The surreal world of Dom Joly
- Credit: Alamy
As Dom Joly assumes the role of columnist for Cotswold Life, we dug up his interview with Katie Jarvis from 2008 in which he shares his experience of doing the school run in a tank, crossing paths with Osama bin Laden and inviting Liz Hurley, Kate Moss and Kate Winslet to a Cotswold celebrities’ crisis meeting.
“Hello... Who is it?”
The voice booming through the solid front door is instantly recognisable: Dom Joly, the man whose irrepressible prank show, Trigger Happy TV, was more love child of Candid Camera than natural successor. A show where cars were forced to wait at zebra crossings as Joly inched across, dressed as a giant snail; where astonished bus drivers were booked by a traffic warden for stopping to pick up passengers: “Nothing I can do about it, mate. You live and learn”; where Joly would answer a gigantic mobile phone at the top of his voice in the silent confines of a library or art gallery: “I CAN’T TALK. I’M IN AN ART GALLERY. IT’S RUBBISH.” And always, the slightly surreal scene poignantly counterpointed by a soundtrack of soulful songs – Eels, The Crocketts, Gordon Lightfoot: “And I will never be set free, As long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see”… Odd… very odd…
And now I’m waiting outside Dom Joly’s front door – firmly closed against intruders – listening to that same voice. “I’M IN MY HOUSE IN THE COTSWOLDS. JUST A LOAD OF HILLS. YEAH, THEY’RE RUBBISH.”
Except he doesn’t say that at all. He opens the door wide onto the hall of a house with 13th century origins – full of dogs and children – and blusters, “Sorry – I forgot you were coming.” And then, in case any feelings are hurt, “Only for 10 minutes. I remembered the rest of the day. It was just in the last 10 minutes I forgot.”
Welcome to the surreal world of Dom Joly. Just like Trigger Happy TV, it’s a universe where you can never be too sure of the facts. According to his hilarious pseudo-autobiography, Look at me, Look at me, he was born with a full head of hair and a complete set of teeth; spent nine months in Tangier Central Prison for drug smuggling; once went on a date with Peter Mandelson. Oh, and he says he attended school with Osama bin Laden.
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Err, except that last bit’s true. The rest is made up, but he really did go to school in Lebanon with the al-Qaeda leader – though they never went stamp collecting or bird watching together. In fact, bin Laden was in his final year when Joly joined. And, says, Joly though he’s tried to find the Brummana High School on Friends Reunited, there’s no friendly Osama entry in sight (‘Married, 24 children, I enjoy travelling and making short films, ‘Hi’ to anyone who knows me’, etc).
We make our way into a huge techno-ed up family room, dominated by a television at one end and a stunningly beautiful Astrid Kirchherr photograph of the Beatles at the other. “The wrong two died,” Joly says, understandably glumly.
If you only know this man from his television appearances – crazy talk shows and weird drinking programmes – this isn’t the sort of house you’d expect to find him in. But even after five minutes with Dom Joly you begin to separate persona from person. He loves this Cotswold village because it’s remote; about as far away from a main road as you can get.
“My cousin’s an estate agent in Fairford. He brought me to this village and I liked it; then he drove past Hatherop, just as his own kids were coming out of the local school doing a bike lesson. It was a gorgeous sunny day and there were roses everywhere; it looked like Miss Marple land. It was a clichéd view of England – so beautiful.”
All that remained for him and his Canadian wife, Stacey, to do was to sell their house in Notting Hill. Which they did. To Salman Rushdie. Here we go again…
“No, really Salman Rushdie. Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s security,’ and stuff, but I couldn’t understand why he bought it. It was painted bright orange on the outside, had huge windows, and was in the middle of the most druggy street in Notting Hill.
“I had a huge double rooftop and I so nearly had it retiled before I went so that from the air you’d just see a massive target.”
Since then, Joly has worked hard at inconspicuously fitting in with the local scene… In a Joly sort of way, that is. He writes an Independent column in which he extols the virtues of a low-profile celebrity life in the Cotswolds (“I called an emergency meeting for the celebs in my area last Thursday evening… Liz Hurley, Kate Moss, Ruby Wax, Kate Winslet, Gary Kemp, Willy Carson. They all knew why the meeting had been called and they were angry. The foppish interior decorator Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has moved into the area and has taken over ‘local celeb’ duties.”)
He memorably collected his three-year-old son, Jackson, from the local school (as you do) in a tank for Channel 5’s Fifth Gear. (“Suddenly I’m a superhero dad – until the next day when I picked him up and he burst into tears because there was no tank.”)
But he really knew he’d made it as a local way back last summer – five years after moving in – when he got a phone call while he was on holiday in Canada to tell him the house was 18 inches deep in sewage, thanks to the July floods. In fact, it was an incredibly traumatic experience – akin to being burgled, he says – which was only eased by the kindness of friends who made sure it was pretty much cleared up by the time the Jolys got home. The damage was the sort experienced by families all over Gloucestershire: It was the insurance claims that were unique.
“I had some costumes that had got damaged – one of them was a squirrel and one was a six-foot turd. I’d had it made for World Shut Your Mouth (a successor to Trigger Happy). The joke was that I was in an electric loo in London, banging, and people were trying to open the door. Then I’d come out as a turd and run away. Even weirder was that when I asked for the costume to be made, the company wanted to know if I’d had any thoughts as to what kind of turd I’d like. I came back home and my dog had just dumped on the lawn so I took a picture of it and sent it to the costume designer who then made it. I always wondered when it was on the telly, and the dog was lying here on the sofa, whether he recognised it.
“When the loss adjuster was going through the stuff, she asked, ‘What’s in that blue bag?’ I said, ‘A squirrel costume’. She didn’t bat an eyelid even though she clearly didn’t recognise me.
“Next she said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said. ‘It’s a six foot turd,’ and she said, ‘You’re claiming for a six-foot turd damaged by sewage?’ She thought it was pretty much the best insurance claim she ever had.”
He’s very funny – seriously funny. Literally. He conveys a seriousness and intensity about his work that, at first sight, might seem misplaced when the day job includes dressing up as a six-foot squirrel and raiding an unsuspecting diner’s picnic. Dom Joly would make the perfect ‘Extras’ cameo, academically dissecting the comedy of hidden camera TV. Not that he’s stuffy or boring – absolutely the opposite – though he’s so much more clever than you might expect. But then the beauty of Trigger Happy was precisely that – understated cleverness. Take the scene where a genuine job applicant is shown into an office full of people wearing teddy-bear suits. Surely that’s so surreal, anyone would realise instantly it was a scam?
Well, actually, no. Somehow, Joly knows exactly where to stop, and the result is a Dada-esque painting in televisual form.
“We weren’t trying to be scientific,” he says, “but you did realise there was definitely a psychology of countries. With the Brits, if you put a uniform on, people would do whatever you said. Whereas when we took Trigger Happy to America, if you took out a big mobile, people would just turn round and say ‘Shut up!’ No one would do that here. There’s that fear of embarrassment in Britain, which I love.”
So did it take a lot of courage for Joly himself to do outrageous stunts in public?
“No – that’s what makes me laugh, because I’m the worst. No one believes this but my absolute fear is public speaking: being a best man, standing up and having to be me. When I was doing Trigger Happy, it was great because everyone said: ‘He’s got so much balls to do that’ – but you don’t.
“In that the moment before you do any hidden camera work, there’s a real buzz where you think: This street is totally normal and yet I’m almost in control of it.”
The crucial factor in Joly’s work is an absence of canned laughter. Nor are the public ever shown reacting after they’ve been ‘had’.
“Someone like Beadle is easy to satirise; you just chuck a toilet in a back garden. It’s easy to make someone angry. But what I was trying to achieve was that feeling where people would go home in confusion and say: You’ll never guess what happened to me today.”
It helps that Joly’s not only clever; he’s posh, too. He possesses the sort of convincing, accentless voice you feel you ought to obey. It partly comes from years in English boarding school – the Dragon prep in Oxford, followed by Haileybury College, a well-known boys’ school in Hertfordshire. That time spent in the midst of Englishness at its most rigorous taught him much - even if subliminally – about a nation’s psychology.
“Public schools are about stamping out individuality: it was frowned on. I remember reading somewhere that the people who are going to succeed are those who can adapt – and that seems to be exactly what these schools don’t teach you. My public school was set up to train people to run India. So when India became independent in 1949, there must have been a moment when people thought: What do we do now?
“They were trying to train you to be something I’ve now spent a lot of time trying to deny, though I’m not going to do a Damon from Blur: ‘I’m a geezer’. There were good things – you got a good education and you met all the future Tory cabinet. I know why myparents did it – because I was growing up in Lebanon – but I can’t imagine sending off my seven-year-old,” he says, in a reference to Parker, his daughter.
What ‘saved’ him from becoming a member of the Tory cabinet was the fact that his childhood was utterly schizophrenic. Instead of spending the summer at Pony Club in Oxford, he went back home to his parents in war-torn Lebanon.
“I can remember when I was six, there’d been an execution in a village below the school I was at, and this kid had found six decapitated heads. He put them into a plastic bag and brought them in.
“When there was shelling, we’d have to run in from the garden. I’d be terrified my dad would be killed on the way back from the office, though after a bit you got quite used to it – that’s how you survive. The only time it felt really unreal was when a friend from my prep school came out for two weeks during a vaguely peaceful time. We were having a meal and you could hear everything coming up from Beirut, all these machine guns going off. While we were all chatting away, he was petrified. We kept saying: Oh don’t worry about that.
“At the Dragon, the other kids were all insular – lived very sheltered lives – but why shouldn’t you when you were six? It was just that I always felt so much older, even though I kind of didn’t want to be.” An outsider with a different perspective even then... After school, he went on to take a first-class degree in Arabic and International Politics, followed by a year as an intern in the Prague embassy, and stints doing political research. The real indication of things to come surfaced during his time as a producer on ITN’s political discussion programme House to House. Joly was frequently sent out with camera crew to get soundbites from politicians. All was fine until he bored of the routine and got unemployed friends to liven things up. Thus Paddy Ashdown went out on air, blissfully ignorant that a clown fight was taking place on the green behind him. The end came when David Mellor complained after being hit in the face by a football that strayed from a strangely impromptu match nearby. By now, the consistent connection between unexpected background events and Joly himself couldn’t be overlooked, and he was duly sacked. In fact, it was perfect material for a CV that secured him his next job, on the ground-breakingly political The Mark Thomas Comedy Product.
Although never into politics per se, Joly has found politicians fruitful ground ever since. Boris Johnson is one of the tiny minority ever to rumble Trigger Happy… sort of… (“I know who you are! You’re Ali G!”). And Ken Livingstone was one of the few to upbraid Joly during a spoof where he pretended to beat up a passerby. “I loathe him within an inch of his life but, to be fair, he’s about the only person I ever did on Trigger Happy who reacted in a normal way. He called me a thug.”
Alongside a stream of steady TV work, including a joke chat show for the BBC and a travel programme based around drinking, Joly has continued writing for the nationals and, last year, produced the book Letters to my Golf Club. Adopting a series of dysfunctional personae, such as the clearly mad Colonel Arthur J Lindsay-Bird and his suspicious wife, Julia, he writes to some of the stuffiest institutions in the land.
Included amongst his complaints is an ‘incident’ where two burly-looking golf club members with shaven heads egg on a terrier fight beside one of the greens. The colonel’s outrage, coupled with the puzzled but genuine attempts by the club to investigate, are deliciously funny.
Like much of his innovative comedy, the critics have misunderstood it and admired it in equal measure.
“Next, I’m hopefully doing a series called Dom Joly’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, mainly because I want to use the song, but also because ever since I was a kid and someone gave me Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, I’ve been totally obsessed with monsters. We’re going to try to find the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, Big Foot, that kind of thing.
“Ages ago, we found a guy who had given up his life to live in a caravan on Loch Ness. He’s obsessed with the monster, and has a camera constantly pointing at the loch. So we waited ’til he went to sleep and made a huge footprint on a stick, which we put all round his caravan. I felt so guilty the next morning.
“I think the Yeti’s quite believable; there’s supposed to be a Wild Man of Borneo, and I want to do the alligators in the New York sewer which, again, you feel could be true. I’ll have an open mind about all of them, I think, apart from Loch Ness.”
But wherever he travels, it’s the Cotswolds he’ll be coming home to. “By the way,” he says, “did you know I’ve got real Cotswold connections? Everyone said I was moving down here because it’s ‘Poshtershire’, but my aunt lives in Cheltenham, and my Granny had her 90th birthday at the Queen’s Hotel. When I was at prep school in Oxford and couldn’t get back to Lebanon, I used to come here for weekends. My early English memories are going to Birdland at Bourton-on-the Water and the Cotswold Farm Park.
“I’ve always remembered this area as being incredibly calm. It wasn’t the misery of boarding school, nor the shelling in Beirut.”
So there you have it: The Cotswolds according to Dom Joly… somewhere between boarding school and the Lebanon. A delightfully surreal kind of description – from a delightfully surreal kind of guy.
This interview by Katie Jarvis is from the January 2008 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie Jarvis, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis