Stuart Macbeth talks to performer John Hegley about his love of verse ahead of his show at The North Wall

Behind John Hegley’s trademark NHS spectacles, there’s more than meets the eye. He may have recently been named “the people’s Poet Laureate”, but that’s only part of the story.

Now 61, this former bus conductor and civil servant has also spent decades treading the boards as a musician, singer and actor.

One early acting role was in The Merchant of Venice at Luton Central Library, after which, at the precocious age of 12, he concluded he “generally preferred Dennis the Menace.”

John had to wait until 1980 before making his proper debut, at London’s Comedy Store. Since then he’s performed regularly at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now spends increasing amounts of time teaching poetry, and leading workshops across the UK.

Only when his verse began to appear in The Guardian did Hegley start to make a name for himself as a poet, publishing his first collection in 1984.

His latest anthology, New and Selected Potatoes, forms the basis of the show he’s bringing to Oxford. So what can people look forward to?

“People can expect to participate vocally and emotionally,” Hegley promises as we talk about his venture to the North Wall Arts Centre stage.

“It’s a joy to get an audience singing in part harmony and surprising themselves with how pleasant it sounds,” he explains. “I do try to continually broaden my sweep and these shows give me the chance to get people singing, while I sweep.”

John will be bringing his mandolin: “I first played the mandolin on stage in 1982, when playing a Roman slave,” he says, “because I thought it looked more Roman than a guitar.”

Hegley could have been a rock star. He has been called “more Elvis Costello than Alan Bennett” and even in his 60s looks like an English Buddy Holly. His band, The Popticians, did two sessions for John Peel in the 1980s and gained national exposure on Jasper Carrott’s television show.

So why is poetry his main outlet?

“The passion for poetry in my teachers impassioned me. I started to write at the age of 10. My first poem was inspired by a supply teacher who believed in us young writers.

“It was my English teacher, Mr Smart who inspired me, and his amazement at the word gymnastics of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“I loved playground wordplay too. I found there was a lot of fun to be had in the playground with words. A complete role reversal then, to find him as the teacher. How does he approach leading poetry workshops?

“In schools, I take a line from each of the youngsters. These can be melded into a piece that we can rock and roll off the tongue.”

A recent task, in which he asked children to draw a Dalek and give it a hat, to cheer it up and veer it from an exterminatory tendency, makes a memorable appearance in New and Selected Potatoes.

His verse, often accompanied by his drawings, often rhymes. In Me Poem he rhymes the word ‘me’ no fewer than 67 times.

Work with children has inspired a second show to tour alongside New and Selected Potatoes. I Am A Poetato is a family event with verses and drawings about animals, some of which he invented: “X is the Xylofox, a creature both musical and cunning.”

Which sums up Saturday’s show. “I would like to do a performance that will be remembered as a fine thing for a nine-year-old, a 29-year-old, and also a 91-year-old. Or thereabouts.”

John Hegley: New and Selected Potatoes
Saturday, 8pm
North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
For tickets £13 (£11 conc) see