Peter Kay: interview

Peter Kay talks exclusively to Time Out London in his first interview for nearly seven years. Why has he waited so long?

  • Peter Kay: interview

    Peter Kay © Matt Squire

  • Sat on the train on the way up to Manchester I feel unexpectedly anxious. I log on to Facebook and decide to distract myself by telling the world, or at least a few hundred ‘friends’, about my current anxiety. Tim Arthur is interviewing Peter Kay in an hour and is genuinely nervous. You’d think I’d have got over all that by now. Wish me luck!’ Within a few minutes my inbox is filled with suggestions ranging from the helpful to not-so-helpful. ‘Ask him if he really likes garlic bread.’ ‘What does he think about t’internet?’ ‘Did he buy his mum a bungalow after the last tour?’ ‘Why does he advertise John Smith’s if he’s teetotal?’ However, two comments stand out. One’s a question and one’s a statement: ‘Why are you nervous?’ ‘Don’t make a dick of yourself.’

    I’m nervous for three reasons. Firstly, this will be Kay’s first interview with a print journalist for nearly seven years, so it’s important that I get it right, both for him and me. Secondly, because he is the biggest comedian Britain has ever produced. His latest tour, ‘The Tour That Doesn’t Tour – Now on Tour’ is the biggest-selling comedy, er, tour of all time. In one hour he sold out 20 nights – 200,000 tickets – at the Manchester Evening News Arena, before heading out on a UK tour. He’s the first comedian to sell out ten nights at London’s O2. His autobiography, ‘The Sound of Laughter’, is the best-selling British biography of all time, shifting more than 600,000 copies in its first two months alone. The DVDs of his previous tour, as well as his TV series ‘Phoenix Nights’ and ‘That Peter Kay Thing’ have all broken previous sales records. He’s had three Number One hits, including ‘Amarillo’, and is regularly voted the nation’s favourite comedian. Put simply, Peter Kay is as big as you get in comedy.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, I have developed an uncanny knack of putting my foot in it during interviews recently and really don’t want to fuck this one up. Peter Kay enters the room beaming. He exudes an infectious warmth. ‘I’m a little bit nervous,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘I haven’t done one of these for ages.’ It’s nice to know we’re both in the same boat. I relax. As long as I can avoid making a dick of myself, it should be plain sailing. He pours me a glass of water. I decide to make small talk.
    ‘What happened?’
    ‘When?’ he replies.
    ‘You’ve got a tiny bit of a black eye? How did you get it?’
    He looks at me.
    ‘It’s a birthmark.’
    ‘I… I… I… didn’t know,’ I stammer.‘Well, you wouldn’t. I could cover it up, I could put some make-up on it now if you’d like.’‘No. God, no. It’s fine.’He laughs. ‘You’re tactful – it’s a good job I’m not disfigured, you’d have a bloody field day.’ At least we’ve established something in the first minute. He can take a joke even when it’s not intended (always a good sign), and my social Tourette’s is still an issue (not such a good sign).

    So why has it been seven years since your last interview?
    ‘It’s not an arrogance thing. It’s just that you open yourself up to someone who seems really lovely at the time and then they shaft you later with little things they add to draw the reader in or assumptions they make. It’s not about me not sounding good but I decided I’d had enough. So I thought: Sod it – and stuck to me guns, and, to be honest, nothing has suffered as a result.’

    How does being a national celebrity sit with you as a private person?
    ‘I’m okay with it now, though it’s difficult when your children are born. You’ve got enough of a task of being a parent without all this unwanted stuff on top – when you go out you see it as a bit of a big bad world. But I’ve come to terms with it. Sometimes people say, “Oh I’m surprised you’d be in Staples buying a plastic box, I thought you’d have a servant to do that for you,” and I’m like: What are you talking about? I still go to Tesco, I still do my big shop. I think you’ve got to. You can’t be agoraphobic; you’ve got to live your life. I think you’d go a bit insane if you didn’t.’

    This latest tour is your first for seven years. Why the long gap?
    ‘That last tour tipped me over the edge a bit. I didn’t want to do stand-up again for a long time, if ever. I wasn’t being melodramatic, I’d done 180 nights and I was beyond burned out. Then when my son was born I just thought: I want to be around him. A lot of famous people I chatted to said they regretted missing the time with the family because of chasing the money. So I decided to give touring a break. There are probably about 943 reasons for not doing stand-up, when there are probably only four reasons to do it. Yet something drives you back to it. I can’t explain it.’

    This tour is now the biggest-selling comedy tour ever. Did you expect that level of ticket sales?
    ‘No, not at all. I know it’s hard to believe, but I genuinely wasn’t sure. I’d been away for a long time and you can’t take anything for granted. I thought: I’ll stay close to home and I’ll only put four nights on sale and see how it goes. My big fear was the place being empty but they sold out, so we added some more dates, and they sold out as well. I’m gobsmacked by it all, really.’

    Are you also surprised that you wrote the biggest-selling autobiography of all time?
    ‘Absolutely. The biography only happened because I found out someone was writing one about me – which I’ve never said before because I’ve never done an interview about that. But someone was writing a book about me and I felt a bit threatened by it – even though I believe it actually turned out to be quite a positive book, though I’ve never read it. At the time I looked into it legally, and they said I couldn’t really do much. It’s not that I had any secrets, I just didn’t want anybody, other than me, telling people how I felt about this or that. So, out of frustration, I just said I’m gonna write one. I just wrote every single day for… I can’t have started till March, so I didn’t have long. It was done by June. And then it did what it did, which was unbelievable, especially because I didn’t even get an O-level in English.’

    A lot of comedians take a long time to realise that their comedy voice is honesty, but you seemed to hit that quite early, almost from your first show, when you threw out the script and started talking about everyday life…
    ‘Well, I think that was just a fluke. I had what I thought was the act – I’d rehearsed at the top of the stairs of the cinema I was working in, done it in front of the mirror and put it on me Dictaphone. But for some reason, when I got up there the adrenaline kicked in and I went off at a left angle. It still happens now, when I do interviews on chat shows – with Jonathan Ross or on “The One Show” – and people think I’m drunk, but I’m not, I don’t drink. You want to meet people’s expectations, and perhaps surpass them. Sometimes it feels like I go into some really cobweb filled cellar and flick this enormous Frankenstein switch that hasn’t been flicked for a long time. You aim a little bit too high, and the adrenaline kicks in, so you come across a little bit hyper and giddy.’

    Is there anything you’ve done in your career, which you regret or think hasn’t been a success?
    ‘I’ve regretted some things, but I’d always known that at least I’d gone with my instincts at the time. I’ve always been like that. If something doesn’t feel right comedically I won’t budge on it. You just have to dig your heels in and fight for it. And I mean fight quite intensely. Having said that, I wasn’t keen on my “Doctor Who” episode. But you’ve got to have a go at doing different things. I loved doing “Pop Factor”, though I know a lot of people were a bit uncomfortable with that, what with me playing a woman, but for me, as an experiment, taking on the wrath of that genre, it was worth it. I could make another series of “Phoenix Nights” or another series of “Max & Paddy” but that would just feel like a safe bet. I don’t do that much telly because the thing is quality not quantity – you’ve got to be happy with what you’re putting out.’

    Are there television projects you’ve turned down?

    ‘You get asked if you want to do things like go to Amarillo with ITV or go up the Nile like Joanna Lumley but I don’t want to. And then there are the panel shows like “Would I Lie to You?” or “8 Out of 10 Cats”, which I watch but wouldn’t want to be on because I don’t feel I’m quick enough. I did one once, years ago, with Graham Norton on Channel 5, and I didn’t like the competitive one-up-manship of it. I just didn’t feel comfortable, so I didn’t do any more.’

    Is it interesting to see the way comedy has grown so much since your last tour, with the likes of Michael McIntyre, Lee Evans and Russell Brand regularly playing arenas?
    ‘People often ask what I think of Michael McIntyre. I think he’s funny. He’s a nice bloke. You can’t not do stand-up for seven years and then not expect anyone else to come along. That’s life, things move on. I met Michael McIntyre in January and we’ve had some long conversations. It’s actually good having that camaraderie.’

    Do you ever have moments where you sit back and wonder what it is about you that makes your comedy connect with so many people?
    ‘Honestly, I have that every other day. I used to lie awake when I started doing stand-up thinking about it, but as I’ve got older and wiser I think you should just accept what you’ve been born with. It’s a hard thing, because if you say to someone that you’re a really good writer or a really good plumber they’ll go, “Oh great, good for you,” but if you say you’re funny they’ll go, “He’s a bit big-headed isn’t he? Come on, make us laugh.” It took me a long time to get comfortable with saying this was my full-time job. There’s a certain stigma about, you know, telling people you’re a comedian because it’s not really like a proper job, and it’s hard when you meet other people and they’re coming home from work, you know, or they’ve been digging foundations since seven o’clock in  the morning or cleaning floors and they come home covered in shit, and you’ve been like, “I’m going out doing some jokes.” It’s a big thing for you to get round all that in your head. You’re doing well financially but then you do feel as if you’re almost not entitled to it.’

    Your comedy also has the ability to reach a very broad audience without alienating anyone in the same way that, say, Frankie Boyle or the more offensive comedians might…

    ‘I’m interested in that hysteria that comes with joy. That may seem a bit old-fashioned now, but I like it when it feels like it’s a big family gathering for everyone to have fun. I’m not saying that comedy shouldn’t be offensive – there’s a lot of comedians that I like that are just absolute filth and are offensive. But for me it’s always been simple – me mum would kill me if I said something she didn’t like. If she says, “You shouldn’t say that about that, it’s not right,” I take it out.  It’s nice when I suddenly find that I’ve got three generations of the same family in: You’ve got the kids, the parents and the grandparents all buying their tickets and all getting something out of it. It wasn’t a business manoeuvre. No one’s that bloody clever! It just worked out like that, and then they all come.’

    Peter Kay plays the O2 on Nov 4-8, and Mar 31-Apr 4 2011.

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