Classic Interview: Darren Harriott

Classic Interview: Darren Harriott
Darren Harriott is very much on the rise at the moment. He has become a television panel show regular and has appeared on Live at the Apollo - he once worked on security at the same venue. This week he is one of the contestants on Richard Osman's House of Games. This below is a version of an interview I did with Harriott for the Evening Standard in 2018 when he was previewing his new show, Visceral. In an honest, revealing chat he talked about his childhood in the Midlands and how his life could have turned out very differently. You can read the original interview here, and you can see Harriott on House of Games at 6pm on BBC Two from Monday January 25 to Friday, January 29.
 
 
You could describe Darren Harriott as relentlessly upbeat. And he has good reason to be upbeat. In the past year his stand-up comedy career has taken off. He was nominated for the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer and since then has made a major impact on Live at the Apollo and, this month, Mock The Week.

“It’s insane,” he chuckles, as we settle down to chat in a Soho club. Maybe the reason the fast-talking 29-year-old is so happy is because he knows how differently things could have turned out. His eagerly anticipated new show, Visceral, reveals how life in the West Midlands town of Oldbury could have taken a violently different direction.

“I used to carry a knife. I want to explore how things were when I was growing up, and the nature of toxic masculinity.” Serious stuff for comedy as well as sadly topical, but Harriott has already proved that he can find the funny side to tough subjects in his debut show Defiant, in which he talked about his drug dealer father who was in and out of prison before committing suicide when Darren was a schoolboy.

Visceral chimes with the current wave of knife crime. “It’s all about ego,” he says. “Looking back, we didn’t have a lot. We were all on free school dinners, which we thought was a badge of honour. All we had was how people perceived us. Our egos were so fragile, almost like they were made out of paper, and the slightest poke would make us lose our minds. All it would take was for someone to say something about your mum. When I hear about another stabbing on the news I understand it.”

Darren Harriott spent his youth looking for role models (he thinks he might possibly be distantly related to Ainsley Harriott but doesn't know for sure). “We were obsessed with So Solid Crew50 Cent said he’d been shot nine times and we thought that was great. We just wanted people to think we were tough.” He was 13 when he started carrying an orange flick knife, but was already trying to resist peer pressure. “The others used to take them to school. I never did.”

This was an era when there were violent gangs in nearby Birmingham, such as the Burger Bar Boys and The Johnson Crew. “Luckily we didn’t have a rival gang but we carried knives just in case. I remember standing around slicing an apple like Julius Caesar, it felt like something I had to have. If somebody would have punched me I definitely would have pulled out a knife, 100 per cent. That’s how stupid we were.”

Harriott considers himself to be one of the fortunate ones. “I’ve only recently realised when I was thinking about the show that none of us had dads. It was never spoken about. It was just a common thing.” His father Patrick did not live at home but, until his suicide, at least he was able to stay in contact with him by phone when he wasn’t in prison. “Looking back I think all we really wanted was for our dads to give us a hug and say they loved us.”

Luckily the only time he was stopped by the police he didn’t have a knife on him. “It was for something I didn’t do. My friend fitted the description of someone who had stolen a phone and they took me in too. I was put in a holding cell for 18 hours. It was not a nice experience. I knew it was not the life for me.”

Everything changed on New Year’s Eve when Harriott was 15. “I got into an argument with the gang over who made a song.” His friends set on him and he ended up in hospital.

“A great way to see in the New Year. It really hurt me because one of the guys was a really good friend but he felt pressured by the others. I know violence isn’t the answer but I think it knocked some sense into me. People talk about resolutions and I thought yeah, something has to change...”

He was interested in drama and comedy and started to do stand-up. It took a while for his career to hits its stride and after college he combined gigging with working on security at the kind of venues he dreamed of playing. “Sometimes I’d go straight from work to a club and I’d have to perform in my security clothes.”

Two years ago he was taken on by Micky Flanagan’s agent and found his voice. Things came full circle when he appeared on Live at the Apollo this year. “When I turned up the guys on the gates I used to work with said they’d seen my name on the list of performers. It was really crazy. I feel like I’ve already peaked. I feel like I’ve already hit the bonus.”

Harriott is by no means the first comic to tackle serious personal subjects. Richard Pryor built an entire career around this kind of confessional material. Like Pryor, Harriott’s priority is to make the material funny. “I need to get this stuff out. All I’ve really got as a stand-up is my honesty. I’m OK if audiences hate me. What I don’t want is pity. These stories might sound like tragedy but I don’t compute it as tragedy.”

Like most talented comedians, of course, beyond the brash exterior he feels the pressure. “I’m enjoying this rollercoaster. I just worry that it could all go. This is the most important time in my career. But my main goal is to have fun.”

He need not worry. He has more stage work planned after the Edinburgh Fringe — performing, not doing the security. But for now his ambitions are simple. He’d like to help his mother Paulette, who is a carer, but she doesn’t want anything. “She worked so hard for her two sons. I said I’d buy her driving lessons, she said ‘I’ve got a bus pass, I’m happy’.”

And he would like to move out of his Wembley houseshare. “One room has a horrible smell. Nobody lasts more than three months in there. My girlfriend hates the house. My dream is to have my own fridge. With an ice compartment.”

Darren Harriott is on Richard Osman's House of Games at 6pm on BBC Two from Monday, January 25 to Friday, January 29.

 

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