Words & Portraits Kirk Truman
“A little bit of luck, and a little bit of talent. It was the right place and the right time…”
It’s early on a cold December morning in London. “It’s been a while since I’ve walked through Soho at this time. It’s wonderful: you get to walk about and see last night’s decadence splattered all over the pavements. The bottles being collected ring to the sound of the mischief, mayhem and dismay of a rollicking good night out on Dean Street,” says comedian and presenter Alex Zane, toying with his tie and dressed head-to-toe in Joshua Kane Bespoke. We’re sitting in Blacks Private Members Club, switching between talking about the beginnings of his comedy career and the film releases of the past year. Alex started out in Soho, performing stand-up in tiny venues where his fellow performers often outnumbered the audiences. His career may have taken off, with diverse strands in comedy and television, but this corner of London remains close to Alex’s heart.
Born and raised in Leeds, he moved to London to study medicine at UCL in 1998, intending to pursue a career as a doctor. But, finding that he enjoyed the Bohemian lifestyle, he soon decided to drop out of university and embrace a radical change of direction. Telling his parents he was about to begin performing stand-up comedy in Soho clubs and bars for bugger all money wasn’t easy, and it’s probably not surprising that at first they had little faith in his chosen path. “I owe Leeds for a large part of who I am. 2017 is the year that I will have been living in London as long as I lived in Leeds,” says Alex. “I grew up admiring the whimsical monologues of rock-star stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. I imagined that the words coming out of his mouth simply rolled off his tongue; little did I know that his style of humour was the product of scrupulous writing and planning.”
“Soho was where it all started. At this point, I was living in what was in essence a squat in Camden: a flat where when you took a shower, water streamed down the hallway. I would show up, along with other comedians, at these open-mic nights, which were mostly empty. There would always be that moment where someone would say, “So, shall we perform to each other?” And God, it was fucking awful. That was until one day I was in the right place at the right time…”
It was on Dean Street that Alex found himself an agent, on a night when comedian Ricky Gervais, in his pre-Office years, was in the audience. “It was the first time we’d met, and I just remember coming off stage thinking it had gone alright. I’d been playing around with some half-arsed joke about liking the boy band Five,” he laughs. “Quite often I’d start a joke without knowing where it would go; that was one of those that didn’t really go anywhere. Somehow, Ricky thought it was alright, and so too did the man who’s now my agent, who asked me to come for a meeting after that show.” With his stand-up career on the rise, and on the back of an introduction from Ricky, Alex got the opportunity to be a radio presenter on Xfm. “It was the graveyard shift from 2-5am. If there is ever a time that you don’t want to answer the phone in a radio studio, it’s when you’re doing the graveyard shift. The kind of people that were calling in were not the kind of people you wanted to be speaking to when you were on your own in a radio studio!” he laughs.
In 2002, Alex performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a three-man show, completely unaware that there was an MTV producer in the audience; after the show he was asked to audition for them back home in London. “A little bit of luck, and a little bit of talent. It was the right place and the right time,” he says. “Back then – this was when video rental stores were still a thing – I was watching films day and night from my local store in Camden. I was trained in how to be a presenter by producer Rob Lewis, and ended up presenting Screenplay. It was a critical movie review show, and remains to this day one of my favourite shows I’ve ever worked on.”
Alex later began work on a pilot entitled Dude, Where’s My Movie Quiz? In essence, it was Never Mind The Buzzcocks, but about film. Sadly, the pilot never went to series, but did lead to Alex being asked by Channel 4 to join a new comedy prank show entitled Balls of Steel. “I was asked to come and do the quiz element of the show, and the rest is history. It was great fun, and a great success. I’m not one for nostalgia, but I am particularly proud of that one. However, in terms of having actual balls of steel, what I did was at the lowest end of the spectrum! It was no way near as terrifying as some of the stuff that people did on that show,” he says. Hosted by Mark Dolan, special guests would perform stunts and try and hold their nerve during hidden camera set-ups in the presence of celebrities or the public.
As well as Balls of Steel, Alex went on to host Popworld with co-host Alexa Chung, and landed a number of acting roles in films including Dawn of the Dead (2004), Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (2005), Land of the Dead (2005) and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005). After a magazine interview in which he discussed his love of movies, he was approached by Sky and offered his own show for Sky Cinema, Alex Zane’s Guest List. “We’d begin each interview discussing the film the actor was currently promoting, before moving on to discuss three of their favourite films. It was basically Desert Island Discs with movies! What’s really interesting for me is hearing from these people about the films that have really framed their lives – that’s quite something,” he says. “I feel like what I’m doing right now at Sky Cinema is where I want to be at this point in my career. Getting to fly around the world and interview movie stars for a living isn’t all that bad at all,” he laughs. “I’ve had some fantastic experiences with stars all over the world. From flying in a helicopter with Hugh Jackman, to meeting Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, and nearly dying whilst standing on top of the BFI Imax cinema with Tom Cruise. I feel very fortunate to do what I do.”
As well as his presenting career with Sky, Alex is a keen scriptwriter and has recently finished work on a new sitcom entitled Friday Night Frights. He expresses both pride and pleasure in having written the script with friend and long-term collaborator Johnny Candon. After 17 years in London, Soho is still at the centre of Alex’s life and career, with his taste for rest and recreation in the neighbourhood bringing him back to Dean Street and its surrounding watering holes on a regular basis. “It’s just been one of those places, from the moment I arrived in London, that I’ve loved spending time in,” he says. “It’s tinged with some sadness, too: the thing about Soho is that it evolves so damn quickly – much quicker than the people that make it what it is.”