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Lee Mack Looks Back

Is there a better way to kick off a new blog than with an exclusive blockbuster celebrity interview? Probably not, but unfortunately this isn’t a perfect world and Brad Pitt doesn’t always return phone calls. Comedian Lee Mack does, however, so at least I had the opportunity to interview him at his not-so-humble abode...

"I remember jumping on the bed...it was a big thing for me."

Mack: "I remember jumping on the bed...it was a big thing for me."

When Lee Mack was 22, the smell of success was all around him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his own. The Southport born comedian — real surname McKillop — spent his youth working for a living at stables in Australia, cleaning out after Red Rum. At that point, serving the three-times Grand National winner was as close to achievement as Mack had been in his life, despite long harbouring his own ambitions.

“At 16 I knew I wanted to be a comedian, but didn’t really know what that meant,” the 40-year-old admits openly. “I left school and worked in a number of manual jobs before I went to Australia — and even that I did because I thought you needed to be worldly wise to be a stand-up.”

Nearly 20 years on from tending to an equine legend, the co-writer and star of BBC sitcom Not Going Out has finally begun enjoying the unique aroma of his own success.  It may have taken him a while to start pursuing his goals, but since then the journey has been a successful one. In 1995, he announced his arrival on the scene by winning a prestigious competition for new stand-up comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After that success, he teamed up with Catherine Tate and Dan Antopolski to return with the sketch show Lee Mack’s Bits, and the 2000 follow-up was nominated for the Perrier Award — the festival’s biggest honour.

As a result he began working on ITV’s Bafta-winning The Sketch Show, a programme so popular and critically-acclaimed that he would soon be given the chance to collaborate with Kelsey Grammer (of Frasier fame) on an American version. Then came Radio 2’s The Lee Mack Show.  A celebrated stand-up tour followed (complete with obligatory best-selling DVD) before the cherry on top — Not Going Out.

When selecting the turning point in his professional career, you might then naturally assume Mack would immediately pick his first successful appearance north of the border. It is surprising, then, to hear him suggest that it was actually attending university — to study Drama with Film and TV studies — that changed his life:

“Before going to Brunel University I was not doing stand-up comedy, but while at university I finally started to do it,” he reveals. “At the time, and after I left, I thought Brunel wasn’t the main reason I finally did it. But now I look back and think, well hang on, Brunel was where I met my wife — we shared a house together — and where I was surrounded by like-minded people who encouraged me.

“I could very easily be a 40-year-old bloke — which I am now — without ever having done it [stand-up]. My dad always wished he’d done it, and I didn’t want to be like that. Brunel helped me with that — it taught me to get on with things.”

Mack: "There was not one part of me that started this to be famous."

Mack: "There was not one part of me that started this to be famous."

Consequently, despite all his subsequent success, Mack still ranks the memory of hearing back from the university as the highlight of his career:

“Nothing has excited me more in my performing life than reading my acceptance letter from Brunel. I remember jumping on the bed, it was absolute ecstasy. I kept the letter for years. It was a big thing for me.”

Mack didn’t let his tutors down. Meretta Elliot, now the University’s Deputy Head of Drama, remembers Lee as a driven and focused student with a gift for ad-libbed drama that “left others standing”. Mack, while appreciative of the kind words, remembers things slightly differently — after all, for much of his course he spent 30 hours a week working in a local bookmakers.

That didn’t mean Lee wasn’t focussed on his comedy, however, in fact the opposite was true. He started and ran a comedy night as part of his degree — in which he both booked professional comedians and made his first furtive steps under the spotlight. Since then, he hasn’t stopped working.

“In the 13 years I’ve been in comedy, including uni, I’ve never had more than three weeks off,” he says, although he’s not complaining. “When I’m working on a series of the sitcom, that is nearly a year through my diary — eight months writing and two months filming. It’s tiring, but rewarding.”

Was the prospect of becoming a celebrity something that motivated him?

“There was not one part of me that started this to be famous. I wanted to be a famous comedian, but that is a different thing,” he notes. “The fame is a side effect of what you want to do. The reason I wouldn’t want to get wrapped up in that is because being recognised in the street is really not anything exciting. Everyone in the world is recognised all the time, in the street or wherever, and it doesn’t feel any different because you are on TV.

“On the other hand, recognition is when they say, ‘I bought your DVD, and me and my wife sat in front of the TV and had the best night of our lives’. That is great. But most of what you get is being recognised, not recognition.”

Surely, considering the success of many of his past projects, he must still get a lot of recognition?

“A comedian once told me that someone came up to him and said, ‘I just want you to know that my father is dying and in a lot of pain, but any time you come on TV he is crying with laughter.’ That’s recognition. I get the opposite, ‘My father is perfectly healthy, but every time you are on TV he is in absolute agony!’”

He is clearly being self-deprecating — the quick fire delivery alone gives that away, even without glancing at the litany of awards that adorn his office — but perhaps it is this that is most endearing about Mack. He has seen life at both ends of the fame game (almost literally, in the case of Red Rum) and is consequently refreshingly grounded. Hard working and talented he undoubtedly is, but you feel it is this refreshing level-headedness that will ensure his career goes on to reach even greater heights. 

 

The above is an abridged version of the interview feature. To read the full interview — complete with juicy Alan Bennett-based anecdotes — click here.

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May 3, 2009 - Posted by | Interviews | , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks I found this blog really useful, I’ll recommend it to friends.

    Comment by matt | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Perfect!

    Comment by flash-player | July 7, 2009 | Reply


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