Dennis the menace
Kevin Costner would like to get his hands on Dennis Pennis. So would Hugh Grant. And Madonna. But they'll have to catch him first. Mark Wareham meets the clown prince of the hit-and-run interview
Wednesday 28 February 1996
Dennis Pennis quickly established himself as a cult figure (ie hardly anyone watched telly at midday on a Sunday) on the strength of his improbably brash handling of the planet's rich and famous. Billed as showbiz correspondent for BBC2's The Sunday Show, Pennis became compulsory viewing for, ooh, thousands, as each week he set out to terrorise celebrities at premieres, launches and openings, armed with only a probing microphone, a garish wardrobe and a particularly poor stock of puns.
His shock tactics paid handsome dividends. Hugh Grant told him where to go after Pennis said his acting was on the wooden side, to wit: "In Sirens when you came on, I thought someone threw a chair in the room." Madonna marched out of a press conference when Pennis asked whether she would consider publishing a book of pictures of her internal organs. And Michael Heseltine's office filed an official complaint to the BBC after Pennis jumped him outside a book launch and told him the Tories were "getting more women into Labour than Tony Blair could ever dream possible".
For every hilarious hit there was an equally cringing miss - to Tony Benn: "I saw Michael Portillo with a stain on his trousers. Is this the latest government leak?"; to Clive Anderson: "As a legal man, d'you ever worry you might lose your appeal?" - and it quickly became apparent that whoever was behind this showbiz assassin was as keen to expose his own shortcomings as those of the artificial world of celebrity.
Pennis's origins, judging from his mongrel accent, are far from those of the all-American boy. "I had this American bloke trying to analyse exactly where I was coming from. 'No, don't tell me. There's a bit of Ohio. You've spent time in Denver, but you've also got family in New York.' And it was like, 'Er, nah mate, Clapham'."
Pennis, as it happens, is the alter ego of the very English Paul Kaye, who stumbles into a bar off the Charing Cross Road and lines up a Jack Daniels and Coke. Shock of Johnny Rotten red hair apart, it's not easy to equate the nerdish, four-eyed Pennis with the tousled, slightly startled- looking Kaye.
Prior to Pennis, Kaye was stuck between being an illustrator (for Tottenham Hotspur, despite being an Arsenal fan) and an actor, "so I formed a band and juggled the three of them particularly badly for about seven years."
He announces that Pennis is on the point of leaving for the States to line up a demo-job on the Oscars. Given that by the end of The Sunday Show it had become next to impossible for him to operate in London - PRs would pop up to block his path as he homed in on Sharon Stone - this looks like a good move. Americans have proved ideal cannon fodder for his ludicrous hectoring in the past (to Donald Trump: "Are you aware of a programme called Trumpton? 'Cos you got more dough than Windy Miller."), and a trial LA run last year produced some spectacular hits.
First there was Jean-Claude Van Damme in a reworking of the old Sinatra joke where you ask someone famous to greet you and then ignore them. "I got him to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Hi Dennis, can I speak to you?' and I said, 'Sod off, Jean, I'm busy.' So he whacked me on the head with an Evian bottle. It was reported in the LA Times as 'Van Damme suffers indignity at the hands of rogue BBC reporter', so that was us shut down... temporarily."
Better still was Pennis's hounding of Kevin Costner. "We got him seven times in one day. He didn't believe what was going on. He'd leave a premiere, we'd guess what hotel he was going to and be there before his car turned up. I called him over at the Waterworld premiere and he wasn't stopping for anyone, but I managed to get right in the front, stick my hand out and say, 'I love you, I love you', and he came all the way over to shake my hand and I went [pulls his hand away and thumbs nose], 'Not really.' Pretty irritating in the playground, let alone at the premiere of your new movie.
"He was really livid and his security people were dragging him away from me and he kept coming back. 'Your attitude. You suck, man, you're low- budget, you suck.' And then I go home and I can't sleep, 'cos I think, bleedin' hell, that was Kevin Costner. I really pissed him off.' It doesn't dawn on me until after the event that I've badgered this bastard for 10 hours.
"We got to know one of his security people and found out that he had specifically made a phone call that night to Tom Hanks, who was turning up the following day, to tell him there was this ginger-haired, bespectacled idiot making his life a misery and to watch out for him. What I'd give to have that call on tape. Still, I got Hanks five times. He was much more cheerful though."
The set-up may look cheap - Clive Anderson referred to it as "Through the Keyhole without the budget" - but it can be extraordinarily costly, hanging around for nights on end in the forlorn hope of landing a celebrity with only a few groundless rumours to go on. A two-week visit to the Venice Film Festival netted just seven usable minutes of tape ("though we did get a 38-minute rant from Barbara Windsor").
And then there are his nerves to contend with. Usefully, for one who works in television, Pennis (here in the guise of his creator Kaye) confesses to "crapping himself" in front of the camera. "I've got a real phobia about live TV. The Sunday Show was live, so that was half a Valium before every show. I swore by it. It was like a ritual. Put my badges on and then take my Valium. Some people, like Donna [McPhail] who did the show, come alive in front of the camera. I'm in awe of that. I think it's stand- up that gives you that training which I just don't have."
Prior to The Sunday Show, the one piece of schooling Kaye did receive in the art of live TV came at the hands of Oliver Reed. "It was on The Word, and I was supposed to be this executive producer, and my job was to go into his dressing-room, with this camera hidden in a potted plant, and wind him up. He'd had a couple and he'd already threatened to kill [Mark] Lamarr, when I was thrown into this bearpit.
"There was all this banging and crashing going on, and I went in and said [plummy voice], 'Hello, Larry Farquhar, executive producer, everything OK, Ollie?' and the first thing he said was, 'You're a joke.' So he got me by the throat, and I was thinking, 'It's going OK, at least it's on telly, but they'd already cut away ages before, so I'm getting assaulted by Oliver Reed and it's not even on screen. He shoved me out of the room, and I was with the producer outside thinking, 'Right, OK, it didn't work, nice idea,' and he was going 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Three-two-one. In! In! In!' and shoved me right back in again. It was really scary. I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about that night."
Kaye's chief inspiration for Pennis, apart from his cousin David Pennis ("we used to call him Dennis Pennis just to wind him up... now it's really winding him up"), was the legendary Norman Gunston, an Australian spoof chat-show host last seen in the early Eighties. If Pennis is a celebrity terrorist, then Gunston was a veritable suicide bomber. Not for him the niceties of a teensy run-in with such lightweights as Reed or Van Damme; Gunston went and lined up the big one, lying in wait for Charles Bronson as he left the divorce court. The outcome of that particular death wish was that Gunston lost three teeth and was never heard of again.
Kaye, then, is getting out while he's still relatively alive and young (31, in fact). Pennis is to be killed off in a spoof South Bank Show at the end of the year, though, ever the realist, Kaye's hedging his bets over just how terminal his death may or may not be. "I'll probably do a Reggie Perrin and leave his glasses on a beach or dangling off a cliff. Just in case I can't find any other work."
n 'Anyone for Pennis?' will be released on BBC video on 4 Mar, pounds 9.99
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