Before I went to talk Tom Lehrer with Adam Kay, ahead of his West End debut of The Remains of Tom Lehrer, I asked my friend Charles if he was a fan of Lehrer’s delicious blend of lexical gymnastics, risqué pith and delightfully scabrous social satire.
Charles, of course, had never heard of him.
He listened along quietly to such positively sparkling couplets as ‘then the guy who’s got religion’ll / tell you if your sin’s original‘ and ‘Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Catholics hate the Protestants / And the Hindus hate the Muslims, and ev’rybody hates the Jews‘.
Then he did an actual meh, scrunched up his tiny face and said. ‘It’s all a bit Radio 4.’
For some reason I was actually a little hurt. Like there’s anything wrong with Radio 4, I thought. Even so, I kind of knew what he meant.
In the mildly noxious atmosphere created by Charles’ apathy, I too had felt that maybe the songs had lost their edge. When Lehrer first sang that line about the Jews, in National Brotherhood Week, it was like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring all over again. There were actual fist-fights in the theatre.
Probably. Adam Kay would know. For Adam Kay is a Lehrerphile. An early brush with Lehrer’s work had fostered in him a lifelong appreciation that became, as the years rolled on, more of … obsession is probably too strong a word. But to hell with it. Obsession.
Consequently, he knows more than almost anyone that the hurdles he faces are twofold. First up – ‘You mean Tom O’Leary?’ – there’s the ignorance factor. Second, we’ll call the Radio 4 factor, a fear of the gentle and the stale. It can not be denied that since Lehrer’s star burst forth, shone brightly for a relatively short while and then kind of went into hiding, things have changed a lot and, well, we’ve seen it all. We’ve actually literally seen all of it.
But it’s exactly that old-fashionedness that The Remains of Tom Lehrer sets out to address. ‘The idea of the show is to update the songs so that they do work today,’ Kay explains. ‘I mean, you can’t do jokes about Vice President Hubert Humphrey and hope to get the same reaction as when the album came out. So it’s hopefully more like a loving restoration of a classic car rather than like when they made Alfie with Jude Law in it. It’s done with a lot of love. I want everyone to love Tom Lehrer as much as I do.’
And Kay really does love Lehrer. When he first came to prominence swearing about tube drivers in 2005 – Kay, not Lehrer – he was the gynaecologist who sang smutty lyrics to other people’s songs. He has since given up gynaecology.
Together with Suman Biswas as Amateur Transplants, Kay then made an album of such songs, one of which, unsurprisingly, was a take on Lehrer’s Vatican Rag. Like a red rag to Kay’s juvenile streak, the opportunity was too good to miss. And so, combining his undeniable talent for comical word-foolery with his gynaecological expertise, he came up with The Menstrual Rag.
Despite some rather spiffing, and what might even be described as Lehreresque rhymes – ‘All that lining that she sheds leaves / nasty patches on your bedsheets‘ – the song feels, and I hate to say it, but nasty is probably about right. Or at least, with its over-easy coarseness and unquestionably misogynistic tone, I’ve always found it so. Surely this is not what we can expect from a show that’s been described as ‘a love letter’?
Thankfully, Kay is so entirely in agreement that I believe he really is glad I asked him that.
‘The Menstrual Rag is on my list of songs I regret writing, performing and recording and consequently, I’ve not done it for many years. It was written by a young me – I think of it like a naked baby photo. To the extent I truly hate thinking of it, or reading about it in features about me.’
‘So, no – it’s not in the show. The show is a loving homage, not a sullying. I’d like to think that any Lehrer aficionado who snuck in would think I’m doing the old boy proud. Nothing’s coarse – as I don’t think any of his songs were. I’ve tried hard to make the songs that were deliberately provocative at the time, such as Smut, elicit the same reaction as they would have back then; but that’s – to my mind – a cheekiness and a subversiveness, rather than offence.’
Of course, Kay has come a long way – and presumably matured enormously – since he first splashed himself all over the internet screaming with Biswas that tube drivers were all ‘lazy fucking useless cunts‘. There’s also been a gradual moving away from live performance – or ‘swearing at strangers in seedy London venues’ as his mum sees it.
Now he spends a lot more time writing and editing stuff for TV and Radio. His writing credits include Mongrels, some Mitchell & Webb stuff, The Now Show (very Radio 4) and his own BBC sitcom Crims, as well as writing words for Julie Walters to speak in an upcoming series of Very British Problems. His parents are also quite rightfully very pleased with this development. ‘…because they can tell their posh friends about that.’
He still does perform, of course, and still as much once a week, to private parties and the odd comedy club. Then occasionally there comes a gig that you just don’t turn down. One such gig for Kay entailed a visit to St James’ Palace.
‘I think I’m allowed to talk about it,’ he says.
There had been a lot of secrecy before the gig, and he didn’t actually know what it entailed until the morning of the party.
But as soon as he was allowed to know that he was to serenade Prince Harry and his cohorts at the prince’s 30th birthday bash, ’I texted everyone,’ he says. ‘Then I got to the palace and had to sign about twenty pages of documents printed on quite heavy paper with the names of lots of lawyers on them. Then in the throne room some guy dressed up as Henry the Eighth came over and told me that I wasn’t allowed to take any photos – an equerry, footman – and I was like, “Oh God, have I already texted too many people?”’ He makes a whoops face. ‘And then a couple of days later it was in The Sun.’
After his set, Harry and William came over to Kay to rap about some things. Kay was impressed. ‘They are the most socially adept people I’ve ever met. I’ve no great feelings one way or the other about the Royal Family, but they’re absolutely magnetic people. Just very, very nice. They spend their lives spending three minutes with someone and making them feel great.’
It went well, the set, but there was something slightly odd about it. ‘I would normally end with the London Underground song any time I’m in London, and it was getting slightly less of a reaction after the first couple of lines and then I realised… “None of you have um… none of you have used this… this isn’t an accepted cultural point. I thought it was pretty universal, but apparently not….” So I explained that there was a subterranean network of trains running under the city and Harry and his friends all seemed very surprised by that, and then I got on with the set.’
As for bad gigs, Kay’s worst is a toss-up between the time he was turned on by squaddies and the time he was turned on by Oxford GPs. And on neither occasion in a good way.
He’s played for army-types a few times and it was always fine before, but this time he was sandwiched in between two strippers and not really what the soldier ordered. ‘They’d been on one of their holidays and they’d come back and were very keen to let their hair down,’ he explains.
As the act before him received a standing ovation for the exemplary nakedness of her most personal areas, Kay reckoned maybe ten minutes would be wiser than his allotted fifteen. But no.
‘I didn’t complete a song,’ he says. He remembers the occasion with fitful despair. ‘It was this enormous barn and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these angry, horny idiots. I’m happy to call them idiots. I’m sure they do a very good day job but when they’re throwing beer cans at me….’
But that was nothing.
‘Worse still was a gig for a bunch of GPs in Oxfordshire. A little private function and it was going really well, when I made an off-the-cuff and slightly off-colour remark about Stephen Hawking and the room went quiet. It turns out Stephen Hawking’s sister was a GP at Oxford and she was in the room, and there’s no … you can’t reverse down that cul-de-sac. So I mumbled for another quarter of an hour whilst they stared at me. And that was that.’
He doesn’t gig as much as he used to.
And he seems really well on it. A more sedentary lifestyle has seen off that Stypean gauntness that haunted him a few years ago. And as to the question of his happiness, he responds, with characteristic semi-glumness, ‘I think I’m the happiest I can remember myself being.’
Much of his contentment must reside in the fact that he’s been with his partner James for five and a half years – ‘32 in straight years’ – and that last year they got engaged.
Kay’s first marriage was to a woman. Sadly, but for reasons that in retrospect may seem obvious, it didn’t work out. But of course nothing is obvious. ‘I think it’s very complicated,’ says Kay, and I immediately feel guilty about asking. He is a relatively private person, I know that, and here I am prying like a cretin.
But I really am interested.
‘It’s about being in love with a person,’ he continues, ‘and I was definitely in love with the person I married, but ultimately it wasn’t sustainable because there was something, something … I think “wrong with me” is the wrong phrase, isn’t it?’ Wry smile. ‘No, but that certainly wasn’t who I essentially am.’
Kay describes himself as not ‘mega-comfortable’ talking about his sexuality. ‘I’ve never particularly exploited the fact of being gay and I’ve never particularly played up to it, much like Tom Lehrer.’
When I express surprise at the idea of Tom Lehrer being gay, Kay admits he doesn’t know for sure. No one does. ‘He’s 87 and unmarried, he’s always shirked conversations about that subject,’ says Kay, ‘and he’s a lecturer in musical theatre.’
Thankfully, Kay is much more comfortable talking about Tom Lehrer. Which is just as well, as the remains of Tom Lehrer (very nearly called A Lehrer Lehrer Laughs in honour of Cilla) consist of more than just his music. ‘I talk through his whole career,’ he says. ‘I’m also playing songs that have never been recorded before. I’ve essentially been working on this show for a decade.’
Which means, without doubt, it cannot fail to be absolutely great.
No pressure, Adam.
See you there.
Come enjoy The Remains of Tom Lehrer at The Ambassador’s Theatre on Tuesday 19 April, 8pm, one night only. 14+.