Fans of Friday night comedy on Channel 4 will be used to seeing Alan Carr in tandem with his good friend and fellow comedian Justin Lee Collins as hosts of The Friday Night Project. The two have been compared to C3P0 and Chewbacca – Carr all long-limbed camp, Collins an enormous, warm-hearted hairball. It will come as a shock, then, to discover that Carr has gone solo for his latest foray onto our screens, as host of the wicked, tongue-in-cheek new Friday night show Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong.
Unlike C3P0, Carr is affable, charming and warm – not to mention human. And real. Ahead of the launch of his new six-part series, he opens up about comedy, the nature of celebrity, and saving lives on Blackpool Pier with Lionel Blair. As you do.
When did you first realise that you were funny?
Well, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that you’re funny, though it’s very sweet of you to say so. I reckon if you start thinking about it then it becomes a problem. People used to laugh at me, I suppose, but you never knew if they were laughing at my voice or at what I was saying. I never wanted to become a comedian, though. I didn’t even like stand-up. It never really appealed to me.
So how did you end up doing what you do?
I had a really dead-end job working in a lost-and-stolen credit card call centre. It was really getting me down. So I’d tell people about the weirdoes that rang up, and they would laugh and tell me it was really funny and I should go on stage and say it. So I entered the BBC New Comedian of the Year, and I won it, just talking about call centres.
Thank God for the day job!
Exactly. Back then, in 2001, call centres were a big deal. Every company was introducing a call centre, you know, “press one for this, press two for that”, and for the first time in my life I was seen as this trendy comedian who was talking about Zeitgeisty issues and stuff, and it was my job! If I’d died on my arse the first time I’d done it, I wouldn’t have continued doing stand-up. I didn’t have a passion for it. I have now, but I wouldn’t say I did back then.
What have been the experiences that changed that, the things that really meant a lot to you?
I think appearing on The Royal Variety Performance. And winning Stand-Up of the Year at the Comedy Awards. That was amazing.
Talking of stand-up, comedians do a lot of touring. You did a British tour at the end of last year – which are your favourite and least favourite places to perform?
I think it’s true what a lot of comedians say – the further north you go, the better the audience. I think a lot of London audiences can be a bit blasé. Birmingham’s one of my favourites, Manchester of course, and Scotland’s always a laugh. I just think London can be a bit ‘Okay, so, next please…’ I think London audiences are a bit spoiled for choice. My heart always sinks when it feels like a bit of a London gig.
Do you ever do gigs which turn out to be complete disasters?
I did one on New Year’s Eve ages ago, which will be my last ever New Year’s gig. I’d never do another. Everyone was pissed, they’d been drinking all day. It was dreadful. At one point I was halfway through a joke, and this woman came on and took off her top and flashed everyone. It was like Bedlam in there, the comedy was almost irrelevant. It was a shame, because some people had come along to watch comedy and have a good night.
One of your more memorable days at the office happened with Lionel Blair on Blackpool Pier, didn’t it?
That’s right, yes. We were doing a pilot for Channel 4, which never made it to telly. And we were having a glass of wine to celebrate, in a bar on Blackpool Pier. And a man runs in and says ‘There’s a man trying to kill himself at the end of the pier.’ So we followed this man, and there was a guy who had taken his shirt and his shoes off, and was hanging there half naked off the end of the pier, saying “I wanna die, I wanna die.” So Lionel Blair said “I’m Lionel Blair off the telly, come on darling, come and have a brandy.” And I think the man was in so much shock that we just pulled him back onto the pier. It was a shame – but we got a good anecdote out of it in the end!
You’ve been on all sorts of comedy panel shows as well as your own programmes. Does any of it ever make you nervous?
It’s easy to get a bit blasé. Once you know the workings of television, it doesn’t terrify you. You know that any awful bits will be edited out, they can put canned laughter on if you don’t get a laugh! Once you know the mechanics of it, it’s fine. Obviously performing live still terrifies me. Justin [Lee Collins] and I did something for Comic Relief, and all I could think of was ‘Don’t swear, don’t go into Tourette’s mode,’ you know? Actually, Celebrity Ding Dong made me nervous, because it was my show, so I was worried about doing that.
What’s the concept of Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong?
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek look at the world of celebrity, through the medium of a game show. I’m fascinated by the whole fascination with celebrity. It’s got ridiculous. I was reading one magazine which talked about ‘Angelina Jolie’s Wardrobe Hell’. She’d trodden in some chewing gum, and the back of her trousers had split by about a millimetre. That is hell! Not someone who can’t afford to pay their mortgage. So I just wanted to really exploit that absurdity.
So what form does that take?
Well, we have a show in which a team of celebrities plays against a team of ‘civilians‘. Civilians is a term I love – it’s what Elizabeth Hurley used to describe people who weren’t on television. And they play a series of rounds against each other, all about celebrity life. And we have a lot of fun with the teams. We kind of play up the differences between them. So the celebrities we have giving the impression that straight after the show we’re all getting in a helicopter and flying out to St Tropez to stay in Elton John’s summer house. And the civilians are all getting the night bus home when they’ve finished nicking everything from the dressing room. I make fairly wicked comments to the celebrities as well as the civilians. The tone I wanted was Dame Edna in the good old days, when she’d have big stars on and would be really cutting to them. It’s a chance for the stars to show they’ve got a sense of humour, that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
So what kind of games do the teams play against each other?
There are several rounds. There’s Kiss-and-Tell, where I get in bed with a kiss-and-tell girl, and ask her questions, and the teams have to guess who she had the kiss-and-tell with. That’s good fun. And then there’s Crypts, which is a pastiche of Cribs: Me and Derek Acorah go down into a crypt, and he becomes possessed by a dead celebrity, and the teams have to guess who he is becoming. That was one of my favourite ones. They’re all really off-the-wall, silly games. If anyone tunes in expecting a documentary on the nature of fame, they’re going to be very disappointed.
Which celebrities will be appearing on the series?
Oh, it was my wish-list. It was everyone I wished for: Paul O’Grady, Davina McCall, Louis Walsh, Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas – they were just the team captains. We’ve got Connie Huq, Peter Andre, Jermaine Jackson, Sarah Beeny – it’s just a brilliant line-up. That was a real high point of the whole experience, having all of those people agree to come on the show. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, when you’re doing your own show, and they’re ringing around, and no-one knows what the show is, but it’s so lovely that they said yes, they’d do it. It shows that they have faith in the show, or that they like me, so that was great.
What were other high-points?
I’m just pleased that it’s a really funny show. I had a viewing of them the other day, and I really find them funny. I hope that the British public find them funny, because it’s my sense of humour. I had a real hand in it. It’s a lot more personal than something like The Friday Night Project, which was already up-and running when Justin and I got involved. This is a bit like stand-up comedy – there’s nothing to hide behind; if they don’t like you, they don’t like you, you can’t go and blame someone else.
Did you invite Justin on, or did you think it was important to show that the two of you aren’t halves of the same person?
Well, he didn’t invite me to do Convention Crashers, so I thought ‘why should I invite him along to do my show?’ It’s a bit of a sore point at the minute!
Do you think of yourself as a celebrity?
No, no. I’m a stand-up comedian, that’s my main job. You have to keep your feet on the ground when you’re doing that, so that you can write decent material. No-one’s going to find it funny that Clara, your maid, came in and dropped your quails’ eggs down the back of the settee. I don’t think the British public would take too kindly to heirs and graces, or if I started name-dropping. That’s not my kind of schtick, really.
Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong is on Channel 4 at 10pm from Friday 1 February.
Interview by Benjie Goodhart
The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai
Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.
What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.
It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.
Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.
Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.
One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.
Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.
What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.
Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!
What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.
I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.
Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small
Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.
What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].
How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.
How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.
Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.
What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!
What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.
Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.
What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.
How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.
Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.
How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!
Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.
Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!
What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!
Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!
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