All aboard for the Tim Vine Joke-omotive

Tim Vine's like one of those tennis ball machines - only he serves rapid-fire puns at his audience instead of fluorescent Slazengers.

Steven Russell

Tim Vine's like one of those tennis ball machines - only he serves rapid-fire puns at his audience instead of fluorescent Slazengers. He tells Steven Russell how he hones his material and why his favourite recent job was a rollercoaster ride - literally

TIM Vine and I start talking about phone-calls, for some reason. Turns out he's a bit rubbish at admin and so a couple of times a year is likely to be cut off for not paying his bills. “Terrible, isn't it?” muses the comedian. “I think I got into this job because it was fun; I've never quite got it into my head that sometimes you have to do things that aren't fun.” Does he have the same trouble with council tax? “It's extraordinary you say that, because I've just had a whole hoo-hah to do with council tax. I have this thing about not opening post as well, and I opened something and they said they were sending the bailiffs round, or something. So I thought 'Oh flip, I'd better deal with that.' I went to the bank, because I haven't got the internet at home, and said 'Can we transfer it' - fascinating stuff this is for an interview, isn't it? - 'on a CHAPS thing?', whatever that is. (Clearing House Automated Payment System, actually.) So they did that and it didn't go through. In the end, I tried it on my credit card and it worked.”

Ooh, I didn't know one could pay by credit card. I'd be tempted to do that, because then I'd rack up more loyalty points.

“Really? What's that? Air miles?”

Similar. A particular credit card. I get points for every pound I spend and can later treat myself to a lifetime of rewards by redeeming them at Halfords or about 24 other well-known businesses. Sorry, I'm sounding like an advert . . .

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“Ah. You've got the other attitude to all these things . . .” What, organised? “Yeah. A bit . . . Do you have flexitime at work?”

Not officially. As long as we do the job on time, there's a degree of freedom.

“I used to work in an office in Croydon that had flexitime, and if you worked an extra seven hours a month you got an extra day off the following month. I never ever had a flexiday.” You owed them, did you? “Had to take a couple off the holiday, unfortunately,” he admits, ruefully.

That job was with a pensions firm, inputting data. Which segues nicely to a question about the popular BBC sitcom Not Going Out, in which he co-starred as an underachieving council accountant. The third series was broadcast early in 2009; is there a fourth in the offing?

“There is going to be another one.” They start work on it in September, he understands. “I think they might try to have it going out quite quickly - maybe in October.”

The brother of BBC Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine enjoyed a busy 2009. At the beginning of the year he won Celebrity Mastermind, Elvis Presley his specialist subject, and had three week-long spells in Countdown's Dictionary Corner, where he was nominally one of the smarty-pants concoctings strings of words from a jumble of letters.

He confesses, though: “I'm absolutely rubbish at it, so, to be honest, the most I ever say is 'We've come up with . . .' I feel uncomfortable even saying that. So mostly I say 'Oh, Susie's been very clever and come up with this.'” Susie Dent is the resident expert lexicographer. “You do have a guy in your ear, who is - I think this is public knowledge now, isn't it? - Damian Eadie, who's the producer and a previous winner. He's brilliant at it. As soon as the letters come up you hear him mumbling away to himself . . . 'Mmmhh . . . octopus . . . Brrmmh . . .'

“I'm so hopeless at it. I stare at the letters and can't see anything that has more than one syllable in it.”

Then there was his cameo appearance on Neighbours. How did that come about?

“I was out doing the Melbourne Comedy Festival and I had this new agent, who is far and away the best I've ever had. I said 'Can you see if you can get me on Neighbours?' I said it as a joke, although I was hoping it would happen, but at the same time I didn't really hold out much hope. Then I got a call from this woman who said 'Hello, this is the executive producer of Neighbours . . .' Fantastic.”

Is he a big fan of the Aussie soap? “I think we've all had moments of addiction, haven't we? Old Kylie days and all that. But not for a while. Is it on BBC One still?” No; switched to Channel Five some time ago. “I can't get Channel Five. I get One, Two, Three and Four.” No digitals, then? “Another thing I'll have to change, or I'll be going 'Why doesn't this work any more?' Actually, for a while, BBC Two dropped out, which was quite strange. For about six months I had One, Three and Four. I thought there must be something swinging off my aerial.”

The most fandabidozi TV show he did last year was Scream If You Know the Answer, “which is going to be on some obscure satellite channel (UKTV's Watch) hosted by Duncan from Blue. No-one will see it . . . but anyway . . .

“It's a game show where you answer the questions while on rides at Thorpe Park (the big Surrey theme park). To get paid to spend the day on rollercoasters is brilliant fun.

“They've got an amazing one called Stealth, which, from a standing start, goes from nought to 80 in under two seconds. It's incredible acceleration. Actually, I just went on that one anyway, because by that time our team had been knocked out!

“There was a hilarious one where you get taken up a very tall pole and dropped from the top of it. There's like a celebrity - I say 'like a celebrity' because that's me - who is paired with a member of the public. Me and this guy had to name films that Tom Hanks had been in. We had to alternate between the two of us and as soon as we got one wrong they clanked the lever and we got dropped out of the sky.

“We were at the top and the tension of it was incredible. We are looking at each other and he says 'When Harry Met Sally.' I didn't quite register it. I think I then said 'Road to Perdition.' And then this thing dropped out of the sky. I remember going through the air, thinking 'He was in Road to Perdition . . .' But it was the previous answer that did it. There was a delay while they were obviously all down at the bottom, thinking 'When Harry Met Sally?!'”

Just before Christmas, Tim popped up as one of the comedians on BBC One's show Live at the Apollo. How do all the strands compare - appearing as part of a three- or four-strong line-up; your one-man show, where you can create the tone and control the pace; or appearing as a comedy actor (as in Not Going Out)?

“I like it all, really. I do like going on tour, because there's something about having people coming along who already like what you do . . . but it's quite a lot of effort to get an hour of new material.”

With something like Live at the Apollo, is it hard following the previous comic, who bequeaths the atmosphere they've created on-stage?

“I did 10 years or so on the circuit and you're constantly coming in on the wake of someone else's work. Most of my comedy life has been spent in clubs, probably, where basically no-one knows who you are and they have the attitude of 'Right, what's this guy do? Come on then, make us laugh.' So I'm quite used to that.

“I would rather not go on first. All my massive 'deaths' have been when I've come on first - the really big ones first on a Friday night.

“I think it doesn't suit my act. I come on and it's quite quick (the machine-gun puns). I think if you have a compere and he goes 'And here's your first act!', and I come on and go 'Black Beauty . . . he's a dark horse . . . der, der, der, der,' the audience might think 'Are we supposed to be laughing at all of these?' Whereas if they've got something to compare it to - someone who's been on before me and maybe done some observational stuff - then they're kind of a bit more attuned. Maybe mine's better in contrast to something else.”

That's not going to be a problem with The Joke-amotive tour - more than 40 dates that begin in Bristol on January 25 and trundle their way across the country, via East Anglia, until mid-March. It's mainly new material: trademark one-liners, plus a few silly songs.

Tim started putting the show together at the end of May, writing a few jokes each day and then going to a little comedy club in Kingston most Mondays, with prototype gags written on postcards. He'd do a different 15 minutes' worth each week, then give each joke a tick or a cross, depending how it went. “Mainly crosses!”

He'd also go to other clubs and read his jokes from postcards, until he'd weeded the raw material down to “first-time ticks”.

“Then I'd book a place and do the whole night myself - sometimes a church, or something like that, where they have a bit of a rent-a-crowd - and that's when it's the biggest endurance test for the audience, because there's a lot of stuff in there that really still needs to be crossed out.

“A couple of times I did two-and-a-half hours, reading cards off the floor. People sat there going 'Good grief! How much longer have we got of this?' Then I'll go home and cross out another 60 jokes or something. So it's kind of like a constant purifying process - though if you come and watch the show yourself, you'll wonder how some of it got through!”

Tim's been learning the show for the past two months . . . while also playing Muddles in panto - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Richmond. “Two shows a day, six days a week, so I haven't had much time to do much else. But what I do is make sure I run through my act at least once a day.

“A taxi picks me up from my home in Banstead (near Epsom) and the journey is about 40 minutes. That's about the time it takes me to run through my hour at about one and a half times normal speed!

“I usually get the same guy each time - poor chap - and he says 'Are you going to run through your act, Mr Vine?' And I say 'Yeah, I'll do it when we hit the top of Banstead Road.' So off I go, and say the whole thing out loud. Her's got quite familiar with it now . . .”

GrapeVine: The Times of Tim

Born March 4, 1967

Won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival

Trademark humour: So I went down my local ice-cream shop and said 'I want to buy an ice cream.' He said 'Hundreds and thousands?' I said 'We'll start with one.'

Catch him locally at:

Colchester Arts Centre, February 13; 01206 500900.

Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, March 5; 01284 769505