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Tim Key 2
Nine Songs
Tim Key

Canonic comedian, actor and poet Tim Key talks Olivia Swash through the songs (and decidedly not songs) that have soundtracked him crushing his ten-year plan.

23 February 2024, 08:00 | Words by Olivia Swash

When asked whether he’s big into music, for a feature about music, Tim Key’s instant reaction is, “God no.”

“I listen to The Beatles (Radio) on Spotify and see what happens,” he acknowledges. It’s a fittingly familiar tendency considering that the everyman is at the heart of Tim Key’s comedic and poetic repertoire. From his acting roles in Alan Partridge, Peep Show, Richard Ayoade’s The Double and Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, to his six books and two decades of live solo and collaborative shows, Key harnesses hilarity out of the mundane.

Exactly a decade ago, Key was asked by a magazine where he hoped he would be in ten years’ time. He aspired to still be working with talented people and doing more interesting things that were sometimes scary. And he hoped that one day he would make a film.

A decade on, he feels firmly on-track. “I’ve absolutely nailed that,” he lauds. “Complete respect for 37-year-old Tim Key; very wise. It has got more interesting, it has got more scary. I was in a play at The Old Vic which covers both of those. That was Art, alongside two proper actors: Rufus Sewell and the late, great Paul Ritter. I’d have bitten your hand off ten years ago for that opportunity.”

As for his filmmaking goal, Key and his longtime collaborator Tom Basden recently shot an upcoming film starring Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. It’s a story derived from a short film the pair made in 2007, developed into a feature by Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow production company, who are set to bring Alan Partridge back this year for a new mock-doc series. Whether Key will reprise his canonical character of “Sidekick” Simon Denton is still unconfirmed. “The people who have made it have dropped hints as to whether I’ll be in it,” he says. “Reading between the lines I think I probably will be on balance, but I never take anything for granted with Partridge or his universe.”

Key’s “least ambitious project to date” is his newly-released sixth book: a poetry anthology named Chapters. He’s currently on a complementary “very mild book tour,” which he’s finding very relaxed. “Usually I’m travelling round with a show up my sleeve, and that’s a different pressure,” he says. “You have to go out there and execute it perfectly, otherwise everyone leaves feeling slightly desolate.” His current tour is a much more casual in-conversation set-up, with guest interviewers including Jessica Knappett, Sam Campbell and a rare but treasured appearance from Chris Morris.

Key’s Nine Songs, not unlike his writing style, span the spectrum of obscurity. He chooses a Soviet romcom soundtrack, a spicy Italian ménage à trois film score (“I’m an absolute magpie for scores”), and gives the definition of “a song choice” a wide berth with an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. “I thought I’d try and sneak one. What’s the worst that can happen? I wanted to give a fairly wide array of things I like to have coming into my ears,” Key says, in his defence.

While his choices mostly hop around his life, there are songs that hold relevance to Key’s work, too. “Some of them I’ve had playing while I’m trying to get my point across, some merely languishing in the prestate as people come into the theatre,” he says. “The prestate stuff I’ll hear most days for months, so they have to be ones you love more each time you hear them.”

Key’s character in BBC Two’s The Witchfinder (the most gutting cancellation since Freaks & Geeks) made expert decisions based on “scriptures, scruples and scrutiny: the three scrs.” Did he find it tough to deploy any of these techniques when choosing his Nine Songs? “I like picking things like songs or foods or films or books. As a writer, you spend your time sat in front of a blank sheet of paper, having to fill it up with stuff that is funny and tells a story. That’s a pain in the neck,” he says. “Much easier to scratch your head and think, ‘What music do I enjoy?’”

“It’s a Beautiful Life” by Ace of Base

Weirdly, when I was 19 I took a year out of uni and found myself in Kyiv when this song came out. It was exciting to find myself in foreign climes and I made friends with English guys and Ukrainians in the city. I was teaching English and drinking vodka and I guess everything was exciting.

They had things called kiosks there: little huts selling either vodka and chocolate, or DVDs or CDs, just lined up in the street. Music would blare out of these kiosks. I remember Ace of Base wafting out, and it put a smile on my face.

What were you like at that age?

I had long hair and wore a big green fleece. Terrible really. God knows what I was like. Pretty green, I guess. Some people three years older than me took me under their wing. They showed me the best place to buy sausage sandwiches – that sort of thing. I was all over the place but I did love Kyiv.

“Sunday Afternoon at Home” by Galton and Simpson

I didn’t know if I’d be allowed Hancock's Half Hour, but I’ll be honest, I’ve probably listened to more of him than most bands. It’s not music, strictly speaking, but the lyrics are fantastic. I thought I’d try and sneak one. What’s the worst that can happen?

I love radio comedy. I used to listen to a lot: I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Hancock, Knowing Me Knowing You. I think it’s what got me interested in some ways. I now have my own radio show and I love making it. You can do a lot with radio.

When you interviewed Galton and Simpson for your radio show, they told you, “When you’re writing about boredom, the most important thing is not to make it boring.” Is this a lesson that’s influenced you?

Yeah I think the mundane is crucial, I think instinctively I’ve always loved it. In my writing there’s often something mad happening and that can be fun, but it’s amazing the reaction when you write something mundane. People lap it up. When I first started writing comedy in a sketch show called Cowards, there was some loopy stuff, but there was always a strand of the mundane: A two-minute sketch where people were deciding whether they should make some pickle. Mundane, but with the characters really being into it. I think it’s very underrated. Look at The Office or The Royle Family. Nothing happens, it’s perfect comedy.

What is it about this episode specifically that you love?

When I met Galton and Simpson it was to talk about this episode, so it feels like the most apt. It’s also a great example of the mundane. Some Hancock episodes have some really bananas stuff happening, with others it’s just three people waiting at a bus stop. This one takes place on a Sunday afternoon - nothing happening. They’re waiting for the boozer to open. Timeless.

Now that times have changed and secular Sundays and capitalism are prevalent, what do you see as a good Sunday afternoon at home?

It’s very easy these days. Get Rick and Basmos over, maybe Lenny and Thanos, bang on Sky Sports, hoover up Chelsea v Arsenal. It’s not rocket science. We went through a big phase of this, and now I’m thinking we’re due one. I can almost smell the Bakewell tarts from here.

“Eksponat” by Leningrad

I could have picked any number of Leningrad's oeuvre, but I’ve gone for this as I have such a fond memory of it when I saw them at The Roundhouse. There was a young Russian couple who’d clearly come straight from work. He was dancing with his bag on. I don’t think they could believe Leningrad were in town. I also saw them at The Barbican, and that was even madder. Three way split: a third of the audience Barbican members, gawping at the mad Russians tearing it up on the stage, a third Russianites who’d spent a year in Russia or something at some point and were clinging onto it, and then a third Leningrad fans going absolutely wild.

Leningrad seem pretty unruly and anarchic. Is that the reason they’re one of your favourite Russian bands?

They are unruly, yeah. They like starting their gigs with an empty stage and then all charging on at once with their instruments. Big bald fella smashing a massive bass drum. I mean pretty soon his top’s off and he’s poured his bottle of vodka onto his drum and it’s spraying in the air as he whacks it. Fair play.

This is a pretty feel-good song lyric-wise, talking about how the real piece of art is herself in her great pants and Louboutins! Did you choose it because of the lyrics?

I have no idea what the lyrics are. But that sounds pretty good. I studied Russian for four years but don’t ask me to pick out a single word these guys are yelling.

“Aria for a Moscow Guest” by Mikael Tariverdiev

Are you a fan of the popular Soviet romcom that this was written for? Do you partake in the Russian tradition of watching it on new year’s eve?

Yup I’m a huge fan of that movie. It’s called The Irony of Fate and it’s one of my absolute favourites. A man gets lashed at a bathhouse and plonked on a plane for a joke. This leads to him stumbling back to the right address but in the wrong city. There’s a furious lady there who lets him come in to sober up. They fall in love. I mean honestly. I’ve watched it more than once in the NYE zone and really do love it. If it wasn’t so indelibly Russian, someone would adapt it I’m sure.

I pilfered a ton of songs from this film because I love the film. Then I put them in a show I wrote about a girl called Megadate. So now I associate it with making that show, too.

I read a few translations and the lyrics seem surprisingly deep for a romcom. To me, it’s a lesson in taking risks - that the rewards of being vulnerable and living your life to the full outweigh the choice to live in fear of losing something. It’s a beautiful message! What are your thoughts on the lyrics?

Yes, the lyrics are very nice. “If you don’t have a house, your house won’t burn down.” I agree, you do sort of have to live your life by this song. It’s very beautiful when the chap in the film plays it to the girl he’s falling in love with. You do worry his hangover’s about to kick in though.

“A Little Less Conversation” by Elvis Presley (JXL Remix)

There was a re-release or something about twenty years ago. It suddenly roared back and I loved it. I was making a one-man play at the time and had decided to dance as the audience came in. So I put this on a loop and drank Red Bull on stage and danced, like I was a young lad getting ready for a big night out. It was kind of sweaty and fun and optimistic as openings go. Then Elvis cuts out, we hit the first scene and see this guy’s having a shocking night!

Have you watched the film that Elvis’ original version of this is from - Live a Little, Love a Little? The trailer claims it to be about “Posteriors, precautions, pranks… and planks!” I dunno how it was a box office flop.

I haven’t seen this film, but I think it’s difficult to make anything with any substance without incorporating the four p’s.

Watching the original song’s clip from the film, I realised that the whole song is just Elvis’ character trying to convince a woman to shut up and go home for sex. I somehow hadn’t realised that when the 2002 remix was played everywhere on repeat for about a decade...

God, no I think that passed me by too. Makes it all the more tragic that my guy was listening to it. He definitely went home alone in that play.

“She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones

I don’t remember where I came across this, I just thought it was so sweet. There’s a great joy and energy in it, and then it just drops down to that single piano again and it just makes me so happy. I guess it’s not top table in terms of famous famous Rolling Stones songs. I always dreaded hearing it for the first time on an advert. That took a while, but I think it was about three or four years ago. I still love it though.

I’ve used it a few times in my work. I wrote a play once, and in the play I get smashed in the mouth and I’m crouching in a toilet cubicle waiting for my assailant to leave. He goes and this plays and by the end of it my character’s back on his feet again.

Are you a big Stones fan on the whole?

Yeah, I do love them. They’re another one I put on Spotify if I’m not trying to write something. If it wasn’t this one, I’d have nominated “Angie” to be fair.

“Metti Una Sera a Cena” by Ennio Morricone

My friend brought this back from Rome with him when he went for a romantic weekend. I felt very touched, it’s nice when someone hears something and they think you’ll like it. The album is called Assoluto Morricone Best, Vol 1. The whole thing is absolutely beautiful, so evocative.

Morricone was an absolute genius and so goddamn productive. Imagine being able to create that amount of stuff every month for that amount of years. This track is a good one to ease you into his wider work if you mainly know his classic Clint Eastwood stuff.

It’s another one where I got my filthy fingers in and grabbed it for myself. It’s been the soundtrack to live shows for my poetry and when I was in a sketch show. Another track, “Un Sacco Bello,” was the theme tune to our show when it briefly popped up on BBC Four for five seconds in about 2010.

The film it soundtracks seems pretty risqué for its day. What do you make of the storyline?

I haven’t seen the film and also, amazingly, didn’t know what film it’s from. [Looks it up] Yes, it’s absolute carnage. There’s a lot of affairs, a lot of adding extra people into the marital bed and a poet who lives in a dankly luxurious basement and sells himself to both men and women. Absolutely living the dream.

“Bring Me Closer” by Altered Images

I can’t remember what was going on in my life when I heard this one for the first time - but it wasn’t in 1983 when it was released. I’d say it was maybe some time in the nineties. But I did an acting job with Clare Grogan [Altered Images’ lead singer-turned-actress] maybe fifteen years ago and listened to it again as I don’t think I knew who Altered Images were, and it blew my mind.

I absolutely love this track. Her voice is just unreal. I don’t know what she’s doing, or how she’s doing it, but I can’t get enough of it.

“The Production Van” by Anders Hayward

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few friends who are stupid and like singing divvy songs, but Anders Hayward is right up there. I was filming a TV show called Gap Year in South East Asia in 2016. We lived in each other’s pockets, travelling around in trains and planes, staying in hotels, wandering around malls, sitting in trailers waiting to film. It’s an absolute red rag to a bull if you are a budding songwriter. We sang about the lunches on set, we sang about being hungover and slipped discs, anything really.

I remember Anders climbing into the production van with a glint in his eye. His song was already well underway. I think he’d been trying to book a flight for his girlfriend to come out and join him, but we’d had to leave before he’d got it done. Anyway, on he climbs. “What the fuck was I gonna do? / I was gonna book a flight / But now I can’t cos I’m on the production van.” It was kind of euphoric considering his plight. In the chorus he bemoans the production team for taking him “far away”.

Singing those songs kept us from going out of our minds I think, though anyone observing it would have probably said it was the other way round. Unfortunately there’s no record of the song and I’m surprised to have it in my list.

Chapters is available to order now via "Utter" & Press. Find Tim Key on Instagram.

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