He's the biggest thing from Swindon since Diana Dors; but can Mark Lamarr turn surliness into stardom?
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MARK LAMARR starts by warning that this is going to be painful, unlikely to prove a success. He rarely gives interviews, and makes it plain he's agreed to this one in a moment of weakness: "When you asked me, I went, 'Yeah, alright', and ever since then I've thought, 'Why, oh why?' ". He tries to convince himself that something vaguely honourable might still be rescued from the situation. "This bloke from a Bristol university fanzine asked me for an interview at the same time, so I thought if I do one I can do both." It's OK, then, if he can justify it by helping out the students. It's kind of generous, really. Not self-promoting at all.

He was offered lunch and initially accepted, then rang back and said he'd rather not, thanks, as restaurants make him feel uncomfortable. He makes eating out sound faintly eccentric and probably rather decadent. So the meeting is rearranged at the offices of a production company run by his agent.

"The Quentin Tarantino of the comedy circuit", as one producer called him, wears pale chinos and a voluminous battered grey leather jacket, which is presumably part of his Fifties throwback wardrobe; there seems no other possible explanation for it. Even in this safely characterless place, and knowing he's managed to turn the granting of an interview into an act of kindness to students, he still feels ill at ease.

"I'm not a good interviewee," Lamarr says, the cockney accent curious in one who comes from Swindon. "I'm too guarded. Look at me: look at my nails." One does, and reflects that it's amazing he's ever managed to reach them past the Silk Cut. He chain smokes throughout, his body alternately tense and offhand: sometimes hunching forward, sometimes leaning back with his feet on the table. At one point he takes the-too-cool-to-care posture an inch too far and falls off his chair.

Mark Lamarr goes through the motions of being a celebrity, but defensively. He appears on television, highly-paid and famous, looking as though he's hating every minute; he glowered through the entire recent series of Shooting Stars, the Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer vehicle, as if he wished he could be anywhere else. He seems to be always looking over his shoulder at some judgemental group - the rest of the stand-up comedy circuit, maybe, or his coterie of studenty fans - ready to apologise if they think he's selling out.

Now he sits, fag in one hand, Diet Coke in the other, claiming that he'll never be mainstream: "too spiky." And he does look uncompromising: his friends tell him to change his hairstyle, but he carries on greasing it in a rockabilly coiff, using an American product called Blue Magic. And he says prickly, uncompromising things: loudmouth Mark Lamarr, the tabloids call him, because he was so rude to his fellow-presenters on The Word. (He claimed Amanda de Cadenet was the worst presenter ever on television. "It's not controversial," he says now.) Bob Mortimer calls him "the best putdown merchant in the business".

And then he starts talking. And he talks and talks and talks, and answers all the questions, except about his girlfriend - other than to say they've been together two years - and at the end says thank you. He rings up afterwards to say he almost enjoyed it; it felt quite cathartic. Later, when I need to check facts, he calls when he says he will and is unfailingly helpful.

He could hardly be more quietly professional. So why the insistence on being thought difficult? Why the need to deprecate his celebrity? "You know, when you become - I hate to use the word famous," he says, making you wonder why he hates to use the word famous. It's as if he thinks someone will accuse him of getting above himself. It may, however, be something he'll have to learn to live with. He has influential admirers (Jonathan Ross thinks him "dreadfully underused"), he's clever, and he will, inev- itably, have his own show. How he'll deal with this, Lord knows.

Certainly, his anxiety not to seem too caught up by the glamour of being a Personality means he is constantly having to issue qualifications and exculpations. It is as if he needs to reassure himself and anyone who might be listening that he is entitled to what he admits is a "very high moral opinion of myself". He is doubtful about the probity of others - he seems to suspect, for example, that whenever he appears on television, some snooty producer is having him: "I don't like the whole cockney chirpy chappie thing around comedy: the sense that you're the fool who's here to entertain us, that we've paid for a bit of rough to make us laugh with all those funny little thoughts we have in those back streets." From someone who gets recognised in supermarkets and is about to move from grungy Camden to leafy Chiswick, this is a serious chip to be shouldering.

ON STAGE, Mark Lamarr is as caustic as he was on The Word, but less arrogant: acidulous, but with the bile removed by remorseless self-deprecation. He's guarded, and cerebral in the sense that his comedy lacks emotion. But he's funny, as can be seen from tomorrow night at the Comedy Store, where he opens his new club, called Mark Lamarr and Friends. He may look moody, he may have a streak of hostility, but he also has a great, boyish, self-mocking sense of the ridiculous. Paul Ross, his executive producer on The Word, says: "He has that battered and bruised but beautiful face. He's acid and hard, but he can be a buffoon. He's like the fourth Kray brother, the funny one."

Lamarr says he was sarcastic rather than funny at school, and his comedy is edgy with irony and mockery. It's also considerably more eclectic than anyone who knows him only from Shooting Stars might expect. His favourite comedians are Woody Allen and Richard Pryor - "Where you really have to think while you're watching them" - and on stage he tells long, amiable stories, often on a historical theme.

On his Sunday morning radio show on GLR, he can be aggressive with his audience - cutting off callers if they threaten to bore him - but they don't seem to mind. They still phone in. He devoted most of a recent three- hour radio show with Eddie Izzard to a discussion of military tactics, the etymology of the word "berserk", and the number of strings it is possible to have on a guitar: confecting jokes from what looked like unpromising subject-matter, spinning them out of nothing like candy floss.

He broke through into performing early. "When I was 18, Faber and Faber rang me up. I'd written a poem at school about being on the dole - a piss- take of all that 'God, isn't life so dreary...', that disenchanted youth and urban wasteland thing of the early Eighties. They wanted to publish it and said would I come and do some publicity? So I did the press launch. My first week of performing ever, I did three or four TV interviews and a couple of radio interviews. Then the Royal Court rang up and said they'd got this young writers' festival and would I come and read some of my poems. So I thought, 'I'm a poet, yeah, why not?' and did 10 nights at the Royal Court and got reviewed. Pete Townshend, who was one of the editors, said in Time Out that a line of mine was the best in the book. Ian Dury, who was another, wrote me a really nice letter."

Questioned more closely, it turns out he actually sent the poem to Faber and Faber; stories always get better in the telling. His poem is hard to track down now, partly because Hard Lines, the volume of new writing in which it appeared, was published in 1985 and has long been out of print. If you do manage to find a copy, you can search in vain among the verses about muggings, abuse, and old ladies dying in hospital for anything by Mark Lamarr. There is, though, a poem by a Mark Jones: it's called "Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Work".

"I'm the James Dean of the dole queue

You've got to admire my cheek -

Trying to work out how to live fast and die young

On seventeen-fifty a week.

A legend in my own cubicle

All alone, never one of the mob

I'm the James Dean of the dole queue

A rebel without a job."

So he was born Mark Jones, 29 years ago, in Swindon. (He changed his surname in 1985, when he joined Equity). "I think a lot of my worst attitudes and opinions have come from that place. It's a very, very narrow-minded and bitter little town, I think. I don't want to be all London, London, aren't I brilliant for living here, but, in a sense, I do think you end up where you deserve or where you want to be. I think people who live in Swindon probably haven't got that much enthusiasm for life generally."

The Joneses - Mark has four older sisters - lived on a council estate. His father was an odd-job man in a cake factory, his mother a cleaner. "Coming from that background, you don't even imagine you could be a comedian - not only a working-class background, but so far from London: there was no life to it. You know when you're 16 you have to go through these 'What do you want to do with the rest of your life' meetings? I said I wanted to be a journalist, because I can string two words together, and they said, 'Don't you think that's a bit unreasonable? Maybe you should think along more feasible lines: I could definitely get you a job at the local car factory.' That's a true incident. It was all that kind of mentality."

He left Swindon at 17 with five O-levels, having started A-levels but dropped out in favour of moving to London, or at least - "This is really sad: I thought it was London" - Harrow. He spent a year on the dole "hanging out, going to gigs and picking up the odd fifty quid roadying for a DJ".

He plays harmonica and guitar, and began reading the music press when he was 11 "because there was all this swearing on the letters page". In Swindon he played in a skiffle band; in London he wallowed in music. His knowledge is encyclopaedic: he now owns some 10,000 tapes, records and CDs, though for many years he listened only to Fifties records (he plays mostly Sixties songs on his radio show). He was going out buying as soon as the interview was over.

His parents are proud of what's happened to him since he left Swindon - "But if I was on television as Fred West, they'd be like, 'Oh, Mark's on television again.' My mum talks about Shooting Stars at the furniture showroom place where she works, and peo- ple say, 'Oh, your son's famous, isn't he?' and she says: 'No, it just happens to be his job.' So every time I ring her up there's this bit of crowing, but she makes out, 'No, my attitude is, you're my son, and anything you did I'd be proud of.' I say, when I was on the dole, you weren't telling them: 'He signed on last week, you know.' "

IN SEPTEMBER 1992, Lamarr was propelled from the relative obscurity of the stand-up comedy circuit - poems, originally, after the Royal Court debut, then chat between the poems, then just chat - to help launch The Big Breakfast. He did the original outside broadcasts, travelling round the country knocking on Mr and Mrs Ordinary's door and asking if he could bring a llama into their front room, or peering through tower block windows from a crane.

A month later he acquired a night job, as one of the presenters on the third series of The Word, the Channel 4 youth programme which elevated amateurism to an art form. Planet 24, the company part-owned by Bob Geldof, made both The Word and The Big Breakfast. It is some indication of the difficulty of their relationship with Lamarr that their managing director, Charlie Parsons, sent via intermediaries a comment on Lamarr so anodyne as to be embarrassing, along the lines of he-is-a-very-nice-man-and-I- would-work-with-him-again. But then producers who have left the company say that Lamarr once physically pinned Parsons against a wall. "These things get exaggerated," Lamarr says. "There was no physical contact."

If Lamarr is suspicious of celebrity, then it's partly because of his experiences on The Word. "Planet was not a company friendly to 'talent'," says someone who used to work there. "It had a producer-heavy structure, and its output was essentially fascist: the strong laughing at the weak." At its most extreme, this was exemplified by The Word's "hopefuls", members of the public who were prepared to do anything - eat a maggot sandwich, "snog a granny" - as long as it got them on television.

Celebrity guests were also subjected to hidden cameras in the dressing rooms, incoherent interviewing techniques, and the deliberate cultivation of chaos to make the programme look "exciting". It was a bear pit of a show. And it appears that when the producers had a mind to it, the weaklings they humiliated included their own presenters, as if half the point of the show was to make them look dim and unable to cope.

Lamarr hated the hidden cameras, hated the hopefuls, hated the feeling of being exploited. He sulked. He was flagrantly rude to guests and his fellow-presenters. He tried to stand apart from the antics around him and ended up looking foul-tempered. "I'm sure if I watched the show now, all I'd see is a man trying too hard to distance himself. I didn't want to be known as one of these Word people." That was when the "loudmouth Mark Lamarr" stuff started: the tabloids smelt hypocrisy, their favourite justification for a hatchet job. Here was a man disdaining his fame while raking in its rewards.

It was only a matter of time before his hostility boiled over. In the end it happened when the producers turned the hidden camera gag on him. Margi Clarke, who was to be a guest on the show, was persuaded to try to seduce Terry Christian and Mark Lamarr one after the other in her dressing room. The encounters were secretly filmed; it was intended they should be shown without the presenters' prior knowledge.

Lamarr found out; he accidentally overheard a continuity announcement. That morning he'd left The Big Breakfast after six months of touring the country five days a week, getting up at 5am to make jokes on people's doorsteps and hauling over to Teddington for The Word on the sixth day. It was a punishing schedule, made more punishing by the way The Big Breakfast was originally received: "The first day after The Big Breakfast was on, every single paper slagged us off, and I'd never been used to it at all, that sort of attention. It mattered then, having something written about myself in a national newspaper." He'd hardly been home for six months. He was tired out. His friends on the club circuit secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, despised him. According to Jo Brand: "There's a middle- class, lefty ethos on the circuit, and snobbery about doing certain things - children's programmes, adverts. There was quite a bit of sneering when he got The Word."

It wasn't even as if the producers had no idea how he'd react. "I'd said before that I think hidden cameras are harmful, that they're a vile, despicable way to act to people. And if you'd met me you'd know I wasn't an admirer of Margi Clarke. It's an awkward situation: someone's going to be on the show so you're trying to be polite, and they're saying 'Will you sleep with me?' "

Lamarr stormed out. He got as far as his car, thought again, and went back. He claims he changed his mind because the singer Shaun Ryder was on the show "and when we met he was just so - not in awe - but he was so happy that I was interviewing him and he'd just been through a bad time and he didn't want to be interviewed by anyone else."

In the end, the Terry Christian film was transmitted, but not the one of Lamarr. Still, he went back and worked on another series.

A CURIOUS transformation has taken place in perceptions of Lamarr since he appeared on Shooting Stars. "People love me now, and people hated me then, and it's a weird thing. I get reviews saying 'He was so unhappy and grumpy on The Big Breakfast and The Word, but now he's sunny and cheerful and this comes across in his stand-up. I know I was much funnier and more entertaining on The Word than I am on Shooting Stars, but people go, 'The Word, wanker, and Shooting Stars, brilliant'. You have to ignore it all."

The conversion is curious, because on Shooting Stars the joke is that he's in a bad mood; often he does little more than glare. But perhaps audiences detect that he is fundamentally comfortable with the show. Shooting Stars' producer, Alan Mark, says they wanted Lamarr "because we knew he'd understand Vic and Bob totally, but play against it, though in a controllable way. He's a bit maverick, but he's totally produceable."

Keen to be helpful, turns up on time, drives himself home, wants to make the show work... these are some of the other things producers say about him. Though he clearly doesn't want to look like he does, Mark Lamarr would quite like his own chat show. Still, if he's so manageable, so produceable, it is odd that he hasn't yet had the right offer. His friends Jo Brand and Jack Dee both have their own shows; and it's certainly not for want of talent. Jonathan Ross, for whose chat shows Lamarr used to do warm- up in the late Eighties, wanted at one stage to produce him himself in a kind of British version of Larry King Live: "an empty studio, Mark behind a phone, people calling in, guests, a bit of stand-up." Bob Mortimer thinks him "the best non-scripted, ad-libbing-style comedian there is".

So what is it, holding back the tide of offers? "I think people are a little bit frightened of him, to be honest," says Jo Brand.

Maybe, though he was only fierce with me once during the couple of hours I spent with him, when the tape recorder was off and we were talking generally about the ethics of interviews. I said some puerile thing about heads above parapets. "Why does the metaphor have to be from war?" he asked, crushingly: you can see that if you put any project to him, it would have to attain certain standards of critical acceptability. (It may of course be thought a pity he didn't apply more rigorous critical criteria earlier in his career, before agreeing to The Word).

Bob Mortimer thinks the rockabilly image is a bit of a handicap. "I say to him - in a nice, friendly way, of course - that he should change his hairstyle." Lamarr claims it's the only adult haircut he's ever had (he adopted it when he was 13) and he wouldn't know what else to do with it. Jonathan Ross, who has seen him in the shower, says he also has a large rockabilly tattoo of Yogi bear on his back, "and he's completely unapologetic about it." Ross's theory is that Lamarr isn't in favour with the handful of people in power (who presumably remember his bad-tempered demeanour on The Word): "The British TV system doesn't work very well. I find it rather distressing, these people all going the same way: it's like swallows migrating."

Some in television think Lamarr needs to cheer up, stop worrying about teenage cool, "shake off a few cultural cobwebs". In the era of Loaded and the late-night girlie shows, his moral certitude seems unfashionable. And rectitude can be a pain. But it can also be a strength in the cheesy world of celebrity. It certainly gave Lamarr his most famous moment on The Word, when he he asked Shabba Ranks his opinion of the ragga song "Boom, boom, bye bye batty boy," a call to murder gays. Shabba Ranks thought the song was great and that gays should be murdered. Lamarr lost his temper. He says he wishes now he'd been more emollient, like David Frost. But it was very good television. And he was right.

But the good thing about being a bit grand is that you're less likely to end up looking like a prat or a passing fad. And Mark Lamarr is almost certainly in for the long haul. He could well turn out to be the Chinese strongman of comedy, still being accused of being too spiky when he's 70. !