Jack Dee: Dee is for downbeat

He's the most morose of comics, whether delivering one-liners on stage or advertising beer with dancing penguins. But is Jack Dee really that glum, or is it just part of the act? Fiona Sturges meets him
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"You fool!" booms a voice across the marble-clad foyer of a smart Piccadilly members club. As ice-breakers go, it's not the warmest I've ever heard. The voice is Jack Dee's, the fool is me. Bewildered by the multitude of private clubs in the area, I've been looking for our meeting place for the past 20 minutes; in the end I phoned his publicist for help. Now I'm late and Dee doesn't look happy.

Eventually, after what seems like several lifetimes, he gives me a smile. Actually it's more of a grimace, but he's clearly doing everything in his power to look cheerful. "Just kidding," he drawls. "Nice to meet you. What do you want to drink?" True to form, Dee is immaculately turned out in his trademark suit and a pair of black shoes buffed to within an inch of their life. He's not too impressed with today's outfit, however. "We've just moved house," he grumbles. "I had to pull my shoes out of a cardboard box and I couldn't find any cufflinks. I feel a mess."

Sitting in an armchair a few minutes later and reflecting on his career, Dee is a polite if subdued presence. He talks in leisurely, flat tones and sounds rather like a recording that's been slowed down. Later I try playing back the interview at double speed on my tape recorder. It's a vast improvement; for once he sounds as if he's enjoying himself.

His appearance doesn't exactly help. At the age of 41, gravity seems to have exerted an unwarranted pull on Dee's face. It has that pliable, putty-like quality that makes you want to reach out and squash it back into shape. Of course, the despondent demeanour is his stock in trade, an act that's been winning over audiences for more than 15 years. Surely no one could be that miserable in real life.

"At times there's not much disparity between what I do on stage and the way I am normally," Dee maintains. "But at other times the two are probably like chalk and cheese. To create a stand-up persona you locate that aspect of your personality that you enjoy making people laugh with. In my case you might call it my grumpy side. It's not so much a case of exaggerating it as giving it full amplification."

In the early days Dee would stand stock-still on stage spouting pithy one-liners, while staring with an air of boredom at the punters - a technique later seen in his John Smith's bitter ads. Now his act is more of a monologue on such everyday themes as Weight Watchers, the NHS and competitive parents. He is at his most animated when talking about the mechanics of stand-up. "The buzz comes from being able to communicate with an audience and being able to tap into what makes people laugh in a certain context," he explains. "If I used the stand-up material in a bar or around a dinner table people wouldn't get it. But with a listening audience it's a completely different thing. I think that's why you get comedians who can't switch off and try to make people laugh the whole time. I find people like that very tedious."

Despite his apparent grouchiness, Dee remains one of the country's most popular comics. His rise through the comedy ranks in the early Nineties coincided with that of Frank Skinner, Eddie Izzard and Harry Hill. Yet Dee's reluctance to bask in the limelight and refusal to subscribe to the comedy-is-the-new-rock'n'roll myth set him apart from his contemporaries. At the time he seemed refreshingly laid-back, a comic without any discernible trace of ego.

Dee's presence in Celebrity Big Brother two years ago endeared him further to the public. After five days of watching his fellow housemates Vanessa Feltz, Anthea Turner, Chris Eubank, Clare Sweeney and Boyzone's Keith Duffy being voted off by viewers, he emerged victorious, and rather touchingly, straight into the arms of his wife, Jane.

He's good-natured about strangers stopping in on the street, though less so when he's with his children - he has twin boys aged five, and two daughters, eight and 11. "It's something you have to be gracious about," he says. "On the whole it feels like the world is a much friendlier place than it used to be. I don't think I've had anyone come up and be unpleasant."

Dee claims that it was naivety that led him to take part in Celebrity Big Brother. "I didn't think for a second what the implications would be. A lot of people know me only for that, which is a bit depressing. I said yes to it because I was asked directly by the organiser of Comic Relief. Even though it was two years ago, reality television involving celebrities hadn't quite taken off in the way that it has now. To me it was just another stunt to raise some cash for charity."

Why does he think he won? "Probably because I stood back from it and to some extent subverted it. I misbehaved and played my own game. It was so boring in there, what else could I do?" Dee describes the whole experience as "rather testing", although he concedes that there have been benefits. Though he rejected all offers to be photographed at his Wandsworth home by assorted gossip magazines, he looked more closely at the television proposals that came his way. Late last year he featured in a one-off BBC documentary called Jack Dee Sent To Siberia, where he survived in sub-zero temperatures and learnt how to slay a reindeer. There have also been parts in long-running series such as Jonathan Creek and Dalziel and Pascoe.

These days he gets a lot of film scripts, too. He's just finished work onSpivs, which stars Ken Stott as a gangster who takes pity on asylum seekers. Dee's character runs an East End depot where the lorries arrive. He enjoyed the challenge of taking on a serious role, though he has yet to find out if the film will ever make to the big screen. "Well, things get canned, don't they?" he sighs glumly. "That's what happens when you're D-list."

The youngest of three children, Dee was brought up in the Itchen Valley in Winchester, where father worked as an executive in a printing firm. He attended a local state school, which he loathed. "I was very bad at school. By the time it came to doing O-levels I'd been dropped from nearly every subject. In the end I only took four. Mind you, it didn't help that I was lazy. It was a good school, but I always resented teachers, because they got to do what I wanted to do, which was stand up there and get everyone's attention."

Dee describes his sense of inferiority at not having gone to Winchester College, the smart public school up the road. "I guess I was overly impressed by the elite establishment and I resented not having that education. Before secondary school I went to a prep school in the shadows of Winchester Cathedral. It provided choristers for Winchester Cathedral and quiristers, as they were known, for Winchester College. If you weren't a quirister or a chorister, you were a commoner. I hated that."

Dee found brief respite in his school drama club, and for a while he thought he might be an actor. He realised he had an ability to make people laugh, but "hadn't thought for a second that it was anything other than an affliction. I certainly never imagined it as a career option."

After leaving school he got a job as a waiter in a local hotel. Soon after that he started work in a French restaurant, and gradually made his way up the management ladder. By this time his acting ambitions were long forgotten. "I suppose I lost hold of the creative thread and got comfortable in restaurants," he ponders. "I really liked the atmosphere, in particular the camaraderie you developed with the people you worked with. Looking back, I think my attraction to it was to the theatrical aspect."

For a while Dee toyed with the notion of becoming a vicar, though after seeking the advice of a local rector he decided it wasn't for him. He's still a believer, though he has a strong antipathy towards the Church.

"All the Christians I've ever encountered have been quite unbearable," he remarks. "I heard a great quote not long ago that the Church of England is like a public swimming pool. All the noise comes from the shallow end. I just don't want to be part of that. I've come to feel that the Church takes me away from my belief rather than towards it. I suppose that makes me a heretic."

By the time he turned 21, Dee was working as a manager in a Covent Garden pizza restaurant. There he found that the majority his colleagues were struggling actors and performers. Being around them reawakened his desire to perform, although it was an attempt to mend a broken heart that led Dee finally to try his hand at stand-up.

"I was living with an actress whom I was very keen on," he remembers. "One summer she went to do a play in Edinburgh. She rang me one evening and I could tell from her voice that the steam had diminished to a wispy vapour. She said, 'I need more space.' I said, 'I'm in London, you're in Edinburgh. How much more space do you need?' I realised then that the game was up and I was gutted. I thought to myself, 'I'll do something I'd never have done in that relationship.' As it happened, one of the things that I'd always intended to do was go to the Comedy Store. I suppose it was a way of consoling myself."

Dee went along by himself and discovered that there was a late-night try-out spot where audience members could get up and tell a few gags on stage. There was no room for him that night, but he returned the following Friday, the eve of his 25th birthday, and did a full five minutes of his own material. "I remember initially the sensation of having these spotlights on your face and feeling like a rabbit caught in headlights," he recalls. "But then I said something that got a laugh and something clicked. It was promising enough for the guy to put me on the next week. The first thing he said when I came off stage was, 'How long have you been doing this?'"

When I ask if the experience helped mend his broken heart, he leans forward in his seat and, adopting a Phil Mitchell-style rumble, says, "Yeah, I fucking showed her, didn't I?" At this he explodes with laughter, and the transformation is quite startling. The habitually downcast features suddenly radiate sunshine and warmth, and Dee looks 10 years younger. A few seconds go by, though, and it's gone. Oh, well. It was nice while it lasted.

'Jack Dee Live At The Apollo', BBC 1, Friday at 11.35pm