Lawson the listener

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 by

There is a fashion currently to scorn Mark Lawson over the sporadic set of elongated interviews he is doing for BBC4, but frankly, I think each one I’ve seen has been brilliant.

With the restricted, experimental format of both channel and programme giving him a whole 60 minutes to question his guest, it’s a hark back to “proper” televisual interviewing and has proved for the first time in a generation that famous folk can happily and freely talk about themselves without having to gratuitously plug some project or other.

My argument there may wane a tad as I’m writing this on the back of Lawson’s talk with Jack Dee, as part of “Jack Dee Night” (yes) on BBC4 as the channel sets itself to launch its new audienceless comedy, Lead Balloon, which Dee co-writes, as well as appears in. There have been numerous trailers right through the Corporation – the audio from BBC1 and 2′s promos have also been heard on Radio 1 and 5 Live – with BBC4 pinning much on Dee’s national comic popularity and growing reputation as a decent actor to make their network just that bit more of a choice for the channel-hoppers.

So, naturally, the first 10 minutes of Lawson’s polite gossip with Dee was about the making of the series and Dee’s own feelings as an actor and the writer of a semi-autobiographical sitcom (he stars as a deadpan comic whose career has become too reliant on corporates). But this was only 10 minutes of a one-hour chat on a commercial-free network. Whether Lawson’s guests have had anything to plug or not – and in the main, they haven’t – is only incidental, as proved by the case of Dee, through whom we got a fascinating, candid 50-minute insight into a complicated life and career.

I chuckled and listened intently as Dee – always a favourite comic of mine in any event since I heard his jokes about water supply conservation leaflets on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1990 – told of conning his way into sixth form, telling careers advisors he wanted to change the Church of England and being the only career waiter in Covent Garden who wasn’t a RADA undergraduate (but was a dipsomaniac who wrote chronic poetry). Some of it was stuff I dimly recalled from Deadpan magazine a decade ago, but it was still intriguing nonetheless.

Then there was the successful side, and the revelation that Dee only developed his winning dour delivery when he’d decided to give it all up and therefore went into his pre-booked, final gigs with a couldn’t-care-less attitude, and got the biggest laughs he’d ever had. From here we got clips of Paramount City (“A man back by popular demand”, I remember Arthur Smith saying introducing him at the time, and I can believe it when I consider some of the other guff which went on that show) and The Jack Dee Show and the higher ground he gained from winning a British Comedy award for Best Newcomer and then, of course, advertising John Smith’s beer and overpowering the egos of Madames Feltz and Turner to win the inaugural Celebrity Big Brother.

Lawson is a lucky interviewer in that he has a lot of time to fill so he can ask numerous supplementary questions dependant on the initial answer, but as a proper journalist should, he is doing so in the right way. He is respectful to his guests, doesn’t miss anything out, reacts to discomfort in a subject (when Dee said he refused to allow any of hiCelebrity Big Brother clips to be re-shown, Lawson moved on) and, most of all, he listens, and listens properly. As a consequence, Dee – not known at all as a difficult interviewee, but certainly a man with a persona which could prompt assumptions – was able to project himself as an articulate and decent chap who isn’t afraid to graft, but also not afraid to reveal the more embarrassing traits of his life and work.

The guest must obviously know that they’re going to be asked about everything, but just maybe they agree to it – even with nothing to plug, like Jilly Cooper, David Baddiel, Terry Gilliam – because they know Lawson will ask them everything in the right way.


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