Saturday, November 15, 2014

Back to school

Too cool for school? Not David Mitchell, who on Thursday evening found himself back at his alma mater Abingdon School, on the stage of the Amey Theatre where he cut his acting teeth in The Crucible and other productions.

The comedian/actor/writer/all-round good egg was appearing in conversation with Mark Thornton of local indie shop Mostly Books, with the focus predominantly on his new book Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, a selected collection of his Observer columns. The idea was first pitched to him two or three years ago, he said, but he decided to delay it so as to have more columns to choose from. Dating back to 2008, the featured articles are set against the backdrop of the credit crunch and subsequent slow recovery. (I don't suppose I was the only person to be amused at the fact that he was being asked questions about the economy by someone who, in both appearance and mannerisms, bears a striking resemblance to the BBC's Robert Peston.)

As someone who needs deadlines to get things done, writing a weekly column appeals to Mitchell - though even then, in classic student style, he admitted he still finds himself frantically flicking through the papers in search of ideas each deadline day and then procrastinating for hours once his chosen topic has had the official editorial thumbs-up. As a member of the school debating society, he used to enjoy endorsing polarised opinions, but his Observer articles tend to steer a path between diametrically opposed positions, suggesting that in fact neither is right. However, this might partly be because he's aware that adopting a mock-extreme attitude in print often doesn't come across in the same way it does in a TV studio in front of a live audience, when ranting (to use a slightly loaded term) helps him to get at the kernel of humour in a given topic.

Over the course of the hour and a quarter, during which audience members got the opportunity to ask questions, the talk covered everything from his attitude to the internet (ambivalent at best) and independent schools (despite our "august surroundings", Mitchell argued that exorbitant price hikes mean such schools should probably lose their charitable status) to the stylistic genius of Peep Show (he was right in saying that, in order to be both believable and funny, Mark Corrigan's character needs the inner monologue).

We learned that he'd love to work with Michael Palin (though the suggestion of a cameo role in Peep Show as a Costa barista was ruled out), that he hates Madame Tussauds with a passion, that he hadn't brought his "travelling dressing gown" with him (on account of the fact that he was catching a late train back to London after the event) and that the one major source of disagreement between himself and Victoria Coren is science fiction (apparently she dismisses it out of hand despite being partial to nerds in any other context, though she did recently sit through an episode of Doctor Who).

Having earlier reflected on the unpalatability of saying you want to be an actor or a comic (his other childhood ambitions included becoming Prime Minister or a wizard), Mitchell concluded by advising the school-age members of the audience not to think they couldn't make a living doing something they enjoy. Sage advice - and advice that we were all grateful that he himself has lived by.

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