Helen Keen: It IS Rocket Science
"Fucking phone! Stop blinking at me!" Helen Keen has a busy week ahead, with her science-comedy stage show It Is Rocket Science being broadcast on Wednesday (7 March) on Radio 4; then this Thursday (17 Mar) sees her at the Aberdeen branch of Skeptics At The Pub. Right now though, she's preoccupied with her new mobile. "I can’t turn caps lock off and I keep accidentally sending text messages to people. Why didn’t I buy an iPhone?"
Her struggle to master technology is like It Is Rocket Science in microcosm. The show weaves together a string of obscure anecdotes about the fathers of rocketry, who struggled to stay sane while reaching for the heavens. Keen (who is not actually a rocket scientist herself) discovered the stories by accident after noticing an unusual reference to rockets in a book from the 1920s. It turned out to be a comedy goldmine, with tales of decadent rocket parties in Berlin and Satan’s influence on the American space program, as well as a perfect
catchphrase for the show ('Onwards to Mars!').
Before Rocket Science, Keen had been a normal stand-up. "Well," she says, "I thought I was normal. Although people used to come up to me and say, 'you talk about some really weird things in your act, don’t you?' So, in 2007, I had a chance to rebuild the show from scratch and I decided to do this. I never wanted to be the type of comedian who just builds up material to fill an hour. I think I’d get very bored doing that."
Translating the very visual stage show to radio required a major rewrite, with Peter Serafinowicz now drafted in to be The Voice Of Space, guiding Helen through the history of space travel. "It was Gareth [Edwards, the producer who has previously worked on Spaced and That Mitchell & Webb Look] who first suggested Peter. He's an amazing guy, he can just produce all of these voices and characters on the spot. So now it's going to be about me in my bedroom with a homemade computer. We're pitching it as a kind of anti-Wonders Of The Universe.'
It's probably the most endearing show around right now; a cult classic just waiting to happen. Keen herself admits that she’s already itching to get cracking on a second series and has already lined up new anecdotes, such as the ancient Chinese rocketeers who tried to build spacecraft by tying a flock of geese to a chair. Onwards to Mars!