Think of the gothic love-child of Cole Porter and Lenny Bruce, I tell a friend who has never heard of Tim Minchin and who evidently spends his days with his head in a sack. The 36-year-old Australian comic is everywhere these days, working on the West End transfer of his version of Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical interpretation of Roald Dahl’s novel, promoting a new DVD and about to go on another US tour (he was last there in May). For our lunch date, he has chosen Hawksmoor, a restaurant just around the corner from the Cambridge Theatre, where Matilda opens later this month. This has the whiff of expediency rather than gastronomic passion.
Minchin admits as much. “I know you’re supposed to pick your favourite place. I just wish I was at a stage in my life where I had a favourite restaurant.” His workload is taking it toll. Not that he shows it. He is as near to fresh-faced as he gets (he routinely wears extravagant eye make-up on stage but there is only a subtle trace today) and purposeful. A waitress arrives to help us with our order. Hawksmoor is a specialist steakhouse, and Liz talks us through the various cuts of meat. There is a blackboard in the corner where individually weighted portions are crossed out as they are ordered, which makes me think there is an abattoir in the back room. This is no place for soft hearts.
Minchin absorbs the carnivorous vibe and gets all businesslike. “I’m absolutely starving and I know what I want. Where are you at?” The same place, I reply. We order identically: medium-rare fillet steak, which Liz has promised “does melt in the mouth”, and buttered greens. “I’m a philosophical vegetarian,” says Minchin. “I agree with all the reasons for it but I lack the strength.” Sadly, there will be no wine. My guest has a tricky television appearance to negotiate later in the day, on the quiz show 8 out of 10 Cats. I’ve never had fruit juice with a steak before but we are pushing boundaries.
Minchin says he doesn’t do these kind of panel shows very often, because “people think I’m just this funny song guy, which I sort of resent, because I am perfectly capable of being vibrant in a genuinely improvised conversation. But in a sense they are right, because of course they [the panel shows] are not improvised. It is a lot of stand-ups making up 10 jokes about the news, and I admit I’m not good at that. I don’t keep up with popular culture and try not to watch the news.”
I wonder if his reservations are warranted: anyone who has seen Minchin’s act, a mix of stand-up comedy and scabrously humorous songs, cannot help but be aware of his verbal dexterity and keen intelligence. Indeed, his conversation is full of it. He speaks fast and fluently, in perfectly formed sentences, and with generous amounts of self-assurance. Although he will describe himself more than once as “just an entertainer who makes people laugh”, he has clearly thought through every implication of his frequently iconoclastic act.
One of his favourite targets is religion, and I ask how his last American tour went. “It was all right, it was good. There was very little trouble, apart from the piano hiring company which learned what I did and reneged its agreement because they said I was a demon.”
This doesn’t come entirely as a surprise. Some of Minchin’s sharpest material is reserved for Creationists and he is uncompromising in his contempt for their views. His US concerts are like church services, he says. “People are so enthusiastic. If you are an atheist living in Dallas, I am like a sip of water. They are so keen, so emotional, they meet me afterwards and they are crying.” He almost seems to frighten himself as he describes the scale of the occasion. “But I do this stuff because it interests me, I don’t set out to proselytise.”
Minchin has a large following on social media networks (he has almost 250,000 followers on Twitter). It is the reason he is selling out 1,000-seater stadiums in the US, without any other profile there. I tell him that his clips on YouTube are accompanied by streams of earnest and intense comments on the subjects which he is satirising. On one of them, an animated pro-science “beat poem” called “Storm”, a fan admits to having made a tattoo based on one of Minchin’s lines: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”
He says he tries not to engage too much with such passionate commentary. “It can be draining and disturbing to see what people are making of your work.” He knows that there are people who attach themselves strongly to his material. “They like what I do, which is to write funny songs about logic and ethics.” That’s quite a niche, I say. “Yes – a logic nerd, science fan, songwriting rock-star. I’m as good at it as anyone in my niche. That’s the good thing about being in a small niche.”
Liz arrives with a complimentary plate of foie gras. Minchin has a stand-up routine in which he confesses that one of his guilty pleasure fantasies is to be force-fed foie gras through a pipe, so it goes down well, as it were. It is a generous gift from the restaurant, and I wonder if it is down to my guest’s logic-nerd, science-fan, songwriting rock star status.
Minchin was born in England and raised in Perth, Western Australia, where he spent his childhood “writing bad Beatles songs”, surfing, playing hockey and learning the piano. Eventually he started writing songs for university revues, and did some acting, although never in comic roles. “I am not funny. In many ways,” he says sternly. He lives in north London with his wife Sarah and their two young children, who make occasional, unflattering appearances in his songs and routines.
His breakthrough as a solo musical comic came in Edinburgh in 2005, which is where I saw him three years later, already on a steep ascent to stardom. That evening he performed a song about an acquaintance of mine, the journalist Phil Daoust from The Guardian, who had given him a poor review years earlier. The song was funny, and a little cruel. “I was incredibly affected by that review,” recalls Minchin. “It was my first year, my coming of age. I didn’t write the song until two years later. It wasn’t written in anger but it tapped into anger. And revenge. The thing is – if you want to write witty, scathing material that pans people, you had better watch out, because I’m probably better at that job than you are.”
The commission to write Matilda for the RSC last year came out of the blue but had been secretly germinating for a decade: Minchin had written to the Dahl estate before his career had taken off, hoping to make a musical of Dahl’s 1988 book, about a bullied schoolgirl who discovers she has supernatural powers, all by himself. When the RSC came calling, his thoughts on the proper way to interpret the work were at his fingertips.
What were they?
“Not to turn Dahl into Disney. This is a story about repression, with proper baddies, and redemption, and magic. I wanted to allow the musical to be a musical. But Dahl’s characters aren’t demonstrative. There is no [croons cornily] ‘I dreamed a dream.’ You have to be incredibly careful. Actually, I did put one of those songs in my first draft. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.”
The show received near-universal acclaim after its opening in Stratford last winter, and its London transfer was assured. Minchin’s work was praised for its subtlety and refusal to bow to musical cliché. He goes quiet when the audience is expecting loud, and ensures, through clever twists of phrase (he calls them “magic tricks”), that you keep listening to the end of the song. “I’m not drawn to writing stuff that allows people to sit on their intellectual laurels,” he says.
That is not to say the show is not full of charming moments. Minchin is particularly good at drawing the internal world of characters who defy simple categorisation. Miss Honey, Matilda’s closest ally in Dahl’s story, is given a song, “My House”, that has a quiet simplicity about it (“I’m warmed by a small but stubborn fire/ And there is nowhere I would rather be”) which seems to recur in Minchin’s work.
In fact, I say, if I were to be pretentious about it ...
“I’d love you to be, I live for that,” interrupts Minchin brightly.
I say I find this to be the thematic core of his songwriting: a hatred of righteousness, pomposity, universal claims to truth, and a wish to embrace more humble human values that will help us all rub along together.
“You’re making me feel like tearing up. That’s a nice thing to say. I never thought of it like that. Because I am quite pompous, actually.”
Enough of the love-in. Minchin’s songs are also capable of chilling the blood. In “Lullaby”, written after the birth of one of his children, he addresses the frustration of not being able to persuade a baby to sleep. The humour gets blacker, right up to the final couplet: “One thing they don’t mention in the parenting book / Your love for them grows, the closer to death they look.” The line draws gasps from the audience, and a laugh which is not so much nervous as traumatised.
He must have thought long and hard about that one? “Yes, and I’ve had people walking out crying, and emailing me later to say they had lost a baby, and it is not something I take lightly. But you have to come to terms with that if you do that sort of stuff. And if you have lost a baby, my jokes are the least of your worries.
“Dark comedy is about saying to the people who haven’t had something terrible happen to them: ‘How much do we fear this stuff?’ I am laughing at our unrealised fears. If they have been realised, then of course it is not funny.”
Then there is the Roman Catholic church. In “The Pope Song”, a relentless stream of expletives describes Minchin’s view of the pontiff in a berserk pub sing-a-long. The thrust of the song, between the swear words, is that if you feel his lyrics are more offensive than child molestation, you have problems. “I am very proud of it,” he says. “It is an intellectual trap. Not a perfect argument, but a tidy little game. I love playing it live.” He has just given three performances of the song in Dublin. “It was very cathartic.”
By now, we have wolfed down our steaks, which melted as promised, and Minchin begins to mop up the bone marrow gravy with some bread. His philosophical vegetarianism seems some distance away. “It’s iron, man. Iron Man!” he puns gratuitously. There won’t be time for pudding or coffee: it is nearly time for his car to arrive to whisk him to pseudo-improvisation land.
I casually ask him about future projects, and he says he wants to do a CD of non-comic songs. “About once every two years, I write a song that comes from that part of the brain which we call the heart. And you know you are getting it right because you are crying as you write it.”
Clownish ambition to draw from more profound realms is a cliché that Minchin would doubtless have some fun with. But he goes further. He laments that we live in a “non-risk-taking” climate – “There is no Rocky Horror Show that is going to come from this era” – and wants to play his part in creating something that is “subversive, adult, intellectual, cool, from the ground up, no pop songs, no movies ‘based on ...’”
He is taking an extended break from writing any more comedy shows, wanting to aim higher. In January he will become the first artist-in-residence at Kings Place, a London arts centre, a post which comes with a studio where Minchin can write.
“I have a public profile, not too much financial pressure, a show in the West End, Hollywood interest. If I can’t be [Stephen] Sondheim – apart from my massive lack of talent in the face of him – then who can be, or should be? It’s almost like a f***ing obligation, to write something that is not commercially pressured, in the hope that it could be a drop in the turning of the tide against all those safe bets.” He confesses one of his deepest fears, that Rock of Ages, a recently-imported heavy metal musical which has had terrible reviews in the UK, will outrun Matilda: “I’ll be furious.”
As he departs, he picks up from the table a black crucifix ring that I didn’t even notice him take off. “Do you like my ironic jewellery?” he asks. It was given to him by a “liberal atheist” in Dallas. Careful, I say, bad things happen to people in Dallas. “I have a little bit of fear of that. But if [the secular author] Sam Harris and [Christopher] Hitchens can be alive, I must be a long way from assassination.”
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
‘Matilda’ is previewing now and opens on 24 November; www.matildathemusical.com
11 Langley Street, London WC2
Virgin Mary £3.00
Lime and soda £2.50
Sparkling water £3.50
Fillet steaks 300g x 2 £64.00
Bone marrow gravy x 2 £4.00
Buttered greens x2 £8.00
Total (including tax and service) £100
A giant peach, a garden hut and George Clooney
The novelist Roald Dahl (1916-1990), author of the novel Matilda on which Tim Minchin’s musical is based, wrote more than 60 books – and his work enjoys an enduring (and lucrative) popularity, writes Cally Squires.
● Born in Wales to Norwegian parents in 1916, Dahl would have celebrated his 95th birthday on September 13 this year.
● The Gremlins (1943), Dahl’s first book for children, was written while he served in the Royal Air Force. It was almost 20 years before his second children’s work, James and the Giant Peach (1961), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory followed in 1964. To date, his books have sold more than 100m copies.
● Dahl wrote the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), based on Ian Fleming’s book about a flying car, for which Dahl created the nightmarish character of the Child Catcher. He subsequently began work on a screenplay for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but stopped work on the project and hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), the film that came out of it.
●The television series Tales of the Unexpected, drawn from Dahl’s adult (often disturbing) short stories, was shown on ITV from 1979 to 1988. Dahl appeared on screen to introduce the first two series.
● Film adaptations of Dahl’s books include Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, which grossed more than $46m and was nominated for two Oscars. Danny DeVito’s live-action Matilda (1996) moved the tale to the suburban US; Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) starred Johnny Depp.
● Best-known of the current Dahl clan is his granddaughter, the model and author Sophie, whose name Dahl gave to the plucky little heroine of The BFG (1982).
● Dahl wrote in a hut in the garden of his home in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, which has remained untouched since his death in 1990, but there are plans to move it to the nearby Roald Dahl Museum. The scheme hit the headlines this September when Sophie Dahl talked about it on Radio 4’s Today programme. Irritated listeners took to Twitter, complaining about the wealthy Dahl estate asking for donations to raise the £500,000 needed. The museum later issued a statement that Sophie Dahl and the museum were “making no public appeal for funds”.