INTERVIEW: Toby Hadoke
– By Allan Lear
Toby Hadoke is an award-winning stand-up comedian as well as a writer, actor and occasional pretend vicar. He hosts XS Malarkey comedy nights every Tuesday in The Zoo pub in Manchester. I gave him a call to speak to him about how he joined the writing team for Dead Funny Encore…
How did you come to be involved with DFE?
Well, it’s not a very exciting story really! I got an e-mail from Robin [Ince, the co-editor – interviewed HERE] saying “Would you like to write a horror story of three thousand words for this book of comedians’ horror stories?” and I said, “Yes”. And he said, “This is the deadline”, and I completely forgot about it. Then I remembered with about a week to go, so I started getting cracking on it, and I asked him if this deadline was the final deadline, and he said “Oh god no, I think you’re the only one who’s started it”.
So I got mine in relatively early, and I stuck pretty close to the three thousand word limit, and then I discovered that various other people had done much longer ones, so I needn’t have been quite so fastidious. I got the final copy back to proofread, having read it and having sent it to a friend to proofread, and then you get it back with fresh eyes and you think…well, that sentence doesn’t mean anything; that should be a “searing” pain, not a “searching” pain – I’m relatively new to the Mac and its autocorrect is a devil – so it’s a good job I got to give it that last pass, because otherwise I think there would have been about twenty sentences that wouldn’t have been the sentences I intended it to be.
Did Robin come to you because of the success you had with The Dad Who Fell to Earth*?
Well, Robin’s always been a great supporter of mine. Robin holds a very special place in my heart. Robin was the first person to tell me I could be a professional stand-up comedian, that I could earn a living as a comedian. I’d liked him anyway, I’d seen pictures of him and thought “ooh, he looks like my kind of guy”, and a couple of mates had gigged with him and said “he’s brilliant, he’s lovely”. And I went gigging in Liverpool and the bill was Will Smith**, Robin Ince and me – probably the most middle class bill you could ever get. I was getting paid and I did about fifteen minutes, and Will and Robin were absolutely delightful. I got on very well with them and they were very complimentary about some of my stuff, and I saw Robin quite a lot after that. I didn’t work with Will for about fifteen years after that, and in fact I bumped into him in a queue at Ottolenghi’s in Islington and he was ahead of us in a queue, so I’ve met him as often in restaurants as in a comedy club.
But Robin and I then worked together a lot, and he would sometimes come and stay with me while he was in Manchester, and after we’d been out for drinks a few times he said that very kind thing…so he’s kept me in mind for a few things. I’ve done his book club, for example, in Edinburgh and on tour, and I think he likes the cut of my jib. I’ve done some of his special gigs that he does, he does some science-based ones and I’ve done one about space in a church. I was on after Brian Cox*** and Josie Long, and I did a couple at the Bloomsbury Theatre. So I’ve done a few bits and bobs for him, he has me on board for things, and you’re always in great company, rather illustrious…you might rub shoulders with Norman Lovett or Adam Bloom or someone like that, you get some of their pollen on you.
So Robin and I get on, we had a drink at the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary, he brought his son, Archie, so we had a drink afterwards and I introduced Archie to a couple of the daleks, so that was quite nice. And I like Robin, I always think we don’t see each other as much as we should. So I guess he had me in mind, and he knows I’m conversant in the genre, and actually I’d have been quite upset if the second volume had gone by and I hadn’t been asked…I think it’s because Robin thinks I’m fluent in the language. Either that or he feels sorry for me. Actually, I haven’t written a lot of prose…
No, more scripted dialogue.
Yes, and normally the dialogue I write is sort of factual. Lots of DVD commentaries and, er, obituaries.
So, having said that you’re conversant with the genre, are you a horror fan yourself?
Well, it’s interesting, because I don’t really think of myself as a science fiction fan, even…and I think my favourite kind of science fiction is that Quatermass-style melding…I think Nigel Kneale is very clever, because he tells science fiction stories using the tropes of horror. The Quatermass Experiment is a great science fiction idea, but it’s scary; Quatermass II is like an X-Files science fiction conspiracy thriller; Quatermass and the Pit is a gothic horror, it’s got the pentacle, it’s all about ancient evil. And I think I find ancient and fusty to be scary in a way that I don’t find laser guns and corridors and spangly spaceships to be. There’s something about – and I think this comes out in my story – the old and the dead. I used to think silent movies were scary, as much because I knew that all the people I was watching were dead in real life as what went on in the film. There’s something ghostly about the quality of a silent movie, and it’s even more ghostly when all those funny figures flitting about, you sort of go, well…that person there, when he’s doing that, he was as real then to himself as I am to me now. And in between then and now, they lived and died. They will have found a lump or been in a car accident or had a tragedy…all that stuff that we feel so palpably, and it’s just a ghostly figure on a screen. That makes me think far too much, and I find that quite spooky, that humanity and the fact that it is captured but also lost at the same time.
Yes, and you refer to this in your story, that forgotten humanity of people who remain trapped under glass.
That bit comes in to describe a sensation, it’s not the plot, but yes, it’s something that once had life that now doesn’t and, as you say, that’s quite weird to think of. I sometimes think that when I see a skeleton…we were at the museum the other day and there was this exhibit marked “young female skeleton” and I thought, well, you know…young females are young and feminine, and full of life, and that’s all gone…but that skeleton I can see is beneath all the young females who are walking around now. It’s quite strange; I’m not sure why, in particular, I was fixated on that but I thought since we were being asked to write a horror story, I would try to write something that taps into that primal fear of the ancient.
It reminds me of the idea of camerawork capturing the souls of the people you photograph, and it’s something I’d not thought of before, this idea of television as taxidermy. Is this something you think about because of all the work you do on classic television series?
Maybe, and the fact that I watch a lot of this stuff a lot. I look at people being young and vital and skilled and good, and I know a lot of them are dead. A lot of them are old geezers that I go and have a drink with, and the gulf between what they were then and what they are now, and as a forty-two year old man who now creaks when he bends down and certain bits of me now don’t work quite as well as they used to…and I think, god, that’s the process I’m going through, that change. And you never think it will happen to you. In fact, I was texting a friend of mine the other day who has started to show his age, and he’s really fit and good for his age and has looked after himself. So I think “well, I’ll never be one of those old and decrepit people”, but if he’s getting that way and he’s looked after himself far more than I’ve looked after himself…then what hope have I got? And I am quite conscious of my age at the moment, I think, because the children are at turning points of their age; one of them’s just turned twelve, the other’s just about to finish his GCSEs and about to go to sixth form college, and you think…gosh, it’s their time and they’re not really children any more.
Thinking of childhood, did you read a lot of horror as a child? Because when I spoke to Robin, he said a lot of the comedians he knew had done.
Do you know what, I didn’t…this is going to sound awful, but when I was much younger – in my teenage years, when my friends were reading Stephen King I was reading actors’ autobiographies, I’d sort of moved beyond fiction at that point – but I read a lot of fiction when I was much younger, and I read the Armada Ghost Books, which were all short stories, so that’s why the idea of a short story with a horror theme piqued my interest. Much of my early reading had been short form because short form is, by its nature, more easily digestible when you’re taking your first steps as a reader. But also, and this sounds terribly one-track minded, but when I was at that age of really learning to read, I read Doctor Who books. I read tonnes of them, and then I read the greats of literature when I was doing English Literature at GCSE and A-level, but there wasn’t a horror module on them.
I’ve listened to a lot of Lovecraft because I introduce it on Radio 4 Extra…I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, actually, and MR James. I had an anthology as a child which was a compendium of horror and which gave you a taster of various things and had stories of true horrors as well. I used to go back to that quite a bit, because it had stories of real-life horrible people, like Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler, and then it had a chapter on Frankenstein and a chapter on Dracula, but also stuff on various writers as well, it was sort of biographical. And of course I’ve read Dracula and Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…so having said I haven’t read a lot of it, I’ve read the obvious ones.
Poe and MR James were both masters of the short form, of course…
Oh yes. Poe wrote grotesque, gruesome things…I find Poe’s stuff really horrible, with rats getting their brains smashed in and things. With MR James, I think, that Michael Horden Whistle and I’ll Come to You is an extraordinary piece of television…so yes, it’s like when I say I’m not really sporty, but I could name you several golfers and footballers and blah blah blah…I say I’m not a thing, but actually if I racked my brains I probably have more knowledge of it than I would credit myself with having.
And short stories are almost like a comedy routine, aren’t they? A lot of them build to a punchline.
Well, I knew I wanted to do something that had…I don’t know if a “twist” is the right word, I’m not sure if it is a twist, but where it turns on a sixpence in the last paragraph or two. I’ve been very lucky when I’ve been writing my work for radio, because there’s a producer at Radio 4 called Charlotte Richards who’s done all my stuff with me, and she’s very good on script and she’ll say, “Right, this needs something to happen here” or “This needs a bit of contextualising there” or “We haven’t heard what happened to that person there”…she’s very good on structure, and I think I unconsciously applied a lot of that. When I was proofreading it back I was thinking, oh good, that comes in there, that comes in there…because it goes back and forth, it’s a story of someone trying to remember what happened to him, and piecing it together without giving away what’s actually happening, but also being able to tell the story of where he is now at the same time. It requires a bit of structural jiggery-pokery that I think has been helped by the radio writing that I’ve done.
I like the idea of someone trying to remember what happened, and I think I made that work. It’s terrible when someone suddenly remembers something vital at the important moment, but mine’s about a guy waking up the morning after the night before – I think we’ve all been in that position – and that bit where you suddenly think “Oh ‘eck, I did that?”
I was speaking to Robin about that; about how horror and comedy shares a similar mindset, where you take a familiar situation, twist it through ninety degrees, and suddenly it’s humour or horror.
Well, comedy is about making something grotesque. It’s not about walking along the street and tripping over, it’s about walking along an awful street that’s got awful people in it and doing the worst trip ever. Horror isn’t about having a not-very-nice evening in a not-very-nice place; it’s about having the worst imaginable evening in the worst place imaginable with the most grotesque people imaginable. So we’re sort of in the same business, and I think there’s a catharsis to both. Comedy is all about exaggerating things to make them as awful as they can possibly be and then laughing at them, and horror is about taking our biggest fears and giving them form, aspect, manifestation, whatever you like, and making the worst thing that could possibly imaginably happen even worse than it could possibly imaginably happen in a way that then makes the real world not seem so bad…one hopes. We do it for a reason; we take ourselves there in entertainment, be it literature or watching a comedian, to take us to an extreme place so that when we land back on Earth we have a bit more perspective, I guess.
And for an audience the two urges come from a similar place…watch a scary play or film, and you’ll notice that the audience’s second reaction to a big fright is to laugh.
Yes, to laugh with relief. And in comedy quite a lot of laughter is relief, because a person says what you’d hoped they say, or they say the opposite of what they hoped you’d say, or they say the thing that you wouldn’t dare to say yourself. And you know that in comedy you always leave them on the biggest laugh, and in a story you make your most memorable bit the ending.
As you mentioned comedy: I didn’t try to make my story funny, and I don’t know if I was supposed to, because we didn’t get any guidance. So I hope everyone else’s isn’t hilarious except my very po-faced one. It’ll be interesting to see what people make of it.
Dead Funny: Encore is produced by Salt Publishing and retails for £9.99 in all good bookshops.
You can read Allan’s interview with Dead Funny: Encore‘s co-editor Robin Ince by clicking HERE!
* A radio play Toby wrote and acted in last year which was nominated for a prestigious BBC Radio Drama award. Ronald Pickup starred.
** No, the other Will Smith. The British comedian and writer who collaborates with Armando Iannucci, not the one who dresses up as Mohammed Ali to combat aliens.
*** No, the other Brian Cox. The professor of physics and staring wistfully past cameras, not the one who turns Jason Bourne into Wolverine.
– By Allan Lear