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Spencer Jones: The Audition, Edinburgh preview

| Comedy | 21/07/2017

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 20.45.15

In the first of our Edinburgh Fringe previews, Ian Cater speaks to Spencer Jones about his latest weird and wonderful outing of physical comedy and clowning in The Audition.

There are few certainties in life, apart from death, taxes and a male Dr Who.  But one thing’s become so likely over the past three years as to reach a rung marked ‘inevitable’: there won’t be a more effective clown performing at Edinburgh next month than Spencer Jones.

The South-East Londoner has carved out a niche at the Fringe and in the wider comedy industry, reclaiming the role of Le Bouffon which had fallen from favour since Tommy Cooper died in 1984.  Many tried to revive the belittled art form in the UK; many failed, until Jones introduced his alter ego – The Herbert – who arrives on stage with an odd haircut, translucent leggings and all sorts of accoutrements to be utilised for a 10 second visual gag.

He originally wanted to call his guileless character The Dickhead, but that wouldn’t fit.  The Herbert isn’t a dickhead; like his creator, he’s a wonderful, friendly oddity, who masters physical and prop comedy with incredible dexterity and creativity.  Last year, I described him as “a large helping of Tommy Cooper, a dash of Mr Bean and what seems to be a generous seasoning of hallucinogenic drugs”.  But, metaphorically speaking, Jones isn’t a user; he’s more of a dealer, leaving the audience laughing insanely without really understanding why.

There’s more to him than daft props: there are the fresh backing tracks he creates in each performance; and there’s the moral aspect Jones likes to leave lying around, like tender father-son moments in 2016’s Eggy Bagel and its parting words, ‘Just be nice’.  “I’m not trying to preach,” he says, “but I like the idea there are some simple rules to life that if you follow you’ll be ok.  ‘Just be nice’ was something my dad used to say.  I thought it’d be good if a few people left my show thinking about holding the door open for someone or not judging people for what’s going on in the news.”

Keeping busy

The same low-tech props, hi-tech sounds and positivity appear in new show The Audition, though Jones is now introducing a storyline to his material.  “They say write what you know, and at the moment I know about auditions and kids – it’s all I seem to do,” he chuckles.  He’s a great chuckler.  “It’s still about me and The Herbert, but rushing around in the real world, dealing with kids while you’re learning lines and with agents ringing up needing answers.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 20.45.38A doting dad to his two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, he conspiratorially rolls his eyes at the distraction they pose but appreciates their worth to his creative process.  “They write most of the material now.  I’m the fourth funniest person in my house, which is depressing though it’s a great mine of ideas.  This year, I had five months off when I just hung around the kids and realised what props might work by seeing what made them laugh.”

Previously, Jones’ wife – Ruth – fulfilled this role, but she’s gradually become harder to impress.  “Now, she never laughs at my stuff.  She’ll sit there and give me the nod at the end if she likes it, but that’s usually it.”

Although Jones values his family’s opinions, there’s no substitute for testing material out on a live audience – especially his material that’s so hard to assess objectively.  How else can you tell if people will laugh at a talking toilet brush?  “You can never really tell what’s going to work until you’ve tried it onstage.  The audience decides what goes in the show.  So blame them!”

He hasn’t always been so in tune with what audiences want.  “When I was 17, I was in an act called Marks and Spencer, doing Vic and Bob stuff.  The first gigs went well and I even dealt with a heckler, so I thought I was the business.  Then we got asked to perform at our sixth form party with a disco, people sneaking in vodka and trying to get off with each other.  They just stopped the music and said ‘Here’s some comedy!’  Everyone groaned and we died on our arses, with our mates telling us to get off.  I didn’t do comedy again until I was 24.  It totally screwed me up.”

After leaving school, Jones – now 40 – managed bars and worked as a production company runner, keeping creative muscles limber with some wedding singing, playing in a junk band called Hooker Crane and trying a bit of stand-up.  “I only did a few gigs and not very well,” he admits.  “It was standard stuff about life and what’s on telly, but I was never very good.  I think you need to bare your sole to be a good stand-up and I’m a very private person, deep down.

“But I was writing material all the time, messing around, finding my way.  It was all about not being bored, trying to keep myself busy.”

Clowning around

The first mainstream success came when Big Babies was commissioned by CBeebies in 2010.  “Me and my friend Jon Riche made this video of two babies with our heads superimposed on their bodies, taking the piss out of kids programmes.  The BBC liked it and luckily we managed to do it on our terms.”  The show (here with a cameo from Nick Helm) went down so well it was nominated for a BAFTA Children’s Award.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 20.45.29But the turning point came when Jones enrolled on a course hosted by US comedian Phil Burgers.  “I still can’t work out why I did it,” Jones says.  “It was 2012 and my son was on the way.  Maybe I thought: ‘Rather than kicking my heels in Plumstead, I should probably train in something before he shows up.'”

Burgers had studied at École Philippe Gaulier, the prestigious French clown school that teaches students to treat performing as an enjoyable child’s game that must always speak to the audience’s imagination.

“Phil shared lots of those ideas, mainly on connecting with audiences.  When people started performing pre-planned routines, Phil would send them off and say: ‘No-one gives a fuck about your shitty idea.’  Then when they came back on again with shoulders slumped, you’d find you liked them a lot more.

“The big thing for me was realising that a lot of this isn’t about material: it’s about getting into people’s heads,” he explains.  “When two people read a book, they imagine it in different ways because of their baggage.  So if you can work out what the audience collectively thinks of you when you walk on, you can start messing with it.

“I started my comedy from scratch after that.  It’s why I walk on with shoulder pads, stupid tights and silly hair – to get a certain reaction.  It felt right, even when it was tough and people weren’t sure about me – even the venue staff would look confused when I showed up with suitcases full of crap.  Things don’t always go to plan now, but the key thing’s to gauge whether the audience are having a nice time.  If they’re not, I drop that bit and move on.”

Making ends meet

Jones launched The Herbert at the 2014 Fringe to encouraging reviews, leading to an audition for Ben Elton’s sixteenth-century sit-com, Upstart Crow.  He won the part of William Kempe, a Shakespearean contemporary who – as a nod to his reputation for cutting edge comedy – Jones has to play in the style of Ricky Gervais, down to his accent and mannerisms, which he does extremely well.

As Kempe was also known for physical comedy and clowning, I ask whether that was part of the role’s attraction and he replies with typical honesty.  “I was really just happy with an audition at the time.  I’d done the first Edinburgh show and lost money, so paying off debts was the main thing.”

Although Jones went into it eyes closed, the show elevated his celebrity and will continue doing so when a second season airs this autumn.  “When the first series got commissioned, it was surreal.  I never thought I’d be in a room with David Mitchell and Harry Enfield, having conversations with them like: ‘Where are you guys going for lunch?’  But I’ve tried to learn from them all.  It’s been a real treat.”

In tandem, Jones was cast as the lead in new BBC sit-com Mr Winner, piloting “annoyingly after Edinburgh”.  His character, Leslie Winner, is much closer to The Herbert, described in releases as “a hapless but loveable chap prone to accidents”.  But given how much Jones values his Gaulier-taught connection with the audience, it will be interesting to see how his clowning style translates to television.

He’s aware of the risk it won’t, and addresses the fear of getting found out in The Audition.  “I’ve been really lucky over the past few years and now people are giving me a chance to do stuff.  So I try to get across in the show how I have the same doubts everyone has, that I’m an imposter making it up as I go along.”

In the meantime, Jones has enough on his plate without fretting over the future.  “My big concern is paying for Ruth’s yoga teaching training, which costs an arm and a leg.  So I’m mainly focused on finding some dough for that.”

Spencer Jones is performing ‘The Audition’ from 18.20 at Heroes @ Monkey Barrel between 4th-14th and 16th-27th August.  For tickets, head here.  To keep informed of future work, see Jones’ official website or follow him on Twitter @spendals.  All images used above are © Jill Wooster.

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