Marcus Brigstocke & Alexis Conran Interview

Best mates Alexis Conran & Marcus Brigstocke discuss The Joy of Techs


Alexis, Marcus - you sit on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to a love of gadgets. Can you provide a stirring argument for why you are right?

Alexis Conran: Well, obviously, tech is the way forward - there is no question about that. It's people like Marcus that need to drag themselves along into the 21st century, because tech is everywhere, it's going to be everywhere and is undoubtedly making our lives better, easier, safer, faster, more efficient. Now, of course, not all tech achieves that, but most tech does, so you just have to embrace it. Y'know, you kinda have to take the rough with the smooth - there's some stuff that needs a bit of refining - but we need to embrace it, and that's what I'm trying to do.

Marcus Brigstocke: Unbelievable. About one in every several thousand new things that get innovated and flooded into the market actually work and actually enhance your life. Like all things that are advertised or whatever, they try to get you to perceive the notion that something's missing from your life. So, I love tech, I think it's brilliant, I just think most of is absolute - hmm, what word should I use, that you can print? - bollocks. I think most of it doesn't work, I think most of it is much more of a hassle than it is a convenience - by the time you've charged it, plugged it in, connected it, downloaded the app, found the wifi signal, linked the Bluetooth, remembered to bring all the components with you and all the rest of it, then your time has been wasted. But look, I'm not some cave-dwelling prehistoric man that's scared of these things...

AC: Well...

MB: [laughs] I sort of am that a bit, but for the most part I just think it's crap. But, I tell you what, I think it's good fun finding out what's crap and what isn't, it really is. Because, obviously, we're playing roles. Alex and I have been mates for years, we've played poker together for 15-years or so, and have been mates a long time, so these are positions we're taking effectively, although they do kinda reflect where we're at.

AC: We're getting our hands on some really amazing tech, and I'll put my hand up and say sometimes, sometimes Marcus might be a bit right. Rarely. But I have also won him over a few times.

Have you both found yourselves admitting defeat throughout the series?

AC: There was a sock sorter gadget, which sorts your socks out, so that you're wearing the same sock on the same foot every time. It would sort them out into left and right socks...

MB: And it would tell you how many times the socks have been washed...

AC: And how many times it had been worn. So, for example, if you bought yourself like five pairs of black socks, you might wear one of the socks like 10 or 15 times...

MB: Imagine! Nightmare scenario. This is - and I use the word advisedly - comfortably the most pointless piece of crap we've had to deal with. So Alex had to give in.

AC: I had to concede that was not £160 worth of kit.

MB: But weirdly, the app-controlled kettle - I really liked.

AC: Now you see, I hated that. But, yeah, it's fair to say this is not your traditional gadget show. The gadgets are not here to be reviewed, they're here to be used. And they're here to be used by an enthusiast and a doubter.

MB: The main criteria, right, for testing the gadgets, is that even if something's really good - would you take it down the pub? Like, you might think the thing you've got is brilliant, whatever it may be, but actually, would you take it down the pub with your mates? Would you show everybody what you've got? The question I always want to know is - along with what does it cost - what do you already own that you'd swap for one of these? Because I think that is actually closer to where values actually lie.

AC: Yeah, it's not how much it costs, it's what's the value of it to you? And we are putting the gadgets through a fair bit of testing.

MB: Oh yeah, we really are. In (one) episode I get to blow stuff up and fire things through the air - to see whether they're indestructible or not. Now, it's important to point out that not all of the gadgets I'm going to be firing through the air claim they can be fired through the air safely, it's just a random testing system that I've imposed.

MB: I often don't get a go on the things, that's part of the problem. One of my favourite things is when Alex and Steve - Steve's our gadget guy, he gets it all - they test them very carefully and make sure everything's working. But when camera rolls, if it doesn't work it doesn't work, and I will deliberately obstruct a second take. The whole point is that if it doesn't work it doesn't work, you know? So that's kind of what we're talking about.

AC: That's what I mean when I say it's not your typical gadget show. We're not here to show off the gadget - it comes out of the box and we use it. And if it doesn't work straight away, that's what you see.

MB: Then I get to go at it with a hammer. [laughs]

AC: We don't cut, get somebody to fix it and then say, 'Look at the great thing it does'. If it doesn't work, that's it.

MB: Yeah but a few times you've tried to make that happen. You've been like, 'No no no, this is really good this one - go again, go again'. Six times we tried to get the in-car espresso machine to work; six times.

AC: It never worked, but to be fair...

MB: No! There's no 'To be fair...'

AC: Well we've been told we broke it, which is why it never worked.

MB: You broke it.

AC: I broke it, yeah.

MB: How did you break it?

AC: I think when I screwed it back in I broke it. But then if it breaks that easy, then there you go.

MB: There's a bit of tech that I'm gutted we're not going to be able to use. It's in the prototype phase, it does work, it's been tested, but it's currently - I think - in Malaysia. It's called The Kissinger, and it basically means that if you had one at your house and I had one at my house, we could chat on FaceTime and I could kiss you, and you could feel it on your lips.

You're mates in real life - what did you get up to between shooting episodes?

AC: We had to spend a lot of time in an RV - a big one - which I've never driven before.

MB: Yeah. Like a kind of Winnebago style thing. Very high end, and I had to pretend I didn't like it, despite the fact I've been a member of the Caravan Club for 15 years. I had, until it was recently stolen, a very large RV that I've used for touring, and I had to sit in that one and go, 'Yeah it's rubbish, who wants this?'

Did Joy of Techs take you to any cool locations?

MB: Yeah. Lake District, Peak District - we had a lot of fun up there. There's a brilliant, brilliant challenge we did where I learned to use a sheep dog to actually do some... dog sheeping.

AC: Sheep dogging?

MB: Some sheep dogging, yeah. And it's great - an amazing thing to do. Sure, the dog's doing everything really, but it was incredible.

AC: To be fair you were instructing the dog.

MB: I was, I was, and I really enjoyed it. And then Alex and I basically had a bet on whether he could herd the sheep using a drone. And despite my finding it utterly hilarious how badly it went, the technology was really impressive.

AC: It did not go badly!

MB: So badly.

AC: I didn't do it in the time...

MB: You didn't do it! You didn't succeed in getting the sheep in the pen...

AC: But they just weren't doing what I was asking them to.

MB: We ran out of batteries on the drone [laughs]. So...

AC: It was a really cool drone.

Can we safely assume you weren't cast together for this show through an X-Factor style audition process?

AC: We met through a mutual friend...

MB: There's a sauna in Vauxhall called Chariots.

AC: [laughs] Please stop talking.

MB: Chariots in Vauxhall is where I first met Alex. But, funnily enough, I talked to him a lot before, but due to the thickness of the steam I had no idea it was him. It was only a year or so later when we made physical contact that I finally twigged.

AC: [pause] Are you done?

MB: Yeah. Don't give the truth, because if you give the truth as well - that's what'll get printed.

AC: Exactly!

MB: No point. Chariots spa in Vauxhall.

AC: A mutual friend.

MB: A mutual friend that runs Chariots spa.

AC: [laughs]

MB: I go on a special night for very hirsute men that they call 'Gorillas in the Midst'.

AC: Er... yeah. The first time I met him we played poker, didn't we?

MB: Yeah, I lost. I'm only mates with him because he owes me money.

AC: We play a lot of poker together, and still play a lot of poker together.

MB: Alex is a really good close-up magician. Oddly, I've never won.

AC: Hmmm.

MB: It's really odd.

AC: Yeah, so we've known each other for quite some time.

MB: This actually came about in the first instance as we were at a mate's 40th in France, and I was doing what I very often do when abroad - walking around with a very large, visible wallet poking out of my pocket, which Alex stole. I went mad, thinking, 'I've had my pocket picked in a French market - now we're in trouble'. He got all high and mighty: 'Oh, well if you looked after your things', because he's Johnny-on-the-spot in those situations, whereas I'm reckless and foolish. And that's what initially got us talking about different approaches to the way we live our lives.

AC: Reckless, foolish...

MB: Yeah - reckless and foolish and kind of being in the moment and having so much fun. Whereas it takes Alex an hour to leave the house, because he needs to connect his Bluetooth shoes to his Bluetooth hat, just so he knows he's walking somewhere. It's incredible. It goes to a set of headphones that goes, 'Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot'.

Is Joy of Techs Top Gear for nerds and luddites?

AC: I think it's very, very dodgy to ever compare yourself to Top Gear. Suffice to say our friendship comes across on screen, because we are friends, and we're not scripted. As I said it's not your typical, 'Hey, this is a gadget review show', we just choose the stuff we get, we roll camera and we use it. Y'know, I wouldn't ever compare ourselves to Top Gear, but...

If not Top Gear, then, is the show Taskmaster for technophiles and technophobes?

MB: Actually it does sit quite neatly between Top Gear and Taskmaster in its way. In that we're trying - in a goofy and comedic way - to try things out, and we're also going as high end as we can lay our hands on, with the tech, and not treating it with any reverence. So as much as Top Gear has made me wince over the years, there's no denying it's phenomenally good television, it's extremely well made. As is this.

Alex, you won Celebrity MasterChef last year...

MB: Did you? You absolutely should've mentioned that! [into Dictaphone] I also won BBC New Comedian of the Year 1996. Ok? Chris Addison, I beat Chris Addison, who now directs Veep.

Does your love of tech extend to the kitchen, Alex?

AC: Oh yes.

MB: Tell them what you did.

AC: What did I do?

MB: Half an episode was devoted to making custard, in order that Alex could get, for himself, a Thermomix.

AC: There is some great gadgetry for the kitchen.

MB: See! He's doing it now.

Is there any other kit that's been liberated from the Joy of Techs set, only to turn up in the boot of your car?

AC: Can I just say, the way that we treat tech and the things that we say about it, I think very little of it can be kept.

MB: There will be no series two. Let's be crystal clear, unless we can buy everything we use and get licencing, there will be no series two. Precisely because when something is crap, we're calling it out for what it is - there's no loyalty to what the things are, because that's not the show I want to watch. This, to me, is far more interesting. There will be no series two, but there is some integrity.

Both of you interact with technology every day, of course- do you fear we're turning into a generation of addicts?

MB: That's a chemically proven phenomenon, yeah. Every notification - dopamine hit, every time. There's a big problem coming our way where that's concerned.

AC: We've actually got some tech solutions to that, which we are going to put into practice.

MB: One of the things we're using is a piece of tech that will prevent me from using my iPhone.

Does it involve...

MB: Pain? Yeah.

AC: Electric shocks and pain, which is the only way to learn, really.

What technological innovations have improved your lives the most?

MB: The zip and the gramophone. I'm not kidding. I think zips are incredible. Have you any idea how a zip works? No one has, it's magic. Zips are phenomenal - they've been around for ages, and most clothing that requires fastening still has a zip. I'm sporting a big heavy zip right now. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't becoming entirely dependant on my smartphone. Also, if I'm honest, ways of playing music - the thousands of different ways you can find and play music. My favourite, a record player and vinyl. There's the hipster-y thing, but the point about a record, for me, is that half way through the album, you have to stand up, carefully pick it up and turn it over, and that reconnects you with what you're listening to. We're not talking about an instantly accessible anything that you can listen to at any time, we're talking about a connected process, and the people who created those albums didn't create them for them to be flicked on in the background. They're big pieces of art, some of them. And some of them are the things Alex listens to.

AC: How dare you! For me, if I look back on a piece of tech that you think, 'This has changed a lot of lives', I think the communication aspect of Facetime, Skype and all those kind of things. We both travel a lot, and the fact you can be away but still see your family...

MB: Or anyone's family.

AC: [laughs] That's Chatroulette. But yeah, I think that's kind of a biggie for me.

Modern technology is great and all, but is there anything you've been left disappointed by?

AC: I'm disappointed that with the smartphone technology that we have now, I still can't make a clear phone call, wherever I stand in London.

MB: The biggest disappointment for me is - what does anybody want from Apple, now? We want a battery that'll last until tea time. That is all anybody wants from Apple. Seriously. The rest of it is flimflam and bollocks. You want a phone battery that will last for a while.

All valid points, though we sort of meant the unfulfilled Hollywood promise of flying cars and robot butlers.

MB: Sure. Listen, we all saw Back To The Future and, as far as I'm concerned, we are owed hoverboards, and the fact we haven't got them is a disgrace.

AC: It is amazing sometimes. We do our research on this show, and of course on the internet you see all sorts of stuff, but it's actually amazing how much stuff is out there where you go, 'Oh my God', but it doesn't really exist. It's a prototype or it's something in the works. Drones I think are the next area where the biggest gadgetry and attention is going to now. But even there - yes, you have good drones, but past getting better at flying and filming stuff, we're told the future is they're going to be filming you and following you around, going in and out of water and all of that; none of that stuff is there yet.

Finally, if mankind succeeds in hacking death, and you could upload your consciousness to a machine, would you?

MB: Already have, mate. I work on Radio 4 - all my best thoughts have been recorded for posterity. I exist more as the imagination of Melvin Bragg as I do a real human being.

AC: He's half cyborg.

MB: You wanted a short answer to this question, but I can't give one as it raises a really interesting point about the way in which it's possible for people to record themselves now. This has changed everything about who we are and how we live. The idea for me as a kid and my parents' generation, that you could make your own recordings of anything was unimaginable. Unimaginable. And very few people relative to society would have ever wrote books or kept significant diaries now we are documented online.

AC: We are kind of doing that already. We're leaving a huge digital footprint of our consciousness.

MB: Which makes me less nervous about the whole, 'They're always listening' thing - I'm like, yeah sure. If they want to go through all the things I've ever recorded, including the magnificent fart I managed to get off on camera this morning, whilst wearing a tummy ab thing - it set me right off - then fine. Let them fill their boots.

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