Tom Binns: interview
Famous for his monstrous character creations, DJ Ivan Brackenbury and now psychic Ian D Montfort, comic Tom Binns talks to Time Out ahead of his London shows.
As the lights dim there is a palpable feeling of expectation in the room. The new-age music swells and a spotlight picks out the latest sensation in the world of performance psychics, Ian D Montfort, standing centre stage. The softly spoken, slightly camp clairvoyant from Sunderland greets his audience warmly, laying his hands on several people to make an extra special bond, before flicking his shoulder-length streaked blonde hair from his face, closing his eyes and taking a moment to contact his spirit guide on the other side. Jeff, a former spot metal welder from Rotherham, is D Montfort's connection to the realm of energetic beings who have passed over, and is able to help this mysterious medium to channel his particular speciality, the spirits of dead celebrities.
Over the next hour, personal messages are passed on to the enraptured audience from such historical luminaries as Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Jesus, Hitler and Ernie Wise. His posters claim that this show is 'Not for entertainment purposes only - actually psychic' and on the evidence of his incredible accuracy - with which he is able to perform such miraculous feats as naming people's childhood pets, informing one woman that she has sexual dreams about a work colleague and predicting which famous person anyone in the audience would most like to speak to - there can be no doubt that Ian D Montfort is the real deal. Although his show Touching the Dead will always have its knockers - 'A lot of people do poo poo, the things that I do do,' Montfort says - I'm as convinced by him as I am by Derek Acorah, Joe Power or Mystic Meg.
The next day I meet Ian D Montfort, or rather his creator Tom Binns, in a place full of spirits - a local bar. See what I did there?
You're probably best known for your Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated character, Ivan Brackenbury, the hospital radio DJ. When did you decide you would create Ian D Montfort?
'It was last year. I hadn't actually intended to create a psychic character. I initially wanted to do a mentalist who gets everything wrong, like a cross between Derren Brown and Tommy Cooper. So I started learning all their tricks. It was a bit weird for a 40-year-old man to suddenly become interested in magic for the first time in his life. I'd go to Davenports magic shop and all the other blokes my age would have 11-year-old kids with them. But the more I got into it the more I thought it would be funnier to create an entire new world using the techniques I'd learned if the character was a medium who spoke to famous dead people.'
A lot of the psychic tricks you do in the act are genuinely impressive. Are you ever worried that people will think you're a real medium?
'Yeah. After the third or fourth show there was a guy about my age in absolute tears because he believed I was really contacting the dead. His girlfriend asked me to go and explain to him it was just an act. I've had audiences who were petrified to talk to Elvis through me because they genuinely believed I was talking to him. There are quite a few people who just think I'm a spirit medium who's added a comedy spin to it. What I find interesting is where some people will draw the line; they'll accept that I'm talking to dead people, but not to famous people.'
Unlike Mark Wooton's OTT Shirley Ghostman, you play Ian D Montfort with remarkable subtlety. In many ways he's less theatrical than a lot of 'real' psychics.
'That was really deliberate. Realistically I'm not going to change anybody's mind if they believe in this kind of stuff, but to give myself half a chance then it's got to be quite realistic. The techniques I use, such as cold, warm and hot reading are the same ones that they use, with a few extra bits of mentalism thrown in because I've got a more sceptical audience. My sister's a big fan of daytime Living shows and Derek Acorah. She said, “I never realised just how creepy talking to these dead people [is] until I saw Ian.” If I've only converted my sister, that's a big enough triumph for me.'
What exactly are cold and hot reading techniques?
'Well, cold reading is the kind of thing you could do over the phone without knowing anything about anyone, using generalisations. It's essentially what Michael McIntyre does: he says general things that apply to everybody and lets his audience know they apply to everybody. You go through your life thinking it's just you and then you realise everyone does it, and you laugh. That's right, Michael McIntyre: he's a cold reader, not a comedian. The only difference is a medium will make you feel like the information only applies to you. Hot reading is where you already know specific information about someone.'
So in your opinion do TV psychics use these methods for their shows?
'Because I've walked in their shoes, I'm sure they know what they're doing. Some have convinced themselves they're offering a service and they're helping people, and that's what they cling on to to justify it.'
I hear that Ian has predicted the death of your other character, Ivan Brackenbury?
'Yes and it's been very upsetting for poor old Ivan. At the end of every show he breaks down in tears, it's really affecting him. But let's hope there's life in the old dog yet.'
Tom Binns will be appearing as Ian D Montfort in 'Touching the Dead' at the Canal Café Theatre, Sept 21-25.