Book review: That Peter Kay Book

This is the unauthorised biography that got Peter Kay so furious he was compelled to write his own version of his life story, admitting he was driven by anger at ‘some journalist’ delving into his past.

So is That Peter Kay book the vicious hatchet job the comedian feared? Far from it.

Author Johnny Dee is proud to admit he’s a keen fan of almost all of Kay’s work, and he enthusiastically charts his rise from entertaining school friends with homemade videos to the hugely successful stand-up tours and his trio of Channel 4 hits: That Peter Kay Thing, Phoenix Nights and Max & Paddy.

But possibly what rankles with Kay is the fact such a book exists at all, however complimentary it is about his work. Anyone reading this would be left in little doubt that  Kay is something of a control freak. As one school pal reveals in this book, he wanted to be both behind that primitive camcorder and in front of it.

That’s not the only example: When old friends who ran his website, an interactive collection of gags, rants and episode guides, dared to suggest they sell adverts on the site as some recompense for the work they put in, Kay ensured his management team seized control of the domain and turn it into an efficient online merchandising stall. And like Tony Hancock before him, Kay shed the association of almost all those who helped made Phoenix Nights such a hit. Tales of his hands-on perfectionism on set are also legion – which made have made for good TV, but doesn’t always make him friends.

Although Dee loves almost everything Kay has done (the cash-in Max & Paddy workout video being the only exception ‘a spoof too far’), this is no sanitised hagiography, but a warts-and-all look at Kay’s rise – and is so much the better for it. In fact, that Dee sees the flaws in Kay’s personality but still loves his work is testament to the enduring appeal of his old-fashioned comedy.

Dee acknowledges that despite, or perhaps because of, his runaway success, Kay is not the best-loved figure on the comedy circuit, with a reputation, just like the old-school comics he emulates, of being light-fingered about material.

In the book, David Perkins, manager of Manchester’s Frog and Bucket club, recalls how as compere Kay used to hog the limelight and sneer at the acts he was introducing to ensure he remained the star. He would also sabotage fellow comics by lowering the microphone stand and screwing it ridiculously tight, so anyone who followed him would spend the crucial first moments of their act grappling unprofessionally with the equipment. Graham Norton, when sharing a bill with him in Manchester, asked Kay backstage: ‘What’s the name of the gay area here,’ so he could drop a local reference into his material. Again Kay made sure his fellow comic’s gag fell flat, by telling him it was Bury, rather than Canal Street,

He’s also had run-ins with Daniel Kitson, who Kay now dubs ‘The Bastard’ after he made public his doubts about appearing in Phoenix Nights, a show he retrospectively thinks is ‘lazy and racist’. Dave Spikey has also spoken about his disappointment when Kay alone was nominated for a book prize for the Phoenix Nights scripts, even though he and Neil Fitzmaurice were co-writers.

But he has fans too. Adam Bloom, who toured with a young Kay as his support act, recalls all the underhand tricks, but was still impressed at the newcomer who outshone him. ‘He acted like a star who the audience loved, and they just went, “Yeah, he’s a star who we love,”’ he recalls. ‘For me that’s a mind-blowing level of confidence and belief in your likeability. He had no fear.’

But he has stumbled, His first TV audition, for ITV Friday-night entertainment show Welcome To The Candid Café was a disaster, as he was nervous, sweaty and fidgety; his appearance on Live8 was a car crash, and The Sun pilloried him early in his career for cracking a tasteless Jill Dando joke that was doing the rounds . But he weathered the storm and the paper soon loved him – when you’re a mass-market tabloid, you don’t ignore a populist touch like his.

The comedy circuit, though was not for him. He did one set at the London Comedy Store, but hated it, lambasting the whole of the southern comedy scene as ‘McComedy’ with comics reeling out the same 20 minutes at club after club (an irony, perhaps, for someone who would later go on to release two DVDs of his Mum Wants A Bungalow tour with near-identical stand-up sets on them); and the idea of touring the country, sleeping on fellow comics’ floors was anathema to him.

Lucky, then, that his drive saw him through. His TV shows were acclaimed, his John Smith’s ads made him famous (even though he’s a teetotaller, put off alcohol by his father’s drunken behaviour) so he was able to embark on a mammoth live tour that netted him enough for a whole estate of bungalows for his mum.

Yet for all this fame, little is known about Kay’s personal life and personality away from the stage. He stays out of the newspapers, except on his terms, and his chat-show appearances are merely a chance for him to show off, whether brilliantly on Jonathan Ross’s programme, or rather embarrassingly as he did on Paul O’Grady’s

Dee’s book, then, does a lot to fill that vacuum, offering a balanced look at the man behind the cheesy smile that Kay’s own official history is unlikely to do.

That Peter Kay Book, by Johnny Dee is out now, published by Andre Deutsch at £16.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £11.21

Steve Bennett
July 31, 2006

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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