Tim Key: Meet the comic bard of Hampstead Heath

Tim Key, pictured in The Witchfinder, is a keen Heath walker

Tim Key, pictured in The Witchfinder, is a keen Heath walker - Credit: BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Pete Dadds/André Langlois

When Covid's literary legacy is recorded, academics and commentators would do well to look to the works of a Camden comic, poet, actor, and Heath walker. 

Tim Key has published two books written in his flat over the course of three lockdowns – fictionalised dialogues with real friends (by phone, over Zoom, from two metres etc) alternated with comedic verse inspired by society shut down and a government in chaos. 

If you don’t know his writing, you might know him as Alan Partridge’s Sidekick Simon, or from his Late Night Poetry Programme on Radio 4. He won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2009. 

You’ll also see him on BBC Two at the moment with Daisy May Cooper in the The Witchfinder. It was filmed in the summer of 2021, during the phased exit from Lockdown Three, for those keeping count, which Key is. 

The books – He Used Thought As A Wife and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush – are a distorted depiction of a life under restrictions.

"I feel very lucky to have had that outlet,” he says. “By chance, when we locked down, I started writing stuff that looked, after a couple of weeks, like it could turn into something.

"The first lockdown stretching like it did, my writing became a real silver lining. It gave me a focus, and there was plenty of mad stuff to chronicle."

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While the first book was “An Anthology Of Poems and Conversations From Inside”, the sequel saw its Key embracing the outdoors, and Hampstead Heath in particular. 

“I loved the Heath, always have done. It’s interesting though, the 2020/21 Heath walks do have a different flavour to them. When so many other things are eliminated from what you’re able to do, the Heath becomes more and more of a haven," he says. 

“Lockdown Three in particular, I found myself walking on it a lot. I walked across it this morning, and it kind of reminded me of the lockdowns. So it’s time to walk on it more again, create new unlocked-down memories.”

Comedian, writer and actor Tim Key

Comedian, writer and actor Tim Key - Credit: the artist

In The Witchfinder, Key plays Gideon Bannister, who is transporting Thomasine Gooch (Cooper) across East Anglia for trial. 

It is the creation of Neil and Rob Gibbons, who joined the Alan Partridge team in 2010.

“The mad thing about the Gibbons brothers is just how perfect their understanding is of Alan Partridge and his world,” says Key. 

“They have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and breathed new life into it. From the outset it was amazing seeing those scripts (for Mid Morning Matters) come through, uncanny in their deep-state Partridgeness.

"The other key factor is their work rate. They don’t let up. Witchfinder shows they can do it outside of the Partridge universe, too. They know how to write jokes, that’s always at the heart of it with them. Witchfinder shows they can pick a big concept and rinse it for all its worth.”

Tim Key and Daisy May Cooper in The Witchfinder

Tim Key and Daisy May Cooper in The Witchfinder - Credit: BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Gary Moyes

Although a supporting cast includes Jessica Hynes, Julian Barratt, Reece Shearsmith and Alistair Green, The Witchfinder is all about the relationship between Key’s ‘finder and Cooper’s “witch”. 

The latter made her name with the BBC comedy This Country, and gave a memorable performance on Channel 4’s Taskmaster, created by Key’s friend Alex Horne (and on which Key has been a contestant and is a “task consultant”). 

“[Daisy's] got the lot,” says Key. “Trained at acting, plus funny bones, plus a soupçon of craziness, it’s a very powerful combination. It’s quite intimidating to be plonked opposite her. Some scenes I’d walk back to my dressing room a little rattled. You don’t want to be acted off screen in these things.

"There was a particularly emotional scene near the end. Daisy turned on the waterworks. Next level. Daisy’s ideal.”

Tim Key and Daisy May Cooper in The Witchfinder

Tim Key and Daisy May Cooper in The Witchfinder - Credit: BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Pete Dadds

Key's focus is now back on his own writing, with a live show, Mulberry, and he says it has been interesting to see people's reactions when lockdown is "presented back at them".

"People are into it," he says. "Against all odds, maybe, but it’s really a chance for us all to have a good old laugh about those mad days. It’s also been a useful way of processing things, on a personal level.”

The return to the stage has been a privilege, he says, but the return to pubs, such as the Southampton Arms in Highgate Road, after the lockdowns also lived up to expectations. 

“I talk about my longing for those pubs in the book and that was true. I’ve always liked having last orders with a mate, it’s a simple pleasure. But when it’s gone you suddenly realise how much you liked it. When they opened up, I really leapt at the chance to go back in.

"Sitting on a bench opposite a greengrocer, drinking Becks Viers in the biting cold is obviously a joy, but I’m glad that was a stop-gap. Sitting by the fire, guzzling something that’s come out of a nozzle, chomping Scampi Fries: that’s much more like it.”

Tim Key’s He Used Thought As A Wife and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush are published on “Utter” & Press. They are available in bookshops, or visit timkey.co.uk to find them, along with Tim Key's Poetical Playing Cards and live dates. The Witchfinder is on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 10pm, and the whole series is available to stream.

Tim Key's writing, available from "Utter" & Press

Tim Key's writing, available from "Utter" & Press - Credit: André Langlois