Doctor Who, Kylie and me
Debbie Chazen is starring in a BBC Three sketch show, but a much bigger TV audience awaits. She talks to David Lasserson
DEBBIE CHAZEN MAKES room for a couple of male actors to leave t h e r e h e a r s a l space. “There go the ugly sisters!” She is rehearsing Cinderella, this year’s pantomime at the Old Vic in London. Playing grotesque characters for laughs is an area she is at home in. Chazen is currently in Tittybangbang, the raucous sketch show on BBC Three that offers a bracing breath of foul air every week. “The writing’s a bit close to the bone, even for me,” she admits.
Fans of the show will warm to her Maid Marion and the queen of cosmetic surgery, Maxine “It’s just a little bit of seepage” Bendix. Week after week, the 36-year-old London-born comic actress knocks out a huge range of characters, each with a different accent. “I love doing accents. The programme is such fun to do. My favourite character is Paula, the darts player who has terrible teeth and excessive facial hair.”
Of all the performers on Tittybangbang, Chazen is, er, the tittiest. “But Lucy Montgomery is pregnant. She’s getting tittier,” she insists.
It could all have gone so differently. Her first job was in the Jewish community, as a youth worker at the Sternberg Centre, the Reform Judaism headquarters in North London.This was in keeping with family tradition, since her sister works at North Western Reform Synagogue, where her father was a cantor. Growing up, there was a strong immigrant Jewish flavour to their North L o n d o n household. C h a z e n ’ s mother, who left Berlin for England as a child in 1939, would resort to Yiddish when she didn’t want the children to understand.
But Jewish youth work was never going to satisfy Chazen, who had spent her university years putting on plays while nominally studying Russian and Spanish. She eventually owned up to what she really wanted to do. “I suddenly thought: ‘I want to be an actor.’ I auditioned for drama school, got an agent before I finished my course, and I’ve been working ever since.” When the agent asked her what kind of work she wanted to do, Chazen joked that she would love to be in a Mike Leigh film. She could hardly believe it when she got a part in Topsy Turvy, Leigh’s award-winning film about composers Gilbert and Sullivan. Leigh’s loose approach to creating drama was a pleasure. “It’s all in his head. There’s no script at all. I love improvisation.”
On Christmas Day, she will be starring in BBC One’s Doctor Who as a malicious alien called Foon Van Hoff. She joins a stellar cast, including Kylie Minogue. “We talked about Big Brother every day in make-up. Then one day the housemates on Big Brother had to devise a dance routine to one of Kylie’s songs. She was so excited.”
Comedy is the area where Chazen is busiest — not that that was the plan. “At drama school I enjoyed doing classical tragedy. I played Clytemnestra. I was emoting for two hours, and at the end my friend came up and said, ‘You were so funny.’ Maybe I just look funny.”
Is there a Jewish flavour to her comedy? Chazen cites her influences: “I love Jackie Mason, and Woody Allen. It’s always in your soul. There’s a resonance when you hear that shtick.”
Debbie Chazen as a spoof Maid Marion in BBC Three’s Tittybangbang