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Chris Turner: Standing up, not digging down

By | Published on Sunday 27 July 2014

Chris Turner’s tutors at Oxford were never convinced he was really committed to Archaeology & Anthropology. They’re perceptive these Archaeology types, given Turner was secretly busy fitting his studies in around the more time-consuming matter of launching a stand-up career.

Chris Turner

Though fortunately for him archaeologists are also pretty patient. Something he put the test. Turner takes up the story…

After three days of incessant mud-shovelling, hunched in a damp pit in Dorchester-on-Thames, I picked up a spade and slammed it into the top of my foot with enough pressure, I hoped, to break a bone or two whilst preserving my ancestors’ hard-fought evolutionary battle for bipedalism.

A fortnight before, four days after the death of Michael Jackson, I was scattering a tolerant audience with Swizzels Matlow sweets in a sparsely populated bar. I had just stepped on stage to tell jokes for the first time.

My first year studying Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford University wasn’t what it had promised to be. It was nothing like ‘Time Team’, ‘Tomb Raider’ or ‘Indiana Jones’. No ruddy cheeked, flagrantly alcoholic, Cornish trowel-wielders waxing lyrical about Anglo Saxon hoards; no tank-topped aristocratic beauties shutting butlers in the freezer; and most disappointingly, no wise-cracking, nine-year-old Chinese sidekicks. Admittedly, none of this was in the prospectus, but who reads those?
The self-inflicted fracture during the Dorchester-on-Thames archaeology dig was effective. It saw me relegated to pot-washer, and I spent a week and a half scrubbing Roman pot shards with a frayed-bristle toothbrush, before receiving the most damning field report ever doled out by the department.

A “complete disregard for the subject” they said! I didn’t care. I was in love with comedy, addicted to the lights, the laughter, the applause – admittedly at this point in my fledgling career, the last two were the merest of specks on the comedy horizon, but surely as time passed, jokes were written and stage time accrued, they would rise, twin Tatooine suns…

“If you don’t start treating this like it’s your degree, we shall have no choice but to rusticate you”.

I hadn’t been taking it seriously. I idolised Hugh Laurie, a fellow Arch & Anth graduate who had achieved a ‘gentleman’s degree’ (a third) at Cambridge. I had been gigging more and more, focusing on joke-writing and absorbing as much comedy as I could, all the while handing in essays strewn with factual inaccuracies that fell short of the word count. I was nothing if not committed, just not to my degree: whilst my friends spent their summers studying primates in Sumatra, I was flyering tourists in Scottish rain.

It was a term before my final exams when the senior tutor told me to buck my ideas up, or be kicked out. I didn’t want to be an archaeologist, but I didn’t want to be the person who tried to be an archaeologist and failed. I cancelled the gigs I’d booked during my exams, hunkered down for some all-night library sessions, and a few months later had scraped myself a 2:1.

Three years on, and I’m making a living as a stand-up comedian. This Edinburgh, I’ll be performing my debut solo show, and my time at Oxford makes an appearance as material. If the run goes well, that’s what it will remain – a memory. If not, it’s a back up plan – though I hope not. I’d be a rubbish archaeologist. I can’t even grow a beard.

‘Chris Turner: Pretty Fly’ was performed at the Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2014.