Robin Ince interview: science, Brian Cox and Jason Statham

From Quest For Wonder and Infinity Monkey Cage, to Game And Watch and books - we chat with the brilliant Robin Ince...

Robin Ince was on tour with Brian Cox in Australia when I had the pleasure of speaking with him, about Quest For Wonder, about Infinite Monkey Cage, and about – y’know – Statham.

That said, I also learned that he’s not one of those who checks into hotels under fake names – unlike Brian Cox, it seems – and after a lengthy bout of Australian on-hold music, we got chatting. Nerdiness lies ahead…

Let’s start with technology. What was your home computer growing up? I reckon you’d have been a ZX Spectrum person.

Do you know what, we didn’t have a home computer! I am so old, because I’m 47…

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… that’s not old!

But for computers, the most computer-y thing I had was a Game And Watch. Do you know what that is?

Of course I know what one is!

Yeah, but they didn’t hang around! I had Turtle Bridge. It was one of the most boring games in the world. You leap across four or five turtles, watch the fish come up, eventually it becomes impossible. The end. Then you play it again. And play it again.

When you eventually got a computer, was that 10 or 20 years down the line?

Yeah, I was way behind on all these things! When I first started writing, I delivered the scripts typed up. I probably didn’t have a computer at all under 1998, 1999.

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It’s Tom Hanks who collects typewriters, isn’t it? I suspect you’d get on with him.

[Laughs] I was in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, in their storeroom. I saw some wonderful things in their storeroom, including Tina Sparkles’ dress from Strictly Ballroom! And they have a full collection of typewriters. Including one I’ve never seen before, where you have a small steel pen, where you would move it to touch the letters you wanted. The act of moving it was key. It was incredible. How that was considered better than the other typewriters that existed already? Enormous great big steel balls of letters, just made to be broken.

Yet we find ourselves now in an era of updates to technology for the sake of updates. That they almost have to invent a feature that you inevitably don’t need, to try and flog you another model 12 months down the line. Whereas even 20 years ago, it was powered by function.

Yep. I would agree. When you look now even at what phones have, when you look at the number of things on your laptop… actually look at the number of functions that you’ve never, never used. It’s an obsession of mine. That’s part of this narcissistic blindness that has taken us over, as we just stay on social media, and we just stay staring at a screen. Then the next thing you know, we leave the European Union, and Donald Trump becomes a presidential candidate! So, yeah.

Ha, politics then! If you look back over lots of older election campaigns, especially US presidential ones, it felt like comedy could punctuate them. Now, less so? That politicians seem more bulletproof when it comes to comedy, facts and campaigning.

Yeah. I think it’s because the reality tunnel now is so specific. Whether it’s climate change, political figures, you are able to access via the internet enough people who agree with you, and enough papers that you don’t really understand, to believe your world view.

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For a lot of people, for nearly all of us who use social media, your reality is broadcast at you, not experienced by you. That does have an enormous effect. I don’t believe someone like Donald Trump… well, every day, he seemed to be committing a faux pas that once upon a time would have sunk a candidate.

I think a lot of it is also that when our access to mainstream information is controlled by such a small number of human beings… and that is across the whole world! Edward Bernays said that most of our opinions are controlled by a very small number of people, who most of us don’t know exist. Now that’s changed in the last 90 years. It’s become exaggerated remarkably. So few people control your world view. These are good times to hope that everything is really a hologram that’s being projected from Philip K Dick’s mind!

You yourself have a commitment to analogue things. In the Big Issue you write a radio column. One of your podcasts is about books. Analogue pursuits in their own way. Is that a deliberate anti-reaction to the way the world is going?

I don’t know, I’m not entirely sure. Even though I appear to use social media a lot… the one thing I do use it for is news. Even though I believe that social media can affect the way the world is, it’s a much better way of gathering all of the different angles from a story. If you have a mind that you want to critically look at things and go that story will do me, I haven’t got the time.

But then again, I love the fact that podcasts exist. I love the fact that there is, on the positive side, this near-Marxist thing that the means of production have been given into the hands of nearly everyone. You can produce what you want, you can put it somewhere where it can be found.

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The book thing: I do think it’s important in terms of remembering how to concentrate. I’m very erratic. But the act of reading, and sitting and listening to a Radio Four play, and turning everything else off? It’s like that thing where you press never remember password. When I go into an Oxfam and donate books, and I can do my Gift Aid off my heart? It’s the nearest I approach to being a deity! My ability to quote my number as I walk into my local Oxfam!

I spoke to a film director last year, who told me he was asked to make a film that people would watch for two thirds of the time. That they’d make it, knowing that viewers would be looking at their iPad for at least a third of the time. They’re commissioning films on that basis now.

It’s an interesting thing to see a reaction against it as well. You kind of see during the Oscars now, the almost-independent film, previously the near-art house movie, is starting to dominate again. Whereas a lot of the really big budget stuff, which once upon a time would have included great epics, are just festivals of explosions.

I think our addiction to perpetual action [in movies]… it looks like there might be a reaction against it. A few years ago, I was writing something. And every night I was watching a film that I felt I should have seen before, but hadn’t. Something by Werner Herzog, or Fassbender… and I found that in the act of doing that, I then was unable to watch a lot of the shitty explosion Hollywood stuff.

It’s a bit like if you’ve had that moment when you have an incredible meal, or a glass of wine that’s so amazing, and you go ‘oh no – I may never be able to drink really cheap wine again’. That you’ve seen that there’s something better, but you may not be able to afford it again.

But then cinema is more accessible now. I do wonder if we do have a culture now where if something’s artistic and interesting, it’s too easy to shoot it down as pretentious. But to like great Russian films would be pretentious, as opposed to merely liking something that took an awful lot of effort, that is beautiful and engrossing. And remains with you, for months after you’ve seen it.

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I used to rant about this in stand up. That everything becomes an immediate satisfaction, and then it’s forgotten. That you know that you saw a film, it was a bit of a ride, then you left, then you went for a pizza. You know you went for a pizza because you don’t necessarily remember it, but you know it was satisfactory.

I’m reading Alan Moore’s Jerusalem at the moment. It’s an enormous work, longer than the Old Testament. And I’ve started to have a dream about it. Every moment I pause, I sit in my room and try and read 50 or 100 pages.

As one reviewer said, they started by underlining their favourite sentences, but soon found it a ridiculous thing to do. It is an incredibly rich and ornate work of art. He’s gone into the mind of so many characters, and the thoughts he’s embedded means that each blossoms into further thoughts of their own. And yes, I find myself dreaming about strange evenings with Alan as he explains the book to me.

Shall we move onto science, then? Tell us about Quest For Wonder and where that came from.

It started off with Trent Burton, who I think he got me to do a voiceover for a documentary series about poker players, that went out somewhere in Scandinavia I think! That’s how we met. He’d originally seen me at a book club, reading out from Syd Little’s autobiography.

Then we talked about making a science documentary: what inspired scientists to interrogate the universe? Then we thought it might be better to do it as an app, which we made: Cosmic Genome. I think we’ve done 150 interviews now with scientists, and scientific people.

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From that, Melinda Burton had met some puppet makers. She suggested making puppets of me and Brian [Cox] and doing some fun stuff with them. One of the things is we have this incredible theme tune for Infinite Monkey Cage, that Eric Idle did and recorded with Jeff Lynne!

[Robin then told me of a dinner he went to with Steve Martin, Jeff Lynne, Brian Cox and Eric Idle. I was insanely jealous and cried. After a short sulk, the interview recommenced].

In fact, Brian and Eric have written a musical that’s going to be on the BBC this Christmas, and it’s all about us distracting Brian as he tries to be taken seriously as a scientist. It’s me, Eric, Noel Fielding… and I think we’re going to have to learn some dance routines. I haven’t had to do that since I worked with Carmen Silvera from TV’s ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Quality namedropping, that.

Their puppets got made, and we did a little promo video on no budget of Eric Idle singing the Monkey Cage song. And then we just started talking about what could be done in terms of using the puppets for an adventure.

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We thought it might be nice if the Science Museum let us, which fortunately they did. We weren’t allowed to touch everything, but we thought we’d make a little six-part film.

We’re always trying to find different ways to get children involved in science. With Infinite Monkey Cage, and with the tour I’m doing with Brian, we get nine and ten year olds in. But of course there are a lot of people that age who still might not be drawn into science, and even younger than that too. So we thought let’s write some silly scripts in which two puppets wonder around the science museum, searching for Brian Cox’s lost wonder, his mojo. His strange, fluffy wonder. We thought it would be a good way of getting across science ideas for kids, while hopefully being silly enough so that adults like it too.

We showed it at the Science Museum on an IMAX screen, and I did tell the audience beforehand that it was the cheapest thing that would ever be projected onto that screen! It was done for next to nothing, we called in a lot of favours! We were limited, there were lots of things we’d love to have done that were out of reach. But it’s hopefully a nice bit of nonsense, and behind it is the joy of the empirical possibilities of human beings!

And how is the tour with you and Brian Cox? That starts in the UK in September.

Yeah. 48 or so dates this year, and then bizarrely an arena tour! It’s fascinating. It’s not my tour, it’s Brian’s tour I should stress. He said to me a few months ago, do you want to come along as well? I thought why not!

So I do what I do on Monkey Cage, which is every now and then when I think the audience has become overly confused by particle physics, or intense bouts of cosmology, I come on and go I’m going to do a funny voice now!

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We’ll probably change it for the UK from what we’ve been doing in Australia. I think we’ll keep developing it over the tour. It’s a lot of fun. I’m not meant to be doing much stand-up at the moment, and that’s going to remain that way for a good year or more. Possibly longer. It’s just nice. I don’t feel under pressure, about from the feeling of not wanting to let other people down with their show. But I don’t feel the pressure of touring around on my own doing a two hour show.

All the clichés you’d expect, too. The delight of when a nine-year old comes on stage and has a fantastic question about the nature of gravity in the universe. Or about dark energy. And seeing that this idea that we live in a post-fact world… we need more things like this.

It turns out that lots of people really like the idea of facts. They like the idea that science brings the least-wrong answers. It doesn’t necessarily bring totally correct answers, as we know. But last night, we were doing an event after the show, and there’s such excitement. That afterwards, they know that if they go out and look at the night sky, that it now looks slightly different to them, to the way it did the day before.

There used to be a stigma attached to liking science, and I love that comedy is puncturing it. What would you say to the person reading this who does have a spark with science, and wants to follow that, and get more involved?

We mentioned before about the means of production being in people’s hands. Make things. Last night, Brian was given this painting by someone who came to the after-show event. A beautiful painting of a constellation. Anything that you can do. Whether you just want to write something, and you can stick it up on your own blog post. Your own discoveries. Owning a telescope. They don’t cost much now, for a second hand telescope.

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The main thing though is for those who worry if they have a scientific mind: don’t think that you need to finish every science book and have a deep, new understanding of the universe. A lot of it is the fun of the ride as well.

That’s what gets left off. People say that they’ve read a book, didn’t manage to finish it, it was really hard. But have those nice headaches every now and then, where you do have to put down the book and contemplate for a while. Where you think that that’s interesting, but I’m not sure I understand it. But the journey, before I hit this particular wall, was fun.

There’s a new bit of research that’s been done on Kindles – the Hawking effect – which looks at how far people get through certain books. And it’s the league of books where people get to chapter one and go no! How far can you get through a book? But it’s an important thing to know that when you pick up science again, you have to read it at a different speed to most other books. Because on each page is sometimes a minor or sometimes a major revelation that questions your previous belief about how the universe is as it is.

You can enjoy it, and sometimes it’s fun to sweat, to go oh, I want to put this book down. And then you push it. You marathon read it!

One last question, then, a Den Of Geek tradition. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

Oh, what’s the one that starts off where he’s a tramp and he breaks into a flat?

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Yeah! That’s quite good. But I actually think he’s brilliant. A lot of my life is in hotels, back from a gig at 1am. And I love that kind of action actor. This bald man – which used to be one of the rules against being an action hero – the way that he plays it, and he thinks he is a good actor… The Crank films are utterly preposterous. They’re meant to be. You watch them and you go my god, the meetings that they had about this to make it truly ridiculous!

Normally, I don’t like action exploding films. But there is a point of preposterousness! It’s a bit like pulp literature. I love that and love art house stuff as well. There’s something about the ride of pulp literature that’s also like watching a Jason Statham movie. The first time I saw Crank, I thought well done everyone. Well done.

Robin Ince, thank you very much!

Find Quest For Wonder here. You can find an episode below these words too…