What's the score?

Matt Lucas - George Dawes on `Shooting Stars' - swaps his babygro for a title in an alternative guide to stately homes
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The Independent Culture
Sir Bernard Chumley is a failed actor dressed in standard-issue luvvie attire of orange wig, purple velvet jacket and bowtie. Conducting a camera crew around Baxter Grange, the former home of Admiral Nelson, he breaks into a rant about Peter Ustinov, who pipped him for the lead in a biopic of Nelson. "It wasn't Nelson. I'm sorry, but it wasn't. Ustinov's fine if you want some sort of comedy Chink or an obese French copper, but he just wasn't Horatio. He's not even an actor, he's just an overweight man who tells stories, and all his impressions are rubbish."

Sir Bernard is a wicked spoof of the innate bitchiness of the acting profession. He is the creation of Matt Lucas, better known as the overgrown baby and score-keeper, George Dawes, on BBC2's Reeves and Mortimer panel game, Shooting Stars. Lucas is particularly tickled that real actors never see anything of themselves in his send-up character, who this week, after several years on the live comedy circuit, makes his TV debut in BBC2's Sir Bernard's Stately Homes.

Almost unrecognisable in a baseball cap and wire-framed glasses in a north London cafe, Lucas chuckles that: "People never see themselves in parody. Actors come up to me and say, `I know lots of people like Sir Bernard', without realising it's actually about them."

The six-part romp has the actor getting into all sorts of difficulties as he attempts to show us round some country piles. "It's a good environment for Sir Bernard," reckons David Walliams, Lucas's co-writer, who also stars as Sir Bernard's hapless sidekick, Anthony. "He is a would-be artistocrat meeting real artistocrats, so there's an inevitable collision there. Sir Bernard is angry he's not an aristocrat, and is trying to pass himself off as one."

Walliams and Lucas trained at the National Youth Theatre, where they gathered reams of material for future use in Sir Bernard's character. According to Lucas, "he is partly based on theatrical raconteurs like Peter Ustinov and Ned Sherrin, as well as those old fruits we used to find ourselves working with in youth theatre. He is also partly based on me," he laughs. "Sir Bernard is a projection of me in five years' time, when we'll be doing this interview in the Garrick over port and cigars."

For all the slapstick, a vein of sadness runs through Sir Bernard's Stately Homes, giving it more depth than your average spoof. "We're interested in characters who are failures," says Walliams. "There's something intriguing about people at their lowest ebb who refuse to admit it."

"Sir Bernard has been very ill treated, and the profession is going to pay," Lucas chips in. "In between acting jobs, he's been a short-order chef, a waiter and a washer-up at the Wimpy in Hemel Hempstead."

Lucas realises he has George Dawes to thank for his current prominence. "George was an unusual character because you'd never know what was going to happen next with him," he reflects. "People used to say to me, `how can you put on that babygro? Don't you feel ridiculous?' I obviously felt ridiculous meeting guests in hospitality in a big pink suit, but once you put it on, you could get away with a lot more because you were clearly not setting yourself up as pompous. If you're subsumed by a character, you're more likely to do extraordinary things. Look at Dame Edna. Barry Humphries would never get away with those insults, but in Edna's voice, criticising someone's curtains is funny."

Lucas is a busy man, with sitcom and sketch-show pilots in the pipeline. He also has plenty of plans for Sir Bernard. "I can see him spreading his drama gospel throughout the country: trying to excavate the Pomegranate Theatre, buried under the Lakeside shopping centre; reenacting plays in Dixons; or leading drama-therapy classes in borstal." But one thing he cannot foresee is revisiting George Dawes: "I don't know how much comedy mileage there is in crawling around on all fours."

`Sir Bernard's Stately Homes' is on BBC2 on Wed at 10.20pm

James Rampton

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