I interviewed Peter Kay and David Walliams on the cusp of fame. Their contrasting fortunes are no surprise – Aidan Smith
Kay’s comeback tour is breaking the internet. It made the six o’clock news. Fans desperate to see him on stage for the first time in 12 years are being informed they’re 200,000-and-something in the queue. A ticket for one of his shows – and they stretch into 2025 – will for many be the ultimate Christmas gift.
Walliams on the other hand might soon be out of a job. His main gig recently has been as a judge on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talentbut, 24 hours after Kay’s re-emergence, clips leaked of him being horribly nasty about the contestants. Talking off air to his fellow judges he referred three times to an elderly hopeful as a “c***” and remarked of a female competitor: “She’s like the slightly boring girl you meet in the pub that thinks you want to f*** them, but you don’t.”
Walliams has apologised but with TV companies ultra-sensitive to criticism of the treatment of reality-show participants, there is already speculation he won’t be on the panel when the programme returns. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised by his viciousness. Remember how cruel Little Britain could be? His comedy can be sneering; Kay in contrast has always preferred cheering.
I’m also remembering early encounters with Walliams and Kay when I interviewed them for The Scotsman. Now, all journalists will claim to be amateur psychologists but I reckon I was offered insight into their characters which would prove prophetic.
Kay was apprehensive about fame and determined it wouldn’t change him; Walliams was already behaving like a star. Kay was cuddly, generous and very funny – giving lie to the theory that comedians of this age don’t or can’t make you laugh when not working. Walliams on the other hand, who didn’t even try to crack a joke, slightly creeped me out.
“You’ll have to go to Bolton to meet Peter,” his publicist told me back in 1998. “That’s where he lives, with his mum, and it’s the place he likes best. Meet him outside WH Smith, next to Boots, where his girlfriend works…”
Running, or waddling, across the civic square because he thought he was late, Kay proceeded to take me on a guided tour as he ran errands for his mother. “Sorry, but we’ve got to take her videos back to the library – and she needs this photo-frame changing an’ all.” He showed off the Christmas lights (“Turned on last week by a pig – Bolton’s very own Babe”), the clock tower once maintained by TV steeplejack Fred Dibnah, soon to be usurped as the most famous Boltonian, the nightclub where as a bouncer – one of 14 jobs before comedy – he refused entry to Coronation Street’s Des Barnes for wearing white jeans and got sacked (“I were only joking, like”).
He took me to his little red-bricked house, right into his bedroom. “No journalist’s been here before,” he said, “so you better not take a picture of me tapes – I don’t want someone nicking Genesis: The Invisible Touch Tour.” There were smelly trainers on the floor and a roll of loo paper on the bedside cabinet. Such incidental colour! He showed me his drum-machine – a Yamaha with an extra “ha” added to the name – the dog-eared Angling Times diary “for all me appointments” and was sorry I’d missed meeting his mum, source of many of his gags, such as how, when Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” was played at weddings, she would always curtsey to the beat.
“Women are much funnier than men,” he told me. “Men are one-dimensional – all they talk about are cars, football, shagging and getting pissed. Women are uninhibited and tell you how they feel.” And it was obvious as he waved me off on the train that Bolton to Kay was family, community, comedy, everything. “I need to be where I feel safe, where I can wear me slippers down the chip shop.”
Too cute for words? All journos, as well as being part-time shrinks, are full-time cynics and I suppose I might have wondered. But in 2003 when I met Walliams in London there was no effort at endearment. That’s all right – showbizzy types, mostly musicians, like to adopt a cool or tough persona in an attempt to unnerve their inquisitors. But he was hardly selling Little Britain, which was just about to air.
Thankfully his sidekick Matt Lucas was able to do this while Walliams would stare at me in a louche manner while tweaking his nipples through his t-shirt. Easily distracted, such as when spotting Blur’s guitarist through the pub window – “Look, look, it’s Graham Coxon! Coo-ee! He’s seen us! – he re-engaged when Lucas got confessional to describe what it was like to grow up bald, gay and tubby. Walliams interjected: “I was a fat boy.” Lucas was thrown. “Really? I didn’t know that.” Walliams admitted to some competitiveness and how at the National Youth Theatre he was “piqued” to learn about Lucas’ clever impression of Jimmy Savile – “I wanted to be known as the funny student”.
It all worked out for him with children’s books, charity swimming and, until now, Britain’s Got Talent. But Little Britain, which grew increasingly mean, was unloved by the end. Women – be they Vicky Pollard, slimming club strugglers or molested grannies – didn’t come out of it well, the polar opposite of Kay’s humour. “A really odd personality – quite mean,” remarked a member of the BGT crew the other day. That’s not an impediment to being a comedian, of course, but it may not help you see a million-plus tickets.
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