The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay

Sunset over beautiful Bolton
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The Independent Culture

Peter Kay has solid claims to be regarded as Britain's most popular comedian, and the advance publicity for this first volume of his memoirs seemed to promise a kind of entry-level Alan Bennett: laser-guided Northern whimsy for a constituency that still fears quiche. Initial impressions of the book itself, however, are less promising.

The combination of meaningless title, gruesome cover - Kay's grinning head clumsily superimposed on a nun's body in a ham-fisted Sound of Music pastiche - and one of the most undistinguished opening lines in the whole undistinguished history of celebrity autobiography ("Ding dong! Was that the doorbell? You can never be too sure") augurs grimly. But, once you've fought your way through the opening paragraph, things soon start to get interesting.

When Kay appears on Parkinson or Jonathan Ross these days, he exudes a certainty of what his audience want from him which is almost despotic. But the persona in which The Sound of Laughter is written (and, unusually for a book of this type - but in keeping with Kay's reputation as something of a control freak - it does appear to be all its author's own work) is more reminiscent of his pre-Phoenix Nights small-screen incarnation: a genial, mild-mannered character whose unusually well-observed contributions used to brighten up those nostalgia shows wherein assorted low-rent talking heads would congratulate themselves for remembering what it was that was amusing about space-hoppers.

The fact that The Sound of Laughter both begins and ends (in this case anxieties about compromising a dramatic dénouement can probably be set on one side) with the arrival of Kay's driving instructor at his parents' house in Bolton, gives you some idea of the overwhelming domesticity of its concerns. But that's not to say there is no narrative arc. Indeed, for all this book's affectations of sketchiness - "Time for a brew I think, and then onwards and upwards to the next chapter", Kay dissembles, in the hope of convincing us the whole thing was written at a single sitting - it actually provides as complete a picture of its subject's world view and creative evolution as any comedian's autobiography I can think of.

The succession of part-time and temporary jobs which filled the years between Kay's scene-stealing performance as the lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz (he brought the house down by cocking his leg on a human tree), and the surprise triumph over Johnny Vegas at 1996's North West Comedian of the Year contest which launched his professional career, reads like a complete showbiz apprenticeship. Whether soaking up the acidic patter of a flamboyant bisexual bingo-caller, befriending the local cinema projectionist ("I'd sit out on his roof terrace sipping tea out of an official Species II cup and watching the sun set over Bolton. It was truly beautiful"), or stewarding at the Manchester Arena he would one day pack out (he saw nine Take That shows out of 10), Kay lost no opportunity to hone his intuitive understanding of the mechanics of popular entertainment.

From his first forays behind the turntables as a school disco DJ - rejoicing in the "faces full of pleasure and satisfaction because of what I'd chosen to play" - to his bold attempt to recreate the Worker's Playtime-inspired camaraderie of a Second World War munitions plant in his first proper job at a paper-products factory owned by the ex-Manchester City and England footballer Francis Lee, the common theme of all these formative experiences seems to be a simple pleasure in helping other people to enjoy themselves. But the level of application be brings to the pursuit of this apparently straightforward objective borders on the forensic.

As a child, Kay's determination to explore "what people say, how they talk over each other, how a conversation can spiral from one subject to another" led him secretly to tape family get-togethers. After a while, his nearest and dearest gave up complaining about being confronted with documentary evidence of their own fallibility, and the cassette-recorder would sit on the table at meal-times. As an adult, Kay's resourcefulness and sharp eye (and ear) for a telling detail have made him at once the most contemporary and the most old-fashioned of comedians: a paradox perfectly embodied by this poetic depiction of shelf-stacking at Ramadan: "The sun had barely set and the warehouse would already be full of Muslim lads pigging out on Mr Kipling's apple and bramble slices."