Interview With… Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland chatted to us about The Thinking Drinkers latest show, arriving at the Leicester Square Theatre on the 30th November and 10th December.

You guys met back in your 20’s while working on a leading pub magazine, how does it feel to think that you’ve known each other for so long? Yes, all the way back in 2004, we were working on “The Publican”, a newspaper which folded almost as soon as we left. It was sent out to all the pubs and bars in the UK. Ben was the drinks writer but also covered snacks….as you can still see by looking at him. Tom, meanwhile, was a roving reporter who called landlords and asked them tough questions such as “How often do you host a meat raffle?” and “Can you tell me about your business rates?”. It was hard-hitting stuff.

Soon after leaving there, we joined forces and wrote a book called “Good Beer Guide Wet Coast USA”, a discerning drinker’s guide to the craft brewing scene in California, Oregon and Washington. The “research” took us over three months, visiting every brewery and brewpub on the West Coast – it was brilliant fun and, having spent over 12 weeks in each other’s pockets, sleeping in hire cars and getting chased out of a bar in San Diego by some Marines we thought we could certainly handle working together – so we set up “Thinking Drinkers”.

How did the idea for the ‘Thinking Drinkers’ come about?As our background was in journalism, it was initially an editorial idea but we soon realised that simply writing about drink was not enough – we needed to add a live element. So, having become disillusioned with deadly dull drinks tastings and after spending a few days up at the Edinburgh Fringe seeing lots of different shows, we decided to transfer our expertise from the page to the stage in 2011 -and turned our tastings into comedy theatre productions.

It was a bold decision given that we hadn’t been in a play since Primary School and, crucially, we had no idea what we were doing. But we wrote a decent script and were then thrust into a two-day acting boot camp with a very patient and talented director – who told us how to ‘do’ theatre.

It was a very, very, very steep learning curve but, don’t tell anyone, it’s not that difficult. You just have to pretend and remember your lines. Benedict Cumberbatch – we’re coming after you.

Anyway, within weeks we were performing “The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol” in a freight container at the Edinburgh Festival. And then within 12 months it had transferred to the West End before returning to the Edinburgh Festival for nine successive years with different shows and, rather than just a muckabout, performing on stage up and down the country is now our main job.

At what time did you realize that your passion in ‘alco-demics’ did you realize you could turn this into a career? We know it sounds like a strange way to earn a living (and everyone always says stuff like ‘nice work if you can get it’ etc…) but we realised we were onto something when we started looking beyond the mere booze in the glass.

While the way drink is made can be fascinating and while it can deliver some fabulous flavours (not to mention its ‘uplifting’ effects), simply talking about drinks on its own can be rather one-dimensional.

As historians with a healthy interest in alcohol, we realised that the real interesting stuff emerges when you place it in a historical and cultural context, broadening it beyond booze into the past, the people and the places that have shaped it.Historically, drinking and alcohol is the cornerstone of civilisation – always has been – and there are so many fascinating stories and interesting anecdotes linked to drink. The reason that monkeys were coaxed down from the trees and evolved into man was because of sweet smelling fruit fermenting on the jungle floor. If it wasn’t for drink, we literally would not be here.

We also realised that people want to know more too. In the last year, the UK spent nearly £22 billion a year on alcohol – more than ever before – and the number of craft brewers and artisan distillers and winemakers has exploded in the last five years or so. Yet, the number of people cutting down their overall consumption increased too.

This means that people are following the Thinking Drinkers’ mantra of “Drink Less, Drink Better” and are becoming increasingly interested in what’s in their glass. They are willing to pay more for it too.

Consequently, they want to know more about and our shows (and writing) can slake this thirst for knowledge. But we deliver this knowledge in a silly way – by stripping down to our underpants, doing magic tricks, singing, dancing and doing loads of ‘funnies’. Drink is supposed to be fun. Laughing and enjoying a beer is a much-needed break from the daily grind. Also, comedy is a great way of getting information across and it makes the experience so much more memorable. People have a lot of fun at our shows – they laugh a lot, they learn a lot and they get five free drinks. Did we mention the five free drinks?

How did this year’s show compare to your previous ones?Last year’s show, called “Pub Crawl”, we embarked on selfless two-man mission to save the beleaguered British boozer with a bar hop through history – stopping off at wild west saloons, South American beach bars, gin palaces and the oldest building ever built by man (which was essentially a pub). This year, with “Heroes of Hooch”, we slide you gently onto the bar stool of discovery as we explore the liquid lives of history’s most extraordinary elbow-benders.

It’s a hilarious and informative imbibing adventure that celebrates the men and women who have used alcohol to light a fire under the rocking chair of moribund ideas rather than those irresponsible imbibers who have given drink its devilish reputation. These include Alexander the Great, Harry Houdini, Louis Pasteur and Albert Einstein, a moose that drinks lager, an astronomer with a metal nose, a Chinese pirate, Indian warriors and, last but not least, God.

All accompanied by five fantastic drinks: Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin – An intriguing, innovative ruby-coloured Australian gin created by steeping whole Shiraz grapes from the Yarra Valley in Australia; Diplomatico Rum – a luxury Venezuelan sipping rum matured in tropical conditions to deliver a rich, chocolate taste; The Singleton of Dufftown 12 Year-Old – a deliciously smooth award-winning, approachable single malt matured in oak & bourbon casks; Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge – this legendary French liqueur from 1880 is a blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of wild tropical oranges; and Tetley’s Original, an iconic, beautifully balanced Yorkshire ale first brewed back in 1822 using half-a-dozen English hops and a famous double-yeast strain. A cult classic.

At a time when alcohol finds itself in the cross-hairs of the do-gooders gun, “Heroes of Hooch” proves that, contrary to common perception, a whole lot of life’s answers can be discovered at the bottom of a glass.

What do you consider to be the hardest element to add into your show?Dancing. It’s harder than it looks. We have been very lucky to work with Caroline Pope, a world class choreographer with brilliant ideas and a lot of patience.

Any venues you are especially excited for on this tour? If so, why?Honestly, we look forward to all of them. It’s such a laugh driving around the country in our ex-Royal Mail van and visiting all these different places.We love working in the world of drinks but theatre people are a lovely bunch and we’ve made some really good friends over the years. It’s also great, after the show, to explore the local pubs, bars and, maybe if we’ve been really good boys, take-away establishments.

You’ve completed year upon year of successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, what’s your favourite thing about performing there? We only started doing this in our mid-30s and had never dreamed of being actors or comedians before that. So it still seems completely absurd to enjoy a really strong following at the largest arts festival in the world where it all began in a freight container.

You both have completed so much in your careers already, what do you each consider the biggest or most meaningful achievement?Winning “Worst Joke at The Fringe” back in 2017. It wasn’t even the worst joke in our show.

What is your favourite thing about performing live? Modesty doesn’t prevent us from saying that making people laugh and people clapping is a great feeling. But the most amazing thing about performing live is that No matter how badly you need to go beforehand, the urge to go to the loo instantly disappears as soon as the lights hit you. It’s extraordinary. And we’ve decided to rigorously test this theory during the tour – so come and see that if nothing else!

The Thinking Drinkers: Heroes of Hooch will play at the Leicester Square Theatre on the 30th November and the 10th December.

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