Reviewed today: The Best Of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, Too Much Information?, Warren Ellis.
After watching a Book Festival talk entitled Too Much Information?, The BBG and I have to spend several minutes working out if we’ve just encountered a massive coincidence, or are suffering selective amnesia. We know that the selling point for us was that one of the authors involved was Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat and figurehead of a very specific form of data-driven journalism. And I think that we’d decided by mid-July that that was enough to make us book a place. But we only learn five minutes into this talk - and I don't think we knew this before - that the other man on the panel is Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture... whose exhibition Cloud Studies, also built around data-driven journalism, was the absolute highlight of our Manchester International Festival this July. (Although, ha ha, funny story about that.)
With Matt Thompson of the New York Times acting as moderator, the stage is set for a fascinating discussion of how data is changing the way that journalism works. We start with a couple of examples of the work of both organisations – Bellingcat with a video graphically illustrating the impact of the first lockdown on people movement and air quality, Forensic Architecture with a sizzle reel of some of their hits that’ll be familiar to anyone who attended that Manchester exhibit.
Higgins talks quite a bit about one of Bellingcat’s most high-profile investigations, the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. In the time it’s taken for the case to come to trial, countless conspiracy theories regarding the incident have been put forward, and Bellingcat has debunked every single one. As a result, he suspects no actual defence case exists – and that was only possible thanks to data contributed by people from all over the world.
The approach taken by Forensic Architecture is by definition a little more showy, allowing them to exhibit their findings in galleries. Weizman is happy to admit that he’s aestheticising his investigations, as long as you take the word in its ancient Greek sense of ‘making it register on the senses’. The research is never dumbed down, but always presented in a way that makes it interesting to even the casual viewer.
Predictably, the two agree that crowd-sourced data journalism can only get bigger as time goes on – and the more people get involved in the data gathering process, the more trustworthy the data will become. Thompson quietly throws a bombshell into the final seconds of the talk by wondering what the world would be like now if we’d had access to these data gathering tools back when rumours of weapons of mass destruction were flying around. Nobody really wants to think too hard about that one. The closest Higgins gets to an upbeat conclusion is his statement “there are lots of crazy people on the internet... I guess there’s good crazy and bad crazy, maybe?”
It's Saturday afternoon, and time for a return to Shedinburgh. It was one of the highlights of last year's wholly virtual Fringe - a series of one-off livestreamed performances broadcast from inside mocked-up garden sheds in Edinburgh and London. The unrepeatable nature of the performances gave them a genuine sense of occasion, which made it a little frustrating when some of them were repeated back in February. This time round, they haven't even waited for the festival to finish before putting a couple of this year's highlights out on demand. Luckily, one of them's a show that we wanted to see anyway, so it's all good. Besides, given its partly pre-recorded nature, it isn't one that gains a huge amount from being watched live.
Effectively, we're finishing off our Fringe with a TV clip show. The Best Of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product has Thomas and his producer Geoff Atkinson in the shed, looking back at the prank-based current affairs show they made between 1996 and 2003, swapping anecdotes and pausing every so often to play clips. (The latter are particularly welcome, because the show's impossible to see anywhere these days.) As you'd expect, it's Thomas that does most of the talking, but Atkinson's contributions provide an excellent alternative viewpoint, particularly his insistence that "it was basically That’s Life, and you were Esther Rantzen."
I remember enjoying Comedy Product at the time, but felt a bit nervous about revisiting it some - bloody hell - twenty-five years later. My abiding memory of Thomas' approach to activism was that he'd identify a company that had done something indisputably terrible, go round to their offices, and annoy their lowest-paid staff members because he couldn't get any further into the organisation than the reception desk. In this roughly chronological compilation, it looks like that's a fair description of its early episodes. It's fun when Thomas rolls through a McDonald’s drive-thru in a succession of unsuitable vehicles, but it's the poor sods at the order point who have to cope with it.
But the focus of the show changes over time, and Thomas and Atkinson's running commentary points up its evolution in a number of key areas. After the first series, the show became less about standalone pranks, and more about using them as a hook into stories that could be sustained through a full half hour, thanks to solid research. (It's interesting to note that Thomas' stand-up went in a similar direction, with his sets becoming more and more narrative based.) As they got bolder, they could take the time to target the people in power directly: witness the Indonesian general fooled into admitting on camera that his country used of torture, as part of a fake media training course. When the pranks end up punching way above their weight category, they get even more hilarious: watching the press officer of a dam construction company suddenly realise that a seven ton ice sculpture accusing them of displacing communities has been erected outside her office is some of the highest quality schadenfreude you could hope for.
There's one more change that ties in nicely with our first event of the day - as the show got more popular, it became more crowdsourced. The timespan of the Product roughly ties in with the rise of email as a common method of communication, and Thomas ended up building a "gang" of people who could help him out with most of the things he was trying to do: from suppliers of scary-looking military vehicles, to the arms trading organisation he set up that was secretly made up of several Irish schoolgirls and a couple of nuns. Possibly the closest thing we have to a show like this now is Last Week Tonight, which certainly has the journalistic chops and occasionally backs them up with a childishly amusing stunt. But Comedy Product mixed its ingredients in a unique way, and it's nice to be reminded of it.
We've only got time for one more Edinburgh thing before we have to leave the house and rejoin the real world. And I'm reminded how only a few years ago, when you mentioned the name Warren Ellis, you had to differentiate between the comics writer from Essex and the musician from Australia. These days, you can separate them out a little more clearly: we're either talking about the disgraced sex pest, or the man who's built a sanctuary for abused animals in Sumatra. We've chosen to finish off with a Book Festival talk by the second one.
As a rock star, you'd expect Ellis to have some interesting stories, and the one that's at the heart of his first book - Nina Simone's Gum - is a doozy. Ellis was in the audience for Nina Simone's last-ever London concert, and was so keen to get a souvenir of the event that he jumped onto the stage and grabbed a piece of her used chewing gum that she'd stuck to the piano. That was more than twenty years ago, and he's been carrying it around with him ever since: he's even had a replica cast in silver and gold in case something happens to the original.
Why is he doing it? He's not sure, but he thinks that we all have weird little objects that become our own personal totems, and the book gathers his thoughts about how attached we can become to these totems. In part, it's also a book about the process of writing the book: his main method of communication for the past three decades has been music, and it took him a long time and a couple of friendly editors to work out how to do something similar but with words.
Ellis has always been charm itself in interview situations whenever I've seen him, and that's certainly the case here. He knows he's got some odd stories to tell, but always comes up with ways to tie them in with familiar situations. I particularly like the way he describes old bags he has lying around the house as 'time capsules', because there's usually stuff inside them that's been there since they were last used and that you've completely forgotten about. (Thanks to a tie-in exhibition for the book, he's actually got an old briefcase to hand which he can use to demonstrate.) And because I always hope that the last event we catch in an Edinburgh run has a small bit of magic inside it, we get precisely that when he pulls out his fiddle and gives us a glorious burst of the Dirty Three's I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me. You can watch it at around 41 minutes into the video (payment politely requested), assuming you're not the sort of person who detests joy.
There's one thing that I haven't got around to mentioning in all this - Ellis isn't actually in Edinburgh for this talk. Interviewer Tice Cin is there with a live audience, while the author's calling in over video. But he's as good as in the room with everyone else, putting in the work unlike any other author I've seen at the Book Festival this year - addressing the audience directly, demanding that people are on camera during the Q&A so he can put a face to them, and so on. And it strikes me that although we're still not quite ready for a return to a full-on all-live Edinburgh Festival - and be warned, the pessimistic take seems to be that that return could still be some way off - when people make the effort to work within the limitations we're stuck with, magic can still happen.
And that's how Edinburgh 2021's been for me. It's not been the same as before: it couldn't be. But we still got magic. Black Country, New Road in a glorified tent with the best live drum sound I've heard in years. (Just try to balance everything else around it next time, eh?) Archie Brennan revealing a whole history of tapestry in Edinburgh that I wasn't aware of before. The ATL crew of No More Jockeys deciding on a few days notice to play the game in front of a live audience, and smashing it first time. Trevor Lock pulling a disparate group of punters into a comedy generating machine. (My contribution was the word 'Saskia', and I'm quite pleased with it.) Phil Tippett hurling ridiculous quantities of animated shit into our faces, and still we wanted more. And - yes - Warren Ellis playing down the lens of a webcam like all his favourite people were at the other end of it.
The BBG has her own thoughts about various aspects of our week, and she'll be telling you those in a Postscript before too long. But that's me done here for this year. If we assume that this is a stepping stone towards something more like the old Edinburgh at some point in the future, I can't see how it could have been done better. And I'll be fascinated to see what the next step looks like. Being a monkey, and all.