'I showed Harry Enfield my Sam the Eagle face. And a new comedy act was born'

Loadsamoney. Kevin the Teenager... How hard is it to come up with a world-beating comic character? As Brian Viner discovered, all it takes are mobile features - and a little help from Harry Enfield
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is 5pm and Harry Enfield has peaked. He probably peaked before lunch, which, to him, must seem like an awfully long time ago. This has been one of those days that celebrities such as Harry dread. It has been set aside to publicise his new project for Sky One, Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show, featuring lots of excellent new characters, such as Small Bloke, a geezer aggressively chippy about his height. A Sky publicist has found Harry a quiet room in Soho, through which a conveyor-belt figuratively chugs, offloading another bright and eager journalist every hour, on the hour.

It is 5pm and Harry Enfield has peaked. He probably peaked before lunch, which, to him, must seem like an awfully long time ago. This has been one of those days that celebrities such as Harry dread. It has been set aside to publicise his new project for Sky One, Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show, featuring lots of excellent new characters, such as Small Bloke, a geezer aggressively chippy about his height. A Sky publicist has found Harry a quiet room in Soho, through which a conveyor-belt figuratively chugs, offloading another bright and eager journalist every hour, on the hour.

Traditionally on these occasions there is one broadsheet writer, someone from a tabloid, someone from a men's mag, someone from a TV listings publication, all with a different agenda, yet all asking identical questions. And I have drawn the short straw. I am last. I get Harry all wisecracked out, longing to get back to Primrose Hill to be with his wife and two kids, even though their three-year-old believes himself to be Buzz Lightyear and can be rather trying. Harry shares with me a typical exchange. "Woody, Woody, Woody, Woody, Woody?" "Yes, Buzz?" "Woody?" "Yes, Buzz?" "Woody, I've got a Twiglet." "Have you, Buzz?"

I know Harry a little, having interviewed him several times before. The first time, some years ago, was on a day just like this. But I got first crack that day, at 10am, and Harry effervesced. This time, he is visibly wilting. And to make matters worse for both of us, I have a wacky proposition for him. The features editor has asked me to ask Harry to tutor me in the art of inventing a hilarious character. It was a brilliant idea on paper, rendered hugely embarrassing by the cold light of a Soho afternoon. Harry groans. "Oh God, Brian, this is terrible. Can't you make it up?"

We agree that I will make it up, which comes as a blessed relief to both of us. We talk about other things. I remind him that when we last met, he was singing the praises of William Hague, whom he had recently met at a dinner party (this from the man whose cruel caricature, Tory Boy, might have been modelled on the young Hague). "Yes," he says. "In fact, I'm seeing Hague again soon, at a weekend at the home of some mutual friends. I don't like him so much now, though, now that he's doing a bit better than he was. I'm very fickle. I enjoy being left-wing with right-wingers and right-wing with left-wingers. Gordon Brown, he's the one I like at the moment. I've never been a mad fan of Tony's."

I remind him of something else he told me before, that you would expect Blair to be the wit around a dinner table, and Hague to be the dullard, yet in his experience it is precisely the other way round. "Did I say that?" He seems surprised to be credited with such insight.

I ask him who he likes in show business, although it would be more interesting to know who likes him. Harry does not court popularity in showbiz circles. He loathes the Groucho Club: "If I want to go for a crap, I like to be able to get into the bog, if you know what I mean." He is wonderfully rude about those who frequent it. "It is the first refuge for the average actor, the average comedian. 'Oooh, I know, I've got on telly, I'll go to the Groucho Club'."

I press him. Who does he like? There is a long pause. "Jude Law, I like Jude Law," he says, finally. "I like Richard Curtis. I've met Hugh Grant, I quite liked him." Coincidentally, Harry is about to move to Notting Hill, that little-known area put on the map by Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant. He ventures this information when I impertinently ask if he is rich enough to retire. "I could definitely not retire. I'm moving to a bloody big house in Notting Hill with a bloody big mortgage. She [his wife, Lucy] used to live there and wants to go back. Anyway, what would I do if I retired? I don't do sport. I would just become an alcoholic. Yes, I'd become an awful right-wing drunk sitting on a balcony in the South of France saying (awful right-wing drunk's voice) 'I tell you, these nurses in England are overpaid and under-worked'."

All the same, he must have, to coin a phrase, loadsamoney. What does he do with it? "I run a little scooter. I don't have extravagances. On those days when I want to cheer myself up, I think, 'I know, I'll go and buy something'. But there is nothing I want. I don't want a bit of software or hardware, a suit or a car." A holiday? "No, she does all that."

There is another pause. The Independent's photographer has arrived, his brief to take a picture of Harry coaching me in the art of character-based comedy. It is time for one last appeal to Harry's sense of fun, or at any rate, Harry's sense of getting me off the hook. After all, I can't really make it up. "Oh God," he groans. "We can't do this. Brian, I'm really sorry. I can't think of a character to amuse your mates with, inspired by me. I just can't."

He looks me in the eye, apologetically. Then he clocks my nose and my chin. "Well, you could be Charles Dance's son, I suppose." Could I? "Yeah, look at your face. So Charles Dance. And you could be an emotionally repressed father and son. 'Hello, father, sorry about mum.' 'Mmm, she's dead. How was your journey, my boy?' 'Oh fine, father, thank you.' Yeah, yeah, I'll direct you doing that. Talking round the subject, then we cut to something else, then we cut back and they still can't talk about mum. Yeah, I can see that."

Harry, bless him, is warming to the theme. "Your face is quite malleable but you don't do much with it," he tells me. Is it? Don't I? Actually I do. I pull some interesting faces to amuse my children. "Do you? Let's see." Not quite believing that I am in this situation, I grotesquely contort my features into what some would consider an improvement on the usual arrangement. The result is what I call my Sam the Eagle face, after The Muppet Show character.

By now, Harry is quite excited. "Oh, that's good. Very good. Now put your tongue away. And when I say something to you, I want you to say, 'I think it looks great' then pull that face. Are you ready? Right. What do you think of this dress?"

"I think it looks great." Horrible face.

"Do you still like my body naked at 40, just the same as you did when I was 25?"

"I think it looks great." Horrible face.

"Look darling, I've had my belly button pierced. What do you think of it?"

"I think it looks great." Horrible face.

Harry is triumphant. "There you are, we've done it. We've invented a character for you." And what, I ask, do we call him? "Married Bloke," says Harry.

The man is a comic genius, and I should know. We were once a double-act.

'Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show' is on Mondays, at 10pm on Sky One

Comments