In those days, the BBC were prepared to take a punt on people. So Charlie Higson and I went to them with a load of characters we had developed. The tailors were based on my experiences as a teenager buying clothes in Edmonton Green, London. I remember one guy who was a little overfamiliar. A hand would go into the waistband and he’d say: “Oooh, a bit roomy in there.” The catchphrase “Suit you, sir!” is like old music hall. My mum never liked those sketches.
Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews came up with Ted and Ralph: a young aristocrat, his ancient retainer, and the love that dare not speak its name. I remember playing the Ted and Ralph sketches for test audiences and, honestly, at first they were utterly bewildered. Actually, Charlie and I felt the same way when we watched them back in the edit. “What on earth was that about?” we wondered.
There was a lot of pathos in some characters. That way we could go from knockabout to tragic – I don’t think it had been done before in a sketch show. Rowley Birkin was inspired by a very posh guy I had met on a fishing trip who I simply couldn’t understand. I’d only get every third word. I’d get into all the gear then sit in a chair and just ramble. Charlie would hold up a few key phrases and I’d bung them in wherever.
We were quite confident of this world we had created. Not in a smug way, but in a “We like what we’re doing, it doesn’t bother us if you don’t” way. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t a setup or a punchline – and it didn’t bother the viewers. We tried not to do too many topical gags, which is one reason why it seems to have lasted well.
When the first episode went out, some people liked it, some were confused, some hated it. We had a small cult following but it didn’t reach the mainstream. The second series caught on, however. I’d get catchphrases shouted at me in the street: “Little bit whoa, little bit whey”; “Suit you, sir.” People loved it. It’d be churlish to moan.
During that second series, Johnny Depp got in touch. He was borderline obsessed with the show. When we said he could be in a sketch, he flew in and came straight to the studio. Years later, when I did a little cameo on a film of his, I knocked on his dressing room door at eight in the morning – and he was watching Rowley Birkin. “Yeah man,” he said. “I gotta have my Fast Show buzz in the morning.”
When I started out, I didn’t want to be a “Thatcher is bad” standup. My forte was characters. So I was tailor-made for a sketch show.
It’s always been quite wordy, my stuff, though. The others would say: “Your characters need to have a catchphrase.” John Thomson used to say: “Even James Bond has a catchphrase.” But mine didn’t. That was my stubbornness, or perhaps just my not understanding the format.
Dave Angel was loosely based on Mike Reid, who was Frank Butcher on EastEnders. I was juxtaposing two very diverse ideas. What would this used-car salesman not be remotely interested in? Global warming. So it would be funny if he was obsessed with it.
Competitive Dad was inspired by a guy I saw at a swimming pool. He had two kids in water wings and he suddenly raced off doing front crawl, the kids panting after him. When he got to the other end, he had this crazed, triumphant glow in his eyes. I thought: “That is really sick.” What’s weird is that my son got to a high level playing football and I used to love taking him to matches. But you’d see some of the other dads looking at me on the touchline thinking: “That bloke did that sketch – and he’s now shouting at his own kid.”
I don’t think the BBC would take a chance on something like that now. Paul and Charlie would ask: “But what’s the joke?” You couldn’t just do something weird. Paul used to say: “I’m not here to make Bob Mortimer laugh. I want this to be successful. Harry Enfield gets 10 million viewers!”
• The Simon Day & Friends Tour, featuring characters from The Fast Show and more, starts 29 September.
• This article was amended on 26 September 2022 because the catchphrase is “Suit you, sir”, not “Suits you, sir”.