Comedian and Buzzcocks captain Phill Jupitus tells Pat Parker about living in Leigh on Sea and why he's nothing like he is on TV in real life
PHILL JUPITUS, sporting a floral green shirt and shorts, tucks into a breakfast of cheese and beans on toast at his local cafe in Leigh on Sea.He grew up in Essex and has lived in Leigh for the past nine years with his wife and two teenage daughters, who attend Westcliffe High. He feels at home here.'I like the familiarity. I understand the people. There's imagination, there's charm, there's brashness - you get a real mix.'To keep fit (his weight hovers around 20 stone), he takes the dog for daily five-mile walks. 'I walk down the seawall to Benfleet, and if I walk to the end of Southend Pier and back, that's ten miles. I don't go to the gym. Life's too short.'Big Phill is best-known as the long-serving team captain of the anarchic BBC2 pop quiz, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, which returns this autumn for its 23rd series. Phill's opposing captain will be The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding, while following Simon Amstell's departure, there will be a line-up of alternating hosts. 'We're hoping for Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross, because regardless of his big mouth, he's a TV natural with a language and a literacy you don't often find.'Phill has been on the show since its inception in 1996. 'I've been doing it so long, I can't see the point of quitting now. You can build your year around the series.'But his biggest problem these days is recognising some of the show's younger guests. 'There was one show last year where the only person I knew was Simon. I was looking around thinking one of the questions should be, "Who's sat next to you?"'However, Phill has many more strings to his bow than game show appearances. He is a poet, stand-up comedian, cartoonist, football journalist, guitarist, occasional vocalist with Ian Dury's Blockheads and the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, as well as a playwright and actor, starring in the West End play Lifecoach last year. The 47-year-old's achievements are pretty impressive for a man who left school with four O Levels. 'I don't see what I do as a career - I see it as an avoidance. I don't want a normal job, so I do this. I'll tour with the Bonzos, I'll gig with the Blockheads, I'll draw cartoons - anything.'Phill was born on the Isle of Wight, but his parents moved to Aldgate when he was six months old. They then moved out to Barking, Horndon-on-the-Hill and Stanford-le-Hope. He describes his life as a general progression eastwards along the A13.His mum, Dot, was an artist, and his dad, Bob, a solicitor, but he lived as a child above the Brewery Tap pub in Barking, where his granddad was publican.Phill's paternal grandparents were Lithuanians who emigrated to Britain after the Russian Revolution in 1917. An immigration officer Anglicised their surname to Jupitus. Phill attended Northbury primary in Barking, where Billy Bragg was also a pupil, although they never met then. Later, he attended Hassenbrook comprehensive in Stanford-le-Hope, but struggled from the outset. So his parents sent him to an experimental boys' boarding school, Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich, where his aunt was a governor. Run by ILEA, it took a mix of poor-but-bright London boys, and some fee-paying posher kids.
Self educationHe left with four average GCEs and enrolled at tech college in Grays, only to drop out before taking A Levels. He started work at Thurrock Jobcentre, and says he was quite happy there, if a trifle bored. But he started to educate himself - teaching himself to draw and play guitar. 'I think if you have a desire to learn, if it doesn't come out in one way, it comes out in another. I wish I'd done better at school, but if I had, I might not be sat here today.' He started to gig at nights, reciting his poetry, and in 1984 he met his hero, Billy Bragg. 'He was someone like myself, from the same town, the same age. I saw what he was doing and it made me realise I could do it too.'So he quit his job, and launched himself on to the alternative comedy circuit as Porky the Poet. He joined Red Wedge, the group of musicians campaigning for a Labour victory in the 1987 election, but the Tories won and by the end of the 1980s the vogue for radical poets had faded. So Phill joined the indie record label Go! Discs, initially as a general dogsbody, before ending up as compere on a Housemartins tour.He realised he had a facility for comedy and eventually, disillusioned with the music industry, embarked upon a career in stand-up. He worked as MC at the Comedy Store, and was gaining a TV profile in shows such as Gag Tag when, in 1996, he was offered the role of team captain on a new pop quiz.
The real PhillHe does worry, though, that shows like Buzzcocks present him in a very different light to how he really is. 'I think on telly I come across as boorish, loud, loutish. It's a natural thing, because comedy is quite combative. People think you're more arrogant than you are. And if people come up to me with that preconception, shouting at me in the street, I completely go dead. There's something on the internet saying I'm one of the grumpiest celebrities in real life, but it's been written by people who expect me to be juggling or making balloon animals for them.'He says his style of comedy is slow and languid. 'Buzzcocks is a two-hour recording and if I say three funny things, they'll be edited close together, so I'll look like the funniest man in the world. And I'm not. You appear more quick-witted than you actually are, so when people meet you, they're disappointed.'He doesn't mind the casual familiarity celebrity can bring. 'Celebrity is like living in the north - everyone talks to you.' But his daughters sometimes find it hard coping with a famous dad andhe steadfastly avoids the celebrity lifestyle. 'I've always been a little mistrustful of the job. I'm not comfortable with celebrity as a concept. I hate being in the spotlight. I'm not a celebrity; I'm a comedian who's on telly. It's different.'He's happy that as he's got older, his profile has diminished somewhat, so that he can now sit in his local cafe, or have a daytime pint at the Crooked Billet without being hassled. And at Westcliffe, no one makes a fuss of his celebrity status. He even played Mr Bumble in a school production of Oliver! a few years back.So he's happy in Leigh, and has no desire to leave. 'Most of my life I always fancied living in Leigh, because I loved it as a boy. So living within a ten-minute walk of the cockle sheds gives me a real sense of achievement. The house is paid for, the kids have had the education I never had and I've done everything I could have wanted, really. In terms of what life's provided, not over-thinking it seems to have worked!'