Interview: Boothby Graffoe, comedian and musician
THE only stand-up to name himself after a Lincolnshire village, Fringe favourite Boothby Graffoe is back on the circuit after a long break, but he’s focusing more on the songs and less on the ‘talking bit’
LIKE talented young men since the dawn of civilisation, Boothby Graffoe dreamed of moving to the big city and seeing his name in lights – or more specifically, on the board outside The Comedy Store.
“I wanted to do that London circuit. My intention was to do the Comedy Store, and I did. At one point – I should have taken a photograph – there was a charity gig on Monday, and I was doing that, so my name was up; I was doing The Cutting Edge on Tuesday and the improvisation on Wednesday; I was gigging Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and doing the improvisation again on Sunday. So every single day, there was my name. I thought, ‘That’s it really, that’s what I wanted to do.’”
Having achieved that goal, Graffoe – a popular Edinburgh Fringe draw who, when he wasn’t off making them laugh in the furthest corners of the globe, had five series on BBC Radio 4, and wrote and performed in three plays – just stopped. Five years ago he disappeared from performing. When he wrote gags and sketches, they were for Omid Djalili – not, Graffoe assures me with what is genuine admiration, that Djalili is remotely lacking in his ability to provide his own jokes. “He is a very prolific thinker and makes me cry with laughter.”
To complete his transformation, Graffoe sold up in Peckham, and moved with his family – wife Jennifer and kids Marley and Ben – to the Midlands. There, he says, he’s moving closer to the good life, even growing vegetables for the table at his allotment.
According to a press release penned by fellow comic Stewart Lee, this directional shift was prompted by “a revelation at a motorway service station”, but when I quiz Graffoe about the specifics, he muses that Lee might have made that bit up. Or maybe he did. Then again, he concludes, “It might have actually happened, I’m not sure.
“Life begins at 40, isn’t that what they say?” he elaborates. “I decided mine was going to. I did a tour of Barbados, Antigua and St Lucia, and it was so beautiful. [Then] I got back and walked out onto Peckham High Street and there was excrement. It was horrible. I got home and said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. What on earth are we doing?’ So we moved up to the middle [of the country].”
And he moved away from performing comedy because it stopped making him laugh. “When I looked at the political situation, and at the general feeling in the country, it wasn’t funny any more. I started when Margaret Thatcher was in power and we had three million people unemployed. We were at war in a foreign country and the hospitals were closing, the schools were closing, there were riots in the streets.”
I’m hearing an almighty echo here, I joke. “Yes, isn’t it weird? I’m back exactly where I was. And stand-up comedians were telling jokes about their fat mother-in-laws and their wives. I was thinking, ‘My god, I used to hear these jokes when I was at Butlins.’”
So instead of relentlessly touring his stand-up, he concentrated on writing for Djalili, and touring as his opening act. He honed his already impressive musical skills, wrote song after song, and hit the road opening for Canadian band the Barenaked Ladies. The result is that he’s released two albums in two years, the newest of which, Bang! Sir Is This Your Vehicle?, features songs that are both sublimely silly and musically virtuosic. As Stewart Lee says: “[This] is the symphonic folk-pop suite supporters suspected he had in him, suggesting the psychedelic sand-pit of Brian Wilson, had he, like Boothby, been a Butlins redcoat as well as an LSD enthusiast.”
Graffoe and I wind up grumbling about the state of the nation. He reminds me that his politics lean left, toward socialism. “I had a sort of realisation, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I am always ranting on about the idea of the right to work. But if you look at it cynically, who are you working for? You’re working for the capitalists. You’re working for the right-wingers. You work and work and work to make rich people very, very rich. To march down the street demanding that you be allowed to do that seems such a nonsense. You should fight for the right not to work, because your parents and grandparents have worked hard enough for these people long enough for you, now, to reap the benefits.”
Half the jobs in existence don’t make any sense, he continues. “What is information technology, for Christ’s sake? Does anybody know? Whenever I see people walking down the street saying, ‘No more war! Stop the weapons’, what they’re saying in real terms is, ‘I would like about 300,000 people in this country to be unemployed’ – because they make their living out of creating weapons and selling them. Most of the south coast and half of Scotland, they’re all weapons producers.”
Surely he’s not warmongering? “No, but I can’t help noticing that our economy is based on making the things that we claim to hate and claim to want to stop. If you watch Arnold Schwarzenegger films – in Terminator 2, there’s a moment when I suddenly realised, ‘This is actually an advert!’ He takes out a gun, which I’d never seen before then, and fires these exploding things. One of the policemen turns to the other and says the name of the gun, almost down to the catalogue number. We watch and think, ‘What a great movie,’ governments and weapons buyers watch and think, ‘Oh! I’ll get me some of those, they look good!’”
That’s thoroughly depressing. “Sorry, but that’s why I started singing more and writing songs, because that’s something I always wanted to do anyway. The talking bit is pretty much by the by.”
His plan is to make and tour an album every year for the next decade. Might he return to the Fringe? “Nah, I did about 15 years. When my daughter was about 12 – she’s 19 now – I said, ‘We never, ever, had an August summer holiday.’ The very first year I didn’t do Edinburgh we spent the month in Spain instead, wandering around Andalusia. It was lovely.”
Fans who still pine for his wit could do worse than follow him on Twitter (@boobygraffoe), where he’s amassed an eccentric group of followers. “The funny thing is the little critiques you get from people,” he chuckles. “About three different theatre directors sent things like ‘Excellent’ ‘Very good’ ‘How clever, well done’. My favourite was ‘Very good. Thank you.’ I’ve had a few ‘Could do betters’. ‘Not good enough’ one guy keeps saying, ‘please try harder.’”
At 16, Graffoe bought a beat-up acoustic guitar in a junk shop, fitted it with steel strings (oops!) and learned how to play. Keen to become the next Lennon and McCartney, he followed his university-bound mate to Manchester, where they started a band.
At 18, he auditioned for Rada and “failed miserably”. He found work behind the scenes at a theatre in Skegness, instead, and in the early 1980s went to work at Butlins, initially confined to the role of lifeguard, because they said he wasn’t Redcoat material.
Inspiration for his professional name came while driving home from a gig.
He claims to be the only performer in the world named after a village in Lincolnshire. He’s probably right.
In 2004 he released his first album, Wot Italian?, with Antonio Forcione. Since then he has released a live concert recording, Boothby Graffoe and the Following People, and, in 2011, Songs for Dogs, Funerals.
His new album, left, features guest appearances by Kevin Hearn (of the Barenaked Ladies), Nick Pynn, Mike Heron, and even Omid Djalili doing a turn on the bongos.
• Boothby Graffoe and Nick Pynn play The Stand, Glasgow, 19 March, as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. Bang! Is This Your Vehicle, Sir? is available now from www.theboothbygraffoe.co.uk.