Catherine Tate: The shy star

Her on-screen charisma generates off-screen attention from which she shrinks
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Whether the measure of success for a comedy performer is a British Comedy Award, or a starring role in the Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who, or children in playgrounds all over the country parroting your catchphrases, or indeed weekend profiles in national newspapers, Catherine Tate can be satisfied on all four counts. The suspicion is, however, that she would be just as satisfied without any of the above, except perhaps her exciting fling in the Tardis, as a bride struggling to get to church on time.

Tate is a reluctant star, the embodiment of that showbusiness paradox: the performer whose on-screen charisma generates off-screen attention from which she shrinks. For one of her predecessors as Britain's queen of comedy, Caroline Aherne, the limelight got so intense that for a time she withdrew from it altogether. Tate doesn't have as many issues to resolve in her personal life as Aherne did, but in her own way she is a similarly complex character, who suffers occasional panic attacks, endured post-natal depression following an emergency Caesarean to deliver her daughter Erin, believes fervently in astrology, and as a child suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder curiously based on word association, so for example she couldn't leave her jumper crumpled on the floor when she went to bed because it might bring bad luck for her mother, whose name, Josephine, began with a J like jumper.

A year ago, her mother was her guest at the Variety Club awards at the Hilton, Park Lane. But as their taxi approached the hotel, with a phalanx of photographers waiting, Tate asked the cabbie to drop them off round the back. Josephine was gutted: she'd been looking forward to the glitzy entrance. Sneaking in through the back door unnoticed by anyone except three Swedish businessmen who didn't recognise her daughter anyway wasn't her idea of glitz. But it's fair to assume that she understands Tate's psyche better than anyone. Besides, she is herself a nervy person, said to be the inspiration for the character in The Catherine Tate Show who screams at the slightest sound (although she is possibly not so easily startled that she shrieks every time the Christmas tree lights flash, as on last year's award-winning Christmas special).

Tate, an only child, was born Catherine Ford in 1968 and grew up with her mother and grandmother in the literary London enclave of Bloomsbury, not that their flat on the Brunswick council estate particularly evoked the world of Virginia Woolf. She was a happy and conformist pupil at St Joseph's Catholic primary school in Holborn, but at Notre Dame high school in Southwark she became something of a rebel. The humour that she used as a self-defence mechanism made her a natural ringleader. "I was probably just trying to work a crowd," she later remarked.

By her teens she knew that she wanted to act professionally, but the nuns who ran the school didn't have the facilities to teach drama, so when she was 16 she was sent to a Catholic school for boys. Maybe that's where she began to study the male condition, not that any of her old teachers would want to be the inspiration for Derek Faye, the outrageously camp bachelor into whom she metamorphoses after three hours in make-up, and who vehemently denies - "how very dare you!" - that he is gay.

Her father had abandoned the family when she was young, which seems to be another remarkably common denominator in the early lives of people who grow up to become performers. Certainly it's not hard to connect the observational brilliance she brings to her characters with the close, overwhelmingly female, adult environment in which she was raised. When she was 26 and told her grandmother that she was moving way out west to Fulham, her grandmother said: "Don't do that, darlin', it'll make me ill if you move away." Tate moved anyway, and confessed six months later. "She was horrified. Even though I'd still seen her every day!"

Rather disappointingly for her many fans, she has insisted that her late grandmother was nothing like the foul-mouthed, malevolent nan she plays so exquisitely. But if you look hard enough there are lots of affectionate nods to her working-class upbringing, not least the jolly knees-up in the old folks' home that concluded last year's Christmas special (once nan had dismissed Charlotte Church's act as "fackin' rabbish"). Whereas her equally sharp portrayals of the effete middle classes ("step away from that cinnamon and gooseberry yoghurt, children, it's 24 hours past its sell-by date") are laced with scorn. But she has plenty of opportunities to observe affluent Londoners with small children, for she is now one of them.

The character whose catchphrase has been adopted even by MPs eager to look culturally assimilated is the chav princess, 15-year-old Lauren ("am I bovvered? Look at my face. Do I look bovvered?"). Tate's finest hour, and Lauren's, came in last year's Royal Variety Performance, when she turned to the royal box and memorably asked: "Is one bovvered?" She also remarked that the Queen's companion appeared to have nodded off - "she is bing, but the old fella next to her is asleep!" - which reportedly had an angry Prince Philip complaining to the executive producer at the interval that he'd been disrespected, not that he probably put it that way. If he did, then respect.

Tate's act was the evening's big talking point and, as befits an astrology enthusiast, her star has continued to rise. This year, as well as working on her sketch show and popping up in Doctor Who, she has appeared in four films - Starter for Ten, Sixty-Six, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, and Love and Other Disasters. She seems eager to show that there is more to her than comedy, yet it is comedy that continues to define her, in part because it is inextricably linked with her personality, and always has been. "Although I was a shy child, I was also a bit flamboyant," she has said. "And that used to make people laugh, which was important at a self-conscious age. I realised that if you get yourself labelled as the funny one, people don't look any further. I've used that as I've got older. It's controlling: I decide what part of my personality you're seeing. I don't want you to look at me, I really don't. I don't want you to comment on my clothes, my hair or the way I look."

After leaving school she auditioned four times for the Central School of Speech and Drama, the alma mater of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, before she was accepted. Her early CV looks like that of every other young actor - bit parts in The Bill and Casualty, as she tried to get a foothold in serious theatre. But in her late 20s she changed direction and went into stand-up comedy, albeit as a means to an end. She had seen successful stand-up comics get decent acting parts and shrewdly reckoned it might be a way of getting noticed. It was, although the process took five years.

In 2001 her show at the Edinburgh Festival was nominated for a Perrier award. More significantly, it was seen by Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC's godfather of comedy. Perkins, who had worked with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, saw similar talent in Tate. He found her a part with Dawn French in the sitcom Wild West, while plans for a series of her own took shape. The Catherine Tate Show began in 2004, but Tate was pregnant while it was being made, and then came Erin's difficult birth and the post-natal depression, which she didn't wholly overcome until the end of the second series.

She credits her partner Twig Clark, a stage manager, with getting her through this difficult period. He gave up his own job to look after Erin so that she could concentrate on her work, and far from a woman with depression being unable to embrace comedy, she found it a great release. "I'm a very negative person, maybe a bit manic," she recently admitted. "But one thing that gets you through even the darkest hour is a tiny voice which puts it through a filter and turns it out as a sketch at the other end. In any situation - awful, good, or average - there's always part of me thinking, 'That would be a good two-shot there.'"

Tate joins a long list of artists and performers who have deployed their demons positively to inform their work, although there is an even longer list of those who have been consumed and destroyed by them. She seems to have avoided that fate and it will be interesting to see where she goes next. She has indicated that she will kill off her show soon, except for the occasional special, but may do a national tour, just like her nearest comedy kin, the cast of The Fast Show and Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain.

Speaking of Little Britain, Tate's Lauren has often been compared and indeed confused with Lucas's Vicky Pollard; she has had "yeah but no but" yelled at her in the street just as he has been assailed with "am I bovvered?". There has been some talk between the pair that they might do something together, although that might be like trying to mix scrumpy and wine (which admittedly is not a notion to worry Vicky Pollard). The point is that there is a coarseness about the Little Britain characters, while Tate's main characters seem much more forensically considered. Essentially she is a wonderful actor with a talent for comedy, not the other way around.

She would reportedly like to have another child, and is also keen to develop her film career further. Whatever she chooses to do professionally, it seems likely that the doors she once found firmly shut will be flung open with unseemly haste. But she is making slower progress in coming to terms with fame, admitting to one journalist who interviewed her last year that even the idea of being photographed as herself for a magazine was something she found terrifying. "I thought on the way here," she said, "what if the taxi had a tiny accident, a little bump? Then I would be a witness, you see, and have to miss the photo shoot..."

A Life in Brief

BORN 12 May 1968, London.

FAMILY Long-term partner: Twig Clark, a stage manager. They have a three-year-old daughter, Erin.

EDUCATION Notre Dame High School for Girls, south London, and Central School of Speech and Drama.

CAREER Bit parts in The Bill, Casualty and Men Behaving Badly, before her breakthrough. During the 2000 Edinburgh Festival she appeared in the New Brits show, where she performed a sketch about "her" Nan. Her Edinburgh show the following year won her a part in the series Wild West with Dawn French. In 2004 the first series of The Catherine Tate Show appeared. In 2005 she starred in the West End play Some Girl(s). In 2006 she has had several film roles and a part in Doctor Who.

SHE SAYS "If in five years' time the only thing that I've done that is remembered is a teenager saying, 'Am I bovvered?' then I'd worry."

THEY SAY "She can appear quiet but you mustn't underestimate her. When she's focused on something, she's a tour de force." - Geoffrey Perkins, producer of The Catherine Tate Show