Never mind the critics

Phill Jupitus is prone to a little nostalgia when it comes to Brighton.

Long before he built his comedy career and became instantly recognisable from TV shows Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI, the city was a frequent stamping ground for the young performance poet.

It was here he played his first paid gig – 1983, the University of Sussex, supporting The Piranhas; first opened for his hero Billy Bragg (University of Sussex again) and met Norman Cook, then the frontman of The Housemartins.

Jupitus became their press officer and later watched Cook’s transformation into Fatboy Slim.

“I was always terribly fond of Norm,” he says. “He’s an extraordinary talent, the first person I ever heard doing a mash-up [The Smiths’ Girlfriend In A Coma mixed with Trouble Funk’s Pump Me Up, trivia fans]. He spun a bit out of my orbit and we’ve not spoken for a while but it’s not for want of trying.”

Jupitus turned 50 last year – “It was a bigger deal than I thought. You can’t help thinking, ‘Not long now!’” – and often finds himself in a reflective mood. He’s returned to his performance poetry after more than 20 years and started cartooning again.

Later this year, he will embark on a national stand-up tour, “Although it’s totally different to what I used to do, characters and improv rather than 20 minutes in front of a mic.”

It has to be something out of the ordinary, he says, given that everyone seems to be a comic these days. “It’s so prolific. I can’t wait for the crash! Only the good stuff will survive.”

He’s even realised a lifelong ambition to be a rock star, touring the UK with Ade Edmondson’s Idiot Bastard Band. “While the Rolling Stones are still hopping about, you don’t feel as stupid as you probably should.”

It’s quite possible he’s regressing, he laughs. “But it’s oddly rewarding. It’s fascinating to return to things you did years ago as a completely different person.”

It’s nearly 30 years since Jupitus packed in a job at the Department of Health and Social Security to become ranting wordsmith Porky The Poet, 17 since he launched his TV career as team captain of long-running pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks. But it’s best not to remind him of that.

He confides there was one episode where he didn’t recognise a single one of the show’s guests, another where he realised his teammate Lianne La Havas was younger than his youngest daughter.

“That’s when you think, should I be doing this? But it’s an entertainment show first and foremost and about having a laugh.”

It wasn’t always that way; at one stage during what he dubs “The Simon Years” Jupitus was on the brink of walking out. Former host Simon Amstell had become known for picking on guests and it had got to the stage where people were being booked purely to be ripped apart, he says.

“It got a bit wearing. He was never demolishing individuals so much as their contrived public image and at times it was gut-scorchingly funny. But at other times it was like being at a dinner party with a couple who are always arguing. That’s changed now. Noel [Fielding] and I never made a decision to keep things light but that’s become the unspoken rule.”

Although he hated the confrontation of Buzzcocks, Jupitus is no stranger to bustups.

He famously quit his slot as breakfast DJ for BBC Radio 6 Music over a row with then-controller Lesley Douglas about the greatest duets in history. The station had put the topic to a listener vote but an internet campaign meant Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl was kept off the top spot by an a lesser-known tune by Sinead O’Connor and The Chieftains.

Jupitus, a lifelong music obsessive, lost his temper.

He admits he misses music radio but he has no time for his detractors. “If people moan about what I do I just think, does your radio not have an off-switch? Don’t you get other channels? I’m not doing any of this for people who don’t like it.”

Clearly Jupitus has yet to feel the reputedly mellowing effects of age. He was angry at the world as a performance poet and now, having lived through 30 years of “very little changing” politically he’s even more disgruntled. “I don’t regret a single second of being angry. It was worth it.”

He’s held on to all his passions, though, and talks about his favourite musicians with an almost teenage fervour.

He tells me of bumping into Elvis Costello – a long-time idol – in a corridor at the BBC recently. The pair chatted away about their kids: “Just two dads, hanging out. But in my head I was going, ‘Omigod, it’s Elvis Costello! Omigod, it’s Elvis Costello!”

The singer got off lightly; twice Jupitus has thrown his hefty frame to the floor and prostrated himself in front of his heroes to thank them for the music. “Toots Hibbert from Toots And The Maytals made me get up but Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin just went, ‘You’re very welcome dear boy” and walked off, which was a bit weird because then I was left there lying on the floor.”

I was surprised to read Jupitus describe himself as “inherently lazy”. Aside from Buzzcocks and QI, he’s a regular on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and Just A Minute, occasionally tours with The Blockheads, writes newspaper articles on football and has had roles in West End shows such as Hairspray.

“Oh,” he says, “I don’t think of any of that as work. If I think about something as a job, I won’t do it. The crap I’ve turned down in the past year!

I’m driven by curiosity and a need to have fun. I look at what I do as being something I do because I don’t like work.”

* Phill Jupitus headlines Big Cheer For Amaze at Theatre Royal Brighton on Thursday, February 7. He will be joined by Angela Barnes, John Maloney, Ray Peacock, and Raymond And Mr Timpkins. Tickets cost £20.50 with all proceeds going to Amaze, a Brighton-based charity that supports parents of children with special needs.

*To book, call 0844 8717627 and for more information about the work of Amaze, visit amazebrighton.org.uk

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