Spencer Perceval has one claim to fame. He’s the only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated. Unfortunately, no one’s heard of him. 206 years later, Nick Hall’s tasked with telling his story at the Edinburgh Fringe in Spencer.
It’s May 11th, 1812. The Prime Minister has just been shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Parliament is in uproar. In this inventive and hilarious journey, Nick brings alive the idiosyncrasies of 19th century politics and society, while drawing parallels with the present. This is the discordant age of Hard Brexits, Donald Trump, Corbynistas and May-bots, but could we still learn something from the past?
Recently, I chatted to Nick about his upcoming solo character comedy show, Spencer, stand up show Peninsula, as well as taking part in an improv show.
You’re doing three shows at the Fringe this year, Nick?
Yes, well, let’s call it two and a half shows. I’m doing a stand up show called Peninsula which is a different beast to Spencer, and I’m in an improvised comedy group, The Committee.
It sounds a lot to take on.
It might kill me! This is the most work I’ve ever done at the Fringe. Previously, I’ve done one and a half shows. They’re all on every day with the odd day off. It’s like doing a triathlon or a marathon, it’s probably something I should have prepared for. It’s an endurance test for the whole month up there.
Are you a glutton for punishment then or has it just happened this way?
If I do one thing I get itchy feet. The grass is always greener. I did a bit of stand up a few years back, I’ve done sketch and improv. Now I do character stuff and I got a little misty-eyed for stand up. I missed not doing it, the directness of it. You’re talking to the audience with a bluntness that you can play with.
So rather than choose, you’re doing it all!
Yes, some comedians complain about Edinburgh but you’re not working down a mine. I’ve got the shows in the early afternoon. They’re basically an hour apart. It’ll give me just enough time to get my head ready for the other one. I know the mental gymnastics required. You get yourself into the head space.
Is that one of the most attractive things about Edinburgh as a performer, cramming it all in?
Edinburgh’s amazing. In many ways it’s tough, it’s hard but it’s the only place where live comedy audiences are there for the taking. It’s hard to get audiences for things. In Edinburgh, there’s thousands of people there to see shows. You can be performing to full rooms on the paid or free fringe. To be able to do 25 shows in a row it gives you that burst of working on your material. It’s exactly what you want.
It must be freeing to end on the improv each day.
Yes, it’s the cherry on top. It’s the easy one. I work with a group I trust, we know each other instinctively. You can open your brain up and just flow and interact with people. Some people think improv’s harder because you have to conjure stuff up out of thin air but if you’re on the same wavelength it becomes very easy. Mentally and physically it’s much easier. It’s also nicer to be in a group. As a solo performer you toughen up. There’s something nice about going back to a group.
Is Spencer the first hour you’ve done in character?
No, it’s been a weird journey to come to this. I’ve done stand up and a show with random characters. Last year I did a narrative Cold War pastiche, Szgrabble!, playing different characters. It’s something not a lot of people do, playing all the characters in the same scenes, with a lot of energy and storytelling. With that in mind, I heard about the story of Spencer Perceval, who is the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated a few years ago. I studied history and it’s that old adage in comedy, or anything really, to talk about what you love. Through that, you’ll be energised. Spencer’s is a really interesting story. It isn’t the most amusing on the face of it. You can’t make someone’s death funny but it’s how you approach it. I’ve created the story with Spencer as the narrator. In an X Factor style he wants to be prime minister. Then, he gets assassinated so he then hopes that his death will at least leave behind a legacy. He’ll be immortalised through the ages. Then it’s how he deals with what his legacy is. It was a challenge to work out how to do that but once it got going and I got it on his feet, the story that underpins it is one that I wanted to tell.
You’d expect a British prime minister’s assassination to be a historical fact that sticks with you, that we’d all know about given that we’re aware of which US presidents have been assassinated. Do you think maybe Brits don’t make as much of a fuss?
There’s a point in the show where I address that. The British are too polite. I don’t want to get ‘UKIP’-py about it and say that British history isn’t taught in schools or anything like that. It hasn’t entered the public consciousness but then again I don’t want to hold him up on a plinth because it turns out he wasn’t a wonderful prime minister, he was only in for two years. The death is what elevates him. There’s something in this show for the layman, though, not just those who know about history.
And you’ll be trying to draw some parallels with the present, to bring it up to date?
Without over doing it, yes. I’m into politics, I’ve worked in Westminster for a number of labour MPs and I follow it hugely. I’ve never really talked about politics in my comedy and that’s often because I feel very in the middle about things. I don’t have strong opinions about it. You have to be very careful. There are those who learn from history and those who are doomed to repeat it. I do touch upon modern day occurrences. We cannot forget the murder of Jo Cox, and recently a plan by a Neo-Nazi came out in relation to Rosie Cooper MP to kill her, whether that was ever going to happen or it was just someone in their bedroom, we don’t know.
Spencer sounds a really interesting show. Tell me a little bit about Peninsula, too.
It’s a bit of a companion piece to Spencer in that I’ll be talking about politics and the parallels with history. It’s me with the mic largely talking about politics and how everything’s so shrill. Articulating things about the political climate that I need to get off my chest. My girlfriend’s from Northern Ireland and I went there for the first time recently so there’s amusing stories about that. It’s Free Fringe, it’s a great atmosphere and will hopefully off-set the cost of putting on Spencer.
Best of luck with the run, which, incidentally, you’ll definitely have to do between venues. Maybe a marathon would be easier next year, Nick.
Title: Nick Hall: Spencer Venue: Underbelly (Clover), Bristo Square, Teviot Place, EH8 9AG Dates: 1 – 27 August (not 13) Time: 13:30 Duration: 1 Hour Tickets: £6.50 previews, £10 (concs £9)
Title: Peninsula Venue: Ciao Roma, 64 South Bridge Dates: 4th – 25th Aug (except 14th) Time: 3.20pm Duration: 45 mins Tickets: Free.
Title: The Committee Improvised Comedy Venue: Bar Bados, Cowgate. Dates: 4th – 25th Aug (Except 13th and 20th). Time: 6.45pm Duration: 50 mins. Tickets: Free
For more information visit www.thisisnickhall.com @NickHallSays