Tom Neenan is returning to the Fringe with his fourth solo show in as many years, Attenborough.
I recently caught up with Tom to find out how he first got into comedy, why he’s dedicated an entire show to Sir David Attenborough and what he’s working on outside of the Fringe.
How did you first get into comedy?
I was part of a University sketch group with comedians, amongst others Ed Gamble and Nish Kumar, which was really helpful because there’s not a lot of financial pressure on you going up with a University sketch group and also there’s not a lot of critical expectation going up to Edinburgh.
That was really helpful and then after that we all wanted to carry on doing it and what’s been really nice is after all these years of working with those guys seeing how they’re doing. We sort of gee each other up and that’s been really nice.
Then after that I did a year working at the BBC doing their bursary programme and that was like a working bootcamp really which was really helpful.
You’re back for another year at the Fringe, what keeps you coming back?
I love the Fringe. It’s the only opportunity where you get to do an hour of whatever you want to do. You’ve got the freedom of just you and a black box and the only limit is what you want to do yourself. It’s very rare that you get many chances to do that.
So it’s irresistible to come back. Even if you have the vaguest idea in September and think it could be fun, you almost owe it to yourself to pursue it and see if by August it could be really fun. It’s that, it’s the creative challenge. Ald
Are you a fan of the deadlines that come with a Fringe show?
Deadlines are helpful because it’s a very unstructured job. I do a lot of writing and performing and a lot of it is all over the place and it’s very rare that you get anything so structured. It just puts a marker in your year that this is where you’ll be at this time in the year and that’s really helpful and helps keep the mind focussed.
When did you decide on the title Attenborough? Was it show first then the title? Or the other way round?
Both really. I don’t really have the option where you call the show Tom Neenan Wondering and then you basically write. My shows are very strict with a theme. I thought I’d like to write a show about and starring David Attenborough and then the show started forming around it.
It’s still coming together and still forming but I suppose it was idea, title and then obviously the meat of the show came after that. But I always need to know that there’s enough of an hour in that idea and then call it something that at least indicates what’s going to be in that hour.
I don’t have much choice. I can’t really give it a nice fun vague title and write what I want!
When did you start working on the show?
Maybe as early as last year up at the Fringe because you see so many shows that are really inspiring and you think about what you could do. I think it’s the best time because once your show is bedded in and you’re just doing it as well as you can, then your brain starts asking “What next?”
That can be quite dangerous because you then come back with all these fanciful ideas which you then need to pin down and decide what you’re going to spend a year focussing on.
What can people expect when they come and watch your show?
I guess whatever expectations come with a show called Attenborough. You want animals to be in it. You want his spirit to be there, his love of animals which you can almost call an obsession. You probably want a bit of travel, you don’t want to stay in the UK. You want to go somewhere you’ve not been before and be told about things that you might not have seen yourself.
You want to maybe come away with information that you didn’t have before. Whether that information is accurate or not is another story. Certainly the Attenborough that I present informs the audience but just might not be informing them of things that in the real world are actually true.
Why have you dedicated a whole show to Attenborough?
I think he’s brilliant and what’s prompted this show is the fact that it seems like there are a lot of baddies around, depending on your political stance maybe. But from my point of view it seemed like a lot of people were getting a lot of attention for doing things that weren’t that honourable or good.
While there are brilliant satirical comedians and topical comedians who want to tackle those subjects and really wrestle with those big subjects, for me I thought that maybe those people have enough attention so it would be really nice to throw the attention onto someone who’s trying to do good things. He’s been doing great work for decades now so celebrating someone who is almost universally seen as a good egg would be a nice way to spend a month.
Have you ever met Sir David Attenborough?
No. I’ve never met him and I’m not sure if I’d like to because some people say that you should never meet your heroes. So maybe I would go along with that and say that I would be a bit nervous to meet him just because he’s such a big figure in my life.
If David came to watch the show, how would you hope he’d feel?
I really hope he’d enjoy it because he’s had a big and varied career and people often forget that he was commissioner of BBC Two and commissioned Monty Python so of course there’s a side to him that’s zoology and stuff like that but it would seem that he also loves comedy. He’s responsible for some really groundbreaking comedy being seen.
So I don’t know, if he were to come and see it I’d hope that he would get it. The idea is to have a really fun, joyful hour of storytelling. There’s adventure and his passion for animals and the planet as well.
Do you have anyone helping you with your show this year?
I’m being produced by Berk’s Nest who take a real creative interest in the show and also I work with David Reed from The Penny Dreadfuls. HE’s brilliant and has this natural; ability to identify and work on story. He’s the best at that.
If I ever get stuck on something he’s the one to go “Ah! The reason why you’re struggling on this bit in minute 53 of the show is because of a problem in minute 2 of the show” and he’s got this incredible ability to wrestle with all that. So I’m working with him as well to ensure that the story makes sense, is satisfying and enjoyable to watch.
How have the previews been going?
Previews have been going well. The way I write I start from minute one and write until I finish. I’ve done lots of previews and they’ve been really nice but I don’t think any of them have been the full show yet.
So I’m very much looking forward to doing the full show, but at the minute I’ll often say around the 45/50 minute mark “And then... That’s where I must leave this story.” So I’m looking forward to getting it all finished and good to go.
What are you most looking forward to about the Fringe this year?
I just love seeing what everyone’s doing. I love seeing all the shows. Every year I claim I’m going to see more shows than I did the last year but last year I managed to see loads of shows so I’m going to try and keep that up and see as much as possible.
Outside of the Fringe, what are you working on?
I’ve got a BBC Radio 4 show coming out in October which is horror themed, so that will be coming out around Halloween. I’m writing and starring in that one.
I’m writing on The Mash Report, a BBC Two show that Nish Kumar is hosting. That kicks off very soon and I will be working on it over Edinburgh as well so I have to manage my schedule. That’s going to be a big old workload and I’m thinking it’s going to be really good. You can never tell with these things, but working on the pilot and seeing how that came out, it felt like something that was really relevant and hot in that sense. Is that an awful industry term?! I don’t know!
Finally, how would you sum up your show in just five words?
Adventure. Fun. Funny. Moving? Adventure.