Luke Toulson interview
Andrew Mickel16 November 2007
After winning the Hackney Empire New Act award last month, former schoolboy stand-up Luke Toulson tells Simon Jennings what's taken him so long
Luke wanders into the drab Islington pub with the same affable swagger I remember from years ago. But before we can take a seat his mobile goes, and he excuses himself as he scuttles into a corner. He soon returns, apologising profusely. "It's just mad at the moment," he explains. "This week especially, because of the Hackney thing. That kicked off quite a lot and I'm trying to capitalise on it."
I knew Luke, now 30, as a charismatic, lady-killing sixth-former. Girls used to trail after him on the way to class. I was a just timid 13-year-old at the time, but Luke was the guy who always had time for everyone. He snuck me off to the pub for my first pint as a corruptible teenager. But on the school stage he always found himself in two-bit parts and "fundamental disagreements" with the drama teacher.
The Loser's Cup
Luke's first taste of stand-up came during his GCSE years when he managed to persuade his English teacher to take the class to see Rik Mayall rather than another tedious Shakespeare rendition; something he remembers as one of his greatest achievements.
Then, in his last year at school, Luke started a comedy routine in assemblies where he would present the Losers Cup to "whoever had been a twat that week". He used to gather material from fellow pupils the evening before and present it the following day. What was meant to be a five-minute skit after the teacher's notices turned into the 20-minute focal point of the morning. He was relieved of the responsibility after being caught in the pub one too many times, but was soon reinstated by popular demand.
Yet it was not until late last year that Luke, now living in south London, started out on the stand-up circuit. When he left Manchester University with a degree in geography he went to teacher training college. "I always wanted to be an actor but I trained to be a teacher after university so I'd have something to fall back on," he explains.
The Acting Dream
After teacher training he still dreamed of being an actor, so he went to drama school. "The idea of stand-up at the time was absurd. That was for someone else," he says. He spent a frustrating year failing to get auditions and eventually persuaded his drama school colleague, Stephen Harvey, to start a sketch show double act with him. After a month spent writing material, they booked a theatre. From there "it just took off" and by the summer of 2005 the duo were grabbed by the same agency as Ricky Gervais, and were nominated for a Perrier Award.
But two years later their performances were starting to stagnate, and Luke was still doing a lot of supply teaching to make ends meet. He still does, in fact. His calm demeanour means he keeps getting sent to the roughest schools. "I despise it. It's absolutely horrible." he says. "You think: 'I am actually quite good at some things but in this capacity I'm entirely useless'."
Tired of hiding behind "silly voices and characters", he started to think seriously about doing stand-up. "I just wanted to stand up there and take it back to the more brutally honest, much more naked. Not hiding behind stuff," he says.
A Stand-Up Finally
Inspired after watching a Bill Hicks DVD, he went ahead and booked his first stand-up slot in Deptford last autumn, and has not looked back. Just five months later he won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year Award, beating off competition from comedians who had been at it for two years or more.
"Since Hackney Empire I'm in a very exciting place," he admits, without conceding that he has actually succeeded at anything. "I'm totally in love with stand-up."
So, more than a decade after the Loser's Cup made him a schoolboy celebrity, Luke believes he has finally found his niche in stand-up. "If only I had known that then, I could have saved myself 10 years," he quips.
But deep down he knows his acting experience has been crucial for life as a solo comic. "If it's going to work you have to come to it at the right time," he says. "I couldn't have come to it five years ago and been successful. The double act taught me to write material and the acting taught me to perform on a stage."
His defining moment came one night performing in Deptford. As the last act onstage at about 11pm, he had been waiting around for two hours. He had had enough and just went on with "a fuck you attitude". Past the point of caring what anyone thought of him, he just "went for it", and the audience loved it. This was his most valuable lesson to date, one he feels he shares with Jack Dee, no less: "It's about the moment that you let go and stop wanting to be loved," he says.
Luke's no-bullshit attitude suits the meritocratic world of stand-up comedy. Not willing to schmooze his way up the ranks of actors, he just wants to perform. "Comedy is so black and white," he says. "There's not a stand-up who's succeeded who hasn't made people laugh." While acting involved spending a lot of time disagreeing with people and not sensing what audiences thought, Luke loves knowing immediately whether he has been funny or not.
But Luke's still not keen to go back to visit his old school and his disapproving drama teacher. "You don't really want to go back until you can say: 'Look who you treated like a cunt!'" he chuckles. The day he'll be able to do that doesn't seem too far away.
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