The Big Interview: Phill Jupitus

The first, seemingly random thing, you might want to know about Phill Jupitus, is that he does the best impression of Eddie Izzard you might ever hear.

No, I wasn’t expecting it either. But then, I wasn’t expecting a wonderfully foul-mouthed and eloquent rant in defence of the BBC and to discover a man who is intensely political, quietly intelligent and really quite serious.

This is, after all, the big cuddly, joker chap of light-hearted music-comedy panel show fame. He’s a stand-up comedian too – and many other things – but it is as a captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks that most people know him, given his 15-year reign over 25 series of the programme.

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The Buzzcocks Phill Jupitus is, it transpires, simply one facet of this interesting man who has more to his character than it might first appear.

Let’s start with the Eddie Izzard impression. It’s not just spot on, it’s perfectly overplayed by the smallest amount to make it hilarious. I play the recording of the interview where he does the impression to a colleague who has interviewed Izzard himself. My colleague confirms it is exactly like Izzard – only more so.

That Jupitus has such an impersonation in his arsenal is not quite so random a fact as might appear. It is so unexpected that I burst out laughing when I first hear it. My laughter prompts Jupitus to keep going and even, dare I say, milk it.

He has a performer’s instinct and feeds off the laughter of an audience.

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Which is all good news for you, because he’s in Yorkshire to take a leading role in a new musical comedy. Big Society, written by Boff Whalley and produced by Leeds theatre company Red Ladder, which opened at Leeds City Varieties last night.

We meet during the second week of rehearsals and if his performance as good as the one he puts on during his lunch hour in the basement offices of Red Ladder, then the production is in safe hands. He starts out cautious, goes into story-teller mode, ends with a magnificent rant and is constantly a source of entertainment.

These qualities made him perfect casting when Red Ladder’s Rod Dixon was looking for someone to front his show. The thing that shocked everyone – Dixon included – was that Jupitus thought Red Ladder and the show were perfect for him.

Fair enough, Jupitus isn’t exactly an A-lister, but he has appeared in the West End in a production of Hairspray and a national tour of Spamalot. Why was he willing to do a little show in Leeds?

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“It’s very odd because the arc of my acting career has been the wrong way round. My first ever acting gig was in the West End and then I did a UK tour for five months,” says Jupitus. “Now I’m doing this.” He looks around at Red Ladder HQ, in the basement of the Yorkshire Dance building. The surroundings could be more glamorous, it’s fair to say.

What might gladden Dixon’s heart is that, while he was delighted to hear back from Jupitus after sending him an email, asking if he would like to appear in the company’s show, Jupitus was almost as delighted that he had been asked.

“I’d heard of Red Ladder – who hasn’t? And it was Chumbawamba – they wanted me to be in one of their productions? I imagined they’d think I was too mainstream and lame to be in one of their shows,” he says.

“And then the thing that absolutely nailed it for me was the fact that the show was going to be on at the City Varieties, which is one of the best venues in the country as far as I am concerned.

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“I haven’t told the rest of the guys this, but I was offered a big job, big, massive, but I turned it down so that I could do this. That’s how flattered I was to be asked.”

Red Ladder is an intensely political theatre organisation. Boff Whalley, the man behind Big Society, is a member of the anarchist pop band Chumbawamba.

Big Society, from its name to its story and songs, is an entirely political piece of theatre, although the talented Whalley is an entertaining writer.

All of this adds up to the reason for Jupitus spending a month away from his family and living in a flat in Leeds.

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He is politically engaged and has been so, tenaciously, since he was a young man.

“Everyone has a political dimension, but a pop quiz is not the place to make a political point, that’s why you don’t see that side of me on Buzzcocks,” he says.

“It would be tokenistic and patronising for me to think that I could air my politics on a show like that. It is possible to compartmentalise your life.”

Big Society appears to be the first piece of work that appeals to every facet of his character and compartment of his life. Politics? Tick. Music? Tick. Comedy? Tick. Performance? Tick.

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“The political stuff is always there for me, it’s just that I’m not like my old mates Mark Thomas and Billy Bragg and Joolz Denby – they live it.

“It is so good to be in a piece of art that is recognising what’s going on – and feels like it’s reflecting the sort of art I was involved in and used to see back in the Eighties. Whenever you get an anti-culturalist administration the culture rises up to meet it face to face.

“For years we had to endure Blair and his big idiotic grin everywhere. Every time you saw it you’d think, ‘I can’t believe I voted that in’.

“Now it feels like we’ve come out of that post-Blair malaise and entering a time that could be really good for creativity and culture as we have something to rail against. I can’t wait for comedy to wake up, shake the mud off its shoes and start tackling what’s going on.”

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The multi-faceted nature of the man owes much to his route into the life of a performer and TV star. He started life working in “the showbiz end of the civil service – the Job Centre”, where he appears to have collected enough life experience and stories to last a lifetime.

At the Job Centre, he started doing gigs as a performance poet, appearing with bands, which is where he became friends with Billy Bragg and ended up a part of the political-music scene.

Stand up comedy seemed an obvious route for the natural story-teller and he began to gain a reputation for engaging – and engaged – work. In the mid-90s he was asked to appear on a new comedy-music panel show called Nevermind the Buzzcocks. It was a perfect match for him.

“Music and comedy – they’ve always been the mainstays of my cultural life. When I was a teenager buying The Clash’s albums, I was also buying Steve Martin’s comedy albums.”

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Which is also why he snapped up the opportunity to host a show for BBC 6 Music. His politics made him unwilling to toe the party line and was the reason why he left. The relationship with 6 Music came to an acrimonious end and Jupitus is unapologetic when it comes to discussing his time in radio.

“They won’t touch me for a DJ gig now. I miss music radio, but if the BBC can’t find a place for the best broadcaster in the country – Mark Lamarr – then I am very happy not to work for people who clearly don’t know good radio. It was one of the best jobs I have ever had, but I had to jump before I was pushed.

“One morning we were told that at 8am every radio station was going to be playing the new U2 single. I played a minute of it, turned it off, said ‘I feel like this is the tail wagging the dog, if you want to hear any more tune to Radio 2’.”

Although he is happy to vent his anger about what happened to him, he finishes with a passionate defence of the BBC.

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“The BBC is continually lying down like a sick dog and letting people who have a vested interest in its demise beat it. And that is disgusting. The BBC is the best broadcast organisation in the world and one of its many problems is that it doesn’t know it.

“It is managed by people who are letting an incredible minority of reactionary idiots dictate what it does.”

He continues in this vein, with liberal use of profanities for some time. His zeal is quite extraordinary.

Eddie Izzard impressions, politics and a soapbox moment. Not what you expect from a funny man on a panel show at all.

Big Society, Leeds City Varieties, to Feb 4. Tickets 0113 2430808.

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