Jack Dee has a guilty secret. For years, our most famous grump has delighted in Escape to the Country, the “slightly trashy” (his words) daytime TV show about urban types relocating to the Shires.
“My wife, Jane, and I became weirdly obsessed with it,” confesses the 55-year-old comedian. “I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all the couples on it had this slight sense of desperation. They were on their second marriages, approaching retirement, trying to restart their lives. And of course, you never see what happens once they’ve actually bought the house.”
All of which made him think: there’s a sitcom in that. Bad Move sees Dee and his long-time writing partner, Pete Sinclair, imagining what might happen post-relocation. Graphic designer Steve (Dee) and Nicky (Kerry Goodliman) are both on their second marriage; the children are out of the way; and they’ve moved from a nice house in Leeds to a windswept, flood-prone part of Yorkshire. Guess what? It’s rubbish.
They’re stuck in a “dip” so they can’t get any internet; they’re beset by irritating neighbours; and malevolent estate agents seem to have conned them out of their means of returning. All of which is a ripe scenario for Jack Dee to do what Jack Dee does so well – moan for England.
We meet in Soho at the offices of Open Mike, the production company that he set up in the mid-1990s. He’s shorter than I expected and bears a passing resemblance to Jack Nicholson, albeit a much more sensible Jack Nicholson in a Ralph Lauren shirt and dad jeans.
He also laughs frequently – “I’m unnerved by comedians who don’t laugh. It’s like a musician who doesn’t tap his foot” – and apologises profusely for being a bit late. He was caught in a Southern Rail nightmare on the way up from his cottage on the south coast. “We actually considered just catching a plane from Gatwick.”
He’s had his cottage for 20 years and the idea of moving there permanently tempts him. However, he’s too attached to Wandsworth, south London, where he and Jane raised their children, Hattie, Phoebe, Miles and Charlie, aged 19 to 25. “Whenever we’ve tried to make it a permanent move, it’s slightly backfired on us. It quite quickly becomes claustrophobic. If you have some issue in your house, before you know it, the whole village knows it. ‘I hear you’ve got dry rot!’ You find yourself saying: ‘Oh it’s not so bad…’ It’s quite natural that people don’t want to reflect on the fact they’ve made a terrible mistake.” Ah, the human condition.
Dee grew up in Hampshire, the son of a printing firm executive, with a line of performers on his mum’s side of the family. He never saw the point of school – he’s spoken about the scarring effect of a headteacher denouncing his intelligence in front of the whole school at eight (“Dee by name, D by nature!”). After disappointing exam results, he drifted into the restaurant trade and experienced eight “lost years” of drinking heavily and working out what to do with his life.
He considered becoming a priest before he performed an open-mic spot at the Comedy Store in 1986. He discovered that his talent for remaining deadpan creased audiences up. “The really good comedians don’t make people laugh with their jokes. You want them laughing between the jokes. Actors always talk about finding the character. With stand-up it’s much more about finding the attitude.”
He’s widely regarded as one of our most accomplished stand-ups and won admirers for his self-referential sitcom Lead Balloon, as well as hosting I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue on Radio 4 and playing the landlord in BBC3 comedy Josh. And he’s remained happily married to Jane for 28 years. What’s the key to a long marriage? “Be nice to each other.” He bursts out laughing. “I just go along with what she says. That’s really what it is.”
Bad Move feels as if it’s been beamed in from a more innocent era, with amusing turns from Miles Jupp as a smug neighbour and Seann Walsh as a quad-biking rock star. “You have to be sensitive to the fact that it will go out after Coronation Street. But you also have to put what you want to do in it,” Dee says. An ice-cold Nazi joke in episode one does that rather nicely.
If Dee’s appeal is broad, I think it’s because he nails a certain male English archetype and takes our national talent for moaning to a fine art. On a recent visit to LA airport he tried out a bit of Californian positivity on a customs official for a change. “He asked how I was and I said: ‘I’m just great thanks!’ It really wasn’t convincing. It doesn’t suit us as a people. It’s much healthier to have a little bit of scepticism about you. It’s a drainage of your emotional system.”
Still, when it comes to Brexit, he isn’t the only comic to experience a sense-of-humour failure. He voted Remain as did most of his friends. “When the result came, everyone was knocked sideways. It’s quite hard to find that funny.” He understands why people voted the other way and worries about a political imbalance in comedy. It goes back to his days at the Comedy Store and the alternative comedy explosion. “You only needed to mention Margaret Thatcher and you’d get a round of applause. I figured there’s just no point in doing stuff about this. There would be three other people doing the same thing as you. And topical comedy becomes a bit like doing crosswords. The gags that you all arrive at are going to be pretty much the same because the subjects are the same.”
He is not altogether delighted to see this mode returning among younger comics. “It seems to be an imperative that you show your colours and stand up for your side, which is usually the left. Instinctively, I want comedians to be independent of all of that. I don’t want them to be hailing a new type of government. I’ve always thought it was my job to question all of it.” He has half a million followers on Twitter but has more or less given up on it. “There’s nothing you can say that won’t upset someone – I just can’t be bothered.”
He worries our sense of irony is endangered. “It’s harder to convince people that if you say something unappealing, you’re being ironic. I grew up being told that Americans don’t get irony. I think they’re masters of irony compared to what we do. If you watch The Simpsons, Family Guy or so many comedians – they’re so good at saying one thing, believing another and getting the audience to follow. We’re losing that.”
Who makes him laugh now? “I avoid watching comedy when I’m writing as I don’t want it to contaminate what I’m doing. But I’m not hard to please.” He cites Jeremy Hardy as well as Harry Hill and Reeves and Mortimer. Among the younger comics? “I like Seann Walsh and Josh Widdicombe. And there are so many female comics now who have made it so much more of an interesting scene.”
He’s airing new material in small clubs this autumn – typically, he does stand-up until he gets sick of it, then does sitcoms until he’s sick of that. He’s toying with the idea of a show about stand-up itself. “The stuff I’ve been having fun with is trying to talk about doing stand-up in a stupid, arrogant way while I’m actually doing it. I’ve been doing it for so long now, I feel like I have to explain why I’m still doing it. Otherwise I feel people will look at me and go: ‘What is your problem, for f**k’s sake?’”
Does it get easier? “The more experience you have, the better you are at sensing what’s working and the more inclined you are to trust your instincts. At the same time, you’ve said and done a lot more stuff and you don’t want to repeat yourself. I don’t find any of it that easy. I still have to work at it to make it good – it’s not like it just flies into my head.”
Still, his long career shows that there’s something healthy in having that outlet. “Stand-up is a ridiculous thing to do. Why would you want to be laughed at for an hour? But it’s so compelling. I can’t switch it off. I could never come to a day where I say: ‘I’m not going to do that again.’”
Interview by Richard Godwin
Bad Move begins on Wednesday 20th September at 8pm on ITV