Friends of the mirth
INTERVIEW Jon Canter
‘I’ve never knowingly turned down a drug when offered, although I’m too mean to buy them myself.” Jon Canter might not be famous, but – as he readily confesses – he’s certainly indulged in the showbiz lifestyle, thanks to his celebrity friends. The 54-year-old writer has lived and worked alongside fame for more than 30 years.
In his early 20s he shared a flat in north London with Douglas Adams, who was writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the time. Canter then went on to write and edit scripts for some of the UK’s best-loved comedians, including Lenny Henry, Dawn French, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry. Many of them are close friends. Unlike his abuse of narcotics, however, that’s not a subject he’s keen to discuss.
A couple of years ago he found he could be more than a “comedy butler” – as he describes his knack for putting funny words into other people’s mouths. In 2006, he wrote his first novel, Seeds of Greatness. Its positive reception means he’s now bringing out his second, A Short Gentleman. Finally, it seems, Canter’s own time has come. In person he’s tall (well over 6ft), with thick black hair and bushy eyebrows. Like his large Victoria house, he’s welcoming and slightly dishevelled. New to the interview process, there are times when he has to check himself. As soon as he mentions his cocaine consumption in the 1980s, for example, he immediately qualifies it.
“Oh God, I hope my daughter doesn’t read that,” he says. “It’s almost a cliche that if you’re in showbusiness you’ve got to have an alcohol or a drug problem. In fact, you’re almost more interesting if you can avoid it. And, actually, I come from quite a dull generation. Nobody’s come to a bad end. It’s almost interesting to look at it the other way and ask how people can carry on being funny in their middle years.”
He met many of the peers he’s referring to in the early 1970s at Cambridge University’s drama club, Footlights – the launchpad for many entertainment careers. As well as his buddy Rhys Jones, the student Canter performed with Clive Anderson and John Lloyd – who later produced Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image and QI. His specialism at the time was dramatic monologues as “football managers or chippy people from the north”. He is adamant, however, that he didn’t aspire to become a comedian himself.
“People always assume that if you write comedy you must want to perform it. But I don’t. When I write a line for Lenny Henry that goes down well, I’m delighted. I never think, ‘ oh, if I was telling that it would be funny’.”
Neither, apparently, has novel writing been a long-term aspiration. Indeed, he talks about it as a happy accident. He first came up with the idea for Seeds of Greatness as a film. When there were no takers, a friend who happened to be a literary agent suggested it was time he wrote a novel. So he re-wrote his story in that format and very much enjoyed the process – admitting to be “taken by surprise because it hadn’t occurred to me.”
His debut was widely perceived to be at least semi-autobiographical. The tale of a friendship between a scriptwriter and a celebrity talk show host, its parallels with Canter’s own life are obvious. He denies that it concerns any of his real-life relationships – although some of his well-known friends asked if the famous character was based on them. This time round, he was determined to distance fiction from reality.
“I thought, sod it, I’m going to make sure the second book has a title which means it can’t be about me. I’m not short. I’m not a gentleman. So no one can say, ‘ah, this is about you, isn’t it?’ It’s a selfdefence mechanism.”
With the author describing it as “tragi-comedy”, it’s far from the side-splitting gagfest some might expect. As Canter says, he likes “real pain” in his comedy. A darkly witty tale of identity crisis and failed relationships, it’s the first-person story of barrister Robert Purcell. He’s purportedly writing his confession to a crime. It takes a while to get into because the narrator is so pompous and snobbish. Indeed, at first the reader only keeps turning the pages to find out just what scandalous thing he has done. But, as his story unfolds, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him.
This is the cleverest aspect of the novel and Canter says it is a deliberate rebellion against his background. Throughout his scriptwriting career TV execs have always asked him about each character’s “journey”. He had long thought that selfdevelopment in comedy was not necessary, citing much-loved characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent of The Office, who never change. Unfettered by the demands of TV suits, he decided Robert would be exactly the same at the end of the novel as at the start. He doesn’t evolve, but the idea is that the reader’s attitude to him does.
Although the author tried to eradicate autobiographical references in this novel, there are still quite a few of them. Just like Robert, Canter’s father was a lawyer. He too went to an all-boys’ public school and his subject at Cambridge was also law (although he was less of an academic achiever than his literary creation and got a third). The prestigious university’s legal department is, in fact, where his inspiration for Robert came from: “I met a lot of very, very academic people there who have emotional gaps. I describe it as being an intellectual giant, but an emotional pygmy.”
The book is also largely set in
Aldeburgh, the genteel seaside town in Suffolk where Canter lives with his wife, painter Helen Napper, and their 15-yearold daughter Nancy. It’s a postcard-perfect kind of place with painted cottages and a shingle beach. A Londoner born and bred, Canter says his urban friends thought he’d never settle somewhere so sleepy. But he isn’t hankering after the city and finds his difference from his neighbours amusing.
He laughs uproariously when telling how one of Nancy’s friends said their house looks like it belongs to “rich hippies”. It’s a fitting description. A series of downstairs rooms have been converted into two spacious, open-plan areas. Both are cluttered over with brightly-coloured rugs, a vast collection of books, travel curios and Napper’s paintings. She strolls around in overalls and has a studio at the bottom of the garden; Canter writes at a small desk on the top level of a two-storey library.
In A Short Gentleman, Robert loves the conservatism of Aldeburgh, yet it’s this aspect that Canter finds unsettling. “There’s a great tradition in this town of children being just like their parents. You come across members of the yacht club whose children, aged between 20 and 25, are replicas of them. I still find that hard to follow. When I grew up the idea was to become different from your parents in some way – to protest or have a period of rebellion.”
As for the future, Canter is a busy man. He’s at work with Lenny Henry on his stand-up and is also in the middle of a sitcom for Richard Wilson. He’s got a oneoff drama – about a woman obsessed with Stephen Fry – coming soon on Radio 4. Plus he’s collaborating with Arabella Weir on Posh Nosh, a TV series that parodies celebrity chefs and stars Richard E Grant.
Despite this flurry of collaborative activity, the lonely art of novel writing has become his priority. He’s started his third, focusing on the relationship between age and youth. “I definitely want to keep writing novels,” he says, “because nothing else is so demanding or rewarding.”
A Short Gentleman, Jonathan Cape, £16.99.
Jon Canter, top, has written for comedy celebrities such as Griff Rhys Jones, centre and Lenny Henry, above. A native of London, Canter now lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Aldeburgh, right