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» » Robert Newman: Resistance Is Fertile (2001)

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    • Author: Delari
    Robert Newman was a rising comic star in the early 1990's, an inventive, intelligent, and unusually photogenic comedian (but then there's not much competition on that last point) from the more 'university' end of comedy, part of a double act with David Baddiel on the Mary Whitehouse Experience, first a brilliant Radio 1 series, and then a less successful TV series.

    Though a gifted impersonator and good gag writer, throughout the early 1990's his act became more and more inward, playful and theatrical. He was becoming less a stand up and comic actor and more a writer who performed his monologues. His content became based on autobiographical narrative, touching on heavy, personal subjects such as isolation, depression and adoption. Although he was very funny, he seemed far more inward and poetic than the more traditional gag man Baddiel (he even quoted poets such as Shelly during his performance).

    After MWE, Newman and Baddiel madeed another series, Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, darker than MWE as it did not have the input of the more mainstream and traditional Punt and Dennis. But Newman and Baddiel imploded at the height of their success, announcing their retirement at their unprecedented Wembley Arena sold-out show in 1993. Baddiel went on, in partnership with Frank Skinner, to become one of the biggest stars in comedy, reincarnated into a 'lad' (though now he is known as an intellectual, something many suspect was always his real inclination).

    Newman, on the other hand, soon disappeared after one solo tour. He became a novelist, publishing two comic novels. Around 2000, when I first started to get into MWE, Newman was a ghost. Then, one evening, he popped up on Channel 4 news, covering an infamous G8 meeting. He was jowly, unshaved and generally unkempt, looking almost like a middle aged roadie. Then he popped up on TV in a panel talking about that year's Edinburgh festival.

    This was a different Newman to the one I was watching on old videos of shows and MWE recordings. He seemed older, wiser, calmer, physically bigger and less needy. He also seemed less self-conscious and more concerned with the world.

    Then, in 2001, Resistance Is Fertile popped up. It was not a simple case of Newman turning his attention outward. Rather, he presented his own journey from callow Labour supporter to disillusion with mainstream politics after the arrival of the speciously titled New Labour. He was now left-wing, neo-Marxist, anti-globalisation. Resistance Is Fertile was a reflection of his changing outlook. In it, Newman manages a synthesis of politics and comedy, but in a new way that he makes his own, such as when he makes an ingenious plea with the audience to join him in joining the Conservative Party and turn it into a crypto-Communist party.

    Newman also manages to retain some of his older trademarks to support his new political comedy vision. For example, he utilizes his gift for impersonation by pretending to be Al Pacino at his incomprehensible, scenery chewing worst (or best), reading the BBC news to illustrate its lack of worth. Less successful, but still satisfactory, is his resurrection of louche gentleman, Jarvis, his old comic persona.

    Resistance Is Fertile is directed by Dylan Howitt, who carefully harnesses effects and interesting camera-work to Newman's stage performance. But the video is also wayward and incoherent in structure, which could lead a viewer with the sense that the project was not thought through with enough rigour. But, on the other hand, my position is that Resistance Is Fertile is biographical, and so necessarily incoherent, like life, and provides an intimate reflection of Newman's own growing political consciousness, aided by Newman's inherent charm and integrity. Resistance Is Fertile shows Newman starting to refresh the growing staidness of the alternative comedy scene, along with his good friend and part-time MWE (radio) member, Mark Thomas.

    His more recent History Of Oil, broadcast by Channel 4, was more coherent and organized. He has written a new novel (the fraught writing of which was the subject of an inspired episode of the BBC series Scribbling) and has started to regain some of his older profile, becoming an established part of the anti-globalisation movement he has affiliated himself with. But I felt that, in a History Of Oil, the political exposition, though well-developed and well-harnessed to comedy, and extremely interesting, was too external and polemical. In other words, the globalized politics was starting to overtake his rich sense of humanity, a mark of his comedy in the early 1990's. I hope Newman's forthcoming programme on BBC4 will strike more of a balance. In any case, Newman will undoubtedly go his own way, and in the staid world of comedy this is always something to be thankful for.
  • Cast overview:
    Rob Newman Rob Newman - Himself (as Robert Newman)
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