‘Stand up is a drug’: Bob Mills

Bob Mills
Bob Mills
Charmed Life Festival in 2017

Charmed Life Festival returns to Portsmouth

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I’ve had some strange starts to interviews, but I think this was the first one where I’ve been asked for IT support.

Comedian Bob Mills is at his computer when he takes The Guide’s call: ‘Suddenly it looks completely different, why’s that the case?

‘For 30 years when I’ve had the list of e-mails, there’s been a little box which you can tick and decide what you want to do, but it’s gone. Isn’t it weird?’

But we’re not chatting because I’m going to fix Bob’s problem with his e-mail – I don’t, I fail miserably (my only suggestion is to turn it on and off again). It’s because he is appearing tonight at the Spinnaker Tower Comedy Club at Gunwharf Quays.

And the stand-up legend has been in the game for 30 years.

‘It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?’ he recalls. ‘Many people say too long.’

But he still remembers vividly when he got hooked. Missing the start of a film proved to be a major turning point in his life: ‘We’d just got married, and just had our first kid. Like all young couples in the ’80s, we were potless, we had a little flat – we were just getting by.

‘We got a babysitter one night, which was very rare, and we had a tenner or something and we went to a little pub called the Market Tavern in Camden.

‘We were going to watch a film at the Screen on the Green over at Islington, but we missed the start, and I thought, I’m not going to miss 10 minutes of Paris, Texas, so we went to this little pub instead.

‘We got a drink, and we noticed people were paying to go downstairs. A pound, or 50p, if you were unwaged. No-one ever said unemployed – they called it unwaged – so we paid 50p each, because we thought it must be a band on.

‘But it wasn’t, it was a comedy night.

‘I’ll never forget it. It was Mark Thomas, Eddie Zibbin, who later become Pat Condell, and a double act called Nickelodeon who were very good.

‘It was a very new thing back then, live comedy. If you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, all you knew about stand-up comedy, was “I saw these two nuns driving down the road”, or “I saw these two black fellas in the pub”. That’s what it was, I’m not knocking it, that’s what it was.

‘So to suddenly sit in this little cellar bar, to see these comics in suits – not dickie bow suits, but sharp little suits – being really funny...

‘I had never heard a joke that wasn’t about an Irish person being stupid, nuns wanting to have sex, or blacks or Asians.

‘I guess it was on a par to someone hearing rock ‘n’roll for the first time. I went on about it for six weeks, until my wife got really bored and said why don’t you try it? There’s a workshop you can go to, so I did that, and it started from there.’

Within six months Bob got his first TV gig – as the very first comic to appear on the new show Saturday Live, hosted by Ben Elton.

‘The people making it went around the comedy circuit, and they thought it would be good to open the series not with someone well-known but with a brand new act.

‘I didn’t quite understand why, but they asked me to do it, so I was the first comic on Saturday Live, but it was a nightmare.’

Taking advice from another, more experienced comic not to use all his best material on TV, Bob wrote an entirely new set, which he performed for the first time on the show – and it did not go well.

‘Fortunately Harry Enfield was on next doing Loadsamoney – people remember that, and they forget the idiot who died on his backside right before him.

‘And thankfully it’s not on YouTube.’

Since then, he has enjoyed a long and varied career, including a stint as the host of the game show Win, Lose or Draw, having his own show In Bed With Medinner, as well as writing the Robson Green vehicle Christmas Lights and Bob Martin for Michael Barrymore.

He also scripted the critically-acclaimed film Pierrepoint about the last hangman in Britain, starring Timothy Spall.

Bob explains: ‘Everything I’ve done has to be prefaced with “because I’m a stand-up...

‘Because I’m a stand-up and it puts me in places that “normal” people can’t be. I never set out to be a writer, or game show host, or radio person, I only ever wanted to be a stand-up.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m hugely proud and grateful for the other things that I’ve done.

I don’t make any judgement on that stuff though, I only judge myself on the gig I did last night, or the gig I’m going tomorrow.

‘When you’re a stand-up you have an amazing freedom. When I come to the Spinnaker I’ll have a rough idea, but I won’t know what I’m going to say first, it’ll depend on what my mood is like, what the drive down was like, or what the room is like, and half an hour-40 minutes later it’ll have been a conversational experience between me and those people in the room. Hopefully it’ll be good, there’ll be laughter and applause, and it’ll be that little moment in time, and that’s what I love.

‘Stand-up’s a drug, it’s like being in a rock band, except you don’t have to name the rest of the band.

‘Even Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan has got to do that, but I don’t – it’s just you and me.’

And like a true professional, he suddenly comes out with: ‘Here, you can finish with this – writing, radio, television, are all things that I do, but stand-up, that is what I am.’

And with that he gives a big, hearty Bob Mills chuckle.

Bob Mills is headlining the Spinnaker Tower comedy club night, along with Holly Walsh and Chris Purchase. The bar opens at 7pm tonight and the comedy starts at 8.15pm. Tickets are £12.50 on the door.