For the past 120 years, the Cambridge Footlights has been a powerhouse for the production of British comics. One of its most recent prodigal sons returns to Cambridge on Friday 9th November to play a gig at the Corn Exchange, a venue slightly bigger than his previous haunt of the ADC Theatre. Bristol-born comic, Mark Watson is probably best known for being a panellist on the likes of Mock The Week and Never Mind The Buzzcocks as well as his occasional appearance on Radio 5 Live's Fighting Talk. Before his big break, however, he was an English student at Queens’ College, and apparently not much has changed since those days- "There wasn't an enormous amount of choice for nightlife in my day; there was Cindies, which was infamous..."
"I think for me over the three years at Cambridge I became much more confident, much more sure of what I wanted to pursue with my life and became the person I was going to be basically. I sort of became an adult when I was Cambridge, although that took time, for a while I was just wandering around thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?"" What Watson was actually doing included writing theatre reviews for Varsity, becoming quite the film buff, and of course, dipping his foot into comedy for the first time, something he encourages all aspiring stand-ups to do. "Being in Cambridge does provide you with a real opportunity to put yourself in front of an audience which you should seize with both hands. In Cambridge there's more opportunities than there'd be anywhere else, so the time to do it is now I think."
Perhaps the sleepless, essay-scribbling nights needed to get his first class honours in English helped Watson accomplish surely his most extraordinary entertainment endeavour: the 24 hour comedy show, an insomniac's dream that he has pulled off an astonishing seven times. "It was a bit like somewhere between doing a marathon, hanging out with your mates and being on drugs. It's the sort of thing you can only really do in a comedy festival, memorable, but in a very weird way, in the same way you remember a really odd party." Luckily for Watson's feet, this stand-up feat wasn't accomplished alone, he has been accompanied by the likes of Tim Minchin, David O'Doherty and his most hardcore fans who stayed in the audience for the entire 24 hours. "About 70 did the whole thing last time. The more I do it, the more come; there really are people that make it their mission to be there the whole time. They're completely insane obviously!"
Early on in his career, Watson, whose family is from South Wales, used to perform exclusively in a faux-Welsh accent, not his native West Country lilt. "It was just a good persona for me to hide behind comedy is quite scary when you start and it's a bit less scary if you have something that takes you out of yourself a bit- it was a kind of a defence mechanism. It was sort of like doing a character act except it wasn't very far removed from my real character." Nowadays with multiple UK tours under his belt, Watson has dropped the voice and mostly lost the fear of the performing. "Now I think you get more adrenaline rather than nerves. There is still always a slight sense of jangling anticipation, I think if you lost that altogether, you'd have to question why you were doing it really."
Although currently selling out UK tours and winning his fair share of awards, Watson still has had a few rough nights. "Oh yeah, there's a lot of that in the early stages of your career. The worst one I ever had was having stuff thrown at me on stage in Maidstone in Kent by absolutely feral Kentish people, that was a couple years into my career and I've never quite forgotten it." This current tour, inspired by a recent unfortunate incident where he was a victim of ID fraud, is all about our relationship with the internet and how it has changed the world we live in. Comedy itself has not been left unaltered either. "Obviously at the most basic level far more people are seeing comedy than they ever did before, it's much easier to reach the wider public than it ever was... The internet is one of the reasons why comedy has taken off as it has in the past year or so."
In between his stand-up tours and writing novels, the latest of which came out this year, Watson regularly appears on TV panel shows, often working beside some of the figures in comedy he most looks up to, including Dara O'Briain and Chris Addison. Watson, most notably in his feud with Frankie Boyle, has quite forthright opinions on social affairs which don't necessarily come across on the air. "[On panel shows] it's much more important to be funny... I think being right has never been that important except that obviously you have to be conscious that anything you say can be used against you. It's important not to express opinions which would embarrass you too much in the future." A fear of embarrassing one's self on BBC2 in front of a millions of people is a far cry from a fear of embarrassing one's self on the ADC stage in front of a few handfuls of students. Watson has come far over the past decade, who knows where he'll be in another; the only thing that's certain is that Cindies will still be infamous.