Simon Munnery on his 30 years at the Fringe

AS he celebrates three decades at the Fringe, Simon Munnery reflects on a career of strange ideas and collapsing plots - and a disatrous encounter with Madonna.

Simon Munnery is celebrating three decades at the Festival  
Picture: Edward Moore
Simon Munnery is celebrating three decades at the Festival Picture: Edward Moore

Simon Munnery is ambling towards his venue, dragging a bin bag full of crushed cider cans and what appears to be a cardboard falcon.

Later all becomes clear. As his show opens, Munnery, wearing a coat fashioned from crushed cider cans, recites WB Yeats.

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

It’s a comedic howl, a despairing comment on the state of post-Brexit Britain, the song of the fool in the wilderness.

There is no one like Simon Munnery – poetic, quicksilver smart and blessed with a ceaselessly inventive comic brain. His new Fringe show Standing Still marks his 30th year in stand-up, an anniversary to be celebrated by a one-off gala performance: Simon and Friends: 30 Not Out, which will revive some of his many comic personas alongside longstanding collaborators including Stewart Lee and Al Murray.

Munnery began as the Security Guard, becoming Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, before the brief glorious reign of comic despot The League Against Tedium. He has written poems, plays and stories, performed with his head in a bucket, taken his entire audience to the pub and invented a visual/stand-up hybrid called Fylm.

He’s taking a loose approach to this year’s show. “Last year I wrote lots and lots beforehand and almost none of that got in. This year I’ve got a beginning and a middle… and a bit of an end.”

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By the end of three weeks in Edinburgh, Munnery will have a fully-formed show to take on tour. His Fringe audience will have the chance to watch him build it, picking up and dropping ideas, creating something new before their eyes. After 30 years he still loves Edinburgh.

“It’s the beginning and the end of the year. Around April I chuck everything away and start on the next one. There’s nothing I love more than doing a show for four weeks, being in the same place. Comics spend most of the time travelling so it’s so nice to be in the same place and to do a show and work on it.”

For other comics, “Work in Progress” can be a way of road-testing something which is pretty much finished. But go to one of Munnery’s early previews and you’ll see bits of paper flying, props falling apart. If you are lucky you will see something wonderful coming to life.He had his first paid gig aged 19 at the Royal Oak in London at a night organised by Ian Cognito. At the time Munnery was on a Ministery of Defence scholarship to Cambridge and was living during the holidays in a military base in Aldermaston.

Did he have a eureka moment? Not really. “What was it like? I suppose people must have laughed. I thought, ‘I’ll give it another go.’ It’s like being unlucky enough to be pre-disposed to be a stand up.”

He came to Edinburgh the same year to perform in a show called: Jane Austen: Astronaut? “Do you get it? It’s a reference to the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. I didn’t get it either.” In that year Munnery also wound up playing the police in a production of Zola’s Germinal. “I didn’t have any black clothes. And I was supposed to be the police. Not one policeman. All of them.”

Munnery’s character, the Security Man, came about after he got a job as a security man during the university holidays. “I got the sack. But they didn’t ask for their uniform back.” Munnery was also the compere of Cluub Zarathustra, a political cabaret which featured Stewart Lee, Sally Phillips, Johnny Vegas, Kevin Eldon and Julian Barratt.

After a period as frustrated revolutionary Alan Parker, Munnery had a flowering in the late 1990s as The League Against Tedium. His comic dictator barked absurdist diktats from the top of a white van and became hugely popular, playing in a big top circus tent in Edinburgh and landing a BBC 2 series Attention Scum!, directed by Stewart Lee.

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How did he find television? “I remember being slightly irritated by the lack of control, compared to stand-up where you can do anything you want. What’s television like? ‘You’re wonderful, you’re wonderful, you’re wonderful. You’re fired.’”

In 2006 he began calling his Edinburgh shows the Annual General Meeting, working around written suggestions from the audience. He dropped the format when political comic Mark Thomas began doing something very similar.

His play Buckethead saw him perform, mostly off stage, wearing a bucket on his head. His new show also features a bucket-headed character – The Great Tempuro, who carries a mirror and a telescope, which amplify his inability to see.

A new format Fylm (pronounced with an long I, as in file) allowed him to develop visual gags using short films and home-made animation. Fylm was also a chance to collaborate with other comics, styling himself the fylm director. He says Fylm brought him back to using props – as he realised he could achieve the same visual gags with a fold-out piece of card or a wire with a cardboard kestrel strapped to the end of it.

“I’ve always used props,” he says – and you have a vision of him, at his rural home in Bedford, fashioning coats out of cans and kestrels out of cardboard, laughing quietly to himself.

He says his coat of cider cans took him a week to make – but he has to keep an eye on it. At a preview gig in York he mistakenly left his bin bag in the venue and found them dumped outside with the rubbish the next day.

His favourite gig of all time was at the New Town Tavern, a sweaty gay bar in Edinburgh. For years he was the “token straight” at Duckie, the club in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

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He was asked to step in for a fundraiser for Waverley Care, which supports people with HIV. “I thought, brilliant. I can do my Waverley Care Trust joke. I did it. And they hated it and booed me off.” At Simon Munnery and Friends: 30 Not Out, he will be “getting the band back together” with Stewart Lee on guitar and pub landlord Al Murray on drums. The gig will raise money for Waverley Care. And he intends to perform his Waverley Care Trust joke again.

For someone who appears so enormously relaxed, Simon Munnery has created a huge and varied body of work. Is he, I wonder, the Madonna of Comedy?

“I met Madonna once…” he tells me, and describes an encounter at the ICA in London, which involved him hiding behind a sofa, crawling around the floor with a bottle of wine, tying Madonna’s shoelace and then finally catching her eye. “She said: ‘Do I know you?’ And I said ‘No.’ Then she went back to her original conversation. I’d gone to all this trouble of meeting Madonna but I didn’t have anything to say to her.”

It’s the opposite of a showbiz anecdote. It is the essence of Fringe. As is Simon Munnery. We are lucky to have him.

Simon Munnery: Standing Still, Stand Comedy Club, until 29 August. Today, 4pm. Simon Munnery and Friends: 30 Not Out, the Famous Spiegeltent, 22 August, 6:45pm.

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