Even if you don’t know Kevin Eldon’s name, chances are you’ve seen him many times over two decades in the best of Britain’s TV comedy, and now he’s getting his own show. By Paul Whitelaw
Kevin Eldon’s CV is so festooned with riches, it borders on the ridiculous. His instinctively funny bones have blessed practically every outstanding British comedy of the last 20 years, including I’m Alan Partridge, Brass Eye, Blue Jam/Jam, Big Train, Spaced, Fist of Fun, Look Around You, Nighty Night and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
And yet despite his reputation as one of the most versatile comic actors in the business – and the only person ever to nail a stunningly accurate impersonation of Beatles producer George Martin – only in the last couple of years has he decided to tip his malleable fizzog into the solo limelight. The putsch began with his critically acclaimed, sold-out live show, Kevin Eldon is Titting About, now followed by his début TV starring vehicle, the delightfully silly sketch extravaganza It’s Kevin. So what took him so long?
“I did the [live] show in 2010 as a bit of a personal challenge,” he explains, “just to see if I could. It was to stop me being so lazy for a whole year. And because it was actually quite scary, I thought it might therefore be worthwhile trying to get it right. I was very nervous about doing it, and very relieved when it generally went down OK.”
Despite having his name in the title, he’s keen to stress that the show is a collaborative effort. Indeed, it’s rather heartening that, having given invaluable support to so many great writer/performers over the years, he was able to call upon many of them to support him for a change. With a cast including such luminaries as Julia Davis, Simon Day, David Cann and Simon Munnery, not to mention core script assistance from Father Ted/Big Train co-creator Arthur Mathews, It’s Kevin is catnip for comedy nerds.
“It’s just a marvellously fortunate coincidence that some of my friends happen to be really good comedy actors,” he smiles. “But I never took it for granted that they would say yes. They’re certainly not doing it for the dosh.”
A naturally self-effacing sort, Eldon is happy to let his co-stars dominate certain sketches. “I didn’t want everyone to be staring at my stupid mug for half an hour non-stop every week. It’s about giving the audience some time off. Tomato coriander soup is very nice, but you wouldn’t want three courses of it. Not that I’m saying I’m a soup.”
Like most comedy of a surreal, offbeat nature, It’s Kevin is unlikely to become a huge mainstream hit. But does he worry that a starring vehicle on BBC2 will still manage to compromise his relative anonymity?
“I honestly don’t know if it’ll slip under the radar or whether it’ll do brilliantly,” he says. “I think it’ll probably do OK. I don’t think it’s going to be a complete life-changer. The recognition thing is a double-edged sword – I have a number of friends who are instantly recognisable and quite famous, which can be very nice. But from what I’ve seen it can also be very intrusive and wearing.”
Although born in Chatham, Kent, Eldon spent much of his childhood in Dunfermline, as his father worked in the nearby Rosyth dockyard. Following three years at drama school in England, he quietly emerged on the early 1990s stand-up circuit, mostly in the guise of his pompous, deluded poet character Paul Hamilton (a Hamilton book is in the pipeline, which Eldon regards as another late-flowering personal challenge). It was there that he became friendly with comedy duo Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, who harnessed his talents as a prominent supporting player in their cult radio and TV vehicle Fist Of Fun. And from there he’s never looked back, having caught the eye of every major British comedy player from Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris to Simon Pegg and Graham Linehan.
As for his impressive body of work, he concedes that it’s largely thanks to his careful selectiveness. “I do think that good comedy is hard to get right, and that’s why it’s fairly rare, in my opinion. So I’ve got to really like it to be in it. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but I think mostly I’ve done a pretty good call on it. If it doesn’t get me at script stage, then I usually knock it back. Or if it isn’t my style, because there’s certain stuff that is funny but just isn’t really me. So I am quite selective. I think I’m a bit of a snob actually.”
Does it upset him when he sees the art of comedy being mistreated, then? “I get furious about it,” he says, without hesitation. “I get very angry about lazy comedy. But when it comes down to it, it’s absolutely a matter of taste. It’s very easy to judge, but it’s a subjective thing. Stuff that I’d label as lazy gives brilliant, genuine pleasure to lots of people, and you can’t knock that. If people are enjoying it, then fair enough, I’ll just sit and brood in a corner.
“But I’ve got be careful, as there’s no mileage in being negative. And yet weirdly enough, there’s a lot that I feel extremely negative about! But brilliant stuff is being made all the time, which makes me a happy man. As long as there’s stuff like Charlie Brooker or Rev or The IT Crowd, then everything’s fine.”
It’s hardly surprising that his high standards and passion for comedy bleeds into his creative process.
“I’m a perfectionist to the point of slight obsession,” he says. “It’s almost bordering on OCD. So my poor girlfriend, if I’m getting ready for one particularly intricate bit, she will hear it said around the house literally hundreds of times. Especially if it’s word-based and fast delivery, you first of all have to learn the muscle memory, and then you have to get the comedy out of it. And you can’t really relax until your mouth and brain know it off by heart. Otherwise I feel uneasy. But that doesn’t always work in a positive way. By over-rehearsing you can sometimes wring the life out of it.”
All artists are neurotic to a degree, and while the avuncular Eldon hardly embodies the bogus “sad clown” cliché, he’s clearly aware of his faults.
“I’m rarely completely happy with what I’ve done. But I’ve tried to change that because someone formed the theory that that’s actually a form of massive egotism, that you have this need to be absolutely perfect. But why should you be perfect? Not many of us are perfect. So I’ve tried to transform that into just doing the very best I can.”
• It’s Kevin begins on Sunday 17 March on BBC2 at 10:30pm.