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John Pendal: We Are Family

By | Published on Sunday 8 July 2018

Regular Edinburgh-goers may know John Pendal from his previous Fringe work, as he’s got two Festival shows under his belt: his attention-grabbing titled debut ‘International Man Of Leather’ and follow up ‘How To Escape From Stuff’. He’s heading back to the Scottish capital next month with a new show in which he takes a look at his family tree.

We’re all fans and very much looking forward to his latest output, so I thought it was high time we made contact. I arranged a quick chat to find out more about the show and about John himself.

CM: Right, let’s start with the new show. What’s it all about? Do you have a specific theme?
JP: In this show I’m looking back at my family tree to try and answer some of the big questions in life, such as “is it possible to get along with your Dad after Brexit?” It’s partly the historical stories we uncovered and partly the stresses and frustrations between me and my Dad.

CM: What inspired you to create a set dealing with this subject?
JP: With the rise of Brexit and Trump it seems as if the world has divided into tribes of people who aren’t getting along. We’ve lost the middle ground. This show was born from a desire to look into the past to see if there are any answers for the future. Also my Dad is 88 this year, so that focuses things!

CM: What sort of thing did you find out about your own family through your research into your family tree? Did any interesting stories emerge?
JP: My dad has plotted the Pendal line back to 1663 so there’s a lot to choose from. The best stories are in the show: some mutinies in 1862 and arson in 1910.

CM: This is your third Edinburgh hour. How do you think it compares to previous shows? Do you think you are improving as time goes on?
JP: ‘International Man Of Leather’ was a compilation from my first six years of stand-up, so it had a very relaxed gestation. I was able to do previews in Denver in 2013, Cleveland in 2014 and Melbourne in 2015. It was lovely to have that length of time to work on something.

‘How to Escape From Stuff’ was the first time I tried to write, preview and perform a show in a year, which is the model I hope to follow from now on. I’m proud of it but it was a steep learning curve.

This one feels a little more like I know what I’m doing now!

CM: What makes you want to keep coming back to Edinburgh?
JP: First of all, it’s a beautiful city and the locals are very friendly. I don’t know anywhere else that would put up with being transformed for a whole month into an arts festival with such good grace.

There are huge opportunities to gig several times a day within walking distance on top of a solo show. That’s an amazing gift for a performer. You’ll improve as much in four weeks of Edinburgh Festival as six months touring the rest of the year.

CM: What’s the best thing about completing a run at the Fringe? What have been your best moments in previous years?
JP: My best moments from the last two years have been going to the bar after the show and seeing random strangers talk to each other about anything: knitting, Doctor Who or tattoos, because they’d seen my show and felt like they now knew each other. I love making friends with my audience and seeing them make friends too.

CM: What about the downsides? Have you ever had a dark festival moment?
JP: I hate being away from my husband for four weeks. I don’t think that was ever in the guide to a good relationship, that you’d live apart one month each year.

CM: Can you see yourself continuing to go to Edinburgh in future? What would stop you?
JP: I’d love to come back every year with a new show, but I’d stop if my husband asked me.

CM: Let’s go back a bit now: how did you end up performing stand up shows? Did you always fancy doing this kind of thing?
JP: I was made redundant in 2010 and as part of the package we could ask for training in anything. I looked up a comedy course and they paid for it. My first comedy gig was at the end of that course. All our friends and family were there and it was a very supportive night. Everyone did well. The second gig was where the hard work began.

CM: What led to your first hour?
JP: I’m a storyteller so filling an hour has always been easy – making it funny enough is the challenge!

CM: Can we talk briefly about the thing that gave that first hour its name? What is International Mr Leather? How did you become involved with it?
JP: It’s an annual competition in Chicago. This year was their 40th anniversary and 70 men competed from around the world. I entered in 2003 representing The Hoist leather bar in South London. No one was more surprised than me when I won. In 40 years I’m the only Briton to have won the title. I took a year off work and travelled around Europe and North America giving speeches, hosting fundraisers and trying to do good works. You’re basically Princess Diana for a year but in leather.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future? Is there anything you’re specifically aiming for?
JP: I’d like to keep learning the craft by writing a new show every year, and .saying yes to gigs that sometimes scare me. A lot of people enjoy comedy but won’t go to a comedy club because they’re afraid of being picked on – so I’d like to provide an alternative for them. I don’t pick on my audiences. The difficulty is getting the word out to those people that they can come to my shows and feel safe.

CM: What’s coming up next for you immediately after this?
JP: Thinking of a title for next year’s show so that I can book previews at Leicester Festival next February. Then taking a holiday to reconnect with my other half.

CM: What other shows are you planning to see when you are in Edinburgh this year? Who would you recommend?
JP: I go to see Jen Brister whenever I’m getting tired of comedy and she restores my love. She’s on at the Monkey Barrell. Anna Mann is a character created by Colin Hoult and I love her. Anna is at the Pleasance Courtyard for five nights. Both shows highly recommended.

John Pendal performed ‘We Are Family’ at Gilded Balloon Teviot at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne