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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

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