Culture clinic: Ben Miller
What, in human history, do you wish had never been invented?
Shrink wrap. Boffins of the world: how about we shelve Blu-ray, HiDef, MPEG2000 and whatever else is on the horizon, and focus on inventing some kind of container for a DVD that a normal human being might actually be able to open?
If you could have been born in a different century, which would it be?
I'd take my three-score-and-ten from 1600 - that way I'd get in a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Restoration and then the birth of science, popping my clogs after sipping a glass of newly invented Champagne.
The ending of which book/film has most disappointed you?
The Wizard Of Oz. That's a grown-up's ending to a child's film. Give me an Emerald City, a wicked witch and a battalion of flying monkeys, and you have to top it off with a half-decent wizard. Have to.
What is your fantasy other job?
A particle physicist in CERN this summer, when the nuclear researchers switch on the new Large Hadron Collider, in search of the Higgs boson. Though there is one school of thought that says the first collision is going to create a black hole and precipitate the collapse of the known universe, so I'd want full benefits.
If you had to be stranded in any one place in the world, where would you like it to be?
North Cornwall. I absolutely love that bit of coast from Tintagel up to Bude. I am trying to persuade my family that we should live there but they keep pointing out that it's in Cornwall.
Name something or someone you truly believe in.
The Rolling Stones.
Who, in the whole of history, would you most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight?
I'd like to be sandwiched between William Hazlitt and Jayne Mansfield. Sadly, I'd probably end up ignoring Hazlitt.
Which public figure do you think is most overrated?
Ronald McDonald. I'm getting heart-warming ginger clown all the way down till I get to those boots. Those are nasty, steel toe-capped, Dr Marten-types and they scare me.
What question are you never asked and most want to answer?
"Has anyone ever told you how little you look like Rob Brydon?"
This much I know
My first date was with Jackie Thomas, aged 18. She knew what she wanted and I dithered. She became a vet. I became a comedian who did a sketch about a vet who didn't wear any clothes.
I abandoned my PhD thesis, which was titled Novel Quantum Effects in Quasi-zero Dimensional Mesoscopic Electron Systems. It's about examining the behaviour of individual electrons when you cramp their style.
Confidence is key, but elusive.
Baking is governed by strange and arbitrary laws. I baked a Victoria sponge about a year ago and it was utterly perfect. This weekend I made one and it caught fire. What have I done differently? Nothing.
Everything in moderation including moderation. I never eat pudding, but occasionally you'll find me presiding over a stack of American pancakes with butter on a Saturday morning. That's me in full debauch mode.
In my twenties I used to drink a lot, eat shit and stay out all night. By your early thirties it stops. Your metabolism tells you 'I can't deal with this any more.' I almost feel sorry for people whose metabolism never gives them the signal to stop.
I met my wife at a friend's wedding. We were in an orchard in the Wye Valley and she came running up to the groom and said, 'Here's your wedding present' and she did a cartwheel. In my book, if a girl does that in an orchard, you marry her.
In the late Eighties, learning to juggle or ride a unicycle was mandatory at college. I learned the unicycle, and the lesson is: no matter how good you get, you will always look like a tosser.
I went up to this girl once and said 'Happy New Year!' and kissed her, and even though it was February she didn't slap me. In fact, we dated and she was lovely. Rachel Weisz went on to be a Hollywood star and it nourishes the soul to think that good people can still make it.
Watching my wife give birth has taught me that pain is all relative. She was having contractions without pain relief. She gripped my hand and I honestly thought she was going to crush my knuckles into a fine dust. I wanted to say, 'You're really hurting me' but felt it was inappropriate.
I filmed the birth. I kick back with a beer and some pancakes from time to time and watch it. My wife just isn't interested.
My father-in-law was equerry to the Queen for many years, but he will never talk about her. My wife, though, remembers being a teenager and the Queen and Prince Philip coming round to their house for a cup of tea. Now that's posh isn't it? Ding dong. 'Who is it?' 'The Queen!'
Being mistaken for Rob Brydon used to be funny. Then it became annoying. Yes it's true I do carry a photo of me and Rob together to show people who is who. Rob likes to know who his fans are. If someone mistakes me for him I have to ring him and give him a full demographic profile. For example: 'Man, early fifties, selling fruit and veg in the market.'
Occasionally I'll sit in my trailer and get wistful for a life in physics research. I'd like to have been involved in modelling neural networks, which was a hot topic when I was at Cambridge. But then I'll look at my complimentary basket of fruit and I'm OK.
My Perfect Weekend: Ben Miller
I love my weekends with my wife – actress Belinda Stewart-Wilson – both at home in Maida Vale and in Somerset where my wife's parents live. Happily, filming can often create office-like hours and if I'm lucky the weekend starts on Friday morning.
As well as my in-laws, we have lots of friends in the West Country so we tend to go down there quite a lot. It's a little community. We even rented a place down there for a time, on a farm. It's a place our three-year-old son, Sonny, loves.
I'm constantly plotting my eventual permanent escape to the country. I love the fact that everyone there is barking mad and everything is balmy and more relaxed.
We often stay with the playwright Jez Butterworth and his wife Gilly. Jez has a smallholding with pigs, ducks and chickens. When he lived in Soho he wrote about Soho and now he's in the West Country he writes about deep and dark country goings-on.
I met Belinda at Jez and Gilly's wedding. When I first saw her she was doing a cartwheel. I heard her say: "Here's your wedding present!" I turned around and there was the cartwheel. Of course, I was instantly captivated. We have been married for five years and have even acted together in the last series of the television drama Primeval.
London weekends are very social. Sonny is good friends with actress Sarah Alexander's son, Sam, also three. Sarah, who played my wife in the television comedy series, The Worst Week of My Life, is married to actor Peter Serafinowicz and we have quite a lot of play-dates with Sam. Peter, Sarah and I are all into science – I studied astrophysics at Cambridge – and we love taking our children to the Science Museum.
We hang out a lot with my comedy partner Alexander Armstrong – Xander to his friends – and his wife, Hannah. We do a lot of solo projects, but Alexander and I will always be really close friends. He and Hannah have a new son, Patrick, but their older son, Rex is close to Sonny's age, so that means more play-dates for children and adults alike happen at weekends.
I am unbelievably lucky. I find Xander so entertaining. He is charming and has a fantastic outlook on life.
On Saturday evening Belinda and I will often get a babysitter and go to the movies. I absolutely love films. In fact, I've just finished writing and directing my first feature film, Huge, which will be out next year.
We recently started to take Sonny to see films in the afternoon. He'll pretty much sit through the whole thing, but he's more into the business of buying tickets and the snacks. Fortunately, he is also into anything with a face – a car with a face or even a person with a face – so we usually find something in the film to interest him.
I have all sorts of weekend traditions. Saturday mornings start with American-style pancakes and then maybe a trip to the farmer's market in Queen's Park. They sell incredible meatballs at one of the stalls. I'm the cook in our house. I like doing a roast chicken on Sunday, with stuffing and all the trimmings, and it's usually served late – at about four.
Another Sunday tradition is to take Sonny for dim sum in Westbourne Grove. Then I like wandering around Whiteley's like a zombie. I just stare in wonder.
I have to say we are not brilliant at entertaining and, fortunately, we have friends who are far better at it. The artist Johnny Yeo and his wife do these wonderful weekend afternoons, where everyone takes their kids and food keeps coming. That's just perfect.
I have another friend, restaurateur Pierre Condou, and he and his wife Kathy often invite people round at weekends until it becomes like a never-ending Mad Hatter's tea party with food constantly appearing. It's all about family – children scrapping on the floor, glasses of wine and wives flat out on the sofa.
Then it's back to work on Monday. Xander and I have our own production company – Toff Media – a name inspired by a BBC executive who once told us we were too posh to have our own television show. We decided to embrace our inner "toff", although Xander is the real toff, whereas I'm a chav.
MY FAVOURITE THINGS...
Cycling along the Regent's Canal
Sunday lunch at The Globe in Appley, Somerset
Twittering into the small hours
Taking Sonny to the pirate ship in Hyde Park
Eating strawberry cheesecake ice cream with a blob of peanut butter
My body & soul
Ever spent a night in hospital? When I was about eight – to have some teeth out. I was a bit like a basking shark. I had two rows of teeth, and my parents, in their wisdom, decided that probably wasn't a very good look.
Notable accidents. I was set on fire once. We were filming and the pyrotechnics went wrong so a jet of flames shot at me and my clothes caught fire. I was saved by Blue Peter because I remembered John Noakes demonstrated that you could put out a fire by rolling yourself up in carpet. There was a bed on the set and I jumped on to the duvet and rolled myself up in it thereby putting out the flames.
How much sleep do you need? I think I need about eight hours but the truth is, as I discovered when my son was born, you can function on about eight minutes. I used to fantasise about being able to stay up all night, now I fantasise about how early I can go to bed. Tragic isn't it?
Do you worry about your weight? I did a very stupid diet where you have three food groups and you never eat them together. It's so bloody tedious I'm losing the will to live just describing it. I managed to stay very thin because you spent your life wandering around starving hungry looking for a chickpea to go with a chicken leg. Then my son was born and I decided I couldn't set him such a terrible example, started eating all the things he ate, and instantly put on about a stone, but I'm much happier.
Are you happy? At any point it's possible to be happy in some areas and unhappy in others. We're all trying to find balance and I do recognise that balance as I swing past it on my giant pendulum and on to another extreme of behaviour.
How do you feel about cosmetic surgery? I've been going bald since I was about 17, I'm still hanging on to my hair for dear life, but I do sometimes wonder – should I get a wig? I'd be interested to see if they do invent some method of convincingly putting hair on your head, because they can put hair on your head at the moment but I've yet to see fake hair that looks as good as going bald.
Have you ever had therapy? I'm not a suffer in silence type, I'm a "let's throw money at the problem" type – I've done reflexology, reiki, psychotherapy, counselling. I've never actually had analysis but I'd like to try that sometime.
NHS or private? A bit of both. I've come to the conclusion that what you pay ?50 for is somebody to smile at you when you go in, because otherwise there's absolutely no difference. It's simply a question of whether you've got the bottle to talk to some woman with a face like a slapped arse who makes you wait for three hours and then tells you the doctor's gone.
Ben Miller: A funny five minutes
Who's the funniest person you know?
Alexander Armstrong. He still makes me laugh after 20 years. He's unbelievably funny and has this great, self-deprecating humour.
What makes you laugh?
The funniest people are the ones who don't realise they're funny. Some of the loudest people aren't always the funny ones. Alexander has got this cousin called Aiden Hawkes who I think is one of the funniest people I've ever met, because he'll just subtly slip something in here and there, and his timing is just brilliant.
What last made you laugh out loud?
My three-year-old son falling over this morning. He was very enthusiastic and he ran across the room and it was like someone had pulled his legs from underneath him. Then he got back up and carried on. I know it's terrible, but I find it really, really funny.
What's the funniest thing you've ever seen?
It's very hard to beat the You've Been Framed-style videos you get on YouTube. There's one where a woman pulls up next to a ditch and gets out holding a birthday cake, then she gets knocked into the ditch and onto the cake. I love that kind of humour. To me there's nothing funnier than a man stepping on a rake.
What's the funniest thing you did at school?
We were convinced our history teacher used to wear a wig, so we all used to cough and say 'wig' at the same time and then be in fits of laughter. Loads of us used to do it, so he never knew who was responsible to discipline us. It was really quite mean and the irony was that he didn't even wear a wig.
When did you last make someone laugh?
Hopefully it was yesterday when I filmed Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Those shows can easily get the better of you because you're trying to be funny, but you have to talk nonsense and hope for the best.
What's the worst outfit you've ever worn?
I was in a sketch show for Paul Merton during one of my first jobs and I had to dress as an alien. I had to run through the back of the shot at a certain time. But when I put the suit on I had an attack of claustrophobia and had a bit of a panic attack and ran across the studio to try to get someone to take the outfit off. I ran at exactly the time I should have done, so no one actually noticed, but it was awful.
When did you last fall over?
I was lucky enough to go to Sophie Winkleman's wedding when she married Freddie Windsor, and I slipped and broke my fall with a tray of bruschetta, which was on a nearby table. No one saw and I'm not sure if anyone royal ate them later.
Who's your comedy hero or heroine?
I've got so many, but probably Tony Hancock. He was absolutely incredible. And I think Dawn French is the funniest woman on the planet.
Funniest TV show you've ever seen?
I don't think I've ever laughed more than at Fawlty Towers. I used to watch it with my family and be in hysterics. Even listening to an episode on the radio makes me laugh. I never get bored of watching them.
What's the best joke you've ever heard?
Man to waiter: "I'll have steak and kidley pie please."
Waiter to man: "Did you mean the steak and kidney pie, sir?"
Man to waiter: "That's what I said, didle I?"
It's a very old joke, but it still makes me laugh.
What's been your most embarrassing moment?
On my first day of secondary school I had a cold and my nose was snotting. I was at lunch and these older girls were laughing at my snot. I was sitting there on my own, trying to eat lunch and I started crying and got even more snotty. I was so mortified I made my parents send me to a different school.
Do you have a nickname?
Xander calls me Millsy.
What's been your funniest drunk night out?
I've had loads, but I get the self-loathing the next day and think everyone hates me, so that takes the edge off a good night. I always think nights are funny at the time, then forget most of what happened, which kind of defeats the object a bit.
Ben Miller: My life in travel
First holiday memory?
Going to Menorca when I was about seven. It was my first foreign holiday and I remember drinking chocolate milk and lying in my bunk bed at night listening to people outside playing the guitar and singing. It was so exciting. I can also remember my father swimming in the sea and catching a diseased fish with his bare hands and bringing it back up the beach to us.
About four years ago we went to a place called Cazenac in Prigord, France, for New Year with a bunch of friends. I think of myself as a bit of a gourmand and I ate my body weight in foie gras there; it was brilliant.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
I feel almost evangelical about Cornwall. When I was 16 I hitch-hiked around Tintagel and Bodmin Moor with a school friend called Richard Davenport and we had a great time. I've always found Cornwall such an exciting, bonkers, beautiful and completely occult province.
What have you learnt from your travels?
There are two trips that changed me. The first was Inter-railing as a student through Italy to the Mediterranean then going off the map a bit through Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and back up through Spain. I had a fantastic time, particularly in Algeria where I first experienced Muslim culture.
The second trip was what they now call a gap year but what we used to call a year off. I was 18 and went to college in Alta Loma in the San Bernardino Valley in California and had such a brilliant time. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
Ideal travelling companion?
A holiday is a crucible for personal relationships. My ideal companion is often someone who wants to do the same things as me. Alexander Armstrong and I have had very good holidays because we have the same interests of cigars and foie gras.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I've done a bit of all three, but I prefer to get off the beaten track and find my own way a bit, which is a boring and middle-class thing to say. The last adventurous holiday I went on was to Brazil. I went to Rio and along to Buzios; I found Rio very exciting because you had to work things out for yourself.
Greatest travel luxury?
Staying in a really nice hotel. There's an odd camaraderie in hotels that you don't get anywhere else because you're in a little bubble. I like the soullessness of living in a hotel I'm not far off people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen who lived in hotels for months on end; it really appeals to me.
Reading is the main thing I do on holiday. I try and read novels because I don't get the chance usually.
Where has seduced you?
Cape Town, Umbria and Los Angeles, in a slightly unhealthy way. There's no better place on earth to ski than Switzerland; New Zealand is the most beautiful place I've ever seen; and Australia has the best food.
Better to travel or arrive?
I did quite a bit of work in Australia last year and I had to go back and forth a lot, sometimes for just a day. Oddly, going for a day was great but going for a month was harder. Travel is so variable, sometimes you can get a great seat on a plane, other times you can have a terrible experience.
Worst travel experience?
Even if you've had a bad time, it can change you. A holiday is effectively a kind of meditation because you remove yourself from your everyday environment and have the chance to think about things.
I was on tour with Alexander [Armstrong] in Brighton and we were put up in some terrible digs. I'm not joking when I say my room was like a small corridor.
Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, California, was one of the most amazing hotels I've stayed in. The Chateau Marmont in Hollywood is my second favourite, just for all the things that have happened there.
Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?
I love walking along the Regent's Canal in London. Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire has some amazing walks through little alleyways, too. Walking is a very British thing. I remember walking in Malibu and thinking that someone might come and arrest me.
Best meal abroad?
In Sydney I had grilled cuttlefish with salsa and it was absolutely delicious.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
I'm slightly obsessed with being able to have drinking water in my hotel room without having to rely on 10 bottles from the mini-bar or dodgy tap water. So I go out and stock up on bottled water and stuff to eat then walk back through the lobby with a carrier bag feeling like I've broken the rules somehow.
India and China are top of my wish list, and the Orient-Express.
To live in: London, and to visit: Sydney. I always think you'd have the most amazing life in Sydney because of the lovely weather, scenery and food.
I'm going to Robin Hood's Bay with all my family in the summer. We have a big get-together, which is fun.
Ben Miller: My family values
They're great, my parents. They're both retired teachers, nonconformist in their attitude and very into the arts. We used to go to lots of theatre, and there was a lot of reading – and talking about it afterwards – but TV was rationed. My rebellion was to go and work in TV. The less they let me watch, the more obsessed I became. They're very interested in politics, very engaged. The most important thing every day is the news. And my dad must be the only person who still uses Ceefax.
My father was always clowning around. It was a huge influence on me. In my family, everything is turned into a joke. TV comedies brought us together: we were allowed to watch those. My two sisters, both younger than me, are also funny. Bronwen is very laconic, and Leah is quite a sniper. They find my life incredibly ridiculous – Bronwen always uses that Robbie Williams phrase: "The ego has landed."
There are various opera singers and arty things going on in my mother's family. My father's family were originally from the East End of London. My grandfather was a force of nature. From nothing, he built up a mini empire of retail outlets. He was one of those people who had figured out how to do life and considered that [to be] the way for everyone else to do it. When he was getting on a bit, he had a basket of shoes on special offer outside his shop – just the left shoes, the idea being that no one would steal them. Anyway, some bloke ran off with one, so my grandfather gave chase and made a citizen's arrest! He was a just-go-out-and-do-it kind of person, and I find that inspiring.
For my mother, everything stands in relation to her Welshness; the fact she married an Englishman seems to be something of an issue. She's kind of anti-English... anti-imperialist. But I can't help noticing she doesn't live in Wales. Get her and her sister Marjorie together and it's Welsh overload. Marjorie married a Welshman in Coventry. The only Welshman in Coventry.
We go on holiday as a family every year and have a fantastic time. But my parents drive me completely mad, and I'm sure I drive them nuts. I'm slightly vague, so it's frustrating for them if they're organising a holiday, trying to get the deposit from me. I say: "I'll definitely do that this week." And another month goes by... Typically, if I go home, my dad will ask me to fix a couple of things on the computer. I love doing that stuff, but I'm not methodical. My father is. He says: "Show me what you did – which button was it?" I say: "I don't know. I just clicked the button that you click." It's very funny.
My son, Sonny, is four. My wife and I have been separated for a while but we have an arrangement where Sonny spends half the time with me and half the time with her. I very much wanted the perfect nuclear family, and I came from the perfect nuclear family, but like so many people that isn't the way things have worked out. I'm very lucky in that Belinda and I are good friends.
Children basically need one thing: to be played with. If there's stuff on Sonny's mind, it will come out and be dealt with in the game. If he's not an actor when he grows up, I've no idea what he's going to do. He's always pretending to be something. And I'm very up for that. He only has to say "Daddy, I'm a monkey," and I'm there, being a monkey as well. He's very entertaining.
Ben Miller: "I don't feel in any way divided between comedy and science. For me, they are two sides of the same coin."
Cambridge graduate and sitcom extraordinaire Ben Miller is in town with the scandalous The Duck House, at Cambridge Arts Theatre
Comedians and comedy actors are often supposed to be gloomy miserabilists when you meet them in real life but charming Ben Miller, star of The Duck House, gives the lie to this widespread belief. An hour's conversation with friendly Ben bubbles with wit and there are chuckles galore during the interview. And it was very much the quality of the script written by TV comedy stalwarts Dan Patterson and Colin Swash that clinched it for Ben when he was approached to play the central role of Robert Houston MP.
"The piece was so funny and the timing so perfect that I had to do it," says Ben. "There were many reasons why I wasn't looking to take on another play in the West End so soon after The Ladykillers because stage plays are hard work and require an enormous commitment for them to succeed. I had also had such a good experience with The Ladykillers that I didn't think that anything else could be as entertaining or as challenging. But as soon as I read Dan and Colin's script, I changed my mind."
The Duck House, as the title suggests, takes us back to that fateful night in 2009 when the MPs' expenses scandal first broke. Robert Houston, the character played by Ben, is ostensibly a Labour MP who, fearful of being turfed out by the voters at the impending General Election, has opted to defect to the Conservatives. The Tory high command has therefore decided to send one of the party grandees to see if Robert is "squeaky clean".
"I suppose that Robert is a bit of a champagne socialist, on the right wing of Labour, on the left wing of the Conservatives, floating somewhere around the Lib Dems." explains Ben. "I'm not sure if he has any principles but he's a completely political animal. He's joining the Tories because he wants to stay in power. He's not a bad person – a loveable rogue would be an accurate description of him – and you do feel a certain amount of empathy for him. From his point of view, the system of expenses has simply been part of the culture of Westminster and he has followed the rules, just like everybody else, although he has fully exploited them and now he has to get rid of the evidence."
There is nothing in Ben's background to suggest that this son of academic parents would decide to make his living as an actor and comedian, although Ben remembers the Miller household as being full of jokes and laughter and even when the Millers get together today much hilarity ensues. Yet Ben showed remarkable strength of character when going up to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. Rather than heading straight for the Footlights, Ben devoted the three years of his degree course to hard study with a devotion to his academic work unusual in a future performer.
"Science is, and remains, a big passion of mine," Ben points out. "For those three years, I was totally focused on the subject. I had to get the sciences out of my system and, besides, I was very interested in what was happening in physics at the time. I don't feel in any way divided between comedy and science. For me, they are two sides of the same coin. Without wishing to sound pretentious or pseudy, I honestly believe that both comedy and science share a sceptical attitude to the world. They both want to find out what is real and they both want to cut things down to size. You want to find some kind of truth and both science and comedy are concerned with what is true. These days, however, science is more of a hobby of mine, just like Rod Stewart with his train-set."
Ben has pursued his career as a performer with the same diligence which he brought to his university work. After the obligatory time spent with the Footlights, he teamed up with his comedy partner, the equally in-demand Alexander Armstrong, for a number of sketch-show series. He then moved seamlessly into comedy drama and then drama itself with a recurring role in ITV's Primeval. The Worst Week franchise on the BBC showed Ben's talents as a farceur in his role as the hapless fiance trailing disaster through his starchy in-laws' perfect lives. A third series of Death in Paradise, the sunkissed whodunits set in the Caribbean, will be shown in the New Year but Ben departs the programme, half-way through the season. He's keeping tight-lipped about the fate of his character, the Scotland Yard detective who is buttoned-up both literally and metaphorically. To play the lead in a popular series shot under immaculately blue skies while back home in Blighty we're shivering through another British winter would appear to be every actor's dream job. So why did Ben decide to call it a day on such a successful show?
"Had I been a single man with no responsibilities, I'd have probably been doing series twelve by now," laughs Ben. "But I was feeling really miserable so far away from my family. My elder son had started school and his brother was too young to join me on location. I'd have a very enjoyable time working during the day and then I'd go back to my hotel room and feel utterly depressed without the family. I couldn't see myself doing another series and so I just decided to go. I couldn't face doing it again but everybody including the BBC and Red Planet, who make the series, were very understanding."
Not that Ben has been mooching around at home. He has two feature films awaiting release; Molly Moon and What We Did on Our Holiday with Billy Connolly and David Tennant. At the moment, there is nothing in the diary once The Duck House concludes its scheduled run but Ben is relaxed about the situation.
"What makes me say yes to something is really down to a mixture of factors. Who will I be working with? Can I learn a lot from them? It's important for me to keep on learning. On The Duck House, I'm working with some highly experienced theatre actors and we have in our director, Terry Johnson, a man who is not only a master playwright – I loved his Dead Funny – but who is also a great analyst of the work. He can put a play on bricks, as it were, and he can get under it and see what needs to be done. It looks as if I'll be learning a lot from The Duck House."