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Just my cup of tea - Robert Bathurst on his obsession with Half Man Half Biscuit

Blog | By Robert Bathurst | May 05, 2022

Singer-songwriter Nigel Blackwell performing in 2015, with Ken Hancock

For nearly 40 years, Half Man Half Biscuit have played clever, funny, religious songs. By superfan Robert Bathurst

Mention Half Man Half Biscuit to anyone and you will get one of three responses: a blank uncomprehending stare; a wistful frown at some vague memory of the band in the 1980s; or the person freezes like a pointer, all time stops and they almost cry with joy, quoting their favourite lyrics.

Half Man Half Biscuit draw big live audiences today, more than 37 years after their debut LP, Back in the DHSS. The latest album, The Voltarol Years, is their 16th.

I make no presumption that anyone apart from their legion of fans would agree, but the noise they make and the words they utter give me as much artistic thrill as the work of any other composer and songwriter. They are lyrically inventive and poetic; the work is laden with acute social observation and references to, inter alia, sport, religion, popular culture, literature, holidays, gardening, geography, art, the music business and cycling. It is underpinned by an unusual and strict moral view about, for example, graceless behaviour, drugs and any show of self-regard.

Half Man Half Biscuit are a four-piece band; the lyricist and leading force is Nigel Blackwell. I’ve never seen him smile and yet – or perhaps because of this – I laugh more freely when listening to him than to anyone else. The effect is physical and exciting – a warmth similar to any encounter with Spike Milligan or John Lennon. Blackwell’s ideas come tumbling out with a startlingly nimble wit and playfulness, while the guttural bass guitar of Neil Crossley grabs hold of you.

How to define their musical style has been argued about for decades: post-punk, say some; others call it variations of indie/rock/folk. However people might try to categorise HMHB, they’ll get no help from Blackwell, who rarely says anything publicly about his work. There is no PR machine behind him, he doesn’t see the point. It’s not arch or disingenuous; he just doesn’t like fuss.

To the fans, this lack of fuss makes him all the more appealing.

The band’s rare performances, heavily attended and always on a Friday, usually take place in the Midlands or the North because, it’s said, he likes to get home to the Wirral after a show. Blackwell’s chatty exchanges with the audience are natural and very funny, as if it is just a room full of mates.

Away from this secret society, life is not simple for a Biscuit proselytiser. My attempts to get some of the catalogue used in the soundtrack of the TV series Cold Feet fell at the first, second and third times of asking, as I repeated the call with successive producers over the years. They didn’t, wouldn’t or maybe couldn’t get the subtleties, musicality and original wit in every one of Blackwell’s 207 published songs.

However, once you’ve tuned into the way he thinks, a world is unlocked.

I’ve got fur in my kettle and a film on my tea

I’m living in a hard-water town

But I don’t let it get me down

The inside of a Halex Three-Star table tennis ball

Smells much like you’d expect it

Religion is a recurrent theme. In Christian Rock Concert, he goes backstage:

Into the main marquee I walked

The coke was Coke and the tongue was forked

The rural dean lay down inert

In his John 3:16 shirt

And he’s good on mental confusion:

Increasing doubt – decreasing hope

Even my imaginary friend changed his mind

The Cold Feet cast with Robert Bathurst (left). Bathurst longed to use a Half Man Half Biscuit song in the ITV show

I was once grossly overdressed for an HMHB concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, when doing a play at the Bush Theatre next door. I had a ticket, bought long in advance. But, with the interval plus 20 minutes before my first cue in the second half, I was able to run down the fire escape in my costume (as a pinstriped Tory MP), get into the Empire and see several numbers, including The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light of an Oncoming Train), before running back up in time for my next scene on stage.

Another stumbling block for some people’s appreciation of HMHB is a snobbery about humour in music.

Blackwell is funny; he subverts what a post-punk/rock/indie/folk band should be about. He has no agenda or cause; there’s nothing pious or righteous about his lyrical poetry. The writer Anthony McGowan said, ‘There is not a single HMHB lyric that isn’t worth reading and, other than Dylan, I don’t think there’s any other band or artist in the history of rock music you could say that about.’

Blackwell’s distaste for celebrity and any expressions of grandeur is not an act. It defines him and informs many of his lyrics. There’s a well-documented incident from the early days, when he turned down an invitation to appear on the TV music show The Tube, a career-enhancing opportunity for a new band, because it was to be filmed when Tranmere Rovers were playing at home. He has been consistently and resolutely independent of any corporate record company.

The song titles betray his skewed way of looking at the world: I Left My Heart in Papworth General; He Who Would Valium Take; and Something Rotten in the Back of Iceland. His jokes have led some to dismiss HMHB as a novelty act – an accusation that has worn thin after 37 years. Blackwell can’t be pinned down. He’s a verbal jazzer, pulling apparently random thoughts together to weave a theme, cramming it with tangential cultural references, often with a deep sense of longing. Reading the lyrics – the poems – is to appreciate their density. Lines of extraordinary, imaginative flight cascade over you.

I always return to HMHB, especially if there’s a crisis looming, playing them very loud and finding myself laughing. I’ve never known it not to improve the mood.

I went from the Andes to the Indies in my undies.

A light aircraft was on standby in case I got bored.

It’s best not to meet your heroes, though recently I had a close call. I was in Liverpool to discuss a project with Roy Boulter, film-maker and former drummer with The Farm. Blackwell was due to drop by at the same time. Luckily, he had an excuse: he had to go to tea with his mother in Rhyl.

Perfect. Just as it should be. No fuss