Review: Ian Cognito: A Life And A Death On Stage

Review: Ian Cognito: A Life And A Death On Stage

When comedian Ian Cognito died onstage at the Atic Comedy Club in Bicester in April 2019 there were two responses from the stand-up fraternity. Firstly utter shock. Secondly it was the way he would have wanted to go, entertaining people and making them laugh as he slipped away, just like a different kind of comedy great, Tommy Cooper.

This excellent, eloquent film, co-directed by Joe Bor and Danny Ward, charts the life of Cognito from his earliest days as a surprising uncontroversial musician to his powerhouse heyday as a genuinely dangerous, unpredictable performer. When "Cogs" walked onstage you rarely knew what would happen next, except that he would probably hammer a nail into the wall and hang his hat on it. He could be as scary as he was funny. As this profile says, he could not be tamed.

While he may not have been that well known to the wider public, having not done TV for reasons that will be obvious when you see the clips of him in clubs motoring on at full expletive-packed throttle, it is a testament to his standing in the comedy community that this documentary features glowing praise from big guns including Matt Lucas, Shaparak Khorsandi and Jo Brand as well as countless other comedians who worked regularly with him.

In fact judging by the credits at the end which features many familiar names who do not appear in the film Bor and Ward were clearly spoilt for choice when it came to talking heads. It is no surprise then that at times the film simply runs from anecdote to anecdote to anecdote. Cognito was very much larger than life and the film does well to capture his lightning in a bottle genius/rage.

The film also does well to contextualise Cognito. painting a vivid picture of the pre-Live at the Apollo comedy circuit which was more like the Wild West than a trade fair, with odd acts vying for your attention alongside the likes of future superstars like Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard. It also doesn't shy away from Cognito's struggles.

Maybe he fell out of fashion. Not that he was ever in fashion. As is often the case with comedians, there were contradictions in his personality. Maybe he wanted to be a big star, or maybe he didn't want to crack it. Certainly not if it meant compromising. Comedian/actor Ricky Grover offers a very illuminating story about getting into a fight with Cognito which ended with them hugging the next day. And when it comes to his death, Andrew Bird, who was MC the night, describes seeing his last few minutes so sharply you feel you are there,

It isn't just comedians of this ultimate loose cannon's vintage such as Bob Mills, John Gordillo and Alan Francis who sing his praises. Younger comics including Susan Murray, Will Hodgson, James Acaster and John Robins (who only discovered his real name when he bought his car and Cognito had to fill out the DVLA form), also talk of him being very much a one-off, not so much an alternative comedian, more part-troubadour, part-pirate. If you can imagine a pirate living on a barge off a motorway layby near Bristol. 

Oh, and I should add, the film – a must for anyone with the slightest interest in stand-up history – also features clips that show that Cognito could write some damn fine one-liners. Thanks goodness a few people had the foresight to film his gigs in those far off days. 

Ian Cognito: A Life And A Death On Stage will be screened at the Edinburgh Fringe at Just the Tonic at The Caves from August 4 - 28. Details and Tickets here. It is also available to view on Amazon Prime.

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