Helen Keen: I had high expectations that we would be living on Mars when I grew up
Helen Keen is a comedian whose material fuses space, science, sci-fi and little-known, weird facts. She presents It Is Rocket Science on Radio Four and won the Channel 4 New Comedy Writing Award in 2005. She will be appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe later this year with her stand-up show Helen Keen: Robot Woman of Tomorrow.
Why do you like science?
I think it came about by being a space geek and having this lifelong obsession with space. At various stages in my life I would become very interested in space, and then between the ages of eight and nine I really got into animals and then at 13 to 14 back into space again. So for my first topic at Edinburgh [Fringe] I thought why not do something about space? That got me back into it again and I thought it’s the most interesting way in to stand up.
What drew you towards doing stand-up?
I wanted to get into the writing side of things and stand-up seems to be a good way into that, but I am a really anxious person. I think I would be anxious whatever I did. With comedy shows, there’s this anxiousness build up beforehand, then you get this wave of ”Hurrah! that went OK!” afterward. Bizarrely, I really, really enjoy the performing now. I love trying to do something a bit different and peculiar and trawling up these esoteric ideas and stories. Hopefully people enjoy the stand-up but they also leave fizzing with ideas that make them want to research more.
What will your Edinburgh Fringe act this year be about?
It’s still forming, but I think it will be a bit more about technology and science fiction and imagination…this idea of how the imagination shapes the way you think. Carl Sagan — who was a great American author of a popular science book called Cosmos in the Eighties that tuned a lot of people onto science — said, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”
Are you interested in sci-fi as well as just ’sci’?
Yes. For me, as a kid, that was part of the same excitement about the future. I had very, very high expectations that we would be living on Mars when I grew up and space travel would be normal. People would ask me if I wanted to be an astronaut and I’d think “that would be nice, but won’t we all be in space by then?” As a child you think you’ll be able to go on holiday there… but no.
I think it wasn’t particularly amazingly taught when I was in school. For a while we had the PE teacher standing in for the biology teacher. TV was a really big source of information for me when I was growing up and it seemed more exciting than school.
Maybe it’s looking back in nostalgic way but I felt there was a lot more scientific imagery mixed in with everyday life then. Mars would pop up during Top Of The Pops. You’d see old stock space footage from Russia and America from the sixties on your screen. I think that’s starting to happen again a bit now. Science is part of all kinds of other areas of life and when you see it like that you get that cross-pollination of ideas that’s very exciting.
You’re going to be doing stand-up at The Enlightenment Cafe next week. Can you tell me about what you’ll be talking about?
Actually I am going to use shadow puppets, so I’m going to do a bit of stand-up and a bit of a story about the moon hopes of the 1840s. So quite an appropriately low-fi attempt at portraying the 19th century. It’s a really interesting story; in the 1840s there was a newspaper called The Sun, it bore almost no resemblance to today’s paper of the same name. It was a serious political broadsheet…it was also very cut-throat and needed to up its circulation, so they came up this story about life on the moon which had been discovered by an extremely powerful telescope by John Frederick William Herschel, and of course things were very hard to verify in those days so many people believed it was true.
Your passion for telling exciting stories about science would lend itself well to teaching.
I know the difference education made to my life, it made such a huge difference. So I think, for a while, I did think about being a teacher. I grew up in Hull in a very working class family. Both my parents left school at 14 and I was lucky enough to stay on and go to Cambridge. If you are from my sort of background it can be more difficult. When I arrived at university I hadn’t been away from home much, and remember thinking, “this is like another country!” It was a bit strange, but something I never took for granted.
See Helen Keen at The Enlightenment Café at the Old Vic Tunnels, Thursday 31 May – Sunday 3 June
Listen to Helen Keen’s radio show here: ‘It is rocket science!’
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