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This page features interviews with Robert Newman. The other pages feature articles mentioning him and articles written by Robert Newman.


Articles written by Robert Newman
Articles mentioning 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 you’re all wondering where I’ve been for the past few years," Rob Newman said to his audience at the Pleasance in London a fortnight ago. He supposed right: it’s a good question. So, too, is the one he wasn’t 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 Newman’s feet.

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 television’s 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 author’s public admission that he hadn’t 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. "I’m a natural big-mouthed show-off, but I’ve 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. "That’s made my act more politically aware. I feel I’ve got more to say now."

Nonetheless, won’t 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 doesn’t 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 wouldn’t do it again, mainly because I don’t 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 I’ve wobbled, like when I’ve gone along to picket lines to give them support and they’ve 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 it’s started to run out now, so I’m very relieved to be earning a bit again."

However, writing is what means most to Newman. "I’ve never felt like a proper comic, and I’m 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. "He’s 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?).

"It’s 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 I’d 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 be nice."

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From the Electronic Telegraph
15th August 1998

It's great to be back in the green room

Comedian-turned-novelist 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" sketch.

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 anyway."

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 aitches.

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."

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From The Scotsman Online, by Barry Didcock
August 1998

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.

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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 Rob’s 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 didn’t want to do him, you wanted to be him. Go on, deny you went through a phase where most insults ended, "That’s you, that is". Or when every possible opportunity was taken to declare, "Oh, no, what a personal disaster !".

As I dial the London number, I’m really nervous - oh, God...

Rob answers, and we have just established that, unlike when he first went solo and his name grew mysteriously, he doesn’t 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, I’ve just got my first coffee of the day" He’s just got up (it’s midday), and he explains to me the importance of starting the day in this manner. "OK, it’s just in front of us now ... you’re from Epigram? Is that Bristol University? Cool, OK?...."

Right, so: how does it feel to be back in the public eye again?
Oh, well, I don’t know if ... I’m not back in the public eye, but - it’s nice doing stand up again ... I’ve just got to do my lighter again ... (pause) I’ve got two lighter shaped objects in my pocket; one of them’s
chewing gum and the other’s 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 he’s enthusiastic about his new projects: "I gave up a few years ago, stand-up, but now I’m really enjoying it, having something to say. There’s a new, more political angle and ... I’m trying to ... um ... you must say what is at your heart". He tries another approach, "you have to look at the technical side ... I’m 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 doesn’t. The book’s 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? "I’m 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, "It’s like a bloke I used to know who had an old Lambretta which he always had trouble trying to start. I’m 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. It’s 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 it’s 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 doesn’t go too well, I could always put ten pounds in my support’s garter belt and have him writhe around for a bit"

Time for the obligatory David Baddiel question, and I’m going for the big one: Would he say that Baddiel’s sold out? "Not really, we both started out doing comedy on the telly and he’s still doing that. You can’t level a great charge at people who’ve started out with a completely different agenda. I don’t think so at all. Has he sold out? The word successful is the word you’re looking for; he’s being funny."

"I don’t 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, 'You’ve got two hours before it starts. You’re not going to go anywhere, are you?’ Like I’ll be sitting there and hear an ice-cream van go by, and they’ll find me two hours later wandering round a shopping mall".

What exactly was he doing since the last tour? Was it mostly a break?
"I’ve been working pretty constantly, although there was a bit of breakage. I’ve 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. I’m quite a slow person, as you’ve witnessed". That’s 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, there’s no real comparison".

He perks up noticeably when I ask him about home. He used to say he disliked living in London - "Yeah, I’m 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 didn’t 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, very nice".

Um (worth a try) - Bristol’s 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 I’ve found out I can only do it for one. I’m not sure which..." I think it’s Blackwell’s, "Well, hopefully all the others won’t be too annoyed at me". Don’t worry, Rob, I’m sure they won’t.

I thank him for his time - ten minutes more than promised, "OK, Sorry I was rubbish". That’s all right. I just spoke to Rob Newman. That's you, that is.

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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." Aaaaw...



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.

Rob disappeared.

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 book."

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.

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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 carried out."

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 happened."

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."

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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 stuff.

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 enjoyed it.

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.

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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 comedy.

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 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? Novelist?

"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

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From Time Out, by Malcolm Hay
October 2002
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 complicated."

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."

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From The LIST, by Mark Fisher
13-27 Feb 2003

Comedy Previews:

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 thinks.'

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 them company.'

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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, eccentric.

Fast forward ten years and it’s 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: ‘That’s you, that is’. Good thing too.

Newman’s 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 Newman’s 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 I’ve 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 I’ve 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."

Bacon’s pamphlet inspired Shake-speare’s last play The Tempest, and with a few misplaced letters the demonic cannibals became Prospero’s monstrous creation, Caliban.

"It’s always the same: ‘Yeah, we’re 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, he’s 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 they’re the good fundamentalists because they’re 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 hasn’t 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 year’s Fringe.

"Just a short one though," says Newman. "I’m 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 they’ve forgotten that there’s this spirit in British people that democracy should be real - that’s quite a deep-rooted strain.

"It’s also because there’s 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.

"It’s 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 decency.

"It’s like this is the first time people have said: ‘Hang on, wait a minute, are we the baddies here?’ I’m sure the Germans can’t 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 it’s 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 it’s the bollocks and that’s why we’re there. It’s 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 it’s an arts programme and obviously an arts programme has no place on BBC2," sighs Newman.

"Still, I’m sure no-one will be watching Newsnight in March anyway because obviously there’ll be absolutely nothing going on in the world," he laughs.

After the Scottish leg of Newman’s tour ends early next month he’ll be "renting a bothy ootside Stirling and going walking" before embarking on a coast-to-coast book tour of the States with accompanying stand-up dates.

"I’m 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 didn’t even vote for the f***ing guy anyway - the majority of the American public didn’t vote and a lot of those that did didn’t want Bush."

Since optimism is a revolutionary act, Newman remains cautiously revolutionary about the future. "Empires usually collapse and it’s because of what’s happening on the inside that’s 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 can’t see how that’s 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 we march!"

He’s joking now, of course.

I think.

  • Robert Newman, The Brunton Theatre, Wednesday February 26, 7.30pm, £12 (£9), 0131-665 2240

  • Scribbling, BBC2, Monday March 10, 11.20pm.


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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 nation’s 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 deemed necessary.

"It wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 it’s you. It’s not a problem. Either enjoy it or don’t 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."

Newman’s 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 Mario’s, 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 "That’s 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 Pilger’s 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 doesn’t get many gold stars.

During the last Gulf war, Newman says that he wrote sketches about Iraq but the BBC wouldn’t touch them. This time, Newman is determined to get his views across. Citing last weekend’s 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. It’s 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 occasion.

"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. "There’s 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 isn’t 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 I’m haranguing my friends."

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. It’s like what they say about bands, you can be the biggest or the best but you can’t 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 Writer’s 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 Nestlé’s marketing of powdered milk in developing countries.

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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 Christian Aid.
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 up hope.
"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 everyone."
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

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From Highland News Group, by Margaret Chrystall
June 2003

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, he’s become a novelist, followed his heart and head to hone a whole new kind of political comedy, taken up the ukelele… and smoking.
But he’s not unlearned his sense of timing.

It’s the final day before his new novel goes to press, and he’s taken the full three days to sort out the all-important acknowledgements and dedication – and that’s 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 nation’s favourite characters in Newman and Baddiel’s Mary Whitehouse Experience Days.

More in the vein of the earnest elderly professors from the show’s History Today sketch, before they started lobbing childish insults at each other, Newman’s new show outlines the story of a 500-year global terror campaign. And makes it funny. And no, Jarvis won’t 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 Newman’s 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 don’t call it political satire… “I despise satire, it’s just poking fun at politicians as if the structure of power is OK and it says ‘I am so clever’, when I can’t finish the Daily Mirror crossword – and I can barely do the paper’s Puzzler.“I’m not interested in Westminster gossip and that whole soap opera. “It’s 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 didn’t 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 turned out.

“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 didn’t. 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 doesn’t even have a TV himself, these days: “ I shouted at it and it took off… now it’s living with a Nicam Stereo console,” he joked, before explaining that he had found himself watching hours of programmes he didn’t even like.
“And then I’d complain I didn’t 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 you’re 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 Rob’s 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 he’s 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 children’s 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.
“It’ll probably be a few old punk rockers in a community hall,” he joked, but felt that maybe that’s exactly the way it should be.

And he’s 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 I’m 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 didn’t want him to think I was uptight…”

But he’s vowed to give up before he writes the next book. At a pack and a half a day of “the real ones”, Rob’s 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, you’re a 38-year-old white man, don’t do it”. So now we’re 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. Pressure.
“It’s a really disarming instrument. And it’s 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.

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From The Inverness Courier, by Kenny Mathieson
13 June 2003

Standing up for stand-up’s 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 third novel.
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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 other way!

“Verso have picked it up here and it’s due out in the UK in September. I still keep waiting for something to happen — I can’t quite accept it’s actually going to appear.
“This is my third one, but the first that’s 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, I’m afraid. There’s no long-term nurturing these days. If a man can’t write two rubbish novels, what’s 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 Radio’s “News Review” and “Weekending”, but was best known for his work with David Baddiel, culminating in that Wembley sell-out.
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. “It’s 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 what’s 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 show’s form in a similar way.
“Alternative comedy — and I include myself— has been pretty disastrous on the consciousness of a generation which now can’t 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.”

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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 another chapter."

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?"
"Yes."
"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 set up."

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 be bothered).

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 knowledge.

"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 to lectures."
"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

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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

Robert Newman and 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 London.

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.

ALEXEI SAYLE
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 a prick.

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 showbiz friends.

ROBERT NEWMAN
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 elsewhere.

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 bad.

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 month

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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 Proops’s chat show and has just found out he will be appearing alongside David Starkey. He is worried. "You’ll have to keep my mike turned down while he’s 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 barber’s 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 another day.

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, doesn’t 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 it’s 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 there."

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 man’s 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 my admiration.

He is already there when I arrive and is gently bemused that the Terrace Cafe doesn’t 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 don’t 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 I’d 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 ("It’s 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, that’s 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 Newman’s 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 hadn’t 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.

"It’s nearly four years of my life," says Newman, gazing intently at his thumbs as he rolls another smoke. He looks up. "It’s 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 so wrongly … that’s self-evidently not how it sounds’." he says.

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 that’s the only way I can permit intimacy … 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 you’re 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 Graffoe’s song Bungee Girl, painting smoke sketches in the air with his roll-up as he enthuses. With his newest love, the ukelele, "it was … oh … 24 hours after I started learning to play that I picked it up on stage". He’s in love with his four stringed senorita. "The only song I can think of with both Spanish and English is The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go so I’ve 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 Newman’s 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 people.

Of course, there is the 2004 American promotional tour, which he is partly dreading. "I’m 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 friend’s wedding.

He even feels he might let himself off his "novelist" hook. "Now I’ve really done it I might be able to move on." he says, focusing over a forefinger hooked around smouldering roll-up. I hope he doesn’t move too far.

• The Fountain at the Centre of the World is published by Verso in September

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From Recoil, Volume 4 Issue 3
March 2004

Robert Newman

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 Wembley Arena.

"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... rubbish."

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.

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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 characters—one from Mexico, one from Britain, and one from Costa Rica—in 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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