Martin Clunes, Britain's number one lad

Now the star of 'Men Behaving Badly' wants to grow up. Photographs by Jillian Edelstein
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The Independent Culture
"It's for my wife - would you mind?" asked the man in the restaurant, waving a piece of paper as Martin Clunes prepared to leave. "If you could just put, 'To Margaret, with love from Neil'." Mr Clunes does what he is bidden with a flourish. Although he could forgiveably be enraged that his rather unmistakable features have been confused with those of his on-screen buddy, Neil Morrissey, he shows no flicker of annoyance. He is, indeed, all smiles, radiating charm and attentiveness to a seraglio of young women from Waterstones who have been lunching him to celebrate a new role. He is to preside over an initiative by the Terence Higgins Trust, the Aids charity, in setting up and judging a writing competition called "It Must be Love" with the bookselling chain. Why did he think they'd asked him? "Because I'm on the telly." But so is Des Lynam and they didn't ask him. "Yeah, I wasn't at all sure about it. I knew the papers would be full of, you know, "Virus Behaving Badly" and "Men Behaving Terence-Higginly", and they said they didn't mind."

Becoming a charity celeb is something new for Clunes, whose previous philanthropic work has been confined to the Born Free Foundation (about saving lion cubs), run by Virginia McKenna, whom he directed in his 1994 movie, Staggered. It marks a departure for a man best known as the lager- swilling, idiot-dancing, hopelessly sexist, craven, unheroic and unreconstructedly laddish Gary Strang in Men Behaving Badly, the BBC sitcom which has now taken over from Absolutely Fabulous as the nation's favourite sitcom.

By some odd fate, however, Clunes's personal reputation is currently in the doghouse. There seems to have been a virtual campaign to blacken his name. He was nicked by the police for driving under the influence and lost his licence; last year he collected a British Comedy Award for Best Actor with the on-stage ejaculation "Oh f*** it!"; he appeared on the cover of Loaded magazine, the bible of the modern naughty-boy movement; he was widely reported as saying, in an interview, that he expected to hear "the F-word" on children's television in 10 years time. And only last week, Men Behaving was denounced in the House of Commons for its supposed encouragement of oiky youths to drink and drive.

Clunes is gloomily philosophical about it all. "Yeah, I know. I've become Chairman of the National Lobby for More Swearing in Children's Programmes. Did you see the original piece in Radio Times? I was saying that, 10 years ago, there were words I wasn't allowed to say in television programmes and now I am, and how we can look back at what we weren't allowed to do and it's... laughable. As an ironic footnote, I said, They'll probably be saying "fuck" on children's TV in 10 years from now. Well, I stand by what I said, but I'm not campaigning for it. And then you get these reactionary old farts writing about how I'm a rapist."

Not quite. Lynda Lee-Porter, writing in the Daily Mail, said that the four-letter words Clunes seemed so keen on always "lead to violent action... Every battered wife is initially subjected to a torrent of vile abuse". "I mean, Jesus," says Clunes. "You think, 'Do you get out much, love? How about a bit of travel?'" He objects to having columnists like Ms Lee- Porter and Alan Coren tell him about the power of words. "'Oh, fuck off,' is my response. I mean, I see their point, I trade in words, I'm an actor. But, I mean - the expression 'rock 'n' roll' is American black slang for the same thing, and it's on children's television."

What did he make of his other non-broad-minded assailant, the MP with the drink-driving bug? "Yeah, this MP - I wonder, does he have any views about the gun laws, for instance?" Did he feel the corruption of youth was a heavy cross to bear? "We've never actually done drinking and driving. Maybe we should. But what these politicians and others forget is that the show isn't called Men Behaving As They Ought To."

It's not as if, I pointed out helpfully, it's called Men Behaving Illegally, either. "Well, no, to my annoyance. I often say, 'Look, why aren't we taking drugs in this programme?' But that's regarded as dangerous territory" - by the show's producer, who bears the wonderfully appropriate name of Beryl Vertue. In fact, it's a central paradox of Men Behaving Badly that a programme which is so apparently unbuttoned and priapic, so wild and icon-busting, is actually unable to do lots of things. Being a comedy, it can't show the really gross underbelly of maleness (puking, peeing in the sink, masturbation) without turning off its audience, who only want Mssrs Clunes and Morrissey to be sweetly incorrigible. Nor can it suddenly allow the real world of responsibility to intrude by, for instance, letting Dorothy, his screen girlfriend, get pregnant.

"Funny you should say that," said Clunes. "At the end of the fourth series, Tony slept with Dorothy, and I suggested, at the start of the fifth, wouldn't it be great if we found out Dorothy was pregnant and we had a whose-is- it dilemma running through the series, until right at the end, when she gives birth to an Asian baby. But they wouldn't have that, either. They want to keep the status quo, you see, no change, so Tony's still chasing Deborah upstairs."

Did he think it should grow up a bit? "I think it should move on. I think it got better and better in the fourth series, which coincided with everybody knowing where it was and what it was, and [he adopts voice of camp LA choreographer] I think we plateau-ed a bit too soon. It's becoming a little bit silly, whereas the big thing was keeping it ugly. That was my intention for it, to Keep it Ugly."

Ugliness and Mr Clunes have often turned in the same sentence. Several critics and profilers have remarked disobligingly on his curious physiognomy, his burns-victim lips and condor-wing ears and huge, exophthalmic gaze. Meeting him in person, however, you're more struck by the size (6'3") and shambolic mateyness, as he sips Coca-Cola and smokes Kent and laughs his slightly forced laugh. There's something vulnerable and sad about his damaged-cherub face on the top of that burly frame, which may account for the number of women who wish to mother him. He is very good at looking hurt.

There's also a prickly side to him, concealed behind a well-mannered exterior. He is weary, for example, of being asked how he enjoys being a sex symbol. "Journalists say it about anyone on the telly, don't they? And they only say it about ugly people on the telly. I'm being quite realistic. You should see the sad arses who write to me. Neil takes care of the sex- symbol stuff. He gets the soiled-undies mail. I just get Roneoed requests for autographs, with "Martin" written in Biro on a dotted line."

The son of the actor Alex Clunes (who took over from Rex Harrison in the London stage version of My Fair Lady and can be seen in the film of Olivier's Richard III) he also disdains "the cape and cane brigade" of self-important ack-torrs; but woe betide you if you miss the fact that he's won Best Actor in the Comedy Awards for the last two years ("Let's get the gongs right, shall we?")

In the best modern manner, he is wary of sounding pretentious or earnest, preferring to retreat behind non-combatant postures.

One notable thing about Men Behaving Badly is its almost weekly litany of Things That Men Do or Things That Women Say. Did he have his own view of the sex divide? As far as I could see (I ventured) the only difference between the sexes is that women never play air guitar and men never use the word "fabric". What did he think was the difference? "Thrush," he said immediately. "And the application of natural yoghurt thereto - but really I don't know that I care, I was brought up by women [his father died when he was eight]. I have no appreciation of football or any competitive sport. I don't dislike it. I enjoy other people's enthusiasm. I quite like watching tennis, but I don't care who wins. It's a lack, I know, but I find confrontation very difficult, and likewise competition, I'm very passive."

But you're a big bloke, Martin, I said, you must have been sporty at school. "Yes, but they push you at school to compete, don't they? And I never did that well at school, so perhaps that's why I have an aversion to competition." Didn't he feel competitive about acting? When it came to gongs, for instance? "Yes, but you don't get in starting blocks with acting - you just do what you do. Comedians are different. They're very competitive with each other. It's unavoidable - you only get one Harry Enfield, but you get loads of actors."

He was born in Wimbledon in 1961. His mother, Daphne, still lives and runs an antique shop in the white house beside the common where young Martin first emerged. It was a happy childhood, "mostly spent up trees. We used to sit up there and smoke fags. It was a great place to grow up."

Mr Clunes and I compared notes about the pubs around Wimbledon Village, near where I went to school. "Yeah, lots of pub action, the Swan, the Castle. I drove past the Hand in Hand the other day, and some kids were sat outside on the grass, with a ghetto blaster. When I used to do that, it was a guitar." He glanced at the two or three tiny flecks of grey in my hair. "Probably a lute in your day, was it?"

The amusing Mr Clunes had an adolescence of concentrated embarrassments. He went around in huge flares that became suddenly redundant when punk came to London in 1976. Did he take to punk? "Yeah, I liked the outfits. With the application of a little gel, judiciously applied, you got that sticky-up-around-the-sidey business. Drainpipes, black trousers, little tiny thin knot in your tie, perhaps a safety pin through it. Oh yeah, I was there. I spat at Souxsie and the Banshees." At 16, sex brought traumas that were "a constant source of torture". Did he trawl its memories for Men Behaving Badly? "Not as much as I should, perhaps, but I can't really remember much, beyond that desperate urge to Get Off. That whole," he shuddered, "finger issue." He joined the Arts Educational Drama College and by 19 was making threatening eye-contact with Doctor Who, clad in a villainous blue satin dress. He's done Shakespeare, including a finely- received Mark Antony, started a theatre company, directed a movie at a modest profit, won an Edinburgh Fringe award, picked and chosen television ads (yes to a pizza chain, no to a beer commercial, despite the pounds 650,000 he was offered for it). He now earns pounds 15,000 a show, as do his three co- stars. Like Billericay Dickie, he is doing very well.

But he knows it can't last. If he wanted a memento mori to remind him of the shallowness of media fortune, it's there in the collapse of his new film project, Tourist Trap, which recently foundered when its American backers pulled out. "This whole film finance thing is so... flaky," he said with exasperation. "Bloody hell - we had Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Lloyd, Griff Rhys Jones, Bill Owen, music by Jools Holland - what more do they want?" Undaunted, he has started a production of his own, "to develop things that I want to do". It means following his own quirky enthusiasm for, among other things, books. "I spent the last weekend in Ireland with J P Donleavy," he said proudly. "I've been trying to buy the television rights to his book The Onion Eaters, which I love. After years of saying, No no no, it's the big screen for me, I've gone back to believing in the telly."

Time to go. A PR lady has appeared to make sure he gets safely to the GLR studio in 20 minutes. He drains his Coke, shrugs on his denim jacket, achieves his full gawky height and fishes in his breast pocket for something. "Erm, Kirsty," he says, in Gary's wheedling tones, "I still haven't put that button on my shirt. You couldn't just...? And the incorrigible battered cherub, the 35-year-old Mummy's boy, is off again