Profile: A celebrity square: Angus Deayton: Late fame has had mixed results for this experienced scourge of the famous, says Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 21 August 1993 23:02
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SUDDENLY, Angus Deayton has become one of those people who is always on television. You can see him in the Carlsberg lager ads, portraying a sweat-stained traveller in all the wrong places. Earlier this year, he played Paul Foot in a dramatisation of the Carl Bridgewater case and he has popped up as a next-door neighbour in One Foot in the Grave, a cantankerous trainee Richard Wilson. From 17 September, you will be able to catch him every Friday night at 10 on BBC2 in an unbroken run of nearly four months - six weeks of the satellite TV comedy KYTV and nine weeks of the news quiz Have I Got News For You.

Though clad in his trademark brown suits, and bearing the demeanour of a housemaster at a minor public school in charge of two unruly schoolboys (Ian Hislop and Paul Merton), Deayton has become a glamour hero of the Nineties, endlessly depicted on magazine covers. All things to all men, he successfully straddles the media world, from up-market men's glossies to the tabloids. Even more improbably, of all the younger generation of Oxbridge comedians who emerged in the Eighties it is Deayton, at 37, who has aroused the lust of a nation of Friday night television viewers and delivered the tabloids with the first salacious copy of his set.

It would be inaccurate to say that Deayton, like David Frost 'rose without trace'. His success comes after 15 years of slog, mainly as a comedy writer, selling his first sketch to Dick Emery in 1978. But it was his misfortune to emerge from Oxford at the end of the Seventies into the world of alternative comedy, the comedy of protest and regulation anti-Thatcher jokes. Deayton toiled, largely unrecognised, as a scriptwriter in radio, which his friends say is his forte - that comfortable country of suburban listening, of Round the Horne and I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again.

And this was indeed Deayton territory. He grew up in a solidly middle-class family in Caterham, Surrey - his father in insurance, his Scottish mother a cookery teacher. The family was not especially well-off and sacrifices were made to send all three sons to direct-grant schools. He might have become a footballer - he had a trial for Crystal Palace - had his school not played rugby. He remains a keen amateur player. As a teenager he ran his own mobile disco, introducing him to a world of naff bad taste that he still enjoys. 'Although I listened to all the concept bands I also had a large collection of Abba singles and the Jacksons and Pickettywitch,' he says.

He does not describe himself as a clever pupil; his only good subjects were languages and he read French and German at Oxford after a year off in which he worked for a TV delivery company, 'which involved careering round the neighbourhood in a gaily coloured transit van delivering TVs, hi-fis and the odd washing machine'.

Philip Pope, his co-presenter on KYTV, who met him in their first year at New College, remembers Deayton in his Triumph Spitfire, bought from the proceeds of television delivery: 'I was impressed by how unstudent-like he was. He was a comedy fan and used to listen to I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and Fawlty Towers. But he also loved early Genesis and Supertramp and the Bee Gees and Abba. It was an almost liberating experience for me to go to university and find it was all right to say you quite liked Abba.'

Had he not fallen into comedy, Deayton would have used his degree to teach English as a foreign language: 'I spent a year in Paris teaching French brats how to speak English and I quite enjoyed being a foreigner abroad. If I hadn't gone into doing what I'm doing now I would have used teaching as a passport to go round the world.' Instead, he and Pope started a drama group with the future comedy producer Jeremy Mortimer. After seeing a performance by the young Rowan Atkinson, they turned to comedy. It was Deayton, Pope says, who organised everyone. 'When he said 'Why don't we take it on the road?' we all fell in. He and Rowan share the same birthday. There's a dogged Capricornism about both of them.' One act they took to the Edinburgh Festival was their spoof pop group the Hee Bee Gee Bees, which had an unlikely number two hit in Australia with 'Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices'.

BY THE early Nineties, Oxbridge was back in vogue. If the first wave had been the Monthy Python team, the second Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, then the third was Clive Anderson and Tony Slattery. Yet while Anderson and Slattery had established themselves before the end of the last decade, in the mid-Eighties Deayton was still working as straight man to Rowan Atkinson and doing voice-overs in commercials.

Even when the rise of the new independent television production companies shifted the power to choose new talent from BBC producers to the comedians' own contemporaries, Deayton was still overlooked. It was only when the original choice for presenter on Have I Got News For You pulled out, that he was allowed to audition. The chemistry between him and the two regulars, Hislop and Merton, was extraordinary. Against them, his comedy is precise and meticulously crafted, the dry, acerbic humour not of the stand-up but of the joke-writer who has time to prepare a devastating response. It was only the sex god tag that took everyone by surprise.

At the launch of the BBC's autumn programmes last Wednesday, pressed beyond endurance by the rat-pack of showbiz hacks, Deayton conceded between gritted teeth that, yes, he was going out with the comedy scriptwriter Lisa Mayer. Earlier in the year Deayton's girlfriend of a decade, former pop-star Stephanie De-Sykes, announced that he had abandoned her and her two sons (by a previous marriage) two days before Valentine's Day and that she had, months later, heard nothing more from him. The action was supposed to be all the more egregious as he had claimed to be the two boys' 'surrogate father'. Deayton did not rebut the allegations.

Deayton's reputation as a libido-raiser defies his friends' descriptions of him. Harry Thompson, his writing partner on Have I Got News For You, says he is 'extremely pedantic and methodical, the most organised person I know, the only person I know whose briefcase is laid out in an orderly manner. He's terribly pernickety and spends a long time going over things like semi-colons.' His character seems to be dominated by the need for order and control. 'He's very calm, he never loses his temper,' Thompson says. 'I can't imagine him crying.'

So how has Deayton managed to acquire such an unlikely persona? The origin of his reputation as a television sex symbol lies with Tina Ogle, a TV listings writer on Time Out who, a year ago, dubbed him (with some degree of irony, she claims) 'TV's Mr Sex'. This was quickly adopted, with even more irony, by the programme's publicist in a press release, and the tabloids swallowed it whole. A huge spread appeared in the Daily Mail and the programme developed a running joke about Deayton having an affair with Merton's wife.

'I think most people understand the jokiness of it and it's only misunderstood by a small few. I hope so, anyway,' Deayton says. But the joke has backfired. There is no doubt that Deayton wanted to be famous - he was a famous person in waiting, one friend says. What he seems entirely unprepared for is the torrent of attention, probing into areas that he believes should be treated with circumspection. His undoubted personal appeal has only served to ignite the interest of the public and urge on the tabloids. 'He doesn't understand that you can't be famous and not have that happen to you,' the same friend believes. Those around Deayton wish the public was aware of another version of events which counters Stephanie De-Sykes' story but which Deayton refuses to reveal.

Deayton's sense of probity is unsuited to this kind of retaliation. He has a profound aversion to what he describes as 'relationships that begin and end in the media. I don't want to give the papers any more fuel than they've already got. I suppose you can expect a certain amount of attention but the over-reaction came from the fact that they were given more fodder than they should have been given. In other words, if everyone had kept their mouths shut, there would only have been a rather straightforward story. But when some people sell or give their stories to the press then you set up this tennis match. One party says one thing and the other party replies. That's how the tabloids work and that's why I kept quiet. I've never given my version and never will because I don't think that's how people should operate.

'The reason it's called private life is because it's private. There are all sorts of things people could tell after they've been living with someone for a number of years but I don't think it's the sort of thing that anyone I know would entertain. The idea of suddenly kissing and telling is the sort of thing one would associate with bounty hunters. But the drawback about not giving one's side of events is that lies get told, are repeated, and become fact. Unfortunately we live in a country where it's very difficult to do anything about it.'

This perhaps was just a little rich coming from a man whose living is being made, in part, from assessing the editor of Private Eye's ability to place in context unidentified photographs of, say, the Princess of Wales in a bikini.

Deayton's manner is reserved but courteous, a man of the essentially private English middle classes, with all their horror at finding himself the object of uncivilised behaviour, struggling for control in an anarchic universe. A friend of his is on record as saying that however well one gets to know Deayton, there is a part of him that remains locked away. Deayton would probably think this just as it should be.

(Photograph omitted)

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