Interview: Alex Horne – Monsieur Butterfly

This article is from 2015

Flying high

'Everyday something goes wrong. It's so unpredictable.'

Alex Horne was probably the last person to expect the return of Monsieur Butterfly after its Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination last year. ‘I didn't think I was going to tour it because it was too, er, bulky,’ he confesses. Nevertheless it's been on tour and now it's made its way back to the Fringe. For those who missed out, the show consisted of Horne telling stories while building a massive squirrel trap out of all sorts of random bits and pieces: think Heath Robinson meets the board game Mouse Trap.

The result was mesmerising, tense and surprisingly poignant. You need a big van to cart it about in, don't you? ‘I know. But I've got this tour manager and he persuaded me that he could lift things for me. So yeah, I've been touring it this year and it's just grown gradually. The difficult thing is how to grow it without it taking longer than an hour. The show is not massively different, but it is substantially different.’

The motivation for Monsieur Butterfly wasn't really that Horne needed to catch a naughty squirrel, as he claims in the show. Or that he'd had a new screwdriver for Christmas and wanted to test it out. ‘I've got children and I wanted to impress them and show them what I do for a living, do something that they understand and enjoy.’

Meanwhile, the specific inspiration for his convoluted creation came from a small section in another Edinburgh show he saw a couple of years ago called Slightly Fat Features. ‘It was circusy, really old-fashioned and there was one moment in it where someone set up a tiny little machine where a roll of tape rolled down a homemade ramp, made a hammer fall and an elephant tip into a hat. It lasted about 20 seconds but there was this real tension beforehand and we all wanted to see if he would do it.’

Having won their permission to use the seed of that idea, Horne set about creating a much bigger version involving, among other things, ladders, a loo seat and some risky balloons. ‘I did a run at the Soho Theatre recently, and I had to get new confetti for my balloon because I'd used all the confetti up but it turns out I'd bought sharp confetti. I'd spent a day stuffing balloons with confetti but if I blew them up even a tiny bit they'd just pop. I went through about 30 balloons. It made the show about 20 minutes longer and it turns out people are afraid of balloons. Everyday something goes wrong and it's always a different thing. It's so unpredictable.’

Of course that’s one of the charms of the show. Have you been tempted to tweak it to make it work better over the last year? ‘It definitely doesn't work any better,’ states Horne with a resigned sigh. ‘The success rate is far lower now. It involves more people [audience volunteers], which will always mean that it works less well.’

Still at least he doesn't get bored, especially when he deliberately tries something new. ‘Last week I climbed one of the ladders and realised I'd never been up it before. The whole thing collapsed. But it didn't really matter because people thought it was part of the show.’

Horne's other project at the Fringe this year is his latest Horne Section show. His friends Ben and Joe, plus a collection of other musicians, have been supplying an irreverent musical accompaniment to the comedian’s words for six years now. The concept has resulted in many successful shows and their own Radio 4 series.

‘This year we're just doing a quiz. Normally the acts come on and perform with the band but we feel like we've got to the end of that. Everyone we wanted to do it has now done it. It's still Shooting Stars-ish in that the people in it are just pawns; they don't do an awful lot of performing but they're funny people. It's just an excuse to muck about and quietly lose the format.’

And one final, rather pressing question: there's a rumour that the hipster beard – of which Horne's was the pioneering one surely – is no longer cool. Is Horne likely to crack open a pack of disposable razors and lose it? ‘Mine is slightly ginger and patchy so it's not really a hipster beard. I've had it for maybe ten years but I'm going to sit it out; it'll come back in again. I have children so I couldn't shave it off; my dad shaved his beard off once and we all disowned him. My wife's dad shaved his off and they freaked out. I think if you have kids, getting rid of a beard is bad.’ The beard, like Monsieur Butterfly, lives to fight another day.

We’ve heard a lot from Alex there, but what of his Horne Section cohorts? We asked them to tell us exactly what they think of their beloved leader. This is what they came back with …

Joe Auckland
Alex Horne is without doubt the greatest band leader I've ever worked under. He has a unique quality that sets him aside from all others. Mistakes are often viewed by such people as a negative thing. To Alex, a mistake is nothing more than a gift; it's free comedic material which cannot be planned or written. The bigger the mistake the greater the potential for laughs, making it impossible to fail under Alex's musical leadership, other than with a note-perfect performance. Also, he can almost clap in time.

Will Collier
Alex Horne? Alex? Horne? Sorry. Not ringing any bells. Who's that? I've been coming to Edinburgh for six years now and I'm afraid I've not come across that name. Should I have heard of him? I'll tell you what: I love his name. It's perfect for comedy, and has a real ring to it. I'll check him out. I won't write it down as it’s such a memorable name. Are you sure you don't mean the bloke from Horne and Corden?

Ed Sheldrake
Back when I was playing melodica in the navy, we had a bandleader / conductor who used to make us all laugh as we were playing. He would pull funny faces during symphonies, tickle the string section as they were tuning up and whisper over-elaborate puns in the brass player's ears during cadenze. Recently I found out that he wasn't actually a musician, rather, a fugitive clown who'd stumbled onto our ship mistakenly thinking it was a ferry to Cherbourg. Alex, however, doesn't make us laugh.

Ben Reynolds
As a drummer, being conducted in the section by Alex Horne is the most fun you can have with your trousers off. That is, if you exclude the national indoor model railway exhibition 2012, and the incident at Michaelwood services (M5 southbound). That aside, hand on heart, Alex is one of the most all-round satisfactory conductors I've ever worked with. Bloody ideal.

Alex Horne: Monsieur Butterfly, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 15–29 Aug, 7pm, £12 (£11).
The Horne Section’s Questions Sessions, Gilded Balloon, 622 6552, 15–29 Aug, 10.40pm, £13–£15 (£12–£14).

The Horne Section

The sextet fronted by the inimitable Alex Horne performs a medley of retro jazz-swing and big band music plus stand-up, performance and musical comedy.

Alex Horne: Monsieur Butterfly

Inventive and thought-provoking humour.