Robin Dashwood has been my best friend for nearly 30 years. When you suddenly find yourself very well known, lots of people want to be your friend. It’s very reassuring to have those who liked you before around, those who will tell you if you’re being an idiot. He’s a very intelligent and calm presence – the complete opposite of me. At school we bonded over finding our drama teacher, Keith Louis, funny. We’d often be up against each other in reading competitions but there was never any hard feeling. He generally won. I wasn’t wildly popular at school except when I did comic assemblies – versions of Blankety Blank and Game for a Laugh. Robin (who’s now a BBC TV producer) and I kept ourselves to ourselves. At weekends we’d go up to London and see plays on the cheap. We’ve never had an argument.
MY FAVOURITE TEACHER: Keith Louis
I’ve a lot to thank Mr Louis for because he cast me in many school plays over the years and gave me my first lead role in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. He was a flamboyant figure – a bit like Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? – with this shock of white hair, always very smart in matching shirts and ties. When you’re young and desperate to act, it’s such an amazing thing for someone to believe in you. My first role was more accident than design: I played Queen Henrietta Maria in an operetta called All The King’s Men, and wore a wedding dress and a wig from a Girl Guides jumble sale (below). It was such a thrill to be on stage getting laughs and applause: I wanted to hear it again and again and again.
MY ROLE MODEL: Tom Baker’s Doctor
Doctor Who was my favourite TV show and Tom Baker cast a huge spell over me as a child. I used to watch it with my dad and spent hour upon hour in the playground dissecting that week’s cliffhanger – “How on earth will the Doctor get out of this one?” The Doctor is a great role model because he uses his mind rather than his fists to win. It’s such a British institution because it celebrates eccentricity, not good-looking action heroes.
I read all the novelisations. Later in life when Tom Baker released his autobiography I queued up to have my copy signed. I couldn’t believe it when he agreed to do the voiceover for a tiny radio pilot that Matt Lucas and I were doing called Little Britain. For him, it was just another voiceover job; for me it was magic.
It turns out he really is quite otherworldly – you wonder if he has come from another planet! We’d keep the tapes running between his lines because he tells the most hilarious, poetic stories. You don’t know if they’re true or not but they’re always brilliantly entertaining. The awe that you have for your childhood heroes never leaves you.
MY FIRST CRUSH: Ornella Muti
I was obsessed with the film Flash Gordon. I still am. I had the sticker album, I collected the cards in Weetabix packets and my mum bought me the single when I got into secondary school. Yes, I even wrote to Jim’ll Fix It asking to meet Brian Blessed, who played Prince Vultan. Ornella Muti is the Italian actress who played the seductive Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless, and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life. She was my first major crush. There are probably millions of men around who will never forget that red PVC catsuit and that voice… I still love Flash Gordon because it’s the anti-Star Wars: camp, fun, very sexy (although I only realised that as an adult!). I hear it’s being remade. I said to my agent: “Please, please, even if it’s a cameo in the back of the shot – I want to be in Flash Gordon.”
MY CAMP CRUSADER: Quentin Crisp
When I was 12, I saw The Naked Civil Servant – the dramatisation of Quentin Crisp’s life where he’s played by John Hurt – and I was completely bowled over by his bravery. He never hid who he was. He never tried to be someone he wasn’t, even though people would violently attack him for being gay, for being effeminate. He used to go out wearing sandals with painted toenails and people would stamp on his feet at the bus stop. Yet he still went out the next day with painted toenails.
Then I read his autobiography, which is darker than the film, and got a sense of his brilliant wit. I love the idea of someone who’s not prepared to compromise to fit into society. That’s why my first children’s book, The Boy in the Dress, is about how it’s OK to be different.
MY FUNNIEST DATE: Jessica Hynes
I’ve always been drawn to talented people. In 1989 I joined the National Youth Theatre and befriended one of the funniest people I’ve ever met: Jessica Stevenson, as she was before she married. She used to do this incredible impression of Patricia Routledge on a Victoria Wood show and have us all in stitches. Back then I had horrible long curtains for hair and she nicknamed me “the Eskimo Princess”. We went on our first and only date to a pizza restaurant off London’s Holloway Road. It was my idea; she didn’t seem that keen! I remember thinking: “You’d spend your life laughing if you ever got to marry her.”
MY LITERARY IDOL: Roald Dahl
The first book I picked up from the local library and read for pleasure was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was 37. Actually, I was about 10 but not a voracious reader: I preferred television or playing Pacman. Roald Dahl got me hooked on reading. What started as an idle choice in a library because I liked chocolate has turned into a lifelong love. I’ve had the pleasure of going to Roald Dahl’s house, meeting his widow, leafing through the manuscript of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I even got to work with his favourite illustrator, Quentin Blake, on two of my own stories. Children’s books are still a guilty pleasure. I love the beautiful illustrations, the magical worlds, the fantastical journey they take you on.
MY COMEDY INSPIRATION: Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg was in the year above me at Bristol University. I was completely in awe. He used to do these charming stand-up routines: he’d come on stage with a carrot in a bowl that he would pretend was a goldfish called Rover, or do poems about how he adored Diane Keaton. He made me raise my game: I knew that Simon was number one and his level of talent was what I had to aspire to. We started a comedy night with other students and on a good week would earn £15 – and to think he’s now a Hollywood star in $200 million movies. I’m so thrilled for his success. He’s lost some weight but nothing has changed. He’s very humble and he’s very smart because he keeps himself under the radar. He still has an incredible loveability. You can’t put a price on that.