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Hegley gets poetic on Gallic roots

PUBLISHED: 11:31 23 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:28 01 July 2010

In his latest show, singing poet John Hegley creates the character of Monsieur Robinet - finally putting to rest the fraught relationship with his Gallic dad in the process. BEN MCPARTLAND reports.

In his latest show, singing poet John Hegley creates the character of Monsieur Robinet - finally putting to rest the fraught relationship with his Gallic dad in the process. BEN MCPARTLAND reports.

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I am not quite sure how to describe the great John Hegley. The 55-year-old has been given a number of names over the years, mostly centring around the two labels of comedian and poet. But he is also a songwriter, a performer, a singer, a writer, entertainer. You name it, Hegley is it.

So what would the man, who once did a gig in a Colombian woman's prison, describe himself as? “Well, you have to think of what is the most helpful to people,” he says, helpfully. “A 'singing poet' - that shows people there is an element of entertainment.”

But if you have ever seen Hegley recite one of his poems about dogs or glasses live, or even watched some of his clips on YouTube, singing poet does not seem to do him justice.

“Well OK, singing poet with potatoes - because then it shows there is a comedy element,” says Hegley.

Well that settles it then, anyone who fancies seeing a singing poet with potatoes in the flesh can pop along to Norwich Arts Centre next Thusday.

The poet will be performing a preview of his Edinburgh show - The Adventures Of Monsieur Robinet.

Hegley is promising something slightly different for his audience - and he is not just referring to his musician friend Andrew, who will be there to play the harmonica and rubber glove.

“I need to get hold of an overhead projector so I can show some of my drawings,” he says. “I have written this book in English and in French about this character and I wanted to see what the audience thinks he should look like. We will have various attempts and then at the end they will decide.”

Audience involvement is a key feature of Hegley's shows and it is not just about laughing at his whacky songs and weird poems.

“The audience is asked to be involved emotionally. Some of the stories are quite sad, it is not all about laughs by all means,” said Hegley.

“There is a part to do with relationships with my family and it is nice to get that in there and touch the audience. But then along with all that there is fig rolls and potatoes.”

Hegley's fraught relationship with his father has been a feature of his work for many years now. French-born Rene died in 1980 when Hegley was just 26. He would often lose his temper with his son, something that Hegley has taken a long time to come to terms with.

“The first show I did about my father was in 1989. It is 20 years on, so I guess this new show is the end of that,” he ponders. “It has been quite a journey of understanding. Having children of my own, you get to realise how demanding it is being a father. So this show is a kind of me shaking hands with my dad.

“I was angry that my dad got angry with me and lost his temper.

“There was also the disappointment that we did not get to see the French side of him. He kept that under wraps, but he did put a lot into us.”

The Adventures Of Monsieur Robinet, which Hegley has written in both French and English, is his way of exploring that Gallic element of his childhood he feels he missed out on.

Numerous glowing tributes have been paid to Hegley over the years. He has been called the most popular poet alive as well as the comedy poet laureate.

One journalist commented: “Hegley has reinvented the wheel where poetry is concerned.”

In his explanation of how exactly he got to a point where he can be considered the planet's favourite poet, he makes it sound so simple.

“Well I could sing. That is a very important part of it because that is a skill I had to start with.

“I can rhyme and I can move and I can gesticulate. That is basically what it is and I had those skills and it is just a question of using them.”

I then, with the help of the rest of the office, took a couple of minutes to put Hegley's rhyming skills to the test by giving him random words.

The results will remain secret in case he needs to use them in his future shows - but he passed with flying colours.

After enjoying a 15-minute engaging conversation with the very amiable Hegley, for some reason I felt the pressure to make every sentence of my article end in a rhyme because his love of language and bizarre poetry and potatoes is infectious.

But obviously that would have been foolish to try.

t John Hegley The Adventures Of Monsieur Robinet is at Norwich Arts Centre, June 24, £13 (£10 cons), 01603 660352, www.norwichartscentre.co.uk

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