Interview with James McNicholas

"I’m a comedian probably best known on the live circuit for being part of the sketch group BEASTS, and I pop up in things like Drunk History, The Reluctant Landlord, and I’m one of the main cast on the BBC’s Horrible Histories."

Interview with James McNicholas

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

My name is James McNicholas - I’m a comedian probably best known on the live circuit for being part of the sketch group BEASTS. I’ve also done plenty of acting and writing work elsewhere. I pop up in things like Drunk History (Comedy Central), The Reluctant Landlord (Sky One), and I’m one of the main cast on the BBC’s Horrible Histories.

How would you describe your show?

Essentially, it’s a show about boxing told by a bespectacled man who’s never boxed. My grandad, Terry Downes, became world middleweight champion in 1961. This show tells his story, as well as reflecting on the huge gulf between us. I am not brave; I am not a fighter. I once hospitalised myself putting a contact lens in. 

Why do you want to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

As BEASTS we’ve already done five lovely Edinburgh runs, and as Owen is busy having a baby it felt like the right time to branch out and make a show on my own. For a comedian, Edinburgh really is THE festival. 

What differentiates it from other festivals?

The cost of accommodation? Setting that aside, it’s the crowds really: nowhere else do you get that sheer volume of football and potential audience. There’s also a real sense of history and legacy - Edinburgh makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. 

What first motivated you to enter the industry? Who were your inspirations?

My friend Jack Hartnell was in a sketch group called The Three Englishmen, and it looked like so much fun I decided to give it a crack myself. I owe a lot to him and the rest of the Englishmen, they helped BEASTS get a bit of early momentum. In terms of inspiration, in my late teens I was completely obsessed by acts like We Are Klang and Terry Alderton. 

If you didn’t have your current job, what would you probably be doing?

Alongside the comedy, I also do some sports journalism, so I reckon I’d be doing that full-time. Essentially nothing that constitutes a ‘proper job’.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

I already have one of the best jobs in the world - but it’d be difficult to turn down being frontman in a band. Comedians are often people who want to be rockstars but don’t have the swagger. 

What is your earliest childhood art memory?

Going to see The Sooty Show live at the Bloomsbury Theatre. On the back of the programme there was a picture of Sooty facing away from you, with the text “Sooty’s back”. I thought it was the best joke ever. Sometimes I still do.

Do you ever feel any pressure to be a social commentator, or constantly update material to respond to events?

This show is one set primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, but you want to make that source material relatable and relevant for a modern audience. It’s a tricky balance to strike between nostalgia and contemporaneity.

Equally, do you think there has been a shift in public sentiment that has affected your work?

I think ‘masculine identity crisis’ has definitely influenced my decision to make this show. It’s partly about what it means to be a man, and the way in which that idea evolved. Also, I used to play Michael Jackson in my pre-show music but the documentary has really put paid to that.

Describe the last year in 5 words or less?

Doing my best work.

If you could work with anybody, from any point in history, who would you pick and why?

I’d love to work with Reeves and Mortimer. I grew up watching them and I still find them hilarious. 

Why would a performer opt to do either a ticketed event or participate in the free fringe? What are the benefits and limitations of both?

This is a great question. I’ve always worked with a paid venue (The Pleasance) because I’ve been lucky enough to have a good relationship with them that goes back more than 10 years. There’s a certain cache to performing at such a well-regarded venue, and the facilities and the footfall help too. However, there’s something pretty special about the free fringe, and it attracts audiences you wouldn’t otherwise get. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that paid venues tend to attract more industry, but it’s difficult to be sure about that. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take a show up to the fringe?

Just do it? There’s always an excuse not to do it. Grasp the bullet, bite the nettle. Just go for it. 

When and where can people see your show?

Every day at 16.15 in Bunker Two at the Pleasance Courtyard.

And where can people find, follow and like you online?

I’m tweeting @jamesmcnicholas and getting jealous of my friends’ holidays on instagram at @jmcnik. 

James McNicholas: The Boxer - Pleasance Courtyard, Bunker Two, 4:15pm, 31st July – 25th August (not 14th)

Header Image Credit: Idil Sukan


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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