Junior doctor turned multi-award-winning writer and comedian Adam Kay returns to the stage this festive season with a reminder to spare a thought for the hard-working staff of the NHS as we gorge on our mince pies and mulled wine. Terri Paddock caught up with him about Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas Live, his fundraising for the NHS, and the forthcoming BBC adaptation of his original bestselling memoir This Is Going to Hurt.
In Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas Live, Adam Kay shares entries from his festive diaries alongside original stand-up and Christmas songs. It’s his love letter to all those who spend the holidays on the NHS front line, removing babies, chocolate wrappers, remote controls, fairy lights and other objects from the various places they get stuck.
Adam previously performed the live show soon after the book was published in 2019, selling 500,000 copies in its first three months. Now, as hospitals continue to cope with the demands of Covid on top of the annual winter crisis, he revisits the material with even more passionate appreciation for healthcare workers. During the pandemic, Adam applied to return to work on the wards himself and organised and edited Dear NHS, an anthology of other celebrities’ love letters to the NHS, which was an instant Sunday Times number one and raised £425,000 for related charities.
Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas Live is the sequel to Adam’s 2017 memoir This Is Going to Hurt, a collection of his diary entries covering his medical training from 2004 until 2010, when he resigned as a result of the mental and emotional strain.
To date, This Is Going to Hurt has sold over 2.5 million copies, been translated into 37 languages, and is the bestselling narrative non-fiction title of the 21st century, spending over a year at number one in the Sunday Times bestseller chart. During lockdown, when the nation was clapping weekly for the NHS, it shot back up the charts as the UK’s bestselling paperback. In 2022, it will hit the small screen as a seven-part comedy-drama series, adapted by Adam and starring Ben Whishaw.
Adam also writes books for children. His first children’s book, 2020’s Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body, was another Sunday Times number one bestseller and became the fastest-selling children’s non-fiction book of the decade. The sequel Kay’s Marvellous Medicine was released in September 2021.
How surprised were you by the success of This Is Going to Hurt?
Not at all – it’s brilliant. OK, fine, I was flabbergasted. I guess the reaction it received was just a reflection of the love we all, rightly, have for the NHS – plus a natural interest in peering behind the hospital curtain to find out what doctors really get up to. Plus a lot of the stories are absolutely disgusting, which turns out has an appeal.
Why did you want to write a Christmas sequel? Or, put another way, why did you leave these stories out of the first volume?
It was very much a case of leaving stories out of This is Going to Hurt. One of the notes that came back from my editor after my first draft (other than “you can’t say THAT!”) was that were a lot of stories from Christmas, making the book weirdly festive. This was basically because I worked six out of seven Christmases that I was qualified as a doctor – I worked on labour ward and babies don’t really care if it’s December 25th or March 25th. Rather than binning those stories, I thought I’d turn them into a revolting sequel.
Why should fans of your books come to see your live stage show?
Three main reasons: there are diary entries that aren’t in my books, there are songs, and they can throw objects at my head.
Why do you think the rest of us should?
250,000 previous audience members can’t be wrong. Well, they could be, I guess – but presumably not all of them. I think it’s a fun, funny night out, which celebrates the NHS, and will probably make you think about its staff and patients slightly differently.
You previously performed The Nightshift Before Christmas in 2019. How has the show changed since then?
I’ve had a couple of years to think of some new jokes, so that’s something. Plus, of course, the pandemic can’t be ignored. I realise that people don’t particularly want to go out and be reminded of the main thing they’re trying to forget about, but the show is basically a love letter to the NHS, and they’ve never deserved more love than after the 18 months they’ve all just had.
How do you choose which anecdotes from the book to include in the show? Which is the one that gets the biggest reaction from audiences?
The show varies from night to night because it’s hard to choose my favourite 70 minutes. I generally choose what I think the audience will enjoy most – if they’re laughing at the filthy stuff from the off, then I’ll steer the show in that direction. A personal favourite is a short diary entry from Christmas 2004: “Full marks to the anaesthetist wearing a badge that says: ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake’.”
Why do you incorporate music in the show?
The short answer is because it would be very boring just watching a man reading out loud for an hour and a quarter… I’ve always had a soft spot for a funny song, and Christmas has so many bangers to play with.
What do you enjoy most about performing?
I’ve absolutely loved getting to know the country I’ve lived in for 40 years and had only explored tiny corners of. From the beautiful Eden Court theatre in Inverness down to the breathtaking Minack on the Cornwall cliffs. And as much as I love hearing from readers that they’ve enjoyed my books, nothing beats hearing their reaction first-hand as I talk through my stories.
But, most importantly, my shows raise money for a wonderful charity called the Lullaby Trust, which supports families bereaved of babies and young children. The generosity of my audiences has raised over £180,000 in small change after the shows.
Do audiences react differently in different places?
They do – every part of the country has its own sense of humour as much as it has its own accent. And some shows are memorable for other reasons: I came offstage from a show Glasgow a couple of months ago to find an audience member taking a shit in my dressing room, having demolished all my wine and snacks.
You have spoken out for many years about how overstretched and underfunded the NHS is, and the impact this has on the mental health of those who work in it. How much worse has Covid made the situation for healthcare professionals?
When you’ve heard that the NHS has been at breaking point, that means the people in the NHS. There’s only so long you can work double-shifts, stretched far beyond what could be reasonably expected of you. And none of the mental wellbeing initiatives in the world can help if you’re exhausted and burning out. It’s rare these days that I don’t speak to a doctor who isn’t working out their Plan B if things don’t get better on the ground.
What will you be doing this Christmas?
I will be at home with my husband and a few scattered family members, having enormous arguments, drifting in and out of carbohydrate comas, and being thankful for the hundreds of thousands of NHS staff giving up their own Christmases to keep the rest of us on the road.