Comedian Omid Djalili tells Roz Laws about the benefits of making a splash on TV.
THE critics called it “utterly awful”, “a new low for television” and “probably the worst programme ever screened in primetime”.
But for Omid Djalili, the derided TV reality show Splash! changed his life.
The single act of diving off the terrifyingly high 10 metre board has left the comedian scared of nothing.
“Splash! was much pilloried but it has been transformative for me,” reveals the 47-year-old British-born Iranian.
“It was the most frightening thing I have ever done, but now I have no fear.
“I stood on the 10m board and said ‘There’s no way in hell I can even jump off that, let alone dive’.
“But Olympic diver Tom Daley talked me into it. He has that whole Team GB ethos of total positivity and not a shred of negativity. He never said anything like ‘You wuss, come on, you’ve got to do it’. He said ‘Just think how good you will feel and how well you will sleep afterwards’.
“And I did, I felt great, even though it was painful when I hit the water and my organs shook.
“It’s broken down a barrier within me. There are so many fears in life which stop you doing things, but now I feel calmer and that I can achieve anything.
“I’m much more relaxed on stage. Fear was holding me back, but I’m actually enjoying it now.”
Omid was the last contestant in the first Splash! heat in January and the first to attempt the 10m board. He gained plaudits for his bravery in attempting a swan dive, which he claims has now been renamed ‘The Omid’.
He then performed a forward pike dive off the 10m board in the semi-finals but was eliminated.
Omid says: “Everyone was abusing Splash! on Twitter until I went off the 10m board, then there were 28,000 tweets about me, mostly going ‘fair play’.”
But although Splash! has brought Omid, star of the films The Mummy, Gladiator and Casanova, to a whole new audience, don’t expect him to be appearing in other reality shows.
“I turned down Pro-Celebrity Suicide Bombing with Abu Qatada,” he jokes. “I’ve had a few requests but I’ve done the only one I wanted to do.”
Omid is back on dry and familiar land on a small stand-up comedy tour, which takes in Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre on May 30.
The choice of venue is deliberate, as he prefers more intimate theatres than arenas and says Birmingham is one of his favourite cities.
“I’m not good looking enough to do an arena tour,” he chuckles. “People don’t want to travel a long way to see a fat middle-aged man on a big screen. I’m not Russell Howard or John Bishop.
“But I prefer smaller venues as you can connect with the audience and banter with them.
“Mind you, that got quite hairy at one recent show in London. I was telling a story about how I’d been abused by Chelsea football fans at a match, and it turned out some of them were in the audience!
“I had taken a friend and we sat in an area full of hard-core Chelsea fans who can get very aggressive, so away fans are removed.
“Liverpool scored and my friend, who was neutral, went ‘woo, this could get tasty’. The people around us misunderstood and were screaming at me for bringing a Liverpool fan into the area.
“We had a running verbal battle, with me trying to appease 900 people, who I really thought were going to killing me.
“Some of them turned up to the show and there was a real frisson in the theatre that night, which you wouldn’t get in a larger venue.
“This show is partly an introduction to me for those who’ve never seen me before, except in a swimming costume, and partly a sneak peak at next year’s tour. I do a major tour every two and a half years and I’m now preparing for the 2014 one. I’m giving a couple of cities a sneak preview.
“I started off having a warm-up guy that I paid £150 to do a few minutes. But he told old jokes and then told the audience off for not laughing, and I thought ‘I could do that myself’. So I do.”
After the mini-tour, Omid’s next project is appearing for four weeks at the Edinburgh Festival in a stage version of The Shawshank Redemption.
People may be surprised to see him playing the role of Red, taken in the iconic 1994 film by Morgan Freeman, but he points out: “In the book, Red is an Irish guy. It’s not ethnic specific.
“It’s very exciting, it’s directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace from the Royal Shakespeare Company and we have a great cast of 10, who I can’t reveal yet. But every single role is someone you wouldn’t expect, like comedians playing nasty roles and a 1970s sitcom actor who will blow people’s socks off.”
* Omid Djalili plays Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre on May 30. For tickets ring 0844 871 3011 or go to www.atgtickets.com