AWARD-WINNING comedian Alan Carr is a national treasure. He talks to Chris Bond about his tough childhood and what really makes him laugh.
After the last in a steady stream of fans leaves his table clutching an autograph, Alan Carr turns and announces, “It’s **** being famous.” He’s joking, or at least he’s half joking. Dressed like he’s come straight from a Pontins holiday camp, the jovial comedian is holding court in the plush surroundings of Harvey Nichols top floor restaurant in Leeds. Diners wander over to speak to him as if they’ve bumped into an old a friend. It’s part and parcel of being a celebrity and for the most part Carr is happy to play along.
“I can understand someone in the street shouting ‘Alan, we love you,’ or ‘Alan, you’re ****’. What I can’t understand is someone shouting ‘Alan’ and then jumping in a bush. You get people pretending to make a phone call by putting their camera over their eye. I can see what they’re doing, I’d rather they just come over and ask for a photo. People sometimes get a bit dizzy when they meet you and their manners go out the window, but 95 per cent of the time they’re lovely,” he says.
If Carr has become a recognisable TV face, it’s his camp, nasal voice that’s become his trademark. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he doesn’t pretend to be. “There are always people who don’t like you, which is fair enough, there’s something wrong with you if everybody likes you; you’d be Alan Titchmarsh, wouldn’t you?”
He’s in Leeds on route from a couple of warm-up gigs ahead of his Spexy Beast Live tour, which takes in the Grand Opera House, in York, and Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena. “Basically, I’d rather die on my arse in John O’Groats than at Sheffield Arena,” he says. “You’ve got to put the miles in, and no disrespect to some of these places, but you’ve need to test your material out somewhere.”
He’s performed all over the country so has he noticed a difference between northern audiences and those in the south?
“People ask me that and the only thing I can say is sometimes London can be a little bit snooty and up north people tend to like the story-based humour – that’s why people like Peter Kay, Dave Spikey and John Bishop do so well. They are very warm, although maybe that’s because it’s always chucking it down and they’re always sitting round the fire talking.”
Although he lives down south, Carr’s comedy is more in tune with his northern peers. “People talk about end-of-the-pier comedy and I’m like ‘yeah, why not?’ I don’t want to talk about Aids; I don’t think making jokes about Aids or abortion is that funny, to be honest. I probably am quite old-fashioned and proud of it.” So what makes him laugh? “Do you know what, comedy for me is like a busman’s holiday and what really makes me laugh is stupid things like dogs with worms, or old people falling over in the wind,” he says, chuckling at the thought.
“I’m not inspired by comedians but I love the feel of people like Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd. It’s not that they were camp, there was a warmth to them and when they walked on stage you would automatically feel better. There aren’t many comedians who can have you tittering before they’ve even said anything. You weren’t worried about what they were going to say, or what they were going to do. Those people that transcend what’s seen as cool and who are just funny, that’s where I’d like to be. I’ll never be in the best dressed list, I mean look at me – hello campers,” he says, laughing.
Although he loves being a stand-up comedian and has won countless awards, he admits it can still be daunting. “I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t love it when I started off on this tour, when you have your blank piece of paper and you have to write two hours of jokes. To begin with I wasn’t match-fit so you’re turning up at pubs and telling these jokes that you thought were hilarious when you were writing them at home, only to be met by someone going ‘ahem’,” he says, mimicking someone coughing. “So you have to move on to the next joke and it is painful. But then you do a good gig and you go from there, you keep adding layers until you’ve got enough material. People think it must be a glamorous life being a stand-up and it can be, but there’s a lot of sitting at home talking to yourself.”
There is a lot of genuine warmth towards Carr, people empathise with his own everyday mishaps. But as a child growing up in Northampton he was chubby, gay, wore glasses and was rubbish at sport. Any one of these is enough to be singled out by school bullies, never mind all four. He used to be the butt of jokes rather than the class jester. “People just used to laugh at me and my voice,” he says, without a hint of self-pity.
To make matters worse, his father was a professional footballer and managed Northampton Town for a spell. “I think there was a mix up at the hospital. To this day I think there’s a hairdresser crying somewhere because his kid’s gone off to be a footballer and his salon’s shut down.”
In past routines he’s used his father’s frustration at his lack of sporting prowess as a comic foil. “Yes, he could be a bit hardcore but he wasn’t Stalin, he just wanted me to be a footballer. I remember watching an interview with Ken Dodd and he said comedians have two childhoods, the real one and the one on the stage, and he’s right. My dad’s great and a loving father. I just got a bit carried away sometimes; he’s not Josef Fritzl,” he says, laughing again.
Even so, his childhood memories of Northampton aren’t wrapped in a warm nostalgia. “Because I had a tough time at school with the bullies I thought should I do a book signing in Northampton? And I thought, ‘no, I don’t want to go back there.’ But in the end I went back, did a gig and there was so much love. I realised with a voice like mine I would have been bullied wherever I went.”
Carr made a name for himself on the circuit with his comic observations of the seemingly mundane and has worked his way up the ladder. He may be packing the crowds in up and down the country but he’s had his fair share of dead-end jobs in the past. “I worked in call centres and I did dreary factory work, I think that’s why I’m a bit of a workaholic.”
It must be strange then to now be playing venues like Wembley Arena? “One of my favourite places is the City Varieties in Leeds and to be on the stage where Houdini and Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin have performed, it’s just amazing. But if I didn’t do an arena tour now then you never know, two years down the line I might not be popular enough to fill them. So this is one for the grandkids, if I had any,” he says, with a snort of laughter.
Through the success of TV shows like Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong and Chatty Man, and Going Out With Alan Carr, on BBC Radio 2, he’s become a household name. But he does think we’ve become far too preoccupied with celebrities these days. “Basically, if you know the ages of Jordan’s kids but you don’t know the name of your next-door neighbour, then I think you need to sit down with yourself and talk about some of the choices you’ve made.”
Despite his endearing brand of homely comedy, Carr can be waspish at times and found himself in a spot of bother back in 2008.
“I was making an awards speech and I came off stage and there was a journalist there and she just said, ‘Alan, it’s the British Comedy Awards, you didn’t thank anyone and you weren’t remotely controversial.’ So I said, ‘ooh, I dedicate this to Karen Matthews, she’s my idol.’ Everyone laughed, end of story.
“I’m then watching Heartbeat on a Sunday and my agent rings up and says ‘did you dedicate that award to Karen Matthews?’ and I said, ‘yes, but it’s a joke’.” But after former Dewsbury MP Shahid Malik, then Junior Justice Minister, criticised his remarks saying they were “insensitive”, Carr apologised.
There’s nothing new about comedians landing in hot water for something they’ve said, but does he feel comics are in danger of being gagged?
“In comedy the audience is the judge. If you make a joke that’s in bad taste whether it’s about cancer, or about Madeleine McCann, and the audience don’t laugh that’s your judge, they’re intelligent enough to know when someone’s crossed the line,” he says.
“If we all got shot down in flames for what we said in a moment of frustration, I mean the amount of things I say in the privacy of my own home, I’d never work again. Comedy is one of the only times you get free speech and it would be sad if we lost that.”
Carr’s stage persona is an extension of his own personality and he is anything but the cliche of the tortured clown. “I am a genuinely happy person, but I wish I had demons because I just know there’ll never be a BBC 4 drama about me in 20 years’ time, The Life of Alan Carr,” he says, laughing once again.
“The thing is when you’ve done rubbish jobs this is a blessing. I used to get £4.40 an hour packing shampoo with my trolley and cellophane, so I pinch myself, honest to God I do.”
* Alan Carr plays the Grand Opera House, York, on September 5 and Sheffield Motorpoint Arena on October 14 and 15.