ARTS / Have I got a newcomer for you: Show People: 47. Angus Deayton

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT CAN have been going through Angus Deayton's mind when he stood up to accept the Best Newcomer prize at last year's British Comedy Awards? Wasn't this the man who sold his first sketch (to Dick Emery) in 1978? And hadn't he been hanging around the fringes of celebrity - as a member of pop parody act the Heebeegeebees, as Rowan Atkinson's straight man, as writer-presenter of a slew of radio shows including the long- running Radio Active, as a player of bit parts in TV series like One Foot in the Grave, Mr Bean and Alexei Sayle's Stuff, and not least as the man in the life of singer Stephanie de Sykes - ever since?

'I did feel a bit of a fraud,' he admits, 'though I suppose they weren't to know I'd been muddling around for donkey's years.' In fact, the award was prophetic. In March, Have I Got News for You, which he chairs and co-writes, scooped the Bafta for Best Light Entertainment Programme. In May, the satellite-TV spoof KYTV, which he stars in and co- writes, won the Silver Rose, Europe's top comedy award, at Montreux. He may have been around for years, but it's also true that, at 36, he has arrived.

Have I Got News for You returns for a fourth series this week. Thinly disguised as a topical quiz, it is widely felt to be the funniest thing on television. Deayton is the immaculate host, trading quips with team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton (on the discovery of prostitutes at Euro-Disney: 'it's pounds 50 for Goofy-style, pounds 100 for a straight Donald Duck', etc), supplying Pythonish links ('let's press on, as Claire Rayner would say') and injecting venom with just enough restraint to stay out of the courts (action has been threatened only twice, by Jeffrey Archer and Peter Stringfellow).

Deayton describes his style as 'half- way between being a presenter and being a parody of a presenter,' which is apt for a show which is itself half-way between a quiz and a parody of a quiz. 'The theory was that Ian, because he works for Private Eye, would bring knowledge of the news and Paul would make the funny remarks. Of course, it turns out that Paul wins virtually every show and Ian makes a lot of the funny remarks.' Whatever the theory, it works. By the end of the last series, Have I Got News for You was BBC 2's top-rated show, with 5 million viewers.

'I didn't anticipate it taking off in such a big way,' Deayton says. The cool superiority of his quiz-mastery is not apparent off screen. And despite the purple silk shirt, there's little evidence of the 'TV's Mr Sex' label pinned on him by Time Out. Mind you, it is 10am. Friendly, blokeish even, he describes himself as 'probably not hugely different' from the unflappable type he plays in KYTV, Mike Channel. In fact, Have I nearly took off without him: he was only recruited at three weeks' notice, when the original presenter, John Lloyd, dropped out.

It wasn't the first time he'd been brought on as a sub. Showbusiness entered his life by chance at Oxford, where he read French and German, when he was invited by Richard Curtis (of Blackadder fame) to join the Oxford Revue: 'Two people had to drop out, and just on the strength of having met me, Richard asked if I wanted to be in it.' It was 'virtually the first time I'd set foot on stage'.

He'd grown up in Surrey, the son of a cookery teacher and a Man from the Pru: 'a normal, very middle-class, South-east England upbringing'. Showbiz was not in the blood. Instead, 'football loomed fairly centrally'. He had trials for Crystal Palace, but the call never came.

After Deayton appeared in the 1978 Oxford Revue, Curtis asked him to produce the following year's Edinburgh show. One of the acts they took there - a spoof pop band called the Heebeegeebees - brought an early taste of fame. Their parodies of Status Quo and the Bee Gees made little impression on the British charts, peaking at No 79 ('in with a parachute'), but Down Under they were huge. Their first single, 'Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices', reached No 2. There were radio interviews, chat- shows: 'In Australia, you're on the news just for turning up.' Inevitably, the bubble burst. The follow-up failed to excite even Australian pop pickers: 'The first one went gold, the second went rust.'

Now Deayton is a celebrated newcomer again. Did it seem a long time coming? 'To be honest, yes. You can work in radio for years and no one knows who the hell you are. In a way I was quite happy and resigned to that - it never occurred to me that there was this high-exposure career waiting.' He's making the most of it: no ad-break these days is complete without a laid-back recommendeayton for some car or insurance policy.

As well as Have I Got News for You, he is filming a new run of One Foot in the Grave, and having talks about a new series of KYTV and a new 'presenter- based' show for LWT 'which I'm not allowed to talk about'. All that remains is for Crystal Palace to get back to him.

Comments