Interview: Robin Ince
Comedian and radio presenter Robin Ince spoke to Beckie Smith at Greenbelt Festival about his love of science, rationalism, and avoiding the critics.
When I meet Robin Ince, it is in the press room of Cheltenham racecourse after a wildly entertaining show in a muddy tent at Greenbelt Festival. The festival, which describes itself as a place “where faith, art and justice collide”, is the latest stop on his ‘Happiness through Science’ tour.
It seems somewhat counter-intuitive for Robin Ince, a man so often described as an ‘atheist comedian’, to appear at a Christian festival. Indeed, he admits that he did have some trepidation when he was first invited to perform: “When I was first asked, I thought ‘when I get there, will there be a large effigy in which I will be screaming as the flames lick my feet?’”
This appearance, however, is his second at the festival, and he is overwhelmingly positive about the experience. So far, I have seen little resemblance between Ince and the ‘militant atheist’ described by the Telegraph; in fact, our interview so far has only gone to show how ill-fitting a title it is. He is quick to reject the term, saying “I think in terms of the way the media and the very specific ways that we’re meant to view different groups, when you say Christian it conjures a certain image. But I think there’s a huge amount of common ground in people… if someone says they’re a Christian, that doesn’t say that much about them.”
So what does he make of Frank Skinner labelling him a “professional atheist” only the day before? “I’ve told him off for that before!” In fact, Ince’s atheism is neither the focus nor the root of his comedy. “It’s odd, because I’ve often had the atheist tag, and yet very little of what I do is ever about that – atheism for me is a by-product of the fact that I try and look at the world as much as possible, using evidence, thinking about why I’m making my decisions in terms of every other point of view, and trying to view the universe with the information that’s been accrued. The sideline to that is it also means I don’t believe in God. So it’s a weird thing that that term is the simplest and easiest term.”
Instead, as the title of the show suggests, much of Ince’s material stems from his love of science. Despite being an Arts graduate, he is passionate about it, and wholeheartedly damning of willful ignorance. “There’s nothing wrong with realising there’s a lot that you don’t know. There is something wrong with not trying to fill your brain with as much information as possible. When we have so much access to so many beautiful ideas, then I think that is a waste.
“We’re at a dangerous time. I was talking to a friend of mine whose uncle had just died. His uncle, before he died, said ‘I’m worried that I well may have lived at the best possible time.’ He was born in the 30s, he didn’t have to fight in WWII, he missed Korea. He lived through the 50s and 60s, and now it seems suddenly we’ve got various problems from over-consumption and many, many other things that may well rear their heads. And now hopefully we can bring up a generation who can find the ways of making sure we can live in a good world.”
He is incredibly enthusiastic about the recent surge of interest in science among the general public, and insists that everyone has some level of interest that they might not have explored. The boom, he says, is one that has the potential to last for years to come: “It is a very exciting time; there are so many ideas and people are realising they don’t have to be scared. And that’s the thing: don’t be scared; if you don’t know something it’s not because you’re stupid. Don’t be scared of a universe which we can never truly, fully understand. But also, don’t ignore it.”
This ignorance, he believes, is no small matter: “I think that’s the most dangerous thing for any civilisation or any culture, to be blazé about its achievements – when we forget what it’s built on.
“We live in a very odd time when we have so much privilege that we have forgotten about it. Fortunately, because we don’t have to deal nearly as much as we used to with going to the funerals of children, we forget about something like measles. And we go, ‘I’m not going to give my children MMR because I’m not very certain about it’. Oh no, measles really is a killer. And we’re quite nonchalant because we don’t notice – we sit in our centrally-heated houses and we watch television and we have hot water. And we don’t notice because it’s so immediate.”
Being informed, he believes, is not simply a concern for those who have an interest in science, but a matter of social responsibility:“We have dangerous things like the anti-vaccination movement, and we can’t lower out guard. We have a duty to get the best information on all of these things.”
It is this passion that led Ince to co-present The Infinite Monkey Cage with Dr Brian Cox, the BBC radio show for which he is best known. Using the show, Ince aims not only to explore his passion but to inspire people to educate themselves about science. “I can’t educate because I’m not smart enough and I don’t know enough. My hope is that what I can do is inspire people to want to know more.
“I call myself an ‘idiot bridge’ – from people who may not be that interested in science or philosophy or whatever ideas, but have enough interest to think ‘I’ll go and see this guy’. And then, hopefully, the enthusiasm that I have for these things means they may go off and read a collection of stories about Richard Feynman, or books by Carl Sagan, or the original works of Charles Darwin.
“I always count myself as being like a kind of sampler tape of ideas; I’m a scrapbook of other people’s ideas and things that I’ve learned.”
The Infinite Monkey Cage has attracted attention from science lovers and critics alike, and gained a significant number of complaints even before the first series began. Since then, the show has received a number of far-fetched complaints, concerning anything from its title to the under-representation of paranormal beings on a show about ghosts: “people were annoyed about the fact that we should have had some ghosts on. But then again, there’s that Poe’s Law thing, where you can no longer tell what is parody and what is real.”
Most complaints, Ince tells me, are from “creationists and homeopaths. And anyone also who runs a profitable company selling some made-up shit that’s meant to make you better. They always get quite annoyed.
“Brian [Cox], in particular, is very dogged; sometimes I think in the last series we had some really quite ruthless jokes. Our thinking is: there’s lots of space for new-age bamboozlers in the media. There’s lots of space given to things like psychics or whatever, so there’s nothing wrong with us deciding to be really forthright about our rationalist agenda. And yeah, we may occasionally ruffle feathers.” He is scathing about homeopathy and its widespread popularity, and says he aims to “give people the ammunition” to question the information they are given.
“But equally, the other side of it is that it allows people to go, ‘oh, you can’t trust scientists then’. And you go, well, you’ve misunderstood the thing. It’s like when people say ‘the scientists aren’t certain.’ And no, they never have been. They never will be. And this is seen as a weakness.”
It is at this point in the discussion, rather than when talking about religion, that Ince is most critical. “I see a lot of people with anti-science perspectives talking very loudly about it, using all of the things that science has given them to be able to deliver their message. It’s a little bit like when you have journalists who constantly write about how the BBC should be got rid of, and then they go on the BBC constantly. They’re on Radio 4, they’re on the Andrew Neil show – and you think, no, you’re not allowed on the BBC.
“I was watching something the other day with David Icke, I think it was about the idea that the moon is a spaceship – and I see all the different technology that he’s using to deliver his message, which is all the time going ‘oh, science. That’s what the scientists say,’ and you go, have a bit of balance.”
Ince’s enthusiasm for science and rationalism is apparent during his shows. He is highly animated, often using wild gestures and moving quickly around the stage. But while touring can be exhausting, it is also invigorating: “It’s one of the ways that I can survive, by keeping myself constantly occupied. I find it very hard to shut off – I find holidays very hard.
“I think this tour is the most exhausting – in a good way – that I’ve done. If I’m not totally exhausted when I’ve done a full-length show, I don’t feel like I’ve given it everything.”
In fact, he’s just come back from an intense two-day stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, where he performed six shows a day. He is a festival regular, and often uses it as a space to try out new material: “The wonderful thing about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is that you can experiment and muck about.”
While experimenting, the comedy veteran is keen to impress upon his audience that the work is unfinished. “I warned a lot of people about my shows and said ‘It’s a work in progress. It’s free, but if there’s anything else in your calendar at all, even if it’s just looking at an interesting star, then don’t come and see me’.”
Ince is, as with many comedians, his own harshest critic. Describing himself as “self-critical, verging on self-loathing”, he avoids reviews, saying that he is able to spot the flaws in his own work very quickly. Dwelling on criticism can be dangerous: “most comedians who are friends of mine will believe the bad review, and they won’t believe the good review. It’s like, you go on the internet and you trawl down, waiting to find someone who hates you. It’s about your own confidence. More often than not, when I come off stage, I’m not happy with what I’ve done.
“It’s a ridiculous thing that we do, we’re self-critical, self-loathing individuals that every single night go in front of a different group of people to judge us. And yet, ultimately, it’s probably better than most other lives.”
Robin Ince will be performing a work in progress, ‘The Importance of Being Interested’, at the Original Oak on 17 November.
Image: Steve Ullathorne