In a meeting room in the heart of the BBC’s new campus in Manchester, Angus Deayton is discussing the ability to see the funny side. The presenter-cum-actor has just joined the regular cast of long-running drama Waterloo Road, his his biggest acting role since One Foot in the Grave back in the early Nineties. In the ninth series of the secondary-school-set show, Deayton is the new modern languages teacher.
“He’s come back from Shanghai and he regards himself as slightly above Waterloo Road – it’s a bit of a comedown for him to be back in Britain, let alone Greenock,” explains Deayton, referring to the show’s far-from-metropolitan, west-of-Scotland location. “And they said I’d be called George Cunningham. I said, fine.”
Then, a year ago, in advance of Deayton arriving on set, the producers did a search on that name and discovered it already belonged to someone fairly well-known (a former MP). “I was renamed George Windsor,” says Deayton. “Little knowing that name was about to be used for the most famous baby in the world...” To make matters more confusing for royal watchers, Mr Windsor has brought his Mandarin-speaking wife with him as his classroom assistant. She’s called Princess.
Even without the eyebrow-raising names, one of Deayton’s roles in the teen-friendly drama is as a vehicle for lighter storylines. Mr Windsor, for example, is not quite as fluent in Mandarin as he claims. “But in a lot of episodes you’re dealing with quite important issues so, yes, you do occasionally have to put away your comedy hat and think, ‘OK, right, this is serious’.”
This, of course, is a shift with which Deayton is somewhat au fait. It’s 11 years since he left Have I Got News For You in a storm of controversy (drugs, a prostitute, an affair, a media feeding frenzy). In light of subsequent TV-presenter- based revelations, Deayton’s transgressions might seem like small beer. But such was the clamour surrounding his enforced departure from the panel show – and, to be frank, such was his brilliance in the host’s role – the hoo-ha still looms large in the public consciousness.
I wonder: after leaving HIGNFY and his very public troubles, was it difficult for him to go back to being funny on camera given what he’d been through?
“Ah, well...” he begins with that preparatory “ahem” familiar from his dozen years refereeing banter between Paul Merton and Ian Hislop. “Not really, because Waterloo Road is the only straight role I’ve ever played. Everything else I’ve done has really been comedy, whether it’s presenting or acting.” He cites the examples of Nighty Night (where he played the middle-aged crumpet pursued by Julia Davis’s character in the cult, ultra-black sitcom) and hosting the TV cooking show Hell’s Kitchen, in which his barbed wit got on the nerves of celeb chef Marco Pierre White. Is that actually true?
“The truth is,” he says, clearing his throat, “I don’t know necessarily... I didn’t storm out. The contract was for three series and it ran three series. I know that he took offence at something I said, but that was virtually the first thing I said during that series. I said, ‘He’s called Marco Pierre cos he’s from Leeds.’ “After we’d gone off air, he said, “I’ll thank you not to make jokes about my dead mother.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry?’ He said, ‘My mother called me Marco Pierre and I had to look into her eyes as she died when I was six years old.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m very sorry about that but it wasn’t a joke about your mother.’ So I didn’t really apologise, I suppose. Anyway, he was very grumpy.”
Of the perceived post-HIGNFY purdah, the 57-year-old says, “I was presenting within six weeks of finishing Have I Got News For You – I was doing a comedy clip show, I think it was for the BBC. Despite what you might have read in the newspapers, I carried on working throughout the last ten years.”
We’ll come in a minute to the bits of the last ten years that very much weren’t comedy for Deayton. But for now, why is he doing Waterloo Road? Factor in his obligation to the second series of Pramface – the sitcom is filmed in Edinburgh – and it means he’s in Scotland filming for almost nine months. He’s going home to London at weekends to see his long-term partner, TV and film writer Lise Mayer, and their 12-year-old son.
But still – it’s quite a commitment for a telly stalwart who, since leaving Oxford in the late Seventies alongside fellow student revue stalwarts Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, has made lucrative hay from a huge variety of work.
“It is a huge commitment,” he says. “Waterloo Road provides a number of challenges I haven’t had before, one of which is the length of commitment. The length of days – shooting from seven in the morning till seven at night... The fact that, although my character is faintly comic, it’s essentially a straight drama... It presents new challenges and new opportunities. And it is quite refreshing not to simply be doing another sitcom or another panel show.”
How did the producers pitch Waterloo Road to him? “They used lots of adjectives like ‘supercilious’, ‘cynical’, ‘sarcastic’ and ‘snide’,” says Deayton smiling. “All those words that are normally used to describe me in real life! So I felt, OK, this is not going to be a million miles away from something I’ve done before.”
Deayton is not protesting too much when he says he was far from persona non grata with broadcasters and production companies. He has worked constantly over the last decade, albeit not front-and-centre with a well-loved show. But still, was he so busy that he couldn’t join celebrities giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking? He had, after all, complained of dirty tricks by newspapers. “I didn’t really know what the Leveson Inquiry was until it got going. I did talk to Channel 4’s Dispatches off the record and they said, ‘Your case is probably the worst we’ve come across.’ All the tricks that journalists would get up to: hacking into medical records, impersonating people in order to break into houses and ransack them, threaten elderly parents and the rest of it...” His parents?
“Yeah. It would take hours to go through all the ways in which they told lies.” I ask whether he allowed himself a wry chuckle at the closure of the News of The World – agents of his downfall.
“No. To be honest, what strikes me as odd is that they stopped with News of The World because in my experience the other papers were equally as bad.”
“But you talked to the Daily Mail this morning,” I say, being privy to his Waterloo Road PR schedule.
“Yup,” he shoots back with a shrug. “Because there are only so many newspapers in the world, and if I didn’t talk to any of the ones who’d transgressed in the past, I wouldn’t really be talking to anyone, apart from possibly The Guardian and you.”
So, steely PR pragmatism takes over? “Yes,” Deayton says, before ploughing on. “So they stopped at the News of the World and they stopped with phone hacking, yet there’s blackmail, hacking into medical records, impersonating someone in order to get into someone’s house, breaking and entering...
Deayton recalls an incident in June 2002. “We had someone hack our phone. It was a cassette player with two leads attached, underneath a manhole cover, outside our house. It was the CID that told us. And they [the police] knew this BT engineer was coming back to pick it up on the Thursday. And somehow Dominic Lawson, who was in charge of The Sunday Telegraph at the time, had got hold of this story.”
Deayton claims he appealed to the newspaper not to publish: “I said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t print it yet because he’s coming back to pick the cassette up and the police want to catch him’. But they printed it. And the following Thursday obviously the engineer didn’t turn up. So we never nabbed him.”
But Deayton’s resentment at newspapers has apparently clouded his memory. An arrest was made within weeks. Dominic Lawson, speaking to Radio Times, defended his decision to run the story: “We clearly thought that the tapping of celebrity phones was a matter of public interest. I’m not aware that our story jeopardised any police investigation.”
Anyway. It was all a long(ish) time ago. Eleven years on, does Deayton – now a key cast member in a big, prime-time BBC family-oriented drama – feel like he’s been rehabilitated?
“Well, I felt rehabilitated just 12 days on, because I was still working for the BBC. So this idea of my being away somewhere in some weird wilderness – my ‘gulag days’ – that never really existed outside of the tabloids. They’d always talk about my comeback. Really? That was ten years ago. I just carried on working and enjoyed the variety of projects that have been thrown up. And Waterloo Road is just the latest, but hopefully it will continue. But you never know what’s round the corner.”
These days Deayton – a music fan who in the summer attended the Glastonbury and Latitude festivals – now has kids approaching him for autographs. “It happened for the first time at Latitude. This eight-year-old came up to me – ‘Are you the new teacher in Waterloo Road?’ I thought, ‘I’ve suddenly got a new fanbase!’ I used to be safe with people younger than 30, they didn’t know who the hell I was.”
And chances are eight-year-olds won’t know anything about the events of a decade ago...
“No,” says Deayton with something like relief. “Nothing.”
Waterloo Road is on Thursdays at BBC1 at 8pm