I always had delusions of grandeur. I liked the idea of living in a big city, living a cosmopolitan, New York-y kind of life, being in a city with lots going on, visiting theatres and galleries and having a group of very erudite friends. And if it wasn’t New York, it was going to be at least Blenheim Palace, or some sort of fabulous castle somewhere in Transylvania, or one of those big houses in The Great Gatsby.
Those were the dreams of my teenage self. He would be absolutely furious if he knew that I moved back in with my parents in my early 30s. We live in Bromley in the house in which I grew up. It is exactly the kind of humdrum suburbia that I wanted to escape, but the truth is that I quite like the stability of being around people I care about. As I’ve got older, I’ve placed a lower value on a city kind of trendiness and a higher value on community and the support of friends and family.
My younger self, in contrast, thought of himself as a bit of a lone wolf. I was eccentric, and the other children at school really took umbrage at that. I really loved obscure role models such as Kenneth Williams and Cary Grant, and even as a small child I liked to wear a blazer and have my hair slicked back. I thought I was Noël Coward, which is an odd attitude for a child of the 1980s. I always had the sense that I was a 46-year-old trapped in a child’s life, and I felt that I should be able to go and live my grown-up life right now. And of course people were like, “No, you can’t live your life as Noël Coward. You’ve got to go and do your GCSEs.”
After a time, it seemed to become more acceptable to be different. By then, I quite enjoyed the attention, so I was furious. But it was strange to have felt different from an early age. For some time, I laid it at the feet of sexuality, of being gay, yet it wasn’t anything to do with that – I wasn’t looking to find a partner when I was seven.
I think it was pure eccentricity. I’ve always had a posh voice, for example, which doesn’t correlate with my family, and when people asked me why I talked like that, I’d always be like, “I don’t know.”
Even so, it was frightening to be gay. There was violence perpetrated against gay people, and because of Section 28, the teachers couldn’t tell us it was fine to be gay and that there were lots of gay people. I came out when I was 21, which is quite late by today’s standards, and it felt like a big deal. I dropped it into conversation with my friends, and they carried on as normal, which was brilliant because I didn’t want to make a fuss about it. I know – can you imagine me not wanting to make a fuss?
With that context, my younger self would find it very surprising that I could come out and feel accepted and celebrated by other people. It feels very American to say that I feel able to love myself, so let’s be British about it: I accept myself, and my younger self would be delighted by that.
If he knew about my career, he’d be, if anything, disappointed that I hadn’t done more – he was very precocious. But he would love some of the shows I’ve been lucky enough to be part of. I was always racing home from school to watch Ready, Steady, Cook, so The Great British Bake Off would have been an absolute must.
My younger self would also have loved The Apprentice: You’re Fired. We had a ridiculously fun time making that. Not long into my time hosting it, I asked if I could dress up as Karren Brady. The producers checked with her and – bless her – she was like, “Of course!”
I loved that – she’s such a laugh and really very nice to me, as has everybody on that show. My younger self would think, “Well, that’s very silly. I didn’t know you were allowed to be that silly!” And that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most – challenging that sense of self-consciousness and the feeling that you can’t be silly.
Sometimes that leads me into being caustic, but I try and do it with a spirit of fun. Hopefully the audience knows I don’t mean it and I just want to make them laugh.
No Shame by Tom Allen is published by Hodder Studio (£20)