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Angus Deayton

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Post  eddie Sun Feb 05, 2012 5:07 pm

Angus Deayton: 'I plead guilty to having an affair. But it's no one else's business'

Angus Deayton on sex, scandals and why everybody gets paid too much on TV

Decca Aitkenhead, Friday 3 February 2012 20.00 GMT

Angus Deayton Angus-Deayton-007
Angus Deayton: 'It all feels like a very long time ago now.' Photograph: Tom Pope for the Guardian

The problem with interviewing Angus Deayton is neatly summed up in a one-line email from the PR before we meet. "Angus would like to keep the interview current, so he doesn't wish to talk about Have I Got News For You." What this really means, of course, is that he doesn't want to talk about why he got sacked from the show nine years ago. And who could blame him?

When 2002 drew to a close, Deayton recalls thinking to himself "that the words annus horribilis didn't really cover half of it". That summer, the News Of The World had splashed with a classic cocaine-and-hookers kiss'n'tell, involving the presenter and a woman he'd met in a bar. For Deayton, it came as news that she was a call girl; for the rest of us, that he wasn't quite the pillar of moral rectitude many had supposed. Only a solemn promise of no further revelations – and a pay cut from £50,000 to £25,000 a show – saved his job. But that autumn another woman told the tabloids she'd had an affair with him for two and a half years, during which time his partner was pregnant, and his 12-year reign in the HIGNFY chair was over.

As Deayton observes more than once when we meet, "It all feels like a very long time ago now." And if we have learned anything from the Leveson inquiry by now, it's that tabloid scoops are not always reliable. But the fact remains that we probably wouldn't be talking to each other if he were merely an actor in a new BBC3 series, or the presenter of a new series of a Radio 4 panel game. It was HIGNFY that made Deayton famous – and the scandal amplified fame into infamy – thus leaving quite an elephant in the room between us.

To anyone with access to Wikipedia, let alone a television set, it can be no secret that Deayton has worked pretty consistently for the past nine years. He has, among other things, starred in the award-winning dark BBC comedy Nighty Night, presented Hell's Kitchen and a quiz show for ITV, anchored and starred in several Comic Reliefs, hosted the BBC panel show Would I Lie To You?, presented the British Comedy Awards and appeared in two feature films. "As wildernesses go," he points out, "it's been quite populated, really." And yet every new show he's made has been described by one or other critic as a "comeback vehicle" and almost every press interview presented as a watershed moment, signifying – at last! – the disgraced star's rehabilitation.

"Yes," he agrees drily, "I appear to have had more comebacks than Status Quo. And been 'welcomed back by the BBC', too. And you think, well, I was working at the BBC about two months after Have I Got News For You. I never even left." The observation is delivered in the same ironic tone of detachment with which he used to read out his old show's more bizarre news items – but doesn't it annoy him? "Er, yes. Yeah. I've never quite understood it, other than it makes an interesting story to maintain there's been some great redemption. It's not like audiences suddenly stopped laughing, or – like it was made out in the tabloids – that I was walking down the street and people would shun me as I passed. Actually, it was the opposite. And I never stopped working."

His latest project is Pramface, a comedy drama in which he plays the father of a well-heeled 18-year-old girl who gets pregnant from a rebelliously drunken one-night stand with a less well-heeled 16-year-old virgin. I've seen the first episode and it is very funny – sharply written, quite rude and ideal for Deayton, a master of the urbane middle-class British husband role, whose disappointment and anger is betrayed with subtle economy. He hasn't yet seen it himself and admits, "You just hope, when it goes out, you don't think, 'Oh God, I wish I'd done it completely differently.' There's no audience feedback, so you're kind of in the hands of the director."

Which does he finds more exposing, acting or presenting? "Presenting, I think, definitely. If you mess up, everyone sees you messing up and it's your fault. Acting, you're hiding behind a character, and I've always thought if it isn't any good, then there are all sorts of other people you can blame." He laughs. "You can offload responsibility."

When I ask how close he thinks his presenting persona approximates to his own character, he says, "It's probably easier for you to tell, because I feel as if I'm the same person." I've had limited exposure to the material, I point out, whereas he's had decades to analyse it, so isn't he better qualified to answer?

"Yes," he confesses, laughing, "desperately trying to pass the buck. OK. So, is the persona of the guy behind the desk the same as me? Um, no, I don't think it is. I fell into presenting after doing about a decade of parody shows of presenter-based shows, and a lot of it was me parodying a presenter, so when I started doing Have I Got News For You, I carried on that persona. So in some ways it's a sort of pastiche of my own pastiche – if that doesn't sound too arseholic. Er, which I think it does, actually."

He is a presenter in his other current project – a new series of the Radio 4 panel game It's Your Round, in which every week four guests each devise their own comic round. It didn't sound to me like an idea that would work, until I heard it. Deayton agrees. "You never really know if any show's going to work within the series, depending on which rounds the guests turn up with. But in a way that's built into the format, so if something isn't working, it's quite fun to be able to talk about the fact that it's not really working – and that it's not really," he adds with a laugh, "your fault. It does help if I can turn to the person on my left and say, 'Well, I'm sorry, the reason this is crap' " – and he starts to laugh again – " 'is because you brought it along, and you maintained that it was going to be good.' So it's nice to be able to offload any kind of responsibility – again."

Deayton has a comedian's instinct for a running gag, and this motif of endless buck-passing sounds to me just like that. Further into the conversation, however, I begin to realise it can be read in one of two ways – depending on what you think about the scandal that cost him his old job. "The great British public," he claims at one point, "can tell when someone's being victimised." But that's not how everyone saw it. If you believe Deayton had only himself to blame, then the running gag will probably sound less like a joke than further evidence of an arrogant refusal to accept responsibility. If, on the other hand, you think the scandal was either largely tabloid lies, or none of our business, you'll think he is simply being funny.

Angus Deayton Have-I-got-news-for-you-007
Deayton with Have I Got News For You team captains, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. ‘For years I got stick for the amount I earned. I was often tempted to say, “If you cast your gaze to either side of me, there are others earning the same.” ' Photograph: BBC

Before we met, I'd wondered if he would turn out to be nothing like the Deayton we know from our screens – bone dry, understated, impenetrably poised, with a surgical wit that can be cutting to the point of cruel, but rarely if ever unfunny. I would say now that he's warmer than you might expect, less intimidating, and perhaps more sensitive, but otherwise any distinction between performer and person is barely discernible. His laugh sounds like an unusually grown-up giggle, and he has a gift for injecting it into a word, mid-syllable, making almost everything he says sound amusing. When I ask about his domestic life, which he shares with his long-term partner Lise Mayer, a comedy writer, and their son Isaac, 10, he comes across as the rather droll headmaster of north London's comedy set.

"I bumped into Julia Davis's husband the other day – they live near us in Islington – and he had one of their twins with him. I said, 'Which one's this?' " – Deayton mimes the father peering into the pushchair, looking back up and spreading his hands in a baffled shrug. Laughing, Deayton adds with a sly grin, "A lot of our friends are drifting west now, though. They've passed away to Notting Hill. We do use Notting Hill as an adjective, in a slightly derogatory way. 'It's a bit Notting Hill' means a bit, 'We'll wait and see what else is happening before we commit.' They'll always be the last people to reply to any invites, while they wait to see all their different invitations come in." He affects to check himself with a brisk cough. "I'm being terribly rude about most of my friends."

Some of his former friends have been quite rude about him. Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, HIGNFY's team captains, were widely reported to resent their chairman's pay packet and to have been influential in his dismissal, with Merton describing him as "arrogant". It's Deayton who brings this up, when I remark that it's funny how presenters' salaries make scandalised headlines, whereas no one ever seems to mention how much actors earn.

"Or team captains, interestingly, I've noted over the years. This is, er, yeah, something that I've noted quite a lot in the many years I've been behind a desk," he quips. Why does he think that is? "I genuinely don't know. I find it baffling that for years and years I got tremendous stick for the amount of money I earned. I was often tempted to say" – and he starts to laugh again – " 'If you just cast your gaze to either side of me, there are some other people earning exactly the same as I am. We are on parity.' "

Hislop and Merton were on the same as him? "Yes. And some of them wander in at four in the afternoon of that recording, and other people have been working on it for four days." Again, the clipped dry laugh. "And he's the one who's getting the stick for earning all the money. So it did seem curious – and still does."

Why didn't he get on with them, then? "We always got on terribly well." That's not what I'd heard. "Yes, well, that's another urban myth," he laughs. "Bizarrely perpetrated by them. Which is odd. Certainly Paul has rewritten history a bit in terms of our relationship. We were always the last ones out of the bar on a Thursday night. We were clapping each other on the back, saying how wonderful the show was. 'A phenomenon – it's a phenomenon,' Paul always used to say. So, yeah, we always got on very well."

Urban myths are a recurring theme, because Deayton maintains that most of what's been written about him isn't true. "The Sun once did 20 things you never knew about Angus Deayton – and I didn't know 16 of them. The Daily Mail wrote something about me a few years ago and it had 36 sentences in it, and 33 of them were lies. The only three that weren't were quotes. Everything else you could put a 'not' in the sentence and you'd be closer to the truth." Almost the only much-quoted fact he will confirm was that at the age of five he decided he wanted to be either "a funny man or an advert".

That ambition was quickly forgotten, though. Born in 1956 into a traditional middle-class home counties family – with an ex-naval father and a teacher mother – he attended minor public schools, was good at sport and studied languages at Oxford. But though a big comedy fan, he'd never thought of having a go at it until an Oxford contemporary, Richard Curtis, asked him to stand in for a last-minute drop-out in an Edinburgh festival revue. Deayton enjoyed it, toured Australia with a spoof Bee Gees band, and began writing for comedy sketch shows.

He spent the 80s writing scripts, doing radio voiceovers and commercials, playing the straight man in bigger stars' shows – Rowan Atkinson, Alexei Sayle – and making the Radio 4 comedy series Radio Active, which transferred to BBC2 as KYTV in 1989. But he was basically unknown until 1990, when a part in One Foot In The Grave and the chair of HIGNFY turned him into a household name more or less overnight.

Looking back at his career in the 90s, certain ironies are inescapable. He fronted a programme called The Lying Game, and another called The Temptation Game, and when asked by one interviewer if fame had brought temptations his way, replied, "Actually, there are plenty of reasons why you should not give in. Someone could sell their story to the Daily Mail." So when I now ask if fame had brought with it concerns about his privacy, what I really mean is how did he think he could get away with cocaine trysts with strangers – or a long-running affair – without the papers finding out? But he interprets the question quite differently.

"Well, towards the late 80s, I started working quite closely with Rowan [Atkinson] and I think I learned from him how to deal with fame. He's intensely thoughtful about the whole thing, and private, and quite aloof. I think I probably learned from him how to conduct myself." This is a surprise, given how disastrously public Deayton's private life became.

"Yes, but sadly not anything I could do anything about. You have to kind of put your trust in someone – you can't be mistrustful of everyone you meet and everyone you come across. And sometimes that trust is ill-founded, and what can you do, short of actually never, ever putting your faith in anyone again?"

Some would say the answer's easy – you stay faithful to your partner. "Ye-e-e-es. Yes. Hmm. Well, I think that's kind of being wise after the event. There are definitely people I wish I'd never met, and I wish I'd never placed any trust in. But as I say, unless you go through life expecting everyone to behave in the worst way that you could ever imagine, then, er, there's only so much you can do about it."

A tabloid reader might think Deayton has some nerve to complain about betrayal of trust. The story his former mistress sold in 2002 wasn't pretty: she said she joined him and Mayer on holiday at their Italian villa, where they would sneak off for sex, leaving an unsuspecting six-months-pregnant Mayer lying by the pool. She claimed he enjoyed a threesome with her and a friend the night before his son was born, and would often hire prostitutes to join them in bed when she was unable to satisfy his Olympian sexual appetite.

Deayton says that so many outrageous lies were printed, "it would take an entire book the length of War And Peace to actually unravel it all". But he declines to identify any – "I think it's too little too late, and I don't feel as if I really want to start unpicking it all" – so there's no way to judge his indignation, or to tell if his reticence really might be a rare celebrity example of wisdom and self-control. "I always kind of expected that at some stage someone would explode the myths, but no one really has. And I don't think it should be me who does it."

He did consider giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, but didn't want to "regurgitate everything again". When I ask if he's been following the hearings, though, his face lights up. "The gift that keeps on giving? Yes, every day." He laughs. "It is extraordinary, reading Hugh Grant's witness statement, I just thought, that's what life was like for me for six months. And, to be honest, it's the tip of the iceberg, because phone hacking is horrendous and ghastly, but what about hacking into bank accounts and medical records, entrapment, blackmail, blagging your way into someone's house or making threatening phone calls to elderly relatives?" He experienced all of that? "Yes."

Deayton tried to stop his ex-mistress selling her story by taking out an injunction, and says criticism of gagging orders "is always dressed up as being about a woman's right to – but to what, though?"

To do with the story of her own life as she chooses, is usually the answer. "Ye-e-e-e-es, but on the whole what they're doing is simply revealing details of a private relationship. I suppose it's technically anyone's right to do that, but you can't divorce the fact that they're making shedloads of money by doing it. And why would anyone," he adds with an expression of utter distaste, "want to do that?"

It's impossible to know if Deayton was more sinned against than sinning. What comes across very clearly, however, is his assumption that most people believe he was. His reluctance to reopen the whole saga is entirely understandable, and probably very sensible. But in the absence of any actual rebuttal, I suspect many readers may infer from all his complaints about betrayal and intrusion not bad luck or injustice, but self-pity.

He looks taken aback, thinks for a moment and for once the air of ironic amusement gives way to a flash of real feeling. "Right. Well, OK. I would say that I've suffered a fair amount of punishment over the years, one way or another. Yes, I would plead guilty to having had an affair which I shouldn't have had. But it's not really anyone else's business than mine. No one is in my relationship, so they can't make judgments about my relationship. There was one two-night stand, and there was an affair. Well, I don't think that's completely unheard of, either in the realms of relationships, or indeed television presenters. There are many who have done as much, if not worse."

I wonder if he was ever tempted to retaliate by identifying some of them. "Certainly on the drug front, yes. It would be like looking at the Manchester United team and pointing at Bobby Charlton as being the alcoholic because he had a glass of beer. I know a lot of people within the business find it quite amusing that I, of all people… well, I'm not necessarily talking about the current crop of presenters, but certainly 10 years ago, it was slightly odd to pick me out. With the exception of Clive Anderson." He pauses to think. "I can't actually think of anyone else. I've never said so before, but now I have. He's the only one."

• Pramface starts on BBC3, on 23 February, at 9pm
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