"I’m Banksy" Kevin Eldon confesses halfway through our interview. So that's one cause célèbre cleared up, then. Well that, or a slightly flummoxed funnyman is treating my deeply teen mag-style question “What’s the most interesting thing about you that no-one knows?” with the silliness it deserves.
Still, if Eldon isn’t quite the international man of mystery, then his career has thrived on anonymity. He has, after all, given memorable performances in approximately 63 per cent of great British TV comedies over the past two decades. From Alan Partridge to Black Books and Brass Eye to Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle: you name it, he's stolen scenes in it. And yet while he has acquired a cult status among hardcore comedy fans, most people would struggle to put a name to the malleable face. Which is just the way he’s always liked it. “It wasn’t my ambition to have my name in lights,” he says.
Except now his name is illuminated – or rather spelled out in big block capitals and strewn with confetti, which seems a close enough small-screen equivalent. That’s thanks to the title credits of It’s Kevin; his own headline, six-part sketch show, it’s the culmination of a three year purple patch that has seen the hallowed supporting player finally move centre stage via acclaimed solo stand-up and Radio 4 shows. It’s also destined to make you honk like a dyspeptic donkey.
At 53 years old, it seems, Eldon is the next big thing – indeed, he chortles over a recent magazine piece which listed him among its “ones to watch” (“alongside four other people definitely old enough to be my children”, he quips). And how to account for this mid-life career ascent? “In 1978, I was wearing white flares, I didn’t start doing stand-up until I was thirty and I became a dad last year…for some reason I just seem to come to everything late,” he muses puzzledly.
In any case, age seems irrelevant to his giddy craft. When It's Kevin was announced last year, the press release saw Eldon express his joy in idiosyncratic terms. "I have always liked chaffinches,” he maintained. “The money I may receive from this show may well allow me to buy more pictures of [them]." And, duly, the show is gloriously bird-brained stuff, eschewing topicality or pop-culture parody in favour of unfettered, timeless surrealism. Think Hitler with the voice of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, fly psychiatry and a disquisition on sandwiches.
To reference the title of his 2010 stage show, Eldon’s comedy is primarily a matter of “titting about.” “It's horribly predictable but what I grew up with is Monty Python and what I liked about their thing was the fact that they didn’t seem to have any rules. Wanton silliness for the sake of silliness…that’s always stuck with me.”
Not that Eldon was always set for a life of clowning around. In his teens and twenties, he had designs on being a rock star and, as frontman of band Virginia Doesn’t, supported Joe Jackson and The Jam. He remembers those days with a mixture of fondness and embarrassment. “Musically [the songs] still sound great, but what let them down were my sub-Weller lyrics…they were terribly earnest: [things like] “I look around at my everyday/looks like bombs and strikes are here to stay/the hate and malice of the people around/are bringing me down.” Another two band incarnations followed, before he finally called time on his music career with the arrival of the New Romantics. “I wore a rugby top and a pair of old filthy trousers with the crotch split so I wasn't really going to get on.”
Next came a stint at a drama school and a standard issue of period of thespian destitution. Then, in the early Nineties, frustrated and wanting take a more active role in his career, he made his way onto the comedy circuit with a character he had devised, dribbling anorak Kevin Boyle. “As soon as I started doing stand-up, I felt these are my people,” he says. Those people included young turks Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, who gave him his big TV break with a couple of prime roles in their debut BBC show, Fist of Fun: that of “king of hobbies” Simon Quinlank and the fake Rod Hull. They also branded him “The Actor Kevin Eldon,” a prefix still lovingly bandied around on Twitter when referring to him eighteen years on.
Joke that it is, however, it also hints at the versatility that has allowed him such a prolific CV. Meanwhile the respect with which he is held by his peers is clear from It’s Kevin’s roll-call of guest stars: Julia Davis, Adam Buxton, Simon Munnery, Amelia Bullmore and Bill Bailey, to name but some.
Indeed, it’s clear Eldon is very much a company man – he’s at pains to emphasise the collaborative nature of It’s Kevin and the creative input of other writers. He also says his decade-plus long absence from solo work was driven by a mixture of “laziness and a certain amount of cowardice…if you’re hiding in someone else’s shows and it goes wrong, then that’s ok, you were only taking orders.”
He’s also used to hiding in characters. With It’s Kevin, he says, he initially struggled with the connecting segments in which he wanders about a blank studio, essentially being himself. “The big difference from the radio show is that when I was speaking as myself [on that], I adopted a slightly uneasy persona, which I hadn’t noticed I was doing…it sounded like a substandard children’s presenter.”
Off-screen as well as on, meanwhile, it’s clear he’s not a natural at self-exposure. The show’s producer sits in on our interview, to give him confidence, I am told. As it happens, he doesn’t seem nervous, just a bit bemused by the promo process: “I don’t like talking about myself….it’s boring for me and boring for other people, but, you know, I’ll do it, because maybe I should be more at ease with it.” He cursorily lists off the bare facts of his personal life – lives in North London, girlfriend of seven years, daughter – as if answering a census. One interesting biographical detail is that he is a twenty three year-long Buddhist. “It’s about ritualised positive thinking - trying to daily turn all that negativity in life around into good stuff…and when, a show gets cancelled, passionately banging the person-who-cancelled-it’s head against the door,” he quips.
Indeed, on the basis of It’s Kevin first two episodes, you’d have to say that any commissioner who didn’t support it to the hilt should be frogmarched out of Broadcasting House forthwith – one critic has already tweeted it is “the funniest thing I've seen in probably three and a half years.” Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how it fares within the cosy enclave of the Sunday night schedules, up against David Suchet pootling about in a documentary series on Agatha Christie.
What is clear is that is that its sense of creative abandon feels all too rare in the TV comedy landscape. But though Eldon has been caustic on such matters in the past – his stand-up show featured a brilliant impersonation of Michael McIntyre - today he is more sanguine. “I was being a bit naughty….observational comedy can be brilliant, but I would argue if it just becomes describing something you do, one ought to work a bit harder…but a lot of people like that and find that reassuring” he says, doubling back, with a only a hint of sarcasm in this voice.
Meanwhile Eldon himself will continue to amuse and bemuse in equal measure – he’s currently writing a mock-biography of one of his old characters, poet Paul Hamilton, and a sitcom pilot set in a homeless drop-in centre. And then what about those chaffinch portraits? “I’ve got scouts out around various chaffinecheries..and there is a chaffinchalogue being drawn up. I’ll spend up to £9000 on chaffinch-related objects,” he says, with some specificity.
It’s Kevin begins 10.30pm, Sunday 17th March on BBC2