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Profile: It's such a laugh being somebody else: Harry Enfield, Mr I-don't-think-I'm-funny-as-myself

Rod Stewart was re-united with the Faces; U2, the world's most popular group, turned up in force; and kd lang, the world's most wonderful singer, belted out a number. There was no disputing, however, who was the star turn at last month's Brit Awards, the rock business's annual junket of self-congratulation. And he wasn't even a pop singer.

Harry Enfield, in character as the ageing disc jockey Dave Nice, was in evidence at the event for no more than two minutes, presenting the award for the Best Newcomer. He didn't need to be around long, though: with just one line he undermined the whole proceedings. Alluding to rumours that the electoral practices of the awards were not entirely rigorous, he said it was 'vote-rig-mungous' to be there. And the thing about Harry Enfield is that none of the record executives in the audience minded this slander. They just loved him all the more.

At 32, Harry Enfield is Britain's most prominent, if not favourite, comedian. This week, for instance, there he was, on billboards and newspaper adverts, as a dopey-looking Mozart, promoting his new television series about opera. There he was advertising chocolate bars on TV, pizza on the radio and phonecards on the side of buses. And there he was in the Sun, as the paper, short of news about the comedian himself, dredged up the four- year-old story that his sister had married an African: 'Harry's sis sold for a cow,' ran the headline. So prominent has he become, he says that seeing pictures of himself wherever he goes makes him feel like 'Enver bloody Hoxha'.

Oddly, those who know him say Enfield is convinced he is not a funny man. He finds himself so unamusing he spends most of his life pretending to be someone else. Famously generous to his collaborators, he relies on them to provide him with the comic bullets he does not possess. He casts himself as the marketing man of a team, presenting other people's lines for public consumption.

It was in the role of marketing man that, in 1988, he stunned the nation by killing off Loadsamoney, the comic character whose boastful financial war-cry summed up the yob bullishness of the Lawson boom. He did it just as it seemed Loads would make him a real wad. But Enfield sensed (rightly) that it had run its course, and was looking to the future, opting to take some time off to create a whole new generation of characters. Some people thought he had blown it. The Sun, for instance, cheerfully claimed he had gone bust: 'Bish-bash-bosh, I've lost all me dosh.'

But Enfield was too shrewd for that. One old friend claimed he has 'a canny business brain'. And new, marketable characters were soon in evidence. First up, in 1989, was Norbert Smith, an elderly luvvy, whom he played in an hour-long mock South Bank Show special (Melvyn Bragg was himself). Then, without conspicuous success, there were two ITV sitcoms: Going To The Dogs and Men Behaving Badly. But his real triumph came in 1992 with the Harry Enfield Show, in which, in the manner of Dick Emery or Stanley Baxter, he appeared as virtually anybody other than himself. It introduced a whole gaggle of Bunyan-esque characters to the nation, whose one-dimensional psyches were summed up by their catchphrases: Mr You-Don't-Want- To-Do-That, The Old Gits, The Slobs.

Not that Enfield himself is remotely know-allish, gittish or slobbish. He comes from solidly middle-class stock. His grandparents were on the fringes of the Bloomsbury set - Virginia Woolf mentions them in her diaries: 'I would rather be dead in a field than have tea with the Enfields,' she wrote, somewhat uncomplimentarily. His father, Edward, now a cantankerous columnist for the Oldie magazine, sent him to a Catholic public school in Sussex. Harry loathed the place in general and one monk in particular ('The only man in the world I hate') and his father agreed he could leave after O- levels. At the grammar school near the family home in Billingshurst, young Harry discovered punk, dyed his hair black and scraped into York University in 1979 after re-taking his A-levels on a correspondence course.

He worked unconspicuously for three years, before teaming up with a fellow student and taking a revue to the Edinburgh Festival. Like virtually every young graduate on the Fringe, the pair were invited by the BBC to write some scripts for Radio 4's Week Ending. Neither had a flair for topical gag-writing, but, while his partner left London, Enfield soldiered on. Supported by a Manpower Services grant, he took his impressionist's act round the burgeoning pub circuit. In 1985, he was spotted by John Lloyd, who was looking for people to voice the puppets on Spitting Image.

It was here that he first exploited his knack of using subtle exaggeration to great comic effect. 'More than any other voice-over man, Harry was aware of what the puppets looked like,' said Geoffrey Perkins, Lloyd's co-producer. 'He deliberately exaggerated because that suited the visual caricature. I'm sure he could have done a very accurate Douglas Hurd, but making one which sounded like a cross between Fuzzy Bear and a Dalek somehow suited the puppet.'

When Perkins moved to LWT to produce Friday Night Live in 1986, he asked Enfield if he fancied making an appearance. He was an immediate success, playing another real character whisked up into caricature: Stavros, based on the owner of his local kebab shop, who philosophised about the state of the nation in a ridiculous accent. Enfield wrote the scripts with Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, a plasterer and a decorator he met in his local. These two, he has always claimed with characteristic modesty, are much funnier than he is. Their observations on working-class life in London were distilled into the character that became Loadsamoney.

To people who knew Enfield off screen Loadsamoney was a surprise. 'The first time Harry did Loads on the show nobody recognised him, even though he wore hardly any make-up,' remembers Perkins. 'There was this incredible burst of energy which you just couldn't reconcile with the shy, diffident man you knew.'

After fewer than a dozen television appearances, everyone knew Loadsamoney. One night Enfield was sitting in a restaurant (his favourite pastime) when an octogenarian woman approached him and said, in a mittel-European accent: 'I zink you are Mr I-Have-Lots-of-Money, no? You are werry funny.'

It is a wonder she recognised him. Off screen, Enfield's is a vacuous face, which takes on expression only in character. Put him in a sweat-shirt and the cheek muscles and lips slacken into a yob scowl; in a dinner jacket and upper-class twit's false protruding teeth, the face seems to lengthen, the jaw-line disappear.

It is not just his face that comes alive in character. Rather like Peter Sellers, in interview Enfield seems uneasy as himself. On chat shows he will break into character, his favourite technique when plugging a new television series is simply to reel off a few lines from it. When he appeared on Have I Got News For You, surrounded by quick-fire wits, he disappeared into his shell, emerging half-way through the show not as Harry Enfield, but as Mr Rude-and- Sweary.

'In private he can be hilarious when in character,' said Chris Donald, editor of Viz comic and an old collaborator. 'I was at a party where he did a fantasy about Windsor Davies having a conversation with Donald Sinden which didn't have any words, and everyone was in stitches. But when he makes a joke as himself, which is rare, he has a nervous little laugh and goes all self-conscious. It's probably what endears him to the women. He gets on ever so well with my wife. But I don't leave the two of them together because he has a bit of a reputation.'

These days Enfield shares his flat in north London with Alison, the estranged wife of Keith Allen, the comedian, and her three children. The children, apparently, are unamused by their surrogate father, which will not have helped his self-confidence.

Viewing figures for The Harry Enfield Show, however, must cheer him up when he is feeling down. It is the funniest thing he has done, some would argue the funniest thing on television last year. In part this is because he encouraged Paul Whitehouse to appear alongside him. Characters that could easily stand on their own became, almost by accident, more rounded when used in a double act. There is a sense of rivalry between the Old Gits, or Smashy and Nicey or The Opera Ponces, a tension, a jealousy that gives them corners, depth almost, which would not exist in a solo caricature.

Moreover, there is always something endearing about Enfield characters, no matter how disgusting they seem. Even though Whitehouse believes his partner has a fogeyish streak and can't wait to be old, sitting in his club behind a copy of the Daily Telegraph and enjoying a good grumble, Enfield is no misanthrope. He is an acute observer of life, but takes an amused rather than a disgusted attitude to it. His is not the comedy of cruelty, it is the comedy of affection.

You could see that at the Brits. To help Enfield and Whitehouse present their award, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, the veteran broadcaster who is clearly the model for Dave Nice, was wheeled on. He tried to make a gag, which Whitehouse ruined by talking over. Enfield, sensing the old disc-spinner's unease, said 'Fluffie was just saying' and repeated his punchline for all to hear.

In all this he bears more than a passing similarity to Peter Sellers (who shared a propensity for black self-doubt and was, incidentally, equally grumpy when dieting). Whether, like Sellers, Enfield can become an international figure remains to be seen. But in the meantime, niceness is an immensely marketable trait. So what if some of the gags don't quite make it? So what if Harry Enfield's Guide to Opera is a disappointment, so what if you see his face everywhere you go? You can't help loving Harry.