Onion Talking: Colin Hoult

© Colin Hoult / Dawn Sedgwick Management

Twelve months ago, many of our readers outside regular Edinburgh Festival goers and devotees of the London live comedy scene had never heard of Colin Hoult.  The star had critical acclaim aplenty – TimeOut had claimed his comedy was a blend of Lewis Caroll & The League Of Gentlemen, and he had won the highly prestigious Writers Guild Award for Comedy.  Those who had seen his live performances would attest to his immense talents, in double act Colin & Fergus, and his own live shows including Zimbani, Carnival Of Monsters and Enemy Of The World.

A stint on Russell Howard’s Good News had greatly enhanced his profile, but it was Zimbani – the pilot he made with David McNeill and Julian Barratt – which really thrust him onto The Velvet Onion’s radar.  After catching his Edinburgh run last Summer, TVO had a bit of a dilemma: here was an immensely talented comic actor whom we wanted to shout from the rooftops about, but whose connection to Booshdom appeared somewhat tenuous.  Was he, for all his talents, outside our ‘remit’, like so many other comics we could mention but not really embrace?

Then came a memorable appearance at November’s Fulchfest, and as we dug deeper, we realised his connections to TVO’s other subjects were far deeper than we had first noticed.  Above all else, he was, and is, ridiculously entertaining, charming in person and hilarious on stage – more than worthy of an honorary place on our pages.  Now involved with an upcoming television sketch-show which will include a familiar face or two from these parts, and on the eve of launching a new regular London club night which may include still further familiars, its clear that Colin has established himself as an active part of TVO… and his increasing profile in his own right makes him a guaranteed star to watch.

As his audiences grow, and critics continue to take note of his talents, we were lucky enough to talk to Colin in advance of his forthcoming shows, including the final run of Enemy Of The World later this month.

Hi, Colin. Welcome back to TVO.  For the benefit of those who haven’t seen Enemy Of The World, what can newcomers expect to see?

Well, it’s a character show, as you can probably tell.  It’s very funny, it’s very dark, very strange and different.  Aesthetically, it’s a sort of Weimar Republic Cabaret Show: a Kurt Weil/Burtolt Brech type show.  It’s basically about villains, so we enter a spooky cabaret world, and within that world are all sorts of different characters.

My trademark, if you like, is mixing the fantastical with the real.  What we’ve tried to create is very designed and cool, and a quite fantastical world, and then the characters within it are very real, believable and recognisable.  Also, on top of that we’ve got lots of songs, with fun audience interaction and games.

You do seem to love playing with the audience.  Do you prefer it when the crowd’s up for it?

Oh, definitely.  It’s funny, really, but when you start out I think you’re scared and a bit nervous of what you imagine comedy audiences are going to be like… rabid dogs with fangs and claws, throwing things at you and screaming at you.  I must say I’ve never had an audience of rabid dogs, I’m not sure how that’d work…

But when you get an audience that’s up for it, it’s a lot better!  I try to encourage that sense of rabidity within my crowds.  Sometimes the room is very gentile and nice and the audience just nods, and you feel like you’re doing it for your aunties. 

Posing for a fan during an Edinburgh performance. Image © Daveambition

What goes through your head when you’ve decided to interact with someone who just doesn’t respond?

Sometimes you get a bit evil and want to try and make them respond, but normally the thing to do is to acknowledge it in an amusing fashion and then move on to someone who’s more fun.  What doesn’t work, or maybe I haven’t mastered it yet, is working out beforehand who to target – cos they’re never good, fun people!

So when you go out there, you just pick a random person at that moment?

I think planning it is a bit pointless.  Other people plan it to the tiniest degree and it works for them, but I tend not to.  It’s always much more fun when you can react to something that’s happening.

The other day I was doing a gig as Anna Mann, the luvvie’s character I do.  I like to call the audience strange names and just talk nonsense at them.  There was this guy who I called the Human Calculator and thought it’d be funny to talk about maths with him, because he looked quite brainy like a computer nerd… and he was the thickest person! [Laughs] He actually said himself: “Oh, you picked the wrong bloke there, mate!”  He wasn’t brainy by his own admission, so that was quite odd.

Anna Mann out and about in ol’ London Town. © Fung Wah Man

That said, the show isn’t really about singling people out.  I try to make it feel like everyone’s in the mix, even if they don’t get spoken to.  I don’t like to put too much pressure on a single person to be really funny.  That’s not really their job… it’s my job!  But I’d rather make everyone feel involved.

I think when you start out, especially if you’re doing sketchy, character type stuff you do really build a bit of a fourth wall.  That can be nice and safe, but now, to me, it feels quite boring.  If I don’t connect with the audience, then I feel like I haven’t really done it.

The show itself has very minimal props, and its focussed on yourself and the other performers inhabiting these characters completely.  How hard is that to do? Do you think of a joke, or find a stance or a voice and go from there?

Well, in terms of props… I think it comes from just doing it a lot since I was a little kid.  I’ve always written and performed and made stuff up, so I feel like I am the show.  I don’t really want to cover it up with loads of costumes and sets and stuff that you don’t need.  What I normally find is that I tend to start with too many props, and I’ve got to bring this bag of crap with me and take it home again.  So I start with loads and then take them all away.

I think its more fun for the audience that way.  It’s sort of a challenge, if you can make them believe – especially if you’re being an old man or a young boy or whatever.  What I find really funny, and still sort of baffles me, is when I’m doing stuff that’s closer to stand-up and I’m talking to someone directly in character.  I love it when they’re looking back at you and talking to you as if you are that person, even though they’ve just seen you being someone else.  When it works it feels like people get a bit hypnotised and baffled!
© Lyle Brennan

© Lyle Brennan

Do you ever wonder if, when you do the odd guest spot on a club night in character, people may go away thinking that’s who you are and what you’re like?

When I first started doing gigs on my own, I’d always get them to say I was ‘Colin Hoult, a character comedian’, or whatever, rather than just be the character and never tell them.  Now I tend not to tell them more… and there have been times with things like the Andy Parker character where people think he’s real, which is great, though the flipside of that is that you come on and people just think you’re a nutcase trying to standup and failing miserably.  They don’t realise you’re a writer who’s made those decisions, and just think you’ve sort of stumbled on stage and are having a breakdown.  Recently I’ve been comparing a bit and some of the characters I’ve been doing are pretty strong.  They’re not quite foolproof but I can keep them going for ages.

You’re getting more recognisable as time goes by, though.  The critics in Edinburgh in particular were raving about Enemy Of The World.  Do you pay attention to reviews?

I always try not to, but I always read every one! It’s impossible, I find, to ignore them.  I used to say I wasn’t going to read any reviews this year, but then I’d go and read them all the moment they come out!  But it can kind of help.  It’s weird.  This year I found it odd, because the reviews were lovely, but they didn’t really talk about the more thoughtful stuff I’d put in.  I do genuinely see it as trying to do something original and not fitting into a box.  I really want to create something utterly unique.  I don’t want to be lumped in as a ‘sketch thing’ or whatever, but reviews have to categorise everything.

A lot of the ones that came out were a bit stumped as to exactly what to say beyond: It’s good, go and watch it!  We can’t explain it!

Which is nice, really.  It’s what you want.  You don’t want them to reveal things, either.  It’s good to keep the surprise.

You were in another show in Edinburgh as well, weren’t you? [Gutted: A Revenger’s Musical]

Larking about in the Gutted revival. © Edward Moore

Yeah, we actually did that again on 31st January at the Leicester Square Theatre.  We did a reading of the show, rather than the full show again as it takes quite a lot of staging… but we had the full script and all the parts with a full on orchestra.  In Edinburgh we had a great four piece band, but this was really special.
It’s written by Daniel Ward and Martin White, and Martin’s amazing.  He has his own mini orchestra. He knows a full string section and a full brass section so it was very exciting to do that again.
In that show I played about thirty characters in the end.  I played a whole family who gets murdered one by one, and in my own show in Edinburgh I was already playing loads so its quite a scrambly brain effect.  Ending the day having done quiet a lot of different voices and stuff leaves you quite confused.

Are there fresh voices on the way to baffle you when you’re out shopping?

Well, at the minute I’m creating a character called Glynn Caution, who I’m very excited about.  I did a load of new stuff the other day… and he’s just me talking in a Welsh voice and rambling, but it went down better than all the rest.  But I have found myself talking constantly at the minute.  I’ve never done Welsh or Irish accents in the shows, though I did a Scottish sketch character last year which was basically just shouting.  He wasn’t really developed as a character.  I’m trying to develop a Liam Neeson voice and get it just right… [he tries the voice] “My name is Aslan.”  Nah, I can’t really do it right yet.

He does seem to have this strange habit of playing wise characters who give out sage advise and then die…

Well, that’s the wise hero.  He’s a master of the art of playing a kind of father figure.  Every hero has a kind of Mufasa, or an Obi Wan or whatever… and Liam Neeson has utterly pinned down how to do that.  It’s about being very big and very soft… with a Northern Irish accent. The new show I’m going to be doing is about heroes, so I’m reading up on all this stuff.

We could see you as a great villain in Doctor Who, perhaps?  Or would you rather be a noble goodie?

I was thinking about this the other day, as I often end up thinking about Doctor Who.  People always say villains are more fun to play, but The Doctor’s not really a hero, is he?  He’s sort of become this protector of the earth, but initially you really didn’t know if he was a goodie, or a baddie.  It’s very cool… he kind of kidnapped his companions in the first episode, and they still put those kind of moments in it now where you’re not quite sure about him.

I think they’re the kind of characters I really want to play.  Characters like Sherlock Holmes… they’re not evil people but they’re not out and out clean-cut.  They’re not quite right.  Hero heroes are just quite dull.  Spiderman will always be better than Captain America, or whatever.  I think I probably would rather play a villain, though, if it was a job tomorrow.  It’d be more fun.

 

Enemy Of The World… and of bouquets… © Colin Hoult / Dawn Sedgwick Management

Is this is going to be the final run for Enemy Of The World then, now that you’re moving on?

The previous Edinburgh shows, I have just wanted to move on and do the next thing.  There is a tendency to just ditch Edinburgh shows after you’ve done them, but I kind of want to keep them going.   Last year I did Carnival Of Monsters as well… and this is going to be the final run of Enemy Of The World as it is, and I’m maybe going to put a few new bits in this one just to add a bit of difference for me and anyone who’s seen it before.

What I’d love is to do another show, and then do the three of them together.  I’d love to do them all in one night, or take them around to places and do a week with a different one every night.  But I definitely won’t forget this show, and all of those characters will keep developing and I’ll try to use them in different places and so on.

Could we be seeing these characters on television, or online now comedy is going viral?

I am developing them at the moment, which is cool, so all of the characters are there to be used.  I think they could all develop into a tv show, but its just finding a way to do what I do live on telly.  Obviously, I wouldn’t do the exact shame show, but I’d like to find the equivalent.  The live shows are full of surprises and weird happenings and people are not sure what’s going to happen next, and I’d love to create that on telly. Or a movie.

Andy Parker’s horror movie script could happen!

It could! That’d be good.

Obviously you came to our attention via Zimbani, which had a really good reception last year.  It was some time ago, however – is that done with now, or is there still scope for more?

Harry Lenarkos in Zimbani. © Tiger Aspect Television

I think its still there, and something will definitely come of it.  Obviously, I still see Dave [McNeill, co-writer and star of Zimbani – ed] a lot, and we’re still developing ideas with it.  I think those characters and their relationship dynamic is really strong, and its so much fun writing with Dave, because we just sit and write stupid stuff.  I’m quite arty-farty with my stuff and I like to be quite high-brow, but with Dave it’s just utterly stupid and puerile, so its much more fun.

I’ve had quite an exciting new idea for them, but I won’t say too much just now.  I’ve been watching a lot of Hammer horror films basically… like Frankenstein Created Woman, which was amazing.  It kind of reminds me of The Mighty Boosh or something, and I want to develop something in that world.  Even forgetting the horror angle, it’s got this weird studio set in this odd world that’s not quite the seventies, but also in Victorian times… and its England and Germany at the same time, and there’s at least three guys in top hats just going around causing trouble.  It’s really weird.  And it’s really funny as well.

It is a really strange film.  I do sometimes get the feeling Hammer’s films all take place in the same fictional country, next door to each other like Midsomer Murders…

Yeah, definitely.  Have you ever seen Demons Of The Mind? It’s an early seventies experimental silliness, but it’s really weird.  It’s quite trippy.  It should be up there with The Wicker Man.  I think that’s what they were all about, really from the very beginning – trying to do stuff that no-one was doing. People considered it lo-brow but it totally changed everything.  I watch them with Steve [Evans, occasional Jackal Films/Julian Barratt collaborator – ed] from the show, and every time we watch them he goes: “This is what I should be doing.” and bemoans the fact that they’re no longer being made.

Steve did appear in a recent Jackal Film short with a horror vibe.  Can you see yourself working with them or some of our other frequent faces?

I know Alice pretty well.  I’ve just been working with her and a few other recognisable faces on a new show that’s coming out.  It’s too early to say more, but you’ll probably hear all about that soon… and I know Oram & Meeten and all that gang.  I’ve known most of them for years, really, from various gigs.

We’ve also heard about your new club night, The New Adventures, starting soon…

It starts in March at the Leicester Square Theatre, which is basically my new material, which is quite exciting!  Last year I started with a full show, which was a great thing to do, and a great challenge to do every week with changing material, but this year I’m doing it the other way round and putting on a night where I can try things out alongside guests.

I love the idea of nights, because I’ll get to try out all the mad stuff that wouldn’t end up in ‘the show’.  And I kind of want to make it all the same sort of feel, with the cabaret mix.  There’ll be different sorts of acts, and music and all that stuff.  I definitely don’t want it to be just another sketch night.  It’ll hopefully be a bit more fun and immersive for the audience.  Some great names have already said they’re up for it. [we won’t spoil them for you yet! – ed.]

Will they be people who have a similar theme or ethic to their work?

I think so. It doesn’t have to be material that’s dark, but just alternative.  People who go against the norm and deliberately do stuff differently.  It’s not always the most obvious commercial route, but I think now more than ever there’s room for us.  The mainstream stuff is really good, but I quite like the idea of getting together people who just want to do weird stuff, testing the boundaries.

It’s not safe… I mean, no-one will be killed, but its not doing what people think they want.  The alternative has sort of become the mainstream, and the alternative to that is quite interesting…  And hopefully I can create that feeling with my night.  It might not always work, but I hope its at least daring and interesting.

Beyond these shows, what else would you really love to achieve?

Om nom nom… © Colin Hoult / Dawn Sedgewick Management

There are a few other things I’m looking at.  I’m working on a tv show, hopefully, which would be fantastic.  It’ll be like Enemy Of The World/Carnival Of Monsters on telly.  I don’t really see myself doing sketches as such, as its more of a character driven think, I suppose.

Would it perhaps be more akin to shows like Coogan’s Run, with a contained narrative each week?

I’d like to do something of that level.  I like Steve Coogan’s commitment.  I think he’s really acting – it’s not throwaway, especially Saxondale which I only watched recently.  The level of character there is incredible, and it can be really moving.  It sounds a bit over the top, but I love it when you get a character that makes you want to cry a bit, because its so tragic.  All mine are a bit tragic, but the idea that it can move you is where I want to go.

I’d love to make a film… that’d be good, wouldn’t it?  I’m working on a few other things, like a superhero type drama, which is quite exciting.  A little bit like Kick Ass… but in Nottingham.  I love a trying whole range of things.  There’s lots I want to achieve… short stories, poetry…

Are you always writing, then?

I got my wife a notebook, but she hates it because its too little and it can‘t really do anything.  I love it, because if you just use it for writing its fine.  I’ve decided to take it everywhere with me, wherever I go, like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar…

Lastly, then, when you’re not being Colin Hoult, writer and comedian… how do you spend your days?

Um… basically doing that.  It’s quite all consuming, really.  My wife, Kat, works on the shows with me.  She’s my constant.  It’s not that I’m boring her going on, though I do bore her sometimes, but she’s actually genuinely interested and helps me shape things.  At the same time, though, we just can’t escape it.

I like the zoo, as well.  That sounds a bit dodgy.  I’ve got a membership to London Zoo and I go regularly.  I’ve seen the lion cubs, a boy and a girl, go from babies to full grown lions, which has been marvellous.  I’m a walking advert for London Zoo.

Other than I watch films and go to the gym, which is hideously boring of me.  I’ve joined one of those yearly memberships, which was a mistake!  It’s like going into a cupboard with a load of sweaty men, and no-one wants that.  I took a book of poems in to try and read while I was running.  I found it kind of amusing, because people just kept looking over as if they were going: What the fuck is that?

 

Thanks to Colin for talking to us, and you can catch The Enemy Of The World’s final run as we know it between February 16th & 19th.  For more details on Colin’s upcoming shows, click here.

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