Newcastle's Viz creator turns to stand-up comedy
PUBLISHED: 00:16 19 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:42 20 February 2013
Geordie Simon Donald and brother Chris were the masterminds behind the Viz comic phenomenon. Created in their bedroom in Newcastle in 1979, it went on to top a million sales. Thirty years on, Simon is forging a new career as a top stand-up comedian
Why did you decide to go into stand-up after 24 successful years on Viz? I actually started out as a performer and got sidetracked into magazines. Even as a small boy I did impressions of people on TV like Eddie Waring to entertain my dad. I later studied acting at the Peoples Theatre and I fell in love with being on stage and making people laugh. At 17 I had a band called Johnny Shiloes Movement Machine and I would do comedy poetry at our gigs as well. It was the late Seventies post-punk scene and stand-up was closely interwoven with the music scene.
Meanwhile my brother Chris was hell-bent on making magazines. It started with the Lily Crescent Locomotive Times - for him and a couple of other train spotters in our street. Jim Brownlow was the Heaton Sidings correspondent. Jim introduced us to alternative comedy like Peter Cook and Dudley Moores Derek and Clive routines, which featured a lot of swearing.
So it all came together and Chris and Jim came up with this comic - it wasnt called Viz yet - and asked me to make a contribution. I had a fascination with comics since I was a kid too. So it seemed the natural thing to do. I did this strip called Afternoon Tea with Mr. Kipplin, and it had the surreal and violent elements which were to become our stock in trade.
You were a carer for your eldest brother Steve, who died of cancer in 2008. Was this a turning point in your life? It was when Steve was terminally ill that I stood back and readdressed what I was doing with my life. Looking at things from a new perspective I realised that to perform stand-up was what I really wanted to do. I decided then to try out the characters I had been experimenting with for a couple of years on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe and in North East comedy clubs. Up until that point I was telling stories about characters rather than playing the characters themselves. But doing comedy was something I returned to rather than a new direction.
Tell me about the inspiration for some of the characters in your stand-up act. Well, Bingo from Benton - the Geordie thug - actually began about 20 years ago. In the early Eighties the guitarist in my band Paul Rose and me used to ring up the Night Owls on Metro Radio. The presenter then was Alan Beswick. It was about the time the Pope was visiting the UK and we would ring up Night Owls with daft questions such as where did the Pope keep his cigarettes.
Years later I phoned up when Alan Robson was hosting Night Owls to ask him similar stupid questions such as why trains went faster than buses. I said it was because they had more wheels and convinced him I was of monumentally limited intelligence. I was just Simon from Heaton, then.
Then a DJ pal Simon Smedley did a stint sitting in for Alan Robson and he wanted pals to phone in just in case he had no callers so it was a chance to do the Why do trains go faster character again. My girlfriend and I had just got a dog from the rescue centre in Benton and named him Bingo. Needing to think of a character in a hurry I came up with Bingo from Benton.
The thing about Bingo is that its not pure invention but actually a collection of true stories put into character. A couple of friends were walking along a road in Newcastle when this bloke - stripped naked to the waist - jumps out of a pick-up truck with two vicious dogs chained in the back and he screams at them: If you laugh at me or me dogs Ill f...ing bray you. So I made that Bingos catchphrase.
Ive got four other characters at the moment: theres Barry Twyford, a market research dogsbody whose questions are very offensive; Rick Kestrel is a Cockney supplier to the stars - but not drugs, rather sanitary ware; Jeremy Jitler, a stand-up comedian who has no sense of humour; and theres Dominic Farqhuar, a first year medical student with a very high opinion of himself.
My challenge is to develop a stand up act that is successful all over the UK. My shows are very popular in the North East but characters like Bingo dont travel very well so Im working on some new characters I can use throughout the country.
Which Viz character are you proudest of? Without doubt it has to be Sid the Sexist. Once I had the character it just wrote itself. Like Bingo there were just so many true stories that could be easily turned into Sid material. Graham Lines was a pal with a rough-diamond Geordie humour who was studying maths at Newcastle University but funding his studies by working at Byker bin depot. He was hilarious but painfully shy with women. So he partly inspired Sid. But there are other aspects to Sid too. Hes the original 40-year-old virgin. The irony is if Sid ever dropped his guard and behaved normally he would be a success, but he feels he has to make all these outrageous comments because of peer pressure. He was a great charachter to do.
People often ask who were the Viz characters based on. Some were based on real people. My brother Chris was Simon Lotion Time and Motion. The only thing I invented there was the moustache! My eldest brother Steve was Mr Logic. He was so very logical in everything he did. He actually had Aspergers syndrome although he didnt know it at the time. Then I remember him watching a TV documentary on Aspergers and in a very logical fashion declaring: "Ah yes. Thatll be me, then." In fact I think there is an autistic trait in all three of us.
How important was the use of regional dialect in Viz? Our early publisher John Brown wanted us to tone down some of the dialect. But in characters like Sid the Sexist he failed to realise there is a fascination with accents. You would end up with a watered-down version if you got rid of the dialect. It wasnt until relatively recently that people like Cheryl Cole and Ant & Dec would be accepted on mainstream television with their Geordie accents.
With Viz our plan wasnt to produce something that was commercially successful. We just wanted to make a comic that we wanted to read. That was all there was to it. As a result we never listened to any advice that was given to us by anybody. We ignored John, and rightly so.
I still get Geordies who were students in the early Eighties telling me how their university mates would get them to translate the strips and do the accents of the characters. Thats great for me. It demonstrates that it wasnt just that readers would tolerate the regional accents, it was something they enjoyed - which is a vindication of what we were doing.
Who are your comedy heroes? Well, its amazing for me that some of my comedy heroes have said how much they like my comedy, people like my favourite stand-up comedian Stewart Lee and Michael Palin, because Monty Python was a big influence on me. When Spike Milligan died I was asked to appear on a Channel 4 tribute to him. That was a real honour because he was one of my dads favourite comedians and he used to play all the Goons stuff for us when we were kids. I think my brothers and I got our artistic gifts from my mam and the comedy from my dad. She was a very gifted display artist for Fenwicks. She also made beautiful wooden toys and was a brilliant seamstress.
What did your parents make of your lavatory humour and swearing as teenage comic makers? Viz didnt really exist as far as they were concerned because we didnt really tell my mam and dad about it. Its not actually true, but the story goes that they didnt know about the magazines existence until a BBC TV crew turned up on the doorstep in 1991 after we topped a million sales.
They were definitely aware of the comic. I remember my mam asking to see a copy at one point because she heard about it from some of her friends. I had to give her a copy that was heavily censored with Tipp-Ex.
Your mum died in 1994 after suffering MS since you were born. How did you feel when you were diagnosed with it recently? It hasnt affected my ability to work. It may never have been diagnosed had I not volunteered to be a guinea-pig and undertook the neurological tests they perform to diagnose it while I was presenting a TV documentary on MS. Ive got a very mild form that doesnt affect me really. I get the occasional tingling in the fingertips. It may affect me in later life. It may not. We dont really know. Its classified as benign. The damage that has been done to my nerves has already been done. Its not active.
Is Newcastle still home? Ive been living in London for the past 18 months and Im enjoying it. Its good for me. Ive always got on very well with London but Ive still got an option on my Newcastle United season ticket until 2019. I didnt take it up last season because I wasnt around enough to use it - but I will if I am around enough. That was the best 1,500 Ive ever spent.
Simon Donald is playing Whitley Bay Playhouse on February 18 and South Shields Customs House on February 26. For more details on his upcoming dates and his autobiography Him Off the Viz go to www.simondonald.co.uk