Edinburgh Festival Day 11: Portrait of a neraly man: Paul Merton, Tony Slattery, Josie Lawrence, Neil Mullarkey: Neil Mullarkey? Who? Very close to being somebbody, that's who. Tristan Davies met him

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This town is full of would-be-goods, should-be-goods and once-were-goods making their annual play for the big time. The most optimistic players in the fame game (Light Entertainment Division) are the Nearly Men, those who who have served their apprenticeships in the arts centres, the comedy clubs and the festivals, who have done their bit parts in television and radio and who are stars in all but name.

If they gave gongs to Nearly Men, then Neil Mullarkey would be awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, with oak leaf cluster. Mullarkey is here once again, putting his amazing dancing eyebrows and preoccupation with old television shows to good use in I am Not a Number, his playful spoof of The Prisoner. His play last year, Memoirs of Lord Naughty, tickled the critics: the Guardian described it as "awfully British, horrifically puerile and terribly amusing", while the Scotsman went as far as "a masterpiece of the theatre of the comic-absurd" (and perhaps rather unhelpfully adding "Camus didn't say it all; he was waiting for Mullarkey", but then such is the way with reviews at Festival time). But, while I am Not a Number is doing reasonable box-office at the Hill Street Theatre, they're turning them away in droves for his performance in the Comedy Store Players at The George Square Theatre.

Well, maybe not just for his performance. Mullarkey may have co-founded the now hugely sucessful band of improvisers (bi-weekly sell-outs at the London Comedy Store, two national tours to date), but it is Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence and Tony Slattery who cause the queues round the block. Their regular appearances on the television version of the show, Whose Line is it Anyway, gave each of them a leg up the ladder towards TV Heaven, and while Slattery and Lawrence balance a little precariously half-way up and Merton seemingly effortlessly keeps his balance at the top, Mullarkey, with a paltry single appearance in the second series, is left with his foot hovering over the bottom rung.

Mullarkey has got used to watching his friends pass him on the way up. He was at Cambridge with Morwenna Banks (Absolutely, now in Los Angeles making her own sitcom), Chris England (co-writer of An Evening with Gary Lineker) and David Tyler (comedy producer, The Paul Merton Show included). He followed Tony Slattery into the Presidency of the Footlights. Since Cambridge he has shown a rare talent for picking partners more famous than himself. The Myers of Mullarkey & Myers, darlings of the early Eighties cabaret circuit and Edinburgh Festivals past, is now the Mike Myers of Wayne's World fame and fortune. The Hancock of Mullarkey & Hancock, the Cambridge friend who continued the Mullarkey line in parodies of TV trailers and the lionisation of John Noakes, is Nick Hancock, star of An Evening with Gary Lineker. The Brook of Mullarkey & Brook, a partnership for better or worse until death do them part, is his wife Irene Brook, actress daughter of the more famous Peter (they met while he was playing Algernon to her Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, "we got off in the play and in real life").

For a moment he was in danger of becoming comedy's answer to The Spectator's Taki, with a couple of newspaper articles that might have formed the basis for a column entitled "Some of My Best Friends are Famous". "This is the second article I've written for the Guardian," he wrote in November of last year. "The first was about how it felt not to have had a dollars 150 million hit film, Wayne's World. This time it's about how it feels not to be in Peter's Friends, since I was in the Cambridge Footlights with some of its cast. Watch this space for how I feel about being excluded from the new blockbuster, The Neil Mullarkey Story."

You would expect him to put a brave face on it. But it can't be fun bit-parting here and there as an auctioneer (Lovejoy), an accountant (The Manageress) and a waiter (Leon the Pig Farmer) while your contemporaries are carving up television and cutting themselves small pieces of Hollywood. He claims to be horrified by what has happened to Paul Merton ("He likes going to the pub, but you just can't when you're that famous") and Mike Myers ("He's surrounded by assistants and spends his time explaining why he won't endorse Wayne's World bubble gum"). His low visibility is an advantage, he says, with the Comedy Store Players. "They cheer Josie, Tony and Paul and then I come on. . . I have nothing to lose. . . but they expect the 'celebs' to be funny straight away. By the end they like me as well, and I really feel I've been up there."

His parents do not share his lack of concern. "My dad worries about me all the time. He says 'Why aren't you on the radio more often. . . Paul Merton and Tony Slattery are'." His mum would tell you that her boy is funny, charming, clever, talented and good looking, and she is right. Perhaps he suffers from an extreme and debilitating form of Michael Palin syndrome, that he is too nice to make it on his own. Perhaps he simply needs more time: he bides it secure in the knowledge that Angus Deayton was 37 before he shook off the Heebeegeebees and his role of Rowan Atkinson's dumb sidekick. Perhaps he is simply a star among the shooting stars of an exceptional generation.

Or maybe he's just not good enough. No-one will say, but there must be a reason why Whose Line Is it Anyway? decided after only one appearance that it wasn't to be his. Improvised comedy is a team sport, and Mullarkey is the perfect team player. That he is the Steve Bruce of his side rather than the Eric Cantona may explain his lack of exposure as a performer.

As a writer, however, his long association with championship teams is beginning to pay off. Producers in this country may continue to overlook him (and I am Not a Number, for all its great sight-gags is not likely to be the big one), but Hollywood is calling and Mullarkey and Myers are once again on line. One phone call and Mullarkey was in Los Angeles to rewrite I Married an Axe Murderer, Myers' follow-up to Wayne's World. That completed, Mullarkey awaits news on his second draft for another Mike Myers project for Fox, a remake of Laurel and Hardy's March of the Wooden Soldiers. Perhaps, after all, his low profile as a performer will turn to his advantage as a writer, but he has no plans to give up the night jobs no matter how near it could bring him to success.

For one thing, "success isn't just about fame and money. I'm working, I'm happy. I'm doing what I want to do. I'm writing, auditioning, working with different people. Success is about picking and choosing what you want to do. And I can see that somewhere on the horizon. Eventually." And for another, Hollywood is another town full of would-be-goods, should-be-goods and once-were-goods. A legal wrangle over the writer's billing for I Married an Axe Murderer means that although the final script is "85 per cent" his, the name Mullarkey will not make it on to the silver screen. It's the story of his life: Nearly Man never gets the credit he deserves.

(Photograph omitted)