January 31, 2020

In Conversation with The Thinking Drinkers

We chat to The Thinking Drinkers, duo Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, ahead of their arrival at The Epsom Playhouse.

You guys met back in your twenties whilst working on a leading pub magazine, how does it feel to think that you’ve known each other for so long?

Yes, all the way back in 2004 when we were working on The Publican, a newspaper which folded almost as soon as we left. It was sent out to all the pubs and bars in the UK. Ben was the drinks writer, but also covered snacks….as you can still see by looking at him. Tom, meanwhile, was a roving reporter who called landlords and asked them all the tough questions. It was hard-hitting stuff.   

Soon after leaving there, we joined forces and wrote a book called Good Beer Guide Wet Coast USA, a discerning drinker’s guide to the craft brewing scene in California, Oregon and Washington. The research took us over three months, it was brilliant fun – and having spent over 12 weeks in each other’s pockets, sleeping in hire cars and getting chased out of a bar in San Diego by some Marines, we thought we could certainly handle working together.

How did the idea for the Thinking Drinkers come about?

It was initially an editorial idea considering our background was in journalism, but we soon realised that simply writing about drink was not enough. We needed to add a live element. So, having become disillusioned with deadly dull drinks tastings and after spending a few days up at the Edinburgh Fringe seeing lots of different shows, we decided to transfer our expertise from the page to the stage – and in 2011 turned our tastings into comedy theatre productions.

It was a bold decision given that we hadn’t been in a play since primary school and, crucially, we had no idea what we were doing. But we wrote a decent script and were then thrust into a two-day acting boot camp with a very patient and talented director – who told us how to ‘do’ theatre. 

It was a very, very, very steep learning curve but, don’t tell anyone, it’s not that difficult. You just have to pretend and remember your lines. Benedict Cumberbatch – we’re coming after you.  

Anyway, within weeks we were performing “The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol” in a freight container at the Edinburgh Festival. And then within 12 months it had transferred to the West End before returning to the Edinburgh Festival for nine successive years with different shows and, rather than just a muckabout, performing on stage up and down the country is now our main job. 

At what time did you realise that your passion could turn into a career?

We know it sounds like a strange way to earn a living, but we realised we were onto something when we started looking beyond the mere booze in the glass. While the way drink is made can be fascinating and while it can deliver some fabulous flavours (not to mention its ‘uplifting’ effects), simply talking about drinks on its own can be rather one-dimensional. 

As historians with a healthy interest in alcohol, we realised that the real interesting stuff emerges when you place it in a historical and cultural context, broadening it beyond booze into the past, the people and the places that have shaped it. We also realised that people want to know more too. In the last year, the UK spent nearly £22bn a year on alcohol – more than ever before – and the number of craft brewers and artisan distillers and winemakers has exploded in the last five years or so.  Yet, the number of people cutting down their overall consumption increased too. This means that people are following the Thinking Drinkers’ mantra of “Drink Less, Drink Better” and are becoming increasingly interested in what’s in their glass.

Drink is supposed to be fun. Laughing and enjoying a beer is a much-needed break from the daily grind. Also, comedy is a great way of getting information across and it makes the experience so much more memorable. People have a lot of fun at our shows – they laugh a lot,  they learn a lot and they get five free drinks. Did we mention the five free drinks?

What do you consider the hardest element to add into your show?

Dancing. It’s harder than it looks. We have been very lucky to work with Caroline Pope, a world class choreographer with brilliant ideas and a lot of patience. 

While we can do both the Running Man really rather well, our dance in this year’s show is especially difficult and hammers our hamstrings on a nightly basis. It’s really hard work but really good fun.  

What is your favourite thing about performing live?

Modesty doesn’t prevent us from saying that making people laugh and people clapping is a great feeling. But the most amazing thing about performing live is that no matter how badly you need to go beforehand, the urge to go to the loo instantly disappears as soon as the lights hit you. It’s extraordinary. And we’ve decided to rigorously test this theory during the tour – so come and see that if nothing else!

Any venues you are especially looking forward to on this tour?

Honestly, we look forward to all of them. It’s such a laugh driving around the country in our ex-Royal Mail van and visiting all these different places. 

We love working in the world of drinks but theatre people are a lovely bunch and we’ve made some really good friends over the years. It’s also great, after the show, to explore the local pubs, bars and, maybe if we’ve been really good boys, take-away establishments. 

What is it about the Edinburgh Fringe that keeps you returning year after year?

We only started doing this in our mid-30s and had never dreamed of being actors or comedians before that. So, it still seems completely absurd to enjoy a really strong following at the largest arts festival in the world where it all began in a freight container. 

What has been your biggest achievement within your career?

Winning “Worst Joke at The Fringe” back in 2017. It wasn’t even the worst joke in our show. 

If you could only choose one drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Tom: It’s difficult to beat a Martini and a packet of twiglets.
Ben: A bottle of Bordeaux and some Minstrels (grab bag).  

Catch The Thinking Drinkers’ brand new Heroes of Hooch at The Epsom Playhouse on Fri 14 Feb. Tickets available here.

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