Hats off to the insane

Comedian Simon Munnery tells Marissa Burgess why his latest musical comedy was inspired by a 1930s airship disaster

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In an earlier incarnation of the show he is currently touring, Hats Off To The 101ers And Other Material, comedian Simon Munnery had a few problems with one of his props. It was a portable proscenium arch made of concertina-ed wood. It stood at the back of the stage throughout his Edinburgh Fringe run at the city’s Stand comedy club yet its only purpose seemed to be to hold a little picture of Jesus.

He recalls the regularity with which it would topple over during the month long run; “every four or five days”, he sighs. However Munnery has been largely undeterred by its refusal to co-operate and has been working on another for the UK tour.

“I’m just finishing off my replacement arch. The new arch is slightly more gothic in shape. It should be quite stable,” he says with confidence.

You might be wondering why he would bother going to such lengths for an apparently useless piece of stage set but then it wouldn’t be a Munnery show if it didn’t include various seemingly pointless elements adding to the sense of fun. During said Edinburgh run he took to the stage pushing an adapted hoover and blowing bubbles. In Munnery’s world it all makes sense – well, almost – but that’s the joy of his comedy. Munnery has been peddling his brand of off-the-wall humour for some years now. He once said of his jokes that if “one in ten times it would work, I’d keep it in.”

You may have seen him as the League Against Tedium in Attention Scum! on BBC2 back in 2001 where he would ride around atop a bus uttering non-sequiturs to crowds of bemused people.

He was a bit like a particularly opinionated bus conductor but in a more surprising hat. To the regular Fringe attendee he’s a comedy legend and one of the UK’s most innovative comedians.

Munnery also played the Virgin Queen in Stewart Lee‘s play Elizabeth and Raleigh in 2008 and, finding the costumes quite fetching, often strides around his hometown of Bedford in full Elizabethan get-up.

The mainstay of his latest show is a one-man punk rock musical homage to the R101 airship disaster of 1930, when the English hydrogen balloon carrying 54 passengers crash landed in France, killing 48 people.

During the Fringe run, the piece only contained one song. Now Munnery insists it has developed to earn its title as a fully-fledged musical. Plus he’s got an exciting, though possibly again unreliable, prop to go with it. “I’ve got an actual airship! I have a ghost R101 that I inflate with a hair dryer so not to be feared, people of the north! There’s no hydrogen involved. It will collapse under its own weight but it should fly,” he pronounces hopefully.

The inspiration for the piece was discovered on Munnery’s doorstep.
“Just outside Bedford is the village of Cardington and the two hangars, which were the biggest buildings built in Britain at the time. They’re still there, though they’re now dwarfed by an Asda distribution centre.

“There’s this beautiful photo of the airship flying above a field in Bedford with a horse-drawn plough in the foreground. What a time that must have been – imagine you’re ploughing your field, you look up and you see that – here comes the future,” he exclaims with unbridled excitement.

Clearly the story of the airship appealed to Munnery’s eccentric sense of derring-do.
“It wasn’t so much the disaster but the airship itself, something just floating in the air.
“They were hoping to have new engines for it but they couldn’t get them done on time so what they used was six Canadian locomotive engines.

“Chugging along in the sky, it was incredible. The size of it, it took 300 men to drag it out of its hangar.”

Hopefully it won’t take that many to get Munnery’s replica off the ground.

Simon Munnery’s Hats Off To The 101ers And Other Material is at The Crucible, Sheffield on 27 January

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