I need to open this review with an admission.
I’m a John Robins fan. Not a stalker; not a superfan … just someone whose attendance at this recording was the third time I’d seen him in so many days. But that was just a coincidence, OK?
As it happened, Live from the BBC took place at what must have been an incredibly tricky time for Robins. The week kicked off with John’s mention on his Radio X show that he’d recently split from his partner Sara Pascoe, on whom a lot of the material in this show is based. To further complicate matters, Robins was slated to perform a preview the day before the BBC record, sharing a bill with his now-ex.
I was at that show, and although Robins handled the situation professionally, the juxtaposition of both sets (Pascoe’s also included material about John) was toe-curlingly awkward and, for those that have followed Robins’ ups and downs via his Radio X podcasts, more than a little heart rending.
So I had fingers, toes and all other appendages crossed for John’s debut appearance on Live from the BBC. With just a couple of Mock the Week appearances under his belt Robins is still at the point at which TV coverage is something of a big deal.
Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. Robins came out full of piss and vinegar (is that still a saying?) adorned in one of his trademark Queen tribute t-shirts, and after the customary bit of crowdwork, launched confidently into his set. His pace, delivery and well-timed interaction with the crowd were all spot on and showed his flair as an ebullient performer.
His material, a truncated version of his 2015 Edinburgh show Speakeasy, kicks off with John’s feelings regarding his partner leaving the country for four weeks. Robins caricatures himself as a laddish beer monster, delighted for the opportunity to be off the leash from the ball and chain. This John is a dick. He’s meant to be a dick. An arrogant, ale-swilling, Queen-obsessed dick. But as the story unfolds, it slowly dawns upon John that ‘the only thing that has made my life fun, and engaging, and bearable’ is no longer around. This is Robins’ strength, alienating his audience with arrogant bombast, before breaking down and admitting that left to his own devices, he’s buying cherry vodka from the Polish shop at four in the afternoon.
It’s one of the reasons I like him – his ability to unashamedly confess to enthusiastically participating in the less palatable facets of blokiness – beer, porn, wondering if an old school friend takes it up the you-know-what – before unravelling those trappings to reveal the humanity underneath. We might all watch porn (PSA: it’s not only guys, guys!) but what’s important is the those three dimensional moments with the important people in our lives, be that binge-watching The Good Wife or prodding your significant other in the ribs whilst washing up.
To those of us who were aware of the backstory, hearing John talking about the poignant sadness of his girlfriend’s absence was bittersweet, but most punters won’t be as intimately acquainted with the life of Robins, and in any case, many comic’s shows are works of pure fiction from beginning to end, and none of us ever really know how much is exaggerated for comedic effect. Although having seen works in progress of John’s forthcoming Edinburgh show, it’s probably fair to say that the grains of truth are possibly boulder-sized here.
If I have one criticism of Live at the BBC it’s with the editing – they removed many of the subtleties referred to above in favour of keeping the narrative tight, the result of which leaves Robins looking like a far ‘laddier’ comic than the complete show attests. (It also really annoyed me as it lost one of Robins’ strongest bits about his Twitter friend Dan, the gin aficionado.) I understand the necessity of this editing for the purposes of the format, but I’d flag to any new fans that they’ll get a much more nuanced version of Robins at one of his full tour shows.
As I mention at the top of this review, I’m a massive Robins fan so can’t even start to claim to be impartial. So I’ll leave it at this: John Robins Live from the BBC is a ruddy bloody good watch. Now go and see him live.