Joe Lycett is filling peak-time slots on BBC One and Channel 4. Roz Laws checks out the upward trajectory of the comedian who takes on the corporates
Warm, witty and occasionally waspish, Joe Lycett is just the man to keep us entertained during lockdown. It’s fortunate, then, that he is presenting two lengthy prime-time TV series, with another on the way. And after a whirlwind few months making them, Lycett – while mindful of the suffering that Covid-19 has brought many – concludes that the new normal has been beneficial to his mental health.
Being forced to stop work has made Lycett, 31, slow down and enjoy the simpler things in life. “It’s weird, but I don’t feel as anxious as I used to,” he says, while isolating in his house in Birmingham. “For the past year, I’ve had mild anxiety symptoms, where I feel sick and dizzy, but that’s all gone. I know, for a lot of people, their anxiety has spiked – but I’m the opposite.
“My wild schedule is not nearly as wild now. I can take stock and do simpler things. And I don’t have to put any pants on. Selfishly, this is all quite nice for me.”
The hard work that he put in pre-lockdown means he can cheer us up with two series – the Channel 4 consumer show Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back and BBC One’s The Great British Sewing Bee, shown on Fridays and Wednesdays, respectively.
He was also in the middle of making Channel 4’s Travel Man, taking over from Richard Ayoade as presenter of the celebrity travel guides. That has been put on hold.
Lycett’s career began a decade ago when, a year after he won Chortle’s Student Comedian of the Year, he took the Best Newcomer title. Just 12 months later, he was co-hosting a Saturday-night BBC One entertainment show alongside Alexander Armstrong. Epic Win flopped but Lycett’s career went from strength to strength.
He hosted Live at the Apollo and became a regular on Countdown – the normal show and 8 Out of 10 Cats version – and QI. He has competed on Taskmaster and Radio 4’s Just a Minute and has stood in for Sara Cox and Rylan Clark-Neal on Radio 2.
Perhaps one of his career highlights was bemusing Nicole Kidman with his Black Country accent while sitting on Graham Norton’s chat-show sofa.
He is particularly proud of Got Your Back, which has made us laugh while achieving results, not least for a small Welsh brewery engaged in a legal battle with luxury fashion house Hugo Boss. Boss Brewing in Swansea was one of several companies sent cease and desist letters by the multinational for using part of its name. Lycett changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss to show his support and annoy the designer outlet.
The story was widely covered by media around the world and he became the answer to a quiz question on Saturday Night Takeaway. “It’s mad how it escalated,” says Lycett. “I think I’ve made my point, and the brewery is delighted with its higher profile.”
He has now returned to being Joe Lycett, but the publicity has had one positive effect on his life. “I’m used to being recognised a bit and getting that quizzical look from people trying to place me. Now I get the look, then they remember about Hugo Boss and start laughing, when I haven’t even said anything. For a comic, that’s wonderful, the easiest gig ever.”
Got Your Back’s hour-long format is twice the length of the episodes of the first series and the run has increased from six to nine episodes.
‘When I get bad service I usually cower and say nothing’
“The scale of it is bigger,” says Lycett. “Last series, we got back thousands of pounds for consumers; this year, it’s millions. We’re taking on big companies who are beginning to take us more seriously.
“At first, they thought it was just some comedian messing around doing stunts and didn’t realise we have a team of amazing researchers who used to work on programmes such as Watchdog.”
Uber Eats had to improve its policy around restaurants’ food hygiene after Lycett set up a dirty skip as a takeaway on the app. He flash-mobbed NatWest’s HQ and set up fake social media accounts for one of its senior executives, pushing the bank into returning £8,000 to a customer who had been scammed.
It would seem that you would cross this champion of consumer rights at your peril, but perhaps not.
“When I get bad service, I usually cower and say nothing. I think it would be a bit crass to complain about being ripped off, because I’m doing all right. But, when my friends had holidays cancelled, I was all, ‘You need to send them this form for a refund’.
“And, recently, I sent Asda a ‘subject access request’ under the Data Protection Act, as I noticed that they filmed me at the self-service checkouts.
“I asked to see the footage and they sent me a grainy clip of me packing my stuff. I haven’t worked out what I can do with that yet, but it’s useful for annoying companies because it wastes their time.”
The Great British Sewing Bee is also enjoying a higher profile. It was promoted from BBC Two to One with a record 12 amateur contestants competing over 10 weeks as they sew perplexing patterns, transformations and made-to-measure outfits.
“His programmes are perfect for the current time,” says costume designer Jenny Beavan. Lycett lodges with her in London. He calls Beavan his “other mother” and celebrated with her in Hollywood when she won an Oscar in 2016. “Got Your Back is wonderful. He has such a brilliant energy, which is what we need now. He’s incredibly funny but also genuinely likes doing good.
“Joe is very kind, warm and fun, and good with people. I don’t like competition programmes, because I hate seeing people lose, but Joe makes it better on Sewing Bee.”
Beavan first met Lycett when he became friends with her daughter, theatre producer Caitlin, when they were drama students at Manchester University.
“When I first met him, I thought he looked really weird,” she recalls. “He wore oversized cardigans and had strange, long comb-over hair. He looks 10 years younger now and so stylish.
“I said that, if he ever needed anywhere to stay in London, he’d be welcome with us. Then he kind of moved in. A lot of people have stayed in the attic of my huge house in Peckham. It was very useful for Joe when he was starting out in London.
“He’s incredibly easy to live with and I don’t even get annoyed with his habit of leaving cups on the side instead of putting them in the dishwasher. It’s always a joy when he comes back. I miss him, although we have hilarious WhatsApp exchanges.”
How is Lycett spending lockdown? “I’m turning into my mother, because I’m really getting into gardening,” he says. “My kitchen table is covered with pots of borlotti beans, tomatoes and aubergines. I’m even trying to grow a lemon tree from seed.
“I also have an idea for a sitcom, but I don’t like the pressure to use this time well. I think there’s value in stopping and refocusing on community and family.
“I’m meant to be in Prague filming Travel Man. It’s probably good that the series is delayed, because, with Got Your Back and Sewing Bee, it might have been overkill with Travel Man, too. That would be a lot of Joe on telly. It won’t do me or the people of Britain any harm to have a break.”