I first meet Alan Carr at a London photographic studio, where he is doing a round of interviews to promote his new TV show – Celebrity Ding Dong, a game show in which celebrities battle it out against non-celebrities – but our time is so short we agree to meet up again the following day. This time it's at his house, which is handily on the next road to my house, in an area north London estate agents like to call "Crouch End Borders". That's certainly how Alan's place was sold to Alan. "Crouch End Borders, they said, but when I bought my washing machine from Argos they told me I was in north Holloway. I was devastated."Well, your road might be north Holloway, but mine is definitely Crouch End Borders," I say. "Ask anyone. Ask Argos. Although either way, you do realise that Crouch End Proper spits on us, don't you?"
He does, he says. We discuss all the celebrities who now live in Crouch End Proper. He says he is always seeing "that bloke from EastEnders... Minty?" I say that sometimes I haven't been able to move in Dunns (the bakers) for Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi. He says: "Or it's people from Doctors and Crossroads. It's like walking through a back issue of OK! magazine." He adores the silliness of celebrity. "The most hilarious thing I've seen recently was when that Kerry Katona was held at knifepoint and she was in a magazine talking about her harrowing ordeal and afterwards it said: "Kerry is wearing a dress from Marks & Spencer, £19.99." He now wonders why they didn't add: "Knife from B&Q, £11.99." I laugh. Why wouldn't I? He is wonderfully funny, and I say that as someone who lives in Crouch End Borders, and wouldn't normally have anything to do with someone from north Holloway at all.
Anyway, he'd earlier texted me his house number, adding a helpful "it's the red door" although when I arrive the door isn't "red" as it is very obviously "plum". (And you call yourself gay, Alan!) I have bought my 14-week-old Labradoodle puppy, Monty, as requested, because Alan is thinking of getting a puppy. Monty is extremely well behaved – "Don't blame them, train them!" – for almost four seconds, but then grabs a pot plant by its leaves and races around with it, pot and all, furiously shaking his head. Alan has only recently moved in and it's all creamy rugs and creamy sofas (Habitat, I'm guessing) and now there are clods of earth flying. Alan chases him, joyously rather than angrily. "Ohh, you little rascal, you little rascal," he shrieks. He is blissfully camp; has even been described as the spiritual son of Frankie Howerd. (Alan, that is, not Monty, whose father was a totally straight Poodle with no interest in Cher.) I ask Alan how he would define camp. He thinks it's about magnifying the inconsequential. "A camp person will stay in a B&B in Basra and say: 'The weather was awful.'" He knows there are those who just can't take him, but thinks he is coming around to that. "You can't please everyone, or you'd be Cat Deeley," he says.
He offers tea, but only green tea, because he is on a diet and has no milk in. "I only have to look at a cake..." He gives me a bit of a tour of the rest of the place. The hall has the original Victorian floor tiling. His bedroom is a beautiful duck-egg blue. His kitchen is a brand new off-white. His pot plant was probably nice, once. He lives alone although would chose not to. He's just never been lucky in love and all that. "I read the Kenneth Williams diaries and, on a bad day, sometimes I'm thinking: fucking hell, that is me." I make a point of inspecting both his oven and toilet, and am very pleased to report neither are covered in cellophane. He has always somehow failed to be a hit on the gay scene. "You have to have a certain look to get on, and I don't fit in. Where are normal gays meant to go, the ones who have a belly and don't wear orange make- up? As for the leather bars with the bumless trousers..." Not you? "...just not me." Not even if you put your heart into it. "Well, maybe if I put my heart into it..."
Previously, I'd only ever half-clocked Alan on The Friday Night Project, the Channel 4 comedy-variety show he co-hosts with Justin Lee Collins. So until I watched Tooth Fairy, the DVD of his live stand up, I had no idea just how brilliantly sharp and fresh and funny he is as a solo performer, combining observational riffs – too many clothes in TK Maxx, identity fraud, his mum's obsession with shredding even though she has a "Mr Pin" in her address book followed by a four-figure number – and the sort of self-exposure that would be tragic in lesser hands. He talks a lot about growing up in Northampton as the mincingly unsporty son of the local footballing hero, Graham Carr, a Northampton Town player and manager. Here is Alan telling his dad what he does want to do:
Alan: "Dad, I want to do a performing arts degree."
Dad: "Alan, why are you doing this to me?"
Alan: "I don't know, dad... but think I can show you through expressive dance."
As it happens, the performing arts degree (at Middlesex University) was total crap. "I was just moving furniture around in a black leotard, wondering why I never got spotted." Although he has never been in the closet as such – even as a kid, it was very obvious he wasn't going to grow up to be the spiritual son of Sean Connery – and is now 30, he has never openly discussed his sexuality with his mum and dad. "When I first viewed this place with the estate agent, mum and dad came with me and when the agent said: 'And your neighbours are Ahmed and John, a very nice couple,' I was thinking: 'Oh no, she is going to say the G-word' She didn't, but I was terrified." If you had a boyfriend, would you take him home? "No! Never!"
I wonder if he ever looks at who he once was (the fat kid in glasses with the big, wonky teeth who "toe-poked like Goldie Hawn"), looks at who he is now, an award-winning comedian and TV host with his own place in north Holloway, and thinks: "Wow! One day I might even make it to Crouch End Borders!" He says that he never yearned to be famous. "I just didn't want to do a shit job, that was the thing." His shit jobs have included working at a credit-card call centre and at Tesco (Brent Cross). "Call-centre work was so depressing, as was working for Tesco." Did you have a speciality at Tesco? "I was on one-basket-only quite a lot." Would you send people back if they had more than the stipulated number of items? Certainly not, he says. "I am not ruthless in that way." His time at Tesco did have a few highlights. "I was at Brent Cross with the TV news cameras when it went 24 hour! And ..." There's more? That's not enough for you? "... and I was part of their promotion for clubcards. It sounds dead posh but actually meant standing on the forecourt in a sash and asking anyone if they wanted a clubcard. I actually approached Dale Winton when he pulled up for petrol. I said: 'Would you like a club card?' and he said: 'I've got one darling.' So I saw his life and thought maybe one day I could be like Dale."
He says that people assume that, as a comedian, he was funny from the word go, but he wasn't. "I was never the class clown. People used to laugh at me, because of the voice and everything." He's continually astonished by those who imagine being gay is a choice. "They've obviously never had their lunch boxes smashed, or have had to run out the gates at 3.15pm so they don't get called any names. Why would anyone want to choose that?" However, despite his glaring unsuitability, his dad was determined to make a footballer of him.
"In a way it really repelled me. We'd go down the park and start out by having kickabouts and then the fitness thing would come next. I'd have to run and touch a tree and then come back and touch another tree. He'd bring bollards and we'd have to run around them and do sit ups and then he'd throw the ball so I'd have to header it." He then adds what might be the most chilling two words in the English language: "Star jumps." Enough said, I say.
Did you ever think that, if you kept at it, one day the football gene would simply kick in? "I thought I would wake up one day and be able to do it. I'd always get shin pads and the Kevin Keegan annual for Christmas... the annual is in perfect condition. It's untouched. I should really put it on eBay." His ultimate humiliation came when, to please his dad, he joined a local boys' team who, because of who his father was, made him captain before they'd even seen him. He was substituted within five minutes of the first match. His father, who had come to watch, then said to him on the way home: "I want you to give football up. You're embarrassing."
Ouch! I say. That must have hurt. It so did, he says. "I think everyone wants to please their parents and, for a long time, I did begrudge my dad saying that. But the more I speak to people the more I realise that everyone's dad is like that. For a few years, though, I did think: 'Oh my God, it' s me.'" Anyway, his passion for rugby saved him. OK, only joking. "I remember my mum taking my sports kit out of my bag and saying: did you have rugby today? It was immaculate. I'd always lie and say 'yes'." At least he was good at drama and English; his revenge on the sporty kids. "I was always the kid who wanted to read out loud. I loved it whereas the sporty kids were terrified of it. They'd get up to read and stumble and stutter on the words. This was my revenge for hitting the ball away with my hands, screaming 'not in the face, not in the face!'"
I ask when he first realised he was gay. He says he doesn't think he ever didn't realise it. "People would say to me, 'you're gay,' before I even knew what gay was. It just felt natural. It wasn't: oh, no, I'm never going to fancy a girl. I didn't want to fancy a girl. When you start having crushes on boys you do think: what is this feeling?" Who was your first crush? "I was about 12 and it was a boy called Richard. I used to start arguments with him, probably just so I could have some interaction with him... probably just so he'd put an arm around me and we could be friends." I do wish Richard had put his arm around him. For all his shrieking campness, there is something innocent about Alan Carr, something that deserved a cuddle then and still deserves a cuddle now. He should date, he knows, but just the thought makes him weary. And he's through with sordid one-nighters. Once, in Blackpool, he pulled the carer of a special-needs person, waking up in bed the next day with the carer on one side of him and the special-needs person on the other. "I was so terrified I left my glasses behind and never went back for them."
I wonder where his mother figures in all this. He is close, he says, to his mother, Christine, "a dinner lady at a special-needs school. No, don't say that. Don't! She gets precious. Say she's a cook." How about chef? Shall I put chef? "Better still," he says, "maître d'!" His mother appears to be enjoying his celebrity plus the fact "I now I earn good money. Christmas was hilarious. My mum said: 'Well, I want some Ugg boots, a Nintendo DS, and for my main present... and I was like whoa, whoa, whoa. She's got clued up on the goodie bags too. After an awards show I'll get the phone call: anything good in your goodie bag?" His parents come to stay and while he and his mother will take in a show or two – last time, it was Cabaret and The Dumb Waiter – his dad will go to the Arsenal. He and his dad appear to have reached a place of mutual, if undiscussed acceptance. He is keen to stress that his father is not without emotion. "He cried throughout Noel's Christmas Presents. I had to say to him: 'Dad, those people aren't in Australia. They're behind the scenes.'"
Comedy didn't come into it at all until he was 21 and visited a fortune teller in Camden who told him that one day he would make a living from writing and performing comedy. He didn't believe it for a minute "but a seed must have been planted". At that time he was working in a credit-card call centre which was "very soul destroying. If you needed to go to the toilet for a number two, it had to be no more than four minutes and if it was a wee, no more than two. And when you came back you had to put what you'd done on a form. It was really awful but when I told people they were like roaring with laughter, you know." So he had a go at stand up, and it worked. And it's just all grown from there, first as the warm up man for Jonathan Ross, then The Friday Night Project, the sell-out tours, and now Celebrity Ding Dong, which is a lot of fun.
Anyway, we spend the rest of our time together most amicably, taking pictures of Monty – now asleep; as if butter wouldn't melt, etc, etc – and talking books. Alan, it turns out, is a big reader and a big Peter Ackroyd fan. Well, I say, he's as camp as anything. Alan says: "Really? I'd love to meet him." Actually, now I think about it, if camp is also a kind of failed seriousness, then bless it and bless it in spades. Why get hung up on anything and all tied up in "issues" when you can make it funny, as Alan so spectacularly does? Eventually, it's time to go, not least because no one wants to walk though north Holloway in the dark. He is keen to forgive my naughty dog.
"He's adorable," he says. Still, he is a naughty, naughty dog. If you can't train them, blame them. Or at least that's what I say.
'Celebrity Ding Dong' begins on Friday 1 February, Channel4, 10pmReuse content