The Boy With Tape On His Face interview

We go prop-shopping with the award-winning silent comedy sensation

He’s funny, silent and all set to storm the West End. Sam Wills, The Boy With Tape On His Face, takes Ben Williams to his favourite prop shop. Photography Elisabeth Blanchet.

© Elisabeth Blanchet

It’s a gloomy November morning and I’m by the seaside staring at an array of toilet plungers. The tall shelves in the narrow aisles of this discount store are heaving with cheap odds and ends. ‘These just came in, and I’m dead excited,’ says Sam Wills, aka silent comedy sensation The Boy With Tape On His Face. He takes the smallest plunger from the shelf and flexes the rubber suction cup. ‘They’re pre-softened!’ he exclaims. ‘I’ll strip the shop of all of these – I’m going to get through them.’

Wills, who spends his shows gagged with gaffer tape like some creepy Tim Burton creation, doesn’t have any tape on his face today. Nor does he have a stubborn toilet blockage. We’re here at his favourite store – Red Rocket in Westcliff-on-Sea, where he now lives with his in-laws – to shop for props for his first West End run.

© Elisabeth Blanchet

Last year, ‘The Artist’ introduced silent movies to a new generation. This year, this New Zealand-born comic’s brilliantly inventive shows have rebooted silent comedy for the twenty-first century, mixing prop comedy, mime, puppetry, music and vaudeville to create an act that is truly unique. TBWTOHF, who doesn’t say a word on stage, celebrates playfulness with uncynical glee, as well as some high-energy ’80s tunes, silly games and mischievous pranks.
He transforms everyday household objects – from toothbrushes to tape measures – into intricate contraptions and puppets, and coerces audience members to join him on stage and share the big, clever, wordless punchlines. This year his solo show aced the Edinburgh Fringe awards panels and sold out one of the festival’s largest venues night after night – a feat rarely achieved without hours of TV exposure.
But Wills remains an expert bargain hunter. ‘Things like Poundland are so generic, they’ve all got the same sort of stuff,’ he says, moving his search on to the hardware section. ‘Whereas here, it’s still everyday objects, but it’s more the Boy-based objects. I treat this like my own personal Tape Face Bat Cave.’

© Elisabeth Blanchet

Until today, the owners of Red Rocket had no idea who their best customer was, or why he was buying so many toilet plungers. Wills’s background lies in street performance – he studied at a circus school in New Zealand for two years and then spent seven years swallowing swords and hammering nails up his nose at comedy clubs. But he got bored of it and decided to challenge himself with a silent routine. Some black gaffer tape and a stripy T-shirt later and TBWTOHF was born.
Without the tape Wills is talkative but unassuming – his routines take months to fine-tune and become funny, and he’s not a gag-a-minute guy in conversation. But the store’s humble products have inspired many of his award-winning routines.
Today, Wills is restocking, but he can’t resist hunting for new props. ‘These have been bugging me for a while,’ he says, picking up a broom head. ‘There’s something really funny about a brush…’ he trails off, and then jumps back to life. ‘No idea what! But one day that will be funny!’
He’s right to trust his instincts. The uses Wills presses his props into are ludicrously hysterical. But how does he know which items will cause mass hilarity? ‘I’m looking for things that are instantly recognisable and look good,’ he answers before striding over to the kitchenware section and pointing to a rack of utensils. ‘I use these as the legs for a puppet and slot them into shoes, but my biggest concern was that people wouldn’t realise they were potato mashers. Everything has to be normal.’

© Elisabeth Blanchet

He cheats occasionally, with some puppeteer-made googly eyes here, a specialist juggling knife there (‘It’s my art form: I can change the rules whenever I want!’) but, before your very eyes, he transforms mop heads into Beatles and toilet seats into targets.
What about the tape – the instantly recognisable clue that TBWTOHF won’t be uttering a word – does he buy that here too? ‘No. That gets shipped from New Zealand,’ Wills replies, pulling a roll out of his bag. ‘Nashua 357 is my favourite brand – the thread count’s high, it rips nice and straight and there’s a heap of glue on it.’ He stops, realising that his excitement about gaffer tape seems a bit doolally. ‘You do go a bit batshit,’ he admits. ‘I spend my time building crossbows out of plungers and whatnot. It’s stupid! It’s not a real job.’

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