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I TALK TO Jack Rooke

Following his debut in Edinburgh in 2015 and his BBC Three series Happy Man earlier this year, Jack Rooke is returning to the Fringe this year with his second show, Happy Hour.

I first became aware of Jack earlier this year when BBC Three released a new three-part documentary series called Happy Man fronted by Jack which saw him explore male identity, mental health and body image, hanging out with men of different ages who have found their own ways of managing what life has thrown at them.

I recently caught up with Jack as he prepares his second Edinburgh hour to discuss the new show, the reaction to Happy Man and his projects he's working on next.

So you're back at the Fringe this year after taking a year off after your debut. Why did you decide to do that?

I took last year's Edinburgh Fringe off and after my first show Good Grief did well in 2015, Steve Marmion, the Artistic Director of Soho Theatre said that they wanted to commission the follow-up so that I had a proper production support base.

So I was like "Great, let's get it sorted. Let's go back next year." and I was ready to do the whole every year thing, then Steve said to me "There's no such thing as momentum. There's no point of slogging your arse off for a year just to make another show year after year after year."

My stuff is comedy and theatre mixed so you need a lot of time to shape the show and this year's show is definitely way more theatrical than Good Grief is and it definitely has more of Soho Theatre's stamp on it.

I think having the year off meant that I had way more time to develop other ideas with other people. I don't think the BBC Three series or the Radio 4 series would have happened if it wasn't for the fact that I took a year off from Edinburgh, and I think I'll always do that.

If I keep on doing shows to go to Edinburgh I think I'll do one year on and one year off because it enables you to not only have the time to be able to craft a really good next show but it gives you a year to work with other people in the industry.

Otherwise you just become a Fringe comic and all your income and profile comes from that and whilst I love the Edinburgh Fringe, I also fucking loathe it.

So if you loathe it, why are you back?

I'm back because this new how is a definite follow up to the last one. 2015 was Good Grief and no one had a fucking clue who I was, no one gave a shit beforehand. I couldn't really get any support from it apart from Underbelly who saw something in the production and gave me so much support for it. They gave me a great deal and really honed the idea with me.

So I just wanted to come back and do the next part of the story. And it was really important to do that again with Underbelly because I think what's so rare is that you get a massive monolithic arts organisation who want to make lots of money who are up for supporting a 21-year-old kid who has an idea and absolutely no cash.

I feel quite a sense of loyalty to them and we spoke about bringing the next show last year so I'm pleased that we're able to bring it this year instead.

How is Happy Hour a follow-up to Good Grief and what is it about?

Basically, it's everything that because of the limitations of broadcasting, I couldn't really say in the BBC Three series.

When you've got a really strict TV format, you're making three twelve-minute episodes which was part of a wider BBC mental health campaign. The message of that campaign was already set before it even started and that message was to encourage people to talk and open up.

I'm really thankful and grateful to BBC Three for the platform to have made Happy Man, which started to explore some of those solutions outside of talking, but I feel like I have more to say than what was in that.

My message is to encourage people to realise that talking isn't the be all and end all of mental health. Talking isn't going to be the one solution, it's more complex and that's why I wanted Happy Man to explore the other solutions outside of talking that can help improve wellbeing.

I think that the infrastructure in place currently in terms of the NHS and government cuts isn't there to meet the demand of the sheer scale of mental health issues that we have. Especially amongst our youth today. And it's not going to get any better because under the government that we have it's just going to get cut further.

People are like "How have you come to that solution?" but I've been an ambassador for a male suicide prevention charity for five years and I am 23 and I've lost a friend of suicide. So I've come to that conclusion not because I'm trying to pluck out a random idea, it's the biggest conclusion of the three levels of expertise that I have to speak on that topic.

I think the media have slightly got it wrong so this show talks about that, but it's also just about a letter that I wrote to my friend Olly and it's a live retelling of that. I was really adamant that I wanted it to be funny still and not a really dry theatre piece about a suicidal friend.

I don't want to bill it as a show about mental health and suicide. For me it's a show about male friendship and the complexities of that right now when we clearly have an issue with male mental health.

Recently, what's been brilliant about comedy and generally what I'm seeing on TV, is that we're getting more and more female friendships being written, really well constructed and really passionate. Really engrossing female characters which is brilliant and is totally what TV has needed for the last ten years.

These brilliant theatre/comedy hybrids like Chewing Gum and Fleabag are doing this really well, probably better than your traditional sitcom. So with this show I was thinking about how I can have that same heart and emotion that makes it funny but make it about make friendships. When one of you is the token gay friend and the other one is the lad and how actually male friendships aren't as two-dimensional as The Inbetweeners would have you believe. I feel like this show is The Inbetweeners meets Desperate Housewives.

Who are you hoping will come and watch Happy Hour?

Normally I feel like I try to court my audience as women. Typically I feel much more comfortable performing in front of women so this was a chance to make something that I actually want young men to come and watch.

I want guys to come and I want them to understand and empathise with that sort of friendship you have with one another. I don't think necessarily that lad culture has to be this awful misogynistic terrible thing.

Lad culture can be reinvented, it can be brilliant and can be about the exact same principles that female friendships are built on; comradeship and checking in on each other. It can still be raucous and lads going out, but it can still be positive. It doesn't have to be a really oppressive, toxic, misogynistic thing.

Why have you called the show Happy Hour?

Because it's what me and my mates used to do when we are uni. We used to crawl around all the Happy Hours so that we could get cheap booze.

Me and my friend Olly in particular always used to have our deepest meaningful conversations, quite emotional chats, during Happy Hour. Everyone would be on a real high and there's me and him speaking about anti-depressants.

The show is set in a pub and throughout the show there's drinks and the audience get to drink, I get pissed and it's also just because I've always gone to pubs.

When I was a kid I was definitely brought up in the eight or nine different locals that my dad used to go to. So I wanted to put it in a context the I think people would find fun.

It'll be interesting to see what the reaction is.

What are you hoping the reaction will be?

That people just don't hate it. I'm not going to hope for as much as I did last time, because I was so lucky with Good Grief.

So let's talk about the BBC Three series then, Happy Man. What's the reaction been like?

I came off the back of Happy Man probably the most depressed I've ever been. I definitely felt like I never wanted to speak about mental health or grief or bereavement or suicide again.

I had a flurry of viewers contacting me, who have either lost someone through suicide or have been affected by it, or feel like they want to kill themselves. It's so intense and I didn't quite know myself how to handle that pressure.

All of a sudden, I had this massive cohort of young people contact me directly. I'm sort of used to it because of working with CALM, but I've never been used to how intense it was coming off the back of a TV series.

When I'm sitting in the office of CALM as a male suicide ambassador, I'm dealing with lots of young people who are struggling and are in really dark places. But that's sort of fine because I'm doing it from a guise of doing it as someone who's working for CALM.

I'm helping them, I know what the protocol is, I know a hotline to refer them to. Whereas when you've done a very exposing TV series, it's difficult for me to gauge how I can then support those people. The two weeks after Happy Man came out, it was just a relentless barrage of people contacting me.

Even if they were just trying to praise the show and be nice, they were still telling me "A friend of mine has just killed themselves" and when I myself have been through that experience you feel a massive pressure to try and help people and council them but you can't. It's just too many people.

At the beginning of May I had a massive breakdown and I'm still coming out of that now which is why this show has definitely been a slower process over the last few months, and I haven't previewed it yet, which is why it could sink like a crock of shit.

Hopefully it doesn't. Hopefully people understand it and they're not completely put off by the subject matter because I think it's a very entertaining show.

What are you most looking forward to about the Fringe this year?

Diane Chorley I'd say. She's an amazing musical drag act which isn't a really camp, gay type drag act. It's more like Eddie Izzard, very dry character comedy.

She's this nightclub owner who then became a musician called Diane Chorley. That's on at the Underbelly and that show in 2015 when it was up in Edinburgh was my favourite and I'm very excited that it's coming back.

So that's what I'm most looking forward to.

Outside of the Fringe, what else are you working on?

I'm working on a few scripted bits at the moment. I'm working with Little a and Jon Petrie who made People Just Do Nothing on something which will be my priority for next year.

It's a comedy drama called Big Boy and it's still in early stages at the moment but it's something that I'm quite excited about because there's no grief and no mental health in it. It's purely this character driven comedy drama.

I'm going to Exec Produce a documentary series again, but I think I'm going to do that independently and I've been speaking to quite a few big venues actually about creating a documentary series that isn't necessarily with a broadcaster.

I studied journalism, I studied documentary making and feel a lot more skilled doing that than comedy performance stuff. My third live show will double up as a documentary series as well that will be put out over an 18 month period. It's very ambitious and it's quite a big idea but we do have some big London venues involved.

Finally, how would you sum up this year's show in just five words?

Fight. Friendship. Failure. Fabulous dancing.

Jack Rooke: Happy Hour runs from Saturday 5th August to Sunday 27th August at 5:20pm at the Underbelly. Previews 2nd-4th August. No show Monday 14th August.


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