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'I'm not just a clown...' (Nonesuch autumn 2015)

Simon Pegg

Dave Willis

Simon Pegg - Schreber's Nervous Illness

Pegg performer Schreber's Nervous Illness in his final year (1991) John Adler

Simon Pegg outside Richmond Building

Pegg enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of the newly refurbished Richmond Building before officially opening the Pegg Studio Theatre Bhagesh Sachania

5 November 2015

Hollywood actor, comedian and writer, Simon Pegg (BA 1991), studied Theatre, Film and Television and, for his final-year dissertation, looked at how Marxist modes of critical theory could be applied to Star Wars. Earlier this year, he came back to Bristol to open the Pegg Studio Theatre in the newly refurbished Students’ Union, and recall his student years.

I was a semi-conscientious student – a bit of a tearaway, and then I got my head down towards the end, as you’re supposed to do. I think most students go through that – they find this incredible freedom, find academia to be quite fun, then realise that it actually takes some serious legwork.

My favourite place on campus was a little turret on the top of the Drama Department. I used to sit up there and eat pasties by myself when I wanted to get away from things.

The variety of stuff we studied and participated in at Bristol totally informed what I went on to do. Certainly the way I write comedy; it’s never just knockabout silly stuff. We always try to have some fundamental truth in it and not shy away from being serious. I’m often referred to as a comedian, and that gets my back up. I’m an actor, not just a clown. I’d certainly like to do more serious acting in the future.

My final-year piece was Schreber’s Nervous Illness by Carly Churchill. It’s a very anguished play about a guy whose mind is falling apart. That was very serious. Over-serious, I think. I was on stage, alone, in my pyjamas.

I would love to go back and sit in the audience of some of our productions. Ex*hibit, my first Bodies in Flight show [a theatre company directed by Professor Simon Jones], had great Iggy Pop music. We did some shows that were very raw, and very exciting to be part of.

Now, when I write, I’m always thinking about what I’m saying. I learnt very quickly at Bristol that there is no such thing as a meaningless text: everything is an expression of whatever preoccupations or fascinations we have at the time. I’ve taken that on in everything I do. Yes, we’re writing a frivolous zombie comedy on the one hand, but on the other, we’re saying something about family and the desire to kill your mum.

I drifted towards comedy as a way of being more autonomous. As a stand-up comic, you’re guaranteed more performance time. It was because I was seen by producers that I wound up in shows like Big Train [a comedy sketch show first broadcast on BBC Two in 1998].

I grew up liking horror films and comedy films, as well as comedy horrors like Young Frankenstein and An American Werewolf in London. They just felt like something I wanted to participate in. My friend Edgar [Wright] who directed Shaun of the Dead felt the same. We found each other because of it. Nerds.

My favourite flavour of Cornetto is mint. Easy.

It’s a great honour to have a theatre named after me. I used to come here to see bands and drink beer out of a plastic cup for 70p a pint. I’ve found it hard to recognise much of the building – it’s changed so much – yet it feels familiar. It used to just smell of beer and students, but it’s been beautifully changed and modernised.

Bristol will always be of great sentimental value to me. It was incredible to discover that education could be so enjoyable. Not easy, and certainly, at times, extremely hard work. But I wouldn’t change a thing, not even the times I found difficult. I have no regrets at all. It was all worth it.

Taking flight

Professor of Performance, Simon Jones, remembers Pegg as a student who ‘combined passion and playfulness’, and as the person who introduced his daughter to Star Wars.

'For me, Simon has always been very close to the persona you see in his work. When I first saw Spaced [a sitcom co-written by and starring Pegg, first broadcast on Channel 4 in 1999], I remember vividly thinking: ‘that’s how Simon is’. It’s a distinctive yet common feature among students who have gone on to be successful: their personality is so much part of their work.

'Simon was clearly interested in all things comic, particularly stand-up, but was keen to sample different kinds of performance, theatre and media too. He did some very serious work at Bristol, including Howard Barker’s Victory and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. What was interesting about the two shows he did with my theatre company, Bodies in Flight, was that his comic work still came out in what was otherwise a very experimental aesthetic.

'It doesn’t surprise me that Simon can do something like Shaun of the Dead, then get roles in Mission Impossible and Star Trek. He has an incredibly inventive and sophisticated understanding of genre, which enables him to play around with conventions and cross between forms.

'We watched Point Break – one of my favourite action movies of the 1990s – together on several occasions, so it was great fun watching Hot Fuzz and seeing the way the sequences were recreated in a Somerfield supermarket instead of Los Angeles. Simon used to babysit my daughter too: I remember him bringing round his Star Wars movies on videotape to watch with her.

'It’s inspiring to think our current students chose to name the new theatre after Simon – that 18- to 21-year-olds still relate to him and his work. He gave such a generous talk about his time at Bristol: I felt quite emotional.'

Further information

As well as opening the Pegg Studio Theatre, Pegg also met current drama students for a question-and-answer session. You can watch ITV West’s interview with Pegg at bristol.ac.uk/nonesuch.