Catherine Tate: Multiple personality

So who is the woman with her own BBC2 sketch show? Gerard Gilbert meets Catherine Tate

Catherine who? That was the general reaction a month ago when The Catherine Tate Show slipped unheralded into BBC2's Monday "comedy night" line-up. After all, far bigger names have struggled to get the nod from the station's controller, Jane Root; most TV debutants pay their dues over on BBC3.

And that's not the end of it. Catherine Tate can also be seen on BBC1, as Dawn French's sidekick in Simon Nye's lesbians-in-Cornwall sitcom Wild West, which has just returned for a second series. In fact, it was French who paid the compliment that is quoted in every article about this new face: "Catherine Tate is far too talented and she must be destroyed."

Wild West is a comparatively one-note gig for Tate, who gets to be something of a Jennifer Saunders substitute (not that she wouldn't take that as a compliment). But it's in The Catherine Tate Show that she expresses the range of her comedic talent, easing between social classes and age groups. The woman's got range, whether it is in her foul-mouthed cockney granny (oh, how EastEnders could do with a shot of her), the neurotic Sloaney mother with her anxious foodie children, or the teenager with the tenuous grasp of ghetto slang ("bing bing, innit"). Such is her versatility that I find myself genuinely intrigued to discover in what form Catherine Tate will attend our interview.

Inevitably (and thankfully), she's a lot more attractive in the flesh than her manic gurning would have you imagine - with gingerish-auburn hair, cool, porcelain complexion and a gentle, thoughtful manner.

Tate is unusual for a comedian. Not only does she not break into a funny voice throughout our entire interview; she doesn't crack a lot of jokes either. But then, Tate, who is 34, is not your usual ladette with a microphone. She may be a stand-up, but she also did three years at drama school and a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And it's not every day you meet someone who says their comedy heroine isImelda Staunton. "Julie Walters as well," she says. "I like the feeling that they have lived a bit - paid their dues."

Tate was born and raised in Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, Central London. Her mother's family have been florists for generations. "I'm the only child," she says, "and it's only now that I've got my own TV show that mum is beginning to realise I'm not going to join the business."

Living near the West End had the advantage of regular theatre trips. Fired by the stage version of Bugsy Malone, she enrolled at the Sylvia Young stage school, alma mater of many an EastEnders starlet, only to leave a week later. "Even at that age I realised I wasn't Bonnie Langford," she says. "It was very competitive."

Instead she repeatedly applied to drama college. "I tried four times to get into the Central School of Speech and Drama before I got accepted. I started when I was 17, which was too young, in retrospect, and finally went when I was 21. I just kept plugging away. Determined? Yeah, I think I was."

She still is, probably. Quietly determined. Anyway, graduation led to a year of "doing tiny parts" at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as "the usual round of telly - stuff like The Bill and London's Burning. I was getting a bit bored really."

And then Tate had something of a revelation - a conversion on the road to Edinburgh. "It seemed to be at the time that stand-up was very big," she says. "I don't know why, but people tend to look at stand-ups and think they can act, which actually isn't the case. But never mind. I thought: if that's the area where they're looking, then that's the area where I'll put myself - even as a means to an end. And it was."

She had her stand-up baptism in Lee Mack's Perrier-nominated Edinburgh line-up, and then created her own one-woman show. Parts in the BBC2 sketch show Big Train quickly followed. "I didn't ever set out to conquer the stand-up world", she says. "It was just a happy coincidence that I loved doing it and it seemed to take off. But what it absolutely did was that it led me to Edinburgh - and Edinburgh is a big trade fair, basically."

This admirably hard-nosed plan worked beautifully, and Tate was spotted by the casting director Tracey Gillham, who promised that when the right role came along, she would put Tate forward for it. That role was as Angela in Wild West, and, after filming the first series, Dawn French told Tate the identity of those whom she had beaten to the part. Off the record, Tate tells me who those "big names" were, and I'm duly impressed. As for her new co-star, she is quick to repay French's compliment. "She's just very, very un-starry and very funny in a way that lifts your heart, because French and Saunders had been real heroes of mine, and there's part of you that thinks: 'What are they going to be like?'"

Wild West is the Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye's slightly off-kilter sitcom set in a Cornish fishing village, St Gweep. French and Tate play Mary and Angela, who run the local sweetshop and happen to be lesbians. Or, at least, they used to be lesbians, because at the start of this new series they're breaking up and trying men. The reason, it transpires, is that Dawn French's fan base didn't like this sapphist bent.

"It seems the focus groups didn't like the idea of Dawn, well... it was all a bit too scary... two ladies in bed..." laughs Tate.

Having finished filming Wild West, Tate heard that her BBC2 sketch show had finally been commissioned. "We did a 40-minute show at the Bush Theatre for Jane Root to see it, and I was eight months pregnant at the time. Frankly I just wanted to sit down." Audition and baby were fine.

The characters in The Catherine Tate Show stem from different parts of her life. She found her foul-mouthed cockney granny from visits to old people's homes while at drama college. The neurotic mother, she picked up near the home she shares with her daughter, Erin and her theatre-manager husband, Twig Clark .

"Peter Jones on the Kings Road is rife with these kind of people who genuinely seem to have nothing better to do than fret about the olives."

The teenage white girl speaking "wigga" ghetto-speak, and getting it wrong, was part of Tate's stand-up act long before Ali G arrived. It was due to be part of her Channel 4 sketch show, Barking, but the producers got cold feet.

"We shot the sketches and they didn't use them - they said we're a bit worried it was a bit too edgy, and I thought: 'Gosh, is it?' - and then about six months later, Ali G came out", says Tate with a wry smile. "I hesitated before using the character in my new show, because I think that Ali G thing's been done now, but my producer, Geoffrey Perkins, persuaded me it was different. I'm pleased we did because it's been the one which has got the most interest."

There's a perceived crisis in female comedy at the moment, with a dearth of young talent coming along to replace such established stars as Jo Brand and French and Saunders. It's a problem for which the BBC hope that Tate is part of the solution, along with Nighty Night's Julia Davis and 3 Non-Blondes' Jocelyn Jee Esien. The shortage seems to be at the stand-up end of the chain, and Tate has her own theory on the matter.

"I think maybe women are more sensitive to criticism. Women tend to be slightly more thrown by bad gigs and heckling. Having said that, I've only ever seen being female as an absolute bonus. Because in an area where there are relatively few women, it got me noticed quicker, if anything."

And now she has been noticed, Tate has a wish list of those she'd like to work with, including Kathy Burke, Peter Kay and, of course, Imelda Staunton.

"Obviously I'd like to work with Mike Leigh, you know, but there's not that much I wouldn't do, if it was good enough. I'd like to get back to the stage. I'd like to work again with Phyllida Lloyd. I worked with her when I was at the National Theatre, when I was just out of drama school - she's a very serious person, but she's got a real eye for comedy. And I'd like to work with Jonathan Ross - only I don't suppose he's directing much these days."

'The Catherine Tate Show' is on BBC2 on Monday at 9.30pm

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