Writer and comedian Helen Keen is the woman behind It is Rocket Science!, a stand-up comedy lecture about the history of the space rocket, which made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008. An instant hit, the show has been turned into a successful BBC Radio 4 series. We’ve met up with Helen to chat about asteroid mining, Russian Cosmism and why being skint as a kid does have its advantages.
How did you come up with the idea for It Is Rocket Science?
Helen Keen: I’ve always been fascinated with the Twenties and Thirties so when I found out about the mania for rockets and space travel that was really taking hold around then I ended up reading more and more about it. This was quite a few years before I began to write the show, or even perform comedy. I loved the fact that an industry that’s the embodiment of slick futuristic technology began with a few eccentrics tinkering around in sheds while others thought they were crazy.
When I came to write my first solo hour I knew that, rather than just stringing together various bits of stand-up, I wanted to tell a story – and there were so many peculiar characters involved in the development of the space rocket that it seemed quite natural to turn my enthusiasm for it into a show. Now that I’m onto the second radio series I’ve moved on from just talking about rockets, which is also fantastic – because there are loads of other interesting people and topics I wasn’t able to fit into a show about the space race – like the earliest attempts to communicate with aliens, or America’s pre-Apollo plans to build a huge space ship powered by nuclear bombs, or the first women to undergo astronaut testing or what you should do if the Earth’s about to be destroyed by an enormous asteroid…
How did it move from a show at the Edinburgh Fringe to a BBC Radio 4 series?
Helen Keen: Bizarrely easily – in retrospect I don’t think I realised how was quite lucky it all was, with the timing. If you go to the Fringe now there are quite a few people doing science-y comedy shows, but that wasn’t the case in 2008 when I first took It Is Rocket Science up to Edinburgh. It was my first show at the Fringe and I’d gone for a very early lunchtime slot as that was cheaper for me and the audience – the only other comedian on at that time of day was Jim Bowen (we don’t cross over material much…) so, I guess the show stood out. And one of the people who came to see it was the BBC comedy producer and writer Gareth Edwards [Spaced, That Mitchell and Webb Sound], who fortunately really enjoyed it and more or less immediately started talking about how we could turn it into a radio series.
After Edinburgh I toured the live show round the usual comedy and summer music festivals, but also science festivals, which, again, at the time was pretty unusual – a lot of them had never booked a comedy show before, though now most will automatically include a few comedians in their line ups. I don’t know how much that helped with the BBC commissioning process, but can imagine it didn’t do any harm to be able to say that here was a live science-y comedy show that had started selling out at all kinds of events – because it proved there was a broad, enthusiastic audience for this sort of thing.
Tell us about your co-narrator, The Voice of Space
Helen Keen: That was the trickiest part of adapting the live version of It Is Rocket Science for radio – working out a format. I had all kinds of high concept ideas about setting the radio show in a Mars 500 type experiment, or on a space station, but in the end returned to the ‘home made’ aesthetic of the live show. When I was a kid my parents were fairly skint so I spent many happy hours absorbed in making things I wanted that they couldn’t or wouldn’t buy (doll houses, a ‘computer’, toy planes) out of cardboard boxes and bits and bobs. That DIY-ness carried over a bit for me into being a skint adult (though with clothes, furniture, etc – I do actually now own a real computer…).
My friend and writing partner Miriam Underhill is amazingly good at making things too so that’s been a bonus for props the live shows. I thought ‘what if, in some parallel universe, slightly to the left of ours, I had the skills to build the ultimate electronic self aware space programme narrator’ – so that’s how the Voice of Space idea began. He can recreate any voice from space history and knows every space fact ever. There are very detailed notes on the Voice of Space’s creation, constituent parts, spec, etc in a folder – we don’t get a lot of time to go into it in a 15 minute show, but it’s all there in the background. Inspired by the way the great Carl Sagan says ‘Cosmos’, the Voice of Space has a way of saying ‘universe’ that is… unique. It’s funny that that’s become bizarrely popular with people who listen to the show….
What fascinates you about science – have you always been interested in astronomy and the universe?
Helen Keen: I was really interested in astronomy as a kid – I remember becoming a bit obsessed by Halley’s comet and dragging my dad outside night after night in the hope of seeing it. As an adult what also really fascinates me (in addition to all the usual amazing stuff about space) are the stories of the real people behind major scientific or technological innovations – not just the amazing new discovery but what prompted whoever invented it to think differently from everyone who’d gone before them. For instance, in the new series I talk a little about Russian Cosmism which seemingly influenced Tsiolkovsky (now considered one of the fathers of modern rocket science). This was a movement that, in a nutshell, planned to bring everyone who’s ever died back to life and then send a lot of them off to live in space. On the face of it that’s completely mad – but it inspired Tsiolkovsky to come up with some really beautiful and innovative ideas about how people might get off planet Earth in the first place. Ideas that actually worked…
What do you think the future of space travel will hold in store?
Helen Keen: I think it’s inevitable that at some point humans will start going out into space in larger numbers (which is obviously VERY cool), but that’s probably quite a way off yet – mainly because of the economics of getting people up there. But what’s amazing is the stuff we could already do – in theory. I really like the idea of passenger space planes that’ll allow us to travel from London to New York in under an hour – they’re an idea that’s been around in various forms since WW2 but that are not all that far away from becoming a reality now…
I’m also very excited about the US plans to land on an asteroid, because I think, once it’s been done the possibilities of commercial exploitation will be too much to resist. And asteroid mining could be the thing that kick starts mankind’s move into outer space. Robots alone just won’t do for all kinds of reasons – we must have humans in space!
Are you a fan of science comedy shows like The Big Bang Theory?
Helen Keen: Absolutely – it’s great! When I watched the pilot I was a bit cynical & dubious about the initial ‘geeky boys and a very pretty non-geeky girl’ premise – but it’s just so beautifully written & performed that within a couple of episodes I was hooked.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Helen Keen: The second series of It Is Rocket Science starts on BBC Radio 4 on Weds 16th May at 11pm, so at the moment I’m nervously listening to the rough edits of that. Also I’m putting together a new show for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe so I’ll be starting to work up material at preview nights and various other fringe festivals in May/June/July. It’s called: Helen Keen: Robot Woman of Tomorrow and it’s (sort of) going to be about the enduring power of science fiction to give us visions of a newer, better, fairer world – and temping. Also planning some more Spacetaculars – the space-themed variety nights Matt Brown and I put on once in a while.
And a special Twitter question from one of our Twitter followers, Graham: How did you meet Peter and Susy who do the show with you?
Helen Keen:I was a big fan of both Peter and Susy from their work, but it was actually our producer, Gareth who brought them in because he’d worked with both of them before. Peter’s Look Around You [BBC2 spoof science-for-schools show] is one of my favourite things ever so meeting him was quite an intimidating prospect. But I actually wonder whether part of the reason Gareth was so pro casting the two of them was that, as well as being ridiculously talented, they’re also incredibly nice. Recording the first series was pretty terrifying but they made sure it was a really warm atmosphere. And the day of recording the second series, where I was rather more relaxed, was a joy because they’re so much fun to be around.