Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes keep their Oscars side by side in their downstairs toilet. Emma Thompson stored hers beside her bath until it started to tarnish, and Susan Sarandon has an entire awards shelf in her guest bathroom. So it seems that Fergus Craig, Hackney’s rising star of the stage and screen, is already in A-list company.
“I won a very tasteful statue, and I’m keeping it in my bathroom,” explains the 28-year-old, freshly crowned as Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year. “I can’t tell whether she’s a Greek or a Roman goddess. I kept asking on the night and someone did tell me, but it was all a bit crazy and I can’t remember.”
Everything about the past few months has been “a bit crazy” for the funny man from Stoke Newington. He has performed as one half of comedy duo Colin and Fergus for “years and years”, but it was only in October that he “thought he would have a go” at a solo stand-up act. Now, he has joined Stewart Lee, Russell Brand, Matt Lucas and Catherine Tate on the illustrious list of Hackney Empire New Act nominees.
“Stewart Lee lives in Stoke Newington, and I know him to chat to in the street,” says Craig, cradling a cup of peppermint tea. “When I won, he told me that he won the award back when it was actually difficult to win.”
After training as an actor in Manchester, Craig swapped Shakespeare for stand-up when he moved to Hackney six years ago. “I still like acting, but comedy is just good fun,” he says. “I like the immediacy of it. If they’re not laughing, you’ve failed. If they are, you’re doing well.”
His comedy CV already includes a BBC digital radio show and appearances in Ricky Gervais’s Extras and Star Stories on Channel 4. One of the characters he plays in the Channel 4 show is Russell Brand, a former New Act runner-up. “I end up playing Russell Brand a lot. Every year I text him to tell him I’m playing him, and this year he replied and told me to make sure I played him super butch.”
It was dressed as Brand that Craig made his first visit to Hackney Empire. Two series of Star Stories were filmed at the venue. But despite the hours spent shooting there, Craig had never set foot on the Empire stage before picking up his prize. “Before the awards I had never done a show at the Hackney Empire, but I definitely hope to come back,” he says.
Besides the Empire, Craig’s favourite Hackney comedy haunts include the Pangea Club in Stamford Hill and The Poodle Club in Stoke Newington, because “you never know how many people are going to be there, but it’s always a nice atmosphere.” Today, the back of his hand is stained with the inky remains of his notes from a gig in Shoreditch the night before. “I always write lots on my hand, but I hardly look at it. Until recently the beginning of my act has been quite rigid, but I’m trying to change that now. I look at what’s going on in the room and try and open with something about that.”
When he’s not being funny for an audience, Craig likes to amuse himself by riding on Hackney’s bendy buses and imagining he’s at a Victorian ambassador’s reception (“those ones with the automated announcements for all the stops are quite good for pretending you’re greeting people as they get on the bus”). He also entertains his neighbours by deterring people from getting drunk and disorderly outside his Stoke Newington apartment by shouting out of the window in his best New York accent. “My girlfriend finds it funny. You probably wouldn’t.”
Despite the drunks loitering outside his window, Craig intends on hanging around in Hackney for a long time to come. “I really want to stay here. I feel comfortable in the area, and it’s got so many characters who are even better than fiction. There’s one dude I always see going around on rollerblades in a skin-tight t-shirt that shows his midriff. One night, he was right in front of me in the audience for my show. I didn’t want to take the piss, because I see him all the time, but I had to celebrate his role as one of Hackney’s quirky characters. It’s people like that that bring the borough to life.
When he’s not taking to the stage everywhere from London to Leeds, he is also writing a children’s sketch show and working on a pilot for a BBC sitcom. Surely that tasteful statue in his bathroom must be giving his comedy credentials a boost?
“Actually, most of the really successful comedians associated with the Hackney Empire award weren’t the ones who won it,” he smiles. “I think Ardal O’Hanlon was the last winner to become a big commercial success. Brand, Tate and Lucas were all runners-up instead. I’m not sure how well that bodes for me.”
Image taken from Fergus Craig.