Interview with Helen Keen: combining science and comedy in It Is Rocket Science

We speak to comedian and writer Helen Keen about her BBC Radio 4 series, It Is Rocket Science…

It Is Rocket Science! began life as an Edinburgh show and is now a four-part series on Radio 4. Presented by Helen Keen and starring Peter Serafinowicz as a space narrator, the show explores the history and future of space travel.

What can people expect from the show?

A surprising amount of factual information! I’ve tried to bring lots of characters that people might not necessarily know about from astronomy and space into the story.

Everybody knows the story of Galileo being persecuted and disbelieved, but the stories that we start with in the first episode are of the three fathers of rocket science, who are still very obscure figures. We wanted to bring those people in to the public consciousness, while at the same time making an entertainment programme.

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The second episode, we go into Wernher von Braun and John Whiteside Parsons, Satanist and Nazi, so it kind of writes itself.

We recorded it all in one night at the beginning of December. Obviously, they’ll go out week by week but they’ll stay online. So, if people want to come in, say, at week three, they can still hear the other two episodes and get that sense of the great, carefully plotted narrative arc.

The show has been around in some form since 2008 when you took it to the Edinburgh Fringe, and you returned with it again in 2010.

Yes, I went back to Edinburgh with a rejigged version of it.

How rejigged was it?

There were quite a few new bits in it, and it was really nice to bring it back, because it was the first show that I’d done and it felt like it had grown a bit.

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Most people, when they do their first hour show, they get all their material and stick it together and usually put a bit of filler in and give it some sort of implausible title. And I knew that wasn’t going to work for me, so my first show was pretty much written from scratch, which was a bit of a steep learning curve.

So, what had you done before?

I’d done bits and pieces of stand-up, but me and my writing partner had won a Channel 4 competition, which we thought was going to be a gateway to fame and fortune which, of course, it wasn’t. So, we were doing a lot more of the writing side of things. That was how I got into stand-up, but it was primarily driven by wanting to be a writer and write scripts and make programmes, rather than specifically wanting to show off.

How easy was the show to adapt for radio?

It was such a visual show and you’re making it audio-only, so it was just like “We can do anything with this!” And that’s the thing with radio. You can set it on another planet, you could set it in a space station, and we did think about all those things. We were very excited going through all these weird and wonderful ideas, but Gareth Edwards, the producer, was not entirely convinced. So, in the end, we just went for a simple idea of just me making my own space programme with a computer-based narrator that I’ve cobbled together from various sort of kitchen appliances and a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and a calculator.

And that’s a familiar simple concept I guess, a series of voices in a studio in front of an audience.

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I wanted there to be a story, I didn’t want it to be “Oh, this is just someone talking about space.” I like the idea of the world behind it. Obviously, an implausible world, and I couldn’t build a space narrator that sounds like Peter Serafinowicz in my bedroom, sadly. I wish I could!

At what point did Peter get involved?

Really late on, actually. I remember initially feeling so embarrassed talking about this idea of having this space narrator. I was an only child, so I had a lot of imaginary friends. So, I think it kind of grew out of that, but Gareth really liked it and suggested Peter for it. I think they go back quite a long way, because they worked together on Spaced, so they’ve known each other for years.

There’re Robin Ince’s yearly Lessons And Carols For Godless People events, and his Infinite Monkey Cage show, and Josie Long adapted her science show for Radio 4 last year. Why is comedy so drawn to science lately?

All the time, those things have been going on I’ve been wondering, “Should I listen to this? Should I not?” It kind of feels like it’s coming at the end of all these other shows, but we’ve been doing it for years and it’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time.

When I was at school there wasn’t a lot of popular science that you could just go into bookshops and pick up. I was working in a bookshop when Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem was coming out, and since then, there’s been this big explosion in popular science books.

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I compèred Bright Club in the Wilmington Arms, so about room for a hundred people, and they were turning people away. They had fifty-odd people wanting to come in who just couldn’t.

I just think people have this really great hunger for information, which maybe isn’t being satisfied by the educational system as it stands, or when people are younger they’re not that interested in it.

There’s the whole sceptical movement and I guess they need something to laugh at in their spare time.

Yes, when they’re not debunking! I stood in for Robin Ince last minute at a conference in Manchester called QEDCon and it was brilliant. I was quite nervous about it, because everyone’s heard of Robin Ince and no-one’s heard of me, necessarily, and they were a brilliant audience. I’m not a huge active part of it, but it interests me, because this whole aspect of looking into things and cutting through the bullshit you get in the media.

How do you find the demographic of your shows?

I think everybody kind of loves space. You get people bringing their precocious kids who’ve got telescopes who come along and say ,”Yes, I was aware of Tsiolkovsky. Did you know…” and you’re just thinking, “Wow, you’re eight and you’re wearing a bow tie. You’re a bit freaky.” And you get older people who remember the fifties and sixties really well and remember the optimism at that time, and they really like it too.

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That’s the wonderful thing about space, and you see it on a much bigger scale with things like Wonders Of The Universe, and how popular that’s been. A picture beamed back from Hubble is one of the best things to see and you don’t need to know anything to look at the picture and go, “Wow, that’s really beautiful. That’s out there, somewhere.” There’s this little contraption that looks like it’s made from tin foil which has opened its eye and taken a picture for you and beamed it back to Earth. I tear up just thinking about it. And also, I’ve got a cold.

There’s something very democratic about it. Obviously, if you’ve got binoculars or a telescope, it’s easier, but anyone can look up at the night sky. Astronomy is one of the few fields where you can be an amateur and still make quite a big contribution to what’s actually been discovered.

There was the recent thing of someone filming the launch of the Discovery on an iPhone from their plane window.

Yes, the technology now is so much more widely available. There was a thing about a year ago where there was a father and son in America and they put an iPhone in a balloon and sent it up and they got these amazing pictures of the curvature of the Earth. It’s mind-blowing that you can do that with a piece of technology which is in the grasp of most people with a reliable income.

If you could, would you book a seat on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne?

I would love to. I must admit, when I was a kid, I had unrealistic expectations of what it was going to be like in the future. I didn’t even want to be an astronaut, because I thought it would’ve gone beyond that. I thought I’d be able to go and live on Mars and that would be completely normal.

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Can you tell us some of your influences, both scientific and comedic?

There’s a weirdly British tradition of passionate amateurs who go on to become a very recognisable spokesperson. David Attenborough, being a prime example, doesn’t have any qualifications, but everyone thinks of him and Life On Earth. And Patrick Moore, who’s never studied for any scientific qualifications in the university sense, but yet, the maps he drew of the moon were so detailed and precise they were used by the Soviets when they were trying to get Lunar One to land on the Moon. Also, people like Jonny Ball. People who are not necessarily coming at it from an entirely informed serious academic perspective, but just coming at it from the perspective of something they really like.

Brian Cox is brilliant and Wonders Of The Universe is amazing, but I still hope there’s some kind of niche somewhere for people who are coming at it from a slightly different angle. Sometimes I think it’s quite nice if you can just fall into something because you’re interested in it.

I had a recording when I was growing up of Woody Allen, who talks about all kinds of weird things and philosophical complexes, and that gave me the idea that stand-up is about anything. It doesn’t have to be immediately recognisable, because you can make it relevant.

What’s next for you after the show?

On the 12th of April, it’s Yuri’s Night (celebrating fifty years of human spaceflight) and I’m doing a show called Spacetackular with a chap called Matt Brown, who’s a bit of a space nerd and also the editor of The Londonist. I hope we’re going to have some comedy and some proper science and we’re encouraging people to come in fancy dress, dressed as their favourite spacecraft or figure from space history or figure from science fiction. A niche comedy gig for space geeks who like dressing up!

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I’m working on a new show, which is kind of again a bit science-y but not so much space this time, more about the future, quite a nebulous broad theme. I’m quite into robots and there are links there with space.

And I’m going over to Ireland in a couple of weeks and I’m doing a event for sceptics in Aberdeen, which is slightly unfortunate, as I’ve got a joke about it in the first episode, comparing the vast empty coldness of a universe without creation or culture to Aberdeen, which may not be perfect timing!

Thank you, Helen!

It Is Rocket Science airs on Radio 4, Wednesdays at 11pm.

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