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Television: Taking pot luck

Pot Noodle adverts have brought instant success to comedian Peter Baynham, one of the stars of Friday Night Armistice. James Rampton reports
The last time comedian Peter Baynham walked out to perform live, he was greeted by a Pot Noodle landing on the stage next to him. "I thought, `my life is over. Busloads of people are now going to go past throwing Pot Noodles at me'."

This is not a bizarre form of militant comedy protest, but a loving tribute to Terry, the camcorder-obsessed inadequate that Baynham (far right) plays in the Pot Noodle TV ads. Angry Welshman Terry has become a cult hero in bedsits up and down the land. Whenever students are gathered together, the union bar soon echoes to the sound of Terry's catchphrases, such as "too gorgeous" and "tidy". A fan club has been set up under the cod-sinister title of the League Against Fibrous Lies. The makers of Pot Noodle, Golden Wonder, who have seen sales of their product rocket, receive sackloads of fan-mail for Terry, all of which they assiduously answer.

Baynham, brought up in Cardiff, reflects on Terry's genesis. "There's a certain type of Welsh person who'll talk to you about the Severn Bridge and tell you how many acres of steel went into it. That was the springboard for this character... Now Peter York writes that the ads are a postmodern psychological drama. That's why I got into this business," he laughs.

It is ironic that it has taken a moustachioed super-nerd in an advert to propel Baynham to fame. For several years he has worked as an anonymous foot-soldier in Armando Iannucci's all-conquering comedy army. Iannucci has been feted as the producer and co-writer of On the Hour (Radio 4), The Day Today (BBC2), and Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge (Radio 4 and BBC2), as well as the frontman of Saturday Night Armistice. His cohorts Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber, Chris Morris and David Schneider have all been promoted into stars of stage, screen and any other artform you care to mention.

Now, after writing for The Chris Morris Music Show, On the Hour, The Day Today and appearing in Fist of Fun (as "Peter, the stinking 32-year- old Welsh virgin") and Saturday Night Armistice, Baynham is finally stepping out from the ranks and getting the recognition he has long merited. He has come quite a way since joining the merchant navy at the age of 16.

A small man, dressed casually in a green shirt and long blue shorts, he nibbles on a chorizo sandwich in the front garden of the west London church hall where he, Iannucci and Schneider are rehearsing a new series of Friday Night Armistice (a miraculous metamorphosis from Saturday Night). Baynham recalls why he went to sea: "It was the Onedin Line that did it. I had never before been away from home - except on a geography field-trip for three days, when I spent the whole time in tears. I trained as a navigator in the merchant navy, but I was rubbish at it."

"It was a very rough, tough life," he continues. "You sail with scary people, men with so many tattoos, they have to get other people to wear their spares. Once they've covered their exterior, they start on the internal organs. `Look, I've got "mother" tattooed on my kidneys.' It was all very Jacques Brel. I'm quite weedy, and I started to think, `what am I doing here?' I had dreams of doing a nine-to-five job. I used to fantasise about strap-hanging with a briefcase. I'd had an overkill of adventure after too many times waking up on the floor of frightening bars in Malaysia."

So, after five years in the merchant navy, he ran away in 1984 to an office-job, doing tele-sales, in London. Sarah Smith, producer of Friday Night Armistice, sees the navy years as instrumental in Baynham's development. "He doesn't have a comic inheritance. He's got a slight screw loose and an odd way of connecting ideas. But he sparks people off on funny trains of thought."

By 1986, Baynham was moonlighting with Kit Hollerbach's Comedy Improvisation Workshop and performing as a ludicrous Welsh maths teacher called Mr Buckstead. Soon he was following the time-honoured path of writing for Radio 4's Weekending, and his passport description had changed to "comedian."

Friday Night Armistice is ploughing the already well-covered field of topical satire, and Baynham is aware of the dangers of appearing too "in". "We don't want to get into doing material from Page 17 of the Daily Telegraph. Then the programme just looks like a shopping-list and you deflate what you're doing."

He also fights shy of the S-word. "The word `satirist' makes me think of the man in the dicky-bow who casts a wry eye over the papers on breakfast television, or the bits in On the Record where John Cole puts on a lop- sided grin next to a cartoon of Michael Heseltine as Tarzan. We just do comedy with a topical side to it."

The programme has been accused of excessive cleverness - a charge Baynham rejects. "There may have been areas of wordiness in the last series, but we see using florid phrases as just being silly. We don't set out to be clever. To have members of the UN doing Irish dancing - is that clever? I'd say it's a bit daft. With my background, it's funny when people say I'm too clever. All I know how to do is tie knots and lower a lifeboat."

The best jokes in Friday Night Armistice derive from absurd incongruities. The new series promises: "Topside", a boy band hired by the Ministry of Agriculture to boost sales of beef; and the Government's emergency drought measure: a "Let Them Drink Beef" campaign.

"We're not under the illusion that we're going to change the world," Baynham observes. "It's not seriously point-making. But politicians are inherently funny because they've got such a strange job. Anything that marks itself out as serious automatically becomes funny because it's not meant to be funny. It's the humour that comes from men in suits behaving like children. Like when we showed politicians kicking a football around a shopping centre because they had nothing else to do in the summer holidays. Politicians now accept it as part of the job: if you're in politics, people will laugh at you."

`Friday Night Armistice' begins tonight at 10pm on BBC2