Interview: Rory McGrath

NANCY NAPPER CANTER and KIKI BETTS-DEAN and are beguiled by Cantab, comedian and Cambridge townie Rory McGrath.

Footlights Griff Rhys-Jones kiki betts-dean nancy napper-canter pub dig rory mcgrath

Before we start, we warn garrulous comedian Rory McGrath that the finished interview can only be 750 words. He feigns distress, ‘I don’t know 750 words. Can I repeat some?’ The joke has more layers than you’d expect: twenty minutes later, the interview has morphed into a lecture from Rory on the etymology of the word ‘quarry’. His mix of mockery and earnestness makes him charming, if occasionally disarming, company.

The earnest side surfaces when discussing his new series, Pub Dig, which he calls ‘my favourite programme ever’. It’s clear that his interest isn’t just for publicity: he explains of ‘The Free Press’, our meeting place, that it was the first non-smoking pub in England. ‘No mobile phones, no swearing and no smoking. I didn’t smoke or have a mobile phone, so when other people had to go outside for a fag or phone call, I’d go outside and shout “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!”’

What’s the coolest thing he’s found on a Pub Dig? ‘Dinosaur bones’, replies Rory, after a pause to assess our gullibility. ‘And that excited me, of course, but the public don’t find that interesting. If you find dinosaurs or Romans, it’s boring because they want medieval pottery. “What’s this?” “Oh, it’s just some old dinosaur bone. Come and look at this medieval mortal and pestle!” I find it exciting because lots of people have described me as a dinosaur so I feel personally connected.’ Enamoured as we are by his infectious energy, it’s only later that we realise he’s actually having us on. Idiots.

Having studied modern languages at Emmanuel College, Rory finds himself living in Cambridge again after a 17-year hiatus. ‘Things have changed a lot. The big thing is, students have become… I wouldn’t say, ‘chavvified’, but they’ve been democratised. In my day, you could walk around Cambridge and say, ‘student, townie, student, townie’; it was so obvious. Nowadays the fashions are such that when I see a student girl, I think she could be a townie. Except when you hear them speak, obviously.’ He lapses into a drawl worthy of Matt Lacey, ‘Oh god, like, I spoke to Josh last night and he was like so ‘oh’…’’

Rory is ambivalent about his own time as a student. ‘I think I was too immature. What I’d most like to do is have those three years again, read the same subjects, and actually go to lectures and supervisions’. Would he do Footlights again? ‘No, I don’t think they’d have me. I think comedy’s moved on.’ And Rory doesn’t mean this in a good way. ‘Every other person I meet now is a stand up comedian. I watch a lot of stand up, and often it’s quite funny, but I just think, “so what?”’

Rory dispels the myth that Footlights isn’t what it used to be: ‘in our day, it wasn’t what it used to be, because it used to be good, and in our day it was crap. You always think it’s the best when you look back. Everyone used to say that when John Cleese and Peter Cook were in Footlights, it was the best it had ever been. But people at that time thought they were just undergraduate wankers.’

The Tab having just interviewed fellow Man-in-Boat Griff Rhys-Jones, we can’t resist asking Rory, as we did Griff, which Man he’d throw overboard. ‘Griff’s the only one who knows how to sail,’ he reasons, ‘Dara’s too big to throw, so it would probably be me. I’d throw myself off and swim to safety.’ Well, we all like a pragmatist.

And, by the end of the interview, we’ve decided we like a bullshitter too – or this (occasional) one anyway. Having genuinely enlightened us on the etymology of ‘money’, ‘wedge’, ‘coin’ and ‘mint’, he remarks, ‘I also like the word ‘sycophant. That comes from the Greek meaning ‘fig exposer’ – people used to go to the police in Athens, and grass on people who were stealing figs without paying taxes.’ He pauses. ‘And that is apparently bollocks.’