Marcus Brigstocke

Stand-up comedian Marcus Brigstocke is one of the guest directors of this month's Cheltenham Science Festival. Katie Jarvis questioned him on life, the universe and Jeremy Kyle.

Marcus Brigstocke

Stand-up comedian Marcus Brigstocke is one of the guest directors of this month’s Cheltenham Science Festival.  Katie Jarvis questioned him on life, the universe and Jeremy Kyle

“Our scientists question not only what we are sure we don’t know but also the things we imagine we know,” writes Marcus Brigstocke, in the introduction to this year’s mind-blowing Cheltenham Science Festival brochure. So… not too dissimilar to comedians, then, Marcus?

“I hope that’s so,” he says, rolling the idea round his rather interesting mind. “Certainly, my favourite end of comedy explores everyday situations by saying, ‘Let’s turn this over and have a look at it from the other side’. I love Michael McIntyre’s routine, for instance, where he asks why salt and pepper are the successful spices. It’s about all the other spices in the cupboard feeling jealous.” (YouTube it, if you haven’t seen it; it  is hilarious.)

I’m not 100 per cent sure why a stand-up comedian has been asked to be a guest director of this year’s science festival – along with space scientist  Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock – and neither, to be honest, is he. But it’s an inspired choice. We both suspect it might be to do with God Collar, his stand-up show-turned-comedically-angst-ridden-book. Somewhere between Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Hitchens’s God is Not Great – but with a more likeably cheeky grin – it’s the cry of a reluctant atheist who wants to make a connection to God but can’t get a signal. In it, he pokes fun at himself in particular and at hypocrisy in general; but the lasting impression is that he envies the faithful.

“I suppose it’s another one of these rationalist manifesto pamphlets, though the position I take includes furthering my understanding of faith and why people choose to believe. Indeed, it makes perfect sense to me as to why people have faith in their lives; it’s something that, if I could do, I probably would.” (Indeed, God Collar, which was a sell-out literary festival event last year, is enjoying a science festival outing, too, on June 17.)

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“So,” he concludes, still musing on his festival good fortune, “the work I’ve done on secularism and atheism and stuff means I automatically fall under the radar of the science bods. And I’ve always had an enthusiasm for technology and scientific development because it happens to chime with the approach that I take to most of my life.”

There you are: a thoughtful answer from a thoughtful chap. He’s not one of these comedians who consider merely shouting **** at WI members to be, de facto, witty (“like when boys run into the girls’ loo at school” as he puts it). The epithets applied to Marcus include ‘cerebral’, ‘razor-sharp’ and, most telling of all, ‘corduroy-clad’. The jokes are extremely funny but you sometimes wonder if they’re secondary to his fight against middle-class presumption, prejudice-disguised-as-politics, and unforgiveable warmongering.

What you will know – if you’ve heard any of his shows, are a fan of The Now Show, or have caught him on HIGNFY – is that his science-fest choices will be far-from boring. Such as the event he’s organised with the evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas. “I had dinner with Mark when I was up for the literary festival. He’s one of those people where everything he says leads in your mind to 20 other questions you’re suddenly desperate to ask him.”

Such as?

“Adam and Eve lived about 20,000 years apart.”

Not great for any kind of long-term relationship.

“Very tricky. But he’ll furnish you with a very joyful and fascinating answer to each of your questions. That’s what happened over dinner so I’m really hoping the audience will equally enjoy what he has to say.”

He almost plugs your god-shaped hole?

“In a sense he does. But he’s just utterly fascinating and it’s an area of science I suppose I was aware of but I’d never met anyone who was actually doing it.”

Other ‘Marcus’ events include looking behind headlines of stories which suspiciously begin ‘Scientists believe’, with the help of Robert Winston, Andrea Sella and Quentin Cooper; and ‘Marketing the Apocalypse’: he’s convinced the environmental movement would be far more successful if it improved its (recycled, but-of-course) packaging.

So go on, Marcus; sell me the end of the world.

“I was at an event at the Start Festival, Prince Charles’s climate-change initiative at Clarence House, where we were challenged by somebody in the audience as to why on earth we were drinking bottled water. Obviously, relatively speaking it’s an indefensible thing to do; except that it’s also really interesting. Bottled water costs more than petrol; we all have access to the same substance for free; and yet we buy it. Now that is a triumph of marketing.

“So the idea of marketing the apocalypse is to say: Well, look; the science around this stuff is off-putting; it’s been politicised and it pisses a lot of people off. There must be a way of marketing it better; of taking out the finger-wagging and making the things that are possible seem appealing. So that’s the idea. To bring together a climate-scientist and a marketing expert; and I will hopefully comedically link the two up to try and make the idea of sustainability a bit more sexy.”

And that’s typical of his approach. It will be funny; but it’s very, very serious, at the same time. Climate-change deniers are one of a range of combatants he’s been pacifically fighting long-term: “George Osborne’s position on it ought to be enough to have him chased out of Number 11 and across the countryside by a pack of dogs.

“Climate-change deniers will send you to the same website, which is full of stuff that’s been scientifically blown out of the water, and yet it’s never updated; it just carries the same lies. There are plenty of morons who want to go to a website like that and believe what’s on there and that’s fine; but the number of otherwise-intelligent people – or people who are engaged in what purports to be serious politics – who claim climate change isn’t happening is entirely baffling.”

Well, there won’t be too many of those at the science festival. Instead, there are considered, brainy and knowledgeable luminaries such as Vivienne Westwood, Tim Minchin, Robert Winston, Ruby Wax and Brian Cox; and subjects under the microscope that include saving birds from extinction, the science of optimism, the genius of Alan Turing, problems with the economy, and the evolution of the human brain.

All of which might help answer some of the Big Questions that Marcus Brigstocke poses in the science brochure: Is there life as we might understand it anywhere out in space? What does it feel like when we die? Why is Jeremy Kyle? (The latter two being, ostensibly, much the same thing.)

Actually, Marcus, why is Jeremy Kyle?

“It’s just so awful, isn’t it? Imagine waking up and wanting either to see that on the telly but, more worryingly, waking up in an environment where you think: The best way of me explaining my life is to be a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show.”

Another of life’s bafflements. (Though, like you, I’ve never seen it either.) If we could explain that  away, we probably wouldn’t need a science festival. �– 

For more about Marcus Brigstocke, including soon-to-be-announced dates for his new show, The Brig Society, visit

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