Once nicknamed Desk because he was always glued to one, comedian and writer Hugh Dennis talks to Hannah Stephenson about his love of hard work and politeness as he uncovers what it means to be British...

IT ALL began when funnyman Ardal O'Hanlon told his TV pal Hugh Dennis that he was the most British person he'd ever met.

Dennis, the star of TV sitcom Outnumbered and satirical news show Mock The Week, laughed at first, but underneath wondered whether he was being praised, teased or vaguely insulted. Whatever, it set him on a quest to look at Britain and why we are what we are.

Months of research have resulted in his first book, Britty Britty Bang Bang, a humorous but informative look at Britain and all its quirks, from our obsession with the weather to manners, etiquette, gardening, winning and losing.

"I started the book in August and when I looked up it was Christmas," says the 51-year-old comedian and writer. "That's an advantage of doing what I love doing. I'm very lucky that my work is my hobby."

He admits that he bears typically British traits. "I apologise for everything. I'm inherently typical in my belief that by not winning we are winning. Winning doesn't matter quite so much to us as it does to other nations – it's more important to be gracious."

And he reckons he's adaptable. "The thing about being British is that you are infinitely adaptable. Whatever happens it somehow gets incorporated. There were amazing complaints when the chicken tikka masala arrived in this country, but we now embrace it."

Dennis moved from London to the wilds of Sussex some years ago with wife, Kate, and children Freddie and Meg, but took time to adapt to the peace and quiet.

"For the first six months I thought I had tinnitus because it was so quiet. At night all I could hear was the inside of my own head. But it is conducive for getting stuff done, which all stops when the kids come home from school."

Family life isn't as chaotic as it is in Outnumbered, the partially improvised sitcom in which he stars as Pete, the out-of-his-depth father-of-three.

The show has made him an instantly recognisable face, although he points out that he is recognised for different shows depending on his whereabouts.

"When the kids were tiny I used to take them swimming and people would know me from My Hero (one of his early sitcoms). It's different now. In the Waitrose car park, parents recognise me from Outnumbered. Outside my children's school, the kids want to talk to me about Mock The Week. In my village it's Radio 4's The Now Show."

He seems genuinely baffled by fame, and it wasn't his motivation.

He says: "Making people laugh is the most fantastic feeling and I wanted to do things that keep my childlike attention span going."

He'll be filming another series of Outnumbered for screening next year and agrees that the dynamics have changed as the children in the series have become older.

But he adds: "Everybody has crises and late-night worries and things going wrong. That's why it's so successful."

Born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, Dennis went to Cambridge University, where he met comedians Steve Punt and Nick Hancock, and was nicknamed Desk for his work ethic.

On leaving with a first in geography, Dennis worked for Unilever for six years, leaving in 1990 only after The Mary Whitehouse Experience moved from radio to BBC2.

And he seems to be interminably cheerful. Dennis says: "I'm incredibly lucky in that if I feel depressed I have a biscuit and feel much better."

l Britty Britty Bang Bang: One Man's Attempt To Understand His Country by Hugh Dennis, is published by Headline Review and is available priced £12.99