Before they were famous

The stars who graduated from Paramount Comedy

Matt Lucas is pinned to the wall by an irate TV presenter, who has him firmly by the throat. As David Walliams and a security guard try to drag him away, the host spits biliously: ‘How dare you fuck with my show on live TV. I’m going to fucking kill you, you little fuck.’

The presenter was former Gamesmaster host Dominik Diamond, and the setting was the early days of the Paramount Comedy Channel.

Diamond hosted a live late-night show called Night O’Plenty, and the future Little Britain stars had been invited on as they’d just made a show for Paramount, in which they played cheesy double act Mash & Peas.

‘We never had guests - only had token totty guests,’ Diamond recalls. ‘I only did it because David was one of my best mates.’

But the duo caused chaos; refusing to take their seats, referring to Diamond having being sacked from another job and – what really got his goat – throwing darts at a dartboard just inches from his head. He snapped at them, live on air: ‘I’m not joking now. Throw that across my head again and I’m kicking the shit out of you. Right?’

And as the show finished, he harrumphed to the camera: ‘I would thank Mash and Peas, but I’m sure the viewers would agree they have been complete wankers.’

Then came the dust-up in the corridor and Diamond never spoke to the pair again. And while they are currently making Little Britain, USA, Diamond co-hosts an afternoon show on Edinburgh radio station Talk 107.

Diamond recalled the fight for a new documentary about the comedy stars who got their break on Paramount. Simon Pegg, Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Dom Joly and Armstrong and Miller all landed early screen roles on the channel. And Bo Selecta star Leigh Francis used to work in the office, begging to be allowed on air. One of his first contributions was making cardboard cut-out penises for a Night O’Plenty sketch.

Pegg, who starred in a series called Dan Doyle Space Person, said the channel played a crucial role in his comedy career. ‘It was the only platform for that kind of thing, for experimentation, for younger people who wanted to get into TV and film to actually have a go at it’ he said.

Unusually for TV at the time, in the years after it launched in 1995, the station gave the comedians a lot of leeway to make what they wanted.

Myfanwy Moore, who was head of programming at Paramount from 1995 to 1998, before going on to produce Little Britain, said: ‘When we started, talent wasn’t going to put up with being on cable and being told what to do. So we gave them a certain amount of artistic freedom.’

Early shows included Lucas and Walliams’s Spoofovision, where Mash and Peas originated, parodying ‘shows nobody else could be bothered to spoof’ such as Why Don’t You… and Take Hart. Despite the freedom they were given, Lucas and Walliams couldn’t quite do exactly what they wanted - as their American sitcom parody I’m Black And Dad’s In The Klan falling foul of channel censors.

The show was directed by Edgar Wright, whose next job was a ‘narrative-based sketch show’ called The Asylum, which featured Julian Barratt, Adam Bloom, Norman Lovett, Paul Morocco, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. It was to mark the start of Wright’s collaboration with Pegg that took them through Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Wright said: ‘It was stand-ups doing their acts in a mental asylum. Now it would be quite politically incorrect to do that. To be honest, it was politically incorrect back then, as well.’

And Pegg said he’d particularly asked for Stevenson (now called Hynes) to work on the show. ‘I thought she was amazing,’ he said. ‘The best thing since sliced bread.’

Pegg said: ‘After that we were approached and asked if we would like a vehicle written for us. And in our arrogance and naivity, we said we would write it ourselves.’ And so Spaced – a co-production between Paramount and LWT – was born.

Another star of The Asylum, Julian Barrett, went on to make another show for Paramount, (Un)natural Acts, in 1998, below. It was the first time he’d worked on TV with Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher. And that same year they performed their first Boosh stage show. ‘The dialogues [in that show] have formed the core of everything we’ve done since,’ Fielding now says.

Sacha Baron Cohen also started out on the channel, winding people up as gay Austrian fashionista Bruno for a series of short ‘interstitials’ between programmes. Dom Joly, similarly, originated many of his hidden-camera stunts in this way, before landing his Channel 4 Comedy Lab that would become Trigger Happy TV.

‘They just let you get on with it, and when you had something funny, they just put it on,’ said Joly. ‘It was great.’

‘It’s so weird when you look back at everyone who started at Paramount at that time,' Moore said of her tenure in the mid-Nineties, ‘because some of them have gone on to become comedy superstars.’

  • Paramount School Of Comedy airs at 10pm on Sunday, July 6.

Published: 4 Jul 2008

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