Footlights Interview: Harry Michell

Footlights President of 2013 Harry Michell is returning to the ADC this week with a new show, ready for the Edinburgh Fringe. He talks to LARA FERRIS all about comedy and life out of Cambridge.

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I’m waiting to get a drink at The Maypole, and I hear someone coming in behind me. I turn around, and there is Harry Michell, looking completely at home, like he’s just been away from Cambridge for a long weekend, rather than a whole year. Although he confesses to feeling weirded out in these oh-so-familiar surroundings, it feels like he hasn’t quite left Footlights and the ADC behind. We grab a drink, and sit down outside. I want to talk to him about Footlights, about comedy and the Edinburgh Fringe – and also the extremely important question about what people actually do after graduating from university.

You were Footlights President last year, in 2013. Did you arrive in Cambridge and think ‘I want to be a Footlight’? What was your route into comedy?

I turned up wanting to just direct straight theatre. Just do very straight theatre. And then I did that thing that everyone does, when you get here and you think ‘Oh I’ve got to do everything! I’ve got to try everything!’ And then I did the Virgin Smoker, and then I auditioned loads of sketches, and none of them got in because they were all really bad. And they were all puns. That was – it still is – my weird go-to thing. If I’m tired, and I need to write a joke, I’ll just do a bad pun, and think I’ll get away with it — and then very quickly, I realised that no-one finds that funny. But then I met Alex McKeith, and we started writing together, and auditioned for loads of things.

Then I think the thing that really helped me get into the committee was that I directed the 2011 Pantomime ‘Treasure Island,’ which I really wasn’t supposed to – normally, prior to that, someone would always come back and direct the Pantomime – and then no one applied! And I was just this nervous little fresher… But that was cool, and that meant I got to work with all of the Footlights in the year above, and Phil Wang, and people like that, and I learnt a lot that way, and it kind of snowballed from that, I kept writing sketches, and doing comedy.

Second year comedy is the best, because you’re like this new ‘up and coming’ group – the same pattern happens every year, which is, the new committee come in and everyone goes ‘Oh, but they weren’t as good as last year’s committee – but these second years, bloody hell they’re good!’ And then as soon as those second years become the committee everyone is like ‘Who are these guys?’ – And so that is essentially the Footlights story of me.

So then what, you did the America Tour?

I didn’t do the America Tour. I did a show called Dressing Down, me, Alex and Ben Pope. We had this stupid costume idea that we wanted to play with. The idea was to have quick-change costumes, and try and make each sketch as big and wonderful as possible. So we did that as a Spring Revue, then we took it up to Edinburgh.

Your Edinburgh show this year is Minor Delays. What’s it about?

It’s a sketch show, written by me, but with two other awesome people, Abi Tedder, who was Footlights President in 2010. When I was a fresher, she was third year, and she was the coolest, most amazing person, and then, as always happens in Cambridge, at first you idolise them, then you become friends, and then it’s all fine. So yeah, I asked her to do the show, and the other person is this guy called Joe Barnes, who was President of the Leeds Tealights last year…

I realised, coming out of Cambridge, I’d never written a sketch really by myself – well, I kind of had, but it’s quite a scary idea to write an hour, just by yourself, and so I thought I would try something, and so I did that with Joe. And we tried that out, and it went all right, so we decided to take it up. And Minor Delays is like the antithesis of Dressing Down, it’s like ‘no costumes, no set, no props’ we just sit down on three chairs and do the entire show sitting down, talking out to the audience.

No delay in the puns or the punch lines

So everyone does a sketch show, or creates a play, and then they ‘take it up to Edinburgh’ – but what is so special about the Fringe, do you think, in terms of comedy and student comedy? Why are you going back?

I just think it’s a necessary evil. You have to do it. You don’t get any other chance – I mean, luckily in Cambridge you do get a few other chances, but in most other universities you won’t get any other chance to perform a show for thirty days, or twenty days, every single day, and that’s the closest you’ll get to a professional run, really, and you’ll get to hone it, and practice it, and learn…and also Edinburgh audiences are so much harder than Cambridge audiences.

– Because it’s not your friends.

Yeah, they’re not your mates, and they’re normally sober, and so, yeah, it gives you a playground to really hone your material, so that you make it bulletproof. So the great thing about doing I am, I am [Harry’s 2012 show with fellow Footlight Lowell Belfield] was that we did Edinburgh, and completely honed the shit out of it, so that even if we had the most unresponsive audience, we could still get a laugh out of them. And then we came back here, to our mates, and it was just amazing, incredible.

So in some respects you’ve finished Cambridge, you’ve graduated, and gone on to bigger and better things. But on the other hand you’re coming back –

– I’m still here –

– you’re still doing your show at the ADC before taking it up to Edinburgh. What sort of stuff have you been doing in between last summer and this summer?

Oh yeah, so much, so much, I’m so successful now, I’ve essentially made it. No, no. What have I been doing? I’ve been working on this show for Edinburgh, I wrote and directed my first short film, which was good fun, with an actor called Stephen Mangan – he was narrating it and doing all the voice work for us. And so that’s taken up most of my time, trying to get it into festivals. Because also that’s what I want to do, make films, rather than do ‘comedy.’ Weirdly. I think the reason I’m doing these sketch shows is because they’re fun to do.

Joe Barnes and Abi Tedder – what’s their backstory? What have they done after uni?

So Joe’s in another comedy group called Good Bear with some of his Leeds guys, and then he also works for a TV company at the moment, and Abi is still on the comedy scene. She directed the Footlights tour show two years ago, and she’s been nominated for various awards, but she also works at LSE – that’s how she makes her money. I mean, that’s the other huge thing that you kind of forget when you leave university is, like, money, and living, and trying to rationalise what it’s like to be out of an institution, and not have people telling you what to do on a day to day basis. And I tutor. Which I’m so bad at, like, so bad at*. But, you know, it puts food in my stomach.

*Ed:this is a joke

– and allows you to take shows up to Edinburgh!

Yeah, exactly. And allows me to be free for auditions, and have my days free to write, and muck around and stuff. So yeah, it’s good fun.

And so when is Minor Delays?

11pm on Tuesday 17th, same night as John’s May Ball, which I’m sure everyone will be going to – I’m going to it, after the show, yeah… my worst gigs ever have all been at May Balls, just because – I did Darwin last year, and we tried to do a sketch show, and we just got booed off the stage, because everyone was so drunk, there were about seven people there and no one was laughing………but I’m sure John’s will be a laugh.

So you’re doing Minor Delays at the ADC and then straight off to John’s?

Yeah, we’re doing Minor Delay’s at John’s as well.

Oh, ok. Sweet. So if you don’t go to John’s, then you go to see Minor Delays at the ADC, and if you do go to John’s then you don’t have to go to the ADC. Perfect.