Misery loves company

Curmudgeonly comic Jack Dee has finally made the big time. James Rampton reports
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The Independent Culture
TV's Mr Misery looks pretty contented. Jack Dee is in an immaculately- tailored black three-piece, crisp blue shirt with the tie loosened at the neck, leaning back on a plush sofa in the Lanesborough at Hyde Park Corner - the hotel of choice for the discreet celeb about town. He is chomping on a cigar Michael Grade would be proud of and quaffing a more- than-acceptable bottle of Chateau Bel Air 1992. At least he has the good grace to laugh at this image of luxury and say with a big smile that "fame hasn't changed me".

He's here to promote Jack Dee's Saturday Night, his first foray into ITV primetime after a big- money transfer from C4. It's a new, post- alternative version of the variety night, presented with characteristic curmudgeonliness by Dee. He is prepared for a possible backlash against this swim into the mainstream and for cries of "sell-out". "It's what they call the tall poppy syndrome," he says. "You get too big and they knock you down. No doubt there'll be a certain amount of resentment from some people against this show and the status it projects me into, but that's up to them... I hope others will watch the show and think, 'Good for Jack. He's got onto ITV'."

As host, Dee offers the usual quiverful of razor-sharp one-liners, but there's a touch of the Tarbies about his introductions - "One of my favourite all-time acts... I'm delighted they could be on the show." Dee, however, denies that the show is old-fashioned. "I'm very happy to acknowledge that it's not a new format by any means, but my maxim is 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. There's nothing wrong with the format, but there was a lot wrong with the content at one stage."

This is where Jack Dee's Saturday Night scores; it's a canny marriage of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. "The show is reflecting the kind of entertainment people go out to see nowadays," Dee continues. "Be it Stomp or the Chinese State Circus, be it Freddie Starr or me, it's what's going on. It shows there is not that much difference between the best of the new stuff coming through and the most established of the mainstream. They sit very happily together. Freddie Starr and I get on like a house on fire... Why do people keep holding to this idea of mainstream and alternative? Why the conflict? There's a whole new thing happening and it's merging with the best of the mainstream."

Dee himself gained the ultimate badge of mainstream respectability last Saturday, when he won the Top Television Comedy Personality gong at the British Comedy Awards. Not that he was ever that alternative. "I always found myself on the fringe of that," he avers. "Right from the early days, I always aligned myself more with the audience - people who'd come in from work to see a show - than with these comedians wearing campaign T- shirts and doing 'Down with Thatcher' stuff. The whole suit business was born out of that. The audience could see I had a shared experience with them." Indeed, for two years Dee ploughed the comedy circuit while continuing to work in a bar.

The "suit business" did nothing to endear him to the campaign T-shirt- wearers. "They slagged me off behind my back," Dee recalls. "The polite version that people have given me, to spare my feelings, was that I was some kind of radical Nazi trying to infiltrate the new movement. If anyone was bored enough to look through my back catalogue, they'd see I did my fair share of political stuff. I had a lot of fun at the expense of Thatcher. But the difference with me was that I didn't have much time for Kinnock either. I reserve the right to despise all of them. I rather despair of comedians who view any one politican as the saviour, the Messiah. We're in a terrible situation. We've got John Major and the alternative is Tony Blair who's probably going to be the next Prime Minister. We've got to live with that smile for the next four years."

This sort of comment has earned Dee the reputation as the crotchetiest comic this side of Victor Meldrew. (Though, as so often, off-stage Dee couldn't be more friendly). "There was a point early on when I thought, 'I should be more chirpy', but it didn't work out at all," he remembers. "It was only when I relied upon myself as a couldn't-care-less type of character with a take-it-or-leave- it attitude to the delivery that it began to work."

Sullenness has since been the secret of his success - look how well it has played in his "widget" ads. "I've always said you'll never laugh as you laughed in class. I try to recreate that sense of forbidding the audience to laugh which I do through the deadpan delivery. Forbidden laughter is the most precious and the deepest."

'Jack Dee's Saturday Night', Sat 9pm ITV