What Went on at the 2021 Compendium of Reason

Live at the Royal Albert Hall December 14th 2021

There was no Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Christmas Compendium of Reason in 2020. We rolled it into our other annual Christmas tradition, Nine Lessons, and did a 25 hour live show online, Nine Lessons and Carols for Socially Distanced People with Robin, Brian and over 150 guests instead. You can still watch that here if you fancy it.

But this year, we were back, live on stage, in front of a masked audience, in a new venue. The iconic Royal Albert Hall. This year presented a lot of unique challenges of course but we were delighted to be able to bring a Compendium to life this year. Here’s what went on.

The audience were welcomed into the venue by Steve’s Pretty’s Brass Band playing a selection of Christmas tunes. Steve, alongside Ben Handysides, Steve Thompson, Jeff Miller and Ollie Weston played some classics, and some Muppets, before the whole Hall went dark.

A single spotlight brought Sophie Ellis-Bextor to centre stage to open with, what else, but a Shakin’ Stevens’ cover, Merry Christmas Everyone. A very, very niche in joke linked to Compendium co-producer Melinda Burton there…

As Sophie leaves our hosts take the stage. Robin and Brian welcome everyone to the show and talk of physics, cardigans and the chaotic run order before bringing on the next secret guest. To kick us off, on a show that famously runs over time, it’s Professor Jim Al-Khalili to give a talk on the very nature of time itself, and of course, time travel. Robin returns to talk of photons and perform a poem about the Universe. Next along it’s Professor Anil Seth to tell us about neuroscience, consciousness and, in particular, perception. A few impromptu questions on the subject from Brian follow and then Sophie Ellis-Bextor is back on stage.

Joined by our house band, (which this year is made up of players from ELO, The Feeling and Take That) Sophie launches into her massive hit, Murder on the Dancefloor, complete with rainbow disco laser show from Seb Lee-Delisle and his team.

Barely time to catch our breath and Nina Conti is on stage, with Monkey along for the ride, who can’t believe he’s not been given a microphone. Monkey departs and an unsuspecting Steve Pretty is masked up by Nina to ‘talk’ about his magic fingers and trumpet…

Brian returns to introduce our next guest. Someone who had hoped to be able to join us in person, but has recorded a special video instead. It’s Britain’s first ever astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman. She speaks about how important the song, World Outside My Window, is to her, and how she listened to it, on tape, in space. She then introduces the person responsible for said song, Tanita Tikaram, to perform it.

Next up, it’s a Compendium first. We’ve never had an Olympian on before, never mind a two time Gold Medal winning one! Helen Glover takes to the stage to explain how science helped her make her comeback for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and how it plays a part in the ever increasing competitiveness in her sport of rowing.

Helen Glover

To bring the first half to a close, Sophie returns, this time with Jack Liebeck and his string quartet plus Nitin Sawhney guesting on piano for a version of Bowie’s Life on Mars, just like last time we were at the Hall with Chris Hadfield. The whole arena is turned Mars red by a laser field.

We head to interval running ahead of time and we all wonder what’s gone wrong.

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Some more Christmas brass from Steve Pretty and co before Jack Liebeck opens the second half with a little Estrellita. Brian returns for a mini lecture on Black Holes complete with some ‘blurry’ pictures. Brian does a swear.

Robin and Brian reminisce about a particularly popular episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage about how gross flies are. The person responsible for a lot of the ‘grossness’ of that episode was fly expert Dr Erica McAlister, and she’s next on stage to talk of bot flies in reindeer’s noses. Very festive.

Time for some more music, and a journey into Brian’s youth. Marc Almond arrives with a Christmas song and a rousing sing-along version of his Soft Cell classic Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.

Chris Jackson

Next along it’s Christmas Lecturer, geologist and rock licker Professor Chris Jackson to talk rocks, and play rock. Robin follows with a moving tribute to some of the people we’ve lost in comedy recently before performing a poem about appreciating people while we have them.

His Science Shambles co-host is along next, and it’s Dr Helen Czerski and she’s got a bee in her bonnet about why people care more about the moon than they do the ocean.

Nitin Sawhney returns to perform a track of his own with the whole band and we’re still running to time!

Steve Backshall is our penultimate speaker. He’s brought musicians with him, in the form of Ash Cutler and Rachel Hawnt. They perform a score to epic footage from Steve’s new Sharks series as Steve talks passionately about how we need to do a better job protecting these beautiful animals.

Our final performer of the night is another that takes Brian back to being a young lad in the clubs of Manchester: It’s Boy George! He performs his version of Bowie’s Heroes and then a carol. He leaves the stage and Brian and Robin return to thank everyone for coming along. But it’s not quite the end yet…

Boy George returns, along with most of the evening’s performers for a rendition of Fairytale of New York.  Sinead Quinn joins Boy George on vocals. The house band team up with Steve Pretty’s band. Jack’s strings return. Nitin takes position at the piano and duets with Brian. And the chorus line is a collection of scientists, performers and an Olympian. Snow falls from the dome of the Hall. Lasers rip through the air.

At the end of the song, Robin and Brian take centre stage to bid our final farewells. And we’re done, just 3 minutes over schedule.

Huge thanks must go to all the performers, musicians, scientists and beyond who gave up their time to come along and be part of the show. To our chums, the fantastic team at Royal Albert Hall and Phil McIntyre Live. Our unflappable production manager Giles Wakely. Seb and his laser team. All the other crew members who assisted on the day and throughout the lead up, particularly Team Shambles’ producer Trent Burton and co-producer Melinda. Time for a lie down. Oh wait, we’ve still got two more Nine Lessons shows on Friday and Saturday… Tickets still available

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