Music Features

Robert Newman - From Caliban To Taliban: 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention

I like to think I'm not normally one to use the melodramatic, but we live in troubled times. The prospect of war looks likely despite the wishes of a few million in this country alone which brings to mind the words of a great man: "I've said it before, Democracy just doesn't work."

Many look back to the great Bill Hicks for a voice of sanity. It's not hard to see why. His thoughts on the first Gulf War still have an echo of truth, but constantly looking back isn't always needed. We have people here working round the clock, encouraging others to get up and take notice of the world around them.

"I hope the show makes people feel less isolated by the act that they have doubts and questions about our benevolent foreign policy they're not supposed to have." So says one Robert Newman. Yes, the Robert Newman from Mary Whitehouse and Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, not the former Norwich City full back.

"I hope people are emboldened in their natural urge to think for themselves." He continues "But most of all I want them to think that I'm dead clever and witty and that."

Based on his Valentine's Day showing in Soho, he certainly succeeds on the latter count. Putting in "three months of intensive research, rehearsal and solid writing" beforehand, it's an avalanche of information and facts about how illustrious leaders over the past few centuries have improved and enhanced our good world. Maybe.

Clad in a "Support Your Local Anarchist" t-shirt, Newman is a man never standing still, moving around the stage constantly like a mad philosophy lecturer trying to fuse his students with the spirit of revolution. Of course, when that's put alongside a routine which brings us a history of US foreign policy alongside John Lydon reborn as a 17th century urchin shipwrecked in the Caribbean, you know you're in for something interesting.

So yes, there's jokes. Funny ones at that. Over 90 odd minutes, you will swear you heard Richard Burton unable to (ahem) 'service' Elizabeth Taylor due to his frustration at being banned by the BBC, George Bush Snr and Jnr recast as Steptoe and Son and a giant rapping Catering Turtle. There's also musing on how long it took the patrons of that Moscow Theatre to realise the heavily armed people in Balaclavas weren't part of the show.

But on the whole it all revolves around what it says on the tin. So those of us expecting an appearance by posh perv Jarvis (last seen on the 2001 Resistance Is Fertile shows) are in for a disappointment. But, as Newman explains "On Resistance is Fertile I think I'd run into a problem: the broader comedy characters didn't sit with the rest of the material. I had come to a fork in the road.

"This was less true of sketches like meeting yourself as a teenager, as I was trying to knit the personal and the political. (They are all one after all: in a false society if people don't feel pretty strange that's pretty odd. And society is false because geared up to market diktats to the virtual exclusion of all else.) But even so, I want to stay in the same key throughout the whole song."

Which could prove hard given the amount of tangents he's capable of going off on. Informing us of the role Shakespeare played in the early colonisation of America, we're suddenly back to the Moscow Theatre as people (temporary) leaving the room lead Newman to wonder if going to the bathroom was a ploy used by hostages to escape. Indeed, at one point he has to check with an audience member to remember what point he was originally moving towards.

While other performers might see doing a show that bombards an audience with little known facts and political rhetoric to be comedic suicide, Newman isn't so bothered by such matters. "I don't see what I do as a career. That suggests planning and strategy.

"If I'd had a career I also wouldn't be skint. I hope always to surprise people. So many acts - particularly in comedy, are just shovelling out exactly what the audience and the breweries who sponsor the gigs expect of them."

And surprise he does. Going back to an earlier point, it's refreshing to hear someone else saying what you think about the Royal Family (He rightly answers people who defend the Queen on grounds she makes money off her land with 'It's our land, stole by theft, murder and the clever use of hedges") or American foreign policy. Which brings us to the biggest and most absurd laughs of the night. Quoting direct from the CIA 'Handbook' on creating civil unrest, we're told ways in which to incite revolution. Without giving away any surprises, let's just say turning up late for work could be more subversive that you could ever believe. At least if those shady fellows in dark glasses are to be believed.

On the note of America, Newman plans to take the show to the States later on in the year. Given his show contains a section in which we find out that the US has occupied in some way another country every year bar one since their Civil War, is he worried about doing the proverbial dying on his arse?

"I'm more worried about large, empty halls. Not too worried about negative reaction. I'll barely register as a blip on the micronometer. And it's hardly like Emma Goldman or Eugene Debs speaking out about the First World War and getting sent to prison under the espionage act. As it gets nearer however I'll probably start shitting myself of course.

"My main fear is about getting into the country. On my way to Panama last September I was held for three hours at New York airport thanks to those helpful police photographers at mass protests like Seattle."

Ah, yes. Unlike the kind of philosophers you might find down your Student Union on a Friday night have wax lyrical about how they will change the world and end up becoming merchant bankers, Newman actually does walk it like he talks it. Some may remember his coverage of the Seattle Anti-Capitalist protests for Channel 4 some years back. Given that the day after this featured that little march you may have seen in the press - don't worry if you missed it, our Prime Minister seems to have as well - I ask whether this kind of mass voicing of public opinion counts for anything?

"I think further action is necessary. RAF Fairford has to be shut down via a sustained campaign of non-violent direct action. From the leafy fields of Gloucestershire B52's will be taking of to murder Iraqi families in the first wave of 'Operation Shock and Awe'. The Pentagon is planning something that will make Cambodia, Laos, Dresden or the Tokyo fire-bombing of WW2 seem like a car backfiring."

Not the brightest picture of the future. But on a more personal level, there's the matter of his third book, out in September. The original aim for the tour was to promote it, but it hardly gets a mention. Time to rectify. So, what can be expect from The Fountain At The Centre Of The World? "It's set in Mexico, Britain and the US in 1999 and it's about a man called Chano Salgado who blows up a toxic waste pipeline and has to go on the run at the same time as the brother he has never met comes looking for him. It's about loss and hope, and ends up in Seattle at the WTO protests." Obviously not one for the Harry Potter purists amongst us, But it still typical Newman: a gloomy premise but with a hint of hope at the end, as with his shows - Newman does believe all is not lost and we have a chance at pulling ourselves out of this mess (see the end of Resistance Is Fertile).

Finally, given that No Ripcord is a music webzine, I venture to ask what sounds can be found pulsing out the Newman stereo system? "Dub reggae and The Clash. Prince Jazzbo. King Tubby. Althea & Donna. Lee Perry. Plus a little soul, some spirituals, Elvis Costello and the Cocteaus."

Go see the show: Have a laugh, have a think. They're both as important as the other.