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The Greatest Love Story of all Time

Angus Brown

Daniel Kitson
The Ballad of Roger and Grace
Band Camp, February 2012

Since an ill-advised appearance as Spencer in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights in 2002 Daniel Kitson has shied away from recorded media. No television, no radio, even YouTube has only a smattering of Kitsonia. For a stand-up comedian, the man is elusive. That means that if you want to see him perform, you have to literally go and see him perform. Until now: The Ballad of Roger and Grace is a professionally recorded album that Kitson made with the musician Gavin Osborn in 2007 but only released on Band Camp last month.

Compared to the previous, muffled recordings of live gigs from the mid-2000s (available on the same website), The Ballad of Roger and Grace is the most coherent and purposeful recording that Daniel Kitson has made of his work to date. It consists of a story told in five parts and an epilogue by Kitson that alternates with five acoustic songs by Osborn. The story format should be familiar to fans of the stand-up. For several years his act has consisted of telling long, just about believable, stories. The last two: The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church and the more plausible (and best) It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later have been eighty-or-so-minute-long affairs: wonderful and wide-eyed explorations of weirdness, normality, and the weirdness of normality. In these shows, Kitson plays with the stand-up medium itself, metastasizing the narrative drive of his routine, and transforming the whole into something as thoughtful and engrossing and life affirming, as it is funny.

The Ballad of Roger and Grace, it has to be said, is not quite on the same level. It is a little more self-conscious, a little clumsier, and, crucially, it isn’t live. The way Kitson charges on with a story in person is just a great thing to be a part of. On record and especially in the studio, something is taken from his performance. There is no hushed audience – trying to keep hold of the yarn of the plot – to bounce off but this can’t be helped. The yarn in this case is an old man telling a young man on a train a story about two people called Roger and Grace in what the old man describes as “The Greatest Love Story of all Time”. This turns out not to be true.

Between the chapters of this enjoyable tall tale are the songs. Osborn’s songs are often over-wrought and sometimes verge on mawkish but it is worth accustoming yourself to what can be the frankly discomforting effect of his earnestness. If you do The Ballad of Roger and Grace becomes something that is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and constantly moving across the bedrooms, front rooms, bridges, bars, roads, rivers, and train tracks of an imaginary, shark-infested England. The Ballad of Roger and Grace is a worthwhile listen for the ¬£2.50 it costs on Band camp and it is, of course, indispensable to any fan of Daniel Kitson, but it really does miss its live setting. Encouragingly, Kitson will be filming one of the final performances of It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later (audience and all) in Manchester in June. Perhaps that recording will do his stories justice.

Angus Brown is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review.