Jee whizz

How Jocelyn Jee Esien ended up with her own TV show, when she never even wanted to be a comedian

Not many stand-ups get to tackle both Dickens and Shakespeare in a year. And being overweight, lairy and seen as a perpetual drunk makes Johnny Vegas’s flirtation with the classics seem even more unlikely.

But following his roles as rag-and-bottle man Krook in Bleak House and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Vegas is now returning to comedy – with a second seriaOne of the 3 Non-Blondes, Jocelyn Jee Esien is about to return to BBC Three in Little Miss Jocelyn, a sketch show which she wrote and in which she plays more than 50 characters. But, she tells Jane Dudley, writing it was easy – the hard part is waiting for it to air...

‘I first got excited about it when I saw the BBC Three Blobs and a trail saying, Little Miss Jocelyn, new comedy coming soon, and I thought, “Ooh, it's actually happening!' I just have to wait for it to come out and then I can relax,’ she says.

‘It actually didn't take that long to write. I tried a few pilots beforehand but it was a completely different show – it was hidden camera at first, then a talk show – and then we did three live shows, just trying out new characters and seeing how they were received.

‘I always assumed that someone else was going to write it but, deep down, I thought I'd love to do it myself. It was only after the first live show that I thought, “this is the kind of show I want to write”, so I did it all myself in the end. I didn't mean to. I was in a dark room with a glass of sherry, every night till 4am. That's why I'm even more nervous, it's an added pressure. I just hope everyone enjoys it.’

Jocelyn said her favourite character was the woman who has worms, and takes drastic action to relieve the pain. ‘Even though it's just a quickie sketch I really love her. I wanted to do more of her but thought I can only do it a few times because it's going to be the same thing. I love her because she's so physical, but my arse was red raw afterwards – I scraped the skin away and had a burn mark, it was so painful.’

Another of her favourites is Fiona the office worker desperately trying to keep the fact she is black a secret from her colleagues: ‘I love her because she's so hideous. I love the grotesque characters.’

Some characters, including the (male) driving instructor, right, and Florence the nurse, needed a long session in make-up: ‘Some of them took three hours but it wasn't that bad because I just sat there. It was very therapeutic, actually, just having people pampering me. The costumes are quite claustrophobic, though.’

Jocelyn also came up with the idea for the opening credits – an animation depicting her life, played out to a catchy theme tune: ‘I wanted an animation and I wanted it to be a rap – a bit like the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. I just loved watching it, with its nice, happy tune.

‘With mine, it's telling the story of how theatre's always been a part of my life. I just wanted a fun opening. I wanted viewers to know not to take things too seriously.’

But she says she never intended to become a comedian. ‘I'm always asked who my comedy inspirations are and I never really know what to say, because I didn't really set out to do comedy. In the beginning I was studying law and I thought that's what I was going to do, then I went to drama school and thought I'd be an actor, then I thought I'd go off to the Royal Shakespeare Company – they won't touch me now, though!’

Her first foray into comedy came when she was working on a play at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and someone was putting on a stand-up show. ‘I was always mucking around when I should've been working – that's why I couldn't go to the RSC – but this guy said there's space for new comics if I want to have a go. I kept saying no but then relented and thought I'd do a funny monologue.

‘Then suddenly it dawned on me the night before and I tried to get out of it. He wouldn't let me and actually paid me £200. He said to just do what you do in rehearsals when you should be working.

‘There were all these faces in the audience that I recognised – people from TV, from The Real McCoy and Desmond’s – and I thought, “I can't go on, what am I going to do?” I was shitting myself.

‘The slot was meant to be 20 minutes but I was on for 47 minutes – 47 minutes for my first stand-up! In the end he was saying, 'Get Jocelyn off!', but I was having such a great time, telling jokes and stories that I thought were funny and taking the piss out of people. They told me to come back tomorrow and I honed it down to 20 minutes and suddenly I was getting bookings.

‘As time's gone on I've had opportunities, luckily, touch wood. Where's wood? Is this made from wood? I'm superstitious, I must touch wood,’ she laughs, before finally settling on some MDF. ‘I love just to be able to jump on opportunities when they come my way.’

Little Miss Jocelyn starts at 10pm on August 22 on BBC Three. First published:August 11, 2006es of BBC Three dope-dealing comedy Ideal, and a planned return to stand-up.

‘Doing Bleak House was terrifying,’ he said. ‘On my first day on set I mistakenly tried to do a cockney accent and even the people who love me no matter what, told me they hated it so I had to bin it quickly. Not a great start.’

But although Dickens might seem like a stretch for the 34-year-old comic, playing a shabby alcoholic didn’t prove all that difficult…

‘My forte is playing drunks down the ages,’ he says. ‘When my agent rings me about a role, I don't ask what the part is, but what century it's in. Now they're making a second series of Rome, I'll probably get a call asking if I can fiddle and drink at the same time.

‘I actually had gout when I went for the part of Krook. I limped into the audition with a bottle of cooking sherry – a Method approach that obviously worked.

‘It's very different to doing stand-up. My problem is I always feel like an interloper when I do serious drama. No one ever makes me feel that way, but it's my own paranoia coming out.

‘But when I'm a comic, I'm in charge. I know what works because it comes from the confidence of having been self-taught. But I don't have that same self belief when it comes to classical drama.’

However, he says he feels more at home acting in Ideal.

‘Ideal is a really intense shoot and I can be on set for hours at a time. With the dramas, I only had six-minute scenes in ten hour shoots, so I spent the other nine hours hanging around texting people who have real jobs and checking the door to see if anyone was walking past - but no one ever was because they had proper parts!

‘I'm in 95 per cent of the scenes in Ideal so the experience is very different. It's a relentless schedule. Three months of shooting, with 5.30am starts.

‘We had a week off in the middle of shooting this time, but as soon as everyone stopped, we all went down with six different types of flu and other unmentionable diseases.

‘Working on Ideal is a big laugh and nothing is sacred. Everyone takes the mickey. There's nothing vicious about it but no one escapes either.

‘It was brilliant to work with writer Graham Duff again, who is very open to ideas. What this actually means is he hasn't finished the scripts and is taking the organic approach - getting other people to finish it off for you.

‘Moz [the useless dope dealer] is a very comfortable character to play. I've got to know him really well now and I can predict how he might react in certain situations.

‘I feel sorry for him. He's trapped in his own little world which doesn't expand beyond the four walls of his flat - yet he can't leave the flat because he would lose business. It's a very sad situation."

‘This series, we have Jo Neary [playing Moz's new neighbour Judith] who is a brilliant addition to the cast. There are a lot of stand-ups in Ideal which I think shows in how the gags are timed and delivered. Someone like Seymour Mace [who plays both Craig and his twin brother Steve] is a huge stand-up presence.

‘All the cast are a lot of fun to work with but this could be down to their individual drink problems. I'm the smokescreen and, because I'm easily led, people think I'm the one with the problem and it's simply not true.’

‘I still get Elle Decoration every month and I started learning the cello just before Christmas. In fact, my tutor thinks I've absconded with his antique cello because I haven't been able to get to the last couple of lessons.

‘It's a very hard instrument to learn. I use very few muscles at the best of times and this uses muscles I didn't know I had. I think it's symptomatic of my midlife crisis. I can't afford a Porsche so the cello is the next best thing.

‘I've already suggested to Damon Albarn that there might be a role in Gorillaz for me when I get a bit better. I was a bit upset that he didn't immediately take me up on this.

‘Also I'm driving now. I passed my driving test at the second time of trying so I'm exploring “man” stuff like car navigation systems to help me see the world – and get out of St Helens.

‘My first driving test was a nightmare. It was going fine until the examiner decided to make small talk. Suddenly she was asking me what films I'd been in and I panicked and said,”Gladiator!”. I think she failed me for impersonating Russell Crowe.’

Rumour had it that Johnny was to be in the recent Celebrity Big Brother, but he said: ‘It was all lies – I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. Unless my career goes on the skids that is. In which case I might be combining it with bad pantomimes in Widnes.

‘The main thing is I'm getting positive feedback for my acting so we'll see if any other interesting parts come up. But I also want to return to doing stand-up.

‘It's got to the point where I've become frightened of live audiences. This is a really telling sign that I need to go back and earn my place on the comedy circuit again.

‘You can't be a proper comic unless you've been out on stage and felt the fear.’

Ideal returns to BBC Three on March 14, and will be broadcast online a week before it is aired on TV

First published: February 24, 2006

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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