Joking apart

Mark Lamarr presents a serious side as the versatile host of a new big-issue series
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The Independent Culture
BBC2 has commissioned a challenging new series tackling the big issues of the day - crime, drugs and class. And who's hosting it? Jeremy Paxman, perhaps? Or how about Andrew Neil? Er, no. Actually, it's presented by a comedian best known for scowling at Reeves and Mortimer on Shooting Stars, and making jokes about rock stars' hairdos on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. What will they think of next? Jim Davidson and Norman Pace on Question Time? No, that's been done already.

Mark Lamarr, the presenter of the aforementioned show, Mark Lamarr Leaving the 20th Century, does not find it hard to see why comedians appear to be taking over the schedules, hosting everything from talk shows to travelogues. For instance, the stand-up Mark Thomas has presented a show about the refugee crisis, while Rory Bremner contributed to election-night coverage.

"I don't want to sound arrogant, but comedy is the hardest job in showbiz," Lamarr claims. "If you can do comedy, you can do anything - because you can speak to an audience, build a relationship with them and get reactions from them."

Never short of an opinion or two, Lamarr goes on to assert that comedians are preferable to the new breed of glitzy but shallow all-round presenters. "Whether you like me or not, one skill I have is that I can do jokes. Everyone on TV should have some talent. Why employ someone just because they can read? Presenters are now all Sylvia Young School wannabes who can only do two things - face the camera and keep talking. TV is the most important medium of communication in the world, but we're slapped in the face with dimwits. What can we learn from Matthew Kelly?"

Nor does Lamarr believe that "serious" subjects should be off-limits for comics. "With this series, I didn't just want to ask, `where do coat- hangers come from?' Even though my first duty is to jokes, I haven't made light of the subjects."

In the first programme, Lamarr certainly lays into the subject of crime with earnest intent. He is particularly incensed by the glamorisation of criminals such as the Kray Twins. "Don't make them heroes. Fighting a system you believe to be unjust is heroic. Pouring lighter-fuel over a security guard's testicles is cowardly. They're not heroes, they're thieves and murderers, and, as such, I don't want to see them on calendars or T-shirts. I don't want to see Mad Frankie Fraser on Campari ads or chat shows with his tales of senseless violence."

Lamarr is a good choice for such a provocative show - after all, his whole comedy persona is based on provocation. And he is determined to remain part of TV's awkward squad. How could he keep sniping from the margins if he were mired in the mainstream?

"My biggest fear is becoming a celebrity," he says. "I can see it's lovely to have rose petals thrown at you in the street and to get money just for turning up at speedboat events, but it's not for me. The term `celebrity' implies someone who does nothing. When I'm gone, I'd hate people to think about me in the way I think about Gail Porter."

His ambivalence to celebrity may have stemmed from the period when he fronted The Word, the programme which, to many, epitomised all that was most self-indulgent about "yoof TV". Lamarr jokes that he has been glued to the re-runs of The Word currently being shown on Channel 4 every Friday. "I can't tear myself away," he laughs. "Sometimes I left The Word studio thinking `that was a good show'. But nine times out of 10, I'd hang my head in shame and wear a yashmak for a week."

Lamarr does not go out of his way to present a charming face to the world - but perhaps that's what makes him a suitable comedian to host an issue- based show. It works for him, and he seems unlikely to drop the strop.

"Bad comedy is `please like me and I'll be nice for 20 minutes'," he says. "People can hate me - I doubt I'd like myself if I was watching - but I still make them laugh. If I tried to persuade people to like me, then I'd be hosting Stars in Their Eyes."

`Mark Lamarr Leaving the 20th Century' starts on BBC2 tomorrow

James Rampton