Peter Kay is back – but we may never know why he went away

The Bolton-born funnyman last toured in 2010 with world record-breaking sales - ShowBizIreland/Getty Images
The Bolton-born funnyman last toured in 2010 with world record-breaking sales - ShowBizIreland/Getty Images

Grab yourself a round of garlic bread, tuck in, and rejoice! Peter Kay, one of the most popularly revered British comedians of modern times, second only to Billy Connolly in terms of nationwide affection, is back in business, presenting a new stand-up show for the first time in 12 years - from December.

The long tour – revealed in a surprise, drolly low-key advert during I’m A Celebrity... on Sunday and causing the biggest viral stir of the night – doesn’t, it should be said, represent some Kate Bush-like emergence from lofty reclusion.

The Bolton-born funnyman, 49, hasn’t been wholly off the scene since 2010’s world-record breaking (sales-wise) The Tour That Doesn’t Tour Tour, which mainly stayed put in Manchester. Earlier this year, for instance, Kay DJ'd at a three-hour dance-a-thon, part of his jolly Dance for Life series of fundraisers for cancer research. And the venue he’s kicking off his tour at, Manchester Arena, played host in 2015 to his Phoenix Nights Live show, the stage spin-off to the Channel 4 working men’s club sitcom that made him a star in the early 2000s.

Still, this is about as big a live comedy comeback as we’ve seen since the Pythons reconvened in 2014. It hopefully now moves things on from questions about Kay’s health which surfaced when the tour, originally scheduled for 2018, was suddenly cancelled in late 2017. His expressed desire for privacy in the accompanying statement led to speculation; his public appearances, notably one in 2018 in Blackpool to accompany a charity screening of the finale of his BBC sitcom Car Share, elicited a running commentary on how well, or not, he looked.

Anyone foolish or ghoulish enough to book to see the new show in a bid to hear from the horse’s mouth what – pandemic aside – has held him back all this time, is bound to be disappointed. And moreover simply misses the “point” of Kay. His gift lies in making you feel warmly part and parcel of his world, without divulging the domestic details that make you feel you truly know him. He has pulled off the feat of being mainstream while maintaining a crucial mystique; he finds comic detail in the quotidian yet abstains from being too specific and indeed crudely explicit.

Consider his “mum’s bungalow” material, jovially alluded to in this weekend’s ad, with Kay arriving outside a low-rise domicile, gamely hauling a rolled-up carpet: this dutiful son act remains a distinctive trope and was the built-in running gag of his first tour (Mum Wants a Bungalow). But how much did we ever learn about said bungalow, or what was going on in his mum’s life? Next to nothing.

The same goes for his no less enduring “garlic bread” catchphrase, born of his father going abroad and – laughably – finding garlic bread the height of resistible exoticism. It wasn’t so much a carefully crafted line as a judiciously observed attitude. The reason it hit home for millions was because the sentiment – slightly childish and self-defeating resistance to the unfamiliar and foreign – was so generic and universal (we like going on holiday, but our tastes stay at home).

A child of the 1970s, Kay – who nurtured his talent to amuse initially while working as a cinema usher in Bolton, gaining attention after winning Channel 4’s So You Think You’re Funny? contest in 1997 – offers audiences something that looked like it had been swept away by the “alternative comedy” revolution of the 1980s and the laddism of the 1990s. He threw a life-raft to innocuous end-of-the-pier humour, salvaging its less problematic side with jokes like this: “A man went to the doctors with a steering-wheel down his pants. The doctor said ‘What happened?’ ‘I don’t know but it's driving me nuts’.”

Peter Kay and Sian Gibson in Car Share - PA
Peter Kay and Sian Gibson in Car Share - PA

His observational patter is of the same ilk, so that even as he played huge venues, he made them feel less like platforms for edgy grandstanding, and more like outsized versions of a living room, where idle reminiscences are shared, nostalgia-indulged, and everyday stupidity celebrated – mocking, for instance, the mindless phraseology of “Is it warm in here or is it me?”. He tells us that Britain can be banal, and that’s fine. Reviewing his 2010 show I jotted down his natter about his nan, who – technologically adrift – confused the word “avatar” for “abattoir”, “i-Pod” for “thigh-pod” and talked about “Face-Tube”; not remotely sophisticated material but honest and gently hilarious.

Envy has swirled around Kay, with complaints that his pedestrian shtick was too often re-packaged and re-peddled. There has been an added suspicion that he has made too much money for his “man of the people” act to ring true – despite all his good-egg charity work, fully in evidence in his insanely feel-good chart-topping 2005 version of Amarillo, which raised funds for Comic Relief.

Is he subject to snobbery? Is his northern working-class outlook even an anthropological amusement, a way of keeping tabs on how the other half lives without facing class warfare or rebarbative regionalism? It’s hard to champion him as one of a kind, but you don’t bridge the north and south divide and appeal to different demographics if you’re terminally average. Look at the casual physical skill of Kay’s “telephone etiquette” routine, for instance – a brilliantly timed flurry of frantic hand signals – and you see that he has rare funny bones.

Fellow comic Richard Herring – capable of snide disbelief at Kay’s level of fame – has conceded that his style of comedy is much harder than it looks. “He reminds people of things they think they’ve forgotten but actually remember, which sounds an easy way to become a millionaire but it’s not,” he admits. “All I can do is mention things that people have actually forgotten which they don’t enjoy as much.”

Absence will surely have made our collective heart grow fonder. Some comics have been hailed as Kay’s successor, whether that be Jason Manford or John Bishop, among northerners, or the southerners Russell Howard and Michael McIntyre. But the sheer excitement that has seized people at news of Kay’s return tells us that no one has quite filled his shoes.

This overgrown boy-next-door couldn’t be returning at a better time. Kay looks primed to level up the nation through laughter, no London arena (yet) getting a look-in. Let Ricky Gervais and Ben Elton tackle identity politics and the end of the world. I hope Kay – albeit acknowledging the cost of living crisis with his bargain £35 tickets – will skirt grim themes like the climate catastrophe, in favour of gags about thermostats and thermal underwear. He’s the nation’s top comfort-blanket comedian, and we’ve seldom needed that more.