Jack Dee: the BBC’s populism is no joke

Jack's back with a new series of 'Lead Balloon', an autobiography, a job hosting 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue' – and gripes about BBC management. Ian Burrell meets the deadpan Mr Dee

Wednesday 04 November 2009 01:00 GMT
(Frantzesco Kangaris)

Dee. That's dee for dour, or dee as in dry and deadpan and, yes, droll. But not dee for dresser. "The snappiest dresser in comedy," Esquire magazine once said of Jack Dee, which is to entirely miss the point behind his act.

For every time he takes down one of his tailored Berwick Street suits ahead of a performance, it is for the deliberate purpose of trying to fit in rather than stand out. "My natural default in comedy is the outsider who wants to belong," he says. "I'm not a rebel and I don't have alternative answers, I'm just part of the big problem and just as lost as everyone else."

At 47, Dee does belong. One of Britain's best-known comics, his following ranges from students to seniors. After being named Best Stage Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards in 1991, he has had star billing on BBC1, ITV and Channel 4. The success of his Live at the Apollo stand up has helped open the door for a younger generation of comics including Frankie Boyle, Michael McIntyre and Stephen K Amos. And he has been chosen as a replacement for the great Humphrey Lyttelton on BBC Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

The wearing of a plain whistle may have helped his career last rather longer than some of his contemporaries in what was once called "alternative" comedy. "The older I get, the more it suits me. I've very deliberately presented myself as a bit of a stick in the mud," he says. "There are quite a few comics out there who have always dressed in the slogan T-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap and they're now 45 and I think, 'Is it really suiting you, could you move on from that now?' My look is pretty timeless."

When he made his first appearance at the famous Comedy Store in London in 1986 he did take along an unusual item of clothing, a motorcycle helmet. But that was his exit strategy in case he failed to get any laughs. "I thought I could put it on in the dressing room and walk through the audience and pretend I had just delivered a pizza. No one would know it was me: the guy who thought he could be funny."

The question as to how Dee came to find himself on stage, having previously worked as a waiter and – during a nightmare period in the kitchen of the Ritz hotel – even considered being ordained into the priesthood, is the one he is most often asked. It is the starting point for his autobiography, Thanks for Nothing, which he has spent most of this year writing. That task was performed in a spartan whitewashed cubicle "with no pictures on the wall and no view".

It's the same room in Dee's television production company Open Mike where Dee and his writing partner Pete Sinclair compose his BBC comedy Lead Balloon. They have just begun work on the fourth series. It features Dee as the hapless and misanthropic professional comedian Rick Spleen. It's not autobiographical as such but "it draws from all my experience in comedy and I like to think it's a 'What if?' version of my life. If this had gone wrong and if that hadn't happened ... "

It has taken Dee a long time to persuade the BBC to commission the fourth series. "We will probably have to nod to the fact there has been 18 months or two years since the last episode and things will have changed," he says. "I'm quite keen on the idea of Rick getting a job on a late-night shopping channel selling car wax."

Such a drawn-out commissioning process, he believes, is a reflection on the state of the television business. "Nothing was going ahead, nothing was being green lit," he complains. "It is getting harder and harder to make programmes you want to make and will continue to get harder."

The BBC, Dee believes, could do more to transfer power from the bean-counting managers to programme makers. "The way people are trained at the BBC is a very different situation to 20 years ago, and it can have the effect that you end up with programme decision-making being made by people who haven't made programmes," he says. "That's quite an unusual situation. It's very good if you have people who have made programmes, who have been through that process."

He is anxious to stress that he is speaking as a great admirer of the BBC, though he wishes the corporation would show more confidence in its creative talents. "The management structure is superseding the creative structure," he says. "It is responding to the way the market has changed and the BBC feels it needs to compete with modern television and modern media and I don't think it does. It will always do television much better than most other channels and it will always have a unique selling point anyway – I wish it would just know that."

He accepts it is "unrealistic" to expect the BBC to be a creative haven isolated from commercial pressures but says it should do everything to maintain its tradition for quality television. "I do think we will lose something very valuable if we don't have the BBC able to make programmes that have value beyond being populist," he says. "I think sometimes they've not explained why they diversify so much and why everyone is taking pay cuts, why they seem to have such elaborate websites and why i-Player is such a big priority to them, I'm not sure I quite understand any of that." Wary of not putting noses out of joint, he admits he is no expert on such things.

Away from television, Dee has spent his time well. Over the last three months he has been touring the country, hosting a not-for-broadcast version of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. He says he enjoys a format where even a sober suit is out of sight and "you literally only have to worry about the content and to that extent you are freed up"*he says. "It's very rare that you record a TV show that would have as good an atmosphere as a radio show, which is such an intimate thing."

He is pleased though with the informality of the television format which has transformed the Hammersmith Apollo in west London into Britain's best-known comedy venue. Jack Dee Live at the Apollo began on BBC1 five years ago and has since become a staple of the satellite and cable channel schedules, providing opportunities for Alan Carr and Russell Howard, among others.

"Most of the comedians that did Live at the Apollo thought it was as close as you could get to actually having a proper show," he says. "We have a big audience of 3,000 people, and it is recorded as a proper stand-up show. We don't give many concessions to the fact that we are recording it, there are no retakes as such."

Dee hosted the first two series and Open Mike continues to make the show, which is currently recording its fifth series. For aspiring comedians, he says, it has become the place to be. "Everyone felt it was time there was a milestone programme comedians could aim to do. That's become the case."

The downside is that the regular repeats of his routine "absolutely exhausts all your resources", he says. "All your material is burnt up on television and I'm squeamish about repeating stuff I have already recorded. You think you've got nothing in the bank and have got to start again. As a comedian that's quite an insecure feeling."

So he is reluctant to host another series yet. "I'd have to do some stand up on the road first. You can't just write that stuff on a laptop and do it," he says. "I'm itching to do more stand up."

He is disciplined in his approach to work. When he writes with Sinclair he tries to treat the task as a regular full-time job. He applied a similar 10am-6pm approach to the autobiography, setting aside eight months for the project. "There were many days when I wrote absolutely nothing until the last hour and then suddenly I was away with something," he says.

To explain why he became a comedian, he felt the need to "get into that bubble, regress if you like, and start feeling how you felt at the time". As a play-acting child in Winchester he had been advised against a drama career by his mother, whose own parents had both felt the need to abandon careers on the stage for financial reasons.

Instead he stumbled into the restaurant industry. A lost soul, he turned to alcohol and religion. He flunked an interview as part of the process towards becoming a priest as the thought suddenly struck him: "Me? A vicar? Who was I kidding?"

Dee's epiphany came shortly afterwards when he walked into The Comedy Store and first experienced the alternative comedy scene which, in a pre-Internet era, he had known almost nothing about. "I walked in and saw Jeremy Hardy, John Hegley and Paul Merton and I had this strongest feeling that they had started without me and why didn't they tell me?"

'Thanks For Nothing' by Jack Dee is published by Doubleday

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