Not many comedians look forward to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – at least not in private. Twice-daily gigs, rip-off accommodation, waspish critics – you can understand why many approach the whole thing with an air of foreboding. Not Matt Forde though. The former Labour staffer turned stand-up comic couldn’t be more excited about this year’s festival.
The reason for that? Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister herself is set to be the latest guest to take part in his Political Party podcast in a special live show at Edinburgh’s Gilded Balloon. When we meet at The Spectator’s offices, Forde is grinning ear-to-ear in anticipation. ‘I honestly can’t wait to interview her,’ he says. ‘She’s probably one of the most important politicians of the past five years – yet no-one’s really sussed her out. She’s such an enigma.’
Excitement then, but no nerves. And perhaps understandably: Forde has been interviewing politicians for six years now – and performing comedy since 2007. He launched his podcast in 2013 when he interviewed his then Talksport colleague George Galloway, followed by a second show with Nigel Farage. When the podcast started to build a regular audience, one of London’s off-West End theatres had the idea of asking him to record it live on stage.
To the uninitiated it might not sound that exciting: a self-confessed Westminster anorak interviewing various backbenchers and political has-beens. But the podcast has found an unlikely recipe for success. At the time of writing, the next three live shows – from September to November – have sold-out already, despite the fact that he hasn’t even confirmed his guests yet.
So what’s the secret? It helps that Forde himself is charismatic and funny; the kind of comic who can bring the best out of his guests, turning even the most unlikely entertainers (Owen Smith anyone?) into worthy co-stars. His stand-up routines, which preface the live interviews, usually hit the mark. Crucially, though, he’s also a good interviewer: genuinely interested in his guests and able to extract good gossip. The juiciest revelations – like when Nick Boles spilled the beans on his decision to quit the Tories – have a habit of turning up in tomorrow’s gossip columns.
Though he tries to give his guests a fair hearing, Forde makes no secret of his own political leaning. He’s a centrist – ‘slap bang in the middle,’ as he puts it. Having been baptised in Blair’s Labour, he worked for the party’s candidate selection unit before cancelling his membership after the election of Corbyn in 2015. Does having moderate politics make it harder to draw a crowd? ‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘With politics as it is right now, more people are astounded by what’s happening in Westminster – and I suppose my comedy helps to make sense of that.’
For all his evangelical centrism, he’s tried his best to understand Corbynism, having prominent advocates onto the podcast to set out their ideas. He admits that, on issues like inequality, their analysis is pretty much spot on. His main problem, though, is more fundamental. ‘Corbyn himself is just hugely incompetent,’ he says. ‘Any movement centred on him will always be impossible for me to support.’
The podcast hasn’t shied away from fringe figures on the other side of the spectrum. In 2015, and to some controversy, Matt invited Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, as a guest. At the time Robinson – now jailed for disrupting the trial of the Huddersfield grooming gang – had apparently turned his back on the far-right, having appeared alongside Maajid Nawaz (a former Jihadist turned anti-extremism activist) to denounce violence.
‘EDL supporters had been calling into my Talksport show for years, so I knew a bit about Tommy,’ he says. ‘I always found the EDL itself – and its tendency for violence – absolutely petrifying. So the fact that Tommy had walked away from it and supposedly changed his mind, I thought that was fascinating. I thought he had a huge potential to reach out and persuade other people who might otherwise be swayed by violence and extremism.’
The interview itself makes for a fascinating listen, albeit one at odds with the usual chipper tone. Robinson – who’s since become notorious for his combative stance towards journalists and broadcasters – seems uncharacteristically open, perhaps even a little daunted. ‘He turned up without any bodyguards or entourage,’ Forde says. ‘But he was definitely nervous, sitting in front of what he probably perceived to be a middle class liberal audience.’
In retrospect there were clues that Robinson’s change of heart might not be all that. ‘I remember during the interview saying to him “Well if you want to change how politics is done, why not stand for parliament or the local council?”’, he says. ‘But it was clear, at the time, he really had no interest in that.’
So what’s next for the Political Party? ‘I’d love to take it to America – or even Brussels.’ Who would be his dream guest? ‘Hillary Clinton,’ he says – ‘I’d much rather interview her than Donald Trump. I think what’s she been through is probably a more remarkable experience than any politician on earth. The way she was treated by Trump, by the public, by the media – I just think it would be fascinating.’
It sounds fanciful, but perhaps it might just happen. Perhaps a call from his old guru Tony Blair (who Forde counts among his friends and fans) might just swing it? One thing’s for sure, though – you’d definitely need a bigger theatre.
Matt Forde interviews Nicola Sturgeon for a Political Party Edinburgh special on 20 August at the Gilded Balloon Debating Hall. His new stand-up show – Brexit, Pursued By A Bear – is at the Pleasance Forth from 31 July to 25 August.