Jack Dee makes his sitcom debut as a fairground boss in Tunnel Of Love on ITV1. The stand-up comic is enjoying the opportunity to create laughs from someone else's script. Steve Pratt reports.

JACK Dee may be regarded as one of Britain's foremost funny men, but he's never played a comedy acting part on TV until now. His appearance as a charismatic fairground boss in ITV1's Tunnel Of Love is, he reckons, his debut in this type of role.

"I've done a fair bit of serious drama, but this is the first acting job that crosses into comedy," he says. "I'm enjoying it, especially as it's a nice cast to work with and a good script."

Tunnel Of Love comes from the pen of Simon Nye, most famous for writing Men Behaving Badly and whose latest sitcom Carrie And Barry was on BBC1.

His new 90-minute comedy drama finds Dee as Roy, fairground manager and fixer who describes the environment as "the last great free, magical frontier in a Britain of air-conditioned sterility and shopping malls". Or is it, as he also argues, "a muddy s**t-hole"?

Roy is not averse to a scam but basically wants a quiet life and some decent sex in his luxuriously-appointed caravan. Two fairground accidents in quick succession result in him being sued for substantial damages. With the fairground's future under threat, he has no choice but to turn detective to find out if the two accidents were coincidence or sabotage.

"My character Roy grew up with the funfair and he has a lot of responsibility. He's quick-witted and sharp with people because it's easy to get trodden on in this business," explains Dee.

He met fairground workers as part of his preparation for the film, although how much it informed his performance is debatable as he says: "It was useful to meet them and see what they wore, although we had a fair idea of how we were going to play it already."

Dee's used to creating his own material on series such as BBC1's recent Jack Dee Live At The Apollo, but found it surprisingly easy working with Simon Nye's script. "I've never worked with him before, but he's a cracking writer and it's great that he had me in mind for this. His words fit, they work with the characters," he says.

"Sometimes you look at a scene and want to have an input but, on the whole, he's got most of it there already. The fun of it is working on a scene with a good cast and a good director and making it come alive, and discovering where the laughs or pathos are.

"I love many of the American sitcoms because the dialogue is light conversation that isn't waiting for a laugh. This has a similar feel."

Co-star Josephine Butler, who plays a free-spirited fairground newcomer and the object of Roy's attention, had a great time working with Dee, whom she calls a great comedian and brilliant actor. "The director was really up for people being inventive and changing things. Everyone was going off on their own flight of fantasy. Stand-up comics are used to being inventive and very quick off the mark - that's exciting to be around," she says.

With two films awaiting release and work lined up for months ahead, Dee's in great demand. "If what is going to happen does happen, it will take me through until the end of next year," says the comic, who lives in South London with wife Jane and their four children.

"But one of the biggest buzzes I get is the quiet time, when nothing is doing and then suddenly something comes in. That is half the fun of it. If you can relish the insecurity, you start to feel more comfortable. I've finally stopped worrying about whether the phone will ring." Tunnel Of Love may have been Dee's first time working on a Nye script, but co-star Cristian Solimeno did it not long ago when he appeared in ITV1's Beauty with Martin Clunes.

This time the former Footballers' Wives star plays Sean, fairground manager and Roy's right-hand man. "He's a bit of an idiot - a slow-witted, happy-go-lucky guy and a bit of a ladies man," says Solimeno. "He loves himself and that's where the comedy comes from. He's got an inflated sense of himself. He's always trying to meet the right girl, but it never quite works out for him."

He enjoyed playing for laughs. Unlike some actors he doesn't feel that comedy is necessarily harder than drama, just that everything has its own challenges. "No matter what I'm doing, I'm always trying to pick up the humour in it. I have a very dry sense of humour. I'll often laugh at a film in the cinema when nobody else does," he says.

He gave up his TV soccer career as Earls Park captain Jason Turner in Footballers' Wives two years ago, waiting a long time until the kind of parts he wanted to play came along.

"I wanted to do something really different. Both Tunnel Of Love and Beauty fitted the bill. It would be hard to do anything like Footballers' Wives again, because there is no other show like that. It was a good experience, but after two series I was ready to leave."

* Tunnel Of Love is on ITV1 on Monday at 9pm.

Published: 14/10/2004