Justin Lee Collins feature
Uncut version of a feature written for the Times in March 2010, shortly before the launch of his chat show
If you’ve spent any time flicking around late-evening television, chances are that you’ve probably come across Justin Lee Collins. You’ll have seen him presenting Channel 4’s flagship chat show, The Friday Night Project, where every week he seemed to get upstaged by his much wittier co-host, Alan Carr. You might have seen him galumphing around the world on a series of “mission documentaries”, such as “Bring Back...” (where he enthusiastically doorsteps former cast members of Grange Hill, Dallas or The A Team) or “JLC Is...” (where he trains to be a wrestler, or a ballroom dancer, or the star of a West End musical).
Thing is, it’s sometimes difficult to see what his precise talent is, and particularly difficult to see why Channel Five has snapped him up for an exclusive, two-year contract worth a reputed seven-figure sum. His USP – even more so than his Barry Gibb hairdo and his broad West Country accent – appears to be a TV persona that, in Freudian terms, is all id and no superego. He’s childlike, instinctive, chaotic, wildly enthusiastic, and appears to have no reflection, no internal dialogue.
“That’s actually largely spot on,” he says, nursing an orange juice in the Five offices in Covent Garden. “I’m all id! I act totally in the moment. I can’t write. I can’t plan. The moment I start thinking about it or processing an idea, it dies for me. Give me an idea, get the camera rolling and then just let me go. I can do that well. I’m spontaneous. I gush. I’m a fan of things. I’m not cynical. I don’t like mockery. People don’t quite believe that I’m so enthusiastic. They think I must be putting it on. Or they think I’m a bit thick.”
Spend any time with Justin Lee Collins and you’ll realise that he clearly isn’t stupid – he’s frighteningly articulate, surprisingly well read and thoroughly aware that he inhabits a TV persona. But, he says, that awareness can be a problem.
“It complicates things. After the event, I *do* reflect. I agonise like mad. That’s where my superego takes over from my id, as you might say. For instance, I’ve got this constant struggle between the person I am – the quiet family man who lives in Bristol and wants to spend as much time as I can with my two young kids – and the bloke on the telly who comes to London and has to dance when he’s told. That’s why it’s important to me that I stay in Bristol and resist moving to London, because London represents all the media bollocks, all the hassling, the pitching, the politics, all the non-creative stuff that I hate. And that’s a cause of stress. It’s why I’ve got bloody psoriasis.” He lifts his fringe to reveal a mild rash on his forehead.
“And I get similarly stressed about being labelled ‘a comedian’. I’d rather be called a cunt than a comedian. If anyone asks, I’m not a comedian, I’m a TV presenter. Big difference. I’m not a funny man. I tried stand up for a while, and I was usually rubbish. But, even when I had good gigs, I’d come home and agonise. Most of my laughs were at the expense of someone else. I’d take the piss out of someone in the audience just to get laughs, and I’d hate myself for it. There’d be some poor bloke who has paid 14 quid to be entertained and there I am, making fun of him because he looked vaguely – only vaguely – like Rolf Harris. What’s that about? I hate the artifice of stand-up comedy. It’s inherently dishonest. I’m at my funniest when I’m just being real.”
Halfway through the filming of his new chat-show for Five, you start to understand what he means. When Justin Lee Collins is being himself, getting into spontaneous conversations with members of the audience, he can be very funny indeed. The show takes place not in the usual aircraft hangar of a TV studio, but instead in The Rivoli Ballroom, a charmingly ramshackle Edwardian venue in south-east London. In between celebrity interviews – Rihanna, Mathew Horne, Meat Loaf – Justin wanders amongst the haphazardly seated crowd and presents a segment of the show called Private Dancer. It involves a single girl auditioning three potential suitors by getting them to dance for her. It’s a wonderfully silly variant of Blind Date, with Justin doing Cilla Black’s brothel madam shtick. And he’s absolutely magnificent at it.
“Don’t touch your face when you’re talking to the lady,” he chides one young man. “It WEAKENS you. Now, listen here, fella,” he continues, lowering his voice to a whisper: “I’m trying to get you some pussy...” He is spontaneous, hilarious, and the crowd are howling with laughter.
“Oh, that was my favourite bit of the show, no question,” he reflects, a few days later. “It could be a format on its own. There was no script, no autocue, no one feeding me funny lines. It’s just me saying: ‘Here’s a beautiful single lady, now let’s meet the three guys who are going to dance away her heartache.’ And away we go, completely improvised. It was just me, being myself, talking to real people. And, to be honest, I think you could probably tell that I much more comfortable doing that than I was doing the actual celebrity interviews.”
It seems odd for a chat-show host to admit that he finds celebrity interviews hard work.
“Well.... I’ve always wanted my own chat show. That’s what brought me to Five, because Channel Four wouldn’t even let me do a pilot. And I admire all the great chat show hosts – Jonathan, Parky, Letterman. But I can’t do what they do. I’m not a journalist. I’m not detached or cynical. I’m engaged. I’m enthusiastic. I look for the little bits that make celebrities real. I’m into pub conversations. I want to hear McFly talking about Revels. I don’t care about their private lives. I don’t care who they’ve slept with, or who they’ve not slept with. I don’t much care for comedians who want to repeat bits from their stand-up act, sitting down. And, frankly, I don’t want to deal with bloody Rihanna, turning up with a huge entourage, telling us that we can’t go a second over six minutes or she’ll walk off stage. Fuck off, Rihanna. I’d rather not talk to you for six seconds.”
This seems a little ingracious, given that Rihanna is one of the show’s biggest guests. Did it really get that fraught?
“Oh yes, it did. Chat show hosts are always getting knocked for not asking the questions that we want to hear asked. That’s all very well, but in this day and age you can’t. You have to kiss their arse. You have to dance for them. You have to. Otherwise they’ll walk off. So you have to play their game. And I hate that.”
Justin Lee Collins was born in the Bishopstown suburb of Bristol 35 years ago. He left school without qualifications and worked at a local Marks & Spencer before enrolling on a drama course, aged 20. He performed sketches for local radio, did a few years of stand-up and got some lucky TV breaks in the late 1990s – presenting for MTV, Live TV, UK Play, Bravo and Paramount – before landing a job helming BBC3’s companion show to Strictly Come Dancing in 2004. Since then he’s fronted shows for C4, Sky One and ITV2, and has now been lured to Five by the channel’s new controller Richard Woolfe, who had previously commissioned several Justin Lee Collins vehicles for Sky One.
The chat show is just one of the formats that Five have for him. He’s just completed a documentary on the Eurovision Song Contest, where he attempts to represent various European nations – Ireland, Estonia, Andorra, Spain – with a song written for him by Ronan Keating (Justin is particularly proud of his appearance on Estonian breakfast TV, where he crooned his proposed Eurovision entry, quite beautifully, and was captioned “Justin Le Collins: British Optimist”). He’s also been presenting the faintly ridiculous game show, Heads Or Tails, where contestants stand to win up to a million pounds on the flip of a coin. Most comedians hosting a show like this might feel compelled to acknowledge the absurdity of the central premise. But Justin Lee Collins – wide-eyed, enthusiastic and id-driven – throws himself into the project with absolute conviction.
“The key is that you have to believe it. If you try to fake enthusiasm, people will know. Every time I take on a job I think to myself – can anyone do this as well as me? If I think that someone could do it better than me, I’ll say no. If I think I can do it as well or better than anyone, I’ll do it. I don’t mind if people think I’m stupid. But I am honest. That’s why I can do things like this.”
Justin Lee Collins: Good Times! is on Monday March 29, 10pm, Five.