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You think they're all lads

Every tough-looking, mouthy Cockney bloke is not a hard man, Janie Lawrence discovered. Lee Hurst says no to drinking and doesn't even like football ...

Possibly it's the shaved head. Or maybe it's the huge amount of in-yer- face Cockney attitude. Add to that his taste in shirts and I don't imagine comedian Lee Hurst will be my type of chap at all. On the sports quiz They Think It's All Over he comes across as the mouthiest one, regularly outblokeing the other blokes. So I have him down as a well 'ard character, probably partial to some Saturday night headbutting.

The hunched man who shuffles into the shabby cafe and apologises rather shyly for being late comes as quite a surprise. Eleven years ago Hurst was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative back condition and today is a bad day. It's taken him 20 minutes to walk a five-minute journey. "The pain has gone up in the last year," he says matter of factly. "But I didn't want to take a cab 'cos that would have been a sign of defeat. You've got to be positive and I ain't going to sit here crying about it."

Just as well. Freshly dumped by yet another ingrate of a man, this anguished interviewer had pipped him to the post. My embarrassed and tearful greeting is not some conniving pre-planned strategy, but if the male response to a weeping female is a reliable yardstick of character Lee acquits himself admirably. Cradling his coffee he says all the right things and he really isn't very macho at all. At 35 he has never been married and seems cheerfully resigned to being what he terms a "transitional male". "Over the years I've met women and then when I've cheered them up they go. Once you show any vulnerability that's not what they were there for."

In fact the New Lads would have an impossible task recruiting him. He doesn't drink, giggles rather than guffaws and doesn't like football. So much so he apparently often fails to recognise the guest footballers they have on the programme. "I'm gobbing off on the programme because that's the nature of the show." Indeed it is. Which means that if you find the spectacle of six men engaging in a testosterone love-in then you're obviously one of the millions of viewers who appreciate its laddy bonhomie, puerile schoolboy double entendres and footie highlights. I don't, if only because rarely does a female guest get asked on to discuss the great passes of our time. "There' s this huge gap that's appeared on the women's circuit. A female comic looks up to the next rung and there's nobody there. It means there aren't that many women who can appear on a show like TTIAO," says Lee.

Lee never set out to be a comic. He was brought up in the East End, his father was a docker, and Lee shared a bedroom with his elder sister until he was 11. "We never starved but money was tight. Mum would get me trousers at Christmas and when she asked me what ones I liked best I'd look at the price tag and always say the cheap ones." At the local grammar he and his mates used to read Goon Show scripts at breaktime. After school he went through a stint as a BT telephone engineer, some time at a building society and then after working for the DHSS spent two years collecting his weekly income from them.

His first gig was at the Donmar Warehouse. "I'd never heard of it. I only had four jokes and they were really crap but I told the first one and got a huge laugh. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'This is all right.' " He became the warm-up man for Have I Got News for You until HIGNFY producer Harry Thompson asked him to swap from warm-up to guest. "There aren't many producers who'd do that. He went out on a limb because nobody knew who I was. I had an E1 postcode so TV wasn't best interested."

That appearance prompted one viewer to fire off a letter to a newspaper about him, thinking Lee was yet another one off the Oxbridge production line. "I wasn't flattered at all," he says wrinkling his nose. "I was offended. The fact is that there's a tremendous amount of talent that comes out of there and a tremendous amount of crap. I'm not going to criticise them for it but they shouldn't say it's terrible that people think they have an easier ride when quite clearly they do."

He still lives in Bethnal Green and with the proceeds of his success has bought his parents their flat under the council right-to-buy scheme. He's not even certain that he really wants to stay in television, preferring to do live gigs. His politics too have not altered. He won't speak to any Murdoch-owned newspapers and is unimpressed by the current Labour government. "They're no different - all they did is give Pickfords a job for the day."

These principles are taken to what you might consider the point of foolishness. When he discovered that his back support group was a charity he didn't go back. "I believe it should be provided by the State through taxation. I'd be very hypocritical if I used their facilities when I won't do medical charity benefits." He remains relentlessly upbeat even though the disease has a pretty gloomy prognosis. "The most I look at in advance is a year. In the end it will get to me and I feel I've got a shelf life. So now and again I get depressed but normally I think, bollocks to it."

Is he surprised that he projects such a hard man image? "When someone first said it to me I was shocked," he says bursting into another tinkly giggle. Sometimes, too, a journalist has to admit shock when her preconceptions have been so wrong.

'Lee Hurst Live' is released today on Polygram, pounds 14.99. He is currently on a nationwide tour and a new series of 'They Think It's All Over' begins on Thursday.