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Tom Walker: “You learn a lot about Jonathan Pie: are you really cross with Theresa May or just pissed off at life?”

| Comedy, Theatre | 12/02/2017


Tom Walker brings his excellent comic creation – Jonathan Pie – to the capital next month for a fascinating character piece touching on Brexit, Trump and all that’s wrong with modern society.  Ahead of shows at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and London Palladium, Ian Cater interviewed one of the most provocative and insightful performers of British satire.

This week, The Independent complained that while Trump’s election has provoked a strong reaction from American comedians, their British counterparts have failed to respond to Brexit so robustly.  Joe Sommerlad’s article spoke sense, lambasting networks for denying UK chat shows political agendas, and starving Stewart Lee and Charlie Brooker of greater screen time.

However, it was flawed in one crucial aspect.  The piece omitted a major contributor to recent British satire: Jonathan Pie.  Pie – a fictional news reporter created by actor Tom Walker in 2015 – has become one of the ‘must see’ commentators on post-Brexit current affairs.

The pretext for each of his weekly YouTube videos is the same: Pie’s delivering a piece to camera on location, but in between takes he unloads acerbic personal views on his producer, Tim.  His sweary and insightful diatribes – initially focused on Centre-Right politicians and media organisations – quickly earned Walker legions of fans and saw his act picked up by RT.  After splitting from that network (on which more below), Pie now holds a mirror up to the Left as well as the Right, which has lost him some fans but also gained many more.

Reluctant revolutionary

Despite his success as a political commentator, Taunton-born Walker never set out to be a satirist.  Politics wasn’t even on his radar until recently.  As a trained actor – Walker studied drama at Manchester Metropolitan University – the human aspect still appeals more to him.

spoof-2“I always liked the idea of public and private personas,” he says.  “The Pie character was my take on what the news presents and what people presenting the news really think.  The politics was secondary.  But that’s what made him popular, so I’ve stuck with it.”

Pie was long in the making, the crust hardening as Walker watched Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader: “The BBC cut to an outside presenter, who immediately asked: ‘How long do you think he’ll last?’  I thought it was incredible: you’ve decided within 30 seconds that he can’t win a general election!”

Irritated by the mainstream media’s inability simply to report the news, Pie made his debut.  “The character was also born out of desperation,” he admits, with typical honesty.  “I’d been out of work for a long time as an actor, and decided I couldn’t continue financially and mentally.  This was the last throw of the dice.”

Pie’s videos went viral and Walker received funding offers.  The most attractive came from RT – a network funded by the Russian government – which he accepted after insisting on full editorial independence.  That didn’t save him from criticism.  “It was naive of me,” he reflects.  “But, let’s be honest: for the first time in a decade I was offered a reasonable wage to do what I’d wanted my entire life.  The fucking liberal elite judged me, crying: ‘How dare you!’  And I’d say: ‘I’m sorry, but this time last week I couldn’t afford my own lunch.’

“Now and then I went down a deliberately anti-Russian route, and they never edited anything.  But after six months, I was getting so much shit I didn’t feel I could progress with this RT chain around my neck.”

Humble pie

Around the time he split from RT, Walker wrote an hour-long show with comedian Andrew Doyle to prove his character had depth and reaffirm his abilities as an actor.  After a successful run at the Fringe, Jonathan Pie: Live comes to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and London Palladium on 3rd and 4th March 2017.

CppoblWXYAAfBK2“The idea is Pie’s hosting part of a live charity telethon,” Walker explains.  “He’s a last-minute replacement, out of his depth, attempting light entertainment but his main flaw is that he can’t help talking about politics.  And he can’t talk about politics without getting angry.  But he’s fronting something where it’s inappropriate to talk that way and about that stuff.”

The live show is more stage play than stand-up, with its apparently off the cuff rants being carefully scripted.  Although that appeals to the actor, it presents its own challenges.  For example, although the Brexit vote generated more interest in Walker’s work, it didn’t seem such great news at the time: “I stayed up watching the results.  And at around six in the morning, I opened the script and highlighted in red everything that was suddenly irrelevant.  Pretty much a third had to be dumped, with Edinburgh only six weeks away.

“Brexit was scary for a lot of people.  But it was also scary for me professionally as it meant I had to rethink the whole show.”

More rewriting followed Trump’s victory – another shot in the arm for the ‘Pie brand’ as his extended take on the result received over 100 million hits on Viral Thread.  Walker accepts the danger in overdoing the Trump and Brexit themes.  However, for now, he knows audiences expect impressive set pieces on both, and says the show doesn’t disappoint.

Knowing me, knowing you

Already a short-form phenomenon, it’s interesting to see how Pie translates to a longer format.  “Pie’s normally three minutes a week,” he says, “so you don’t want to get bored of him.  The show starts deliberately low-paced, which is scary because there’s no big laugh for three or four minutes.  But it pays off.  Almost every fan’s said: ‘I didn’t know how it was going to work, but it does.'”

fuckThe chance to see more of Pie’s character is also intriguing, given the public-private dichotomy Walker wants to explore.  He’s writing a pilot around Pie’s home life, but says the live show reveals a fair bit too.  “Especially when he calls his wife.  It’s the first time he’s not in control, so you learn a lot about him and people who get angry about politics in general: are you really cross with Theresa May or just pissed off at life?”

I can see similarities between Pie and early Alan Partridge, although it’s hard to pinpoint them.  Maybe it’s because both are more comfortable with cameras than people, or that Pie might also grow funnier with a back story.  I mention this comparison to Walker, unsure how he’ll take it.

“Funnily enough, I was asked by The List to write about my comedy hero and I immediately chose Partridge.  He’s a massive influence and the characters are comparable, so I have to make sure I don’t slip in a bit of Alan,” he says, momentarily adopting North Norfolkian nasal tones.

No guardian angel

Like many character comedians, Walker says he’s very different to his creation.  But Pie’s frustration, sharpness and verbal dexterity occasionally surface, especially when discussing Brian Logan’s review of the show for The Guardian last August.  Unwittingly, Logan’s unflattering write-up succeeded in altering the script: “There’s now a section about how ghastly The Guardian is: how you can’t call yourself a liberal and read that paper.”

This also highlights Pie’s journey from bashing the Right to taking on all-comers.  His response to Trump’s election was noteworthy for blaming “the Left’s complicity”, while last week’s video criticises ‘liberals’ for attacking those with different political outlooks.  “They’re far too quick to label people ‘white supremacists’ or ‘Nazis’.  Donald Trump’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s not a Nazi.  Calling him that detracts from the holocaust and what he actually is.”  Pie prefers cruder, more personal insults such as “orange sack of minge”, carefully contrasting moments of uncontrollable outrage with an otherwise high level of intellectual sophistication.

For his part, Walker’s learnt a lot from recent political developments and conveys this in the show.  “People ask me all the time: ‘What can I do?’  I say: ‘Talk to your opponents and listen to them.’  It might sound grim, but you’ve got to read Breitbart as well as The Independent.  At least you know what you’re dealing with then.  I’m certainly more open to sitting down for a pint with a Tory and not getting angry.  Unlike my character of course.”

Jonathan Pie: Live is being performed at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and London Palladium on 3rd and 4th March 2017.  For tickets, head here.  To catch his latest videos, follow Jonathan Pie on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter @JonathanPieNews.

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