Celebrities, Comedians

Ricky Gervais in his most ‘postmodern’ interview ever

Ginny Dougary
The Times
April 2010

The comedian talks about everything from relationships to body image

It started pretty badly. At one point, Ricky Gervais said it was the most difficult interview he’d ever done – and he was using “difficult” in the same way that someone says a dress is “interesting” when they mean “horrible”.

The feeling, it must be said, was mutual but, fortunately, this encounter in his anonymous-looking office, above an estate agency in Hampstead – despite 60 hellish minutes which veered between awkwardness and outright bloody-mindedness – does have a happy, if somewhat unorthodox, ending.

To be frank, I had half-expected it to be tricky. It was the control thing that worried me. I’d heard stories, possibly apocryphal, about Gervais, dissatisfied with the way a photoshoot was going, simply taking over and directing himself himself. There was in addition something about the look in his eyes – cussedness tinged with anger, a lack of trust, maybe – underneath the hectic bravado that could spell trouble.

We chitchat about the pronunciation of his name – which is French-Canadian on his father’s side – “Gervaaayze” (as in haze), although his mother, from Reading, rolled it out with a rural burr: “Gerrrrrvayze.”

He remembers only fully understanding that his dad came from another, far-off country when various uncles and aunts came to visit and “of course, they were real Canadians and had check jackets on”. He’s been to Canada but not to visit his relatives: “Obviously, I’m interested in my immediate family [he has three much older siblings] but, no, I’ve never worried about where I came from. I don’t see the point, really.”

So you won’t be doing that Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy show any time soon? “No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

He is close to his two brothers, Larry and Bob, and his sister, Marsha: “I like them and I get on with them. We’ve shared a life together. So that’s why I care about them, because they’re nice and loyal and, you know, if they were all adopted I’d feel the same. That’s what caring about someone is, not someone saying, ‘By the way, you share 99 per cent genetic material.’ Do I? Oh that makes it different, then.”

We’ve barely started and already we’re into the heavy sarcasm and belligerence. I happen to agree with Gervais that those shows featuring an endless parade of weeping celebrities are a bit suspect, but there’s also something absurd about his toxic snideness. It would probably be funny on the stage, but close up it’s faintly alarming; a bit like being trapped in the back of a cab with an irate driver who’s sounding off.

My next mistake is to comment (innocuously, I think) on why he always puts his feet on his desk – does he have a lower-back problem?

“It feels comfortable,” he says, looking faintly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t do it in your house. I do it because it feels nice and relaxed.”

Later, when we sort of kiss and make up, it transpires that this was a turning point for him – ie, when things really started to go wrong – and his reasons reveal a lot about his rather complicated personality, as well as his uneasy accommodation with fame.

His comedy – and writing, in general – works because it is true to life, and full of acute observation. There’s no lumbering exposition and he follows the good writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell.” His creation and portrayal of David Brent, The Office’s boss, resonates because his character is totally recognisable, whether the audience lives in Slough or Poughkeepsie. We all have a little bit of Brent inside us – an executive friend of mine confessed she feels herself to be cringingly like him whenever she tries to chum up to her staff.

There are discernible overlaps between Gervais himself and his most famous character, particularly his mannerisms. After our interview, I talked to half-a-dozen people about the feet-on-table business, and most of them said either that it was something Brent actually did or, at the very least, it was a quintessentially Brentian thing to do. What is intriguing is that Gervais intuited my discomfort with him sticking his trainers under my nose before I was even really aware of it. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Well, what if I were an elderly, genteel lady – would he still think it was OK to do that?” It also struck me how much it was a distancing device; with his body stretched out in an L-shape, his face could not have been further away from mine.

I ask him if he is sentimental, and he says that he is. So, I wonder, what is the stronger element in him: sentiment or ironic detachment. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand the question because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think you can break it down to a percentage, because there’s lots of overlap as well. I’m 100 per cent human so I’m a logical person with all the attributes of being human…”

Perhaps you find me asking for a percentage a bit off-putting but… “I’ll take every question you ask very seriously.” OK, let’s try it another way: some people are completely sentimental without a trace of cruel wit in them and… “I never lose one when the other one’s happening. I don’t understand the question. You’ve gotta start again.”

Well, you have answered the question in a way… “I couldn’t have. If I did, I did it by mistake because I don’t understand the question.”

Oh dear, I sigh. The reason I’m asking the question, partly, is because your new film, Cemetery Junction – which you’ve said is very autobiographical (a coming-of-age story of three lads trapped in Nowheresville, plotting their escape) – has got a lot of warmth and heart, and feels quite different in tone to, say, The Office (or, certainly, from the one episode I saw, Extras).

Now we’re talking about “the work”, Gervais is back in his comfort zone; he knows where he’s going, he has control and there is a momentary ceasefire in hostilities. “[The new film] is more an out-and-out drama so there’s no veil of irony in it, like some of the other works. In The Office, we were laughing at the people who were delusional and un-cool, and now we’ve found people who are cool and, you know, we’re going, ‘This bloke is cool and his feathers are going to fall out one day but not this summer, and isn’t it excitin’?’

“I suppose it was quite dangerous in The Office to expect people to go from laughing at a bit of slapstick with a middle-aged man having a breakdown and then going, ‘But, really, no, he’s a real person and he’s got real emotions.’”

That’s what made it so interesting. “Of course and I think we’ve always done that.

As long as your characters are real and they resonate and there’s some sort of basis in reality and empathy to the piece, as opposed to just crazy slapstick, then I think you can shift gears.

“But it’s all in how you set up your wares, you know. We drip-fed the boy-meets-girl thing, which sometimes doesn’t work in sitcoms because they’re either plonked in or they’re cynical or they forget the jokes, so it’s quite hard to have it all.”

His accent weaves in and out of the Reading burr and a more sloppy urban-teenager-speak – “re-uh” for real; “resonaigh” for resonate; “re-a-li-ee” for reality.

When Tim, the world-weary sales rep, finally gets his girl, Dawn, the gorgeous blonde receptionist, I tell him that I felt like cheering. There had been more misunderstandings, missed opportunities and silent yearning than in a Jane Austen novel. “As soon as you realise that Tim and Dawn can’t say what they want to say because the cameras are watching them…” He snaps his fingers in a very Brent way, “…takes on a whole new level… It’s like, seething and Victorian. So all Tim had to do was look at Dawn and for her not to be looking back or look at Dawn and then get caught. It was all body language because people don’t blow up what they’re thinking anyway.”

It’s time for some more questions and, feeling flushed and anxious, I fan myself with some papers on his desk and then totally freak him out by mentioning the menopause. Do you think people are frightened of you? “Erm – um – in what way?” Frightened of your brightness or that you will lampoon them or put them down?

“Er, I think that, yes, some people are intimidated by a famous person and if they knew how, you know, how idiotic… Well, I think it’s the same percentage of idiots that are famous as not, probably more, I would have thought. So… er… I hope I’m not intimidating in a bad way. I mean, taking this example – um – you know, it’s not nice when it’s combative.”

At this point, I almost fall off my chair as it swings backwards alarmingly – practically to the ground – and I gasp, “Is this a joke seat?” (to dispatch pesky interviewers, I’m thinking.) “No, it’s Stephen Merchant’s – so it’s got a very long back.”

Well, I’m leading up to a question that I’m worried is going to make you angry but, anyway, let’s go. “I won’t be angry,” he says. “I won’t answer it if I don’t like it.” So I want to talk to you about your looks. When you were a pop star (in an Eighties Spandau Ballet-ish duo, all cheekbones, dusky eye make-up and earrings, called Seona Dancing) – “Failed pop star,” he interjects – you were an incredibly pretty boy. Do you ever look at those old videos or pictures of yourself? “No, they’re too depressing.”

Why this interests me is that, in practically every single interview he’s ever done, Gervais refers to himself, in some way, as “fat” or “ugly” or both (as in “ugly, fat git”). Is that really the way you see yourself?

“Well, I don’t think I am a fat git, looking at the national average… and certainly the world average. But I’m a fat git compared to what I was, I suppose. I went from 9 stone to, you know – and then you hit 30 and those were my eating years…” (He’s now 48.)

Do you feel any nostalgia for that pretty boy you once were? “No, of course not.” Do you not care about your looks? “Er… I don’t know. I’m not vain in that way. I don’t preen. I’ve started working out for other reasons.” Health? “Yeah, health – and because I don’t want to get fatter.

“You know. It went far enough. And it was laziness because no one gets fat behind their back. If you burn off less calories than you eat, you put on weight – it’s not a shock to anyone. The people who eat too much must be happy with that or they’d do something about it.

“And I’m eating as much as I ever did because I enjoy it, but I’ve decided to work out more. I run over the Heath and I’ve got a gym at the house, so no excuses at all – not that there was an excuse before… The only reason to live longer is to drink more wine and eat more cheese.”

He and his TV producer partner, Jane Fallon (This Life, Teachers) – the couple have been together since they met at University College London in 1982 – live in a big pile in Hampstead but have also bought a flat in New York. They don’t have children, so no schools to worry about, and what with Gervais’s burgeoning Hollywood career (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying), it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they spend more time in the States. If so, will he feel pressurised to submit to the American beautification process?

“I think you mean, Los Angeles. New Yorkers are more…” Normal?

“Absolutely.” They’re still far more high-maintenance in the looks department in Manhattan than we are. “It’s probably more to do with what you do… The Hollywood pressure is that you do have to be of a certain standard or a certain type. I see everyone doing it, even good character actors. I think, ‘Why are you starving yourself?’ The pressure is there to have white, straight teeth…”

Would you ever do your teeth? “No, they’re clean and they’re real – it’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think I would. If I haven’t done them now, why would I do them?”

And, boom, off he goes… “What is in America? Who gives a f*** what anyone thinks? I don’t give a f*** what they think and if I don’t get a film role because my teeth are crooked, then f*** them, I don’t want it. I just go, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And if I don’t get a film role because I’m not thin enough, then, ‘F*** you.Why would I f****** do that, you f****** shallow c****!’ I hate them, and I hate that people think that I would. It makes me angry. I remember when a newspaper said, ‘He’s lost three stone for Hollywood.’ I went, ‘No [his voice veers upwards], I haven’t lost three stone and I would never f****** do it for Hollywood. I did it ’cos I work out and I wanna be fit.’ And that annoys me. Someone said, ‘I saw him in The Ivy and he was having a salad.’ ‘Yeah, I had a salad. I also had f****** deep-fried scampi and followed it with ravioli, you lying f****** c***!’ So the answer is, ‘No.’”

This is a splendid rant and hugely entertaining, although Gervais is genuinely angry and not performing it for laughs. But even in Hollywood, he is now calling the shots. The Invention of Lying – in which he plays an unsuccessful film writer who is told by everyone that he’s a fat loser and, guess what, he still gets the girl – was written, directed, produced, narrated by and stars Ricky Gervais. As he says, “I create my own labour. I write my own roles and I write fat little putz roles, and now I write slightly less fat little putz roles. I don’t go for roles which demand a 28-year-old model. Why would I do that?”

The reason, I think, that he is quite often misunderstood is because his humour hinges on playing with taboos. The danger being that while the audience accepts when is on stage, his offensiveness is a parody of other people’s prejudices (made more piquant by our worry that, at some level, we battle with equally unattractive knee-jerk reactions), that comic tension doesn’t always come across in interviews. So something that he intends to be humorous – even though it may be, as Gervais says in another context (calling his friend, Stephen Fry, “a f****** bent c***”), possibly “a joke that went wrong” or “ironic humour that fell flat” – it can be reported as what he really believes.

A case in point, are his recent remarks – asked for the umpteenth time about why he and Jane haven’t had children – when he went off on a sort of sub-Loaded riff that fat chain-smoking impoverished slags in leggings should be compulsorily sterilised. As he says, coming from his background (his father, Jerry, was a labourer, and his mother, Eva, a housewife with a salty tongue; they were not well off), “it’s fundamentally the opposite of what I believe”. The thing is, he should have known better. He should have been sufficiently media-savvy to realise how bad that would look in print and, actually, if anything qualifies as “a joke that went wrong”, that hits the jackpot.

Gervais has said, in the past, that he shouldn’t need to wear a “Billy Bigot” T-shirt in order to flag up to people that he’s only joking. But when I try to get him to talk about the way we all have thoughts that pop in our head that we’re ashamed of, don’t we, he comes over all arsey again.

First of all, he says that this is a subject he talks about on his latest tour. “I love to examine it. I look at middle-class angst all the time.

“When David Brent goes up to the black guy in the office and says, ‘I love Sidney Poitier’, that was him trying to tell him he’s not a racist. I love looking at those taboo subjects that make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re brought up in an environment where people are saying, ‘Black people are lazy’, for instance, you hit an age, if you’re an intelligent person, when you go, ‘That’s just not true.’ It’s like why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Until that point I’d never questioned it and when I did, it was, ‘Of course, it’s bulls***’, because the evidence – just like the evidence of racism – is overwhelmingly wrong.”

Still, I wonder, are there any thoughts he has now that occasionally make him ashamed of himself? “That doesn’t make sense. How can you go, ‘I know that’s wrong but I like it’?” And then, “You can’t help what pops into your head. It’s how you act on those things, rationally.” Are you sometimes shocked by the things that pop into your head? “No.”

You’re frowning at me as though I’m saying something very stupid. “No, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. I think you’ve made a category mistake in what the mind is, is my high-falutin’ answer. You can’t be ashamed of…” Yes, you can. “No, you can’t.” More wrangling ensues… At one point, he insists that my suggestion that there is a gap between an unbidden thought leaping into your head, and the way you believe you should think and behave, is schizophrenia. No, it’s not, I say, pretty cross and exasperated myself by now. “I dabble with those things in comedy…” Precisely. “I dabble with the worst thing to say and then I deal with it – but I haven’t got this strange sort of man with two brains sort of syndrome.” Oh God! “I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable, but I think you’ve got to realise that this is important to me. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I don’t want you to be unclear. This is as much for you as it is for me. So if you mean, ‘Have I ever had a belief that I’m ashamed of?’, the answer’s, ‘Yes.’”

I wonder if this verbal torture is something to do with Gervais having studied philosophy for three years; perhaps he took courses in semantics and semiology while he was at it. “It’s difficult because we can’t even get our interpersonal frames of reference correct to answer the question,” he says. “But also what’s good about it is that it seems to be about how you portray yourself and how you perceive yourself. Are you worried about your press persona; are you worried about the press, in general?”

Actually, it wasn’t really about that in my mind but it clearly was in his… As I’m considering this, we have a breakthrough. He mentions a recent, not altogether friendly, interview and tells me that, despite it giving the impression that the two had met face to face (details about his body language and facial expression and so on), they had only spoken on the phone. When he sees that I am shocked and disappointed, the whole mood changes dramatically.

He goes to the next room for a glass of water, I follow him and when we resume our conversation, it’s like talking to a different person. All the aggro has dissipated and everything about him has changed: his feet are nowhere to be seen, he leans across the desk to engage more fully; even his face opens up, his eyes widen and one catches a glimpse of that younger, unhardened self.

Bizarrely, we start to discuss why the interview has been so difficult to that point. He says that the reason he does interviews is that there’s a responsibility to the backers of his various projects. Was it the directness of my questions that bothered you? “No, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she thinks I’m such a horrible, nasty power freak… She thinks I’m intimidating, she thinks I’m combative.’

“Because on the face of it, that’s how I was being. And what I should have done is sat you down and said, ‘Listen, once bitten twice shy, and I’m really worried about things being taken out of context.’” But maybe I did irritate you, anyway? “No, the situation does. Straightaway I go, ‘Why am I swimming with sharks again?’ And I’m so conscious that anything can be… So when you said, ‘You like putting your feet up’, I suppose I was on the defensive. And straightaway we got off on the wrong foot.” He’s so earnestly in the moment, he doesn’t hear what he’s just said. “I thought, ‘F***, she could think that’s an affectation or that I’m rude; she could think I’m doing a power play, like I’ve read that in a book, you know.’ And so I tried to make it clear in a weird, like honesty-type Tourette’s-type of way that I just felt comfortable because it was my place – and I said in such a weird way, ‘I wouldn’t do it in your house.’

“I feel really bad now. It must have been like walking into someone who’d just come from a harrowing experience in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it!” This, in case there is any doubt about it, is a joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? “I’ve never done an interview when in the interview you analyse the interview. This is the most postmodern, deconstructed interview I’ve ever done. I wish we could do the post mortem.

“Of course, you do that in your head. I’ll go home to Jane and go, ‘Oh my God, I said this… and I know the headline.’ But you can’t get a headline out of this.”

Earlier, before our détente, I had wondered whether Gervais fell into the Englishman’s retreat of making a joke in order to avoid talking in an honest way about his feelings. He gives an answer to a different question – one that has been on his mind, not mine – about the perils of being famous. “I suppose I came to fame a bit cynically. I wanted people to know fame was an upshot of what I did, as opposed to the driving force because, fundamentally, I probably do want to be considered above the people who do anything to be famous and live their life like an open wound.”

I ask him if he’s self-analytical; again, his thoughts wander back to fame, and at first he becomes spectacularly tongue-tied. “Er, probably no more than I ever was… I mean fame makes you – um – more… um, self-analytical I suppose because… now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.

“I’m more conscious in public than I ever was. I’m probably less of an extrovert than I was. Fame has made me a bit more of a recluse.

“I go to restaurants but they’re safe environments. People don’t bat any eyelid in the Ivy but I probably wouldn’t go to Nando’s on a Friday night in Birmingham, and I don’t go to pubs. I’ve had no bad experiences, everyone’s very polite, but you can get phobic. It’s about feeling trapped. If you walk into a shop and you see someone go [he whispers behind his hand], then you walk out again. Walking down the street with someone going, ‘Love the show’ – nothing wrong with that at all. But being plonked somewhere where there’s loads of people who you don’t know but think they know you – that’s a bit weird. We’re not really meant to be famous.”

He was walking down the street once and there were a couple of kids, about 12 or 13, and one went: “‘Hey, man, it’s you, innit? Office man.’ I went, ‘Yeah’, and I kept walking. And heard them going, ‘Who is it?’ And I kept walking and I was about 20 yards away and this kid shouted, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to shout, ‘I’m Ricky Gervais.’”

The idea of him doing this, it must be said, is snortingly funny. “’Cos I don’t want to be impolite. They don’t know. And I never want to be that bloke – you know, when they go, ‘I asked for his autograph when I was 14 and he told me to f*** off.’ I hate that.”

It’s at times like this that you catch a glimpse of the nicer side of Gervais, and understand why his friendships are long, and why a smart-sounding woman like Fallon would still be at his side, 25-plus years on. He’s unforthcoming, which is unsurprising, on the secret of sustaining a relationship over three decades: “There is no secret.

It’s all the obvious things. Things in common. Respect. I suppose – um – you’re soul mates. You see eye to eye on everything.”

But his romanticism comes out when we talk about his idea of the perfect endings to films. When I say that Cemetery Junction has the same sort of grit-with-a-heart feeling as British films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, Gervais says he hasn’t seen them. He only catches new films – about three a year – when he’s on the plane. At home, he watches the same DVDs again and again and rattles off a list: The Godfather, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Play It Again, Sam, Tootsie, Raging Bull. “It’s like taking a drug because it gives me the same emotion as it did the first time, and some things are made better the second time round. I’m better the second time round.”

With his new film, “We wanted to do Hollywood does gritty. It had to be glorious and glamorous in its blue-collar degradation, like Saturday Night Fever. When you watch that – he’s walking down the street, he’s looking good but he works in a paint shop and he lives for Saturday night. But most people who watched that weren’t going, ‘How sad, this fellow’s gonna fall’; they’re going, ‘Oh, look at that! He’s f****** cool.’”

The Apartment (directed by Billy Wilder) has had the biggest influence on his and Merchant’s work. When I say that two of the young guys (Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes) in Cemetery Junction are pretty gorgeous, he says “Who wants to see fat ugly people?” Oh no, don’t start that again. “No, Billy Wilder said that when he cast Marilyn Monroe alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis [in Some Like It Hot], and he said, ‘No one wants to look at ugly people.’”

He says Cemetery Junction is autobiographical in that “all the women in that film are women from my family – my mum and my nan – and all the men are the men in my family and different friends growing up. There’s a line in it that my Mum actually said to me. [Gervais plays the character based on his father, in a white vest, always being undermined by his crabby mother-in-law.] When I was 18, I said, ‘I’m going to France’, and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you ain’t seen.’ Which is very sweet.”

It was the death of his mother, nine years ago, in particular, which made a profound impact on her son: “It’s devastating when you see someone dying of lung cancer – it’s f****** horrible, dreadful. My dad died a couple of years after. He was pottering around the garden with a few cans and sort of went, just like that. When your parents die, you’re sad because you miss someone who bore you and shaped you and cared for you, and it does make you think about other things, like your health. I went to the doctor, and dragged Steve along once, and said, ‘I’ve found a lump – I’ve got cancer.’ It happened twice.”

We move away from intimations of mortality to those romantic endings.While his humour is graphic, his romances are oblique. “It’s so much more powerful when they don’t kiss. ’Cos in Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”

There is one especially moving moment in Cemetery Junction, when the father and son reconcile, in a tiny gesture, and Gervais – who co-wrote it with Merchant, their first feature film together – would burst into tears every time he shot it. “Yeah, it was, like, ‘Wheew’ [blows his nose], ‘That was brilliant’ [another honk], ‘Ok, let’s go again’ [clears his throat with emotion].’’

By now I am emboldened to ask him directly if he’s a romantic.

“Of course,” he says. “As an atheist, that’s all that matters. You don’t get rewarded for being nice in Heaven, you get rewarded for it on earth. So be nice to people. Make a connection – because, you know, what else is there except making a connection with someone?”

It was lucky for both of us that there were two parts to this interview and, I would agree with him – Gervais is definitely better the second time round.

* * *

Cemetery Junction is released on April 14

Celebrities, Comedians, Women

Sandi Toksvig on her Christmas cracker

The Times December 05, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

The self-confessed ‘show-off’ talks about her Christmas cabaret show, politics and a crush on Cheryl Cole

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig has a habit of being picked up by strange women in public conveniences, which sounds like a cheap gag but happens to be true (although not in a George Michael way, obviously). Only the other day, she was sitting in one of those cubicles where you have to push your foot against the door to keep it closed — a challenge in itself if, like her, you’re under 5ft tall — when a woman burst in, mid-flow, apologised profusely, retreated, and then reappeared, saying: “I think you’re Sandi Toksvig — can I have your autograph?”

Just before we meet another woman had approached her in the loos at the Royal Festival Hall, followed her into the room we’re now sitting in, plonked herself down and is chatting merrily away, oblivious to the tape recorder on the table. “Merrily”, it transpires, is the wrong word. The toilet stalker is saying that her boss at the Koestler Trust — whose current exhibition at the Southbank of art by prisoners has been the subject of controversy — was so moved by Toksvig’s appearance at a recent candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square that they were wondering if she could be persuaded to do some work for their charity.

The vigil, on October 30, attended by 10,000 people, was organised as a protest against hate crimes, after the murder in September of Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man, who had been out on the town celebrating a new job and was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square by two 17-year-old girls and a 19-year-old boy.

“It’s too awful, and the point about it is not that it was a homophobic crime, it is that it was a hate crime,” Toksvig says quietly. “I don’t care what colour you are, what your sexuality is, or what your religion is . . . I care that anybody who wants to go across Trafalgar Square is entitled to do so.

“Anyway, we had an extraordinary evening, with two minutes’ silence and then Sue Perkins read out the names of all the people who had died in the past ten years because of hate crimes. It’s shocking and it won’t do. It just won’t do.”

It is also shocking to hear, particularly from someone who has achieved national-treasure status, that she, too, has been the victim of hate crimes. It is almost 16 years since Toksvig, then 36, decided to go public on her private life — to pre-empt being done over by a homophobic newspaper — that she and her female partner at the time, Peta, lived happily together as a family with three small children, fathered through artificial insemination by Chris Lloyd Pack, a close married friend, with Peta as the birth mother. In the ensuing furore, the Save the Children charity dropped Toksvig as the compere of its 75th-anniversary celebrations, later apologising after demonstrations by lesbian activists.

More dismaying behaviour followed as Lloyd Pack’s former mother-in-law denounced all participants (Toksvig, Peta, Lloyd Pack and, presumably, her own daughter) as the spawn of Satan, prompting the real loonies to come out of the shadows: “I’ve probably had about three serious death threats in my career, all from Christian fundamentalists — very stressful, where we’ve had to go into hiding,” Toksvig says. The family was protected by “the very nice boys in the police hate-crime squad” but it’s not surprising to hear that Toksvig suffered from depression: “If I’ve been dealing with somebody who wants to kill me and that’s scary, to put it mildly, then I have been depressed. But having had some degree of therapy [she is vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and her civil partner, Debbie, is also a psychotherapist], I realise that depression is fair enough in the circumstances. ”

All of this is a long time ago and it’s annoying when a person amounts to so much more than his or her sexuality that — with the rise of gay bashing, on the streets and in certain newspapers — the subject of gayness is still so topical.

Toksvig dislikes, of course, being referred to as “the lesbian comedienne” and says: “When I see comedian — and ‘comedienne’, of course I hate it — I think ‘Oh, really?’ because I think of myself as a writer and broadcaster. Sometimes it’s funny but I’ve just done a piece for Radio 3 all about Mary Wollstonecraft [the 18th-century philosopher and feminist] and there’s not a joke in it.”

There will be jokes aplenty, however, as well as gaiety of the old-fashioned sort at Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker cabaret show, starring Ronnie Corbett. Toksvig has written her own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and each night the roles of Scrooge and Mrs Cratchit will be played by different well-known personalities, Denise van Outen, Maria Friedman and John Humphrys among them.

And what of her new chum? “Ronnie makes me laugh every time I’m in the room with him. He’s got that wonderful ability to make you laugh just with ‘the look’. It helps that we are roughly the same height. He refers to us as The Condiment Set of Comedy, which I quite like.”

There were a few surprises for me on meeting Toksvig. The first was the slightly singsong lilt to her voice, in person, when I’m accustomed to her frightfully British clipped accent as a broadcaster. She says that she sounds more Scandinavian when she’s tired. “Also when you’re performing you’re a different person. I think I’m much duller in real life.” (Not true.) When she’s stressed, she confesses, she dreams in her native tongue. At one point, when we are talking about romance, she breathes in such a husky, accented voice: “Isn’t loff the most fontastic thing?” that, if you closed your eyes, it could be Ingrid Bergman talking.

Her late adored father, Claus, was a foreign correspondent posted to the United States who took along his wife and young family. Toksvig, like her older brother, Nick, who works as a journalist for al-Jazeera in Qatar, and her much younger London-based sister, Jenifer, who writes musicals, was encouraged from an early age to read newspapers (The New York Times from the age of 7, in her case) and be politically engaged. Claus Toksvig wrote for Jyllands-Posten (of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons debacle) and broadcast for Danish radio and television. His elder daughter inherited his passion for current affairs, handily for her role as chair for the BBC Radio 4 The News Quiz.

Claus Toksvig was also a Danish MEP and Sandi, like him, is passionately proEuropean Union. She is also a big Liberal Democrat supporter and does not rule out the possibility of a political career when she retires from “showing off”, as she puts it. “It’s been 30 years now as a career. I’m 51. I enjoy it but I don’t need it.”

There has been some speculation that, with David Howarth departing as MP from the safe Liberal Democrat seat of Cambridge, Toksvig may stand: “Sadly, that’s nonsense,” she says. “But had it been in five years’ time, it might well be that I would have said, ‘Yes’. I want to retire from showing off but I don’t want to retire from doing something useful with my life. So I’m not saying it’s out of the question that I may have a political career in the future. Or I might work full-time for a charity.”

I wonder whether there are any politicians she dislikes intensely. “Yes!” — a big roar of laughter — “I’ve never met the man but I worry deeply that Peter Mandelson has been given so much power in this country but has not been elected to office. I worry that he seems to be the deputy prime minister, he wants to be minister of information, he wants to be foreign secretary . . . the last time I looked, the Labour Party was in favour of democratically electing those people who hold power. It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Conservative government but I am deeply shocked by Mandelson’s pre-eminence.”

I ask Toksvig if she fancied anyone in public life. “Cheryl Cole,” she says, without missing a beat. “I have a crush on Cheryl Cole.” Why? She actually blushes and giggles: “I think she’s really pretty! I should be more cynical but I hope she’s as nice as she looks. I don’t really do crushes but my children do tease me about Cheryl Cole.”

Another politician comes up in a rather different context. We talk about Hillary Clinton’s crush on “vibrant, vital, attractive … so young” David Miliband. “Yes! And about David Miliband!” … a funny look.

“Actually I met her husband once — Bill — and I did have a Monica Lewinsky moment. I thought, ‘Ooooohhhhhh, I get that! Mmmmmmm, very, very sexy’. I was in a room full of people and I was the only woman in the room at that moment. He held me for quite a long time and I would have done anything for him . . . maybe not the full cigar, but, you know . . . sorry!” suddenly remembering herself.

Back in the real world, Toksvig says she adores her partner, Debbie, but does believe that it’s possible to love more than one person: “You need different things from different people. Sometimes you don’t live well together. You can adore someone and be mildly exasperated by them at the same time.” How can you live with someone and not be exasperated by them?

“Debbie and I have a very smooth waltz through life at the moment,” she says. “I’m older now and less inclined to change somebody. We’re married in a civil partnership, which I battled long and hard for, and I hope that’s it. That’s certainly my intention.”

Was Debbie your shrink? “Don’t be so silly,” she cracks up. “ That would be immoral! She would be struck off. Hahahahaha. No, no — she’s terribly boundaried. She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients. I don’t know anything about any of them,” she complains.

This Christmas there will be a full house chez Toksvig (Debbie has taken her surname), but no bigger than their usual Sunday lunch of 14 to 20 people. “Chris [her children’s father] won’t be there because he lives in Portugal in a Buddhist retreat, so he sits around with his foot behind his ear mostly and Christmas is not a big thing for them. But my mum will be there and my brother and my brother’s kids and my sister, my kids and their various partners who now seem to be appearing, and Peta of course, who is my best friend, and quite possibly her mother, who’s still my mother-in-law, it doesn’t make any difference.

“It’s Christmas Eve we celebrate, and it’s very formal — black tie — and we have roast duck and red cabbage, and the boys light the candles on the tree, it’s very sexist, and then we all hold hands and we sing special Danish Christmas songs.”

Toksvig was surprised to discover from her two older children — daughters of 21 and 19, and a son of 15, all delivered by her (is there no end to her talents?) — that their friends think it’s “cool” that they have two mums.

“Who knew it would be cool? It would never have occurred to me. What I do think is that it is an odd team to be on.” What do you mean? “I sometimes feel like I’m the captain of the national lesbian team. But I am who I am. I am myself.

“Would I have chosen to be gay? Probably not. But I didn’t choose, it’s who I am. Am I glad? Absolutely. In fact I suspect that being gay has been the saving of me because it has kept at bay the hideous middle-class woman I would have been. It’s made me much more tolerant, much more accepting and much less likely to assume things about other people. I challenge myself to confront all my prejudices because I have been the victim of prejudice myself.”

Having experienced that pain, would she not wish it upon her children? “So far I think I’ve produced three heterosexual children. But I think life has changed and I wish that they find love wherever they find it. I hope they get giddy with it, and grin!But I would wish them not to have a public life. Today, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, actually.”

* * *

Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker starring Ronnie Corbett and special guests runs from Dec 15 to Dec 24.

southbankcentre.co.uk

Early years

Sandi Toksvig was born in 1958 in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Her father, Claus (whom she once cited as a literary influence), was a foreign correspondent for a Danish television channel. She spent most of her youth in America, a childhood that she retraced for her 2003 travel biography Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey.

Showbiz

Intent on being a lawyer, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, to study law, archaeology and anthropology, but admits “showbusiness got in the way”. She launched her comedy career at Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson as well as graduating with a first-class degree and two awards for outstanding achievement.

She moved via children’s television into broadcasting and then on to the comedy circuit.

She has appeared as a panellist and presenter on shows including Call My Bluff and Have I Got News for You. She presents the BBC Radio 4 travel programme Excess Baggage and replaced Simon Hoggart as chairman of The News Quiz in 2006.

Other strings

In 1995 she sailed around Britain on a yachting adventure with the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy. She has also canoed across Africa, written books and in 2007 was named Political Humourist of the Year at the Channel 4 Political Awards and Radio Broadcaster of the Year by the Broadcasting Press Guild.

On Ronnie Corbett

We’re just two tiny little people. We’re doing something in the show together — a very small song and dance, with just the two of us on the stage. Hopefully it will go well.

On her father, a journalist

In those days, long before 24-hour rolling news, we used to go to the airport, quite often, with a roll of film and my dad would go up to somebody who was taking a flight to Copenhagen and say: “Would you mind taking this back?” And it would be the news but it wouldn’t be the news for 24 or 36 hours.

On childhood

I have strong memories of the death of Martin Luther King. My father insisted on speaking to us about it and, most of all, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, since they had spent so much time together on the election trail.

On hobbies

I fantasise about being a recluse because I am quite hermit-like — I like carpentry, and weaving and embroidery, and jam-making. I’d like to learn how to make cider.

On her partner, Debbie, a psychotherapist

She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients, nothing at all. I’d be so fascinated. Other people’s problems are fascinating.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

Celebrities, Comedians

Being Graham Norton

THE TIMES – June 1, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Britain’s naughtiest chat-show host has played his camp, cheekie-chappie card to the max. But now he’s showing worrying signs of growing up. Ginny Dougary watched him dip his toe into the US market – and asked a few rude questions of her own.

THE AFTERNOON REHEARSAL FOR GRAHAM NORTON’S New York television show had barely begun before I was thrown out, which was strange since I was sitting next to the entertainer’s business partner at So TV, Graham Stuart, who had invited me in as his guest.

The idea had been for me to get an impression of what the chat-show host was like behind the scenes. Norton was in his mufti, as opposed to one of his bad-taste TV suits, of low-slung jeans showing off his svelte new body, a sexy T-shirt and trainers. After having interviewed him, I’d say he is more insecure about his looks than any woman I’ve come across — which is a shame as he’s quite cute enough, a bit like a bouncy version of the Warhol star, Joe Dellesandro.

The script just needed a final dusting: an uncontroversial Iraq joke — “Dolphins? Isn’t that a little odd for a war in the desert?”; a news flash that Hugh Grant has announced that he’s giving up acting (“I thought he had already”) and an obligatory smutty joke about masturbation. Norton asked the floor manager whether an American audience would understand “wanking.” “I learnt it today for the first time,” she says. Quick as a flash, he replied: “Well, that’s a lifetime wasted.” “So naughty, so campy so saucy”, as the usually sober Wall Street Journal described So Graham Norton.

He had just got into running through his Oscars questions with the researcher who was “being” the actress Susan Sarandon, when a thunder-faced man from the front row bounded up the stairs to whisper something in my neighbour’s ear. I heard the words “Get rid of her”. Awkwardly, Graham Stuart, although creative producer, had been overruled by Jon Magnusson (son of Magnus), executive producer, who did not want a journalist observing the proceedings. And so we were forced to depart.

Poor Stuart began to bluster, to which I responded, “But didn’t he say ‘Get rid of her” and he collapsed in mortified laughter. He begged me not to write about the incident — obviously realising how at odds with the relaxed, apparent spontaneity of the show such high-handed behaviour would look. But, as I pointed out to him, that’s precisely what made it interesting. If part of Norton’s appeal is that what you see is what you get, then what could there conceivably be to hide from a journalist’s gaze? And, to be fair, as far as I know Norton himself had raised no objections to me being there anyway.

Of course, while control-freakery is not part of Channel 4’s remit, it is absolutely routine in Hollywood. Now that Norton is on our screens five nights a week, with his sights clearly set on the States, perhaps his burgeoning success means that he is increasingly less likely to be surrounded by cheery, down-to-earth individuals like himself.

There is definitely something sweet about Norton’s manner; that combination of mischief and innocence abroad in the world of foolish mortals is not merely his schtick for the stage. Although innuendo is hard to avoid when you are around him — my question “Do you go down well in Sydney?” is greeted by an inevitable titter — mercifully he doesn’t go in for endless wisecracks. He has often commented that he would find it alarming as well as draining, for himself as much as anyone else, were he as full-on off the screen as he is on it.

The idea that he may be irredeemably uncool does seem to exercise him a bit. He once said he hoped never to find himself described as the “class clown” by an old schoolmate, which suggests that he is sensitive to the suggestion that he might have been. Like other Norton fans — although less of him for me is definitely more — he first came to my attention as the hilariously gruesome happy-clappy priest in Father Ted, singing Pogues songs in the campervan long into the night. His reading of his youth-obsessed priest was that he was a touch on the pervy side, but that’s not the way his Channel 4 bosses wanted him to play it. I think he has become more circumspect as his profile has grown, while still managing to be offensive about the celebrities on his hitlist: Celine Dion being his current top dog.

Even in the old days, which were not all that long ago (just turned 40, Norton was still waiting on tables in his early thirties), he was reluctant to dish the dirt on his more difficult interviewees. But he did apologise to his interviewers for having to be so discreet, on the grounds that if he dissed one of the powerful agents’ clients he wouldn’t be able to get anyone else from their stable.

No with the exception of Raquel Welch whom he once called “a grumpy old bitch” on air — “I did, and in fairness no one’s come up to contradict me” he can’t remember any of his guests being tricky or even weird. I had been told by someone who worked on the programme that Bo Derek, for instance, didn’t get it at all. “I think she was all right, though, we’ve had her twice.” I read that Boy George got grumpy… “Did he? I don’t remember him getting grumpy” He says that some people “get quite silent and just wait for it to end because they don’t like it”, but he doesn’t elaborate further.

I am by no means a Celine Dion fan .— in fact, everything about her sets my teeth on edge but by the end of Norton’s sustained spiel against her in New York, “I read a headline in a British newspaper, Dog Has Facelift, and to my surprise it had nothing to do with Celine Dion… I expect she’s at home relaxing in front of the fire, licking her balls” and so on, I actually began to feel sorry for her. It was too cruel, like witnessing a schoolboy bully attack ing the playground misfit.

Norton says, most disingenuously, that “When I call her a dog, I’m not calling her ugly; I’m literally calling her a dog. She looks like a dog!” This discovery came about from one of his shows’ games, Stars in Your Pets’ Eyes, in which audience members brought in their pets who allegedly looked like famous people: “There was an Afghan hound and we put a sort of glittery snood on its head and it looked sooooo like Celine Dion it was uncanny.”

I’m sorry, Graham, but it’s just ridiculous for you to pretend that you’re not being incredibly rude about her. “I like dogs!” he says. Now come on, if you adored Celine Dion “Oh, I don’t adore Celine Dion.” What precisely do you find so ghastly about her? “Erm. Nothing really. I think what she’s done is quite clever, going to Las Vegas for three years. That’s a very good idea rather than trying to make albums and have hits and so on.”

Over the years he has mercilessly lampooned a number of female celebrities, although now that he tends to hobnob with them at parties, it’s probably quite convenient that he’s forgotten which ones were once his victims. “Minnie Driver? What have I said about Minnie Driver?” (“She’s just so ambitious and needy” to take one random comment.)

So does he have any male targets? “Erm, Michael Douglas is quite high up on our list. Basically our constant joke is that he’s dead. I’ll do jokes about Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas because, like, what the f*** do they care about what I think about them? You know what I mean? They’re in love, they’re rich, they’re happy, they’ve got babies, they’ve got Oscars, so what does it matter? Let’s have them.”

“What the television does is take the mirror and move it around…you live with constant self-loathing”

Since he’s hardly aiming to be Jeremy Paxman, it’s probably not surprising that Norton tends to have people he likes or admires on the show: Mo Mowlam (who is now a friend), Joan Collins, Dolly, Cher, Whoopi and Dustin. He wouldn’t want to ask them tough or controversial questions, partly because he’s relying on their goodwill to make fools of themselves on one of his daft games towards the end of the show. But he also has his own, not always immediately apparent, ethical sense of what is appropriate television.

I ask him whether he’s ever had anyone on the show whose views I imagine he finds obnoxious, like, say, gun enthusiast Charlton Heston, and I’m surprised by the force of his response: “I think Charlton Heston is a very, very old man and it’s sort of cruel to wheel him out as a spokesperson for anything. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think he could order a breakfast, so to ask him to justify why people should have the right to bear arms seems…”

Did you see Michael Moore’s film? (Bowling for Columbine, a passionate anti-gun documentary, featuring Charlton Heston,) “Yes, and I think Michael Moore’s a very bright man but he does a lot of shouting at receptionists. He seems to make his point with people who have no power; the people he’s supposed to be the friend of. He never gets to talk to the head of whatever company he’s attacking, and so he always rants at some receptionist or security guard, and you think, ‘What’s the point of that?’ He would supposedly want that receptionist to have better working conditions, and one of those improved conditions would be not to have a fat man with a beard shouting at you.”

I say that I would definitely want to ask Cher about her Botox habit: “Yes, and you can. Because your interview will be good whether she’s happy, sad or serious. She was genuinely upset when she said that she knows when people tell her she looks great, in brackets afterwards it’s understood they mean ‘for your age’. That she will never actually look great again.”

I roll my eyes and he says: “It’s the world’s revenge on pretty people, is what it is. ‘The plain shall inherit the earth.’ We’ll be in old people’s homes looking at old photographs saying, ‘Oh look, what happy days,’ and Cher will be sobbing.”

Hey, excuse me, I don’t think of myself as “plain” exactly, thank you very much — and I don’t think you are either. “We don’t trade on our beauty” he says, mock-primly. “We never have.”

But Dolly’s quite happy to talk about all her plastic surgery, isn’t she? “Yes, and she still looks fantastic, but she can’t keep looking like that. It’s the same as someone needing to be talked down off a building. They need to be talked down into age. The danger is that they’ve kept it at bay for so long, it’s like they need some kind of age counselling.”

Heat magazine apparently rang Norton’s agent and insisted they knew that he’d had a face-lift in America, and she phoned him in a panic to ask if it was true. “And I said, ‘Don’t you think I would have sued a plastic surgeon if this is how I looked after my plastic surgery!” Which is almost as horrible as anything he says about Celine Dion.

It was seeing himself on television that prompted him to lose weight. He says that producers and directors just tell insecure performers that telly puts on at least 7lb: “And it soooo doesn’t. When I had more weight on, I could tuck a shirt in, pull it so, look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, I look all right.’ And all day long you’d have a certain level of confidence about that being the way you looked.

“But what television does is take the mirror and move it around, so that you suddenly see a bit of flab hanging here or there. So losing weight is to do with me not liking to look like that, but I only knew that I did because of television.”

He says that when he was younger he never felt particularly slim or attractive either: “See, that’s the tragedy You live with constant self-loathing, and the terrible thing is that as you get older, you look at old pictures of yourself and go, ‘God! I looked really good then. What was I thinking?”

He has said that it was a bit of a blow to him to discover not that he was gay but that he was camp. He also said something interesting about how most gay men would like to be taken as straight, explaining that that’s what being a gay man is about, liking men. On the surface of it, Norton does not appear to be riddled with neuroses but when he refers to his self-loathing — which, however casually presented, is a pretty strong statement — one wonders whether that uncomfortable accommodation with himself can be traced back to his early effeminacy; a sense of difference which was compounded by his family being Protestants in the Catholic stronghold of Bandon, County Cork.

We ponder what it is that makes certain homosexuals mince and flap their hands. Where do those giveaway mannerisms come from? He ummms and ahhhs and finally says, “I don’t know is the short answer. I mean, I don’t think I developed being camp, I think I was quite a camp child.” But I’ve never met a little boy who talks like Kenneth Williams. “Oh no, I think little boys do that,” he grins. “And the parents are obviously sitting there going, ‘Oh God.”

He continues: “It is an interesting idea where it comes from. It’s like how everyone who comes from a certain town has a particular demeanour or accent… it’s a unifying thing. It’s also self-protecting. You could be seen as emotionally vulnerable, and so if you have this very strong veneer you can say, ‘Actually this is me; I’ve created this’… and I suppose it’s also a kind of badge of belonging which can make you feel less isolated.”

What is odd, we agree, is that when a woman acts like a particularly poofy man it sounds totally unnatural. “Yes, it’s true that when women are arch or camp you suddenly realise, oh, those qualities that you thought in a gay man were feminine, actually aren’t. They are ‘other’; they are something else completely”

What is laudable, and certainly likeable, about Norton is the apparent ease with which he retains his links with the normal world. He is obviously jolly well-off, being in the position to turn down a £5-milJlion overture from the BBC to stay with Channel 4, and while he has property in New York and Cape Town, he continues to live in a three-bedroom house in the decidedly unstarry East End neighbourhood of Bow. He shared the house with his American boyfriend, Scott Michaels, but they separated in 2001 after being together for Graham Norton five years; Norton’s newfound celebritydom as the sing-along being a contributing factor to the break-up.

He is now on the guest list of A-list Hollywood hosts, but Norton’s real friends are still the ones he made years ago at the Central School of Art and Drama, waiting tables and dreaming up tasteless sketches about Mother Teresa and Karen Carpenter to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he wants to go to The Ivy, he’ll just book a table and pay for the pals who can’t afford it: “The way I look at it, I used to pay for Scott, so it was no skin off my nose to pay for other people. And my friends know it’s not costing me really. Something that would be a big chunk of their wages, just isn’t for me.”

He’s single at the moment, which suits him, he says, because he doesn’t really think he’s cut out for relationships, He considers it an achievement that he lived with Scott for as long as he did, and during their first few years together they only saw each other once a month in either LA or London. He spent a summer living in Soho but it was not a success: “It was too much for me; I’m too old.”

Is he worried that if he picks someone up in a bar, it’ll end up as a kiss’n’tell story? “What are they going to tell? I suppose they could sell one of those ‘He was crap in bed’ stories, but I don’t think the tabloids are that interested in how good or bad gay men are in bed.” What about a rent boy story? “Oh, rent boy would be good, but then you don’t have to be careful there, you just need not to do it. You don’t suddenly get a bill and think, ‘Oh, I’ve been with a rent boy’ you kind of know when that’s going on. How about if I stole a girl’s boyfriend? They’d like that. Or if I went out with a closeted celebrity, they’d love that.”

Indeed, as he knows from experience, the tabloids love the idea of that story so much they’re not above inventing it… which was what happened a couple of years back when Norton went to the Brits “on a date” as it was reported, with Ben Fogle, the handsome (and straight) former picture editor of Tatler and star of the BBC’s Castaway. The next morning both men were doorstepped at their separate homes, “and I think poor old Ben was a bit freaked out by it. He’d not had that sort of attention before and it was weird — like being gay is a sort of contagious disease. ‘Oh, he’s had contact with one of the gays.’ You know”

One thing I couldn’t help noticing when doing my research on Norton was that he had a slightly unreliable CV; not in a Jeffrey Archer-self-aggrandising way but more in terms of emphasis or contradictions. There is a question mark, for instance, over what almost every respectable journalist refers to as Norton’s “psychotic episode” (the words are always attributed to him), which he allegedly had while living in appalling digs in his first year at Cork University, featuring fornicating couples in the hallway, bounding rats and winter flies kept in a polystyrene dish on top of one of Norton’s speakers. But now when I ask him about the phrase, he says, ‘‘Psychotic episode’? I can’t believe I’d ever say that I’ve had a psychotic episode. I’ve never had a psychotic episode.”

The detail that is most muddling is how seriously he ever contemplated becoming a rent boy himself. The story has come up in various forms over the years; the general line being that the young Norton thought it was the only way he might be able to have gay sex. However, he now says dryly: “My prostitution career has, I think, been much exaggerated. The confusion is that there’s a story I told in a show I did called Charlie Angels go to Hell which is about me when I lived in a hippie commune in San Francisco when I was 18, and it’s about a friend of mine who did have a plan to become a prostitute… but in the show I told her story as though it happened to me.”

He then proceeds to tell me about his friend’s bizarre attempts at phone sex, naked in a glass box, and how she ended up giving oral sex to a pornographer because she was too unworldly to say no. But still, I’m sure I have read quite unequivocal accounts of him weighing up the pros and cons of going on the game himself So I ask him outright whether he ever did consider it? “No.” And that isn’t one of those lies you have said you sometimes tell journalists? “No.”

Yet this is what he told an Esquire journalist, David Quantick, in 1999: “Because I was from Ireland and I was so naive, it seemed that the only way to have sex, to broach the subject, was to turn it into a career. I didn’t know how to chat people up or go into bars. So I was doing it for all the wrong reasons — for the sex, not for the money.”

Quantick went on to explain the three reasons why Norton did not go through with it, two of which the comedian has given to various reporters over the years. One was that God saved him from such sinfulness just in the nick of time: “The night before, a pressure cooker exploded on me causing a large blistering on my chest, which I just took as a sign from God.” And, two that his would-be pimp wanted to have sex with him first to test him out: “He was annoyed that I went, ‘Actually, no.’ He said if you apply for a job as a secretary, you have to type a letter. And I thought, ‘You’ve said that before.’ It’s so callous and horrible.”

Reading these two versions of the rent-boy episode does make one wonder whether Norton may not be sanitising his past, per haps because no American network would be likely to touch an entertainer — Rupert Everett notwithstanding — who even flirted with the idea of being a male prostitute.

Whenever he talks about his year in the commune, however, he never pokes fun at any of his San Fran former housemates, which someone who was determined to reinvent himself might be tempted to do. They do sound vaguely cultish — or at the very least deeply stoned — renaming themselves by picking three letters out of a box. “Obo”, now in his sixties, is the man to whom Norton lost his virginity — “and now poor Obo is bothered by journalists every six months, when he’s just a nice man whom I don’t think is gay but felt duty bound because he was a hippie.”

I mention the group marriage (Obo apparently had 14 wives, or maybe not). “I don’t think it was 14, but he did elope from a group marriage with a girlfriend who had got pregnant and when the baby was born, it was black, so she had eloped with the wrong man.” God, I say, this must have been the Jerry Springer episode of your life. “But I was just the sweet, innocent Irish boy skipping through it, collecting stories,” he says.

Norton’s career took off in 1997, after he won Best Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards, vaulting over Jack Docherty whom he had stood in for over the summer. “He was lovely about it, very generous and nice,” is his recollection of what must have been a tricky evening. He shook my hand and said, ‘Well done.” Soon after, Channel 4 offered Norton his first series.

In those early interviews, he often spoke in a constrained, slightly dismissive way about his family. But not any more, particularly since the death in 2000 of his father, Billy, to whom Norton dedicated the first of his four Baftas a week later. (Wanting to avoid mawkishness, he simply said his gong was for “Billy Walker”; most people in the audience did not realise that the comedian’s original name was Walker changed to Norton because Equity already had a Graham Walker.)

He’s not religious, but the ritual of the funeral was important to him: “If you left the hospital and that was it, it wouldn’t be enough because it’s your dad — your dad’s dead — and you want all these people to come together and say that the life mattered. And it was lovely. It couldn’t have gone better. It was a beautiful day”

He always thought that he was more like his mother, Rhoda “in that classic gay man way, yada yada yada”, but now he’s finding out more and more about his father he’s not so sure. “Suddenly friends and relations and work colleagues are talking about him in a way they never talked about him before because why would they then – he was there.

“He was shyer than my mother but with a very sunny disposition, a very nice, gentle man. In the nursing room after they’d called us and said, ‘He’s gone’, the nurses were in tears and were so sweet and lovely. It was surprising because this was an old people’s home. I mean, nobody gets to go home.”

When he talks about his days in Sunday School, it is like listening to a Graham Norton sketch — with the horrid vision of his Father Noel lurking somewhere not so very far away “Was it called Scripture Union or The Sunshine Club? Or was it called Happy Hour? I think that was it. Oh, the irony of it all.

“I remember a lady giving this talk with an easel and lovely pictures, and there was one of a door and Jesus was outside knocking. And the door was covered in ivy because it hadn’t been opened for years. But someone did open the door and Jesus stepped in… and that was the door to your heart. [This getting almost unbearably kitsch] And I do remember trying very hard to open the door of my heart to Jesus arid I believe [look] the ivy is still there. No, nothing happened. But, actually, if there is a God I think he’s not a very nice person so it’s irrelevant to me whether he exists or not.”

It’s time to wrap up; Norton’s got a show to rehearse. He tells me he’s toying with the idea of writing a book, having been singularly unimpressed by other people’s efforts about his life. He’s a bright chap with more talent, I suspect, than is currently on display. I wonder whether he ever gets sick of the dirty knickers aspects of his show? He admits he does and thinks that this series is already quite different from its predecessors: “There’s a lot less audience stories. We rarely do big games. There are fewer props on the show [Bang & Olufsen phone, which still looks pretty preposterous, has replaced the doggy-blower] and the guests get to speak more. You know, it’s evolving.”

I interviewed Oprah Winfrey, some years ago, when she had decided that her show needed to evolve in a radically different direction. She turned her back on the freak-show confessionals and went up-market, introducing her now famous book club. It’s hard to imagine Norton going the same way but then it’s equally hard to imagine him doing the same campy trash in ten years’ time. If he continues to tone down his show, as he claims he is doing, we might eventually end up with something relatively mainstream.

An un-naughty Graham Norton? That’s sooooo scary!

Actors, Celebrities, Comedians

Of make-up, men and fantasies

THE TIMES – February 17 2000
Ginny Dougary

Eddie Izzard is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being an outstanding comedian. Despite his penchant for high heels, lipstick and dresses, women not only love him, they find him sexy, too.

“And ladies, if you are wearing high heels you will be asked to remove them.” The safety instructions on the plane coming back from Paris sounded weirder than usual. Hang on a minute, I thought, there’s something missing here. Shouldn’t that be ladies and gentlemen? This is what comes of spending 24 hours in the company of Eddie Izzard. You may not end up thinking like him – how could you? – but you do begin to see the world a little more through his eyes. Our marathon together had been scheduled to start on the Wednesday morning when Eddie, a member of the Labour Party since 1995, was to join Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, at the Gare du Nord. The comedian is passionately pro-Europe and has lent his services to the Labour Party’s “Your Britain . . . Your Europe” roadshow.
The idea is to meet and greet the press, travel by Eurostar to Waterloo – canvassing the views of passengers en route – before heading straight back again for the third night of his show in a sometime striptease joint in La Pigalle. As it was, we had been up the previous evening talking in the hotel bar – switching from French to English to Franglais – until three in the morning. He was still on a post-performance high, although there was nothing feverish or giddy about his demeanour. In fact, he seemed impassive, even expressionless, compared with the electric ooomph of his stage persona. But then his face was so stiff with make-up that it might have been hard for him to move his features. Still, his manner was cordial, if not exactly friendly, and he was relaxed enough to pass time in idle chit-chat.

What was most startling was his Look. I had seen him on television years ago when he made a grumpy appearance on one of Ruby Wax’s shows, and more recently on Have I Got News For You?; watched one of his videos with friends; witnessed him in the flesh playing a serious role opposite Lindsay Duncan in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram; and doing his one-man show in a small off-Broadway theatre in New York, where the audience sat on cushions on the floor, and the fans backstage included Helen Mirren and her American film producer husband. Each time I saw him I thought: Wow! Isn’t he sexy! A sentiment, incidentally, that is shared by every woman I know. Straight men have a right to be puzzled by this phenomenon, since Eddie is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being funny. What he calls himself is a male lesbian; so I suppose that makes all us women gay.

For anyone who was reared on the androgynous rock of the 1970s – Bowie and Jagger et al in their make-up and girly blouses; the Transsexual Transylvania of the Rocky Horror Show – there’s nothing all that traumatic about the sight of a bloke in eyeshadow and a spot of nail polish. And there is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Eddie, from the pounding techno that builds up the atmosphere before he careers on to the stage, to his PVC trousers and spiky peroxide hair. The style he favours – the one that suits him best, he says – is “the boy/girl-type thing.” With the vogue for perfume ads featuring crop-haired boyish-girls and girlish-boys, Eddie’s image – admittedly with a bit more slap than the norm – has a distinctively contemporary feel. This must be why, at first, I don’t recognise the slim figure who appears in the foyer of the hotel.

Odd really, because unless the hotel was hosting a transvestites’ convention, the likelihood of there being two trannies – or TVs as Eddie prefers to call them – staying at the same time was rather remote. The point was that this was Eddie as I had never seen him before: in a skirt, albeit a rather smart black Gaultier kilt, stockings, perilously high spike-heeled, knee-length boots and dated drag-queen make-up. When I told him that this, for me, was A Look Too Far, he seemed genuinely interested.

Although he has been “out” for a long time, he hasn’t had as long as the rest of us to fine-tune what works for him and what doesn’t, and so he chooses to value what people have to say rather than to take offence.

The next morning, at the Gare du Nord, Eddie is the closest he gets to looking straight. Which is still pretty out-there for most people. His maquillage is minimal: tinted moisturiser, powder and mascara. Helen, who is doing his make-up on this tour, says he has got the best skin-care routine of anyone she knows.

Inevitably, the Paris correspondents, mostly middle-aged men, confronted with the sight of sober-suited Vaz and high-heeled Izzard, go for the Odd Couple angle. Reading the reports later, I am struck by how inaccurate men are when writing about clothes and make-up. For the record, Eddie was wearing bronze nail polish on his long nails, a jaunty red and black plaid jacket, slim-cut black tuxedo pants and a black T-shirt.

Later, on the radio, when Keith Vaz is being quizzed on the complexities not of the euro, but of Eddie’s wardrobe, I am amused to hear him describe his fellow traveller’s get-up as “the kind of outfit I often see in the House of Commons”. He was, of course, being non-gender specific.

Everyone wants to hear what Eddie has to say, and poor Keith has to battle to get any attention. Eddie deals in sweeping generalities – “I like the idea of us all working together. . . if we can do it, it might mean the end of war . . . a blueprint for the rest of the world . . .” – the big vision-type thing, as he might say, leaving the Minister to cope with the boring detail which, predictably, no one is interested in.

The Minister says that Tony (Blackadder) Robinson and the chief executive of Monarch Airlines have joined Eddie Izzard as unofficial champions of Labour’s push on Europe – “the kind of people that ordinary British people relate to” – and presents the people’s transvestite with a plaque.

On the Eurostar a miked-up Eddie and Keith are accompanied by two TV crews, one from the BBC, as well as an assortment of young men from the Foreign Office – policy wonks and chaps from the press office – and me. Despite our previous night’s conversation into the early hours, Eddie has yet to show me the slightest flicker of recognition.

As we make our way down the carriages, I lob a few comments his way but he barely acknowledges them. Although I can see that he is both exhausted and focusing all his energy on the job at hand, this blanking or blocking off – a phrase he uses a lot about his survival technique when we finally get down to the interview at midnight – is rather unnerving. On one level it makes sense if one considers this interaction with the public as another performance and that he is suffering from pre-show nerves. On another, I wonder if his transvestism – and the aggro that he still gets from wearing women’s clothes – has trained him not to respond to people on the periphery of his vision. Or maybe he just doesn’t do small talk.

It’s a funny old day. When Keith Vaz asks me what I’m doing on the train, I say I’m going to interview Eddie and he says: “Eddie who?” Er, Eddie Izzard, you know, who you’re doing the roadshow with. “Ohhh,” he says, “I thought you meant Eddie George.” How new Labour to have the Governor of the Bank of England at the forefront of your mind. Eddie (Izzard) is definitely the euro star. English and French businessmen and students ask him for his autograph.

While Keith has the politician’s knack of saying a few words and moving on, Eddie can’t tear himself away. When possible, he launches into French. Since he is doing his entire Paris show en français – remarkably, since he has never got beyond O-Level standard – he probably needs all the practice he can get.

By the time we draw into Waterloo, Eddie’s face has taken on a ghastly veal-coloured pallor. We are greeted by a pesky press agency journalist who is going for the provocative angle: “Some might say that having a comedian on the roadshow speaks for itself.”

Eddie, who is a lifetime member of the European Movement, bridles: “I am a comedian, as you say, but I’m also someone who can speak my mind.”

In the sanctuary of the Eurostar press lounge, we are joined by Angela Billingham, a former Labour MEP, who says she is still spitting blood and stone after losing her seat at the recent European election. “I’m sure you’ll find it again,” Eddie says like an arrested eight-year-old. Angela chides, “You’re not too old to be smacked,” and then wonders whether she is the token woman in the room.

Angela compares her finger-nails (frosted pink) to Eddie’s muddy talons, and pronounces: “Oooo, I don’t like yours at all.” An exceedingly dapper Foreign Office man asks Eddie to sign a programme from Lenny, apologising for doing such a creepy thing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for an autograph,” he confides to me. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to see him live four times.” Eddie does another radio interview: “I know that Europe is not a very sexy subject . . . but the things you can do in Europe are sexy . . . like travel and having sex. In fact, More Sex For Europe is the government line, I think.” We all laugh hugely.

But not everyone loves Eddie. Passing through security before re-embarkation, I am frisked by a jolly black woman who chortles at my Diana Ross joke, although she has heard that one a lot recently. Eddie totters on ahead and she turns to her male colleague and says: “Disgusting that is, and a man of that size.” There is a look of real revulsion on their faces, and as I watch them watching Eddie’s retreating form – a man in make-up and high heels who they have no idea is a star – I catch a glimpse of just how plucky he has had to be to be the way he is.

In the back room of La Boule Noire, behind a velvet curtain, Eddie is having a last-minute French lesson with his young teacher. It is hard to imagine anyone shining with the handicap of a foreign language – and after such a punishing day. He was up at 6.45 after hardly any sleep, had breakfast with various British Embassy bods, an interview on the Today programme, a rendezvous at the Senate for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Council of Europe, and that was all before we met at the Gare du Nord. But he does shine – mostly anyway, and with the help of a forgiving audience.

He wisely decides to address his transvestism straight away – saying, since we are in a notorious red-light area, that he is not “un travesti pute”, ( prostitute) but “un travesti exécutif” (puffing out his chest) and, indeed, “un travesti action”. It may not be widely known that Eddie’s alternative career possibilities were civil engineering – although the word “civil” worried him – or joining the Army.

The audience seems slightly bemused but willing to fall for him. One of the reasons why his humour travels well is that his subjects are both epic and mundane enough to cross most boundaries: supermarkets, the Royal Family, the merits of Vanessa Paradis versus those of Johnny Depp, Aristotle and Socrates, dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the fall of the British Empire, Stonehenge, and a great riff on why whales are the DJs of the ocean, all woven together in a characteristically ingenious Eddie loop. Actually, his French is pretty good and getting better every night after the day’s swotting. Nevertheless, when I ask the three women behind me what they thought of the show, they said that although it was “extraordinaire”, there were just too many mistakes to carry off the big ideas.

Back at the hotel Eddie is sitting in my room, smoking for Europe and wearing my bathrobe because I have insisted on having the window open. He is clearly running on empty and still rather down about his performance, disappointed with himself for losing it on a couple of occasions (trying to master a Welsh accent in French proved particularly troublesome). When I remind him that he said the same thing about his New York show, he says that here the fear is much greater than usual, “even though you might have ideas that are nice to play with – ‘the universe is, er, ugh, vairy beeg’ – you are talking with the command of an eight-year-old and you’re just not getting the curves on it.”

At first he mutters away, very fast and very low, with a slightly sullen expression on his face. But the more up-front I am with him, the more engaged and engaging he becomes.

I wonder whether before Eddie came out in his true fantastic colours he might have come across as a bland, rather inspid character. I have interviewed a number of transsexuals and transvestites, and when they showed me old photographs of their pre-operative or blokey selves they always looked supremely dull fellows – almost as though their public selves were an exaggeratedly toned-down counterpoint to the flamboyance of their private compulsions. What would I have made of Eddie, for instance, if I had come across him when he was studying accountancy at Sheffield University?

He says he was a slob in a camel coat who didn’t give a flying monkey’s about his appearance. “I didn’t really bother buying clothes because I felt that everything somehow looked wrong on me.” But did you always have this surreal way of thinking? “In the sense of working out what I wanted to do type-thing?” No, the way you talk. “This way now or the way I am on stage?” Well, you’re a bit like you are on stage off stage as well.

I try another tack. Would I have thought you were just an ordinary, boring boy if I had met you when you were a 17-year-old doing maths, physics and chemistry A levels?” “No,” he says. “I would have attempted to make you laugh because this comedy has developed as a social tool.”

Ah, the classic scenario then: lonely, isolated boy who finds popularity through becoming the class clown. But Eddie says it wasn’t like that at all. It was not until he went to a school where, bizarrely, they didn’t play football – a sport at which he had excelled at his previous school, where he played in the first team – that he showed any interest in becoming funny. He was never bullied, he says, because he was such a ferocious arguer: “I would do that small dog, bigger dog thing – ruffruffruffruffruff [he barks like a terrier] – and make a helluvalotta noise and the bigger dog would go ‘Well, I won’t bother with this one’,” he says in his Sean Connery accent.

By the time he got to Sheffield – choosing a northern university to escape from the South – the only thing he wanted to do was to become a comedian, but he was dismayed to discover the student union would not support him taking an act to the Edinburgh Festival. He went anyway, writing and funding the gig himself. “It was a huge psychological thing and it was a crap piece of work, but we did it.”

He dropped out of university and had a miserable 1980s, living in a “bungalow thingy” near Streatham Common with a bunch of fellow street performers, waiting to be discovered. At his second school he had begged the headmaster each year to give him a role in the Easter musical, but it was thought his talents were better employed playing the clarinet in the orchestra, and so there he remained.

Although he is still perplexed by the headmaster’s obduracy – and told him so when he revisited the school – he reckons it was useful training learning how to endure setbacks. “I got to 18, 19, 20 and said ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh. I’ve been writing sketches . . . someone’s bound to discover me’ – but it just kept on not happening.”

And when it finally did happen – after he graduated from the streets, to the Comedy Store, to his own sell-out show – that was the moment Eddie chose to come out.

Some commentators have erroneously linked Eddie’s transvestism with the death of his mother when he was six, at which age he was dispatched to boarding school with his older brother. Eddie believes that his sexuality was genetically pre-ordained, and his earliest memories – as far back as the age of four – were of him wanting to wear girls’ clothes.

But his mother’s early death has certainly affected him in other ways. He describes himself as “emotionally compressed” and says he does not get too high or too low: “It’s kind of a survival thing.” The stand-up gives him the opportunity to get a lot of the highs out of his system, and he uses his serious roles (most recently as the late American comedian Lenny Bruce) to explore his anger and his lows. He has always needed his own space, physically and emotionally – long before he was famous – and lets people come to him rather than risk approaching them.

There is something so essentially detached about his presence – despite him having warmed up considerably by now – that I imagine he probably finds any kind of intimacy difficult. He says he inherited his reserve from his father, but the effect of his mother dying when he was so young was to make him emotionally stunted.

“In the scheme of things people lose entire families in concentration camps and so on but . . . I cried a lot and was caned a lot and just lost it at school, and then I got into this boy thing and couldn’t kiss my Dad anymore.”

The tears stopped abruptly at the age of 11, when he thought he had lost a fight because he cried. “So I blocked all that up and remained blocked until I was 19.”

The turning point for him was in Sheffield when he tried unsuccessfully to stop a feral cat running into the road and saw it being run over. “It had broken its back; I picked it up and it struggled to breathe and then it just died, and I felt nothing.

“So I thought ‘My God I am dead, I feel nothing. This is not good.’ I took it to the vet’s because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forced myself to cry.”

Do you still block stuff off? “Yes. There’s still a natural compressed emotional state which isn’t a great place to be, but then again I can be like this [he gestures to his appearance] and when people say negative things I’m not that bothered. It’s a good survival technique.”

In his show, while musing on the ghastliness of adolescence, Eddie had told us that he managed to lose his virginity only at 21. “Ce n’est pas cool,” he said, before affecting to change his mind. “C’est cool, mais dans un style très sad-f***er.” He has always been attracted to women and has had several long-term relationships. He used to turn up to Have I Got News for You with a girlfriend, and he is with someone now – though she does not wish to be discussed with journalists for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he is able to express himself and have rows and so on. “Oh yeah.” And are you able to say weedy things? “Weedy things?” You know, be soppy. “Oh yeah. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the kid who had been to public school – because they wouldn’t ever let themselves cry or get in touch with their emotions. So I am in touch with my emotions, although I will steel over them.

“I mean, the whole thing of coming out as transvestite is a big key to how I work. Because the – arrrgh – amount of guts it takes to come out, and what I or any person who does come out has to go through – it’s tough. And it’s so visual as a TV and you get so much flak and you look such a mess initially in the frumpy transvestite phase when you’re not out enough to say ‘I wonder what this would look like?’, which is what a normal boy or girl or man or woman would do.”

Before we get into the grittiest of the nitty-gritty about what makes a TV tick – or, at any rate this TV – I feel that something must be cleared up. At which point, may I suggest that readers of a delicate disposition STOP READING NOW – after which warning if you do cancel your subscription to The Times we will know that you have been unable to resist temptation.

Right. Now if all of us women fancy Eddie, it is likely that somewhere down the line some of us must have imagined what it would be like to be physically entwined with him. And once one goes down that route, inevitably what enters one’s mind is the penis-type thing. And so Eddie, I ask, do you use your penis penetratively? A question, incidentally, that I do not recollect ever having asked a man before, interviewee or otherwise. Perhaps being with someone who has to be brave every day of his life has an emboldening effect. And mercifully, he doesn’t bat a (smokey grey and kohl-lined) eyelid.

Yes, he says, he does, “if the other woman is into the penis but if not, fine.” I had always understood that transvestites were heterosexual men who simply had a fetish – a word Eddie dislikes, as I am to discover – for women’s clothing. Transsexuals, on the other hand, were men who felt they were a woman trapped inside the wrong body, men who loathed their maleness and saw their penis as a constant physical rebuke.

But Eddie says TVs and TSs are on exactly the same path, it is just that the latter are farther down it. Until recently he described himself as a heterosexual, but got fed up with journalists writing that he insists on calling himself hetero, as though it were a mask for his gayness (he has never attempted to go to bed with a man) and drag queens accusing him of being a liar. Male lesbian, he thinks, fits the bill and avoids any suggestion that he is distancing himself from other sexual minorities.

But does he, like transsexuals, hate his penis? “The penis is immaterial,” he says, which certainly sets him apart from the way most men view their equipment. “I don’t think it’s at all an aesthecically pleasing thing. I don’t think, ‘Heyyy, this penis, Gahhd, I’d like to put it on the mantelpiece. Isn’t it hard, I venture, to use the penis in a feminine way? “Er, yes,” he says. “So that’s probably why we don’t want penises. I’ve got breast envy.”

You’d like a bosom? “Oh yeah. Just like teenage girls or some women think ‘Oh, I wish I was bigger’. That’s exactly what’s going on with me.” Have you ever tried putting a false bosom in? “I have and I did and I do,” he says. So would you rather have a bosom than a penis? “Um. I’ve never done the either/or choice but, yeah.” I don’t understand, I say.

As Eddie is the only famous “out” transvestite in the world (he thinks, though he has heard that there might be a New Zealand politician who is also a TV) he does believe he has a mission to explain the way he is in order to promote a better understanding of less fortunate, more shamefully closeted men than himself. That is why he is always game to try out new theories and also, I sense, because he himself is still trying to grapple with the mystifying psychology of transvestism. So here, unveiled for the first time, is his new theory:

“Men – and disagree with me whenever you want – are stimulated visually. If women do the black dress, the high heels and the lippy, men go, ‘Hey! Wow!’ And it could be the same woman they haven’t paid any attention to. The woman could be a complete bimbo and have no conversation and the man could be very articulate but still – Bam! – would wish to shag. Women? Not so much. They’re stimultated more by . . .” Touch? “Touch and also personality. By a bloke who might be a curious-looking bloke. So the key points are the triggers. OK?” OK thus far.

“Now let me stay on the point because I think this is a bit of a breakthrough in explaining things. So TVs have an urge to be a woman. They’re at home and they get the clothes and the make-up right and maybe they’ll turn the lights down low so that the look is good, and they’ll say ‘Hey right, I look like a woman.’ But then this two-step effect happens. Because they get visually stimulated – like clockwork – just like all men do. They have created this sexy image that they are then attracted to.”

So it’s masturbatory? “Yes, absolutely.” So it’s “I love . . . me”? “No. It’s ‘I love that image’. What they’d prefer to do is to make love to another woman and have lesbian sex. They’d like to be a woman and make love to another woman.” Right, still with him, just about.

What I still find quite hard to understand is the clothing. In the past you have said that your desire sometimes to wear a provocative skirt rather than boring old trousers is no different from the way a woman dresses to please herself. But isn’t the relationship of the transvestite with the actual gear eroticised? And if so, this is not the way most women relate to their wardrobe. He says he has watched women, something he does a lot, and has noticed the way that they will stroke a new pair of boots and though they are obviously not getting wildly turned on, they will say ‘I love the feel of this. It makes me feel sexy.’

But it’s not the same thing, is it Eddie? He says there are no sexy men’s clothes apart from, say, a leather thong. Men’s satin dressing gowns? “You find those wildly erotic?” he says, with disbelief. “There’s nothing sensual or sexy for men. Male lingerie does not exist. Stockings do not exist. Socks are not going to get you going, ‘Hey maaan, great socks, let’s go!’

“Women have this vast variety of lingerie, stockings and tights and different patterns, and shoes, with different-sized heels, in red and black, and skirts – short, long, with slits – push-the-boob things . . . there’s so much around in women’s things that is erotic.

While men have: shirt shirt shirt jumper shirt jumper jacket jumper shirt jacket trousers trousers short trousers trousers flat shoes.”

He says that while women wearing men’s clothes confers on them a certain sort of power – and cites Marlene Dietrich as an example – men attack other men for wearing women’s clothes because it is seen as a weakness: “And it’s seen as being weak because they equate the clothing with being female, and female equals weak – which is wrong, because women have strong and weak characters, and so do men.”

I say that part of the problem with transvestism is that there is an image of shame and humiliation and solitariness, and husbands ejaculating over their wives’ clothing, and it’s not a very attractive image. “Mmm. Absolutely.” And then you come along and mix it and match it and have this very male way of being and it’s no longer seen as something pathetic. “It’s because it’s out and knitted into society,” he says thoughtfully.

I ask whether he’s aware of how many women find him attractive. “Yes, it’s off the scale,” he says. “And very sexy women, too.” He’s attracted to all sorts of women, from boyish girls to those with Marilyn Monroe curves. He thinks a lot more women would be attracted to TVs if the men were as out and calm and relaxed about themselves as he is. Also women are turned on by the fact that it takes balls – so to speak – to go out there and be himself and not give a damn. And if he’s given stick, he gives it right back – as a group of thugs discovered when they set upon him, and he not only fought them off but took them to court and won.

But he has noticed that a lot of the female fans who write him letters seem to feel compelled to explain why they are attracted to him. He compares it to women who sleep with women but insist they are not lesbians. (The same applies to men, presumably.) “So there’s denial and we’re not at the end of explaining things,” he says. “But getting the truth out of people is difficult. They’ve got so many blocks in their heads that they can’t tell themselves the truth. It’s something right at the back of the quiet mind.”

It is only towards the end of our conversation, and almost by chance, that I finally find an image for transvestism that works for me. I ask Eddie whether the erotic nature of transvestism isn’t essentially narcissistic, and he reminds me that when Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water he didn’t know that the face staring back at him was his own. And there’s the key, I think. The transvestite at his most private, most sexually engaged, is actually disengaged from himself. He looks at his femaleness from the outside, rather than feeling it from within. And if that splitting of oneself is fundamental to your make-up, it might explain why there are other areas of detachment as well.

For most of our time together, despite the emphasis on sex, there is nothing charged or erotic about the atmosphere. Quite the opposite, if anything: it is more clinical, scientific and oddly impersonal. But very occasionally, when one becomes aware of holding a gaze for a fraction longer than is necessary or when Eddie turns an intimate question back to me, it feels for a moment as though something else is going on. Perhaps it’s the dreamy lateness of the hour, the man sitting in your dressing gown, the shadow of his false eyelashes on his cheek.

At the end of the interview, Eddie says that what you need to do is to look at everybody’s fantasies and line them all up and only then can you see what is normal and what is not. “Who doesn’t have fantasies?” he asks. I don’t think I do. “Actually, I’ve heard other women say that.” Don’t have time to…

“So you don’t really have fantasies?” he asks softly. Not really. “You should get some,” he breathes. Because they’re fun? “Yeaaaahhh.”

Like I said, he’s sexy.