Jack Dee: Why the long face?

He's got three films coming out, a new TV series and a stack of offers to talk about. Just don't expect Jack Dee to smile about it, says James Rampton
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The Independent Online

Prowling the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, Jack Dee is doing what he does best: railing at things that really get up his nose. Some of his first victims? The 3,000-strong crowd of people who have packed into the theatre for the recording of his new series, Jack Dee Live at the Apollo.

Prowling the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, Jack Dee is doing what he does best: railing at things that really get up his nose. Some of his first victims? The 3,000-strong crowd of people who have packed into the theatre for the recording of his new series, Jack Dee Live at the Apollo.

Yet, strangely, the more he mocks his audience, the more they seem to lap it up. He gets one of the biggest cheers of the night from the circle as he sneers at them: "The last time they were in the balcony, they were screaming abuse at the judge because he was sending their mum down for GBH." Dee is like a dominatrix in a natty three-piece suit, pleasuring his clients with a strict adherence to the S&M credo of "treat 'em mean - keep 'em keen."

Miserabilism has served Dee well through the years; he remains our most complete comic curmudgeon this side of Victor Meldrew. And success has done nothing to cheer him up. When we meet in his London office a few days after the recording, Dee explains why he was born to gripe. "People say to me, 'now that you're a success, is that a problem?' It implies that you've become happy and therefore unable to do the curmudgeonly comedy you did before. But that's not the case at all. I still get cross about everything. I got into a bad mood when I was 14, and it's never lifted."

It's all an act, of course. Off stage, the 41-year-old comedian is upbeat and - if you can believe it - given to loud outbursts of laughter. In fact, looking at him as he leans back in an armchair and takes a drag of his roll-up, the happily married father of four seems the polar opposite of the stand-up who could kvetch for Britain.

Like many other comedians, Dee's career has turned to acting. Possessed of a deft sense of timing that many formally trained actors would sell their agents for, he is starring in no fewer than three new productions: Tunnel of Love, by Simon Nye in which Dee takes the lead; Spivs, a film about conmen in which he appears opposite Ken Stott; and Short Order, an Irish film about a restaurant in which Dee headlines.

Yet, Dee has by no means rushed headlong into drama. He has rejected many an invitation to play "the wacky mate down the pub", and his cautious approach seems to be paying dividends. "I'm glad I've taken my time, and not done too much, too soon," he says. "I've taken on dramas where I really think I can have a good crack at it. I've only made myself one promise: I won't do panto."

He turns down "a lot of things on the grounds that if it's something I wouldn't watch, then I don't want to be in it. For two or three years, I was offered endless series about maverick cops. They always had a passion for bebop, or played chess on the internet with their estranged sons, or travelled round Britain on a barge solving crimes. It was like the producers thought, 'we know this is third-rate, but if we get a name attached, then we'll get it through the commissioning editor's door.' I used to say to myself, 'if a vintage car crops up by page 20, I'm not reading any further' - and it always did."

Dee's profile blossomed after grouching his way to victory in Comic Relief's Celebrity Big Brother three years ago. "That programme has distorted my CV," he sighs."But, it's also been very good because it's helped people understand a lot more about me. They have realised what the big joke is about me. I'm pissed off - and I'm able to translate that into my stage performance.

"Being irritated is what makes me tick. I strip everything down and look at it from every angle in order to find out why my response is; mild annoyance or absolute rage. If you can sing or write music, you'll explore that facility. It's about how you interpret the world. My immediate response is to interpret things comedically, and my sense of comedy is curmudgeonly."

So, what is it that especially gets on Dee's wick? "I hate to see young people having a great time. I feel they're having a much better time than I had at their age. You see 20-year-olds whizzing around on skateboards - it's a never-ending childhood for them. I was a proper grown-up by then. They don't have gap years so much as gap lives now. My teenage nephews have been to twice as many countries as I have in twice the time. It's not fair.

"Ultimately, everything I'm cross about is down to me, and the audience warm to the fact that I'm sufficiently human to own up to these faults," he says. "And my audience enjoy me exposing my frailties because there's a certain amount of honesty in it. Watching me on stage, audiences go 'phew, he's thought that, too. I'm not the only person on the planet who thinks that.' It's the comedy of recognition."

In recent years, stand-up and television have seemed to go together as happily as George W Bush and eloquence. However, with this new show Dee aims to buck the trend. "In the past, TV commissioning editors have thought, 'instead of putting stand-ups in their normal environment, we'll set the show in a bus depot, intersperse it with lots of crazy characters and make the audience stand throughout'," he says. Live at the Apollo "allows the audience at home to sense what it was really like at the venue".

Dee also has a Radio 2 consumer rights show in the pipeline. But he would be the first to acknowledge that he's far from rushed off his feet.

"I'm not a natural telly star," he says. "I've never been a person who wants to dance every time someone opens the fridge-door. I really admire people who are at ease on telly. Graham Norton is one of my favourites. He enjoys the interaction so much, whereas I'm crippled with self-questioning. Matthew Kelly is lovely, too. If I was put in the situation of doing his show, I'd be genuinely, deeply unhappy. Imagine me hosting 'Stars in Their Eyes'. 'Who the hell are you going to be? Who gives a toss? My God, what was that?'"

Still, Dee is more likely to do that than appear on the pages of a celebrity mag. A card-carrying grumpy middle-aged man to the last, he is suitably disdainful about the celebrity mania gripping the nation. "I want to be defined by my output and not by my profile," he says.

"It's a very easy trap to fall into - spending too much time keeping up your profile and thinking that's really important. Publicity should only ever be a means to an end, a way of communicating what you're doing. I never want to become part of the celebrity machine; where you're expected to be photographed at the latest film premiere. I know certain people who, if they're not appearing in celebrity magazines or the newspapers on a daily basis, feel they don't exist. They ring up their PRs and say 'why aren't I in the papers today?' I breathe a sigh of relief if I don't see myself in the papers.

"So far I've managed to avoid photo shoots in the house with the kids. I was offered lots of money to do a celebrity mag, but I turned it down. My home life is the only part of my life I can keep private. I don't want success at the expense of thinking 'what I did today was rubbish'. Then, I really couldn't sleep at night. Me grinning like an idiot with the kids on the pages of a glossy magazine wouldn't work. I have a hard enough time smiling for family photos, so doing it for 'Hello!' would just be impossible."

'Jack Dee Live at the Apollo' continues on BBC1 next Monday