TV

Matt Berry: "I did the right thing never getting a proper job"

The toast of comedy Matt Berry on his "brilliant" parents, his teenage musical tastes – and why he loved working in the London Dungeon

At 16 I was an unremarkable teenager in a comprehensive. I wasn’t interested in sport or anything obvious so I didn’t stand out. I was interested in music but I couldn’t read music so I wasn’t allowed to do the GCSE. I was interested in painting but no one’s interested in a 16-year-old boy who’s interested in painting. I wanted to get out of school very, very quickly. I’d like to go back and tell that boy – none of this will have any bearing on your future. Or who you are. This stuff… it doesn’t mean shit.

I never thought about looks or a style or anything like that. My musical taste didn’t fit with the rest of the class – basically I was listening to Mike Oldfield, Roxy Music. And I’d just discovered Erik Satie. People at school would have just said, what the fuck is this? If it didn’t have drums, you were poncey and odd. Phil Collins was on Radio 1. Mainstream music was either that or Iron Maiden. I couldn’t really give a fuck about either.

My parents were, and are, brilliant. It was them who bought me my organ, which I tried out my Erik Satie stuff on. They didn’t have any records, they weren’t interested in art or music. But they were into my enthusiasm and they did everything they could to encourage it. They’re very proud now, which is all you can ask of your parents, isn’t it? If your parents think you’re a huge bellend you should probably change your ways.

Matt Berry in a musical mood

Strange and dark things are the most interesting so they form the basis of my work. I did have an active and vivid imagination. I remember going to Madame Tussauds. The chamber of horrors was such a big deal, all forms of executions, which I found fascinating. I didn’t know we’d done that to each other. I had a kind of hippie-ish reaction. It just seemed the cruellest thing ever. That formed my views on capital punishment ever since. I think a lot of what I’ve done goes back to that visit when I was young. My reaction still creeps out in my work, in a song or a character, all the horrible stuff from my childhood keeps coming back. Like Watership Down. And The Elephant Man.

If I met 16-year-old Matt Berry now, he’d be really shy and only give one-word answers. He’d look at your hand rather than in your eye. I don’t know why I was so shy. I was never one who cared about being the fastest runner, who thrust himself on people, who gave it the large one. If you’re a thoughtful person you won’t want to be in people’s faces all the time.

It was a good moment when I told the London Dungeon I couldn’t come back because I had a job on Channel 4

I don’t think of myself as a comedian. It’s just one thing I’m interested in, and not the first thing. I knew I wanted to be in the arts when I was 16 but either music or painting would have made me happy. And I accepted that with music, I’d have to stand up and perform at some point, to get better gear at least. But if I went back and told my teenage self that he’d be on TV, and recognised in public, he’d have thought that was bullshit, he’d never have believed it.

I’d tell my teenage self he did the right thing never getting a proper job. I always felt it would fuck up my chances of doing what I wanted. So I only did temp jobs and jobs I could get fired from. I ended up going into The London Dungeon. It was a temp job but it was closer to what I was interested in. You’d do things like Jack the Ripper shows where you were the judge. Or you’d conduct these tours and scare people, test out jokes and timing. I loved every minute of it. I didn’t think for a minute I was the best at it, I just enjoyed it.

The turning point for me was in my late 20s, when I got to do Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace on Channel 4. I knew Noel Fielding a bit, not that well. I was invited to do some shows for The Mighty Boosh when they were starting out, playing the Hen and Chickens pub in Islington. I’d come on before them. I adapted some of my songs to be preposterous and funny to fit with what they were doing. And that led to Darkplace. None of us knew exactly what we were doing or where it might go.

The IT Crowd

I don’t dwell on the stuff that didn’t work, otherwise I’d just stop. I just feel lucky that anything worked at all because it was never my plan to make TV. It’s all a bonus. Closest to my heart is probably Toast of London because I came up with the character, based on a bunch of people I worked with in the industry. And Channel 4 didn’t mess with it. Head to screen, it was exactly as I wanted it. And the little Matt Berry Does… films I did for BBC iPlayer, they’re very satisfying. Because they’re not broadcast, you can do absolutely anything, you can use the c-word. The main joke with them… when someone publicly gets someone’s name wrong, it’s the funniest thing in the world to me. Or stressing the wrong syllable in the name, that always makes me laugh. The way it stops you concentrating on what they’re saying, this thing just hangs in the air.

If I went back to my teenage self to try to impress him with something I’d done – well, first he’d think I was a huge wanker doing that in the first place. But I think what would impress him would be to get a vinyl copy of an album I’ve made and show him the copyright with my name on. That’s all he wanted back then. Would he like the music? I don’t know. He’d hear bits of things he was interested in. Other bits he’d say, what the fuck are you doing? If I showed him the Bafta it wouldn’t make any connection. It’s too far removed from his life. I still feel that way now.

If I could go back to any moment of happiness in my life… There are so many but most are too rude to print. It was a good moment when I told the London Dungeon I couldn’t come back because I had a job on Channel 4 doing Darkplace. I like thinking of that because now I know it was the end of that time and the beginning of this one.

Matt Berry’s new album The Small Hours is out September 16 on Acid Jazz. He tours the UK with his band The Maypoles from October 25

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