New Interview: Nick Helm

nick helm

Update 3/1/14. As we say below, 2014 looks like being a good year for Nick Helm. His BBC3 series Uncle starts later this month and he has just been nominated for The Times South Bank Breakthrough Award? You can vote for him here.

Nick Helm is a busy, busy man. He is currently filming Uncle, a new sitcom for BBC3 in which he is an aspiring musician who finds himself playing surrogate dad to his young nephew. He is also about to record a series of his turbo-charged vehicle, Heavy Entertainment, following a successful pilot. And, when he finds the time, the full-on shouty comedian will be writing a pilot of his own sitcom for Channel 4, provisionally called White Thunder. Music is integral to the Nick Helm phenomenon and he also has an album available, Hot 'n' Heavy, which you can order here. On November 8 & 9, however, there are two chances to see his Foster's Award nominated show One Man Mega Myth at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Ticket details here. There is no tour currently planned so this may be the last chance to see a spectacular show that involves pyrotechnics, songs and a sweaty man paying homage to stunt man Evel Knievel.

Beyond The Joke met up with Helm in a country house hotel with adjoining golf course in Croydon during his lunch break on Uncle. We had a lovely cheesy mash while he did most of the talking. 


BD: This is a proper acting job. You didn't write Uncle did you?

NH: No. The script is by Oliver Refson. It was originally about an out of work actor, but Henry Normal (head honcho, with Steve Coogan, of production company Baby Cow) thought maybe I'd be good for it. So I met with Oliver, we got on and the script was tweaked to make him a musician.

I'm meant to be writing my own sitcom for C4 after we finish this. That got delayed by a year and a half because of Edinburgh. Lots of positive things have got in the way of doing the thing I wanted to do, but Uncle (Ed's note: Helm is dressed for the part in picture below) is 80% of what I would have written anyway.

BD: Who else do you think was considered for the part?

NH: I suspect I was at the bottom of a long list. I'm not being self-effacing. I didn't ask, it would be too much of a fluke if I was first choice. I didn't audition though. One of the reasons I started doing stand-up was because I hated auditioning. I started writing so i could write myself parts. Theatre was unfulfilling, there was so much organisation, but doing stand-up just me. I've got more control and I'm not relying on anyone.

BD: did you have a traumatic audition experience when you were a child?

NH: I've never had a bad experience. Maybe at school  we were doing The Crucible which is set in New England, but they wanted Cornish-y accents and I couldn't do it. My teacher was gutted because I was seen as the future of our school, the Daniel Day-Lewis (laughs). I was supposed to play third carpenter but I'm sure if I'd got the part they'd have turned it into the lead.

So that put me off an acting career. Then Henry gave me the script and I met Oliver and we did Uncle. Apparently TV is not supposed to work like that. I was gobsmacked because it's a first for both of us, which is quite nice. 

BD: You shot the pilot of Uncle for C4 (watch it here) but it is now going out on BBC3 isn't it? Have there been many changes?

NH: It's been a massive learning experience, I was really happy the pilot came out as well as it did. We've taken that as the starting point and we've had to redo the pilot, which is a complete headfuck because I thought at the time we got away with it and it's now returning to the scene of the crime.

BD: It had a bleak streak, a bit like your live shows. Your character was suicidal in the pilot...

NH: I see the episodes as half hour short films, not really a sitcom, it's a comedy series with drama in it. BBC3 don't want it to be about suicide. We had to explain that he doesn't kill himself every week. In fact it's a positive show because it's about someone who was going to kill himself and then this kid comes into his life and they learn from each. It's about an unconventional family. I guess there are elements of all sorts of things, Uncle Buck, About A Boy and maybe Two and a Half Men, but it's been put into a cement mixer and something new has come out.

BD: I was surprised to read that you've done Edinburgh every year since 1997 apart from three years. I didn't realise you were that old.

NH: The first three times were school plays. Our drama teacher was amazing and made us go to Edinburgh. i did Romeo and Juliet. I was the Prince and I had to shout a lot. If you look back I can see that happening. I've written about 18 Edinburgh shows since 2001 and only not been up in 2003 & 2005.

BD: Where were you educated?nick helm

NH: I grew up in Finsbury Park in north London but my parents moved out to St Albans. Partly because it was easier for my dad to commute to work and partly because they were worried about my inner city primary school because people were pushing dirty syringes through the chicken wire fence. I went to Sandringham School in St Albans. I'm not posh, my dad was a civil servant. Then King Alfred's College, Winchester where I did Drama: TV and Theatre. It wasn't really a practical course, I made documentaries.

BD: In the last few years Edinburgh has been really good for you hasn't it?

NH: It's been very quick. I did a show in 2009 with James Acaster and Josh Widdicombe which was a fucking disaster. It was just the worst venue, scummy, disgusting and in the Bermuda Triangle where nobody could find it. I just went to see Josh film his DVD at Hammersmith Apollo and he was doing the same jokes for his encore so he was right, it was the venue that was wrong.  In the same year I was also booked to do another gig 20 feet down the road with two comedians from Brighton, but they pulled out so I had to write something myself and came up with Bad Things Happen in Trees. I did 45 minutes and got guests on to do three five-minute sets. I didn't want this to be my first official solo show, but it was selling out. Then the following year I came back with Keep Hold of The Gold. I've got so much material that nobody saw, it's only since 2009 that people have seen me.

BD: Why did it suddenly click?

NH: 2009 was the year that I found my voice. but since then it has evolved. Every year has had a different flavour, sometimes more romantic, tragic, angry. I see my shows as an ongoing story. Bad Things was about being dumped, Keep Hold was about being lonely, Dare To Dream was bitterness, This Means War was anger and One Man Mega Myth was about being in total denial. They all share elements, but if you watch them all back to back it's a five hour theatrical experience. 

It will probably be a better version in London. In Edinburgh we constantly overran. We would be waiting for people to get in, that was annoying, then waiting for the laughs to die down, that took ages.

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