I like Johnny Ball. In fact, he is a bit of a hero to me.  For those who haven’t heard, Johnny spoke at Robin Ince’s Godless shows on Tuesday, saying that he did not believe there is any significant link between global temperatures and human activity.  Several writers have described how the audience booed Johnny off the stage, with some suggesting that this demonstrates how ‘liberal atheists’ are intolerant of certain viewpoints (e.g., here).

I was performing on the same bill, and was standing in the wings throughout Johnny’s set.

It seemed to me that the main issue was one of timing not content.  The Godless shows involve lots of performers and everyone is given a small amount of time.  Johnny had already used up his time BEFORE starting his climate speech.  Obviously many people there did not think that Johnny had the evidence to support his position, but nevertheless sat through what must have seemed like an eternity of his climate-related material in polite silence.  Johnny then said a race-related line that many perceived as offensive and this, combined with a sense of boredom, started the slow hand clap (I didn’t hear any booing but might have missed it because it was tricky to hear in the wings).

In short, in my opinion this wasn’t about curtailing free speech.  The organisers could have asked Johnny to leave the stage because of the timing issue.  Instead gave him as long as he wanted.  It’s just that the audience were not sympathetic to Johnny’s evidence, got bored and decided that enough was enough.

Update: The line was a pun on crustaceans as ‘crushed Asians’ and a reference to illegal immigrants.


  1. It’s a bizarre place for him to choose to talk about this – surely he must have expected that response. Think you need to tell us what the race-related line was though so we can judge for ourselves.

  2. I also have found the reaction hypocritical. A crowd can boo an entertainer off stage and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being illiberal. Maybe the entertainer is offensive or just crap. His free speech is not infringed: he still has outlets for his views.

    In this case, the evening was a celebration of science, humour and music in a very positive holiday atmosphere. Someone using that platform to make an anti-science point (which Ball seems to have done) should expect a hostile reaction.

    It’s not a hostility to unfamiliar ideas: I was there the next night (when Johnny Ball was more subdued) and Alan Moore put forward some perhaps half-baked ideas about death and consciousness, but he was very warmly received because it was entertaining stuff and the audience had a great time. Sorry to have missed your performance, Richard: I expect it was fun, magical and slightly filthy.

  3. It is very hard to form context around the events without seeing it for ones self. There may have been things you noticed that the audience didn’t and vice versa. There are a million excuses that come to my mind in defence of both him AND the audience AND the organisers that are mere guesses without said context and our own abilities to see what others may have missed/not commented on.

    Is there any chance at all that you can add a video to this post for us? Without one I fear that comments by anyone who was not there should be deemed irrelevant.

  4. Yup I was there and that was *exactly* my reaction. He went on TOO long and stopped being in any way entertaining – he at least started off trying to attend. I’d have happily listened to anyone put forward any old rubbish *if* they did so in an entertaining way. People *kindly* put up with until he started attacking others (UEA/Gore) and the reaction was in part because there seemed no end in sight and it was getting less and less entertaining. Your performance, on the other hand, was great even if your gender identification skills were a little wide of the mark 😉

    1. arrgghhh…..I did feel a tad bad about that…..first time I have done that in years! But the guy was v nice about it.

  5. Hi Richard,

    We have a video of Johnny talking about it filmed the night after backstage: http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2009/12/johnny-ball-backstage-at-last-nights.html

    Personally I think the biggest problem was how long he went on for. Because he’s such a popular guy, people were prepared to tolerate the climate stuff for quite a while (it was deathly silent in there at one point), much longer than they would have from someone else. But once he’d spent 10 or so mins on it, with all the spurious stuff about insects etc, a few people had just had enough, and started to voice their objections. Johnny was entitled to say the things he said, but so too were the audience entitled to react. He made some scientifically controversial (and incoherent) comments to an audience of scientifically literate people, some of whom chose, as they were entitled, to voice their disagreement. Plus he was eating into the time allotted to lots of other, very funny and interesting, acts. Of course people were going to become impatient.

    Sorry to keep plugging our video content, but Stewart Lee makes this point best in this video we filmed with him on Wednesday (the Johnny Ball bit starts at about 2mins 40): http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2009/12/stewart-lee-backstage-at-nine-lessons.html

    Really enjoyed your set on Tuesday by the way – both hilarious and fascinating. Shame you weren’t doing any of the other nights.


    Paul Sims
    News Editor, New Humanist

    1. Great links and thanks for your kind words. Amazing that he admits to over-running by 13 mins. How unprofessional. I mean, if you are storming then perhaps maybe, but what would be the reason for over-running for so long if you were dying on your arse, which he was.

  6. I didn’t hear any booing either. A chap in front of me started a slow-hand clap, plus I heard a few shouts of “You’re talking rubbish, get off” and a “f*** off.”

    I think everyone was assuming it’d finish about 11 and a number of people listed as appearing on Tuesday hadn’t appeared yet. (and some of them didn’t appear on Tuesday as it happened, anyway) So, there was a palpable tension about his being oblivious to the seven minute slot. Ben Goldacre struggled to stay within his time and skipped very quickly few a lot of his slides. I’d have rather had seen thirteen minutes more of him than the insect/spider mumbo-jumbo.

    The “Crushed Asians” was a cheesy along with quite a few more of his gags. Still good to see him!

    It amused me watching people practice “French Drops” through the interval. What have you started!

  7. Hi, I was there the night in question, had a brilliant time but the Johnny Ball incident was painful. For me the slow clapping was more to do with the overrunning and seemingly no end in sight. Felt very bad for him but we paid to be entertained, not lectured at. In a more appropriate setting I would quite happily listen to his views and discuss them.
    In fact, that the audience listened to him for that long was remarkable as some of it was a bit offensive.

    I am slightly grateful to Johnny however as I then got to listen to Dara musing on giant insects taking over the world!

  8. He couldn’t have been booed for making light of the Climate Change circus. It’s a pretty leaky theory. No-one with an inquiring mind isn’t questioning it now, surely?

  9. I was there – I heard some cries of “shame!” and slow clapping and I think both were well-deserved. He was misusing a public platform to promote a personal hobby-horse, which would have been tolerable if it had been a small proportion of the act, but it went on far too long. He was aware of that and continued anyway, and it was certainly not what I had paid to hear! Shame indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: