Interview: John Bishop

What makes the new Mr Saturday Night tick?

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Interview: John Bishop
Written By
Carol Midgley
John Bishop is huge. Massive. It’s just possible that the mega billboard posters around Liverpool proclaiming his recent tour to be “Unimprovable!” are bigger than the council house the 44-year-old comedian grew up in.

One minute he was a wage slave working as a sales director for a pharmaceuticals company, recreationally dipping his toe in comedy, the next he seemed to be selling out stadiums and strolling into his own BBC1 primetime show. If I was a comedian who’d been getting nowhere on the club circuit for years I’d forgive myself for wanting to run a sneaky key down the side of his new Jaguar.

Bishop’s appeal is in being Everyman, the ordinary bloke who thinks a croissant is an empty pastie. But now that he’s hit the big time with a posh car and a new house won’t he lose his golden common touch? If his friends are anything to go by, this seems unlikely.

“My mates think this is all an absolute shower of b*****ks,” he says, cheerfully, of his soaring career. “They think it’s just ridiculous. When I go out with my mates I’m never the centre of attention. Most of them, and they’re probably right, keep telling me they’re funnier than I am and I’m nicking their life.

“At the end of my last tour [54 sold-out dates across the UK] a few of them came to Wembley. I got a standing ovation and they said, ‘All right, you’re not bad’.”

Still, doesn’t it become harder to tap into the humdrum, to do riffs about your dad thinking a trip to the local tip counts as a day out, when you’re an A-lister with a debut DVD that became the bestselling stand-up title for Christmas 2010?

Bishop will have none of it. “I don’t regard myself as big time,” he says. “It could all stop tomorrow.”

He casually started performing in clubs on a part-time basis about ten years ago, but has only been a full-time comedian for four years. It was a big decision to jack in the day job because he’s got a wife and three sons to support.

“I can’t ignore the fact that this is my second series – on BBC1 and primetime and that’s all lovely – but it’s not as if I’ve ended up getting invited to exclusive showbiz parties and spending afternoons in a jacuzzi sipping champagne. I’ve still got all the same c**p about getting the kids to do their homework.”

It’s Bishop’s insouciant delivery, in a Scouse drawl untempered by years of living in Manchester, his wife’s home city, that has always been striking. He never seems nervous, even before huge audiences, despite having none of the classic apprenticeship of many comedians. The lack of nerves, he explains, deadpan, is probably because he doesn’t care all that much.

“I suppose if it was all you wanted to do – like if I was playing for Liverpool and it was the penalty shoot-out in the Champions League final – and as I’ve ran up to the ball I’d be remembering all those training sessions, all those dreams, all those hopes and they are all down to that one kick of the ball. But because I never thought I was going to be doing this... I’m not really bothered.”

He’s laughing but he’s serious. “I’ve not invested my soul in it, I just love doing it. If for whatever reason I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t feel I’ve failed.”

This surely makes Bishop the opposite of comedians who suffer dark agonies for their art. He certainly seems to be cast from a different mould. He’s been a vegetarian for 25 years (he gave up eating meat after working in a fast-food shop on Guernsey and one day saw a cow being slaughtered on a farm.

“The cow was hanging up looking at me as if to say ‘you did this’”) and in his 20s he cycled from Australia to Britain, raising £30,000 for a children’s charity, because he was inspired by a hitch-hiker he picked up on the way to a meeting.

“I didn’t have a bike until two weeks before I went and then when I got back I didn’t get on one again for ten years,” he says. He must have been a good employee because the pharmaceuticals company held his job open for him.

But he has had his bleaker moments. Some of his early material centered on his then-collapsing marriage to his wife, Melanie. Was he depressed at the time? “Clinically depressed is a modern phrase for being p***ed-off, isn’t it?” he says. “I was p***ed off but I wasn’t clinically depressed. I was going through a divorce so I wasn’t having the best time, but I wasn’t going to the doctor for Prozac.”

It’s well-known that, like something from a film script, he performed in a club one night not knowing that his wife was in the audience. Although much of his act charted their marriage breakdown, she found it funny and recognised the man she had fallen in love with. They were reunited and have now been together for 18 years.

In the slog of a corporate job, something in him had been lost, he has said. What did he think that something was? He thinks for a minute then answers: “Fun!”

So is he still prone to feeling angst? “Ask my wife,” he says, before admitting to a vague anxiety about going on holiday. But he is mainly positive about life, which creates the energy of his act.

“I think there’s more to be happy about than sad about on a daily basis. I don’t mean that in a flippant way. People lose perspective a bit. If I was to think about it, I was exposed to death quite early. And when you’re exposed to something like that you have to make a decision about whether you’re going to make the most of life or not.”

He won’t discuss on record what it was; suffice to say he witnessed a traumatic accident as a boy. It didn’t involve his family, but it might help explain the fearlessness that has marked his career and why he believes in grabbing life with both hands.

He’s currently writing his autobiography, which is out next year, and a new series of his Saturday night show John Bishop’s Britain starts this week.

Today he’s being photographed at the Comedy Store in Manchester dressed in Union Jack boxer shorts with his English bull terrier, Bilko, who he got from a rescue shelter. Bishop’s chiselled face is a cross between Liverpool footballer Jamie Carragher and Bez from Happy Mondays; he has been mistaken for both.

I tell him that someone described him to me as “a working-class Michael McIntyre” which makes him laugh, but he seems to like. I wonder if that now he’s a big earner (he has just bought his parents a new house in Runcorn) he now feels middle class?

“I don’t feel anything,” he says. “There are socialist elements ingrained in you if you’ve grown up on a council estate; it’s something I’m proud of. But I also don’t feel you should apologise for your success if you have managed to move on to good things.”

One of four siblings growing up in Runcorn he was never interested in comedy as a child, though he remembers his dad bringing home a tape of Tom O’Connor, which he found very funny. Who makes him laugh on TV? He is circumspect – “I don’t want to end up p***ing someone off!”

Now his own sons are getting older he’s sensitive to their privacy in his act. They are “getting to an age where there are girlfriends,” he says. He joked on TV about his wife’s first grey pubic hair (hats off to her – not all wives would see the funny side) but his comedy is always humane, never cruel. So what does he think of, say, Frankie Boyle, who was widely lambasted for mocking Katie Price’s disabled child?

Bishop won’t discuss other comedians, but he says he sees comedy in three brackets. First there are “comedians who say ‘I’m cleverer than you and I’m going to explain why it’s funny and if you get it you’re as clever as me’.” Then there are comedians, such as him, who “you feel as if you could be having a chat with them in the pub.” Finally there are comedians who are like “the kids who used to chase other kids with dog s**t on a stick”.

“You can find humour in all of them,” he says, “I think you’ve just got to be honest with yourself where you want to sit.”

Bishop’s success reflects the high value we now place on those who make us laugh. Perhaps this has increased in the recession. Bishop says when money is scarce this puts a greater responsibility on people like him to give value.

I ask if he has thought about a screenplay of his life. He smiles, knowingly. “Perhaps.” Who would play him? “Our Eddie” (his elder brother). What about Melanie? “She’s a very attractive woman,” he says before deciding on “Jennifer Aniston”.

It’s hard to say why Bishop strikes such a chord with people, but perhaps it’s that he reflects the minutiae of their lives back at them. “You are asking me why people like me – I have no idea,” he says. “Sometimes I’m a little bit scared to think about it. It’s like the ingredients for Irn Bru. If you know what it is, it’d probably ruin it.”

He has joked before that if it wasn’t for comedy he’d be an alcoholic on a bench shouting at buses but, seriously, what if he hadn’t walked on stage on an open mic night in Manchester and found, magically, that he could do it? “I think I would have been probably frustrated and depressed and never known why.”

He now knows that he will always do stand-up, whatever. “If all this goes wrong, as it very easily can do, I’ve got no qualms about going back to doing 20 minutes on a bill again, because it’s just a brilliant, brilliant job.”

He’s certain, too, that he won’t move south. No following Tarby onto the Surrey golf courses? “I can’t see any reason to leave. It’s never crossed my mind. I think that if you live in the north of England you are a very, very lucky person.”

So, no big house in London then? “I can’t see myself in Primrose Hill drinking cappuccinos,” he says, with some conviction. “This is where I belong.”