VQ’S CAROLYN NICOLL CATCHES UP WITH THE MULTI TALENTED COMEDY CREATOR AND TALKS RUBBER MASKS, SPIDERMAN AND MICHAEL
Morning and night appearing on our TV screens, a regular at the most prestigious of showbiz award ceremonies, an array of A-list mates, multiple television series under his belt, and a film in the pipeline. You know his face, but his name...Local lad Leigh Francis proves he’s no lemon when it comes to life in the limelight.
What was it like growing up in Leeds?
I had a great childhood. I grew up in Old Farnley and had a top set of mates that I still see. Especially Keith Lemon. I’ve known him since I was three. He’s a real person. A lot of people think I’m from
Batley or Morley. I don’t think I’ve ever even been to either Batley or Morley. I said as the Craig David character in Bo’Selecta! that I was from Morley, but that was the character not me. Avid Merrion was from Transylvania but that doesn’t mean I was from there either!
Did you always want to work in entertainment?
I had no notion of get ting into entertainment at all. I went to Leeds College of Art and had my heart seton being a graphic designer. I went there for four years and got a job in the creative department at the Yorkshire Evening Post. I was so chuffed and at the time I really enjoyed it but my hobby of making little films with my camcorder that my dad got me aged 16 just took over. I thought maybe I should be focusing on that seeing as I was becoming more passionate about it. But yeah, in the beginning it was just daft little spoofs that I did to show my mates. Then my wife, who was then my girlfriend encouraged me to send them off. So that ’s what I did. I was constantly filming stuff. Then when I actually came to London I think I made a tape nearly everyday for three years. That was whilst I was working in the graphics department of The Paramount Channel which is now Comedy Central. I got all my Telly experience from there. It was ike being paid to learn the industry. Had a great time there. Finally after working in development, props, graphics, they let me in front of the camera. I did a sketch with Davina McCall.
So is that how you got your big break?
My Big Break? Erm…well yeah back then I had no idea about having an agent and Davina hooked me up with hers and it went from there. She’s a lovely person and helped me loads. I did all sorts of stuff, presenting, voice over stuff. I left Paramount and had a panic and then started wearing masks.After doing a show called ‘Show Me The Funny’ on E4 in which the viewers voted for their favourite sketches on line, Channel 4 said if I came up with a good idea they’d do a pilot. That ’s when Bo’Selecta happened. I’d had my own shows before then though. I did a show on UK Play which became BBC3, I did a show on LWT, and a Saturday morning show on Nickelodeon. I was in London eight years before Bo’Selecta! happened.
You are so well known now, but are you recognised more as the characters you play rather than as Leigh Francis?
I’m hardly ever recognised as myself. Recently it’s mostly people thinking I am actually Keith Lemon. But I don’t mind. It’s nice that people aren’t really sure who I actually am. What’s the story behind Keith Lemon I did Keith Lemon before Avid Merrion, but Avid took off first. The name is just taken from my mate. I never knew it would spiral into what it has done. In the beginning it was just a shout out to my mate. I don’t think people believe that’s his actual name now. Sorry Keith. He’s a top bloke though. Keith Lemon’s a huge success.
Did you base his character on a family member?
He’s not totally based on a family member, just little parts of his character. The character has developed by himself now. He dresses differently to what he did and has a different outlook to things. He’s a bit showbiz now, or thinks he is. You seem quite shy in comparison to your characters.
Are there any of Leigh Francis’ personality traits in Keith?
I suppose there are elements of me in all the characters I’ve done. But I wouldn’t say I’m like Keith really. He’s much more confident and outspoken than I am. Keith doesn’t think, he just opens his mouth and spouts.
How easy is it to switch from Leigh Francis to Keith Lemon? Do you have to mentally
prepare and be dressed as him, or is it aneasy switch?
prepare and be dressed as him, or is it aneasy switch?
I dress nothing like Keith, but once I’ve got the clothes on…it’s the bandage that triggers it off. It was like that with Avid, when the neck brace was on it was Avid time.
What do you love most about Celebrity Juice?
I love everything about it. It’s just hanging out with mates on telly. I love Holly, Fearne and Rufus. Fearne is such a good sport and really funny. Holly is just lovely and Rufus is a top bloke. It’s such fun doing the show. I think there’s a great chemistry between us. That sounds like I’m just saying the right things for the sake of being nice, but honestly, when we’ve finished a series it’s quite sad and when we’re coming back to do another it’s exciting, like seeing mates after the school summer holidays.
Who have been your favourite guests and who would be your dream Celebrity Juice guest?
Good guests to me are when it’s people I actually know cos you can take it that little bit further. Dream guest? Erm not sure he’s our audience but I’d like to meet Michael J Fox. I’m a big Back To The Future fan.
Can we look forward to a series six of Celebrity Juice?
Yes, we’re doing two series this year and in between hopefully shooting the Lemon movie!!!!!!
Who inspired you and who did you like to watch when you were growing up?
When I was really young I liked Kenny Everett. But the people that have most inspired me are Vic and Bob, Mike Myers, Jim Carey, and Andy Kaufman. I think Vic and Bob are totally the reason I do telly. It’s odd talking to them, I’m still a little star struck I think.
Tell me about ‘Cha’mone Mo’Fo Selecta!’the special tribute you paid to your hero Michael Jackson after his death?
Yeah I felt I had to do it. It really was my tribute to him. I wanted people to laugh andcry a little bit, saluting the great Michael Jackson and putting Bo’Selecta! Michael Jackson to rest It was great fun but sad at the same time, especially the end bit taking the mask off.
Did you get any feedback on the tribute from any of Michael Jackson’s family or friends?
Not from his family. I’ve met Tito, he’s a nice bloke, but he never said anything about it. We had David Gest on and he said Michael Jackson would’ve found it funny. I have been told that Michael Jackson had seen Bo’Selecta! and thought his character was funny, not sure if it was true or not. I’d like to think he liked it.I knew he had a good sense of humour. David Gest showed me some of his private footage and Michael came across really normal, nice and a funny guy.Very sad.
How did the celebrities react to the characters? I hear that Mel B loved hers but Craig David not so?
Yeah, Mel B loved it, she’s a great sport. Craig David liked it at first, he was on the show three times, not sure why he changed his mind. I don’t think I affected his career at all. Looks like he’s got a nice house and a nice car, looks pretty successful to me. Posh pad in Miami! I didn’t mean any malice. But I’m very fond of that character. It ’s not really him at all. Unless he does have a plastic Kes (kestrel) taped to his hand and wets the bed when at home behind closed doors. I don’t think he does though.
Was the inspiration for the character Avid Merrion really Laimonis Mierins,your former teacher at Leeds College of Art?
Laimonis was totally the inspiration for Avid. He was an ace teacher. I did a show called Comedy Maps on BBC2 where they sent me back to college to see him. I think he was quite flattered that Avid was based on him.
Will Avid Merrion and the other Bo’Selecta! characters return?
Haven’t a clue. There are no plans for a return, but never say never. I wouldn’t mind doing a special a year, that ’d be nice.
What’s it like to now be a part of the This Morning team?
I love doing This Morning. I enjoy the fear that everyone has in their eyes when I’m down there. I ’m not a mad man though. I’m not gonna say anything I shouldn’t on day time TV. It is mad that I’m doing it, but yeah I really enjoy it. I obviously already know Holly, but Phil is great, such a professional. He’s a legend!
How much has Leeds influenced your life and career?
Well everything about Keith Lemon is Leeds. He’d love to turn on the Leeds lights at Christmas. That’d be nice for him I think, but it ’s always someone from X Factor or Blue for some reason.
What was it like working in the Creative Department at the Yorkshire Evening Post?
It was a great start. I was really chuffed to get that job. Whenever I’d be in Leeds and see a paper on the floor that had something on it that I’d done I’d pick it up and yeah be really chuffed.
How much has Leeds changed since your childhood?
There’s no Jolly Giant anymore. I went to that toyshop all the time with my mum. It ’s changed loads since I was a kid. Good boozers in Leeds!
What do you love about Leeds?
The friendly accent, I love hearing that accent when I come back.
You live in London now. What do you miss the most?
Mostly I miss my mates, my pals, although they come down to London to
see me a lot.
How would you describe your style and where do you like to shop?
I go to All Saints, French Connection and my wife buys me Vivienne Westwood stuff sometimes. I also go to Top Man, Zara, H&M and second hand. I think my style is pretty eclectic. I like suits. I wear a lot of baseball jackets and hats to cover up my Lemon head. I’ve got loads of hats. When I go out on an evening I like to look smart I guess. I think that ’s a very northern thing, dressing up to go out.
I hear that you’re also quite partial to dressing up as Spiderman?
Yeah I’ve got loads of costumes, Spiderman, Ghostbusters, Teen Wolf, Marty Mcfly. We got married on Halloween so we’re always having costume parties.
You married your beauty therapist and makeup artist wife Jill at Allerton Castlein North Yorkshire. What was the day like?
Well the day do was really nice, and the evening was a costume party. It was brilliant. People really went to town on their costumes. Unfortunately somebody sold the invite to the papers so we had to get security. I didn’t want any pictures in the paper of me getting married because back then people didn’t know I existed, I was only known as Avid Merrion and wanted to keep it that way.
Is it true that you wore your Spiderman outfit on your wedding day?
I did yes in the evening. Wasn’t as good as the one I’ve got now. I’ve got a proper one now!
How has being a Dad to your daughter Matilda changed your life?
I have a separate bank account for babysitters. Expensive aren’t they. It ’s amazing. I love her to death. I still can’t believe we made her and she’s ours. Love her so much. She’s beautiful like her mum.
When not working what would be a typical weekend for Leigh Francis?
Friends round at mine, or I’m round at my friends. I have a good set of friends hat live around the corner. They’ve got kids too. Its all nice and normal
What projects have you got lined up for the future?
Two more series of Celebrity Juice this year, got some other projects in
development and a film. All very exiting! I’m very lucky.
Finally, how would you sum up your life at the moment?
In the words of Keith Lemon – at the moment my life is Bang Tidy!