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Tom Walker: “When Pie’s shouting at the Tories, he’s also satirising the Left in the same moment.”

| Comedy, Theatre | 08/03/2018


Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

By any metric, 2016 was an extraordinary year, not least for Tom Walker whose comic creation, Jonathan Pie, surfed into the satirical landscape on a wave of deceptively insightful diatribes about austerity, Brexit and Trump.  Soon, millions of people awaited the spoof news correspondent’s latest rant-filled take on current events – in short and sharp three-minute instalments – with bated breath.

Seizing the moment, Walker – together with comedian Andrew Doyle – penned a solo show giving greater depth to the Pie character as he struggled to host segments of Children In Need.  The result was a success, receiving a four-star review here and praise for its “ability to spew out persuasive points amongst the bile”.  Tomorrow night, Walker returns to Hammersmith with a second live show, Back To The Studio, addressing the way we consume news and avoiding his main mistake from last time around. 

“That first show was a massive learning curve,” Walker says, “because I’d never done anything like it.  I’m an actor, not a stand-up comedian, so I foolishly made it too contemporary, focusing on austerity and the Tories.  When I wrote it, Brexit was miles off and though Trump had announced his nomination, everyone still thought he was a joke.  So on the morning after the Brexit vote, I had to scrap a third of the script and rewrite it.”

Learning that lesson, Walker’s new show focuses more on a societal trend than party politics.  “It’s about social media and how we consume news via our Facebook and Twitter feeds, so we only read what we agree with.  I’m not just doing it to avoid rewrites.  It’s something that’s always made me uneasy.  It’s weird that news sites take Twitter as evidence of news.  You know, ‘So-and-so’s outraged at x according to his tweet.’  Who cares?  And we’ve got the fucking President of the United States using Twitter instead of official channels.  These things should concern people.”

Although Walker brings up Trump early in our conversation, the show isn’t just him ranting incessantly about the man Pie once described as “an orange sack of minge”.  “It became burdensome for a while as the news agenda meant I had to talk about him,” he sighs.  “But as things have normalised to a degree, I’ve been able to look at other things that interest me.  And you can’t do much with Trump now.  All you can do is read his tweets aloud and go: ‘Fucking look at that.’  It’s self-satirising, because he’s so inept.  That makes it hard to find a new angle.”

Friendly fire

Equally, Brexit’s likely to be handled delicately if at all.  “Pie’s always been pretty balanced about it,” Walker says.  “He gets why people voted both ways and that’s far more interesting in my mind.  He’s a reluctant Remainer who thought long and hard about where to put his vote, and opted for pragmatism over idealism.  In an ideal world, he’d have voted Leave because he’s an old school Lefty and that was their traditional view.”

Walker8a0a-da44-4b2a-9e49-51262f73e21dBecause of Pie’s position – no doubt influenced by the pro-Leave sentiments of Doyle (right) – Walker generally avoids railing against Brexit, preferring to use it to lampoon liberals for illiberal attacks on Leave voters.  Back To The Studio allows for more of the same, with those on the Left and Right guilty of encamping in their echo chambers and exaggerating benign news stories for propaganda.

“That’s something I really enjoy exposing,” he admits.  “You get lots more of that in the show: Tory bashing mixed with challenges to the prescribed liberal view by a liberal.  Remember that when Pie loses it, he turns into a Looney Lefty.  So when he’s shouting at the Tories, he’s also satirising the Left in the same moment.”

Given Pie’s initial popularity on the Left as he tore into austerity cuts, it might be considered a brave move to turn fire on his fans.  “But the truth still matters,” he says.  “You’ve got to keep people honest, no matter where they stand politically.”  The best example was when Walker used Pie to speak out against the press coverage of Conservative MPs voting down animal rights legislation last November in this excellent clip.  “That was one I felt particulate strongly about.  Because if you attack the Tories for something they haven’t done, they win the argument.”

Besides, Walker says he finds that Left-leaning fans generally take his jibes in the right spirit.  “In the live shows, you see loads of them sitting there laughing and thinking: ‘Yep, fair enough.  I am a Guardian-reading, quinoa-munching prick.’  Perhaps people have remembered what satire is: holding a mirror up to the audience.  So they need to hear that maybe we’re a bit to blame for Trump and maybe it’s not the way forward to call everyone who voted Leave a ‘bigot’.  There are smarter ways to analyse those events.”

As the discussion starts turning heavy, Walker emphasises that the show is designed – first and foremost – to make people laugh.  “I think it’s much funnier than last time and anyone should enjoy it.  I remember performing in Theresa May’s home town on the last tour and people saying they loved it even though they’re Tories.  It was brilliant hearing that and chatting to them afterwards.  It’s only Pie who’d headbutt them.  I think dialogue’s great.”

Out of character

Back To The Studio also gives Walker another chance to explore Pie’s character, something which – as someone who “worships at the alter of Alan Partridge” – he clearly relishes.  “I really want to open up his personality more.  In the first show, Pie’s out of his depth trying to do light entertainment, so is always going to fail.  But with this one, he’s taking a new concept out on the road before pitching it, so he starts off being a bit smart-arse, thinking he’s on the cusp of becoming the next Robert Peston.  You’ll have to see what happens, but you can imagine it’s not a happy ending.”


Last time I spoke to Walker, he was working on a sitcom pilot looking more at Pie’s home life.  “I had a few TV companies circling,” he says, “but broadcasters are risk averse and they seem to see Pie as a risk.  I think they think he’s me, so I’d be a nightmare to work with.  I don’t think I would be, but who knows?”

Is that still the ultimate aim?  “I need to decide at the end of this tour what I do with Pie, as I don’t want to spend the rest of my career making three-minute clips.  But I’d love to see him on TV in some form.  And I think it’d really work because – whether or not you agree with his politics – you can sympathise with where he’s coming from.  I don’t want people to enjoy Pie’s failure too much.  I want them to be with him on some level, in the way you are with many great sitcom characters.”

For those doubting whether Pie could translate to a longer format or interact well with other characters, the three specials Walker recorded for Comic Relief make a compelling case for further commissions.  “I really enjoyed making those shorts with a cast and normal people as well.  Because it allowed Pie to be the fall guy in confronting some uncomfortable truths about homelessness and charity.  I could use him to articulate what some people say about those topics and let people set him straight or make him look foolish.

“So there are bits in the second episode when Pie’s incredulous about homeless people having mobile phones and suits, and asks what’s wrong with just giving someone on the street £5 to buy themselves a rock of crack rather than handing money over to charity.  And he gets slapped down with, ‘Because it’ll kill him, you maniac.'”

With this rare ability to deliver cutting social commentary alongside laughs, it’s surely a matter of time before someone takes a chance on Walker and overlooks his occasional spikiness that – it should be noted – he’s never displayed during our conversations.  Should that happen, Walker will have another mistake to avoid repeating.

“After watching those Comic Relief clips, a friend told me I had to be careful.  He said that while you can put Pie in ‘Partridge situations’, his reaction can never be the same.  And I think it came very close a few times in those recordings and I’d really need to check myself next time.  But it happens so naturally after years of watching Steve Coogan’s work.  It’s a bugger: it means I can never say a brand name, or I become Partridge.”

Tom Walker is performing ‘Jonathan Pie: Back to the Studio’ at Eventim Hammersmith Apollo on 9th and 10th March 2018.  See the trailer here.  For information on other performances across the UK, head to Pie’s official website or follow him on Twitter @JonathanPieNews.

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