Aug 292014

When news spread that Jeremy Paxman was to do a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, expectations varied widely as to what would be on offer. Scathing diatribes? Career retrospective? Tap dancing? No one agreed what on what his show would be like – but everyone agreed they wanted a ticket. The show sold out instantly. After weeks of chasing a ticket, Suzanne Kelly was lucky enough to get a seat for an added show. Was it worth hours on the train and an expensive B&B stay? Absolutely. Suzanne Kelly reviews.

PAXO 2 - Credit: Theo Davies (Pleasance Edinburgh Picture show) Jeremy Paxman, recently liberated from the BBC, has delivered the most highly-anticipated Edinburgh Fringe show in years, and it was a triumph.

If you managed to get a ticket to this sold out show, you’ll remember it for some time to come.

Let’s hope some enterprising production company turns this show into a television series, or that some nights were taped and will be broadcast; it would be a great pity if Paxman’s pronouncements on issues from malarkey to World War I were not shared more widely.

The Form

The Pleasance is arguably one of the major hearts of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with its many intimate performance spaces and enjoyable beer garden atmosphere. We are led into the cabaret bar; the stage holds a giant wheel, a la ‘Wheel of Fortune’; each spoke contains a word or a symbol. Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Spitting Image’ head lies on the mixing desk to one side of the stage.

Then Paxo comes out. I wonder whether he’s somewhat surprised at the demand for this show, and the affectionate, appreciative audience tonight; he looks more astonished than anything else.

He welcomes us, and explained that each spin of the wheel will result in him discussing the subject selected for up to 5 minutes. Wildcards will lead to audience interactions. ‘Language’, ‘malarky’, ‘World War I’, ‘Impertinence’, ‘Pogonophobia’, ‘Trout’ ‘X-ray’ and a few wild cards come up this evening; here is what he does with them.

On language he manages to take a swipe at the staid, fixed Academie Francais’ feeble attempts to control the evolution of the French language. On the other hand, the English language is, he notes, about to lose the distinction between the two words ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’. Disinterested has its specific meaning; those who are not concerned with a particular matter or incident.

This is different to uninterested – a person having no curiosity or enthusiasm in a topic or event. There was certainly neither a disinterested nor an uninterested person in the Cabaret Bar, and had someone dropped a pin, we’d have heard it.

Term after term gave way to further impromptu forays varying from the humorous (pogonophobia – fear of beards) to poignant. A 5 minute overview of World War I focused on the men whose faces had been badly disfigured by enemy fire during trench warfare, what reconstruction methods of the time could do for them, and how their lives went after the war to end all wars.

We saw harrowing photos of these poor men, whose faces had been reconstructed to a degree, but whose lives had not. One badly disfigured man had said how children were merely curious about his injuries, and they displayed none of the revulsion or disgust he saw in adults’ reactions.

I would be willing to say time flew far faster for the audience than it did for Jeremy Paxman. While he clearly knew his opinions on these topics and would have done some advance preparation, it was quite another thing to have to share these thoughts with a packed room knowing random wildcards would be coming.

Jeremy_Paxman_049 - credit to Chris Floyd (2)Soon it was time for words on his love of trout fishing and nature. I found this as interesting and insightful as Jan Moir of The Daily Mail found it boring. For instance, when Paxman described trout fishing and a recent visit to Scotland and his appreciation for wildlife, I found myself hoping he knows about the horrible things going on here: the over fishing of salmon, seal shooting in Gardenstown, crashing wildlife populations.

When he spoke of seeing an osprey, I thought of all the good work done by Raptor Persecution Scotland, and all the bad work done by those who kill these birds and persecute animals illegally. We seem unable to catch those involved; and if we do, the fines are so low they seem like a cost of doing business.

Sorry for the digression. But I came to find out more about Paxman and his thoughts, not to hear him recite jokes or be a comic. There Moir and I differed.

The subject of beards came up when the word ‘pogonophobia’ – fear of beards – was chosen by the wheel. “Well” he confides, “there is a feeling that people who are too lazy to shave are not to be trusted to tell the truth either” – and then Paxo issued a small brief apology to the bearded man in the front row, to further laughter.

With another spin of the wheel, Paxman was assigned the task of speaking for 5 minutes on the subject of the weather. This he did by discussing, while not exactly waxing lyrical, about being forced into the role of weather boy during his Newsnight career. He played some splendid clips from that time.

In these clips, a world-weary, slightly (?) annoyed Paxman describes the weather: ‘it’s April. What do you expect?’ Who but Paxman could introduce caustic sarcasm into weather reports? Some 630,000+ people continue to view his forecasts on YouTube. Perhaps he missed a great opportunity.

We also talked about altruism, egotism, Yeats, Russell Brand and voting. I say ‘talked’ for while it was clearly his show, it was driven by the chance of the wheel and the audience’s input, and it felt more conversant than not. It certainly bore no relation to a headmaster on speech day (despite what two critics may have felt).

What The Papers Say

Paxo has been met with critical acclaim by nearly all reviewers. The telegraph’s reviewer used words such as ‘fascinating’ and ‘appealingly humane’.

The BBC reports that “One Man Edinburgh Show Gains Warm Reviews.”

The Independent reviewed the show and seemed largely satisfied, albeit the 18 August Indy piece also suggested that ‘There are times during the hour when he has the intelligently rambling air of a headmaster pontificating at Speech Day’.

What One Of The Papers Said

While most of the critics gave favourable reviews to Paxman’s Edinburgh run, one of his critics, Jan Moir of The Daily Mail was scathing, and also claimed that production staff gave her a hard time. Moir, who also complained in her review of the ‘fetid air’ in the venue (which I clearly missed) wrote:

“For this was less of a comedy show, not much of a chat show and rather a lot like a dress-down headmaster giving a speech on the last day of term… (Paxman) liked showing a collection of all his greatest Newsnight moments to a captive audience… self-satisfied and complacent”

As she wrote the above on 20th August, either the ‘headmaster’ comparison used by the Independent is so extremely apt she couldn’t think of anything better, or more likely, the ‘headmaster’ comment just came to her in a flash of creative inspiration. You decide.

As to being unsure of himself, nervous, self-satisfied and complacent all in one hour —  if this were true, then Jeremy Paxman is a very confused individual indeed. There was on the night a touch of uncertainty, and absolutely no self-satisfaction or complacency. Perhaps we caught different shows.

To her review I can only say how unfortunate it is that she expected either a stand-up comedian instead of a seasoned journalist, or was seemingly disappointed not to find Paxman in permanent Rottweiler mode. If Paxman wasn’t quite as prickly and aggressive as he was on Newsnight, this was clearly understandable.

The persistent, impertinent, scathing sarcastic Paxo we enjoyed on Newsnight is not artifice; these traits seem to be brought out by those who are incompetent or who have something to hide. The Pleasance audience obviously didn’t have anything to hide and weren’t being interviewed; Paxman wasn’t trying to dig information out of them.

In fact, if Paxman had tried to be the things Moir suggested he should be, it would have been rather dire.

Imagine someone of Paxman’s intelligence trying to reinvent himself as a stand-up comedian, or relying solely on his trademark Newsnight persona as his raison d’etre. That would have been unacceptable artifice. I think Paxman was trying to have a conversant and entertaining show; if that was the intent, then he succeeded marvellously.

Perhaps Jan Moir thinks he should have been the same person when dealing with an obstinate, evasive Michael Howard as when entertaining his Fringe audience.

Image 1 (2)Perhaps Paxman is only ever supposed to be an abrasively aggressive interrogator. By extension of Moir’s logic, if we are all supposed to be the same one-dimensional person in all of our many roles, then I should hate to run into Jan Moir any time soon.

Moir finally complains of some run-in she had with the show’s producers. I see nothing of this. I let them know I was there to do a review, and that I had two extra tickets to sell (and wanted a donation to charity if possible in exchange).

I also exchanged a few pleasant words with them briefly after the show.

They could not have been nicer. They were clear from the start that no recording or photos were to be taken, and I wonder whether if la Moir obeyed these simple, virtually universal rules. Otherwise we are to believe that Moir was so well known that she was instantly seized upon and upbraided for no reason. As important and well-known as she is, I have my doubts.

Important Yet Earnest

The word that sums up Paxo’s performance best tonight is earnest. I think he was possibly a bit worried being out of his element doing something he’d not done before; other critics believe this to be the case. Whether this is a flaw or a side note is in the eye of the beholding critic.

However, any unease hardly mattered to the content or audience satisfaction. A slightly unsure Paxman is an interesting juxtaposition to the man we think we all know.

I found the entire show uplifting – but some of the things he said about journalism and accountability those in public office should have were particularly so. He is surprisingly optimistic; advising that that none of the politicians he’d met are inherently bad people. He has so great faith and confidence in young people, and discusses University Challenge.

He asked the audience a question – it took us some time to do this; he told us how quickly the University Challenge students could answer this and similar questions. The stage was then set; he showed clips from historic University Challenge shows which didn’t exactly back up his claim but had us laughing. Such clips from past programmes were used throughout to great effect.

The good news is that we lucky few saw sides of this iconic journalist we’d never have seen otherwise. The bad news is that Jeremy Paxman confirms he will not appear on ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’ (whatever that is).

On Journalism and Politics

As interesting as the rest of his comments were, whether on poetry or X-ray machines, I was there primarily for his insights into journalism. When Mr Paxman spoke about journalism he explained how passionately curious he is – he wants to know things, and that when he find things out he wants to share his discoveries with other people.

He said he’d make the world’s worst spy. I believe he said his curiosity is what keeps him going and gets him up in the morning. He also explained the popularity of programmes like University Challenge, and asserted that television doesn’t have to feed us mindless garbage.

PAXO 8 - Credit Theo Davies (Pleasance Edinburgh Picture show) (2)Anyone who dismisses Paxman for rudeness, sarcasm and impudence is missing the point. It is because he cares that he refuses to back down.
He spoke on ‘impertinence’ which led to his reminding us all that politicians are not celebrities and are not above us: they are our servants.

Servants who do not deserve bad treatment, but who must be held accountable and must openly explain their actions: and he’s going to make them do so.

He believes journalists must be persistent, and that humour has a role to play in journalism. At an early point in the show, an audience member yelled one of Paxman’s catchphrases ‘answer the question!’ – evoking the unforgettable Jeremy Paxman v Michael Howard verbal wrestling match of 1997.

If this is an indication of why getting tickets for the Edinburgh show was nigh on impossible, some 750,000 people have watched this journalistic massacre time and again on YouTube. “Did you threaten to over-rule him?” alas, remains an unanswered question despite being asked of Michael Howard 12 times in the one clip. So as to being named ‘26th rudest person’ by GQ, Paxo’s response is:

I’ll have to try harder.”

An unquestionably Entertaining Performance

Aptly, the Tom Petty song ‘I won’t back down’ was one of the tracks used during our all-to-brief performance.

We’ve slightly overstayed; no one can quite believe the hour’s passed (except perhaps Paxo himself; this might seem informal and the subjects are all well researched – but doing this series of shows will not be easy). Everyone leaving is chatting to friends, to strangers, saying how much they enjoyed it. We could have stayed for hours more.

If anyone has any sense, then a television programme with Paxman and this format or similar will be forthcoming. What is next for Jeremy Paxman? I can’t wait to find out.

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