For nearly five years comedians ELIS JAMES and JOHN ROBINS have been using their podcast (the edited highlights of their Radio X Saturday afternoon show) to build a world. This world has its own language, references and loyal army of followers (‘PCDs’ – podcast devotees). Topics including shame, keeping your alcohol intake ‘session’ and ticking off tastes are all permanently on the agenda.
Proud Welshman, comedy actor and football pundit Elis James casts a weekly wry eye over the tabloid newspapers while Alan Partridge acolyte, Queen aficionado and Edinburgh Comedy Award winner John Robins relinquishes listeners of their shame by delivering anecdotes from the base of his ‘shame well’.
It’s a novel concoction which has captured the imagination and led to the duo’s first foray into literature. The Holy Vible is an instruction manual to James and Robins. With chapters on the pair’s favourite musicians, the various personalities who have aided their commercial digital indie radio tenure and why you simply have to be on email these days; everything is covered.
Ahead of the Holy Vible book tour, stopping off at the Epstein Theatre in November, Sam Turner spoke to James and Robins from the headquarters of their publisher about their debut publication, what to expect from the live show and what makes the perfect pub.
What was the process of writing your first book like?
Elis James: Hellish. Thrilled to bits it is finally over.
How did you go about distilling five years of podcasts into a book?
EJ: You’d probably have to ask John because I only wrote about 3 to 5%. I turned up to the photo shoots and made sure that my name came first on the cover. Other than that I very much took a back seat in the whole process.
The book is an A-Z of Elis and John. Were there any topics which you were forced to leave out because of that format?
EJ: No, if you look at the contents page we showed quite a lot of initiative in getting in all topics we wanted to discuss. I always wanted to write chapters on football, the Gorkys and the Welsh language. John managed to write about pub crawls in Oxford, Frank Zappa, almond milk, why he likes Queen so much, and he also gives advice on how to be normal.
It was a really, really fun process because essentially we’d been given a blank canvas. We were told by Orion, our publisher, you can write about whatever you like. You can write about what you’re passionate about, what moves you and that was the funnest aspect. Sitting down and thinking: right, football has meant a huge amount to me all my life, same with Queen for John, I wrote about how much I now like spicy food… And to crystallise that into a chapter was a very, very exciting thing to do. And also, on a personal level I really liked sending my chapters to John and getting them sent back with his notes. Because with stand up in particular, you write that on your own and so this was a very, very collaborative process. Because I’ve known John for so long and we’ve done so much together I completely trust his judgement.
I saw an excerpt you wrote, Elis, that Huw Thomas tweeted, about Welsh language and your grandma which is really moving. So The Holy Vible is not simply a straight-up comedy book?
John Robins: I thought that chapter was uncharacteristically emotionally sensitive.
EJ: Well, the thing is these are views that I’ve held for a very long time and finally I am able to express them in a way that I’m happy about. I wouldn’t want to say this is my manifesto but it’s something I’ve felt very strongly about for a long time that I’ve been able to crystallise and now it’s out there, it’s my opinion and that’s the point. Even something like journalism, you tend to churn that out a bit but with the book, it’s crafted very carefully. So John wrote a chapter on mental health called Grief Is Living and I was really, really bowled over by that chapter. Cos he’d thought about it so carefully and I think because there are so many comedy books and have been over the years I can’t think of many where… there is funny stuff, there are chapters about Producer Dave and Producer Vin that were meant to be funny and a day in the life of Elis and John which are meant to be funny but we weren’t unafraid of dealing with bigger topics and that’s one of the things I’m proudest of in the book.
I suppose it’s a platform that not many people get – to have a blank canvass and to be able to write about whatever they want to write about . A really liberating experience but is that not similar to stand up comedy?
EJ: It is, but the liberating thing is, with stand up comedy you have to get laughs, whereas when I wrote a chapter on the Gorkys I was just trying to express how I love my favourite band. I wasn’t trying to make anyone laugh, I was just trying to be interesting as well as light-hearted. It’s a privilege to express some things I’ve thought for a long time and I’m sure John feels the same.
JR: It’s very nice to think someone’s not going to reply to your chapter in a tweet. You can sit with it and the way you’ve decided to word it will stay that way, and if people misinterpret it, or don’t like it, the book stays the same. I can send it to Elis and get feedback. And you might have months, even, to try and perfect what you are trying to say.
Who would you say were your literary influences when writing the book?
JR: For me… Baudelaire, Proust. For Elis… Linekar, Barnes…
EJ: Yes, Richard Skarry’s Busy Town Busy People…
All the greats…
EJ: All the greats! E.L. James obviously, who wrote 50 Shades Of Grey was an influence… and Enid Blyton.
It’s interesting to see a book with chapters on Gorky’s, Queen and Frank Zappa. Quite disparate artists…
JR: We’re all artists, in a way…
Yes, how did you tackle those different artists in the book?
EJ: I’ve listened to Gorky’s on a weekly basis for probably 23 years and have been banging the drum for Gorky Zygotic Mynci at university…
EJ: Haha literally …and also on the stand-up circuit, I wrote an Edinburgh show about them. I think they are a hidden gem. John is exactly the same about Queen. There’s a chapter about Queen that really made me laugh about who he took in [to school] his CD single of Bohemian Rhapsody, which in his mind he thought was in the week of release but was actually about two years later, he was so eager to show someone haha!
Personally, I think that John’s Frank Zappa fandom and his Queen fandom are two opposing parts of his brain and it was quite interesting to see how he’s written about two bands he’s very passionate about. Cos again, when I first met John he was wearing this naff t-shirt and I’d never met anybody who’d actually literally wearing his preferences on his sleeve. And, yeah, I started listening to Frank Zappa because of that chapter and I’d like to think that readers of the book will listen to Gorky’s or listen to Queen (if they somehow hadn’t heard Queen music). I could have quite easily written a chapter on Super Furry Animals, or Gruff Rhys, or The Beatles, Or The Smiths, or Pavement, or The Fall or Datblygu, or Can. But Gorky’s are the one that says the most about me as a person.
Elis, you’re also quite a big fan of a lot of Liverpool bands. Bunnymen, Half Man Half Biscuit…
EJ: Yes, I saw Echo And The Bunnymen at the Albert Hall a couple of weeks ago. And Half Man Half Biscuit; I don’t know why Nigel doesn’t get more credit than he does. His latest record is another absolute belter. And he speaks Welsh. He covers Patio Song by the Gorky’s and he goes on cycling holidays to North Wales. I’d love to meet him. If you can sort that, that would be great…
And more contemporary, you’ve picked Hooton Tennis Club and The Fernweh as your tracks on the Keep It Session Sessions section of the podcast.
EJ: Yes, and I’m a big fan of The Zutons as well and The Coral I’ve seen a few times. I’ve always liked music from Merseyside because there tends to be a slight psychedelic element to it and it tends to be slightly left field. I think in comparison to other towns in the UK they’re slightly gentler and slightly quirkier and I think probably in my top 15 band, eight of them are probably from Merseyside.
All that Scallydelic and Cosmic Scally stuff from the late 80s, the Scousers were far more psychedelic than the people in Manchester, or Leeds, or Newcastle. I was a big fan of The Boo Radleys as well actually. I got to know Martin Carr because he moved to Cardiff. Lazarus, I think their early stuff is brilliant.
And John, you’re a Liverpool FC fan? How come?
JR: Because I saw them play on TV in 1988 in the Candy silvery grey away kit and John Barnes scored a goal and I just sort of picked them as you do if you’re a kid and live near Bristol..
So, you enjoy your visits to Liverpool when you come here on tour?
JR: Yes, I really like the Epstein and I really like the pubs there. But I’ve never been to a football match because I don’t like crowds, tribalism or aggression.
And going back to pubs John. You have a chapter on the perfect Oxford Pub Crawl. What’s your criteria for the perfect pub?
JR: Empty, silent.
…And that’s it?
JR: Yep. …and with well-kept beer and a good range because something that really annoys me about pubs is when they’ll have three ales which are all kind of the same ale. E.G., let me give you an E.G. London Pride, Doombar and Wadsworth XXXX
JR: All nice ales, if you like that sort of ale, but what are you doing having all three? Why not have London Pride, Hophead, and a porter, thus serving three different palates. And I make this point to the pub on my road every time I’ve ever been in there.
I’d recommend The Fly In The Loaf in Liverpool…
EJ: What’s The Grapes like? And what about the Philharmonic?
Great toilets, grade I listed urinals…
EJ: You see, I see people talk about these toilets on Twitter and I assume it’s some kind of Liverpool in-joke, but the toilets are actually very nice in the Philly?
Yes, they get coach loads of tourists coming in to see them! What’s the format for the live show?
EJ: We’ll be doing readings of our favourite passages from the book and we’ll be having a general knock about laugh. I think we might mix up the readings because it’ll be a lot of fun choosing which ones we’re going to do at the live gigs because obviously you want to give a representative sample of what the book is like to people. Then we’ll be doing a signing and meeting anyone who wants to meet us. We did a tour in 2016 which was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my comedy career so I’m really looking forward to getting out there again.
In the meantime, John has won the Edinburgh Comedy Award of course so how does that change the dynamic of the Live Show?
EJ: Yeah, I’ll probably just let him do most of the talking.
Elis James and John Robins: The Holy Vible comes to the Epstein Theatre on Tuesday 13th November.
Tickets available from epsteinliverpool.co.uk.