've always been political,
since before university. I think the psychological effect of the miners'
strike being defeated affected so many of us. When Thatcher said there
was no such thing as society, you knew she was wrong, but there didn't
seem to be anything you could say. So I became a bit lost for a while,
but, as I found myself shouting at the television more and more, I found
my way back."
Since 1995, he has built up a reputation as a thoughtful political comedian,
cemented over the past couple of years with extended sell-out runs at
London's Soho Theatre. From October 2, he returns there with a show called
From Caliban to the Taliban - 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention.
It's almost a history lecture, beginning with Shakespeare and Francis
Bacon's stake in the Virginia Company, and working through the Mayflower
voyage, Deuteronomy, Wordsworth and Coleridge being followed by Home Office
spies, the Gordon riots, the war of intervention against the Russian revolution
in 1918 and the second world war, bringing us up to date with the war
against terror and - circumstances depending - the war or not with Iraq.
Slapstick lite, then.
"I've been reading a lot of EP Thompson, and I really like history
books, so this sort of show allows me to sit at home with a cup of tea
and a book, but say I'm slaving away on a new show," Newman grins.
It seems to be a new trend in stand-up, this sort of comedy. The likes
of Chris Addison, Ricky Gervais and Dave Gorman engage in documentary
routines on, respectively, the middle classes, animals and astrology,
while Marks Steel and Thomas engage in micro- history or investigative
journalism. The problem is, of course, given a choice between a fascinating
fact and a good gag, which do you go for?
Newman laughs. "That particular, um, dialectic is what I find so
inspiring about Thomas and Steel. They're evolving a new form. It's part
storytelling, part stand-up, part activism and part lecture. If the story
is interesting enough, you don't notice that there hasn't been a gag for
20 seconds. My show does have some theatrical - as a euphemism for unfunny
- elements. You find yourself making links between the 1830s in Manchester
and the 1720s in Honduras, but as the show gets nearer, you can just see
that front row of the audience saying: "Make me laugh, monkey boy."
When Newman's chatting away, his speech is curiously faltering and laced
with pauses, as if he's flicking through a Rolodex in his mind. When he
finds the right card, however, he has a breathtaking ability to quote,
word for word, entire speeches made at last year's conference Hollywood
Goes to War? Politics, Showbiz and the War on Terrorism, or extracts from
reviews of books about US foreign policy. His hesitancy makes him seem
vulnerable, and it is this vulnerability that makes him so appealing.
From adoption at six weeks, through the death of his adoptive father to
his curious career, Newman seems, to outsiders, to have flitted from difficulty
To some extent, the politics have soothed his famously fractured outlook.
As well as the new show, he's been mixing in the antiglobalisation campaigns,
reporting from Seattle for Channel 4 through the WTO protests, travelling
to Prague for the IMF/World Bank protests, speaking at last year's Alternative
Labour Party Conference and writing for the underground media. He's also
been working on his third novel - The Fountain at the Centre of the World
- for the past 3 years. So what does that make him? Comic? Activist? Journalist?
"I'm a writer," he says, sounding pleased and proud. "If
I'm an activist, I'm one who avoids any danger. A writer's what I always
wanted to be. Always always always always. Although my novel is with my
publishers, so if they send me a rejection letter, I'll have to rethink
that. But I've had three years of unalienated labour, I've changed a lot
and I've learnt a lot. What more do you want from life? Apart from a bit
of money. I am totally skint."
Which proves that, if you can compare comedy with rock'n'roll, Rob Newman
is the new Scott Walker.
Rob Newman, Soho Theatre, W1, Wednesdays, Oct 2-Dec 11
to the top
From Time Out, by Malcolm Hay
With much thanks to Jane
Robert Newman says the trickiest task he's had with his new solo piece
has been 'to find the line through it - to find the story'. That's partly
because it leaps backwards and forwards through history, from the wreck
in Bermuda in 1609 of a ship that spearheaded colonisation in the New
World to the attempted intervention of Western powers against the Russian
Revolution and the current war against terror, stopping off at innumerable
points in between.
It's called 'From Caliban to the Taliban - 500 years of humanitarian
intervention'. Not a catchy title but, in its ironic fashion, it's a fair
reflection of Newman's serious intent. Long gone are the days when, together
with David Baddiel, he made loads of money entertaining mass audiences.
Nowadays he works as a political comedian, campaigns against globalisation
and writes novels. Newman says he's 'totally skint'. His shows are always
heavily researched. That in itself produces problems when it comes to
converting the facts and Newman's interpretation of them into a stand-up
show: "I find myself wanting to use footnotes, though of course I
can't." Then there's the audience's natural desire for gags: "It's
a matter of having the courage to tell myself I won't get any laughs for
a couple of minutes, because I'll be explaining something that's quite
It's not that Newman rejects the more obviously accessible styles of
stand-up; "I've been doing quite a few circuit gigs and I respect
what a lot of comics are doing. It's not what I'm aiming for, but it's
really interesting hearing how they make stuff funny. Among more established
acts I'm a big fan of Johnny Vegas. When you see him live, it's one of
the few times you think that really is comedy as art."
Newman's anti-globalisation novel, 'The Fountain at the Centre of the
World', is currently in the hands of his publishers. A documentary team
for BBC2 followed him for more than three years as he worked on the book,
visiting Mexico and, among other places, the detention centre for asylum
seekers in Hammondsworth. It aims to reveal something about the creative
process. "Not easy," Newman declares. " What could be worse
than watching me sitting at a typewriter?" He's not one for self-publicity
- or, at least, not just for its own sake: "If it's broadcast, I
don't think I'll be watching it myself."
to the top
From The LIST, by Mark Fisher
13-27 Feb 2003
Robert Newman lives the life. No armchair socialist firing impotent broadsides
at the powers that be, he turns global politics into hilarity on stage
and takes his beliefs to the streets. 'Me and my mate Mark Thomas both
got arrested at Whitehall a couple of times last month,' laughs the former
stand-up partner of David Baddiel. 'We looked at each other and said:
"I think we've done the Equity minimum now," and wandered off.'
His new show is a departure for him. Instead of building up his special
blend of polemic and impersonation every night in front of an audience,
he sat down and wrote it. Called From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 years
of Humanitarian Intervention, it's the story of a '500-year terror campaign'
starting with Francis Bacon and culminating with George Bush.
'This is the first time I've written a complete script from beginning
to end before doing it,' says Newman, sporting shorter hair (he cuts his
own) and several fewer pounds (he's been cycling everywhere). 'It's all
factual and quite heavily researched. I worked harder for this than I
did for my final exams at university. I'm thinking of doing a little booklet
with the information, because sometimes in a show it can come and go too
quickly. And if you just know one satistic you can win any arguement.'
As the threat of global warfare mounts, he expects the reaction to the
show to change. But he suspects audiences will not be as ready to turn
into knee-jerk patriots, as they have in previous conflicts, should war
be declared. 'I think its different this time,' says Newman, who'll be
giving local activists a platform at each of his shows. 'It's the first
time that we're thinking: "Oh, we're the baddies, aren't we?"
Doing the show, I'm always thinking I'm going to hit a point when the
audience pull back a bit, but they don't.'
And will he keep it funny? 'I don't think it would work in a Friday night
comedy club with everyone a bit pissed up. But it's been going down better
than anything I've ever done, because I do think there's much comedy to
be had. Comedy always loves the gaps between what is real and what everyone
Those not fortunate enough to catch his tour should look out for Scribbling,
a two-part BBC2 documentary in March, half of which is dedicated to the
writing of his third novel, The Fountain at the Centre of the World, due
to be published in September. 'It was nice having them there filming me,'
says Newman, whose researches took him to Mexico, onto Welsh trawler boats
and to the Harmondsworth asylum-seekers detention centre. 'It was a bit
like cross-Channel swimmers when they have someone in a rowing boat keeping
to the top
From the Evening News
20 February 2003
Newman - new danger
GLOBAL unrest, massive anti-war demonstrations, a growing sense of cynicism
about our governments, increasing concern about corporate globalisation.
Has the rest of the world finally caught up with Robert Newman?
Ten years ago, after he split with comedy partner David Baddiel, it is
probably fair to say that many thought the indie pin-up of stand-up had
turned into a bit of a crank.
Turning his back on a massively lucrative double act (they sold out Wembley
Arena, remember?) to write novels, read copious amounts of US left-wing
theorist Noam Chomsky, chuck out his TV and confine most of his solo stand-up
to small- scale benefit gigs for worthy causes seemed a bit . . . well,
Fast forward ten years and its a different story. While David Baddiel
is content to slump on a sofa and play straight man to Frank Skinner,
Newman has developed a unique brand of intelligent, politicised comedy,
light years removed from the man who popularised the phrase: Thats
you, that is. Good thing too.
Newmans new show From Caliban To The Taliban: 500 Years Of Humanitarian
Intervention, which visits the Brunton Theatre next Wednesday, is his
most carefully scripted and most commercially successful show to date.
As Newmans take on the origins and development of globalisation,
the show attempts to demonstrate how corporate interests need to create
demonic enemies that scare us into going to war.
"I spent about three months writing this all out, which was the
first time Ive ever tried to weave something like this all together
and the end result looked like a play!" he says aghast.
"The first show ran about four hours long and I went: Mmm,
this is probably a bit more than I need, but Ive now got in
down to reasonable length - about half that."
The title may strike you as a little pretentious but Newman, 38, makes
a fascinating case for his central theory.
"It begins with this voyage of a British ship to Virginia which
was taking replacement workers to the tobacco fields there in 1609 - basically
this was the beginning of globalisation," he argues.
"But there was a shipwreck and a mutiny and a strike which put their
commercial interests at risk. One of the stockholders of the company was
Sir Francis Bacon who wrote this pamphlet An Advertisement: Touching A
Holy War, which painted the American Indians as cannibals."
Bacons pamphlet inspired Shake-speares last play The Tempest,
and with a few misplaced letters the demonic cannibals became Prosperos
monstrous creation, Caliban.
"Its always the same: Yeah, were colonising abroad
but we have to make it look good. If you take the long view of things
you can see the same things happening today - the policies stay the same
but the pretexts change."
While Newman stops short of suggesting that the Taliban are fictive creations,
hes not convinced that they were responsible for September 11.
"Yes, the Taliban was a very nasty regime - that we put in place
to safeguard oil pipelines . But as Michael Moore points out, there were
a lot of Saudis on those planes but theyre the good fundamentalists
because theyre our allies.
"You find a mention of that on the BBC News 24 or Newsnight - we
just need a hobgoblin to scare us into war."
Ten years ago, you might have thought this would be some off-the-wall,
left-wing polemic. Now, however, we live in remarkable times. Millions
demonstrating against a war that hasnt even begun? Never happened
with Vietnam or the Gulf War did it?
Newman started performing Caliban in December in London and its run was
extended and extended right up until earlier this month. It has proved
so popular that it will probably also run at this years Fringe.
"Just a short one though," says Newman. "Im too
old for the full three weeks anymore." Why the sudden hunger for
political comedy gain? Has the general public become more left wing or
are we just more cynical about our governments?
"Times change and people are thinking for themselves," says
Newman. "People just want more information, they just want to hear
an opposing viewpoint. The government has become so elite that theyve
forgotten that theres this spirit in British people that democracy
should be real - thats quite a deep-rooted strain.
"Its also because theres not been one reason to go forward.
Even Stormin Norman is against the war, even ultra- hawks like the
novelist Robert Harris - who I once saw on Channel 4 just arguing for
war per se! - is against the war.
"Its really only ultra-fanatics at the top who want it for
their own reasons and that just shows how far removed they are from common
"Its like this is the first time people have said: Hang
on, wait a minute, are we the baddies here? Im sure the Germans
cant wait to for this war to start so they can start guilt tripping
us because we are so obviously the bully," chuckles Newman.
"The pretext for war changes from week to week but really its
all so we can get there and control this strategically wealthy place.
"A US State Department report from 1945 describes Iraq as the
strategic prize for world power. I mean, geopolitically its
the bollocks and thats why were there. Its all about
control of the Middle-East and showing everyone that the United States
and Britain is boss and that all corporations come first."
Newman is no armchair radical. Research for his forthcoming third novel,
The Fountain At The Centre Of The World (the long overdue follow up to
Manners and Dependence Day) took him from Mexican villages to Welsh fishing
trawlers and form the subject of a BBC2 documentary, Scribbling, due to
be shown on March 10.
"It was originally going to be on prime-time but it has been switched
to late night because its an arts programme and obviously an arts
programme has no place on BBC2," sighs Newman.
"Still, Im sure no-one will be watching Newsnight in March
anyway because obviously therell be absolutely nothing going on
in the world," he laughs.
After the Scottish leg of Newmans tour ends early next month hell
be "renting a bothy ootside Stirling and going walking" before
embarking on a coast-to-coast book tour of the States with accompanying
"Im really not sure how the show will go down," admits
Newman. "Probably OK in New York, Boston and the militia camps of
Montana but elsewhere . . . ?"
Newman may not have too much of a problem, as he himself concedes. "There
is a lot of dissent in the United States and why not? Most of them didnt
even vote for the f***ing guy anyway - the majority of the American public
didnt vote and a lot of those that did didnt want Bush."
Since optimism is a revolutionary act, Newman remains cautiously revolutionary
about the future. "Empires usually collapse and its because
of whats happening on the inside thats usually more decisive
than external factors and, in a way, the States would probably remain
at the top of the tree were it not for one important factor - Latino immigration.
The language ratio between English and Spanish in the States is now nearly
50:50 and Latinos come from a very different political tradition - a lot
more politically active in things like trade unionism," he says.
"I mean, you cannot carry on having 50 million people not having
health insurance and two million people in prison. I cant see how
thats a sustainable way of doing things."
This is all fascinating - and argumentative - stuff, but we should actually
remind people that there will be jokes in the show as well.
"No jokes!" declaims Newman adopting the tone of a comic South
American Revolutionary. "This is war, we have no time for jokes!
We want only committed fighters! We sign them up from the audience - then
Hes joking now, of course.
Robert Newman, The Brunton Theatre, Wednesday February 26, 7.30pm,
£12 (£9), 0131-665 2240
Scribbling, BBC2, Monday March 10, 11.20pm.
to the top
From Scotland on Sunday
Sunday, 23rd February 2003
Time to stand up and be counted
TEN years and a lifetime ago, Rob Newman and David Baddiel walked off
stage at Wembley having just performed a comedy show to a record-breaking
12,000 people. Baddiel went on to burn himself yet further on to the nations
consciousness through his involvement with the Three Lions
single and a succession of programmes in which he riffed on the oft-recurring
themes of football, pornography and masturbation.
Choosing not to spend 10 years sitting on a sofa trying to be more laddish
than Frank Skinner, Newman took a different path and, for a few years,
dropped off the radar. Occasionally, he would pop up playing gigs above
pubs for £40 cash in hand, but compared with his profile of only
a few years ago, he all but vanished. As career suicides go, it was discreet
rather than spectacular, but nonetheless effective.
A decade later, 38-year-old Newman - that is Robert rather than Rob these
days - still has no regrets about turning his back on a situation that
most comedians would happily exchange for their livers and any other organs
"It wasnt fun anymore," he explains simply of his decision
to quit. " Having toured in a little van before, it was a buzz to
then have a whole lorry with a lighting rig for just you. Then it wasnt
fun, so I stopped doing it. People moan about all the pressures of fame,
so just stop doing it. Get your hair cut, no one knows its you.
Its not a problem. Either enjoy it or dont do it."
Newman and Baddiel met up at a BBC Writers Workshop in 1988 after
both had read English at Cambridge. Having bonded over cricket, they started
working together and rapidly saw their show The Mary Whitehouse Experience
move from graveyard radio slots to prime-time television when they were
joined by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis. As well as having the dubious honour
of being the first show to be reported to the broadcasting standards authority
for using the word "wanker", they clocked up viewing figures
of around six million. Along with the spin-off History Today programmes,
they had Newman and Baddiel, In Pieces which culminated in the Live and
In Pieces gig at Wembley.
There was much speculation about the level of rancour involved in their
split. They used to do a sketch as two cantankerous old dons forever inventing
new ways to insult one another. Some suggested that their off-stage relationship
was similarly sour.
These days, Newman insists that while the two of them are not best friends,
they still get on if they bump into one another. Looking back , Newman
just seems to have tired of all the falseness that goes with showbiz hysteria.
While his public image then was of some long-coated dandy, flicking away
female attention with his Byronic hair, it was a guise that ill-fitted
him. He never drank alcohol until he was 22 and had been the university
representative for Christian Aid. "There is that sense that in some
way you are in danger of losing your soul, and what profiteth a man etc,"
says Newman. "And so you need to sit down somewhere, read books and
try and row your way back to the rest of the human race."
Newmans initial attempt at reconnecting with everybody else involved
the slightly perverse method of isolating himself in order to write a
novel, Dependence Day. It found its way on to the bestsellers lists
and led to him to write another, Manners. After the glare of celebrity,
he says the solitude of writing suited him, and besides, each lunchtime
he would go to Marios, his local caff in Kentish Town, for a natter
with the locals. It was during this period that Newman began to experience
a growing political awareness. It might seem a huge leap from spawning
the playground taunt of "Thats you, that is" to the radical
eco-politics of groups such as Resistance is Fertile, but Newman had time
on his hands and he used it to read voraciously.
He also covered the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle for Channel
4, and it was apparent where his sympathies lay. Demos and benefit gigs
followed. One of the results of what Newman calls his awakening
is the current nationwide tour of his new show From Caliban To The Taliban.
"Its subtitle is 500 years of humanitarian intervention," explains
Newman. " It is the story of a global terror campaign waged with
goodwill to all men, because throughout history, the real reasons for
conquests have always been clad in the language of humanitarianism."
Drawing comparisons between Sir Francis Bacon describing the killing
of native Indians in Virginia as "not only a lawful or meritorious
but even a divine honour", and John Pilgers phrase "hark
the gentleman Christian bomber" about Tony Blair, Newman casts a
sceptical eye over world history. As you may have surmised, the United
States doesnt get many gold stars.
During the last Gulf war, Newman says that he wrote sketches about Iraq
but the BBC wouldnt touch them. This time, Newman is determined
to get his views across. Citing last weekends marches as evidence
that people are refusing to rally around the flag, it seems that the timing
will never be better for Newman. "We live in a very important time,"
he says. "The way in which citizens will be able to change society
in the next 20 years will be more than they have in the last 200 years
because everything will be in flux. Its a time when people have
to be awake and conscious and organising."
Newman is a veteran of many a march and, along with his friend and fellow
activist, stand-up Mark Thomas, he has been arrested on more than one
"The only thing that ever has changed things through history is
people taking action," he says. "I think we may have to step
it up to the next level of non-violent direct action. There is already
quite a lot of that happening. There are citizens weapons inspections
at RAF Fairford and the Tridents to Ploughshares people in Scotland. These
things are certainly more effective than waiting in vain for politicians."
Whether Newman is right or wrong, From Caliban To The Taliban does not
sound like a barrel of belly laughs, but he thinks he has got the balance
right. "If I was doing a play in the West End and it had seven big
laughs in it people would say this is the funniest, most hilarious thing
the world has ever seen," smiles Newman. "Theres at least
seven and a half in my show on a good night."
His audience has also changed over the past 10 years. The hordes of screaming
young girls that greeted him at Wembley have either deserted his cause
or grown up. "They know what to expect," he says. "There
isnt too much tutting and rolling of the eyes towards the ceiling
during my show."
But Newman is wise enough to know that few of us like paying to be lectured
to. "People quite rightly switch off when there is some sort of hectoring
or stridency in the tone because when it happens that person is not properly
talking to you anymore. Comedy is a good way of nipping that tendency
in the bud and it is a tendency I do have when Im haranguing my
Ask Newman if he thinks he might have had a more prominent platform for
his views if he had not walked after Wembley and his answer is enlightening.
"If I had been a bit more awake earlier then I would have had larger
numbers. Its like what they say about bands, you can be the biggest
or the best but you cant be both at the same time."
From Caliban to the Taliban plays Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (0131-665
2240), Wednesday, 7.30pm; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (01224-642 230) Thursday,
7.30pm; Cumbernauld Theatre (01236-732 887) Friday, 7.30pm
Rob Newman Experience
1989 Radio One broadcasts The Mary Whitehouse Experience featuring David
Baddiel, Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt, below.
1990-1992 The Mary Whitehouse Experience hits BBC2, attracting five million
for its second, and final, series.
1992 Wins Writers Guild award.
1993 Newman and Baddiel become the first comedians to sell out the 12,000-seat
Wembley Arena. They split shortly afterwards.
1994 Newman writes his first novel, Dependence Day.
1998 Newman makes his comedy comeback as an anti-globalisation campaigner
and sells out a 33-date tour.
2002 Along with Mark Thomas and Emma Thompson, Newman calls for a boycott
of the Perrier comedy award because of parent company Nestlés
marketing of powdered milk in developing countries.
to the top
From the Sunday Express,
Sunday 9th March 2003
With much thanks to Alicia
Rob Newman used to be famous. Not my words but the opening lines to Scribbling,
a new BBC2 series that films authors writing a novel. Not the most exciting
concept but the first episode tells the compelling story of former comic
cult figure Rob Newman who, during the nineties, was one quarter of The
Mary Whitehouse Experience and then one half of comedy duo Newman and
Baddiel. Just a day after filling the Wembley Arena in 1993 with the biggest-ever
audience for a comedy act, he quit his partnership with David Baddiel
to pursue his passion for writing, a passion that, 10 years later, would
cost him his house, furniture and sanity.
It's clear he has gone through a life-changing experience; his speech
is stilted, his manner nervous. Nothing could be more divorced from the
image of the long haired Byronic Newman who swept on to the Wembley stage
on a skateboard to the cheers of an ecstatic audience. Despite two published
novels, Dependence Day and Manners, he says he decided against seeking
an advance for his third, The Fountain At The Centre Of The World, about
global politics and corporate power.
He tells me it turned out not to be the most marketable of themes."I
did the whole book on spec. It meant three and a half years of poverty
and less and less stuff in the house, except for the big stack of rejection
letters. By the time they finished filming I still didn't have a publisher.
But now I do, so there is a happy ending! I've written three novels but
this is the first one that's any good" To finance his time in a metaphorical
garret, Newman was forced to return to performing at various points. "
I did a bit here and there but not much. I would do the odd cash in hand
gig, like £60 for performing above a pub. It was a rush to finish
it before the money ran out!"
Newman 38, grew up in a working class family in a Hertfordshire village
and read English at Cambridge.
Describing himself as an "abstemious young man", he did not
drink until he was 22 and while at university was a representative for
He met Baddiel at the BBC writers' workshop, where they wrote a sketch
about cricket for the now defunct Weekending show on radio 4. He also
met Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis and in 1989 the four formed The Mary Whitehouse
Experience, the scourge of bad language and sex on TV. After it's radio
audience climbed to around a million, two TV series of the show ran on
BBC2. Videos, tours and cult status, particularly among students, followed
before Baddiel and Newman broke away to form a double act that culminated
in that sell out Wembley Arena gig, the video of which sold 800,000 copies.
Newman is no longer in contact with David Baddiel "We're in different
circles. It wasn't a falling out with David as such but I thought there's
a limit to the sort of thing you can do in a two handed sketch" I
ask him to fill in the gaps of the past 10 years. Its patchy. "I've
done a few tours," he tells me, " videos, writing, learning
Spanish, trips to Mexico and a lot of reading. That's it" He admits
that there were many times during the writing of the book when he gave
"After rejection number 57, you start to wonder. The commercial publishers
were saying that it was too literary and the literary publishers were
saying it's too commercial. They all mentioned the politics. What kept
me going was that I was interested in the book. It was developing in an
area that was much better than my original idea".
With the book now about to be published and a national stand up tour,
would he consider a TV comeback?
"Not really, I don't even own a TV anymore. The television industry
is a big clumsy dog. It was suggested that BBC4 film the show I'm doing
now but they're just frightened of the politics"."The last telly
thing I did was reporting on the Seattle World Trade Organisation conference
riots for channel 4 news and I had to persuade them to do that!"
So, has he gone all serious now?
"I don't know, I still like to dancing!" he jokes.
"I also rap at the end of my stand up show, against the advice of
A flash of the Rob Newman of old but somehow, I sense the serious writer
will win the day - however long it takes him.
Scribbling is on BBC2 tomorrow at 11.20pm
to the top
From Highland News Group, by Margaret Chrystall
Show makes new man of Rob
ROB Newman may have learned a lot since he and David Baddiel topped
their comedy duo years as the first stand up act to sell out 12,000-seater
Wembley Arena. Newman split up the act the following morning. That was
10 years ago. And in between, hes become a novelist, followed his
heart and head to hone a whole new kind of political comedy, taken up
But hes not unlearned his sense of timing.
Its the final day before his new novel goes to press, and hes
taken the full three days to sort out the all-important acknowledgements
and dedication and thats a big moment for a man who is quoted
saying god put me on earth to write books'. Talking on the phone,
though, he stumbles and rethinks words and retraces his thoughts, about
as unlike as is humanly possible, his suave, sinister, silk dressing-gowned
sophisticat perv Jarvis, who became one of the nations favourite
characters in Newman and Baddiels Mary Whitehouse Experience Days.
More in the vein of the earnest elderly professors from the shows
History Today sketch, before they started lobbing childish insults at
each other, Newmans new show outlines the story of a 500-year global
terror campaign. And makes it funny. And no, Jarvis wont be flashing
his black fingernails and cigarette holder in From Caliban To The Taleban
the new show heading our way on Wednesday (June 18).
An old press report had suggested Jarvis would be leering out of Newmans
whole new global terror-fest. Was that a press release on parchment
written by monks? deadpanned Newman, who explained Jarvis had appeared
in an earlier solo outing. During the period when guerilla stand-up dates
helped to finance the lean novelist-in-a-garret years. Still ongoing,
actually. But writing the show and memorising it all though
I forget the names of family members has been a release.
Just dont call it political satire
I despise satire,
its just poking fun at politicians as if the structure of power
is OK and it says I am so clever, when I cant finish
the Daily Mirror crossword and I can barely do the papers
Puzzler.Im not interested in Westminster gossip and that whole
soap opera. Its just like History Today but with Steptoe and
Johnny Rotten impressions.
BBC viewers were treated earlier this year to the spectacle of Newman
toiling over his upcoming third novel, The Fountain At The Centre Of The
World, in a programme called Scribbling. And it didnt look much
fun. Man Sitting At Computer. Man Getting Up And Walking Around. Man Having
Cigarette. Plus Man Getting To Go To Seattle. And Latin America, a region
he feels a real affinity to. But he was relieved at the way the programme
I thought it could have ended up as a week by week docusoap and
it was helpful in some ways.
He had hoped it might document getting a publisher for The Fountain
and it didnt. But Rob now has found one, Verso, who will publish
it in the UK at the same time as it comes out in America.
But the TV had its powers: It had taken ages to try to get on a
trawler, for example, which I needed as research for the book. But there
was a scene on it for the programme, so that was all fixed up.
And when I needed to do some proper writing, I would give them the
slip, he admitted. Or he would say it was too personal
to show them. He doesnt even have a TV himself, these days:
I shouted at it and it took off
now its living with a Nicam
Stereo console, he joked, before explaining that he had found himself
watching hours of programmes he didnt even like.
And then Id complain I didnt have enough time There
are books to be read, people to meet guitar chords to learn and a lot
of sitting around scratching your stomach to be done.
And learning to write a show when youre used to improvising.
And learning to write about subjects that make you feel angry and hopeless,
so you can make your bid to do something about them. Globalisation and
the way the world is becoming a corporate carve-up, are issues close to
Robs heart. He attended the Seattle World Trade Organisation conference
riots for Channel 4. And has gone on to attend more, though he doubts
he will attend the World Health organisation summit in Cancun, though
hes wary of becoming a summit-hopper.
And he feels people should make moves closer to home, however small.
We should be doing things in our own community, Rob insisted.
He talks about the housewives in Reading worried about dangerous roads
threatening their childrens safety and the way they just
cordoned off the road to keep the traffic out. He applauds initiatives
like farmer markets.
He seems to feel bad that the upcoming release in September of The Fountain
Of The World, has put his own political commitment temporarily to one
side, but he will be appearing in Bristol soon at an event called Indy
Media where individuals contribute and bypass large media corporations.
Itll probably be a few old punk rockers in a community hall,
he joked, but felt that maybe thats exactly the way it should be.
And hes turned down the chance to talk about fair trade on the main
stage at Glastonbury to keep a prior engagement to take on a greater challenge,
speaking in Tory heartland, Tunbridge Wells.
Testing himself seems to be a trait, even in the most eccentric ways.
Such as taking up smoking at 30. He explained: Because Im
the most intelligent man in the world, I started when I was 30 years old.
I was doing gigs with Denis Leary who has this pro-smoking thing and I
didnt want him to think I was uptight
But hes vowed to give up before he writes the next book. At a pack
and a half a day of the real ones, Robs cigarette habit
is serious. But one thing he has given up, is the rapping he did at the
end of the new show, after his friends kept telling him Rob, youre
a 38-year-old white man, dont do it. So now were set
to be treated to his new travelling companion, the ukelele. Though he
has learned to play guitar, he feels as soon as you get onstage with one,
there are huge expectations. And seriousness. Which means a funny song.
Its a really disarming instrument. And its the perfect
cure for the loneliness of sitting in B&Bs and backstage in your dressing-room.
Any unexpected surprises from the show? Rob wilfully misunderstands.
They laughed in Cumbernauld, he said, innocently.
to the top
From The Inverness Courier, by Kenny Mathieson
13 June 2003
Standing up for stand-ups true function
It has taken four years and a stream of rejections, but stand-up comedian
Rob Newman has finally succeeded in securing a publishing deal for his
Mind you, he went through so many hoops in the process of trying to find
an interested publisher for The Fountain At The Centre Of The World
that he is still not entirely convinced that its actually going
to happen! Even with two previous books to his name, and a reputation
in comedy that included filling Wembley Arena with David Baddiel in 1993,
Rob found it a very difficult business.
I struggled to get an agent and I got rejected by so many publishers,
he revealed. I was getting these three-page demolitions back, rather
than the usual one-line slips! I knew it was bad when even the left-wing
publishers didnt want it, but eventually it was picked up by an
American publisher, Soft Skull. I had a brilliant editor there who made
me fix lots of things I knew were wrong, but had chosen just to look the
Verso have picked it up here and its due out in the UK in
September. I still keep waiting for something to happen I cant
quite accept its actually going to appear.
This is my third one, but the first thats any good,
he laughed. The pressure is on to be good, or at least successful,
from the start now. The British publishing industry has adopted the model
of the British pop industry, Im afraid. Theres no long-term
nurturing these days. If a man cant write two rubbish novels, whats
the world coming to?
Although he claims he always wanted to be a writer, he is better known
as an alternative comedian, drifting into comedy from the punk rock scene,
and still does a mean impersonation of Johnny Rotten. He began by writing
sketches for BBC Radios News Review and Weekending,
but was best known for his work with David Baddiel, culminating in that
The pair went their separate ways after that Baddiel to link up
with Frank Skinner and football, and Newman to a much more politicised
brand of comedy, evident in the show he brings to Eden Court for his Inverness
debut on Wednesday, the snappily titled From Caliban to the Taliban
500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention.
It is a bit of a mouthful, he acknowledged. Its
my way of looking at the patterns in 500 years of colonialism and the
terror wars waged by the rich countries on poor ones, up to and including
whats going on now in the Middle East. Aggression is always presented
as humanitarian and never about oil or trade routes or money. In a show,
people might not remember the specifics but they may pick up on
the recurring patterns I talk about.
I put it to him that such subject matter requires a delicate balance to
make people laugh for the right reasons.
Absolutely, he agreed. You have to get the tone right,
apart from such times as you get it wrong and the audience is kind enough
to let you off! There are lots of pitfalls God forbid I should
end up being as worthy as U2 in their pomp or whatever.
I think if comedy was discussed and written about in the same way
as theatre it would be felt that people like Mark Thomas were really developing
a new form, part stand-up, part spoken word, part storytelling, part theatrical
monologue and I would describe my own shows form in a similar
Alternative comedy and I include myself has been pretty
disastrous on the consciousness of a generation which now cant be
sincere about anything, he added. I think people do get weary
of that continual sneering, sardonic thing. Comedy should be a place where
you can also speak with passion and enjoy the absurdities, but also acknowledge
the consequences of what goes on out there.
to the top
From The Guardian, by Zoe Williams
23rd August 2003
with much thanks to Nicky
On Blueberry Hill
Three years ago, Rob
Newman walked away from a successful comedy act to be a writer (with a
little stand-up on the side). And now, on to his third novel, he's hit
his stride - living proof that you don't have to be gloomy to take on
people, politics and the big themes of modern life. Zoe Williams finds
a man with no time for cynicism
The shorthand for Rob Newman is still, after all this time, "...
and Baddiel". In their Mary Whitehouse Experience heyday, they were
the most popular comedy double act of all time, or at least they were
the first people to fill Wembley Arena to capacity without any songs.
That was 1993 - they split up right after it, Newman to go deep underground
and write novels, Baddiel to go stratospheric in association with the
mean-faced Frank Skinner.
It's amazing, really, that the alliance lasted so long, since David Baddiel's
is such an MOR, lad-lit, narrow kind of mind, and Newman's is so much
broader and more generous and less predictable, from every conceivable
angle. Newman is always adamantly nice about Baddiel, calling him funny
and successful and suchlike: "You know, I'm really fond and really
proud of him." Baddiel is said to be less forgiving about Newman.
I certainly have it on good (gossip) authority that Newman objected to
Baddiel on ideological grounds, but he never says as much.
By 1998, Newman had finished the second novel, Manners - the first, Dependence
Day, had won the Betty Trask Award, but is generally agreed to be only
OK. Manners, the author maintains, was not that good, though I contend
that it is a good book, to which he replies, teacher-wise, "Maybe
you'll change your mind about that." Even then, when it was just
being published, he wasn't terribly interested in talking about it, having
already fixed on his epic, which five years later is upon us.
The Fountain At The Centre Of The World is a wonderful, big-hearted,
textured, funny, moral and deeply unfashionable book. I suppose, if you
wanted to kill its sales stone dead, you'd say it was about the human
victims of transnational corporations. That's why I call it unfashionable,
since it's so unmodish and pre-modern to have an overarching political
agenda in literature, when you could be on about men and women and the
horrid things they say to each other (until a nice one comes along). In
1998, he was planning to write the book alongside a spoken-word tour.
He'd go and perform the work in progress, and then "it'd be a collaborative
approach, where you ask the audience's opinion seriously and then you
can go and have a curry and a think, and when you get home you've got
He tried it and it didn't work out, although he did show it all the way
through to friends, who told him to take out the boring bits. "The
amount of times I was on the way to a disaster, and friends would say,
that doesn't work. And you'd get really cross with them, and then you
incorporate it into the book anyway, and you realise that they've actually
made it an awful lot better, and then you pretend it was your idea all
along. I had all these essays, I worked on them for ages and ages, and
they all had to go." They did him a good service, these friends -
there are no boring bits left. There aren't even restful pages that were
born to be skipped.
Manners came out in 1998, just before the World Trade Organisation conference
in Seattle, which Newman covered for Channel 4. He's always been leftwing
- his first ever bit of public speaking was for Third World First (now
called People And Planet) and his "nickname at school, apart from
prat and wanker, was Red Robbo". But his reputation was never made
on a political platform, and his trenchancy came as a bit of a surprise.
The first time I interviewed him, he said a number of things - that Americans
had taken out a patent on basmati rice ("that's like India taking
out a patent on fat Bon Jovi fans with mullets"); that we needed
to understand the connection between corporations and local problems,
otherwise we'd just start blaming immigrants; that the primacy of the
global market was reversing all the progress in democracy and human rights
made over the past century.
Now, we've had Seattle, and Genoa, and Gothenburg, and many other massive
international protests, and have highlighted these issues time and time
again. We've had Naomi Klein's No Logo. But back then, when I wrote up
what he'd said, my editor (not this one) said to me about the rice, "This
can't be true, don't be daft," and I had to spend all bloody day
on the phone to some patents office, finding out that yes, it was. This
movement - whatever you want to call it, anticapitalism will do - has
come a long way in five years, from a time when people routinely disbelieved
everything it said, to now, when the very word "corporate" gives
you a nasty taste in your mouth, even when it's followed by "hospitality".
Among many millions of other efforts, this is down to Rob Newman walking
away from his star status and doing something different.
This sounds very partial, but I feel I have to point it out, since he
has now turned modest and downplays everything. His early reputation was
as an arrogant young man in a hurry - difficult to know how much truth
there was in that. He says, "It's quite difficult, travelling around
in a tour bus with tinted windows, not to have head inserted up arse."
You wouldn't believe it, though, from a man who takes 20 minutes just
to admit he's had a career. Well, maybe not as many as 20...
"Has your career gone the way you wanted it to go?"
"I like the way you use the word career."
"Well, it is a career."
"Every six months, I go back to my careers advisor, and I say..."
"OK, you haven't had any period of prolonged inactivity, nor have
you gone and done something completely unrelated. So, it's a career."
"No, don't be silly, I don't think it is a career. No, I've not had
a period of long-term inactivity. I have been writing novels. But the
first two weren't very good. Let's be honest."
"Would you admit, at least, that you've challenged the hegemony of
one kind of political presentation?"
"When the word hegemony happens three times, I start to get a bit
woozy. Then I need to touch a grapefruit, or put my hand in some sand."
"It hasn't happened three times."
"That was just a warning."
Sorry, I've missed the bit where I say where we were, and how relaxed
he looks (East London, very. Has lost a lot of weight. I accidentally
let out this facile observation rather than thinking it, then tried to
redeem myself by going in pompous...)
"What do you think of the interplay between art and politics?"
"Oh for fuck's sake, that's your first question?"
"It's just when I get a direct question, my brain goes blank."
"You've written a political novel. It's not very now, is it?"
"You say, it's not very now."
"Yes, I do."
"Well... Damien Hirst said that modern art is where art meets business,
that's why... well, something to the effect that modern artists were businessmen
and businessmen were artists. I think, right there, he has shown every
reason why he isn't a fucking artist at all. You know, it's acceptable
to say I'm a businessman and an artist, but it's not acceptable to inject
politics into art... This is where you come to a very big thing in English
culture. That John Carey bloke, he was talking about Middlemarch, when
it had been reissued off the back of the BBC series. And Carey said this
very, very trendy, 99% wrong thing, which was, 'George Eliot is perhaps
alone among English novelists in her predilection for sermonising and
moral platitudes.' Well, of course that's very trendy, and we're not supposed
to believe anything or feel anything. The problem is, take the top five
novelists of all time, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence, the
defining characteristic of novelists of genius is their predilection for
sermonising and moral platitudes. Nostromo is basically 'all that glitters
is not gold' set to music. Tolstoy, you know, gentlemen, come into my
smoking room, I'll unroll the map and tell you about Napoleon. But that
view goes right back to the Restoration, that people who believe in things
passionately, well, look where that gets you, it gets you chopping the
king's head off, so if you're well brought up, you're meant not to care."
His purpose, though, in the intricate and grand structure of his novel,
underpinned, Victorian-style, by the softly-spoken social conditions that
are screwing everyone over, is not didactic. "It's like when I'm
asked about stand-up, it's less to do with making people question things,
and more to do with letting people have faith in their own beliefs. Often
you say something, and it seems a bit odd, so you retract it, and then
you feel bad because you actually do believe it. So all the time, you
turn on the news, there's a reporter getting their sexual jollies about
some torpedo taking off from an RAF base, and you think, well maybe I'm
a bit weird, because I'm the only person who's thinking about what's happening
at the other end. And just the fact that other people are experiencing
the same thing, and asking the same questions, makes you think you don't
have to ignore it all in order to be accepted."
I should have realised how irrelevant this whole idea of trendiness was
in the first place. Newman has no time at all for what's new and what
isn't, no time for mainstream culture. For one, "It's usually about
a particular tranche of society, they'll say, this week Tara such-and-such
was wearing a hat, and someone else was wearing a hat, are we becoming
a nation that really likes wearing hats? And it's always an upper- middle-class
thing, it's never working-class. No one ever says, yesterday I saw a fat
Bengali woman in a plaster cast, and then I saw another fat Bengali woman
wearing a bandage. Have we become a nation of fat Bengali women with recent
trips to A&E?"
For two, "Lip-service is really making a come-back. There were two
examples. On the radio, I heard Kevin Keegan say, 'I'm not making excuses,
but... ' and then he made excuses. And Prince Naseem, he was rubbish once,
and he had a cold and stuff, and he said "I'm not making excuses...
" and then made all these excuses. There's this idea that words exist,
and reality exists, and both are fine, but anyone who expects them to
match up is judgmental."
And for three, supposedly impartial news is a stitch-up. This theory
is deftly worked out in The Fountain At The Centre Of The World: "The
haemophiliac's platelets can never usefully combine in response to what
textbooks call an external topical crisis. Instead, disconnected platelets
taxi about in the bloodstream and can never staunch a cut. The mental
haemophiliac can never synthesise Fact A with Fact B. It is the sine qua
non qualification for the political news class." The whole anticapitalist
movement is there to stress the knock-on effects of the profit motive,
the "interconnectedness between the price of copper in Argentina
and some factory in Wales"; and the novel's 19th-century structure,
with its unembarrassed use of grand historical backdrop, dovetails really
well with this political position. "The disconnection has a purpose.
It allows society to find the problem in you, like, you feel isolated,
why do you feel isolated? Well, because you are, that's how modern life's
The danger here is to make Rob Newman sound like a miserabilist, which
is not true. He seems to be in a really good mood. His novel comes from
a person in a really good mood. Asked to sum up his worldview, he refers
me to a quote on the back of Desire For Change, a book of interviews with
women activists published by People's Global Action - "You know what
everyone's greatest fear is? It is that all the dreams we have, all the
crazy ideas and aspirations, all the impossible romantic longings and
utopian visions can come true, that the world can grant us our wishes...
No weight could be harder to bear than the possibility that everything
we want is possible. If that is true, then there really are things at
stake in this life, things to be truly won or lost."
His early reputation was as a loner, perennially isolated from his adoptive
mother and sister, after his adoptive father died when he was nine - but
he talks about his mum all the time (in a nice way), and it sounds as
if they're pretty close. It might have been just that he was skinny and
passingly goth-like, that made people think he was tortured.
Anyway, at 39 (no longer goth-like), he has no time at all for cynicism,
in writing or probably anywhere else. "I hate that fucking life-doesn't-mean-anything
writing. All this shit about the negative capability: shut up, that's
so easy. You see people who are really properly poor, and they know the
value of joy. You must know someone who can play a little tune, or who
can do a hornpipe, or who can whistle nicely, or someone who's got a really
good hip wiggle when they dance, or something that's cheery. Blueberries.
A bowl of blueberries, and you've just washed them."
He gives the lie to the two big clichés of being a radical political
malcontent. The first is that you have to feel discontented and alienated
generally, in order to object on any meaningful level to the way things
are being run. This just isn't true, and thinking about it, how could
it be, since the cornerstone of political resistance is a belief that
things could be better.
The second is that you have to live a really dour life, involving lentils
and plastic shoes; that in order to maintain a leftwing position, you
have to stick to an anti-modern rejection of all the things that make
life go smoothly. "There was no smooth running of my life anyway.
Maybe it helps life run a bit more smoothly. I'm such a woolly-minded
slut that my life gets tangled up, and to have a few rules, you know -
I don't fly short haul, I don't have a television. But I have flown to
America." Oh, and he doesn't drive, he rides a bike. But that can't
really count as self-denial, when bikes are so fun.
On top of the not having a TV, he doesn't read newspapers. This sounds
like a small point, but strikes me as strange, since he has amazing recall
for what goes on in them. He never just gives you a vague idea of what
someone said about something - he launches into what the Financial Times
said in March, or what Noam Chomsky said in 1978, or what Gerrard Winstanley
said in 1652, and even if you couldn't be bothered to look it up, you
can tell it's a direct quote because of the way he speeds up his delivery
and looks shifty, like a kid delivering learnt poetry (although I could
He knows the names of everyone, from Clinton's defence secretary to the
director of the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
He says that Mark Thomas is your man if you want fingertip information
and rat-a-tat argument-winning but, really, the main difference between
them is that Newman is self-effacing and this kind of lets him down, debate-wise,
while making him the more likeable (which isn't to say that Thomas isn't
likeable). Anyway, it seems worth remarking upon, this fund of dead accurate
"Do you read newspapers all the time?
"No, I almost never read newspapers."
"How do you know all this stuff?"
"That's like saying, 'If you don't poke yourself in the eye with
a pencil, how do you see?' "
"You've always got so many quotes."
"It's from websites, talking to people, reading books, listening
"Do you just have a very good recall for facts?"
"Yes. Apart from who I'm meant to be going out with, or my mum's
birthday, or where my keys are."
That's a new take on the "are you courting?" question - "I
can't remember". I also have it on good (gossip) authority that Newman
is a bit of a nightmare to go out with, but I'm not sure what precise
nature of nightmare he is, and besides, this is the same source as the
one before. His next big plan is to move to Bristol, though I'd take that
with a pinch of salt, since I read an interview with a Bristol student
magazine in 1998, where he said he was going to move to Brighton, and
the interviewer said, "Why not Bristol? It's nice." (Or maybe
that was the catalyst, brewing over a five-year period.) "I feel
like my consciousness is crusting over in London. I'm not saying it's
not a wonderful place, I just think I'm quite a provincial person."
"What are the symptoms of one's consciousness crusting over?"
"I'm much more of a cagey spinster in London. It's also the fact
that everyone's going round so fast. If I don't go out, if I've got nothing
to give my day a shape and a purpose, then after a day or two I get a
bit nervous of going to the shop. You start to identify with old people
who just read the local papers and think there are Aids-infected rottweilers
on every corner." Then he looks a bit ruffled, and says, "Sorry
to mention dogs and viruses," since my dog had just died the week
before of a virus, but I honestly didn't make the connection, and maybe
I'm wrong, but I get the impression it would take quite a sensitive soul
to do so. Dogs don't get Aids. Only cats get Aids.
I tend to feel short-changed at the end of a Rob Newman interview if
I haven't come away with a beautiful and pithy insult lobbed at either
the government as a whole, or key members therein. Especially now, after
the war. So...
"What do you think of the current government?"
"I'm going to go to the toilet, and when I come back, I want you
to have thought of some better questions."
"Oh. I just want a rude quote."
"Well then, just ask me for a rude quote."
"Please may I have a rude quote?"
"Actually, I really do need to go to the loo."
And then when he came back, it was forgotten about. But really, you don't
need to hear Rob Newman slagging off Tony Blair, even though it is always
very nicely done. He's got better things on his mind. Equality, progress,
novels, blueberries - a whole load of better things.
· The Fountain At The Centre Of The World, by Robert Newman, is
published by Verso on September 1 at £10.99
to the top
From The Independent on Sunday
Interviews by Stuart Husband & Portrait by Tiziana Calliri
24th August 2003
with huge thanks to mysterious person #26
How We Met: Robert Newman & Alexei Sayle
Alexei Sayle (right), 51, was born in Liverpool. One of the new breed
of alternative comedians to appear in the 1980s, his first major television
role was in 'The Young Ones'. He has written two collections of short
stories and is about to publish his second novel, Married, he lives in
Born in a Salvation Army hostel, Robert Newman, 39, was adopted and grew
up near Stevenage. After university, he formed a double act with David
Baddiel. Their BBC2 show 'In Pieces' was so successful that they became
the first comedians to play at Wembley Arena. Soon after, the pair split
and Newman became an author. He lives in London.
I always hated other comedians, especially younger, more successful ones
- which seemed to cover just about all of them. It provided the fuel for
my early years, but has definitely left some long-term psychological damage.
When Robert started to get big with David Baddiel, I gave an interview
saying they were a pair of public school ponces, and he sent me this furious
letter, saying he was working-class and just went to Oxford [sic] because
he happened to be cleverer than me. I was really pleased. I thought it
was great he cared enough to explain himself. You can slag off anyone
you want, especially in showbiz, and they'll still make a beeline for
you at a party. So I respected Robert. Plus, he was right. I was being
I'd been aware of his act; I thought "History Today" [a weekly
sketch on In Pieces] was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. After
they played Wembley, Robert walked away from the whole stardom thing,
and I thought that was more courageous than I could ever have been. He
had more to give up; he was practically a teen idol, though I like to
think I appeal to a more mature market.
Then he wrote to me again asking if I'd do a benefit for the dockers,
who were on strike at the time. He came to my house, and we got on right
away. The main thing about him is that he's really funny. My wife says
that whenever I'm laughing my head off on the phone, she knows it's Robert
on the other end. He's very erudite, much better read than me, but he
doesn't thrust that in your face.
The fact we've both become authors is another angle to the friendship.
A lot of my friends are performers-turned-authors. We've all been through
the same horrors; we go over ghastly gig experiences like soldiers reliving
battles. There's a lot about the world of entertainment that Robert and
I find repellent, and we're both into the greater complexity of ideas
you can communicate as a writer. And we've both had to endure a little
sniping from the literary bunkers. We send work to each other to critique.
We know we'll get an honest response.
We hang out. We go walking on Hampstead Heath, and we'll occasionally
have an evening out - though Robert's stopped drinking and also, practically,
eating, so it's getting a little more difficult, though it makes him a
very cheap date. There are some events where I know I'll bump into him,
such as when Noam Chomsky came over to lecture last year. Politically,
we're very sympatico, though I only storm barricades vicariously
through him - he was in Seattle for the anti-globalisation protests. In
return, I'll tell him what happened on CSI Miami. I'm his pop-culture
primer. And the class thing is a bond - there still aren't that many working
class people in the entertainment business. So, finally, I can honestly
say that I don't hate Robert. In fact, he's probably among my 200 closest
I wrote him the hate mail, but I'd always been a fan of his. He's a great
performer and also one of the most underrated writers in the country.
You get a sense of modern Britain in his work that you get from very few
others. I sort of knew that, when I met him, he wouldn't be lighting his
own farts or doing rude drawings on napkins and thinking it hilarious.
Actually, he's got that rare quality where you can talk about everything
from politics to literature to personal stuff. It's refreshing to be able
to express a political opinion without someone looking at you like you've
used the wrong knife and fork.
I'm not sure that I deliberately sacrificed untold wealth and fame or
that I was courageous. The Wembley Arena thing wasn't really a watershed
- there weren't that many people there because the Motor Show or whatever
was on at the time. But it was a conscious choice to walk away and I'm
glad Alexei picked up on that. He's definitely chosen his own path and
stayed true to himself when it's so easy to forget that there's a world
It's alarming to me how easily writing comes to him. He tells me that
he sits on the bed with daytime TV on and his lap-top in front of him
and off he goes. Then you read it, and it's so concentrated; there's no
flab. For me, it never flows like that. He's great on research and getting
details right; he went and sat in that shop Transformations once, the
one by Euston station where men get to dress up as women, to see what
that was like. At least, he told me that's why he went there. I think
he also has a lot more confidence in his writing than I do. I'm getting
there now, but I wish my first two novels had been pulped. They're pretty
We went backstage to meet Chomsky after his gig because we heard he was
going to be DJ-ing. It was a special moment, like the time when he showed
me where Gordievsky's deadletter drop took place in Coram's Fields, or
when we both camped outside the Dominion to get tickets for the opening
night of Ben Elton's We Will Rock You. That's about as exciting
as we get. I live like a spinster. Actually, one of our biggest thrills
is to swap stories of scary burglaries we've read about in the local papers.
Alexei's an enigmatic man. I haven't quite worked him out and I don't
know if I ever will. And that's good, in a way. There's always another
facet to surprise you.
* Robert Newman's latest novel, 'The Fountain At the Centre of the
World' and Alexei Sayle's first novel 'Overtaken' are both published this
to the top
From The Scotsman, by Kate Copstick
27th August 2003
with much thanks to Lynn Gilmour
Newman's fountain of truth
Robert Newman has had just two hours sleep. He is in Fringe venue
the Spiegeltent to do Greg Proopss chat show and has just found
out he will be appearing alongside David Starkey. He is worried. "Youll
have to keep my mike turned down while hes on ..." he begins.
Proops grins a feral grin and Newman runs nicotine-shaded fingers over
his face. He pops outside for a smoke and then goes off to "get my
head together". His head is, luckily, more together than the harmonies
in a barbers shop quartet. The interview goes well and Newman, a
human reefknot whose body language a career dyslexic could read, summons
up sufficient self-restraint for Starkey to escape to self-aggrandise
We agree to meet for breakfast the next day, which ends up, after some
confusion, as a 3pm meeting at the Terrace Cafe. Initially he went to
the West Gate of the Botanical Gardens, I went to the East Gate; Newman,
unfortunately, doesnt have a mobile phone. This is not just an idiosyncrasy,
it should be noted. He has no car and no television either. He also refuses
to fly shorthaul because of the ecological implications, which is going
to make his 2004 pan-American promotional tour something of a logistical
nightmare. "They need to realise that sometimes its going to
take me about three days to get to a gig," he says thoughtfully,
before adding mournfully. "And then there might only be two people
But I get ahead of myself. In the interests of good journalism, I should
confess that I am not entirely unbiased where Robert Newman is concerned.
I am in thrall to the mans intelligence, passion, knowledge, commitment
and all-round decency. He also makes me laugh. The fact he has taken to
playing the ukelele troubles me, but I am not going to let it dissipate
He is already there when I arrive and is gently bemused that the Terrace
Cafe doesnt have the selection of salads he enjoyed the last time
he was there. He wanders around sampling a soup here, exploring the crumbs
of several of the cakes there, and decides on the Courgette and Rosemary
(only just failing to negotiate a reduction in price because there is
only half a bowl left) and the jam sponge. He had been there with a friend
who was an expert on tropical plants and was given a guided tour around
the hothouses. "I am ashamed to say I dont remember a single
thing he said," says Newman. He goes to find us a place in the sun.
"I am so hungry, I think if I dropped this tray Id cry,"
he declares, clutching lunch and weaving towards the door.
He is in Edinburgh giving Festival-goers three chances to see his show
From Caliban to Taliban: 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention ("Its
important to have a catchy title" he drawls, nodding intently) which
is an hour of the sort of comedy that changes lives. But, as the saying
goes, thats not important right now. The stand-up is a means to
an end, that being the publicising of his new novel, The Fountain at the
Centre of the World. Over the past months he has toured constantly - there
are few parts of the UK in which the wispy smoke spirals from Newmans
rolling tobacco has not scented the air.
He always wanted to be a novelist, or rather, he always felt himself
to be a novelist. Even when he hadnt written a novel, which he did
for the first time in 1994 with Dependence Day. His second, Manners, was
written "at an unhappy time in my life" he says. It is, he muses,
"just not very good. I thought I would just start writing and the
structure would sort of unfold naturally" he muses. "I was wrong."
This time he spent months just working out the narrative architecture.
He planned the whole novel on dozens of cards spread across the walls
of his flat before he would allow himself to write a word.
He also researched. He spent time in Mexico, sailed on a Welsh trawler
and visited a detention centre, which gives you a hint of the breadth
of this powerful piece of storytelling. Newman even found that fountain
at the centre of the world. And he rewrote and rewrote and rewrote.
"Its nearly four years of my life," says Newman, gazing
intently at his thumbs as he rolls another smoke. He looks up. "Its
absolutely the best I could do." He is approaching the publication
date, therefore, with the trepidation of a young man introducing the love
of his life to his parents for approval.
The Fountain at the Centre of the World is his "globalisation novel".
It is a wonderful, epic read, one of these books that wraps itself around
you. The prose has a powerful voice, almost a tune that changes subtly
as the narrative moves from poverty in Mexico to big business America
and ends up in the Battle in Seattle. Newman thinks the song in prose
is important, that every good writer has his own song. "When I listen
to an audiobook, or a reading, I sometimes think oh, you read that
thats self-evidently not how it sounds."
The day after we meet Newman is reading sections from his own book and
is getting quite excited at the thought of jamming with the Spanish band
who will be playing on the first night. He has spent the last three years
learning Spanish, which helped with research and writing the novel. "I
pay a guy who teaches me one day a week. I really look forward to it.
He has become a really good friend." Newman pauses. "Whom I
pay to spend time with me." He grins a foxy grin and bounces eyebrows
around his forehead. "Maybe thats the only way I can permit
by reducing the relationship to basic commerce."
He demolishes the last of the sponge and gently points out that I have
lentil soup on my chin. For a born critic, like myself, who revels in
faults and frailties, Robert Newman is unsettlingly likeable - although
did I mention that he has taken to playing the ukelele?
He had been playing the guitar for two years before he played on stage.
"You pick up a guitar on stage and youre really making a statement,"
he says. "You better be able to play it properly."
He deeply admires the musicianship of performers like Bill Bailey and
Boothby Graffoe and goes off into a little paean of praise for the chord
shapes and creative riffs in Graffoes song Bungee Girl, painting
smoke sketches in the air with his roll-up as he enthuses. With his newest
love, the ukelele, "it was
24 hours after I started
learning to play that I picked it up on stage". Hes in love
with his four stringed senorita. "The only song I can think of with
both Spanish and English is The Clashs Should I Stay or Should I
Go so Ive been practising the chords," he says, grinning like
a small boy who has been promised he can have a go at driving a train.
After Newmans stint in Edinburgh he just wants to stay at home
for a while, then perhaps explore Europe. He loves Italy and would like
to explore more, especially the south. He is drawn to the south, and its
Of course, there is the 2004 American promotional tour, which he is partly
dreading. "Im not known over there. And they might well just
hate me." Also on the agenda is a short trip to Brazil to officiate
at a friends wedding.
He even feels he might let himself off his "novelist" hook.
"Now Ive really done it I might be able to move on." he
says, focusing over a forefinger hooked around smouldering roll-up. I
hope he doesnt move too far.
The Fountain at the Centre of the World is published by Verso
to the top
From Recoil, Volume 4 Issue 3
Capitalism is an American word, right? Certainly the British don't want
the word included in the "English" language, even though most
of the economies in Eastern Europe are now also motivated by profit. It's
a dirty word. And certainly a book from a British author that spells out
the evils of capitalism would be very well received in Britain, right?
Well, not really. On March 15, audience members at the Division Avenue
Arts Cooperative in Grand Rapids will find out from author Robert Newman
why his book, The Fountain at the Center of the World, was booed out of
the country. In fact, he had to turn to the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Soft
Skull Press for publication.
Newman said his rejection letters went far beyond the polite, three paragraph,
"We're not interested right now," letters one normally gets.
"[The rejection letters were] four page denunciations," Newman
said during a phone call with Recoil from his home in London. "This
is why this book is shitty! This is why you fail! You can't write this
sort of book nowadays!"
Ironically, the American press is praising the book. The New York Times
called it "the Catch-22 of the anti-globalization protest movement."
Newman explained the love/hate reactions as simple cultural differences.
While Americans might have invented capitalism, there is still enough
of reactionary protest movement to embrace a book like this. British audiences
still see Newman as the first stand up comic to sell out the 12,000-seat
"They're like, 'Hold on we know this guy. He's in the revolving
bowtie and custard pie trade. What does the custard pie-thrower know about
the eternal human vortex?"
"In America, people want to discuss the book, discuss the ideas...
where in Britain it's very decadent. People just want to talk about perception.
It's very trivial and people want to place you in some sort of marketing-diagram-flow-vector...
The Fountain at the Center of the World is Newman's third novel since
giving up comedy as a full-time career. Set in London, the small villages
of Mexico, Costa Rica, and eventually the 1999 World Trade Organization
protest in Seattle, the story follows Evan Hatch, a British corporate
PR executive who is dying from a tropical disease called Chagas, on his
journey to find his long-lost fugitive brother Chano, who he needs for
a bone marrow transplant. The two are clearly on the opposite sides of
the issue of capitalism, Evan representing the "haves" and Chano
the "have-nots." Further complicating things is Chano's 14-year-old
son, who's just found out his dad might still be alive after believing
otherwise his entire life.
Newman was packing his London apartment for a move to the countryside
during our conversation. He insisted that he didn't write himself into
any of the characters, but it would be difficult to remain a big city
guy after witnessing the poverty and despair caused by corporations and
factories like the toxic waste dump Chano bombs in the book. A similar
factory still exists in one of the villages he researched.
Newman does a terrific job placing the reader in each character's shoes
and painting a picture with his words. The scenes set in Mexico are so
effective one wants to shower and drink a bottle of water after each chapter.
His talk at the DAAC may not solve any world problems, but it will surely
light a fire under a few people.
to the top
From The Village Voice
by Sarah Ferguson
10 - 16 March 2004
Table Talk: A Q&A
with Robert Newman
The Voice talked to Robert Newman about his anti-globalization epic,
The Fountain at the Center of the World (Soft Skull, 339 pp., $14.95).
You enjoyed pop-star fame as a comedian on the BBC. Why write a book
about a guy in Mexico who blows up a pipeline and his brother who works
in PR and needs his bone marrow?
I believe a novel should mean some-thing. There are so many pissant little
books about nothing. I wanted to write one that includes the totality
of life, rather than all that other sneery, trivial, ironic wank.
You covered the Seattle protests that shut down the WTO trade talks.
Was that your inspiration?
I'd already been writing the novel for a couple of years, and couldn't
think of an ending. I had to get my charactersone from Mexico, one
from Britain, and one from Costa Ricain the same place. Seattle
was this perfect thing, because perhaps never before have so many people
from so many different countries converged at the same time.
You also went on a Welsh fishing trawler to research conditions for
a stowaway from Mexico. Were the fishermen really tripping on acid and
trading pornographic insults over the radio?
No, that was based on stuff I know from someone in Scotland, where there
are little pretty fishing villages on the west coast with people on heroin
just because they know the fishing industry is coming to an end.
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