They say that if you can make a living from your hobbies or interests then it’s never really a job.
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham have certainly taken on that challenge as The Thinking Drinkers – comedy performers and award-winning writers on the subject of alcohol.
But for Ben it all started out rather differently: ‘It’s one of those strange things, we started off working in local newspapers – I was at the Brighton Argus for a year before getting a job at (trade magazine) The Publican. I didn’t want to leave the Argus, but I literally couldn’t survive, it was so badly paid.
‘The Publican goes out to all the pubs in the country, which is where I met Tom, and then you find yourself in this specialist world.
‘Apart from drinking it, there was no sort of massive professional interest in alcohol before that for me. I found myself going from court reporting to crisp and snack reporting. Then you realise what the interesting things are – and like local news it’s still the stories and the people, rather than what the new badge looks like on a pump or whatever.’
The first project the pair undertook together was a 10-week tour of the American west coast, resulting in the book, Good Beer Guide West Coast US.
It’s like the QI of alcohol, really, and there’s some amazing stories behind all these drinks. There’s lots of silly bits and some terrible punsBen McFarland
‘It was brilliant fun, but we bit off a bit more than we could chew,’ Ben laughs. The comedy aspect developed from there.
‘It was a sort of an evolution. As journalists, the opportunities for writing were shrinking a little bit, so we started doing food and drink festivals, and doing talks and tastings, that kind of thing.
‘We’d stand up and do a talk on spirits and beer. It was interesting but no-one was having too much fun, it was all a bit earnest. You could see people glazing over after a while, and we were getting bored as well, so we started mucking around a little bit, throwing in the odd joke, and realised that that engaged people a lot more. We started talking around the drink, rather than just what’s in the glass.’
But it was a trip to Edinburgh which proved to be the turning point.
‘We went there to do a food festival, and I’d been to the Fringe on several occasions as a punter – saw some really good shows and some really bad shows, and it was watching one of those when I thought, well, our tastings, certainly aren’t worse than this guy...
‘So we explored it and met with a producer and a director. We thought we’d just do a tasting in a pub, but they said, no, we can turn it into a show. Within five months we’d written a show and were on stage. I’d never been so scared in my life.
We had a theatrical bootcamp with a director who kicked us into shape and told us simple things, like stop moving - we looked like we needed the loo the whole time.’
That was in 2011 and they’ve since built a loyal following.
The show also features five drinks for the audience.
‘We’re not stood there with a bottle going “£5.99 from Waitrose” or anything like that – we talk about the generic drinks, gin, rum, vodka and whisky, how they’ve influenced the past. It’s like the QI of alcohol, really, and there’s some amazing stories behind all these drinks. There’s lots of silly bits and some terrible puns. It’s like a really good night down the pub.’
And not one with the pub bore? ‘Well, we’ll see how the reviews come out.’
THE THINKING DRINKERS: HISTORY OF ALCOHOL
The Spring Arts Centre, Havant
Friday, October 6