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Interview: Tom Binns

29th August 2013

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Tom Binns is the award-winning creator of celebrated comic characters such as hapless local radio DJ Ivan Brackenbury and psychic Ian D Montfort. Post-Fringe appearances, he talks to The National Student in this exclusive interview.

Is there a genuine belief in Ian’s powers?

I need to reply to a lovely lady, who said, 'Dear Ian, thanks for the gig and do you do private readings, either as Ian or Tom.’ I had a review from a journalist in Melbourne who said; 'Clearly this is a guy with a gift but who embarrassed by it being brought up in this modern world and so has added a few jokes and magic tricks to his amazing abilities'. I only mention the lady because she was aware I did other characters, but I regularly get people asking for readings after the show.

Some of the biggest fans of the show are physics and spirit mediums. They still went away thinking I had a gift and they had a gift. I started out thinking that they were absolute crocks, but I have absolutely changed my opinion on that. Even the ones that do cheats think they have a gift and are helping people, in just the same way that news readers that read the autocue think they can talk unaided. But if you do it every night you have to believe. There has to be some self-delusion to keep them going every night.”

So there is a huge amount of work in perfecting the ability to pull off a stage show physic and then to turn it into a comedy performance?

Absolutely. Ian has to be able to do this better than an actual spirit medium. If you are going to see Paul Daniels and believe he is magic, you want him to succeed. He doesn’t need to convince you of the trick. You are wanting to believe it. If you go to see a spirit medium, they are getting about a 40% success rate. I could get 100% if I wanted, but that wouldn’t be very funny. I’m at about 80%, or should I say when I get it wrong I get it wrong deliberately.

So it’s about three years of studying every day, pretty intensively, to get it right. Now I can walk into any room and do it.

Having done three years of work is it now fun?

It is now. The first year was sheer panic; the second year wasn’t at all funny, it was all about the physic stuff; and this year it is just been a bag of fun. I think the last year has been the key turning point. I started to get secrets of people right. Some are hilarious and that is the show in itself: revealing those dark secrets and people's reaction. A lot of people will think, 'I’ll try and get him — he’ll never get this!' and they will think about their most horrific secret, almost as a dare. Improvising off the back of that is a lot of fun — those secrets can go anywhere.

Is there something in there for the sceptics as well?

Absolutely. There are always clues in the act. If I am peeking at a card I will use the word 'peek' in as many different ways possible while I am peeking, just to throw something in for the sceptics.

Ian D Montfort is Unbelievable is available on AudioGO. Are there plans for another series?

It was a critical success, but was only ever meant to be a one-off. So we are starting again re-pitching for BBC Radio 4. The BBC have said they don’t want to put it on TV, but then out of the blue, someone phoned up and said they would love to put it on television. I can’t tell you who, unfortunately, but watch this space.

So you would like to get back on the TV? (Tom has appeared on many shows, including The IT Crowd, Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge and Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun)

It is difficult. The view today is that character comedians are not really wanted. TV executives don’t want characters. Producers of comedy and panel shows say; “We really love the act but it’s just not for us.” So I’ve seen comics below me on the boards do those shows and go on to fill out arenas, whereas I’m still struggling to get 120 into a room to see Ivan & Ian. But rather than get upset about that I’ve created a new character, who is a middle-aged ten-a-penny stand-up comedian. I’ve called him 'Tom Binns' and hopefully that will trick the producers into thinking that’s me!

How did you get into comedy?

I’ve been a bit of an oddball. I left school half way through my A’ Levels, got into hospital radio, bluffed my way into the Beeb and then moved into stand-up. They aren’t the things normal people can relate to. Since then I’ve had a baby and got married, and I’ve been able to connect to people.

Is that why you are not a fan of observational comedy?

I guess. A little bit of observational comedy, in noticing the detail in life, is good in support of the joke, but as the point of the act it leaves me a little bit sick inside to be honest. Those that do it well add a lot to it to, but I’ve never enjoyed it at all.

Oddly, Ian D Montfort works in the opposite way to observational comedians. They say, 'Haven’t you noticed? and we all say, 'yes', whereas Ian says, 'Have you done this thing?' and holds back from the fact that we all do it — so the chap thinks he truly knows him. They are so similar really.

Is TV comedy all based around stand-up and panel shows?

TV is controlled by Off Kerb & Avalon and they don’t want characters, especially if they are not on their books. It is programming created/produced by agents for their acts.

I’m too old for “Live at the Electric” and apparently young people only laugh at other young people. I don’t know why they don’t do a TV show which is just group of young people on a couch laughing at other young people. I remember being a teenager laughing at Morecambe and Wise. Not any more: kids only laugh at other kids in their skinny jeans talking about their life.

Comedy heroes?

Morecambe and Wise. And my uncle.

Tom's BBC Radio 2 series, Ian D Montfort is Unbelievable, is available from AudioGO.

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