In the mid-1990s, the BBC had a series with a counterculture character called Dennis Pennis. Created and portrayed by Paul Kaye, the idea was to get into a privileged situation and interview Hollywood’s elite… only to totally waste the opportunity by being insulting. Let’s reminisce!
Londoner Kaye began his career by filming interviews with people on his local streets. That was in 1993, with the BBC suitably impressed to pick him up shortly thereafter. A series was commissioned!
Pennis was promptly stylised as a punk-like nerd, sporting subversive jackets, badges, yellow shirts, and an obnoxious attitude.
Kaye consequently went into major film events of the mid-1990s armed with crude insults he concocted whilst drunk. And with clinical brevity and nerves of steel, he could reel them off and await the reaction.
With his BBC-backed budget, he was soon turning up at the likes of Cannes Film Festival to do something astonishing – be something other than a sycophantic bore.
It’s quite a crude way to elicit a laugh, sure, but it goes so strongly against the norm it’s quite a joy to behold.
Indeed, for viewers it provides quite the sense of vicarious glee to see luminaries facing ridicule!
With his stock rising in 1996, Pennis became a serious bloody menace to many and varied A list celebrities. Kevin Costner took the full brunt of the insults at Venice that year – he was promoting Waterworld.
Due to the nature of the location, Kaye and his crew were able to easily take shortcuts and constantly be one step ahead of Costner’s entourage. The actor was, as a result, beseiged by Dennis Pennis, who took every opportunity to pelt the man with fish-related puns. Such as:
"In Waterworld you play some kind of fish, wasn't it inevitable that you'd be battered by the critics?"
After the umpteenth insult, Costner finally retorted by labelling Pennis a “real low budget guy”. That quote made the cover of the final VHS for the character.
With his day job about spewing out witticisms and crude insults at regularly stunned celebrities, this now looks like a precursor to our present YouTube era of entertainment.
Kaye’s antics may seem rather tame in comparison to what some YouTubers get up to for a shot at viral stardom. But at the time it was crazy stuff.
Ultimately, it was clear to all concerned the Pennis character could only ever have a limited shelf life.
Hollywood actors aren’t dumb (most of them, anyway) and news quickly spread of the distinctive-looking anarchist interviewer.
Sure enough, they soon started ignoring him – or not granting him interviews. As Kaye put it:
"Dennis Pennis had become too expensive. Taking a film crew out every night with no guarantee of getting even a minute's worth of footage of me harassing celebs was just stupid. And then the programme would take months to compile, and it was just boring, man... hanging out in the rain, twiddling your thumbs, playing with your hip flask... he had to go..."
Towards the end of Pennis’ run, Kaye was forced to basically yell insults across at celebrities already wise to his antics.
Quite rightly, he killed off the character in 1997 with one final VHS release.
Kaye is a cult star and, now 54, it’s surprising his career hasn’t reached further heights. In 2002 – on BBC 2, no less – he fronted a TV show called Liar that was clever and good fun. But it didn’t go past the first series.
Even an eye-catching turn in It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004) didn’t launch him into better projects. Despite its stupid name, his depiction of narcissistic, drug-addled DJ Frankie Wilde (fictional) is excellent.
At the height of his career, Wilde’s hearing fails him and he enters into a personal descent – followed by redemption.
And it’s a surprisingly touching and intelligent movie. Wilde suffers a full range of emotions, from suicidal despair thinking his career is over, to putting deafness behind him to embrace a life away from the limelight with his new family.
Kaye has since (particularly in the last few years) worked hard across a huge list of TV shows as a character actor. So, good on him!