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From Frogs To Chimps - Tim Vine

From humble beginnings at a talent contest in the Frog and Nightgown pub, comedian Tim Vine's career once hit the heady heights of a pilot TV show in the US called 'Beat the Chimp'. Now a member of the team behind ITV's BAFTA award winning Sketch Show, Tim talked to Premier Online about his road to success, and the importance of his Christian faith.

How did you first get into comedy?

I was working in Croydon in an office, and I was friends with a security guard there. We saw an advert in The Stage which was advertising a talent contest in a pub called The Frog and Nightgown, in the Old Kent Road. I thought I'd have a go at it, and so that was the first conscious step in my comedy career. I think the big turning point was that having done that, and not being received very well, I made the decision to carry on doing it.

Were you always a wannabe performer?

Before that, when I was at school I used to write plays, put myself in the lead roles and then cast all my class in them. So I'd always wanted to do something along those lines.

So how did you go down at the Frog and Nightgown?

I was the only comedian on that first night - the rest were all singers - so it was a bit pointless really. But after that, in around 1993, I discovered a place in London called the Comedy Café, where they had a competition night every Wednesday. Basically you'd ring up and stick your name on a list, twelve acts would then do five minutes each, the audience voted on who the winner was, and they'd win twenty-five quid. So I'd go down there with this security guard mate of mine - although after three weeks he stopped going - and I just got the bug and kept doing my five minutes a week there. I did that for a year and a bit. Looking back now I'm not quite sure how I got from there to hosting a game show on prime-time TV.

How did you establish yourself as a mainstream comedian?

The Edinburgh festival is something that's been very good to me. I went up there in 1995 with a show called the Tim Vine Fiasco and won the Perrier Best Newcomer award, which really helped to establish me as a 'real' comedian I guess. In 1996, Channel 5 was about to launch, and they were looking for a game show that would run five days a week, working together with a friend of mine from Thames TV, we came up with this idea called Fluke. We did a live version, with an audience, in Surbiton of all places, and lots of TV people came down to see it. They then decided that they didn't want Fluke, but they did want me. So they then lined up a show called Whittle for me, and somehow Channel 4 then decided that they wanted to make Fluke. So suddenly I had two shows running at the same time. In fact, on a Tuesday night, if you really wanted to, you could watch a consistent hour of me with Whittle between five thirty and six, and Fluke between six and half past. I don't think there were too many people who went for that double header though… Except me perhaps…

Whittle ran for 130 shows, but soon I'd done about all I could with it and it came to an end. I kept working though - in 1998 I did a pilot in America for a show called Beat the Chimp, where contestants would pit their wits against a monkey in a kind of game of chance. That, unfortunately, didn't get commissioned in the end, but the Sketch Show did, and I've been doing that ever since. It's been pretty successful and we even won an unexpected BAFTA award. (We were certain that we wouldn't win, so we were very lucky not to have been at the bar when our category came up.)

Obviously you're a Christian. How did you find faith?

I was brought up in a Christian family (sometimes I wish I had a more dramatic conversion story), I was on one of those Pathfinder camps as a twelve year old, and becoming a Christian seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I wasn't saved from a life of crime or anything like that. I've always lived in the same area and gone to church in the same area - the church I go to now is the church I was christened in… so really I need to get a life and move on.

How important is your faith to you nowadays?

There have been lots of points along the way where God has become more important to me, and that relationship has gone deeper. But then there were also several times when I felt like giving it up, and then times when I've realised that it's what has got me through certain things. I think my faith has got deeper, because if you have different hurdles and struggles in life, it begins to mean more to you. When you're younger you don't quite realise its worth to you.

I always wanted to be a singer actually - I used to write loads of songs as a teenager. If I'd had my way, I'd probably have ended up as a pop star. But it turned out, in a very natural way, that this job -comedy - kind of evolved for me, and I really feel like God decided that this job would suit me best. I didn't start in comedy until I was twenty-four, and yet when I did start, it didn't feel like a leap into the unknown. Instead it felt familiar, as if my life had in some pre-planned way been leading up to that moment.

Do you find that there are some big compromises in your line of work?

I enjoy doing the Sketch Show, but because there's five of us writing for it, all with our own styles, there's some rude stuff in there. They know though, that I don't want to be in a sketch where I have to shout a swear word at the top of my voice, and they understand that. So if there's a sketch with swearing in it, I just don't do it. I just prefer the sort of comedy that you can sit and watch with your family. I really believe there's a massive audience out there for stuff that's clean and harmless but also very, very funny. I'm sure that my faith plays a part in not wanting to do stuff that's rude, but I guess it's also about the fact that when you think about it, a swear word is just an extra word that you don't need.

Are you a Christian comedian, or just a comedian?

I'd rather be a comedian who happens to be a Christian, rather than a Christian comedian. Part of that I think comes from the fact that I can make more of an impact like that. If I go and perform at Spring Harvest - which I do enjoy and would love to do more of - then they're not going to be surprised if I don't swear. But if you go into a comedy club as one of four acts, and the other three are all f-words, when I come on and do my act well, that's got impact.

Interview by Martin Saunders

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