Circuit Training

Circuit Training 152: To the Common! Alistair Barrie and Bagel the dog (unleashed!)

Alistair Barrie

"Bagel! Oh please don't say she's stuck down there... can she get back up? Bagel!"

High drama in sleepy Hertfordshire. Right at the end of our stroll round the otherwise green and pleasant Hartham Common, in his adopted home of Hertford, Alistair Barrie's intrepid terrier Bagel hurtles down a riverbank, briefly disappears from view then suddenly emerges struggling and splashing beneath a bunch of reeds and brambles.

Proper panic sets in as we try to edge down the slippery slope in unsuitable footwear - honestly, if you get into rural difficulties, don't rely on comedy people - but thankfully Barrie's urgent yelps encourage Bagel to vigorously wriggle, thrust her head free then scrabble back up, into the owner's grateful arms. Phew! For a second there we thought Bagel was toast.

Canine crises aside, it's an interesting month for Alistair. Usually around now we interview someone from his annual Breast Unit benefit show at the Hertford Theatre; instead he's taken a Glasto-esque fallow year and gone on tour. The politically-charged show Woke in Progress may well be coming to a town near you - whichever way it voted - and is being filmed at London's Comedy Store on November 28.

Alistair Barrie

A hugely sophisticated - if still frequently apoplectic - stand-up, writer and restaurant reviewer, Alistair meets us at an unassuming cafe on the aforementioned common. Boisterous Sunday league football simmers in the background, and his beloved pooch hovers contentedly under the table. Bagel's big moment will come.

Here we are in Hertford then, where you're doing a couple of dates in December - is it your first tour?

I think this is my first proper UK stand-up tour. I did the cancer show, which went to Australia, Norway, Greece, a little tour, which was interesting; the actual nuts and bolts of getting it together are considerable. This is a different type of show; it's topical, so it's got a shelf life. I came back from Edinburgh and the reviews, I couldn't ask for more. So I'd really like to try and get this out there.

Ooh look, there's a fight on the football pitch - that's exciting.

Alistair Barrie

We were chatting about your ADHD diagnosis before we started - that's made a big difference, recently?

It's been fascinating. I've chatted to Angela [Barnes] and Shappi [Khorsandi], who are almost evangelical about it. I always thought I was a bit lazy, but I've got more done since I've been on the medication; this tour would not have happened otherwise. I'm still hopelessly disorganised, but at speed. Up in the morning, emailing people, I put a thing on Facebook about where to go, and loads of people came back with suggestions.

Having been a fairly established headliner there's quite a lot of good clubs going 'we'd love to have you' - and the Comedy Store is the big one.

Given the theme of the show, have you looked at the towns you're visiting, who they voted for?

Not at all, but it's a very interesting thought. A lot of reviews said, 'it doesn't matter what side of the political divide you're on, you will find something to enjoy in it.' I mean, don't get me wrong, I will slag off Suella Braverman with the best of them. But if you're just going to be 'I can't believe you voted Brexit' without any wit or charm, it's tedious.

I've seen you do gigs round here, traditional Tory strongholds, where you've been absolutely furious - but it went down surprisingly well. Whereas Brexit material split rooms a few years back...

I think their heart's not in it now. Last year I was doing this really lovely gig in the Cotswolds, an amphitheatre with glamping, it was gorgeous; the great and good of the Cotswolds, you just drove in and could smell the money. I listened to it the other day, just for revision, and didn't realise quite how angry it was. I really went for it.

And it was clearly that tipping point, the vast majority of the audience liked it. I got so many tweets afterwards, people going 'We were looking at the [offended] people sitting under the rug next to us, who were looking around and seeing that I was now the majority.'

Alistair Barrie

If that's the case, though, are you still as angry as you were?

I think it was of its time, it was a reaction. It doesn't stop me being angry.

So you don't do mock anger, as a performer?

There are times onstage I go 'sorry, this isn't material, I'm just fucking furious' - but I am furious, at the way things are being done. The Guardian years ago said 'no one does righteous anger like Barrie' - how splenetic I was. And I never really thought I was as a person, but I have since discovered I am a bit more angry than I thought, thanks to my wife
informing me.

I wasn't going to do a show this year, but between the combination of Liz Truss, the Queen dying, Rishi Sunak arriving, it literally wrote itself; I'd written 40 minutes of material...

Alistair Barrie

I imagine anyone who's seen you spit feathers before would be keen to hear your take on it all?

Who knows. Mark Dolan of GB News fame, who's now extremely persona non grata within certain strata of the comedy circuit, he used to be a very lovely chap. But I remember after Brexit he said to me, at a benefit, 'as soon as I heard the referendum result, my first thought was, I wonder what Alistair Barrie thinks' [Alistair raises an unconvinced eyebrow].

He then was part of a sort of 'let's re-referendum, let's turn it over' thing, and then suddenly discovered his paycheck was GB News, and has become the most amoral hypocrite on god's green earth.

I can see how that paycheck might be tempting during lockdowns, but surely you'd also lose lots of friends?

I've been asked to do it, go on the Headliners programme, and I'm not going to slag off people who have. I mean, Ian Stone did it, and he said to me, 'in the end, it felt like going to watch Arsenal v Tottenham in the Tottenham end.' He got quite a lot of pushback. I think one of the big things, if you get an audience from that, the audience that come to see you are of the type that you're perhaps not in tune with.

Maybe that's an opportunity to change people's minds though?

I don't know, it's like the Comedy Unleashed thing, 'saying the unsayable.' For all their 'home of free speech' - basically ganging up on a vegan cafe in Edinburgh who wouldn't have Graham Linehan and going 'we're being silenced!' - well, funnily enough, I was asked to do Comedy Unleashed. And I said, is it still at [London club] The Backyard? because Lee Hurst has banned me from The Backyard.

Alistair Barrie

He will not tell me why. And I think it's because of my politics, because Lee's gone very much down one route. Having been one of his most regular headlines for well over a decade, I was suddenly told I was no longer welcome. I think it is absolutely the apotheosis of hypocrisy to be going 'we are being silenced,' and it's the only comedy club that has ever barred me because they don't like what I say.

I interviewed him for this slot years ago, just as the new Backyard was starting, he said a few odd things about the NHS, but nothing to suggest where he'd end up.

There used to be a little group of us who'd do it: me, Micky Flanagan, Alun Cochrane, week in week out, headlining, a lovely club. And I really thought what he did was great: he wanted a comedy club with the money he made from telly.

But Cutting Edge at the Comedy Store, I started doing that just after he left, because he fell out with all of them. Lee has a history of falling out with people. I've fallen out with him, and I don't even know why.

You're doing two dates at the Hertford Club, which used to be the Hertford Conservative Club, ironically - or have you actively booked shows in those places?

That's a really good idea, a tour of Conservative Clubs! The funny thing is though, if you look at Hertford, I've been here nine years, 10 years next April, and I was shocked by the size of the Tory majority when I got here. 18,000 I think, which now means - according to recent by-elections - it's very much up for grabs. I'm fascinated by the election coming up.

We moved just before I think the exodus started, a lot of people like me wanting a place to bring up children, and I genuinely think that exodus has massively skewed it. I was in London for 25 years, we were in Battersea, looked at what we could afford here, I wasn't that keen, then got here and almost immediately went, 'this is great!'

Alistair Barrie

Which was around the time you got a dog? Give us the Bagel breakdown.

Bagel is 10, half westy and half yorkie. Yorkies are quite lazy but she's a real mover - I go jogging with her. I mean, she's getting a bit old now.

Does she fit in pretty well with your lifestyle?

My wife always wanted a dog, but we weren't allowed one - then one day Emily just sent me a picture of Bagel, and she'd bought her. 'Oh!'. So we had her in Battersea, little tiny pup, and basically didn't tell the landlord. She chewed through some of the kitchen furniture, we spent hours mending it with wood polyfilla, really quite proud of the job I'd done; came back from being out and she'd fucking chewed through it again. So we sneaked her out and came here.

Frankly, the moment we moved up here, we realised the amount of green space was transformative for her. And it is so much easier to go out running with a dog in Hertfordshire than it is around the mean streets of South London!

Bagel in Panzhanger. Credit: Alistair Barrie

I quite often come here, or up the river, back round, past the cricket pitch. It's one of those things about living in the countryside, we've got fields behind the house. You've got a wood opposite. It's just lovely.

Have you dug into Hertford's history now?

I take the kids to the museum quite a lot - there's a little bit of me going 'am I gonna become one of those blokes in his 60s, Local Historian,' but I haven't quite done the required reading. The thing about Hertford, it's quite small, but it's the county town, and I quite like that.

Bagel's wandered off again...

Bagel! Has she wandered off down the river? Oh please don't say she's stuck down there... can she get back up? Bagel!

Bagel breaks free

Oh shit, is she alright?

Bagel! I don't think she is you know. Come on, you! Up up up! COME ON! [as we slide gingerly down the bank, Bagel finally claws her way back up]. Oh you fool! You silly dog. Ha!

Alistair Barrie

Has she done that before?

She nearly got washed away down by [nearby town] Ware once. She went in and suddenly there was no bank up the side, and I literally had to lean down into the water, grab her by the collar and pull her out by the neck. It was not a particularly nice day, the river was rough. Some old guy in a barge opposite just looked at me and said 'that was fucking close wasnt it?' Yes, it was.

She's not blessed with brilliant survival instincts. It's the lack of planning ahead, isn't it... oh Bagel, what have you rolled in now? Time for a bath.

Bagel and Alistair Barrie

The Food Ponce, on where to eat in Hertford (and beyond)

Alistair, you have been writing a restaurant review blog, Food Ponce, since 2011. But why?

The reason for starting the blog was firstly genuine interest - I absolutely am a ponce when it comes to food.

But it is also a very good way of keeping your hand in at writing something other than comedy; always worth having a few more arrows to your bow. It often provides me with a focal point for a weekend away (much to my wife's annoyance), and it means I can declare rather good meals against tax - also to my wife's annoyance.

I think what finally motivated me to start it over ten years ago was seeing that my friend and rather more successful colleague Miles Jupp had been given a restaurant column. It is a hobby I enjoy enormously, but I would also have absolutely no objection to being paid for it.

Alistair Barrie

Any Hertford restaurant recommendations?

I love Lussmans, which is a perfect, high quality bistro, even if I do wish they changed their menu up a bit more often. Thompsons in St Albans is an excellent fine dining establishment which I've never written a blog on because both times I've eaten there have been special occasions I didn't want to spoil by taking notes.

For everyday eating, they do a mean breakfast at the refurbished Salisbury Hotel. And I would heartily recommend the brilliant salads at Mudlarks, which is also an excellent community charity project and the sort of thing we should all be celebrating almost as much as Suella Braverman's sacking.

Alistair Barrie

Alistair Barrie: Woke in Progress is touring the UK now, and being filmed at London's Comedy Store on November 28. Details:

Published: Thursday 16th November 2023

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