Yorkshire-born Richard Herring talks perfectionism, being a comedy-obsessed idiot at school and his fascination with Rasputin as he brings his latest show to York . Phil Penfold reports.
Considering that his family moved on from the county when he was only a lad of four, Richard Herring has a fierce loyalty to Yorkshire. “Listen”, says the Pocklington-born comic, writer and social commentator, “I still support York City FC – how loyal do you want me to get?
"Over the past few years that has taken a bit of doing, believe me! Being a fan of City is rather like enduring a self-inflicted injury.”
His memories of the community where he spent his early years are slight. Herring’s father was a teacher at Pocklington school, and when he was offered a better post in Cheddar, in Somerset, the family moved on.
“I can remember it as all being very rural, a very leafy green” he says, “and I vividly recall discovering a little bird’s nest, complete with chicks, that had somehow tumbled from a tree. Being a very curious little boy, I tried to keep these ting creatures alive. Without any success, sadly.”
Now 52, Herring later turned his father’s profession and standing to advantage in one of his many solo shows, The Headmaster’s Son. “I don’t actually recall being picked on at school because my father was a teacher”, he reflects, “although that could well have happened to some degree.
"I was, however, and at a very early age, a comedy-obsessed idiot, and when it came to clowning around, I was up there at the front of it all. I was fascinated by it all. The words, the jokes, the structures. It was far easier to mess around and to be disruptive than to concentrate and to behave.”
When the TV was on at home, he says he’d be watching The Goodies – and then Monty Python came along. “I remember sneaking in the Life of Brian at the local cinema, and I don’t think that, when she found out, it impressed my mother very much.
"I liked Rik Mayall a lot, and Cannon and ball, Morecambe and Wise. Does that sound odd? I’ve always liked comics who bring a little anarchy to their acts, who defy convention a little. A little bit of wackiness.
“And I have the deepest respect for comics who just keep on out there, doing the stuff. Who keep on working. People like Les Dennis and Jimmy Cricket, both of whom have been guests on my podcast shows. These are the interesting people, the ones with careers, and stories to tell. I like that. People went ‘Oh, not Les Dennis, for Pete’s sake’, but they were bowled over by him.”
When he arrives in York with his new show, The Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre Podcast – or RHLSTP, for short – he’s bringing some guest artists with him. Quite who they’ll be is still in negotiation. “It’s all very much last minute, and depends on availability”, he admits. “Come along and be amazed!”
The list of previous guests is long – and pretty impressive, and has included Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, Tim Minchin, Eddie Izzard, David Mitchell and Sarah Pascoe.” He has been performing the award- winning show, in one guise or other, since 2012.
Herring is, he’ll agree, a great observer of people, and an ear-wigger. “I love to sit somewhere and to watch people and to listen to what they say. I’m pretty lucky in that I don’t really get recognised that much, because I’m not constantly on the box, and, in fact, I’ve changed my appearance recently – I’ve lost a couple of stones in weight. Honestly. I’m a different shape.”
“I can’t remember when it was that I had my last drink,” he adds. “Ages ago. Not that I ever drank to excess, it was just that I was waking up in the middle of the night, feeling a bit odd, a little confused. An anxiety attack maybe? And I just felt that drink was the cause. Of course I’ll have one again, sometime or other, but it’ll be when I want to, and when I feel that I’ll enjoy it, not before.”
Herring has been doing professional stand-up for over thirty years, and reckons that he has “moved in and out of fashion. They’ll like you for a while, then you’ll not be quite as popular. Then something happens, and the spotlight shifts back again.”
He is also a prolific writer, with several successful plays under his belt (Excavating Rita, It’s Not the End of the World) two of which featured Rasputin, the assassinated Russian monk and mystic. Why this strange man? “I really don’t know – I’ve always been fascinated by him. An incredible story, that’s what it boils down to. Another anarchic character, perhaps?”
Herring chose Rasputin as his ‘specialist subject’ when he appeared on Celebrity Mastermind – and came second, with a hugely creditable 35 points. “God, that was a slog”, he laughs. “Once I commit to anything, I can’t do it half-heartedly, I have to give it the lot. So that meant I spent many, many hours, swotting away in the British Library, reading about the man, his life, his death, his times. “
Herring’s writing has included working on many scripts for other top-flight comedians – such as Al Murray. He script-edited a series of Little Britain and, way back in 1991, when he was still cutting his comedic teeth, he and Stewart Lee contributed to BBC Radio 4’s On The Hour.
Together they invented a hapless, lop-sided out-of-kilter radio presenter, who was far better at insulting his guests than he was at getting an interesting interview from them. This man was to have a fine career of his own. It was the infamous Alan Partridge.
“It was Steve Coogan who really made Partridge,” says Herring, “and who gave him a success beyond those initial radio beginnings. Steve is a brilliant master of improvisation. But I wouldn’t mind having a fiver for every time Alan gets an outing, being part of that franchise.”
To keep himself sharp, Herring is forever tweaking his own act, developing it, and then redeveloping again. Getting guests alongside him clearly is part of keeping it all spontaneous and fresh.
“As I go along, I sort of get better ideas of how and where to improve it. I am, I will admit, a bit of a workaholic. Am I a perfectionist? Yes, I want things to flow properly. Do I ever achieve that goal? Never. Which is why I keep on trying. And revising. There’s always a ‘new way’ I love exploring comedy.
“I think I’ve actually got to a pretty good place now. When I was coasting up to forty years old, I think that I was a pretty angry bloke – not in a physical sense – but in what I was delivering. Having turned fifty I’ve mellowed a bit, calmed down rather.”
Having two children, a son and daughter, has helped that, he says. “They are wonderful – both are blessed with that childish sense of humour, where they tell you jokes that make a lot of sense to them, but not to adults. Kids like different things – and they always keep you guessing. Maybe they’ll follow their mum and dad, but who on earth knows?”
Richard is married to writer and comedian Catie Wilkins, and they now live in Hertfordshire. “It is a lifestyle”, he says, “about as far from showbusiness as you can possibly get.”
Herring reckons Yorkshire audiences “are the good ones to play. I like Leeds, and Sheffield, and York. Glasgow and Liverpool, well, they can be a bit difficult at times. I don’t have a town where I think ‘No way, I won’t be going back there!’, but every performer has places where, sometimes, they’d rather not be.”
Audiences, he believes, are always different. “It all depends on the mood. I’m lucky, I play good theatres and larger venues. I can’t think what it would be like to play a WMC with ‘alternative comedy’ when the heavens have opened all day and redundancies have been announced at the local workplace…
"Mind you, there are some things that I definitely steer clear of. If you’ve got a tough audience you want to win round, you don’t want to be mentioning Brexit.”
Richard Herring. RHLSTP, Grand Theatre and Opera House, York, October 19. Box Office on 0844 871 3024.