‘Anything that brings people joy, I’m very much in favour of’ – interview with Simon Amstell
He made his name in TV, but there are many more strings to Simon Amstell’s bow. The comedian, writer, director, presenter and actor will be coming to Cambridge this November.
Known to many as a chatty, curly-haired comedian and popular television presenter whose impish charm and witty put-downs made programmes such as Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks worth watching, Simon Amstell has also successfully branched out into acting, sitcom writing and feature films.
Embarking on his first stand-up tour since the release of his internationally acclaimed second movie Benjamin (2018) and his Netflix special Set Free (2019) on September 1 in London, the affable 41-year-old will be bringing Spirit Hole – his curiously titled new show – to the Cambridge Corn Exchange next month.
Described as a “blissful, spiritual, sensational exploration of love, sex, shame, mushrooms and more”, Spirit Hole promises “a night of unprecedented joy and laughter”.
Simon, who has won two British Comedy Awards, a Chortle Award, and has been nominated for a BAFTA, says of the new offering: “I think the show is about getting older and letting go of shame, and healing through magic mushrooms – and then there’s a story about going to a sex club in Berlin, so I think there should be something for everybody.”
Commenting on the rather late 1960s-esque tour poster, the Londoner – a vegan and teetotaller – adds: “There’s definitely a psychedelic vibe to the whole show, I would say.” By going back to stand-up is Simon returning to his first love? “Maybe it’s my second love!” he laughs.
“I think my first love as a child was doing the kind of thing that Chris Evans used to do on The Big Breakfast, and then quite quickly my second love became doing the kind of thing that Eddie Izzard still does on stage – so I think maybe television, followed by stand-up.
“But now I feel like I do quite a few different things so now it’s like one of the loves. I love doing this and I also love making films – so it’s definitely one of the top three loves, I would say...”
Simon’s first foray into film came with 2017’s Carnage, which he wrote and directed. He also penned and starred in the well-received BBC sitcom Grandma’s House, which ran for two series from 2010 to 2012. He says he spent the lockdown period doing “magic mushrooms, a lot of writing, a lot of swimming, and maybe surrendering to the fact that it was happening, I suppose...”
He adds: “I’ve just finished writing a new film, which if we get some money for by the end of this tour, maybe I’ll get to make.”
Simon says he always wanted to get into making films, even if he wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, noting: “When I was a kid, when my sister was born – who’s 10 years younger than me – a camcorder was purchased by the family and I quickly stole that and started filming things like puppet shows with my brother.
“Then I suppose I got quite into performing in front of the camera – it took me a while to come back to getting behind it. But I think at all the schools I was at, I tended to be writing; I think I was the only kid there that was writing sketches that we could perform at the annual variety show. So I feel like I was maybe doing that kind of thing before even being interested in TV stuff.”
Simon found that on his recent projects he got heavily into writing and directing and didn’t really miss being in front of the camera. “When I made the film Carnage a few years ago, it was a real relief to just be the voice-over and not be on screen at all,” he explains, “and then when I made my last film, Benjamin, I was just writing and directing it and was not performing in any way.
“As much as I love being on stage and performing and being funny and showing off, it was a real relief to know that I could also not have to be the centre of attention and have actors who would bring your words to life in ways that you might not have imagined.”
Not only did Simon start writing sketches at a young age, he also started young when it came to being on television. Who could forget that now infamous appearance on Good Morning with Anne and Nick back in the ’90s, for example, where a 12-year-old Master Amstell treated the presenters and the viewers to a very accurate impression of Dame Edna Everage?
“I used to really cringe at all the stuff that I did as a kid,” he says (other early TV appearances included GamesMaster and Family Catchphrase), “but now I think he was brilliant! I feel really grateful that he was so confident and curious – and my mum was really great at pushing me forward and making me feel like I could do pretty much anything.
“I did my first stand-up gig at 13, which is a bizarre thing to have done, but thank goodness otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this tour! And I really liked doing it. I mean some of what he’s saying and wearing is mildly embarrassing but he was only a kid – some of what I say and wear now isn’t ideal! So I think he’s great that kid, I love him.”
Simon notes: “What I seem to be doing at the moment is a stand-up show every two years and a film every two years,” suggesting that we won’t be seeing him on our TV screens any time soon. “That seems to be going quite well – I just feel very comfortable and fulfilled.”
Simon presented TV pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks on a regular basis from 2006 to 2008, taking over from the programme’s original host, Mark Lamarr. His stint was followed by a series of guest presenters and then by a permanent host in the form of fellow comedian Rhod Gilbert.
After ending in 2015, the show has recently been revived, with Greg Davies at the helm. Does Simon – surely one of the best Never Mind the Buzzcocks presenters – think that that’s a good idea? “Sure, whatever people want to do,” he replies. “Anything that brings people joy, I’m very much in favour of.”
He says of his time on the programme: “It all feels like such a long time ago... My friend Miquita [Oliver] – who I presented a show called Popworld with many years ago – and I did a little reunion for The
Guardian about six months ago and I was quite resistant to do it, thinking about something that was so long ago, but it was quite a joyful thing to do in the end.
“I tend to just think about the things I’m doing at the time. Like yesterday, I spent the day going through this new show and trying to figure out how to make it as funny as possible. I’m sort of in a different headspace, I think.”
Simon says he is excited at the thought of “being able to tour again, after not being able to do it for a long time”. He adds: “I feel like it’s maybe the most laugh-out-loud entertaining show that I’ve ever written...
“I’ve just been performing at various festivals, warming the whole show up, and it’s been a really joyous experience actually. The joy of being on stage and getting to make people laugh again has been really thrilling. I feel very lucky to be able to do it again and I feel freer than I ever have done before on stage, and off, I suppose.”
Simon has great affection for the city he will soon visit. “I love Cambridge,” he says. “For a while I had a real fantasy that I should have really gone to Cambridge University, but they don’t tend to let people in unless they have better A-levels than I had!
“But it always feels so beautiful just being in Cambridge and on the last couple of tours we’ve ended up going punting... I pop to Cambridge occasionally even if I’m not performing there, so it’s nice to go there and be paid as well!”