What an Ade mision
Adrian Edmondson, who is in Belfast tonight with his band The Bad Shepherds, talks to Andrew Johnston about swapping his slapstick comedy for a bit of mandolin plucking
For the man who has played everything from anarchist punks to hospital surgeons, there would seem to be little left to explore for Adrian Edmondson.
Yet, when he takes to the stage in Belfast tonight it will be at the helm of one of his more unusual projects.
The slapstick star of The Young Ones and Bottom has left behind comedy to front a folk band — though the Bad Shepherds aren’t an entirely serious proposition. The tongue-in-cheek trio play classic punk songs in an acoustic style, and will be plucking around at Belfast’s Black Box as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
The last time Edmondson — commonly known as Ade — came to Belfast was to appear with long-time comic partner Rik Mayall in the Bottom: Weapons Grade Y-Fronts Tour, in December 2003 at the Odyssey Arena. “That crap ice rink,” Adrian sniggers. “It’s so cold. You have to walk to the dressing rooms across the ice.” The tour turned out to be the final time the duo trod the boards as deranged flatmates Eddie and Richie. “I miss the money, but I don’t miss doing it,” confesses Adrian.
Since hanging up Eddie’s ill-fitting brown suit and thick, black-rimmed glasses, Edmondson has been plying his trade as a serious actor (playing a TV producer in Jonathan Creek, and a general surgeon in Holby City) and now as a roots musician. And, despite the seemingly mickey-taking approach of tackling three-chord, two-fingers-up anthems on uilleann pipes and tin whistles, Edmondson and co mean it, man.
“I think the reason our band works is because the songs are brilliant,” explains Adrian (54). “Songs don’t take different treatments unless they’re really good songs to start with. You can tell which bands are good and which aren’t, because we can’t do anything by The Damned! They didn’t write very good songs — they’re just childish, like Radio 1 love songs. But the Sex Pistols had really complex songs — and fantastic lyrics.”
Adrian stresses a Bad Shepherds gig is “not a comedy show”, although there is some banter in the set and “it’s not a joyless evening”.
The Bad Shepherds — completed by veteran folkies Troy Donockley on pipes, cittern and whistles, and Andy Dinan on fiddle — came together in 2007, with the aim of having a good time. “We definitely wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun,” smiles Adrian. “Because there’s not a lot of money in it! It’s a labour of love — a teenage dream.”
The project is a return to one of Edmondson’s earliest passions — music. He played in rock bands as a young man, and during the 1980s directed promo videos for the likes of the Pogues and Squeeze. “Standing onstage playing music is all I ever wanted to do from the age of about 12,” he says.
The closest he came was perhaps the Bad News heavy metal spoof films, which out-tapped Spinal Tap. Adrian went on tour with Bad News, even playing the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington, alongside bona fide head-bangers Ozzy Osbourne and Motörhead.
While those heavy metal bands failed to find new fans, the Bad Shepherds have managed to win over the folk fraternity, even being nominated for best live act in last year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards. “I’ve been very surprised by that,” Adrian says. “But I know there’s a couple who absolutely hate us.”
Punk musicians, meanwhile, have been thrilled to hear their hits reimagined. “JC Carroll of the Members said our version of The Sound Of The Suburbs is more what the song is about, because it’s more melancholic. He said that when people are 18, and they go onstage, no matter what they’ve written they play it really fast and furious because they’re trying to get a shag!”
Edmondson certainly isn’t trying to get a shag, presiding as he does over one of the most solid marriages in showbusiness. He and wife Jennifer Saunders have been together since 1985, having met as members of the Comic Strip comedy troupe.
Edmondson’s university nickname of ‘Eddie Monsoon’, a play on his surname, even inspired Saunders’ character Edina Monsoon on Absolutely Fabulous.
The couple have three daughters, one of whom, Ella, is a promising folk singer-songwriter (after teenage phases as a goth and a death metaller).
Having seen the good and the bad of the entertainment industry, is Adrian happy Ella decided to follow him and Saunders into the arts? “I’m happy for my kids to do anything they want. You should do what you want, not what your parents tell you.”
Amazingly, next year will mark three decades since The Young Ones debuted on BBC Two. The pioneering show revolutionised television comedy — even if he admits he finds the show rather patchy when he sees it now.
“I’m not a sad f**k who sits at home watching my own shows,” he chuckles, “but when I see clips I always think, ‘God, that’s slow.’ In hindsight it’s not as good as people think it is. There’s a lot of s**t in The Young Ones — dogs talking, and things in the fridge talking, and never saying anything interesting.”
Of his own work, Adrian prefers Bottom, which ran from 1991 to 1995. “Bottom was the show we always wanted to make,” he says. But he feels the pathos of the programme — which concerned a pair of desperate, deluded ‘dole-scroungers’ living in a grim flat in Hammersmith — was overlooked amidst the slapstick and swearing.
“We started off in university doing p**s-takes of Waiting for Godot, so it’s based on that kind of cult philosophy — and it’s what we think. There’s a great bit where Eddie says — and we still say it to each other to this day — ‘You get born, you keep your head down, and then you die.’ That’s still our philosophy.”
Adrian Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds play the Black Box, Belfast tonight. A limited number of tickets are available on the door.