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on Tue, 21 Sep 2021
Many will recognise Clinton Baptiste as the unsubtle psychic in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. The comic creation of Alex Lowe, Baptiste is currently touring the length and breadth of the country with his brand-new show, Stratospheric, in which he hopes to ‘heal the world’. Lowe gives us the lowdown on his hapless, careless & clumsy alter-ego...
Comedian and actor Alex Lowe's career certainly got off to an unusual start. His first film role involved a bedroom scene with Emma Thompson while her then-husband Kenneth Branagh directed them.
“It was in his 1992 film, Peter's Friends,” explains Alex. “I was supposed to be having an affair with her character. It wasn’t easy having her husband behind the camera while she bounced away on my skin-coloured pouch!”
If Lowe, 53, owes his first showbiz break to Peter's Friends, he owes his current success as cod-clairvoyant Clinton Baptiste to being a friend of a different Peter. In 2001, Peter Kay cast him as Baptiste in the third episode of Phoenix Nights. "He called me up and said..." Lowe does a perfect impersonation of Kay... “'have I got a part for you!...'"
Baptiste was only in a few scenes, which included him receiving a bloody nose after some particularly inappropriate mind-reading. But the character clearly struck a chord because he’s now heading out on his first national tour. Who could have predicted that?! "He's a hapless, careless, clumsy, terrible medium, who upsets his audience with his rather blunt assertions as to where their lives are going."
Peter Kay has given Alex permission to keep Baptiste going, and Kay certainly knows what works in comedy. Baptiste is a classic creation. In his blonde wig and sparkly shirt, he’s the embodiment of somebody dreaming of a success that will never come. "I like him to look pristine, but he’s a tacky end-of-the-pier mystic. It's ‘bittersweet plucky loser’ comedy."
The idea for the tour came when Kay and Alex worked together in 2015 on the run of Phoenix Nights Live at the Manchester Arena in aid of Comic Relief. "It was the biggest thrill of my life. Walking onstage in front of 14,000 people was like being in the Rolling Stones. I just said, 'Ya alright?' like I did on TV and the place erupted."
Some people take the paranormal world very seriously, so Alex makes it clear that Baptiste is always the butt of the gag. "It's a joke about a charlatan. If he wasn't doing this, he’d be a second-hand car salesman."
As an act that interacts with the audience, however, things can be unpredictable. At a gig in a school in Winchester, somebody took something Baptiste said the wrong way and started heckling him. When Alex realised that the man was angry, he decided to leave the stage, only to see the man follow him.
“I started running, my blonde wig trailing behind me! I had to hide behind a filing cabinet while my agent and the compere rugby-tackled him. But he waited outside for me, so in the end they gave me a box of Quality Street and I had to pretend I was a parent leaving with a prize I'd won.”
Alex insists that apart from a pointy nose, there are no obvious similarities between his fictional alter-ego and himself: "Baptiste is from the north-west of England, probably close to where the Phoenix Club was, whereas I'm from the north-west of London - Pinner. Maybe Clinton and I both dream of escaping from a humdrum life, but I don't think there’s anymore of a similarity than that."
Both work hard, though. Alex, who’s married with two children and now lives near Watford, decided to do his own comedy shows when acting parts were failing to materialise. "I’m very industrious. I can’t bear the thought of sitting around waiting for someone to flick me a few crumbs."
As well as developing Clinton, he also created eightysomething absurdist curmudgeon Barry from Watford, a character who’s appeared regularly on Steve Wright's Radio Two show. "He’s an old-style cockney who’s moved out to the suburbs. He's been 82 for about 15 years! It's interesting that Clinton is more popular in the north, while Barry is more popular in the south."
Alex accepts that Baptiste initially picked up a fanbase by association with Phoenix Nights and Peter Kay: "When you’ve worked with Peter, it’s like being somebody who’s been near Jesus. People who remember Phoenix Nights have a huge affection for it, but young people love it too. I wish I’d been doing this 10 years ago. I like to think it will supersede the Phoenix connection, but when people are mobbing me and asking for selfies up north, I’m under no illusions."
Alex is also much in demand as a comic actor. Over the years he’s appeared in umpteen TV hits, from The Fast Show to The Thick Of It and Cold Feet, but there’s every possibility that Baptiste might actually make him a household name in his own right. He’s filming a fly-on-the-wall documentary pilot while on tour. Once again Peter Kay has been helpful: "I run everything past Peter. He even sent me details of a camera I might like to use."
Alex is currently busier than ever. He recently filmed a part in the Idris Elba series, In The Long Run, and also appeared in new Sky One comedy Brassic.
He hopes to be Baptiste for a long time yet, but behind the onstage bravado and satin suit there lurks the usual actor's insecurity: "I’ve spent my entire life thinking sooner or later I’m going to have to knuckle down and get an office job. But it's getting a bit late for that now!"
Clinton Baptiste takes Stratospheric to Birmingham Town Hall on Thurs 7 October; Albany Theatre, Coventry, Sat 16 October; Victoria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, Sat 30 October