Tony Hawks: 'I wanted to be closer to nature... so I moved to the country'
Leaving London in search of the good life has been an adventure for Tony Hawks and great comedy fodder for his new book, as the TV funnyman and first time father explains to Hannah Stephenson
Comedian, broadcaster and writer Tony Hawks had never thought of himself as a country bumpkin. Five years ago he was living the bachelor life in London, pursuing a TV, radio and stand-up career, writing books and appearing on shows like Have I Got New For You? and Just A Minute.
Today, he's living in rural Devon with his partner Fran and their one-year-old son Arlo, and while broadcasting is still high on his agenda, the move has given him plenty of humorous material for his new book, Once Upon A Time In The West ... Country.
"I've finally done what everyone else did years ago," the 54-year-old explains. "It wasn't a mid-life crisis. It was driven by a sense that it felt like the right next step.
"Whenever the sun came out, I never wanted to be in London. I wanted to be somewhere I could be closer to nature."
It all started when he met his partner Fran in 2010 at the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction event, for which his book, Playing The Moldovans At Tennis, had been nominated 10 years previously. She was a mature student of biomedical imaging, and they were introduced by mutual friend Ian Hislop.
The couple lived together happily in London, until Hawks had the idea of moving to the country - and the rest is history.
The light-hearted book charts his efforts to integrate into the local Devon community, embarking on an organic gardening course, tractor rallies, village fetes, bingo calling and even a hazardous charity cycle ride with a micro-pig.
Being accepted by and fitting in with the locals was easier than he'd anticipated.
"I don't know whether there was a little bit of excitement over this bloke who's coming to the village who's vaguely known and is occasionally on TV, but certainly, everyone's been very nice. And if you get involved and are prepared to do a bit of work on behalf of the local community, then you're well accepted," he says.
He and Fran also have two sets of lovely neighbours, including retired builder Ken, who seems to solve all immediate problems, frequently volunteering to help out.
While most of his experiences have been positive, he has strong reservations about the Dartmoor National Park Authority (which refused his planning application for an extension, a decision which was overturned on appeal), the insects and the narrow country lanes. He was once forced to reverse hundreds of yards to allow a car to pass when the determined oncoming motorist would have only had to reverse 20.
"Ken told me a story about how some people wouldn't back up, so he got out of his van and said, 'Don't worry, I'm local, I'll go and have a cup of tea', and bluffed them out. They panicked and backed up. That's quite a good trick."
Two of Tony's previous books - Round Ireland With A Fridge and Playing The Moldovans At Tennis - have both sold more than a million copies and been made into films, and he's now doing more literary festivals, which he enjoys.
"You never get booed off at a literary festival," he quips, harking back to his old days of stand-up gigs in pubs and clubs.
"When you've grown up doing comedy in dodgy places, you find that literary festivals are the easiest venues to perform at. Quite a lot of authors come out and mumble, whereas I've been trained on how to win over groups who are drunk, so I'm over-qualified."
Brighton-born Hawks originally though he might be an actor. He started a degree in drama at the University of Manchester, but dropped out after a term.
"I didn't really want to be an actor, but at that stage of my life I thought, 'What do I like doing? I like showing off'. I thought I'd be able to do more showing off on a drama course. But I didn't like studying drama and realised I didn't want to be an actor."
He moved to London and managed to make ends meet playing the piano in wine bars and pubs.
"The other thing I wanted to be was a singer-songwriter. I started doing comedy towards the end of the evening, when people were bored with the music, or I was drunk. I just started messing around."
He began writing comedy songs and poems and decided to pursue stand-up when all the comedy clubs above pubs were starting up.
"It was the beginning of the 'alternative' Ben Elton scene and you had your five-minute slot, and if you were any good, you were asked back. Paul Merton, Jack Dee, Ed Byrne, Lee Evans - we were all coming through at the same time."
He had his first brush with fame as lead singer of the trio Morris Minor And The Majors; their novelty record Stutter Rap reached number 4 in the charts in 1988.
Later, he secured a spot on BBC Radio 4's Just A Minute, did warm-ups for TV shows like Red Dwarf and had a few small parts in the series, and appeared in comedy panel shows, but nothing catapulted him to superstardom.
"The TV career never really took off," he reflects. "I just pottered along as a guy that was reliable and quite funny, but never found a vehicle for what I do in television.
"There was a period where I thought, 'All I'm doing is making up the numbers', but I never felt frustrated or angry. I still felt really privileged that I was getting away with just earning a living.
"I like what I have, in that a few people know me but not many. I've enough [fans] to fill a small theatre but I've got a life. I'm not bothered every time I go in a pub."
In the latest book, he also writes about his then-impending fatherhood with trademark humour, from his worries about responsibility to the prospect of a home birth, which Fran had. Writing books, he reflects, seems to fit in with family life.
Fran and Arlo will accompany him on a chunk of his forthcoming book tour and on a writing assignment to Albania in May. "The priority now is being a dad, so I don't take anything on if that's going to be compromised."
Once Upon A Time In The West Country by Tony Hawks is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99