Tab Interview: Mark Watson

‘Other people let common sense get the better of them, but I try to ensure it doesn’t get the better of me.’ Comedy hero MARK WATSON talks to HOLLY STEVENSON and TABATHA LEGGETT.

24 hour show Cambridge Cindies Edinburgh Fringe English Literature environment Holly Stevenson Mark Watson novel Queens' radio resolutions Tabatha Leggett

Not only did Mark Watson get a first from Cambridge, he also performed with the Footlights at Edinburgh Festival and was nominated for a Perrier Comedy award. And that was all before he left Cambridge. Since then, he’s become a big name on the comedy circuit, making regular appearances on comedy panel shows like Mock the Week and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. And he wrote three novels. And does a lot of environmental work. The perfect man? I think he just might be.

Tabatha Leggett and Holly Stevenson: You studied English Literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge. What was your time at Cambridge like?

Mark Watson: A mostly joyous experience, I’d say. It took me about a term to overcome my natural shyness and my sense of ‘what the hell I am doing at Cambridge?’ And it probably took until my second year to feel properly at home. Once I’d got to the stage, it was lovely. I even ended up getting married there (some years later).

TL and HS: Were you a Cindies man?

MW: Haha. It’s a sign I’m getting older that it took me about ten minutes to remember what Cindies was. I nearly had to Google it. No, it’s safe to say I wasn’t exactly a regular. I think I went there once, drank something like a Smirnoff Ice, sat around for a bit and went home.

TL and HS: What was it like growing up in Bristol with a Welsh family?

MW: I always felt Bristolian – still do – but on the other hand, my mum and various relatives would always be around saying Welsh things like ‘right you are’ or ‘singing at your meals, trouble at your heels’ (a Welsh proverb, supposedly, but I think my grandma might have made it up). The only time the worlds really collided was England v Wales rugby matches. Even now I support England but feel guilty.

TL and HS: You’ve famously performed 24 hour shows at the Edinburgh Fringe before. How did you come up with this idea?

MW: I’ve been asked this before, and I’m never quite able to account for it! It was just something which had never been done before, and that alone seemed a good enough reason to take it on. I’m sure it had occurred to other people before and they let common sense get the better of them, but I try to ensure it doesn’t get the better of me.


Mark performs his 24 hour show at the Edinburgh Fringe 2009

TL and HS: What have been the highest and lowest points of your career to date?

MW: Aside from the first 24 hour show, I’d say playing the Sydney Opera House might be the highpoint. It was far from the biggest audience – the room was smaller than the Cambridge Corn Exchange in fact – but in terms of impressing your mum, it’s hard to beat. The lowpoint would be getting dumped by my publisher early last year, unexpectedly and very coldly. But I’ve got a new one now and they’re much nicer.

TL and HS: To mark your 30th birthday and the birth of your son, you decided to try and write a daily blog for ten years. How are you finding it, eight months on?

MW: Quite hard. Not so much thinking of things to write, but finding even a few seconds in the day to do it. You might say it was a stupid thing to take on at the precise moment of my life when I’m busier than I have ever been before. But, er, there you go.

TL and HS: How many of the original resolutions you made have you kept?

MW: I’ve succeeded in playing drums in public and reducing my alcohol intake. Not got into Space yet or met Obama but those are long-term goals. The biggest resolution – to become an optimist – is an ongoing battle. Sometimes I appear to be managing it, sometimes it all goes wrong.

TL and HS: What drives you to attempt these big, difficult ideas?

MW: Boredom with small, easy ideas, basically. I think it’s important to drive yourself forward in search of things beyond what you thought were your limits. After all, life’s very short and you can, as Bon Jovi said, sleep when you’re dead. But I admit it’s nice to sleep when you’re alive too, sometimes.

TL and HS: Many of your contemporaries decide to write autobiographies. Why novels?

MW: Novel-writing was always the main thing I wanted to do – stand-up comedy was almost an accidental side-project, which became my main livelihood. I see novels as the most exciting and rewarding things you can possibly be involved in creating. I don’t see the point in writing an autobiography unless your life is richer, and unless you’re more interesting, than about 90 percent of people who DO write them. And if you’re below the age of 40 you should absolutely not even think about it.

TL and HS: You say ‘pessimism is intrinsic to your personality’, yet you seem to have a keenness and a belief that the world can be made better. Can it?

MW: I’m not sure it can be made universally or permanently better – despite the rather bold title of my radio show – but I do believe we can all change it a tiny little bit for a short time, and that is worth doing. My pessimism tends to centre on my own failed attempts at actually doing it.

TL and HS: In your radio show ‘Mark Watson makes the world substantially better’, you chose to do stand-up on the seven deadly sins and the virtues. Why? Was it difficult to make these topics funny?

MW: No, it was fairly easy, because the sins and virtues (greed, pride, courage, etc) were cunningly selected for their vagueness. So nearly any joke I could think of, I was able to squeeze into one show or the other. I’m struggling to think of a similar catch-all for the third series. Any ideas?

TL and HS: In 2007 you started ‘Crap at the Environment’, an environmental project. What inspired this?

MW: The dawning awareness that I was indeed ‘crap at the environment’, and hadn’t made even a token attempt to do better. The book and project were intended to attract people in a similar boat and launch a very-small-scale eco-self-improvement campaign. It kind of worked. I met Al Gore.

TL and HS: What can your fans expect from your performance in Cambridge in November?

MW: Lots and lots of jokes, stories, and some improvised mayhem. And a lot more of me than they’ve probably seen on TV. I’m literally there talking for the whole evening.

TL and HS: Plans for the future?

MW: More books, more tours, and in the shorter term, I’m thinking of having a glass of wine.

Mark Watson is performing at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 3rd November. For more information about Mark’s show, click here.