Rory McGrath: don't call me New Lad

W hen BT was looking for someone to front its TV ads after Bob Hoskins, whom did they turn to? Another Hollywood bigshot? Tom Cruise, maybe? Or Demi Moore? Er, no actually, they went for a hairy British comedian, perhaps most celebrated for making near-the-knuckle jokes about Gary Lineker.

It is a measure of Rory McGrath's stature that he was the man deemed best suited to fill Hoskins' thick-necked shirts on the commercials. And it's all down to his starring role as a panellist on They Think It's All Over, the jokey BBC1 sports quiz that has been netting up to 13m viewers a week. Peter Fincham, the executive producer of the show and a close friend of McGrath's since they met at Cambridge more than 20 years ago, reckons that "Rory wouldn't have got that BT commercial a year ago. Now we all slightly resent him for it. I think the ads are wonderful - and you can take that as a put- down."

According to Harry Thompson, the producer of They Think It's All Over, the transformation in McGrath's fortunes can be attributed to the fact that he has finally found the right vehicle for his talents. "Rory is a very subversive influence," says Thompson. "For years, people used him as a presenter on shows like Word In Your Era, Trivial Pursuit and Right to Reply. But put Rory in a suit and tie and he looks shiftier than a second-hand car salesman. He should be right on the end of a panel saying faintly unpleasant things. Panel games are like soap operas - everyone's playing a part. We tried everyone beforehand in different roles. It's not an accident that they complement each other. Rory should not agree to present anything again."

Fincham concurs that McGrath, now 40, is more at ease in a shirt-and- jeans role. "He's spontaneously funny. He's not someone who has a grand concept of comedy; his talent is very natural. He's not a grafter - and I'm sure he wouldn't disagree with that. He's done sketch-shows where he has to act - but acting is not his forte. He was the second worst actor in the Cambridge Footlights after Clive Anderson - though Clive could be quite funny if you put him in a wig and a dress. Rory's presented one or two shows which have been fine. But he's more comfortable, in footballing terms, playing a wide role on the wing."

Appealingly down-to-earth, McGrath himself says that the secret of his success is not complicated. "What I do doesn't feel difficult because it's just being me. I can't be bothered with the burden of putting on a persona."

Not everyone is a fully paid-up member of the fan club, however. One newspaper critic last weekend complained about the rudeness of They Think It's All Over. Unwinding in his dressing-room after a recording, McGrath sups from a bottle of Budweiser, strumming occasionally on his guitar.

The criticisms, he thinks, are part of a tedious, politically correct assault on New Lads. "I get fed up with the laddish tag. There's something sneering and envious about it. The show has got mass appeal. I don't want to say it appeals to the proletariat - that sounds too Marxist. But it appeals to pub and football people. I walk into pubs now and the reaction's staggering - 'What's Gary like?' People are excited by the rudeness."

Rudeness also plays a part in McGrath's other current venture - a spoof country and western band called Death by Country, who release a cover of "Rawhide" next month. At a concert last week, three songs in a row ended with a reference to oral sex. "There is a lot of sex," he concedes. "But country is about relationships, and our songs debunk the ethic of country, which is schmaltzy and down-home."

Death by Country, however, remains just a bit on the side. "Most television is work, work, but the band is a borderline hobby. If the single stiffed at No. 480, there wouldn't be so much riding on it and it would still have been good fun."

Ironically, McGrath may continue to be successful precisely because he appears so uninterested in the very idea of success. "Rory wouldn't like the notion of fulfilling your potential," Fincham maintains. "That sounds like getting the best grades at A-Level. In the younger generation of comedians, there's a more careerist ethos. You don't sense that with Rory. One of the great things about him is that if he has a career plan, he's kept it very well hidden. Even his best friends don't know what it is."

McGrath confirms this. "I take my career on a daily basis. I wake up in the morning and say, 'Have I got a career today?'."

'They Think It's All Over' Thur BBC1; Death by Country on tour to 23 Nov, live video released next month