Comedy writer and performer Karl Minns has had to dig deep to see the funny side, during a year of cancelled live shows and TV work. Here he talks about how writing each day has helped save the day
A little over a year ago, Karl Minns was enjoying a two-week run at the Norwich Playhouse, performing his solo theatre show She Go, and having a laugh with friends in the bar afterwards. ‘It was going very, very well,’ says the award-winning comedy writer and performer. ‘It was such a wonderful two weeks, doing a show, just being around people, being around friends and feeling a buzz – the tension and the release of doing a show. I’ve missed the Playhouse and I’ve missed seeing my friends,’ says Karl.
And he’s particularly missed being able to catch up with them in the bar afterwards, to ‘chat and be silly. We are pack animals and need to be in groups of people.’
If you’re a Norfolk native, Karl is probably best known for being ‘one third’ of sketch duo, the Nimmo Twins, which began life in 1996 – he teamed up with Owen Evans and Nigel Woolston after working together in local theatre groups in Norwich.
Their shows garnered rave reviews at Edinburgh Festival and were taken to New York and Singapore. Back home, the sketch show Normal for Norfolk grew in popularity over the years. If you’ve ever been to one of their shows, you’ve probably been over and over again – 17,000 people saw the sell-out 20th anniversary show in 2016-17.
Fast forward to 2020 and it soon became apparent that sell-out shows just weren’t going to be happening anytime soon. Although Karl noted the ‘all in it together’ comradery of the first lockdown, he admits: ‘It affected me worse than I thought it would because I was here on my own – my partner was looking after her elderly parents. I’m used to being on my own, but it coincided with me having a bad back and tinnitus in one ear. I was unable to walk very far and was tormented by my ear.’
How did the bad back come about? ‘I thought ‘I know, I’ll get super fit’. I ran and I ran too much,’ says Karl. ‘I ran every day.’ Considering he ran about ‘5k in three years’ prior to the pandemic, the 20 miles in one week was probably step too far. The discomfort went on for about five weeks. ‘It was pretty unpleasant,’ says Karl. ‘Then things got a lot better.’
Professionally, things were not looking so good. ‘In April, all my work stopped – my TV work stopped and all my live dates were cancelled.’ Karl has written comedy professionally for around 20 years, providing material for Loose Ends, Russell Howard’s Good News, Charlie Brooker, Unspun with Matt Forde, Al Murray the Pub Landlord and Have I Got News For You. By the time June came along, and with his live dates back at the Playhouse cancelled, he took to posting She Go material on Facebook and setting up a PayPal donation link.
Thankfully, by the summer, the redundancy-hit theatre industry in Norwich offered a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Interlude, a six-week theatre festival played in Covid-safe conditions in a big top, came to Chapelfield Gardens, with Karl performing She Go Does It In A Tent…With Friends, during August. ‘It was like a million tonnes off my shoulders’ says Karl. ‘One, I could perform again. It was lovely to be back in Norwich and at last meet up with people and go to the pub – as well as see audiences and techies every day.’
There was a feeling of ‘we are kind of through it now,’ recalls Karl. ‘I loved Interlude. It was really lovely – my favourite two weeks of the year.’ Not only that, things started looking up on the writing front. He adds: ‘I got two gigs at the same time, which was a surprise.’ One of which was the opportunity to be on the writing team for the news series of Spitting Image, on BritBox UK. ‘Out of the blue I got Spitting Image and out of the blue I got a show called Avenue Five with Armando Iannucci, an HBO comedy with Hugh Laurie.’
It all happened in the space of a few weeks. Karl thought ‘this is amazing. Spitting Image was a very big show and to work with Armando was one of my dreams,’ says Karl. ‘I felt almost guilty to get two big gigs.’
He was keenly aware, via Twitter, that others in the industry might not be faring so well, instead trying to make a living by ‘driving delivery vans.’ He adds: ‘There’s a real sense I was very lucky – and I was very aware of that.’
The writing work kept him busy as he approached his 50th birthday in November. How did he celebrate? ‘Everything was closed so my partner and I went for a walk and got a takeaway. I’m not a big party person it wasn’t a huge loss,’ says Karl, although he acknowledges: ‘It’s a big landmark, 50, but there was nothing to do.’
He then performed She Go Does It Under A Christmas Tree…With Friends show at Norwich Theatre Royal – which finished just before Tier 4 restrictions came into force. She Go was part of a three-show entertainment offering, along with Panto in a Pickle! And A Circus Carol. With social distancing in place, just the lower stalls and half of the upper circle were made available and there was no interval.
‘That was odd – doing big theatre and so few people,’ admits Karl. He received ‘lot of emails’ from people saying they would’ve loved to have gone to see him perform if it hadn’t been for Covid.
Both Interlude and the Christmas shows were the idea of Stephen Crocker. Karl was somewhat surprised that the Theatre Royal Chief Exec didn’t make it on to The Stage’s annual list of influential performing arts figures. ‘I was staggered he wasn’t part of it.’
Christmas, such as it was, seems like a long time ago, now. ‘We are all going through a very, very dark January and February,’ says Karl. ‘In November we had Christmas to look forward to. To start a year in lockdown is really hard.’
Despite all the ‘pain, suffering and mental health issues’ of the past year, he remains hopeful: ‘Once it’s over I hope that people who didn’t think they had resilience in them have found a resilience. If you can cope with this, it’s going to make you a great deal stronger.’ He adds: ‘It’s shown us what’s important in our lives.’
How does he get through each day? ‘I write every day. I try and be creative every day,’ says Karl, ‘whereas my partner does yoga and runs. One saving grace is that I write scripts and write stuff. I know that this won’t last forever – every day passing is a day closer to the end.’
He has just finished writing for Spitting Image – Rishi Sunak’s Black Friday Christmas Song was a particular highlight – and has just started writing again for Avenue Five.
He says: ‘There’s enough to keep me going. I have good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours. It’s our World War 2, it’s our Great Depression. It’s all the things our grandparents went through minus the bombs and Nazis.’
He is looking forward to going to ‘cinemas, theatres, clubs, bars and restaurants again.’ Whenever that might be. ‘I have a fantasy of when I will go to a gig again…go to a cinema again.’
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Nimmo Twins. ‘It’s literally half my life,’ muses Karl, although he adds: ‘It doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s pretty amazing that audiences still come and see us. I’ll never take that for granted. I’m very, very proud of how long it’s gone on for – and also the fact that the recent shows are the best shows we’ve done. It’s nice that many people have grown up with us.’ And the best bit? It was all ‘totally unplanned,’ he says.
It would be nice to think that the anniversary could be celebrated in some way. Karl says: ‘I’d love to write another live show and perform again, but we’re all at the mercy of Covid and whether theatres can or will open again.
‘Right now, there’s no guarantees so it’s hard to plan. There is light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines – the creative-industries are ingenious enough to work around the pandemic and I’m sure they will. What I can say is that, at some point, She Go or The Nimmo’s will tread the boards again. Just don’t ask me when…’
(Featured image picture credit: Nick Stone)