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COMEDY / I could have worked with Esther

THE KINGMAKERS OF COMEDY: In the last of our series, Jim White meets Jo hn Lloyd - the kingmaker of British comedy and Don of the television mafia
John Lloyd is presently at home, with several phones ringing. All hours of the day the calls come in: from Los Angeles seeking to persuade him to direct a new movie with Patrick Swayze; from advertising agencies desperate to secure the services of the sharpest director in the business; and, most frequently, from friends of his children's nanny. Lloyd is presently not accepting any of the offers, no matter how sizeable the accompanying cheque. The most in-demand practitioner in British comedy has an ideathat is fully occupying his mind.

"I have spent most of my life working for and on behalf of other people," he said. "I kind of think it's time to do something on my own. Something new. But I can't tell you what it is."

John Lloyd is not a household name. Except in the households of the myriad stars for whom he has been very good news indeed. Researching the genealogy of British comedy in the last 20 years, all branches of the family tree lead back to him: he was there at the beginning of The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, he invented Not the Nine O'Clock News, thought up Spitting Image, is responsible for Blackadder. You know those funny telly ads for Boddingtons beer, Barclaycard and Red Rock Cider? Those are his.And, in the course of doing all that, he has launched more careers than Nasa.

Lloyd's own career began in 1974 when, after studying Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the BBC as a staff writer in the comedy department. His first job was writing sketches for Weekending, the long-running Radio 4 satire show, which he laterproduced.

"A lot of very good people have tried writing for Weekending and hated it. Douglas Adams couldn't do it, Harry Enfield found it too restricting," he said. "Me, though, I loved it."

Indeed, when challenged about whether he is really the kingmaker of British comedy, the Godfather of the television mafia, Lloyd responds that it is BBC radio comedy that is really responsible for all the mirth: starting in radio is still a career path, most recently churning out graduates like Armando Iannuci, Chris Morris and Victor Lewis-Smith.

"Everyone began there, from Douglas Adams through writers like Renwick and Marshall, who did One Foot in the Grave, Hamilton and Jenkin, who did Drop the Dead Donkey, and Rory McGrath and Jimmy Mulville who started Hat Trick, right up to Steve Coogan andPatrick Marber," Lloyd says. "Radio is a brilliant, risk-free way to start. If you start in television the first things you learn are how to make tea and how to keep the studio floor quiet when the cameras roll. On radio you learn immediately that the important things about broadcasting are ideas, scripts and performances. I was reading in Mac User magazine the other day about a new theory called Inverse Techno Crap. This states that the more sophisticated the hardware, the duller the software. Thus you have CD-Rom and what can you do on it? Read recipes. If you want something genuinely imaginative you go lo-tech. And that exactly fits radio."

After working for four years in radio, however, Lloyd was tempted into television, where he invented the most influential comedy shows of the 1980s. The list of those he employed reads like an encyclopaedia of gaggery: Atkinson, Coogan, Elton, Enfield, Fry, Hislop, Jones, Laurie, Mayall, Sessions, Smith, Wax. Was he never tempted, instead of seeing others decorate the pages of Hello! magazine, to have a go himself?

"The time I really wanted to be famous was when I was 27, 28," he remembers (he's now 43). "I had been very good in radio and I felt rather cocky and was up for three jobs. One was to present Afternoon Plus, another was on That's Life to be one of Esther's nancy boys at the back with the hair, and the third was to produce an as yet unnamed comedy sketch show for television. I spent a weekend agonising over which to take and my girlfriend said, `You're mad, there's no choice, do the comedy show.' So I did and it became Not the Nine O'Clock News."

In fact, the closest he ever got to fame was when he acted as chairman for the pilot of Have I Got News for You.

"I'd produced the News Quiz on radio, and Hat Trick, who sit like spiders in the corner of a web waiting for the next fly to emerge from radio, and thought it was a logical progression that I should present it. In the event they decided against me. People say to me, `Aren't you jealous of Angus Deayton's success?' and I can honestly say no. He's miles better than I could be and I have always followed the line of doing what you are good at."

In the last three years, Lloyd has been very good at directing adverts, winning awards and employing a lot of old mates in the process. "There is no better job in the entire universe than being a film director, even on a commercial," he says. "Except being David Attenborough, of course. And it pays enough that you can pursue your own schemes with the rest of your time."

So, what does the kingmaker of British Comedy foresee is the next direction?

"I thought The Day Today and Alan Partridge were absolutely wonderful," he said. "But I'm not sure if it's the beginning of something or the tail end. All that stuff I was involved in in the Eighties was about parody, send-up. Maybe they are just the apotheosis of that, and there is something new that needs to be done." If there is, the chances are it will involve John Lloyd.