Robin Ince's 24-hour carnival of comics, comets and the Cure

From Harry Hill to Helen Sharman, Ince’s Christmas mashup of comedy, science and music – Nine Lessons and Carols for Socially Distanced People – reached dizzy heights

Robin Ince.
Reach for the stars ... Robin Ince. Photograph: The Cosmic Shambles and Natalie Shaw
Reach for the stars ... Robin Ince. Photograph: The Cosmic Shambles and Natalie Shaw
Brian Logan

Last modified on Wed 16 Dec 2020 01.50 EST

It’s Sunday morning, and Robin Ince is feeling dizzy after twentysomething hours of his 24-hour Christmas comedy-science extravaganza. Maybe it’s the tiredness, he wonders aloud – or maybe it’s that he often feels dizzy when speaking to cosmologists. In that befuddled moment, Ince stumbles upon the justification for Nine Lessons and Carols for Socially Distanced People, this otherwise barmy adventure in round-the-clock science entertainment. Unlike Mark Watson’s marathon comedy shows, say, dizziness is an apt condition in which to engage with Nine Lessons, a day-long DIY The One Show for science geeks, with oddball comedy thrown in whenever the head threatens to stop spinning.

It sometimes feels as if it’s held together by no agent more binding than Ince’s personal taste. What else unites the experience of astronauts Helen Sharman and Samantha Cristoforetti with, say, comic John-Luke Roberts’ (brilliant) Chaucer impersonation? Or the geological research of Professor Christopher Jackson with the new songs performed by a barefoot and housebound Robert Smith of the Cure? Precious little, as far as I can see – but maybe I was just too dizzy to make the connections.

Not that I watched it for the full 24 hours; far from it. My daughter and I were there for the family session on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours after the show kicked off at noon. Sat among a distanced audience in a subterranean studio in Kings Place, by King’s Cross, it felt like a far cry from previous years’ Nine Lessons shows, sold-out affairs at the Hammersmith Apollo and elsewhere. The many guests, who would usually appear live, mainly performed via video – meaning there was no great premium on in-person attendance.

But there was plenty to divert us, from the Coca-Cola chemistry of science communicator Jamie Gallagher, to maths quizzes pitched in by Bobby Seagull and Simon Singh. Ince’s sidekick Steve Pretty, the only other round-the-clock participant, engineered a remote musical performance, the instruments on stage operated digitally by bandmates scattered around the UK – a first, Pretty claimed. The show’s co-host for this section, comedian Bec Hill, performed two of her trademark doodle animations, one with a Christmas theme.

Harry Hill
Worth waiting for ... Harry Hill. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris

Of course, there’s no dramatic shape to any of this, no seeming rhyme nor reason why one act follows another. Maybe you’d get some sense of structure or arc over 24 hours – and you’d have earned it. I kept dipping in digitally for the rest of the show. I missed Stewart Lee as Santa; which, if the performance was even half as funny as the idea, I heartily regret. I caught Chris Hadfield (every time I switched on, Ince was talking to another astronaut ...), and Robyn Hitchcock singing about trilobites, and Rachel Parris and Marcus Brigstocke quizzing us on their leftfield musical mashups – including the festive season’s only sexy R&B version, I’m guessing, of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune.

Ince threaded the whole thing together with a handful of recurring items: his Bopit challenge, which tested how his reflexes ebbed and flowed over the 24 hours; his bid to link up with participants from every continent on the globe – achieved at 11am on Sunday when he buttonholed a research scientist on Bird Island, Antarctica. Pretty, meanwhile, assembled and composed a Christmas single entirely from contributions made to the show. Then Harry Hill pitched up at the end, which feels like a prize everyone should get after staying awake for 24 hours – like a telegram from the Queen. Ince probably felt 100 years old by the end but, viewed from outer space (and with over £20K raised for charity), what matter a few extra wrinkles and grey hairs anyway?

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