The Fast Show's Simon Day on Growing Up in Borstal

The Fast Show returns today, here one of the stars reveals the truth about his difficult past from working as a toilet cleaner, gangster flatmates and life inside.
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The Fast Show legend talks pie and chips, Vic and Bob, being a borstal boy, writing his book and why it's all about creativity...

What motivated you to want to write a book?

SD: I was offered a chance to and I thought I had a story to tell. I didn’t want to do it initially; I thought I didn’t want people knowing all about me. Then I thought about it and went ‘why not’?

What do you reckon people are going to be most surprised about when they read it?

SD: The borstal mainly and the drug taking. It’s a lot more prevalent now. They think if you’re a BBC sketch show those type of things never happen to you. It happened to Steven Fry.

What were the worst jobs you did growing up?

SD: Toilet cleaner was pretty bad. I had another job where I put plastic tubes on little sticks which went into a machine which started a half 8 in the morning. It went so fast you could never get in front and put the little things on. I worked in McDonald’s, I’ve worked in loads of rubbish jobs.

Where were you cleaning toilets?

SD: New Cross

Public toilets?

SD: In a carburettor firm.

Were there any benefits to any of these shit jobs?

SD: Only in terms of being able to put them in a book later on since I’ve become successful. I was deliberately taking jobs that had no responsibility that I wouldn’t be able to advance myself. I met some interesting people that I was able to use for characters later on that were good for stories.  I worked at the first McDonalds in the country which was in Woolwich. Actually then it seemed like quite an interesting job. I only lasted two weeks, they fired me.

That must have seemed a little bit glamorous. I remember when it opened. Going there was always very exciting. Tell me about those comic characters. Where there any from those jobs that you can tell me about that made its way into your...

SD: I don’t think I ever did one from those jobs. I don’t really remember. I never used people from those jobs verbatim. I know Paul Whitehouse did, he used someone from Hackney Council.

Which character was that?

SD: One of the guys in a tailored suit. Yusef.

My mate had a shop and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer used to write above it. My friend said why don’t you write some stand up comedy and I did. They were judging it and I won and I toured with them

What were your digs like back then?

SD: I slept on people’s floors, a bedsit, someone’s flat. I had my own council flat just under a different name. I could never really get started.

Any interesting flatmates that you can recall?

SD: Yeah. I’ve had different kind of flatmates. I had one guy whose dad was a big gangster and he was trying to assume that lifestyle. He would often sit round in a deerstalker hat watching televised sports 24/7. There was one other guy who was a mate of mine, he was a crazy guy. He was into cat burgling and would go out at night and nick things out of fruit machines and would come back with his spoils. Another guy used to go back to his mums all the time, he never really moved out. We always used to say ‘when are you going to make us dinner’? After months and months of hassling he made us scrambled eggs.

Very nice. Talking of meals did you have a favourite budget meal back then?

SD: I used to have pie, chips and beans down at the Royal Standard for 57p. You can’t really get it anymore, that type of cuisine has been taken over. They sell it back to us at £25 at the Savoy. Real English cuisine has come back hasn’t it?

What was the worst thing about being skint and were there any upsides?

SD: I can’t see any upsides except for the fact that you might be a bit humble. The downside is you never have any money! You can’t afford to wear nice clothes, you can’t afford to go anywhere, you can’t afford decent holidays. Everyone went to India in the 80s, I couldn’t afford to go. You’re mired in a trough really.

Did you ever do anything you regret back then?

SD: Probably the crimes which got me into borstal.

What was the worst thing about borstal? What was that place like?

It was at the centre of the black and white riots in 81 and 40% of the borstal was West Indian and they had a lot of solidarity and looked after each other. Riots were going off outside and black and white tension was in the borstal and the screws encouraged the whites to stand up to the black guys. Ghost Town was number one. I watched the riots then the New Cross fire happened while we were in there and some of the black inmates lost family. It was a very, very volatile time. Part of me was thinking this was a good story and the other part was just trying to survive.

What was your lowest point in borstal?

SD: Probably being beaten up, kicked and punched. Going round for people who would send me downstairs to fill up their orange bottles. You know I did it all. I didn’t have to go through any sexual submission but I certainly was humiliated. I’ve had various acts of violence done to me and I did various acts to other people in self defence. It wasn’t a good time really.

Did you have any ambitions of being a comedian?

SD: I was always funny. I was in a band when I was 16 we supported Scream then that all fell apart. I had vague ideas. Then I went inside. It wasn’t until I was 29 I actually got on with it you know?

How did you get your break then?

SD: My mate had a shop and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer used to write above it. My friend said why don’t you write some stand up comedy and I did. They were judging it and I won and I toured with them. I met James Brown.

He told me you had a few good times together...

Yeah. We did have a laugh. There’s a video of us all together on the Saddleworth Tour.

He told me about that. What was the highlight of touring with Vic and Bob?

SD: It was all brilliant. Having spent years doing nothing and spending time on the dole thinking I was never going to get out of this. Suddenly I was on tour getting paid and it was just all brilliant. That was probably the best time. There was no downside.

What’s one piece of advice you can give you people ambitions of being successful can you pass on?

SD: Focus on what you want to do. If you’re good at it and if you enjoy doing it, don’t listen to anybody else. Don’t worry about peer pressure and get on with it. Doesn’t matter what you want to do. You could be 50 or 5 years old, just have ago. Creativity, it’s the key to the soul. That’s what Martin Sheen said once on Parkinson.

Simon Day's autobiography, Comedy and Error, is available now. Click here to buy a copy...

Follow Simon on Twitter @simonday24

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