Send in the clowns
From national treasures to rising stars, we put together a smattering of alumni from the Footlights stage.
by Laurie Cook, James Moran, Helen Young, Tom Becker, Chloe Mashiter, Abigail Dean, Donald Futers
Thursday 25th February 2010, 16:09 GMT
Peter Cook (Pembroke, French and German)
"You know, I go to the theatre to be entertained. I don’t want to see plays about rape, sodomy and drug addiction...I can get all that at home." Fellow comedian Barry Humphries was reportedly a little put off by Cook’s apparent disinterest in literature in the arts. Such was Cook’s humor that no sphere of life was left untouched; no aspect of existence saved from his piercing comic touch.
Peter Cook started his comedy career gracing the stage of the Pembroke Players, in between which he read French and German at the College. By 1960 he’d become head of the Footlights, and was already writing for Kenneth Williams, resulting in a successful West End show One over the Eight. Teaming up with Jonathon Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, Cook took Beyond the Fringe to the Edinburgh festival; now widely accepted as the birth of British satire. In one infamous show Cook, during a particularly near-the-knuckle sketch featuring an impression of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, spotted the PM in the auditorium, and (legend has it) proceeded to abuse him verbally there and then. Cook would go on to befriend and form a long-lasting comedy relationship with Dudley Moore, attaining stardom in the show Not Only…But Also. The duo produced long-standing characters Pete and Dud, the wannabe-prigs whose pseudo-intellectual chats were undercut by a satire on the pretence of intelligentsia. In one sketch, The Art Gallery, Pete, with a magisterial air of grandiloquence, declares that you can know a good painting "if the eyes follow you round the room".
Cook, also sometime owner of Private Eye, sadly died in 1995. Seen now as something of a tragic figure, there is only one thing truly tragic about his life. In the 70s, following their usual practice, the BBC went erasing the videotapes used to record episodes Pete and Dud in order to free up space. Somewhat egocentrically outraged, Cook first offered to buy the tapes; then offered to buy fresh tapes. He was refused both requests. Only eight out of twenty-two episodes remain: a great loss for comedy.
Stephen Fry (Queens’, English)
Stephen Fry was my teenage role model. And fat, ostentatious thirteen-year-old readers of PG Wodehouse find them hard to come by, let me tell you. He combined just the right level of pomposity and silliness to make me purr. I applied to Cambridge because I thought Fry had trodden a path I could follow – I, like him, was tall, with a big nose and an ability to pull extremely smug faces. Not only did I feel this made us soul mates, I also felt like this was at least equivalent to being a member of the Royal Family, and that my place at Cambridge was utterly assured. Luckily, the interviewers ignored how much of a dick I was, and I got in.
Now, three years down the line, I think I’ve got some perspective. What I always find interesting is seeing the direct influence he has had on the current Footlights atmosphere. Particularly in Michaelmas, auditionees come in, just as I did, with sketches featuring characters called Margery about a smug barber or a weird shop owner that feature word play almost shamefully reminiscent of A Bit…
The thing is that Fry is perhaps the first influence many comedians here can remember having, but we’re also now old enough to have seen Fry change. He’s now a national treasure, perched on his QI throne, not an exciting comedian. I don’t think anyone could claim that A Bit… or Fry’s subsequent output was boundary-pushing for British comedy, but the effect it’s had on the Footlights in my three years is unquestionable. I suppose the question is this: is Fry’s comedy old news now, and should we view him merely as the nation’s favourite uncle?
Maybe. But I still laugh psychotically when I watch clips of Fry "dancercising" or talking about this left nipple, "Sheila".
Emma Thompson (Newnham, English)
It’s the dream of every Cambridge thesp: to secure an acting contract one year into your degree. It must have been pretty special to see Emma Thompson stomping the ADC stage, or performing as vice-president of the Footlights, developing that wry English charm of her own. You can resent Thompson for her student-romance with Hugh Laurie, but it’s impossible to resent her for her talent. She, too, struggled with epic reading lists and felt overwhelmed by the Footlights competition, which inspired her to "bloody well practise hard".
Thompson is the quietly comedic Footlight, known more for her serious acting than her comedy. A sketch series for BBC bombed, and Thompson never glanced back to her Footlights style. She broke your heart during that lonely breakdown which made Love Actually the darkest Richard Curtis comedy, and she was a fabulously sympathetic Sybill Trelawney in those glasses. She’s also put her English degree to mighty fine use, adapting Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for Ang Lee, and bagging an Oscar in the process. Female fiction was always a fascination; Thompson wrote her dissertation on George Eliot.
It’s now more common to hear Thompson’s name related to charity work than the silver screen. A Greenpeace activist, she’s pioneered against the third Heathrow runway, and works to publicise the Helen Barber Foundation for survivors of gross human right violations. She’s put her life where her sentiment lies, visiting ActionAid projects in South Africa and adopting a teenage Rwandan refugee, Tindyebwa, in 2003. Still, when she speaks, the comedy remains; giving advice to the girls of Newnham in a past Pudding Seminar, she was adamant that they "should not go out with a rower. They never have the energy for anything else."
Matthew Holness (Trinity Hall, english)
Those of you already familiar with the name Matthew Holness will probably recognise it for one of two reasons: as the IT guy from The Office, or the creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, one of the most significant cult comedy series of the past decade. At Cambridge, Holness studied English at Trinity Hall and was vice-president of the Footlights during Richard Ayoade’s year as president. His subject makes it befitting that his biggest comic creation is an author, the "dream weaver and visionary" Garth Marenghi.
Holness first took this character to the Fringe in 2000 and was nominated for the Perrier Award, which he won the following year for another show based around the horror-writer. This success spawned Darkplace, a spoof of low-budget 80s programming that proved a showcase for talented Cantabs such as Ayoade and Alice Lowe, which swiftly gained a cult following. A spin-off followed, Man to Man with Dean Learner, in which Ayoade interviewed a different comic character every week, demonstrating both Holness’ exceptionally versatile comic acting and his ability to spoof anything from racing drivers to celebrity mediums.
In addition to these credits, Holness has also appeared in Channel 4’s Free Agents and Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet. If these credits are alien to you, it will be due to the fact that whilst being one of the greatest comic talents around, Holness is also one of the most underrated. For a chance to see him, he is currently doing live performances as his character Merriman Weir, an atypical folk singer, and will shortly be appearing in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s new film Cemetery Junction. Of course, as would be expected from a talented Cantab, Holness is not limited to comedy and has also had work published, from short horror story collections to pieces for Black Static magazine.
Richard Ayoade (St Catharine's, Law)
Ayoade is one of those sickening people who seem to excel at everything to which they turn their hand.
The London-born comic, best known for his role as the bumbling, endearingly oblivious computer nerd Moss in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, got his start during his time at Cambridge, where he acted as the president of the Footlights from 1997 to 1998.
After graduating, he won the 2001 Perrier Award for co-writing and performing in Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead with Matthew Holness at the Fringe, and later broke into television when, in 2004, Channel 4 picked up the off-kilter and often disturbing Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Despite poor viewing figures, the programme soon garnered a cult following and helped to establish Ayoade as one of the channel’s key comedic actors. Since then, he has played the role of the eccentric shaman/DJ Saboo in two series of The Mighty Boosh (having featured in the earlier radio programme), and has starred in all three series of The IT Crowd.
Comedy, however, is not the only outlet for his mercurial talents. In the past few years, he has directed music videos for bands like Kasabian, Vampire Weekend and The Last Shadow Puppets; particularly worth a look is his recent video to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Heads Will Roll’. He has also forged an especially strong relationship with the Arctic Monkeys, directing three videos and even their 2007 live DVD, At The Apollo, which won him an NME Award for ‘Best DVD’.
The pace of Ayoade’s output shows no signs of relenting in the near future. He is currently busy directing his first feature film, Submarine - for which, obviously, he wrote the screenplay himself - and will soon commence filming of the fourth series of The IT Crowd.
David Mitchell (Peterhouse, History)
"There are more important things," said David Mitchell during his Desert Island Discs interview, "than being cool." After years of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, writing freelance and appearing in sub-par sketches, Mitchell’s role as uptight and socially awkward pessimist Mark Corrigan in Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s hilarious cult hit Peep Show raised him out of obscurity – and was where his self-depreciation, deadpan cleverness and bank manager’s haircut could come into their own.
Also starring is his close friend and comedy partner, Robert Webb. The two have worked together ever since Webb saw Mitchell performing sketches when at Cambridge and asked him if they could put on a two-man show.
The Salisbury-born, Abingdon-educated Mitchell knew how difficult it would be to make a living from comedy when he left Cambridge in 1996. (He had crammed and scraped a II.2 in history; as a Footlights president, academic work had inevitably taken a back seat.) In an apparent, anxious attempt to retain the conditions of the penury present earlier on in their partnership, he still writes with Webb in the bedroom of his Kilburn ex-council flat that he shares with a lodger.
Nick Mohammed (Magdalene, Geophysics)
Nick studied for an undergraduate degree in Geophysics at St Aiden’s College, University of Durham, where the Durham Revue failed to give him a place for two years running. However, after starting a PhD in Geophysics at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 2003, he became involved with the Footlights and featured in the tour show Beyond A Joke (2004) and assistant directed Under The Blue, Blue Moon (2005). Nick has also performed several solo shows at the Fringe, including Back In Town Again: - Waltzing out of town (2005), The Forer Factor (2006), 4uarters (2007), Nick Mohammed Is A Character Comedian (2008) and Apollo 21 (2009). During his Fringe solo show in 2005, Nick was spotted and signed by his current agent, one of three audience members on the day.
Nick Mohammed’s debut Radio 4 series, Quarters (repeated during March this year), received rave reviews and he is currently recording his second series, Nick Mohammed In Bits, to be aired in Autumn. He has performed as part of the lead ensemble in BBC comedies Horne & Corden and Reggie Perrin and is currently filming new BBC Three comedy The King Is Dead, alongside fellow Footlights Simon Bird and Jonny Sweet. He also appeared in the double-BAFTA-nominated sketch show, Sorry, I’ve Got No Head and recently performed at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Since the age of fourteen, Nick has been a member of the Northern Magic Circle and became President of Bradford Magic Circle for 2008/09 with whom he still performs professionally.
Nick is also a talented musician, playing violin and piano since he was nine. He played with the University Orchestra at Durham, conducted Durham Hill Orchestra and played with CUMS for two terms before stopping because of rehearsals clashing with the Smokers.