Oooh, er, cripes
For Steve Coogan, a part in a children's movie; for Lee Evans, a lead in the new Bruce Willis thriller. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the bloke with the enormous dry-cleaning bills is Britain's hottest comic property. By Jim White
Saturday 27 January 1996
"She takes one look at me, and of course I'm all like, wired," says Evans, recalling the incident by performing a mime of a very wired person. "And she goes, 'Oh dear'. And I says 'What?' And she says, 'Oh dear, I'm sorry'. And I says 'What?' And she says, 'I'm not sure if I can be much use, you need professional help.' It turns out she's running a relaxation class there."
Anyone who has seen Lee Evans on stage would quickly conclude he is well beyond the reach of relaxation classes; limbs defying all known rules of skeletal construction; sweat washing from every pore; face gurning into the sort of pose your mother used to warn you about adopting in case the wind changed, he tumbles around in a Norman Wisdom cast-off suit in the sort of way that suggests major damage is inevitable. Relaxing it isn't: his is the kind of exhibition of clowning perfected by Buster Keaton, a physical tour de force that leaves his audience exhausted and him with one of the biggest dry cleaning bills in Essex.
"There's this Greek bloke in Southend does my cleaning," Evans says. "At one point he refused to clean them: 'Sorry I no clean them anymo', Mr Lee.' Then he came up with this new formula to clean suits that have really had it, make them look fabulous again. And he did it by experimenting on my suits. I go through suits at a terrible rate. See, it's the sweat, it rots the stitches."
Just at the moment, worrying where his next suit is coming from is not a problem for Lee Evans. In 1996 he will undertake the following: a solo stand-up (and fall-down) season in the West End, a one-hour special for ITV, a six-part series for Channel 4 and a six-part series for NBC television in America. Oh, and two Hollywood movies, including one which starts filming in April, directed by Luc Besson and starring Bruce Willis. He is, in short, Britain's hottest comic property, facing the kind of career uptake, he says (adopting a Donald Sinden accent) "that many a thesp would give their right bollock for". Not bad, this, for a lad who when he left school could barely read.
Lee seems to be the comedy name of the moment. There's Lee Cornes, a stalwart of the London circuit; there's Lee Hurst, whose shining pate is the weekly butt, as it were, of Nick Hancock in BBC1's They Think It's All Over; and there's Lee Sharpe, presently something of a joke in Manchester United's midfield. But any suggestion that Evans is a Lee-come-lately is to ignore the long evening of graft that preceded his overnight success. Evans's dad, Dave, was a jobbing entertainer, who played piano, sax and drums on the club circuit in the Sixties and Seventies. Our Lee spent most of his childhood by night sitting in the car outside gigs with a shandy and a packet of crisps and by day flitting from school to school, pulling faces at the back of class in the vain hope of being accepted. When his parents finally settled down, in Southend, he was a teenager and virtually uneducated. So he took himself off to art college in Thurrock (in between getting married at 17 to Heather, who is still his wife), where he found outlet for the thing he was good at: music.
"I was the drummer in a band called the Forgotten Five. And that's what we were: forgotten, big time. We did our own stuff, played places like Shrimpers in Brentwood and the Esplanade Southend and we were crap. Our lead singer snapped at anything. His name was David Salmon. At gigs you'd be drumming away and suddenly you'd hear this 'Boinggg' and you'd turn round and Dave's guitar's wrapped round this bloke's head and the bloke's going 'I never said a thing'. And Dave's going 'You bloody did'. That was nightly. He's a postman now, Dave. He came to see us in Cardiff on the last tour. He could not believe it, there's 3,500 people in this hall and it blew him away. Afterwards he said: 'It's everything we dreamed of as kids. I just never thought, man. Not you Lee.' "
If Dave was surprised, even more astonished would be some of the people who witnessed Evans in his early days as a comedian. Driven by penury into trying his hand at everything (including a spell as assistant to Ted, the spiritualist window dresser for a Southend department store), he spent most nights at talent contests in Essex pubs, doing gags like "My wife's so fat she ain't got measurements, she's got time zones."
"One time I got picked up by this small time agent," Evans recalls. " 'You'd go great in Manchester, you would. You'd smash 'em,' he says. So he put me on this tour of Manchester, Bradford and Bolton working men's clubs. And go smash I did. I'd turn up on stage and the cry would go out: 'Kill 'im'. These were clubs where the cabaret was booked for target practice. Take Liverpool. Liverpool's a comedy city and that was the trouble, I weren't funny. One night this bloke in the audience went 'Oi, come here'. And everyone in the club stopped and it went silent as I walked off the stage towards him. He says: 'You see the way it works here is; joke, punch- line, we laugh.' Then his wife next to him went: 'Yeah, he's right; joke, punch-line, then we laugh.' So I went: 'Easy, easy.' And he went: 'You calling my wife easy?' Next thing he's got me on the floor with his hands round me throat going: 'You twat.' And everyone's going: 'ave 'im Bert, go 'head, eh, do 'im'. I only escaped because the manager got me out through the kitchens."
Like everything he says, this anecdote is accompanied by a furious mime which ends with Evans clutching his own throat, choking while attempting to punch himself on the nose. He is not one to let an experience pass which can be later workshopped up into a comedy routine.
"I can't stop staring at people," he says. "I nearly got beat up at Heathrow last year, I was staring at this bloke and he goes: 'What you staring at.' I said 'No, no, no, I'm not.' But I was. And he went for me. He had this funny twist in his back, see."
And off he goes again, performing a frankly schizophrenic routine in which a man with a funny twist in his back struggling along with a couple of suitcases starts threatening himself: "What you staring at, I'm not. I'll do yah. I'm not. I'll have you. No, stop. Aaargh."
At the end of which, Evans collapses in high-pitched hysterics: "Hurururur. Hurururur. Hurururur."
Undaunted by his Liverpool mauling in the mid-Eighties, Evans decided to try his hand closer to his Southend home, on the London pub circuit.
"This was the time when to be a comedian there meant saying 'Thatcher' and everyone hissing," he says. "Well I used to come on, do my stuff, fall over and that, and you could see the audience just thinking: 'What the bloody hell...' "
From there, it was just a short step to the Edinburgh Festival, the summer feeding ground of the London circuit. An easy option, you would have thought, after the gruelling apprenticeship in Liverpool.
"No, it was difficult in its own way," he says. "You feel you don't belong, because you haven't got the brains. I always feel inadequate, whatever I do. I use that as a motivation, though. I think: how comes I'm not accepted."
After five years of summering in Edinburgh, he finally was accepted, winning the Perrier Award, the annual title for best new comedian which generally comes complete with a fat television contract.
"I couldn't believe I'd won it. I'd never won anything, ever, nothing. And I won it, I mean, it was..." And he performs a mime of an ecstatic person in such a way that you believe it probably was like that for him.
The thing that really projected Lee Evans into the upper reaches, however, was his appearance last year in Peter Chelsom's film Funny Bones. A remarkable piece about the bastard off-spring of a great American stand-up finding himself adopted by a sad family of English end-of-pier comics, it was a cult hit in America.
"Everyone loved it," he says, "but it kind of disappeared just as it was taking off. It doesn't matter to me, because everyone in the industry went and said [adopts a big film-producer style American accent] 'Let's sign the kid up for movies. You wanna do movies kid?' And then what happened was they present you with a script where you're lost in a desert with a dog and you have to look down at the dog and say: 'Will we ever get out of here Charlie?' And you go: 'I ain't doing that.' I turned loads down. About 10 I turned down. But, see, I didn't want to go too big. I'm still learning, the worse thing you can do is set yourself up as something and then die on your arse. When Luc Besson came along, bang, wallop, I'm there. I signed this thing not to say anything about it. But I tell you, Bruce Willis is in it. And the reason I'm doing it is: I'll learn. Next to him, you know, he'll be all [adopts a big Willis-like accent] 'Don't put the camera on me there buddy, the light's bad.' And I'll be all 'Oooh, er, cripes, so that's how to do it'."
"To tell you the truth," he adds, "my pants are full. Up to the brim. That's the way I am. It's like this live show. I've sunk a lot of money into it - eek - I mean I earnt a bit of money last year, what's it for? I don't drink, I don't bird it, so I've decided to spend it on the show."
And spend he has: on props like a piano with a mind of its own, or a set of spinning plates which rotate in slow motion to facilitate a typically surreal sketch about, well, a slow-motion circus plate-spinner.
"See, I'm terrified of failing. It's the West End, I'm terrified of not giving them enough. I'm a bit paranoid about that. It's my biggest drawback, that, I waste a lot of time and money."
After he has concluded a whole performance of a photo session, in which he pulls a thousand faces and strikes a hundred rubber-limbed poses and leaves his audience of two damp with laughing, Evans heads back to his tiny little Soho office.
Walking through Soho with Lee Evans takes a bit of time, what with all the conversations he has with people, the little impromptu performances he gives and the amount of laughing he does. Others with faces made famous by the telly must get stopped by their public, but the difference with Lee Evans is, it's him doing the stopping. "All right mate, how you doing?" he asks a rather bemused youth in a Russian hat before shaking him by the hand; "Fanks mate, appreciate it," he says to a business man who let him pass through a narrow bit of the pavement; and "Ere that's a fantastic laugh, do it again, go on, go on," he says to a giggly teenage girl, who duly obliges by giggling uncontrollably.
"That's lovely, that is," he says as he walks on. "What a smashing laugh, eh?"
At the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1 5 Feb-16 Mar
Booking: 0171-494 5048
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